Tuesday, September 27, 2005

7 Ages

Earlier this year, Milton got together a game of 7 Ages. I was of mixed minds at the time; I wasn't that impressed with the mechanics of the game, but thought that there might be enough flavor of empire-building and whatnot in there to make the game fun. It was clear that the game had issues, some rather serious, but that maybe there was potential in there somewhere.

Having now played it again, my primary thought was, "what on earth was I thinking?". You can see Milton's write-up here, where I rather heartlessly lit into the game in the comments section. Part of this may have been the immediate post-game frustration, but still, I must now revise my earlier opinon: I no longer see any point in the game. It fails on virtually every level, game design to physical design.

Just because by any reasonable critical game standards, I can't think of anything good to say about 7 Ages doesn't mean that it is totally without merit; the fact of the matter is, it's nice to occasionally get together for a big game with your friends. As a get-together game, 7 Ages is nice because it has a fair amount of downtime combined with an inability to do much planning, so you can chat between turns and not stress about it. If you're playing an actual, quality game like Dune, Successors, Revolution, or Friedrich, this can really cut into your ability to socialize. Now, I can be a bit humorless when it comes to dysfunctional games, but if you're the relaxed sort that isn't that disturbed by these things, and can avoid getting frustrated with a level of randomness more appropriate to Chutes and Ladders than a complex 16+ hour game, by all means check it out.

I'm done, though.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Nexus Ops

First, there was Avalon Hill. Over its thirty years or so of existence it published many great games – probably more than any other game company, ever – including such classics as Titan, Dune, Diplomacy, Storm over Arnhem, Republic of Rome, Squad Leader, Roads to Gettysburg, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, and Breakout: Normandy, just to pick a few personal favorites. They were also early on the Euro bandwagon, with titles like Kremlin, Gangsters, and Adel Verpflichet.

Then it got bought by Hasbro.

Then there came the New Avalon Hill. Its 5-ish debut games contained more plastic than the old Avalon Hill used in its entire history: Acquire, Battle Cry, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Risk: 22-something, and Axis & Allies: Europe. The line showed some promise: Acquire is of course a classic (and I actually prefer the new tech theme to hotels), Star Wars: TQG was a solid design which is still worth playing, Battle Cry and Risk: 22-whatever were solid if unspectacular, and only A&A:E landed with a thud. It wasn't the old Avalon Hill, but as a starting point it was OK and I had some hope.

Then ... nothing for a while. Then, Cosmic Encounter, a Diplomacy and History of the World reprint, and a couple more A&A and Risk games (as an aside: I remember in an issue of The General in which he was listing his "desert island games", Don Greenwood mentioned once that after playing Cosmic Encounter, he put together the most generous acquisition package AH had ever done to try to get the game. Eon turned him down – which, in retrospect, he thought probably was for the best for AH. Now, after all these years, Cosmic Encounter was published under the AH label. I don't know what this means). Anyway, Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter, and History of the World are classics, but not games that get a lot of play these days. The "new" games were by-the-numbers design jobs that weren't exactly taking any risks. The old Avalon Hill had helped bring in the next generation of games with titles like Kremlin, We the People, Hannibal, Adel, and Titan: The Arena; the new AH seemed to be going back to the 80s, or even the 70s.

At some point the AH brand was then transferred to Wizards of the Coast. Things then got a little weird. Recent releases have been all over the map, from the roll the dice and move around a track Sword and Skull to the horrible train wreck that was the awkwardly-named Betrayal at the House on Hill to RoboRally to Monsters Menace America to a couple new Risk and A&A games. Currently, the product line is still over a third Axis & Allies or Risk-branded products.

What? You want to know what I think of Nexus Ops, not get some long, rambling history of AH? All right.

Nexus Ops
 is a classic empire building game – perhaps the light version of Twilight Imperium. You've got a Settlers of Catan style board layout with a hill in the middle. Many spaces produces money. The hill in the middle produces action cards. Money buys different units. Units have different movement and combat capabilities. Combat involves rolling lots of dice.

The thing that's different, and the reason the game actually works, are the mission cards. Instead of trying to be the last one standing, you are trying to amass 10 VPs. You get these by fulfilling the missions on the cards. These are things like "win a battle in a lava bed" or "kill an enemy's Dragon-like thing". This is cool, and absolutely critical, because it avoids the time-honored problem of "turtling" – i.e., sitting around waiting for the other players to get bored, attack each other, and weaken themselves to the point that you can clean up. It's distressing how many of these sorts of game makes no attempt to solve this rather critical problem.

However, just because it's solved, doesn't mean it's an inspiring solution. McAllister and Trampier solved it brilliantly in Titan. Knizia solved it with his usual grace and elegance in Clash of the Gladiators. Nexus Ops is somewhat short of these, mainly because the mission cards are boring and fairly random. Maybe you get a 2-pointer for winning a battle in a mountain, and you have a bunch on your border; that's easy. Maybe you get a similar one that requires a jungle, and the jungles are either deep in your heartland or on the other side of the board. Maybe you get a big 3-pointer to kill an enemy dragon, and you neighbor happens to have one; or maybe not. Whether you can fulfill a mission or not seems to be related less to some perceived difficulty in actually carrying out the action, and more to the odds that the board situation is favorable. The other issue is that the supply of these cards is fairly limited (you get one on each of your turns), and since the winner is likely to be the player who can play most of the cards he draws, you don't have much choice except to try to fulfill everything you draw. The mission cards are also a bit samey, which probably will hurt replayability. And the action cards produced by the Hill, which provide a lot of the flavor and fun value, are a little too hard to get and a little too sparse.

Still, after all that, the game is OK. It's kinda fun. It's not too long. It's not an elimination game. It's control-light and there is unnecessary downtime, but it works, and empire-building games of this type that really, fundamentally work are rarer than you might think. I like the look of the game; it's neat and unusual, but the production is efficient and it's not glaringly overproduced (although I did have some difficulties telling some of the smaller units apart at times).

This is a game that I'm glad I got a chance to play once, but now that's done, I am unlikely to play again unless someone else in the group is lobbying for it. I could be talked into it, but wouldn't offer it up. On the other hand, it was definitely not bad, was much more satisfying than the recent and similarly-targeted but not-quite-functional Viktory, and if one wanted to play a high-conflict, knock-down drag-out empire building game, and wanted it to be a game without player elimination (actual or practical) and finishable in under 2 hours, I am hard-pressed to come up with a better alternative.

Monday, September 12, 2005

This is your Life (or not)

That's Life! is an abstract little game that at times seems to be vaguely trying to channel Tutenkhamen, or perhaps Cartagena, but in the end feels more like Parcheesi. You have three pawns you're trying to move around the board by rolling dice. If you are the last to leave a tile in the track of life, you get the points associated with it, which can be positive or negative (these come in runs - negative at the beginning, positive in the middle, and then negative again at the end). For some flavor, each of the tiles has a fairly unmemorable illustration of a life event, value-judged to a numeric score. Most points at the end wins.

My feelings for this game morphed during playing. At first, I felt that it was going to be a clever little game, very light but with a few interesting choices. Not of much interest to the "serious" gamer except perhaps as filler, but something to play with family or friends. By the end I had become disenchanted. I think it centered on the very powerful "clover" tiles which, when captured, allow a player to turn a negative tile into a positive one. Because of the "last one who leaves gets it" mechanic, you have very little control over whether you can score those tiles ... but you do have a lot of control over which of the other players gets them. Since the game doesn't generally allow you to exact a quid pro quo, this sometimes (although not usually, to be sure) becomes a major but essentially arbitrary game element, never a good feature of a game in my opinion (I can enjoy randomness; but arbitrariness turns me off). And it also should be mentioned that the theme is a classic paste-up job.

Passable filler, but not a game I'm likely to play again.

Fiese Freunde Fette Feten: In general I have a soft spot for Friedemann Friese's wacky games, because even when they don't quite work (which is a little too often, unfortunately) they tend to make some or all of it back on the engaging themes and artwork.

We can dispense with the underlying game in FFFF pretty quickly: it doesn't work, quite. You are trying to fulfill life goals (like, say, being single and bitter). The goals you are trying to reach tend to be fairly specific, and the "life events" up for bid each turn (like overeating or joining a cult) tend to leave you fairly limited options for reaching them. So it seemed to me that you tend to be left with options that are a bit too constrained for the game to be engaging on the decision-making or game-tension end.

The game is still fun though, because of the somewhat bizarre hedonistic lifestyle your avatar gets put through. Let's just say that very few of these events would rate a positive number in That's Life!. You're not trying to make it into the school play or become CEO; you're trying to ruin your health, gain weight, do a lot of drugs, join a cult, enhance your level of depression, have lots of anonymous sex, become a game designer, that sort of thing. The deck of "event" cards up for auction is great (and with great illustrations - the fact that the titles are all in German almost doesn't matter that much), and the plot of your virtual life unfolds in entertaining, humorous, and plausibly implausible ways.

The possibly significant downside is that this really requires the right group of people. Anyone trying too hard to win will kill the entertainment value of FFFF. One might make this argument for any game, of course, but an occasional problem with 2F games is that they are fundamentally thematic, light, fun games that can nonetheless encourage over-thinking. Fearsome Floors was particularly problematic, and while FFFF isn't that bad, there is still a minor issue here.

Anyway, the bottom line was that I enjoyed FFFF, and would play it again with the right crowd. It's still a gimmick game – not something I'll play more than a few times, and probably not something to try to sucker any humorless right-leaning friends into – but for me, the gimmick works. Apparently Rio Grande is going to do an English version, and while that's nice, I've also heard that the game may be toned down. I don't know, but it seems to me that if the characters in the game lost their edge, so would the game.

For some of your characters in FFFF, possibly the best solution to their problems would be a game of Kablamo!. This is a game that, ah, simulates Russian Roulette. Everyone has a revolver. You load it with bullets. Seriously. These bullets can either be a Kablamo (you're out of the game), a "click", or a bullet with some sort of action on it. These actions are usually swapping the positions of bullets in various people's revolvers, revolver malfunctions that cause them to skip a bullet or misfire or rotate the wrong way, that sort of thing.

Now, there would be no game here without one additional detail: once bullets are loaded into a revolver, they cannot be inspected by anyone. As chambers are unloaded and reloaded, revolvers spin, and confusion and tension mounts, the game becomes fun (and is even somewhat thematically evocative as you wonder whether the next bullet is live or not).

Kablamo! is not a top-tier game. To the extent that it's more game than activity, it's definitely a memory game (although with so many unknowns you're going to lose track of things pretty quickly), so you'll know whether or not that's for you. And it's an elimination game, albeit one that's fast-moving and pretty short. But I can always like a game for trying something interesting and novel and executing on it well; Kablamo! is definitely not one of the by-the-numbers game designs that make up most of a year's releases.

It's certainly true that some (and that includes Kim) will find the theme tasteless. But, with all the violence usually sanitized or cartoonized out of European games (to an extreme degree it seems to me sometimes), the shamelessly violent Kablamo! – with its giant and just realistically-rendered enough bullets and revolvers, and with actual rotating game-boards, combined with the wacky action bullets – is to me oddly appealing. It's like Nuclear War, but more of a game, more fun, a lot shorter, and relying on actual gameplay for humor value instead of just funny card texts.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Candamir – The Odyssey

Candamir is Klaus Teuber's latest Catan-branded game, which came out last year at Essen. I didn't get a chance to play it right away, but considered it one of the more promising games at the time. Sadly, the initial plays were disappointing (where you can also find a more extensive description of the game). The potential was there I felt, but the game was significantly too long and definitely not interactive enough.

However, Mayfair was signed up to do an English version, and they seemed to recognize that there were some problems. So they announced that their version would include richer exploration tiles, which would hopefully have a number of salutary effects – mainly shortening the game and creating resources surpluses so that you'd see some actual trading. So far so good.

But it seems that nothing in the gaming world is ever easy. When I got my copy of Mayfair's Candamir, I looked through with anticipation to see the changes they had made. I was dismayed to see that the tiles were exactly the same! Figuring that couldn't be right, I found in the back of the rulebook a tile inventory, in which all the 4 tiles had an extra resource, unless they already had two resources, in which case they had an extra experience. So an email went off to Mayfair, wondering what had gone wrong; but in the back of my head, I was worried that this improvement in just the '4' tiles wouldn't be enough.

It turns out, things were even more confusing than that ... not only were the tiles misprinted, but so were the rules ... the 3 tiles all have an added resource or experience as well. Fortunately, Mayfair has printed up some replacement tiles, and if you have purchased or will purchase their version of Candamir, I strongly recommend you write them and get the replacements.

Because when I finally had a chance to play with them, I found it to be a major improvement. In the old game, the rate of acquisition of stuff was so slow that the game was much too long and nobody ever had excess resources to trade, resulting in basically a multi-player solitaire game. In our game with the new tiles, all of a sudden there was plenty of trading (if not quite as much as in classic Settlers), and while the game is long – closer to Starfarers than Settlers, maybe 1.5 to 2 hours – it doesn't drag for most of the game. Like all of the Settlers games, towards the very end there can be a "grinding" phase when only one or two of the players have a chance to win, but the game still needs to close out. In classic Settlers, this is rarely more than 5-10 minutes. I think Candamir was pushing more like 15-20, which is more than one might hope, but not too bad given the nature of the game.

All in all, I rather liked the new, updated Candamir. It's still no match for the original Settlers, but not much is. Still, Candamir is a game that manages to combine solid, clean, Teutonic game-design elements with a flavorful setting and fun adventuring elements that, as a whole, functions on both levels. From Entdecker to El Cabellero there have been many attempts to do exploration-themed games, and none of them have worked at all thematically, in that for me none conveyed any sense of traveling in a dangerous unknown. Likewise, many adventure games (like Runebound or Return of the Heroes) don't give much sense that there is a balanced, interesting game underneath. Candamir doesn't quite manage to pull everything off either, but for me it's a vast improvement over previous efforts in this regard, is very solid on both levels, and it definitely still feels Catan-ish (including the randomness that drives some serious gamers berserk, but is never quite that severe when you really look at it). While Kosmos' Candamir definitely fell significantly short, I am ultimately happy with the Mayfair Candamir, which is now a welcome addition to my collection.