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.

Agricola

(image courtesy cuazzel @ BGG)
There’s a new king in town and it goes by the name Agricola. For quite a long time Puerto Rico claimed the number one spot in the rankings over at BoardGameGeek. When Agricola released at Essen in 2007 it quickly climbed and at some point last year it finally knocked Puerto Rico off its throne. Agricola had a lot of buzz about it and the speed which it rose was really quite impressive; is the game equally as amazing?

Agricola is a worker placement game about farming. The game takes place over 16 rounds with harvests happening after every few. Over the course of the game you will place your family members (initially two but you may get more later) to raise animals, plow fields, sow crops, expand and renovate your house, bake bread, collect food and much more. There are a lot of aspects to the game and essentially you earn points for everything you’ve managed to do and lose points for the things you haven’t.

As a worker placement game I think Agricola succeeds. There are a lot of different areas to place your family members and even with five players there’s almost always something useful you can do each turn. One aspect I really like is that there is a base set of actions (determined by the number of players) and then each round another action is made available. Family members determine how many actions you’ll be performing each round so as you grow your family and as more actions come up you do get a sense of growth and accomplishment as you manage to do more each turn.

(image courtesy richardsgamepack @ BGG)

One of the more interesting parts of the game are the occupation and improvement cards. Each player is dealt seven of each at the start of the game and will be able to bring these cards into play over the course of the game. What’s most impressive is that every single card is unique and there are even three different decks that come with the game but only one is used at a time. This means there is a ton of replay value as you’ll probably never be dealt the exact same set of cards twice. There’s also a good chance these cards will help you formulate your strategy and set your course for the game.

Unfortunately this also leads to one of my main complaints with Agricola. The occupations and improvements do a lot of cool and varied things but I feel there is a significant luck-of-the-draw aspect to the game. Sometimes you just get dealt really awesome cards that work well together. If you don’t have that same level of synergy you are already at a significant disadvantage.

I’ve discovered that Agricola really stresses me out but not in a good way. There is something like a dozen different areas where you can gain or lose points. Generally you need to make sure you are doing a little bit of everything; focusing too much on one aspect means you are forgoing something else and losing points. You’ll feel real despair when the end of the game is rolling in and you see how much more stuff everyone else has managed to accomplish compared to you. Case in point: I think my highest scoring game was my first when I had no idea what I was doing. I played turn-to-turn and did whatever looked best at the time. Every game since then I’ve tended to focus on whatever I was lacking in last time, meaning something else was ignored and my scores suffered greatly. I’ve found the trick is to really play more tactically and try to maximize each turn rather than try and plan some great strategy. Take what you can when you can get it and you’ll do well.

(image courtesy timsteen @ BGG)
I also feel like the game is dull for the first half to two thirds of the game and then really quickly escalates towards the end. There’s a good chance you won’t be getting your third family member until nearly halfway through the game and harvests come more quickly towards the end. Usually it seems like things really don’t start clicking until round 10 or later at which point you are well over halfway through the game and often things won’t really come together for you until the last couple of rounds when you fill in those last few missing pieces that you need. It’d be nice if the game had a more gradual curve than the somewhat sudden crecendo I often feel.

For all my complaining, though, I do think that Agricola is a good game. Does it deserve the number one spot on BoardGameGeek? Probably not. The mechanics are solid and the game has really high replay value which is fantastic. Unfortunately I think the cards can put you at a disadvantage from the start and I find having to do a little bit of everything not as satisfying as other games where you can really focus on a strategy and see it unfold. I’m not going to turn down a game of Agricola and I might even recommend it from time to time, but generally there are other games I’d rather play.

Cuba

(image courtesy MikeBwithoutadot @ BGG)
Every now and then a game surprises me. At a glance, Cuba doesn’t look like anything special. Sure the board is gorgeous but the theme and mechanics all look derivative. Once I played it, though, I realized that Cuba has plenty to offer.

Cuba has players gathering resources, producing goods and shipping or trading them for points. By itself that doesn’t sound very exciting, not to mention all that unique in the Eurogame realm. The game does borrow a lot from others that came before it. There is role selection, making and shipping of goods, collection of victory points and laws that get passed. It all sounds pretty mundane but Cuba adds its own unique twist to nearly everything.

Each player has a set of five role cards, a player mat showing a 3×4 grid of fields and a worker token. The game takes place over six rounds and whoever has the most victory points at the end wins. On a turn, players go around in order activating one of their roles and performing that action. Each role has a number (one through five) and the fourth card you play activates but also counts as your “bid” for turn order. Your remaining role card is not played but its number counts as your base votes for parliament. The clever part about this is that the higher numbered roles are the more powerful ones, meaning you’ll have to sacrifice a good role to get a good base vote in parliament.

One of your roles is the farmer who allows you to place your worker somewhere on your 3×4 grid and then harvest the resources and goods in the row and column he’s placed in. There’s also the foreman who activates all of the buildings in the row and column your worker is currently in. Player mats have two sides, one that is identical for all players and one that is unique so you could play on completely equal footing or have different starting setups, which is a nice touch.

(image courtesy diceychic @ BGG)

To leverage all of the stuff your workers collect, though, you’ll most likely need buildings. The architect role allows you to pick one building of your choice from the pool of available buildings and place it on a square on your player mat. This is one of the most important parts of the game because not only do the buildings you pick determine your overall strategy for the game but you also must cover up an existing resource when you build it. Figuring out what you need and what you can do without can be painful at times but thankfully your player mat is small enough that your choices are fairly limited and once that first building is placed you’ve pretty much locked yourself in to a pattern for the rest of the game.

Three of the roles have alternate uses. The mayor, tradeswoman and architect all have primary uses that work with the resources you have gathered so far. Their alternate uses allow you to collect a bonus which is then unavailable to all other players for the rest of the round. For example, the mayor normally lets you ship goods to a single ship at the docks. If you didn’t feel like shipping anything, though, the first person to use the mayor’s secondary ability collects four pesos and the second person collects two pesos. These spots can be in serious contention each round and you need to plan your actions accordingly.

Finally, the best part of the game is parliament. Each round there are four categories of laws that will be invoked. The first two involve discarding money or goods for victory points and if you do both you get a bonus point. The third law gives more victory points for specific conditions and the fourth is always some form of rule breaker. At the start of the game the four laws being voted on are shown at the top of the board. As I mentioned earlier, the value of your fifth card determines your base votes and then there’s a blind bid to add additional votes, one per peso. Whoever has the most votes gets to pass two of the four laws and their choices replace any previous laws of that type. Then the laws are invoked in order and players earn points for the laws they are in compliance with.

(image courtesy richardsgamepack @ BGG)
This really makes the game and I think the it can be won or lost here. Most of Cuba is about picking a strategy from turn one, building your victory point engine and working it throughout the game. There are many different ways to earn victory points and it seems like they are all roughly equal in their ability to win. The variables are the laws, if/when they get passed and how long they are in effect. For example, if you are generating a lot of income and the other players are poor you’ll probably want to pass the law that makes players spend five pesos to earn two victory points as there’s a good chance you’ll be the only person who can afford to do that each turn. Or if you have more buildings than everyone else you’ll want to pass the law that earns you points for each building.

Making sure you have the money to win votes, picking your roles so you have the proper base number of votes going in and knowing when to aggressive protect or remove laws is not only very important but a lot of fun. It adds a level of player interaction and awareness you don’t often see. When the new laws come up you’ll be very aware of what impact the passing of those laws will have on each player. If you ignore your opponents they’ll capitalize on the laws and most likely pull out the win.

(image courtesy Nobi @ BGG)

This isn’t to say that Cuba is perfect. My main complaint is that there are only six rounds so there’s no time to waste. From round one you had better pick a strategy and stick with it. If you end up in too much competition with another player or waste too much time getting your production machine up and running you’ll fall behind and have a very difficult time catching up. Your turns will feel scripted at times as well as there’ll really only be one logical way to play it out. Other times you’ll be scratching your head trying to maximize your turn as you generally can’t afford to make many mistakes. Also, there will be times when you discover you can earn more points on a turn by completely ignoring your original strategy and going a completely different route. Not a big deal but it can be a little demoralizing to have built up this whole system just to ignore it on the final round.

Overall, though, I think Cuba has a lot to offer. There are a lot of different ways to achieve victory in the game but I think they all rely on paying attention to the parliament and making the moves you see necessary to give you a boost or prevent others from getting one. It’s also a relatively fast game, easily playable in a couple of hours. Out of the new board games I’ve played over the last year Cuba is easily one of my favorites.

Die, Macher

(Image courtesy gamephotos @ BGG)

I don’t care much for politics. I’ve always avoided it in real life and I think from now on I’ll be avoiding it in board games whenever I can.

BoardGameGeek seems hold Die Macher on a pedestal. It’s the first game in the database and the recent reprint by Valley Games was considered to be some sort of immaculate conception. A four hours game about the German political system? I found it hard to believe it could be that good.

That’s because it turns out the game isn’t very good.

Let me rephrase that: I don’t think the game is very good. You may enjoy it.

Die Macher is a strange beast. It has a lot going on. There are local elections, national opinions, party platforms, public opinion polls… and don’t forget that a game turn is broken down into 18 easy steps. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for complex games. Twilight Imperium is my new love and I find much enjoyment from Descent, Tide of Iron, Caylus and others. The complexity itself isn’t what I dislike about the game but the way the mechanics contradict each other.

The game takes place over seven rounds. Each round players are vying for majority control of the state so their agendas will get passed. You can see upcoming agendas in the next three rounds but the amount of information visible is less the further away the round is. On top of that players will have the ability (through various means) to swap out the current visible agendas in all visible rounds. You need to match agendas and really avoid conflicting ones or else you’ll fall behind in points. The problem is that you need to match current agendas, plan for upcoming agendas all while players keep changing these agendas and you only get a few random agenda card pulls at the start of a round to try and change your own.

Then there are the opinion polls, one per visible state. Usually this means there will be four opinion polls at any given time (fewer in later rounds). Players blind bid to win each poll which allows you to either use two of the four abilities on the card or roll dice to randomly increase your national standings. Let me run that past you again: you are blind bidding four times per round for unknown cards.

In case you couldn’t tell, Die Macher is complex. There’s a lot going on; you need to plan ahead if you want to do well and the game encourages you to plan ahead by allowing you to play on future states, see upcoming agendas, etc. I find it nearly impossible to actually plan, though, as there are far too many random elements. It wants you to do one thing but the mechanics make that nearly impossible.

I can see why people may enjoy it. There is some interesting player interaction with coalitions that may be formed, jockeying for spaces on the board, bidding on public opinion polls, using card abilities to knock your opponents down and the ability to plan ahead for future rounds. It’s also an older game (first appeared in 1986) so a lot of the concepts were quite innovative at the time.

I hesitate to call Die Macher a bad game. Nearly everyone else in my gaming group has enjoyed it… some more than others but they’ve all found something to like in the game; I’m alone in having a very strong negative feeling for it. It’s ranked #13 at BoardGameGeek and has a user rating of 8.0 over 1600+ ratings so clearly people enjoy it. I’m just not convinced I’ll ever be able to see what others find so appealing.