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05/09/2015 / robert0

5 years of board games

I started tracking plays at boardgamegeek around 2008, and from that here are my aggregate top 10 games that I played as of the end of each year since 2010 (also the year that I began posting here).

@ YE 2010: Magic (36), Pandemic (29), Arkham Horror (25), Agricola (18), Through the Ages (18), Dominion (17), Fairy Tale (17), Descent (16), Chaos in the Old World (13), Battlestar Galactica (9)

I was putting Chaos in the Old World in front of everyone back then, new gamer or not. And TTA was something we kept hammering at until we finally got all the rules right (somewhere around game 25…). Pandemic and Dominion had been shiny for a while, and my real ‘go-to’ gateway game. And my last hurrah at a few Magic tournaments could make it tough to dislodge from top spot for a while.

@YE 2011: Through the Ages (53), Magic (36), Pandemic (29), Arkham Horror (27), Agricola (18), Dominion (18), Fairy Tale (17), Descent (16), Chaos in the Old World (13), Battlestar Galactica (10)

Or not. Thanks to the wonder of boardgaming-online we racked up asynchronous plays with 3-4 players regularly. You can read my thoughts on this in my post more-on-through-the-ages-electronic-play. Glory to Rome, Innovation, and Rune Age made big moves, in 2011 but didn’t crack the all-time top 10.

@YE 2012: Through the Ages (84), Magic (36), Pandemic (29), Arkham Horror (27), Ascension (27), Rune Age (20), Agricola (18), Dominion (18), Chaos in the Old World (17), Fairy Tale (17)

Finally, changes to the top 10. I think I played 1 face to face game of Ascension, otherwise those are all real opponents via the iOS app. I was happy to see the Arkham Horror was getting it’s annual turn at the table, although it now has to compete with Mansions of Madness for Friday the 13th horror game nights. Chaos in the Old World had a bit of a renaissance as well – I believe that I finally finished painting all the minis for the base game and wanted to get the to the table.

@YE 2013: Through the Ages (90), Magic (36), Pandemic (29), Arkham Horror (28), Ascension (27), Rune Age (20),  Agricola (18), Dominion (18), Chaos in the Old World (17), Fairy Tale (17)

I didn’t really play a lot of games in 2013. Descent 2e, Core Worlds (my last post prior to this one), Coup, and Love Letter got the most plays but even the torrid pace of TTA plays dried up. Such go the cycles of life…

@YE2014: Through the Ages (90), Magic (41), Pandemic (30), Arkham Horror (30), Ascension (27), Rune Age (24), Agricola (18), Dominion (18), Chaos in the Old World (18), Fairy Tale (18)

Wow – a year without TTA and a return to some Magic (although I forgot to log plays during my brief foray into Magic Online). Terra Mystica, Mice and Mystics, and Call of Cthulhu LCG were the top games of the year with over 10 plays each. I played more games than the year before, but the tendency is certainly to fewer plays of a wider variety of games. I’m trying to balance this by getting more reps of certain games in, but can be a tough task depending on the nature and interests of your board gaming group.

2015 so far: Through the Ages (98), Magic (41), Pandemic (30), Arkham Horror (30), Ascension (27), Rune Age (25), Terra Mystica (23), Dominion (19), Core Worlds (18), Descent 2e (18)

Finally, some changes! (I broke the ties in favour of the new comers.) Thanks to an ongoing Heirs of Blood campaign, Descent 2e has finally passed the number of plays of 1e. That’s been inspiring me to complete painting all the monsters so it looks that much better on the table. Terra Mystica has cracked the top 10 all time thanks to online play at terra.snellman.net as we currently get through about a game each month. And I have another goal to get a game of TI3 to the table before I pass my 3rd anniversary of the last time I played it! We’ll see how those play out! Coup and Innovation are also poised on the boundary, and could make the year end list at long last.

So, what did I get from this? Well, some very obvious conclusions are: online asynchronous play is key in getting a high number of plays; games ones owns earlier get more plays over time; more games means less plays in aggregate for each one. These last two lead to fairly little movement in an established ‘top 10 all time’ list.  I’ll ponder some new measure that reflects both number of plays and ‘regularity’ of plays to clear out those games clogging up the list.

24/02/2013 / robert0

Core Worlds

Core Worlds is one of the still relatively new* breed of deck-building games to come out in the wake of the major success of the pioneering game of this kind, Dominion. While Dominion opened up a new design space for tabletop gaming in 2008 with it’s fascinating mechanism of on-the-fly deck-building by way of playing a game, I found that it ultimately failed to draw me into it. That is to say that when I play it I feel like I am going through motions with little purpose other than ‘to win’ by getting victory points. Awesome for many but not for me – I like something more engaging to go along with the basic mechanism. Whether designers were responding to this sentiment in the game-playing market, or simply brainstorming other ways to use this awesome mechanism in their own games, several games published since have expanded on this basic premise of adding cards to your base deck, shuffling, drawing, and playing them by incorporating an interesting purpose into the victory point exercise.

From designer Andrew Parks and publisher Stronghold Games, I give you Core Worlds as one example of integrating ‘deck-building’ with an engaging purpose. In Core Worlds, each player plays a barbarian empire which are collectively migrating inwards through space towards the eponymous core worlds at the heart of a fallen galactic empire. Each player starts with a small deck of basic cards containing small starfighters, basic infantry, simple tactics, and a unique faction leader. With these decks each player will start to build a conquering force by drafting different and more powerful cards from a Central Zone and deploying these forces to ultimately invade new planets, thereby adding more resources to their growing empire with which to get better stuff, and so on as, any good ‘deck-building’ game does.

In addition to the basic drafting / deck-building element there is a meaningful amount of resource management and planning for your brain to work with. Actions and energy are the currencies for the following activities: drafting cards into your deck (1 action + variable energy cost), deploying your invasion forces (1 action per unit + enery cost of units), and conquering worlds (1 action and 1 energy to invade). Deploying forces places them on the table in your warzone and has the double effect of giving the potential to invade a planet on a future turn as well as thinning cards out your deck, the latter which places another nice layer of decisions on the game. None of these are overwhelming either; it is really a matter of play style as it informs your strategy towards the ultimate goal of winning.

The game plays over 10 rounds with each pair of rounds representing a new sector of space encountered on the inward journey. When a new sector is entered, a different deck of cards replaces the current one being used to fill the common area, giving an enjoyable narrative progression to the game as more powerful abilities and planets are metered out through these decks. Star Cruisers, Robots, Heroes, Vehicles, and even Capital Ships will be encountered along the way as your invasion force meets and assimilates these continually improving technologies and troops into your glorious cause.

Image by BGG user Chris Coyote

Throughout the game the units that you acquire as well as the planets that you conquer can contribute to your victory point total (called Empire Points).  The greatest amount of points, though, will be gained from the Core Worlds themselves, which will enter play once you have reached sector 5 (rounds 9 & 10).  One of the rules that is important to remember is that *all* the Core Worlds must enter play by round 10 so each scoring opportunity the present is available in the game. All but one of the core worlds have variable points that increase based on other factors – the number of starfighters in your empire at the end of the game is one example. Each of the core worlds’ scoring conditions are conveniently printed on the play mats so there is no need to remember and you can build your deck accordingly to influence your end of game scoring potentials.

I can recommend Core Worlds to anyone who, like me, wants both more story and decisions in their game. The turn structure is quick as long as no players are taking too long with their decisions, although later in the game when tallying up points to conquer planets things can slow down a bit. I found that it plays very well with any number of players and will take 20-30 min per player so you are sensitive to time you’ll want to avoid 5 player games.

Notes: * Indeed, I do think that 5 years still qualifies as “relatively new” 🙂

21/10/2012 / robert0

A 12-month retrospective (12 months later)

It’s been two years now since I started posting here, and one since I did my last look back. So here is a ‘second annual’ 12-month retrospective.  I played 47 different games at least once in the past year, which is exactly number of unique games that I played in the prior 12 month period. Interesting.

Here is my top 10 over the last 12 months:

34 plays : Through The Ages A Story of Civilization (BGO)
27 plays: Ascension Chronicles of the Godslayer (iOS)
15 plays: Rune Age
13 plays: Ascension Storm of Souls (iOS)
7 plays : Innovation
6 plays : Core Worlds
5 plays: Quarriors!
4 Plays: Eclipse, Junta Viva el Presidente, Mansions of Madness

And tied for 11th at 3 plays each…
1812 The Invasion of Canada, 11 Nimmt!, Alien Frontiers, Chaos in the Old World, Panic Station, and Runewars.

Five of those were on my last top ten, and the number of plays of each is up.  Having both flavours of Ascension on iOS as well as Through The Ages on http://www.boardgaming-online.com makes racking up some plays a bit easier, but overall my face to face gaming counts appear to have crept up slightly this year. Longer-playing games have tailed off a bit; most notable is that lack of Twilight Imperium in the past 12 months, something I’ll need to rectify and mix in with Eclipse as time and group permits.

New games acquired in 2012 but not yet played include the reprint of Wallenstein, Ascending Empires, Road To Enlightenment, Rex: Final Days of An Empire, and The Ares Project.  Our Descent (second edition) campaign is underway and I’d like to start another, and I have new Mansions of Madness scenarios to get to the table.  And for another year, that game of Advanced Civilization has eluded me, but one must have goals, in particular, for fun.

22/08/2012 / robert0

One Play Game Reviews: Smash Up & Doctor Who The Card Game

I was one of the happy near-forty thousand folks to traipse through the Indianapolis Convention Centre last week attending the 45th GenCon. One of the new releases that I was able to try out was Smash Up from AEG. The premise itself is pretty obvious and fun-sounding, as well as rather surprising that someone hadn’t done this already. (I’m just irked that I didn’t think this one up myself!)

The base game consists of  8 factions, each represented by a deck of 20 cards. You take any two piles (following a drafting order) and shuffle the decks together and play. One time you could play Wizard Ninjas vs. Robot Pirates vs. Alien Zombies, another time will be something different. In all there are 28 different combinations to explore.

Each player will in turn, play one minion and one action from their hand of cards. There will be several bases placed out which are being attacked by each players’ minions over the course of the turns. Once enough total power is attacking the base, it will fall and players will score based on the relative total power of their minions present on that base. Once scored, another base will be drawn and placed and the minions discarded. The game is simply played out as a race to 15 victory points.

Action cards are highly varied and, like the minions, are themed to the faction they represent. The Wizards deck will be appreciated by players of Magic (particularly blue mages) as they can draw extra cards and play extra actions. Zombies recycle themselves from the discard piles, Ninjas kill other minions quite frequently, and the other factions all play well with with their genre.

Smash Up hits exactly where it should; it plays in 30-45 minutes, is easy to explain and accessible to new gamers, and doesn’t take itself too seriously while still providing enough to think about to make it meaningful to play. With more expansions (I’m hoping for Monkeys) this will continue to hold down a role as a fun game to start off or wrap up a game night with.

Another game that I had the chance to demo at GenCon 2012 was Doctor Who The Card Game. This is a highly anticipated game by renown board game designer Martin Wallace based on the most recent incarnation of the franchise, that of the Steven Moffat/Matt Smith era, and I went in expecting a good family game to play with Doctor Who fans of all ages. For the record, I am a long time Doctor Who fan and had a new Who-related shirt for each day of the con. Yeah, ‘that guy’.

Each player is dealt a hand of enemies and defenders which, as you’d expect, consist of Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, etc. for the former and the Doctor, the ‘Ponds’, etc. for the latter.  During play, both defenders and enemies will be placed on locations which each player has out in front of them. These locations are worth end game victory points and control of them (thus points) will be either maintained by successfully defending them (if yours) or attacking them (if in front of other players).

There is a lot of secret information in the game, since both attackers and defenders are placed face-down until revealed. This is mitigated somewhat since you will have an idea of what cards the player to your right has since each turn you must pass 3 cards from your hand to that player. You read that correctly – you pass 3 cards to the player to your right at the end of your turn and must keep at least 3 cards in hand to do this. This is an interesting mechanism for a card game and keeps the long term planning to a minimum to (presumably) encourage players to keep up the pace and not over plan.

There are a few more rules involved, but that is the main gist of the game. Play continues until an ‘End Game’ card is revealed and triggers the end game (which changes the rules slightly). The winner is the player with the most ‘victory points’ (I can’t recall if they were called something else more appropriate to Doctor Who) across the locations that they control.

Unfortunately, I found that the game mechanics got in the way of enjoying the game and would not really be comprehensible or even fun for younger players, which is a *huge* miss for this game. In addition, the defenders were generally weaker and took longer to play out in force and so typically lost the battles, resulting in a very un-Doctor Who-like experience. To me this is example of poor alignment of theme with mechanics and I’m glad that I got to demo this first as I was likely to have bought it simply due to its dual pedigree of franchise and designer.

As it stands I’m baffled by the combination of this game with that theme as I think it just won’t work for the target audience. It has enough simple elements that keep it from being a strategic game for a more serious crowd and and the same time sufficient complexity to make it a challenge for all but the most precocious and Doctor Who-obsessive child to be engaged. This is a real shame, since Doctor Who and games have struggled to produce a winner in the nearly 50 years of history for the program, and I was really hoping for this one to finally deliver a fun, family experience.

13/08/2012 / robert0

One Play Game Review: Runewars

Usually I shrink down the box cover picture to a size at which it is still clearly identifiable but doesn’t dominate the text. I’ll make an exception here for 2010’s Runewars, the last of Fantasy Flight Game’s “coffin box” board games*, as it deserves an ostentatious footprint.

Runewars is a conquest game in which you’ll be amassing and shepherding your armies across a variable hex-based board which represents FFG’s common world of Terrinoth, encountered previously in Rune AgeDescent, and their other fantasy games. Here are found once again the factions of the Latari Elves, the Daqan Lords, The Uthuk, and the undead Hordes of Waiqar, seeking dominion over the land.

This land is assembled from different board pieces, each composed of 1 to 4 connected hexes of various shapes and placed by the players as part of game setup. Once the map has been established, players connect their home realms to this map, neutral ‘monsters’ are placed across the land, and in each home realm players place their starting forces and add a hero to go questing in the summer (see below).  Finally, both false and true dragon runes are placed secretly by the players in their home realms.  It is these dragon runes that players are vying for as controlling a set number of these determines the winner of the game and the ruler of the lands (and fear not, for more runes are added to the board during game play so it is not necessary to invade all one’s opponents to win).

A game of Runewars plays out over 6 to 8 game years with each year divided into the four seasons. A game round (one season) is straightforward: the effects of the current season are resolved (drawn from a deck of appropriate cards); players secretly select one order card from their hand of 8 to represent their activity that season; then these orders are revealed and executed by each player in turn. The order cards add a layer of strategic planning that is often missing from other conquest games (like the classic Risk) since the sequence in which the cards are selected across a game year matters. Earlier in the year favours moving troops and doing battle, while later on it is more beneficial to gather resources and build up for the next campaign year. One is not restricted in which orders to select, but rather there are additional benefits of following this progression so it is worth considering as you plan for the coming year at the start of each spring.

I’ll go into some further detail on two of the seasons here: summer and winter. First, in both of these seasons there is a good chance that the Wizards Council will meet and have a vote on an element that can significantly impact the game, such as providing players with additional dragon runes to place on the map. These votes are secret bids of influence, an important resource if you want to have a say in these councils.

Hero card image by BGG user Critical Miss

Summer is also the season for heroes to train and, once well-trained, to go questing to find rewards (magical items that also provide important bonuses). Each piece of the map board has 1 to 3 of its hexes associated with a quest, and each player can have two or three of these quests assigned at any given time. Finally, winter brings with it attrition, as any hex with more armies than a player can feed will be lost when the winter season resolves. However, if you can keep a large army together through this, winter also sees the impassable water boundaries of the map freeze over and provide direct access to neighbouring lands otherwise inaccessible during the other seasons (and perhaps poorly defended due to inadequate food supplies…).  Plan well.

The battle system is also worth summarizing here, for it has been developed with the problems of past conquest games in mind. Once all the troops are in place for a battle, they will attack once in an initiative order specified in the rules. Fast units have a chance to kill off those slower (and typically more devastating) units before they can attack. Units can be dealt wounds or simply routed and removed from combat. And once all troops have attacked, the battle is resolved by tallying each sides’ remaining strength with the weaker side being forced to retreat. Retreating troops are routed and thus not typically usable until the following year, but they are not necessarily lost. This combat resolution works great in keeping battles fairly quick (and from looping for many rounds) and also in not (usually) resulting in the loss of many turns’ effort in recruiting troops and keeping the loser of the battle in the war.

Fate card image by BGG user Critical Miss

The last major element that I’ll cover here is the resolution system. Whether determining the winner between great armies clashing on the field, the success of heroes attempting quests or dueling each other, or the outcome of diplomacy to encourage a neutral dragon to fight for your cause, all outcomes are driven by fate. Fate is represented by 30 cards displaying various icons for troops and heroes alike.  Once understood, these cards provide a quick and simple way to determine the outcomes of the various activities that rely on fate.  Fate is not overly kind, but some thoughtful timing and critical assessment of the situations that you are about to enter into can give you a bit of an edge that fair dice will never provide.

Runewars combines the best of conquest games (lots of plastic armies for attacking your friends) with elements of diplomacy, adventuring heroes, varied play options, and as I mention above, being more strategic that your typical dice-rolling world-domination game.  There are hidden objectives to help you acquire more dragon runestactics cards to influence battles and even sway heroes to joining your side, and many more other options to add to the game as your play group learns the basics and seeks even more fun and adventure from this game.

At its heart, Runewars is a conquest game, and needs to be approached as such. But if you love these kind of games as I do, Runewars is worth setting aside 4 hours of your afternoon to get to the table. There’s even an epic variant if you’re looking for something to fill your entire afternoon with!

Striking through a hidden passage in the mountains, elves sack and burn the city to reclaim the land for nature! (photo of our game by @ValRuza)

* I’m not sure if it is ‘official’ but I’ve heard that FFG will no longer be making games in these double-sized boxes.

01/08/2012 / robert0

Cosmic Encounter, a.k.a. the gamers’ Large Hadron Collider of fun

Ah, Cosmic Encounter. I mentioned it in my last post and was somewhat surprised that I hadn’t done a review of this often revisited classic. And so I will set this right.

Cosmic Encounter is a game, but it is also a social experiment set in a bizarre alternate universe with laws that change arbitrarily depending on which alien species show up to play. It takes some of the best aspects of human interactions (cooperating, assisting, protecting) and runs them headlong into the worst of those (self-interest, misleading, and backstabbing) using your gaming table as a micro-scale LHC to see what kind of new ‘fun particles’ fly out.

The premise is so simple as to be trivial – you are attempting to invade other players’ planets to establish colonies. A conflict has the two main players each select an encounter card from their hand and then reveal them simultaneously. Players add the number on their card to the number of little plastic ships that are on their side of the conflict and the higher number wins. This is a simple framework that anyone who can do some basic arithmetic can come to terms with easily.

Naturally, if this was all there was the game would have faded into obscurity decades ago. Instead, Cosmic Encounter has been around for 35 years in numerous forms and is one of the best-loved games of all time. If there was an official Board Game Hall of Fame*, Cosmic would be an inaugural inductee.

During an invasion, each player may request support for the other players, by bartering, cajoling, and threatening them into helping with promises of future support or other benefits. But beware, for such arrangements are typically not held as binding in the game so you need to really gauge whether it is on the level or if you are being set up for betrayal (hint: early in the game you can sometimes trust players, later in the game trust no one!).

There are also tangible, in-game benefits of supporting as well; joining the invasion force will allow allies to establish a colony on the successfully invaded planet while siding with the defender gives those allies the chance at recovering or gaining resources should the attack be repulsed. Sometimes you won’t have the necessary firepower to win and for this there is the negotiate encounter card. Playing this causes you (and any allies!) to lose that conflict, but you can take compensation from the winner (cards from their hand) to allow you to re-arm and be better prepared for next time. In the event that both sides chose to  negotiate, all allies are sent home and the two main players have 60 seconds to come to an agreement within the bounds of the rules. Quite often, knowing what they want to get out of the encounter, players discuss beforehand their wishes. A popular play is to offer “let’s negotiate and I’ll give you a colony on my planet in exchange for a colony on yours”. Again, this only can be done if both players actually follow through and play their negotiate cards, for why not play a small attack card instead and take by force without paying your side of the deal? Like all decisions in the game, betrayal should be done wisely for the game can be one by multiple players at once and it’s good to keep some options for true alliance open.

Players also have one other game-changing aspect on the table at all times – the special power of their alien peoples. There are 50 aliens to choose from in the base game and dozens more added through the expansion, and the range of powers is strange and broad. Some are obviously powerful and some less so; none are technically ‘balanced’ but each provides a tool for the crafty mind to determine the best way to use it. And whereas in some games getting the most powerful special ability is favourable, more often than not in Cosmic Encounter it will simple prove to be the catalyst for the creation of an alliance against you to ensure your defeat.

The last element that I’ll mention here (although there are more to discover) is another aspect of the game that was a departure from the traditional. Instead of choosing who you attack, each turn you will draw a card to determine which player you will attack and you must attack them. Indeed, you may be the mastermind of your aliens but there are obviously rogue commanders within your forces who set off on missions against your current allies! This approach not only forces players to be attacking, but it makes it more difficult to gang up on the leader as well as removing as aspect of player frustration or hurt when <they> keep getting attacked.  Sorry, the destiny deck made me attack you!

Overall, Cosmic Encounter is a game that keeps coming to the table for the purposes of having fun. It is not for everyone in the long run, but I feel that with the right pre-game discussion to set expectations everyone can enjoy participating (whether or not they choose to is up to them!). It’s a social game with simple rules, lots of interaction, and doesn’t involve mummery, singing, acting, or knowing trivia.

The “Hate” isn’t a good loser.

A Footnote
* There are several Halls of Fame for board games, all with slightly different angles. I’m referring to a non-existent, universally recognized HOF, in this post. However, if you had to pick one that comes close to this for modern board games, check out The Dice Tower BGHOF.

22/07/2012 / robert0

What’s fun to you?

There are many ways to have fun and get enjoyment from games. Here is a list that I’ve made for the purposes of sharing my thoughts on them.

  1. mastering a specific game (chess)
  2. dealing with vagarities of fortune (most dice games)
  3. simulating events or systems (most wargames)
  4. successfully reading and manipulating others (poker)
  5. shared story experience (role-playing games)
  6. general sociability and/or silliness (party games)

Identifying your ‘fun goals’ and expressing them are a key part to everyone getting the most enjoyment out of playing games.  Too often it seems that when assembling a group to play games at a convention or other large gathering, this aspect isn’t explicitly considered.  Naturally, you will be inviting people that you don’t know to join in the game you are about to start, but when the game is unfamiliar to them it is important the describe the ‘kind of fun’ that this game brings.  This will reduce the chance of a mismatch between expected and actual experience, and greatly improve the game for all.

Cosmic Encounter is my poster child for the discussion of correctly establishing expectations what makes a game fun. It is more weighted heavily towards #4 (bluffing) and #6 (not serious), above, and should not be mistaken for a #1 (rules-based) type game. So why is it my poster child? I’ve met two kinds of people who have played Cosmic Encounter; those who tried it again after a terrible first experience and those who didn’t. The game seems to commonly be explained as a game where you try to “invade enemy worlds by playing cards and the first to 4 colonies wins”. This does not map to the actual game experience which is about bluffing, coercing, betraying, and above all not taking any of it too seriously on your way to getting  those 4 colonies. Sadly, many a person has been put off by a poor first exposure to Cosmic Encounter and not given it another try. So, make sure that when you explain a game to someone new to it, do not omit the kind of experience that they will likely have when you detail the mechanics and/or objectives of it.

On a larger scale, one of the things that I’d like to see added to larger board game gatherings is something that visibly qualifies the kind of experience that one is looking for or can be expected to have at a specific game.  There could be icons* on your convention badge that show what you find is fun and similarly, games could be marked with these icons to help you find a match while walking the gaming floor.  For a convention I’d also try to have separate areas for the casual or learning player and the serious player. Not everyone tolerates the slow play of someone learning, and this is a simple step to help lead to a better play experience for all where learners can play at a comfortable pace and ask questions, and those who are more interested in testing their abilities against other experienced players can face off.

Both ends of the spectrum certainly come out to game days and conventions, and mixing them haphazardly isn’t always a good plan. Of course, there are many individuals of both preferences that will accommodate the desired play experience of others. I’m just stating the obvious that this does not encompass everyone, and there are some straightforward seeming steps that could improve the fun for everyone at large board game events.

* For a similar idea applicable to role playing games, check out my inspiration (with actual badge icons) at http://strangemagic.robertsongames.com/2011/08/gm-merit-badges.html

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