Thursday, January 18, 2007

Last Season's Hot Games: A Top Ten (or so) from Nurnberg 2006

Last year I posted a list of ten games worth watching from Nurnberg '06. I'd been hoping to post some followup on all ten games to talk about what was good and what wasn't, but it took forever for the Nurnberg games to actually hit the U.S. shores, and to date there's still a few that I haven't gotten to play.

But, before the next Nurnberg rolls around I wanted to post my notes on the 8 games that I had gotten to try out. So: Nurnberg 2006. Some of these games are a bit old by now, but they nonetheless represent some of the more interesting games of last year, and if you haven't tried them out yet, here's some more info.

#1: Blue Moon City (A)

My Thoughts: Review (11/06)
Authors: Reiner Knizia
Synopsis: card management, city development, majority control
Background: Blue Moon City, after the war
U.S. Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

I was expecting to like Blue Moon City, and I wasn't disappointed. It's an interesting Knizian resource-management game that doesn't have quite the weight of his classics, like T&E and Samurai, but is nonetheless one of the deepest games he's released in the last few years (up there with Beowulf and before that Amun-Re).

You're constantly managing a hand of cards that you can alternatively use to build up Blue Moon City or to take advantage of certain special powers. At the same time you're trying to manage the topography of the board (because your limited movement always seems to result in you being opposite where you want to be) and the limited resource of time. There's a lot of thoughts, and a lot of tactics, but not too much of each either.

By the by, if it weren't obvious the mechanics have nothing to do with the Blue Moon card game.

The theming, on the other hand, does, and it's wonderful. You get beautiful cards because of all of the art already being produced for the card game. Further, you get to see the return of the various Blue Moon races, each of which has a special power which is reminiscent of how they were portrayed in the original, but not the exact same thing.

I'd originally ranked this below Thurn and Taxis, which you'll find next, but I think it stands up better to long-term play. Strategies are more different from game to game, and more dependent upon board positioning and how other players interact, thus giving the game more staying power.

This is a strong Knizian release; what more need be said?

#2: Thurn & Taxis (A)

My Thoughts: Just this article.
Authors: Andreas Seyfarth & Karen Seyfarth
Synopsis: connectivity, set collection
Background: Germany, recent centuries
U.S. Publisher: Rio Grande Games

I had really high hopes for Thurn & Taxis. Much as with last year's Around the World in 80 Days I really wanted it to be another Ticket to Ride. Around the World with 80 Days was an entirely fine game, but without the tension needed to get it to the table. This one, however, it's a contender, and thus one of my top rated games from last year's Nurnberg.

T&T has a simple set of mechanisms. You're trying to create long routes by collecting cards, and you're doing so in such a way as to get to place houses in certain cities, and thus gain bonus points for placing everywhere in a region (or in each region). For an additional factor there are also four roles, which basically act as resources because you only get to use one each turn to give you a slight edge.

As with any truly good game there's a set of choices that are constantly in contention. Do you build long for quick bonuses or short to get more houses out? There's also some great tactical management as each turn you figure out how to make the best use of various limited resources (those roles, your cards, what you can keep in your hand, etc).

T&T isn't quite as deep Ticket to Ride because there's not such a wide-open variety of choice. In TtR you'll often ignore some fraction of the board each game, while in T&T you usually have paid attention to most of it by the time the games over. However, it's a lot deeper than Around the World was, and like both it's got the same strengths of good cardplay, a bit of press your luck, and some interesting and at-odds resource management.

With time this game has faded a little bit, because of that lack of depth, but it's still a top contender from last year, and well deserving of its awards.

#3: Ticket to Ride: Marklin Edition (A)

My Thoughts: Review (03/06)
Authors: Alan R. Moon
Synopsis: connectivity, delivery, set-collection
Background: Germany, recent centuries
U.S. Publisher: Days of Wonder

The new Marklin edition of Ticket to Ride was one of my starred releases from Nurnberg which I had the highest hopes for, and it didn't disappoint. Though I'm a bit burned out on Ticket to Ride, having played 81 face-to-face games of all the variants since the release of the original, I can still recognize the elegant design of this new edition.

The map is Germany, and the graphic design is more colorful and vibrant than any of the others to date. Every time I get a new Ticket to Ride game I feel like it's a little better tuned than the ones that came before, and this is no exception. The map works like clockwork, and a split of the tickets into two halves, representing long and short routes, really helps the development of the gameplay.

The big new element is this version is passengers. Every city has merchandise on it, and you can place passengers who rush around and pick this up. It turns out to be another subgame of brinkmanship, because you constantly have to figure out when to take advantage of your limited passenger moves, and whether other players are going to swoop in and pick up the merchandise. Thanks to the passengers, merchandise, and split tickets, I also think this game is more strategic than Europe, which was in turn more strategic than the original (perhaps following the same trend that I noted for Carcassonne, where as the SdJ gets more distant, the publishers slowly retrofit the game for a more gamer's market).

When I was six months into my play of the original Ticket to Ride I would have killed for another map, and this fits that bill and more. Thus, it's highly recommended for Ticket to Ride enthusiasts. Because of the strategic improvements, it's likewise recommended for more serious gamers who have been leery of the franchise thus far, but curious. If you have burned out on Ticket to Ride, this probably won't be enough to get you back, but that's my only caveat.

#4: Augsberg 1520 (B+)

My Thoughts: Just this article.
Authors: Karsten Hartwig
Synopsis: auctions, economics, resource management
Background: Germany, 1520
U.S. Publisher: Rio Grande

Everyone goes into the newest Alea game hoping it's going to be the next Ra or Taj Mahal, and we're perpetually disappointed because Alea just isn't making games like that any more. However, though I personally found Augsberg to be a bit dry--to the point where I'd trade it away if it didn't fit into my Alea collection--I'm delighted to say that Augsberg is actually the next Louis XIV. They're similarly dry yet well-designed economic and auction games, and if you like one you'll probably like the other.

Augsberg 1520 is a game that I've labeled "brutal". And, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are lots of really tough choices. You're engaging in strangely baroque auctions (where you first bid a number of cards to bid, then blindly bid those cards, then reveal them, then grant victory to the player who bid the single highest value among the set they played) for various resources. The resources can grant you privileges, but those can later be taken away, thus you have to balance what you can win, what it costs you, and what the chances are of losing it afterward.

A particularly innovative element is the fact that you can't exceed certain scores without building certain structures, and the game is so tightly designed that it's another brutal choice when to try and make those leaps.

As a logistical game, Augsberg is great, and it's also hard to complain about it as a gamer's game if you like this type of deep challenge. I'm suprised it hasn't gotten more commentary since its release.

#5: Gloria Mundi (B)

My Thoughts: Just this article.
Authors: James Ernest & Mike Selinker
Synopsis: card management, resource management
Background: Rome, c. 500
U.S. Publisher: Rio Grande Games

Gloria Mundi is another example of a good indy game design that could have been great with some more professional development. To start off with, the theme is engaging. You're fleeing Rome while Goths slowly stomp toward Rome, destroying everything in their path. The mechanics are Settlers of Catan turned on their ear: you produce resources based upon your lands (represented by cards), but it's those exact lands which are in danger from the Goths. Add on to that a building system that is reminescent of San Juan--you get to place these new buildings on your lands, and they can give you new special powers when you produce.

The game overall has some very innovative mechanics, particularly in deciding when to pay off the Goth, and the blend of tradition resource-management and special buildings is well done. My only complaint with the core mechanics is that they run too long. At 1.5 hours, the game is a bit lengthy, while at 1 hour it would have been entirely delightful.

And then we come to the development: not only was there no good development work to polish up the buildings, which would have resulted in a simple and consistent set of powers, but in fact decisions made during publication notably damaged the game. The rules are, to start off with, bad: overly complex, confusing, and not careful enough about their wording. Worse, the iconography on the cards is some of the worst that I've ever seen. For example, "resource = resource", "resource -> resource", and "resouce : resource" all mean different things, and some of the explanations are outright confusing. Our whole first game through we were never sure that we were playing some cards right. Our second game through we had a reference sheet that showed every card. It's the only way to rationally play that game, but we found at least one mistake on the reference sheet too.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed both of my games of Gloria Mundi. And, if you're an anti-Ernest snob, let me further say that this is different than anything else he's done (though all of his high-end games have actually been moving toward European design for a while). But I'm a bit sad that this game didn't end up at Hans im Gluck or Alea where it would have received top-notch development, and have been one of the games that everyone was talking about last year.

#6: California (B)

My Thoughts: Review (12/06)
Authors: Michael Schacht
Synopsis: house development, resource management, tile laying
Background: California, modern-day
U.S. Publisher: Uberplay

I've been really enthusiastic that Uberplay has been publishing these long, thin Michael Schacht games, a series that also includes China and Hansa. Of the three, California turns out to be my least favorite, but it's nonetheless a game that I enjoy and find original.

The object of California is to rebuild your house, and you do that by refurnishing rooms and putting furniture into those rooms. Generally rooms are a worth a point each, and furniture can be more than that, depending on whether you're able to grab bonus tiles and guests that are wandering the premises.

California's most interesting feature is a (totally non-thematic) method whereby you choose whether to take money or a building tile each turn, but where doing the first makes tiles cheaper for all the other players, thus creating another interesting variant of the Dutch auction. Since everyone is drawing from a central pool of tiles and money there's also considerable ability to engage in brinkmanship and to screw your neighbors when they do the same.

If this game fails, I think it's ultimately in its sameness. Though I can take a chance and curse an opponent when he foils my plans, there's no opportunity for particularly great moves, and that ultimately keeps the game at a more pedestrian level. Nonetheless, it's clever, it's fun, and it's fairly short.

#7: Cleopatra & The Society of Architects (B-)

My Thoughts: First Thoughts (05/06), Second Thoughts (05/06), Review (05/06)
Authors: Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc
Synopsis: card management, palace development, brinkmanship
Background: Egypt, 1st century BC
U.S. Publisher: Days of Wonder

When I first wrote about Cleopatra last February, I said that I expected the production would be superb, and that I'd be perfectly happy with the lightness of the game. I was right on the production. The game is full of beautiful plastic bits that are quite evocative and add a great visceral feel to the game. Yes, it's overproduced, but on the other hand I've got plenty of $50 games which give considerably less bang for the buck.

In short: the game's about collecting cards to build various monuments, but besides balancing your card resources, you also have to balance corruption which some cards (and some other actions) give you, because whoever has the most corruption at the end loses, no matter how much money they made.

I can enjoy purely light games without problem, but this game actually ends up combining high randomness with brain-burning tactics in a combination that I find very uncomfortable.

On the lightness side you have: partially hidden card draws which you don't have a lot of control over, and which do control what you build; as well as the chaos of what other players might do between your turns, which really cranks up if you play this with 5 players.

On the brain burning side you have: six different types of monuments which can be built; a handful of cards which often allows you to build a large number of permutations of those monuments at any time; and a geometrical pentomino-based tile placement system which rewards very careful cutting off of empty spaces.

It's not a combination I like, and I think it contributes to a feeling of uneasiness about this game. I also have issues with downtime in a 5-player game and the opaqueness of not really knowing what's a good move.

Don't get me wrong, this is a perfectly OK game. I enjoyed my 4-player play, though my 5-player play lagged. There are also some clever systems, particularly the corruption system, and the card dealing system which involves flipping half of the cards upside down. However as a serious game player it's too awkward and too creaky for me to be able to truly lose myself in the game.

I think it might be more enjoyable to casual gamers or to serious gamers who can turn their gamebrain off, but I suggest keeping it to 4 players or less.

#8: Tempus (B-)

My Thoughts: Just this article.
Authors: Martin Wallace
Synopsis: civilization building & warfare
Background: Generic Hexland
U.S. Publisher: Cafe Games

Tempus was actually on my 2005 Essen list, but it finally made its way to the game store shelf last summer. Thus I've given it space alongside other hot games from 2006.

Tempus was widely hyped as a Civilization Light, a tag that was also used for Antike and Parthenon over the previous years. Indeed it's a war game where you manage resources and you advance up a technology track while trying to capture territory, so it meets some of the criteria. However, as I wrote in Give Me a Light ... No, Civ Light the lack of real technology and trade really drops it out of contention.

Instead Tempus is actually a resource management game where you try and take advantage of minor differentials with your opponents by temporarily jumping ahead in technology or making better use of resources than them.

The game's got lots of clever elements and the resource management is engaging. It's suffered somewhat from overhyping, because it turns out to be good, but not brilliant. However, I also find it pretty staid with not a lot of real choices, but instead a slow, monotonous expansion that isn't necessarily interesting or strategic. Worse, I think a rule implemented to avoid player elimination actually offbalances the game. My rating has thus dropped from interested to unenthusiastic over two plays and at this point I think only the serious resource manager will like it ... but then that's the same large group that probably likes Power Grid too.

The three games which I had on my original Essen list but which I've never played are Bison, Emira, and Leonardo da Vinci, all by Mayfair. The first two never appeared in any of my gaming groups, while I was unlucky enough to miss out on plays of Leonardo da Vinci. I've heard pretty much nothing about the first two, while I suspect the third would have made my top five list.

I also listed a few games in my original Essen list that had almost made my top-ten. One was Mykerinos which is an interesting majority control game with very low emphasis on luck and very high emphasis on brinkmanship and thoughtful play. It's relatively pretty and interesting and would get a "B" on my scale here. Reiner Knizia's Double or Nothing generally fizzled, and earns a "C"; for press-your-luck style games, his Pickomino is much better, despite the silly theming. And speaking of dicing games, Tom Lehmann's To Court a King was also on my "almost" list from Essen. I found it a little long, and pretty complex to calculate options at the end, but the idea of a Yahtzee-like game with super powers is entirely innovative and the game is quite pretty, thus earning it a "B+", despite my reservations.

Overall, the ones that are "B+" are better are the ones that I'd recommend most from last year's Nurnberg, and which I'd most consider buying. That's: Blue Moon City, Thurn and Taxis, Ticket to Ride: Marklin Edition, Augsberg 1520, and To Court a King.

Now let's see what Nurnberg 2007 brings!


huzonfirst said...

Nice summary of last year's Nuremburg games, Shannon. My list of favorites contains the same games as yours, although the order is a bit different (for example, I'd put Tempus on top, although, as you note, it wasn't available until later in the year). The only game I'd add is Aton, which is a very nice two-player. But we pretty much agree on the quality games from the first half of last year.

Simon J said...

I'm a bit confused about your comment re Augsburg 1520 & Louis XIV. Whilst Louis is certainly dry, and might be considered economic (?) it certainly isn't an auction game.

Shannon Appelcline said...

You're right. They're similarly *logistical* games, I'd say. More importantly, they both feel like they fill the same niche and will appeal to the same players.