Game day after a long hiatus
by Susan Rozmiarek
June 12, 2011

Having recently and successfully launched our elder son into society (egads, I feel old) we are all of a sudden finding ourselves in the bewildering, unheard of position of having free weekends (as in, no soccer games). So, we've kickstarted our gaming hobby again and hosted the first of what we hope are regular, monthly game days. A total of 19 people showed up, burying us in awesome food and causing a panicked scramble to scrounge up enough chairs.

Mansions of Madness SPOILER ALERT

So what would YOU do if your car broke down in the woods and you and your fellow passengers went to the nearest creepy mansion for help and there you met a crazed guy who told you "whatever you do, DON'T open the freezer"? Why, make a beeline to the freezer and open it, of course! Duh. And immediately get sucked into a frozen wasteland to lose the game as a result. Bummer. But before I managed that, I accepted the kind gift of a sledgehammer found by my companion, a NUN, who was too weak to wield it as a weapon. Almost immediately, I fell under a dark charm and smashed her with it, breaking her leg (I think I'm going Hell for that) I almost got what I deserved a turn or two later when a picture flew off the wall to attack me, but I was able to jump out of the way and continue on my way to the room with that cursed freezer and my doom. Oh well - still a fun game despite how short it was this time. I wonder if anyone will ever let me play it with them again?

7 Wonders

First playing for me and I loved it - loved the card drafting, loved the different paths to victory, loved the short playing time, just loved it period. I am itching to play it again. Ed (my S.O.) has managed to play it something like five times already at work and I am extremely jealous.

Letters From Whitechapel

This is another variation of Scotland Yard but now hunting down Jack the Ripper. Is was pretty fun and challenging, but my favorite of this sort of game is still Fury of Dracula.

Ticket to Ride

Yes, I still play this game. Yes, I still like it a lot. In fact, I just picked up the Alvin and Dexter expansion so I hope to play it again soon so I can try that. And the two boardgaming newbies at the table loved it. As usual.

Time's Up! Title Recall

I almost split a side from laughing so much. Waaay better for me than the original Time's Up because I am much better with titles than people's names. You can still think of clues even if it's a title you don't know. People's names though, usually not. Unless the name is Beaver (don't ask).

Fun day, as usual. I can't believe it's been so long since we've done one of these.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 9:18 PM | Comments (1)

Wiled Gaming in San Antonio
by Susan Rozmiarek
May 29, 2010

If you frequent the Chit Chat forum at Geekdo (BGG), you must know Amy and Jeff Wiles as they are very active there. Myself, I'm a lurker, but Ed practically lived on the forum during his year of unemployment. I love having lots of "virtual" friends, but I love it even more if I get a chance to meet them in person and put faces to names and avatars. So, we were really looking forward to driving down to Jeff and Amy's house for a day of gaming and a chance to meet a few other Chit Chatters as well as play with a few of our favorite locals also making the drive.

We note the secret mark on the door. This must be the place.

My only reservation was the feeling that most of the people attending were hardcore Eurogamers at a time when my tastes definitely tend toward the Ameritrashy side of the fence. Given that a lot of the reason I was there was for the company, I shrugged off the feeling and tried not to flinch when I sat down for my first game of the day- Factory Manager. Brian Bankler, of The Tao of Gaming fame, taught us this game of factory management and I was pleasantly surprised. It's an economic game where you are trying to balance several things as you build as an efficient factory as you can so that you have the most money at the end of the game. It wasn't trailblazing by any means, but it was pleasant enough to play although not enough for me to want my own copy. It reminds me a little of both Industrial Waste (only partly because of the theme) and Vegas Showdown (in the way your income each round is determined).

Brian, Susan and Mike watch Amy watch her factory board.

Next up for me was Innovation, a little card game by the same guy who designed Glory to Rome, which I love. Jeff Jones has been playing it so much that it caught my attention and he brought his copy, which is apparently some pre-publication version that was very limited; the game isn't out yet. I'm way too lazy to describe the game when Brian has already done a superb job of it here. It intrigued me enough to want to play it again, but I'm not sure what my final verdict will be. The game has vicious "take that" actions and chaotic wild swings, neither of which I necessarily mind but sometimes do when the latter is due to the former. I like all the unique actions to try to use in clever ways, but agree that it is difficult to quickly and easily assess the ones available to each player in their tableau of cards on the table. The difficulty in planning ahead doesn't bother me so much as I usually like games that involve reacting to constant changes more than those that require planning a long-term strategy and executing it.

Why am I grinning like that? It's because I'm about to steal most of the cards in Jeff's score pile with my pirate. He was not amused.

Woot! The Adventurers was the next game, a fun push-your-luck Indiana Jones romp to collect treasures and avoid the traps and hazards. We all managed to avoid getting crushed like bugs between the moving walls and successfully tiptoed around the traps of the Lava Room, but then Joey met his end by being swept down the waterfall, and Ed got crushed by the boulder when he was two steps from the exit. My delay from trying to get a treasure in a wall alcove, unsuccessfully I might add, almost sentenced me to the same fate, but I was able to make it out to claim second place behind Tiffany "Toggy" Jones.

The Lava Room is full of traps, including giant hands that drop from above.

To end our day of gaming, we chose a quick game as we needed to hit the road soon. Tiffany taught us Cornerstone, yet another one of those spatial, dexterity, building games. You roll dice to determine which type of piece you have to place and after placing it, you can move your meeple, the goal being to have the highest placed meeple at the end of the game. The game ends when the structure or part of it falls and, of course, the player who causes its demise automatically loses. That would usually be me. The placement and meeple moving rules are simple but hard to execute if you have my shaky hands and (lack of) spatial skills. Of course, Ed excels at and adores this sort of game and wanted his own copy immediately after the rules explanation. My gentle reminder of the fact that we already own Aztec, Rumis, Pueblo and few others that I'm sure I've forgotten fell on very deaf ears.

Where the h*ll do I place this?!?

It was fun to meet everyone but I'm sad that the Wiles are moving soon to Georgia. Hopefully, we'll at least see them somewhere like BGG.con. We definitely need to hook up more often with the other San Antonio gamers. It's not *that* far.

Check out more pictures here.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 8:48 PM | Comments (1)

Goa head and wake me when it's over
by Susan Rozmiarek
March 11, 2010

Last night I played Goa and was so bored by about the second turn that I was fiddling with my phone and checking Facebook updates. Not a good sign. The irony of it was that I was the one who suggested the game. There were murmurings of playing Caylus (which I loathe) and I panicked and tried to divert them to another heavy eurogame that I vaguely remember sorta liking about 6 years ago when I played it once or twice. Okay, so I've changed. A lot. This two-and-a-half hour exercise in tedium drove home a few points for me:

1. I just don't like auctions much, particularly when they are the driving mechanism in the game. In Goa, it's about acquiring that all important tile in the first half of the round, with a frustrating limit on what is available and a vicious auction that further frustrates me trying to predict what others will bid. Because, in a once-around auction, if you blow it, you don't get another chance to raise your bid. Some people love this sort of thing. I don't, and I need to stop trying. The decisions in the second half of a round, the player actions part, just don't seem as interesting and were kind of obvious to me depending on if and what tile I was able to snag in the auction. I never felt like I was doing something clever. Note: perhaps this is why I lost badly, LOL. I did have some terrible luck flipping those pilgrim cards which was annoying, but for me, that part was actually the most excitement I felt the entire game, which isn't saying much.

2. If a game is going to keep my attention for several hours, it has got to have some sort of coherent theme that makes me feel like that I'm doing more than pushing a few wooden bits around. I also need some "wow" moments whether they come in the form of an incredibly lucky dice roll (hitting a curve just right in Formula De when the odds are shaky) or pulling off a big clever move that I've been setting up for a few turns (shipping a bunch of cotton in Brass, flipping several of my tiles). Goa has neither a real theme nor any really exciting moments for me. It's just dull, dull, dull.

Notice that my examples above are Formula De and Brass. I'm having a great time playing Brass online and I played a face-to-face game last week which was equally enjoyable. The mechanisms in Brass really fit the theme well. Formula De was the week before and while race games aren't usually a favorite of mine, we played a two-lap race which was the perfect length and it was definitely not boring.

The other table last night was playing Age of Steam with a moon expansion. Age of Steam is another game I loathe despite my admiration for the design, because once again, the auctions are such a vital and central part of the game. At least the rest of the game involves many interesting decisions, unlike Goa. I have tried Steam once though, and found it to be much more palatable.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 12:19 PM | Comments (2)

It's been Ages
by Susan Rozmiarek
January 22, 2010

Soccer practice started this week and it was my turn to take Kevin, so I missed our weekly gaming group. However, last week I was able to go and miraculously got to play an "older" game - Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, while the hardcore Cult of the New members (I used to be one) struggled through some new game called Carson City at the other table.

AoE III shares the honor of being my favorite worker placement game along with Pillars of the Earth. With both games, I feel the theme as I play, and both have just the right amount of luck to still allow me to pursue a strategy while retaining some uncertainty for excitement. It's been a while since I've played, but AoE III hasn't lost its shine one bit. There are several different strategies you can choose, mainly driven by which capital building you are able to get. I got the Monastery in Age I, giving me a free missionary each turn. I then scored the Cathedral in the second Age, which gave my missionaries an extra colonist when they arrived in the New World. This not only made it easier to get lots of colonists in the New world, but it also made it easier to be the first with three in a newly discovered region to grab the trade good there. By also placing in the Trade Good and Merchant Shipping event boxes whenever I could, I had a pretty nice income stream throughout the game. I mostly ignored discoveries. In the last Age, I was able to get Glory, giving me 2 VP for every region in which I had colonists, dovetailing nicely into the strategy I had been pursuing. Unfortunately, I had to settle for second place as I wasn't able to come close to the warmongering Mike Chapel. He went for having majorities in the colonies from the get go, and had a demanding lead from the scoring at the end of Age I and II.

Electronic gaming

As I whined earlier, I missed my regular gaming night this past week. While Ed was off playing fun stuff like Snow Tails and Ghost Stories, I was sitting in my dark car next to a soccer field in the next town over watching a sadistic coach torture my son. This was not as dull as it could have been, because of the nifty toy that Ed gave me for my birthday last year - an iTouch. This little technological miracle is my new obsession and I've been ferreting out the best games for it to amuse myself in such situations. Thanks to help from an app called Appminer that lets me know what apps are on sale, I now have a vast collection of games loaded onto it, many of which I got for free or a buck. My current favorite is Sword of Fargoal, styled after old school games like Rogue. It's a dungeon crawl in which your hero is searching for a sword, fighting monsters, finding items, and leveling up as he progresses deeper into the dungeon. The only irritating thing is that while it saves your game so that you don't have to finish in one sitting, it does not allow you to save your game so that if your character gets toasted by dragon or bashed by a troll, you can restart it from right before your death. Apparently, those games of old did this so that people wouldn't blow through them too quickly. I found out the hard way after getting my character all the way to level 12 and then getting a little reckless. Anyway, I'm on my third game of it and still haven't found that dang sword.

I bought but haven't tried Reiner Knizia's Money. It just went on sale in the app store. This card game has always been a favorite of mine. Shannon Appelcline, who writes excellent board game reviews, created this iPhone version. He talks about it here.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 7:42 PM | Comments (1)

A New Year (thank goodness)
by Susan Rozmiarek
January 16, 2010

Well, I can't let Ed take over this blog completely with his Descent reports, so I better get with it and post something.

My blogging dropped off significantly this past year. Frankly, it's been a pretty bad year, both personally and for gaming. Ed, the primary breadwinner of our household, spent almost the whole year unemployed. Not only did this take a huge bite out of our game buying budget, but it also meant that we weren't able to attend the gaming conventions that we normally do. We also spent much of the year unable to attend our regular gaming nights due to our son's soccer practice and game schedule (he doesn't drive yet but should have his license by this summer). So, there hasn't been much gaming to even talk about. We are very behind on this past year's new releases although given the constant parade of new ones, I don't really mind. Also taking a bite out of blogging time is my job at my local library. It was very part-time at the start of 2009 and then went full-time for a few months that practically killed me. It is now a more manageable 20 hrs./week. Another reason my time has been limited will probably earn me a lot of flack - I'm a full blown World of Warcraft addict. I play online with a bunch of Gulf Gamers and we have a lot of fun. We use Skype and it's almost like playing with them in person. I really enjoy it but OMG, is it ever a time sink. It's not nicknamed World of Warcrack for nothing! Finally, working in a library has gotten me back into reading more than ever. I've always been a huge reader but had slowed down in the past few years. Working in a building full of books and having to keep up with the latest literature (using that term loosely given some of the popular fiction published) has renewed my interest. Oh, and I've also gotten back into another old love, gardening, although since it seems so difficult to grow anything but weeds and cactus here, we'll see how long I stick with it.

So, given how diverse my current activities and interests are, I will probably start adding a few other topics to my blog posts, as well as just general, personal posts. My poor family and non-gaming friends occasionally visit here and often have no clue what I'm talking about. I suppose I could just use a separate blog (there is another one on this site) but I'm going to try mixing it up for a change. Yes, I do want to start back to blogging more often! My primary focus will still probably remain on gaming. The blog is titled The Game Ranch, after all. You might also notice that my writing style is more informal at times. Alas, I think Facebook and Twitter have ruined me.

To start the year off, here's a post from October that never made it up:

October could have been a pretty sparse month for gaming. A welcome shot in the arm came from our Fresno friend Mark Jackson, who blew in for a quick visit. Games that hit the table:

Arkham Horror: Yay! My current favorite! Mark had never played this so we gave the base game a whirl. It was an uphill battle with lots of mayhem and terror from monster surges, but in the end we saved Arkham by defeating Hastur.

Journey to the Center of the Earth: This was probably my last playing of this game. Very "meh" and just doesn't deliver any of the excitement that the theme suggests. I was happy to play it one more time, though, to cement my feelings before reviewing it.

Gangster: On the other hand, each time this one comes out I have to wonder how this little gem has managed to slip by most people and not get the attention it deserves. It's a great lightweight area majority game with a little bit of "take that", some luck to provide a few surprises, and enough strategy to keep me engaged.

Zahltag: Mark brought this fluffy card game of managing a hand of workers and bidding for city contracts. Although we have loads of other card games that fit in this niche, I really liked Zahltag and would pick up a copy if I had the chance.

We had a great time visiting with Mark and wish we could get together more often. BTW, Mark often writes about games on his most excellent blog.

Playing Journey to the Center of the Earth with Ed and Mark

The exclamation point to end October and the perfect way to spend Halloween afternoon was a monster game of Arkham Horror - eight players (nine actually, with two sharing a character) and every expansion. That's right - ALL of them, big and small. It was quite the experience although I think that I'd rather just play the expansions one or two at a time in order to fully absorb the flavor that each brings to the game. But, given that Arkham Horror is currently my favorite game, I had to try this at least once.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 3:53 PM | Comments (3)

Descent Campaign 2 - Session 5
by Ed Rozmiarek
January 15, 2010

So, way back in the Dark Ages of 2009, I was reporting the progress of our second Descent: Road to Legend campaign. I seem to have "forgotten" to update the blog with our progress. Yeah, that seems like a good excuse. Anyway, I have actually posted the session reports over in the Road to Legend forums on BoardgameGeek, but if you don't follow those, you may not have seen them. You may be wondering about the adventures of our heroes, Nanok of the Blade, Landrec the Wise, Verikas the Dead and Grey Ker, as they struggle to stop the evil Sorcerer King from blotting out the sun and bringing on the Endless Night. Well wonder no more as you can now travel back with us to early 2009 and relive their exciting adventures. I'll try to catch the blog up over the next week or so as we have played ten sessions in our campaign and hopefully will play number 11 in a week or so.

Previous session reports:
Session 1 / Session 2 / Session 3 / Session 4

Avatar: Sorcerer King
Conquest: 54 total / 9 unspent
Upgrades: Snipers, Silver Eldritch, Sir Alric Farrow, Lord Merick Farrow, 1 Event Treachery

Conquest: 36
Money: 400
Upgrades: Bazaar, Enchanted Boat
Nanok of the Blade: 0 XP. 2 additional black power dice, Taunt, Axe, Ring of Protection
Varikas the Dead: 10 XP. 1 silver melee power die upgrade, Leadership, Plate Mail, Iron Shield, Sword, Leviathan
Landrec the Wise: 30 XP. Quick Casting, Ghost Armor, Elven Robe, Immolation, Gauntlets of Power, Staff of the Grave
Grey Ker: 10 XP. 1 silver range power die upgrade, Eagle Eye, Great Bow, Crossbow, Iron Shield

A quick summary: The heroes have recently trained and have camped just outside the Red Echo River dungeon. The overlord has recently buffed up as well with the Silver Eldritch upgrade and a point of event treachery. We pick up our action as the heroes start the dungeon.

(Note: We were missing the player who controls Landrec this week due to a last minute schedule conflict. Landrec was played by the same person that is playing Varikas.)

I'm adopting the format started by PaulGrogan on Boardgamegeek:
Overlord CP gain shown in []
Hero CP gain shown in ()

Week 13:
Red Echo River Level 1: 8 - The Warrens
Since we drew this level at the end of the last session, I was able to think about it before playing today. Being that I just upgraded to silver Eldritch I thought I would be able to do well with the duel sorcerer level leaders. Their special power was that the weaker one healed back up to the same wounds as the stronger one, even if the weaker one had died. That meant that the heroes needed to kill both on the same turn. I figured if I split the sorcerers up it would be much harder for the party to kill them at the same time. And I was right.

Don't split the party
The heroes split up to
take on the sorcerers
I went with the starting minions of 2 beastmen and a golem. The golem was now silver and came with 16 wounds and 6 armor, a decent meat shield for one sorcerer, Onyx. The other sorcerer, Ebon, would be go on the offensive since he took take as much damage as the heroes could dish out as long as I protected the other one.

The heroes realized that they needed to split up to go after the two sorcerers so they sprinted down the entry hall and split up. This left Grey Ker exposed just enough so that Ebon could move up and fire from around the corner. This reminded the heroes why they disliked silver Eldritch as Ebon ripped into Grey Ker for 11 damage. After one of the beastmen got his claws on Grey Ker, he was at less than 50% health. Meanwhile, the sorcerer Onyx set up a defensive position in the treasure room behind the golem and waited for Nanok and Landrec.

Welcome to my dungeon,
meet my bodyguard
The second round Varikas took out the first beastman and took a swing at Ebon. Grey Ker shot at Ebon as well before starting back to the entry glyph to visit the temple. Since Nanok and Landrec could not bring down the golem in one round, Onyx was left unhurt. That meant that Ebon healed right back up to full strength. Leaving Varikas for the second beastman and some newly spawned skeletons, Ebon raced after Grey Ker intending to bring him down before he reached town.

Nanok and Landrec teamed up again on the golem, causing some damage, but he remained standing. During this, the heroes flipped the glyph (+3 CP). The golem had to attack the taunting Nanok and did little damage. However, some newly spawned Shades were able to slip past Nanok to get to Landrec. By now, I was lucky enough to get my new treachery card, the infamous Crushing Blow (more on that in the comments). The first shade made it to Landrec and made a successful attack and out came the crushing blow. The first target, the Gauntlets of Brokenness Power. Meanwhile, Ebon continued running down Grey Ker and was able to kill him as Grey Ker was standing next to the starting glyph [+3 CP].

The golem finally falls to Landrec wielding the Staff of the Grave. Between Nanok hitting Onyx and Varikas getting Ebon, the heroes finally get some damage on the sorcerers that carries over (just 3 hits). Another round later and Ebon is back in the fight. Between him and the last shade, they take out Landrec [+3 CP]. The two remaining skeletons and Onyx combine to take down a cursed Varikas [+5 CP]. With Grey Ker still in town shopping (he gets the Ripper and the Belt of Strength), this leaves Nanok as the last remaining hero in the dungeon.

With the two sorcerers sitting at 9 wounds a piece (out of 19), the party decides to have Nanok grab the treasure and run. This delay allows me to spawn razorwings. Although they cannot hit Nanok and his 7 armor, they can block his way to the glyph. The blocking maneuver forces Varikas to return to the dungeon to help clear a path. Enough monsters survive to continue blocking Nanok's path to the close glyph, but in protecting Onyx, I left an opening that Nanok uses to make a run to the starting glyph.

The chase was on and a running Nanok is faster than normal speed monsters. However, I was able to spawn a pair of dark priests hoping to give Nanok a few extra points of damage. However, two misses from the priests and a minor hit from Ebon only cause a handful of wounds to the heavily armored Nanok.

The level cleared of treasure and gold, the heroes call it a week, leaving the rest of the Red Echo River dungeon untouched.

CP: Heroes: 40 / OL: 65/20

Week 14:
With the heroes back in Tamalir, the lieutenants continue besieging their cities. Alric adds a second siege engine to Riverwatch and Merick adds his first to Dawnsmoor. The conquest from the last dungeon and this week's handout point gives me 21 points to spend. I decided to go ahead and buy a second point of event treachery to give me more flexibility. The heroes decide to leave the lieutenants alone and head north to their first rumor dungeon. They have a quiet trip to Greyhaven.

CP: Heroes: 40 / OL: 66/6

Week 15:
A quiet week for the overlord. It's time to save up conquest for future purchases so I don't do anything with the 7 points I have after the weekly point. The lieutenants continue their sieges. Riverwatch now has three siege engines so I will start rolling for the city raze during the next week.

The heroes continued with their plans and headed towards the Gate to the North for the Dark Shard rumor there. On the way they have a non combat encounter. They all had bad nightmares where the avatar reached out and burned a mark into their arms. They each took between 2 and 4 points of damage. They then made it to the Gate to the North dungeon and locate the dungeon (+1 CP).

Gate to the North Level 1: 22 - The Citadel
I was not impressed with this level. It came with a sorcerer level leader which was silver for me, but the minions were mostly beastmen which are basically one hit speed bumps right now. I went with the beastmen and ferrox in hoping to at least get bleed damage. Also, the level is very large and open, too much space to cover with too few minions. I had two beastmen hang back to protect the leader and the remaining minions hide out behind the first door.

The Citadel
The Citadel
Grey Ker started out by returning to town and shopping for potions. The rest moved up with guard orders. Super tank Nanok started running for the far end of the level and the glyph. I drew the Dark Priest spawn card so decided to add to my forces before opening the door. Between the guard orders, a knockback from taunting Nanok and some misses, the monsters were ineffective. And that pretty much sums up the whole level for me.

The second round saw Nanok continue running to the glyph. Varikas and Landrec cleared out more of the starting minions. I was happy with what I was able to pull off to slow down Nanok. I drew the Shades spawn card. Since Shades have Ghost and cannot be hit by melee, I spawned the shades around the corner near the glyph. I then moved them to block the hallway leading to the glyph, effectively stopping Nanok from getting to it.

A really bad roll
A really bad attack
roll for the Overlord
The rout continued the next turn with the minions being cleared. I had a decision to make my next turn as I drew the Evil Genius power card. I usually don't play power cards as the heroes have not been staying long in the dungeons for the cards to pay off. However, since this is a rumor dungeon I know the heroes will be trying for all three levels. So, I went for the long term plan and decided to get Evil Genius in play. It's probably the best power card to get out early. However, it would take another turn of conquest plus some card discards to do it. That put a major damper on my ability to spawn.

With the glyph blocked by the shades, the heroes went after Grelius, the level leader. I went in to delay mode, trying to rebuild my threat and hand. Grelius lasted a couple rounds, but finally went down from a blow from Grey Ker. Of course, my luck with undying continued and Grelius stayed dead (+2 CP). I still have had only two undying monsters revive, not that I'm counting. Varikas got the chest that contained 250 gold, a health potion and the Skull Shield (yet another treasure for the group).

Still trying to delay and cause what damage I could, I decided to move the shades up to attack the party. The shades fell to Landrec and the Staff of the Grave. With the way open, Nanok decided to run for the now open glyph (+3 CP). I was now restocked with threat and cards so the heroes were cautious thinking I might spawn. So getting to and from the glyph took another three rounds. I made the decision to just stock up for the next level.

The heroes exited the level with suffering just a few wounds and being up 6-0 in conquest. I finished the level holding a full hand of cards and 42 threat ready for the next level. The special feature of this dungeon never came into play as the heroes would always run through the hallways and never stopped in them.

Gate to the North Level 2: 20 - Two by Two
The second level is Two by Two. Again the hero party will need to split up to complete this level. That's been painful for them in the past. However, it was getting a little late and the heroes did not want to go much further without Landrec's player, so we called it a day. We will pick it up here when we restart.

CP: Heroes: 46 / OL: 67/7

So first off, Crushing Blow. Yep, I now have access to it and I'm going to use it. Yes it is powerful, but so is this group of heroes. They are a strong group of characters and they are now loaded up with copper weapons, armor and shields. In fact, I now have two points of event treachery giving me access to two Crushing Blow cards. Will I use both? Sometimes. But there are also some other treachery cards I want to try out. But, I still think this party will have the advantage in the long term. A few crushing blows will slow them down but not stop them.

Now, today's action; two levels, one goes to the overlord, one goes to the heroes. The first level went how I hoped. Splitting the party up is always good for the OL. Being able to freely use one sorcerer as an offensive weapon was a nice chance of pace. I think the heroes could have pushed through and completed the level, but it would have been costly. I got three kills and the sorcerers still had over 50% health. The party probably did the right thing from their point of view by running out.

The second level was almost too easy on the heroes. I hardly did any damage to them. Between the monster attack misses, the lack of hero misses and me spending the threat on Evil Genius I didn't have the offensive power to do much. This is balanced by what I have going into the next level. Evil Genius in play, and handful of cards and 42 threat. Looks like a rough time ahead for the heroes if they want to complete the rumor.

More pictures from this session can be found here.

Posted by Ed Rozmiarek at 12:40 PM | Comments (2)

Witch of Salem review
by Susan Rozmiarek
October 22, 2009

Witch of Salem is a cooperative game for 2 - 4 players that is based on stories by Wolfgang Hohlbein set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft's mythos. The designer is Michael Rieneck and it is published in an English edition by Mayfair Games. Players are helping Robert Craven, the powerful Witch of Salem, close the portals located around the city of Arkham and to banish the Great Old One imprisoned in the underwater city of R'lyeh. Opposing them are the evil magician Necron and hordes of evil creatures.

The Goal

The players win the game if they manage to close all the portals and banish the Great Old One before the Necron marker gets to the end of the track. There is only one way to win, but like other cooperative games, plenty of ways to lose. Besides the Necron marker getting to the end of the track, the players lose if the marker gets to a certain point and the all the Great Old Ones cards have not been revealed or if there is only one sane player left. The final way to lose is if a wall, not a portal is mistakenly closed.

The Stuff

The game board is gorgeous and does a great job evoking the atmosphere of a spooky town. It shows seven numbered locations in Arkham. Six of the locations have an artifact symbol showing the artifact needed to close a portal there, a spot to put a single creature card, and three spots for items that are randomly drawn from the bag. Some item spots also show a cost above them. Portal tiles, which might either be a wall or an actual portal, are randomly placed facedown, one in each of these six locations. The seventh location, Miskatonic University, just has a spot for a single Great Old One card. The board also has a track for Necron's progress. There is one additional location, R'lyeh. Five Great Old One cards are placed facedown it and one is placed in R'lyeh. This will be the Great Old One that the players will have to banish to win the game.

Players each get a wooden figure and a matching player board. The player board has places to hold three items and one artifact as well as a track for sanity. Each player also gets a set of movement cards. All the players, as well as the Witch, start at Miskatonic University. The starting player is given the creature card deck and the player to his right is given the event deck.

The components are all of great quality although the cards do not have the linen finish that I prefer. The art is fantastic. The playing figures are wooden, Victorian "meeples" painted in the player colors. The Witch figure is rather odd as he is white and resembles a snowman to me. The color rulebook is only four pages long with numerous illustrations and is easy to understand.

The Game Play

Each round begins with the starting player, who remains the same throughout the game, flipping one or two creature cards, depending on the number of players. The number of creature cards flipped is the way that the game is adjusted for different numbers of players. Each player will then take their turn in order and the round will end with the last player flipping an event card.

On a player's turn, he does the following actions IN ORDER (this has a huge effect in the game):

1. Play a location card and move figure to that location on the board. The players each have a single card for each location plus a secret passage card that can be used for any location but at the cost of one sanity point. To get used cards back in their hands, players must go to Miskatonic University.
2. Trade with another player at that location if desired. Artifacts can not be traded but all other items can.
3. Encounter a creature if one is there. (explained below)
4. Use one item. Glasses allow you to look at the portal tile, elixirs give you one sanity back, Necronomicons reveal a Great Old One, Daggers kill creatures if the Witch is present, and artifacts close portals. Items are discarded after use.
5. Pick up and pay for an item at that location if desired. Some items are free, but others cost sanity, move the Necron marker, or cause an event or creature card to be drawn immediately. Whenever the last item is taken from a location, new items are drawn from the bag to refill the spots.

An event card is drawn after the last player finishes his turn. The Witch is moved clockwise the number of locations indicated on the card and an event occurs that could be either good or bad. After the event is resolved, a new round begins with the starting player flipping a creature card(s).

Players spend the game moving from location to location, defeating monsters and collecting various items that they need. Each location shows which artifact is needed to close the portal there if the facedown portal tile is indeed a portal and not a wall. To peek at the tile to see what it is, you must use glasses. However, if it turns out to be a portal, you can't close it this turn because you've already used an item. (See how the action order is important!?) Since you must move each turn, you have to move away and come back later. You can't immediately return unless you have your secret passage card as you must go to Miskatonic University first to get back that location card. Since you cannot tell other players whether or not you found a portal, another player cannot just come right in after you and close it themselves without going through the same process of looking at it. So, closing portals is not as easy as it sounds and cannot be done quickly. Oh, and remember that the players lose if a wall tile gets accidentally closed. You can't just use an artifact without checking to see if it is a portal unless you are willing to take that risk.

Meanwhile, the players have a relentless stream of monsters to dispatch. Each location can hold a single monster. If they are all full, the drawn monster is simply discarded. This is a nice, lucky break, but if all those spots are full, players are in deep trouble anyway. There are two of each type of monster in the deck and if the second one comes out, there is a severe penalty, listed at the bottom of the card, that may include moving the Necron marker, losing items collectively amongst the players, or losing sanity. It's crucial to keep down the number of monsters by going to locations and defeating them. To defeat the creature, you simply have to have the items in your inventory that are listed on the creature card. If you have them, the monster is discarded and you even get to keep your items. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly. You first have to roll the loss die when you encounter a creature and take the penalty shown which may be losing the item pictured, losing sanity, or moving the Necron marker. So, you might lose one of those needed items before you get to use it. Once again, action order is crucial. In this case, the monster stays and you now have to get the lost item again and return which will take at least two turns. The same frustrating situation can happen if you lose your glasses from the loss roll and can't peek at the portal tile which may have been the reason for coming to the location in the first place. The very random loss die rolls were the most frustrating thing for me with this game. A few bad rolls seemed to completely doom the players, at least in the games that I've played.

Another thing players need to worry about is revealing the Great Old Ones around R'lyeh by using copies of the Necronomicon, an item. Otherwise, they'll lose when the Necron marker advances to a certain space on the track. Events will bring a revealed Great Old One to Miskatonic University and players will have to deal with it just as any other creature. Even worse, though, is that the text on the Great Old One's card then goes into effect and it is usually a devastating hindrance to the players until that Great Old One is defeated.

I have yet to even come close to winning this game, although I've only played a few times. The following things appear to be key:

Using the Witch's advantages as much as possible. If he is at your location you do not have to roll the loss die. You also have an alternative way to defeat the monster by using the dagger. Also, you can regain two sanity with an elixir instead of just one. However, since his movement is hard to predict as it is determined randomly by event cards, getting his help isn't always possible or convenient.

Careful management of your location cards. Going back to Miskatonic University to get them back into your hand is otherwise a wasted trip. There are no items to get there and you can't close the portal there until all others have been close. You may however, want to try and defeat a Great Old One, if present. So, using as many of your location cards to do useful things before returning to MU seems to be the optimal plan. Unfortunately, as stated before, the loss die can totally screw up your careful planning.

The game is an uphill battle with lots of tension and frustration. If you lose all your sanity, you are out of the game. If too many players go insane, you all lose. If the Necron marker advances too far, you all lose. And as you can see from my description above, there are all kinds of way to lose sanity and advance the marker. So, how do you win? Well, not having come close myself, I haven't gotten to see the final endgame bit. But, according to the rules, once all the other portals are closed and the Great Old Ones revealed, one player uses his secret passage card to travel to R'lyeh and hold off the Old One there by having the required items in his pack. Meanwhile, another player travels to Miskatonic University and closes the final portal there. He must accomplish this in a speedy fashion because the player in R'lyeh loses a sanity point per round. If he goes insane, he is out of the game and somebody else will have to go to R'lyeh to attempt the banishment.

The Verdict: Good, but not great

Initially, I thought this was going to be a lighter and shorter version of Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight Games. This had me excited as Arkham Horror is one of my very favorite games but doesn't get to the table much due to its length and complexity. It turns out that the similarities are very superficial and Witch is more in the class of cooperative games like Pandemic and Ghost Stories. It doesn't have nearly the immersion and roleplaying feel of Arkham Horror. Despite that, Witch of Salem invokes the atmosphere of its theme fairly well for a streamlined Euro-style game. I enjoyed it, but at times it felt a little too frustrating. I'm hoping that more plays will reveal clever ways to overcome some of the randomness of that hateful loss die. I'm doubtful about that, though. Like most cooperative games I've tried, I've become obsessed with playing it until I win. I'm a little worried that it may be a while before that happens as we haven't even come close. Putting a positive spin on that, I guess that means it has a lot of replayability for me. If you like shorter (hour-ish), family-style cooperative games, I can easily recommend Witch of Salem with the caveat that the difficulty caused by random factors may frustrate some players. But surely you didn't expect defeating a Great Old One to be easy, did you!?

Note: My copy of the game is a free review copy.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 10:43 AM | Comments (1)

Roll Through the Ages and more Tales
by Susan Rozmiarek
August 20, 2009

Well, we didn't get to go to game night this past week. Ed had to take our eldest to soccer practice and I got to shopping. Yay. This full-time job gig is taking some getting used to. Oh Free Time, how I miss thee!

Last week, though, I got to play Tales of Arabian Nights again. Once again, I really enjoyed it. This time, I fared miserably. In fact, my first character died after finding a door hidden in the sands. Upon descending, she found a woman imprisoned below and tried to save her. An e'freet (sp?) jumped out of hiding and tore me from limb to limb. Not exactly a pleasant way to go, but I got rid of some icky statuses and started fresh with a new character which was nice. I had great fun again playing this and I'm looking forward to having my own copy. One funny thing - I'm finding that this game really stresses my vocabulary skills. I'm not all that familiar with the Tales and I keep running into words that I'm not sure how to pronounce. An example is "vizier." Who knew that this rhymes with "brassiere?" Not me, but I certainly won't forget how to pronounce it now! I swear I feel like I'm back in grade school again, nervously hoping that the teacher doesn't call on me to read aloud.

The other game that I finally got a chance to play was Roll Through the Ages. It's another one of those games that allows you to push your luck and re-roll dice to try and get what you want. This one captures the feel of a civilization game better than I thought it would and I did like it. What disappointed me though, was that you are trying to build things that give you special abilities and you hardly get to use them before the game is over. I haven't read all that much about the game but was told that this is a common complaint. I'd be happy to play again, but I'm not sure that it is worth the price so we probably won't be getting it.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 3:14 PM | Comments (5)

July Gaming
by Susan Rozmiarek
August 7, 2009

Once again, my gaming blog has been neglected but this time I have a real excuse, and one that doesn't involve World of Warcraft. I've been working part-time at my local library for the past six months and have now accepted a full-time position. I've gone from doing stem cell research as a medical lab technician to being a full-time stay-at-home mom and am now headed in a totally new career direction as a....librarian. Well, only pretending to be one for now as I don't have a Master of Library Science degree yet. That's probably in my future though. The job's a great fit for me so far as I've been a total bibliophile since learning to read at age four. I've spent so much of my life in libraries that I might as well get paid for it. That and family life are keeping me busy, busy, busy. I'm still squeezing in a few games here and there and I still like to write about them occasionally so here we go.

Tales of the Arabian Nights

I've never played the older version and I passed on buying it for twenty bucks a few years ago at an estate sale because it seemed priced too high for a junky looking old game. At the time, it didn't even sound like anything that I'd like anyway. Given my current gaming preferences though, I was easily caught up in the hype surrounding the new edition and was eagerly awaiting its release. I got to try our friend Jeff's copy a few weeks ago and had a grand time. Like you've probably already heard, it's all about storytelling and less about a game which is going to turn a lot of people off, but it made for a great, social evening with a lot of laughs. I spent most of the game wandering around lost and insane but managed to win at the last minute by getting married. The winning conditions are a lot like an old game, Careers. There are two types of points that you earn during the game and you secretly choose at the start how many of each you want to get to win (adding up to the same total as everyone else's goal). My only knock against the game is that it got a bit tedious looking things up on charts and flipping through the book over and over again. The game is not like anything in our collection and it went straight to my buy list even though I'll never be able to get Ed to play it with me.

Jeff's cat keeps an eye on us from atop the refrigerator. Note the evil glowing eyes.

Tigris & Euphrates

The next week at Jeff's I played this classic not once, but twice in a row. And when I say classic, I mean it. I hadn't played this in years and its luster has not worn off one bit. It's as great of a game as it was back when I was obsessed and playing it incessantly online on BGG. The hardest thing about it is teaching new players the difference between external and internal conflicts. The concept is so confusing until you have a few games under your belt and newbies always make suboptimal moves that unintentionally help out other players. But, they need to pick fights just so that they can see how they work. This was my first playing with the Mayfair version and the busy board was gawd-awful. I'm glad that I own the original German edition.

Oldie but a goodie, Tigris and Euphrates

My other gaming this past month included our Descent: The Road to Legend campaign, our neighborhood Texas 42 (dominoes) group, and Runebound with the latest expansion, The Frozen Wastes. This expansion has some neat ideas, but really needs more of a PvP approach than my son and I like to play.

Descent: The Road to Legend. My poor character died five times!

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 5:02 PM | Comments (2)

Game Awards
by Susan Rozmiarek
June 29, 2009

What's the world coming to when you can neither complain about the Spiel des Jahres winner nor poke fun at the Origins winners??? While I had a slight leaning towards Pandemic, I'm still thrilled that Dominion took the SdJ. It's innovative and fresh and very addicting. It's got a bit of a CCG vibe going for it, which helps.

Those Origins people finally got it right. Pandemic was chosen for best board game with Dominion taking the honors for best card game. The choice for family/party game was Say Anything and the best historical game was Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear. I haven't played those last two but they seem to be liked by many.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 9:00 AM | Comments (0)

It's a Small World after all
by Susan Rozmiarek
June 17, 2009

Ha! Can't get that song out of your head now, can you??

As I mentioned in my previous post, Ed and I were lucky to be invited to spend Memorial Day weekend playing games with three other couples. We stayed in condos on Lake Palestine near Tyler, in the piney woods of northeast Texas. This is quite near my mother's house and where I spent my teenage years, so it was very convenient to dump/drop off our boys with her for the weekend. The condos were shabby, but adequate, and the views were beautiful when it wasn't raining and we managed to drag ourselves away from the gaming and outside to get fresh air.

The view from porch of the condo. Bee-YOO-tee-ful!

The first game up - Small World, which was high on my want-to-try list.

I am a huge fan of Vinci, Small World's predecessor. Back when Vinci was first published, it was very popular with our game group and when a web-based version came out, I played it to death. I'm sure I've played it at least fifty times. So, when a "new and improved" version that fixed many of the issues was announced, I was skeptical. I really didn't think it needed to be fixed. After playing Small World, I still prefer the original. By far, the biggest reason is that I dearly miss the cohesion rules of Vinci. Keeping the regions of your civilization connected drove a lot of the strategy of where to attack and reinforce. I'm not sure why this was removed from the new game - to simplify it, perhaps?

The next problem I have with Small World is the bright, garish graphics. In the old Vinci, I was, with just a quick glance at the board, able to assess the size and positioning of my opponents as well as the various land types and the conquering path I wanted to take. In Small World, I'm trying to pick things out of a headache-inducing jumble of colors. Normally I adore this sort of art but here I think it really hinders this game. Gah - I can't believe I'm saying that! Even I have to admit that sometimes, plain and boring is better.

As far as the open versus hidden victory points goes, I don't really care that much either way. This is an argument that can go on forever (as anyone who follows online forums knows) because it's a matter of personal taste. Do you want to pick on the player you know is the leader or the person you just think is the leader? I probably lean slightly towards hidden as I like bluffing and trying to stay under the radar. However, you could easily play this way with the old version.

Hmmm. Other differences between the two versions - I haven't decided whether I like Small World's fixed number of turns or Vinci's playing until somebody reaches a certain number of victory points. They both seem to work. A fixed number of turns seems to go better with hidden VPs as you can better plan for the end of the game.

Finally, some people complained about how certain random pairings of powers in Vinci were too powerful. I thought that this aspect of the game was pretty fun. Sure, some were pretty powerful but you often had to pay to get them before somebody else did and you were then a big target. Even with Small World mitigating this problem (and quite cleverly too) with the fixed race abilities, I notice that people are still complaining about some being too powerful.

I do think that the streamlining will make the Small World accessible to more people, so that's good. But, call me a curmudgeon for thinking that the old ways are superior and wanting to just stick to the original.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 12:40 AM | Comments (1)

2009 Spiel des Jahres Nominees
by Susan Rozmiarek
May 29, 2009

Ed and I spent a fabulous gaming weekend with three other couples over the long Memorial Day weekend. I played two of five newly announced Spiel des Jahres nominees there, so I thought I'd do a quick post about them. I'll write more about the weekend and the rest of the games I played in the next post.

Given how behind we are in playing the new stuff, I figured that I'd be mostly clueless about the nominees this year. Surprising, it turns out that I've actually played three of the five and unlike the past few years, the list includes a few favorites. Here are my comments:

Pandemic: This is simply a fantastic game and my only "dime" from last year. It's the type of game I want to play several times right in a row. It can easily be dominated by a bossy player, but we always play with a little secrecy about our hands, especially early in the game. I'm not crazy about how it looks, but the art is certainly functional. I would love to see this win but I wonder if it is a bit much for casual family play.

Dominion: This is another addictive game that has me wanting to play it over and over again. I haven't played as many times as everyone else seems to have, so I'm wondering if its charm will hold. The sheer variety of card combinations possible is part of the lure. Every game feels like a tense, frenzied rush to get your money engine up and running which I find pretty fun. I do hate the constant card shuffling though. The theme and art are disappointing as well; they could have done so much more with it. I wouldn't mind if it won the SdJ but I bet it's a little too complicated.

Amy, Kevin and John play one of many games of Dominion. This was the most played game of the weekend even though I only played it once.

This past weekend's game had Ed playing the thief, driving me to a strategy of getting my gold from card effects (not treasure cards he could steal) and cards the allowed me lots of draws and actions to find and play them. The strategy almost worked, especially since one of the cards I frequently used was the Militia, which hurt everyone else. Unfortunately, Ed switched to buying lots of Gardens as did I once I noticed. But, it was too late and he whopped the rest of us pretty soundly.

Fits: This was a new-to-me game that I got to try this past weekend. It's another one of those solitaire puzzle games like Ubongo or Take it Easy. There is no interaction between players - you are just attempting to be better at solving your puzzle. In this case, the puzzle is based on the computer game Tetris, in which you are dropping tiles in various shapes down slots to cover up spaces. This boardgame version is by Reiner Knizia so of course, there are twists. In each round, the goal changes a bit and there are certain spaces you want to leave uncovered while covering the rest. The variation with each round makes it especially challenging. I like this sort of thing and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, Fits is another game I could happily play several times in a row. Given how easy and accessible it is to play, I could easily see this winning the award.

John, Susan and Ed puzzle out Fits. I appear to be praying. Perhaps for the card with the shape I need to be flipped? I wish somebody hadn't left a bag of fattening cookies next to me. They were good!

Vinca: This wasn't even on my radar until the nominee list was announced. After reading about it and looking at a copy at my FLGS today, I'm worried that it will suffer from the same-yness that plagues a lot of recent eurogames (for me, anyway). It looks beautiful though, and just the type of game to win the SdJ. I bet it wins.

Fauna: This game is very far off my radar. It appears to be some sort of trivia game about animals. I don't even know enough about it to comment.

So, my official Spiel des Jahres prediction is Vinca, despite having laid eyes on it for the first time today. I would love to be wrong and see Pandemic or maybe Dominion take the prize!

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 9:03 PM | Comments (2)

Game Day Report part 1: Monsters Menace America
by Susan Rozmiarek
April 21, 2009

Every time we go to Gulf Games, one of my kids latches on to some game that they play there and as good gamer parents, we are obligated to obtain a copy for them once we get home. My kids know that this is one purchasing area where no arm-twisting or whining is required! Anyway, for my younger son Shea, that game one summer was Monsters Menace America. Happily, we were able to get a copy in a math trade on BGG, trading a copy of A Dog's Life that had been plucked off the Gulf Games prize table in the 3rd round solely for its cute rubber dogs. I tried this "dog" of a game (sorry, couldn't help myself) once and thought it quite flawed for reasons I don't remember. There were tweaks, I think, posted online but I couldn't be bothered and onto the trade pile it went. The trade replaced the cute rubber dogs with cute rubber monsters so it seemed pretty even. Unfortunately, as always, once home the kids got back into their routine of computer and video games and couldn't be bothered by the quaint, old-fashioned type of the board variety. So, it's been sitting on the game shelves unplayed for about two years doing nothing more than providing a splash of lime green to my living room decor. I swear that eyeball on the side of the box is watching me every time I walk by.

I was glad to finally give it try when new guy Jeff suggested it. I didn't have high expectations but I hate owning games that I haven't even played. I popped the top off the required beer (but alas, we had no pretzels) and sat down for some "mayhem and mass destruction" as stated on the box. The game is really simple. Each player controls a monster and a branch of the military. You move your monster figure across a map of the U.S., stomping cities to increase your health and stomping major landmarks like the World's Largest Ball of Twine for infamy points. Infamy points can be spent to re-roll dice which comes in handy as you will be rolling LOTS of dice in this game. You can also go to places like Three Mile Island where your monster mutates and gains a new power. You randomly draw these from a deck of cards that includes such awesome mutations as Laser Beam Eyes or Atomic Breath. Your monster has a set numbers of spaces it can move each turn and there may be terrain restrictions.

Military units are used to simply harass the other players' monsters, bring down their health and discourage them from trying to stomp particularly juicy cities. You get to move your military units on the board each turn and you also have the choice of deploying more or doing military research which entails randomly drawing a card that can be played at the appropriate time to either help yourself or more likely, mess with somebody else. The research card deck includes all sorts of fun things. In our game, Jeff stacked a space with military units and then played the Blond Lure on Joey's monster. Unable to resist this sexy blond siren, his monster was forced to move onto the spot only to discover that it was a trap set by the marines who were waiting to attack. I was able to add Fusion Cells to my units, allowing them to move an extra space each turn. A few of the cards allow you to place and control a smaller monster on the board. There are all kinds of things in the deck.

Battles between monsters and military units are simple, with each unit or monster rolling a die and trying to equal or beat the defender's defense number for a hit, in which case it takes a specified amount of damage. Monsters get three attacks per round and if there are any military units left after two rounds, it has to retreat. There is no player elimination. If a monster's health ever gets to zero, he goes to Hollywood as an attraction. Once he gets a certain amount of health back (by rolling a die each turn) he breaks free to continue his rampage across the country. Too funny!

The point of all this is to try to beef up your monster for the big monster showdown at the end of the game. Once a certain number of stompings (not a real word according to my spellchecker) have taken place, the showdown will be triggered. This is a fight to the death with the player who triggered the showdown choosing who he wants to fight first. The winner of that battle adds the initial health of his opponent to his monster and chooses the next monster to fight. And so on and so on until one monster is left standing as the King of the Giant Monsters (it's in the rules, I swear) and wins the game. My monster, a pile of purple sludge named Toxicor, won our game, no doubt because he had mutated earlier into a robot that electrocuted his opponents in battle each time they missed. Zap!

I can easily see why this game got played over and over again by a pack of pre-teen and teenage boys at Gulf Games. It's perfect for that group. It has practically no strategy but playing it was a hoot, with lots of trash talking. It's simple and short, so it makes a good "beer and pretzels" style game and it captures the humorous, campy feel of the theme very well. This is the type of game that sends many of my gamer friends running away screaming so it definitely needs the right crowd. It's not the sort of thing I'm itching to play all the time, but I certainly had fun. A few extra beers or margaritas might enhance the experience as well. Just saying...

Megaclaw tries to impress with his giant pinchers. Toxicor laughs in his face!

Next up: Conan wanders around aimlessly and a cosmic parasite terrorizes the galaxy.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 5:08 PM | Comments (1)

Gamer's Notebook
by Susan Rozmiarek

I always feel flattered but very self-conscious when my blog gets linked somewhere else or somebody I don't even know mentions that they read it. It's even worse when somebody as respected in the hobby as Mike Siggins calls attention to it in his column. Yikes! I often forget that somebody besides my local group and me might be reading it. I guess that I shouldn't be too surprised as I "lurk" on many blogs, too pressed for time or just too lazy to comment on the entries. I'm also reminded once again that I've been horribly neglecting my blog lately. We were able to scrape together some friends for games this past Saturday, so I at least have a few things to write about now. Although be forewarned - I'm still recovering from Eurogamer burnout as you'll see from my game choices.

Mike's column, Gamer's Notebook, is excellent reading as usual and it includes his Sumo awards for last year's games. I haven't even played his top two games or many of the other games he discusses, showing just how behind I'm getting on the newer stuff.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 5:01 PM | Comments (2)

Oldies that definitely aren't moldy
by Susan Rozmiarek
April 1, 2009

Today was a day of golden oldies in which I discovered an old gem that definitely reinforces the idea that one should not judge a game by its box. And I mean a box with really, REALLY hideous art, the kind drawn by a nerdy teenager. The fact that the game is an old Avalon Hill game with handfuls of little chits (confetti - whee!) and those typically awful black and white rules with a tiny font and numbered sections should not be a deterrent either. Well, not in this case, anyway.

The game that I'm talking about is Merchant of Venus and after only one play, I'm totally smitten. My cult-of-the-new-Eurogame-only group has been strangely enamored with this game lately and I'd successfully avoided it until today. It came out in the late '80s, a time when I only lurked on the fringes of gaming and there had to be a dragon or wizard on the box for me to notice a game. The ones I did try, like Dragonhunt and Wizard's Quest, were disappointments at the time that kept me on the fringe. I assumed that Merchant of Venus was some sort of science fiction wargame and I wasn't going to go near something like that. I guess "Merchant" should have been a clue. So, when I was told it was a pick-up-and-deliver game, my protective shields started to crack a little. I ADORE that sort of game. That is exactly what Merchant of Venus turned out to be, with the added fun of an exploration game.

Empire Builder (EB) is a good game to compare with Merchant of Venus (MoV) as both games scratch the same itch for me and share many similarities but are also quite different. EB is played on a fixed map and you will always know where each type of good will be found. The random factor is in drawing the Demand Cards that will tell what good needs to be shipped to what location. In MoV, it is the opposite. Each culture produces certain goods, but you will not know at the start where the various cultures are located. The cultures that demand a certain type of good will always be the same but, once again, you will not know where they are located until they have been by exploring the planet locations on the board.

Similar to the Empire Builder games, you can upgrade your ship to either be fast or you can choose to sacrifice speed in favor of more cargo space. In EB, the number of spaces you can move on a turn is fixed, depending on the type of engine. In MoV, movement is determined by dice roll, with your ship's speed determining the number of dice you roll. The goal of both games is to be the first to earn a certain amount of money by picking up and delivering goods. You do spend your earnings in MoV to build things like factories and spaceports, which earn you commissions when other players use them, but their values also count as part of your earnings. However, you actually spend your earnings in EB to build your network of track so you have to carefully monitor your income or you may find yourself in the bad position of having no money and no way to earn more. This makes Empire Builder a bit of a heavier game that requires more analysis. The game builds slowly at first and then speeds up as players get a good network built and they are then just primarily racing to make deliveries. The pace is similar in MoV except the paths you travel are already fixed on the map. There is no money management aspect with having to plan the cheapest and most efficient route to make a delivery that will enable you to build again. Instead, the slow build-up is caused by having to explore the map first and find where the cultures are located. As the locations of the cultures are revealed, you can then pick the most efficient route to pick up and make deliveries. Both games require route planning and adjusting to the randomness, but the two games go about it a bit differently. Both are excellent games.

I guess one other similarity and difference I should point out is that in both games you feel the pressure of a race against time with your opponents. However, in Empire Builder it is mostly just to the endgame requirement. Sure, you sometimes race to get the best connection point into a city or to a smaller city with limited connections, but mostly it is open enough to achieve your immediate goals during the game, especially if you play with only a few players, which is what I prefer due to the length of game. In my experience, cities almost never run out of the goods they produce. In my game of MoV, this was not always the case. Goods are much more limited and once gone, you have to wait for them to be randomly drawn and returned to the board. Also, there are special demands that can come out which can pay significantly more to the player first to deliver. So during the game, there is a lot more immediate tension in the race to certain locations, whereas in Empire Builder you are often able to focus solely on yourself with most of the tension coming towards the end.

There are some fiddly aspects to movement in Merchant of Venus on certain areas of the board that are tied to the numbers rolled on your dice as well as spots to be explored that can turn out to be either hindrances or nice upgrades to your ship. Without going into detail, I will say that while they add randomness which can be frustrating, they also add flavor and theme kind of like the event cards do in Empire Builder. I've overcome most of my frustration over these types of things in games as I now enjoy thematic elements that add a bit of uncertainty and drama unless, of course, they totally overwhelm the game. I don't think they do in either of these games.

The biggest problem with both games for me is that you spend the whole game standing over and squinting at the board, trying to find locations and read the names of goods on tiny markers. Bigger culture markers with clear numbers on them would help greatly in Merchant of Venus. The problem seems much more difficult to solve in Empire Builder.

After playing Merchant of Venus and immediately deciding that I must own it, I was distraught to find that out just how insane the prices are for used copies. There is currently a spending freeze for an indefinite period of time in the Rozmiarek household. There was no way I was going to sneak a $70+ game by the shopping police! There are files on BGG to make a homemade version, but this was going to be a lot of work. I was blown away with the generosity of an online gaming friend who sent me his copy as a gift. I now own the original and can hardly wait to play again.

Mark, Jon, Susan and Paul start off with Merchant of Venus.

Wow. I was only planning to write a simple session report. I guess I got carried away.

I did also play a few other older games which served to remind me that the collection we've got could easily provide me with enough entertaining games for the rest of my life. These particular oldies are definitely holding up over time, I'm happy to say.

It's amazing how a good game can be wholly centered on a single, simple quandary. In Honeybears, it's whether to play and lose a card that by playing will increase the chances of scoring for cards of that type still left in your hand at the end of the game.

Despite the lackluster re-theming of the original, Showmanger, Atlantic Star has remained a fun and unique game of set collection and hand management.

Tonga Bonga is yet another good, light game that nobody seems to have copied. It's a racing game of sorts in which you sail a ship around the board plunking down camps on islands for money. The twist is that the dice you roll aren't used to move your ship. Instead, everyone gives each die they rolled to another player. This is after each player has offered a monetary bribe to entice people into giving them the highest dice. You want the bribes, because money wins the game, but you have to be careful not to help somebody too much. The dice are special, with one side being a zero that is depicted by a seasick sailor hurling over the side. Hilarious!

Jeff, Jill, Susan and Ed are racing ships and building camps with Tonga Bonga

Other games played, but not by me, were Big City, Age of Steam, and Kingsburg

Jeff, Jill and Ed roll the bones in Kingsburg.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at 9:39 PM | Comments (5)

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