June 8, 2016

Participants: Jon, David T, David K, Nadine, Gili, Binyamin, Francis, Alan

David Tzur is the new name for the guy formerly know as Alex. He is a designer who has published a few games, and he came to show me one of his new prototypes.

Prototype

David T’s new game occupies the same space as Codenames. It’s different enough to stand on its own. It was a nice game, although the scoring is not entirely worked out yet. Hope to see it again in its finished state.

Codenames

Since David T had never played Codenames, we showed him how it works. I gave clues to David, and Nadine gave clues to David T and Gili. They won by one card, partially because I gave the clue “British” without seeing that the word “England” was on the board, and I gave the clue “Chekov”, intending David to guess “Moscow” without knowing that Chekov was also a “Doctor”. Then David and Gili gave clues to Nadine and David T while I read the rules to Francis Drake.

Notre Dame

Alan 53, Gili 51, Francis 42

I didn’t see how this went.

Francis Drake

Binyamin, Nadine, David, Jon

First play for all of us. David is reluctant to play a game that no one knows and for which we have to read the rules as we teach it. Often I can do better than I did with this game. The rules were less of a problem than figuring out the setup. It took us 25 minutes. The rulebook is 18 pages long, with lots of repetition, yet staggeringly unclear on how setup works.

There are light blue card, slightly darker blue cards, and slightly darker blue cards, as well as gold cards. For a standard 4 player game, you play with the “blue cards”. Even knowing that that meant the middle blue, it was impossible to tell the colors apart. The rules say nothing about the gold cards, and oh yeah: they are not separate cards, but double sided, with one kind of blue on one side and another on the other (so you can’t compare them side by side). The game says to place X, Y, and Z on a board, but there are four kinds of cards called X, Y, or Z, and well as tiles; do we take them from the cards we’re using or the tiles? Or the gold cards?

Cubes and jewels are not properly identified in the setup or on the board, and the board is double sided, which we didn’t realize until we had to undo everything and flip it over for the English side. And on and on.

The game: I pretty much got the idea the moment the rules explanation was done, because the game is freakishly similar to a dozen different games we’ve played before: Macao, Vasco de Gama, and any other game where there is a fixed number of rounds to a) take turns gaining cubes, other resources, and special powers, and b) ship, build, or deliver before or better than everyone else, all set in some Renaissance sea routes or group of villages.

In this game, the first half is progress on an 18 track where you can only move forward, you can jump ahead spaces, the first to land on any space gains an advantage for that space (takes an extra cube), and you only get to land on ten spaces.The second half is going to places and either trading cubes for trade goods or trading cubes for points (called “battles”: your cubes are soldiers and guns and the spaces are forts and ships and so on). Most battles require a varying amount of cubes to win the points, and these are not revealed until after everyone has taken their cubes. Two of the special powers that one person (each) can take is to look at and rearrange some (but not all) of the supplementary tiles that provide varying amounts for battles, after everyone has taken their cubes.

Most games have some drawbacks, including the two games listed above, but this one’s is most annoying: the only thing you keep from round to round is your points and trade goods (you gain points at the end of the game for collecting sets or partial sets of trade goods). All cubes, resources, powers, and positions are reset each round, so every round is exactly the same with the exception of how many trade goods you still need to complete a set. That little point calculation makes it slightly more advantageous to plan to visit a trade good site rather than a battle site, but not by much. A complete set of 4 trade goods (4 visits) is 26 points, and three battles fought in a round (3 visits) are worth at least 30 points. Allegedly there is competition for the trade goods and battles, and there may indeed be in a five player game, but in our four player game there was almost none. Everyone had room to go where they wanted. Maybe I missed something in the rules about blocking off certain spaces in a 3 or 4 player game to make it more competitive.

I’m the kind of player who likes to play the first few games tactically. I may eventually find an overall strategy, but I simply took the most cubes I could and figured out what to do with them as I got toward the end of the track. I happily played without much thought. David and Nadine are the kinds who are unhappy taking actions if they haven’t calculated exactly how many cubes they need by the end of the round and if anyone can stop them from getting them. As a result, owing to the usual complexity inherent in a first play of a mid-weight Euro, David did not enjoy himself in the first round, especially because it had already taken more than an hour to start (setup, rules explanation, etc). It didn’t help that he rolled a 1 for the only die roll in the game, for which he needed a 2 or better to succeed. The first round took a very long time, and he was doing well by the end. Binyamin was ahead, and was more behind on the score track but had more trade goods.

The second round went much quicker. David didn’t warm to the game. I had conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I was okay with the mechanics and I could see how the competition worked, but there was minimal tenseness and the second round was very boring since it was exactly like the first round for me (the track actions were in a different order, but that was about it). And then I had all the cubes I needed for a battle unless I got extremely unlucky (maximum defense in both the card and the supplementary tile. Of course I got extremely unlucky, and lost 12 points because of it, which was the difference between first and last place.  I don’t mind small swings of luck, but that is too much for a mid-weight Euro.

By the time we finished round 2, it was pretty late, I wasn’t interested in continuing and I saw that David and Nadine were suffering, so I said we should end, even though that annoyed Binyamin (rightfully so). I said that I didn’t see any difference between the rounds, but the truth is that that was because I was playing tactically. If you play strategically (which means concentrating on trade goods or not), there is a little difference (you don’t have much control over who takes what in the track and can be easily locked out of taking any trade goods in a round – another thing that would be better if you could save cubes from round to round).

I am willing to try it again, although I might get a bit bored. It’s certainly not thematic and it doesn’t feel original in any way, but it seems mostly balanced, there are decisions to make, and you might even have some tension during the shipping in a five player game. But I see no reason not to flip up all the tiles values at the start of the round. And I am already strongly considering to let players keep a few cubes from round to round.

Nadine wrote that it seemed too lucky.

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