Monday, October 31, 2005

Hacienda, Euphrat & Tigris Kartenspiel

Back in the halcyon days of the late 90s, Hans im Glück was the go-to brand for meatier games: Euphrat & Tigris, Samurai, El Grande, Aladdin's Dragons, and Die Macher were just a few of the classic games published under their label. alea stole their thunder for a while; but the 00s have seen a bit of down-market pressure, with alea losing some of their early magic, and with Hans im Glück moving more in the direction of Carcassonne than the next El Grande. Still, with alea having limited output and no longer doing much in the way of big-box stuff, Hans im Glück is still one of the more reliable names in gaming for the serious gamer; you just might need to apply a little more discretion than you used to.

So, what have they got for us this time?

Hacienda is a new game from Wolfgang Kramer, this time without a design partner. The theme is of farming and cattle-herding in Argentina. At least, I think it's supposed to be in Argentina. Anyway, players play cards to build farms (which are a strong source of VPs and a modest source of income) and build up cattle herds to try to connect to markets (which are a strong source of income but a weaker source of VPs). Money is required to buy more land and animal cards, as well as to install Haciendas and irrigation, both of which significantly improve VPs. All the cards are acquired Alan R. Moon-style, drafted from 4 face-up cards or drawn blind from a deck.

Hacienda was a modest surprise for me. For a big-box game from a top designer and a strong label, I expected good things, but this was moderated somewhat by recent weaker games from Hans im Glück, like Attika or a lot of the recent Carcassonne milking, combined with the fact that Wolfgang Kramer, even though he is undeniably one of the three giants that dominate modern eurogame design (with Teuber and Knizia), often does stuff that isn't exactly to my taste (like Expedition). But Hacienda exceeded these expectations, and I like it a lot. It's odd in that it feels vaguely reminiscent of a few games (Reibach definitely for the drafting, Through the Desert maybe for the herds trying to reach markets/oasis before being cut off) without actually feeling derivative. This is probably because it adds the whole cash management element; you need to balance the need to acquire actual VPs with earning enough money to fund future purchases of cards. This sounds similar to the idea in Saint Petersburg, a game which had some problems for me; but the trade-offs in Hacienda are much more subtle. Each play has certain income and VP consequences, you have many choices and very few constraints, and Hacienda lacks Saint Petersburg's multiplicative effects. Additionally, Hacienda has a very sensible playing time (an hour-ish), and is very easy to explain. I also like this new trend towards double-sided boards; Hacienda includes two very different setups on the two sides of the board. The sheet of variants is a nice touch too, as the game is clearly highly suited for them.

Hacienda was not quite my top pick for Essen, but it was a very entertaining game that left me thinking about alternate approaches, and after a couple plays I am enthused.

The Euphrat & Tigris Kartenspiel is interesting in that it is a more or less direct port of the boardgame. Most "card game" versions of popular boardgames (Settlers/Starfarers card games, San Juan, El Cabellero, King of the Elves) have changed significantly to adapt to the new format. Not E&T. Almost everything you know about the boardgame applies here: leaders, conflicts, kingdoms, treasures, monuments. The only fundamental change is that now we have an abstract, 1.5-dimensional board instead of the classic grid. The kingdoms line up in 9 consecutive "stacks", and can be joined by placing a card between them. That, and the fact that scores are secret ... even your own. So you need to remember what you've got.

I liked the E&T cardgame, although it didn't have a huge "wow" factor. It's short and very easy to teach to anyone who's familiar with E&T, so it was good for about 5 rapid plays. That's pretty good. But each time I played, I couldn't help feeling a nagging suspicion that something was out of whack. I can't quite identify what it is, and that bugs me further. But something feels vaguely off with the rhythm of the game, or maybe the density of the playing field. Part of it may be that the cardgame is so similar to the boardgame that I have phantom pains for the tactical tile-laying game that is missing.

Regardless of these ephemeral doubts, though, I did enjoy the game and I do still think it's good, especially given the lower price, low complexity, and short playing time. I consider it $15 well-spent. But if you already own Tigris and Euphrates and are a major fan, this version doesn't bring a lot new to the table. On the other hand, if you find you would like something shorter, check it out; it does manage to capture a chunk of the good stuff in a smaller package.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Caylus is a bit complicated to describe, as there are several competing elements to the game which interact in ways that seem, on first inspection, a touch fiddly. However, imagine, if you will, that Richard Breese's Keydom (remade as the more well-known Aladdin's Dragons) was split into two parts: the bluffing part of secretly allocating your strength to various actions, with the player who allocates the most getting to take the action; and the semi-strategic part of deciding which of a variety of actions to go for. If you take the bluffing part, you get the foundations for Ys, which had the secret power allocation for collecting resources but not much in the way of special actions. If you take the special actions part, you get the foundations for Caylus, which has no bluffing.

Each turn there are buildings available on the board for you to allocate your workers to, each of which has some special power – acquiring more resources, building more buildings, making money, trading money for resources or vice versa, acquiring victory points, altering the tactical play of the game, etc. Each turn, players iterate on placing workers onto the board, each of whom can operate one building (and each building can be used only once per turn). The goal is to acquire resources to build bricks in the by-now standard Castle or Cathedral (for the record, it’s a Castle in this game). This is just the core, and there is a fair amount of additional chrome to the game, but it's primarily just a bit awkward to explain and the game actually plays pretty cleanly once you get going.

I liked Caylus. It seems to me not an obvious long-term classic, but it's got a lot of good stuff going on, and there are tough and interesting choices. It's still got a fairly weak theme, but it's more flavorful than Ys was and less prone to analysis paralysis. I like how they've supplied many more different buildings than you could possibly use in one game, so it's clear that games will develop rather differently based on the mix people build. I like how you have to plan a couple turns in advance to get anything done. I like how early choices really matter and drive the later-game.

I'm less enamored of the playing time, which was a bit too long. The box says 60-150 minutes, and I'm pretty sure Caylus wants to be on the very low end of that, and certainly should not be pushing the high end. If the game routinely take 2+ hours, I think Caylus will be on the flea market table sometime next year despite its charms. But if the playtime can come down to 60-90 minutes (possible), this might be one with some long-term replay value. My sense is that like most small-press games, this one isn't quite where it needs to be, and probably needed a touch more streamlining (and some traction on a plausible theme would have been a bonus); but what's there definitely works, and is interesting. So while I can say with confidence that this is not the next Puerto Rico, it's worth checking out. I'll let you know as I get to play more myself.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dragonriders, SoDuku: The Boardgame, Fettnapf

Dragonriders: Dragonriders is a unique race game from Amigo/Rio Grande and Jean du Poel (Carabande/PitchCar) and Klaus-Jürgen Wrede (Carcassonne). It’s a miniatures game masquerading as a board game.

The idea is that you have a dragon you are racing around a track. The dragon has a hexagonal base. Each turn, you dial a speed from 1-8. When it’s your turn to move, you reveal your speed and grab a movement measuring stick that matches the distance you’ve dialed and – and this is the clever bit – has notches cut in the ends that allow you to rotate your dragon both before and after your move. So the 1-length stick allows you to turn a great deal, and the 8-length stick not so much. This is fairly nifty, and makes for an interesting but extremely clean-playing race game.

The other thing I liked is that the courses seem very interesting – a nice combination of snakey bits requiring precise maneuvers with some open areas. There is a good sense of risk – how fast are you willing to try to go in taking that corner? In a game like Formula De, you can see pretty clearly what the odds are of taking the turn vs. hitting the wall at various speeds, while here you really have to eyeball it and guess, which I find a more entertaining game.

There are also some take-that cards (magic fireballs, magic lassoes, and magic tire spikes) which add a bit of chaos; nobody is going to mistake Dragonriders for Puerto Rico. In my game some of the players got a little excitable about making sure nobody nudged the other Dragons while moving your own (things can get a little tight), but this just isn’t that sort of game; if you knock things around a bit, who cares? Does everyone get all the cars back in exactly the position from which they started after a wipeout in Carabande?

I must say, I enjoyed Dragonriders, even though it wasn’t even on my radar screen as something I might be interested in prior to Essen (I’m not a big race game fan in general). It reminded me of Wings of War, another miniatures to boardgame port I liked. It’s light, but I found it short and fun. It’s not a serious game, but it captures the theme well and feels like a racing game (something that most racing games surprisingly fail to accomplish for me). What remains to be determined is if it can be had for a reasonable price, given its comparative lightness.

SuDoku: The Boardgame: For the 3 people in Europe and Japan who haven’t heard of Sudoku, and the maybe 250 million such people in the US, Sudoku is the latest craze in newspaper puzzles. You’re given a 9x9 grid divided into 9 3x3 sectors. Some of the cells in the grid have a number (1-9) in them. The idea is to fill in all the cells in the grid with a number such that no row, column, or sector has a duplicate number. Sound like fun?

Being an American, I am not a Sudoku player. However, I am a fan of Reiner Knizia, and with visions in my head of what Scrabble did with crosswords, I was interested in seeing what he (and Kosmos) could do with Sudoku.

The answer is: not so much. You’re given a Sudoku grid. You have to play number tiles following the roles of Sudoku (no duplicates in a row, column, or sector). You get one point for each other, pre-existing tile in the row, column, and sector for which you play. You only have one tile in your hand at a time. That’s it.

As a game, Knizia mailed this one in. There is little, if anything, there. I still found it modestly entertaining for one play; learning to see the Sudoku patterns was kind of neat and I now do have some interest in trying out the puzzles sometime soon. I can’t say as much for the game, however.

Fettnapf: I heard this game referred to as "this year's Geschenkt". Maybe. It's mainly a memory game, with a bit of bluffing. Each player has a few "landmine" cards numbered 10-30. The game is then played with a separate deck of cards numbered 0-9; each turn, play one card from your hand onto the pile, and announce the running total. Once the pile exceeds 30, it starts counting back down, and then back up again once it gets below 10. If your play causes the running total to hit another player's number exactly, you get a point. This is bad. When one player gets four points, the game is over, fewest points wins. Whenever the direction of the count flips, another "landmine" card is revealed and handed out, so things get tougher as the game goes on.

I liked this, enough to go back and pick up a copy after I had played. Like Geschenkt, it's simple, quick, tense, and reasonably skillful. It's not a deep game, but fun for filler or an opener, and good for younger players or mixed groups. Because it's basically a memory game, it's not going to appeal to everyone, but really good small-box stuff like this is rare and this might be one.


Parthenon is a new game from the newly-prolific Z-Man Games; it's yet another civilization-building type game, this time with a vaguely Settlers-esque appeal.

Each player becomes the leader of an island in the Aegean, attempting to make their name in the world. Unlike in Settlers or Civilization, there is no map – everything is handled abstractly. You start with a couple villages that produce a single basic good (Grain, Grapes, Olives, Wool, etc.) automatically at the beginning of each turn. The rest of your building options are represented by a handful of cards, and include a couple more production villages, workshops, temples, ports, marketplaces, etc.

The immediate thing that you realize about this game is that given the goods you produce on your home island, you literally cannot build anything beyond your first couple production buildings (several costs are, in fact, expressed in terms of "goods you don't produce"). Of the 6 basic goods available, you will have villages for only 3. Of the 4 rare goods available (tools, pottery, spices, and papyrus), you will be able to produce only one.

So, to do anything at all, you'll need to trade. This involves either finding a compliant fellow-player to trade with (each of the islands produces a different selection of standard or rare goods, so this shouldn't be too hard) or journeying to neighboring lands, which function much like the ports in Settlers, giving you various X:1 trading options. The journeying process is neat but fairly random, as you load up your goods and protective cards on ships and then draw cards to see what hazards they face, with nearer locations (Athens, Sparta, Ionia) being a lot less risky than further ones (Egypt, Carthage, and Rome), but the risker destinations also offer much better trade rates, as you would expect.

Whenever I play new games from a company I don't have much experience with, I always find myself reading the credits – mainly looking over the playtesters, seeing if it's anyone I recognize, seeing if a developer is credited, etc. On perusing the Parthenon credits late in the game, I saw something unusual – the game is derived from a game used as a team-building exercise, presumably for corporate customers. As I read this, everything became clear to me. The game forces you to trade with your fellow-players to do anything at all, because virtually all of your own resources are useless to you. The huge randomness of the trade expeditions and the brutal and somewhat arbitrary random events that pop up each turn might actually be desirable in such a game, as the players are forced to "pull together". Unfortunately these things just don't make for a terrifically compelling social game (and, I should say, if I wanted a team-building game at work I'd think that having everyone round for a game of Lord of the Rings might work better). Anytime you are forced down a certain approach to the game it's not good – compare to Settlers, where you can either do the best with what you've got, or try to do better by trading. And the large and essentially arbitrary effects of the events is going to be frustrating and a turn-off for most serious gamers. We're not talking events that force you to lose half your cards if you're holding too many; many events wipe out your entire inventory.

There are a couple more minor gaffes here as well... one of my rules of gaming is that a game should end while you still have choices. One of my complaints about Advanced Civilization, for example, is that it will typically end with one or two players acquiring all the Civilization cards. For the last few turns of the game, these players are just "buying out the string", acquiring whatever they can afford rather than making real choices about what they need. Compare to Settlers: Cities and Knights, where players are making choices right until the end. In Parthenon, the victory conditions involve just buying up everything in your inventory. Combine this with the fact that only a few of these buildings are very useful at all, and things seem off.

I'd really like to give Parthenon a passing grade (say, a 3 out of 5). The theme is great and well-realized. The graphics are very nice and evocative. I think the whole journeying mechanic for visiting foreign lands is well-done and fairly well-balanced. But ultimately I can't do it, and it ends up being rated around a 2 for me. This is a game with a high price point ($50 retail) and long playing time (2+ hours), and given that, there just aren't enough choices, the game is too constrained, the event cards are too random, and ultimately too many balances are out of whack. I think if Z-Man had been able to cut the price point back to under $30 retail (there are a truly excessive number of cards in the box) and the play length to 60 minutes, things would be better. But at the current price point, it's very hard to recommend.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Spiel '05: Antike

I went to Essen. Specifically, I went to Spiel '05, which is in Essen.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, and neither am I precisely sure what I got. It was fun. It was big. There were a lot of people there. Most of them appeared to speak a different language. There were a lot of games. For those of you who have been to Origins, it was different largely in terms of magnitude – imagine the dealers' room there multiplied by oh, say, 10 or 20, and what you get is Spiel '05. Despite the scale, the mix of stuff was not unlike the dealer's room at Origins: in addition to the boardgame producers and retailers, you also have the obligatory replica weapons booth, the (huge) Games Workshop stand, Wizards of the Coast hawking their roleplaying books, and so on. It's just the mix that was different: unlike at Origins, at Essen the boardgames dominate. Also unlike Origins, there is far more breadth. Origins caters to the serious gamer and the mainstream publishers; at Essen, you've got not only Hans-im-Glück and Kosmos, but also Haba with their line of kids' games (including some live-action Foosball tucked away in a corner), Hasbro's family games, all the micro-press folks trying to make a name for themselves, and so on.

The main downside of Essen (other than the cigarette smoke, which was actually much less than I feared it would be) is that it is, in fact, so huge. One of the high points of going to Origins is getting to meet big-name game designers: I've had the great pleasure to meet Reiner Knizia (a couple times), Klaus Teuber, Andreas Seyfarth, Richard Garfield, and Alan R. Moon at Origins; perhaps these people were at Essen too, but if so, it was hard to tell. Maybe that language thing again.

Anyway... on to the games. Writing up everything I played will take at least a week, so let's get the weakest out of the way first: Antike.

Antike is a new empire-building game from Eggert-Spiele. You may remember them as the publishers of Global Powers, a game so bad I repressed it entirely from my memory when making up my Worst of 2004 list. Normally, when a label makes a game of such dysfunction, they're off my interest list forever. Antike was getting a little bit of buzz, however. The production values have been greatly improved over Global Powers (for example, the board fits into the box). And I noticed a number of people playing and apparently enjoying it. So my curiosity was piqued. Certainly not enough to do something so rash as to buy it, but I was happy to play a friend's copy.

It's more or less the usual thing. Everyone is an empire in the Mediterranean/Mesopotamian area. You've got Marble (for improving cities), Iron (for building armies), and Gold (for buying technology). You harvest these resources to improve your civilization and beat the snot out of your neighbors.

Let's take a minor digression here. There are three major problems that any game of this type has to deal with:

• The rich get richer problem. If your civilization makes a lot of resources, you can invest them in more growth, which leads to a cycle of compounding interest. Players who get behind early are in trouble. The classic example is Outpost: I get lots of resources early, I invest them in more factories, I make more resources than everyone else, I win. People behind at the halfway point are hosed.

• The whack-the-leader problem. Everyone goes after whoever is ahead at the time. If everyone has enough firepower to prevent someone else from winning, and can get at them, the game devolves into a late-game go-after-the-leader-fest, with the winner being decided not by skill throughout the game, but late-game positioning and diplomacy (for which you can often read "whining"). Prototypical games with a serious problem here include A Game of Thrones (some discussion here), Vinci, and Sword of Rome; in all cases, you never want to be ahead before the end of the game.

• The let-you-and-him-fight problem. This is the tendency for combat to exhaust the involved nations, leaving only the uninvolved third parties as winners. This leads to the "turtling" problem I talked about here. Think of the many games of this type in the space colonization genre, like Twilight Imperium.

For an example of how these problems can be approached, look at classic Civilization. The rich-get-richer problem is solved by not allowing you to re-invest resources: the commodities you produce can be used to buy civilization advances, but very few of these have any significant direct effect on future production. Without being able to reinvest, there isn't much of a compound interest problem. The whack the leader problem is solved by making combat expensive and your reach limited, so the tactical action tends to be border skirmishes fueled by population pressures and need for city sites rather than any full-blown conflict. The full-blown conflict is fought with trade, but since there are huge incentives to trade (and costs to not trading, if the guy in the lead has that last Bronze you need) trade embargoes are impossible to hold together for any length of time. The you-and-him fight problem is then taken care of because the game revolves primarily around trading and the race to acquire civilization cards, so the on-board combat and position can be de-emphasized. The details here are rather interesting and this analysis just scratches the surface, but those are the broad strokes.

So how does Antike cope with these problems? It has really only attacked the whack-the-leader problem, although the solution is clever. When you meet various conditions (holding enough land or sea areas, advancing on the tech chart before others do, sacking temples) you get a VP. These can then never be lost. So you're still going to hedge against giving the leader any opportunities, but there is little point in going after him.

There are three significant problems with Antike however, of varying degrees of severity.

Firstly, the other two problems mentioned above (that of compound interest and expensive conflict) haven't been addressed. Resources get plowed back into the economy and the rich get richer, although not to a huge degree. And combat is hugely expensive and attritional (armies simply exchange one-for-one in combat) so when two players fight the real winners are everyone else, except in the relatively rare case of a temple sacking.

Secondly is just that there aren't any other interesting ideas. The victory point thing is neat, but the rest of the game is by-the-numbers. There is a "roundel" that dictates what actions you can take in what order, and while it is nice in terms of forcing some planning, on balance it isn't so different from a standard sequence of play or a "choose 2 actions" technique to merit much mention.

Thirdly, and most critically, the victory conditions are broken, at least for three players (the number we played with). You need 12 VPs to win. The game is fairly "damped" for much of the game, that is to say, since combat is so horrendously expensive and attritional, the start positions are fairly balanced with respect to resources, and the number of development choices are extremely limited, nations are going to earn VPs at a roughly equivalent rate. There are 35 VPs available, and you need 12 to win, or just over a third. So far, so good... but 7 of those VPs are available only if your neighbors cooperate by building a temple you can sack. If they don't build one, or (more likely) build one in their heartland where they are inaccessible without extreme cost, things hit a wall.

In the three-player game, expansion space is readily available and there is little reason to build Temples until late, making the game interminable. You need about 3 VPs worth of temple-sacking to win, so you end up with a full-blown turtling problem, as sacking even a single modestly-defended Temple later on in the game is going lose you 8 armies, or about a quarter of the maximum possible military force available to you (ships and armies combined, so if you're a strictly land power, we're talking about half your inventory), leaving your neighbors smiling and you in trouble.

I suspect things will improve at least marginally with more players, as tighter space will result in more incentive to build temples early and perhaps more action and opportunities for a player to actually win (raising the immediate question of why they didn't borrow Civilization's partitioned board, shrinking the playing area with fewer players – but that would have meant they would have to have actually thought about the VP levels required for victory instead of apparently just plugging numbers into a formula). But given the dysfunction of the 3-player game, the lack of any really inspiring ideas otherwise, and typical problems with the genre that haven't gone away, I very much doubt I will find out for sure.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Age of Steam Scandinavia, Palazzo

Long-time readers of this blog will know that my feelings for Age of Steam have been a moving target. Initially, I was caught in the headlights of the game's significant failings – mainly the ludicrously wonky endgame. While these failings mean I just can't consider it a top-tier game, I have come around to be fond of it nonetheless. As a rail-building game, it's a nice middle ground between the simpler crayon-style games and non-rail games like Ticket to Ride, and the slightly more involved 1825 and 18xx games in general. I like the difficult financial management decisions and the fact that most of the game is simply fending off financial disaster. I like how tough the early game is. And the route-building is interesting. With these strengths, I can live with the problems, even if I'm not happy about them.

This was the first time I've played an expansion map. We had 3, and I had heard that Scandinavia worked well with smaller numbers of players, so we gave that a try. Interestingly, the early game was even harsher than usual – with the expensive sea links, you'll need to re-calibrate your instincts on how much debt you need early. Being in the middle, the sea links also provide an interesting choke-point, and if you don't get one, you'll get stuck on one side or the other. This worked well with 3 players; I was developing on the Germany/continental Denmark side of the ferries, which Rich and Kim were on the Copenhagen/Norway/Sweden side. Not sure I'd want to play with more than 4 players on this map, though, as I think some players might get hosed based just on how the players' areas of operation worked out.

Still, I liked the map, maybe even more than the basic map given the small number of players. The constrained areas and heavy competition for the central Danish cubes seemed to put more emphasis on the Producer action, and I liked the Ferry action which allows you to easily move cubes between coastal cities.

We still ended up brainstorming how to fix the endgame, though. Even after only one game it was apparent to Rich and Kim that this could have been done a lot better. Rich had one of the better suggestions I've heard, I thought: add another action, the Financier, which would allow you to buy back one or two shares for $5 each.

Still, all told, I've enjoyed Age of Steam, and hope to be able to get it on the table somewhat more often in the future, maybe experiment with more of the maps. It's never going to be a game I play more than a handful of times a year, but for its flaws it's still got good stuff.

After finishing Age of Steam, we had time for a quick closer, so we went with Palazzo. I've decided this is, in fact, a very good game. So many tough and interesting choices, and like a lighter version of Ra, the randomness of the auctions means you're never looking at the same situation twice, but it rarely feels arbitrary. I was worried that the quest for homogeneous buildings would drive the game, but I've now seen people win both with small numbers of huge-point buildings and with a more diversified collection. I also find the game has an interesting pace to it, with a slow start building up to a high-pressure endgame. And despite the apparent chaos, the evidence is that like Ra, skilled players reliably win, and win big. All in all, I now think this is one of the best games of the year. While Tower of Babel is a little more appealing to me because it's a bit more unusual, Palazzo has been a reliable winner in my groups.

Clash for a Continent

Worthington Games' Victoria Cross was one of my top picks from 2004. It was a low-complexity game solidly in the style of Columbia's block games, but it introduced a fair number of interesting new details, and it's an interesting situation – ungamable, some have said; but ultimately I thought Victoria Cross was pretty good, and despite some minor glitches I think it's worth playing.

Their newest game is Clash for a Continent, which is a tactical-ish game of battles from the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars in America. When I originally signed up for it, I was under the impression that it was going to be a tactical game in the mold of Victoria Cross, a Columbia-style block game. Somewhere along the line, though, it morphed, into basically a Battle Cry/Memoir '44 rip-off.

I use the term "rip-off" with some hesitation, and it may in fact be somewhat unfair. Unless you're Knizia, it seems that much of the creative process, especially in wargames, is knowing where to borrow stuff from (see Triumph of Chaos). But somewhere there is a line between the evolutionary process of borrowing and improving, or at least varying, and taking something and just changing it enough to avoid lawsuits. While Clash for a Continent does admittedly try to provide something a bit different from Battle Cry, most of what it adds seems to me unsuccessful, and a number of the changes just seem like change for change's sake.

So. Compare to Battle Cry: The movement rules are the same. Combat is resolved by rolling a fixed number of dice with a variable to-hit number Instead of rolling a variable number of dice with fixed to-hit numbers – which, in practice, ends up being the same, just slightly more fiddly. Units take losses in the same way, losing steps which don't affect firepower. The terrain effects are basically identical.

The one real area in which things have been altered is the command system, and things have not been improved. Gone are the flanks; you can move whatever units you want. Gone are the cards. Instead, you roll a d3; that, added to your base command (usually between one and three), is how many units you can move.

On paper, this sounds promising. An issue with Battle Cry was being hamstrung without the cards you needed to actually do anything. Now, you're more or less guaranteed a free flow of actions, and have great flexibility as to where you want to use them. In practice, however, this does not work so well. I think this is because, in truth, Battle Cry (and Memoir '44) are not that interesting as tactical games – almost everything is in the card management. Outflanking your enemy or otherwise gaining positional advantages rarely provide big wins in terms of attrition. Defensive positions are largely obvious. So, in Clash for a Continent, you end up with both players moving about the same number of units in the same area every turn. Without the uncertainty of the card play, without the need to manage cards, the game is greatly diminished. In Memoir '44, I have to decide if it's worth spending my lone 3-center card now, or trying to counterattack on some other flank in hopes of moving the action somewhere else, maybe somewhere where your ability to respond is limited. In Clash for a Continent, the opportunity for this sort of play has disappeared – we're just bashing each other and hoping to roll well come combat time.

Now, I've not exactly been unreserved in my praise for Memoir '44 in the past. While it's a big improvement on its predecessor Battle Cry, the game is certainly not without issues – primarily, severe scenario balance problems and the overwhelming strength of the artillery units; I was disheartened to see that the new expansions include rules for even more powerful "big guns", as if they weren't unreasonably powerful enough already. Regardless, though, playing Clash for a Continent really helped me to appreciate what the cards in Memoir '44 do right. It may be a very random game, and you can be hosed by the card draws more often than you might like, and the scenarios may have serious balance problems, but the core system does force you to make interesting choices and can create interesting situations. By contrast, Clash of a Continent was just boring to play; back and forth, roll some dice, back and forth, roll some more dice. Without the tension of a possible unanswered card play, or a bomber suddenly unhinging a defensive position, the game lacked soul. You could guarantee me that every one of the scenarios in Clash for a Continent is a model of play-balance, and I'd still easily prefer Memoir '44.

So all in all not a game I can recommend, especially given the price. After such a promising first game, I had hoped for better from Worthington Games. I'm still looking forward to their Alamo game, which should be a cousin to Victoria Cross. In the meantime, though, if I have a craving for this sort of game I'll stick with Memoir '44.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005


The Spiel des Jahre-nominated Kremlin was arguably the first real "euro" game Avalon Hill did, back in 1988. With a paltry couple pages of rules and a modest playing time, but a wonderfully flavorful and humorous backdrop, this is a game that I have fond memories of. It's like Junta, but with a) a game, b) quality, and c) fun.

The basic idea is that each player represents a faction in Soviet politics. You secretly allocate influence to amusingly-named politicians (like Purgemoff or Shootemdedsky), which you can then later reveal and "declare" at your discretion. The player with the most "declared" influence on a politician is allowed to use the power of his office. Nine politicians occupy the Politburo: the Party Chief (who can reorganize everyone else on a whim, as well as having first option on promoting and demoting politicians), the KGB Chief (who can purge you off to Siberia), Foreign Minister (who has some control over the succession to party chief), and Defense Minister (who can bring accusations of treason - same practical upshot as being purged, but if you can bribe a couple other politicians into believing you're innocent, you can escape), and then some low-level flunkies like the Sport minister who only have real power if someone else croaks (which happens about as often as you might expect, that is to say, a fair amount). The rest are waiting out in the wings, ready to take over once the inevitable purges get rolling.

The limits on the exercise of these powers, such as they are, are your age. Most of these guys start out old, and at best age slowly. Purging people, being accused of treason, and other activities of office will age you before your time, as you accumulate "stress points" - which is really just taking years off of your life one at a time. As you get older, you get more likely to get sick (which negatively impacts your job performance), keel over, and die.

The object of the game is to control the Party Chief. If you can do that three times, you win.

With one significant caveat (which we'll come to in a moment), I really enjoyed playing Kremlin again. Many of the games from this time period are not ones I'd generally go back to, but this is one where the fond memories were not spoiled by playing it again, and it's a game that holds up rather well to modern designs. It's fast-paced. There is always stuff to do. There is plenty of opportunity for planning and scheming, with both strategic and tactical depth to the gameplay. There is just a touch of negotiation if you want to play it that way, but like the recent Shadow of the Emperor, it's not really a negotiation game. There is little downtime. It's a very dynamic, fluid situation - one moment you're sitting pretty with control of the Party Chief and the KGB Chief, the next moment someone is declaring another couple points of influence on the KGB Chief, purging your supporters, and then sending you to Siberia after being on the wrong end of a spy investigation - but despite the chaotic situation I feel like I have control, generally. Since the vast majority of your influence is allocated up-front, it's possible to be unlucky and not ultimately control many politicians, but since there is significant incentive to hold influence in reserve and "undeclared", even if in the end you are hosed you'll probably have plenty to do along the way, and you won't know until the end most likely. And, of course, even though the system is very Teutonic, it's very flavorful. For me, this is definitely one of the successful mergings of German and American design sensibilities. A game I'd like to try to play again soon.

The only problem I had with the game, and it's admittedly non-trivial, is the tie-breaker victory conditions. The idea is to control the Party Chief during three - not necessarily consecutive - years (well, actually, the goal is to "wave" throughout the October parade, which gets harder if you are sick, but close enough). If nobody has done this by the end, you go into tie-breaker mode, which means that you play one more turn and whoever controls the highest-ranking politician, regardless of game performance before this point, wins. At this point, Kim leaned over to me and said, "I think this game might have a kingmaking problem". Ah, yeah. It's hard to imagine anyone controlling the Party Chief long enough to wave 3 times (out of 10 turns) in a 6 player game, and it seems a bit dicey in a 5-player game. This is the crux of the matter; if this tie-breaker were comparatively rare, I think it would be OK, as it favors players who put a lot of influence on low-ranking, and so late-game, politicians; but I'm not sure it's rare enough with large numbers of players. I don't recall it being that much of an issue when we played in the late 80s, but I would have been playing with 4 primarily back then. Anyway, playing more turns is impractical, since most of the pool of politicians are going to be dead or in Siberia at this point. A better solution should not be beyond the wit of man, though; I'd suggest that the "bonus" turn should be ditched and if nobody has waved three times at the end of turn 10, the player who has waved the most should win, and if there is a tie, the tied player who holds the highest ranking politician should win. It's not perfect either, but I think it would be a better solution than the somewhat arbitrary way its done now.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Black Vienna

Normally, I'm not a big fan of deduction games. It reminds me of those old standardized test questions they used to ask (maybe they still do) to make sure you came from the right side of town: "Alex lives next door to Fred. Fred is friends with the girl in the red cloak. The person three doors down from the guy with the brown coat blah blah blah ... Who lives in each house on the block?". The key to answering these questions, it seemed to me, is not being able to reason, but having been told how to set up the grid into which you can plug the data that will allow the answer to fall out. Or that's what it took for me, anyway. A lot of deduction games seem to fall into this category for me: if I could just figure out where I could find the correct spreadsheet and note-taking technique on the internet, I could be as good as anyone else.

Of course, this simplifies the situation in many cases, possibly to ease the fact that I'm not very good at these games. Still, usually if there is a game in there, it's about picking the right question to ask, not the process of deduction itself. The few deduction games I like usually have something else going on. I like Coda, because there is a little bit of bluffing in with the deduction, and because the pain is over quickly. I also like Schwartzarbeit; since you can't take notes, the memory aspect is almost as important as the deduction, and you have to make some choices about what to try to remember and what to let slide. By contrast, I really disliked Code 777, which seemed to me a classic spreadsheet game designed simply to make your brain explode. Maybe entertaining as a puzzle, but not much of a game.

But now I can add a new game to the list of deduction games I like, Black Vienna.

The basic idea is there are 27 spies, A-Z plus Ö. These are distributed amongst the players, with the remainder left in a pile off to the side. You are, of course, trying to figure out who is in the leftover pile. The questions are a series of cards with three letters on them, and you have a couple of these cards available from which you must choose one to give to another player. That player then must tell you how many of those letters he or she has in their hand. If the answer is one or more, he or she marks the card with the corresponding number of chips, and the card is now fixed. Otherwise, it can subsequently be re-asked to another player.

It's still a game that is largely about effective note-taking, but there is enough flexibility and enough decision-making challenge in figuring out what the right question is and who to ask it that I enjoyed it. The deduction is also not straightforward, and it can take quite a few questions before you get even one solid piece of information. It's a once-or-twice-a-year type game; not a great classic, but pretty fun for what it is, and while not a simple game it's not so much of a brain-burner as to turn off people who aren't seriously into this sort of thing.

The only real flaw in the game is that it really cannot handle mistakes. If at any point someone says 1 when they meant 2, this can cause the game to explode catastrophically, as backtracking on all the implications of even one erroneous response can be difficult enough that it might be easier to toss the game and start again. I mention this only so that, if you ever play, you make sure that everyone at the table is clear that they need to be really, really sure when they respond.

In our game, I actually got wiped out by an error very late in the game ... it only took our player a minute or so to realize he had screwed up, but it was a critical question and by the time the error was discovered I had already made so many cascading deductions that backing out at that late date was more work than I wanted to put in. But at that point I had realized I wasn't going to win anyway, so I wasn't unduly disturbed, and still enjoyed the game. One I would definitely play again.

Black Vienna is long out of print, but you can find the rules here, and a template for all the required cards is available on BoardGameGeek.