Friday, May 31, 2013

Catan Tech: Blocking the Longest Road

With all the hexes, all the resources, all the roads and settlements and cities I've seen…why have I never heard of this?

Leave it to an obnoxious Internet list to bring to my attention a subtle bit of Settlers of Catan strategy.

I personally love driving a road straight through the middle of the board, cutting the mobility of my opponents in half and drastically reducing their chances of ever wresting the Longest Road card away from me.

What I never considered was the legality of someone inserting their settlement between my road bits to smash my nefarious plans into irrecoverable pieces. The rules do state this is legal, provided the distance rule (new settlement has to be at least 2 roads away from another settlement) is maintained. So unless you add a town every now and then, it is quite possible for someone to slip right by you.

And continue building roads on the other side!


Back in Catan: Junior land, my son is getting more and more capable with his blocking moves. Yes, believe it or not, blocking is very possible even in the sparsely populated 2 player game. He has learned to make a run for one of my sides, hopefully plugging up my chances of advancing into the coveted gold hex position.

Very coveted, because gold gets you 1/3 of the way to the infernal Polly Card and thusly also to a easy victory. You either play "The Game" and at least try to keep up with your opponent's Polly Cards or you are left in the dust.

If only there were a longest "boat" victory!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Psychology of the Semi Co-Op: Tanking the Game

I was reading some serious criticism about the 2012 game Archipelago and it made me start thinking about the personality composition I typically see in multi-player games. See,Archipelago is a new-fangled semi-co-op came. And folks are complaining that there are other folks out there who would rather tank the game (by refusing to donate resources to calm the natives) than come into 3rd or 4th or 5th place.

I was hesitant to jump into the same camp as the obvious jerks, but I think in some cases I tend to agree.

Think about your typical 4-way board game. I'm not talking 2 pairs of couples, that's a completely different dynamic. I'm talking a regular group of 4 friends who are pretty familar with each other's hooks and crooks.

How Players Typically See Themselves:

1) First Player - The Current Leader - This player leads the game in points or territory or buildings or whatever. And it's all the result of his amazing skill. The Leading Position is tangible evidence of his overwhelming superiority compared to his rivals, and he understands this simple fact in ways his opponents could never comprehend.

2) Second Player - This player is ready to snatch victory out of the slippery paws of the current Leader. Only a few clever maneuvers, probably at the very end of the game, and the Second Player will undoubtably be leading the pack with no room left to respond from his pathetic adversaries. Until the eventual end game resolution, he will probably toadie up to the leader to make sure no one else sneaks in on his action.

3) Third Player - This player understands that the true path to victory is to make a few serious misplays early on in order to lull his opponents into a false sense of confidence. He also feels free at this point to admire the overall design of the game, as well as the amazing artwork and flavor text.

4) Fourth Player - Finally we reach the lowest level of Hell. This player knows his lowly position is due to a combination of extremely bad luck and unrelenting persecution at the hands of his opponents. When have you not felt this way at the ass-end of the victory point track? If the 4th ranking player had the chance to burn the whole game down and make everyone lose, he would gladly take it in an eye blink. Just to wipe the smug looks off their faces, those jerks.

Games like Archipelago, they need to have rules for this. The bottom players are going to contribute nada, so the top-tier folks better have the ability to help out enough to get the game back on track. So what if you slip down to second place...that's what the other players are hoping for! They know you would rather go down to 2nd place than watch the whole game blow up and everyone lose on an equal level.

And I'm not entirely convinced the game has issues. I'm interested to hear more critical reviews because a) this could be a case where people don't want to give up their lead and b) the original reviews of Archipelago make it sound like the victory point situation is intentionally obscured, exactly for this reason. So no one knows exactly how good or bad they are doing until the end.

Way back in prehistoric times, I had the honor of playing a extremely notable game of Republic of Rome. The memorable part was one of the players again tanking the game for us, which he was completely in his rights to do. He didn't even mean to do it, but didn't realize exactly how bad things were doing in his quest to gain just a little bit on the leader.

I can remember the game, even though it must have been at least 15 years ago. I certainly wasn't frustrated with losing the game. And I probably would have done the same thing in his case. Much like today's modern co-ops, it was part of the experience.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Extra Roles for Citadels: Dark City

I've never used a single card from the "Dark City" expansion included in my Silver Line edition of Citadels. After my big diatribe last time I was going to continue complaining about expansions, but after taking a hard look at these cards my opinion did a hard 180. What am I going to do with myself?

I really need to try some of these out.

Of particular interest:

The Wizard - The original role in this spot, The Magician, allowed you to swap your hand with another player's hand or discard your hand and draw the same number of new cards. The Wizard instead can steal a single card out of a player's hand and even allows you to build it immediately in addition to your normal building action (if you have the funds). This feels very powerful and also works to accelerate the game, since one player could potentially be 2 buildings ahead.

The Emperor - The Emperor changes the rules for assigning the first player crown. Instead of getting it with The King role, now you give it away when you use The Emperor role. And the receiving player has to pay you. In the base game the only way to directly affect players (instead of their roles) was the Magician and the Warlord. I like skimming a little money or a card off of another player, doesn't seem like it would hurt as bad as the first two situations.

The Diplomat - This was the hardest card for me to come to grips with. The Warlord in the base game is my very favorite role. I don't even mind my own building getting burned down (those taverns sure are flammable) as long as action is happening. Well, the Diplomat doesn't burn buildings down, he trades buildings with one of the other players. You pay the difference between costs. Imagine finally being able to attack one of your opponent's huge purple buildings, either one of the extra victory point ones or a powerful effect they've been using all game. With the Warlord it was cost prohibitive, but now every single building I can see being fair game.

I've been dismissive of the anti-Warlord crowd in the past. Being dismissive is fun, and it makes me feel superior. But after thinking hard about the Diplomat for a while, I'm ready to make the switch. Normally the Warlord hurts both players involved a little…you lose some of your gold while the player on the receiving end loses a building. The Diplomat, on the other hand, has the possibility to end games because you can effectively "buy" the exact building you need to win, hopefully with enough value behind it to sneak ahead of everyone else.

Of course, the Assassin will be there to make it hard for anyone who considers the victory "easy" and giving the Assassin another popular role beyond the Merchant or the Architect to inflict his nihilistic tendencies on is probably a plus, too. Usually there is someone in your game group who just loves killing people, they always pick the Assassin, now they have better stuff to go after.

The other roles…Tax Collector, Alchemist, etc…are kinda boring right now. They seem to just be different ways to earn extra cash. But maybe I need to try some of them too.

The biggest fault of Citadels is that it takes too long for what it is. Players sit around and collect gold, building up their buildings and drawing cards. I understand there is a popular variant, its only change reducing the number of buildings for victory from 8 to 7. If I can do that, then add a couple of roles that make the game go even faster, the future will be bright indeed for this gaming classic.

Come to think of it, if they make an expansion like this for Mission: Red Planet I would probably get that too. In a second. My head just expoloded!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Games Workshop Expansion Boxes 1992-1996

I listen to podcasts in my car. Since I burn them to a CD, and since I do my burning at non-standard intervals, sometimes I listen to a podcast more than once. Sometimes a few times.

Dice Tower #303 - Expansion Boxes has been circling my ears lately. The big question for the episode is of course "What do you do with your expansion boxes?"

The folks fall into about 3 camps.

First camp: They buy an expansion. They move the components of the expansion and the base game into a unified box (either the base game box or the expansion box, whichever is bigger). The leftover box is discarded.

Second camp: They buy an expansion. They keep the components in the expansion box, stacking a complete base game and expansion game together on the shelf. And only mixing the expansion parts in when they WANT to play with expansion rules.

Third camp: They buy an expansion. The components of the expansion are combined with the base game like in the first camp. But the expansion box is RETAINED, in an empty state. In the very unlikely case the buyer decides he wants to separate the components back out again. Perhaps to sell. Perhaps just to look at.

These three camps were driving me just a little insane. Until one guy came on with a little different perspective. Greg Schloesser stated he almost never buys expansions, period.

I avoid buying expansions, too. I was going to write a big post about how I've never bought an expansion.

Big Mistake.

After more consideration this turned out to be rubbish, and many, many dark memories of past expansion experiences came flooding back to me. My mind was transported back to the 90's, specifically the years 1994 to 1996. A little company called Games Workshop had a hold on me. An iron grip, and they intended to wring the very last red cent out of me.

I'm pretty sure Games Workshop pioneered the must-have expansion. That is, the expansion you MUST have in order to play the base game in the way it was intended. Here are a few examples.

1. Warhammer Fantasy Battles - Battle Magic

Warhammer Fantasy Battles was the 3rd or 4th edition of the Warhammer Fantasy battle system. The base game included a heaping helping of orcs, goblins and high elves to help get you started. What Fantasy Battles did NOT have was rules for using any of your wizards. Since this was a FANTASY setting, typically armies would have at least one wizard blasting away. The rules for using magic could be found in a little $40 expansion called Battle Magic. I remember reading in White Dwarf how they just tried and tried to fit the magic rules in with the base game. But it was just too hard! So they had to charge me extra money. They would later charge me even more money for the even-more-magic expansion…Arcane Magic.

2. Warhammer 40,000 - Dark Millenium

Games Workshop evidently loved the revenue model for Battle Magic so much they came back for an encore with Dark Millennium. Again, they tried super hard to fit the rules for psykers (future wizards!) into the base game, but there was just too much content. How can you possibly expect us to pack so much creative content into one gigantic coffin-size box?

3. Blood Bowl: Death Zone

Death Zone added a few minor optional things to enrich the Blood Bowl experience. Like rules for half the teams (Goblins, Chaos, Undead, Wood Elf, Halflings and Chaos Dwarves) and rules for campaign mode. People were having all kinds of fun playing one-off games in Blood Bowl, but now you can play an entire season!

4. Necromunda: Outlanders

Outlanders came in at the tail end, and actually contains rules you DON'T need to play the base game. The campaign mode was finally included in the base Necromunda game, as were all the very similar "Underhive" gangs. Outlanders added some specialized "renegade" gangs, as well as new rules for existing gangs to be exiled from the underhive. Strangely enough, this was the expansion I appreciated the most. Seldom were the rules used, but I got to see an amazing 30 man gang of cannibalistic Scavies piloted by my friend Ryan and it was totally worth it for that alone. You also got some sweet new cardstock buildings to complement the base game ones, for more scenery maneuvering mayhem!

By 1999, Games Workshop was publishing Mordheim: City of the Damned. Finally, every rule you would ever need right in the base box.

Today's modern expansion is sort of a different beast. I think publishers have gotten really smart about the kind of content they contain. I've read accusations from people who claim sometimes a designer doesn't give you "the whole game" until you buy the first expansion. But you'll have a hard time finding a case of essential rules being withheld like the previous examples.

For modern games, ones I bought after say 2000, I have almost none of the expansions and don't really feel the need to get them. But I'm going to save that for another post! The post will also include the rules for using wizards in your campaigns, so you better read it!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Carcassonne…a thin veneer of civility

If the broad, oh so broad, category of Eurogames could be separated with further geographical terms…Carcassonne would fit squarely in an area I'm going to call "The Wild West."

By which I mean a land of promise, with many avenues of opportunity. A land from an earlier time, full of big words and polite eloquence. A land covered in a veneer of civility. Underneath the shine however, players act like 4 rats trapped in a tank, fighting to be the last rat.

When I first looked at Carcassonne, I was not impressed. The gameplay is simple. You draw one tile, and then you play one tile. A very odd feeling comes with not having a hand, or hidden information of any kind. To the first time player, there's very few choices available.

The big rule of Carcassonne is this: you can't place a meeple on an area someone else has already claimed. I didn't like this rule when I saw it. Because the game seemed to be discouraging player interaction. By limiting us to "blocking" moves, how was I suppose to fight and steal all my opponent's stuff? Things were going to get boring fast.

from boardgamegeek

A few short games later, I was enthusiastically taking my opponent's stuff. And what I couldn't take, I tried my hardest to destroy.

Because while Carcassonne bans overt attacks against other players, covert attacks are constant and unrelenting.

Sure, you can put your meeple down on a road, and no one can add another meeple there. But roads have a nasty habit of eventually connecting to other roads. And another player might have a couple of meeple further up the pike, ready to drink your milkshake up the moment time runs its course. (insert suction sounds)

Placing tiles might look a little random at first. But there is always a optimal, tactically superior place to put whatever kind of tile you draw. If you can't increase your own points, you should then at least be able to place your tile in such a way that it fouls up your opponents point scoring. With the right tile, you can make it so a city can never be completed. You can make it so a road remains unfinished, trapping competing meeple for all eternity on its meandering lengths. You can block off farmland making it effectively worthless.

If playing a tile in Carcassonne does not elicit howls of outrage from your fellow players, you are probably doing something wrong.

The version I play most often uses the Inns and Cathedral expansion. This adds even more screwage to the regular game. Inn and Cathedral tiles double the point value of roads and cities, respectively. But they also make features worth zero points until they are completed. How often are these tiles used in a positive way? Across about 40 plays, I have seen exactly one cathedral city completed. The rest were once-promising cities to whom the cathedral tile was the final kiss of death they never recovered from.

Do you like wrecking and humiliating people while also pretending you're doing nothing wrong? Carcassonne is probably right up your alley. I was unsure of the idea at first, but I've taken to it like a bear to honey.

Much like the Wild West, property is a jealously guarded commodity. But at the end of the game, you just might find out you've been sitting on a worthless pile of rocks the entire time.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bohnanza: No Mouth to Scream

1967 saw the first publishing of noted science fiction writer Harlan Ellison's dark future vision "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." In it a brutal supercomputer rules over the last 5 living humans, torturing and mutilating them to suit its insane whims.

I often contemplate this story during play of Uwe Rosenburg's modern gaming classic Bohnanza. Sometimes more casually referred to as "The Bean Game,"you will find the bright yellow box of this simple card game on just about every gaming shelf. Still in print, too!

Like the pitiful human remnants in "I Have No Mouth", the players in Bohnanza face a difficult predicament. They are bean farmers, you see. Their objective is to plant beans into 1 of 2 fields, represented by cards. By repeatedly playing the same type of bean, players collect sets which can then be harvested for gold coins. The man or woman with the most gold coins at the end of the game of course wins. Whatever winning means in this case.

Like the malicious artificial intelligence "AM," the game structure of Bohnanza only exists to create a hostile and abusive environment for bean farmers.

A bean farmer would ideally like to choose what beans get planted in the fields. But this is not so! Each  mewling human is instead dealt random bean cards. The cards are arranged in the player's hand in an inalterable queue, in the order they are dealt. You can NEVER change the order of your queue. When you draw fresh new cards, they go to the back of the queue. The cards slowly march across your hand to their eventual fate.

Each turn, you must plant new bean cards. Each of your 2 fields can only hold 1 type of bean card. There are 9 different types of beans in the game. If you have a bean card to plant and 2 fields with other types of beans, one of the fields has to be dug up and you must start all over again.

Hopefully you are able to stack a few bean cards before you tear them back out, in which case you get to keep a gold coin or two to save up for the end game.

But left to your own devices, you are most often going to be digging up beans, planting new beans, and then digging them up right away again next turn before they are able to earn you anything.

But then comes TRADING!

Of course the one reprieve from this eternal torture comes in the form of your fellow humans. While you can NEVER change the order of cards in your hand, you CAN trade cards out of your hand for cards from another player.

You give them cards, they give you cards. All these beans cannot go back in your hand (the queue is verboten!) They must instead be planted immediately, necessitating the possible excavation yet again of current bean fields.

So every turn you draw new cards. You cajole people to give you their cards that you want in your fields. You beg people to take cards out of your hand you don't want to play. And then you tear up your bean fields and plant more random bean cards.

This goes around and around, until you've gone 3 times through the deck of bean cards.


In the story, the super computer AM fills its days by physically and mentally torturing the last existing humans. Eventually most are able to kill themselves and escape into sweet oblivion before the computer can heal them. Only the narrator remains, who is promptly mutated by the computer into an unkillable form. As the title indicates, the narrator finds himself in a position where he desires to scream, yet is an immortal blob without a mouth.

Bohnanza ends once the central bean deck has been depleted 3 times. Whoever has succeeded as the best bean farmer…in spite of the extensive anti-bean-farmer laws of the game…now becomes the winner.

Unlike "I Have No Mouth" there is no rebellion, and I can only assume the immortal bean-planting blobs in Bohnanza simply go on to another set of bean fields in an eternal dysfunctional dance. The winner receives no lasting reward other than the irrational envy of the other players.

I really don't mind playing Bohnanza. But that is pretty damning praise for any board or card game. I will play just about anything. I will not suggest it to others. If I leave the decision-making process to my friends, I find Bohnanza makes its way to the table about once a year. And that is plenty for a grim dystopian bean-planting future.