New to Me: Fall 2016 — A Key Quarter

Personally, Fall 2016 was the quarter when I started actively seeking out Richard Breese’s Key games, because of how much I liked Keyflower (2012). You’ll see a few of them on this list. More generally, it was a pretty OK quarter. Nothing stuck out as Great, though The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire (2016) was close, but there was also a lot of stuff that was Very Good. And, nothing was absolutely horrible.

As usual this is a list of games that are new to me, and and as usual this listing ranks them by how much I personally like them, as a medium-weight eurogamer.

The Very Good

The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire (2016). One of my playing group asked me if we’d hit peak worker placement and my knee-jerk response was, “yes”. But honestly I’m not sure. We’re a long way out from Caylus (2005), but worker placement has become an almost defining element of eurogaming. I’d swear there were more eurgames with worker placement than not; if so, we may not have hit the peak yet.

Anywho, Energy Empire is a worker-placement game of energy production and resource management. It’s got several elements that set it aside as a unique design. First, you can use a global action space that someone else is occupying, you just have to spend extra energy to do so. Second, after you use a global action space, you can also use personal action spaces (which is the biggest similarity to the original Manhattan Project), as long as their categories match. Third, everyone refreshes their workers at different times (another similarity to the original game); now, it creates even more interesting dynamics for the global spaces, since you’re constantly stacking up more energy than what’s there already.

Overall, Energy Empire has a lot of paths to victory and has lots of evocative details that make the energy race real and interesting. Yes, it’s “just” a worker-placement game, but it’s different enough (and enjoyable enough) that it’s one I’ll be keeping in my collection.

Quadropolis (2016). François Gandon’s city-building game has a clever twist of its own. You use numbered tiles to acquire city tiles; those numbers determine both where the tile can come from and where it can go to. This mechanic is what makes the whole game work, because it creates extreme constraints that simultaneously forces you to think about what other players are doing, what opportunities they’ll leave you, and how you might be able to place those tiles that you can actually take.

Once you’ve played your tiles, the scoring follows a variety of formulas, which is a pretty standard mechanic for city-building games. Some tile types benefit from being off on their own and others benefit from being located next to specific other sorts of tile. There’s nothing innovative in the scoring, but it works.

So call it a constrained Castles of Burgundy (2011) combined with single-player Between Two Cities (2015). And the results are quite enjoyable.

Orléans: Invasion (2015). This expansion of Orleans (2014) has a number of new ways to play, but I think most people will be interested in the major new co-op system. It’s a pretty clever example of how to convert a competitive game into cooperative play.

Basically, Invasion takes all of the byproducts of the core gameplay — the bag building and the resource management — and turns those into inputs required by the cooperative system. The result requires you to balance your engine-building actions with co-op payments; there are also event tiles to keep you on your toes, a co-op requirement. I’m impressed by how effortless this conversions feels … but I’m certain there was a whole bunch of effort involved.

Keyflower: The Farmers (2013). I wrote about Keyflower (2012) last summer. It’s an elegant combination of auction and worker placement with nice Breesian artwork. It almost feels to me like an alternate universe Uwe Rosenberg game. The Famers was the first supplement to Keyflower. It expands the game with new tiles which (mostly) add livestock to the game. And, it’s a pretty nice addition. The livestock adds a bit of complexity, but it also support a whole new path to victory and some slightly different mechanics. The result adds a lot of variability to the game, making a great, repayable game even more replayable.

Key to the City: London (2016). Take Keyflower’s innovative system of bidding and worker placement. But, simplify it a bit by removing the intricate system of resource movement. Replace that with a set of connections that can both be used to upgrade tiles and to earn bonus scores.

I think the result is simpler, more abstract, and more forgiving than Keyflower. Personally, I like the original better, but this one is going to stay in my collection because of the superb London theming and because it might appeal to a slightly lighter crowd. And I can’t really complain about having a variant for Keyflower play.

Love Letter Premium (2016). A new addition to the Love Letter Legacy. This is a luxuriously produced version of Love Letter (2012) with oversized cards, protective sleeves, a felt-covered box, and heart-shaken tokens. Where Love Letter is sometimes too minimalist, this is the antidote.

But Love Letter Premium is actually notable as a new release because it comes with an additional set of cards. They’re intended for play with 5-8 players. Because they (mostly) have new powers, they add new variability and also allow the play of this very social game with larger groups. If you want to play Love Letter with more players, and especially if they might be growing bored with the core play, go buy this! No questions asked!

With that said, I didn’t love how long you could sit around after being eliminated in a game with lots of players, and I didn’t love how the higher player counts push almost every game toward elimination because of the fact that the deck size is doubled. I think the expansion would have worked better if there was more granularity to how many cards you added: a few for 5 players and the whole deck if you really insist on playing with 8.

Guilds of London (2016). A new majority-control game by Tony Boydell. Here you’re playing cards to take control of an ever-growing variety of board spaces that provide a variety of different advantages.

There is a lot going on in this game. You have cards that can be used in a variety of ways (as the cost for bringing meeples on board, the power to move meeples, the cost for playing special powers … or as those special powers themselves). Then you have board spaces that can grant a variety of advantages, then you have goal cards which tell you specific things that you’re seeking. I found it a bit overwhelming in my first game … but not in a bad way.

There are some big problems with usability. Bad choices were made in designing the card’s iconography: many of the icons just aren’t intuitive and a few are used to mean different things at different times. In addition, the board becomes increasingly cluttered over time, and it’s pretty hard to determine which spaces have already been scored, and which are still available. But despite those issues, this is a game that I want to try again!

Key Harvest (2007). I feel like Richard Breese’s games hit a major turning part when he teamed up with Sebastian Bleasdale for Keyflower (2012), because the earlier games had a high level of abstraction and euroness that you don’t really find in Keyflower. Take Key Harvest, an older game which I’ve just played for the first time.

Like Keyflower it has a unique and interesting acquisition system. You’re setting prices for tiles and maybe selling them and maybe acquiring them yourself. I think you do best when you can offer up tiles that you want and then pick them up yourself. The object is to lay your tiles into clumps on the board, but it’s made tricky by the fact that you and the other players are all competing for the same tiles, each of which fits on a unique, set space on the boards. It’s very interesting and nicely tactical but the tile draws (and events) do make it somewhat random.

The Good

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (2016). It’s Matt Leacock’s classic, Pandemic (2008), but with new Cthulhu theming by Chuck Yager. Diseases have become cultists, but when you get too many of them, they don’t multiply … they summon a Great Old One! Meanwhile, shoggoths occasionally roam the board, and they can summon Great Old Ones too. Every Great Old One adds new challenges to the game, and when you get too many of them out, the Stars are Right and the Reign of Cthulhu begins!

Compared to the original Pandemic this game feels a little simpler and a little less varied. You don’t have the variety of diseases, nor are cards keyed to specific locations. However, much of the tightness of the game is still there, as you’re trying to close gates in four towns by using the proper cards, and as always collecting those cards is difficult.

The big (and cool) addition to the game is its evocative color. Oh, the setup of cultists and shoggoths is nice enough, but it’s those Great Old One cards that really make the game by making it a fun Cthulhoid game.

This is a game that I would have rated higher if it were the first release of its sort, rather than a reimplementation.

Colony (2016). The big twist in this new dice-based resource game by Ted Alspach, reimplementing Toryo Hojo’s Age of Craft (2014), is that the dice are resources. They show numbers, which represent resources, and you hold onto them until you spend. But, you might ask, how is this different from a game like Stone Age (2008), where you roll the dice to generate resources? The answer is: not very.

Having the dice be the resources feels clever, and it reinforces a 1-for-1 correspondence between resources and dice. But it’s just like actually generating resources from those dice, and in my opinion is less evocative. Worse, the buildings which are available for purchase use resource formulas that look like cryptic ciphers (“5-5-4”), whereas we’ve been trained for 21 years to quickly understand and assess similar formulas using actual resources (“wood-wood-stone”).

But, don’t let me overly criticize this game. It’s got a fun methodology for generating its resources, where you roll dice and then draft them. It’s got a nice mechanic for storing them. And the purchasing and upgrading of buildings give it all a nice little Civilization feel. It does feel a little methodical as you tend to build and/or upgrade one building, turn after turn, and I think it’s easy to AP over the cryptic build costs, but it’s still a fun play.

Camel Cup (2014). A racing game in the style of Winner’s Circle (2001), which means that you bet on racing animals that are jointly moved over the course of the game. The big difference is that in Winner’s Circle you move animals based on how you bet, and in Camel Cup you bet on animals based on how they move.

Camel Cup has both tight control in how far the camels can move and a bit of a chance for going outside that range — but that’s an opportunity that’s well understood. The betting then becomes the heart of the play. This is light, but good for large groups and pretty easy to learn. Oh, and it has beautiful components.

A supplement, Supercup (2015), uses the annoying model of lots of small variants in a small box, and they run the gamut from super-minor to somewhat interesting.

Hero Realms (2016). This is pretty much a fantasy redesign of the Star Realms (2014) deckbuilder. For years, I didn’t pick up Star Realms because the publisher steadfastly refuses to produce a multiplayer version. (I finally got it this Christmas.) Hero Realms runs up to four players, so I immediately picked it up.

I’d generally classify the original Star Realms as Very GoodIt’s a quick playing deckbuilder with a strong focus on combat that has very evocative graphics. Hero Realms pretty much meets all those same criteria but with fantasy theming. So why the lower ranking? There’s nothing original here. Now, I have every faith there will be when the promised character and campaign packs come out for this game. These are an interesting model for expansion that I think might blast the game past Star Realms. But for the moment, you’ll know whether you like this or not based on what you think of its predecessor.

The OK

Salvation Road (2016). This game struck me as very like Hit Z Road (2016), another post-apocalyptic game from the last year that’s about resource management. The difference is that Salvation Road is a co-op game. You spend much of the game journeying out to sites to collect resources, with the goal being to have enough resources in the end to hit the road to Salvation (and to pay the tolls for entry).

On the plus side, Salvation Road has a neat character mechanic where you get one character with an advantage and one with a disadvantage. There’s also a good damage mechanic that lets you play the odds and that create a good feel of increasing threat — something that’s vital in a good co-op.

On the minus side, the game ultimately felt too repetitive as you go out again and again to collect resources in what ultimately felt like a never-ending trudge. This was especially frustrating near the end when it was obvious we just weren’t going to make our goals. I think a shorter length would have helped with these issues (which means that it might work better with fewer than the maximum player count of four, as resource needs drop down directly as player numbers do).

Las Vegas Boulevard (2014). This expansion for one of Alea’s cutest little fillers has never been released to the American market. It turns out, it’s no great loss. Like the aforementioned SupercupLas Vegas Boulevard is my least favorite sort of expansion. It mashes together a bunch of little expansions for the game, which means that you have to sort through what to play every single game, and none of the expansions make that big of a difference, because they’re so small.

Las Vegas Boulevard has some expansions that make the game more controllable, which I think is a very good addition to almost any dice game. So when you have a big die that counts double or a purple die that lets you knock out an opposing die, that’s great. But it also has expansions that increase the randomness, such as the goal cards that reward you for earning a certain type of currency … which might not even be in the game! That’s less great in a game that already has plenty of randomness.

I think I would have been pretty disappointed in this expansion if not for the fact that I bought it in large part so that I could continue writing my Alea articles.

The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction (2016). This is a card variant of the original Manhattan Project (2012), but it’s focused on replicating the theming, not the gameplay. As in the original game you’re using workers to create resources and ultimately to build bombs. However, it’s not really worker placement: workers are just a temporary resource that appears on cards.

The cleverness of the game comes about through its “chaining”. You can play up to five cards on a turn that can chain off of each other: you might produce workers which can be used on other cards, or you might produce yellow cake which you turn into uranium which you ultimately turn into bombs. Unfortunately the cool system never felt fully developed to me: the chains were short and somewhat repetitive.

I also didn’t love the take-that play: it’s less frequent than in the original Manhattan Project, but it can ultimately take away a player’s whole turn. As with the original Manhattan Project, I felt like that was something where YMMV: some players will love being able to attack their opponents a bit and some won’t like it at all because it can have such big effects.

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