Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

4Mar/101

Boarding Party: Part 2 of 2

Check out Part 1, to read about Pandemic, Chrononauts, and Dominion.

Race for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is another competitive solitaire game, and if you've never played similar games like Puerto Rico or San Juan (as I hadn't when I first sat down to play it) you may find it incredibly confusing. The rules to Race for the Galaxy are not easy to figure out if you're not playing with someone who's played before, and while the instructions are thorough, something about the way they're written makes it really hard to piece together what you should be doing.

Ironically, once you figure it out, it's the simplest game on this list to set up, and not a very difficult game to play. It is deep however, deep and satisfying.

The basic idea of the game is to build a space empire. It's a 4x computer game like Master of Orion in card game form, allowing quick, fascinating rounds of empire building. All players draw their hands from a single deck, and proceed to settle planets, build developments, and trade resources.

Ingeniously, all these mechanics use the same cards: to settle a planet, you put down the card for that planet, and you pay for it by discarding a certain number of cards from your hand. Developments, which are like buildings, improvements, or technologies, are built in the same way, while any planets that produce resources for trade are simply marked by putting a card face down on top of them when they have produced a resource.

The game proceeds in rounds, divided into phases, during the Explore phase, you can draw cards to replenish your hand, during the Develop and Settle phases, you can build, and during the Consume and Produce phases you can exploit resources to get victory points, or to trade them for extra cards for your hand. What makes this interesting is that not every turn will have all these phases, each player must select a phase at the start of a turn, and only those phases which were selected will be played. Additionally, while all players will get to play those phases, only the player who selected it gets a special bonus during that phase.

That's pretty much the gist of it, but it gets complicated in that most cards that you have played and added to your empire have special abilities that you can use during specific phases. Therefore, you can pursue different strategies for victory by building the right things. You can attempt to win by settling worlds, conquering military worlds, or building an economy to crank out victory points.

The deck has specific ratios of different cards, so if you're hardcore about it you can learn about great synergies between different cards and play the odds, but even if you don't really know what you're doing, it can be fun to see what all the different cards have to offer.

Part of what makes the game so interesting is that because cards are the fundamental resource, every decision you make is meaningful. If you decide to place a powerful card, you will have to spend much of your hand to be able to do it, and you will lose out on whatever benefits might have been waiting there.

I haven't had a chance to play that much of the game yet, but I really liked what I saw when I did, and can't wait to get a few more sessions in. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in deep strategy in quick, bite-sized games, but try to find someone who's played it before to teach you your first game.

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror comes in a large box filled to the brim with cards, tokens, dice, and a gorgeous map of the town of Arkham. It's a strongly themed cooperative game, set in the Lovecraftian 1920's, where a team of investigators try to uncover and stop an ancient evil from awakening and swallowing the world.

The pieces that come with it are wonderful: little decks of item cards, spell cards, skill cards; player character portraits and character sheets; monster squares, life and sanity and clue tokens; all of them look great and give you something to hang on to for dear life.

You'll need that. This game is brutal.

Pretty much every mechanic of Arkham horror is designed to make you feel like a person royally fucked. Every turn, a new portal opens in town, and monsters come pouring out. Closing a portal not only takes at least 3 turns, but requires a rare item or one of your resources (clue tokens) to seal permanently. On top of that, whenever a portal opens, other bad things usually happen, like an environmental change that makes certain checks unlucky, or a rumor, which gives you a certain number of turns to meet a condition and prevent something horrible from happening.

I've only had a chance to play it two-player, and I definitely don't recommend playing with so few people.

With only two, you have to focus pretty much all your time to closing portals, which means you don't have a lot of time to do any of the other fun things the game has to offer, and which you probably have to do if you want to be able to survive. Moving around the map, you can participate in unique encounters in every location, drawn from one of the location decks, which can net you money, items, allies, healing, or any number of other useful things.

They can also lead to a horrible death, but pretty much everything in this game can.

I have to say that despite playing with only two people (and subsequently having to... modify the rules a bit, especially since it was the first time either of us was playing), I had a lot of fun with Arkham Horror. It's a long, epic game, more like a contained RPG that doesn't need a GM than your typical board game. The attention to detail is simply fantastic, with great art and writing to get you in the mood.

I would recommend it to someone looking for a long, epic cooperative game, and with a group of at least 4-5 people willing to stay for the long haul. With the right group and the right attitude, this game will give you a suitable simulation of fighting for your life.

Filed under: Board Games, Games 1 Comment
1Mar/101

Boarding Party: Part 1 of 2

Complex European-style board games have become more common and more mainstream lately, with the best-known examples probably being Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Ironically, I haven't played either of these in person, although I do own the Xbox Live Arcade version of Catan, and have had quite a bit of fun with it.

A while back, Soren Johnson wrote a post rating some prominent games, and after reading it, I became curious to play some of them. Incidentally, a friend of mine also started showing an interest in board games, and so it happened that we picked up several different games last week, and having now tried them out I'd like to offer you my impressions.

In order to do all the games justice without making this too long to be enjoyable, I'm splitting this into two posts, the second of which will be up on Thursday.

Pandemic

Pandemic is a cooperative game where up to four players must work together to find the cure for four deadly viruses before they overwhelm the world. A cooperative game meshes well with my reasons for playing games, and the setup is certainly an intriguing one, so Pandemic was a game I was eager to try.

As Soren notes in his appraisal of the game, the theme fits very nicely with the mechanics, as you feel constantly overwhelmed and pressed for time to cure all the diseases before one of the many losing conditions is reached. Furthermore, I found the cooperative aspect very satisfying, discussing our options on each player's turn, and planning actions for the upcoming turns to be able to trade cards needed to cure a disease or to fly to a particularly overrun part of the world quickly.

Because outbreaks of the virus happen as a result of cards drawn from an infection deck, and all the cards drawn so far are reshuffled and placed on top of the infection deck periodically, you can predict where the virus will strike next, and try to plan your actions with the other players to minimize the damage. Planning correctly, and preventing a major outbreak is very satisfying, while a careless decision, or just plain bad luck can lead to a chain of outbreaks that quickly spirals out of control.

I would recommend Pandemic to anyone interested in a strong cooperative experience where working together brings rich rewards and failing to do so leads to the end of human civilization.

By the way, if you end up playing it, keep in mind that you don't need to actually wipe out the infections from all cities to win, and can instead just find all four cures while leaving some cities infected. When we started out we thought you had to wipe out all traces of the virus, and consequently spent too much time eradicating every trace of it to be able to win.

Chrononauts

Chrononauts is a time traveling card game, easy to set up and easier still to play. Each player is given an identity from an alternate universe (for instance, one where JFK was never assassinated and the Titanic never sank), as well a mission to collect three specific artifacts.

To win, a player must either have 10 cards in his hand, obtain and play all three artifacts from their mission card, or modify the timeline in such a way that it matches the alternate universe from his ID card. Players draw a card from the deck each turn, and can then play a card from their hand to either modify the timeline, patch prior changes to it, or do all sort of crazy things like swapping hands with another player, or looking ahead in time (searching the deck for a specific card to put into their hand).

The game is interesting primarily because of the many different time-travel themed abilities that you can perform with the various cards, but it doesn't hold up very well with just two people, like we were playing it, because any time a player changes the timeline or does something else sneaky, you immediately know that he is doing something towards one of his winning conditions, and so the game becomes a fairly simple back-and-forth.

I think that with three or four players, Chrononauts would get to be a pretty crazy game of constantly-shifting history, and I believe the game supports up to seven, so if you have a decently-sized group of people to play with I recommend giving it a go.

Dominion

I am very impressed with Dominion's core mechanic, it takes a card game like Magic: The Gathering, and makes the deck-building aspect a part of the game, rather than something you do as part of the setup. Each player starts with the same deck of 10 cards, draws five of them each turn, and can then spend treasure cards from his hand, which are worth different values of coins, to buy other cards to put in his deck.

Treasure that is spent buying cards doesn't go away though, it just goes back into the deck, which is shuffled every time it gets too small to draw the next turn's hand of five cards. This means that you are buying more valuable treasure cards to in turn buy more expensive action cards, which you can play before the buy phase of your turn for all manner of interesting effects. As your deck gets bigger and bigger, your ability to anticipate what hand you will be dealt decreases, since you still only draw five cards each turn (unless you play action cards that let you draw more).

The entire game is based on the idea of building your deck, and it follows the competitive solitaire model where each player is playing for himself, not directly affecting the other players most of the time (though there are action cards that hinder your foe's ability to play out his turn how he might like, or make him throw cards out of his deck). To win, players must buy land cards like Provinces which give Victory Points that are added up at the end of the game, but each land card is a tradeoff, since it's an essentially useless card in your deck and the good ones cost a lot of coins to buy.

The final piece of Dominion that makes it so interesting is that the action cards available for sale differ from game to game. There are 20-something different types of action cards, and only 10 are used in any single game of Dominion, which means that no two games will play out exactly the same way, and not all games support the same strategies. For instance, it's entirely possible that the available action cards will not include any that let you draw extra cards in a turn, which would greatly change the whole dynamic of the game.

I would recommend Dominion to pretty much anyone. It's not particularly difficult to learn, it's easy to play, and it has some really cool mechanics that will tickle your brain as you try to come up with the best strategies suited to the circumstances of that game session.

Come back Thursday for Part 2 of this post, where I will discuss Race for the Galaxy and Arkham Horror.

Filed under: Board Games, Games 1 Comment