Archive for the 'Game playing' Category

Essence of a wargame – V

…part V and the concluding part of a two-part series…

For the others in this series, see: Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV.

In this series I’ve been attempting to examine qualitative excellence under these headings:

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

This post draws some vague and unscientific conclusions from what’s gone before.

Excellence may be purely comparative; perhaps an ‘excellent’ game has to be outstanding or extremely good merely in comparison with other offerings. This may mean that an ‘excellent’ game under one paradigm might be only ‘good’ under another. For example, what do we think of La Grande Armee, a traditional hex-and-counter SPI game with an unmounted, minimalist board and very little chrome, compared with a new extravaganza like The Eagle and The Lion? Perhaps BoardGameGeek might supply a little help here, as it does have ratings for board games, so we can get an idea of what BGGers at least think of board wargames past and present.

A quick and dirty review of the top 100 wargames on BGG by rating gives the following frequency results by 5 year date bands (these dates being publication dates):

  • Before 1980:  5
  • 1980 – 84:  9
  • 1985 – 89:  6
  • 1990 – 94:  6
  • 1995 – 99:  4
  • 2000-04: 15
  • 2005-10: 55

As expected perhaps, the majority of the games listed were published in the last five years, but it’s noticeable that 20% are over 20 years old and 5% are even older. There are fewer from the 1990s than the 1980s, reflecting the demise of SPI and Avalon Hill presumably. Both Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader figure high up in the list, as does Britannia, even though these could be considered as more ‘old style traditional’ than exhibiting more recent design features. So we can perhaps conclude that ‘older paradigm’ wargames can stand the test of time.

I’ll now try to review the 4 headings I dreamt up, by looking across each of my three examples for any threads that seem relevant.

Convincing portrayal of topic

I think that the essence of this aspect is covered by the level of detail of the game, the quality and effectiveness of the chrome used, how the game is placed in its context, and the games’s historical or thematic authenticity. All these elements must gel together to convince the players that the topic is covered well. I don’t mean that the game has to have a lot of detail, or over-developed colourful pieces, excessive background or extraordinary adherence to historical reality. The design should cover all of these elements at an appropriate degree for the aim of the design. This will be different for a tactical game versus a strategic game, a short game versus a ‘monster’ game.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

Players should feel that they are making relevant and believable decisions within realistic restrictions. There is a game design problem here, in that there will sometimes have to be a compromise between historicity and competitive game play; for example World War I and II games tend not to reflect accurately the vast allied resource superiority, nor the political intricacies and personality clashes of the personnel involved. Most wargames are two player zero sum games, so there tend to be monolithic, single points of command (one player) and the advantages of the bird’s eye view (total or near total knowledge).  However, the game should present players with appropriate strategic or tactical decision-making points.

Victory in the game doesn’t have to equate to historical victory, and departure from the historical approach can be appropriate in the interests of game play; on the other hand, I recall the Kasserine Pass scenario in Desert Steel, which imposes historical deployments and historical victory conditions on both sides, making it extraordinarily difficult for the Germans to win (even though they did historically, which looks like a very against-the-odds result) – an important lesson perhaps that sometimes you’re given a task well beyond your means, and soldiers often have to just get on with it – and can sometimes succeed against all expectations. Finally the actions of the players should write a believable historical or thematic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Here I think the game has to encourage, not just enable, appropriate game play within period or theme. It must also simulate one or more aspects of the topic extremely well or provide exemplary flavour or both. The game play should have an appropriate tempo for the type of game and its theme. The mechanics should succeed in presenting relevant and appropriate effects during the story, for example by punishing a-historic action, rather than laying down the law, or through other subtle constraint on the players, for example through sequence of play (see Unhappy King Charles for some good examples of this practice). In some cases, games have to use proxies for some of the variables, a typical example being the use of dice for fog of war or chance in combat. For a game to achieve excellence, proxies must have been carefully chosen, so that they do not introduce unwelcome side effects. For example the cards used in Commands and Colors are a proxie for various command control issues; however, they can have the side effect of randomly crippling one side, because there is no way to remedy bad card draws.

Appropriate level of challenge

For excellence a board wargame needs to be a competitive game with a significant element of skill. How the luck to skill balance is handled is very much a matter of approach and style. I would rateNapoleon’s Triumph – no luck – very highly, but also games like Paths of Glory, where there is an element of luck in the order in which cards are drawn and also dice-based Combat Results Table. My preference is for more skill and less luck, but the balance depends on topic. For more complex games with a steep or long learning curve it is useful to provide introductory scenarios or graded challenges to help beginners. Play balance is important in the interests of fairness, though in many games, if the experience is sufficiently good then somewhat surprisingly this may not be vital.

I’ve come to the end of this rather longer than expected series. I’m still not certain of the validity of the insights here, but I think it gives an idea of my own thinking along these lines.


Dutch border, January 1814

2 April 2011 was another Saturday Frome miniatures game. This time a Napoleonic outing on the Dutch – French border (hah, Belgium doesn’t exist yet!) in January 1814. The Prussians and Russians (Pete and James) are invading mother France (Mike, Richard and myself). We appoint Mike CinC on the grounds that neither of us want the loneliness of command. Rules are 2nd edition General de Brigade (complete with the appallingly bad proof-reading errors – I hadn’t realised that this included misplaced pages and no page numbers; and yet the rules were still published and sold to customers! That publisher will not be getting my custom.)

Stephen (our umpire) gives both sides a fairly minimal briefing – at least we both have the identical difficulty there! Our objective is to push back the Allies towards their side of the board (north), or at the very least stop them advancing. Later, we learn that the Allied objective is to get forces off the southern edge of the board.

Early morning mist obscures the Allied advance, but the French can hear hooves and general movement from the north. We’re deployed well back from the halfway mark with ‘Defend’ and ‘Hold’ orders. The 2 brigades of my 2nd Div are on the left and centre (one supporting 2 batteries of artillery). The centre consists of the aforementioned artillery and a 2 battalion brigade to its right. Our right flank rests on a village and fortress (!) and consists of the 6 battalions of 1st Div plus 2 batteries in the fortress. Since our objective is to attack, we first have to change our orders. This takes 4 turns, owing to crappy command dice rolls, even though the CinC is right next to the 2 Div commander and lead Brigade commander. In my view this is a major rules problem.

By the time we get our orders changed, the mist is lifting – we can now see what we’re up against, and it’s not a pretty sight. The enemy has had time not only to deploy well forward, but to swing virtually their entire force against our left and centre, avoiding our 6 battalions and 2 batteries on the right. As we haven’t been able to change our orders, the 1st Div on the right will take much of the rest of the battle getting into position on the enemy’s left flank. It’s my 2nd Division (7 battalions including 2 of conscripts, plus 2 batteries of 8 pdrs), ostensibly our attacking force, that will have to take the brunt of the enemy attack – 14 battalions of their 18, plus 4 cavalry units (including 2 cossacks). And I have attack orders!

The lead cossacks withdraw and the first lines of enemy infantry advance into effective range of our batteries. First shot of the first battery is 1 and 1 : result is ‘low on ammo, half effect for rest of game’. What a great start! We have ammo caissons in the fortress, but that’s on the right flank and these aren’t going to help in time. The second battery gets a 6 + 6, and the enemy’s brigade commander’s horse bolts to our lines – captured!

My lead brigade has to advance a little, because it has Engage orders now. I’ve deployed in mixed order with 3 up and 1 back, supporting with 2nd brigade from the rear. Eventually the reserve brigade in the centre will get orders to support the artillery batteries (300 metres away!), but our command rolls are still terrible, and this takes far too long.

Enemy dragoons on the left flank cannot charge my leftmost battalion, owing to a useful patch of icy ground, so I anchor the left on this position. The other 3 battalions advance as slowly as possible within my order restrictions. The dragoons charge our skirmishers, who evade behind the main line, and the left battalion of conscripts (having been brought up from the brigade’s second line) manages to form square in response. It rolls to stand; another 1 + 1, which means the battalion retreats! Fortunately the dragoons haven’t got the momentum to reach them, and the rest of the first line is on ice, which prevents cavalry charges. We’re taking casualties from enemy jaeger with rifles and then fight the lead battalions of line infantry. One battalion is forced to retreat, and I manage to extricate the other one (conscripts) in column of divisions, because enemy infantry columns on the flank attack my guns and not the infantry.

Third round of battery firing, my second battery also rolls 1 + 1, so now the whole concentrated artillery brigade is firing at half effect. This does not discourage the advancing Prussians and Russians. We manage to beat off two attacks and support from the flank with a light infantry battalion of the 2nd brigade, but both batteries are overrun. The brigade supporting from the right is stopped by direct attack from 2 more enemy columns, and is also threatened by enemy cavalry to the flank. Fortunately our own cavalry manage a fairly dubious charge in column which disperses an enemy battalion column, and the enemy cavalry fails its morale roll and has to retreat.

On the left flank I manage to change the lead brigade’s orders to Move and the Div orders to Defend for the last turn of the game, while the 2nd brigade is on Assault and re-takes half of the gun position (guns already spiked though). On the right, Richard’s troops are now starting to punish the Russians and will soon threaten to outflank their artillery on a hill in the centre.

So by the end of the game the Russians are in position to get *some* troops off the table, but we’ve forced the Allies to re-think their attack and are threatening to close off this gap and to outflank their left. Stephen says that technically the French have won marginally, having done a bit better than the French on the day. It doesn’t feel like a victory to us – pretty much honours even – both sides could claim a marginal victory I think.

It was a very enjoyable game, though the French felt unduly ham-strung by crippled artillery and very poor command rolls. The Allies were affected quite a lot by having to start their light cavalry at the back of their columns (this was a historical affectation apparently), so that hampered the speed of their advance.

Essence of a wargame – IV

…part IV of a two-part series…

SPI’s La Grande Armee

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is an old hex-and-counter strategic game. It’s one of the better SPI strategic games with some good but simple mechanics for army movement (breaking large units down to divisions, then stacking and recombining for combat; d6 with possible strength point loss for forced marches), supply (separate attackable supply units and depots), and Combat Results Table combat resolution. Nowadays it’d have lots of cards and funny dice, but probably to no better effect. It gives a good feel for Napoleonic strategy, with the French having to do a heck of a lot to win – 1805, 06, 07 and 09 scenarios (from memory). Stacking and unstacking restrictions and simple combat and movement strength variations give players the opportunity to use the armies in a way that feels historical. High score in this department, despite its lack of modern colour.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

French divisions – in game and in history – could march long and fast, then combine to form very powerful stacks modified positively by the French marshals, so sweeping Napoleonic manoeuvres were definitely not only possible in both, but also necessary for the French to achieve their decisive victories. For the Austrians, Russians and Prussians there are the strategic choices about whether to rush reserves up to support relatively weak forward forces or to march more circumspectly but risk being beaten in detail. Playing the French with caution or the Prussians with elan can be punished.

Victory conditions are carefully worked out to reflect the undoubted power of the French and the weakness of its ancien regime opponents. For example the Prussians don’t have to hold a lot to win the 1806 campaign! You could win the game, even if to all intents and purposes you lost the campaign, as long as you don’t lose too badly. And making good use of the excellent Prussian cavalry could potentially save you – something the Prussians historically were unable to do.

The game system encourages the telling of the historic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

I think that the simple design captures the essence of the topic well. A more modern game might have added more chrome (or heaven forbid, a tactical sub-system), but this game demonstrates the relatively straightforward strategic choices available, and allows players to concentrate on the more complex planning and implementation. For example, depots produce a supply unit every turn, so you can arrange a string of such units to supply your armies in position or in response to a slow advance. Concentrated armies need more supplies, dispersed ones can live off the land to an extent (dice rolling for potential losses). However, a rapid or forced march will outstrip the movement of the supply units, so you have to make alternative arrangements, perhaps using up supplies to force march other supply units, altering supply routes, creating new depots (a slow process), or just fighting less powerfully with less supplies (a battle generally consumes a supply unit, or you fight with less strength). This simple mechanical sub-system covers:

  • Basic logistics of static armies
  • The problem of supplying rapidly moving forces
  • How to ensure that armies engaged in combat are supplied
  • The extra logistical problems of switching the direction of attack
  • Supply problems caused by divergent lines of attack
  • The importance of defending lines of supply and vulnerable depots

As I recall, the game is significantly weaker in terms of command control rules, but in general the mechanics are an excellent fit.

Appropriate level of challenge

As I’ve mentioned, the victory conditions are set so that the French don’t merely have to win, but have to win each campaign decisively to win the game. This gives the players an appropriate level of challenge. It means that if you win a decisive tactical victory, but in the wrong place or at the wrong time, then you could still lose the game – it is the strategic situation that determines the outcome. Experienced players would develop delaying tactics for the weaker Austrian and Prussian forces, limiting French forced marches through astute use of cavalry, and perhaps sending outlying forces on wide flanking manoeuvres to threaten supplies. Keeping large armies in fortresses might be an appropriate method (fortresses have their own supplies), but you also need to know the victory conditions – besieged fortresses are automatically taken at the end of the scenario, yielding only half the victory points for the city, so the Austrians or Prussians might be able to win by only losing to a siege, rather than battling in the open field.

Having played many games of La Grande Armee I would say that it provides a good level of challenge.

Next: some conclusions?,

Commands & Colours: Ancients – a few random thoughts about luck in games

I played this game a few times a while back – I believe in an online competition – and I didn’t much like it. There seemed far too much luck in it to make it a viable tactical game.

I’ve returned to it recently (online again on Vassal) as a break from playing more complex games like Paths of Glory and Through The Ages, and this experience has clarified why I don’t like it. Normally I wouldn’t post negative comments, but I think this one sheds light on why I got into game design in the first place, many moons ago.

CC:A’s rules explain the purpose behind the game:

“The Commands & Colors: Ancients game system allows players to effectively portray epic engagements of ancient history. The battles, showcased in the scenario section, focus on the historical deployment of forces and important terrain features on the scale of the game system…The Command card system drives movement, creates ‘fog of war’, and presents players with many interesting challenges and opportunities, while the battle dice resolve combat quickly and efficiently. The battlefield tactics you will need to execute to gain victory conform remarkably well to the strengths and limitations of the various ancient unit types, their weapons, the terrain, and history.”

That’s quite a series of claims in my view and may be purely marketing speak, so I’m not intending to critique the game on simulation grounds. However, the central tenet portrays CC:A as a tactical system in which you can make effective tactical decisions in a historical setting. In fact, the game system contains two major features in which luck plays an overriding role. One is the fog-of-war-creating command card system, and the other is the battle dice system.

My view of the command card system in CC:A is that the luck factor overwhelms the decisions that players must make for the management of a tactical engagement. Typically the cards restrict your tactical options as a poor proxy for ‘fog of war’. In fact, the cards can easily result in a complete inability to execute a perfectly plausible battle plan; for example I have played as Hannibal at Lake Trasimene and had no cards that allowed me to move the troops that were deployed to ambush the Romans until the very last turn of the game, in my view a perverse result. As you draw cards through the game, your best laid plans can come unstuck through simply failing to draw cards that support your battle plan or indeed any coherent battle plan at all. This means that the game degenerates into attempting to pick off any enemy units that happen to be vulnerable, while hoping that your’s aren’t so picked off, and occasionally carrying out simple combos to maximise the effectiveness of a power card, like Line Command or Darken the Skies.

I’ve always held to a basic tenet of game design that luck as a major factor must be deployed carefully, and a game system should preferably have not more than one major mechanic that is luck-based. In CC:A there’s the luck of the card drawing and also the luck of the battle dice. Troop types are differentiated by the battle dice they use (and also by movement), but with 6-sided dice, you’re basically at the mercy of the 1 in 6 limit – you cannot have a hit chance of less than 1 in 6. This means that poor troops can occasionally (note: occasionally, not rarely) be miraculously effective, and elite troops can occasionally be totally screwed. The variability of results in buckets of 6-sided dice are such that this can overwhelm your tactical planning.

Why have I brought this up? When I started gaming way back the late ’60s, pretty much all the games that I came into contact with relied on dice or random card draws for luck, and there were few well-developed game mechanisms compared to the current gaming scene, both wargames and board games. During the early ’70s when I was a relatively intelligent teenager, I was frustrated by this reliance on luck and worked on a few ideas of my own for injecting more skill and possibly a bit more historical realism into gaming, particularly wargaming, developing my own wargames rules and the occasional simple board game. Then, like many other gamers, I discovered SPI and some early published wargame rule sets, and quickly learned that there was more to gaming than rolling a bunch of dice and drawing from a common card pool; other mechanisms could be created.

Which brings me back to CC:A. I have the same frustrations with this game system that I had with the old systems of the ’60s and early ’70s. An over-reliance on luck and a game system that only pretends to provide the players with historical tactical choices, or indeed any real tactical choices at all. It has the merit of being a short game, so it’s over quickly. But this type of game is not what it’s dressed up to be. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why myself and a bunch of colleagues are working on a 21st century rule set based on the old 1973 Wargames Research Group WW2 rules, and why I keep returning to board wargame design.

Stabcon weekend

Managed to play the following games, unless I’ve missed a few:

  • Totemo
  • Dominant Species
  • 7 Wonders several times
  • Dixit
  • Vasco da Gama
  • Antics
  • Adventurers
  • CatASTROphe
  • Workshop of the World
  • Braggart

Thanks to Hammy and all the organisers for an excellent weekend.

Dominant Species

4-player game with 2 newbie players, plus Charlie and myself who’ve played it once complete 2-player.  When teaching D’Species I use the teaching script from BGG, which works well I think.  Maybe this is something that should be developed for all new complex games; noting that Richard Breese did this very effectively on the Geek for Key Market.  The game took 5 hours including explanation and will be quicker with players who know it.  I like this game a lot (and not just because I spent a lot of money on it!).  I’ve only started to scratch the surface of strategies – for example, my birds retreated to a Tundra and beyond domination strategy, owing to the ability to migrate to regions others couldn’t reach – and there are some excellent possibilities for tactical play, because of the large number of actions and action combinations that are available.  I believe it will be important to get out of the micro-management mindset and into strategic thinking for this game.

Seven Wonders

This has turned into the filler or short game of choice.  It’s particularly strong for this because it is very accessible, predictable in duration and can run with 3 to 7 with equal satisfaction (and has a 2-player variant I’ve not yet played).  In addition it’s not too demanding and seems not to permit the ‘expert’ player to dominate overly.


We played Dixit a couple of times, then loaned it out for almost the whole weekend.  Possibly the most accessible and fun game for some while, and it appeals to a wide audience, including both casual and serious gamers.  The influence of the artwork alone in Dixit cannot be underestimated.

Vasco da Gama

We had a learning game of this with Paul and Hammy.  The initiative system is the core, and in my view it’s genius; I may have to nick that mechanism.  Hammy compared VdG to Caylus, and where I can see the similarities, I’d have to say I much prefer VdG, especially for its strategic aspects, which are absent from the older game.


90 minutes on the box, rather longer in real life for our first game!  Antics is much heavier than it looks, owing to the planning element.  I’d have to say, this was less fun and more serious than expected.  I’d want to play it with experienced and quick players I feel.  Please please, never ever write rules with puns and other non-essential stuff integrated into the body of the rules; it doesn’t help clarity or conciseness, and the joke wears off pretty much immediately.


Indiana Jones pure and simple.  Very well executed ‘temple robbing’ archaeology game, this was great fun for the start of Saturday morning; so much so that we played it twice.  There was some satisfaction from the other players in seeing Geoff’s character, loaded down with a winning amount of treasure and running for the exit, only to be crushed by the massive boulder because he failed to get a 1 or a 2 in the final 5-dice boulder movement roll!  Recommended.


A play test of one of SSG’s newest designs, still very much a work in progress.  More later on this.

Workshop of the World

Ragnar Brothers version of Brass / Age of Industry.  Not sure what I think of this one; more thought required.  I enjoyed it, but I’ll have to work out a comparison with other similar fare.


A brilliant filler, not to be taken seriously!  Recommended.  And Vic did the artwork!

Games weekend – 3-5 December 2010

First weekend of December is our regular post-Essen Games Weekend, when we get to play that large pile of games acquired at Spiel with as many of our friends as we can fit in the house.  I’m never sure of the numbers, but it’s usually around 30 people at one time or another from Friday evening to Sunday evening.  Unfortunately by the time I get to write up a blog post, it’s all getting to be a bit of a blur, owing to lack of sleep (not to mention excess of food and drink).  This time’s been no different.

I can only write from a personal perspective, so if I’ve missed out some of the significant events, many apologies, I’ve either forgotten them, or wasn’t a participant.  I’m also missing out any personal commentary on individuals to protect the guilty (except me) and indeed the innocent.

We had the best turnout on Friday evening that we’ve ever had.  Despite weather warnings, somewhat ameliorated by our emailed comment that there was little snow in Stroud (a situation that changed overnight), 9 or 10 people made it to Forest Green on Friday.  We decided to leave the meatier games till Saturday, so contented ourselves with 7 Wonders and Braggart mainly.  7 Wonders was almost never back in its box for the whole weekend, so gains the award for ‘Most Popular Game Of The Weekend’.

I managed to persuade an unsuspecting victim (sorry Bart) to play test Quatre Bras, my version of the battle of that name using Martin Wallace’s Waterloo system.  I reckon it went pretty well, though it was a bit longer than expected, owing to the unreasonable resistance of the Allies to the inexorable advance of the French – who advanced inexorably till about the 6pm game turn, then found the last mile a bit too difficult, ending up retreating in a more or less historical outcome; it’s always good if such a game can end with a believable result.  As Bart is Dutch, I’d have to say that the Dutch fought well, except for the Dutch cavalry, who were historically accurate.  Only one small tweak was necessary as a result of the play test, and I now feel it’s finished, subject to a few more games.  “Best Unpublished Wargame Of The Weekend”.

On Saturday we (well, I really) planned to play one or both of the major lengthy games purchased at Essen, High Frontier and Dominant Species.  However, prior to the arrival of all those who wanted to partake of those delights, we had time for a quick outbreak of cockney accents, in the playing of London, another Martin Wallace game.  Two of us had played before and the other two hadn’t, so it was something of a learning game – though when one of the newbies is Richard Breese, it’s going to be a challenge anyway.  I started off by expanding my city stacks to 7, which I didn’t think was excessive, except that everyone else retrenched to about 5, so the poor flocked to my bit of London, mostly south of the river.  We failed to invest in Street Lights or Sewers, so by the end of the game my poverty level cost me 30 points.  Despite 2 Undergrounds, the train system south of London and various high profile buildings, I was third out of four players in VPs, unable to overcome the overcrowding.  An enjoyable game, though there was some criticism of the rather anti-climactic end game, which lacks the pace of the rest of the game.  London was played another couple of times, so London probably takes the “Most Popular Board Game Of The Weekend”.

High Frontier: finally it hit the table in a 5-player extravaganza of high tech science and engineering.  The game that *is* rocket science!  In space no-one can hear you say “WTF?!?”  Personally the game was everything I thought it was going to be: complicated, complex, unforgiving, dense, deep and supremely challenging.  It was also very frustrating, that aspect partly generated by my hostly duties that ate into my thinking time (getting my excuses in early!) – next outing will have to be a pre-planned and dedicated HF time.  We played the basic (sic) game with the quick (sic) start rules that mean you start with 3 cards in your ‘where you put your hand of cards area’ [this is a game where your cards in hand have to be displayed next to your play mat not in kept in hand, where you burn water for fuel, where you can use water tanks to upload software upgrades and where only the Chinese can do nefarious actions].  I’m not going to attempt a rules explanation or review here; see for my review on BGG.  Suffice it to say that there seemed to be considerable range in the speed with which players picked up the game, and I wasn’t at the top of the range.  My initial operations were to claim some areas away from the competition, but unfortunately that meant that my areas were time consuming to get to, whereas perhaps the more popular Martian landscape might have been easier.  By the end of the game I think we’d all created at least one factory and its product, so as a learning game we’d achieved the objective of getting our heads around the basics.  Rules were consulted many times, as expected, but things will go much more smoothly in the second game.  Won’t they?

Apparently not for me, because we had a second go early on Sunday, and I made a pig’s ear out of a mission to Mercury, then a further part of a pig out of a plan to go to Venus.  Bart seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly though.  High Frontier’s definitely “Most Unforgiving Game Of The Decade”.

But I’m slightly ahead of myself.  Saturday evening, after a memorable pork roast (thanks, Charlie), four of us unpacked Merkator, Uwe Rosenberg’s latest offering and another one on my must play list this weekend.  It’s a lot shorter and, I feel, more accessible than either Agricola or Le Havre.  The game revolves around picking up goods and fulfilling contracts at various European locations from the perspective of Hamburg merchants during the period of the 30 Years War.  I’m not sure why the game has a 30 Years War theme, because it doesn’t really impact on the game at all, other than that the final card in the game is the Peace of Westphalia (and quite why that’s a contract card is a mystery). I guess the theme has been pasted on over the top of a pretty good game system – the game works, so I’m not unhappy.  Goods are coloured cubes (there’s novelty), but each colour represents one of two kinds, determined when received.  Most contracts require specific goods, or for the more expensive ones, a number of goods from a group of types, for example ‘4 types of food’, which could be satisfied by wine, livestock, grain and plums.  Play Merkator and see the world – well, a bit of Europe anyway; travel is the central mechanic.  You gain or lose time counters depending on the location you choose to go to, broadly the further away from Hamburg the more difficult.  Importantly any other player can pay you time counters in order to accompany you on your journey, and though only the active player can pick up the stock of goods there, accompanying players can still gain bonuses and fulfil contracts.  This little mechanic can give you almost another whole turn for relatively little cost, if your opponent is going to a location that’s key for you.  The pace of the game is steady, with thinking time taking place primarily in other player’s turns.  Progression is via the neat mechanic that rewards players who fulfil contracts with a further contract of the next level up.  So you can progress from the starting contracts with values of 2 to 5, through 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, all of which have more difficult conditions but gain you more VPs.  The final contract is the Peace of Westphalia (14 points), awarded to the first player to fulfil a 10 value contract.  VPs are gained from the value of your best 5 contracts, the others being only half their value, with additions from special buildings that give VPs for specific conditions.  I enjoyed the game a lot; recommended for those who like solid and interesting resource management Eurogames.

Final game late on Saturday was Der Ausreisser, which was fun as always.  “Most Fun Game With Counters.”

Sunday, after a disastrous replay of High Frontier, three of us took up the Dominant Species challenge.  Another biggie, possibly the biggest heft factor since Die Macher.  Each player, for example, gets 50 cubes representing the species in his or her group of animals (ours were Mammals, Reptiles and Birds), plus 6 action pawns, quite a few cones to mark domination, and there are innumerable tiles, markers and cards, plus a very large and well-designed board.  I would put the complexity at roughly the same as Die Macher, but the subject matter (Darwinian survival of the fittest before the onset of an Ice Age) more accessible.  There are lots of pros to DS; firstly it has the best laid out and best written rules I’ve seen.  We occasionally had to look things up, but I don’t recall us having any actual problems with rules interpretation.  Most of the information is on well laid out player mats, or on a clear top left to bottom right action placement and action sequence section of the board.  This is another pro, and is where the complexity arises, because the actions interlock and affect in various ways how your animals survive and prosper.  Illustrating this:

  • I want to Adapt, because my creatures will match environmental elements (bugs, sun, carrion, seeds, water for example) better, and can then dominate terrain tiles.
  • I want Abundance, because I can put more of the relevant environmental elements on the board and then dominate more terrain tiles.
  • I want to be in charge of Glaciation, so that I put the advancing tundra tiles (the Ice Age remember?) where I choose, so that my domination of terrain tiles isn’t threatened.
  • I want to do the Wanderlust action, because I can put new terrain tiles down, so my creatures can expand into and dominate them.
  • I want to Migrate, so that I can move my creatures to more suitable terrain tiles and away from the advancing tundra.
  • I want to Speciate, because that means I put more cubes on the board; a cube equals another species, more cubes means I get points if the tile scores.
  • I want to Compete and eliminate species of the other players, so that I can dominate terrain tiles.
  • But most of all I want to Dominate, so I can score terrain tiles that I’ve got most cubes on and that I also dominate.  Then I get VPs, and I can play one of the very powerful Dominant Species cards, one of the five visible cards who’s effects I’ve been drooling about since the start of the turn.

That’s not all of the actions I could carry out, but most of them.  And I’ve only got 6 action pawns in the 3-player game.  So I’ll have to make difficult life and death choices; each of my cubes is a whole species, and some are going down to extinction, never to return (except of course through play of a Dominant Species card).  Scoring varies dependent on the terrain tile, with the player having most cubes getting most points, BUT the player with the best adapted (dominant) species picks a Dominant Species card to play; domination can come with as few as one cube.

We played about half a game, then decided to call it, as it was getting late in the day.  I think we’d all cottoned on to the flow of the mechanics, though not yet to actual strategies.  I felt I had enough to work with, I could see how the game fitted together and would welcome many more plays to see how the strategies themselves evolved.  I think the other two players were perhaps less clear about how the mechanics meshed, but would certainly play again.  From my point of view, a good experience and starting point on what I hope will be a longer journey of Dominant Species enjoyment.  “Heaviest Heft Of The Weekend”.

Our final game was with Pete Burley and son, Fred, a play test of Pete’s new game Space Hockey, an abstract two player football-like game, set in space.  As this was a play test, I’ll probably write more on it another time.  Suffice to say, it worked extremely well, I liked it a lot, and I’m looking forward to playing again.

In conclusion I had a great time over the whole weekend, and it certainly looked as if everyone else did too.  My thanks go out to all who made it through the ice and snow to make it such an enjoyable gaming experience.

Roll Through The Ages Yucata Tournie

I only decided to do this because it’s a nice quick game! However, Spiel des Jahres nominee, very accessible game and creditable online implementation has led to very large demand. Over 500 gamers had registered an interest in this online tournament several days prior to the advertised closing date. So it’s all kicked off early with yours truly as one of the many. And a few more games than expected. Lesson: read the tournie rules before signing up.

Ah well. I’ve won the first of 7 games.