Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Punked in Puerto Rico

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
Well, my wife did it to me tonight in a two-player variant of Puerto Rico (designer Andreas Seyfarth, publisher Rio Grande).  I had a pretty good corn shipping strategy going, and then went long in sugar and eventually coffee.  But I think I overdid it with the Hacienda and filled up my island plantations too quickly with other crops that didn't really pay off.  I only had one quarry, which made it difficult to construct buildings.  She wasn't producing many goods until she got tobacco going.  Along with the Office, her tobacco sales made it possible for her to buy the Fortress, the Guild Hall, and City Hall (?).  Despite my shipping like a fiend with my Wharf, her big buildings enabled her to outscore me 52 to 43.

I'll blame the rum...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: Chicago Cribbage

Chicago Cribbage is a 2007 title by Outset Media for two to four players.  It requires a cribbage board (not provided) and familiarity with the traditional game of cribbage.  It comes with its own deck of conventional playing cards plus 28 "Chicago Cards" that modify the game of cribbage.  In a sense, Chicago Cribbage can really be thought of as a "cribbage expansion" deck.

Full disclosure:  Outset Media gave me a review copy of Chicago Cribbage.  No other consideration was given associated with this review.

[Since Chicago Cribbage is intended for players already familiar with cribbage, I refer to standard cribbage terms and rules without definition in this review.]

Artwork
And a rather handsomely printed deck of cards it is, too.  The playing cards that come with Chicago Cribbage are designed with a font and art deco style reminiscent of 1920s Chicago.  The face cards and aces feature mob characters and icons representing the period.  Overall the game presents a rather nice look and feel just in the conventional deck of cards itself.

Gameplay
The real innovation in the game comes in the form of the additional "Chicago cards," which add a new dimension to the familiar game of cribbage.  Each player starts with a fixed set of seven Chicago cards, each of which may be used only once in the course of the entire cribbage game.  There are two opportunities during a hand of cribbage where a Chicago card can be put into play.  The first is immediately after the deal (before players place cards in the crib), at which point any player may play a "Deal Again" card.  The second opportunity comes immediately after the cut (when the "starter" card is revealed but before any play starts), at which point a player may play one of any of the other possible Chicago cards - "Cut Again," "Trade Hands," "No Fifteens," or "Reverse Counting."

As you might expect, "Deal Again," "Cut Again" (which forces cutting a new starter card) and "Trade Hands" can be played to change the cards that you have to work with.  "No Fifteens" and "Reverse Counting" affect scoring of the current hand.  "No Fifteens" affects all players (including the one who played it); when played, combinations that add to fifteen are worth no points - not when playing cards, nor when scoring hands, nor when scoring the crib.  When "Reverse Counting" is played, all opponents hands (and crib, if the dealer is an opponent) score negative points, but one's own scoring is unaffected.

Impressions
At first, incorporating the additional Chicago cards takes some getting used to.  The two opportunities to play Chicago cards come almost as interruptions to the normal flow of a cribbage game, at least at first to the conventional cribbage player.  Once the Chicago cards become familiar, however, the opportunities to play them are anticipated and become a natural part of the flow of the game.  We found that when a hand is first dealt, the first thought isn't, "what should I put in the crib" but, "should I play the 'Deal Again' card?"

Likewise, after the cut, players start to evaluate the cut and the cards in hand against one's remaining Chicago card options.  A player holding several fives might benefit from a "Cut Again" in hopes of bringing up a face card as the starter.  Or if an opponent has built a big lead, it may be time to play "Reverse Counting."

We found that the Chicago cards nicely mitigate card luck, which had been a rather significant factor in our previous conventional sessions of cribbage.  A standard cribbage game requires some basic tactics to make the most of the cards that are dealt, but once dealt, the course of a hand is confined to the available cards.  Chicago Cribbage adds several opportunities to make up for bad card luck - but only a few opportunities, so the player must apply them judiciously.

Timing of Chicago card play can be crucial.  In one game, when my wife had built a big lead and I had the deal, I decided to wait to play "Reverse Counting" until she had the deal and the crib, when I figured the effect of the card would be greater.  But instead she scored so high during my deal that she ended up within pegging distance of winning the game.  Since "Reverse Counting" only affects hand and crib scoring (not pegging from card play), she was able to win the game on the next hand regardless of the card I played - a valuable lesson in timing.

We found that Chicago Cribbage is better suited to a full 121-point cribbage game, less so the shorter 61-point version.  It takes the full length of a 121-point game to force careful consideration of when to play a Chicago card, since there are only one or two of each available, and each can be played only once.  Most of them came into play over the course of a 121-point game, whereas they seemed underutilized and less tactically demanding in the shorter 61-point game.

One dimension that Chicago Cribbage adds is a certain poker-like element of trying to read one's opponent's reaction to his or her cards.  If I'm dealt a hand and react too enthusiastically, I can expect my opponent to play "Trade Hands" to take advantage of whatever got me so excited.  Similarly, if my opponent seems pleased with the starter card that is cut, I might consider playing "Cut Again" just to thwart whatever benefit he or she saw in that starter.

All of the games played for this review were in the standard two-player format, but Chicago Cribbage comes with enough Chicago cards to be played with three or four players as well (just as standard cribbage can be).  

Summary
Chicago Cribbage is a clever addition of a new dimension to conventional cribbage.  It spices up an old familiar game in a new and challenging way.  Purists might object to introducing new gameplay elements to a time-honored standard (like some chess variants, for example), so I wouldn't recommend it for those who like their cribbage "just fine the way it is, thank you."  For those who have played "the old cribbage" but find it a little dry and uninteresting, however, Chicago Cribbage provides a new element of strategy and thought, perhaps more in keeping with the kind of decision-making and gameplay that characterize more contemporary board and card games.  I would especially recommend Chicago Cribbage if you have a cribbage board gathering dust in a drawer or closet and vague memories of enjoying cribbage but never recently including it in your list of, "so what should we play today?"

I should add that my wife and I are divided on whether Outset Media ought to consider offering Chicago Cribbage as a complete set, with cribbage rules and board provided.  My wife feels that Outset Media could expand its customer base and broaden interest in cribbage by offering the game in a form that players can learn from scratch.  For my part, I'm skeptical that the game would work as a way of learning cribbage itself; to me, the appeal of the product is in bringing new life to an old familiar game.

Chicago Cribbage is recommended for ages 10 and up (although Outset Media's "cribbage game" web page lists it as "8+").  Frankly, the age recommendation is irrelevant; if you are familiar with cribbage, you can play Chicago Cribbage.

Outset Media doesn't sell games from their website but refers customers to independent retailers across North America and provides a toll-free phone number to inquire about finding a local retailer.  I did find that Chicago Cribbage is available at Amazon for $9.99.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Progress toward release of my first title

While at PrezCon, I had the opportunity to meet with my publisher and hammer out the final details of the rules to my game.  We nailed down some of the final wording, and in so doing I caught a mistake I had made in handling a case where a player's piece lands on another player.  We were able to resolve that at the eleventh hour, so I believe the rules should be ready to go to press.

The only outstanding decision they have at this point is to choose between two manufacturing options for the board.  They are very interested in making the right quality decision consistent with the target price point.  The intent is to go to the printers in time for an April release.  

I've got my fingers crossed.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Five friends and Seven Wonders

Last week our friend Jeff W. hosted Sheila D., Keith R., my wife Kathy, and myself for dinner, with the stipulation that I serve as "game sommelier."  I brought several boardgame options but had a special desire to introduce the group to 7 Wonders (designer Antoine Bauza, publisher Repos Production).  After a marvelous steak dinner prepared by master chef Jeff, we cleared the table and pulled out the game for a little run-through.

I enjoy 7 Wonders for a number of reasons.  It's relatively easy to teach.  The components are beautiful.  All action is simultaneous, so you are never waiting for your turn.  Everybody is in the game until the very end.  There are several different ways to win.  Once everyone is familiar with the rules, the game goes pretty quickly.  And most of all, it's fun, with just enough strategy to demand some brainpower.

The process of explaining the rules of a game is a real skill, one that I feel I'm still developing.  As I went over the rules to 7W, apparently I introduced some confusion regarding how to use resources to build structures and how to purchase resources from your neighbors.  It took a while for everyone to realize that building a structure doesn't "consume" a resource production card, and buying a resource from a neighbor doesn't "transfer" that card from one player to another.  So I still have some room for improvement as a game "explainer."

It's also important to get all the rules right.  Previously, one rule that I had forgotten is that you can't build two of the same structure, like two Barracks, for example.  My friend Keith Ferguson, whom I'd taught the game a few weeks ago, learned that the hard way in competition at PrezCon.  During one tournament game, he ended up having to give up one of his redundant (and therefore illegal) structures for three coins.  "Oh, sorry, man.  Missed that rule....."

So back to our recent game last week:  Jeff had the Temple of Artemis, Kathy had the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Keith had the Colossus of Rhodes, Sheila had the Pyramids of Giza, and I had the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  People got the hang of the game pretty quickly, and it was clear early on that Sheila was starting an arms race.  I think she was worried about Keith's Colossus giving him extra military power in his second stage.  As she put it later, she could understand the value of building up her military, so that was the approach she took.  Her neighbors Keith and Kathy tried to keep up, and in so doing did some fair damage to Jeff and (especially) me.  For my part, with the Hanging Gardens, I had built a number of scientific structures in pursuit of a "technology" strategy, but somehow - inexplicably - ended up in last place.  Sheila's military superiority and completed pyramids won the day quite handily.

Jeff had mentioned earlier that he had a copy of Rail Baron (a 1977 Avalon Hill title designed by R.S. and Thomas F. Erickson), so after our game of 7W, we had him pull it out and teach it to us.

Learning Rail Baron took me back to the days when I played Avalon Hill games as a teenager.  It was a remarkable contrast in standards of game design and production between two eras, and really two different markets in boardgaming between my early gaming days and today.  In the 1970s, Avalon Hill tried to develop games as models of real-world decision-making.  So the railroads in Rail Baron reflected actual railroad companies and routes at the height of the rail industry.

The early game of Rail Baron is a bit mechanical, as most routes are unowned and therefore traveled at little expense to the players.  Destinations are largely determined at random, and so players roll dice and move until they reach their destinations and earn money.  It is with the opportunity to invest in a railroad company or locomotive upgrade that the game begins to get interesting.  Even so, the first few railroad company purchases are largely inconsequential, as it is relatively easy for opponents to avoid having to travel on your rail line and pay through the nose for passage.

It was rather late in the evening when we were each beginning to purchase our second or third railroad company, and we regrettably did not have the stamina we might have had in the 1970s to continue the game to its conclusion.  But I could see, as we began to buy up all the railroad companies in the southeastern United States, that the next player to draw Miami as a destination would have to pay somebody for passage aboard that opponent's rail line, and that would be where the game would really get interesting.  I was really intrigued at the notion of trying to dominate a region in the interest of forcing payment and gaining some return on the investment.  We just never got to that stage in the game before we had to call it quits.  Too bad, too; I was just starting to get my avaricious capitalist tycoon on.

Kathy described her impression of Rail Baron as something like railroad Monopoly, and I could see her point.  The game progressed with gradual accumulation of property (indeed, the railroad company title cards closely resemble property deeds in Monopoly) and the opportunity to collect payment from opponents who were forced to travel on the rail lines you own.  Although there is no property "improvement" in the obvious sense, there is still an opportunity to "monopolize" a region to guarantee payment when an opponent rolls a destination serviced only by railroads you own.

An aspect of the game that surprised me was the frequency with which it was necessary to look data up in tables - both to determine payment for destinations reached and to determine the next destination.  I say it surprises me today, but it wouldn't have surprised me in the 1970s, and that fact opened my eyes to a facet of game design that has clearly changed over the years.  Seldom do today's new titles require many table look-ups during the course of gameplay.  For the most part, game data are either easily memorized or readily available on cards or on the board.  It's hard for me to think of a game today - at least among those I typically play - that requires referral back to rules or tables the way that the strategy games of the 1970s did.

Gunfire tables
from Tobruk
I remember Tobruk was notorious for requiring multiple dice rolls and table references with every weapon shot.  I think some people reveled in that degree of realistic detail at the time - the extent to which armor and ammunition characteristics were so carefully modeled in a tactical game like that.  Nowadays I wouldn't have that kind of patience, certainly not in a new game.  But then again, I'm not the wargamer I used to be.  I'm much more interested these days in games that are playable but still pose a mental challenge.  

So, the question comes to mind:  If I were to redesign Rail Baron today, how would I go about it?  How would I preserve the general strategic sense of accumulating railroad companies to dominate regions of a transportation market without having to resort to detailed payment and destination tables?  How would I improve the playability and approachability of the game while maintaining the capitalistic appeal of railroad investment?

Before I pursue that question very far, I have to be honest about the fact that I am rather unfamiliar with the state of the art of rail games today.  Other than Ticket to Ride, I haven't played any of the recent rail game genre.  The 18xx series has quite a following, and I would probably do well to research those games first, to see whether they haven't already answered the "Rail Baron of the 21st century" question.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pay attention when you discard

A couple of weeks ago at PrezCon, I played in two heats of Ticket to Ride (designer Alan R. Moon, publisher Days of Wonder), and it was in the first of these that I came face to face with my own absent-mindedness. 

As those familiar with the game know, each player starts with three tickets, each of which identifies two cities to connect by rail for points.  Longer routes in general are harder to connect but are worth more points, and having multiple tickets with overlapping connections make it relatively easy to compile a substantial score.  Of the three tickets at the start of the game, each player must keep at least two.  The disadvantage of keeping too many tickets is that uncompleted routes lose points at the end of the game, so it is prudent to keep no more routes than one is reasonably confident of finishing.

In my first heat, the three tickets I drew were all north-south routes with virtually no opportunity for overlap.  One was to connect Vancouver and Phoenix in the west, another Sault-Sainte-Marie and Houston in central Canada-U.S., and the third New York and Miami along the eastern seaboard.  So these routes had nothing in common, and clearly the logical thing to do was to discard one and strive to complete the other two.  After some thought, I decided to keep the eastern and central routes.  I discarded the third card, laid down the two tickets that I kept, and proceeded for the first half of the game to try to complete the two routes I'd decided to keep.

In a five-player game of TtR, there can be quite a lot of overlap among the competing players for key routes, and it became necessary for me to assemble a pretty convoluted network to get Sault-Sainte-Marie, Houston, New York, and Miami all connected.  I glanced at my tickets to double-check that I'd connected the right cities, and was horrified to discover that I still had Vancouver-Phoenix in my hand.  I had discarded New York - Miami without realizing it.

There was no hope at this point of making the Vancouver-Phoenix route; my opponents had by this time completely locked up the western U.S.  So the rest of the game involved scrambling for more tickets that I could reasonably complete by making extensions of my existing route in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, in the hope of accumulating more points.  I was actually rather successful, but I couldn't quite make up for the eleven points that I lost from having held on to Vancouver-Phoenix.  In fact, I came in second, only ten points behind the winner.  A most frustrating lesson in paying attention to one's cards.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A weekend of gaming

On the occasion of our son's birthday, his good friend and his friend's mother Sue Cochran came to stay for the weekend.  The boys played computer and video games in the basement; we played boardgames in the dining room.

Image (c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved
We started with Cities and Knights of Catan (designer Klaus Teuber, publisher Mayfair), a favorite variant on Settlers of Catan.  Although Catan usually remains close a contest throughout the game, this time my wife Kathy pretty much ran away with it by exploiting a very profitable wheat port.  She left Sue and me in the dust and won handily.

Sue had played Agricola only twice before and wanted to try it again, so we played the family version (without occupations or minor improvements).  Sue outscored both of us on major improvements with the well, the pottery, and a cooking hearth, and Kathy got her farm running strong on grain and vegetable fields, but I was the only one to renovate to a stone house, which proved to be the difference in my very close win.

Image (c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved
Sue next introduced us to Iron Dragon (designers Darwin P. Bromley and Tom Wham, another Mayfair title), which turned out to be the big game event of the weekend.  I read up on some of the reviews ahead of time, and a few comments were less than enthusiastic.  In the interest of simplifying the game somewhat and perhaps shortening the playing time, I convinced Sue to allow us to play without the event cards, which at least one reviewer described as randomly bad and not in general an improvement to overall gameplay.  She also agreed to make the "Rainbow Bridge" connection between Bluefeld and Octomare a permanent portal, which greatly simplified access between the new and old worlds in the north.  I can see that some fans of the game might think that we deprived the game of some of its challenge and flavor, but I think as an introductory session (in the context of wanting to play other games as well), the adjustments proved reasonable.

One reviewer expressed frustration at having to discard route cards frequently in order to find profitable assignments, but we didn't find that true in our session at all.  Admittedly, there were a number of times early in the game where it was necessary to spend more money building rail lines than would be collected in the final shipment, but I considered those costs to be an investment in infrastructure.  Many of the rail lines built early in the game turned out to be useful for multiple subsequent shipments, as well as the basis for a more extensive network later in the game.  Seldom did any of us discard route cards (if at all) in our session. 

In the end, I got to the point where I had enough surplus cash to extend my network to satisfy the victory condition of being connected to seven of the eight major cities.  After that, it was just necessary to complete several major shipments to reach a cash balance of 250 gold pieces to win the game.  All in all, I would say that it is a fun game, despite being a bit idiosyncratic in its design and execution.
Image courtesy of
Outset Media

We wrapped up with a game of Word Thief (publisher Outset Media), which my wife usually trounces me in.  I had a ridiculously good string of luck and managed to use all seven cards in three consecutive turns - a total of 60 bonus points.  I did win the game, but only by 27 points, which means that I needed two of those awesome turns just to keep my wife from crushing me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Power Grid at PrezCon

I had two tries at Power Grid (designer Friedemann Friese, publisher Rio Grande) during PrezCon this year.  This is a game that I love to play but at which I certainly have no degree of mastery.  In other words, both my games were learning experiences.  We played on the map of Germany in both games. 

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
I have a tendency to move out aggressively in terms of building power plants and connections, because I like to build up an income base early on.  The first game was no exception.  I think I led the pack in income per turn for most of Phase 1.  The disadvantage of my approach is that the more cities to which you are connected (or the bigger your biggest power plant as a tie breaker), the later you come in turn order for purchasing fuel resources and connecting to new cities.  The quickest way to build high-capacity power plants is to buy plants that are big fossil-fuel-burners.  Buying resources late in the turn means paying the highest prices for coal and oil.  So I really had a strategy that couldn't last. 

But the real problem in my first game was that Aaron Buchanan was at the table.  Aaron is a terrific game player, and in our game he had built plants up to a capacity of 13 cities.  Late in Phase 2, we were all hovering around ten cities connected and powered, when suddenly Aaron made new connections to five cities in one turn, which brought his total connected cities to 15 - the trigger for game end.  None of us was expecting that.  Although he could only power 13 of them, it was more than any of the rest of us, which won him the game.  I finished third of five, for what that was worth.

In the second heat of Power Grid, I played among a delightful group of players, all very good.  Kathy Stroh, Jake J., Leslee E. (if I remember right), and a fourth whose name escapes me.  I followed largely the same strategy (because, frankly, I couldn't think of what else to do) except that I bought a couple of nuclear plants to reduce my dependency on fossil fuels.  It's a good thing I did, because late in the game, Kathy and the player to her left colluded to deplete the coal market and made it impossible for Jake to power what could have been a game-winning 17 cities (if he had the connections).  The game ended with four of us tied powering 16 cities.  The tie-breaker is cash, and Leslee and Kathy were tied with five electros each.  The third place player had three electros, and I was dead broke, finishing fourth in what was by far my closest game ever.  Both Leslee and Kathy advanced to the semifinal.

My good friend Grant G. made it to the Power Grid final, where he faced Aaron Buchanan and Bill Crenshaw, among other top-notch players.  They decided on the central Europe map for the final round.  Grant finished in fifth, which he attributes to an unfortunate early selection of location.

I would like to get Power Grid, which is ranked 5th overall on boardgamegeek.com, but it does not come well-recommended as a two-player game, and it takes upwards of two hours to play.  I have doubts that it would work for my wife and me in our late-afternoon gaming sessions.

Next post:  Tickets, please...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An old favorite and a new discovery

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
My first victory at PrezCon last week came Wednesday afternoon in the first heat of Alhambra (designer Dirk Henn, publisher Queen Games), a favorite of mine.  It was a very friendly game, despite the propensity for Elisabeth P., a PrezCon newcomer, to continually buy the very tile I was looking for.  (How dare she?) 

Winning in the first heat qualified me for the semifinal the next day.  Somehow in the semifinal I had a hard time waiting my turn.  Three times I tried to skip Tedd Mullally on his turn.  He was a good sport about it; he didn't even break the skin when trying to bite my hand off.  ;-)  Despite what I thought was reasonably strong play, I came in second in the Alhambra semifinal.  Losing semifinals would be a recurring theme for me in PrezCon this year.

Later that afternoon, my friends Brian Greer, Keith Ferguson, Glenn Weeks, and I got together for my first full game of Stone Age (designer Michael Tummelhofer [pen name for Bernd Brunnhofer], publisher Rio Grande), a worker placement game that reminds me of both Pillars of the Earth and Agricola.  As such, the game continually poses a variety of options for limited resources, all the more challenging when only one player can grow the family, upgrade a tool, or develop agriculture in a turn.  The rest are left to claim victory point options and collect resources to pay for them - not to mention gathering food for the family.  In my case, I thought I played a relatively solid game, though not good enough to place better than third of four.  I like this game, although I'm not eager to buy my own copy, given its similarity to Pillars and Agricola.  Nevertheless, it's a very fun game in its own right.

Next, bringing power to Germany and transportation to America...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One day at PrezCon

So much happened at PrezCon that I think I'll take it a little bit at a time.  Wednesday opened with an introduction to Leaping Lemmings by one of the designers, Rick Young (the other being John Poniske, the publisher being GMT).  My good friend Glenn Weeks was already familiar with the game, so we jumped in for a heat, which was going very well - until one of my lemmings failed miserably at what would have been a five-point cliff dive if not for an ill-timed rock slide.  Despite my last-place finish, this was a great diversion, and I'd love to try it out on the kids. 

LL is a nice light-hearted title with a decent degree of strategy.  It vaguely reminds me of Lost World: Jurassic Park from the standpoint of being a fox-and-geese kind of game (outnumbered predators trying to catch prey running the length of the board), but LL is far superior to Lost World from a play balance standpoint.  Rather than having predator players vs. prey players, everyone controls one faction of prey (lemmings), and control of the predators (eagles) rotates around the board.  It would be interesting to modify LW:JP along the same lines.

Unfortunately, LL sold out pretty quickly at PrezCon.  We all found it surprising that GMT would release this kind of title.  GMT has a reputation for solid wargames and a few other represented genres, but LL is downright goofy by comparison with their usual line-up.  It's very interesting to see GMT branch out in this direction.  Regardless, LL is now at the top of my wish-list for family games.

More posts to follow over the next few days - games played and lost, games bought, and the status of a game sold.