Sunday, September 26, 2010

Musings On Santiago & Havana

Acquired two new games in the last month - got Santiago in a trade for Tribune which had been on the trade block for awhile and managed to purchase Havana 2nd hand at a reasonable price.

Santiago has been on my radar for some time. The only negatives I garnered from the reviews that concerned me were that it was somewhat abstract and that it really only played well with 5 players. Having played it once, I can see why some may criticize it as abstract but it carries sufficient theme not to put me off. I realized recently that while pure abstract games are a no-no for me, some attempt to infuse theme is usually adequate for my tastes as long as the mechanics are interesting enough. Santiago fits the bill for me and even playing with 4 on my first attempt has proved it to be a real gem. It plays quicks (45-60min) with good depth and has straightforward rules which makes it accessible for the casual or perhaps even non-gamer. It reminds me of Chicago Express (another game I'm fond of) in these aspects. However, the auction mechanics are somewhat different and in my opinion, that is where Santiago's brilliance lies.

There are 2 'auction' phases in each round. In the first, players bid for plantation tiles revealed for the round. Each player has to bid a different sum (with the exception of passing) but need not bid a sum higher than the previous bidder. A higher bid will give one the opportunity to pick a more desirable plantation tile. While the tiles which allow for 2 workers are clearly more popular, the kind of crop desired depends on the plantations which each player is attempting to expand. An early pass empowers the player with the role of the canal overseer which accords him the opportunity to earn from bribes or potentially sabotage the productivity of his opponents' plantations.

The 2nd 'auction' phase isn't a typical auction per se but a clever mechanic in which players attempt to influence the decision of the canal overseer with their 'bribes'. The overseer can either take the bribe and follow the proposed canal placement or he can choose to outbid the highest bid to place the canal wherever he desires. The overseer is free to pick any bribe he desires even if it isn't the highest offer - this places immense power in his hands since any damage made to non-irrigated plantations is irreversible. I love this mechanic! It feels like a negotiation game without...the negotiation! One issue I have with games like Chinatown is that it seems to alienate introverted players who may not be so comfortable 'wheeling and dealing' while giving an edge to more vocal, persuasive players. I suppose that's the point of negotiation games but yet an aspect which probably won't go down well with my gaming group. On the other hand, this Santiago facilitates 'negotiation' through a simple once-round mechanic. Sure, banter may help tilt the overseer's decision but ultimately, it boils down to the bribe offered and the board position.

Overall, Santiago is a definite keeper for me!

Havana on the other hand has some interesting mechanics but the means for VP acquisition is mildly disappointing. I enjoy the role selection mechanic which is reminiscent of Citadels, but is enhanced in that the combination of cards chosen further determines turn order. Each subsequent turn only allows the change of a single role card which makes the decision all the more agonizing. Each player also begins with a fixed hand of role cards which means that a role once discarded cannot be repeated till late in the game (when one is left with 2 cards in hand) or by using a specific role to retrieve a previously discarded card. Unfortunately, the game is let down by an uninteresting VP acquisition mechanic based around purchasing buildings. Buildings vary in terms of resources required and VPs rewarded. This reminds me similar mechanics in Stone Age and Keythedral, which took those games a few notches down for me. Havana could have taken some tips from Citadels in this regard by assigning some buildings with special powers. In the case of Citadels, purple buildings allow certain rules to be broken while others provide income bonuses, which adds a set collection dimension to the game.

All in all, some good ideas packed in a quick, relatively accessible game but comes across unpolished due to a rudimentary VP acquisition mechanic.

The Future Of Boardgaming?

Recently, I've been increasingly intrigued by the boardgaming apps introduced at the Apple App store for iDevices (iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch). I'm typically cautious about the paid apps I acquire since expenditure while initially small can snowball easily.

I read a couple of reviews of the various game implementations on the Geek and other sites and finally took the plunge on 3: Neuroshima Hex!, Samurai and Carcassonne. What's interesting is that these are not the typical kind of Euros that appeal to me. I've never played NS Hex and Samurai though they were once on my watchlist. I figured they seem too abstract for my tastes after some initial research. I have played Carcassonne previously but didn't care enough for it to desire a physical copy of my own - tad light for my tastes.

So why did I buy them for my iPhone?

1. Comparatively low prices - While the games don't appeal enough to me to own a physical copy of them but their prices as software were highly attractive. I paid US$2.99 for NS Hex, and US$4.99 each for Samurai and Carcassonne. They are priced significantly lower than their physical counterparts and provide you with opponents when your gaming buddies aren't available, either via AI or online play (NS Hex's online implementation is in the works but promised by the developers). At such prices, it gives me an opportunity to try new games (in the case of Samurai and NS Hex) and own others which I only have a moderate interest in (in the case of Carcassonne). And I must say I enjoyed both new games after trying them out, but yet still not enough to care to own physical copies of them. So this works out perfectly for me.

2. Superb implementation - Of the reviews I've read, these are arguably the 3 best implementations of boardgames in the App Store, with perhaps the exception of Tichu. The numbers of boardgames have been growing with developers jumping on the bandwagon but not all are as well implemented as these. In particular, the online component is especially well designed on Samurai and Carcassonne, allowing for asynchronous play like what you enjoy with Words/Chess With Friends. Samurai even allows you to set a time limit for online games so that the AI will take over the move if the time limit is exceeded.

3. F2F Gaming Over the iPad - This is arguably the main reason that perked my interest in gaming over iDevices. There are tons of free games on the iPhone to keep me entertained when I need fillers throughout the day and I generally don't see the need to pay for such games (with the exception of the upcoming FF Tactics...woohoo!). However, what intrigued me was the possibility of gaming with my friends over the iPad (I don't one yet, but this is probably enough to tip the scale). The portability factor means that by simply lugging around an iPad, I can potentially have a host of games available to game with others on the go - no more worries about finding a large enough table to set up when you are outdoors. It also means I'm able to expand my game collection in a much more affordable way so that I have more options for my indoor gaming sessions too.

4. Price Increase - The 3 games above will all be released as universal apps in future as a free upgrade, optimized for iPad play. Prices will head north when that happens and in some cases double (Carcassonne). Being an early adopter goes easier on my wallet!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yspahan Caraven Strategy - What I've Been Getting Wrong!

In my last post, I described how difficult it was to pull of the Caraven strategy in Yspahan if your opponents aren't contributing to the caraven as well. Well, I realized the problem in my recent play laid with the fact that I've been playing one of the rules wrong. The caraven doesn't score only when it is completely filled. In fact, it scores at the end of each week! It makes it not only a viable strategy to pursue solo but rather, it makes it so powerful that it's impossible for others to ignore it. Well considering how I taught the rule wrongly, it makes it no wonder why everyone has been ignoring the caraven.

Interestingly, in my recent 4-player game in which I discovered my mistake, I scored an obscene number of points by pursuing the strategy alone (since I only realized the mistake halfway, I decided that we should continue with it for consistency). I leveraged on the 2 spots on the supervisor's track which allowed me to send 2 goods to the caraven simultaneously. No one challenged me for the buildings linked to those spots since they were generally unattractive in terms of building points and there was just a general disinterest in the caraven and hence supervisor movement. So despite only scoring the caraven once when it filled, I had all the camels filled with my tokens except for one by the mid of the final week. By the time my opponents were on to my strategy, they were more or less helpless to stop me.

With the proper rule in play however, I except much keener competition for the caraven slots which is a boon since it not only opens another viable path to victory but also an area which requires your attention even if you are not going to major on it. Without enough attention from all players, I can see how a player who pursues the Caraven strategy will simply run away with the whole game, especially when coupled with the building power that allows you to draw a card each time you send a cube of yours to the caraven. If the stars line up and you have control of the buildings which flank the same spot on the supervisor's path, you get to send 2 cubes and draw 2 cards - all in a single turn! Ouch :D