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Thinking Out Loud

Thursday, October 27, 2005

RA >> Far Better Auction Games Out There

Let me get this off my chest from the very start -- for me, Ra is a wholly unfulfilling experience. From the lack of information on the tiles, being forced into turns (rather than having decisions) and the lack of action variety makes Ra one of my least favorite Reiner Knizia games.

The only two things I really like about Ra are the production quality (especially the wooden blue Ra piece) and the zero-sum bidding (where all the money remains in the game and simply shuffles hands).

What do I dislike about Ra? Wow... There's so much to choose from. I'll try to just hit the main sticking points that may be of use to people skimming a review to find out whether or not a game includes mechanics or devices that will appeal to them.

1) Being Force Fed Your Turn. There are far fewer decisions to be made, it seems to me, than there should be. Often you are forced to open up a set for bidding by either having the board filled (no decision on your part) or by drawing a Ra tile (again, no decision on your part). I like making my own decisions, rather than being forced into decisions on MY turn which end up (at least with the strong potential of) benefiting other players more than they do me.

2) Lack of Intuitive Information. The tiles desperately need some sort of icon system to distinguish buildings and civilization advances and their scoring impact. It amazes me that the game didn't come with scoring sheets like those found on BGG. The game drops a full rating point or two for this inexcusable oversight, especially given the horrendously non-intuitive scoring system. The tiles should also have had some way of denoting what tiles are discarded after an epoch rather than kept.

As it stands, there is no information on the tiles to know: whether the tile is discarded after an epoch, which set the tile belongs to, how the tile will score, the total number of that type of tile in the set. By contrast, the Stock cards in Union Pacific hold a great deal of information (type of track to be used, number of cars available, number of stock available) while still retaining a sharp look.

3) Knowing You Can't Win. With perfect information of the available bids, it's incredibly frustrating to be holding the 10 and seeing the 11, 12 and 13 in the hands of other players. Yes, there is some strategy into playing your higher tiles to try and force those upper bids into play, but you're still guaranteed to lose at least 3 bids in the round if you're the one holding the 10 tile... And in a game where there may not be many rounds of bidding at all (at least, bidding on lots with some value), being on the low rung when there's finally a good lot of items available stinks.

4) Wildly Variable End Game. Since all the Ra tiles are shuffled in with the other tiles willy-nilly, rather than having X Ra Tiles seeded into stacks of tiles, it feels like the wildly random end game often has more impact on the final results than the individual play of the players. Where some see a tense finish and push-your-luck element to try and grab tiles before the end of an epoch, I see a sloppy contrivance which further reduces player involvement.

In Union Pacific, the Gold Car/Payout cards are at least seeded through the deck so there's a bit more focus and direction for the end game. I think that sort of seeding would work much better. It's not uncommon (especially in later epochs where the Ra Tile:Non-Ra Tile ratio is considerably higher) to have *several* consecutive draws where a Ra tile is pulled. And when there is nothing on the bid track (or only something like say, Anarchy) it artificially shortens the game with no decision making or player involvement. In fact, the last round may consist of 1/2 as many lots being auctioned off as in the first round. Further exacerbating the impact of problem #3 noted above.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Oddly enough, I've done quite well at Ra, but for the life of me I don't know why. I certainly don't feel like I'm making better decisions than my more seasoned opponents, who understand the intricacies and the values better than I do.

In fact, in our last 3 player game, I won handily: 75-54-36... Which I think is more ammunition *against* the game -- how balanced and strategic can a game be when someone who makes worse decisions and is *far* less experienced than his opponents can have that sort of success? For bidding games, I far, far, far prefer Traumfabrik, Modern Art, For Sale and Goa. I rate RA a 4.5, dropping it down to a 3.5 without the excellent player mats found on BGG.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Tsuro >> First Impressions

I just picked up the boardgame Tsuro by WizKids. It's the first non-collectable game from the company that brought us Mage Knight, HeroClix, Pirates of the Spanish Main and MLB SportsClix. As a former WizKids employee and big fan of their games, I was really excited to hear about this game earlier in the year, and was disappointed when it wasn't available at GenCon in August.

After getting my copy and opening it up, all I can say is that my first impression is very, very positive. The game components, artwork, tiles and rules all evoke the same initial feeling -- a feeling of elegance. I love the art style, color scheme and the very cool little touches, like the way the rules fold out and the fonts used.

The rules are simple and the game appears to be a solid, easily accessible abstract strategy game. The entire rules fit on a single side of a roughly legal-sized sheet of paper, with nice formatting and illustrations/examples. I've yet to play it, but hope to soon -- Tsuro looks to offer a nice blend of light tile placement strategies, as you place tiles and move your piece along the paths created, trying to avoid a path that leads to the edge of the board for as long as possible.

I hope to get this to the table this week, and will jot down additional comments afterward. But so far, I've got high hopes for WizKids' interesting new game -- and hope they'll continue to devote time and resources to non collectable products.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

10/20/05 Gaming Recap >> Tyros, Alexandros, Medici & More

Last night was a small little get together -- just Chester (cornjob), Michael (armadi) and myself. But we got a good mix of 3-player games in -- usually a hard number of players to cater for.

Tyros (Chester 94 - Michael 88 - Jay 78)
An interesting new Martin Wallace game, which at first made me think of Acquire, but that was soon banished. Forced expansion of empires that soon butt against each other, where players need to ply their influence among the large and small civs alike. I put all my eggs in 2 baskets -- the single largest civ had all but 1 of my cities and boats (which are used to score). There are bonus points for having the first city in a given region, and for having the most cities in a given region at game end... Chester used this to his advantage, being the sole person scoring in the two smallest regions -- a smart and rewarding move. I'd definitely play this again, but with only 3, there was virtually no trading of commodities between players.

Alexandros (Jay 63 - Chester 61 - Michael 57)
A Leo Colovini game I had wanted to try for some time. Took several turns to get the hang of the main mechanics -- move Alexander around the map, cutting regions into smaller and smaller portions. Then place your soldiers (NOT centurions, as Michael will be quick to point out) inside regions. The more empty spaces in a region, the more it scores, but the harder it is to acquire. Also, you can choose Scoring as one of your actions -- the wrinkle is when you choose to score *everyone* in the game scores. You have to pay a card to score and allow your opponents to earn points, so you need to make sure you have a good point advantage to do so. In our game, Chester had low scoring for a few early turns, then took over some territories and had a huge scoring advantage during the scoring phases -- if the game had lasted one more turn, the scores would have been closer to Chester 85 - Michael 72 - Jay 70 ... A completely different outcome. Definitely want to play again.

Medici (Jay 146 - Chester 130 - Michael 120)
An interesting push your luck/bidding/investment game that Chester was really interested in trying out. We played a quick aborted game to get the feel for it, then started over. Several disagreements about the best use of turns, actions and bidding strength, which I think was a healthy discussion and showed that the game actions were not as obvious as I first thought they were. I ended up winning, but can't explain how or why -- I didn't feel like I necessarily made better choices than Chester or Michael. Overall, I wasn't that impressed, but I think the dynamic with more people would be more interesting -- so I'd try it again with 4 or 5.

High Society x2 (Chester won game 1, Jay won game 2)
Brutal game with three, since you could easily hold back cards and force the others to resign themselves to one of them having to lose. It's awkward holding their fates in your hand, which doesn't necessarily feel the same with 4 or 5. Still, for a light, quick-playing game, I really like it. And wish more games had the "least money auto-lose" condition worked in. It works well with the theme and the gameplay. Definitely would play again, though more than 3 would be preferable.

Sleuth (Jay screwed up, Chester and Michael share a joint win)
I suck at deduction games. I make faulty conclusions based on flawed logic. As such, I am not a fan of Sleuth. It's a cute little game in its own way, and it certainly removes some of the flaws of Clue. But that doesn't salvage the fact that I'm not a fan of the genre. I drew several wrong inferences from the answers they gave me, and blurted out my guess (instead of secretly writing it down and looking) which Michael promptly showed me he had in his hand. Weeee.

Torres (Michael 224 - Jay 208 - Chester 175)
Michael's first time playing, but he sure played like a pro. Michael made great use of his cards and quickly grasped the strategies. He established a 20 point lead after the first scoring round (which is very significant) and by the end of the game, I was only able to make 4 points up from that lead. We played with the stripped down basic version (where all the action cards are shuffled together in one pile). I agree with Chester that this leads to a more chaotic game where luck plays a bigger factor (by virtue of card draws) than it should in this sort of game. After thinking about it, I think I'd prefer the Draw 3 Choose 1 variant, rather than having access to all your cards from the get go (so players still need to invest some time and precious action points to acquire cards rather than having all of them available for free). A wonderful 3 player game. I can't believe it took so long to get this to the table again. Definitely want to play again, especially with the Draw 3 variant.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Sensory Input >> The Five Senses and Gaming

[Here's the lead-in and summary for my most recent GeekList over at BoardGameGeek.com... You can read the entire GeekList, with additional content in each category, over at BGG]

Gaming is a very engaging hobby. And while it may appear to engage the mind more than the body, all five senses are tantalized with interesting stimuli. Here's a simple list of the five senses, and how gaming caters to each sense. I've listed my favorite sensory experience provided by the gaming hobby for each sense, as well as runners-up. Some are literal, others figurative, but they all fit thematically. As I compiled this list, I was pleased (and a bit surprised) how some of the senses were actually far more engaged than I had first thought.

The sense of sight
Blokus - Many games are visually appealing and engaging, so it makes sense to include Blokus and my favorite BGG photo for this list. I really enjoy games that develop more visual intricacy as the game goes on, or includes high contrast colors or interwoven patterns. Blokus certainly fits the bill.

The sense of hearing
Dice - Gaming includes a lot of wonderful sounds, if you take the time to listen. When I thought about it, I realized that (unlike sight) my favorite sounds had little to do with specific games, and more to do with game components. From my heavy background in roleplaying games (specifically D&D) and hundreds of boardgames, dice have a special place in my heart. My all-time favorite game-related sound is the clink of dice being rolled.

The sense of touch
Goa/Linen Finish - One of my favorite things about the recent influx of European games on the American market is the general increase in production quality for games. And no single component's production is such a sensory pleasure as the wonderfully textured linen finish on cards and tiles. The feel of high quality linen finish cards may seem subtle or even unimportant, until you play a game with substandard components or unfinished cards -- which now feel "dirty" in my hands.

The sense of smell
Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition - Nothing beats opening a brand new game for the first time in anticipation to rifle through components, open up sealed decks of cards from cellophane wrapping or start popping tokens and figures out of sprues. Except for New Game Smell (NGS). It's hard to describe, as NGS varies from game to game, with subtle differences, like the bouquet of a fine wine. A bit of wood pulp, a splash of injection moulded plastic, a wafting of ink. Opening up TI3 was a NGS overload -- so many components of different composition... It was the most rewarding NGS I had ever encountered.

The sense of taste
Fightball/Victory - Nothing rivals the taste of victory. Fun, participation, socialization -- ashes in my mouth compared to the sweet nectar of victory. When it happens. Which isn't often. I'm exaggerating my stance, but being on the verge of a win and tasting that success is rewarding, even if your focal point is fun and friendliness (as mine is). I chose Fightball as it's one of only two games (the other being X-Bugs) in which I know I have a very good chance of winning against anyone in my current gaming circle (currently 19-0 in Fightball and 11-1 in X-Bugs).

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What do you think? What are your favorite sensory stimuli within each category? Do certain sounds, smells or tastes make you think of gaming, even when away from the table? Which games stir all your senses for a full sensory experience?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Musings On >> The Element of Chance in Board Game Design

[Here's my 2 cents on a recent running commentary regarding the presence of luck and randomness in games from Tom Vasel's excellent ongoing Musings On mailing list]

Regarding luck... In general, the longer the gameplay, the less luck I want determining the outcome. Luck/chance/randomness is still welcome, as it can throw unexpected curves into the game or help equalize things, but it all boils down to a few personal preferences:

1) In general, when I lose, I would prefer the loss be due to exceptional play by my opponents or poor play on my part.
2) In general, when I win, I would prefer the win be due to exceptional play on my part or poor play by my opponents.
3) The longer the game, the less I want the role of luck to determine the winner.

In a game of Memoir '44, with a single battle lasting 20-30 minutes, I really don't mind rolling horribly while my opponent rolls far above average, or getting nothing but Left Flank cards when I've got no troops in the Left Flank. Luck as an overriding factor in this case doesn't bother me. It's still a fast-paced, fun experience, regardless of the outcome of a single turn (even if it is pivotal to the game).

In a game of Hammer of the Scots, on the other hand, with a game taking 2-2.5 hours, I start to get irked when the turning point in the game is determined by luck.

For example, in my last game of HotS I played the English. I had two consecutive years where I drew four 1s and a single 2 for activation, while the Scottish player had all 3s and 2s. In a pivotal battle, I proceeded to roll 18-20 dice at B2 and missed with nearly all of the dice, while my opponent rolls 8 dice at B2 and hits with 6 or 7 of them. When my tactical decisions and plans are foiled simply by luck, rather than poor/exceptional planning by the players for a longer game, it bothers me.

In games that take longer than 3 hours, my tolerance for luck as an overriding factor diminishes quickly. There reaches a point where I'd rather concede a game to luck, then move on to something where all players start back on a level playing ground.

What do you think about luck and randomness? How much is too much? What influences your tolerance for luck the most: theme, game length, opponent?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

ChiZo Rising >> Fad or Fantastic?

At GenCon earlier this year, several new games caught my eye -- Beowulf, Descent, Axis & Allies Miniatures... But one of my fellow BoardGameGeeks, Kevin Bender (futurescaper) strongly recommended a new collectable tile-placing game called ChiZo Rising. I forgot about the game while at GenCon, and didn't pick up any starters.

Eventually, after GenCon, I sifted through my notes, fliers and other marketing bits and came across an ad for ChiZo Rising. I hopped on BoardGameGeek and the ChiZo website for more information. Nothing really caught my eye, but based on Kevin's recommendation, I found a retailer and purchased 2 starters and 2 boosters -- more than enough for two players to enjoy the game and get a feel for the experience.

My starters, unfortunately, overlapped quite a bit. Horse-Ram-Tiger and Rabbit-Ram-Tiger... Based on the distribution of tiles and significant overlap, the first 3 games felt a bit static. But even then, there was enough gaming goodness that I knew I wanted to get a greater selection of animals and really see how ChiZo Rising performed. I got in touch with Kevin, and we were able to arrange a trade, sending my Horse-Ram-Tiger set to him for a series of animals he had in his collection to help balance out mine: Ox, Monkey, Snake, Pig, Dog and Horse -- giving me 9 of the 12 total Chinese Zodiac animals to choose from.

Last night, Michael Silbey (armadi) and I stayed up 'til 2:30 AM after a night of regular gaming just to try out the new animals. We "drafted" animals to form our decks, 3 animal types per deck. And it was awesome. So much more strategy and interaction revealed itself with a greater mix of animals. Different combos appeared. A feel for the strengths of different animal types started to become apparent.

I really want to get the last three animals missing from my collection -- Rat, Rooster and Dragon. Then we can mix and match from all 12 animals, or play 4-player games with ease. I really see a lot of replay value in the game, and imagine it would work just as well with 3- or 4-players. I'm really looking forward to playing more ChiZo Rising!

Bottom Line: ChiZo Rising - 8.5/10. Fun game with some novel twists on the classic tile placement and customization hooks. Lots of opportunity for customizing your "deck" of tiles and working off the neat abilities of the animals. One of the most pleasant surprises over the last year. Beautiful, solid components. Simple, deceptively deep an engaging gameplay, and lots of decision making. Love it.

Unfortunately, poor random picks of starters with a lot of overlap can result in very static, lockdown play as neither player wants to move lest they open up huge scoring options for their opponent. Greater variety in animal types between players = much greater gameplay dynamics. After playing with more animals, my only real complaint is in their marketing and packaging, making it difficult for collectors to actually get all the animals.

The more starters you buy, the less likely you are to get what you need, which is really a shame. If they simply created 4 starters with 3 animals each, I'd buy all 4 in a heartbeat and supplement the starters with scads of boosters. As it is, I have no incentive to buy a starter, as the odds are very, very slim I'll pick up one of the new animals I need.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Santiago >> Nuts n' Bolts Review

First things first... Santiago has been one of the most pleasant gaming surprises I've come across in the last year.

At first, I wasn't that impressed simply reading about the game, based on the theme and my expectations of how the gameplay might pan out. Once I got it to the table, though, and played a few games, I was hooked. The components are very nice (clear, easy to distinguish, language independent), and my only beef is that there is no 3 Escudo denomination, especially since that's the set income every round. But that's a minor quibble for such a solid game.

One of the big challenges, though, is how to evaluate a game that plays/feels so incredibly different with a different number of players? I adore Santiago with 5, it's still fairly robust with 4, but it seems almost too "friendly" and a different game altogether (in terms of decisions, interaction and gameplay experience) with only 3 players.

Can you assign a single composite score for such a game, or do you really need to rate the game based on number of players?

For greater weight and depth of decisions on bribing and bidding, play with more players. For a softer, gentler game where few things dry out and more people can be "happy" with the results of a given turn, play with fewer players. Thankfully the game mechanically scales well to play with 3-5, even though the gameplay experiece is quite different.

Several reviewers have brought up an excellent point about the game's mathematical structure -- game turns are perfectly calculable, making some plays less about strategy and planning and more about accounting. As much as I love the beginning and mid-game experience, the last turn or two can sometimes feel more like an equation than a game.

In fact, in at least two games I've played, the player assigning the water on the last turn had become a de facto kingmaker merely by having to choose a location for the water supply -- choosing Bribe A would give the game to Player Y, while Bribe B would give the game to Player Z... An awkward position for someone to find himself in.

I generally try to guesstimate things as I go, rather than take an actual tally during the game, but I do game with several folks who whip out pencil and paper for games like Power Grid to calculate everything to the Nth degree. Tile and water placement moves in Santiago certainly can be "solved" in that regard. But with the right crowd, who leverages the personal interaction with bribing/bidding more than the mathematics, this game really shines and will probably go over very well.

The Bottom Line: X/10 (see below) With about 8-10 plays of Santiago, I still look forward to getting this to the table more often. I haven't experienced another game with this sort of bidding and bribery to get what you want in such a tightly designed and quick-playing experience. There are several subtle decisions lurking beneath the simple surface -- when to pass/bid low to be the one to accept bribes, when to use your only guaranteed stream, whether to piggyback on another field or strike out on your own. With 5 players, I rate this 9.5/10 -- close to perfection for that number of players, the niche it fills and the amount of time it takes. With 4 players, it dips slightly to about 8.5/10 and with 3 players drops even further to about 6.5 or 7/10...