Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cities, Curses, and Churches

Last weekend I had the chance to participate at a friend’s “Game-a-thon”, a day of open gaming at his house where folks drop in when they can. I was able to stay for a few hours and had my choice of playing in a game of Shogun (the new version of Wallenstein) or playing several shorter games. I chose to play some shorter games, as I thought I would have more fun, and it would give me an opportunity to play with some folks I don’t get to play with as often.

First up was Saint Petersburg (Rio Grande Games). I enjoy this game immensely, although have been a tad burned out on it as I get to play it against the computer frequently using the freeware computer program (check out the WestPark Gamers web site to download it). The computer AI is not too bad, and I only win four player games about 1/3 of the time. I got lucky in the first Noble round, picking up the 18-cost noble that provided a steady income of 6 rubles and 3 victory points from then on out. Things continued to fall into place for me and I outpaced the rest of the group by about 20 or so points. The game ended very quickly with all the blue buildings coming out before people had very many nobles. I took advantage of the observatory to pick up a couple of extra nobles during the blue building rounds, and made sure to hold a noble upgrade or two in my hand even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to put them down until late in the game. All in all, I think my computer playing experience served me well, although I will also admit that I had some nice opportunities fall in my lap. If you haven’t played the game, I highly recommend it. It contains a strong “build-up” element requiring players to initially focus on income and then transition to victory points later in the game. At the same time it also offers a few distinct ways of obtaining victory points (focusing on buildings or nobles or a mixture of both). All this is combined in a quick-playing (roughly an hour) game that is simple to explain to new players (takes about 10minutes or less to get up and playing.) I highly recommend St. Petersburg to help casual boardgamers make the leap into the build-up or “snowball” style of boardgames.

The second game we played is a new one by Asmodee, Wicked Witches Way. It is a very lightweight game where players are all witches and are trying to win a race. The first player to finish the race earns a few bonus points while all the other witches gain points proportional to how close they are to the finish. However, winning the race is only part of the points, players can gain special cards that give bonus points at the end of the game (for having performed acrobatics during the race.) The game revolves around rolling a set of 9 dice in a cool little book-shaped box. Players examine the dice rolled which display various orange or black symbols. When a player is ready, they shut the box and then lay down their spell cards. Players have spell cards that match the symbols on the dice. The object is to play either one or more symbols that match the orange symbols showing on the dice or one or more symbols that match the black symbols on the dice. If a symbol appears as both an orange and a black, it should not be played. Once the book is shut (hiding the dice), players can take their time playing their cards. The book is then opened and players check their spell cards. Players move their witches forward one space for each correct symbol they match. If they make a mistake (by playing symbols that appeared as both orange and black, or a symbol that didn’t appear at all) then they don’t get to move. The player who closed the book gets to score their turn first, but if they make a mistake, they go back 2 spaces. To add some spice into the game, if a player manages to play ALL the correct orange or ALL the correct black dice, it is a “perfect spell” and a bonus is earned (as long as you are not the first-place witch). Matching all the orange dice gets you bonus 2 spaces on the track, and matching all the black dice lets you draw a special card for each die matched. These special cards give players one-time abilities such as replacing a card just before scoring them, earning additional time to reopen the book before having to lay down cards. These cards also contain the acrobatics bonus point cards, which earn a player points at the end of the game. As mentioned, the witch in first place does not get the bonus. At the end of each round, the witch(es) leading the race have a curse token placed next to them. They are then ineligible to earn any bonuses for matching all the orange or black dice. This is a handy little “hold back the leader” aspect of the game, but it is so strong that trying to always be in second place is often an important strategy.

Even though it was my first play of the game (we were all trying it for the first time), I managed to get out front and stay out front for most of the race. Unfortunately, that meant I earned very few of the perfect spell bonuses – especially the cool spell card ones for black dice. The race was a tight one with three of the four of us crossing the finish line in the last turn. Surprisingly, the only player to NOT finish the race had a stack of nice bonus point cards and won the game, presumably having performed very cool acrobatics on his broomstick along the way. Despite my loss, I enjoyed the game immensely and we clearly laughed much more at this game than any other played that day. It is a fun, lighthearted game fun for those who like games with quick-pattern matching and a tad bit of memorization. There is even room for a bit of strategy (like trying to mess with other player’s plans by closing the book early, etc…) I didn’t like the pick-on-the-leader aspect of the curse token. I felt it was too strong a penalty, but it was probably my own fault for remaining in the lead for so long… I fear it might lead to extreme “game-y” style of play where players purposely lose points in order to try to stay behind the leader and pick up extra black cards…

My third and final game (while the other players were still on their first game of Shogun…) was Pillars of the Earth (Mayfair Games). I had not played it before but had heard good things (as well as bad). I won’t describe the game in detail here, but I managed to take second place in my first play of the game (two of the other three players had played before). I would have taken first place, but the last turn I drew the “give all players one metal cube” event card and the first place player still had a need for another metal cube while I already had all I wanted. I made a mistake or two early in the game in buying too many masons early, but eventually did OK with purchases and pawn placement. We all started out very gold heavy and then three of us quickly ran low, while the fourth player had plenty of gold to spend, but never got a pawn drawn in the early rounds of bag-drawing. I have heard people complain about the vagrancies of the bag-drawing, but I think the whole idea of gold hoarding is designed to counter just sort a situation. If you save up some gold you can then pay when your pawn is drawn early to get some good things and/or craftsmen. If you have gold but aren’t drawn in the early pawn draws, then you can afford to spend gold to purchase one of the craftsmen available in the worker assignment phase. Sure, you may need to maneuver to go first in a round to get a chance at buying a craftsman, but that shouldn’t be too hard to recognize in advance in the mid-game. All in all, I felt the pawn-drawing mechanism was fairly balanced and didn’t need too many more tweaks. I felt the pawn-drawing pain in the last round, holding a “free pawn placement” card but not getting drawn until late in the round. However, it didn’t set me back much, as I mentioned before. I’m looking forward to trying this game again some day to work on further evaluations.

All in all, I had a good day of gaming, 3 games in about 4 hours. Meanwhile, my other friends managed to finish their game of Shogun in just under 4 hours. While I’d love to try a game of Shogun some time, I think I made the right choice.


Anonymous said...

You got a first-round Hofmeisterin, and an Observatory, but you only won by 20 points? Sounds like you were slacking off in your play. ;-)

Anonymous said...

That's why St. Petersburg is such a tainted game I think. Too often things just pop up that there is no other viable option. There are too few valid decisions in the game.

And why was three games instead of Shogun the "right choice"? To me, more games played equating to a better quality experience is one of the worst fallacies plaguing the hobby.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

The observatory came up mid-late, and as I mentioned, the game ended very quickly. (We still had 1/2 of the red deck and at least that much upgrade deck still to go through.) Had it lasted longer I may have been able to continue to break ahead. (I think it was 60 or so points to the other's 40 or so points... that's 50% more points...)

St. Petersburg is tainted somewhat (for me, mostly because I find it difficult to decide if I played optimally), but it is short and has a nice upgrade/snowball effect that I enjoy. Thus, I will play it if asked.

I enjoyed 3 games, 2 of which were new, all of which had a different "flavor" from each other. That is usually more enjoyable to me than one long game. Compare it to a chocolate sampler and a large chocolate bar. I'd take the sampler most days, because I like variety. It could be taken to an extreme (play ten 6 minute games or 1 hour long one? I'd usually pick the 1 hour game.)

I prefer my longer games to be one long game per evening or a gathering planned around a single game. When I attend a day-long "game event" I tend to try to shy away from 3+ hour games. (2 to 2 1/2 is a good maximum for me, as I then rotate around and meet more people than if I played one uber-long one.)

Anonymous said...

That is usually more enjoyable to me than one long game.

Short or long doesn't matter, it's how you play it. ;-)

huzonfirst said...

One of the variants in the excellent PC version of St. Pete is that the $18 noble can't come up during the first round. I highly recommend playing this way, both electronically and face-to-face, as it removes one of the most egregious breaks in what is already a fairly high-luck game. I think it's variant #3 in the PC game.