Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Card Game Roundup: Lost Cities, Parlay, Havoc Lexio

Lost Cities: I had a chance to play this with Rick Young, designer of Europe Engulfed, at MonsterCon. I crushed him. Like a bug. I always find it somewhat fascinating when people who play serious, heavy-duty, complex wargames, and play them well, can get tripped up by a simple little German game. Then again, I was apparently guilty of seriously underestimating this game myself. When Rick asked me if I had any tips, this sent me down a route of analysis that ended up with "wow, this is a way cleverer game than I think I gave it credit for".

So, here are Chris' Lost Cities play tips:

I think it's important to realize that Lost Cities and Battle Line/Schotten-Totten are very different games. They look similar in some ways, and yet the crux of the matter is different in each case. Battle Line is a highly tactical game. Each card can be used in a number of different ways, and is not interchangeable with very many other cards in most important cases. And so you are trying to form powerful card combinations in critical locations, and you are trying to keep your options open. There is an element of risk, but since the chances of seeing any given critical card are only 50-50 and there isn't much you can do about that, risk management is not a major element.

By contrast, Lost Cities is almost entirely risk management (with a small element of bluff). Each card can only be played in one way, and many cards of the same color are almost interchangeable. There are few tactics to the game. Instead, it's all about figuring out which card in your hand has the best combination of risk to reward.

The risk calculations are made a lot easier because you know you're going to see basically half the deck. So if you have a singleton white 2 in your opening hand, how risky is opening with it? You might think playing a 2 with nothing to back it up might be dicey, but it turns out that's not really the case. There are 52 more points worth of white cards out there, and you're going to see roughly 26 of them; so you should see some points. Plus, you're keeping lots of options open, that is to say, you're not decreasing the chances that your next draw will be useful by much (just three cards, the white handshakes, are now useless to you).

On the other hand, if you're sitting on an 8/10 combination in your opening hand, playing the 8 is a terrible play for a lot of reasons. While 8+10 is 18 and only -2 points, the upsides are limited because your odds of getting the 9 are only 50-50. Plus, you're making 9 cards unplayable by you, a significant fraction of the deck. The problem is that you can't discard those cards either, for fear that they would be useful to your opponent! So it becomes a waiting game. When does starting off that color become a good risk? When you draw a 6? How about a 5? A 2 or a handshake would be a no-brainer to slap down, but the middling cards are much tougher calls. Holding 6/8/10 further strains your hand capacity, making it more likely that your other plays are risky too, and decreasing your odds of setting up other, lower-risk/high-reward plays.

Obviously, a sizable chunk of your plays in Lost Cities are going to be easy. Early in the game, a handshake, 2, or 3 in a suit you have a couple cards in is a pretty low risk with a good upside. In the middle game, a discard that your opponent can't use, or a playing the next available card on a suit that you've already got going are both no-brainers. The game is going to be won and lost, though, on the handful of tough calls in which risks and rewards are harder to determine. When do you crack and start a suit with a middling card? How long do you hold out waiting for a handshake when you have a strong run in one suit in your hand? How long do you hold out trying to get the 20 point bonus for 8 cards in a given suit?

One could actually make a solid argument that this is a pretty well-themed game, in fact. I imagine that managing an expedition like this is all about anticipating and mitigating risks: how much planning do you want to do before you set out? How risky is the expedition going to be? What do you need to do to reduce the risks? Sure, it's not Republic of Rome, but like so many Knizia games, it's subtle, it's there, and it makes sense.

Coming to terms with all these nuances has greatly increased my appreciation for this game, and my BGG rating has been increased appropriately. I've already been inspired to play it a couple times since, and hopefully it can come off the shelf more often.

And now for something completely different ... Parlay. This is a word game of poker hands. In a nutshell, you're playing a game with a standard 52-card deck, but each card has (in addition to its suit and rank) a letter, in the usual Scrabble-like proportions, and with numeric scores. In each hand, you're aiming to both form a word and form a poker hand, simultaneously. The better your word, the better your score, but strong poker hands will entitle you to potentially massive bonuses. There is no betting or bluffing per se, but instead you stay or fold based on how strong you think your poker hand is. If you fold, you get your word score, if you stay in and win the poker hand, you can get a bunch of bonuses for word length, and then you double your score. If you stay in and lose the poker hand, you get nothing.

I actually think that Parlay is a pretty interesting and clever game. It does manage to capture much of the appeal of both poker and word games at some level, although the loss of any bluffing is kind of a bummer. And the game gives you a lot of different poker variations that you can use (five card draw, Texas Hold 'Em, etc. – all seem to have their advantages, but drawbacks also, and none are quite ideal. Texas Hold 'Em doesn't seem to work as well for Parley as it does for poker).

The ultimate problem with Parlay I think is that it's just really hard. Optimizing both a poker hand and a word involves juggling a lot of different permutations and a lot of mental gymnastics. The first few games, played fairly casually, were fun, but after getting familiarity with the parameters of the game it seemed to just become a lot of work. Too much work, really. I enjoyed a number of games, and got my $15 worth, but I'm probably about done with the game at this point.

Havoc: I'll just add one comment to my previous write-up: this game is a lot better with smaller numbers of players, I think. I played with 6 not too long ago and found the game very tedious, very luck-heavy, and very long. Then I played again with 4, and was much happier - the pace seemed more appropriate, it wasn't over-long, you could win without always having monster hands, and everything just generally seemed to click better. It's still not a buy for me personally, but while I wouldn't play the game again with 6, I would play with 4. I guess I'd have to flip a coin if we had 5.

Lexio: Lexio is a close cousin to Tichu – it's a climbing game with similar hands but without a lot of the special rules. Really, though, the reason Lexio calls out to be played is because of the cool bits. The mahjong-style tiles are hefty and have a good feel, and are reasonably attractive.

Ultimately, I have to say that the game is just OK, though, and it's hampered by completely opaque wrap-around ranking. 2 is high, 3 is low, 2 beats a 13 but 4 beats a 3. I'm still not sure I understand straights, which can "wrap around" the high value of 2 but not around 15 (so 1-5 is valid and, I think, beats 3-8, while 12 through 1 is not valid). All this confusion adds nothing to the game except confusion.

The game is ultimately very similar in feel to Tichu, but I like Lexio a little better just because it's short. Tichu is an appealing game but the playing time of sometimes well over an hour really kills it for me personally, given how repetitive it is. With Lexio, you can play a hand in a few minutes and a satisfying game in half an hour or so. It's not a game with much of a "wow" factor, I felt, but it's short enough to be a nice change of pace.

I should also mention that it seems like Lexio is really meant to be played for money. It has a very convoluted scoring system where each player has to pay off everyone who did better, and get paid by everyone who did worse, all of which only makes sense to me if the chips are real money. But if you get a lousy hand, unlike in poker you can't fold or otherwise manage your risks – you can just do the best with what you've got. This seems like it would make it a lot less interesting as a gambling game. But, I've never played games for money and have no intention of starting, so your mileage may vary.

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