Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Cleopatra and the Society of Unwieldy Game Titles, Mykerinos, The Nacho Incident, Hey! That's My Fish!

So here we have another game (Cleopatra and the Society of Architects) which had horrible advance press – terribly overproduced, very random, and uninteresting.

But you know what, I liked the game a lot. I thought it was a wonderful game with layers of subtlety, interesting decisions, tension, and good player inter...

Hold on, wait, that's the wrong script. Hang on a sec ...

Seriously, while it's definitely no Beowulf, I did kinda like Cleopatra and the Society of Architects (and if you think I'm going to type in that whole game title again, you're mistaken). It's basically a drafting game a la Ticket to Ride. Each turn you either draft new cards, or use those cards in various combinations (in roughly descending order of frequency: Artisans, Stone, Marble, Wood, Lapis) to build a piece of Cleopatra's new palace. The catch is, the better cards (ones which have more resources pictured on them, or ones that convey special powers) give you corruption. The player(s) with the most corruption at the end of the game loses, and the player with the best score amongst the survivors wins.

For me, the whole corruption thing gave the game a nice edge, a tension, that is lacking in the similar but purely tactical Ticket to Ride, a game to which it otherwise bears more than a passing resemblance. Since players' corruption totals are hidden in an overproduced pyramid-like thing (everyone gets their own!), there is some real uncertainty about this critical game element.

Outside of the drafting and corruption elements, there are admittedly a bunch of issues with the scoring, which I'm sure will cut into the game's replayability. Ideally, you want some interconnectedness in the building and scoring elements: if I build an Obelisk instead of a Sphinx, we hope that changes the game state for future builds in interesting ways, as it does in say Tower of Babel or Blue Moon City. Or maybe building a Door piece has some future implication for me personally, like building a road in Settlers or acquiring a Monument in Ra. In Cleopatra, etc., these associations are too weak, in my opinion. The dynamic on the Sphinx for example (2 points for odd-numbered Sphinxes, 5 points for even-numbered ones) just means you're an idiot if you don't build them in pairs. There is some interaction between the Mosaics and the Columns, but in practice it seems little more than random noise since it's almost impossible to benefit from them yourself. Same with the interaction between the Walls and the Doors. In short, the process of building is usually little more than figuring out which one scores you the most points at this juncture. Because there is still some tension on what can be drafted from the available lots, and since the building costs on different items differ, it's not that bad. But it's still a missed opportunity. The sole exception are the Mosaics, which have a nice little mini-game associated with them: each mosaic is a tetris piece, and if you can build your mosaic so that it creates open parks, you can get rid of corruption.

This is a game that reminds me a lot of Shadows over Camelot: it's a game with one interesting idea (the Traitor in Shadows, Corruption here) surrounded by a fairly by-the-numbers design. The difference is, in Cleopatra, etc., the one idea works; in Shadows, it didn't. Cleopatra, etc., is no Blue Moon City, a game to which it has some (very superficial) similarities, but it's an interesting game, and the tension involved with the corruption for me gives it an edge that Ticket to Ride doesn't have. Not one I'll play a lot, but on the other hand I'll be happy to play again.

Mykerinos: When Ys first came out, I wasn't a huge fan, but it was a good shot from a first-time publisher I thought, I enjoyed it well enough, and looked forward to what Ystari might come out with next. If Caylus and Mykerinos is it, though, I think this is just not my brand. Mykerinos may in fact be the best of the three games, but the reality is that it's still dry as dust, pretty unoriginal, has a totally pasted-on theme, and is too long for its own good.

In fairness, previous Ystari games had some fairly obvious problems. In Ys, it was the fact that it was a blind-placement game with a head-banging level of calculation required, an awkward combination (since blind placement is a mechanism that has a pretty high level of inherent chaos). In Caylus, it was the obvious level of imbalance in the building costs and payoff and favor tracks. The good news is that Mykerinos appears, on first inspection, to be lacking these sorts of red flags. It is not too calculational, has a reasonably functional area-control thing going on (although it is overly tactical when it really doesn't need to be), and the obvious imbalance in the special powers is not terribly painful in this case, since the game is light. There is still awkwardness – Mykerinos wants to be light without giving up it's brand's "analytical" label, so you get both a slightly overwrought tactical game and a card deck that can totally hose you. But really, it's not that bad.

Still, it's definitely not a "buy" for me. A lack of theme and a slightly overlong playing time might just be issues in an otherwise very good game, but either alone will break a game that otherwise is unspectacular. As they do here.

The Nacho Incident: I have this vision of the design process for The Nacho Incident. It goes like this: someone at 8 Foot Llama says "Hey, I know; let's make a game about smuggling Mexican food into Canada! Canadian Mexican food really sucks." Possibly after a trip to Canada. This is then the last time the wisdom of this project is ever evaluated.

As things move on, the game loses sight of its original conception, and has some complexity overruns. It turns out that maybe the theme isn't as funny as hoped and isn't enough to support the game, and so we end up with an odd mix of abstract elements. Still fixated on the wacky concept, though, the project has a momentum of its own.

What we end up with is far from bad, but it's one of those games that even with only a couple pages of fairly simple rules, your eyes are still glazing over halfway through the explanation because of a serious theme–mechanisms disconnect. So you play it a couple turns, things start to come together, and it's OK. Not great, but OK; the major failing here is that it's just not that funny. I think this sort of game needs a better theme integration or to be a lot more streamlined and faster-playing (or, preferably, both) to really tap into the humor. As it is, it seems to combines a German-style theme with American-style design rigor. You could do a lot worse, and the game is short and cheap, so it's tough to come down on it too hard; and good-quality filler is hard to find. But for me anyway, this just doesn't manage to do it.

Hey! That's My Fish!: Phalanx' many travails left me completely unprepared for this wonderful little gem of a game. Fast-playing, simple, fun, and interesting, this is a great opener and/or closer and is surprisingly involving for a small-box, light game. The theme is wonderful, and the Phalanx production is great. Although mechanically totally dissimilar, the game does sort of remind me of Günter Coronett's similarly engrossing Flaschenteufel - a compact, quick-playing game with a good theme with a lot of tension that really sucks you in.

This was a surprise hit, and I'm sorry I missed playing it last year when it came out in English, because it would have comfortably made my "best of 2005" list. As I say, good filler is hard to find, and Hey! That's My Fish! scores big.

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