Wednesday, January 28, 2009

15 Things I Like About Glory To Rome...

  1. Price
  2. Portability
  3. Alternate usage of cards i.e. material, role, building
  4. Interaction between common pool-stockpile-vault and that between clientele-influence-vault
  5. Balanced imbalance of building attributes
  6. Multiple conditions/routes to victory e.g. acquiring influence, stashing the vault, forum strategy
  7. Card combos
  8. Decent scalability
  9. Reasonable game time
  10. Depth
  11. High replayability
  12. Theme
  13. Fun!
  14. Highly interactive
  15. My gaming partners love it!

Deep Games With Straightforward Rules

One of the greatest dilemmas I face in gaming is finding games simple enough to introduce to casual/non-gamers yet deep enough to keep myself entertained.

My gamer friends constitute a small group and unfortunately can be counted on one hand. Thus I face the situation rather regularly of having to play games with inexperienced gamers who would likely not play again in the near future.

While the typical gateway games such as Carcassone or Ticket to Ride are often recommended in these situations, I find them too light for my own tastes and have little interest in playing them, much less introduce them especially if I be joining in. Simple card games such as No Thanks! and Saboteur I'm happy to introduce but only if I have no intention of joining in and are leaving them to their own devices once I finish teaching the game. 

As you may have guessed, I don't own the prior category of games and have one or two of the latter category to entertain friends when there are large groups over at my place.

Games that I do possess that seem to fit my criteria are Settlers of Catan and Stone Age. I suppose they do fit the category of gateway games but contain sufficient depth to keep me interested. Nonetheless, they are not exactly games that non-gamers come to terms with quickly on their first play. 

For example, while Settlers have often been touted as the de facto gateway game, the rules can be quite a handful (even after I have become quite seasoned at explaining them) and new players cannot grasp the various alternative uses of their resources as quickly. They often require suggestions from experienced players on how to utilize their available resource cards efficiently lest they end up hoarding and left to the mercy of the robber.

I suspect Stone Age will ironically be the better alternative in such situations despite being often viewed as a heavier game. The rules appear rather straightforward in my mind although so far I have only introduced it to experienced gamers. 

*Makes a mental note to reach for it next time I find myself in such a situation*

I don't foresee any problems with new gamers grasping the mechanics although they may not do as well as they are unlikely to recognize the importance of certain civilization and building cards on their first play. Nonetheless, I suspect the experience will likely be more enjoyable for them as compared to Settlers though both are still excellent choices.

Ideally, I'm looking for games with the same weight as the above 2 games yet with more straightforward rules or games with a similar level of rules but provide deeper game play.

The best game arguably I have come across that fits what I'm looking for is the Princes of Florence. It is a game I personally enjoy tremendously and rank amongst my top 5 games. Yet, new gamers I have introduced it to have without fail enjoyed it on their first play and commented they would be keen to try it again. They are also able to be relatively competitive on their first play with a little advice on the relative value of the auction items in the first round. I suppose the minimal player interaction allows them to have a real go without being further disadvantaged by superior gameplay by seasoned gamers.

I made a post on BGG asking for suggestions and so far the ones that intrigue me are Chicago Express and Ages of Empire III: The Age of Discovery. An added boon are their short play times which would be an added plus since new gamers are unlikely to attempt games over an hour long. Unfortunately both games are relatively more expensive (closer to US$40 at various online retailers) and I'm unlikely to take the plunge unless I've personally tried them.

Monday, January 26, 2009

CNY 1st Day Session Report: The One Where We Tried 2-Player Stone Age

Tried to garner a few friends for games today despite it being 1st day of CNY but in vain. Ended up playing some games with Van nonetheless - it had been some time since we played games on our own. 

We each picked one game: she chose Glory to Rome and I, Stone Age since I heard good things about its scalability and I was keen to try it out with just 2. 

Glory to Rome definitely scales better with 3-5 but I find that it plays out less predictably with 2 than Race for the Galaxy, which has made me increasingly unwilling to play it with 2. It always seems choices eventually boil down to a Consume (x2 VP) and Produce towards the latter rounds. That appears to be the predominant strategy to win with 2.

Enough rambling, back to GtR. I took an easy win as Van struggled to complete her buildings. An early sewer (put order cards played in stockpile after turn) put me in a good position and my stockpile was soon flooded. I eventually managed to build the Wall (every 2 materials in stockpile count as 1VP at the end of the game), and both my vault and influence easily trumped Van's. Clearly she isn't enjoying the game as much as before although I suspect with a little more efficient hand management she should find herself much more competitive.

As mentioned, it was our first play of Stone Age with 2 and Van obliterated me with a score of 338 to 293. I was already expecting higher scores especially after coming across a couple of 2-player session reports of Stone Age on BGG. 

I maxed out my tools and obtained all the 8 tool multipliers available. Alas, Van was playing a much more impressive game and she not only maxed out her food production and 'meeples' but also had more buildings than me. She also managed to obtain all 8 different types of the green civ cards while I ended up with 7, the last being at the bottom of the deck and was unobtainable as the game ended with a failure to refresh the civ cards.

It was clear that a more diversified strategy was probably necessary with fewer players.

Going visiting with Crusade friends tomorrow, hopefully I will be able to entice them to try a couple of games at the different houses.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chris Farrell Is Back!

I have always enjoyed reading Chris's boardgaming insights - it doesn't hurt that his no.1 game is one that I myself rate highly.

He hasn't updated his blog in awhile and it was a pleasant surprise to see him putting in a couple of new entries in the new year. His writing as usual is impeccable. I particularly enjoyed how he described our gripes about games in a recent post:
Every complaint people make about games ultimately boils down to a problem with the decision-making (i.e., too much luck = my decisions don't make enough of a difference; too much downtime = I make decisions too infrequently; brain-burner = the decisions are too hard; the theme is a paste-up = the decisions I make don't seem authentic; and so on).
I can identify particularly with the first two. Most of the games that put me off have either too much randomness or tend to be AP prone. 

Luck is fine as long as it allows you to make meaningful decisions on the basis of what 'fate deals you'. In other words, it allows a degree of luck/risk management. These games force me constantly to decide whether the potential rewards are worth the required risk to be borne. 

For example in Settlers of Catan, I have to decide whether I should bear the risk of hoarding cards or make a purchase by trading directly with the bank. In Ra, an assessment of my relative position will determine if I take the risker option of waiting out my opponents or go for the conservative approach by taking the early auctions. 

Other games that fall in this category are Stone Age and Kingsburg. Despite the presence of dice, a stronger player will more often that not triumph over weaker players. Furthermore, dice rolls tend to average out over the course of the game.

Games that are AP prone are frustrating. The game feels drawn out and people get restless. I don't mind so much if I can ponder my next move while waiting for others but if my next move is highly dependent on the actions of others, the waiting is doubly gruelling. 

One example is Mr. Jack. People claim it moves along quickly but somehow I never feel it moves along quite quickly enough. Despite the interesting mechanics, the tendency for AP is a game-breaker for me and I'm as guilty as the next player for contributing to it. But then again, I've never been able to think that far ahead in Chess so maybe it's just me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What % Of The Top 100 Games Have You Played?

Came across another interesting post on BGG. It basically explores the percentage of the top 100 games on BGG played.

I have sadly only attempted 25%, with a couple only on BSW or a computer client (e.g. Dominion, San Juan, Modern Art). Interestingly though, I have tried 8 of the top 10 and own 4 of them.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cutting Your Collection To 26 Games

Came across an interesting geeklist on BGG recently - it basically involved selecting a game from each group of 10 from the BGG rankings i.e. one game from games ranked 1-10, another game from the games ranked 11-20, and so on. This was the directed means for selection of 25 games preferred for one's personal collection while the 26th and final game could be any game beyond the top 250.

My repertoire of games attempted were somewhat limited compared to others at the geek but I gave it a try nonetheless. Below were my choices plus some brief comments:

1. Agricola - While El Grande is my favourite game from the top 10, Agricola's scalability ensures that it is likely to see more plays and thus a more worthy addition.

2. Princes of Florence - Does not scale well but only game I have tried on that 2nd list apart from Pandemic. PoF is one of my favourites nonetheless and I'm glad to see it in a list without any strong competitors.

3. Ra - My limited game experience really shows for it's the only game on the list I've tried. But based on the votes on the geeklist, it seems most agree. Unsurprisingly too since it scales incredibly well and provides an enjoyable experience for its length.

4. Settlers of Catan - A tough choice. Would have gone with Stone Age based on what I prefer playing currently but couldn't leave out the game which started it all for me. Furthermore, it remains one of my wife's favourite games.

5. Galaxy Trucker - I enjoy Taj Mahal tremendously but it comes across rather abstract for some. But Galaxy Trucker gets the vote for its unique mechanics.

6. San Juan - Not sure if this would be my choice if I have tried the rest of the games, but amongst the ones I've, this one takes it for the depth it brings relative to its game length.

7. Battle Line - My favourite pure 2-player game.

8. Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation - Only one I've tried.

9. All untried.

10. Citadels - Interesting mechanics which I enjoy especially with 3.

11. Thurn & Taxis - Another list which I'm quite sure I would pick something else if I had an opportunity to try the rest of the games.

12. CATAN 3D Collector's Edition - Ok I cheated, but there was no way I was going to pick Lost Cities.

13. Pass

14. Bridge? - It was either that or Bohnanza and I really didn't enjoy Bohnanza that much the only time I tried it.

15. Keythedral - Only one I've tried. I also ended up trading the copy I owned which tells you how I felt about the game.

16. Kingsburg - Same, only one I've tried. Not too bad but haven't felt the urge to buy it.

17, 18, 19. Pass.

20. Glory to Rome - Easy choice, probably my favourite game of all at the moment.

21. Mahjong - No Thanks! is a wonderful game to have in the collection to entice non-gamers but there's nothing like a game of Mahjong if you can find 4 enthusiasts.

22. Chess - Only one I've tried but I have a suspicion I'll enjoy Settlers of Catan Card Game if I just managed to get my hands on it.

23, 24. Pass.

25. Blokus Trigon - Only game I've tried. Sold my copy off cause while the premise was interesting, just didn't manage to hold my interest after a few plays.

26. Sorry! Sliders - Never tried it but this gets my vote simply for being the game I can't wait to get my hands on.

Going through the exercise revealed how little I knew of games outside the top 100. Even for games within the top 100, there were quite a few I hadn't tried. Hopefully in time to come, that would change...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

11 Jan 2009 Session Report: The One Which We Played Settlers!

Mun joined us this afternoon for games. Hopefully, we will be able to get a regular session on Sunday going.

For some reason, we have been playing the same games for the past few sessions and today was no different. However, we managed to squeeze a game of Settlers in between Glory to Rome, Agricola, Stone Age and Galaxy Trucker.

I gained the upper hand in Glory to Rome again and took the game with 21 points to Van's 15 and Mun's 10. I'm increasingly convinced that the key to the game is efficient hand management. I make it a point to avoid 'thinking' (drawing of cards) unless the 'think' action reaps me at least 2-3 cards.

Van complained that the game ended too abruptly with me claiming the last 2 in-town sites to end the game. I took a quick lead in building completions and decided to end it while I was ahead. While I agree that it is rather easy to end the game by a building spree, that isn't much different from the use of the Catacombs (which ends the game immediately). I guess part of challenge of the game is ensuring that you are consistently in or near the lead so that you can benefit by initiating the endgame or discourage your opponents from taking the risk to do so prematurely.

We proceeded to Agricola at my request though I'm sure the other 2 were keen to play it too. I decided to use the Interactive deck this time round since we concurred that the 'Wet Nurse' occupation in the K deck seemed somewhat overpowered. We drafted in the same means as before and we were off to our farms! The game ended with Van and I tied with 31 points while Mun had 23.

Cards in the I deck were comparatively underpowered to the ones in the K deck. Van and I were struggling to feed our family members for most part of the game. Mun managed to obtain a generous supply of food but failed to extend/renovate her house and grow her family which proved costly. 

Mun and Van indicated a preference for the K deck, which is understandable because part of the thrill of Agricola is seeing a well-built up farm. With the weaker cards, it always felt there were many things to do yet too few actions to complete them. Nonetheless, the I deck while weaker came across more balanced than the E deck, which had a couple of comparatively stronger cards the last time we tried it. Perhaps we will attempt the drafting variant with the deck in future.

Van requested for the evergreen Settlers of Catan next and it was nice to take it out for a game since it hadn't seen many plays since we purchased the 4th edition. I guess we have also leveled up in terms of the weight of games we play but nonetheless it was nice to revisit the game which kindled our interest in euros every once in awhile. Van won the game with a victory card draw for her final point. I made the mistake of not robbing her of the longest road when I had the chance and instead opted to build an extra settlement instead.

The game played quickly as we typically play the tournament variant on BSW where we start the placement with a settlement/road, followed by a city/road and finally and extra road. This is my preferred variant as the build-up with the basic two settlements drags the game out and the lack of resources at the start feels rather tedious.

Mun finally got her win during our play of Stone Age taking it convincingly with a score of 178 while Van and I took up the rear with 153 and 147 respectively. Despite obtaining all 8 different green civilization cards, I was caught unawares by the civ card deck running out and ended up without an opportunity to trade in my 7 remaining gold for a corresponding building. It seemed that we drew down on the civ deck particularly quickly today leading to the quick game.

The last game of the night was Galaxy Trucker. As it was late, we only managed two ships - boards 2 and 3. Mun was substantially slower than both Van and I during ship building which was allegedly due to brain exhaustion (*wink*). She had to abandon the second journey due to the loss of all her crew. I pipped Van by a mere 8 points thanks to me taking advantage of the numerous slaver and abandon crew events in accumulating cosmic credits.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Battlestar Galactica Primed for Take-off...

In the end the inevitable happened - I put in the order for Battlestar Galactica. I have been on the edge regarding this game for some time. I purchased most of the games I truly desired in my last order and there were few remaining games that caught my attention. Battlestar was one of them.

I have always wanted to add to my collection a cooperative game with a 'traitor' element. I enjoyed a pure cooperative game like Pandemic less than I expected - I concur with certain reviews that deemed it a puzzle to be solved. A 'traitor' seems what is necessary to give such games a jolt. 

Saboteur possesses that element but is far too light for my liking. It is no doubt however a good filler for casual, non-gamer types. I may add it to my collection eventually. 

Shadows over Camelot has been the representative game of this genre for some time. However, the price point coupled with the supposed lack of meaningful decisions put me off.

Battlestar Galactica truly intrigued me. It appeared to have more depth than Shadows but I was rather concerned about the lengthy game time. This was accentuated by reviews indicating that the game can be a drag at points. Lastly, the theme worried me. While I am a great fan of the TV series, my wife isn't. She and most females who game with us regularly (read: Mun) don't take well to the space theme (read: Race for the Galaxy). Thankfully, the innovative jigsaw mechanics of Galaxy Trucker kept it from collecting dust on the shelf as a white elephant.

Anyway, I took the plunge today after seeing it go for a decent price at A couple of bucks less than most online retailers plus free US shipping on it as a single item was enough for me to make the purchase. It is currently out of stock but the site continues to take orders based on the promotion and will ship once stock arrives. Matt will only be returning in June so there should be more than sufficient time for the game to reach him before the holidays. So barring any accidents, I should be seeing the Battlestar on my gaming table in about 6 months. In the meantime, I will have to contend with watching the rest of Season 2 and hopefully Season 3 on okto eventually.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Musings on Stone Age

My feelings regarding the game have evolved over the few plays I have had. Interestingly, I strongly contemplated whether to sell or trade the game after my first play. The game seemed to dragged out somewhat and Agricola seemed to offer much greater depth for only a slighter longer play time.

I initially ordered Stone Age because I wasn't willing to fork out the amount for Agricola since both shared similar mechanics. While ranked no. 1 on the geek, I found myself hard pressed to pay an amount which would almost get me two other decent games in return. What I didn't anticipate was that one of my friends bought Agricola by chance during his business trip to the States and graciously lent it to me for a period of time.

Despite a rather bland first go at the game, I was eager to try Stone Age out a second time to determine if my initial impressions of the game were indeed warranted. After a couple of plays, I find myself increasingly drawn to the game. Sure it won't be one of my favourites, but I started to realize that my initial opinion was perhaps a little presumptuous.

I enjoy the tension that comes from the competition for spaces. While the spots for the tool, field and hut are typical favourites, the game hinges in my view on the competition for civilization and building cards. There is always the risk of the card you covet being blocked or snatched away if you opt for one of the spots above instead of taking it with your first placement. These cards are so important that you may even occupy them without the necessary resources and hope your subsequent placements will reap them sufficiently for the purchase. And the dice roll ensure that these well-crafted plans pan out at times but also disappoint during others.

One complaint about the game was how the rate of exchange of resources for VPs is consistent throughout i.e. the cost of the buildings will reap you a representative VP total. When I read about it, I thought that would be a real issue for me since that was the thing that killed Keythedral for me but I realized after a few plays that that didn't matter since the crux was rather about trying to exchange the most points with as few turns possible. This is accentuated by the competition for building spaces since only 4 are available each turn. The ones without fixed resource cost are even more actively competed for since they allow huge VP gain with the right resources.

Efficiency in Agricola boils down to trying to do more things in as few turns possible, either through the use of occupation/minor improvement cards or various spaces which allow you to kill two birds with one stone. For example, it would be prudent for me when expanding the size of my house to have adequate wood to build stables at the same time. If not, I would probably have to waste an extra turn further down the road to expand my capacity for farm animals. 

The efficiency aspect of Stone Age feels more direct where you are trying to obtain as many point scoring cards or buildings as quickly as possible. While it lacks the build-up of Agricola, it provides a similar tension that keeps me on my toes for a game which I appreciate the ease at which it can be introduced to new and casual gamers. It is no Settlers of Catan but it fills the same niche in my collection, for which I'm thankful. The next time I'm looking for an introductory game, this may just be the one I pull out instead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

6th Jan Session Report: The One I Starved My Workers!

Mun joined us for games in the afternoon and we started off with a game of Agricola. I will probably have to return the game to Lawrence soon, so figured I better get as many plays out of it while I can.

I suggested drafting the occupation and minor improvement cards this time round. While it did take some extra time, it was quite entertaining being able to choose the cards we preferred.

We opted for a simple draft where we would take a predetermined number of cards and pass the rest of the hand to the person on the left, and this continued till each one ended up with 7 cards of each type.

We started with the occupation cards and selected 1-2-2-2 cards respectively. I was pleased to get the 'Lover' occupation which allowed me to acquire an added family member for 4 food without needing to build extra rooms. Little did I know that Van got herself the 'Wet Nurse' card (extra family member each time a room is built) and that would prove significant in the result of the game.

I managed to use the Lover card early and got myself up to 3 family members by round 3, but Van wasn't far behind. Before I knew it, she managed to build up to 5 rooms and increased her family size likewise to 5.

She eventually took the win with 47 points, playing her hand brilliantly.

Van's farm - Score also helped by 4 points from the Well and the max. wood bonus for her Joinery

I ended up with 44 points, surprised that I got as close to her as I did. My whole game was based on the 'Constable' occupation Mun played early on which awarded 5 bonus points to any player who ended the game with no negative points. I was the only who achieved it and that aided my score despite a failure to expand my house.

My farm - First ever time with a fully utilized player board

We moved on to Glory to Rome where I ended the game by taking the last in-town site. The scores were 24-14-11 to I, Van and Mun respectively. I chanced upon the prowess of the Scriptorium which allowed me to complete any structure with just 1 marble. This led to a spree of completed structures once I got my hands on a couple of purple cards with the help of a Temple structure which increased my max. hand size to 9. A large part of my scoring thus came from the influence gained through completed structures.

The last game of the day was Stone Age. It seems that we haven't been able to move away from these few games for the last few sessions. Whether this is due to the merit of the games themselves or just us jumping on the bandwagon of the cult of the new, that remains to be seen.

I decided to be adventurous and attempted a starvation strategy. This strategy is actually feasible here as compared to Agricola as the penalty of 10 points is consistent regardless the number of food short. I also realized that it was unwise to starve my workers too early and basically only started doing so when I got to 9-10 workers.

I was fortunate to get 3 out of the 4 worker multipliers including the 2 doubles and took a close one from Mun by a single point! The final scores were 228-227-216 to I, Mun and Van respectively.

While successful this time around, I can see how difficult it would be to attempt this strategy once your opponents get a whiff of it. Any failure to obtain majority of the worker multiplier cards would spell disaster and access to them can be easily blocked in a 3-4 player game. Other strategies would allow greater diverisfication unlike the starvation strategy which somehow feels like 'putting all your eggs in one basket'. It was nonetheless an experience attempting it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Plays for the 2nd half of 2008

I started tracking my plays on boardgamegeek in the latter half of last year in hope of assessing some trends in the preferences of my gaming community. Plays recorded are all face-to-face plays and do not include plays on BSW (which wasn't significant in in 2008 except for an initial fascination with Dominion). Here are they, in order of most plays to least:

26 plays - Battle Line

I counted plays for Battle Line according to the tournament style which means 1 play for a best of 3 game. If I were to count individual games, the plays would easily surpass 60 or 70.

26 plays - Race for the Galaxy

With the lukewarmness shown towards RftG by Van, I was surprised to see so many plays with this. I suppose Van was rather obliging to my whims of trying the game initially so we did clock quite a few plays. The short play time also helped and I'm not surprised to see geek forumers with hundreds of plays in 2008. Nonetheless, I foresee it be harder to bring it to the table in 2009. Ben and Weilong seem like the ones amongst my gaming partners who are most receptive to the game currently.

10 plays - Agricola

A game loaned to me by Lawrence which I'm immensely grateful. While I'm not sure if it's truly deserving of its no. 1 ranking on geek, it has indeed been a game Van and I have enjoyed immensely. I still enjoying playing it best with 2 or 3.

9 plays - Ra, Glory to Rome, Mr. Jack

Ra is a nice middle-weight game to have in the collection - scales well with a short playing time. As mentioned, Glory to Rome has risen quickly to the top of my list of games and 9 plays alone in the month of December is no surprise.

Mr. Jack is a game I have decided to sell/trade off but which I have faced difficulty due to the hole in the corner of the box made by my dog. The mechanics are interesting but it is limited as strictly a 2 player game and I have issues with the downtime since you can't make any meaningful analysis during your opponent's turn and will have to wait till his or her moves are complete before you can decide yours. Despite that, 8 plays are impressive considering I counted one play with each player having a go at both the detective and Jack.

8 plays - Pandemic 

Also a game just acquired in December. We played 4 times the first day we tried it. Scales well and plays in a short time. I'm starting to tire of it slightly but the responses from the rest are good so I suspect it will see more plays in 2009.

7 plays - Settlers of Catan

A perennial favourite but been seeing less plays with the influx of new games.

5 plays - Tichu

A game to 500 points counts as 1 play.

3 plays - Puerto Rico, Taj Mahal, Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy Trucker is the rising star that also came in the December game package while the other 2 are solid Euros that I hope to bring out more often in 2009.

2 plays - El Grande, No Thanks!, Stone Age, Princes of Florence

El Grande and Princes are amongst my favourite games and am somewhat disappointed not to have seen more plays with them, especially El Grande since I personally own the game. Stone Age appears promising after 2 plays with a weight somewhat similar to Settlers so I suspect I will be introducing it to new gamer friends in the new year.

1 play - Power Grid, Citadels, Saint Petersburg, Tigris & Euphrates

Power Grid and Tigris while excellent games can be somewhat heavy going - difficult to bring to the table without the right group. It was my first face-to-face try of Saint Petersburg and it reinforced my views of it on BSW - reasonably enjoyable for its length but nothing I need to own.