Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Game of the Year

Here we are at the end of 2008. 12 short months ago, my goal was simply to play five new games in the coming year. It was a modest goal, but back then I didn't play board games very much.

I played the first new game of the year on January 18. The game was Kings Keep and the venue was Paul & Narelle's house. Joining us that evening was a friend of theirs by the name of Bernd. It turned out Bernd hosted regular games nights at his place. He called this little gathering HoGS - the Hobart Games Society.

Discovering HoGS changed everything. The Giggling One and I rocked up to our first HoGS night on February 1st. That night we played four new games, and my goal was achieved. Just like that.

A rethink was in order, and after a quick calculation, I reset the bar at 25.

I reached game 25 on October 18, and went on to play a further six new games, bringing the total to 31 for the year. Admittedly, three of the games I included on the list were expansions, so it's 28 if you don't count expansions as "new".

So looking at those 28 games, I figured I'd make a good old Top Ten list of my favourite games of 2008.

So here it is. It wasn't the easiest of lists as I enjoyed almost all of the games. And that was the key factor: enjoyment. These our the games I liked the most.

To simplify the task somewhat, I went through the list of games and short-listed those that I enjoyed the most. That short-list contained 11 games. Through a process of elimination (or inclusion) I settled on my top 10 before ranking them. Incidentally, the honourable mention for the unlucky 11th game goes to Wits & Wagers. On to the Top 10...

#10 - The Princes of Florence

What I said: [We] thoroughly enjoyed the game. I imagine having 5 players instead of 3 makes the Auction phase a whole new ball game.

Justify yourself: While deserving its place in the Top 10, having a deeper underlying strategy than it may first appear, The Princes of Florence wasn't quite engaging enough to rank higher. I'm not the greatest fan of auction mechanics in games, but it was made easier with only three of us playing. The design-your-own-principality aspect of the game was fun - a sort of game within a game. Planning and modifying your strategy to maximise your points is the key to winning, and with multiple ways of earning points limited by the seven game turns, the result is a pleasing strategic mix.

#9 - Ca$h 'n Gun$

What I said: I have to say that I've never had so much fun pointing a foam gun at someone else's head.

Justify yourself: Foam guns are where it's at. This game is all about the fun you get from pointing orange guns at other people, and the ensuing laughter when someone discovers that everyone else has chosen to target them. A deeply strategic game this is not. There is a little strategy but ultimately Ca$h 'n Gun$ is a short, fun diversion that you have to play at least two or three times each time you pull it out.

#8 - Carcassonne

What I said: You know what? It wasn't as good as I thought it would be. I never expected Carcassonne to be so..simple.

Justify yourself: Carcassonne is known as a gateway game for a reason. It's very easy to pick up and is light on strategy. It's fun and clever, which is why it has spawned so many expansions. Discounting "The River" (which adds a few tiles but doesn't change the gameplay), the lone expansion I've played - "The Tower" - adds a level of vindictiveness to an otherwise friendly game, and the jury is out on that one. If light is your cup of tea, then Carcassonne is a worthy game.

#7 - Power Grid

What I said: 'Twas a good game...[I] came away with a positive view.

Justify yourself: Not particularly useful comments there, but as I said in my review, I was in two minds about Power Grid before playing it. From reviews that I have read, it tends to be a game you either love or hate. I wouldn't say I "love" it, but I'm definitely lying towards that end of the spectrum. The clever use of the resource market, coupled with the power plant auctions and map placements makes for a cunning game.

#6 - Zombie Fluxx

What I said: Groooooooaaaannnn!

Justify yourself: Well, I said that during a game. I haven't blogged about it yet, which is very slack of me. Zombie Fluxx is the highest rated "light and fun" game on my list. It ranks this high due to the sheer amount of fun to be found in the 99 card deck. I promise to review it next year, but all you need to know in the meantime is Zombies + Everchanging Rules = Max fun.

#5 - Tigris & Euphrates

What I said: [I thought] I wasn't going to enjoy it. It looked too chess like. I'm happy to report that I was wrong. I really enjoyed the game.

Justify yourself: T&E makes it all the way to #5 courtesy of the surprisingly enjoyable mechanics. After reading about the game, and finding out it involved placing tiles on a board, I was worried. I shouldn't have been. It is nothing like Chess or Othello. Instead T&E is its own breed of simple tile laying mixed with a complex underlying strategy that results in a beguiling and intriguing game.

#4 - Agricola

What I said: n/a

Justify yourself: I'm waiting until I play a game with 3 or more players before I blog about Agricola. I've mentioned more than once that it is the new number #1 on Board Game Geek, and from my lone play through I can see the attraction. With so many cards available, Agricola lends itself to a slightly different experience each time. The key is combing the cards you are dealt with the known actions available throughout the game. I must admit, the anticipation of playing Agricola, and the ensuing enjoyment of the two-player game is what shoots it to number 4 on my list. And that's without animeeples. Will it manage to stay this high on the list over the coming 12 months? I have a sneaking suspicion it might.

#3 - Puerto Rico

What I said: I almost feel like a real gamer now. Everyone really enjoyed the game. One more to add to the ever growing must-play-again list.

Justify yourself: No other game was as eagerly anticipated this year as Puerto Rico. It has been the benchmark for all other games for the last few years, and my gaming quest would never have been truly complete without playing it. Like Agricola, I've only played it once (a five player game), and all I can say is that the genius mechanics and player interaction make this a must-play for anyone who considers themselves a gamer.

#2 - Catan Card Game

What I said: If you're a Settlers fan and have that special someone who enjoys the game as well, then this is a worthy consideration of your hard earned moolah.

Justify yourself: I was surprised as anyone that a two player card game made it to #2. However, I couldn't deny it this position. While I still think it could make a fun three or four player game with a couple of tweaks, it is nonetheless a very enjoyable game with just two. The Giggling One and I played the Catan Card Game many times this year, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. Aided by the expansion sets, it is easy to learn, simple to set up, and allows for some cunning strategies. It's great for fans of the Catan series and newcomers alike, and is perfect for a lazy afternoon with that special someone.

#1 - The Pillars of the Earth

What I said: It was a joy to play a game that made reference to the events and characters within [the novel]. If you enjoy board games, then this is a great game to play. Easy enough for board game novices to understand and enjoy, and deep enough for veterans to have fun with as well. It rocks!

Justify yourself: No surprises here. "Pillars" was always going to be my game of the year. While I um'd and ah'd about the make up and order of this Top 10, it was only spots 2 to 10 that I debated. Pillars has a great balance of strategy accompanied by a dabble of luck. Despite only lasting six rounds, what it packs into those rounds is fun, exciting, and sometimes frustrating. Never frustrating enough to break the game mind you - just to curse your opponents. Awesome mechanics and a fantastically illustrated board set Pillars well above any other game I played this year. The expansion added that little bit extra to share the cathedral-building love with another two players, and there's nothing better than sharing this game with as many gamers as you can. Read the novel and play the game. Then read the sequel. You won't regret it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Hoard

Do I have the greatest girlfriend or do I have the greatest girlfriend?

Not only did The Giggling One give me the game I really wanted for Christmas, she also bought me two other games as well!

I am now the very proud and grateful owner of Agricola, Carcassonne, and Carcassonne - the Tower.

And my thoughtful step-sister Michelle also gave us Acquire.

What better Christmas could a gamer ask for?

The Giggling One and I have already had a 2 player game of Agricola. Sooo many options with sooo few available moves. This game is huge, and is definitely getting a look in at the next Hobart Gamers night.

Look for an Agricola-centric blog entry once I've played it with more players. Hopefully it's only a week or so away.

Spoiled for choice I am.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ticket to Ride

I can now proudly say I have played what I regard as the triumvirate of gateway games: Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride.

I'm not so proud to say I got my arse whipped on Friday night, finishing stone cold motherless last against three other Ticket to Ride beginners.

Ticket to Ride was first published in 2004, and has gone on to spawn a slew of sequels (3 expansions, and 4 re-implementations (expansions add to the original game, while re-implementations create a whole new game based on the original)).

The concept of Ticket to Ride is very simple: place trains on a board to link up cities and score points.

Here's the board:

As you can see there are routes of various colours linking the cities on the map. In fact, there are nine different coloured routes: black, white, red, orange, yellow, pink, green, blue and grey (or "gray" if you want that authentic US feel).

In order to place trains along a route, you need to collect Train Car cards of the corresponding colour.

The number of Train Car cards you need to collect is equal to the number of spaces between the cities.

For example, to link Seattle and Helena, you require 6 yellow Train Cars. To link between Salt Lake City and Denver you need either 3 red carriages, or 3 yellow carriages.

Things can be helped along by a Locomotive card (the bottom card in the image above) which acts as a wildcard and can be used to make up a set if you don't have enough cards of the right colour.

Additionally, grey routes can be completed with any set of cards, as long as they are all of the same colour.

On each turn, you can take one (and only one) of three actions:

1. Draw Train Car cards, or
2. Claim a route, or
3. Draw Destination Tickets

We'll start, as is customary, with number 1.

There are 110 Train Car cards all up (12 of each colour, and 14 Locomotives). Each player gets 4 to start with. The remaining cards are shuffled and placed face-down. The top five cards are then placed face-up next to the board.

There will always be five Train Car Cards face-up. Whenever a face up card is taken, the top card of the deck replaces it.

Your choice for drawing Train Car Cards is simple: you can draw a maximum of 2 cards on your turn. You can either take a face-up card, or take pot luck by drawing the top card from the deck.

If you take a face-up card with your first pick, the top card is turned over to replace it. You can then either take another face-up card (including the replacement just turned over) or take the top card from the deck with your second pick.

The only exception is that if you choose to take a face-up Locomotive card, that is the only card you may take this turn. If you take a face-up card, and a Locomotive replaces it, you can't then nab the Locomotive. Of course, if probability favours you, and you draw a Locomotive from the top of the deck, then there's nothing stopping you from taking a second card.

Alrighty, so you've drawn a few cards and you think it's time you staked your claim to a route. That's action number 2.

All you do is take a set of cards that match the colour of the route (or any old colour you like for a grey route) and play them face-up so that the other players can see you're not cheating (not that you would cheat of course).

As I mentioned earlier, the number of cards you play is equal to the number of spaces along the route. You can only claim one route per turn.

You then place the cards in the discard pile and place your own trains on the spaces of that route. Like so:

Every player gets 45 trains, and you need to take care where you play them for two reasons.

Firstly, you score points based on the length of each route you claim. the longer the route, the more points it is worth.

A route one space long will only get you 1 point, while completing a route six spaces long will get you 15 points. It's therefore worth collecting/hoarding cards for a while (something I didn't do which cost me dearly) to claim the longer routes.

The second reason you want to take care with your train placements takes us to the final action you can perform on your turn: drawing Destination Tickets.

Destination Tickets are cards with two cities printed on them. Everyone gets three of these at the start of the game (though you discard one of them if you wish).

On your turn you can draw more Destination Tickets if you wish. You simply take the top three cards from the face-down deck of Ticket cards (there are 30 cards all up), and keep 1, 2, or all 3 of them.

You keep your Destination Tickets secret until the end of the game at which time you score bonus points equal to the number on the card if you have a continuous train network connecting the two cities on that card.

The longer the route required to link the two cities, the more points you will get if you link the cities.

It's therefore important to play strategically and efficiently so as best to complete routes between the cities on your Destination Ticket cards. Having two cards where you can share routes is generally a good idea.

It may also pay to claim a route that blocks an opponent from linking up his or her trains in one long route. This will make it harder for them to link two particular cities.

The downside for not linking the cities on a Destination Ticket is that instead of gaining those points at the end of the game, you lose the points. I made the mistake of taking a new, high scoring Destination Ticket towards the end of the game only to have the game finish before I could complete the route.

In case you're wondering how the game ends, it's when one player has 0, 1 or 2 of his or her trains remaining. All players then have one more turn and the game finishes.

Everyone then adds the successful Destination Tickets to their score and subtracts any failed Destination Tickets from their score.

The player with the longest continuous route also scores a bonus 10 points.

And that's it. If you've played well, you'll score over 100 points. If you've played poorly,'t.

Reporting briefly on the game played on Friday night at HoGS, all four of us were new to the game (though I believe David may have played once a few years ago).

At the start of the game I made the rookie decision of ditching the high scoring, long distance Destination Ticket in favour of two low scoring, easy to connect cards. With hindsight I would have kept all three cards.

The game started out with everyone grabbing the short routes in the middle of the board, before Cathy (I apologise if her name is spelled incorrectly) began amassing a large hand of Train Car cards and began to grab the long routes one by one.

Not only that, but she managed to link all 45 of her trains in one long route to claim the longest path bonus at the end.

Despite only having two relatively low scoring Tickets, the long routes were enough to give Cathy the win with 107 points.

The Giggling One successfully completed four Tickets and came second on 99 points.

David and I were left in their dust. David managed 70 points, while I scored a paltry *cough* 53 *cough* points.

Here's the final board (Cathy was red, David was green, The Giggling One was blue, and I was black):

It was quite fun, but also frustrating to finish with such a low score. I'd love to play again and apply the lessons I've learned (claim more long routes, keep higher scoring Destination Tickets).

In fact I think that will be my next New Year's Resolution: of the new games I only played once this year, play as many as I can again next year. I shall endeavour to make Ticket to Ride, or one of its sequels, one of those games. It's worth it.