Quick Hits: Defenders of the Realm, Carson City

Defenders of the Realm

Defenders of the Realm has been hitting the table a lot lately, going over particularly well with my Monday night group. This time we decided to work in the free mini expansions that Richard Launius provided on BoardGameGeek. Here’s a quick look at the expansions and what they bring to the game:

(image by holepuncher @ BGG)
Winds of War – Winds of War adds a side board and a new deck of cards. Whenever Quiet Night darkness spreads cards are revealed or heroes play special cards they are stacked up on the Winds of War board. Every three cards triggers a random event that the heroes must deal with. These are extremely nasty but usually may be canceled by discarding cards or making other sacrifices.

We’ve played with this twice now and I would almost consider it an essential expansion. There are some very powerful special hero cards and little reason to not play them all. Now with the Winds of War events players need to think very seriously about when to play these specials. Is it worth the risk of the event that may happen? Can we afford to negate it if it’s too harsh? Those added decisions add a lot of fun to the game.

Forging of Heroes – With Forging of Heroes, the players level up their heroes and unlock their three special abilities instead of having them available from the start. Experience points are earned by killing groups of enemies, completing quests, building magic gates and wounding generals. To make up for this increased difficulty the evil generals start off of the map and slowly enter the game, giving the heroes more time to deal with the threat.

I think Forging of Heroes is a good addition as well. It puts much more importance on quests and building magic gates; generally you only did those when absolutely necessary in the main game as you often just had to fight fires all the time. With the slower start you have time to work on quests and will need to so you can level up and unlock your powers. Like Forging of Heroes it adds in more decision points which is great.

(image by Titus SWE @ BGG)

My only complaint is that players rolling poorly in combat or stuck with a tough quest will struggle to earn experience, preventing their heroes from reaching their full potential. It can be a little disheartening to see your teammates fly through levels while you are stuck at level one. This variant may also add more time to the game which may or may not be a good thing depending on your group.

Be sure to print out Winds of War, it is an incredibly simple way to add in more fun decision making. Forging of Heroes is a clever way to add in a leveling-style system and encourages players to take time performing actions you may otherwise ignore in the base game. It does increase the complexity and length of the game, though, so it will not be ideal for everyone.

Carson City

(image by aqwerty @ BGG)
We’ve had Carson City on the shelf for awhile now but haven’t had a chance to table it up until recently. Homesteaders really captivated us so we got a bit distracted!

Carson City is a worker placement game where players are cowboys settling a new town in the Western frontier. You earn points for the buildings you contribute and money you’ve earned. Overall the game is a fairly straightforward worker placement style game but does have a couple of things that make it stand out:

Parcels – Purchased buildings must be placed on the land grid. A building’s income is determined by adjacent squares; for example, the bank’s income is increased by adjacent mines and homes. I like having that spacial competition in a worker placement game. It also adds in another level of player interaction which is sometimes missing in these types of games.

(image by francobollus @ BGG)

Duels – What’s a Western town without duels? Most worker placement games only allow a single player per action. While that’s true in Carson City, multiple people may attempt to take the same action but must duel to see who emerges victorious and performs the action. Duels are resolved by a simple roll of a (massive) six-sided die plus your on-hand weapons and cowboys in reserve. Worker placement games tend to be fairly passive-aggressive so it’s fun to see some serious direct competition.

We played two games back-to-back and my feelings are still mixed. At its core, Carson City seems like a very solid worker placement game. There are multiple paths to victory and you get that delicious tension of not having enough actions to do everything you want. It also plays fairly quickly – around 90 minutes – but doesn’t feel like it is lacking in decision making. There are a couple of things that are keeping me from instantly falling in love with it, though:

Story Arc – I’ve talked about the importance of story arc in board games before and Carson City falls a little flat. With only four rounds of play you don’t build much of an internal engine; the game seems to end at what I would generally consider to be the midpoint of most other games. Given the game’s fast play time I don’t mind as much but you do feel like the game is ending just as you’ve started to get going.

(image by francobollus @ BGG)
Luck – Generally I enjoy a bit of luck in my games but I think the duels may hurt Carson City. I’ve only played two games but both were essentially won and lost on duels. Risk management seems to be central to the game; you can take measures to increase your odds in a duel but it also seems like you’ll have times where you just have to take a chance. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but seems very counter to the solid euro underpinnings of the design.

I need to get more plays of Carson City in before I pass judgment. If every game comes down to the last couple of duels I think the game will lose a lot of its luster, but if over time strategies emerge that better incorporate risk management and solid planning I think it could have some good staying power. I certainly enjoyed it enough warrant revisiting, which is a good thing!

Homesteaders and math

(image by UnknownParkerBrother @ BGG)
Lurking behind most boards games is mathematics. Card and dice games are build around probability, the foundation of many games; others rely on geometry, pattern recognition and complex formulas. Any discussion of balance is really a discussion about the math behind the game.

Some games certainly do a better job than others at hiding its math from players. Reiner Knizia’s Kingdoms is all about addition, subtraction and multiplication while players likely never consider the balance of features on the tiles while playing Carcassonne. I don’t think it is always necessary to disguise math in a game – Kingdoms is a personal favorite. However, math can be problematic when it surfaces as analysis paralysis – a player’s inability to make a decision as they attempt to work out the ideal move. Some players and games are far more prone to analysis paralysis and will often lead to frustration at the table due to downtime for other players and increased game length.

Players in Homesteaders are settling the Western frontier, helping build a new city. A Vegas Showdown/Amun-Re style auction for land grants drives the game and players need to build their economic engine to make bids and gather the resources to construct new buildings. The theme is not exactly pasted on; in fact, auctioning off the land grants zoned for different types of buildings really works well and the different buildings certainly evoke images of the wild west. There’s just little covering up all the math you’ll be doing over the course of your ten turns.

Here’s a quick look at exactly what makes Homesteaders tick:

(image by absurdjohnny @ BGG)

Specialization – I’ve found I am not a fan of games where you need to be a jack-of-all-trades; I much prefer choosing a specialized strategy and making it work (adjusting as need be). Homesteaders has a lot of different buildings that work together in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s not only satisfying to see your buildings work together but to also look around the table and see how your opponents’ strategies and buildings differ. There’s something extremely gratifying about getting money and resources from your buildings, exchanging them at the market and using it all to outbid your opponent and get the building you need when you need it.

Trade chits – There is one resource that everyone needs: trade chits. You may buy and sell goods at the marketplace but each exchange requires you spend one trade chit. They aren’t particularly difficult to acquire but you rarely have quite as many as you’d like. They put a practical limit on how much you can do each turn and also require you really plan out your resources appropriately. Some strategies will rely on these more heavily than others but everyone will find a use for them, especially at the end to make your less valuable goods worth something. It’s a nice implementation of the market concept that I haven’t seen used before.

Components – I love the wooden resources. Steel I-beams, apples for food, wooden planks and the cows are even painted with spots and eyes! The cardboard quality is not as impressive though, especially the auction mat. Everything is cleanly designed, easy to understand and functional if not a bit dull in appearance, especially when compared to the wooden bits. I certainly appreciate the clean design but I’m not sure I would have paid the game much attention had I not played it first.

(image by absurdjohnny @ BGG)
Money is tight – Rarely will you find yourself with too much money; bids are often lost by a single dollar raise. It adds some delicious tension to the bidding portion of the game as you need to heavily weigh how much you can afford to spend just to get a building. Passing is always an option and will net you a small something. Sometimes you are better off passing and setting yourself up for the next turn. Unfortunately this decision making can lead to…

Analysis paralysis – It is very easy to get stuck over-analyzing every choice in Homesteaders. Money and resources are tight and trade chits are limited so you naturally want to maximize each turn. Often you’ll find yourself running through all your options, calculating exactly how much you need to get the building you want and then how much you have leftover to bid with. There’s no limit on how much debt you may take so you also must consider taking debt and then figuring out how or if you can pay it off before the game is over. It’s amazing how often a single dollar raise causes someone to have to sit and reevaluate their turn.

Even though the game can get exceedingly mathy towards the end I’ve really enjoyed Homesteaders. The auction mechanic works well and really forces you to carefully manage your money, especially with debt always an option. Watching your buildings activate every turn and form a strategy is very satisfying but you’ll also look at your opponents and become jealous of how their buildings are working together; before the game is over you will already be thinking about new building combos for the next game. It’s easy to over-analyze the game and get bogged down with analysis paralysis but even then the game will last at maximum a couple of hours, probably less. There’s a lot of great decision making to be made in a relatively short amount of time. I’m especially impressed at how satisfying the economic engine you build is given how few turns there are in the game.

It may look a little unassuming at first glance but Alex Rockwell and Tasty Minstrel Games have crafted one of the most enjoyable Euro-style games I’ve played recently. It packs the depth and decision making of other more complex games into a fast, fun, easy to learn package. Given enough plays I suppose certain building combos may reveal themselves to be more powerful than others, but I think the small amount of randomness combined with the auction mechanic should be more than enough to give the game some serious legs.

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.