Saturday, July 16, 2005

Origins Report — Board games

Palazzo: This was my first game of the con. After my Rommel in the Desert fell through, I headed straight to the Dealer's Room. I was there a little early, so after fleeing in terror from some sort of bizarre Origins Awards ceremony, I went straight to the Rio Grande/Decision Games area to give this a try. I liked it a lot. I think the most notable thing is how it manages to find a nice balance between control, randomness, complexity, and game length. It's a short, simple, and somewhat chaotic game that nonetheless has plenty of interesting choices, good for the times you want a fun game with some strategy that isn't going to hurt your brain. Not as good as San Juan, but certainly at least as good as anything else in the low end of alea's range (Royal Turf, Edel Stein & Reich, Louis XIV).

Tower of Babel: This was about my 5th play on this game, and I still like it a lot, for a lot of the same reasons I like Palazzo, plus the advantage that as in Modern Art, you're always doing stuff. Having played Ticket to Ride recently, I sometimes find it frustrating that that game seems to be "think ... sit around ... sit around ... sit around ... think ....". Tower of Babel is a much more continuous experience. Combine all this with a game that has considerable subtlety, and I think it's a winner. The first game I played, I focused on the huge points available for the chits, which was good for a win. But as I've played more, it's become clear that there is a lot more to the game than that.

Although it didn't bother me much, Kim had a real problem with the graphics of Tower of Babel, which are weak for a euro. Compared to the colorful and elegant graphics of classic Hans im Glück/Knizia games like Samurai, Tigris & Euphrates, or Amun-Re, the graphics on Tower of Babel are flat, colorless, and cold. The board is also much too large; the smaller-size box (like Saint Petersburg or Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers) would have been more appropriate in my opinion.

Revolte in Rome: I didn't get a full game of this in, as the dealer's room was closing just as Kim and I were hitting the mid-game. This is a pretty straightforward dice game. You've got six numbered slots in front of you into which you can play cards with special powers. Each turn you roll three dice and can use the numbers rolled to activate cards in the matching slots. You can also use the dice to draw cards or take income. You then try to whack your opponent. This seemed kind of neat to me, but it didn't quite grab me. It's a long-ish game, similar in flavor to (although much less involved than) the Settlers Card Game, and about the same length. I'd like to give it a try again, but I felt the price point, even at $25, was a bit high. I'd pay $10-$15.

Arkham Horror: This is a new Fantasy Flight release, I think available for the first time at the con. As I mention in my recent Shadows over Camelot review, meaty cooperative games are few and far between. I came in really wanting to like this. Unfortunately, the demo situation was suboptimal and we were not taught the game very effectively. Still, even once we got started, I had a hard time liking the game. It's got the usual wonderful Fantasy Flight physical components, and it seems like it's also got the classic Fantasy Flight lack of development: it didn't seem like there was a lot of tension or much in the way of interesting player choices. My suspicion is that the number of players makes a huge difference here – I suspect the "sweet spot" is somewhere around 4 (we played with six). Like Doom: The Boardgame, it seems poorly scaled for differing numbers. There was still some cool stuff about the game, and the atmosphere is much better-done than in the wretched Betrayal at House on Hill (which won an Origins Award, by the way). I'd still like to try it again, but it's been bumped down my play list.

One of the very cool things about Origins is that every so often you randomly run into interesting people. Richard Launius, the designer of Arkham Horror and nice guy, stopped by our game for a while. We also got to play a prototype game with Richard Garfield and his daughter, also very pleasant folks.

The Motley Fools' Buy Low, Sell High: This is a remake of the old game Palmyra. When I first played Palmyra some 7-8 years ago, I wasn't that impressed with it; but when I got a copy of Buy Low, Sell High "for free", I figured I'd give it another shot. I enjoyed it. The new theme works better for me, the game is simple and plays quickly, and like most Knizia games is it more subtle than it appears on first inspection, and that's always a good sign. On the other hand, it's over-produced; this is a small card game in a huge box with custom-made plastic bits, and with a correspondingly high price tag. I liked it, but I'm not sure it's worth the price or the space it takes up on the shelf.

Dealers' Room: This was the thinnest year in memory for board game purchases. The only traditional board game I bought was Palazzo. I wanted to buy Arkham Horror but couldn't do it after playing and in light of Fantasy Flight's track record. Mayfair didn't have much new except a Phalanx game, but I need another Phalanx game like I need hole in my head. None of the new Queen games from Rio Grande were really grabbing me. Face 2 Face had the new edition of Rheinländer, but I sold my copy of the original years ago because it could never get any traction and got only a handful of plays. So things were a bit thin overall on the board game side.

Next up: wargames.

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