Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thurn & Taxis, Palazzo, To Crown a King, Curse of the Dark Pharaoh

Thurn & Taxis has fallen into the niche for me that I expect Ticket to Ride falls into for other gamers: it's short, it's very easy to teach the rules and for players to grok, and it's not frustrating. When you lose, it's often as much about card distribution as tactical errors, so once you've gotten your head wrapped around that, it's pretty non-threatening (and I should say, this is not necessarily a bad thing). It's a nice compromise game, everyone seems to enjoy it at least a bit, you never have to worry seriously about the rules, and there are definitely tactics and trade-offs to play which makes it an engaging game.

I think where Thurn & Taxis scores for me over Ticket to Ride is in the sense of overall game balance. I realized last time I played Ticket to Ride: Europe that each ticket had a scoring value that was simply equal to the number of trains you needed to play to complete it. So a ticket that required two six-lengthed segments and a ticket that required six two-lengthed tunnel segments would score exactly the same endgame points - 12. Obviously, the route with two six-length segments is vastly preferable; it requires many fewer turns to play, playing the routes themselves scores substantially more points, and is at less risk of being cut off. Accumulating two lots of 6 cards of a given type is somewhat more difficult than acquiring 6 lots of 2, but not nearly more difficult enough to cover the spread. Ultimately, the total number of cards required to complete a route is almost the least-useful indicator of the difficulty of building it. This significant imbalance in the worth of the ticket cards is what leads me to the greatest irritation with Ticket to Ride.

Thurn & Taxis has a fair amount of luck as well, but it doesn't feel so debilitating to me. In Ticket to Ride, if you get a lousy draw of tickets you know you're hosed in a pre-determined sort of way. In Thurn & Taxis, all the points are on the table, everyone has the same options, and it just feels a lot less constricting to me, and so more fun.

All of this doesn't add up to anything that exactly takes my breath away, however. It's familiar, it's comfortable, its fun, but it's also still a very moment-to-moment game, a game of taking advantage of opportunities which present themselves while trying to do a touch of short-term planning, albeit short-term planning that could be immediately invalidated by the flow of the cards. The contrast with Blue Moon City in this respect is sharp. I think the reason I find Blue Moon City to be the far more engaging game is because the world of Blue Moon seems more tractable. It's still a short, straightforward game, but with Blue Moon City I get a much greater sense of trying to bend the game to my will rather than just sitting around waiting for the Pilsen or Lodz card to show up. I feel like I have a large range of options, and I'm trying to figure out what's best, as opposed to what works at all. Clearly, this is not an absolute thing; sometimes Blue Moon's cards can be constraining as well, when you just really can't build that brick that you desperately need because you don't have that color, or any white, or any green, or a pair of brown - but in general, Blue Moon City gives a much greater sense of interacting with the world and with the other players, instead of just making judgments about the immediate tactical situation the game presents you with.

I'm actually not as strident a critic of the Spiel des Jahre as you might think, given that I have a general (but far from absolute) preference for more substantial games. There have been a few anomalous picks in recent years that leave you scratching your head, including Niagra and Torres, but in general I think they do a pretty good job. Recent choices that gamers have disliked but I was comfortable with were Mississippi Queen and Via Paletti, and while I'm not enamored of Carcassonne or Alhambra, those choices made some sense. And the advantage of being the Spiel des Jahre is that you have a 20+ year history and a track record of good choices to fall back on. But this year's choice of the extremely well-executed by not exactly inspiring Thurn and Taxis over the much more imaginative Blue Moon City pains me. In past years, you could always fall back on "well, they're going for the family niche, so what do you expect", but this year Blue Moon City and Thurn and Taxis are so close together in so many ways (game length, complexity, general accessibility) except that Blue Moon City is so much more interesting, the choice is particularly aggravating. Personally, I find this year's selection virtually indefensible. This is not to say that Thurn und Taxis is a bad game; far from it. It's rather good. It's just that Blue Moon City is a genuinely remarkable game.

Palazzo: This game has been coming out more of late, I think in large part due to the fact that it's good with 3 or 4 and it's reasonably short, and it's really been growing on me. Of course I've always thought it was good, but when it was new I was more drawn to the somewhat more unusual Tower of Babel, which came out at about the same time. While I like Tower of Babel quite a bit, I think Palazzo will ultimately be the game with more staying power.

I think the reason Palazzo has done so well is that it's found a good spot in terms of randomness. Buildings come out quickly, and the game provides a pretty good range of tactical challenges and evaluation problems, but the phasing of the deck means that the overall flow and pacing of the game remains familiar. The game never breaks down because stuff came out in a wacky order, a la the Power Plants in Power Grid. Certainly one of the reasons Knizia is such a great designer is because he can reliably and expertly perform this balancing act: enough randomness to provide variability and replayability, but not so much that the game loses coherence.

Um Krone und Kragen: While I don't have anything terribly insightful to say about this game, I wanted to mention it because it's become a virtual staple of the gaming diet around here. It's short, it's simple, it's fun, and it has that addictive quality of "just one more game". There is a little awkwardness at first as you get a feel for the cards, but once you get past the initial hurdle (and it'll only take one game, probably), it plays very smoothly.

Arkham Horror: Curse of the Dark Pharaoh: Ah, what to say on this most conflicted of games, Arkham Horror. For now, let me just bemoan the proliferation of house rules. Now, I know Arkham Horror is like a house rules vacuum, sucking ideas into itself - especially since out of the box, the game didn't seem to work at all outside of a sweet spot of maybe 3 or 4 players. But now you've got some people playing house rules, some people playing with the official errata, and things get confusing. Normally house rules don't bug me, because I can think about them and understand what's going on and fairly judge whether it's a reasonable idea or not. But Arkham Horror is a big, complex game which I don't own, so when I sit down to play, I can't fairly judge whether the house rule being proposed is sensible. And then when the game is over, and if that particular instance had serious problems, it's a hard call to figure out if the house rule was the culprit, or if the game just sucks.

I am reasonably certain that Arkham Horror does not suck, at least. I want to like it a lot more than I actually can though - once again I got to spend the first 45 minutes of the game being able to accomplish precisely nothing because I got cursed, and any game where you reliably lose turns feels about 20 years behind the power curve. But there is a lot of good stuff in here too. Although Mike Siggins complained about it, I think the cooperative game does work, and a team of investigators that pools their assets, pays attention to their fellow team-members activities, and works together troubleshooting problems will do a lot better than investigators who just do their own thing. A lot of the flavor is respectable, if not top-tier, and while the game is probably ultimately more random than flavorful, it is still flavorful. The errata seems to have taken care of the scaling problems, although the fix is pretty blunt and I would still really not recommend the game for more than 5 players.

If you're going to play the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion, it seems like the way to go would be to use it in the "visiting exhibit" format where you use primarily the new expansion cards, which seems like it would give the ambiance a more focussed feel, which would be welcome. We played the "permanent exhibit" format where you just mix everything together, and that seemed to dilute everything unreasonably.

Last thing ... I've seen the question, "so what has ancient Egypt got to do with Lovecraft?" A fair question. First off, ancient Egyptian themes sell games, apparently. However, Lovecraft also wrote a short story for Weird Tales magazine called "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs". It was originally ghostwritten for Harry Houdini, who is the narrator of the story. Houdini was of course not his given name; before he legally changed his name to Harry Houdini, he was Ehrich Weiss ... a name which shows up several times in the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion, including as an Ally of the players. This was all rather nicely done, I felt.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Britannia, Fury of Dracula

Britannia is one of those classics from the 80s that is still popular today in some circles, but which I am inclined to label a "cult" classic. It wasn't bad for its day, but how well could it hold up in 2006? It's pretty long, pretty repetitive, and play tends to be stereotyped – or such was my recollection. But with Fantasy Flight doing a remake, and with my interest in British history, I was good for a game (one of the nice things about reprints is that it gets interesting older games onto the table when they probably would not be played otherwise, at all).

The good news on Britannia is that it actually does a lot right. In my recent posts I've been ranting about the various underlying problems with these free-form multi-player wargames (compound interest, turtling, pick-on-the-leader) that modern games like Twilight Imperium or Antike don't even seem to acknowledge the existence of, let alone try to solve. These games have to try to find some sort of balance point: free-form enough so that players feel they have some control, yet not so free-form that everyone just always guns for the leader and the winner is decided on the last turn.

Britannia hasn't found a perfect spot, but overall it has done a rather good job. The different and fairly specific scoring conditions for the many different nations (each player will control 4 or 5 throughout the game) means that the players have tactical problems to solve, but they aren't given free rein to wail on whoever they want to. An honest player is going to have a hard time justifying randomly picking on people, since it will generally be very detrimental to their chances. On the other hand, somebody else is almost always going to be occupying the terrain you want to hold, so there is always incentive for action. Very few nations (maybe the Welsh and Caledonians) are going to be able to sit on their hands and rack up points; everyone is always going to be impelled to act if they want to win. There are going to be times when you have a few options about where to get your points, and it will come down to who you think is winning, and that is reasonable and expected, but in general the game feels constructive – you are pursuing your own fairly specific goals instead of just taking down your opponents. I think later games that have developed or borrowed from Britannia, from Vinci to History of the World to 7 Ages, have missed the point of the original. In Britannia, the scripted arrival and departure of nations, and their specific scoring conditions, serve to give the game a sense of balance and direction.

The downside, of course, is that you can feel railroaded. Players in Britannia have fairly few strategic options. The Danes aren't deciding whether the south or north of England looks more promising; their tactical objectives are etched in stone. You are, for the most part, just going with the flow and solving tactical problems. That would be fine – the tactical problems are modestly engaging – but Britannia's ultimate problem is, of course, the length. Our game took a bit over 6 hours, and it felt like that was about how long the game is realistically going to take under anything but the best of circumstances – we made good progress and didn't dawdle. At 6 hours, Britannia is easily 2 hours too long. If we had been done at the four hour mark, I would have been happy – the game is flavorful, and the ebb and flow of the empires make for a game with some interesting variability. The Roman period has a very different flavor from the Saxon period and the Norman endgame. But it's just not quite enough, in my opinion. Given the choice, I'd take Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, 5-player classic Civilization, or Dune any day; they are similar-length, comparable-complexity games, but in those cases the game-play itself – the range of activities and tactical problems – is much richer and more interesting, so those games seem to be less repetitive, to maintain more interest right to the end.

On balance, I did enjoy Britannia – I think there is a lot of stuff to like in there, the game has its own unique historical flavor, and you could do a lot worse with even many modern games of this sort. If it had been a four hour playing time, I'd be ready to play again sometime soon. But it wasn't, and it didn't seem likely to ever get there given infrequent play. So unless one of my friends suddenly becomes a huge fan, I'll probably play it again in a year or two, and I'll enjoy it again then for the history and for the flavor, but it's not something that's ever going to hit the table with anything approaching regularity.

Last comment: in general, I like the new Fantasy Flight production. The counter illustrations perhaps err a bit too much towards artistry and so are a bit murky at times, but the overall effect is nice. My only complaint is the yellow board. What's the deal with that? Green would have been a better choice. I can only assume that nobody of Anglo-Irish extraction was involved in that decision-making process.

Sorry, no clever segue this time ...

Since I last wrote about Fury of Dracula, I've played it like 4 more times. One game went 4+ hours, and that was too long; the game had gotten pretty tedious by the end. But the other games have weighed in at 2.5 to 3.5 hours, and that's quite comfortable. Dracula has been hammered once, and won in a walk once, and the other two were very close. The Hunters can afford a few mistakes; Dracula cannot. Even one apparently minor screw-up can have dire consequences.

So, to update my previous advice for Dracula:
  • I previously said that you should avoid attacking. I will now temper that advice. You want to be very careful, yes; but there are definitely situations when it's worthwhile, at least at night: when you can maul an individual hunter, or where you can use your Escape (Bat) to break out of an encircling ring. Just try not to bite anyone who is too early in the turn order. If the Hunters can Hypnotise Godalming, the rest of them can gang up on you before you get a chance to move.
  • Once the hunters are hot on your trail, it's frighteningly difficult to shake them. About the only way to throw them off is to go to sea. So use sea movement, but use it sparingly. If you're at sea for too long, it becomes more apparent where you are going to eventually land, generally, and it costs you more blood. Also, being at sea has an unfortunate consequence: it can dramatically lengthen the game, since time stops and the hunters can't catch you until you land. Since this is time when you are doing nothing, but the hunters are gearing up, it is to be avoided. And try to make sure that your departure is late in the day. You'll be very vulnerable when you first debark, so if you've got a few turns of night to make a break for it, that'll help a lot.
  • In general, the game seems to progress through an early stage of them looking for you, through to a hot pursuit. If you can mature a New Vampire in the early game and then make a clean escape from their first round of pursuit, you should be in an excellent position to win.
  • Avoid the peripheries of the board. Eastern Europe is cool, but it can be badly constrained by Heavenly Hosts and Hallowed Ground. If the Hunters catch you there, England is a deathtrap. Wherever you go, it's about keeping your options open. Don't voluntarily limit your options (by, say, going to Ireland) unless you really think it'll throw the Hunters. I've found that starting in a peripheral location the Hunters haven't adequately covered (Eastern Europe, Italy, England) and laying down a New Vampire, then working towards the middle of the board is a good way to go. But it all depends on what the Hunters do.
  • The right encounter chits make all the difference. With that in mind, use Dark Call earlier rather than later if you've got a lousy hand (don't forget it can be used during the day). And if you have breathing space, don't neglect the Feed card either. It's one less location in your trail, and an extra blood or two will come in handy.

Fury of Dracula has held up quite well to a bunch of play in a short time, and I think it'll turn out to be a long-term keeper. It's a touch too long to be a regular, and I can see it getting a bit samey if you played every week, but definitely a winner when you're looking for a change of pace.