January 27, 2009

Participants: Jon, Nadine, Binyamin, Avraham

Game night moved to Tuesday due to scheduling conflicts.

Carpe Astra

Jon, Nadine

Carpe Astra is the next game produced by Reiver Games, who also produces my own game, It’s Alive.

Carpe Astra is a simple set-collection, money-management game set in space. The game lasts ten rounds. On your turn, you can cycle cards, place one tile, turn tiles, place your workers in a connected string on the tiles, and collect chips for your cards if they match the symbols on the tiles on which your workers were placed. Alternately, you can force someone else to lose a chip, as well as optionally pay a coin to take the lost chip for yourself.

Most actions cost a coin each, other than refilling your hand up at the end of your turn to two cards and placing your first two (out of a total possible of five) workers.

There are six colors of chips, and at the end of the game the first or second place holders in each color score points. Winner has the most points.

As for the positive aspects of the game, which are only really relevant in a two-player game, you need to manage your money. This means that, like Taj Mahal, you’ll skip one round of placing workers, maybe two. There are no positive aspects to the multi-player game (we tried two player and four players).

Unlike most of the other games we play, a) turns are long, b) there is nothing at all to do when it’s not your turn, and c) in a four player game, you can’t plan since the state of the board will have changed completely by the time it gets back to you.

In some instances, one of the players and I could pretty much plan what we were going to do the next turn, assuming that no one messed with our pieces on the board. When no one did, we made our moves fairly quickly. But that didn’t happen often.

Turns are not short. You have to plan all your money and all your moves, and this can take some time. By the time three other players have done this, you’re pretty bored. And this happens ten times. Our game took two and a half hours, bearing in mind that our players are prone to AP, that it was our first game, and that we were so bored that we started playing side games when it wasn’t our turn.

For all the time it takes to check your choices, the choices are not interesting. The decision-making is “can I do it, or can’t I?” That’s not a choice; that’s a calculation. A calculation is not a decision. Either you can play all your cards, or you can’t. If you can’t, you play N-1 cards. And so on. The only choice you have to make is which opponent to hit, but even that’s not a choice: the vast majority of the time you have no choice, and when you do, you hit the one who’s winning.

There is a little choice as to whether to wait to play a card the following round when it will be more valuable. That’s something, but not much. There is a choice as to when to conserve money, similar to the choice as to whether to pass a round of fighting in Taj Mahal. It’s not one you have to make if you’re lucky with your card picks, however. If you pick cards with matching symbols, you’re going to spend less money.

In a four player game, the “choice” between networking cards and slander cards is not a choice. Networking cards are irrelevant in the last half, and much easier to use in the first half, of a four player game. And you NEVER want to slander and not pick up the slandered points, not only because you will lose them, but because you give them to the player on your left. In a two player game, this is not quite as clear; sometimes your opponent is out of one or two types of chips. If it’s less clear, it goes back to having to manage your money. If you have enough money, there’s no decision making. And if your opponent is our of several types of chips, he’s losing anyway.

Without any blocking cards, “instants”, or defensive maneuvering, you have zero control as to what happens to you in the game. If you’re lucky, other people will be easier to slander and they’ll get slandered instead of you. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get slandered multiple times. By the time it comes back to your turn in a four player game, you may have gone from winning to out of the game, without having done anything wrong. It’s entirely random.

The symbols, colors, and name used in different places were confusing, especially with regards to the players also being of the colors used in the game. The yellows looked like oranges, and the oranges looked like reds. Not enough contrast.

The event bonuses for each round are not interesting enough. And, in general, we didn’t like the mechanic of replacing other people’s pieces with your own. Some sort of additional cost would have been nice. Or combat mechanism, or something. The publisher indicates that removing other people’s workers is supposed to be a “strategy” to help protect you from slander; it costs nothing to replace your pieces, however, so it’s just not the case. You were going to pay the same amount to move your pieces onto other spaces with symbols matching your card colors, anyway.

The two symbol cards are nearly always better than the three symbol cards, and thus unfairly give an advantage to those who draw more. In a two player game, sometimes a three symbol card will be better if your opponent doesn’t have the symbols on the two symbol card with which you can hit him; this is never a problem in a multi player game.

Some of this criticism may be unfair: we have an AP heavy group, and we got bored with the game after a few rounds. In the four player game we finished the game, but we played side games in the meantime. We abandoned the two player game after a number of rounds.

Agricola

Jon 42, Binyamin 40, Nadine 34, Avraham 34

My first or second win, I think. Second or third play for Binyamin, and third or fourth play for Nadine and Avraham.

I am now more firmly convince that plowing and sowing strategies will always win against renovation and building strategies. While the earlier extra person/actions is nice, it doesn’t quite up for the several actions you had to take in order to get those extra actions. While you were building extra rooms, I was plowing and sowing.

I’m going to get extra guys a little later than you did. In the meantime, I have solidified my food base, will score full points for fields, vegetables, and grain, and am free to take extra points at the end of the game while you are wasting those hard-won extra actions to get food.

Even so, it’s a well-balanced game. You can’t entirely ignore building your home and expanding your family. You just don’t have to rush to do it first, that’s all I’m saying.

Although I started with a field, I didn’t get it planted until mid-game. I only played two occupations and two minor improvements, even through we booster-drafted them before starting the game. Binyamin played all of his, I think, which gave him lots of bonuses, of course, but also slowed his development. He still could have won if he had taken the right choice somewhere near the end; at least he would have tied me. Two or three synergistic occupations still make a world of difference, perhaps a little too much, in my opinion.

Nadine had a six room stone house, but no points in produce or animals. Avraham was first to five people, and even got an extra three point bonus for that, but was also produce and animal shy. I had only one sheep, but multiple point bonuses in all other areas.

Medici

Nadine 128, Avraham 111, Jon 107, Binyamin 99

First play for all of us except for Binyamin.

Medici is another “pure” auction game, or so they say, comparable to Modern Art, Ra, and Traumfabrik. It’s certainly elegant and streamlined. However, it is subject to even greater swings of luck than any of the aforementioned (which is saying a lot).

There are three rounds to the game. In each round, you take a deck of cards, remove some of them at random, and bid on the cards in lots. The cards are in five suits, numbered 0-5, with a single bonus card “10” of no suit. Each player decides to flip over 1, 2, or 3 cards (deciding when to stop after each card). Players then bid cash to take the cards. You can’t take the cards if it would give you a total of more than five cards. That’s one thing to consider when deciding how many cards to flip up.

Once all but one player has five cards, the last player simply fills his collection up to five cards from the top of the deck for the cost of 1. That’s where a lot of the luck comes in. In the first round, Nadine took all five cards from the deck, having won no other cards, and the cards she flipped up were better cards than all of ours; Binyamin’s collection was destroyed entirely because of what Nadine flipped up for herself. And the funny part was that I suggested that this might be an optimal strategy at the beginning of the game: paying nothing and taking five cards at random. Turns out that I was right.

Anyhoo, after all players have their cards, players score first based on how big their take was this round (by the highest numbers). Then they move their marker forwards on each color track once for each card they have of that color (numbers don’t count here). This track is cumulative from round to round. Players further along the track gain points, but less than the number scoring. The exception to this is if you hit the last two spaces in the color tracks, in which case you gain some good scores.

Nadine had the most points numerically in the first round, and hit the last space in one of the color tracks in the last round. I repeated her performance, gaining my last cards in the second round entirely by luck and doing extremely well because of it, but then I bid too much in the third round. If I hadn’t bid so high, Nadine probably would have won anyway, but I would have been much closer.

Since you don’t know what cards will be flipped up next, you have no idea of the absolute value of the cards you’re bidding on. If the 10 flips up next after you bid high to get high numbers, you’re screwed. Similarly, if you bid high to get certain colors, and then those same colors flip up again, you’re screwed.

And you have to bid high to prevent others from taking cards low, but it’s a game of push your luck. In particular, I didn’t like the “fill your hand with random cards” mechanic after everyone else has cards. That’s push your luck taken way too far.

So I don’t think I’ll get the game, but I wouldn’t refuse to play it. In fact, I feel the same way about Ra, Modern Art, and Traumfabrik.

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One thought on “January 27, 2009

  1. Ideally, in Medici, you can force a situation where you run the deck out of cards, limiting the ability of other players to slough. There’s no shame in letting a bad, or even mediocre, set go by with no bids to be discarded.The problems of Medici, for me, are that: 1. taking a bad boat in the first round probably means you’ve lost the game. 2. like many auction games, it has a learning curve, so it’s nearly worthless as a gateway game. 3. a player who fills her boat early on can walk away from the table for 20 minutes or more, having no decisions whatsoever to make. 4. often players can be placed in a role where they are the only person who can “spoil” the leader – but it’s so painful to do so, they rarely do, in my ~10 game experience. (this isn’t a bad situation, as it makes for interesting gameplay. See also Ra and Attika for similar setups). 5. the end-of-round timer is too predictable, unlike in Ra where there’s real tension created with every tile draw.All these flaws make it tough to call Medici anything more than a gamer’s game. I like Ra more than Medici, and prefer almost anything over Modern Art.

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