Sunday, December 25, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gamer Poll

Just for fun, I decided to create a poll geared at gamers and then answer it myself.  I also posted the poll on my gaming group's website, Camel City Gamers, though I've only had one response so far (thanks Brandon!)

1. What is your all-time favorite game(s)? Why?
I think my all-time favorite would have to be Power Grid. There are so many things I love about this game - the auctions, the psychology, the jockeying for turn order, the screwage factor, the race to the finish.

2. What is your current favorite game(s)? Why?
My current favorite game changes quite frequently, as I'm a card-carrying member of the Cult of the New, but I think my current favorite is Belfort. The primary reason I like it so much is because the designers have done a great job of blending a variety of game mechanics. While I like some of these a lot (worker placement), I am less keen on others (area majority). Somehow, though, they are melded together nicely in Belfort. This game proves true the old adage, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts".  Next up: Vanuatu, most likely.

3. What game(s) are you best at? Why?
I would have to say the game I am best at is Power Grid, even though my win/loss ratio is probably only 60/40. I think I am best at it because I play it a lot and I am generally good at evaluting the other players' positions, and waiting for the right opportunities and seizing them.

4. What game(s) are you worst at? Why?
Of all the games I have played more than a couple of times, the one I am probably worst at right now is Glen More, to which many in the group can attest. I used to be good at it one time, but for now I should just keep far away. My problem is that I commit to a strategy too early and never stray from it, no matter how bad it gets. Either that, or I've boxed myself in and can't switch.

5. What is your favorite game mechanic(s)? Which mechanics(s) you are best at?
Speaking in general terms, I think I'm best at worker placement games - for some reason, I really identify with that mechanic. In addition to worker placement, I also like games with auctions (when I do well at them), set collection, and tile-laying. I also like climbing games like Tichu and Haggis.

6. What is your least favorite game mechanic(s)? Which mechanic(s) you are worst at?
Any game with simultaneous action selection, absolutely. It is by far my least favorite game mechanic and the one I am worst at - they go hand in hand. For some reason, I cannot grok games like Citadels, Havana, Mission: Red Planet, and the like. On the other hand, I do fairly well with role selection, such as with Puerto Rico. I am also OK at RftG, which seems like a blend of the two. Also, my performance at auction games varies widely. For me to be good at an auction game, there need to be a lot of pretty obvious information in the game to help me evaluate how much something is worth. I've had success with Power Grid, but I have had some fairly abyssmal performances at other auction games such as Goa and Chicago Express.  Lastly, I am not a huge fan of deck building games like Dominion or 7 Wonders.

7. What is your favorite game theme(s)? Or do you prefer abstracts?
My favorite game themes are ones that are unique or different. I like the themes of games like Moongha Invaders (mad scientists and monsters), Kaivai (sailing around Polynesian islands in canoes and having "fish celebrations"), or Yggdrasil (playing the role of a Norse god fighting his traditional enemies). I really don't like abstracts - I hate Chess, for instance.

8. Do you prefer two-player or multi-player games? Why?
Generally speaking, I like multi-player games a great deal more than two-player games, though there are exceptions. I like the social and game interaction involved, though I don't like games where the game state changes too much between turns. Multi-player games with interaction, where turns are short, or where players take turns performing actions are my favorites.

9. What is your preferred game "weight"? i.e. Light, medium, or heavy?
I like medium or heavy games the best. I can play a light game every once in a while, but I generally like the meatier games. For whatever reason, I am a person who likes to think and I like playing against opponents who do, too. However, with the really heavy games, I sometimes have trouble sitting still for 4+ hours, so I guess I really prefer the medium-heavy ones.

10. What's more important, winning or having fun? :)
Having fun is definitely more important. That's not to say that winning isn't nice, but it's really gravy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Belfort: From the Ground Up

Belfort is a new strategy game from first time designers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim. The game development was done by Seth Jaffe (Eminent Domain) and the artwork and rulebook were done by Josh Cappel (Wasabi and many others). The game was published by Tasty Minstrel Games and was first available to the general public at Gen Con 2011. It was one of only two new releases I bought at the convention (with the other being Hibernia from Vainglorious Games). I wasn’t necessarily planning on buying either game, but after Michael Mindes did a demo at the con and I saw the components, I was quickly sold.

First off, let me congratulate the entire Belfort team on an excellent game that I predict will land in the BGG top 50 after it becomes widely available. Why? Because the game has all the makings of a big hit: the most well-written rules I have seen in a long time, fantastic art, excellent components, entirely reasonable playtime, a bit of randomness, and a lot of replayability. Another important point to make about Belfort is that the rules themselves are very straightforward and streamlined, even if they hadn't been documented so well. I have a lot of respect for the folks that worked on this game.


Belfort comes with a main board representing the city (comprised of five separate wedge-shaped segments that are put together to form a pentagon), five player aids, a resource collection board, and a calendar board (to keep track of turns and to store gnomes and cards). There is also a deck of 50 property cards and 12 guild tiles. The iconography on the boards, cards, and tiles is very clear, and the player aids put everything essential right at the players' fingertips. The text is in English only, but is very easy to read (and some of it is humorous!)

The artwork on the stickers, boards, and other game materials is plentiful, colorful, bright, and fun. The board is very detailed, too, with touches that remind me a little of some of the Agricola tiles (one of the Inns on the board appears to have a flying saucer beside it). The art in the rulebook, and its layout, are similarly top-notch. Visually appealing, easy-to-read fonts have been used throughout and there are plenty of colorful examples on every page. Josh did a super job with this and with making the game shine visually.

And then there are the bits. To be sure, Belfort has a lot of components, over 300 of them. You’ve got resources (wood, stone, metal), money chits, elf and dwarf discs for five players, houses for each player to mark properties he's built, scoring markers, gnome tokens, and more. There are so many components that I think the box could have stood to have been a little bigger.

The quality of the bits is excellent, although I'm not exactly sure what they're made out of. It seems to be a composite material or some type of compressed wood, rather than what I am used to seeing. The metal resources are decorated with a silvery metallic paint, which is a really nice touch. I was a little consternated at first when I learned the worker discs (elves, dwarves) and the gnome tokens (pentagonal!) must be stickered with 142 stickers (took me about 90 minutes). But after you've played the game, you won't mind having done the extra work. Plus, I prefer the stickered discs to a cardboard chit or an undecorated wood token.


As previously mentioned, the rulebook is one of the most clearly-written ones I have read in a long time, and they are very well thought out. At the risk of using too much hyperbole, I find the game to be of the same caliber as some of the classic Euros here on the 'geek. You will have undoubtedly seen the core game mechanics used elsewhere (worker placement, resource gathering, area majority), but they have been combined here very effectively. There is really nothing in the rules that I would view as non-essential.

There are also no rules "patches", with the sole possible exception of the two-player rules. While this variant is documented clearly enough in the rulebook, it feels somewhat like a band-aid for a game that is better played with three to five players.

Without further ado, let's get into some of the details of the game. I won't rehash all the specifics of the rules here (you can download it in the files section on the game entry page if you're interested), but I do want to give a clear feel for basic game play.

Game Play

Each player takes on the role of a group of dwarves and elves working to build a medieval city (don't leave, stay with me!), with the help of some gnomes-for-hire. The goal of the game is to have the largest workforce and/or construct the most buildings in the five districts around the city (these are the two ways to score points). The game is played over seven turns, each of which has a worker placement phase, a resource collection phase, and an action phase. Turns three, five, and seven also have scoring phases.

In the game, the players' dwarves and elves can be placed as workers to collect resources. The game has only three resources: dwarves collect stone, elves collect wood, and together they can collect metal. Either can also collect gold. In addition, elves can be upgraded to master elves, and dwarves to master dwarves, to collect the resources more efficiently.

(Image credit: jtemple)

After resources are collected, players who opted to recruit new elves or dwarves retrieve them from the supply, and any player who opted to take a new place in the turn order does so by swapping turn order badges with any other player. I have not come across a game where turn order can be rearranged with quite as much flexibility, and it is something I have yet to explore to determine its utility. Any turn order changes go into effect beginning immediately.

The tail end of the resource collection phase also has an income/upkeep step where players earn income for their buildings, but must pay taxes according to how well they are doing (e.g. how many VPs they have). This makes complete sense thematically, since points are awarded to players based on the number of workers they've hired and properties they've built. This upkeep step doesn't have the oppressive that some other games do (I won’t mention Agricola by name).

Another thing elves and dwarves can do is visit one of five guilds around the city, which are represented by tiles on the board and are randomly chosen from a pool of 12 at the start of the game. The guilds give special abilities, such as granting resources or an extra worker, much like the brown and gray buildings in Caylus. A player who becomes a guild master (by building the guild headquarters) can visit that guild for free or can instead gain income from other players when they visit.

Players can also construct buildings around the city (using the resources their elves and dwarves have collected) and then visit some of them on subsequent turns by placing workers to gain the benefits they bestow. Some of the buildings give extra benefits by placing a gnome-for-hire on them. I won't go into all the benefits that each of the different property types grant, but they seem to be fairly well-balanced. There is a thread on BGG that discusses the pros and cons of each, and the best time to build them. It is the cards in a player's hand that govern what he buildings he can erect.

Once completed, players will also place a house token on the corresponding board space in any of the five districts of the city that are free, attempting to gain the majority of buildings in as many districts as possible. The districts are mirror images of one another (logically, not visually); each contains exactly one of the ten building types (the 50 cards). Later in the game, choices of district become more limited if the same building type has already been built multiple times. While not a huge consideration, it may factor into the player's decision of what buildings to construct.

Gnomes, who can be hired by players who have enough money to do so, are able to do specialized work that cannot be done by the elves or dwarves, granting the player an extra benefit or two, which I've already touched on. They might allow the player to promote a standard worker to a master worker or to draw extra property cards. But there are a limited number of gnomes in the game, so players should hire them while they can.

The game also has a trading post where players can buy and sell resources, but at a reduced rate of exchange and not without restriction. Players can also buy new property cards to replace the ones they've built.

Lastly, as mentioned, points are scored at the end of the third, fifth, and seventh turns. They are awarded for having majorities in two categories: buildings and workers (with elves, dwarves, and gnomes being scored separately). Scoring really couldn't be any simpler and that is something I like.

My Thoughts

Belfort is a very strong offering from Tasty Minstrel. Jay and Sen-Foong have put together a solid combination of mechanics. The game is immensely enjoyable and I don't look at my watch when I play or feel like I need a calculator or scratchpad to take notes. I like that the game has multiple phases, with each one offering a different level of player interaction and requiring a different type of thinking.

The placement phase provides external tension as players vie against each other for the most beneficial guilds, as well as the worker recruitment and turn order spaces. All of these areas are likely to be hotly contested, as only one player can take each spot. I like the fact that this phase also offers players some noncontentious options as well: they can also place workers onto their own cards, safe from their opponents' workers (unlike a game like Le Havre). The placement of workers on the resource area of the collection board imparts a slightly different sort of tension, with no one wanting to make the first move. There will undoubtedly be some amount of AP during this placement phase with players who are prone to it, especially in later turns, but I am personally not bothered too much by it so far.

The action phase feels like more of a solitary exercise, which I can see as a complaint being leveled against the game, especially with higher player counts. In this phase, each player resolves his worker placement actions, hires his gnomes, performs special card abilities, constructs and places his buildings (in any order) and finally optionally buys a new property card. Play then moves on to the next player who does the same. It is worth noting that the game comes with four "interactive" guilds, which do add a small amount of player interaction into the mix, such allowing a player to steal resources or cards from an opponent.

Doing all this requires making many small decisions, a modicum of spatial perception and analysis, and quite a bit of thinking ahead to the next turn, which I really like and admire. It can be easy to forget things in this phase, like buying and placing a gnome or saving a gold or two for the next turn. Early and mid-game turns are relatively quick if players have prepared well, but in the final two turns of the game, it can take much longer for a player to complete his actions. With a three- or four-player game, I don't see it as being too much of an issue; with five, I can see it becoming a problem for some groups.

Belfort is a strategic game, with some short-term tactics, a combination that I really appreciate. While there are multiple paths to victory, players may find their strategies somewhat dictated by the selection of guilds in play and the cards they draw, particularly the first five. I can see a variety of different strategies emerging as the game gains a following and players post them in the forums. I can also foresee a mathematical analysis being done in some form or fashion in the not-too-distant future.

All in all, I really like this game (as I'm sure you can tell), and I can see the potential for it quickly becoming a favorite game. I should know after a few more plays.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Earthlings Beware: Moongha Invaders Are Here!

Moongha Invaders is a 3- to 4-player game designed by the prolific British game designer Martin Wallace. The game was released in limited quantities by Club TreEmme in 2010. The game artwork was done by Italian artist Luca Zamoc.

I first heard about the game on Mark Johnson’s Board Games to Go podcast. In his 2010 post-BGGcon show, special guest Greg Pettit described his first encounter with this quirky game and I was instantly hooked. What could be cooler than a strategy game centered around competing mad scientists hell bent on wreaking havoc around the globe, commanding terrible monsters created in their laboratories? Nothing. This is the kind of game I enjoy most, a strategy game dripping with theme, and Moongha Invaders delivers in a big way. Unfortunately, the game is very hard to come by and is very expensive. Only a few hundred copies were printed and sellers are now asking well over $100. I bought my shrink-wrapped copy from a seller in Italy and paid to have it shipped to my home in North Carolina. Did I spend a lot for it? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely.


As the adage goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and Zamoc’s cover art for the game delivers spectacularly. The red, white, and black cover drawing is very well done and has a distinctly retro feel, perfectly setting the tone for the game as well as the rest of the components you’ll find inside. Depicting all the monsters you’ll create during the game as you take on your role as mad scientist, the artwork also imparts a definite sense of terror due to both the colors chosen and the frenzied appearance of the monsters. You’ll definitely want to be careful opening the box, lest you inadvertently unleash something terrible!

Inside, what you’ll actually find is a very retro-looking board showing a map of the globe, with twelve different large cities prominently marked. You’ll also find many large colored wooden blocks and discs, smaller colored discs and cubes, a couple of clear sticker sheets, twelve red dice, and the rulebook. The chunkiness of the larger blocks and discs also add to the retro feel in my opinion, as do the images on the stickers, which must be carefully applied to them. This is where one minor gripe about the game components comes in: the images on the clear stickers, when applied to the darker colored blocks and discs, can be very hard to make out, even in decent light. For many of the images, this isn’t an issue that affects game play. However, for those of us who find the theme appealing and feel the images add to the ambience, white ink for the stickers or lighter colored blocks and discs would have been a better choice.

The larger blocks and discs represent the cities you will defend on the board map, the monsters you will create, and the heroes and military units that other players will use to fight them. Each player will be able to create seven different types of monsters, all having unusual names that add a bit of campiness the theme. These monsters have different powers, ranging from the brains behind monster movement to the ability to inflict tremendous damage upon a city. All of the monsters, when spawned and placed on the board, are initially hidden until they begin their rampages or until they are discovered. The heroes and military blocks are “neutral” units that can be used by any player to reveal a monster (in the case of a hero) or attack a monster (a military unit). The monster and hero images are very cartoony and the military units range from street militia to fighter planes to an atomic bomb.

Then there are the dice - twelve red wooden dice with rounded corners and gold pips. The dice are used during the game to determine available actions, decide combat outcomes, and to resolve tests for revealing hidden monsters. I was not happy with the quality of the dice, so I replaced my set with 12 red plastic dice.

The remaining components, the small discs and cubes, are very nondescript, aside from the fact that the colors present a very unusual palette (purple, orange, white, and black) that clashes pretty spectacularly with the rest of the game pieces.

The game is played over eleven or twelve rounds, depending on the number of players. Each round, players take turns executing various actions by taking discs or blocks from six different action pools that diminish until the round eventually ends. The actions allow players to create or heal monsters, attack other monsters or cities, move or hide monsters, and reveal or attack other players’ monsters. A few actions are always available at the start of a round; the rest are determined by the roll of a group of dice. In the early rounds, fewer actions are available, but as the game progresses a crescendo builds as more and more actions are added each round, until the game ends and the winner is determined.

To start the game, players learn which cities they need to defend against the other players; these are kept hidden throughout the game, for successfully defended cities are worth points at the end of the game. Next, each player places his or her monster discs on the appropriate spaces along his or her side of the board. Then, five of the six action boxes are seeded with action tokens and the game begins.

At the beginning of each round, including the first, a number of dice are rolled to add action tokens to the board, determining which actions will be available to the players during the round. As mentioned, the number of dice rolled will increase throughout the game. After the dice are rolled, players begin taking turns, round-robin style. On his or her turn, each player will choose one action to perform by removing an available disc from that action’s box:

Create/Heal – Using this action allows a player to create a new monster or heal one that has previously taken damage, either from other players’ monsters or from military units. To create a monster, the action tokens are banked on the monster spaces along the edge of the board until enough have been collected to spawn the monster (the monsters have varying creation costs). When this happens, the player places the monster in any city on the board, with its hidden side up. To heal a wounded monster with this action, players simply remove a damage cube from an injured monster and return it to the supply.

Attack – Players will use this action to attack each others’ previously revealed monsters or cities. Attacking either will cause the attacking monster to become revealed, thereby making it a target for other monsters or the military units that might be defending the city. To attack, the player will roll a number of dice equal to the monster’s attack value multiplied by the number of attack discs they have collected; any result of a 5 or 6 results in a hit. The defending monster is not allowed to counter-attack or escape, and damage inflicted against other monsters is registered by placing a number of black cubes equal to the number of hits. A monster that is killed is returned to its owner, with the exception of the Moogre, who will capture the defeated monster for victory points.

Attacks against cities are handled differently, insofar as any militia units in the city (infantry and tanks) attack first. Assuming the attacking monster survives, the dice are then rolled and any damage inflicted on the city is first registered against any military units and then against the city, with the city being destroyed after 8 hits.  Hits are indicated by placing cubes on the board in the player’s color; these will be counted for scoring later.  Only Bloobs, Moogres, and Mechoors can attack cities, with Bloobs being able to attack in concert with one another (each player has three that can be spawned).

Move/Hide – This action allows players to move their monsters around the board or hide a previously revealed monster. Reasons for moving might include escaping from another player’s monster or moving to a nearby city to wreak havoc against it. A player might choose to hide his monster in order to avoid taking further damage from another player’s monster or from the militia defending the city. A Spectoor will allow a player to move/hide more than one monster at a time, or two move a single monster twice.

Hero – Choosing the hero action gives a player the chance to reveal an opponent’s hidden monster on a roll of 4, 5, or 6.  If revealed, an immediate attack by any militia units in the city is also triggered. Heroes can also initiate attacks against Drakoors, which cannot be attacked by military units or other monsters (except another Drakoor).

Military I – This action allows the player to place one lower-powered military unit in the city of his or her choosing, as long as the city has one revealed monster (which entirely makes sense from a theme standpoint). This is generally done to defend one of your home cities or to prevent the other player from scoring points.  When placed, an immediate attack is triggered against all revealed monsters in that city.

Military II – These military units are cooler (air force and A-bomb) and more powerful and can also inflict damage upon the city itself. These can attack any city with at least one revealed monster.

In addition to taking actions, players may pass. Passing allows a player to take an action for which there are no more action tokens available, at the expense of taking two turns to do it. To indicate this, the player places his or her action token in the desired action box and waits for his or her next turn. If at least one of the other players did not pass, the player is allowed to execute the selected action when his or her turn comes around. The act of taking a passed action also counts as a pass, so the other players would still have a chance to end the round by passing as well. Until all players have passed, the round continues. Once all actions have been executed or all players have passed, the round ends; any remaining action tokens are returned to the supply and another round begins until the game is over. This passing mechanic is not one I had seen before and really adds suspense to the game.

When the game ends, players will score points in several areas. First, a player may receive points for his or her home cities, depending on how successfully he or she defended them. Destroyed cities are worth nothing.  Next, players score points for having inflicted damage on each others’ cities, with the player having inflicted the most damage receiving the lion’s share of the points. Drakoors placed out on the board are also worth a varying number of points that depends on how many other monsters are present in the same city. Lastly, players who have captured each others’ monsters with a Moogre score a number of points equal to the damage capacity of the captured monster.

With regards to scoring, players tend to focus on attacking and defending cities for the majority of the game, often using Bloobs, Moogres, and Mechoors. Focusing on completely destroying cities as one strategy will earn the player victory points while denying the opponent from receiving points for the city, but a better strategy can be to inflict some damage to as many cities as possible, since points are also awarded to the two players who register the most in each city. In later rounds, players generally try to place their Drakoors on the board. Another scoring strategy, that is sometimes hard to pull off, is to prepare a Moogre to spawn over several turns and then wait for another player’s monster to suffer a lot of damage, swooping down for the kill after no more move/hide tokens remain.

In sum, Moongha Invaders is one of my favorite games, and I’m really glad I shelled out the cash to pick it up. The game has it all: a great theme and satisfying game play with a healthy combination of tactics and short- and long-term strategies. I rate it a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Power Grid: Theme and Strategy

Power Grid, from German game designer Friedemann Friese, is a game that I consider to be one of the best of the best. It has stood the test of time and will continue to do so, both for me and many gamers around the world. This review focuses mainly on the theme and strategy of the game.  Detailed rules or components summaries can be found elsewhere; I have tried to explain just enough for players to get a strong sense of gameplay.

In Power Grid, players take on the roles of different power companies vying for dominance in cities across the country, whether it is the U.S. or Germany, both of which are included with the base game.  Other maps are available. Throughout the game, players invest in power plants that supply electricity to the cities in which they have presence.  The plants operate at different efficiency levels and are powered by different resources, from coal and oil to solar and wind.  The player who can power the most cities with his plants when the game ends, wins.

Power Grid is definitely a game for the well-rounded player. In order to excel, he or she must be good at bidding, money management, spatial reasoning, and more than a little mind-reading.  This game has it all: auctions, a commodity market governed by the natural laws of supply and demand, and network building. The game is very competetive and has plenty of opportunities for thwarting other players or stunningly cutthroat moves. It also has a very effective mechanism to help prevent a runaway leader and often has a dramatic, nail-biting ending. The carefully crafted interplay of all these elements is what qualifies Power Grid as a masterpiece of game design in my mind.

Math and Money Management
Many games keep try to keep math to a minimum or keep it hidden or disguised, but its overtness in Power Grid is a very common complaint about the game and is what turns off many gamers. Although the math involves nothing more than simple addition and subtraction, there is a lot of it and it cannot be avoided. And while it does distract from the theme of the game at times while you get out your mental calculator, it actually directly related to the theme, as opposed to a game like Seeland where the math is more at a tangent to the theme. This is because all the calculations involve the basic currency of the game, the Elektro, represented in game by colored paper money.

Elektros are used for everything from buying power plants to acquiring fuel to extending your power network, and if you play it right, it all leads to... more Elektros. In order to excel, players must be very good at managing this cashflow throughout the game. Each of them begins with startup capital they must use to invest in their first power plant and the fuel to run it, and then begin making inroads on the map.  Deciding when and where to spend money is a balancing act, and I love the way it's done in this game. At the end of each turn, the net result of these actions is income, which is funneled back into their business until eventually it becomes the most powerful.

So, while the math does get a little burdensome at times and can devolve into a lot of time-consuming number crunching towards the end if you let it, there's a purpose. It really is thematic and a necessary evil of this game, and I don't mind it, within reason. If you're playing with experienced players who don't have a huge problem with analysis paralysis, it shouldn't be a huge deal.

Every turn starts with an auction round where players bid on the power plants they will use to power their network, represented in-game by square cards. Each player will choose a plant to auction, but during most of the game only four plants are available to auction. However, players can see what is likely to be on the block next and in what order. The auction phase may represent the amount of money the power companies are willing to pay for research in new technologies and improvements to existing technology.  I love this part of the game for many reasons.

First, the auctions are done in order such that the player who is in the lead must choose the first plant to auction. This is a disadvantageous position to be in, because choices are limited to the four plants that are currently on the auction block. The next few showing, which are likely more efficient, only serve to tantalize him. This presents many choices, but a decision must be made. Meanwhile, the player who is last in turn order is sitting in the catbird seat. He can enjoy bidding or passing on every auction as he pleases, knowing he will always have the opportunity to buy the last plant at face value, if he wants to. This is the first way the game tries to level the playing field, and I think it's smartly done.

Related to this, I also love the random order in which power plant cards are drawn. As each plant is auctioned off, a new one is drawn and the plants are rearranged in numerical order. The more efficient plants have higher numbers and higher starting bids, and are out of reach. Since only the four lowest numbered plants are available, the newly drawn plant could change what plants will be on offer next. It could land in the future market or it could push out a plant that had been expected to be included in the next auction round, leading to groans from some players and grins from others. This aspect of the game has been very well done.

There's the actual auction itself, with its bidding and bluffing and choices. Should the player quietly choose the one he views as best and hope to get a good price (or perhaps he has so much cash on hand that money is no object)? Should he choose one in hopes other players will be interested and outbid him, perhaps driving up the price along the way, and thereby giving him a shot at the next one that turns up? Should he pass, saving some money but eliminating himself from further bidding this round? Or maybe he should just pass because the plants on offer are not desirable, knowing that the next player in turn order will face the same choices.

Next, there's the fact that the number on the power plant serves as a tie-breaker for who will be start player on the next turn, which is very often needed in this game. And since turn order is such an important factor, it's very important for the player to pay attention to the number on the plant he is buying in relation to the number on the plants owned by the other players. Would he OK with the being the first auctioneer, or is the catbird seat more comfortable to him, or would he rather be somewhere between the two extremes?

Players must also consider the price of the plant, the type of fuel the power plant users, its efficiency level, the resource market, and the number of cities it can power. The fuel may be cheap, but other players may have the plants requiring the same resource. Or  fuel may not even not pertinent, in the case of solar or wind plants, and the player is willing to spend more money on the green technology. Or perhaps a player may want to choose a type of plant not held by other players, knowing there will be no competition for resources and the price will therefore come down. Diversifying fuel sources is another option. Another decision is the number of cities the plant will power relative to the cost of the plant and the resources.

As the game progresses, players begin to vie for the more efficient plants and are usually willing to spend more Elektros on them at auction.  Occasionally, a plant will even sell for more than double its value. This is because the winner of the game is the player who can power the most cities and the better plants are vital to accomplishing this goal.

I love the myriad considerations when choosing plants to auction and buy. The more you play, the more you appreciate the genius of this part of the game.

Resource Market
The resource buying phase of the game is the next thing to consider. The individual resources are represented by wooden pieces: brown cubes for coal, round black barrels for oil, and yellow and red octagonal cylinders for trash and uranium, respectively. My only complaint here is that the oil barrels can easily roll of the table. I would have preferred a black octagonal cylinder.

During this phase, players buy the fuel to power their plants from those available in the resource market. As stated previously, the market is controlled by the laws of supply and demand. As players buy resources, from last player to first player, the prices are driven up. At the end of each round, prices do come down at varying amounts as resources are replenished. The market is well done and serves its purpose, although I would argue the choices are a bit simpler here, involving fewer considerations. I still appreciate it, though.

The first consideration is obviously the cost of the resource. The player must decide what he can afford, usually leaving enough money for the city building phase, which comes next. Related to this, the player must decide how much should buy, as the plants do have storage areas for extra fuel, but the storage capacities are limited. This does involve planning for future turns and mimics the way a business would decide how much money to invest in a particular fuel source.

Next, the player may want to review the fuel needs of the other players, particularly toward the end of the game. It is possible to deny another player of the resources he will need to power his plant or plants, provided he has the storage capacity and despite the fact that it will be expensive to do so. I do like this aspect of the game and I like doing what I can throughout the game to make sure I'm not caught in this predicament, because it can be devastating.

Lastly, as mentioned, resources are replenished at the end of each round at varying rates, which will in turn drive the prices down for the next round. This will also factor into the decisions a player makes.

City Building
The city-building phase of the game requires players to suss out a network of cities across the board.  To land a utility contract with a city requires an initial investment; competition with other players as the game progresses may cause additional fees as they win contracts ahead of you.  Future expansion to other cities involves additional costs as well; theme-wise this represents the costs of building the additional infrastructure to reach them.  The more cities you are able to power, the more Elektros you earn in return (though at a decreasing rate of return).

The first aspect of city-building that I like is making my first city placement (indicated by placing a colored wooden house on the city) and watching what other players do.  While I generally strive to make my initial investment in a city that is centrally located and not too far from cheaper areas that I can move into later in the game, I have seen other strategies work equally as effectively.  Some players like to start in areas where the expansion costs are much lower (or free), while others start in the areas with high expansion costs.

It is also interesting to see how fast players expand, since there are compelling reasons not only to expand, but also to not expand, as least not too quickly.  While the more cities a player can power will earn him more income, taking the lead in this phase is counter-balanced by its effect on turn order: the player with the most cities will have the worst position for the next turn from everything to auctions to resource buying to additional city building.  This penalty sometimes leads to some tough decisions; I love the way it has been done.  Different players have different play styles, and their strategies may change over the course of the game.  Thematically, this could reflect the idea that smaller companies are able to run their business more efficiently than the larger ones.

About halfway through the game, the number of cities becomes important for another reason: the first player to build seven cities signals the beginning of the next stage of the game where a second player can invest in each city. Good positioning in turn order can be especially critical at this juncture. Players will frequently want to be last in turn order, so as to have first choice during the expansion phase of the following turn.

Lastly, effective city building is vital because the end of the game is signaled when one of the players reaches a certain number of cities (this differs according to the number of players).  When the game reaches this point, players typically spend one or two turns making increasingly powerful plays, such as spending large amounts of previously accumulated cash to pay outrageous sums for power plants, to stock up on resources, or to expand their power network to several cities in a single turn. The reason for this crescendo is because the winner is the player who can power the most cities. This is one of the most exciting moments in the game.

Turn Order
I have already touched on turn order throughout this review.  It is a very important consideration in the game and it is affected directly by players' actions in all phases of the game.  It is so important that competition for it often becomes a separate side game, as players often jockey to gain or retain control of it.  The competition has its subtleties, as being second-to-last may be just as good as last depending on the other players' power plant and resource holdings.  I really enjoy games that involve counterpoint such as this, and ones that place such a strong emphasis on turn order.  I really admire how Friese has done this.

Power Grid is a masterpiece of game design and clearly deserves its laurels.  If you haven't yet played it, I encourage you to give it a try.  If you've played it and can't get beyond the math, I would encourage you to give it another try, keeping the theme in mind.  The abundance of math is an understandable complaint, but with the right players the game really shines brightly.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Glen More: A Wee Bit O' Scotland

Glen More, designer Mattias Cramer's first game, is set in the Scottish highlands.  In this game, two to five players compete to create the best laid-out countryside using tiles selected from a circular track.  The game is played over three scoring rounds and generally takes about 60-90 minutes to play in my experience.

There are several factors that make this game interesting to me.  First and foremost, there's the circular tile track where players leapfrog each other to grab the tiles that interest them most.  Some of these tiles must be purchased with resources, while others are free, and the tiles vary in ability.  Some are pure resource production tiles, others grant the player a new clan member who can rove around the countryside, while others give victory points for different conditions.  They increase in power as the game progresses over three scoring rounds.  However, the leapfrogging comes with a catch: skipping too far ahead may get you the tile you really need, but it will give other players additional turns and the opportunity to grab more tiles until they catch up to you.  Counter-balancing this is the end game scoring (see below).

Another factor that makes the game interesting to me is its spatial element.  Players place the tiles taken from the track in front of them, while respecting various tile placement rules that mainly center around how your clansmen wander from place to place.  I like the idea of creating my own Scottish countryside, replete with villages, fields, pastures, lochs, castles, fairs, and suchlike.  To some players, the fact that players have their own individual landscapes demonstrates a lack of player interaction, but I personally feel there is ample interaction on the tile track.  Also, I am always watching how my opponents are laying their tiles, because of the way scoring works and because it sometimes affects what I select from the tile track.

But more interesting to me is trying to lay my tiles in the best manner possible.  Placement is strategically important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that every tile placed activates the benefits of its neighboring tiles.  I like the fact that nice combos can be created by placing tiles next to each other that work in tandem, such as one or more wheat fields next to a distillery that produces whisky from the wheat, or a butcher next to cattle pasture.  Also, the placement of each tile can also affect how many times it can be activated in the future and also where subsequent tiles can be laid.

In addition to the tile track and placement mechanics, there's also the resource market where wheat, wood, ore, sheep, and cattle can be bought and sold in limited quantities.  As the demand goes up, so does the cost, with the supply running out after three resources of each type are sold.  The market is only resupplied as players sell resources back to the market in the opposite order they were bought, meaning the first resource sold of each type brings the highest price.  And since money is worth victory points at the end of the game, selling resources to the market can really help a player's position.  You really get a sense of supply and demand with the market, along with a realization that resources are not inexhaustible.

Lastly, I find the scoring interesting. Three times during the game, players earn points based on the difference between their acquisitions and those of the player with the least, in three different categories.  The greater the disparity in the number of clan chieftains, whisky barrels, and lochs/castles between you and the player with the fewest, the more points you'll score.  Gauging when these scoring rounds will take place can be important.  At the end of the game, additional scoring occurs.  Special bonus tiles add their points, leftover money scores points, and players take the difference between the number of tiles they own and the number owned by the player with the fewest, losing three points for each extra tile.  This penalty gives players the incentive to not build too far ahead of their opponents.  It can also create a strategy where one player may frequently take fewer tiles, forcing other players to lose points at the end of the game.

My only real complaint with Glen More is the downtime with four or five players.  Two or three players is the sweet spot, in my opinion.  With fewer than four players, the game adds a six-sided die acting as an extra player without adding any downtime.  I won't go into details, but it's cool how this works.  Beyond this, my only other complaint is that the printing and iconography on the tiles is way too small.

The love/hate divide on this game seems to be about 50/50 from what I have seen.  Personally, I like it a lot, though I don't love it.  I do think it's a great first offering from this new designer and I'll be interested to see how his future games play.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Few Games

All who've come over to my house have seen that my games live on a medium-to-large Ikea bookcase in my study:

Unfortunately, as you can see, it's bursting at the seams.  When it was getting close to 75% full, I made a promise to myself to only own as many games as will fit.  It's already overflowing now, with games on top of, underneath, and beside the bookcase.  I'm not going to have extra caches somewhere else in the house.

The reason for limiting my collection is two-fold.  Primarily, it's because 80+ games is more than enough for me.  It's a way to force me to value "quality over quantity", and to ensure my hobby doesn't turn into "collecting games" rather than "playing games".  Also, purely from a practicality standpoint, my wife and I live it a very small house.  So until I get that elusive gaming room in the basement finished, I'm going to have to make do with the Ikea bookcase.

It's because of this that I'm saying goodbye to a few games this month: an erstwhile friend, four acquaintances, and two complete strangers.  I've already boxed them up and will be sending them off to their new homes today.

The Strangers

Modern Art - I bought this game solely because of its provenance - it's designed by Reiner Knizia.  I've never even played it, and I've decided I don't really feel the need to own a game based primarily on an auction mechanic.  The idea just doesn't appeal to me.

Runebound: The Frozen Wastes - Initially, the theme of this expansion to Runebound both appealed to me and revolted me.  I liked the idea of an adventure in the frozen tundra of the North, but the "alien race" aspect of the game seems completely incongruent and entirely unnecessary.  Ultimately I just couldn't move past it far enough to play.  Instead, I should have gotten the Sands of Al-Kalim or The Island of Dread, both of which I've played and liked.  Another reason I'm selling it should be obvious when you read on.

The Acquaintances

Aton - I played this game a few times and liked it initially, but ultimately I just ended up being bored by it.  The Egyptian theme I had hoped for simply isn't there.  While I have plenty of other games with "pasted on" themes, with this one, the lack of theme is blatant.

Last Night on Earth - This is a game I really wanted to like; what's not to love about zombies?  I actually do like one of Flying Frog's other games, A Touch of Evil, but this one just didn't do it for me.  I played once and liked it, but subsequent plays just didn't seem fun.  Other players in my gaming group didn't like it either, so it just hasn't seen much playing time.  I'm hoping I'll find another zombie-themed game I like better, and have been considering making a copy of the print-and-play game Dead of Night.  I'll also be trying Zombie Plague at an upcoming game night.

Witch's Brew - I liked this game OK at first, but then the "I am Herbie", "Not I", "So be it" script lost its charm.  Also, I am terrible at simultaneous action selection games.

Loot - This game may also have been purchased because of the designer.  I was really impressed with Tigris and Euphrates and decided I needed to try others, thinking they'd all be just as excellent.  So, I bought this game to play with my wife, and let me just say for the record, it's very ill-advised play this with two - not fun.  Lost Cities is a great two-player game by Knizia, for sure, but Loot is not (even though it is advertised as such).  This one is actually headed to Goodwill; no one bid on it.

The Friend

Runebound - It was much harder to say goodbye to this game than any of the others.  I've played it many times and always found myself getting lost in the adventure.  However, I have always had three major complaints about this game that ultimately led me to playing it less and less frequently.  First, the playing time with more than three players is intolerable.  Even with two or three, the game is long.  Secondly, the movement dice can be needlessly frustrating at times.  Lastly, over time, I began to find that the combat resolution became a little rote after a while.  In addition to the complaints, my tastes have shifted more towards Euros anyway.  But as I boxed it up yesterday to ship it off, I had some regrets.  In an almost wistful way, I counted up all the health and exhaustion counters.  And as I put the lid on, I even told myself that I could always buy it again later if I wanted to.  But it's going to a good home to a buyer in Iceland, along with The Frozen Wastes expansion.  Adieu, Runebound!

And now I'll end this blog post rather abruptly:  Who wants to help me finish off a gaming room in my basement???