New To Me: Fall 2017

As usual, this is my quarterly list of games that I played in the last three months that I had never played before. Many of them are fairly new games, but sometimes there are older games too, that I’ve just now played for the first time. Also as usual, the ratings all match my personal enjoyment of the game as a eurogamer who likes medium-weight games. YMMV. 

The Very Good

Terraforming Mars (2016). One of last years’ most popular games finally got a play from  me this fall. It turns out that it’s largely a card-driven engine-building game, not unlike Master of Orion: The Board Game (2016), which I also wrote about recently. You’ve got six different resources, which get produced each turn, and various cards can give you more production, more resources, or the ability to use the resources. There also is a board, which lets you build cities, waterways, and forests, and there’s definite strategy based on board position, but it’s the least part of the game.

I think the reason that Terraforming Mars succeeded so well is its verisimilitude. A lot of science-fiction card games do a great job of creating evocative cards, but with its near-future setting, Terraforming Mars feels even more so. The whole idea of building tiles of vegetation and water onto a realistic map of Mars also supports this. However, my favorite true-to-life element of the game is probably the end-game condition. The game’s only over when you’ve managed to raise the temperature of Mars and improve the atmosphere enough! In other words, you’re really terraforming Mars.

There’s a lot of nice strategy in this game and your resources always feel tight. I have some qualms about how the randomness of the card draws interacts with the relatively long playing time, but otherwise, this is definitely a winner.

Pandemic Legacy: Season Two (2017). I wrote this when I’d only played the non-Legacy prologue, so consider it spoiler-free, at least for Season Two. And I still find it astounding that we’re now living in a universe where you have to warn about spoilers on board game.

But for me the most astounding thing about Pandemic Legacy: Season Two is that when you sit down to play it, you’re not playing Pandemic. Instead you’re playing a recognizably similar but unique game where you’re trying to get supplies to cities to help them survive, and to ward off an incurable plague. (I actually have some concerns about that gameplay being one-dimensional, but I’m sure that’ll quickly evolve.)

Meanwhile, you can see all the Legacy elements that you’d expect, allowing you to change characters, cards, and the boards. This is the terrific heart of these games, and it looks to be managed well again here. However, what really intrigues me is that there’s a whole exploration element. If you manage to accomplish certain “recon” goals, then you open packages which I suspect contain unexplored parts of the map. I’ve been surprised that exploration has been pretty underrepresented in co-ops, and I’m thrilled to see it here in a Legacy game.

Queendomino (2017). The post-SdJ variant of Kingdomino (2016) is more of a gamer’s game, but also more of a compromise. This comes about in large part through a few new game systems: you now have coins that you can gain through the placements of knights on tiles; and you can spend them to purchase red tiles which provide various scoring (and play) bonuses.

The additional strategy of these games systems is obvious: you have to decide when to optimally play your knights, and you have more opportunity to work toward unique scoring machines. But there’s a clear loss of elegance. Whereas Kingdomino was a single unified game system, Queendomino is a less elegant mash-up, now containing some optional game phases that cause the game to awkwardly stumble along rather than smoothly flow.

Objectively, I have little doubt thatur  Kingdomino is the better game in several ways, while subjectively I think serious gamers may like Queendomino more.

Blood Rage (2015). A decade ago, Eric Lang designed Midgard (2006), a viking game of majority control and card drafting. Blood Rage is its reinvention with beautiful plastic miniatures.

With that said, it’s a definite reinvention. Whereas Midgard was clearly a majority-control game, Blood Rage leans more toward the adjacent gameplay of warfare. It’s also more action oriented and less card oriented, meaning that the card draft (which was very innovative back in 2006) is somewhat less important. Finally, the board in Blood Rage is mucher tighter than the one in Midgard, with lots of stuff being very close.

Personally, I like the mechanics of Midgard better — or at least my memory of the mechanics, as it’s been a while since I’ve played — but I can see why people would say the converse. And Blood Rage has much better bits.

Either one would be great to put next to other top Viking games like Vikings (2007) and Fire & Axe (2004).

The Good

Century: Spice Road (2017). I just wrote that they didn’t make these simple abstract euros any more, but here’s one. It’s a classic cube pusher, combined with the occasionally seen mechanic of deck management. You collect cards and play them to translate cubes through four colors of spices. The object is have the right recipes of cubes to match the needs of various order cards, which give you victory point — and to grab those cards just before your opponents do.

Spice Road is simple, it’s got good engine building, and it’s quite tense, as you’re constantly trying to stay ahead of other players. It’s not particularly innovative though, except in its use of deck management.

Cursed Court (2017). A game of betting. Each round of play, four cards are revealed over the course of the round; each player also knows about cards held in common with each adjacent player. You try and take that limited knowledge of available cards, combine it with guesses about what cards other players may know about, and then make bids on what you think the full set of cards will be for the round.

The twist in the game is that each bidding spot may only hold one bet, so you have to bump other players out. This introduces a lot of interactivity and some tension over how much you should bid.

In some ways this feels like a massively simplified Lancaster (2011). It’s a nice game for parties or social groups, and it’s beautifully produced. Serious gamers may find it too simplistic for its length.

Emergence (2016). This hidden-teams game has much more depth than most in its category, including a board and a complex resource-management system. In the game, players are either loyal AIs or rebellious humans. In either case, they’re trying to collect data cubes, turn them into knowledge, them compile them into points for their team.

The hidden teams are very nicely supported with a combination of explicit actions and ways to implicitly figure out who is who. This is all buoyed with a secret ballot system, where players secretly place their victory points in a ballot box, flagged for a team of their choice. Finally, you have ways to attack members of the other team, made more complex by the simultaneous action of the game. It gives the hidden teams real importance in the gameplay.

With that said, the resource-management of the game is very traditional (collect, combine, score), and the whole game feels fairly abstract, despite the attempt to invoke science-fiction theming.

The OK

Scoville (2014). I’ve seen this game around at game days for a few years, and I’ve always assumed it was city building, because it’s called ScoVILLE. Nope, it’s about peppers, because Scovilles are a measure of heat.

This game has one great mechanic. Resources are combined on the board. You plant peppers in adjacent fields and then you collect hybridized peppers of different colors by walking in between these fields. It’s a pretty cool idea that I’ve never seen before.

But, it also has problems.

First, you are buried under piles of information and a pretty intricate system of development. You have to track how peppers combine, where those combinations occur on a large board, and you also have to remember the precise sets of peppers needed for both complex recipes and simple orders. This is absolutely mind boggling at first and remains a heavy weight throughout the game.

Second, The game is largely driven by how the players plant their peppers. It’s always tricky when players create the joint playing fields, because you have to be really careful that they have incentives that line up with what they should do to make the game develop correctly. Fifth Avenue (2004) is an example of a game of this sort that failed; I still don’t know how the designer thought it would be played. Scoville works much better, but there were occasions when no one seemed to have an incentive to do the things needed to advance the game, leading to some awkward lacunas.

As a whole, Scoville was way, way too thinky for me, and it’s pretty intimidating for newcomers too. However, I could see how a dedicated group would love it, especially if their group-think leans toward the directions that advances the gameplay.

 Eight Epics (2015). A co-op microgame, played with just 14 cards: eight characters and six threats (plus a handful of dice). It takes a pretty normative path for dice-based co-ops, which you’ll also find in Elder Sign (2011) and Star Trek: Five-Year Mission (2015): you roll dice trying to form certain pattern. Here, it’s pretty much the simplest sets of patterns: all high numbers, all low numbers, all a certain value, or all different.

There’s a little bit of variability caused by each character having a special power, so on your turn you get to reroll dice, you maybe get exciting results, and then you decide whether to spend some of your characters’ limited power uses to create the patterns needed to conquer the current challenge. The big trick of the game is that you have to ration your power usages over five rounds, and the last round is just about impossible because you have twice as many threats.

This is a nicely designed minigame, but it also runs a bit long for what it is.

Ethnos (2017). This is essentially a set-collection game, where the set collection drives token placement, which dovetails into majority control. Unfortunately, the set collection can be super random, where you have to randomly draw cards with the hope of matching either your colors or your fantasy races — and also unfortunately, the game is really punitive if you get cards outside your set. The game is light and fast enough that the high randomness isn’t totally out of place, but it doesn’t allow for a very thoughtful game.

The saving grace of Ethnos is that the cards in play vary from game to game, allowing different sets of powers to appear in every game. This a great design that I’d like to see in more games for the variability it creates.

(I’m pretty shocked that the game is rated as high as it is over at BGG. My only guess is that it comes down to table groupthink. If players play more liberally, constantly drawing bad cards that they must later discard, then it creates more open cards, which give players more actual choice; but if players are more conservative, there are fewer open cards, and so less agency. The one might be an OK game, the other less so. However, as noted in Scoville, having that amount of variability based on play style is always troublesome.)

The Meh

Too Many Cinderellas (2014). A very simplistic game where you’re trying to ensure that your potential Cinderella becomes the new bride for that he Prince. You run through two rounds of playing cards that remove certain Cinderellas from contention based on their characteristics, with each play being followed by a vote where any player can use their singular veto. Then, every one presents their Cinderella that meets the criteria, and the highest ranked one wins.

The core mechanic of the game is interesting, but it’s entirely beholden here to the randomness of the card draw, and it needs something more to actually be an interesting game. Just having the one element makes this a super light-weight.

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