Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chicago Cribbage - a new appreciation

Kathy and I had an occasion that required a portable game yesterday, so she brought several options, and I settled on Chicago Cribbage, which I reviewed here once before.  In our previous games, we'd explored each of the Chicago cards in isolation as to optimum opportunities for play and the poker aspect of reading one's opponent's face to consider whether it's time to play a "gotcha" card like "Reverse Counting" or "Trade Hands."

In yesterday's session, another tactical consideration emerged - the use of Chicago cards as response actions.  Two combinations came up in yesterday's game.  First, we realized that the negative effects of a "Reverse Counting" card can be mitigated by playing "No Fifteens" when one's own hand would otherwise score heavily in fifteen-point combinations.  Now the order of play is important.  We'd already realized that a "Reverse Counting" is most effective when played on the dealer, who will count negative for both his hand and the crib.  But since the dealer's opportunity to play a Chicago card comes after his opponent's, he has the opportunity to respond with a "No Fifteens."  

Second, we'd already recognized that an advantageous situation in which to play "No Fifteens" is when one holds a hand that scores well but has no fifteens.  So a logical response by the dealer to "No Fifteens" is to play "Trade Hands," so as to take advantage of the opponent's well-prepared hand and otherwise-well-played "No Fifteens."  

Now that these counter-moves are evident, they become considerations for the non-dealer as to whether to play a Chicago card for which the dealer still holds the counter-card.  Similarly, that means that the counter-cards might be held in reserve rather than played aggressively.  

I'm finding that this conceptually simple variant on classic cribbage has layers of depth that I hadn't originally appreciated.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pounded again in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico with
enhanced players' aids
My darling wife and I went to our old favorite, a two-player variant of Puerto Rico (designer Andreas Seyfarth, publisher Rio Grande) this afternoon.  Our games are typically a cocktail-hour custom, so our Puerto Rico set-up includes a couple of extra player-enhancing components.

We each started with indigo, and for some reason I got completely wrapped up in the idea of maximizing my building points, even to the point of neglecting basic production.  Kathy, meanwhile, seized upon what I thought was a rather clever combination to put together an impressive strategy.  She was the first to grab a bonus-point building, the Fortress, relatively early in the game.  Later she picked up the Hospice (one of her favorites) and the University (usually one of mine, yet one that I inexplicably declined to buy despite my building-focused strategy).  Once they were occupied, it was clear that hers was a population-based strategy.  Every Mayor, Builder, or Settler phase meant that she would get at least one more colonist.  As a result, her Fortress racked up seven bonus points by the end of the game.

My ending position - lots of quarries and
buildings, relatively little production
My building strategy worked to the extent that I obtained two big buildings - the City Hall and the Customs House.  Now, the City Hall makes sense in a building-focused strategy and gave me five points at the end.  But the Guild Hall was gone by the time I was ready to buy a second big building, so I settled for the Customs House, which did me very little good since I wasn't producing much and therefore wasn't shipping much.  I was gratified that my wife didn't get it, though, because it turned out that she out-shipped me like crazy.

I think in general my building choices were misguided almost throughout the game.  I had two sugar plantations but never bought a Sugar Mill until it was too late.  I mentioned that I never picked up the University, which I usually like to do.  And I'm starting to take more seriously my friend Grant's contention that a fourth Quarry doesn't pay off.  I've always liked it for the big building discount, but now I'm not so sure.

Kathy's strong finish -
34 shipping points!
So in the end, as it happens, my building strategy was for naught.  We tied in building points, and her bonus points were almost as good as mine.  But because her plantations were twice as productive as mine, and because
she had the Harbor, she had over twice as many points from shipping as I did.  The final score was Kathy 61, Paul 43.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pandemic infects our family

(c) Z-Man Games.  Used by permission
I had read an intriguing review of the co-op game Pandemic (designer Matt Leacock, publisher Z-Man Games) that prompted me to put it on the top of my list, largely because it seems to work well for two players as well as for more.  I went to Game Parlor Chantilly looking for it but was told that it was "between print runs," so they didn't know when they would get another one in.  So, off to eBay I went to get a copy, used if necessary.

Success!  It arrived last week, and right away I knew I would like this game.  The production quality is very nice (no surprise, coming from Z-Man), with a strong bio-technology art theme as well as a cosmopolitan, world-travel flavor.  I inventoried the game parts and came up short one Infection card, which hasn't noticeable affected the game play.  (I contacted Z-man, and it looks as though they should be able to provide a replacement.  The eBay vendor, Longhighdeepflyball, very graciously offered to refund my entire payment, but that seemed unfair to him and unnecessary, really.)  I had only played one co-op game before, Castle Panic, which was great fun with the kids.  I looked forward to trying out this highly-recommended game.

I was not disappointed.  Kathy and I played our first session soon after it arrived.  She played as the Scientist, I as the Operations Specialist.  We played the Introductory game, in which all of our cards were face up and there were only four Epidemic cards in the Player Deck.  We got the hang of the game without too much difficulty and really enjoyed the tension of racing against the spread of disease as well as the co-operative aspect of the game.

We recruited my 15- and 10-year-old sons to join us on Saturday, and because it was their first opportunity, again we played the Introductory game.  Liam was the Scientist, Kathy the Medic, Corey the Researcher, and I reprised as Operations Specialist.  We had a fair number of outbreaks, and the Player Deck started running low, but we managed to find all the cures and win the game.  The kids really liked it.

Despite complaints I've read that the game tends to get repetitive, it seems to me that there would be a lot of replay value in two respects.  First, each player plays one role for the entire game, so every game has the potential to be different, at least until you've played all the roles once or twice.  Second, infections in a given game tend to congregate in the same regions over the course of one game (since every Epidemic causes the infection to "intensify," putting the same Infection cards back into play at the top of the deck).  So I would imagine that each game provides a new regional challenge.  We'll see whether my expectation bears out.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to trying it out at a more challenging level...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Poor Man's Court of the Medici

In another of my unintentional series of knock-offs using a deck of playing cards, I was recently acquainted with the two-player card game Court of the Medici, and it wasn't long before I came up with a way to play the game using a standard deck of playing cards.  (I will add that reviews of the physical quality of CotM are very good, so playing the game this way means you miss out on the artwork of Richard James and the Z-Man production quality.)

Set-up
Remove one black king, one red king, and both jokers from a standard deck.
One player gets the 25 remaining black cards; the other the 25 remaining red cards. 
Each player shuffles his or her respective cards and lays out four in the middle of the table to form an "Inner Court" of eight cards. 
Each player also deals himself or herself a hand of five cards. 
The player whose Inner Court has the higher total (Jesters treated as "one") goes first.

Card descriptions
Queens are treated as "Ministers," which are worth zero points but have special abilities.
Aces are treated as "Ladies-in-waiting," worth one.
Jacks are treated as "Jesters," wild cards from one to ten in value.
Kings are treated as "Dukes," worth 15.
All other cards are worth their face value.

Play
In a turn, a player plays a card from the hand to the table, then draws a new card from the deck to the hand.
Playing a card can take one of the following four actions:
1.  Play a card alone to the table in front of himself or herself as part of the "Outer Court." 
2.  Play a card on top of an existing card - Inner or Outer Court, of either color - to build an alliance.  (The card is played in an overlapping manner so that the value[s] of the card[s] beneath can still be seen.) 
3.  Play a card on top of an existing card so that the new total value of the alliance equals that of any other alliance or of a solitary card anywhere on the table to form a conspiracy.  The alliance or solitary card whose value was matched is now discarded from the game.
4.  "Plan for the future" by taking a card from the hand and placing it on the bottom of the deck, then drawing a replacement from the top of the deck. 

Special abilities of cards
When building an alliance, a Minister may be used to discard all other cards in that alliance.
When building an alliance, a Lady-in-waiting may be used to disperse all other cards in that alliance as separate, stand-alone cards in the respective Inner or Outer Court.
When played, a Jester assumes a value from 1 to 10 declared by the person playing it at the time.
When a Jester is played to form a conspiracy, the person playing it may also declare a new value for one other Jester already on the table.

Game end
If both players "plan for the future" three times in a row, the game ends in a draw.
When one player has no cards in the Inner Court or when both players have no more cards to play, the game ends, and whoever has more points on the table wins.

I look forward to trying this out with my wife soon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mother's Day in the Museum

One of my wife's requests for Mother's Day was a family game.  Now, in my family, negotiating a consensus on a game to which everyone agrees is not easy.  I gave our two younger sons a list of 60 four-player games that we owned, that my wife likes, and that are age-appropriate for my youngest (ten-year-old) son.  I told them that they could each eliminate up to twenty games from the list.  That left twenty or so from which Kathy could choose.  She settled on three options, and from those the boys agreed to play Clue: The Great Museum Caper (designers John Labelle and Thomas and Dave Rabideau, publisher Parker Brothers).  (Surprisingly, this was not an easy process.)

This 1991 title was a gift from one of my siblings many years ago, and it has become an old reliable family favorite in my house.  Despite the title, this game is not at all a variant of the traditional and familiar Clue.  Rather, the game is a terrific mix of co-operative and competitive gaming.  Each player gets one chance to be the art thief, who by hidden movement attempts to make his or her way through the museum, steal paintings, and escape the other three players, who attempt to coordinate their efforts to catch the burglar.  The player who escapes with the most paintings in his or her opportunity as the thief wins the game.

The non-thief players ("detectives") can coordinate their efforts and have at their disposal video cameras and motion detectors, but the sensors don't all work at the same time and they are not sufficiently numerous to cover all the paintings vulnerable to theft, let alone all the numerous escape routes by which the thief can exit the museum.  The thief can disable cameras and motion detectors and even turn off the power to the entire security system, but he or she can get cornered if careless and end up caught red-handed by the detectives.

The really exciting aspect of this game is the hidden movement.  Sneaking around as the thief, who is always vulnerable to discovery and capture, makes for very suspenseful play.  The other players, meanwhile, feel as though they are fumbling around, trying to find the burglar somewhere in the huge museum with limited lines of sight and inconsistently functioning cameras.  The advantage goes to the last player to be the thief, because that person knows exactly how many paintings are necessary to win the game.  Our customary family rule, therefore, is that players take turns as thief from oldest to youngest.

As the oldest at the table on Mother's Day, I was the thief first.  I made my way through a back window into the center room of the museum, where I disabled a camera, then stole a painting.  Everyone knew basically where I was once the first painting was removed (they are each alarmed and so alert the detectives when "lifted").  I was able to make my way into the red room in the back of the museum - my favorite escape route, as it has two doorways for entrances and two windows for exit.  It also happened to have two paintings, so - in full view of the camera in that room - I stole both paintings in the red room.  Luckily for me, the detectives were moving slowly (due to low die rolls) and the first window I tried was unlocked, so I was able to escape with three paintings.

That turned out to be enough, as it happened.  When my wife was the thief, I happened to stumble upon her after only two turns and caught her before she laid her hands on a single painting.  Each of our sons ended up getting trapped in a room - in my youngest son's case, the power room, when he tried to disable the entire security system.  So as the only successful thief, I won the game (and some notoriety for catching Mom on Mother's Day).

It was admittedly a success born of a little dice luck and a little lucky guesswork, but that didn't take away from the fun and the suspense of playing.  We really like this game.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Two packages arrive

(c) Worthington Games
Used by permission
This week the postal carrier brought two packages.  One was the long-awaited and just-released Boots on the Ground (designer Sean Cooke, publisher Worthington Games), pre-ordered last fall, which I will describe in a subsequent post, once my son Liam and I have a chance to break it in.  The other new arrival was Take Stock (designer Simon Hunt, publisher Z-Man), which I bought on sale from Tanga.com and which my wife Kathy and I tried out the day it arrived.

Take Stock is an intriguing card game in which players attempt to accumulate shares and manipulate prices of the stocks of five companies.  There are four rounds of play, but we were a little constrained for time and took a while to fully understand the rules, so we only completed one round.  Players can play cards to increase the price of a stock, accumulate shares of a stock, or attempt to manipulate the market with event cards that can cause stock splits, audits, crashes, etc.  Scores at the end of each round are based on total asset value of stocks held (price times number of shares for each stock).

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
What seemed odd to us and took a while to understand was the round-ending trigger conditions.  A player has to run out of cards, or the price of one stock has to rise to a certain level, or the "Market Closed" card has to turn up from the event deck.  (This game-ending card is placed 11th from the bottom at the start of the game.)  Except in the last case, a player has to willingly force the end of the round.  When we played, we were preoccupied with increasing our portfolio value and so didn't try to end the round.  In retrospect, however, I can see how the goal might be to gain a reasonably significant lead against the opponent(s), then force the end of the round to lock in a leading score.

Overall the game struck us as a little odd, but we both recognize that we probably didn't fully appreciate how to play the game, so we are likely to try it again fairly soon.  It meets our criteria for "outside games on a nice day" (i.e. playable on deck furniture), so it's a good candidate as the weather improves.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Farming family style

Now that the weather is nicer, Kathy and I like to game out in the backyard.  Of course, deck furniture doesn't make for a lot of table space, so our options are limited.  One discovery we made last year is that we can play two-player Agricola family-style (meaning, without occupations or minor improvements) and just squeeze it onto the available surfaces.  And still have room for cocktails.

Family game board section
It's actually been a little while since we've played Agricola, and a long while since we've played it family-style.  I must say that this is a really elegant game when stripped down to its essentials.  There is very little left to chance, and you really have to know what you're doing against an experienced player.  (In the case of Kathy and me, we are nearly equally matched.)

In today's game, Kathy went long on major improvements.  She got a fireplace very early and fed her family a lot of sheep throughout the game.  She picked up the well about Round 8 or so, and very late picked up the stone oven just for the points.  She also renovated to a three-room stone house in the last round.  For my part, I got the grain farming going and picked up the clay oven early, so my family was eating a lot of baked bread for most of the game.  I got a jump on building rooms to the house and grew the family, and hoarded wood to build a lot of fences for animal breeding.  I never picked up a fireplace or cooking hearth, however, so I could never cook animals or vegetables.  I did pick up the basketmaker's workshop when I renovated to a four-room clay hut.

In the end I won by a single point, by virtue of having two leftover reed to gain a bonus point from the basketmaker's workshop.  It was anybody's game all the way through, and we were both happy with the way we played.  This is still one of my very favorite games of all.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My top ten card games

Inspired by Dice Tower Episode 206, Chris Norwood (GamerChris) recently posted his favorite card games.  Since inspiration begets inspiration, I thought I'd explore the topic myself.

Before I get into my top ten list, I'll mention that the definition of a "card game" might be ambiguous. I think Alhambra qualifies, for example, because the card play (among four suits or "currencies" of a range of values) drives the purchase of the tiles that are placed for scoring. But I wouldn't include games that just "have cards in them," like Agricola or Clue, because card play isn't the primary aspect of the game (even if they are essential to the mechanics). I'm not sure how to write the definition of a "card game," but I'd be curious to know people's thoughts on which games are close to the frontier between card games and "other games" and how you decide on which side of the boundary a game falls.

My honorable mentions would include:

Chrononauts: A goofy title from Loony Labs that my wife really seems to like. I prefer Martian Fluxx, but this one is also a likeable game.

Incan Gold: I'm always fascinated by the way teenagers play push-your-luck games, so this is a fun one to play with my kids. I never know what they're going to do.

Guillotine: The artwork in this Wizards of the Coast title still makes me chuckle.

Triumvirate: A recent discovery that I am only beginning to appreciate

Mille Bornes is a nostalgic favorite that has fond memories going way back to when I was growing up.  It was a family favorite then and still sees the light of day from time to time even now.

So, my top ten card games:

10. Alhambra: I used to dislike this game because I thought it had a "run-away" aspect to it, in which an early leader was hard to catch. That is, until I thought I'd run away with a game in the PrezCon semifinals and then lost somehow in the final scoring. Perhaps I completely misplayed near the end, but I prefer to think that my worthy opponent had a more subtle appreciation for the game and how to score big without leading in many categories.

9. Munchkin: My kids have taken a sudden recent liking to this game, and I like anything I can get my kids to play. Another good one for laughs.

8. Empyrean, Inc. This is a regular go-to game for my wife and me, a surprise hit we received as a gift. We love this game so much that we started to wear the cards out, so I bought a backup copy.

7. Martian Fluxx: A genius little game from Loony Labs. What a crack-up.

6. Down in Flames III: Zero!: A very clever card-play mechanism for air combat

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
5. Race for the Galaxy:  This is a game I want to like more than I do. My wife and I found all the symbols confusing and frustrating, and we haven't played it since. Having said that, I'd still like to try it with a fresh (patient) group and find out why people rave about it.  (San Juan is worth mentioning here as something we explored as an alternative to RftG, but I think we found it a little simplistic and perhaps disappointing. We kept thinking, "Why don't we just play Puerto Rico instead?") 

4. Battle Line: Great mind-bending game with my wife, except that she always wins.  What is up with that?

3. Condottiere: I haven't had a chance to play this nearly as much as I'd like. I fell in love with it in just one session. I wish I could play it a lot more to fully appreciate it.

2. Pacific Typhoon: Very fond of this game with a bigger group of people. I love the historical photographs. Very clever game-play structure that motivates some pretty lively negotiation.

1. 7 Wonders: Currently my favorite game of all. I will play this at the drop of a hat.  Will Wonders never cease?