Games: Tzolk’in

This review is a cross-post from Playtest. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is available through Amazon and Funagain Games.

♪ For every season, turn, turn, turn … ♫

As with any form of art, boardgame design is subject to trends. “Worker placement games”, for example, were all the rage in the years following the release of Agricola. Most games of the genre had similar hallmarks:  players used their turns to assign “workers” to spaces on the board; each space conferred to the player some benefit or reward, such as free resources, the ability to build improvements, or even the opportunity to recruit yet more workers to his cause; and each space could only hold a single worker, so occupying them (thereby denying them from your opponents) was the main form of player interaction.

The market eventually became saturated with worker placement games, and fell by the wayside when Dominion ushered in the era of Deck Building games. These days a worker placement game must be exceptionally well designed or feature a compelling twist to merit consideration. Lords of Waterdeep is a good example of the former, a game that adds little to the genre, but is so well designed that I frequently recommend it. Trajan, on the other hand, exemplifies the latter, a worker placement game (sort of) with a very clever mechanic, but one that dominates rather than supplements play.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, meanwhile, meets both criteria, boasting an remarkable design and one hell of a hook. And the gimmick in this case is not only mechanical, but physical: six interlocking gears which sit in the middle of the game board. Each of the smaller gears represents a site of importance in Mayan culture  Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza  while the large, central gear plays the role of the Mayan calendar. When the calendar gear is advanced between rounds, the site gears move in tandem. It’s a system that’s not only practical (it saves the players a great deal of bookkeeping), but cleverly reinforces the premise of the game: the inexorable march of time over the course of a year in the Mayan empire.

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Finally, a game with some teeth.

Each site has Action Spaces positions around the perimeter of its gear, and these spaces grant unique benefits to the workers who resides there. But unlike most worker placement games  where a player plunks his pawn into a space, uses the effect, and then retrieves all of his pieces at the end of a round  Tzolk’in employs a novel system of distribution. First, a player must either place workers or retrieve workers on his turn, but cannot do both. Second, the effect of an Action Space takes place when the worker is removed from the board. Third, and most ingeniously, the workers are not placed onto the Action Spaces directly, but rather into depressions within the gears. As time passes, and the central calendar cog turns, the site gears rotate as well, moving the placed workers up toward the more powerful spaces. Thus, the longer a worker sits on a gear, the better the reward it earns when he is finally returned to the owning player’s pool.

The Action Spaces for a site are loosely bound to the overall theme of the location: Palenque focuses on forestry and farming, Yaxchilan provides resources, Tikal permits construction, Uxmal allows you to purchase various goods and effects, and Chichen Itza is where players can make offerings to the gods in return for points and favor. This specialization is one of several thematic touches in what could have been a largely abstract game.

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The gods work in clearly explained ways.

There’s considerably more to Tzolk’in — resource management, buildings and temples, technology tracks, and three different gods to appease — but the gears and the worker placement are the heart of the game, and what really make it shine.

I was profoundly skeptical that the game could rise above its “gimmick”, but after four plays I firmly believe that Tzolk’in would remain as highly regarded if the gears were removed entirely. The game would no doubt be accused of “fiddlyness”, as players would be required to manually advance all the workers between every round, but that just proves my point: the cogs facilitate the excellent gameplay, rather than replace it.

And another good sign in regards to the game’s depth is that it is becoming more interesting with repeated play. The first two times I played I had no idea what to focus on (corn? resources? buildings? temples?) and came in last place. The third time I won, without consciously knowing how I did so. I won the fourth time as well, and this time even had an inkling as to why. Like the best strategy games, Tzolk’in requires study and persistence to play well, and rewards those who makes the investment.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar has become a staple at my Wednesday gamenight, and is my favorite 3-4 player game at the moment. It’s not a something I would recommend to novices, as it has a fairly steep learning curve. But if you are a fan of worker placement games who thought the genre was played out, or are just looking for something to challenge your group, Tzolk’in is an excellent choice, one you’ll want to play often. One good turn deserves another.

Trail of Cthulhu

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. TL;DR: I have rapidly become a fan of the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game, a modern, player-facing alternative to Call of Cthulhu that highlights the investigative aspect of Lovecraftian adventuring.

I’ve always loved all kinds of games, but the frequency at which I played RPGs was, until recently, about once a decade: a handful of D&D sessions as a kid, an afternoon of Top Secret in high school, a GURPS session in college, and a taste of Call of Cthulhu in my early 30s. Of the many systems I’ve learned (and the number I’ve learned is an order of magnitude greater than the number I’ve played, alas), Call of Cthulhu (CoC) was by far my favorite. Not only am I a sucker for the horror genre in general, and H. P. Lovecraft in particular, but I also appreciated the game for putting the narrative front in center, with the dice relegated to a supporting role.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC), knowing full well that, like dozens of other RPGs I have purchased over the years, it would be read but likely never played. But the system appealed to me to such a degree that I decided to actually try it out. And so, on Halloween of 2011, I gathered several of my friends and subjected them to the eldritch horrors that the game has to offer. The evening was so successful that I have run the game several times since, for a variety of friends and acquaintances. It’s with thanks to ToC that I can, at long last, add the title of “roleplayer” to my gaming resume without resorting to exaggeration or wishful thinking.


Even the cover of Trail of Cthulhu emphasizes the investigative nature of the game

GUMSHOE

Why did I enter the world of roleplaying with Trail of Cthulhu, rather than in the company of its much lauded forefather? Because ToC emphasizes the investigative aspect of the game, which I find to be the most fun. In fact GUMSHOE, the engine thrumming within ToC, is specifically tailored for mystery-oriented RPGs, and the exploration of Lovecraft’s horrors is but one of its many application.

GUMSHOE is built around a simple proposition, albeit one viewed as heretical by many Call of Cthulhu fans: characters in an investigative game should be given the clues for free. In other words, players need not “Spot Hidden” to find the essential manuscript, pass a “Listen” check to hear the scratching behind a secret door, or miss out on a key piece of information because they failed to interrogate a wino four scenes back. If an Investigator is in a location containing a clue, and has a skill appropriate for finding it, the Keeper forks it over. No dice rolls, no chance of failure, no games derailed for want of a well-hidden journal.

GUMSHOE accomplishes this by dividing an Investigators skills into two broad classes: Investigative and General. Investigative Abilities, such as Occult and Flattery are those that enable players to learn things, and work automatically. If a character in the story has information and is susceptible to flattery, for instance, a player need only declare that they are laying on the charm to get the goods. General Abilities like Firearms and Fleeing, on the other hand, are those that enable players to do things. Unlike Investigative Abilities, General Abilities require a dice roll, and can result in failure. So while finding the combination to the safe is a given, sneaking past a rogue shoggoth is not without risk.

Some Call of Cthulhu players find this to be even more blasphemous than the creatures they face. Finding clues is the entire point of a mystery they argue, and removing that element neuters the game. The creators of GUMSHOE beg to differ, and cite as evidence for their position the traditional police procedural, where the finding of the clues is a given, be it Sherlock Holmes spotting mud on a suspect’s shoe or the CSI team sweeping a motel room for DNA. The interesting part of the story, they posit, is in the interpretation and synthesis of the clues, as the detectives move from scene to scene drawing ever closer to their quarry. GUMSHOE works by deprecating the drudgery of evidence collection and highlighting the fun of piecing together the Horrible Truth.


What could go wrong?

On the Trail

With Trail of Cthulhu, Kenneth Hite takes the GUMSHOE system and plunks it into the world of H. P. Lovecraft. Hite has an impressive resume in both RPG creation (he is credited with GURPS Horror) and the Mythos (on which he has written several books), and his considerable experience is obvious in the design.

The first 80 pages of the book are essentially Hite’s conversion of Call of Cthulhu to the GUMSHOE system. Yes ToC is its own game, but there is no way (nor need) to deny CoC’s omnipresent influence. PCs are called “Investigators” and the GM is the “Keeper”; many of CoC’s signature skills (e.g., Credit Rating and Psychoanalysis) have been carried over; and yes, characters have a Sanity rating, which will erode over the course of several games.

Hite augments all this with a number of innovations. Stability, for instance, is a measure of an Investigator’s short-term mental well-being, and can be refreshed by completing adventures, finding safe haven, via the application of Psychoanalysis, and so forth. (As in CoC, however, Sanity tends to be a one-way street toward madness.) Investigators also have built in motivators, including Drives (Curiosity, Ennui, and other explanations as to why they investigate the Mythos) and Pillars of Sanity (core beliefs, such as “Science trumps superstition”).

The latter two-thirds of Trail of Cthulhu contains a wealth of material, from an overview of the 1930’s (the default era for ToC adventures), tips for Keepers, an Introductory adventure, and a repository of campaign ideas. Of particular note is the chapter on the Mythos, where Hite provides detailed descriptions of the creatures, tomes, spells, and entities that inhabit the Lovecraftian universe. He even provides multiple possibilities for each of the Great Old Ones, allowing Keepers to choose the form of the Destructor they wish to unleash on their hapless players. Here, for instance, are three of Hite’s six interpretations of Ithaqua:

  • The Great Old One Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker, dwells in the Arctic wastes. It abducts lone travelers or those who have attracted its unfavorable attention, carrying them off into the auroral skies. They are found weeks or months later, frozen solid in positions of great agony, missing random body parts, and partly buried in the ground as if dropped from a terrific height.
  • Ithaqua resembles a gigantic (even miles-tall, although this may be a cold-induced hallucination) humanoid with ragged stumps at the end of its trailing legs. Its eyes glow a lambent red. This appearance matches the descriptions of the Wendigo, the legendary man-eating monster of the Chippewa, who inspires cannibalism in those who encounter him. Ithaqua, likewise, sometimes transforms its victims into its own semblance, leaving them insensible to cold.
  • Ithaqua is an Outer God embodying the inevitability of thermodynamic decay. As time increases, molecules get colder and more isolated – the Arctic north is the coldest, most isolated part of the human world, a preview of the “heat death” coming for us all. Ithaqua causes, or is, or is created by, that immovable truth.

Chock full of ideas like the above, the Trail of Cthulhu book will be of interest to anyone fascinated by the Mythos — even those who have no intention of ever playing the game.


They’re saving you a cell

My Impressions

I’ve run several Trail of Cthulhu sessions since discovering the game, and all have been a blast. These are some of the features of the system that I most appreciate:

  • Dice rolls are rare but meaningful: As I mentioned above, Investigators need only roleplay the use of their Investigative Abilities to receive the clues necessary to proceed. Dice rolls are required when a character invokes a General Ability, such as Firearms or Fleeing, and failure usually results in a significant setback or injury. Furthermore, all rolls are made using six-sided dice, and the results are dead simple to interpret.
  • Sessions are concise: A session of ToC tends to be briefer than it would have been if played using the CoC ruleset, as dead ends are eliminated, clue hunts are minimized, and the action isn’t continually interrupted by dice rolls. I have played some ToC adventures in a single evening that surely would have required two or three sessions using CoC.
  • The game is player-facing: I’d never heard the term “player-facing” prior to ToC, but the term perfectly encapsulates much of what I like about the game. In most old school RPGs, the GM “runs” the game and the players deal with whatever is thrown at them. In ToC, however, the players are active agents, and one duty of the Keeper is to react to their choices, weaving the elements introduced by the players into the narrative.

    For instance, each Investigator has points that can be used on investigative “benefits” (e.g., an additional clue, or a contact in the city that can aid the team). The players not only chooses when to spend these points, but can suggest the nature of the benefit received. The Keeper is the final arbiter of course, but this gives the players much more say in how the story unfolds.

  • Floating Clues: ToC encourages Keepers to have a stash of extra clues on hand. If the Investigators decide to do something that is not in the script — search the lighthouse that was only meant as scenery, say — the Keeper can reward their initiative by giving them something for their trouble. It’s another manifestation of the player-facing nature of the game, rewarding Investigators who stray from where they are “supposed” to go.
  • Purist Mode: Most CoC adventures are pulp in nature, allowing players to confront and even defeat gods. ToC allows for this style of play as well, but also introduces Purist rules that remain true to the spirit of H. P. Lovecraft stories. If you like your adventures lethal and your outcomes bleak, this is the mode for you.

In case you’re curious, the four Trail of Cthulhu adventures I have run thus far are Dimension Y and Devourers In the Mist (from Stunning Eldritch Tales collection), The Dying of St. Margaret’s, and Not So Quiet. I would highly recommend any of these, especially Devourers as an introduction to the system. (I ran a customized version of the printed Devourers; Keepers who are interested in my revisions can read about them here.)


My favorite session to run was “The Dying of St. Maragaret’s”, a purist adventure true to the style of H. P. Lovecraft

Verdict

I’m a fan of Trail of Cthulhu, and unsurprised that it’s the game that finally turned me into a roleplayer.

The system not perfect, and there are aspects that I find odd or unworkable. The point-spend mechanism is a marvelous idea as it ensures that all players get their moment in the spotlight, but often feels clumsy and disruptive in play. The game can careen from diceless to dicefest when group combat erupts. And the soft- and hard-driver rules, where a player can be punished for not roleplaying an Investigator the way the GM feels it ought to be played, as so counter to the spirit of the game that I’ve simply chosen to ignore them.

Some critics question why ToC exists at all, since Call of Cthulhu Keepers who prefer player-facing games have long used floating clues and the other “innovations” championed by the system. That is undoubtedly true, but by codifying these mechanics Trail is a boon for novice Keepers who might otherwise struggle with these elements. And while you could play any ToC adventure using the CoC ruleset (and vice versa), the systems lend themselves to different styles of play.

Take the Call of Cthulhu game I participated in last Saturday, a “haunted house” scenario in which the players were confined to a mansion and bad things happened to them over the weekend. Although our party was ultimately successful, we missed several clues because we’d neglected to search some key locations. That wouldn’t have happened with ToC, as Investigators always get all the core information. But ToC also favors stories in which the players travel from scene to scene, following clues toward a destination (hence the “Trail”). It is also ill-suited to adventures in which the players are not actively trying to solve the mystery; without the investigation, Trail flounders. So while there is a great deal of overlap between CoC and ToC, neither is obviated by the other.

If you are currently enjoying CoC I see no reason for you to switch. But if you are interested in a new approach, or new to Lovecraftian roleplaying and wondering which system to adopt, give Trail of Cthulhu a read and see if it models the sort of play you prefer. It certainly does for me.

You can learn more about Trail of Cthulhu at its Official Homepage, RPGGeek, and on the Yog-Sothoth forums.

Games: Love Letter

This review is a cross-post from Playtest. Love Letter is available through Amazon and Funagain Games.

Love Letter falls into two unusual categories, the first of which is Games That You Are Convinced Won’t Work Until You Play Them. Often these are games that are so complicated that you can’t visualize how all the disparate systems could possibly come together into an organic whole, but sometimes you come across a game so simple that you can’t imagine how playing it would be any more intriguing than flipping a coin.

The second unusual class into which Love Letter falls is what I call Two-Minute Games — not because they can be played in two minutes, but because they feature such an economy of rules that they can be taught to others in that limited time frame. Love Letter is so simple, in fact, that I bet I can explain the core rules in 25 words or less. “Draw a card on your turn, then discard one from your hand. The discarded card takes effect. Have the highest ranked card at round’s end.” Done.

Were I actually teaching you the game, of course, I would open with the premise. Each of the 16 cards in the deck depicts a member of the royal household, which is composed of the Princess, the Countess, the King, two princes, two handmaidens, two barons, two priests, and five guards. In an attempt to woo the Princess, you have entrusted a love letter to one of these people, who has agreed to pass the missive along. Ideally your letter will be in the hands of the Princess herself by the end of the round; barring that, you just want your letter to be as “close” to the object of your affection as possible. Each member of the household has a rank from 8 (the Princess) to 1 (the guards), and you win by holding the highest ranked card at the end of the round.

Everyone receives a single, random card before play begins. On a turn, a player draws a second card and then discards one of the two from his hand. The discarded card has an effect, depending on the person shown. A Guard, for instance, allows you to name a player and a card; if the target holds the card you specified, he is out of the round. The Priest allows you to look at the held card of an opponent. And the Princess, the optimal card to own when a round ends, comes with a liability: you are eliminated if you discard her for any reason.

There are only eight abilities, one per role, and yet the interaction between them make for a tense game of bluff and deduction. Take the three roles described in the paragraph above, for instance. Discarding the Priest, a player could look at the hand of an opponent, and perhaps discover the Princess; if he holds (or draws) a Guard on his next turn, he could then single out the same player, “guess” the Princess, and force him to discard it (thus knocking him out of the round). But the other player will first have a turn to react, and may discard the Handmaid, thereby becoming immune to all attacks until his next turn, or the King, which would allow him to trade his hand with any other player, handing them the Princess (and possibly the victory) whilst weaseling out of the crosshairs.

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Love Letter does not contain an abundance of game; play a round or two and you’ve pretty much seen the gamut. But that won’t prevent you playing compulsively, and enjoying every game. The design strikes a deft balance between subtlety and brainlessness, allowing you to play even while mentally fatigued from earlier, weightier games, or a bit hazy after that second margarita. Indeed, with its simple rules, compact size, and quick playing time, Love Letter is a near perfect bar game, so long as you don’t mind the stares of the other patrons as you howl with laughter at the reversals of fortune, and rage against the perfidy of your erstwhile “friends”.

Like a hapless suitor, pouring his heart into a billet doux, you will likely become quite enchanted with Love Letter. The infatuation may not endure, but you’ll be hopelessly smitten while it lasts.

Tabletop Day Seattle

Wil Wheaton and the fine folks at Geek and Sundry have declared March 30 to be Tabletop Day.

The Tabletop website has a map of events, including many in Seattle, but I’m going to list them here as well for convenience. I’ll keep this post updated as a receive new information.

  • Blue Highway Games (Queen Anne): No specifics yet, but “Board Game Challenge” events are being created for 03/30. [Event link]
  • Cafe Mox (Ballard): The International TableTop Extravaganza! It will be going ALL DAY and will have some pretty great Guests, including Mike Selinker (Loneshark Games), Paul Peterson (Smash-Up, Guillotine, etc.), James Ernest (Cheapass Games), Chris Dupois (Wizards of the Coast), NPC Aaron & NPC Chris (NPCCast), Flying Frog Games (Last Night On Earth, Fortune and Glory, etc.), Passport Games (Trajan, Tokaido, Kalua), Privateer Press, and more. [Event link]
  • Dawgsled Events (Downtown): “From 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM, we will have the run of the entire 76th floor (that’s the top!) of the Columbia Tower. There will be games, games and more games! We’ll also have live streaming of the main Table Top Day event in Los Angeles. General admission tickets currently cost $15; your admission gets you into the event and gets you a catered lunch. The price of drinks is not included, but drinks are available for purchase. Because there will be alcoholic beverages available, this event is for gamers 21 and older.” [Event Link]
  • Gamma Ray Games (Capitol Hill):

    They do indeed. Mandy McGee and Jason “Kantrip” Calhoun of Extollere will host the festivities. [Event link]

  • Wayward Coffeehouse (Roosevelt): “We have reserved blocks of time for gaming groups, and several are already set to play at Wayward on Tabletop Day. We have tables that can accommodate parties from 2-10, and we encourage groups can reserve a table in advance. We especially are hoping for more groups who want to play in the morning as the afternoon is quickly filling up! Individuals who don’t have a group to play with can show up and join something in progress. We have live music that night, 8-10 pm, but its a geeky filk music performer (Hello, The Future) to fit in with the day! To request a table reservation please email wayward@waywardcoffee.com with the date (March 30th), number of people, start and end time, and name of the gaming group.”
  • Burlesque Board Games (First Hill): “Are you a burlesque performer, producer or fan? Do you like board games? Do you want to get all sparkly and play board games with other burlesque performers, producers and fans? Then come to Burlesque Board Games on International TableTop Day! Presented by Unnatural Redhead Productions, Smooches and Science Presents, and GeekGirlCon.” [Event link]
  • Uncle Games (Eastside): “Board Game party featuring local gaming celebrities and publishers! 3:00pm until 11:45pm.” [Event link Bellevue] [Event link Redmond]
  • Norwescon 36 (Sea-Tac): Norwescon is the Pacific Northwest’s Premiere Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention and one of the largest regional Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions in the United States. Norwescon 36 will offer tons of opportunities to get your game on, and is proud to be an official event site for International TableTopDay on Saturday, March 30th![Event link]
  • Games at Top Pot Doughnuts (Renton): “We are a small gaming group, and the cafe we normally play at every couple of weeks, Top Pot Doughnuts at the Renton Landing, has given us the go-ahead to have the event there. It’s a decent-sized cafe that can host 30 or so people inside, and probably 10 more outside. They’re always great to us when we’re there, so please make sure to purchase drinks and doughnuts and sandwiches from them while you’re there playing games.” [Event link]
  • Fantasium Comics & Games (Federal Way): “We will be hosting a variety of game demos as well as providing a library of games for you to play.” [Event link]

More events as I learn of them.

I will be out and about that day, though I don’t yet know where. If you are interested in gaming with me — and perhaps receiving a tutorial on one of the games you’ve purchased through my Good Gift Game Guides — let me know in the comments, by email, or via Twitter, and I’ll keep you in the loop.

Games: Trajan

Earlier this week I reviewed The Castles of Burgundy, a recent design from Stefan Feld that I quite enjoy. Now let’s turn our attention to Trajan, a second 2011 release from Feld with which Castles shares many similarities.

Trajan is really a collection of mini-games, bolted together by a central mechanism called the action circle. The action circle dominates the right side of each player mat, and is composed of a six cups numbered I-VI. Two tokens are placed into each cup at the start of the game. On a turn a player selects a cup with at least one token in it, takes into hand all of the tokens from the chosen cup, and then places one token into each cup that follow the selected one in clockwise order, until he has none left to distribute. If cup II contains three tokens, for example, a player might take these three and place one each into the III, IV, and V cups, leaving the initial II cup empty as a result. The target cup — that is, the cup into which the last token is placed — determines which of the six possible actions the player can perform.

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A player mat, with the action circle on the right

This form of action selection has, to the best of my knowledge, never before been used in strategy game of this caliber. But you may also recognize it as mancala, a game that predates recorded history. In other words, Trajan has a central mechanic that feels both familiar and strikingly original.

The six possible actions allow players to further their influence in ancient Rome, the milieu in which the game is set. The senate action gives the player political influence and a handful of victory points; the Military action allows a player to march his soldiers around a map of Italy, appropriating resources and scoring points; a player can draw cards after selecting the Seaport action, or redeem sets of these cards for points; and so forth.

Of particular interest is the Trajan action, which allows a player to claim a special tile and place it next to one of the six cups in the action circle. The tokens in the action circle come in six colors, and each Trajan tile shows the two colors necessary to trigger its effect. When the target cup has a Trajan tile next to it and contains tokens of the same color as those shown on the tile, the special effect occurs, granting an immediate advantage in one of the minigames and instantly awarding the player points.

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The goods, which are acquired and sold using the Seaport action

If you noticed a preponderance of the word “points” in the preceding paragraphs, that’s because Trajan awards them for nearly everything a player does. I raised this as a concern with Burgundy   that a player could concentrate on a few elements of the game and largely ignore others — and it’s even more pronounced here, where there is even less bleed-over between the mini-games. Burgundy at least provides cohesion in the form of a player’s estate, where all of the various tiles must coexist, and which forces a player to switch focus when regions on his board are full. In Trajan, on the other hand, a player could (for instance) pursue a Senate and Building strategy, and never once select the Military or Seaport actions. Some players might find this freedom liberating; I, however, prefer a framework for play, even something as abstract as “fill up your estate”. 

Trajan is also similar to Burgundy in that players are given both a menu of possible actions and constraints on their choices. Burgundy does this through dice, the values of which dictate what a player can do; a player of Trajan, meanwhile, can only take an action that he can reach via the action circle. The constraints in Burgundy tend to reduce over-analysis, as players do the best with the values they roll. But unlike dice, the action circle in Trajan is not random. A player can work out his moves several turns in advance, and usually attempts to do so.

Put another way, Trajan is considerably more strategic than Burgundy. That’s not a bad thing, obviously. In fact, many (and perhaps most) gamers will prefer Trajan to Burgundy for this very reason. But in my experience, the action cup mechanism does not facilitate the game so much as become the game. I become so intent of figuring out how to work the action circle to my advantage that everything else — the building, the buying and selling of goods, the politicking — falls away. I eventually feel like I am just playing mancala, something I could have done without Stefan Feld’s help.

I like Trajan. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best games I’ve played in recent years. And although Castles of Burgundy is currently the higher ranked of the two on Boardgame Geek, I won’t be surprised if that changes in the coming years as Trajan reveals itself as the more durable design. But there is a line at where a game becomes too abstract for my tastes, and Trajan falls a few inches on the wrong side.

Games: The Castles of Burgundy

Until recently, designer Stefan Felt was primarily known for In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame, and Macao, three games that were well-regarded at the time of their release, but that have been fading from memory ever since. In 2011, however, Feld released two new games that may outlast their predecessors. One of them, Trajan, has received ample buzz, was crowned “Game of the Year” by GAMES Magazine, and received the 2012 International Gamer General Strategy Award. But after extensive play of both, it’s Castles of Burgundy that I’ve come to prefer.

Burgundy is in many respects an old-school Euro, a set-collection and tile-laying game with lots of routes to victory and low player interaction. Each person owns an estate, printed on a player mat and composed of 37 hexagonal spaces of six different terrains. The mats also have three hexagonal spaces in the lower-left corner, known as the player’s reserve.

The central game board has depots numbered 1-6, into which hexagonal tiles are semi-randomly distributed before each phase. The depots also hold the six varieties of goods that come into play as the game progresses.

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The central board, the players mats, and many of the components

Six types of terrain, six types of goods, six central depots  what’s with all of the 6s? The answer, and something that sets Burgundy apart from many heavier-weight euros, is dice. Each player has two, rolls them before each round of the game, and then uses them to perform actions. Though the player is free to choose from any of the four available actions, the value of the die used constrains how the action is performed.

The four actions are:

  • Gain a tile: Take a hexagonal tile from the central board and place it into reserve. The depot from which the tile is taken must have a number equal to the value of the die used.
  • Place a tile: Take a hexagonal tile from reserve and place it onto an estate. Each space in an estate bears a number from 1-6; the tile must be placed into a space with a number equal to the value of the die used.
  • Sell goods: Players will accumulate goods over the course of the game, with each of the six types having a different number. Only the goods with the number matching the used die can be sold.
  • Gain worker tiles: Before using a die for any of the other three actions, a player may modify the value up or down one for each worker tile spent. A player gains more worker tiles by selecting this action, which grants him two. 

A player may also, once per turn, spent two coins to purchase a hexagonal tile from the central board. The game continues in this manner for five phases of five rounds apiece. After each person has had 25 turns, the player with the most victory points wins.

Many points are scored when tiles are placed into estates. The hexagonal tiles come in six different colors, and can only be placed in spaces of the same hue. Each color of tile also does something different upon placement. Beige tiles are buildings, and have an immediate, one-time effect, such as allowing a player to take a tile from the central board and place it in his reserve, or place a second tile from his reserve into his estate for free. Yellow tiles represent knowledge, and confer onto a player either a new ability (e.g., collect four worker tiles instead of two when selecting the “gain worker tile” action), or an end-game bonus (if certain conditions are met). Grey mines produce money; blue ships allow a player to gain goods; light green pastures instantly award points;, and the dark green castles permit a player to take an additional free action, as if he had a die of any chosen value.

When a player fills all of the spaces in a contiguous group of like-colored hexes, he immediately scores points based on the size of the region and phase of the game. He will also score bonus points if he is the first or second player to fill every space on his board of a single color, regardless of whether they are connected.

image

A player board, with many hexagonal tiles placed

Castles of Burgundy is one of those games that sounds way more complicated when explained than it feels during play. It is a testament to Feld’s skills as a designer that the seemingly disparate systems described above are so well integrated that everything seems intuitive once you internalize the fundamentals.

The method of providing lots of options, and then limiting those options through the use of dice, is generally effective at preventing “analysis paralysis”, in which a player locks up while thinking through all the possible permutations of their turn. The randomness of die rolls skews the play more toward the tactical than the strategic (although this is in turn tempered by the worker tiles), and makes for the kind of brisk, medium-weight game that I prefer. That said, the four-player and three-players games can feel overlong — there is so little interaction that additional players beyond two increase the playing time while leaving the dynamics of play essentially unchanged. The game is listed as “best with two players on Boardgame Geek entry, and I agree with that assessment.

My nagging concern with Burgundy is that is sometimes feels like one of those do-whatever-you-want-and-score-points-for-everything kind of games. A player can focus on maximizing their score through pastures, or through yellow knowledge tiles, or by completing regions, or by accumulating and selling goods, and ignore (at least temporarily) the areas of the game that don’t interest him. This is not necessarily a bad thing  multiple routes to victory is often the hallmark of a rich and replayable system. But the only significant form of interaction between players the the taking of tiles before others can claim them, and a player denied something he wants is as likely to shrug his shoulders and switch his focus to something else as he is to gnash his teeth and curse. The end-gaming scoring even awards points for unspent money, goods not sold, and worker tiles not used. I recognize that these incentives allow for meaningful decisions in the last few turns of the game, but it adds to the perception that the game just doles out points for everything, even failure.

Still, Castles of Burgundy is my favorite Euro of the last few years. I’m sucker for tile-laying games to begin with, and I find the filling up of one’s estate to be an oddly satisfying experience. It’s even something that can be introduced to and enjoyed by non-gamers, though they will likely be terrified by the time you make it through the rules. Simply assure them that they will understand everything after the first few turns, and will be eager to play again after their inaugural game is over.

Trajan review to follow.  Stay tuned …

The 2012 Good Gift Games Guide

The 2012 Good Gift Games guide appears in The Morning News today. Here are the ten games featured:

Game Full Review Rules Purchase
Lords of Waterdeep Playtest PDF Amazon, Funagain
Morels Playtest Unavailable Two Lanterns Games website
Cards Against Humanity None PDF Amazon, or print your own set for free [PDF]
Flash Point: Fire Rescue Coming soon PDF Amazon, Funagain
Risk: Legacy defective yeti PDF Amazon, Funagain
Love Letter None PDF Amazon, Funagain
Escape: Curse of the Temple None Available on this page (click the flag in “Languages”) Currently: only available at brick and morter stores; eventually: Amazon, Funagain
Takenoko None PDF Amazon, Funagain
Kingdom Builder None Available on this page (click the flag in “Languages”) Amazon, Funagain
Friday Playtest PDF Out of stock everywhere at the moment, but Rio Grande Games told me they’d have more copies available in December. Watch this space.

Also: the Good Gift Games Greatest Hits.

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My Other favorite Games of the Year

The Good Gift Games guide focuses on games that are “easy to learn and teach, fun and engrossing to play, and that can be completed in 90 minutes or less”. I like games that meet these criteria, of course, but also enjoy the meatier stuff. Here are five of my favorite mid- to advanced-strategy games of last year or so.

Mage Knight Board Game (Wizkids, 1-4 players, 2-4 hours): I’m a huge fan of Vlaada Chvátil, and Mage Knight Board Game checks in at #11 on the Boardgame Geek top 50, so this was a no-brainer, I thought. Wrong! Figuring out the game requires like three or four brains, minimum. Like Through The Ages (also by Chvátil, and my current favorite game), Mage Knight is of Byzantine complexity, and yet everything fits together astonishingly well. And because each turn of the game feels like a tactical puzzle (not unlike the combat aspect of Dungeon Lords), the game work very well as solitaire. (In fact, many contend that it is the best solitaire game ever, an assessment I currently agree with). [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain ]


Photo by Eric Kouris.

Eminent Domain (Tasty Minstrel Games, 2-4 players, 45 minutes): I really wanted to put this on the main G4 list, but it fails the “must be fun on the first play” criterion, at least for non-gamers. But anyone who can make sense of the description “Dominion meets Race for the Galaxy” is in the target audience for this one. Yes it’s another deck-builder, but one that plays quickly and cleanly, and offers an experience similar to many more complicated card games without all of the overhead. This, along with Kingdom Builder, was one of the surprise hits of PAX 2012, for me. [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain ]

Eclipse (Asmodee, 2-6 players, 2-3 hours minutes): I’ve only played this once, and it was of the most boring experiences of my life. But! But I was bored because, not knowing what to do, I adopted the most conservative strategy possible, and the game punished me for my timidity. That’s a feature, not a bug, in a game such as Eclipse; as in other 4X games, such as Civilization, the goal is to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate … not hide away in your corner of the galaxy and hope to go unnoticed, as was my plan. Eclipse presses a lot of my buttons — technology tracks, diplomacy, and light wargame elements — and so, even with only one play under my belt, I can already predict with confidence that it will become on of my favorites of 2012. [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain ]


The starships in both Eminent Domain and Eclipse (they use the same ones, for some reason). Photo by Mikko Saari.

The Castles of Burgundy (Ravensburger, 2-4 players, 60 minutes): I first played this at a friend’s house and, midway through the game, I pulled out my phone to order a copy for myself via Amazon. The game is similar to Troyes in that it uses dice, but has many, many systems to mitigate the effect of fluky rolls. The Castles of Burgundy looks more daunting than it really is; the core system is fairly simple, and the game is well suitable for mid-weight gamers. [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain ]

Ora & Labora (Z-Man games, 1-4 players, 2 hours): The latest from Uwe Rosenberg, and my favorite of his “worker placement trilogy” (which also includes Agricola and Le Havre). Ora & Labora struck me as more thematic than the others, almost to the point of feeling like a light civilization game rather than the straight resource-management, number-crunching, please-don’t-let-my-family-starve affairs for which Rosenberg has become known. [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain ]

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Other Opinions

Don’t trust the yeti? Here are the highlights of some other “2012 best game of the year” lists.

German Game of the Year:

Deutscher Spiele Preis (the “other” German Game of the Year award):

International Gamers Awards:

GAMES Magazine Awards:

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Where to Buy

I dunno about your hometown, but board game stores have recently been cropping up in Seattle like toadstools after a rain. Plug “games” into Google Maps and see what you get.

As for online, Amazon now carries just about everything I recommend. Funagain Games is one of the oldest board game retailers and remains one of the best. Others that I’d recommend include:

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Need additional info, or want a more specific recommendation? Don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Games: Morels

This review is cross-posted to Playtest.

Before heading to PAX Prime 2012, I wrote down the games I wanted to seek out and try. At the top of the list was Story Realms, which I had the great fortune to play while attending the conference. Having crossed tat one off, I went in search of my #2 choice, but couldn’t find it anywhere. This was due in part to the fact that the designer and sole retailer of the game, Brent Povis, was not at PAX this year. But there was another reason why copies extant: Morels received such great buzz two weeks earlier at Gencon that every available copy had been snapped up, with none left over for me to try.

Oh, well. Based on the fantastic word-of-mouth I ordered my own copy soon thereafter, and have been greatly enjoying the game ever since.

Morels is a rummy-style card game  “card game” because, aside from a handful of “foraging stick” tokens, the 94 cards are the only components; “rummy-style” because gameplay revolves around the drawing and melding of said cards. These commonalities with the traditional game of rummy make Morels feel instantly familiar, even while you are still working out how the game is played.

Each card in the game depicts either a species of fungus (including Lawyer’s Wig, Porcini, Hen of the Woods, and the eponymous Morel), a basket, a frying pan, or something that pairs well with a meal of mushrooms (butter or cider). The deck is shuffled before play begins and a “forest path” is created by dealing eight cards face-up in a row across the center of the table.

A player may use their turn to take one of the cards from the path into their hand. Either of the two cards closest to the head of the trail are free, but each card deeper in the woods costs an additional Foraging Stick. Thus, the third card from the start of the path costs one token, the fourth costs two, and so forth.

After each turn the card closest to the head of the trail is added to a special pile called “The Decay”, cards are shifted down such that all gaps are filled, and the empty spots are filled from the deck. The Decay can hold a maximum of four cards, and a player may use her turn to take these cards instead of selecting one from the path.

Players are constrained by a hand limit, and must occasionally use a turn to play sets of cards, both to free up space and to reap the rewards of melding. Mushrooms may be sold (and discarded) to acquire more Foraging Sticks, or can be cooked (and kept) to provide victory points at the end of the game. A player needs a “Pan” card in order to cook, and can only fry up sets of at least three;  selling, on the other hand, requires no more than two mushrooms of the same species. It is therefore common for players to sell junk to acquire Foraging Sticks, which are then used to get the shrooms that provide the biggest payout when cooked.

There are some special cards in the deck  butter and cider increase the value of cooked mushrooms; baskets increase a player’s hand size  but the core game is simplicity at it’s finest. The only complicating factor is the presence of “Destroying Angel” mushrooms in the deck; when taken, a Destroying Angel forces a player to discard cards from their hand. Because taking The Decay often results in the accumulation of unwanted cards (that nonetheless count against their hand limit), a crafty player can use a Destroying Angel to her advantage. But if you don’t want to deal with the extra complexity that DAs introduce, you can simply resolve not to take them for the first few games, until you have a better idea of their function and utility.

For years my default two-player recommendation has been Lost Cities, as everyone introduced to the game likes or loves it. Morels changes enough of the rummy-esque draw-and-meld formula that Lost Cities employs so well to make it a different, and in many respects better, game. For one thing, there are no blind draws — players select the card (or, in the case of The Decay, cards) they want and are willing to pay for. For another, Lost Cities is essentially abstract, while Morels has just enough cohesion between gameplay and theme that you can actually envision the row of cards as a forest path, or the playing of pan, mushrooms, and butter cards as the frying up of fungi.

The one aspect of Morels that bugs me is the need to move and deal cards after each and every turn. It’s not a lot of busy work, but significant given its frequency. To be fair, I should point out that I dislike the “shift cards and fill the row” mechanism in every game that uses it, up to and including my favorite, Through the Ages. And, honestly, a fun game that gives me some minor detail to grouse about during play is kind of win-win as far as I’m concerned.

As of now, Morels is only available for purchase through the Two Lanterns Games website. Here’s hoping that a major distributor picks this one up. You should consider picking it up as well.

Games: King of Tokyo

This review is cross-posted to Playtest. King of Tokyo is available via Amazon and Funagain Games.

LJ: do you take game review requests?
please review “king of toyko”!
your fans demand it!

me: Okay, done.

LJ: it’s SUCH a good game!
do you love it?

me: I do

When compiling my annual Good Gift Games Guide, I try to ensure that there is something for everyone: family games, two-player games, abstract games, word games, and so forth. The selections are not ranked by preference. That said, the first two or three slots in the guide are invariable occupied by the GGGs that I most highly recommend. Last year, top billing went to Survive: Escape for Atlantis!. But I have to admit, the runner-up, King of Tokyo, has usurped Survive’s title of Best GGG from 2011.

King of Tokyo casts the players as oversized beasts, vying for supremacy in the midst of a teeming (and screaming) metropolis. Each abomination starts with 0 victory points and 20 units of health; if the former hits 20, the player instantly wins; if the latter drops to 0, it’s sayonara Cyberbunny. Thus, a player can win in one of two ways: by amassing victory points, or by knocking everyone else out.


Cyberbunny and Gigazaur. Photo by Raiko Puust.

Gameplay is Yahtzee at its core: roll a handful of dice, set some aside, and keep going until you choose to stop or have rerolled twice. One side of every die has a “1”, another side has a “2”, and a third has a “3”; if you roll any of these numbers in triplicate, you score that number in victory points (rolling three 2s gives you two points, for instance).

The remaining three sides of each die show icons rather than numbers. Each rolled electrical bolt awards you an energy cube. Each heart restores one unit of your health. And each claw damages some opponents. Deciding when to go for straight victory points, and when to pursue other strategies, is the heart of your turn.

If all of this sounds rather confrontational    well, it is. After all, when Alienoid goes toe-to-to with The Kraken, there will be blood. Fortunately, the game employs a clever twist to ensure that, of all the things that wind up bruised, egos are not among them. The first person to roll a claw icon does not hurt anyone, but instead becomes the King, and places his figure on the Tokyo playmat. Thereafter, rolled claws deal damage like so:

  • If the rolling player is in Tokyo, he damages all other players.
  • If the rolling player is not in Tokyo, he damages the player who is.

Entering Tokyo, and holding your position there, awards victory points, so there’s an incentive to paint the town red (with blood). But in doing so, you become a target for your opponents. Thus, you never single out another player for attack: you either attack everyone else (as the King), or you attack the King (who has no one to blame but himself, having put himself in the position of antagonist). Lots of mayhem, no hard feelings.


The dice. Photo by Mike Hulsebus.

King of Tokyo was designed by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: the Gathering. And if you are familiar with M:tG, you know what’s coming next: special powers, and lots of them. In King, these powers take the form of Mutations, which players can buy with the energy cubes they have amassed. The effect of mutations include extra dice, new ways to gain victory points, additional options for healing, and a host of others. Though every monster begins the game the same, mutations give each a distinct flavor by the end.

With a playing time of 20-30 minutes, King of Tokyo is a near-perfect filler. And even gamers like me, for whom “dice” is a four-letter word, will grudgingly admit to kind of loving it.

Games: London

This review is cross-posted to Playtest. London is available via Amazon and Funagain Games.

Tucked away in the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony was a segment illustrating the evolution of Britain from pastoral island to thriving metropolis. Apparently many American found this transformation boring. I, on the other hand, was riveted — probably because, as the participants rolled up the grass and erected smokestacks, I could visualize myself playing the corresponding cards in Martin Wallace’s London.

Set after the Great Fire of 1666, and spanning the quarter millenia thereafter, London has players rebuilding the Capital through the play of cards, which depict buildings such as shops and train stations, infrastructure such as sewers and schools, populations such as refugees and paupers, and institutions such as the British Museum. Most of these cards confer a one-time benefit to the owner — money and victory points are the most common boons — when he chooses to “run” his city. 

Even as big a fan of Martin Wallace as I must admit that that his games can rarely be accused of elegance. They often seem as though they could have benefited from some additional development (and, indeed, several of his games have received this development and been reissued under a new name: Age of Steam/Steam, Brass/Age of Industry, etc.). One of his newest offerings, A Few Acres of Snow, asks the active player to select two actions from a menu of over a dozen, a panoply of options that can lead to paralysis. 

Players of London, on the other hand, use their turn to perform a single action from a possible four: draw cards, play cards, run their city, or buy one of the 20 London boroughs shown on the game board. This simplicity puts London within spitting distance of “gateway game” territory, something else rarely said of Martin Wallace’s offerings.

Even with such a streamlined design, though, Wallace manages to pack in a fair amount of theme. The cards, of course, have a host of different effects that reflect their type: markets produce money, paupers can be sent to school (or prison), and so forth. Cards are placed into stacks, which allows a player to “build over” those of an earlier era with modern buildings of increased efficiency. And, when a city is run, players receive deleterious “poverty points” equal to their stacks of cards, minus the number of boroughs they have acquired; thus, having a lot of buildings in a small area breeds poverty, while expansion reduces the pressures of urbanization. As I said: simple and thematic.

Wallace also attempts to mitigate the lack of player interaction that plagues many other games of this ilk. The game board features a display area, which holds, face-up, cards from which a player can draw. When someone plays a card to their area, they must also select from their hand a second card and place it into this display area. Thus, the face-up cards available for you to draw are those that your opponents have seen fit to make available. This clever twist on the traditional draw-cards/play-cards system allows you to stay in your own sandbox if you prefer, though it behooves a player to keep an eye on what would benefit his opponents — and withhold it.

Comparisons between London and San Juan are inevitable and illuminating, as both have players building a city by playing cards to the table before them. (London, it’s worth noting, is very much a card game, despite the attractive and largely superfluous gameboard). One could almost imagine London as the San Juan prototype — if, during development, someone hit upon the idea of using cards instead of money to pay for buildings, and of jettisoning the board entirely, you’d be three-quarters of the way from one to the other. 

Whether you prefer London to San Juan largely depends on how the amount of polish you demand of your games. Personally, I enjoy the opacity inherent in a rougher-hewn design. Whereas powerful building combinations are fairly obvious in San Juan (e.g., a building that gives you additional goods pairs well with a building that allows you to sell additional goods), London requires analysis, and repeat plays, to suss out these opportunities for synergy. 

Where London falters, in my opinion, is in the ratio of complexity to playing time — 90 to 120 minutes is a bit long for a game in which player options are so constrained. It also, perversely, contains a few cards that require to owner to single out another player for abuse. Some game groups (such as my own, alas) consider any and all “take that!” elements in a game design as grounds for summary rejection.

I, on the other hand, quite enjoy London, despite (or, let’s be honest, probably because of) its idiosyncrasies. Like Martin Wallace, I appreciate theme and I am willing to brook a few complications if they help in the setting the atmosphere. More to the point, I’m a fan of simple games that require tough decisions and provide ample opportunity for strategic play. By that criteria, London is capital indeed.