Friday, July 27, 2007

Three Middle-Weight Games. Light on Theme

At this week’s meeting of the Appalachian Gamers, we played three games that I had never played before. They were Notre Dame, Rheinlander, and Maya. All three are decent games, each can be played in about an hour and a half, and I would not hesitate to play any of them again. But each was a little light on theme, and I’m not going to go out of my way to acquire any of them.

If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard of Notre Dame (from designer Stefan Feld), and there’s a good chance you have played it already, so I’m not going to describe the mechanics in detail. Suffice it to say that it is a game about playing cards to take actions that either earn players victory points, or earn players resources (cash and wooden cubes) that can be used to later get victory points. Complicating the game is the arrival each turn of plague-bearing rats. Players must also take actions to fend off the rat invasion or they risk forfeiting victory points and cubes that have already been placed on the board.

Notre Dame includes a choose-one-card-and-pass-the-rest mechanism that I enjoy. And there are multiple paths to victory which is always a good sign. And the rat mechanism adds some tension to a game that otherwise lacks it.

But the overall impression of the game is underwhelming. Part of the problem is that there is little interaction between the players. As Ted Cheatham said more than once: “This is multiplayer solitaire.”

Also, I am getting a little weary of these resource-churning games. Every action yields points, cash, cubes, or kills a rat. Or some combination of these. Haven’t we played a dozen different versions of this game already?

I got the same feeling from Maya. Maya (from designer Bernd Eisenstein) is a game about building Mayan pyramids. Players score victory points for having the most building cubes in the various levels of four pyramids. But first players must acquire cubes and special action tokens by blind bidding on resource spaces. Each player has an identical deck of cards, and each player takes turns placing these cards face down below the resource spaces. The player whose total combination of cards scores the highest gets the most cubes from the space as well as the special action token. Players who come in second or third only get cubes, and fewer of them.

Then players take turns placing cubes into the levels of the four pyramids. Most of the special action tokens are used in this phase to place or move tokens in some unique manner. The player who has the most cubes in a level gets the most points for that level. Other players score less.

Again, Maya is a perfectly decent game that doesn’t seem very special because I’ve played lots of these kind of games before. For me, the problem with both Notre Dame and Maya is the thinness of the theme. Notre Dame could have been about any city at any time, or even about some non-city experience (say, running a shopping mall). Maya could have been about almost any kind of building project at any time. Because of the wafer-thin theme in these games, it’s hard not to be aware of the unoriginal mechanics.

I found Reiner Knizia’s Rhienlander to be a little more appealing. It’s not that this game of knights and castles oozes theme, but at least I found it conceivable that he came up with the theme first, and then invented the mechanics, and not the other way around. Other things that made the game attractive are the fast pace (play a card, place a knight, and draw card; on to the next player), and the high toy factor. Rheinlander has a high luck factor (the cards largely determine where you can place your knights), but I don’t mind that in a game that moves so fast. If a game can't be deep, it should at least be quick.

Playing three of these lightly-themed middle-weight games in one night has me yearning for a heavy-weight game with lots of strategy and theme. Or maybe a wargame. But there are still some new games to try in the Appalachian Gamer library so I suppose that craving won’t be satisfied for a while.


dgilligan said...


I think our opinion of these three games was fairly close. I didn't care for Maya, and thought Notre Dame and Rheinlander were ok but nothing special. I wouldn't mind playing either ND or Rheinlander again but its not like I would be requesting either of them. I think of the three I liked Rheinlander the most.

Here is my take on Maya, which I posted to BGG.

It has been theorized that the Mayan civilization was destroyed by severe drought. As a simulation of that event, this game fully succeeds as the game play is as dry as bone. It takes all the majesty and artistry out of the process of building temples to the gods and turns it into a number crunching exercise. Considering that the name of the publisher is Abacus this should hardly be surprising. I think learning to actually use an abacus would be more fun than playing Maya.

huzonfirst said...

Kris, if you want to take Notre Dame out of the realm of multi-player solitaire, all you have to do is pay attention to what the other players are doing. You should probably be looking at the player to your left under any circumstances, since feeding him the cards he needs is a good way to lose. And the player to your right is important, because if you see what he's doing, you can predict the kinds of cards you're liable to receive from him, which should influence your strategy.

I'm not saying I always do all of that myself, but then again, I love the game just from the point of view of maximizing my own score. But I think the game has an added dimension when you start looking around at the other players. Played optimally, Notre Dame is anything but multi-player solitaire.

By the way, our games usually only last around an hour. Short playing time, lots of decisions--you can't beat that! I agree the theme is paper thin, but that rarely bothers me. I can see where players who focus on theme would be somewhat luke-warm about it, though.

Greg J. Schloesser said...

Kris, regarding Notre Dame, I just can't agree with you or my good friend Ted Cheatham. Yes, most of what you do is "solitaire" in feel, but what your opponents do often has a direct impact on what you should do. As Larry says, paying close attention to the actions of your opponents should have an effect on how you play.

My other contention is more a matter of taste. I thoroughly enjoy Notre Dame, and find it filled with tension and critical decisions. It is FAR beyond a mediocre game, and in my opinion, one of the year's Top 10 releases.