Monday, April 24, 2006

Australia, Doom: The Boardgame: The Expansion, McMulti, Big City

Australia: Despite what you may have heard from some quarters, I generally like games. Even weak games like Conquest of the Empire II, or games that don't personally appeal to me like Caylus, can provide some entertainment value for one game at least as I try to win, work out the systems, and try to figure out where it went wrong or what it's missing for me. Granted, I absolutely wouldn't play Conquest again, but once through, the process of playing it wasn't too bad.

Playing Australia, though, had me – for the first time in recent memory – absolutely bored me out of my mind. Not only did I not care about playing the game itself, I couldn't even be bothered to care why it was crashing and burning. I just wanted it to be over.

Part of this may just be that I've been taking a harder line against lower-quality games of late, so it was easier to think of what I could have been playing instead. But the main part is probably the dysfunctional theme. I rip on games from Colovini and Schacht for having tenuous or incidental themes – which they do, generally – but Australia goes way past this into having a theme which is positively tortured and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Lessons learned: a) add Australia to the list of "veto" games; b) the Ravensburger label is not targeted at people like me; c) it's time to reinforce that line again.

Doom: The Boardgame: The Expansion: I've had harsh things to say about Doom, in the main due to frustration with what might have been, given the fundamental underlying cleverness of the game. In light of this, I wanted to try the game with the new expansion.

All I have to say is: now we're talking. Finally! Most of the new stuff – the new monsters, equipment, map tiles, etc. – don't matter. The new "Deathmatch" and "Capture the Flag" methods of play hold no interest to me. What matters is that it looks like somebody actually spent some time thinking about the scenarios this time. No more 4-5 hour railroad jobs in which the marines are screwed and there is no ammo. We played an interesting scenario in about 2 hours which was closely run, with the marines pulling it out with only one "frag" left.

After playing through the new scenario, I went back to the book included in the original to review the scenarios there. Did anyone spend more than five minutes on those? It almost seems impossible that they had even been played before they were shipped, never mind playtested. Anyone with any experience with the game at all should have been able to look at them and tell you that they're going to take forever to play, there is way too little ammo, and as a result the marines are going to get slaughtered. Something went badly awry here in Fantasy Flight's process, and I'd be curious to know what it was.

Anyway, I still have some minor complaints about the game. The primary one is that the monster graphics on the reference cards and in the scenario book are too blurry and indistinct, especially once you're playing with the expansion. If you haven't played the computer game, or aren't that familiar with the boardgame, you're going to need to puzzle things out sometimes. The marine skill cards are much too variable, which as a result can screw up game balance, which is not good given the game's length. The "respawn" rules are hokey and can produce weird situations. And there is nothing in the system to prevent the invader from repeatedly pounding on a single marine, if there is someone with a particularly weak or strong skill card mix. But I still quite enjoyed playing Doom with the expansion, and look forward to playing again sometime. It actually got me curious about Descent: Journeys in the Dark. We'll see if that little bit of insanity passes.

McMulti: This is an old game which I play about once a year. It's rather clever and an obvious precursor to The Settlers of Catan, with dice rolls activating your production facilities to drill for oil, turn it into gasoline, and sell it to consumers and their gas-guzzling SUVs. It's a game I've always enjoyed, albeit in moderation. It is, after all, not very interactive – there is no trading, and very little competition. And it can run long. The fun comes in building your little oil-producing island empire and coping with the turns in the economy (which are very well-done) and random events, rather than competing directly with your fellow-players.

I think McMulti has been hurt for me personally by the fact that Settlers has now been out of primary circulation for a while amongst my friends. When Settlers was current, McMulti was a nice change of pace. With Settlers now being played rather infrequently, I just found myself thinking "you know, I'd rather be playing Settlers". Settlers is shorter, more elegant, faster-moving, and more fun, while retaining a lot of the same production management elements. The two aren't directly comparable games, but for me the elegance, pace, theme, and chaos of Settlers trumps the planning, math, theme, and chaos of McMulti. For the things that McMulti does better than Settlers, I think I'd rather play Schoko & Co.

None of which is to say that McMulti is a bad game. Far from it. Especially for its time. Even though I lowered my rating a touch, I still think it's a nice second-tier, "good in the right spot"-type game. It's just that the competition these days is so much tougher than it was 7-10 years ago.

Big City: This has been sitting on my shelf for ages, and it had been hovering in the back of my mind of late. I think it's been at least 5 years since I played, but I have fond memories of the game. So when Matt suggested it as a good three-player game, I jumped.

A sometimes-complaint back when the game was new was that the City Hall presented a problem. Playing it earned you no money, but substantially increased the values of surrounding plots of land, some of which probably belonged to other people. But, playing the City Hall was required in order to open up the game with more neighborhoods, streetcars, and special buildings.

So I decided that I was going to test this theory (even though I never quite believed it myself). I gathered up a few plots in one neighborhood, plopped down the city hall, followed by a business and a shopping mall, then cruised to victory. Now, I still think you could, in theory, see situations where nobody is going to want to play the City Hall, which might lead to a very truncated and unsatisfying game. But I think that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the game works quite well. Certainly with smaller numbers of players (2 or 3), there is nothing to worry about.

Big City is mainly a light, fun, thematic game in which you get to build a cool-looking city. There is a fair amount of luck, and any plans you might have are routinely thwarted by the Parks, Factories, and your opponents re-routing the streetcar. That said, however, you can plan, and the right mixture of looking ahead and opportunism is the route to success. You want to put yourself in a position to take advantage of opportunities. But you also want to be lucky. And for me, Big City finds a good mix of all these factors combined with a sensibly short playing time.

Theme can make or breaks a game like this, and Big City has very good theme. Certain plots of land are desirable for certain uses, and while it's not a simulation, you still find yourselves developing business districts, looking for ways to route the streetcar nearer to your properties, and looking out for undervalued real estate. And the wonderful plastic buildings certainly don't hurt.

I really enjoyed playing Big City again, and it'll easily keep its spot in my collection, even if I don't manage to play it again for another 5 years.

Final notes on Big City: definitely play with the original German rules, which are the "no branching streetcar lines" variant in the Rio Grande edition. I'd also suggest that 3 is probably the optimal number, and I don't think I'd play with 5. It would probably also be quite nice with 2.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Quick Wargame Quick Takes

Command & Colors: Ancients: I've been dragged kicking and screaming into this whole Command and Colors thing after Battle Cry left me irritated. Since I liked Memoir '44 well enough but it was a second-tier game for me, I didn't have much interest in Command & Colors: Ancients, even though I am a huge fan of the period. I ended up playing it during some downtime at GMT Games Day. 

Let me just say one thing: those dice are hideous.

Continuing along ...

I was actually pretty pleased with the feel of C&C:A. It's a more incremental game than Memoir '44 or Battle Cry, with things happening in slightly smaller chunks (combat is less lethal, in general, and more attritional because attacked units can damage their attackers) and in slower motion (most units capable of serious damage in close combat move only one hex per turn), all of which gives the game more time to develop, which I think is a good thing, more or less. Light troops skirmish and then use the evade rules to fall back before the main clash of arms. Finally we have a game in this series where the whole division of the battlefield into sectors (right flank, left flank, center) actually makes some kind of intuitive sense, and combined with some sensible command cards (order skirmishers, order cavalry) the game doesn't feel like it's leaning quite so heavily on minis and art for its theme. And the many classes of troops involved in ancient battles are nicely reflected with subtle and flavorful differences. All in all, for me this gives by far the best historical flavor of the Command and Colors games.

The cost, of course, is increased playing time and increased rules overhead. The added playing time is significant but not too bad, and it gives some of it back with a faster set-up time, given the lack of much terrain in most scenarios. The rules complexity is a bit more suspect, with a fair number of fiddly-type chrome rules. The question is whether or not all of this is justified in light of the fact that Command and Colors is, at its heart, a game that's more or less a luck-fest with some interesting choices that sometimes seem incidential. I am not quite decided, personally. For the moment, the balance works out in favor of the game because I like the flavor and the period, but I can see somewhere 10 games in, if and when it become clear that there just isn't that much in terms of strategy or tactics to the game, that the added fiddlyness would be unwelcome over the cleaner-playing Memoir '44 (and to be honest, Memoir '44 itself would never be mistaken for a Knizia in terms of design elegance).

The other question is, of course, the quality of the scenarios – an area in which Memoir '44 fell down in a large part. The one I played (Zama) was one of the bigger ones and seemed OK. Looking them over, I admit I am suspicious of the scenario balance. On this, though, only time will tell.

Ted Raicer's The First World War: The commentary on this one had led me to believe that it would probably suck, but that was not the case, and I modestly enjoyed my one play. That said, it wasn't great either, and it's a tough sell in light of the better stuff available.

The First World War is basically a game of bluff. You try to concentrate you armies at areas of enemy weakness and use concealed units and dummies to convince him not to attack in areas you are weak. That's kinda cool, but that's really all there is – once you've made your comittments at the beginning of each game-year, the rest plays out as rather luck-heavy with high-stakes single die rolls and pretty obvious moves, and a game that will go 3 hours if it goes the distance. It's not without a fun factor – pushing around the armies and watching them advance or retreat is kinda neat – but if I want to play a simple game of bluff and deception, I'll play Quebec 1759 or War of 1812 instead, both of which are much more complete packages. Or Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. If the First World War had great themeing, that might be another matter – but it doesn't.

So it's a game that certainly isn't terrible, but there are a lot of better light wargames to spend a couple hours on. As is often the case, I think it needed another idea. The stuff that's in there is okay, there just isn't enough of it. The game is too one-dimensional. Being rules-light doesn't mean you need to be idea-light also.

I should also mention that I found the map amazingly unattractive. Phalanx is known for their very high production values, and in many cases I'd agree (Revolution was amazing if played in good light, A House Divided and The Prince were both very nice, and most of the rest were at least above average in this category). But The First World War is unattractive in spots and overall is graphically ineffective, at best. Recent Phalanx games seem to have lost their edge in terms of physical attractiveness, without picking up any ground in terms of actual usability (which has always been a sore spot).

Monday, April 10, 2006


We were able to round up 5 players for our game, so we used the Western Extension Map, which adds Iberia and western North Africa. I like this configuration with 5 because it removes Egypt and Babylon from the game, and those nations are tough to play despite tremendous geographic advantages, because of their need to build 2 cities early which cripples their population growth. We ended up with Assyria, Thrace, Illyria, Iberia, and Africa in play, which worked out pretty well I thought. There isn't quite as much pressure on space as there is with the regular configuration – most of us were able to keep at least 7 cities up most of the time – but this didn't seem like a major deal.

Figuring out what number of players is the optimal number for Civilization is a little tricky. More players gives some fairly intense competition for Civilization cards since there are only 4 of each type, which is good. On the other hand, more players also seriously stresses the trading phase (as we shall see), as there seem to just not be enough cards to go around. Build too many cities, and you can get rather shut out as large numbers of stacks of commodities are depleted by the time it gets to you. You can throw in the expansion trade cards (Timber, Oil, etc.), but this isn't a particularly satisfactory solution either because it seems to add too many new cards to the mix, and it significantly increases the randomness of the game. That said, they do seem almost required for 7 because otherwise things are simply too sparse.

So at the end of the day, I think I can say that 7 players is definitely too many for classic Civilization. My recent plays have always been with 5, and I've been pretty happy with how well that has worked out. The trading part of the game seems extremely well balanced at that number. At 5-6 hours, the play time isn't unreasonable, and since the game increases in length almost linearly with the number of players, adding more can take it over the threshold from "long" to "unworkable". The only downside with 5 is that you lose the interesting competition for Civilization cards. An idea was floated during our game that when we play again with 5, we should play with only 3 of each regular Civilization card, 2 Mysticism, and 4 Democracy and Philosophy (although the rest of the Civics should have 5 available) to introduce more competition. I like that idea a lot.

Anyway, I enjoyed our game of Civilization, more than I expected to in fact, and I would happily play again anytime. I swore off Advanced Civilization approximately 10 years ago, and since that time I've only played classic Civilization intermittently, and it's taken me a while to unlearn all the things that Advanced Civilization taught me. It's amazing the number of my instincts that are still wrong. And each time I play again, I appreciate more of the subtlety and depth of the original. Heuristics that were simple and clear-cut for Advanced Civilization are all of a sudden grey and interesting again. I love it.

Take the point-value hurdles in the Late Iron Age. Each nation has certain point objectives they have to meet to win, varying from 1200 to 1400. These have to be met with values of civilization cards and hoarded trade goods. I had internalized the fact that these numbers simply don't matter; if you're going to win, you'll have to exceed them for other reasons anyway, so they make no difference when choosing nations. In our game, though, the player playing Iberia won when he could just barely amass enough points to pass by his 1200 point barrier while Assyria, who looked like he was cruising to an easy win, fell just short of his 1400 point target – even though he had a very strong mix of cards, having bypassed Mysticism and picked up very few cheapies like Pottery. In fact, all the barriers in the game (with the exception – for most people – of getting two cities to get out of the Stone Age) are tough, and a 1400-point box at the end is nothing to sneeze at. Even if you ace the Early Bronze Age by getting Architecture and, say, Astronomy, if let your guard down and have a bad round of trading and a Civil War, you can easily get hammered by the Late Bronze Age's requirement for 5 cards. It's great to see an empire-building game where a strong start doesn't give you a huge leg up in the middle game (it definitely helps, it's just not huge, that's all). You have to play well throughout. A corollary here is that getting hit with a lost step on the AST early is bad, but it's far from fatal. In our game, the only person not to be held up was the eventual winner, and it was a very closely-run thing. Of course, you don't want to get held up early if you can avoid it, but again ... it's not the kiss of death it has a reputation for being.

The other thing that impressed me this time was how well the trading worked. Sure, everyone says that the best part of Civilization is the trading, but playing it again, it was clear that both a) the trading is cool, and b) the way it feeds back into everything else in the game is also cool. There really aren't that many systems in Civilization – trading, city maintenance, taxation, civilization cards, calamities – and they all are interlinked, feeding back into each other in important, interesting and surprising ways.

But on the mechanics of trading itself, the simple way in which it works belies surprising depth. Commodities escalate in value in a geometric progression, where the value of n commodities of value x is x * n^2. So 4 Salt (value 3) are worth 3 * 4^2, or 48. There are 9 Salts available in the game, so Salt maxes out at 243 (although on any given turn, not all may be available of course). Each later commodity has one fewer available, so 8 Grains can be worth 256, 7 Cloths 245, 6 Bronze 216, and so on, up to 3 Gold for 81.

Obviously, there are some trade-offs here. Bronze doesn't go as high as Grain, but it gets there faster. The three commodities in the middle – Grain, Cloth and Bronze – are the most valuable, because they both have a high ceiling and appreciate rapidly. Spice (7) is cool, but with a maximum value of only 175, and with fewer people acquiring it due to the difficulties of maintaining 7 cities, it's somewhat less attractive. Salt maxes out at a big number, but it takes forever to get there (9 cards can be worth 243, but only 6 Bronze are worth 216). Also, because you can only hold 6 cards at the end of the round, being able to acquire 8 Salt will be rather painful because you will be forced to spend instead of holding out for the last one next round.

So you ideally want to be trading in Grain, Cloth, and Bronze. Not only do they represent good value, and partial sets are easy to save from turn-to-turn, but it's also not too hard to maintain the 6 cities required to generate them, so there should be plenty out there. But only three people can do this; if two of us are collecting Grain, and we split them, we will each have four grain worth a paltry 64, and will face tough decisions about continuing to hold them until the other is forced to make a purchase by the AST or other factors (thus ensuring ongoing Civil Wars until that time), making a swap that inordinately favors the other player, or cashing out now to buy something less than what we want but to at least get something and let credits and advantages accumulate. Meanwhile, someone who was working in the nominally less-useful Salt probably came out ahead. With 5 players, and only three commodities in the "sweet spot", there is considerable trading pressure.

Meanwhile, the basic incentive to trade is huge. If you and I each have a single Cloth and a Bronze, we both win big when we swap, regardless of who gets what. Because commodities appreciate so rapidly, you can't just sit there. The player who quibbles over five or ten points will be in trouble, because just making the deals is so important initially. So in that situation you should always ask for the Bronze (it's worth more, after all), but all other things being equal you should always take the Cloth and close the deal rapidly if push comes to shove, because moving quickly and scooping up a number of commodities before someone else has time to do the same, causing a painful split, is a very good idea. Just because you aren't playing with a recommended time limit on trading doesn't mean it doesn't pay to be fast. But the incentives to trade weaken dramatically as sets grow in size, because the appreciation right at the end is disproportionately large and so making reasonably fair deals is harder unless we're both closing out sets. Players invested in less-optimal Salt or Spice can extract very nice trades if they can hold out until they have the last Bronze someone is looking for, and players who are having a weak trading turn due to calamities and whatnot and are not expecting a big payoff until later can hold out and make life interesting. Recognizing when you have the strength to start aggressively collecting Bronze or Cloth, and when you should let others fight it out and try to cherry-pick some Spice or hoard Salt, holding your mid-ranking commodities until you can get a sweet deal, is a critical decision.

In addition, while keeping an eye on these mathematics of trading, you have to be aware of your board position. At a basic level, you don't want to be acquiring Spice so much if you know you're not going to have 7 cities next turn because you just drew the Civil War, and so your personal supply is going to dry up. But one also has to keep an eye on what you want or need to acquire, because it's easy to over-trade. There will usually be constraints on what you can buy, typically because you need to hit a target to pass out of an age, desperately need a technology like Engineering, Metalworking, or Agriculture which may not be available next turn, or need to acquire or wait for credits or pre-requisites to kick in (like acquiring Literacy, Law, and Democracy on sequential turns). It's a not-infrequent occurrence to trade heavily, pick up a 6th Bronze, and then realize you are unable to spend it. Given how much money you likely gave someone else to get it, this is very bad.

All this is the main reason I have qualms about the variant trade cards. By doubling the number of commodities in the "sweet spot" (adding Oil at value 4, Wine at 5, and Silver at 6), everyone can basically have their own commodity and the trading falls out in a fairly predictable way, with everyone monopolizing one type. Because the disincentive to trading someone the last couple good commodities that they need has been greatly reduced in most cases (because you can usually get a good one back, too), the balances seem to get messed up. In the original game, with fewer commodities, there is more pressure – and pressure is generally good. Granted, when playing with 7 players, you'll probably need the variant cards just to make up the numbers for dealing out cards each turn.

I could go on with the interesting things I discovered about Civilization getting to play it again, but time and space are limited, so I'll let you discover some of the rest for yourself. Suffice to say, my respect for this classic game did nothing but increase. Check it out.

Friday, April 7, 2006

Euro Quick Takes: Ostia, Jenseits von Theben, Elasund, Ursuppe, San Juan

Ostia: This is a new bidding game from Mayfair, Pro Ludo, and Stefan Risthaus. The advance word hasn't been great, but I'm a sucker for bidding games and Roman themes, and the price point ($25 retail) was pretty reasonable. It's a straight auction game: each turn you're dealt a hand of commodity cards, which you then pick one to save and then auction the rest off in pairs in once-around bidding. Everyone then secretly allocates the commodities they've bought either to the Senate (which brings victory points) or the Forum (which brings in money). Forum goods are worth more when the supply of that type (i.e., the number sold) is low, while the players who commit the most valuable goods to the Senate get VPs. The values of the goods the Senate wants are given on cards that are revealed a turn in advance. Or, you can invest money in warehouses that allow you to store goods from turn to turn.

Ostia was quite a pleasant surprise I thought. It's been compared by some to Medici, but I found it to be quite dissimilar: the secret and simultaneous allocations are clever and add some guesswork, and there is a nice tension between wanting to acquire diversity (for the Forum) and specific goods (for the Senate). You can plan a bit because what the Senate wants this turn and next turn are both visible, and the pressure on money seems right – money is tight, but not ridiculously so. The system is clean and plays well. It's probably just a little too long – the auctions get a touch samey because the stakes on any particular auction are never that great and don't increase as the game goes on, and so there are few opportunities for "power plays". But for me, it wasn't off by enough to be a big deal. I felt like I was learning interesting things about how the system worked throughout my game, and am looking forward to giving it another try.

So I liked Ostia. It works, it's a bidding game that is different, and while I doubt it'll be a long-term keeper, I'll get my $25 worth easily. To answer my original question, it feels like a Knizia from about 1996. Knizia's recent stuff, like Beowulf, Palazzo, or Amun-Re, are definitely much superior by almost any analysis. But Ostia isn't competing head-on with them, for me it's different enough to be worthwhile. I easily liked it better than Medici, although as time has worn on it Medici has admittedly become one of my least favorite Knizias, and Ostia is easily one of the best auction game from someone other than Knizia that I've played in some time.

Jenseits von Theben: It appears I may have to correct some of the things I said when I last wrote about this game. I complained at the time that the Congress cards were overwhelming and that the endgame didn't work. This was at least in part because we missed a rule, or at least I think we did: artifacts are supposed to count their face value in VPs at the end of the game. In my defense, the rules are not very explicit on this point. They mention it, but in a somewhat oblique way. Regardless, there is no question the game plays a lot better this way. The Congress cards are still too powerful in my opinion, but they are not overwhelming. The endgame is still rather weak, but it's not outright pointless. All good. Unfortunately, the exhibitions are now greatly de-emphasized, since the points for doing them are comparatively minor. This robs the game of some of its flavor; before we were desperately shuttling back and forth between digs and exhibits, with tons of pressure to find stuff and get back; now you just optimize your digs, spend the maximum allowable time, and if a well-timed exhibit comes along, that's an added bonus.

I guess what I'm saying here is that the game still creaks a bit, but played this way it's a much more satisfying experience, and instead of Jenseits von Theben being a few tweaks away from being functional, I can now see it is a being a few tweaks away from actually being good. As it is, I still wish it worked better, but it's a nice, flavorful game, very random but probably good for a couple plays – nothing to really set your world alight, but different and nice for a change of pace.

My previous post has been updated.

Elasund: This game has held up well to repeated play. The new variant buildings you can find online are a nice touch, and help vary the flavor of the game. I still like this one a lot; it's the best new Teuber game since Starfarers.

The thing I find funny about Elasund is that I now consider it a long game. A long game! Elasund is only about 90 minutes, which I would have considered an average-length or even a shorter game not that long ago. And really, Elasund does justify its length, and I think it'll come down with play. But Reiner Knizia has just been putting so much pressure on game length, with shorter games that pack a lot of gaming value into a smaller package. Beowulf is only 45-60 minutes. Palazzo, Ingenious, Tower of Babel, and Blue Moon are all games that provide a satisfying challenge and are played in comfortably under an hour. Throw in San Juan, Hacienda, and Louis XIV and it's tough being a 90+ minute game these days.

Ursuppe (now Primordial Soup): This is a game I've been wanting to get off the shelf again for ages, but have never had an opportunity to do so. Usually there is one person in the group who is not a fan, and I have a couple color-blind friends for whom this is probably the most egregiously color-blind hostile game ever made. But I was finally able to play.

Ursuppe is a game I had pegged in my mind as a second-tier classic. A game that's not totally compelling, doesn't provide the complete package, but does enough well to get long-term replayability: it's got the fun empire-building type thing with the genes, an excellent theme, and great art.

Having played it again, I must confess to some mild disappointment. It still does have all these nice features, but almost ten years on, the flaws in the game now bug me more. There is a real problem with being able to catch the leader; those who get ahead, stay ahead, generally. Some of the genes are definitely mis-priced; Streamlining, even at 5 BPs, is a great deal, while Defense at 4 BP is not so much. There is also a huge rules ambiguity, with the interaction of Struggle for Survival, Holding, and Escape being totally unclear (and a situation which is not exactly uncommon).

It's still a fun game, just one of somewhat more limited appeal than I remembered, I guess. I still like it, and I think if alea remade it and balanced out the gene cards as well as they did the buildings in Puerto Rico, maybe it could live up to my fond memories. As it is, it'll stay on my shelf, but probably come out less often than it's successor, Urland, which always surprises me by being better than what I remember.

Puerto Rico and San Juan: When I did my year-end article, I commented that San Juan had gotten a ton of play for a long time but had started tapering off a bit of late. It seems to be back. I've played half-a-dozen times in the last month or so, and I found myself asking, "OK Chris, when are you going to break down and recognize this game as an all-time classic?" The answer would be, apparently, right now. I must have played San Juan at least 50 times and it's still fresh. So I went over to BoardGameGeek and kicked my rating up to a 10. By contrast, when I played Puerto Rico again recently, I found myself saying afterwards "you know, I don't really have any desire to play this again". That's probably an overstatement – I'd play again, although I'd probably insist on some of the variant buildings – but still.

Now, part of the problem here is that San Juan and Puerto Rico were on vastly different power curves. We literally played Puerto Rico absolutely to death when it came out. One of the guys in our group at the time wanted to play nothing but, and we played at least a game a week for a long time. San Juan has never been subjected to that kind of stress. On the other hand, San Juan has now comfortably passed its second anniversary with a lot of play, and I still like it a lot. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, barely creaked out of its first year.

What can I say? I'm not going to call San Juan a technically superior game. But it does capture a lot of the good stuff from Puerto Rico in a vastly more streamlined package, and the vagaries of the card draw both make for more excitement and keep it from becoming stale the way Puerto Rico ultimately did. For my tastes, San Juan finds a much happier balance point amongst time and effort investment, variety, play-balance, and fun. Maybe we can get some expansion cards for San Juan, and maybe add a 5th player. It might convince everyone to go out and replace their worn-out basic set while they're at it.