Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tile-Laying Extravaganza: Gheos, Taluva, Bison

Gheos: This is a new tile-laying game from Z-Man, with a Civilization building theme and triangular tiles. You build up continents with different Civilizations, claim stakes in those Civilizations, and score points for the resources the Civilizations you have stakes in control.

Gheos struck me as just being incredibly bland. The tiles are triangular, and the format for all of them is that all three corners have water and all three edges have land, so the range of different tile configurations is very small; usually, it's just a question of what resources they have, a question which really is not that interesting. Because you can always stack tiles on top of each other, so you can play any tile anywhere at any time (which can break up or join continents, which allows civilizations to migrate or merge), the flow of the game has very little coherence.

And of course a tile-laying game can always cover any issues by looking impressive once laid out; but Gheos' look is pretty bland and it just isn't visually interesting.

Nice try, but for me, not there.

Taluva: Well, one complaint that certainly can't be leveled at Taluva is that it's not visually interesting. From the rich tropical colors (including nicely-chosen player colors) to the well-illustrated volcanoes and beaches, nice graphics are certainly one thing Taluva can deliver.

Players are colonizing the island of Taluva, which, sadly, is wracked by volcanoes. You've got three different types of buildings (Temples, Towers, and Huts), which are played under different conditions (huts anywhere, Towers only on high ground, and Temples only in larger settlements). You can win either by placing all of two types of your pieces, or by having the most Temples in play at the end. But, if you ever cannot place a building, you immediately lose!

Taluva is more or less what you would expect from a Carcassonne-like tile-laying game. Expand the island, slap down your pieces, and carve out your areas. It's got the twist that volcanic eruptions can allow you to build up as well as out, and also can wipe out other people's pieces (giving it a touch of overt competition), but I still think of it as being a pretty close cousin to Carcassonne. I think where it scores is the relatively open play (you can put down buildings almost anywhere, and there are only a few restrictions on where you can place tiles), the somewhat more strategic play in building up your little villages, and of course in the very attractive appearance once you've got everything laid out on the table.

For me, it's another solid game from Hans im Gl├╝ck, a game that is sufficiently straightforward and attractive to be easy to get on the table yet gamerly enough to be engaging for the more discriminating player. More gamerly than Carcassonne, I think, maybe on par with Thurn and Taxis. Not an obvious pick for my year-end top 10, but fun, and one I'm glad to own.

Bison: After Hey! That's My Fish! and Revolution, I was back on board with Phalanx, at least partially. Bison is their new game from Kramer and Kiesling, and it's not a game you would mistake for something by any other designer.

Although the two games are quite different in actual play, the game that Bison fundamentally reminded me of is El Cabellero. It's got the Kramer trademark of pieces split between your active area and a reserve which you have to pay to activate. You've got the expanding world divided up into regions that you want to control with your pieces for points.

Players are Native American hunters rounding up fish (from streams), turkeys (from mountains), and buffalo (from the plains). A feature of Kramer/Kiesling designs is actions points, and Bison has them, kind of. A round is each player taking one action in turn – expanding the world and placing new guys from your supply onto the new tile, moving guys around on the board, or building settlements. There are a total of 6 variations on these actions, and four rounds in a turn, so you aren't going to do all of them every turn, but you have to expand the world at some point. As your guys control terrain on the board, they will score animals in the hunt, and then those animals are the currency you have to use to further expand. The player with the most income at the end – not the most animals in stock – wins. In a further twist, the 3 different types of animals you can score are fairly interchangeable during the game when paying to take actions, but at game end, it's the player with the Ingenious-style "most of the least" that wins.

I liked Bison. Again, it's basically a tile-laying game, but it's got enough clever elements to make it different. It's definitely similar in feel to Kramer(/Kiesling)'s previous action-point and area-control games to be recognizable, but it mixes it up enough and contains enough new to have a rather different feel to it. The visual design of the game is a little more abstract, and I think it will not be as universally appealing as the artful Taluva or the lighthearted Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, but I liked the look of the world unfolding.

There is an enormous caveat to this, however. Tikal, Torres, Java, and El Cabellero could all bog down because all information is open and players have enough options that some people are going to want to analyze them all, perhaps a couple times. Far be it from me to criticize other people's style of play, but there are people who always seem to need concrete answers and are impervious to the fact that they are taking far longer than everyone else to find them. It would be ideal if a game like Bison, that I think really wants to be about 45-60 minutes long, would have more hidden information or more uncertainty so as to not encourage this sort of thing. But, sadly, it does not, and so in the wrong set of circumstances the game can screech to a halt. In fairness, Phalanx is strikingly honest about the playing time on the box – it says 90 minutes – but Bison is really not that deep, in my opinion. So don't play it with anyone you wouldn't play Tikal, Torres, or any other game prone to excess analysis. The failing of Bison is that while Tikal has enough depth to reward a fair amount of thought, I'm not sure Bison really does.

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