Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Suburbia

I think that there is a real misconception that deep games need to be complex. Suburbia is just two pages of rules, but the play and depth of the game comes from finding the synergy of the different tiles in the game.

Suburbia is an tile drafting and laying game about building and growing economies as you increase the size of your borough to attract more people to it. For as dry as that theme might sound and for as dull as the tiles might appear at first glance, the truth is that the game tells remarkable stories and is incredibly vibrant with its decisions that it calls on you to make.

Each player begins with a small suburban borough, beginning with just a suburb, a park and a factory. Tiles will be lined up on the Real Estate Market and each turn players will purchase a tile and add it to their borough. Tiles further to the left of the market cost more and after a tile is purchased, the remainder will slide down to the right to fill the vacancies.

The purchased tile is then placed. Many tiles have synergies with other tiles and may affect your borough's Income, your Reputation, or just simply give you an immediate influx of money or population.

After the tile is placed, players collect or pay money based on their Income. Then they increase or decrease their population based on their Reputation.

From simple beginnings...
That is essentially the entire game. And while it sounds dreadfully simple, it is. Which makes it genius. The game itself is simple, but the complexities arrive with what you build.

Tiles affect everything around them and sometimes even other player's boroughs. Your starting factory, for example, causes a loss of one Reputation for every civic or residential tile adjacent to it since no one wants to live next to a factory. So you'll attract fewer residents if they realize that they might have to live next to the pollution.

But that's just the start. Every tile tells an amazing narrative with its placement. The Housing Projects, for example, give you an immediate large influx of population to your borough. However, your Reputation suffers drastically whenever you place other tiles next to the projects as people start to leave your borough. School tiles tend to increase the Reputation and the population of your borough for every Residential tile that you have since a good school system attracts more people to your borough.

What is more than simply the narrative of the individual tiles is the narrative arc of your growing borough. There is a variety of tile types. There are Residential tiles, Commercial tiles, Industrial tiles and Civic tiles. Each tile has its own effects and tells its own story, but together, it tells the story of your growing borough.

Perhaps you'll have a large and efficient school system. Or perhaps you'll have a bustling industrial system in your borough. Maybe you'll have the farms and the slaughterhouse that generates income by providing produce to each of the restaurants in everyone else's boroughs.

And while this sandbox borough building would be entertaining in and of itself, much of it is impacted by another aspect of the game: Goals.

Each game starts with a number of public Goals equal to the number of players and every player also has one private, hidden Goal. Goals are another means of gaining points at the end of the game. For example, you may win +15 Population at the end of the game for having the fewest Industrial tiles with the Environmentalist Goal. Or you might win the Air Traffic Controller Goal with the most Airports and get +10 Population. At the end of the game, the player who qualifies for the Goal (all have a most or least requirement) gets the bonus points. However, if two or more players tie for a Goal, then no one gets the points for it. So there is an inherent risk in a strategy that simply tries to obtain points through Goals.

The real beauty of the Goals, however, is what they do for the game. Every tile has an inherent value to it, based off of the tile's effects itself as well as the synergy of each tile already laid in a borough. However, Goals start to change the value of the tiles in other ways. I may have a lot of Residential tiles laid when a bunch of school tiles come out. This would greatly increase my Population while also adding to my borough's Reputation. However, perhaps the Libertarian Goal is out and I could gain +15 Population at the end of the game if I have the fewest Civic tiles. Suddenly, the value of the school tiles has changed.

It game creates so much variety. If two games were played with the exact same tiles coming out in the same order (a remarkable statistical improbability), but different Goals were available, the games would still end up being played out very differently because of the change in the value of the tiles from the Goals.

There are a couple more strategic elements of the game.

One of them is on the Population track. As your Population grows, you will eventually pass red lines along the track. Every time you pass a red line, your borough loses one Income and one Reputation, as larger boroughs become more difficult to manage and maintain through increased bureaucracy. This means that surging too quickly can be costly in the long run and it requires a more planned growth, especially as the Population track gets higher, the red lines come closer and closer together.

Another element are the Lakes. Instead of purchasing a tile on the Real Estate Market, you can take any tile along it and flip it over (for a cost of $0 instead of the cost of the tile on the front) and place it as a Lake instead. Lakes simply give an immediate payoff of $2 for any tile adjacent to it and $2 for any tiles placed adjacent to them later. This is an effective way of earning quick money, however, it is one less tile that will be continuing to generate Income or Reputation in the future.

Finally, there are the Investment Markers. Instead of taking a tile from the Real Estate Market, a player can discard a tile from the track and instead place one of their three Investment Markers on a tile. In doing so, they need to pay the cost of the tile a second time, but then they immediately double the effects of the tile. Apartments, for example, give +5 Population plus +2 Population for every Commercial tile they are adjacent to. If you place an Investment Marker on it, you immediately get another +5 Population, plus another +2 Population for every Commercial tile it is adjacent to. Each player is only limited to three of them, but they are incredibly strategic in their use and investing in a section of your borough can really help you in the long run.

Suburbia is one of those rare games that is simple in its execution, but carries both a depth and variety that carries such depth and replayability. When the game first arrived, it remained on my table for a week, as it became the evening game between my wife and I.

Playing with more players, I have found that strategies need to deviate away from Goals a bit and players need to focus on the core of their borough for the most reliable way to gain points. But in a four player game, the chances of you getting the tile you wanted on the Market decreases as more people can purchase it before you. Plus, with more players, there is an increased chance of Goal conditions being tied. This doesn't hinder the game's strategies with more players, but simply changes it.

In case you haven't been able to tell, I adore this game. Ted Alspach's designs tend to have a simple ruleset, but offer a lot of variety to them. This game is no exception. However, the game's replayability and variety aren't created by the players (such as in Ultimate Werewolf or One Night Ultimate Werewolf), but rather through the systems and game itself.

I do have a few criticisms of the game, but they are minor.

The first is the aesthetics. At first glance, the game appears rather dry and drab. Everything is fully functional and the color keyed tiles are useful for gameplay, but it is nothing that catches the eye when one walks by.

However, despite this, I've actually grown to appreciate the aesthetics somewhat. I enjoy admiring my borough after it is built. I still think that it could be more vibrant, but since you are often watching for synergy and reactions from tiles in both your borough and your opponents' boroughs, I understand the design choice.

Next is the variety. While it makes the game interesting and adds to the replayability, it also can make some strategic elements difficult to predict. Not all of the tiles are included in each play. You randomly take tiles without looking at them and seed the stacks. You could purchase farms and slaughterhouses and no restaurants may ever appear. You could purchase the first Airport, planning on having a multiple-airport synergy strategy at the end game, but no others may appear.

While the variety is great, it can sometimes force you to focus on tactical purchases rather than strategic design. In fact, you may end up with a game where only a few residential tiles appear. This is by design, however, and while the variety is great, I wish that there was a bit of foreknowledge of the tiles that were included in the game, even if it was simply knowing a rough breakdown of Residential to Commercial to Industrial to Civic ratios.

Ultimately this unknown creates difficulty with strategy, but it does add to tension with Goals. I may be tied with Residential ties, but have the Builder (Most Residential) Goal and be waiting to grab just one more Residential tile... only to find that no more arrive. It creates some interesting decisions, but at the cost of a longer term strategy that might turn off some players.

However, the game plays quick and fluidly enough that I don't mind the loss of the strategic elements too much. The game is just fun to play.

Suburbia is a simple game in terms of rules. It can be learned within minutes. However, it isn't until the first tile is purchased and you realize how differently it will affect your borough just by where you place it that you start to understand the depth of the game. The game forces you to be aware of a lot, but I like that. I have to watch my neighbors to see if anything I purchase will help them or if their purchases will help me. While there isn't any direct interaction, you don't feel isolated or alone. The game is simple enough to introduce to casual gamers, but deep enough that veteran players can sink their teeth into repeated plays.

The game feels like a very light, non-warring civilization building game. And, like most civ-building games, when it is over, I like to look over my empire and, win or lose, I'll puff my chest with pride at the story of my land. True, we may not have the heads of Visigoths on pikes along our borders as trophies of conquest, but we did gain great riches from our neighbors with our Homeowner's Association after they plopped down two Retirement Villages. And when our neighbors starting farming and butchering animals, we defiantly built a Fancy Restaurant to declare our eatery the best in the land and discourage any other restaurants to be built, thus starving the farming peasants of our neighbors. The only thing we envy of our neighbors isn't a moat to keep us away, but rather their Waterfront Reality that kept us at an economic distance.

They may not sound like great war stories, but you still get stories of your growing civilization. We just research station wagons instead of chariots. And I am completely fine with that.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: Level 7 [Escape]

It's shit.

Review: One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Part of me wonders if I am a bad father as I desperately try to teach my daughter how to successfully lie to fool myself and her mother. On the one hand, I presently know her tells and this gives me an incredible advantage in raising an eight year old. However, on the other hand, she's recently been asking to join our One Night Ultimate Werewolf games and we have a reason to turn good deception into quality family time.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a quick hidden role game for 3-10 players that only takes 10 minutes to play. The game distills the classic Werewolf game and reduces it to one night with just a single round of elimination (which ends the game). At the end of the game, the players will vote to lynch one player. If they lynch a Werewolf, the Villagers win. If they fail to lynch a Werewolf, then the Werewolves win.

The game begins with the deck of role cards being created. There are always two Werewolves in the game. Other roles can be switched out, depending on number of players, but the Seer, the Troublemaker and the Robber are standard and important roles to include. Three more cards than players are chosen and then everyone randomly takes a role card, which denotes their special abilities (if any), but more importantly, their team affiliation. You can be either on the Werewolf team or the Villager team. The three unselected cards are set in the middle of the table and everyone looks at their role card and places it within reach near the center cards.

Next, everyone closes their eyes as the Night Phase begins. In order by role, players then perform their role's special actions.

If present, the Doppelgänger opens their eyes and peeks at one other player's card. Whatever role they see, they instantly become, joining their team (Werewolf or Villager) and mimicking their special powers and resolving their new role's power now.

The Werewolves then open their eyes and look for one another. If only one person was a Werewolf (because the second card is in the 3 cards in the middle of the table), it means that they are the Lone Wolf. Because of this, they can look at one of the three cards in the center of the table. This is useful because without a partner to assist them, they now instead have knowledge of a card that no one else has to bluff and pretend to be.

The Minion then gets to see who the Werewolves are, but they do not get to see him. The Minion is actually a human helping the Werewolves. He wins if the Werewolves win, even if he is lynched. So the Minion can bluff that he is a Werewolf to get lynched to help his allies. But if he is too obvious, then people might suspect that he is the Minion and not lynch him.

Next the two Masons open their eyes. They are villagers who only get to know who the other Mason is, letting them know that there is someone they can trust.

The Seer opens their eyes next. The Seer can look at one other player's role card or look at two of the unchosen cards in the middle.

The Robber opens his eyes next. The Robber takes one card from another player and looks at it and takes it. He then gives them the Robber card face down. If he took a Werewolf card, then he is now on the Werewolf team (and the original Werewolf has no clue about the switch and still thinks that they are a Werewolf, but now they are a villager since the Robber card is now in front of them).

The Troublemaker is next. She switches any two other players' role cards without looking at them.

The Drunk is so drunk that he doesn't remember what he is. He then opens his eyes and switches his card for one in the middle, without looking at it. If he took a Werewolf card from the middle, then he is a Werewolf, though he will not know for certain.

Finally, the Insomniac wakes up and looks at her card just to check what her role is at the end of the night. She is the only one to know for certain what she is going into the next phase since she'll get to see if her card was switched.

Several other roles exist as well, though they do not get any special actions during the Night Phase.

The Villager has no special powers and is simply on the Villager's team. However, it is a useful role to have in the game to bluff as.

The Hunter is on the Villager team. At the end of the game, if he is lynched, when the card is flipped over and revealed, the player he is pointing at also is immediately killed. If it is a Werewolf, the Villagers still win.

The Tanner wants to die. If he is the player who is lynched, then he wins and everyone else loses. However, if he lives through the game, then he loses. This allows the player to bluff to be a Werewolf to try to get lynched. But if he bluffs too much, then they might assume he wants to die and is the Tanner. Inversely, suspected Werewolves can bluff that they are the Tanner to try to avoid being lynched as well.

After the Night Phase, everyone opens their eyes and players begin with the Day Phase. In the Day Phase, players discuss who to lynch. At the end of ten minutes (or whatever you set your game length to be), everyone must point at one other player. Whoever has the most votes (fingers pointed at them) is lynched.

If the lynched player is a Werewolf, then the Villagers win. If the lynched player is a Villager, then the Werewolves win. If the lynched player is the Tanner, then only the Tanner wins.

If the vote to lynch is tied, then both players die. It doesn't matter how many people die, as long as a Werewolf dies, then the Villagers win.

Now, it is possible that both Werewolf role cards are in the unassigned center three cards. If this is the case, then the only way that the Villagers can win is to lynch no one. If everyone has only one vote to be lynched, then no one is lynched and then the town is safe.

That is it. The game is really simple, but good strategy is remarkably complex. One of the reasons why I listed all of the roles and their effects was to point out how we had to learn to lie in this game.

Our game groups are very familiar with hidden role and bluffing games and we eagerly devour any opportunity to lie and bluff to our friends and fellow gamers. However, at the end of the night, you do not know if you are the same role that you began as, so you may have switched teams.

Also, perfect information is available if people openly deliver it. For example, in my first game, I openly and truthfully declared that I was the Seer and that I looked at another player's role and saw that he was a Werewolf. Almost immediately afterward, another player stated (honestly) that she was the Troublemaker and had switched my role with the player who I had just outted as a Werewolf. I had no counter and I was lynched and lost because we were too truthful in our first game.

However, we quickly learned. Now when the night ends and day begins, there is an uneasy silence as people are hesitant to say what they are. People lie about their roles to try to force others out to admit what they were. The game has become incredibly interesting and often, frighteningly tense.

Games last only ten minutes and we will usually play at least 3-4 games in a row. The game is simple enough to learn and teach to new players, but I always give my speech about the "perils of perfect information" before we start. By the second game, most players I've played with have "gotten" it and are eager for another game.

The best part about the game is the way so many of the roles work off of one another in creating opportunities to bluff. A Mason can pretend to be whatever he wants to try to force someone to say that they are that role since he can always call on the other Mason to verify his original role to alleviate suspicion. However, Werewolves can do the same thing, claiming to be Masons. Werewolves can try to pretend to be the Minion or the Tanner to try to avoid people lynching them, while each of those roles can try to pretend to be a Werewolf to get lynched instead. The Robber holds a lot of power in his hand since he knows what he is and what another player is (his former Robber role), however, the Troublemaker could have easily swapped out either of these, so there is no guarantee. The Troublemaker can bluff who she swapped to try to see how people react before telling the truth. The Drunk has to be careful, since if people think that the Werewolves were in the center, then it increases the chances that he is a Werewolf, but not even he knows for certain. And the Insomniac carries into the Day Phase the only positive truth about her role.

The Tanner, the Minion, and the Doppelgänger each add a lot to the mix and truly change the entire dynamics of the game.

In case you couldn't tell, I think that One Night Ultimate Werewolf is absolutely marvelous. It definitely does add to the game when you have more players, simply because adding more roles makes the game (and the bluff potential) much more interesting. We've played three player games, but, other than bluff teaching games for my daughter, I don't think that we would play with this number. However, with five or more, I would eagerly suggest it to any group that I was playing with. So far, the only time I have ever turned down the offer to play it "one more time" was simply because it was 4 am and I was unable to process any more bluffs. Though part of me still regrets not going for at least one more game...

The production of the game is excellent. There are very few pieces required and instead of cards, thick cardboard is used for the roles. This is good because it makes them sturdier and more resistant. I think it was a good choice, but I am certain that there is a faction of card sleevers who are crying over the design decision. The art in the game is excellent as well and presented in a very colorful and appealing style by Gus Batts, whose work is very stylistic and excellent.

The game's free app.
One of the best things about the game is that there is a free app that can be downloaded and used in lieu of a player moderator to walk everyone through the Night Phase. The app is available for download on both the iDevices and Android.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf is an excellent game and it was surprisingly one of my top games of 2013. While it eliminates the elimination problem with standard Werewolf, it also loses a bit of that game's tension. For Werewolf, it is the elimination that makes it tense. There is nothing like being four nights in and trying to survive just a bit longer--as either a Werewolf or a Villager--in the game. Lynchings there have much more of an impact. However, were you lynched on the first day, the game is still fun to watch, but you are out of the action.

So there is less tension, but the trade off is more than fair. Plus, at ten minutes, multiple games can be played in the same amount of time as a single Werewolf game. It also fits the range to play if you don't have quite enough players to make a Werewolf game interesting (I don't like to play unless there are at least twelve players, plus the moderator).

As for my daughter, she's three games in now. Her first two games she was the Drunk and the Insomniac and didn't need to bluff too much. However, she caught something that could signal that another player was lying about his role that slipped by the other players. It was one of my happier proud gamer dad moments. Her last game she drew a Werewolf and, although she didn't have any physical tells or giggled,  her bluff wasn't that good, outing her pretty quickly. However, I was the other Werewolf and was able to convince people that I was the Troublemaker and swapped her role away, so we still managed a victory.

But I've learned that I need to teach my daughter to lie. And I need to teach her to lie well enough to fool me. I will regret this when she is a teenager, but for now, I am very pleased to see her make progress in her deception and I look forward to seeing her join us at the table more and more for our games of One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Ladies & Gentlemen

Let me say this first, Ladies & Gentlemen isn't really that good of a game. It is embarrassingly simple and does not have a lot of depth to the decision makings throughout. Let me say next that it is also one of the games that I have had the most amount of fun playing over the last year. More than just about any other game in my collection, it is one that is most dependent upon the group of players to make it a great experience. It isn't necessarily that you need specific types of players, but rather the players want to contribute to the game's ambiance and theme and, above everything else, don't mind not taking themselves too seriously in order to have fun.

Ladies & Gentlemen is a team based game, where players break into teams of two, wherein they will play a married couple. One player takes the role of the "Gentleman" of the couple, while the other player takes the role of the "Lady". During the game, the "Gentlemen" will be performing one set of tasks, while the "Ladies" will be performing another, but neither will be fully aware of their partner's game and will have to rely on imprecise communication to keep on the same track.

The game plays 4-10 people and takes about 60-90 minutes to play, despite the box saying 30 minutes.

Before getting too deep in the explanation, I should point out that the game is rife with sexism. However, with more than a cursory glance, it becomes very apparent that the game isn't embracing the Victorian sensibilities of a woman's role compared to a man's role, but instead mocking them. It is absurd. And the game is bettered if you embrace the absurdity and go over-the-top with it.

With that embracing of the absurdity, there is also an embracing of the game's ambiance. The game works so much better if you play in-character. I will talk about this a little bit later, but this makes the game so much more entertaining and fun.

The goal of the game is for each team's Lady to have the most elegant outfit by the end of the game. The Gentlemen of each team will be making money in the Stock Exchange and trying to fulfill profitable contracts, and the Ladies will be competitively shopping at the boutiques and trying to gather the most beautiful and complimentary wardrobe. This action is simultaneous and neither partner is fully aware of their partner's game. At the end of each day, the Ladies present their shopping lists to their Gentlemen, who then decide which of the items to purchase. Now, only imprecise communication is allowed. A Gentleman cannot say, "I made $1500 today" to his Lady. No, a delicate lady is incapable of sorting out numbers and figures. Instead, he could say, "My dear, I had a wonderful day at the Exchange today! You deserve to outfit yourself in fineries." Similarly, a Lady cannot say to her Gentleman, "I have a servant card that gives me double points for my hat, so buy that for me first." You see, gentlemen have no idea of sensible fashion and thus the Lady must communicate through his thick-headedness and could instead say, "Darling, Annabelle is going to the ball with a sheik hat. I would look a fool if my head was unadorned. Please don't make me look a fool at the ball."

On the Gentlemen's turn, a number of Resource tokens are placed face down on the table. Each is worth an individual amount, but there are also Contracts laid out. If the Gentlemen can match the tokens required to fill a Contract, he may fulfill the it for a higher pay out. On their turn they all grab at the tokens at the same time, but can take no more than three Resource tokens. Also among the tokens are turn order tokens. Once one of those is taken, however, no further tokens can be claimed. So, a Gentleman could find the first player order token, then needs to decide if he needs more Resources for money or if turn order is more important. After everyone has taken their Resource and turn order tokens, the Gentlemen sell resources and fulfill contracts, adding to their money. If multiple Gentlemen which to fulfill the same contract, then they are fulfilled in turn order determined by the token the Gentlemen took.

That is it. The men's game is incredibly simple. However, it is the men who decide how to spend their money, so more decisions must still be made--often to the chagrin of their Lady.

The secret of the game's ambiance is that although Victorian standards may make a woman seem frivolous and unenlightened, the game really is the Ladies' game. On their turn, each Lady chooses what type of items will be in their shop for the day. It could be clothing, accessories, jewelry or servants. After drawing the appropriate cards, they choose one item to place face up in front of their boutique to be displayed in the window. Each Lady will then look at the windows and simultaneously determine which boutique to shop in. Now, if no one comes to the shop you set up, then your Gentleman can purchase the item in the window for you at half-price. So the Ladies need to decide what to place in it. An expensive item is a steal at half-price, but will it draw the other Ladies to your shop? Should you put out a poorer item, but then if no one goes to it, you can get it cheap, but it isn't as nice of an item.

After it is determined which boutique each Lady goes to, then they get to take as many cards as they like from that deck. If more than one Lady chooses the same Boutique, then they go in turn order (determined by the Gentlemen's tokens) and choose. Now, the Ladies need to be mindful of their outfits. Servant cards can give bonuses to certain cards. Also, a Lady cannot have more than two different designers creating their ensemble. A Lady also cannot have multiples of the same item. So if you purchase two hats, only one can add to your outfit's elegance at the end of the game.

Ladies can take as many items as they wish from the shop, then they pass their "wishlist" to their Gentleman, who then has to decide which to purchase. The problem is that the Lady does not know how much money their Gentleman actually has. She may hand him a 4-point dress for $1300, a 2-point hat for $500, and a 2-point pair of gloves for $700. The man had $1500 and decides to be frugal and purchases the hat and gloves for $1200--still 4-points and a saving $100. However, the Lady had a servant that would have added their bonus to their dress and had hoped that their Gentleman had enough to purchase the dress and either the hat or the gloves with it.

This continues for six rounds and at the end of the game, each Lady puts together their outfit from the clothing they purchased, and they add together the elegance from their cards and any bonuses from their servants.

If there are an uneven number of players, the odd one becomes the Courtesan. The Courtesan plays as a partnerless Lady and shops at the Boutiques with the rest of the Ladies. At the end of the day, she passes her clothing wishes to any or all of the Gentlemen as she chooses. A Gentleman who purchases an item for the Courtesan, must also purchase at least that many items for his Lady. There is reason for the Gentleman to pay for the Courtesan's outfits. If at the end of the game, the Courtesan is the most elegant, then she wins with the Gentleman who bought her the most elegant clothing. However, if the Courtesan is the LEAST elegant at the ball, then she creates a scandal and takes down the Gentleman and Lady team who purchased the least elegant items for her.

The game is disarmingly simple and, frankly, could be a dull play if it is not embraced with the proper atmosphere. But, with the proper attitudes and ambiance, this game has never failed to entertain me and it is among my favorites to pull out and play with gamers and non-gamer couples alike.

The game is amazingly fun when people play it "in-character". To start of with the ambience, I try to explain the game to the Ladies and the Gentlemen separately. With the Ladies, I tell them what they need to do, but not to worry about the men are doing, since "trying to worry about figures and numbers would surely go over their simple, delicate minds and I wouldn't want to cause any worry wrinkles to appear to blemish them". I also explain that in referring to their servant bonus points and outfit strategies to limit their conversations to the men about it since "the gentlemen are absurdly dense when it comes to the matter of fashion sense and wouldn't understand the differences between a parasol and a handbag and to only use basic terms as not to confuse them." I explain it similarly to the Gentlemen to get them into the theme of the game. Neither side even fully understands the mechanisms of their other side. I've had players who have played Ladies in five or six games now who still don't know what the Gentlemen are doing on their turns and vice versa.

I have also went out and purchased tiaras, which each of the Ladies wear when they play, and cigars, which each of the Gentlemen hold when they play. Honestly, these simple purchases have made the game so much more entertaining and helps get everyone into their roles.

When we play, we try to use Victorian language (with modern references and name-calling thrown in for humor). Give a player a cigar to hold while playing and they innately puff out their chest and act like a lord.

All of this adds to the game so much, and I strongly suggest anyone playing to approach it with the same atmosphere. In fact, it is amazing what happens. The Gentleman's game of flipping tokens for Resources is competitive, but friendly. Holding a cigar, one is more likely to say, "Good show, old chap" to a player who just completed a contract. At the same time, the Ladies become catty as they fight one another for first dibs in the shops. The dialogue between the teams when the Gentleman cannot purchase anything because of a bad day at the Exchange or he is frugal and buys the cheapest of the garments, leaving his Lady without a proper dress is priceless.

We've played the game with a full 10 people in five teams. The Ladies all sat at one table, while the Gentlemen all sat at another. It was an amazing thing to witness. The Gentlemen's table was friendly and jovial and they chewed on cigars and complimented each other. The Lady's table, meanwhile, was catty and snobby as everyone sank their teeth deep into their roles. At the end of each day, the ladies had to get up and walk over to their men to hand them the cards they wished to purchase.

There are also Gossip cards which can be added to the game. It adds to what the Ladies can do. Each Gossip Card has a specific circumstance in which it can be passed to another Lady. For example, it may be require that you pass it to a Lady with no Hat, but only if you have one. Or it might require that she had clothes of 1 or 2 points, but you have none of that value. Each Lady begins with three Gossip Cards. When one is passed to another Lady, they lose 1 Elegance at the end of the game. However, for each card you failed to pass, you lose 1 Elegance at the end of the game. The best part of the cards, however, is that they are not simply passed. They need to be passed with an insult. For example, you could pass a card and say, "Oh, what a lovely dress! My servant has one just like it." However, as the Ladies become more and more catty, cards may end up being passed with insults such as, "Oh! I love that hat. Too bad everything your husband brings home to you isn't as fashionable, such as the chlamydia."

Ladies & Gentleman is a simple game, but there is so much potential in the box. The thing about it is that the potential is so very easy to tap. Buy a few plastic tiaras and cheap cigars and the game already starts to take on a life of its own. I cannot say that Ladies & Gentlemen is a deep game, but it has consistently been some of my most fun gaming moments over the last year. Played straight, the game would be a dull, boring and simple. But embracing the ambiance and theme, and there are few things that I have had more fun playing. It is not a game for every group. But if you don't mind setting aside deep strategy in games from time to time to instead just laugh and have fun with your group of friends, then I highly suggest finding a copy of this game and then going out to buy tiaras and cigars.

And, for any interested, here is a link to a Penny Arcade comic referring to their experiences playing Ladies & Gentlemen.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2013 Games of the Year

I have a blog about games. That means that I am contractually required to make a list of my top games of the year. Sure, I probably should have gotten this done in the end of December, but there was a lot of holiday running around and seeing friends and family, so this is a little late.

2013 was a good game for years. It wasn't as great as 2012, however. I'm still trying to track down some of 2012's games that still burn brightly. However, 2013's collection of games has proven that we are still in the Golden Age of board games. Tons of great games are being produced still. New mechanisms and ways of storytelling are still being discovered. Thanks in part to Kickstarter, there is probably more chaff than wheat being produced, but even that trend has reduced from 2012.

Let me start with my 2013 disappointments:

Police Precinct, on paper, had everything going for it to make it an amazing game for my group. It is a cooperative game with an interesting and underused theme and it had every opportunity to create an amazing narrative. Plus, it had a hidden traitor mechanic! For a group that played the hell out of Battlestar Galactica, this seemed like an easy win. However, the design is amateurish (it was a Kickstarter funded game) and the narrative is interesting, except on the macro-level. The officers are investigating a killer and must find him before he flees town. In the meantime, every manner of crime pops up that must be taken care of. Both the individual crimes create interesting narrative, from gangs forming to traffic accidents, and the serial killer investigation is interesting as well as you flip through cards at crime scenes looking for clues. But together, they create a disjointed narrative. Why do I care about a single killer when the donut shop is being held up with a man with a shotgun, there is a bomb in the diner and someone wielding an axe is running through the pawn shop? Top it off with the least inspired traitor mechanic in any game that gives no reason for the corrupt cop to work for the killer and really only plays marginally worse than the other players and it quickly becomes a boring time.

Star Wars: The Card Game should have been another win. Following the LCG release style and coming from the same company that just put out Netrunner in 2012, I was stoked. The ease of deck building made it something that I was more likely to get to play with my wife, since she doesn't really care for building decks. I was excited with my first plays and played with a couple of other players. However, the more I played the game, the more I realized that it just doesn't allow for long-term strategy. Your hand refreshes every turn. I could be on the ropes with the Empire about to destroy everything I hold dear and then, by luck of the draw, get and be able to suddenly play Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and a bunch of other powerful cards and suddenly turn around and massacre the Empire. Being able to swing in a game isn't a turn off, but long term planning is moot since it is so swingy. In fact, the game starts to autoplay since the long term strategy is particularly weak. The artwork is original and beautiful in the game, but the system is tactical rather than strategic. More involved deckbuilding could make it strategic, but the deck building is so basic and easy that there is little decision making there as well. The game is tactical to its base--play simply what you drew that round.

Coup was one that was suggested to me by a number of people. We love hidden role and bluffing games and something so short seemed like it would be a perfect match for my group. However, it isn't. Perhaps I need more plays to find out where the bluff is in the game, but honestly, instead of the hidden roles and lying about what I am as in Mascarade or  One Night Ultimate Werewolf, it really is just more of a mathy game. There is a bit of tension there, but calling someone's bluff is less reliant upon looking for tells or seeing through their lies, but rather card counting and determining where the revealed and known Dukes are and doing the math to figure out the chances that a remaining one could be in their hand. I'd much rather a game where the bluff is more important than the math of card counting. Perhaps with a few more plays, the game would redeem itself and I would find the fun and bluff in it, but the game has left such a bad taste in my mouth, I don't know when I would muster up the enthusiasm to do so. And for a game that plays in fifteen minutes, that's saying a lot.

Eldritch Horror isn't a bad game, but it was a disappointment to me. In fact, the game fixes every issue that I had with Arkham Horror, but somewhere along the line, it left out the heart. The mechanisms of the game are crisp and clean, but the focus on the characters' narratives is removed. It could have been released as "Arkham Horror: the Euro". There is little investment in the characters and the experience suffers from that. I wanted an adventure game where my character ran through a crazy rollercoaster and a tried desperately not to die because I had so much stuff and buffs invested in my character. The problem with Arkham's wild rollercoaster was that it too often ran so wild, it flew off the tracks and the game wasn't consistent. Eldritch is consistent, but in the way that a drive through the country is. And that isn't any phrase that I should ever use when describing a game where your life and sanity are on the line as you battle a manifestation of Great Cthulhu himself.

Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game was a rollercoaster for me. My excitement and anticipation for the potential in the game was my going up the hill and my first couple of games were thrilling and exciting as we rushed down that first giant hill. But everything since is just smaller hills. Sure, the speed and enthusiasm of that first hill propels me, but everything else is really just smaller bumps when looked at. Alright, that's enough of trying to shoehorn that metaphor. My problem with Pathfinder is that each session is essentially the same. Wipe away the flavor text and a difficulty 11 ogre is exactly the same as a difficulty 11 bandit. I roll a die. My damage spells do the same damage, but one has a trigger word of "fire". The most interesting part of the game is the deckbuilding after each session where you trade and build up your deck and figure out what to include and how to maximize your deck. But then you play again and... everything is the same again, but now you have a longsword instead of a short sword in your deck. It doesn't simulate roleplaying at all. If anything, the real game of Pathfinder is trying to figure out how to squeeze two more cards that you like into your deck.

Next are a few of my surprises of 2013. These games weren't quite good enough to make it to my games of the year, but they are worthy of a mention.

Duel of Ages II surprised me. It is not the kind of game that I really like, but I absolutely adore DoA 2. It is the wild ride that Arkham Horror was. The game can be completely unbalanced and lean heavily toward one team. However, I don't care. The narrative that is created by this game is far too interesting and fun. I have consistently laughed at the amazing absurdity in the game so many times. I play competitively, but I don't care if I win or lose, as long as I get some amazing stories from the play. And so far, in every play, I have. I wouldn't consider it among the best games of the year, however, because of how wildly unbalanced it could be. I have to admit that this is a design flaw from a gamer's perspective. But, I love it for its imperfections. In fact, I root for my team being underpowered. I get a much better thrill over being the child-like Princess throwing lawn darts at Genghis Khan than I do over being Genghis Khan and turning around and mowing down a cute little girl with my machine gun because she threw lawn darts at my head.

Ladies and Gentlemen shouldn't be on this list. It isn't much of a game. Each element of it is so simple and so silly that it should be shrugged off and inconsequential. However, when everything is put together and you play it with the right mindset, it is one of the most amazingly fun games I have played in 2013. We have our "ladies' wear tiaras and our "gentlemen" hold cigars. We talk in character and it makes this simple little design explode with laughter and fun. In the wrong group, however, this game would be terrible. But I am very thankful for my group and this surprisingly fun game. I think that my group makes it to be a better game than it is, but if nothing else, that shows the potential in this box. We are just lucky enough to have found it.

Mascarade is a brilliant hidden role game and it is always with me now. The game is a hidden role game and involves a lot of bluffing, but, more often than not in the game, your own role is unknown to you. So you need to bluff with confidence that you are the King even though you have no idea of what it before you. But what I like most about it is its accessibility. I play a lot of games and this often means when I play with novice gamers, I have a bit of an advantage. However, I can have all of the experience in the world and I could have won hundreds of tournaments, but the moment someone takes my card and possibly switches it underneath the table and hands one back to me, I am on the exact same footing as everyone else. However, even with my group of experienced gamers, we all laugh and enjoy the experience equally. This says something for the game and how well it manages a broad appeal.

Forbidden Desert is another surprise. I sought it out as something to play with my daughter. She has Forbidden Island and I simply thought that it would be something simplistic on that level. However, what we found was that it is a game we can easily play with her, but also one we grab and play with our gaming groups. It is a challenging little cooperative game that really surprised me with its depth. 

Now, for my top five Games of the Year:

5. One Night Ultimate Werewolf has quickly become a favorite in all of my gaming groups. My first play was difficult as it is a game that you need to learn how to bluff in. Perfect information exists in that game if everyone comes forward openly. But with more plays, we've all learned how to lie and bluff and the game has become a subtle masterpiece. I don't think I would ever turn down a game of this. The design is so simple, that it can be argued that the game stands on the merits of its players. That may be so, but I have yet to play it with any group that has spoiled the experience for me. It is quickly becoming one of my most played games and I don't see that trend ending as the variety and possibilities make it so incredible engaging with every group that I played it with.

4. Firefly was a big surprise to me. The game is, at its mechanics core, a simple pick up and deliver game. Most pick up and deliver games are dry and dull. However, Firefly has created a narrative arc with each player's ship. The focus isn't on pimping out your ship, but having a good crew, but more importantly, a crew that works well together. You become better suited for certain types of missions. The Alliance and the Reavers are nasty, but they can be mitigated against with proper preparation. And even without the preparation, they are essentially a press-your-luck mechanic and could be easily avoided--if not for the fact that you are racing against your opponents. The game offers a lot in the box and it has easily replaced the dry Merchant of Venus as my go to pick up and deliver game. The substance of the game would survive without the license as well. If I never picked up a character from the show and still had to manage crew and make those choices between legal and illegal runs, I would be thrilled.

3. Nations is best described as Through the Ages lite. I love the depth and decision making in the game and I am intrigued at all of the choices to be made throughout. There are lots of paths the victory (though military seems strong) and it is completely possible to change tracks partway through a game and not be completely lost. Though I am not much of a solo-gamer, the solo game is fairly engaging as well. As much as I love TtA, it rarely hits the table because of both length of time and complexity (after you haven't played in a while, there are lots of little things to try to remember and the rulebook is terrible to search through). Nations has a much more likely chance to find the table during a game night with me. It scratches that itch and it does it in a shorter time frame.

2. Clash of Cultures technically came out at the very end of 2012, but didn't hit larger distribution until 2013, so I'm including it here. It got a lot of play from one of my groups. It streamlines the 4x games in such an innovative way that does not reduce the fun or engagement from it. It is a sandbox civ building game and, while every player begins identically, it is amazing to see how much they differ by the end of the game. The sandbox building style may be intimidating to new players, but experienced players will find that it is actually very refreshing at not being handheld and lead along a singular path to victory. The game is simple in mechanics, but very complex in depth and weight of decisions. This game has replaced Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game as the go to medium weight civilization building game, beating it in both length of time and depth and openness of play without feeling unwieldy or bloated with unnecessary rules or math. Clash of Cultures truly is a genius, streamlined civilization building game that feels complete and full with a shorter playtime.

1. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island did everything right to win me over. It is a game that tells a story and builds a narrative, but it does so in such a compelling and interesting way. It is without a doubt, the best cooperative game that I have played. Unlike many cooperative games, it does not feel like a puzzle, nor do you feel like the actions required are dictated by the events before you. There are valid arguments at any time for any number of different routes to take to get what is needed or what must be done. The narrative is immersive and everything happens for a reason, which is an amazing thing in a cooperative game. Most cooperative games either have a choppy AI or you have to turn a blind eye to mechanisms that don't make sense, but are there to simply increase challenge. But in Crusoe, things happen for a reason and the mechanisms are hidden well in a compelling story of these survivors that is told. After each game I find myself thinking about what we could have done better. This is exactly what I want in a game: one that immerses me while I am playing it and one that makes me think about what I did afterward.