Levels of Strategy

Levels of Strategy

I had wanted to play Rhino Hero for a long, long time, and had built up really high expectations for it. Luckily, and unusually, it absolutely lived up to those expectations. This game is great.

Ostensibly, it is a kids’ game (ages 5+) so the premise is simple. Each player gets five cards, and the first player to get rid of all of their cards wins. You get rid of your cards by adding them to the ever-growing tower. You first lay down horizontally one or two folded cards to form ‘walls’, and then add a card from your hand as a ‘roof’ to the walls. This roof will have markings on it instructing the next player on how they must place the walls on their turn. And so the tower goes up, and up, and up.

Some cards instruct players to pick up an extra card, reverse the order of play, or most interesting of all, add the eponymous Rhino Hero to the tower. He takes the form of a solid wooden meeple. Exactly the kind you don’t want to have to balance precariously on a tower of cards that might be 10 layers high.

The first player to use up all of their cards wins, but more likely, and more often, the game ends when the tower collapses. In fact, in quite a lot of games, I have never actually seen anybody manage to place their fifth card. When the tower collapses, once you are done making fun of the person who collapsed it, you gather up the cards and play again. Because how could you not play again?

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Watch the Skies

Writer_smallerThe Will of the Gods

I love Cyclades. I have heard that its younger brother Kemet is a better game, and that may well be, but in terms of theme, Greek mythology holds more sway over me than Egyptian. Kemet is, broadly speaking, an Egyptian-themed Cyclades, that comes with improved mechanics. But I’ll take a horrific, titanic, unimaginably destructive Kraken over a mewling cat god any day of the week, so Cyclades is the game for me.

At first glance, Cyclades would appear to be your common or garden-variety ‘guys on a map’ type game, with myriad islands of the Greek Cyclades being occupied by troops and fleets of opposing players. Your army can attack and conquer, and you can fortify your islands with ports and fortresses. In the name of civilisation, temples and universities are also an option (how classically Greek). In fact, victory in Cyclades is not even necessarily achieved through martial means. The first player to build two metropolises on their islands wins. A metropolis is constructed by having one of each of the four aforementioned buildings under your control. Of course, you can just wait until your opponents have built theirs and then conquer it with troops.

All standard stuff so far, but the actual mechanics of how this works is what makes Cyclades so different. The game is played out in the Greece of ancient myths and legends; the Greece where gods and monsters ruled and roamed the earth, and mankind was at the mercy of their whims. Your territories in Cyclades earn you gold, and at the start of each turn, you will bid against the other players for the favour of the gods using this gold. It amounts to a type of auction, where you will be striving to earn the favours, and hence powers, of one of five different gods each turn.

With Ares on your side, you can increase your armies and use them to invade. Ares will only help you with land engagements, though. If you want to dominate at sea, you will of course need Poseidon. Thus, your turn becomes wholly dictated by the god you have chosen (or indeed, have been forced to choose after being outbid on the actual god you choose).

So while the gods determine the course of the game, the monsters add colour and allow you to disrupt the plans of other players in wonderfully chaotic ways. As well as bidding on the gods, on their turn a player can also harness the power of the likes of the Kraken, Harpies, the Sirens and Pegasus, allowing them to destroy fleets, stop invasions, and reverse the fortunes of others. All these actions are of course performed to the satisfying background symphony of teeth being ground in frustration as a Kraken rears from the depths to wreak havoc on a well-planned naval assault.

It’s not total chaos, of course. Everyone can see the monsters available to bid on, and thus have the opportunity to take them in a preventative measure. Cyclades then becomes one of those great games where you never have the resource to do everything you want to do, and each turn becomes wrought with difficult decisions. Taking a monster to prevent your opponent advancing only becomes possible by sacrificing precious resources and slowing down your own plans.

It’s not a perfect, game. Although the map changes with different player counts, with fewer than five players not all of the gods are available to bid on every turn. In some three player games this hampered progress, as without certain gods you simply cannot progress. But overall it is a lot of fun, and certainly to be recommended. Unless Pharaohs, sphinxes and cat gods are your bag. In which case, check out Kemet.

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The rebranding of Mad King Ludwig

Writer_smallerThe Madness of King Ludwig

It’s the return of Bob from Marketing!. I like Bob. As someone who wore a suit to work and for too long, and used words like projections, going forward, core competencies and best practice, it’s nice to have a chance to skewer that culture of nonsense. And people that refer to themselves in the third person. If anyone deserves a skewering – literally – it’s people who do that.

The Peacock Throne of Mad King Ludwig is, quite marvellously, based on fact. His pet pig, sadly, is not. Although I do feel it’s at least a pretty safe assumption that a mad king would have a pet pig. Why would you not, in that position?

While the theme of ‘The Castles of Mad King Ludwig’ (or just ‘Castles’) is interesting, it’s one of those games that I feel I need to play to understand the appeal of. On paper it sounds somewhat dry. But with the acclaim the game has received, I’m pretty certain that’s misleading. I remember when I initially heard and read about Pandemic, I didn’t see the appeal at all. Curing diseases? Playing as a researcher? Travelling around the world healing and collecting cards just didn’t make sense to me, yet anyone who played it was just so excited about it. I guess the moral here is that I would make a lousy talent scout – the board game world’s equivalent of the man who turned down The Beatles.

I saw the announcement, but other than Codenames, I’m honestly not familiar with the nominees for the Spiel des Jahres this year. Anyone played either Karuba or Imhotep? Anyone want to make predictions as the which the winner might be?

Man, I bet that pig just loves the butter room.

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Not the real Ghostbusters

Writer_smallerExorcising ghosts

More than a few villages have fallen to haunt, damnation, and ruin thanks to our inexpert fumblings and rookie mistakes in Ghost Stories. Yet on we troop, promising deliverance to the unsuspecting villagers that put their salvation in our amateur hands. Night after night, time after time. I think Ghost Stories might actually be more difficult than Pandemic, and not just because of the random factor that is introduced by the inclusion of dice. It’s just a damn hard game.

Love it, though. It’s a tense co-op that forces the players to think ahead and work closely together from the very first turn. And as I mentioned before, the unusual theme and gorgeous artwork mean it’s a game that I will always be happy to play (and probably lose).

Unusually for a game I love so much, though, I don’t have that much of an interest in the expansions. I’m curious, sure, but I don’t see how the game would benefit from them. They seem to throw so many additional elements into the mix, and it just doesn’t need that. There is always enough going on to engage everyone at the table. Maybe once I feel I’ve mastered the challenge of the base game they will seem a more exciting prospect, but that could be a long time coming…

The comic this week is, I think, the best work Aileen has done in a while. Post-holiday, we have some more time to play board games, and work on comics, which is exactly what we both want to be doing. The extra time will allow us to have more fun with the comics, too, taking in some silly, outlandish settings and stories. Over the course of Tiny Wooden Pieces, Aileen’s artwork has improved dramatically, and I’m delighted she is actually getting to show that off now. So here’s to a nice, long, uninterrupted run of comics from us for a while. As long as her college dissertation, moving house, lingering jetlag, global warming, ghosts, the awful economic landscape of modern Ireland, and/or goats don’t interfere with our holy work.

It doesn’t make the news very often, but you’d be surprised at what a constant problem goat attacks are over here.

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The haunting of Tiny Wooden Towers

Writer_smallerGhost Stories

The first two nights we played Ghost Stories, the combined length of both games probably didn’t add up to an half an hour. It beat us mercilessly, and I loved it for it.

The third time we played it, Aileen found a great rules reference online, and, more to the point, found some mistakes we were making. That time we won. It’s a tricky game, just not that tricky. I am now looking forward to trying it on the harder difficulty settings, and finding a level where it’s seriously challenging again. Winning is fun, but only if you have to work for it. The comic is exactly how the first game played out, by the way. Except for the ghost. He’s actually been in the house a lot longer.

The other delight I found in Ghost Stories was a co-op game that rewards players working together. In fact, I’m pretty sure the harder difficulty settings render any other style of play unworkable. By which I mean unwinnable.

If you don’t want to hear any more about Ghost Stories, here’s where I lose you. Because here’s the final trick the game has up its spooky sleeve; here’s what’s really clever about it: Theme.

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Village meeple

Writer_smallerVillage meeple

Before we ever played it, I had a lot of fun just describing ‘Village’ to friends, particularly non-gamer friends, and watching their reactions. ‘Harvesting, crafting, markets, raising a family, milling grain, local politics. It’s just small town life. In fact, it’s not even that exciting, it’s small village life. Oh, and of course you have to go to Mass at the end of the round. Obviously.’

Quaint theme aside, Village is a worker placement game, with some mild resource management added into the mix. Nothing unusual there, but it is a unique mixture of elements with some brilliant innovations. If you don’t have the resources to pay for something, the game will often offer an alternative – paying with time. Don’t have the materials required to craft that plough? You can send a member of your family to the blacksmith (plough-smith?) to be apprenticed to the craft. Training costs time, but it does mean that from then on, whenever you need a plough, you can just spend more time to make one instead of using actions to gather resources to build one. The catch here is that time is the ultimate finite resource. Once you have ‘spent’ enough time, a member of your family will pass away, leaving you with one fewer workers to place. And four generations is the limit of your family; you can’t simply keep spawning more.

On the other hand, when family members die, they can potentially be entered into the village chronicle, and earn you victory points. To add to this again, the game ends when the village chronicle is full, so you can potentially exert some control over the length of the game and force it to end sooner, which might suit you better. So working Grandpa to death at the forge might be the best option for your family. Delightful!

After only a couple of plays, all the options in the game seem well balanced, and we haven’t hit on a ‘killer strategy’ that carries with it a greater chance of victory than any other. Your options on any given turn are limited, and dwindle alarmingly as other players remove precious cubes, and potential actions, from the board. You have to be willing to adapt your strategy to suit the games’ flow and the interference of other players. While there is no direct conflict or antagonism between residents, you can’t live in a village that small and not be affected by those around you. You will occasionally rub up against your neighbours, or elbow them on your way to market, eager to get to the good customers first.

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Trade negotiations

Writer_smallerTrade negotiations

It’s been a while since we visited Catan. I always knew we’d come back, though. Catan holds a special place in gaming. That hexagonal hub represents the emergence of the board game from reluctant family gatherings at Christmas to college dorms, and apparently, even Silicon Valley boardrooms.

Catan represented an important shift in the perception of the hobby, both in what it was, and who it was for. All of this I have already touched previously, and I’m sure everyone has an opinion on Catan – not all as rose-tinted as mine, I would imagine.

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Pandemic Legacy

Writer_smallerPandemic

A special thanks to board gaming legend Matt Leacock for agreeing to be part of this week’s comic. As well as a great designer he’s apparently a good sport as well. On top of this he’s designing a new Thunderbirds game, something I’m hugely excited to play.

Pandemic was an important game for us. We were getting into the hobby, or at least getting more interested in it. We didn’t have any friends who played board games, and there were no local gaming groups we were aware of. I spent a good deal of time online researching what game to get, and came across Table Top. My brother had told me about Pandemic, but the theme seemed so … not fun. Scientists? Curing diseases? Why would I want to play a game about diseases. On paper it was not my cup of tea. But with the episode on Table Top I decided to at least watch it being played. So I watched the episode.

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Eclipse – A heavy price

Writer_smallerEclipse

Eclipse has the single darkest, most horrible mechanic of any board game I have played. Not the traitor card, though. Aside from being kind of hilarious, that is actually a great mechanic. Eclipse handles alliances very well, making them a functioning mechanic in-game, not just a hand-shake agreement between players. There are tangible benefits to being in an alliance (diplomatic relations, as the rules refer to it) with another player. Of course, it also means you can’t pass through their territory, not unless you want to earn the stamp of a betrayer. Attaching a stigma to treachery is thematically very sound, and backing it up with minus victory points works very well.

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Expansion Creep

Writer_smallerThe iconic isle of Catan

I don’t think this will be our last visit to the island of Catan. Like it or not, the island is engrained forever in gaming culture. 19 years later and it’s still the iconic poster child for the board game hobby. Many now see it as dated, surpassed and improved upon enough to be made redundant, but Catan remains, for me, an elegant, well-crafted and almost-always enjoyable game. It’s not one that’s brought to the table very often at a games night, but as a gateway game – something to show people that board games mean more than just Monopoly – Catan has always served well.  (more…)

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