Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

Bruges (Game Review)

Bruges box

Bruges

Stefan Feld’s board games have been growing more complex lately, and Bruges is his attempt to design a simpler one in his distinctive style. In that regard, I think the game is a mixed success. It’s definitely not the brainburner that Trajan and Castles of Burgundy are, but I don’t know that a fan of light games would find this one any easier to learn. And though it’s still a fun game, it’s not nearly as good as his other recent efforts. I wonder if this “simplification” just doesn’t come naturally to him any more.

As with most recent Feld games, Bruges involves action selection every turn, with looming deadlines and threats of disaster. In this case, the action selection is with colored cards. You can choose any of the six actions, but for five of them, the color of the card you play determines how the action is used. For example, you can take worker tokens of the given color, or earn money equal to the number currently showing on that colored die. Each card also has a “person” with a unique power, and the sixth action is to recruit them. People are worth points and give you new abilities.

There are always several options available to you, and you’ll get the feeling (common in Feld’s games) that you simply can’t find time to do everything you’d like. You’ll need to earn money to recruit a person, and also first build a house (spending workers) for them. Afterwards, the ability they give you usually requires more workers. The actions you spend earning all those things requires you to play cards, which means discarding people. And you can’t focus all the time on getting more people: Disaster tiles come out randomly every round, and you need to get rid of them before three matching ones appear. You can spend money every round to advance on a “prestige” track for points, and also build canals to score further.

There are some clever mechanics. A dice roll at the start of each round determines disasters and prices for everyone, keeping the luck from playing too wild a role. I also like the fact that there are two draw decks, since the back of each card shows the color. This gives players some control over what they’ll draw into their hand.

However, the game has flaws as well. It feels like it’s been modeled after Feld’s other “point salad” games, with several balanced paths to victory. Only the people you recruit are very significant, though; Unless you have a lot of luck or the right abilities, canals and the prestige track are just going to waste your time. Also, drawing the right person at the right time can be worth a lot of points. Despite the other mechanics keeping luck in check, all those random people passing through your hands turn out to be a major uncontrollable factor. There is definitely skill in Bruges, but I’ve finished games in both first and last place and not felt like I did anything different to earn the credit in one or the blame in the other.

Bruges is a decent game, offering a lot of choice while keeping the strategy light. My familiarity with Feld’s style is both good and bad here: I appreciate the tweaks on his typical design decisions, but also feel like it promises a game with different balance and victory paths than it actually has. If you aren’t familiar with his games, just think of this as an opportunity for a fun sort of frustration, because you’ll always have lots of things to do and just a few actions to do them in. But despite that, the winner will be the one who drew the best cards. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll enjoy this.

Grade: B-

 
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Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition (Game Review)

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition box

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition

I enjoy Are You A Werewolf?, but it’s definitely not a game I can play very often. It’s long, intense, requires a lot of players, and people are kicked out frequently. “Legend” Dan Hoffman’s Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition fills a great niche, then, mixing the social game experience with more board game elements. It plays faster, supports a wide range of players, and keeps everyone involved throughout. Effectively, you’re playing a game of “meta-Werewolf“, since cards on the table stand in for the villagers and werewolves who get killed off, while the players divide up into secret teams and try to help their side survive.

The table has two cards for each member of the village, one face up with their power, and another face down and mixed up randomly with the others. During the day, every player chooses one power to use, and then everyone votes to “lynch” one of the face-down cards. This requires “voting cubes”, and the various powers will restore your cubes, give you information, or let you impact the vote. Then at night, one column of face-down cards is chosen, and while everyone’s eyes are closed, the werewolf players get to look at them all and choose one as their victim. Every time a someone is killed, their cards (and therefore their powers) are removed from the game, but remember that players are not connected to specific cards. Even if a werewolf player reveals themself, they remain in the game to sow havoc.

Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition Play

Survivors (and their powers) shown on the left, but their locations are hidden among the face-down cards on the right.

The system is simple, and I’d like to call it elegant. However, it is pretty confusing at first. It’s difficult for new players to grasp everything, with special rules about tracking villagers’ states, handling single-card columns, and very inconsistent iconography for the special powers. The mechanics for choosing the werewolves’ victim every night are a little fiddly, and make it likely that someone will accidentally reveal information during their first couple games. The rule book actually doesn’t help much, with all the information present but easy to overlook. Everything will seem natural before long, but it’s a bumpy start.

Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition CardsAfter that, though, this game is brilliant. It maintains most of the tension of Werewolf, but with activities that give players a lot more choices. Instead of one person being the Seer, everyone gets occasional chances to gain information, and your actions at the table provide more chances to observe behavior and falsify claims. The dynamics of the two teams take on more depth, since the Wolves get a lot more information (viewing columns each night), but the Villagers can act openly. Sometimes it is worth it for a Wolf player to stop hiding their identity and make a surprising move. For the rest of the game they’ll be able to participate, but the Villagers won’t trust them during the important votes. (This is handled much better than in games like Shadows Over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica, which I think let the traitors stay too powerful after revealing themselves.) It balances the social and gaming aspects well.

Being a Werewolf game, victory does sometimes hinge on a single (un)lucky move or a 50/50 choice about who to trust at the end. But if you like that game, you’ll find this one to be slightly less arbitrary, and without the length and player elimination that can make those events so painful. This has all the laughter, tension, and confusion that I would expect. My only real complaint (once every player is familiar with the game) is that there aren’t enough role cards. There are only fifteen roles available (counting the Werewolves and generic Villagers), and a few are similar to each other. I can see how this is a difficult game to balance and add variety to, but even so, I wish I hadn’t seen all the roles within a few games.

That complaint aside, this is the best new social deduction game I’ve seen in years. Take the time to get over the initial learning curve and give it a chance.

Grade: B+

 

IFComp 2013

IFComp2013It’s October, and that means that IFComp is live once again! It’s been two years since I last tried to play through any of this, but I’m going attempt it again this year.

A quick refresher: This is the biggest event in the IF (Interactive Fiction) community every year. The high profile and low barrier to entry means that you’ll see everything from unplayable messes to works of genius. They are all designed to be playable in two hours at the most (sometimes much less), and if there are puzzles that may keep you from finishing it in time, the game will come with a walkthrough or hint system to help you along. “Interactive fiction” can refer to any non-linear story, but in practice generally means the aesthetic that was created by text adventures in the 1980s. Don’t think that these are limited to the arbitrary puzzles of Zork, though. The best of these free works have much more depth and narrative power than most people ever imagined when text adventures were popular.

I’m excited to see what the competition has to offer this year. For one thing, I enjoyed it a lot in 2011 even though I missed the best games. For another, the community seems to be evolving quickly. Over half of the thirty-five games in this year’s competition are web-based. (In 2011, only three were.) This means that they weren’t built around the traditional engines that grew out of text adventures, and from what I hear they do bring a very different approach to interactive fiction.

The competition runs until November 15. Realistically, I’ll be happy to get through about ten games, and I may need to cut back on my blogging to make time for it. Since I’ll be submitting scores to the competition, I’ve randomized the list of games to make sure there’s no bias in the subset that I choose. Expect me to take at least a couple weeks before I start posting reviews, since I like to take some time to get a feel for multiple games before I comment on one in a vacuum.

Hopefully some of you will try out the competition as well. Have fun!

Web-Based Gaming: What Kinds of Games Work Best?

As a follow-up to the past week’s looks at web-based gaming, here are some notes on what can make a game work or not. The turn-based systems I have been enjoying are great for certain games, but not right for others. (There are sites for playing games live, but I haven’t tried those yet. A big part of what I like about online play is being able to fit it into my unpredictable schedule.) Here are the main considerations:

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Web-Based Board Games: Yucata

YucataYucata is much like Boîte à Jeux, which I reviewed earlier this week. Both offer free online play of board games, which are legitimately licensed and feel very faithful to their tabletop equivalents. The two sites have very different approaches, though.

Yucata is older, has heavier traffic, and over eighty available games. (Three new ones were released in just the past couple months.) There are a lot of good games up there (like Targi, Glen More, and Jaipur), but it also reads like a list of generic Euros from years past (Hacienda, The Hanging Gardens, and Oregon, for example). Also, the most popular games tend to be quick fillers like Can’t Stop and To Court the King. In general, the variety means that I can always find something I want to play, but it’s different than Boîte, which has a few games I want to keep playing over and over.

R-Eco is Yucata's latest game (added yesterday!)

R-Eco is Yucata’s latest game (added yesterday!)

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Web-Based Board Games: Boîte à Jeux

Boite a Jeux logoThe first board gaming site I tried was Boîte à Jeux. It’s a bare-bones site by many standards. The different games have inconsistent looks and feels, the control buttons on each page – though useful – require some trial and error, and the translations to English are not always good. (The EULA looks like it was run back and forth between French and English a few times on Google Translate.) But the important thing is the game quality. And there, fortunately, Boîte à Jeux shines. All the games I’d played before in real life felt immediately familiar, and it was easy to start playing. The site offers about forty games, and adds a new one every few months. This includes some of my recent favorites (Trajan and The Castles of Burgundy), some old classics (Agricola), and even the Gipf series – a set of two-player abstract games that I’d always wanted to play more, but never had much opportunity before now.

The site's newest game, Ginkgopolis.

The site’s newest game, Ginkgopolis.

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Web-Based Board Games: Introduction

I’ve been playing board games for years, but I always insisted on playing them in person, “as they were designed”. I saw online implementations a couple times, and they were always so messy and hard to follow that I had no interest in trying them out. Besides, I had a lot of opportunities to play games in person, so I wasn’t trying too hard to solve this problem.

But this year, I’ve changed my mind. Shortly after becoming a father and missing most of my in-person games, some friends recommended web-based game sites Boîte à Jeux and Yucata. They turned out to be nothing like my preconceptions. Above all, they’re faithful adaptations of the games, with all the art licensed and even the pickiest rules implemented correctly. If you already know the game, sitting down in front of the web page feels just like seeing the game set up on the table in front of you. They have ranking systems that help you find fair matches and also create a sort of meta-game that keeps every match interesting. Even once you know you’re going to lose, it’s still better for your ranking to come in third place than fourth! And most surprisingly of all, the sites are free and keep their ads very minimal. (Both do request donations.)

A game of Trajan on Boîte à Jeux. (Or at least what fits in the browser window at once.) Notice that the area on the upper right has tabs to let the user look at one person's play area at a time.

A game of Trajan on Boîte à Jeux. (Or at least what fits in the browser window at once.) Notice that the area on the upper right has tabs to let the user look at one person’s play area at a time.

These sites are turn-based, meaning that you could be playing many  games at once, and when you log in you might see that it’s only your turn in two or three of them. Not all games work well when they are spread out over days or weeks, but it’s great with others. Personally, I find it pretty easy to play about ten games at once, as long as they are all different types of games. That seems to put me at odds with a lot of players, who sometimes start up dozens of complex games at the same time. They don’t care if one or two of their games can go days without a move, but for me that means my only match of that type is stalling. Even so, I can usually find good people to play with.

The most surprising thing is how fun these are to play on my iPhone, even though I’ve largely lost interest in playing board games on iPhone apps. Many of the web implementations are too big to fit on my large computer monitors, but I still find it more natural on the iPhone to zoom in and out of the detailed screen than I do to follow some apps that attempt to make the playing area manageable. iPhone apps do typically offer decent tutorials, while these websites just have a rulebook to read, so many new players will probably want to stick with the apps. Much of it comes down to personal choice.

Playing a game of Targi (on Yucata) with my iPhone.

Playing a game of Targi (on Yucata) with my iPhone.

One thing really sets these web games apart from iPhone apps, though:  Both Boîte à Jeux and Yucata offer great systems to find matches with other players. Game Center on the iPhone is absolutely awful. It works ok for two-player games, or for explicitly inviting friends, but it’s almost impossible to find a multiplayer game with people you don’t know. Everyone has to choose exactly the same options as you, and by the time Apple has matched you together, one person has usually lost interest and never comes back. On these websites, you can browse the list of invitations, or make your own and leave it up until other people accept. No more hoping that enough other people happen to put in the same options you did in the few minutes before Game Center times out.

Online games don’t always replace in-person ones with friends, but this has been a great addition to my life over the past several months. In my next couple articles, I’ll look at each of these two sites more closely.