New to Me: Summer 2017 — The Season of the Expansions

I love returning to my favorite games and playing them in new ways. That means that I’m usually a fan of expansions, and I played a good number of them this summer. But, there were new games too, including a surprising number of variants on old mechanics — whether they be Poker resolution or classic deckbuilding. As usual, this is a listing of games according to how much I like them, as a medium-weight euro-gamer, and they’re new to me (although I was pleased to play a lot that were just flat-out new this time around).

The Great

Hocus (2016). I am not a fan of Texas Hold’em, which I consider a bluffing exercise with probability memorization thrown in. Sure, you can be better at it than other people, but I don’t find it a fun game, or even a game. And, Hocus uses Texas Hold’em mechanics … but I love it.

The difference is that Hocus puts all the power into the players’ hands: they decide what’s in the community cards (really, multiple communities), they decide what’s in the pot (really, multiple pots), and they decide what’s in their pocket cards. This is all done through “spells”; basic spells allow the players to move a card from their hand to any of these locations (a community, a pot, or a pocket), but each player also has advanced spells, which allow them to interact with these various locales in different ways. The cool thing about the “advanced spells” is that they create a huge amount of variability, since you can play different spell types (like alchemy, chaos, and darkness) in different games.

So put Hocus right beside Havoc: The Hundred Years War (2005), the other superior euro-Poker game for non-Poker players — but unlike HavocHocus is actually in print,.

The Very Good

Scythe (2016). This may be the most exhausting game I’ve played in a while. It’s a dense, complex 4X-ish game. (Really: there’s no exploration.) And it’s a bear to teach. But it’s also a pretty great game. It definitely combines the other three Xs, so you expand (moving figures across a hex map), you exploit (producing or trading resources), and you exterminate (fighting with your characters and mecha). This is all managed by an elegant action system where you can take up to two actions on a turn, but they’re linked, so you have to figure how to manage efficiencies between these two unrelated actions. The game’s also got really variable paths to victory. You can fight your way to victory, you can produce, you can dig through the so-called explore deck, and you can upgrade your actions. The paths are all quite viable.

And that’s to say nothing of the game’s production and theming, which is all top rate. There’s beautifully produced wood, and the mecha and characters are great, big plastic figures. Beautiful artwork details a steampunk-y 1920s. The usability has been very carefully managed too.

I’ve heard some people complain because the game looks like a combat game and it isn’t; that’s valid, it’s a euro with combat elements. I’ve heard others complain that when you get past the scrumptious components, this is a pretty generic euro, and I disagree here because I find its action system and the way you gain benefits as you produce things both very innovative. It’s also got plenty of hard choices and tension. So all around, I thing this is a very strong game: if you’re willing to play a 2+ hour game that’s full of dense rules.

Caverna: Cave vs. Cave (2017). So how well doe the Agricola/Caverna system convert to two-player play? The answer, it turns out, is pretty well. That shouldn’t be a big surprise because worker placement is innately a competitive mechanism, and great competitive mechanics are a great basis for two-player play. So here, you take an action, and your opponent can’t, and you’re constantly guessing and second-guessing what they might do, and how that might impact your ability to take actions.

However, Cave vs Cave also really succeeds at another important element for two-player play: it creates gameplay which is not only fast and short, but which also allows a lot depth in that short-time frame. You take an action that allows you to grab some resources or clear a cavern or build a room, then your opponent goes. The turns can just fly by, but you should get to develop your entire cavern board over the course of play, and end up with a cute little engine and a lot of options.

Overall, Cave vs Cave is much simpler than Caverna, but still has a lot of strategic depth. My only real complaint is low variability: you’ll see almost all of the potential rooms, which are the engine parts, in every game. Having twice as many would have made the game ten times as replayable.

Whistle Stop (2017). In this hex-laying train game, you’re moving your trains westward on hexes full of tangled track, while picking up resources, gathering stock, and trying to get to the hexes where all of that will prove useful.

The joy of the game is in its creativity and in its tactics. On the one hand, you’re laying down tiles and creating new and expanding networks of tracks. No two games are ever the same. On the other hand, you’re trying to make great tactical moves to fill in tiles before your opponents and to grab stock just in time. On the third hand, there’s strategy too, as you try and figure out how to get the resources that you’re going to need down the line.

The overall result is light, tense, and a lot of fun.

Between Two Cities: Capitals (2017). One of my favorite games from 2015 now has an expansion, and I think it’s quite worthwhile. Overall, Capitals comes with three new systems:

  • The landscapes create variably sized obstacles in the center of your map that you have to work around. They offer great variability and are the best addition to the game.
  • The civic buildings are neat individual building to add to your city. They also have a neat mechanic: they like to be next to two sorts of buildings and they dislike one type of building. The addition of another negative adjacency is particularly good because it adds hard choices.
  • The districts create three majority-control areas, based on clumps of two sorts of buildings. Personally, I find this one bridge too far in a relatively simple game.

The rules say that all three new systems should be used together, which the publisher supports. I expect to be a rebel and use the landscapes and civic buildings in my base game, but not the districts. But those first two definitely improve my well-loved Between Two Cities game.

 

The Good

Bärenpark (2017). A simple tile-laying game, though it depends on tessellation more than most tile-laying games, meaning that you’re trying to fit together tiles of various sizes and shapes to precisely file your 4×4 game board (and eventually your entire 8×8 park). It’s also got a rather clever tile-acquisition method: when you place your tiles on your board, you cover up icons, and those icons in turn give you new tiles (and boards).

This is definitely a simple game, with the somewhat deterministic goal of matching together shapes in similar ways from game to game. But, it’s got lots of options for competition, as players are all drawing from the same pool of tiles, which may change up your plans as you continue on. Achievements also help to vary the game and keep players interacting. Overall, it’s a very nice light or family game (and perhaps an interesting enough release to stay in my somewhat heavier collection; I haven’t decided yet).

Automobiles (2016). I’d assumed this was just another variant of Trains (2012), but it turns out not. AEG has actually been putting out a “Destination Fun” series of games, which also includes Planes (2014) … but the mechanics have nothing to do with each other. Not that this is really a game about going to destinations like the other two: you’re just looping around a race track.

Anywho, questionable branding aside, this is a fine game. It’s actually kind of a match for Trains, because it’s a bagbuilding game. You’re buying cubes in ten colors and tossing them into your bag; when you draw them, they’ll help you to move your car, buy new cubes, or filter bad cubes out of your bag. Automobiles is a light game, but it really shows off some ways that bagbuilding can be superior to deckbuilding and allows for quick, light play.

Trickster (2017). This trick-taking game by Daniel Solis has a clever premise: it takes two players, the lead and the trickster, to jointly determine which cards must be played in a trick. However the joy of the play is in the special powers on every card: whenever you play into a trick, you usually get to do something fun. But, beyond that, it’s very much a variation of Hearts. Play cards and hope not to get points, and if you do, try and shoot-the-moon on those colors.

The only real downside of the game is that it’s highly random, thanks to the card plays, the special powers, the huge swings that occur when you take a trick, and the huger swings that occur when you drop down your cards at the end. But, that randomness is in good balance with the lightness of the game. If you’re just wanting to play a light, amusing game, no problem. If you’re looking for something deeper, this ain’t it.

Ticket to Ride Map Set 5: Pennsylvania (2015). The Pennsylvania map for Ticket to Ride introduces the idea of stock. When you play most routes, you get to take a stock card from a few different options. At the end of the game, majority-control ownership is determined for all the stock, with players earning points for how they rank. This is a nice bit of secondary set collection and provides an additional focus for the game. The only downside is that there can be a bit of memory to it. Overall, though, it’s yet another nice variation of the core Ticket to Ride mechanics.

Village: Village Port (2014). The second supplement for Village (2011), and the one I like slightly more. The best thing in it are the life goal cards, which are particular conditions you’re trying to meet (like having certain collections of resources or having people in certain places). They add some nice strategic goals and are very thematic.

However, the main part of this supplement is actually the eponymous “Port”, which is a new map overlay that replaces the old travel system with a new boating system. It allows for more clever play and more options than the original travel, which probably makes it better for advanced players.

Village: Village Inn (2013). The first supplement for Village (2011), which is a bit more minor-league than its successor, but still perfectly good. It focuses on a new craft building where you can make beer and a new inn building where you can trade in beer (or coins) for villagers, who give you either a one-time or end-game bonus. They allow for fun tactical play on individual turns, though they can get a little tiring if you have a whole pile of villagers that you’re trying to sort through.

The other addition in this expansion is a set of pieces for a fifth player. My usual rule for playing with an extra player when an expansion adds components is, don’t. Few games shine when played with more players than were originally intended. Village’s turns are fast enough that there isn’t a horrible amount of downtime, but the overall length of the game definitely telescopes, so the extra pieces aren’t particularly recommended, unless you must play with five.

Orléans: Trade & Intrigue. The second Orléans expansion is my least favorite type of expansion. It includes four minor game systems, requiring you to decide what to include or exclude in each game. Its saving grace is that it’s that they’re all obvious substitutions for existing game systems.

New Beneficial Deeds. This is an alternative beneficial deeds board that gives you much better stuff for trashing characters, including gears, development, goods, and buildings. It makes beneficial deeds into an actual strategic game system, rather than just something you do to get rid of pieces. I’d be tempted to usually use this for games, especially if many of the players are experienced.

(The one expansion we didn’t play with was Intrigue, which is yet another replacement for the Beneficial Deeds board, but this time all of the actions are take-that attacks on other players, and it even introduces negotiation where you can bribe someone not to follow through on the action. I can’t imagine ever wanting to play with this, but YMMV.)

New Events. These are more varied than the original events, in part because you only use about half of them in any game. They’re also divided into four decks, which nicely ramps things up over the course of the game. Some of the tiles seem intended to nerf overly strong game systems (especially technology) and some are just shocking for the problems they introduce. I think I would always use these; they’re better than the originals.

Orders. This is the only major new game system. It effectively introduces pickup-and-delivery: you can now drop off goods at cities based on card draws, and in doing so get some bonus points. Personally, I found the pickup-and-delivery system of Prosperity (from the Invasion set) more interesting, and I certainly wouldn’t use them in the same game. As with Prosperity, it’s nice to have another path to victory, but I’m not sure how often I’d use these.

Overall, this felt like a pretty minor expansion, in part because two of the game systems just seem like upgrades for basic game systems, and in part because the price point was pretty high for such minor systems. I’d probably have liked it better if I wanted take-that play, but much as with Cities for 7 Wonders, I feel like the Intrigue gameplay would result in a  game that I personally would like less. Still, I’m happy to have the new Events and Deeds.

The OK

Witches of the Revolution (2017). This deckbuilding co-op lays out a set of objectives, then requires you to solve them by defeating the events that are endangering your revolution.

The deckbuilding aspect of the game has some nice twists like the fact that you permanently expend cards to buy new ones, and that you’re punished every time you reshuffle your deck. However, the simplicity of the cards goes against the strengths of deckbuilding.

The co-op aspect of the game is more mundane. Events keep you on your toes, and there’s very nice integration between the deckbuilding and the co-op, but ultimately the co-op play is a very abstract game of playing the right icons.

Overall, it’s an OK game. It’s got some neat stuff in it, but the game as a whole isn’t as great as those individual parts.

Tiny Epic Western (2016). Another clever use of Poker cards in a eurogame. It’s quite different from Hocus, where you’re using euro-mechanics to make Poker hands (and post). Here, you’re instead assessing your cards, determining where you can win, and taking actions in those locales. There’s also a bit of brinkmanship as you decide whether to get a mediocre payout immediately or a good payout if you can win the Poker hand. And, there’s a bit of combat: you can roll dice to drive someone out of a space if you want an action that’s already taken.

The main play of the game involves collecting resources to buy buildings. You take all those chances and do all that fighting to try to get the resources that you need. The buildings will then provide new actions over the next few rounds and ultimately will grant victory points.

Like most of the TIny games, TIny Epic Western is quite dense: it’s a tiny game only in size. However, that contrasts poorly with the large amount of randomness in the game. Between dice rolls, card draws, and unlucky interactions, there’s a whole lot of luck in the game. Also, like most of the Tiny games, the rules aren’t the best. Overall, I found it a bit slow, but another interesting Poker variant.

Arkham Ritual (2017). This feels like a combination of Coach Ride to Devil’s Castle (2006) with Hanabi (2010) but it’s not nearly as good as either. Basically, you have a micro-deck of cards. Some are good to have at the end of a round of play, some are bad, and a few have special effects. The catch is that you don’t get to see your own cards, only the other players do. Each turn, a player offers up a new card that only he knows about and other players take it or not.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of game here. You might lie or tell the truth in suggesting that someone take a card, and you might give a card to someone you want to take it or someone you don’t. But there’s no particular incentive to be consistent about either action, and without consistency there’s no ability to assess whether you’re being given good or bad cards. This game would be fine for cons or super casual play, but as written it can run a little long for those endeavors. It’s somewhat saved by nicely artistic cards (though there some problems with the Kickstarter production, such as looseleaf rules that don’t actually fit in the box).

3 thoughts on “New to Me: Summer 2017 — The Season of the Expansions

  1. I kind of disagree about Scythe. I think it can be taught in under 15 minutes, and if the encounters and factory cards don’t count as exploration, then they’re at least close enough to make me satisfied.

  2. Pingback: Board Games Weekly 10/7/2017 | Pub Meeple

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