August 4, 2005

Susan's Gulf Games Report Part 1

by Susan Rozmiarek

Itís Monday morning and Iím so tired that I could hardly drag myself out of bed. I have a pounding headache. Fortunately, it is only gaming hangover brought on by spending five wonderful days in steamy New Orleans playing games and sightseeing.

We arrived Monday evening after an exhausting ten hour drive, about five of which were just getting out of Texas. We live in the middle of the state and yes, Texas really is that big. We werenít really planning on playing any games that evening, but Greg Schloesser offered to teach us Der Untergang Pompeji and Kevin, Ed and I jumped at the chance to get starting on our gaming for the week. Michael LaBranche joined us. Pompeji turned out to be a good choice for weary travelers as it only required enough concentration to tickle the brain a bit.

Der Untergang Pompeji

This game had gotten a lot of lukewarm reactions from people, but I always thought it sounded rather appealing. The game has two parts. In the first part, players are populating the buildings of the city by playing cards and placing their pawns. Then the volcano erupts and players are scrambling to get their people out of the city. It would be a pretty boring game though, if all you did on your turn was move some pawns. Luckily, however, you also get to draw and place a lava tile on the board, pitching any pawns in the way into the volcano. Greg made sure that we made appropriate victim screaming noises. A little role-playing enhances any game! While the game was very light and tactical, it was also very fun, and reminded me a lot of Survive!, another ďsave your pawnsĒ game. I tried to place my people near the city gates and that, combined with a little luck, helped me along to victory.

Tuesday was our sightseeing day, and we spent most of it at the air-conditioned aquarium and IMAX theater. We did walk around the French Quarter a bit, but it was awfully hot and a bit too tourist-y for us. We did enjoy beignets at the famous Cafť du Monde. That night was the big group dinner where I stuffed myself with local cuisine, including some gumbo, jambalaya and blackened alligator (yup, tastes like chicken).

Wednesday was the official start of Gulf Games and our first day of non-stop, glorious gaming. I was thrilled to see both my kids jump right in and play boardgames all day, completely ignoring the usual TV set up in the corner for video games.

Verflixxt!

Like everyone else who follows the German Spiel des Jahres awards, I wanted to try this nominee. Itís by that dynamic designing duo, Kramer & Kiesling. I figured it had to good, even after hearing all the complaints that it was just a light family game with few real decisions. Well, I happen to a have a family that includes two kids, so that description does not scare me away at all. I like to play a mixture of light and heavy stuff, anyway. Greg Schloesser was kind enough to teach it and play it with Shea, Ed, Michael Adams, and me.

Iím not really sure what the theme of this game is, but it has really cute art. Itís a race game of sorts. Thirty-two large tiles of amazing thickness are randomly laid out in a continuous line to form the track, with a starting tile on one end and a finish line at the other. The tiles either depict positive or negative points, along with several ďluckyĒ tiles that show a four-leaf clover. Each player has two pawns and on his turn he rolls a die and must move one of his pawns or one of several neutral ďguardsĒ that donít belong to anyone. If a pawn is the last pawn or guard on a tile and is moved off of it, the owner must take the tile. After all pawns have reached the finish line, players add up the points of the tiles they have taken. Each ďluckyĒ tile taken turns one negative tile into positive points. The player with the highest total wins the game. There is not a whole lot to think about here; you are merely making the best move you can with your roll. Still, it is rather pleasant with lots of maneuvering and both my boys really liked it. Plus it handles up to six players and is short enough for a lunchtime game. We picked up the English version, Thatís Life, from Ward, who got a shipment in towards the end of the week. This game is definitely an excellent light family game, making it a worthy Spiel des Jahres finalist.

Maus Nach Haus

Little Allison Vander Ark, who I swear gets cuter every year, taught Ed, James Miller and me this silly childrenís dexterity game. You have a set of little wooden mice. On a playerís turn, he/she spins a big wooden ring in the middle of the table and everyone simultaneously tries to flick their mice toward the ring so that they end up within the ring when it stops spinning and falls over. Given my skill at flicking games, naturally I lost. I lost twice, in fact, as Shea made me play it a second time with him. I noticed that this game was in action for most the week.

Lineage II

Iím always interested in checking out a game from Frank Branhamís massive collection as itís bound to be unusual. Not necessarily good, mind you, but at least interesting. Thatís how I discovered my beloved Gothic Game. Lineage is a Korean game based on an old computer game that Iíve heard of, but have never played. Frank, Sandi, Greg, and Tyler Putman were my competition.

Itís essentially a dungeon crawl, where you roll the dice, move your guy and fight monsters. The first player to reach ten victory points wins the game. Fighting monsters gets you items to buff up your character, or to sell at a town for money. Money buys you the services of mercenaries to help you lay siege to and defend keeps. There are several keeps on the board and holding one over several rounds gets you more money and eventually victory points. A cool mechanism in the game is that when a player challenges anotherís keep, the rest of the players can join either side by committing their own mercenaries to help out. Being on the side of the victor and/or committing the most mercenaries to a battle are yet other ways to get a victory point. Combat is decided by dice, however, so luck does play a big factor, although the number of mercenaries participating affects the odds. There are also some goal cards that get you victory points for defeating different sets of monsters. I rather liked the game, although the fact that I narrowly defeated Tyler for the win by helping him defend a keep probably bolstered my opinion a bit.

Ra

This is an old favorite that Iím always willing to play. We play it a lot at home and all know each otherís playing style well, so it is a treat to play it with different players and have to adjust to their differing styles. I came in third, just one point behind Eddie Bonet, who was second. Ed won the game. My other fellow players were Leon Hendee and Patti Adams.

Turbo Taxi

This is one of the new Queen games that Rio Grande will be distributing here in the USA. Itís actually a newly themed version of an older Friedemann Friese game, Flickwerk. I was drawn to it like a magnet after hearing that it was a puzzle game. Joe Huber taught it to Tyler Putman, Maria Batty, and me. Players each have an identical set of tiles depicting streets in various configurations. Two taxis and two matching houses (destinations) are placed around a central 3X3 grid. A road tile is flipped and placed in the center. Now players each simultaneously work the puzzle in front of them, trying to be the first one to place their road tiles such that they can get each taxi to its destination.

My spatial skills were not up to this task, and I had to be satisfied with just solving the puzzles at all. Joe smoked us, seeming to solve his just as quickly as he could move the tiles into place. I did play the game later with Ed and Shanna LaBranche and started improving my time with the practice. I enjoyed the exercise, but I thought Ubongo to be a better game of this type. The problem with these timed puzzle games is that they arenít competitive unless everyone is of the same skill level, which is rarely the case.

Palazzo

Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games brought a pile of his new stuff, including this Reiner Knizia game from Alea. After my first playing, I knew that this was going to be the hit of the week for me. I simply love games where you get to build your own thing in front of you, which is probably why Iím a big fan of Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico and Alhambra.

In Palazzo, you are building towers (palaces, actually) in front of you out of numbered story cards that you purchase. At the end of game youíll get points based on the height of your towers and the numbers of windows in each, with bonus points for towers composed of stories that are all the same color. The tiles are numbered and while your tower stories donít have to be consecutively numbered, each successive story must be of a higher number than the one below it.

The game actually reminds me a lot of Alhambra with an auction thrown in as a way to purchase tiles. Warning: There are a lot of auctions in this game! On your turn, you can either take money from a display or purchase (directly or through an auction) tiles and build them. Does this sound a bit familiar? Whatís nice is that all players get to take money when a player chooses that option. The player whose turn it is gets first choice and takes two cards while all others just take one. Money comes in one of three colors and purchases and bids must be made with money cards all of the same color. For more options, there are low-valued wild cards and you can play a set of differently colored cards of the same number value which is worth 15 points.

The option of purchasing and building tiles is where the feel of the game departs from that of Alhambra and takes its own clever twist. There are five big region tiles (I think they are quarries) which comprise the common board for all players. Four are placed in a circle around one in the center. A Master Builder pawn is placed on one of the outer quarries. This builder will move along the outer quarries. The story tiles are placed in three facedown stacks. When a player chooses this action, two tiles are drawn. One is placed in the center region and the other is placed on a particular quarry determined by how many windows the tile shows, a clever way to keep the locations stocked with tiles. The player can either buy one or two tiles outright from the center region, or advance the Master Builder one quarry clockwise and auction all tiles there as a set. All tiles bought or won must be built by the player immediately. The neat thing about buying tiles from the center is that the cost of each tile is based on the number of tiles there, the price going down with more. Single story towers score negative points at the end of the game, so you canít just amass tiles without planning on how you are going to use them.

There is a third action a player can take, which is also similar to Alhambra. A player can tweak his towers, burning a turn to either remove or add a tile to a tower.

There are five tiles mixed in the last pile that form a mural. As these are drawn they are set aside. When the fifth is drawn, the game ends immediately. Some people were complaining that the game ends just as it is getting interesting, but I donít agree at all. I think the length and ending threat make it extremely tense.

I came in last in my first game with Joe Huber, Michael Green, and Tyler, but itís a game that awards experience and I came in second when I played it again with Ed, David Vander Ark and Paul Cortazzo. That darn Ed pipped me by one lousy point. I just needed one more turn!

Manila

Jay taught this to Michael Bland, Robert Wood, Ed, Jay Bloodworth and me. People seem to be polarized into two different camps about this game; they either love it or hate it. Its gorgeous bits and the loud praises from its fans have kept my eye on it for quite a while. Boy, am I ever glad I got to try it before I pulled the trigger and bought it. Put me in the ďhated itĒ camp. I canít remember how long it took but it seemed like forever. It was only fun for the first half hour. After that, it got really repetitive, with each round progressing very similarly to the previous one. The locations on the board seemed to always get grabbed in roughly the same order. For a betting game, there was just too much chrome and fuss here. So, I saved some money by playing it first. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

For more comments see part 2, covering plays of Kaleidos, Ubongo, Diamant, St. Petersburg and Louis XIV.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at August 4, 2005 1:12 AM

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