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T for Two

Hansa Teutonica is one of my fave games from last years Essen. Not every ones cup of tea though as it is an abstract masquerading as a trading type game.

I tried it as two player yesterday and it did not work as well as with four or five, in fact i'd say it was poor. The inrosuction of the marker that moves around the board means that if one player gets an action advantage they can keep the other player out of the upgrades they need; which spoils the 'rock, paper, scissors, stone' element of the game.

It reminds me that the previous i played was with three and that was poor as well - defiantely best with five or four where the different strategies balance each other out

PowerStruggle and SNCF

Its a mighty fine night when you get to play two new games and both are 8+ raters. The first was 'Power Struggle', the last of my Essen 09 unplayed heavies and a game i have table dodged because after five rules reads i had not progressed beyond flumuxed. This time i was lucky emough to have a PS vet to teach. And what a game! Very reminscent of 'Tribune' in the victory conditions and bonuses for leadership of divisions the game also has a short play time. There is loads going on here, beating you arch enemy, maxing on income and board power, every choice demands the weighing up of five or more factors. Whilst there are similarities with Tribune game this has got a little more going on, in that the bribery action gives a creative feel to game play. I have said this about a lot of Essen 09 games, but this time i thinks its true : this is the pick of the crop. The next 35 minutes of game time was spent on one of Winsomes 2010 Essen pack - SNCF. I thought Winsome had gone as far as possible down this route by discovering sub atomic level train 'n equity games with Wabash, however with SNCF they have found the Quark :- 2 actions build track or trade shares from the same pool as the track cubes, games over when 5 of the 6 cube pools have gone. I prefer CE but its hard to think of a recently released game that packs such a punch in 30 minutes.

Age of Industry wins IGA and some (unfounded) rumours

Congratulations to Martin Wallace for the IGA award to 'Age of Industry' - a very good game from a great designer. I am slightly surprised that it won because of its close resemblance to Brass, however in pure gaming terms I prefer it to most of the other games on the short list.

I was hoping that Dominion : Prosperity was a later September release - it looks like it might be as late as Essen, or even later. This is a shame because there is a pre-Essen gap for great game releases and it would have filled the slot nicely.

The rumour that I am most excited about is that Sid Meier's Civilization the board game might be a late October / early November release. For me, 'Civ' realised as a board game is the holiest of Holy Grails and the Upcoming Fantasy Flight release it number one on my wish list by some margin. Whilst I want this to be released yesterday a late October date is problematic; how am i going to fit in the time to play the other 40+ games arriving at Spiel?

A couple of Essen games will be in my hands before Spiele. 'London' by Martin Wallace (number 2 on my wishlist) will be sent out to arrive before the show and the new Kramer/Kieslng ; 'Asara' is out in Germany (without an English rules set unfortunately)

Heroes of Graxia - A review by Nigel Buckle

This card game is marketed as a deck building game – I think this is a little misleading, but it certainly has elements that should appeal to players of trading card games (in particular Magic the Gathering).

I won’t repeat the rules or go into too many game play specifics; you can read the manual here:

You each play a hero (6 different, all with unique abilities) but everyone shares a common card pool to obtain cards for your playdeck as the game progresses. Unlike other deckbuilding games you do not randomise the available cards in stacks with a subset available for each game. Rather you divide the cards into 4 types – monsters, units, spells, equipment and randomise those, then during the game 4 cards of each type are always available and you select from just those. This makes setup and put away a breeze, unlike other games of this type where you have to sort the cards into individual stacks.

In Heroes of Graxia you have 2 actions in a turn, and during your turn you can buy as many cards as you can afford (into your discard pile), then discard any remaining cards, and then draw a new hand.

You win by having the most victory points – these are gained from defeating monsters and also from killing your opponents units.

Unlike other deck building games, this feels more like a Rochester draft, you have not got unlimited access to all the card types, rather you can pick from the ones available at the start of your turn. This means you have to adapt your game as you play, rather than work out how you are going to build your deck for this game and then do it.

This game has significant player interaction – the game actively encourages you to attack your opponents through the way victory points are collected and the bonuses to player vs player combat many items and spells give.

There is a definite learning curve, the temptation is to buy as many cards as you can afford each turn, but I suspect this is sub-optimal play, unless they are all cards that give you victory points. There is currently no way to remove cards from your deck – defeated units go to your discard pile, but there is one spell that allows you to steal a spell from your opponent as they cast it.

I like it, but the game is not perfect. You will find yourself adding up attack and defence numbers all the time, are you strong enough to kill that monster, how much damage will it do to you, what values your opponents have, how the spells and mercenaries in your hand will alter combat. This can get bit tiresome, especially as the values get large in the mid to end game, and asking your opponent what their values are is a signal you are considering attacking sometime soon. Possibly this can be overcome with a player aid tracking the values for each player and updated each turn. Multiplayer can be vicious, and players need to be careful they are not setting up an opponent to win, for example you attack one opponent leaving yourself damaged and weak to an attack from a 3rd. To stop ganging up each player can only be attacked once per round, once you have your turn you are then eligible to be attacked again – this means if you are badly damaged by an attack you may not have enough cards/actions to fully recover leaving you vulnerable to another attack by a different player. The game requires the players to ensure they don’t help another player too much.

The game is very portable and the art work although not spectacular is perfectly servicable and helps the theme. You get 6 plastic figures, each representing one of the heroes in the game, but they are totally superflous to the game.

Overall, it is a game that will stay in my collection and I expect to see being played regularly. If your gaming tastes include Magic the Gathering or similar CCGs, and are looking for a non-collectable card game with a strong drafting mechanic and don’t mind adding up values repeatedly during a game I’d recommend this one.

The best game played in 2010, IGA shortlist - and a jury fantasy

On Wednesday evening i played the best game of the 200 odd i have played in 2010. It has everything you could want in modern Eurogame design ; multiple paths to victory, multiple game ending conditions, scarcity of time and resources, every action you take effects all the other players, the a seamless balance between strategy and tactics. We talk of ‘interlocking game mechanics’ as a hall mark of good game design , this game surpasses that ugly description and when playing i thought it was an Orrerry , so perfect did the mechanics fit together.

So what was this wonderful new game of 2010? Well I am being a bit misleading here, its only new in that I have not played it in 2010 (or 2009). First published in 2002 its ......Puerto Rico.

So having reminded myself of what the perfect Eurogame should look like i stated thinking about the shortlist for the International Gamers Awards and how these games matched up to the acme of modern boardgame design.

I think there are a lot of very good and worthy games on the list, but nothing that stands head and shoulders above its peers and none that should sit on the top shelf next to Puerto Rico. The awards are actually for games published in the year to June 2010 so there is some overlap with 2009 – though i think 2009/10 (for Eurogames) was consistently good but lacks the two or three stellar games that would make 2009/10 a great vintage, in bordeaux terms its a 1983 rather than a 1982. From the finalists (Last Train to Wensleydale, Egizia, Vasco Da Gama, Rise of Nations, Fresko, Age of Industry, Shipyard, Dungeon Lords, World Without End, Hansa Teutonica, Endeavor, Glen more) a case could be made for any of them to win. However if the three top games from the previous year were up for comparison (Le Havre, Automobile, Dominion) it would be no contest – each of these 2009 games would be a stand out, almost automatic pick, for best of year. And the same would apply if you were to introduce winners from previous years (Agricola, Through the Ages and Caylus). So the jurists have an interesting choice ahead of them and because they use a transferrable vote system there really could be any game winning the laurels (as St Petersburg did in 2004)

So on to my thoughts on the games - first i should qualify any negative comments by saying I own all of them (bar Shipyard which i traded) and would happily play all of them again many times (bar.....shipyard).

I have played all of the games on the shortlist at least three times. Indulging a fantasy that I am a jurist (and I had just played Puerto Rico before sitting down with my voting pencil) I would immediately strike two games from the voting ballot.

‘Shipyard’ (4 plays, Geek rating 5) great theme and mechanics can’t hide a game decided by unbalanced victory conditions – in the four games i have played the winner has, in every case, been the person who pulled the best combo of end game scoring bonuses.

‘Rise of Empires’ (5 Plays, Geek rating 5) is a poor implementation of a great idea. The ‘A/B’ turn mechanic is original; the rest of the game needed a lot more development to do the kernel mechanic justice

Two other games I’d find it difficult to vote for would be ‘Age of Industry’ and ‘Fresko’ – ‘Age of industry’ (5 plays, rating 8.5) because it’s a reworking of ‘Brass’ which got a stab at the award in 2008 and Fresko (4 plays, geek rating 8 ) because I am not sure what are you voting for ; the base or expanded game? Moreover whilst Fresko is a very good game it’s not a great one. The mechanics work with the theme better than any other game on the shortlist, but beyond that it’s not a stand out as a gamers game

Carrying on in reverse order the next two games I’d eliminate have great 'hooks' that it is a funky newish mechanic that engrosses me into the game, and I really enjoy playing both, but I think the games are beyond the hook fall just short of greatness. The first is Vasco Da Gama (5 plays, Geek raing 8) which is fun to play but after my fifth game i had not seen any variation in the way the games evolved. The action purchase mechanic though is great fun , however this is the whole challenge of the game and the roles selection, recruitment and ship movement lack the something that would move this game from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

The second is ‘Egizia’. ‘Egizia’s (3 plays) 'hook' is the Nile action selection mechanic. It’s great fun, full of the ubiquitous agonising choices. The rest of the game feels slightly Knizaesque with a splash of Stone Age. Unlike ‘Vasco’ there is multiple paths to winning this game. Unfortunately, like ‘Shipyard’ the difference between winning and losing can be decided by what end game bonus cards you draw and their synergy with previously drawn bonus cards.

The next to be struck off the list is ‘Glen More’ (3 plays) – it’s original and challenging, however with more than 3 players or with any players the slightest bit prone to AP it’s a write off. This game falls between two stalls, a fast paced tile laying game and a real brain burner. Because the luck of the tile draw can have a fairly big effect on the game then it should be a sort of gamers Carcassonne, instead it can outstay its welcome.

The last two games to be struck off are ones I love.

First up is ‘World without End’ (7 plays, geek rating 8.5) ; it’s a great experience game of the ‘bad things happening to you’ genre. However unlike, for example ‘In the year of the dragon’ the bad stuff can’t be planned for other than taking an efficient generalist approach. And you really need to know the events to avoid disaster. After seven plays of ‘World without End’ i can’t make my mind up if its a good game or not; i know I like playing it and maybe that should be enough.

‘Dungeon Lords’ (3 plays, rating 7) is as much fun as you can have playing a Euro. However, take the mechanics and imagine the theme, as say, castle building in 14th Italy to fight off Condottiere you’d have a run of the mill game which is just a little too fiddly. The theme and production make this game, I’m not sure it’s enough to be a game of the year.

So that leaves three games.

The two that don't quite make the pinnacle have a lot in common – they feel like ‘old school’ designs, b both are polished games that scale well, have multiple paths to victory and subtle player interaction.

‘Endeavor’ (11 plays, geek rating 9), with its feint echoes of Goa and Struggle of Empires ‘, is a pared down design that plays incredibly quickly.

‘Hansa Teutonica’ (5 plays, Geek rating 8) also has echoes of Goa, in Hansas’ case with a player ‘tech’ board, in Endeavor it is the buildings chose each round. ‘Hansa’ is a very simple idea but has multiple paths to victory and every game i have played has been quite distinct, with each strategy having an answer – almost a ‘rock, paper, scissors, stone Euro’, of these two I marginally prefer Endeavor. Why would these two great games not be my pick? Because though they are both wonderful they are clever remixes of older ideas

By process of elimination that leaves ‘Last Train to Wensleydale’ (3 plays, Geek rating 8) and of the games on the shortlist it’s the one I have played the least and the longest since I played it. I feel a little ambivalent towards ‘Wensleydale’ – in the games i played I thought some routes into the map were better than others, though that may be inexperience. On the other hand (i must qualify this by saying i am not much of a train gamer) it feels like a radically new approach to train game design.

Given my ability to predict awards and the transferrable voting system that ther IGA uses then don't be suprised to see shipyard win!

I can't think of any other games that meets the award criteria and that would be a winner here. If i had to pick 10 then i would sub in Chaos in the Old World (its a Euro!, but maybe not a Family strategy game...) for Shipyard and 'Imperial 2030' for 'Rise of Empires'.

In conclusion its a strong field full of games i am going to enjoy playing for years to come - but nothing as good as Puerto Rico.

Games that missed the shortlist that I think worthy of inclusion include Homesteaders and Assyria