Thursday, February 08, 2007

The News in Reviews / Old Puzzler / New Fortnightly Puzzler

I've been telling customers at the store that I learn about ten new games a month. Games have, in fact, completely eclipsed movies and television in my life. My partner Annie and I watched the Golden Globe awards at a neighbor's home and knew two movies out of the ones listed and none of the television shows. I grew up with movies and television playing a major part of my life. Now I have games, gaming, and all those transitory gamers that Shannon referred to in his last article in my life, and I feel great about it.

My list of January games is as follows: Yspahan, Coloretto, Samurai, Taj Mahal, Citadels, Mykerinos, Ys, Martian Coasters, Anasazi, Figaro, Quelf, Primordial Soup. I have ordered them from my most favorite to my least favorite, though I have really enjoyed myself with everything from Martian Coasters on up. The last four I could probably live without.

Yspahan is at the top of this list for reasons I'm still trying to figure out. It's certainly not the most strategic game in the bunch (neither is Coloretto at #2 for that matter), but it is a middle to light weight strategy game that I really enjoy playing.

In Yspahan, you're in Persia trying to become rich off neighborhoods (souks), caravans, and personal buildings during the course of three weeks.

Each turn, you roll nine dice (there are also three yellow dice which can be purchased per turn at one gold apiece and rolled with the others). Afterwards, these dice are placed on an action mat. There are six levels on the mat. The lowest numbered die (or dice) is placed on the bottom level, followed by the next lowest and so on. The highest die (or dice) is always placed at the top. For example, if you roll a 2, 3, 5, and six 6s, then the 2 goes to the first level, the 3 to the second, the 5 to the third, and the six 6s to the top level.

Each of the action mat levels corresponds to a different main action. The top is for money, and the bottom is for camels (in the game, both are essentially forms of currency). The middle four levels correspond to a different neighborhood that you can play in. The neighborhoods are divided into different colored souks (buildings) that you can play on and claim. Their values depend on which neighborhood and how many souks comprise that particular color. There is also a sidewalk beside each and every souk's edge on which a "provost-like" figure walks. Should this figure touch one of your buildings, you must send your marker to the caravan or pay the price of a camel.

In addition to the normal actions, a player may also move the above mentioned figure the exact number of total pips of the dice on the taken level (altered by gold or a building) or simply take a power card. Power cards are random but add an interesting element to the game. They can be redeemed for their purpose (any of a variety of super powers) or can be a supplement to your dice roll (you discard a card to add an imaginary die).

The caravan is another aspect of the game. There are three levels and four spots per level in the caravan. While you may lose out on points if you are bumped from the souks to the caravan, you also stand to gain points while there. Eight of the twelve caravan spots score immediate points, and at the end of every week, you score again depending on how many spots you occupy in the caravan and at what level.

You also have a playing mat with six buildings on it. Most of the buildings can be purchased with some combination of camels and gold. The building powers range from receiving extra camels to placing an extra marker on the neighborhoods. If you build more than two buildings, you start earning points for your buildings (0,0,5,5,5,10) for a potential of 25 points.

So you basically roll dice and choose whichever option helps you most. I would never have thought that such a cool game could accompany such a description, but it's true.

First of all, you never know what you're going to have for options or and sometimes what you really want is limited. That seems obvious, but when confronted with any of a ton of peculiar rolls, you find yourself really striving to understand the options that are in front of you.

Second, while there are a few main strategies, the instability of the dice rolls makes them all a little shaky. Never has the cliché advice "you gotta be flexible" been more true. Which strategy is optimal with different dice rolls? Who knows? I've only won one game out of three or four. While I'd like to blame my losses on luck, it's probably much more accurate to blame my inflexibility of plans and inability to see decent moves. But I'm working on it, though.

Finally, the board and pieces are great. The art is fantastic, from the cover shot to the neighborhood souks. The little wooden camels are also a nice touch (they could've been cubes). The extra yellow dice are the perfect addition to level out some of the randomness (but at a price!).

Out of the last thirty or so games I've played, Yspahan is in my top 5. Once everyone knows what they're doing, it can be played in as little as 30 minutes (we had a 20 minute 3-player game one time!). The decisions are simple, yet winning is far from a giveaway. And while I normally hate dice games, I feel like Yspahan's dice are the perfect game mechanic (I love rolling nine, sometimes twelve, dice! It's power!).

And then there's that something extra. Each of my favorites from January (and beyond) has something else. There's something more than any description can capture. If I figure it out, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, I'll keep gaming.




I will alternate between The News in Briefs (humor), The News in Thongs

(personal), and The News in Reviews (game reviews). Any comments on

your preferences are much appreciated.




Old Puzzler

Q: Name a pronoun which is also sometimes a feared group. "Pronoun" includes all variations and sub-groupings.



New Fortnightly Puzzler

In his autobiography, Mohandas K. Gandhi professes to have played several games of _____ on his voyage between India and South Africa.

a) chess

b) draughts

c) shut-the-box

d) all of the above


Coldfoot said...

Speaking of boardgames eclipsing TV and movies in life, here is my story.

I came home from work late the other night and my TV was on. (Just the picture, no sound.) Apparently the dog had stepped on the remote control in just the right way to turn it on and mute the sound at the same time.

So rarely do I watch TV that I didn't know how to turn it off. Three remote controls were setting on the couch and I had no idea which one to use. I had to turn on the lights and get down on my knees to find the on/off button on the TV itself.

If Boardgamegeek wasn't loading on my computer I could fix that in the dark.

qzhdad said...

What's TV? Oh yeah, it's that glowing box on which my wife watches Red Wings and the kids watch cartoons and nature shows. (It also features prominently whenever my in-law's are around.) We are saved from getting hooked by any sitcoms because the RW play on all different nights and I won't get TiVo to encourage TV-watching.
Your description of Ysphahan reminds me of Roma, which is a game that really like. I am looking forward to trying Ysphahan soon!

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Hmm, sad to hear you didn't like Primordial Soup.

There are some definate downsides to the game (slow pace of play, sometimes difficult to catch up if you fall behind - linked to some difficulties to taking down a runaway leader) but the theme and general mechanics of building up your own batch of amoebas is just so darn fun! The two wash together for me making it a "good" game but not a "great" one.

Smatt said...

I'm sad I don't like Primordial Soup either, Matt. I certainly sat down to the game in a much better spot than when I left, and for me, I look for the opposite effect. There are a handful of games that I've liked better the second time around , though(Babel, Gloria Mundi, Shadows over Camelot), so I might give it another shot in the future.

huzonfirst said...

I was also disappointed in Primordial Soup (actually, the version I played was Ursuppe) the one time I played it. It was long, sluggish, inelegant, and a bit luck-driven. It just seemed like such an American design and did not stack up well to my newly discovered German games. Overall, I'm not a big fan of Frank Nestel's.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

I find the luck is a nice element but not overwhelming for me. However, I just can't understand why the game seems so sluggish. (I like it, but agree that it totally feels sluggish.)

The sluggishness is much less after everyone has played before, but it is still present.

I do like some elegant aspects of the game (if you stay in one spot you die in your own excrement), I wouldn't put it in a category with some other more smoothly put together designs.

I've heard the expansion improves the game somewhat, but haven't tried it. I've also tried limiting the mutation selection when playing with new players. (ie. players only get to choose from a subset of cards.) That makes things slightly more random, but also speeds up the game and forces people to make the best of what they can find, rather than just going straight for one of a few "killer" combinations.