Game Reviews from 2010

After posting last week’s article about board gaming in 2010, I realized that it would be interesting to actually review those games that I played at least five times. I’d planned to skip that, because I’m not trying to just cherry-pick the things that I’ll review positively. But a few of the games I played repeatedly turned out to be disappointing once I really got to know them, so there is a good deal of variety in there. This list may not have any horrible games, but it certainly has some mediocre ones, and it’s worthwhile to think about what made them that way. Also, I definitely seemed to be drawn towards the more unique games to play repeatedly, so this list is fairly interesting.

Of the twenty-one games that I played five or more times, I excluded the nine that I’d already known before 2010 started. That left me with twelve, listed below in alphabetical order.


Alea Iacta Est

 

Alea Iacta Est

This is one of the ones that I had to play multiple times in order to figure out that there isn’t much game there. It’s a clever and simple dice game, in which you roll your entire “pool” of dice and then choose a subset of them to put on a building. Different buildings reward different dice combinations (such as matching numbers or runs) and also give you different rewards. The next time around, you will roll only the dice that you didn’t allocate on a previous roll. But if someone else uses up their entire dice pool, your turn might not come around again, and any unused dice are wasted!

Dice are rare in Eurogames, but there’s always interest when someone comes up with a new way to use them. Alea Iacta Est does offer original ideas, and it scales very well among different numbers of players (since buildings are added or expanded as the player count increases). However, it’s just not very compelling. Dice games need some tension every time you roll. The best of the recent ones offer chances for re-rolls, but with the possibility that certain results will penalize you. (Think Yahtzee! if you lost points every time a “1” was rolled. Would you use all three rolls as often?) That tension, deciding whether to settle for an ok result or take a risk and go for something bigger, is missing here. Instead, you make a single roll per turn (unless you’ve won re-rolls from previous rounds) and almost every roll is going to give you something. The results will vary between great and merely good, but that’s not enough of a range to make the game work.

Grade: C


Claustrophobia

 

Claustrophobia

This is a 2-player dungeon crawler, light on strategy but heavy on theme. I’m always on the lookout for a good fantasy-themed game, but my standards for game design are usually too high for the ones that I find. (This is a variation on the typical Eurogame vs. Ameritrash debate.) Fortunately, this one has enough interesting mechanics to keep me interested for now. I’m not sure yet whether it has long-term staying power, because most of the time I’ve just repeated the introductory scenario with a new player. I’m hopeful that this will remain fun to bring to the table from time to time, though.

One person plays a small band of human fighters exploring tunnels that are infested with the other player’s demons. Each player has a very different system for their moves: The human player rolls dice, and then allocates one to each figure they control. Low rolls tend to give that figure a high attack value but low defense, while high rolls provide the opposite. The strategy largely hinges the fact that the dice mean different things, so you want more than just repeated high rolls. As the humans take damage, they become unable to use certain die results. Deciding which possibilities to take away from your characters is a very interesting choice. The demon player, meanwhile, rolls a set of dice and applies their result to various “spells”. Most of the time, the dice will be used to draw cards that can mess with the human player or to gain “Threat Points” that can later be used to summon new demons. The other spells mostly activate once-per-game abilities that let the demons attack with extra strength.

The game comes with several varied scenarios, and many more have been added to the official website. These scenarios offer a surprising amount of variety, mainly because different special abilities are swapped in and out on each one. Since the human force is strongest at the beginning, while the demons grow in power over time, most of the scenarios revolve around the humans staying alive long enough to complete some task. This creates some genuinely tense games: If there are no demons on the board, that just means that they are gathering power for a later attack. That is an impressive accomplishment for Claustrophobia, as I can’t think of any other games in this genre that are fun in between the battles.

The game does have some flaws, though. Because a weaker army is going to be more susceptible to later attacks, the first successful demon attack usually feels like the start of a domino chain. In general, the humans’ chances seem to come down to how far they can get before this crumbling begins. Therefore, despite all the strategy, it felt like most of my games were decided by one or two lucky dice rolls that either got the humans out of a tight situation or that unexpectedly damaged them when they should have been fine. Some luck is necessary in games like this, but I hope that I never decide that it’s overwhelming the choices.

Grade: B


Cyclades

 

Cyclades

This is Exhibit A in last year’s merging of Euro- and American games. With a Greek mythology theme, battles controlled by dice rolls, and game-changing cards, no one would mistake this for a typical Euro. However, all these elements are controlled by an elegant auction mechanic. Each turn, you’ll bid for the favor of one of the Greek gods, who will then let you perform their actions. If you want to attack someone, you’ll need to win the bid for Ares, but even then it will only work out if you previously used Poseidon’s favor to set up a convoy of ships leading to the island you want to attack.

The result is that this looks like a fighting game at first glance, but anyone who focuses on battles will lose. The threat of battle is always a factor, but in practice, there will only be a few attacks in a typical game. The rest of the time, you’re building up infrastructure (you need income to win the auctions for the gods’ favor, of course) and bidding to block opponents even if you don’t especially need that god yourself. Even the game-changing cards must be purchased during your turn, and the turn order is decided by the auction you won, so these effects become part of the strategy instead of a random “screw your neighbor” element.

The game’s major flaw is the winning condition. Victory requires having islands with “Metropolises”. The good thing is that you can create these in multiple ways – spending extra money on Temples to each god, gaining enough Philosophers with Athena’s favor, or simply capturing another player’s. The bad thing is that winning requires only two – by mid-game, most players will have one Metropolis, and will be working towards their second. Before long, someone will be threatening to win, and everyone will have to join together to block them. Then someone else will become the leader, and everyone will jump on them. The winner won’t necessarily be the person who was doing the best, but just the first person to slip through the chaos of “attack-the-leader”. The ending doesn’t have any of the Euro influence of the rest of the game.

Grade: B-

…and here’s the point where I realize I’m taking way to long to write these. Time to shift to actual-capsule-review mode!


Egizia

 

Egizia

The latest in the worker placement sub-genre, Egizia adds a new twist to that mechanic. The possible actions are laid out in a line, and each action you choose must be farther down the line than the last one you chose. This is a great idea: In a typical worker placement game, you are blocked from using actions that other players have chosen. In Egizia, you are also blocking yourself out of each action you skip over. Will you choose to skip past some good actions to grab the really important one, or will you take the time to perform those good ones and just hope that your opponents don’t jump ahead in the meantime?

When everything comes together just right, that choice makes this an especially fascinating and intense worker placement game. Too often, though, the choices are already decided by each player’s secret missions, and the game can be frustratingly short once you get used to it.

Grade: B


Dominion: Alchemy

 

Dominion: Alchemy

The fourth Dominion game added cards that don’t just require Coins to buy. For some of them, you need a combination of Coins and “Potions”. This is an interesting idea, since it changes the basic strategies that players can choose from. Most winning Dominion engines are very simple, so adding even a single new element to them is a significant change. Also, this expansion focuses on action cards that create (or reward) an action-heavy deck. This means that even if there is only a single type of card that costs Potions, it could be worthwhile to start using Potions, because you’ll want to buy more than one copy of that card.

There’s nothing bad about this expansion. Unfortunately, there’s nothing especially compelling, either. Getting the right mix of Potions and Coins can more frustrating and random than strategic. Also, depending on the setup, it’s sometimes much easier to get certain cards than it is other times. Dominion is based largely on recognizing opportunities like this, but Alchemy adds a little too much of that element. It’s not a bad game, and there are certainly some interesting cards here. However, after a string of amazing additions to the Dominion family, merely being good was a disappointment.

Grade: B-


Dominion: Prosperity

 

Dominion: Prosperity

While Dominion: Alchemy made me wonder if the game designers were out of ideas, the Prosperity expansion restored my faith. This set focuses on money: Some cards help you generate more of it, while other cards are powerful, but cost a lot to buy. The real benefit of this is that it adds to the variety of paths a single game can take: In some plays of Prosperity, it’s worth taking additional time to build up to the very high-point cards, but others will still end once the players have claimed all the middling ones. The basic “Big Money” strategies are still viable, but they are a little more complex and have more competition from other powerful cards. This felt like discovering Dominion for the first time.

Grade: A


Dungeon Lords

 

Dungeon Lords

Vlaada Chvátil is the most innovative board game designer around. He loves a strong, fun theme, but doesn’t let that get in the way of balanced and creative mechanics. The only element that repeats from game to game is that the player needs to plan for a series of events will beat down their forces. The notable thing about this is that when you fail to prepare properly, it’s actually funny to watch as your plans fall apart! Chvátil wants his games to be fun, and it actually comes across half a world away.

Dungeon Lords is a complex game. (That’s possibly its one flaw: It takes an hour to teach to a new player, and then a couple hours to play. But once everyone knows the rules, it runs by in a breezy 90 minutes.) In short, you are all evil dungeon lords in training, building a network of tunnels and treasures that will later be looted by D&D-style adventurers. The game alternates between building your empire and then watching to see whether it falls apart under the adventurers’ press.

The building phase is the meat of the game, and it uses another unique worker placement mechanism. Everyone simultaneously chooses three actions to perform, as well as a priority for each. Then they go around the table, revealing them one by one, and placing tokens on the appropriate action spots. In general, the first person to choose an action gets a small benefit from it, but at low cost. The second or third person to choose it must pay more, but gets more in return. You can look around the table to get an idea of who else might want the same action as you, but there will still be some guesswork involved. A system like this could easily devolve into chaos, but it works because everyone who chooses an action will (usually) get some of what they wanted. Only in about 1/3 of your actions will it be important to make sure you get a specific position.

The balance between the actions is excellent. You’ll need to gather resources from one action in order to perform another, and due to the simultaneous choices, you might just have to hope that your first action will produce enough for the second one! Then you also need to gather the resources to prepare for events between action rounds. With a little miscalculation, your empire could even start falling to pieces before the adventurers get to you.

This may have been one of the more complex games that I learned in the past year, but it’s also one of the funniest. When a meaty, 90-minute game regularly leads to laughing around the table, you know you’ve found a gem.

Grade: A-


Hansa Teutonica

 

Hansa Teutonica

Oops. My reviews are getting long again. I’ll keep this short: Hansa Teutonica is the game everyone was talking about in 2010. It is an especially elegant implementation of the “multiple paths to victory” that keep pure Eurogames interesting.

Each turn, you take actions that generally involve placing tokens on paths, then claiming “completed” paths for some benefit. The number of actions you get and the number of tokens you have to work with are determined by benefits you previously gained. You can focus on increasing these “technologies”, or you can focus on claiming areas around the board that will give you points when other players claim nearby routes. Of course, everyone will try to block everyone else from completing their routes, but the game offers a simple mechanism to compensate a player when they get attacked by another. A good strategy will involve knowing when it’s worth attacking someone else to get the route you really need, and when it’s worth putting your own pieces in someone else’s way so that you can get the benefit of being attacked.

The game is a bit dry and abstract, but also strategic and well-balanced.

Grade: B+


Innovation

 

Innovation

When people ask me what this game is, I usually describe it as “Dominion meets Fluxx“. There are a series of cards that become progressively more powerful over ten “eras”. Once a card is “melded” in your playing area, you can use its unique power every turn. However, the cards also have a series of symbols on them, and anyone who can match you in the appropriate symbol also gets the bonuses of your card (or is protected from attack). So you’re playing cards for both their abilities and their symbols, and this may change rapidly, as cards of the same color will cover each other up. There are ways to “splay” piles so that the symbols under the top card are still in play, as well as ways to advance the era of cards you are drawing from. There are so many factors to keep track of that you might forget to .

Innovation doesn’t have the best aspects of Dominion, since the same set of cards is in play in every game. Fortunately, it also doesn’t have the worst aspects of Fluxx. Even so, the game can get pretty chaotic when you need to keep track of the cards that everyone else has activated, and someone is using an action that lets them keep changing out other people’s cards. The powerful, late-game cards add to this chaos, with some even ending the game with a new, unexpected victory condition.

Some of the games I played were fun, but others were overwhelming. Unfortunately, after a few games we discovered that there are a couple Era 1 cards that can almost win the game on their own. They let the player score points every turn, with so many “Leaf” symbols on them that the other players usually won’t be able to match it. At first, I assumed that we just weren’t good enough to know how to counteract these cards. But at a convention late last year, I played this with a big fan of the game, and soundly beat him just by single-mindedly playing Pottery over and over. (He did stop the card eventually, but by that time I was almost to victory.) He said he had never seen that card dominate before, and it bothered him that I was able to do it so easily.

I haven’t given up on this game yet, but my current feeling is that it has some great ideas, with random chance that seldom let the game’s true nature shine.

Grade: C+


Macao

 

Macao

Another clever idea from Stefan Feld. Each turn, six dice are rolled. (Wow, I’m just starting to realize how many dice games made it into my most-played list. Maybe that should have been one of my themes of 2010.) Each die has a different color, and all players can choose two of them. The number on the die determines how many cubes of that color you get, and also how long it will be until you can use them. If you take 1 of something, you get one cube in the current turn. A 2 means you get two of that color next turn, all the way up to a 6, which requires a 5-turn wait. Specific combinations of colors are used to activate cards or claim spaces on the board, and any leftover cubes can be used to advance markers on the board. Be sure to plan well, because you can’t save cubes from one round the the next.

As Innovation showed, a clever mechanic isn’t enough to guarantee a good game. Macao makes it work because it the rest of the game complements the resource-claiming mechanic. The balance between turn order, claiming goods to ship, and activating cards keeps the players just shy of overwhelmed throughout, especially when it’s necessary to pay attention to several upcoming turns at once. Those cards that are waiting to be activated keep the pressure on, too: You must commit to a new one every turn, and if you never manage to activate it, you’ll pay a penalty. So you must balance inexpensive cards that you can get out of the way easily with powerful cards that will actually help.

The different powers that each player establishes help to put everyone on different paths to victory. There is some repetition from game to game, but over all, this keeps a fresh feel even after repeated plays.

Grade: B+


Priests of Ra

 

Priests of Ra

This is a variation on Ra, one of my favorite games. For those who don’t know, Ra is an auction game in which you pay for each auction with one of three numbered tiles. You can only win three auctions per round, and the fact that everyone has different numbers means that you might want to start an auction before the lot becomes good enough to interest someone who can outbid you. If it seems unfair that some people have higher numbers to bid than others, well, one of the things up for auction is a number that you will use for your bids next round. This fits perfectly with the system by which goods are put up for auction: On your turn, you choose to either add one random tile to the current lot, or start an auction. By the time you know what the tile is that you’re adding, it’s too late: Your turn is over. This matters because the person who starts the auction has an advantage – they get the final bid, so they don’t have to guess in order to outbid the other players.

On top of everything else, the different tiles you can win will give you points in a myriad of ways, such that a group that is valuable to one player may be nearly useless to another. You constantly need to watch each player’s bidding power and their current needs, and weigh them against your own to determine when to jump in and buy a set of tiles.

Priests of Ra keeps these basic mechanics intact, but adds twists that mostly disappoint. The scoring of tiles is slightly simplified, and in return most tiles are double-sided in order to give a choice to the person who draws them. The problem is that these two sides are different colors of the same item, and usually similar in value, so players are constantly stopping to consider unimportant choices. Then, thanks to the new ways that tiles are scored, each lot usually has a similar value to every player. There is still strategy in deciding when to bid for the tiles, but much less than before. And when a certain tile is worth more to one person, it’s usually a lot more: In a typical game, there will be a few times that a single tile offers someone a 10-point swing, an amount that was almost impossible to achieve in the original Ra. The game often comes down to whether anyone is willing to “take one for the team” and outbid the player who would otherwise gain a huge number of points. These two extremes, with auctions that are either comparable for everyone or way more valuable for one player, both exist in the original Ra, but there they are mixed in with many more auctions that fall somewhere in the middle. Those nuanced auctions make Ra more interesting.

Priests of Ra has some good ideas. The disaster tiles punish players in a more interesting way than Ra‘s, and when I play Ra as often as I do, it’s fun to have a variant to bring out from time to time. However, this game will never be more than the shadow of a classic.

Grade: B-


The Resistance

 

The Resistance

The Resistance is another game that I had to play repeatedly in order to realize I didn’t like it. In fact, it plays so fast that I got my 13 games of it in over two fairly short sessions with friends. And I admit, we did enjoy those sessions quite a bit. However, after all the laughter and intrigue, I finally realized that it was based on an illusion.

This is an addition to the Werewolf/Mafia family of games, in which most players are “good guys”, and they need to identify the secret “traitors” before those traitors win the game. Identities are random, so anyone could be working against you. While the players debate about the clues they’ve seen so far, the real information comes from the social interactions of the debate itself. Are two people agreeing too frequently? Well, maybe they know they’re each traitors! Is someone talking more than normal? Probably nervousness caused by being a traitor! Are you trying to stay quiet because you know that anything you do is suspicious? Well, that seems pretty suspicious, too!

In The Resistance, the players take turns being a leader who nominates other players for a “mission”. The nominees then play cards telling whether or not they are “sabotaging” it, and usually a single sabotage card will make the mission fail. The cards are played face-down and shuffled together, so that no one can tell who played that sabotage card. As the leader position changes hands, the good guys must watch the results of multiple rounds to figure out which specific person played the sabotage card, because the later missions require larger groups. (If enough people believe that the current leader is nominating a traitor, then they can vote the mission down and pass leadership on to the next person.) By the end, the good guys are likely to lose unless they’ve worked out exactly who the traitors are.

It’s an interesting idea, but the problem is that it’s almost impossible to identify the traitors in the few rounds that this game gives you. I started losing interest when I realized that, unless a traitor made a foolish mistake, the good guys would only win through luck. I completely lost interest after a close, very heated game in which I was one of the three traitors. The victory came down to one last four-person mission, which meant every one of the four good guys needed to be included. As we argued around the table, I noticed that everyone had a different idea of who the traitors were, and none of them were close to the truth! In a brilliant coup, the current leader (a traitor) managed to talk someone else into voting for a four-player mission that included all three traitors! It was hilarious, but after the laughter died down, I realized how completely lost the good guys were.

The Resistance has some good ideas for a game, but there is a long way to go before they work. I think that the main thing it is missing is actual knowledge: The good guys never learn for sure who anyone else is. Werewolf, by contrast, gives you a little incontrovertible knowledge each time a the wolves choose another victim. Once the humans know for sure that someone else was innocent, the ways that everyone else was interacting with them take on a new meaning. Further, Werewolf‘s “Seer” gives some knowledge to one good guy, even if it’s difficult to share openly. If The Resistance had something similar, it might work out.

Grade: C-


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