Saturday, February 11, 2006

Euro Roundup

Beowulf: I have a reputation as a bit of a contrarian, something which I find a bit overblown. For the majority of games, the difference between me and the online "conventional wisdom" is usually just a matter of degrees (I think Puerto Rico is very good, for example, but nowhere near the second coming; I'm not a huge Princes of Florence fan, but I do think it's a good game; I think Caylus is good but nothing spectacular; and so on). There have been a few larger exceptions, notably Shadows over Camelot (which I didn't like much at all) and War of the Ring (which was at best OK), but I never felt like I was seriously out on a limb.

In the case of Beowulf, though, the yawning chasm between me (easily the best game of 2005 and one of the best games of the last 5 years) and BoardGameGeek (overall rank of 1042nd) is arresting, even if you factor in that other critics have had nice things to say about the game. Am I missing something here? Seriously, I do worry about this. There is this shadow in the back of my mind, like the next time I play, whatever it is that all those BoardGameGeek raters see will suddenly become apparent to me, and I'll have to retract all the nice things I said.

It hasn't happend yet, though, and it's comfortably past the 10-play mark. Every time I play it, it's a facinating and exciting game. Everyone I've played it with has liked it. Nobody I've played it with has out-and-out disliked it, which is saying something these days. Needless to say, there are no retractions in the works.

I'll just focus on one thing here, and that is the luck complaint. Setting aside the question of just how much luck there is for a moment, one of the neat things is that Beowulf seems to stay robust as a game in the face of bad luck. A legitimate complaint about Settlers is that if your numbers don't come up, you've got nothing to do because you've been cut off, all the good settlement numbers are gone, and the game just isn't fun. That's occasionally true (although rarer than you might think, given the amount of whining sometimes going on), and this is only palatable because the game is short. Anyway, this is a key bit of brilliance in Settlers; it would have been so easy to drag it out into a much bigger game.

In Beowulf, if you run into a buzz-saw of bad luck on the risks ... you get scratched a lot. However, you still have cards and choices and can more or less fully participate in the game. When it's done, if you came in second, you can say "hey, I did pretty well considering how badly I did on the risks" (I recommend saying it only to yourself, however). You're never out of it from a participation standpoint. That, and, like Settlers, the game is short at 45-60min.

Hacienda: I think I'm maybe 15 games in on Hacienda, and I find it's slowing down a bit. I still like it a lot, but I think it's time to break out that map generator to try to give the game a bit of variation. I'm not a huge fan of the basic, symmetric map other than for introductory purposes; too bad Hans im Gl├╝ck couldn't have given us a slightly more interesting map instead. Given the dry theme and lack of large-scale variability, I think finding a few more good maps will be key in extending the game's life beyond the 20-play mark.

Wings of War: Burning Drachens: For me personally, Wings of War is a game that has never quite managed to deliver on the potential I thought it had, although I am still fond of it. The dogfights in Famous Aces were cool but not endlessly replayable, then Watch Your Back! took forever to come out and didn't have great scenarios. But Burning Drachens is cool. Having that large, fixed target (the Balloon) and anti-aircraft guns adds a lot of interest to the maneuvering. And the scenarios seem somewhat better thought-out. You don't even need previous sets to play, although they'll help for bigger games.

Memoir '44: Eastern Front: My biggest (although not only) complaint about Memoir '44 was the egregiously unbalanced scenarios. You'd sit down to play Omaha Beach, and when it was done it felt like it was a waste of time given the virtually pre-ordained results. It has been a relief then to play four scenarios from the Eastern Front expansion and have them all be reasonably tense and closely-run. The game is still hugely random of course, so whether or not it is interesting can depend a lot on drawing somewhat reasonable cards, but still, the new expansion has revived my interest in the game. It's never going to be a great game for me, but it is one that I can enjoy in the right spot.

Rumis: I first played Rumis last year, and I thought it was OK, but nothing I'd be remotely inclined to play instead of Educational Insights' other, higher-profile game, Blokus. That time we played on one of the "giant blocks" map. Having now played it on a step-pyramid board, I have to say I liked the game a lot more. For those who haven't played, Rumis is sort of a 3d Tetris game, where you are dropping blocks onto the playing surface. Each time you play a block, you have to play it so that it touches one of your existing blocks along at least one face. The object is to have the largest number of visible faces (when looking down) at the end of the game.

When you're just filling in a giant 8-height square block, everything played in the first half of the game is just going to be paved over, so for me there was a sense of pointlessness to the early game, a jockying for late-game position that wasn't all that interesting. With the step-pyramid layout, though, where the first column is height 1, second height two, and so on, the game was much more consistantly interesting. With maximum-height scoring positions available almost all the time, you always had a tension between locking in points now and risking getting completely locked out of later rows if you don't have enough block faces to play against on later turns.

It's still not the sort of game I would buy (I don't own Blokus either, even though I do like it; I sometimes wonder what my favorite game I don't own is, and Blokus is certainly a candidate). But it was definitely more enjoyable that it had been on first inspection, and I would certainly play again.

Bolide is a new race game from Ghenos Games, an Italian company. The basic idea is pretty simple: each turn you move your car. After moving, you place your "inertia" marker ahead of you on the track by exactly however much your car moved. So if you moved ahead 4 spaces and changed lanes once to the right, your "inertia" marker will be 4 spaces ahead and one space to the right. Next turn, you can then move your car to anywhere within two spaces of your inertia.

While easy to state, this can be a bit confusing to play – but once grasped, it's really neat. No longer are you just taking a turn at or below the maximum speed rating, but you actually have to figure out how to get your momentum going in the right direction and manage your way through the entire turn as you get your inertia going in the new direction.

The core idea here is really, really clever. But there is a showstopper: the game is way, way, way too long. One lap took us 2 hours and change, and the game really is balanced for two laps. We decided that there was no way we were investing 4 hours in the game and called it after one. Even if you played with the timer and forced people to move quickly, I see no way to bring the game down to the 60 minutes or so that would be acceptable. The one idea here, regardless of how clever it is, just simply can't justify the game's length. For Bolide to have a shot, it would need to bring the play time way down, and ideally add a second idea.