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Gamer's Notebook

Gamer's Notebook

Published: Thu, 20 Oct 2016 09:44:11 CDT

Last Build Date: Thu, 20 Oct 2016 09:44:11 CDT


Gamer's Notebook, February 2013

Mon, 04 Feb 2013 19:48:38 CST

Delayed Reaction For various reasons, I have only just got round to playing Eclipse properly. I had long been wondering whether to buy it based on others’ very positive views and my initial one hour try out. In all attempts I was stymied by either the high prices asked or unavailability. In a way, that was fortunate. I am glad I didn’t bite. I really liked playing Eclipse – three games now - I think there is a lot of clever stuff going on and the design is elegant. But given how many shots designers have taken at the 4X and Civ formats, perhaps we have every right to expect this. Accordingly, Eclipse is the culmination of many, many evolutionary design advances. There is some excellent design: I could name the ship building, post pass actions, tech tree, resources, and expenditure track mechanisms off the top of my head. There are many more. It is very good, it is clean, it is accessible, you should play it. It wins a Sumo. But what puts me off a full blown love-in is that (with set up included) it is not a short game – I don’t get many four hour slots – and, to be frank, it hasn’t tackled the key issues of the multi-player game. At heart, it is still a build up, squash your neighbour exercise. It would be nice if it wasn’t (it was sold to me on the basis that combat was not necessary to win), but the designers have taken the easy route and certain types of players will follow them. The first player attacked, or with poor luck, or poor resources, will always remain behind and unlikely to catch up. Ultimately there will be two (or three) on one situations, there will be players sandwiched and unable to expand, and there will be a curiously mad game end where everyone wants to fight and grab. This is not edifying and it would have been good if the design talent clearly on show in the systems had also been applied to the wider interactions. I could forgive much of this if the game was an hour long, a little less dependent on dice, and stronger on narrative. “Oh, it all went wrong here. I had those awful die rolls, I got kicked by the weak alien, it left a gap in my defences and Toby took the opportunity to walk through the hole and steal all my hard work. Game over.” That’s fine to explain away 90 minutes, but not 240. Another disappointment is that one of those 4X’s is distinctly lower case. Given the choice, in this type of game I will always eXplore. I am quite happy doing that, and still want a game that lets me do it properly. In Eclipse, any initial exploration seems largely designed to establish lebensraum and routes and buffer zones between neighbours. There simply aren’t enough ‘external’ hexes to make exploration very useful as a long term strategy (or even medium term). I understand that it is promoting interaction – what fun is a game where all four players head off in different directions? – and that, anyway, most tables couldn’t handle the length of an explorer’s vapour trails. Still, one of the more disappointing aspects for me. Balancing that is the really good news. As normally accrues from a decent game, I can see that Eclipse II or perhaps the expanded game, or of course another entrant to the lists, may move us a little closer towards the ideal. Which neatly brings me to Clash of Cultures. After a couple of turns I thought, and then voiced, that it seemed to be Eclipse meets Civ. The more I played, the more it appeared that this was the case. I have no problem with that; mainly I am impressed at how quickly the Eclipse model was absorbed, adjusted and returned to market with a new coat of paint. You will know how Clash works because you have played all the previous Civ wannabee games. In this case it works a little better than all of them, and will take around three hours if you keep up a good pace. The downsides are that you can probably win or lose a game based on the objective cards you are dealt – Good fit? Easy VPs. Bad fit? Almost impossible! - but you do get quite a few cards to offset this. You can also get that common setup issue where some[...]

Gamer's Notebook, February 2012

Sun, 12 Feb 2012 15:38:18 CST

It is not difficult for me to open this column with my current bugbear. In fact, I can feel a rant coming on. At our recent post-Essen convention we endured three days of dodgy rulebooks and resulting problems. It was either just a very bad batch of games, or standards are dropping. Whatever, we may have spent a good 20% of the gaming time struggling with rule comprehension and interpretation. Not good enough. I am going to blow my own trumpet here (usually far better than sucking it, I find). I am pretty darn good at working out rules. I think this is based on solid English comprehension, knowledge of game systems (and even how certain designers do things), on having written several sets of rules myself and developed/edited loads more, and, I suppose in truth, some empathic guesswork. I am aware of the dangers of the latter approach, so it is only used in dire situations! I feel this obscure superpower gets us through most games, hopefully playing something at least related to what the designer intended. Combined with Ken Tidwell or Charles Vasey at the same table, we are almost invulnerable in crushing poor drafting, sloppy thinking and fuzzy logic. Nevertheless, this recent batch of games was beyond our combined skills. There were rule sections that were not finished. There were unclear rules. There were rules that said the opposite to what was intended. There were clear rules, clearly contradicted by later rules. There were rules contradicted by examples. There were rules hidden within examples. There were rules that weren’t needed, and rules that were just missing altogether. There were games where the rules were on the cards. And finally there were rules that were so poorly drafted that they rendered the game unplayable and raised blood pressures around the table. Okay, I concede that sometimes this problem is down to translation and one can often get the real meaning by referring to the French or German rules. I am less competent if those rules are in Spanish, Russian, Serbo-Croat or Polish... Sometimes, as I know, it is not possible for the production to allow for much time to finalise rules. Living rules help here. I have known rules to be re-written just before release without the designer seeing them. And I am also totally aware that rules drafting is not an easy task in the first place. But come on guys, as a minimum, let’s at least try to get the final ruleset in front of some blind testers and see if they play the game correctly. Note to self: possible business opportunity, even if gruesome work. A few of the worst culprits? Bios: Megafauna, Rallyman, Colonial, Hammerin’Iron, Pergamemnon... I could go on. 1st & Goal As far as I am concerned, it is a brave man that releases a game in the same slot as Football Strategy, one of the finest games to grace my table. Ever. Okay, so I am not entirely sure that one can get hold of Football Strategy these days, and some would point to its near perfect symmetry and complete lack of team flavour as a drawback. So, after consideration, perhaps I can see why someone would do it. 1st & Goal is an excellent game: slight emphasis on game. I approached it with a completely open mind, and in truth it is some years since I played either Paydirt, Statis Pro or Football Strategy anyway. Ninety minutes later we had learned it, played it, and were sitting there discussing a gripping 14-13 win for the Mortlake Tossers over my Fenland Eels. I had a last minute 60 yard drive, only to fumble within the five. Earlier, I had slotted a long field goal and almost landed a long bomb. We had some exciting punt returns. I could go on. In short, the whole game was completely immersive and full of narrative flavour. I find it helps to put on a bad American accent. It is fun to grab and roll the dice. The magnetic chain gang is genius. The playlength is just about perfect. I like the fact that I can go and buy team expansions. It is tense, and a little draining. Most importantly, it is an awful lot of fun. And I don’t get to say that much these [...]

Gamer's Notebook, January 2011

Mon, 07 Mar 2011 17:00:10 CST

Absence What with the economy, work, stress and illness… I had a really bad year. Sorry. Innovation? My worst game experience of the annus horribilis was, by quite a margin, Innovation. Let me qualify that. This was easily my most anticipated game for at least five years, possibly more, based on early reports, buzz and designer pedigree. The rules confirmed my estimation. Even now I admire the ideas, the flow, the combos, the clever card mechanisms. I want to love it, and I still like it a little tiny bit. I may even buy it. But overall here is a game experience on a par with Fluxx. Actually, worse than Fluxx. There is so little control; it is very easy to get hosed and effectively eliminated, often by nothing more than bad cards, timing or situation. And I write as someone who champions both chaos and innovation (ironically). If the process were a huge amount of fun, I could accept the premise. In reality, it is pointless and dull; an arrogant exercise in design theory, failing to produce enjoyment. Carl Chudyk will design more games, and I suspect all will be better games. I hope, in time, he (or someone else) returns to Innovation and re-uses the good bits. Meanwhile, if you must play it, make it two player and don’t get your hopes up. Balance Conversely, one of my best game experiences was Key Market, but since I was involved with that one, and you can’t currently buy it cheaply, I’ll shut up. Either way, this is probably the best Key game for me. Not by much over Harvest and Dragons, and not Reef Encounter in stature, but still very, very good. Congratulations to David, and Richard, who both put in a hell of a lot of work. To Infinity, and Beyond Because I am getting old and therefore predictable, I am going to give an mention to Sierra Madre’s High Frontier. I think it is common knowledge now that I am a huge Phil Eklund fan. I realise there are many dissenters, and that some of you believe I should be banned from mentioning him or his so called ‘games’ again. Each to their own, but I am the one hovering over the keyboard and the editor isn’t paying attention. Okay. Brass tacks. On the downside, High Frontier is only half a game, displaying many of the Eklundian traits I know and usually love. Like most of the others, it is nothing if not an experience. A big criticism is the slightly contradictory rulebook/walkthrough and the steep learning curve which are typical Eklund – read seven times, mentally edit, start play, lurch forward, realise you are wrong, re-read, repeat. Those of us without rocket science PhD’s get there eventually. Engineers (and I know a few, a few too many) just giggle at me and get on with it. For Eklund veterans, the core system is the same old, same old. Auction the cards, do things based on the cards, keep the pace up. But money is so tight there is an all too familiar slog at the start, even with the optional kickstart variant. Crucially, you can’t do high tempo because you are consulting the rules all the time and trying to grasp the game. But it was ever thus. This painful early game is compounded as once you have all launched your rockets (this took us over an hour of play), there is every chance that your flight will be something of an anti-climax. There is a strong possibility of choosing the wrong route or planet, dying, running out of fuel (dying), exploding (dying) or being decommissioned (yep, dying). And that is just the basic game. The main appeal, and oddly also the problem, is what you actually do once in space. In management speak, it is lacking structured goal attainment paradigms. We just flew around happily until one of the above death conditions applied, organised a couple of rescue missions, and in one delirious case, managed to return safely to Earth orbit having achieved a fly-by of Mars. On the plus side, it is good, solid Eklund experience game design with a great theme and a genuine ability to get one interested in the subject matter. It offers very few ludic qualities, but t[...]

Gamer's Notebook, December 2009

Sun, 20 Dec 2009 10:26:34 CST

I have said too many times that I can become disenchanted with German games. This almost always follows a period where I play a lot of new titles and they are all average or worse. It happens, but not as much as it used to, and a restorative menu of old trusted favourites and good friends normally cures me in a hurry. Then again there are those sessions of gaming where it seems every new game is a winner, and even somehow fresh and exciting. This time I have three such games to describe, all fall into the ‘about an hour, sometimes much less’ slot, and all have deceptive weight. Sort of Super Fillers, but a little bit more. First up is Peloponnes, a neat, lean little game from a small German company - Irongames. The drawback here will be sourcing a copy quickly and cheaply, but everything else is positive. This is a straightforward auction game, but one that offers new angles and, it must be said, makes the boring old Amun Re mechanism interesting again. Well, at least for a week. You are trying to build your ancient civilisation (yes, I know…) and achieve this by avoiding disasters and buying civilisation tiles. Each tile offers either buildings or land, and brings something different to the party – for instance population, powers, or income. Some tiles will be hotly contested because they will ‘fit’ better for some players than others, while others have fairly obvious use only to you. Tiles acquired, after just eight turns you assess your civilisation for balance, add up the points, and that’s it. Because there is an asymmetrical element early on, and because you can’t always get what you want, there is a constant decision level throughout with some recognisable strategy, neatly countered by a good sense of actually building a Greek city state. I think that is impressive in such a short game. It needs a graphical overhaul, perhaps a bigger publisher, and I would make the disasters uncertain. But apart from that, stick it on your Christmas list. I was a little slow to get hold of a copy of Roll Through The Ages, but I have made up for it with several plays since. Like Pandemic, I will play three or four games in a short period, and then put it on the shelf. Unlike most games, it comes down again a few weeks later and impresses me, and any new recruit that I foist it upon. By now you know the score, and I have to say it is a very clever game with surprising amounts of narrative – hard to believe that a simple roll of a few dice can depict an empire with starvation or years of plenty or booming trade. In short, it is Yahtzee, but it is Yahtzee with soul. Next is Endeavor (I will suffer the spelling mistake in the cause of world peace). Strangely enough, there is a similar feel to Peloponnes here. There is a lot to do, but you are fully aware that the game is short, and that your actions are precious. Given that, here is a game where you feel you achieve a massive amount of expansion in no time at all, and from choosing a single building at the start, you are managing a worldwide empire by the end. Yet, only an hour has passed. Very clever. This is probably, but only just, my favourite of the three. All three of these games, along with Hansa Teutonica and even the lighter Tobago reviewed last time, offer a credible gaming challenge in a short and, importantly, appropriate period of time. In fact, in some respects, they can run out a little too quickly. We already have a widely played variant for Roll Through, and it would not surprise me to see spin off expansions for Peloponnes as well. As ever, if you start with a quick, solid, streamlined chassis you can always add some more accessories without affecting performance too much. As you have probably gathered I like this style of game. I don’t want to play them all the time, preferring a balanced diet of card, short, medium, and longer/flavoursome games, but I like their utility, their clever design, I can see that their creators have made sure that they are ‘fin[...]

Gamer's Notebook, November 2009

Mon, 30 Nov 2009 12:39:44 CST

It has been a while. Too many reasons to explain, but apologies. What you have below are my thoughts on games recently played at the Eastbourne convention here in the UK. Next time, and I promise it before Christmas, there will be another batch of new games written up, plus (probably) The 2009 Sumos. Pocket Battles Paulo Mori for Z-Man I don’t think I have ever seen such a good game come out of such a small box… Pocket Battles is right up my street. A quick, easily learned game that is both reasonably historical and fun. To be honest I wasn’t at all hopeful after reading the rules and play sheets, which have some small holes and fuzziness, but in play it all came together well. This is how quick it is: choose your army up to a set number of points, take 10% of that number in command chips which are depleted when hits are taken. Set up the armies. Attack. Win by killing 50% of the enemy points. That’s it. As a result, a common complaint is that the game is over too quickly (oh, what a disaster!). We had games that were over after a handful of turns – this is a decisive system. So play best of three, or just choose bigger armies. Problem solved. Pocket Battles is one of those games that punches above its weight. The best guidance I can offer is a game somewhere between Battleline and Command & Colors: Ancients. This first set is Romans vs Celts. But I suspect we will see more armies, more periods and, inevitably, fantasy battles before too long. Assuming, that is, everyone likes it as much as I did. Some units have traits, such as fury for berserkers and command for Roman generals. These give a good feel for the different troop types even if some (Druids) do stretch the historical envelope. Overall we are talking deadly, fast and fun here, with army choice, set up and play in about thirty minutes or less. Think below C&C:A’s complexity level, but much quicker. The game can indeed turn on a bad or good die roll, but that rather adds to the narrative appeal with a sense of making your own luck. The historicity will be the test for some hardcore wargamers, but we had some believable stuff going on at the combat level if not the command, and it would be very easy to tweak the setup and add on further rules. On my buy list, and a nice surprise. Hansa Teutonica Andreas Steding for Argentum While he has produced some oddities, Andreas Steding always comes up with an interesting game. Hansa Teutonica, as befits its name, is a dyed in the wool German Game, riffing on the network building/trader theme. While we have seen many of these network games - some good, some bad – I think I can now say, after four games, that this one is among the best. It solves a lot of the common issues and, with the right people, really rattles along. There are several ways to score VPs, the game end triggers add a pacing dimension, and it has that lovely, ‘Can’t wait for my turn’, quality. My first game was excellent, the second marred by being kicked a lot by rival players, the third and fourth games returned to form. I was impressed and so were all the others that played. This is a game you will learn by instalments. The early play is quite leisurely and friendly. Even fun. Later in the game you will experience the pain of interaction, and needing to pronounce escritoire all the time. Then you start to work out new tactics and strategies, for this game has many. By the second or third game you will have realised how tactical, cutthroat and just plain nasty Hansa can be. Some players take this sort of thing well, others get very stubborn, and some are genuinely hurt. Because the game will drag with slow gamers, you need to choose your opponents well: thick skins and fast brains should do it. Hansa Teutonica is hampered by some woolly rules; the drafting is poor throughout and, worryingly, some German words remain untranslated…). The play aids aren’t much better (fancy Latin terms in games never really wor[...]