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Thinking Out Loud

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Beowulf >> Nuts n' Bolts Review

Overview: I picked up Beowulf at GenCon 2005 based on a GeekBuddy recommendation. This Reiner Knizia offering promised a mix of familiar card play blended with some risk/reward elements, and for my gaming tastes, does not disappoint, despite a few quirks.

Components: I love the artwork on the board and box, the Howe illustrations really evoke a mood and feel. The cards are sturdy and stand up to repeated shuffling well, but are visually unremarkable. The board and cards share a strong resemblence to the components from RK's Lord of the Rings coop game. Functional, but not fancy.

My biggest problem is the layout of the gameboard. With its odd 3/4 board, the actual game track still takes up only a small percentage of the board's real estate -- the spaces and text on the board are far, far too small, making it very difficult to glance at the board from around the table and see what's coming up. It's hard to plan ahead without constantly asking someone to read off spaces on the board.

The Beowulf tracking figure (moved along the gameboard to indicate the current location) is nice, and the wooden disks are functional. Overall, the production is fair. It works, it's sturdy, but it's not going to knock your socks off.

Gameplay: Without getting into too much detail, I'll say that the gameplay is predominantly hand management by way of using your cards to bid and leverage yourself to win rewards at different stops along the game track. The game is played in a series of hands, where different rewards (or penalties) are available based on how well players use the cards in their hands. When all cardplay at one location is complete, players "draft" the rewards for the current space based on how they fared, then move on to the next space on the board.

The "episode" spaces on the board, where players compete for rewards, come in two varieties -- face down secret wagers and clockwise bidding from your hand. In both cases, players use cards from their hand (with suits based on the space you're on) as bidding power. The player with the most icons of the matching suits (face down bids), or the last player to stay "in" a hand by matching the previous bids (clockwise bids) drafts the reward for that space first.

The board is linear, and the rewards are static, but the game is not nearly as repetitive as I would have thought. Some spaces have several good rewards, or a few devastating penalties. This presents players with interesting hand management decisions -- is it really important enough to spend X number of cards to select my reward first, or can I get away with playing fewer cards, and still get a decent reward, saving my hand strength for later.

The Rub: The biggest issue for me is the Risk option. On many of the episode spaces, the player has the option to take a Risk and draw cards from the top of the deck instead of playing cards from his hand. Any cards drawn that match the required suit count toward your play. If you fail to draw a matching card, you get a scratch (which can turn into wounds, which count against your score at game end).

While this sounds harmless, it's a very luck-driven aspect to a Knizia game, and seems a bit out of place here since the penalty for failing to risk (a scratch) is not a strong enough disincentive. It's almost always worth the risk to tempt fate, since odds are you'll succeed. At any time, 3 of the 6 suits will help you in the episode -- the two main suits required by that episode, and the Beowulf wild cards. Over the course of the game someone who succeeds more often than not has a very distinct and clear card advantage that is incredibly difficult to overcome.

Given a standard probability curve, someone's going to fare well and someone will get shafted. This would really stink in a long game, but if it's played at a social pace, and wraps up in what I think should be 30-45 minutes, it's not so bad.

Impressions: I am actually quite fond of Beowulf, despite its odd risk element. The only downside in my previous playings of Beowulf was playing it with some professional poker players -- they wanted to know how many cards everyone had at all times, and tracked the discards so they could calculate perfect odds on each card draw. That took some of the suspense out of the game. Still, played briskly and with the right crowd of laid back players, I thoroughly enjoy Beowulf with 4 and 5... Though with a smaller spread of rewards and less anxiety in the bidding, Beowulf is not nearly as engaging with only 3.

Bottom Line: 7/10 Fun game with interesting, light decisions. I can see this holding fairly significant replay value for 4-5 players as it plays quickly and the decisions are important, but not taxing or paralyzing. Beowulf shines when played at a brisk pace, as friendly competition and interesting risk/reward dynamics make this a refreshing game despite many familiar mechanics.

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