Thursday, December 15, 2016

Eurosmash Amerigame: My 2016 Board Games

IF IT ROLLS OFF THE TABLE, FIGHT TO THE DEATH
Since it looks like I won't get any boardgaming in until New Year's Eve, I'm posting my pick for the bg's I dug the most this year. They're not necessarily new or even new to me. But they're the ones I got the best experiences out of. 

I present these in no particular order. 
  • Mission: Red Planet: Steampunk Mars Colonization. This has been a surprisingly solid game. I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t realize how well it would scale to six players. At our game gatherings, six people presents the most difficulty. Do you split into two three-person games? A two and a four? Or does someone wait out while the others play? Our group isn’t as big on “social” games like The Resistance, so that cuts out the options. MRP uses a variation on the role selection with the countdown from Citadels. That’s combined with an area-control mechanism. It’s easy to grok and plays much faster than you’d expect. I’ll be taking this one to most of our gatherings.
  • Libertalia: Pirate Booty Distribution. Like MRP, Libertalia works well with six, not as well, but it holds together. It has more text and some odd mechanics that pose a teaching hurdle. But if you have someone who knows the game and keeps things moving, it can click along. It uses role selection as well. All players get the same random set of cards from a range of thirty characters. They play most of these on a round, with the remaining ones carrying over. That means by the third round, each player likely has a unique mix of cards. I wish it had a few more treasure tokens, but overall Libertalia works.
  • Kanban: Automotive Office Politics. Crazy complex and weirdly satisfying. I love how all the different mechanisms fit together. After a couple of plays, I’m still not sure what would be a good strategy. The game seems to end quickly, but we’ve gotten a chunk done by the time that hits. The board's one of the most complicated I’ve ever seen and the rules took multiple read-throughs. Not a game I’d recommend to anyone, but if the idea of being executives in a car manufacturer grabs you, watch a review. And I literally mean executives: you get job reviews and have to present your ideas at department meetings.
  • Imperial Settlers: Chibi-cute Colonialism. This remains one of Sherri and I’s favorites. It’s not as much loved in our wider gaming group, but I keep taking it. I like the arc of the play and how each game feels different. I bought the Atlantis expansion but I still haven’t played with that. I also haven’t bought the 3 is a Magic Number expansion. Part of the problem is that more cards means you have to tune the decks. I’d rather have something I can play right out of the box. I could put everything in, but that dilutes any of the expansion mechanics (see Suburbia for an example of this). Still it’s the only boardgame I’ve blinged out. I splurged on the unique Meeples for it.
  • 51st State: Post-Apocalyptic Faction Competition. Portal put out a pre-order special for this and I took the bait. I dug the old 51st State board game, but disliked the complexity and strange exceptions in the rules. This new edition makes it closer to Imperial Settlers (built on the same engine)- at least in terms of clarity. It cut out some of the corner-case mechanics. I like playing from one common deck- it removes some of the accusations of imbalance and forces everyone to work from the same astarting place. That being said, some of the faction boards seem stronger than others. Overall I think 51st State's a solid game and good reworking of the system. My friend Chris Charlwood disagrees. That’s too bad since he’s the person I play with most. In the end, if I had to pick one over the other, I’d choose Imperial Settlers. That could change if they support this game with some expansions.
  • Marvel Legendary: Modular Superhero Battles. After the lunacy of last year’s Secret Wars Vol. I & II big-box expansions, Marvel Legendary took a more leisurely approach with two small expansions (Deadpool, Captain America) and one big (Secret Wars). I love this game, but I still haven’t had a chance to play with any of those new cards. Ugh. More disappointing because I finally broke down and bought a wooden artist’s box to put everything in. I actually played Legendary Big Trouble in Little China more than Marvel this year. That’s fun, but itis pretty much the same game (as opposed to legendary Encounters).
  • Pandemic Legacy: You Lose. We’re still only halfway through this game. Why? Because it makes me super tense. I have to great my courage together before I can play another session.
  • Three Kingdoms Redux: Romance of the Card Draw. I’m not much of a wargamer, but I have been known to try out some monster games (The Virgin Queen, Here I Stand). I took that plunge primarily because of insane designs and a historical period I find interesting. But these days, a board game had better be awesome if I’m spending more than three hours playing it. Three Kingdoms covers the Warring States period of China. I know enough about that to recognize which characters appear in the Dynasty Warriors videogame. TKR’s an abstract wargame. You bid for actions in the center using your generals. That lets you build resources, developments, and forces. Eventually you attack regions between you and one of your two opponents. Once you take a region, it starts generating points for you. But you also expend one of your generals doing that and it costs you resources. It’s a cleverly designed balance. Felt fun without being too “chit pushy.”
  • Roll for the Galaxy: Space Hyper-Yahtzee. I didn’t like this the first time I played. It took reading through the rules myself to finally get a handle on how it operates. RftG is simple and much, much faster than you’d expect. At heart it’s an abstract game, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Plus I love rolling all the different dice. On the one hand I’m surprised they haven’t released another expansion for it, on the other I don’t think it really needs more stuff.

My Top Pick
Millennium Blades: CCG Simulator. This game is crazy and awesome. In it you play Collectible Card Game collectors and tournament players. I have to talk a little more at length about this one. Imagine a setting where a Yu-Gi-Oh-like card-game has become the world's most important sports event. That’s the premise. You’re playing competitors trying to buy booster packs, assemble a deck, sell cards, and eventually compete.

You start with a character card, showing a personality and special ability. I was a heartless robot whose lack of human emotion made him a master player. There’s a “friendship” mechanism where you give tokens to sweeten trade deals. We didn’t get to that in either of my plays. You also get a starter deck, a few cards with some related tech and elements. Beyond that the box contains a massive block of cards. Besides the base cards there are several dozen distinct “booster sets”- packs of related cards. These parody existing CCG games and expansions (MTG, Yu-gi-oh, Pokemon) and various pop culture properties (Mouse Card, Symphony of Destruction, Galactic Caboose, etc). That makes it a huge, modular game like Legendary.

Millennium Blades has two distinct parts. First you deck build. You have some starting cards, you get a bunch more, and you can buy face down “booster packs” cards from the center. While you never know exactly what you’re getting, the backs have icons showing what’s more likely in those packs. You’re also selling your cards to a market and maybe buying other players’ cast offs. It’s a messy, chaotic, information-overload segment. It’s also timed: 7 minutes. Then you get more cards and do it again. Then you actually put your deck together. You’re trying to make a working deck even as other point scoring opportunities distract you.  

Then you flip your player board over and go to the other, completely different part of the game: the CCG tournament. Everyone plays cards into their tableau, scoring rank points, zapping other players’ cards, and causing weird effects. Order’s important as some effects work on adjacency or location. At the end you generate final rank points from your cards. The player with the highest gets total game VPs.

Then you flip and do another round of deck building. Twice more.

There’s a big argument about the importance of theme in board games. These designers have created an Ameritrash game of wild randomness. They know their CCGs—every card has a joke or reference on it. You even score points for your deck matching the “meta”. But there’s also strategy. Cards of different sets actually synergize together. In one game a player managed to get an actual “engine” going with cards that used tokens. It’s crazy. It’s so big. How would you playtest for balance? I guess the vast number of elements going in all directions do that. 

Here’s the big thing: I didn’t get tired of it as I played. You’re always doing something- first in parallel and then in semi-opposition. I thought it might drag, but the level of engagement required gives it energy. It’s a game I want to play more.

OTHER BOARD-GAMEY NOTES
Games I’d Like to Play More of in 2017 Not on the List Above
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, Vihnos, Edo, Shogun, Orleans, Fury of Dracula, Madeira, Fields of Arle, Caverna, Rococo, At the Gates of Loyang

Games I Wanted to Try But I Didn’t Get To
Scythe, Imperial Assault, The Gallerist, Thunder Alley, Roads & Boats, Feast for Odin

Games I Fell Out of Love With in 2016
  • Bora Bora: I like many Stefan Feld games, though some find his designs polarizing. Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, and Bruges click for me (though Castles of Burgandy doesn’t). I felt completely lost the first time I played Bora Bora, but I felt there might be some strategic core I was missing. Nope. Second showed me it the heart of this chaotic mess of a game.
  • Goa: I’ve probably played Goa more than any other Eurogame, except for Carcassone. I loved it. I have an old, well-worn copy. Then when we played it this year it fell flat. I felt like I’d gone through these motions too many times before. I didn’t feel like I needed to ever play it again. A little sad.
  • Among the Stars: Highly-regarded space-station building game. It uses drafting, which I like. I even bought the expansion. But each time I’ve played this, I’ve liked it a little less. It feels boring now. I’m not sure why.
  • Yggdrasil: The first time I played this, I thought “what a wild and brutal co-op game!” The second time I thought ugh, this is just random bs. We barely have control. Even superior strategy can get blown away by the whims of fate. Super subject to the alpha player problem. 
Thoughts? Refutations? Commiserations?