First Look at Power Grid: The First Sparks

Image by Henning

It occurred to me that I haven’t talked about Power Grid here yet. Like Modern Art, it falls into the group of games that I initially didn’t care for but have learned to love.  It was one of the the earlier games that I learned, features a lot of very new concepts and experienced players most certainly have an advantage. My early plays were perhaps a bit colored by that perspective, but I’ve since come to really enjoy Power Grid.  I think it will certainly be considered a classic.

There’s no doubt that Power Grid has been a success for Rio Grande, so it isn’t too surprising that they’ve tried to capitalize on the success of its name.  Power Grid: Factory Manager held no interest for me; the name alone seems to imply they managed to find an even less interesting theme to put on a Power Grid game!

Then along comes Power Grid: The First Sparks.  At its core it is very much Power Grid with a stone age theme.  Instead of building out your power grid you are growing your clan and hunting for food.  I really felt it was going to be yet another attempt to cash in on the Power Grid name.  A friend of mine picked it up at Essen, though, and I’ve been able to play a couple of times:

Image by maeddes

+ Forget the ridiculous title: the theme actually works.  Different food sources (fish, bears, mammoth, etc.) require different tools to harvest.  If the group collectively over-hunts a source of food it will become scarce, forcing you to find other ways to feed your clan. New technologies like fire and speech give you a leg up on your opponents. The components and artwork go a long way to help sell the theme, too. Power Grid may look quite dry but The First Sparks does a surprisingly good job with the theme.

~ In theory the game should play faster than Power Grid. Friedemann essentially cut out the middle stage of Power Grid which somewhat messes with the pacing of the game.  It’s like the middle growth stage of Power Grid is gone and you go from the early stages of establishing your territory straight to the end game build-outs.  With experience I think it will result in a faster game, but it also changes the overall pacing. I’m not sure it is quite as satisfying as the end game will really sneak up on you. This could be a side effect of my prior experience with Power Grid or groupthink at the table, but I feel like the game’s escalation is a bit off.

Image by
henk.rolleman

+ I like that the map is randomly built each game.  There isn’t much variety in the tiles themselves but the map shape will greatly impact how the game plays out.  I also really like that your location is tied to which resources you can harvest.  It adds in another level of decision making as you not only want to grab cheaper locations, you also want to make sure you can get in on the resources you want.

I’m not convinced that The First Sparks will hold up as well as Power Grid in the long run; it certainly doesn’t have that “classic” feel about it.  I do think that the theme will go a long ways for those that found Power Grid unappealing, but don’t be fooled by the cute exterior – there is still plenty of crunchy math inside.

Do both Power Grid and The First Sparks deserve a spot on your gaming shelf?  Mechanically they differ enough but I think the overall experience feels very similar.  At the end of the day there’s no doubt that Power Grid is the better game, but I think the theme and shorter playtime will certainly appeal to some.


Contest Time

Don’t forget about the contest!  I’m giving away two Kickerstarter copies of Eminent Domain!  All you have to do to enter the contest is send an email to contest *AT* dreadedgazebo *DOT* com with the subject “1000th play”. 

ENTRIES ARE DUE BY DECEMBER 15TH, 2011, 11:59PM CST! I will randomly pick two winners the next day.  I’ll gladly ship internationally, so feel free to enter no matter where you live.

First look: Super Dungeon Explore

Image by Helljin

I love dungeon crawlers, digital and cardboard.  There’s something oh-so-satisfying about running around a dungeon, finding loot and leveling up.  Quite a few tabletop dungeon crawlers have hit the market over the years, from the epic Descent: Journeys in the Dark to the more streamlined Dungeons and Dragons series and video game conversions like Gears of War.

Super Dungeon Explore is the newest contender, and it tries to find a middle ground in complexity and play length.  It’s not purely cooperative as one player is the “Dark Consul” (which I will refer to as the Overlord to use Descent terminology) as they try and wipe out the pesky heroes.  What makes Super Dungeon Explore really stand out from the rest is its clear artistic roots in classic Japanese RPGs and gameplay in arcade-style dungeon crawlers like Gauntlet.  Characters are in the cute, super-deformed anime style while the players essentially run around an arena trying to shut down the monster spawn points and eventually take down the evil boss when he spawns.  The various stages of the game are even called 8-bit and 16-bit, which I appreciate as a video gamer.

I’ve only played twice, and the first time we played some rules incorrectly.  Here are some early thoughts from my brief exposure:

- Rulebook: First off, I thought the rule book was poorly written and laid out.  A friend of my picked it up, not me, so I’ve only read through it as we played but it’s terrible as a reference and I can easily see how we missed some key rules the first time through.  For such a simple game the rules could have been far more clear.  I’m okay with ambiguities in a game like this as you can easily go with what makes the most thematic sense, it’s easy to overlook some really important rules.

Image by thewickerman

+ Gameplay: Once you figure out the rules, though, you’ll find a pretty fun combat system.  Everything is based on action points which you  primarily use to activate special attacks.  Each hero is unique and has some really fun overpowered abilities; I always love when games like this can make you feel incredibly powerful right from the start.  As a hero you’ll be able to do all sorts of crazy awesome things your teammates can’t, yet you’ll still be jealous of the crazy awesome things they do.  Heroes will also have a chance to heal or find potions as they roll the combat dice, so you have to keep fighting to heal up.  It’s a fantastic mechanic that encourages the heroes to wade into battle.

- Playing the Bad Guy: On the flip side I found the Overlord not nearly as fun to play.  In the style of Gauntlet most of your monsters will drop with a single hit, meaning you need to quickly swarm the heroes to stand a chance until your big boss monsters come out to play.  Thematically it works and there is room for tactical play, I just didn’t find it all that satisfying.  It also doesn’t help that you may have up to six or seven different types of monsters on the board at any given point in time, each with their own stats and special abilities.  It’s quite a bit to take in.  While diversity is nice, I would’ve preferred fielding fewer types of monsters per mission.

+ Tactical Combat: I love how much positioning and movement come into play, especially for the heroes.  There are lots of movement-based skills and area of effects which I always find fun.  Yes, it slows things down initially as you come to grips with how it all works, but once you figure it out I think there’s a lot of tactical fun to be had.  Pushing and pulling monsters, running around and performing extra attacks, enemies knocking down and swarming heroes… it all works really well and I think is the strongest point of the game.

+ Loot: The loot is also quite a bit of fun and makes the heroes feel even more powerful.  Good loot is key in a dungeon crawler and I think they did a great job here.

Image by petejacko

- Game Length: Unfortunately the game takes longer that it feels like it should.  Combat flows pretty quickly but with the Overlord spawning monsters at each spawn point every turn it can easily turn into a slog if the heroes fall behind.  I do think there’s a level of efficiency the heroes can achieve with experience, but these early plays did outstay their welcome a bit.

- What’s in the Box: There certainly is replay value in the base set, but just a little more would’ve gone quite a ways to making the game feel more like a complete package and less like a base set waiting for expansions.  For example, there’s only one boss so every game will have the same final battle.  I’d be fine with one boss figure but a few different cards giving it different abilities just to mix things up a bit.  It’s not a big deal but I’ve come to expect a bit more robustness in games these days.  I think it very much shows the company’s roots in miniature gaming.

I’m looking forward to giving Super Dungeon Explore more plays, although I do have some concerns about its longevity.  It also seems to be far more fun to play as the heroes than the Overlord; the heroes get fun loot to look forward to but all the Overlord has is the same set of monsters to keep respawning. If the play time can come down to maybe 90-120 minutes I think it may hit the table more often, but we pushed well over two hours for each play which is a bit much.

We’ll see how it holds up in the long run and what our excitement level is for getting it on the table again.  It does a lot of things right and I think dungeon crawler fans will find a lot of to love, and fans of houserules and modding have a great base game to experiment with.

Now to wait and see how 2nd edition Descent turns outs… I have high hopes!


Contest Time

Don’t forget about the contest!  I’m giving away two Kickerstarter copies of Eminent Domain!  All you have to do to enter the contest is send an email to contest *AT* dreadedgazebo *DOT* com with the subject “1000th play”. 


ENTRIES ARE DUE BY DECEMBER 15TH, 2011, 11:59PM CST! I will randomly pick two winners the next day.  I’ll gladly ship internationally, so feel free to enter no matter where you live.

1000th play – and a contest!

It’s official: I’ve logged over 1000 plays over at BoardGameGeek. Now, this number is not entirely exact as I don’t log games I’ve played online, I consider multiple plays of the same game on one night as a single play, and I’ve probably forgotten to log several. Still, that’s a lot of games played! Now to bore you with some completely pointless stats that nobody really cares about:

* 1003 logged plays and counting
* 297 different games played
* 70 games with 5 or more plays
* 20 games with 10 or more plays
* Click here to see all my game plays over at BoardGameGeek

There is some really interesting diversity in my most played games; here are quick thoughts on some of them:

* Dominion (19 plays) and Pandemic (19 plays) - Pretty much what I expected. Both pack in a ton of gameplay for their short play time. If I played several rounds of Dominion on one game night I only log that as a single play, so I’ve really played these more than the count implies. Dominion is very much a “must have” in my mind, while Pandemic has been replaced by Defenders of the Realm unless I need the shorter play time.

* Descent: Journeys in the Dark (15 plays) – Wow, really? I had no idea I’ve managed this many plays of Descent. That is fantastic! It’s been a long time since this got tabled up, though. At this point I’m now holding out for the 2nd edition, coming next spring. If that turns out even remotely as good as I’m anticipating I expect it will log a lot of plays.

* Runewars (13 plays) – Yes, it’s quite likely my favorite board game of all time, but I still hadn’t realized I put in this many plays. Needless to say that makes me quite happy.

* Agricola (12 plays) – This has only seen so many plays due to popularity in my gaming groups. It’s fun enough with two or three, but any more and there are many more games I’d rather play. Probably my least favorite game in those with 10 or more plays.

* Britannia (7 plays) and Sid Meier’s Civilization (6 plays) – Both of these games need to be played way more often.

Given these numbers you can certainly tell I prefer playing a diversity of games over digging deep into a single game.  Not that I’m opposed to playing any given game a lot; we just tend to pick up all the latest and greatest and love seeing new designs as they come out.


Image by Surya

So what was my 1000th play, you ask? Belfort, by Tasty Minstrel Games. I received it just before Thanksgiving as part of the BoardGameGeek Secret Santa and have played a couple of times now. Expect more on this game later, but for now I’ll just say that I’ve really enjoyed it so far and look forward to tabling it up again.




Image by hatemachine

Yes, it’s contest time! Since Belfort was my 1000th play, I felt it would only be fitting to give away another title by Tasty Minstrel Games! I have not one but TWO Kickstarter copies of Eminent Domain up for grabs. Not only is Eminent Domain a lot of fun, I’m also immortalized in it on the lovely warfare planet “Overlord Betzel’s Domain”! How great is that?

All you have to do to enter the contest is send an email to contest *AT* dreadedgazebo *DOT* com with the subject “1000th play”. If you’d like, feel free to give me any feedback on the site, games you’d like to see me cover, etc. Also, if you were a Kickstarter on Eminent Domain, make sure to let me know your name and the email address you Kickstarted with. I’ll confirm that you were in fact a Kickstarter and give you a second entry into the contest! Of course you already have a copy, but this would make a great Christmas gift.

ALL ENTRIES ARE DUE BY DECEMBER 15TH, 2011, 11:59PM CST! I will randomly pick two winners the next day.  I’ll gladly ship internationally, so feel free to enter no matter where you live.


Thanks everyone for reading my random thoughts here. In the past I’ve generally been very review-focused, but that has greatly limited how often I post. As you can see I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to play lots of games, so going forward I think I’ll try and put up smaller thoughts on the games I’m playing.

Happy gaming!

More Runewars Love

Image by yominion

I’ve already gushed about Runewars a fair amount in the past, but you know what?  It deserves some more love.  It had been quite awhile since I last played; there have been lots of great new releases recently and it’s not always easy to find two or three other people who share my enthusiasm for the game that have a few hours to set aside and play.  Thankfully I was recently lucky enough to play two weekends in a row!

Those games once again reminded me why this likely stands as my number one game.  It has everything I want: lots of theme, awesome components, engaging gameplay with a good story arc and little downtime and fun from start to finish.  I was completely crushed the second game I played: I ended with zero dragon runes, a first for me.  Even with my sound thrashing I loved every minute of it.  I knew I was probably not going to be in the running to win but there was often a small hope that I could pull out a big turn.  Even when that hope faded near the end, I still had a fantastic moment where my undead hoard overran a neighboring human stronghold with sheer numbers.  It was a thing of beauty, even if the attack ultimately did nothing to improve my final standing.

Image by W Eric Martin

That is why I love Runewars so much.  Every time I play I find it interesting and different than the last.  Some may be turned off by the chrome, the sheer number of bits or the somewhat lengthy play time (3 to 5 hours depending on number of players and if teaching is involved). It fires on all cylinders for me, though, and I simply can’t get enough of it.

I’m also greatly looking forward to the upcoming Banners of War expansion.  While it isn’t adding any new factions, it looks to improve the game in pretty much every other way imaginable.  It may take my favorite game to an all-new level!

GenCon 2011

I’m back from GenCon!  Only got to spend time there on Saturday which was not nearly enough time to check out everything that I would’ve liked.  Still, here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:

* Learned a very important lesson on the way over: Indianapolis is in Eastern time, not Central!  My friend’s phone flipped timezones on the way there, and not until then did we realize we lost an extra hour of show floor time.  Ah well.

* I haven’t been to GenCon since the last two years it was in Milwaukee.  Wow has it grown!  The amount of board games on the floor was really amazing.  One day is nowhere near enough time to both see everything and get some game demos in.  Hopefully next year I’ll be able to plan out at least two days there.

* Got to meet Stephen and Dave from The Spiel.  Saw them walking around the floor and had to say hi.  Very nice guys, was fun chatting with them for a bit.  Was also able to get a set of coveted Spiel dice!

* Fantasy Flight’s area was massive… wow!  Without a doubt the largest display there.  They had the Star Wars cooperative card game and X-Wing minis space combat playable which was impressive.  I didn’t get a chance to demo either, but did watch the X-Wing minis game being played.  It looks like a slightly more advanced version of Wings of War with a Star Wars theme.  I’m very curious about this one; it all depends how they package it.

* Speaking of Fantasy Flight, I got a demo of Elder Sign from Kevin Wilson!  That was very cool, not to mention that I will be picking up a copy of Elder Sign as soon as I can; looks like Richard Launius may have another hit on his hands.  The game was surprisingly engaging for how simple the gameplay is.  Unfortunately they sold out of their copies immediately on Thursday so I couldn’t grab one at the show.

* Wrapping up Fantasy Flight, I was able to pick up a copy of Rune Age and early impressions are very positive.  Both Rune Age and Elder Sign are Silver Line games for $35.  That’s a fantastic price point for both of these and could be a real sweet spot for Fantasy Flight down the line.  They also announced a second edition of Descent that will be available next spring.  There’s not a lot of information yet but they bit they’ve showed looks fantastic!

* There was a massive RoboRally board that had actual computer-controlled robots.  So very cool.

* Stopped by Tasty Minstrel Games to meet Michael Mindes and Seth Jaffee.  Got to talk with Seth for a bit about Eminent Domain and Kickstarter in general; he’s a great guy and his enthusiasm for what they do is pretty infectious.  Eminent Domain was playable, and while I didn’t sit down for a demo he did show me a copy of my card: Overlord Betzel’s Domain.  Looking forward to getting my Kickstarter copies!  I’ll be doing a giveaway of some sort once they finally arrive.

* Unless I missed something, the Wizards of the Coast display was extremely disappointing.  It was basically all dedicated to the new Neverwinter setting for 4th edition and some live-action style game they were running at the convention.  I really wanted to see Conquest of Nerath and The Legend of Drizzt in action but as best I could tell they were only on display in glass cases.  Maybe they were playable up in the WotC game room upstairs but we didn’t have time to wander through.

* GeekChic‘s tables are even more impressive in person than I expected.  Gorgeous.

In the end it was well worth going if only for one day.  I walked out with copies of Rune Age, Ventura, Olympos and the event deck for Railways of the World.  Elder Sign is hands-down my most anticipated game coming out of the convention, which I certainly did not expect going in.  I also didn’t think I would be all that interested in sitting down to demo things, but now I regret not having more time.  I’ll be sure to fix that up next year!

What I hope to see at GenCon 2011

I’ll be heading to GenCon this year!  Only for one day (Saturday) but I’m hoping to take in as much as I can.  I haven’t been since the last couple of years it was in Milwaukee. I wasn’t even into board games then, nor was the hobby in the heyday it is now.  Needless to say I’m quite excited to see what the show is like these days.  Here’s a quick rundown of what I’m hoping to see:

Runewars: Banners of War – It’s clear I love Runewars and I’ve been waiting for an expansion for awhile. While it doesn’t offer more races as I hoped, the pieces it does add look really interesting.  Here’s to hoping they are running demos as I’d love to see it in action.

Rune Age – Deck building may be getting a little played out and I have yet to find a game that does it as well as Dominion.  Still, Rune Age looks to add some interesting new mechanics to the table, including the potential for cooperative play.  Would love to give this a trial run and maybe pick up a copy if they have any for sale.

Ventura – Not surprisingly, Fantasy Flight is dominating my list!  Ventura looks like a Euro-style war game with a modular board… could be right up my alley.  The rules have been posted but I’d love to see it in action.  Easily an impulse purchase if they have it for sale.

Dungeon Run – Looks like Cutthroat Caverns with a board.  I’m in.

Olympos – Another Civ-style game, this time by Vinci and Small World designer Philippe Keyaerts.  I don’t know if this will actually be at the show but I’m hoping to catch a glimpse.

Blood Bowl Team Manager – This started its life as a deck building game but looks like it may have morphed into something fairly unique.  Love the Blood Bowl theme.

Elder Sign – Arkham Horror is a game I really want to love but have mixed feelings on.  The setting is great, though, and Elder Sign takes Cthulhu into the realm of dice games.  It’s designed by both Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, so that alone has me intrigued!

Quarriors – Have I mentioned I love dice?  Quarriors comes with 130 dice; it may be worth purchasing for that reason alone.  It’s also a deck building style game with dice instead of cards.  Certainly worth checking out.

Ninjato – Ninjas.  Brought to you by CrossCut games, the folks behind Galactic Emperor.  That’s enough to make me seek it out at the show.

Geek Chic – I simply can’t wait to see their gaming tables in person.  At the same time I’m extremely afraid as I know it’ll only further my insatiable lust for a gaming table I really can’t (or shouldn’t) afford right now.

I’ll be sure to report back with what I get a chance to see and maybe even get some hands-on time with!

7 Wonders

Image by a_traveler

Flexibility can be a very important factor to look for in a board game.  Britannia is one of my favorite games, for example, but you need four players with four to six hours to get through a game.  It is seriously fun but tough to pull out on a regular basis.  As much as we love our epic games there is something to be said for a game that we can table up no matter how much time we have or how many people show up for games that night.

Which is why 7 Wonders is such a brilliant game.  It’s difficult to find a game that supports and plays well with a wide number of players, but 7 Wonders plays from three to seven without batting an eye or even really increasing play time.  It’s fast, easy and seriously fun.

7 Wonders is essentially a card drafting game that takes place over three rounds.  You are dealt a hand of seven cards, pick one to play and pass the rest.  Continue until the sixth card is played, discard the seventh, dealt out cards for the next round and so on.  Cards do a variety of different things, but generally they all serve to either make it easier for you play cards down later or earn you victory points at the end of the game.

Each player has a wonder they may construct.  Instead of playing a card from their hand that round they may instead choose to use one of those cards to build a stage of their wonder.  Each wonder provides different abilities was you construct them, which may help focus your strategy and adds more replay value as you try out all the different wonders.

Image by Fran Moli

There are really two things that make 7 Wonders work so well:

+ Long-Term Planning: A game of 7 Wonders takes place over three ages, each with a new set of cards.  Some cards, when built, make other cards free to play.  It is very satisfying when you are working towards a given strategy and get those freebies built.  You are getting a new hand passed to you each time you play a card so you never know for certain what will make it around to you.  I find the balance between long-term planning and dealing with what is handed to you extremely satisfying.

+ Limited Player Interaction: It’s not often you see me consider limited player interaction a good thing in a board game, but it really is central to why 7 Wonders scales so well.  You are always passing cards, purchasing resources and fighting against your immediate neighbors.  If you are playing with three or with seven, it really doesn’t matter much as you only really have to worry about two people at the table.

It also affects card drafting.  When I get my hand, I need to not only think about how I can best put those cards to use but must also consider what cards I’m passing along.  If there a card in my hand that is worth a lot of points to my neighbor, I may consider using that to build my wonder or discarding it for cash instead of playing something else I could use.

There’s really only one thing I can fault 7 Wonders for:

- Confusing Iconography: Most cards have icons indicating what they bestow upon you once played.  Unfortunately the icons can be confusing at first, especially given some of the mechanics.  For example, any time you see a money icon you earn that money immediately, but victory points are always tallied at the end of the game.  There are a few cards that do both and it always takes new players awhile to remember how those two differ.  They also changed the symbols a bit from the first and second edition and I feel like they’ve actually made them worse.

Image by henk.rolleman

That’s a very small blemish on what is an otherwise outstanding game.  Your first time playing will very much be a learning game.  Yes, it’s simple to learn the basics but difficult to see how your early choices impact the game later.  With its fast playing time, though (easily under a half hour once everyone knows how to play), people are almost guaranteed to be asking to play again right away!

If you can, get yourself a copy of 7 Wonders.  The price may seem a little steep for what is basically three decks of cards but I promise you’ll  get your money’s worth in plays.  It is easily one of my favorite games in the past few years and is one we can table up any game night no matter who shows up!

Cooperative Series: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Image by tmredden

There are lots of factors that go into a great game, but what I love most are those that leave you with memorable moments.  When you start tabling up a game, I love it when the group starts talking about those crazy I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened moments that have happened before, often a long time ago.  Sometimes it comes from a brilliant or terrible move, other times from an incredible string of good or back luck.  Whatever the cause, I always look for games that give you those lasting memories.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game entirely about those types of moments.  At the start of the game, all the players are working together to explore a creepy old mansion, dealing with whatever threats they encounter.  Bad omens are everywhere, though, and at some point one of the players betrays the rest which kicks off a showdown (The Haunt) between the traitor and the remaining heroes.  Here’s what makes the game work:

+ Simple Rules: Betrayal’s rulebook is very short with fairly straightforward rules. You can teach players the basics in a few minutes and as the game starts off purely cooperatively you can explain how many things work as you play.  That low barrier to entry really is key to Betrayal’s success as players are able to focus on the fun things happening instead of worrying about individual rules.

There will be ambiguities at times, but the rule book sums it up nicely: “Don’t let [questions] slow you down. [Come] to an agreement as a group for what makes the most sense and go with it.” 

Image by mikehulsebus

+ Theme: With such a simple rule set, Betrayal at House on the Hill really is all about the theme.  There are several different characters in the game, all based on horror B-movie stereotypes.  Players explore the mansion by revealing random tiles resulting in  a different mansion layout each time, adding to the suspense and replayability.  Most rooms result in you drawing an event card causing some sort of crazy thing happen to your player.  All of the flavor text on the cards and the events in the Haunts really nail the horror movie theme.

+ The Haunt: At some point during the exploration phase, enough bad omens will have been encountered and the Haunt will begin.  Haunts are scenarios that give the story and rules for how the second half of the game plays out.  A quick look at a table in the rules tells you which haunt to play (or you can just pick one you haven’t played yet) and which person betrays the group.

Then the brilliant part starts: the heroes are given one booklet to read while the traitor is given a separate booklet and ideally walks off into another room.  The booklet give you a description of the scenario, your goals and what you know about the other side.  What really makes Betrayal shine is that you do not have perfect information about your opponents goals!  The heroes may know that the traitor has turned into a shambling zombie and you need to kill him, but they may not know that if the zombie traitor makes it to the laboratory they’ll get to inject themselves with a serum that turns them into a super-mega-zombie! (Don’t worry, I just made this scenario up.)  Having that bit of hidden information really makes the game work.  It adds a level of suspense and urgency to what would otherwise be a very simple game with dice-based combat.

As I mentioned earlier, the game comes with fifty different scenarios and any given scenario will probably take around an hour to complete.  That’s a lot of replay value for one game!  Even if you have played a scenario before and know the “secret” to it, the special rules are usually written to prevent you from being able to spoil or break the win/loss condition for either side.  Of course I would never choose to play a scenario I’ve done before because the real fun comes in discovery during the haunt, but it seems like replaying a scenario shouldn’t break the game.

While I really enjoy Betrayal, there are a couple of things that could easily sour someone on the game:

Image by mikehulsebus

- Randomness and Balance: With all the randomness in tiles, cards and dice you are bound to have some players feel like they are getting the brunt of the bad luck.  The scenarios themselves aren’t necessarily designed to be balanced, and that can be further compounded based on what random things have happened leading up to it.  That level of randomness and chaos is bound to be a major turn-off for those looking for a deeper gaming experience.

- Rules Ambiguities: You will run into times when the group needs to agree on how something works as all the cases and questions that come up from scenarios simply can’t be covered in the rules.  Generally it’s not too difficult to come to some sort of consensus, but this is not a game to play with “rules lawyers” that feel the need to find every answer to a question in a rulebook.  As the rules explain, make a quick decision on what makes the most sense given the theme and move on.

- Replay Value: While there is a nice variety of events and omens, you will probably have seen them all after a couple of games.  Most of the cards have a variety of outcomes based on dice rolls so things will rarely play out exactly the same, but more cards would always be welcome.  While you will run into the same cards from game to game, the Haunt adds enough to keep things fresh.  Still, I could see some players getting tired of having the same event cards come up, especially if you play two or three games back to back.

If you like light, highly thematic games, Betrayal at House on the Hill is sure to deliver.  It’s fast, easy to teach and may result in more memorable moments per dollar than most any other game.  For me, Betrayal is a great game to table up a few times a year.  There’s not enough depth to make it a staple for your game nights and the fun is in the discovery and randomness, so I find it’s good to let some time pass between plays so everything feels fresh all over again!

Make sure you get a copy of the new second edition (green box versus the red box of the first edition) as the rules and scenario books are much better written and edited.  Note that some people have been having issues with warping tiles and cards, but it sounds like Wizards of the Coast will send you replacements if you get in contact with customer service.

Navegador

Image by Peter D

In my thoughts on 2010, I mentioned one game I really wanted to try but missed out on was Navegador, the latest in the rondel series of games by Mac Gerdts. While I enjoy Antike and have warmed up to Imperial, neither are games that really demand my attention. When information on Navegador came out it looked like it may finally be the rondel game I’ve been wanting. Thankfully I received a copy from my BoardGameGeek Secret Santa shortly after the new year and have had a few opportunities to table it up!

Players in Navegador are Portuguese sailors navigating the African coastline trying to expand the Portuguese empire. You discover new colonies to trade with, build up your production capabilities at home, construct fleets of ships for exploring and look to the church for more manpower.

Navegador takes place over three eras triggered by a player sailing into specific sea regions on the map. Over the course of the game you will be able to collect privileges from powerful Portuguese families to earn you victory points for various game aspects you have focused on. For example, one will give you points based on the number of factories you have built while another earns points based on the number of colonies you have settled.

There are really three things that drive Navegador:

Image by da pyrate

* The Rondel – Mac Gerdts loves his rondel and it makes yet another appearance in Navegador. For those not familiar, the rondel a circle of actions players traverse to choose their actions each turn. You start the game on any rondel space but may only advance up to three spaces for free on future turns. This creates a somewhat a pre-programmed sequence of actions but you decide how quickly you move around and which actions to take or skip.

Unlike Antike and Imperial, I think Navegador really makes the rondel shine. In those other games your choices around the rondel were generally obvious and the game was more about what you did within those actions. Navegador flips that around and really puts the emphasis on deciding when and where to stop around the rondel. Only the market action appears twice so skipping any other action means some time before it will be available to you again. I think the order of the actions is really well designed as you’ll find yourself making extremely difficult decisions on how quickly you need to get around the rondel.

* The Market – While the rondel drives your decision making, the market really is the focal point. It’s the only portion of the game featured twice on the rondel – a good clue that it will see lots of action.

Image by henk.rolleman

Like many other games with markets, prices fluctuate as goods are bought and sold to simulate supply and demand. Here, though, the concept of goods is abstracted out and you simply receive cash for your exchanges. Selling goods from a colony to the market back in Portugal will earn you money and drive prices down while using your factories takes goods from the market, driving prices up and giving you a return on the profit margin made. You want to sell when prices are high and manufacture when prices are low.

Again, this isn’t an innovative mechanic but not many games make it such a central part of the game or do so as elegantly. Everyone will be using the market and the trick is figuring out who is buying or selling what and when so you can find the perfect time to cash in big. Of course that ties back to the rondel; sometimes to get that big payout you’ll have to pass up other actions that may earn you points or build your economic engine.

* Finding Your Niche – It’s no surprise I’m pleased with Navegador’s multiple paths to victory. What really makes Navegador interesting is that a strategy’s viability depends on what everyone else at the table is doing. The player to your right will heavily influence your choices as you want to avoid following in their footsteps; ideally you play off of them while carving out your own niche. This aspect is certainly found in other games (Puerto Rico immediately comes to mind) but I’ve found it works really well in Navegador. There are enough different strategies and they compliment each other nicely so you can find something that fits in with everyone else. You need to be aware of how your choices ripple down to everyone else; you don’t want someone else to cash in too big from you! Yet letting any single player go uncontested in any aspect of the game will almost certainly mean victory while everyone else butts heads.

Image by duchamp

Going into Navegador I was hoping for a fun rondel game. What I discovered is one of the more fun pieces of cardboard I’ve tabled up. Heavy use of the player-driven market mixed with carving out your scoring opportunities easily lend Navegador to repeated play. There are many difficult decisions to make but the rondel helps narrow your choices on any given turn and allows you to plan a couple of turns ahead. While there’s no direct player interaction you need to be aware of what everyone else is doing so you can benefit most from their actions while helping them out as little as possible. It doesn’t hurt that the game features a beautiful map and quality components that help sell the theme even if the mechanics do feel a bit abstract.

If you enjoy a solid Euro-style game or are a fan of Mac Gerdts’ other rondel titles, be sure to give Navegador a look. It has easily shot to the top of my list.