Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ROBA for March 2010

Another month, another ROBA gaming session. This time it was my buddy Carl and I, his first time attending. Carl is one of my favorite players to have at the table. He's fun, capable, and willing to play just about anything. This month attendance seemed a little light, and the place seemed to empty somewhat early. There weren't many people there when we left around 6:00. Here's what we played.

Shadow Hunters game components.

We started off with a game of Shadow Hunters. I got a copy of this via Z-Force a couple of months ago and have been trying to get it to the table. One of my fellow gamers at ROBA brought their copy also, and said it was a favorite of hers, and so was happy to teach it. We played a 6-player game. For those who don't know, Shadow Hunters is a game where each player is dealt a character card at the beginning and no one else knows what it is. Each character is either a Hunter (trying to kill all the Shadows) a Shadow (trying to kill all the Hunters) or a Villager (with unique victory conditions.) You need to figure out who is who, then begin attacking your enemies and assisting your teammates. Most of the detective work is done via Hermit Cards. They say things like "I'll bet you're a Hunter! If you are, then take 2 damage." Between the cards and watching the interactions of the other players you need to deduce who is who.

I was a Werewolf, and revealed myself fairly early mostly just to see how the game works. I was the second person to be eliminated after the game explainer, who was a Hunter. One of the Villagers won on a questionable rules call, but Shadow Hunters was fun and everyone had a good time. I'm gonna try and get this to the table at my FLGS this week.

Brass: dry, stuffy and wonderful.

We then moved on to Brass, a game I've owned since August of last year but have been unable to get to the table. It was a 4-player game with 3 new players and someone who had played before a year or 2 ago. It played more smoothly than I expected from reading the rules. This comes from the many exceptions to the rules which don't come up a lot, so most of the time things are pretty straight forward. It took about 2.5 hours to finish, and it didn't feel like 2.5 hours which is usually the hallmark of a good game. I probably won't get to play Brass very often, but I'd sure like to...

Saint Petersburg.

We finished up with a game that's been on my radar for a long time: Saint Petersburg. I'll need to play this one again. I can see the appeal in it and the cleverness, it just didn't really do much to impress me. It's competent but not memorable. I wouldn't mind trying it again to see if I'm missing something.

All told, it was a good time as always.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Container: Economic Terror on the High Seas

Oh, Container. I've had my eye on you for some time. You seemed so full of potential. People said you were a fantastic economic game, where there was no hidden information, where the decisions of the players determined the in-game economy. This meant I was either probably going to love you or hate you. You might break my heart. You'd never go on sale, though. And Valley Games has a bad reputation for shoddy components and poor customer service.

When tax return time came this year, I decided to finally give Container a try. I bought it along with its expansion (Second Shipment) from CoolStuffInc last month, and I got the chance to try it for the first time last night.

Yellow's ship arrives at the remote island with 4 containers of goods to auction off.

We played a 3-player game. The rules aren't too complicated, and once we had a few turns under our belt things flowed pretty smoothly. The game involves buying factory machines and using them to produce goods. Other players then buy the goods from you and sell them at their harbor store. Players have a ship which can sail from harbor to harbor buying goods from other players harbor stores. Once a ship has one or more goods on it, that player may choose to sail to the remote island where there is an auction for those goods. Since each player gets a secret scorecard at the beginning that tells how much each color of good is worth to them, everyone values things differently. Also, since players set their own sale prices, the economy is determined by the players.

I've only played the one game so far, but I'm really impressed with Container. I'm also pretty bad at it, which doesn't surprise me. It reminds me a little bit of Chicago Express, another game I enjoy and am bad at. There is a delicate balance to the gameplay. Sell your goods too high and no one will buy them. Sell them too low and you won't make enough money. You have to buy machines to produce goods, and warehouses to sell those goods at your harbor store. You also need to keep enough money around to compete in the auctions to get goods for your island. A low bid means you might get them for cheap, but it might also mean that the seller will just match your bid and keep them.

A game of Container in progress.

I feel like I will need many, many more plays to figure this game out. That's a good thing. At the moment, I'm absolutely fascinated by Container and look forward to playing with 4 or 5 players.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Best Board and Card Games of 2009

2009 was my first full year as a board game geek. As one of my tens of thousands of loyal readers, you know how much I like making lists. Best of this, worst of that, etc. What better time to do that than the end of the year? Note that these are all games that were new to me this year, not necessarily games that were released this year. Note that I stole most of these categories and ideas from Tom Vasel, who runs the excellent gaming website The Dice Tower. On with it!

Best Expansion:

Dominion: Intrigue. Intrigue turned Dominion from a good game into a great one. It added victory cards that also provide coins and card draws, and also added action cards with multiple uses (Do action A, B or C.) These action cards provide some choices during your turn, and make it feel less like the game is playing itself. This expansion also added more cards, of course, which helps every game of Dominion feel unique. Intrigue had some strong competition for best expansion.

Runners up: Kingsburg - To Forge a Realm; Pandemic - On the Brink; Dominion - Seaside

Best Components:

Taluva. Taluva is the kind of game I'd leave set up on my coffee table if I had a coffee table. And no pets. Or kids. It's about building up civilizations on an island full of active volcanoes. It's a nifty, attractive little game.

Runners up: TAMSK, ZERTZ, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects

Best Artwork:
Stone Age. Michael Menzel did the artwork for Stone Age. His artwork is always gorgeous, see Pillars of the Earth and Terra Nova for other examples of this.

Runners up: Thurn and Taxis, Kingsburg

Best Children's Game:

Go Away Monster!: I bought this to play with my 3 year old daughter. It's a cute little game that teaches shapes, rules, sharing, and the concept of turns as well bravery in the face of the monsters that live in one's closet. Avery likes it, which is the most important criteria. It doesn't make me want to run screaming from the table, which is a bonus.

Runner up: Kids of Carcassonne

Best Family Game:

Thebes. Simple rules, attractive components, not-too-long play time. Enough choices that you don't feel like an observer, enough luck that anyone has a shot. Thebes is a winner.

Runners up: Blokus, Sorry! Sliders, Pack & Stack

Best Party Game:

Long Shot. Another fun filled game with simple rules. It can be played with 8 players without the game slowing to a crawl. This game has gone over well with everyone I've introduced it to.

Runners up: Incan Gold, Catch Phrase

Best Card Game:

Battle Line. My wife and I adore this game. It's short (~30 minutes) and it blends strategy (long term plans) tactics (short term plans) luck and bluffing into an amazing little package. Battle Line had stiff competition for best card game.

Runners up: Tichu, Dominion.

Most Innovative Game:

Space Alert. This is a cooperative game where the players are the crew of a Sitting Duck class spaceship, trying to survive long enough to gather data about a remote sector of the galaxy. This game comes with 2 audio cds. You play one of the 10-minute audio tracks and it tells you when threats appear and where. The threats come from decks of cards that come with the game. This means the game never plays the same way twice. The players need to discuss who goes where and who does what and when. Once the 10-minute audio track is done, you go back and resolve all of the players' actions and find out whether the crew succeeds or whether the ship is destroyed. The game is a hell of a lot of fun whether you win or lose.

Runners up: The Adventurers, TAMSK, Kingsburg

Worst Game of the Year:

The Haunting House. The game alternates between rounds where you choose your actions and rounds where you randomly draw your actions. The game is simply an exercise is frustration, where your characters are trying to escape from an ever-changing haunted house. The reward for escaping the house is that you get to stop playing.

Runners up: Torches & Pitchforks, After the Holocaust

Biggest Surprise of the year:

Long Shot. This game came out of nowhere and really, really impressed me. I demo games for Z-Man games, and this was their game of the month. I have no interest in horses or racing, and so wasn't particularly excited about Long Shot. It's really a terrific game, and an example of why a theme doesn't make or break a game for me.

Runners up: Formula D, Blokus

Biggest Disappointment:

Kamisado. I've only played it a couple of times, and this could certainly improve in my eyes. But so far, Kamisado is a disappointment. I had looked forward to it for months and months, and when it finally arrived it felt pretty underwhelming. It doesn't help that my wife did not like it at all.

Runners up: Ra: The Dice Game, Tales of the Arabian Nights

Best Board Game:

Tigris & Euphrates. My 2 best new games of the year are both card games, best new board game goes to T&E. It's a masterpiece whose strategies unfold with repeated plays. It's got layers of strategy, loads of depth and I can't wait to play it more.

Runners up: Steam, Metropolys, YINSH

All in all, a good year.

Note that these images were all taken from stock photos at various online vendors, or by the users at BoardGameGeek.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Bryan Maxwell Game Hall of Fame

Every once in a while, I play a game that is an instant classic. It's special, and immediately upon finishing a game, I want to play again. And again. I can hardly imagine a scenario where I'd turn down a game. For me, these are games filled with interesting decisions, though that's hardly an adequate descriptor. After all, nearly all good games are full of interesting decisions (at least in my book they are.) There are many, many excellent games out there, but only a few have this indefinable quality. It's what the French call a certain "I don't know what."

Rather than continue on trying to define something I can't pin down, I'll talk about the few games that I feel this way about.

- Agricola. I've gone on about this one in the past on this blog. Let it suffice to say that I've played this more than any other single game, and considering games are usually 1-2 hours, that's saying something.

Battle Line

- Battle Line. This is a 2-player card game where the players vie for control of 9 flags. Control is determined by 3-card hands that get played in front of each flag, one card at a time. The game is a delicious blend of tactics, strategy and bluffing with a bit of luck tossed in. This may be the perfect 2-player game.

Tigris & Euphrates

- Tigris & Euphrates. This is an abstract tile-laying game about building and controlling kingdoms during the dawn of civilization. It's a diceless eurogame full of conflict, strategy and tactics (sound familiar?) Every decision made by every player has large, far-reaching affects on everything that happens in the game. You collect points in 4 different colors based on which tiles are played and where the leaders are positioned on the board. The catch is, at the end of the game your score is equal to whichever color you have the fewest points in, so you cannot afford to specialize. It's definitely a brain-burner, and that will turn some people off. I'm not especially good at the game, but I'm on love with it. Both Battle Line and T&E were designed by the same person (Reiner Knizia.)


- Tichu. This is what would happen if you metaphorically threw Euchre and The Great Dalmuti in a blender, and it somehow manages to be greater than the sum of its parts.. Pure awesome. It's the best evolution of a team-play card game I've encountered. Plus, it spawned a few good phrases during our first night of playing it: Giving the Dog, Giving the Bird, and The Flush Bomb. Like Euchre, I love trying to get on the same page with a teammate I can't communicate with. It's wonderful when it happens, and developing a rapport by playing with the same partner for a prolonged time is very rewarding. I look forward to many, many plays of this in the future.

I was going to title this post "The Bryan Maxwell Board Game Hall of Fame," then realized that 2 of the 4 games are card games.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Math Trades: What They Are and Why They're Awesome

This post will be all about board games and trading them with strangers on the internet. If you have no interest, turn back now. After all, there's plenty of internet out there for you to see.

Still here? Good. Now, I'm gonna get a little rambly here. But not too rambly. Long story short: I found a game on Xbox Live called Catan. Months later I bought the Settlers of Catan board game at Gen Con. The following year I bought a game called Gangsters. I decided to search online for more information about it, which led me to BoardGameGeek. And that was that, I was hooked.

Catan on Xbox Live.

First of all, let me say that these games are nothing like the board games most of us grew up with: Life, Monopoly, etc. Many of these traditional games don't have much depth and simply aren't very good. There are, of course, exceptions. Games like Scrabble, Yahtzee and Battleship are respectable, if not outstanding, games. The last 15-20 years have seen a huge amount of new, terrific board games released. This surge in new games originated in Germany, where board games are much more popular, and are a common family past time.

Scott Alden and Derk Solko have made an amazing website in BoardGameGeek. It's a database of photos, reviews, articles, questions, answers and information about pretty much every board game there is. Best part is, all of the content there is created by the users, so the site is extremely community-oriented. And it's free to all, though they do accept donations.

Through BGG, I found a website called CoolStuffInc that buys Magic cards and sells board games. Their prices are excellent, they offer free shipping on orders over $100, and they offer an extra 15% in store credit when you sell them Magic cards. So I had an expensive new hobby, a place to turn in the remains of my old hobby for a solid foundation of a new hobby, and a site where I could research these new purchases to my heart's content. So long story long, I ended up with a shitpot of new games.

For the most part, we end up enjoying the games I choose, but sometimes all the research in the world is no substitute for actually playing the game in question. There is a trade manager at BGG that involves emailing users with trade propositions. It's a very clumsy system, and while I had a few successes with it, it was a lot of work and not very user-friendly. I started reading up on math trades. They sounded intimidating.

Phat lewts.

And at a glance, it is intimidating. Even the name sounds like a lot of work. After reading a couple of well-written articles and having some questions answered by friendly gamers, I decided to try one. It turns out they're really not complicated at all. They're also a lot of fun. Here's how they work:

- Whoever is awesome enough to operate a math trade announces that they are doing so. They announce a starting date an ending date. He begins a post where people may list games for trade.
- People who want to participate list the games they are willing to trade away.
- Once the ending date arrives, no new games may be added to the trade list. Those participating typically are allowed 2-3 days to decide which games on the trade list they'd be willing to trade FOR.
- Here's where the math comes in. Once everyone has submitted their lists of which games they'd be willing to trade for, a computer program analyzes everyone's lists and spits out a list of who should send which games to who.

The result is a huge trade involving dozens of people and hundreds of games. Here's why it's awesome:

- You can trade games you don't want for games for games you do want. One man's garbage and all that.
- You never, ever receive a game you didn't ask for. If you make a bad trade, it's your own fault.
- If you don't see anything listed that you want, you don't have to trade your game.
- It's exciting when the results are announced to see what you got and didn't get.

Why they're potentially not awesome:

- You have to pay shipping costs. It's inevitable that there are costs involved. Shipping games within the US usually costs between $8 and $15. This extra cost has to be factored in when deciding which games are worth trading for.
- I have yet experience any problems, but if a user decided to shaft you and not ship their game to you, you'd have little recourse. Of course, that user would be ostracized and banned from future trades. Traders are rated much like on Ebay.

Math trades are great fun to participate in. I've sent unwanted games to people who will enjoy them, and in turn received games that my family, friends and I have had a lot of fun with.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Peace in Our Time

Finally a day off!

I'm at home with daughter while wife is out shopping, presumably for aprons and laundry detergent. I recently acquired a spare copy of the classic game Sequence, so I brought out my old copy and played it with Avery. Not by any rules, of course (she's 2 years old.) I'd draw a card and ask her to find the card on the game board. Sometimes she did it very well, sometimes not at all. A few times she'd place a chip on the board and say "My point! My point, dada!" I never mentioned points, not sure where this came from. She just took her batch of miscellaneous dice, sorted out all the six-sided ones and stacked them in a little tower. She's learning things everyday, which is neat to watch.

My wife and I have been playing some Metropolys lately. I hadn't pegged it as a 2-player game, but it actually works pretty well. She beat me the other day. Other people shouldn't win at Metropolys. We'll very likely play some Ghost Stories tonight, keeping in theme with the upcoming holiday. I'll also be demoing some Z-Man games tonight at Cool City.

I've also been playing some Brutal Legend lately. Not a lot, but some. Video games just haven't been holding my interest for a long while now. This happens with me every so often. Still, Brutal Legend is pretty damn cool. Tim Schaeffer is great at making immersive, unique games with fun dialogue. Jack Black was the perfect choice to voice the main character, and I chuckled when I saw Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy Killmeister in the game.

I've been pondering lately. As a matter of fact, I'm always pondering. I think about my plans for opening a hobby shop at some point, probably in a couple of years. I think of how great it would be to work at a job I'd enjoy and be good at. I could work somewhere where I could make people happy, help people enjoy themselves rather than a job where everyone's always rushed and pissed off. Then I think about the economy, my own finances (or lack thereof) and I get discouraged. Of course, then I go to work and think "No, I've GOT to do this. I can and WILL make it work." Because I'm working at my current job indefinitely, and that's just miserable and no way to live.

So I'm slowly working on building contacts in the game industry, figuring out finances and getting prices on rent, licenses, product etc. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It's very faint, but it's there.

If there's one mistake I've made...well, if I had to pick just one, that is, it's college. Big fucking bills I can't keep up with, a degree that has benefited me exactly zero. Sure, maybe it's my fault for choosing a poor program to go into, or for not keeping up with the industry after college. Still, $20,000 debt. Zero return.

Fuck you, ITT Tech.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October's ROBA Game Day

This past Saturday I went with my friend Charles to my monthly ROBA board game group session. This was my second time attending, and Charles' first. We got to try some new games and teach some new games as well. All in all, my first session in August was better, largely because the games I played that day were much better. I played awesome games such as Steam, Formula D, Metropolys and Space Alert for the first time that day.

Here's what I played this time:

Khet the Laser game in progress. Someone used a smoke machine for this picture to make the red light more visible.

First, Charles and I tried a game called Khet. Each player has several mirrors, some non-mirror pieces and a Pharaoh. Each player also has a button on their side of the board. Each turn consists of either rotating one of your mirror pieces 90 degrees OR moving one of your pieces one space in any direction. You then press your button, which projects a red light. This light bounces off your mirrors and destroys the first non-mirrored surface it touches. The object of the game is to destroy your opponent's Pharaoh. We were both pretty lost for the first couple of turns. Charles soon caught on and started playing well. I, on the other hand, did not. Charles won easily. I admire the game but probably won't enjoy playing it very often. My turns consist of struggling to make a decision, then making a stupid decision.

I then taught Charles how to play YINSH, which I've ranted about before. We then played Pandemic with David (the guy who brought Khet) and his young son whose name I didn't catch. He's probably 7 or 8 years old, and did a great job in Pandemic. We played a standard 4-player game of Pandemic with 4 epidemics. We had the board pretty well under control for the entire game, but we never had a sense of urgency for getting cures done until it was too late. We lost the game when the draw deck ran out of cards. We had 3 cures and - get this - ZERO outbreaks when we lost. Charles remains winless at Pandemic. He's an albatross.

Giza: not bad, not great. There are better games to play.

We followed Pandemic up with a game of Pack & Stack, which David's son won pretty handily. Unlike last time I played, no tables were damaged this time. David and his son had time for one more quick game before they had to leave, and decided on a game called Giza which none of us had played before. After a quick skim of the rules, we started the game. Giza is a game where each player has their own board with spaces for building 3 pyramids and a statue. Each player starts with a hand of 4 tiles, and a turn consists of playing a tile (either onto your own board or an opponent's board) and drawing a tile. The tiles add either good floors (+ points) or shitty floors (- points) to a pyramid, or add treasure to a pyramid. There are also tiles which destroy a tile in play, halt production on a pyramid or add to a statue. The game moved pretty fast, which was good, but felt very random. Everyone kind of took turns getting ganged up on by the rest of the table. It's a pretty nasty, screw-your-neighbor kind of game. It's not terrible, but it's not something I have any desire to play again. David won by a single point.

A game of Manila in progress.

After defeating Charles at Dominion then splitting 2 games of Blokus, it was time for more new games. We sat down with Gary, Jon and Anne for a game called Manila. It's an interesting game that blends bidding, stock manipulation and dice rolling. The heart of the game is playing the odds of the dice rolls. It's an interesting game with a neat blend of mechanics, but it feels like something is missing to me. It may be a little too luck-based for me, then again it makes for a nice, lighter sort of game. Charles started very strong but ended up losing narrowly to Jon.

Cosmic Encounter game components.

Fatigue, hard folding chairs and a lack of real food were starting to take their toll on me by this time, but we decided to hang around for one more game. Gary suggested Cosmic Encounter. I've heard of the game, it's often spoken of as a classic. Richard Garfield (designer of Magic the Gathering) has said the game was a strong influence for him. The game features about 50 or so different races, and which race you end up with will influence how you play the game. I ended up with a race (The Triplers) which makes my weak combat cards strong and makes my strong combat cards weak. Charles ended up with a race called The Masochists. They say if you lose all of your ships, you win the game. I like having all the different races in the game, I imagine they help keep the game feeling fresh for many, many plays. It's a game of making and breaking alliances. Each turn you draw a card that tells you which player you'll be attacking that turn. You then may ask other players at the table to ally and contribute some ships, and the defender may do the same. Attacker and defender then play one of their combat cards from their hand and see who wins. The goal in the game is to occupy of your opponents' planets. Charles ended up winning this game by losing every one of his ships. Cosmic Encounter feels far too random for my tastes, between the handfuls of combat cards everyone has and drawing a card to tell me who to attack each turn. It's also largely a negotiation game, something I don't typically enjoy. Still, I can appreciate that it's a good, well-made game deserving of its reputation. It's just not my kind of game.

All said, I had a good time. It was nice to have Charles along this time. My only complaint would be that none of the new games I played really impressed me much. Still, I can't complain about spending a Saturday gaming. I'd like to think I'll be back next month, but working in retail means the next couple of months will be a special kind of hell for me, and I'm more likely to be back at ROBA in January.