Friday, May 11, 2007

Minimal Luck, Maximum Strategy

Last night I played only two games at our weekly Appalachian Gamers meeting, but it was a satisfying evening none the less. This was because both games were ones that I had never experienced before, and both were minimal-luck games that rewarded smart play. The games were Medina and End of the Triumvirate.

I would call Medina a tile-laying game except that the game uses wooden pieces instead of tiles. In this four-player game, players place colored building pieces on the board in the hope of constructing and claiming clusters of adjacent building pieces. Each player can only place two pieces per turn, and colored building pieces can only be placed next to pieces of the same color until after any particular group of buildings of the same color is claimed. Once a building is claimed, no more pieces of that color can be added to it.

When to claim the buildings is key. If you claim one too early, it will likely be a low scoring building. If you wait too long, then someone else will likely claim it. Because each player can only claim one building of each color, one possible strategy is to wait until all the other players have buildings of one color, and then build up your own building of that color knowing that no one else can claim it. But that strategy has its own risks; buildings that get a late start may get hemmed in by other buildings and be unable to grow.

Adding to the strategy are various victory point tiles that can be claimed. The largest building of each color generates a victory point tile for the owner of that building. And there are extra victory tiles for players who use walls to connect their buildings to the towers in the corner of the board.

I am not a big fan of tile-laying games, but Medina is an exception. It is smart, plays in about an hour or so, and is completely luckless. Medina was designed by Stefan Dorra and was published in the USA by Rio Grande Games. I believe Medina is out of print, but I will be keeping my eye out for a copy.

End of the Triumvirate was designed by Max Gabian and Johannes Ackva, and was published in the USA by Z-Man Games. This is a light wargame based on the rivalry between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in the final years of the Roman Republic. The game rewrites history a good deal, because Crassus was actually dead when the Roman Civil War heated up between Caesar and Pompey, but this is a minor quibble. The game was designed to be a smart and easy-playing contest, not a detailed history simulation.

Each turn players collect gold and legions in their various provinces. Gold is only placed in a player’s treasury if he has his leader piece in the region producing the gold. Gold in other regions is placed on the board—which means that players usually spend at least part of their movement allowance moving their leaders to pick up any spare change that happens to be resting in odd corners of the Roman empire.

Legions can only be moved with a leader piece. This limitation keeps the game simple; each turn a player only needs to figure out what to do with the four movement points that his leader is allowed. At the end of the turn, players can try to influence the politics of the empire by spending gold. Players can improve their leadership on the political and military tracks, or try to win citizens to their faction by spending money.

One game-balancing mechanism is the multiple ways of achieving victory. A player wins if he is elected Consul twice, or if he can bring his markers to the last space of the political and military competency tracks, or if he can capture nine regions and place all of his nine governors on the board. The multiple victory conditions means that one player may be leading in one area while other players are superior in others. In our game, I controlled more regions than other players for much of the game, but Ted and Travis were each elected consul once, and Travis built up the largest horde of armies. This superiority in legions eventually won Travis the game. On my last turn, I attacked Ted to knock him back on the competency tracks, but Travis then blitzed enough weakened regions to achieve military victory.

End of the Triumvirate is not entirely a luckless game, but it contains so many balancing mechanisms that luck plays a minor role. During battles, the attacker draws colored cubes from a draw bag, and each colored cube can indicate the loss of a legion for the opposing player. But when players lose a battle, they get to place a new cube in the bag, and this makes future victories in battle more likely.

End of the Triumvirate will appeal to wargamers, but it is simple and fast-playing enough to be enjoyed by Euro-gamers as well. Ted Cheatham (who owns the copy we played) is not a wargamer, but he finds the game enjoyable.

If you have the opportunity to try either Medina or End of the Triumvirate, I would advise you to do so. Both are quality games.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I also enjoyed playing both of these games. I thought Triumvirate was one of the better three player games that I have played. A lot of three player games, especially with a war game element, seem to favor the player who sits back and watches the other two go at it. This one seemed to do a good job of balancing out the actions of the players. Even if you wanted to take an action against a specific player, your personal need often resulted in your doing something entirely different. I liked it a lot (even more since I won!) and look forward to trying it again.

I also thought Medina was a very fun game. I liked it a lot better than other games with similar mechanics. Like Ted kept saying, it has a great "Chicken" element. I noticed however that you didn't mention who won this game... ;-)