Board Games

A Throne for Games

Round TableLast weekend was three-and-a-half days playing board and card games at KublaCon, an SF Bay Area game convention. I’d heard about the convention before, but this was my first year to bite the bullet and go. It was a hell of a lot of fun, highly recommended to anybody who’s interested in “analog” games.

I’d been skeptical about actually staying at the hotel instead of just driving down each day, but for a game convention, that’s totally the way to do it. It’s more social than any other nerd con I’ve been to; you really get the sense that people aren’t there to buy and sell stuff, but to play. At all hours, you could wander around the common areas of the hotel and find groups of people with a game, inviting strangers to join in. And that’s literally all hours, since I spoke to a few people starting five- or six-hour games at 11 pm.

In addition to the dealer floor and the huge personal collections of dozens of folks obsessively into games, there was a fully-stocked library with just about everything published in the last couple of decades.

I got to try a bunch of games I’d never played before, along with a few that I’d played but didn’t really appreciate. Here’s what I played and what I thought. (Some of these are only after a single play-through, so take that into account when you’re making your buying or playing decisions).

Dominion
Deck-building game: Players “buy” cards from a common pool and add them to their deck. Each has special abilities, designed to let you alter your deck or your hand to buy the more expensive, scoring cards.

I played one game of Dominion not long after it’d been released, and I just didn’t see the appeal. It finally clicked for me this year, and once it did, I was completely hooked. It’s just a brilliant game, so well designed and extensible that it actually makes flaws in other games all the more glaring.

I’d been thinking that the most novel concept of the game was how victory points are handled — the cards that score you points are in the same deck as everything else, but they’re of no use to you until the end of the game. So there’s a strategic balance inherent to the central mechanic of the game: the more point cards you get, the more space they take up in your hand. Some of the most interesting strategies are based on the idea of doing something completely unintuitive, like trashing point cards in the hopes of getting higher-value cards later.

But that’s just one aspect of what’s really appealing about Dominion: it forces you to conceive of and adapt fundamentally different strategies for each game. A while ago I complained that videogames rarely require genuine innovation on the part of the player. I feel that I’m always looking for the one correct solution, or choosing between several clearly-labeled strategies.

Because the available cards in Dominion are randomized each game, the player’s actually forced to invent a new strategy with each game. (Part of that could be because the game is still relatively new for me, and there are cards I haven’t played yet). I can’t help but imagine how much more satisfying videogames would be if they required that same type of player innovation. If, for instance, I had to figure out with each session of Team Fortress 2 which two classes worked well together, instead of just picking Medic and looking for a Heavy to pair up with.

I’ve also got to mention that I entered a Dominion tournament and actually won the first round (but was eliminated in the final). That never happens, so I want it on record with the internet that I have won a game before.

Dungeon Lords
Board game: Compete with other players for resources you’ll use to add rooms and monsters to your dungeon. At the end of four rounds, a team of heroes will try to conquer your dungeon, and you’ll have to use your traps and monsters to fight them off.

This was probably my favorite of the new games I played at the convention. I’d been wandering around, and a friendly group invited me to sit down and join them as they taught me the rules. It’s got some very neat elements, and I had fun playing it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to casual players, as there’s a ton of stuff going on.

Cargo Noir
Board game: Each player is leader of a smuggling ring, sending cargo ships to ports to bid on the goods there, then sell them at the black market.

I’m glad I got to try this one out, since I’ve been curious about it for a while. I can’t say I’m a big fan of it, and I don’t think that that’s just because I’d already hopelessly lost the game halfway through. It’s published by Days of Wonder, and I’ve got a similar problem with all of their games that I’ve played: they’re extremely well-made and very accessible, but they’re always just a little too simple to be engaging. It always feels to me that there’s something indefinable that’s missing.

Blue Moon City
Board game: Players spend cards to make contributions to rebuild a ruined alien city.

I’ve played this one before, and I enjoy it, but usually only in the sense that I enjoy solving math problems. I can eventually understand how it all works, and on some level I appreciate it as a perfectly-balanced system, but I never quite feel like I’m on top of it all.

Three Dragon Ante
Card game: Dungeons and Dragons themed gambling game with a deck comprised mostly of good and evil dragon cards with special abilities.

I’d only played this once before KublaCon, and I was too occupied with figuring out the rules to really develop any kind of strategy. Playing it again, I felt like I had a slightly better idea of what was going on. It’s a well-designed game (especially if you’re playing with special coins), and it does a good job of getting across the feel of “nerd poker,” which is what I imagine they were going for.

Wrath of Ashardalon
Board game: A cooperative dungeon crawler inspired by the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules and characters. This is the sequel to Castle Ravenloft, which I already wrote about.

This has become the standby game, and I’ve played it about a dozen times now, and it has yet to get old. I’m still impressed by how well they delivered a box full of miniatures and cards and character sheets and tokens and dungeon tiles, with a streamlined version of the D&D rules that you can play in about an hour.

Guillotine
Card game: It’s the French Revolution, and a series of nobles are lined up in front of the guillotine. Each player plays cards to manipulate the line-up so that they decapitate the heads of the most notorious and most valuable villains.

This was recommended to me as a game that was simple enough to just pick up and start playing, but that was interesting enough to encourage strategizing. It delivers on both counts. I wouldn’t call it my favorite, and I don’t know if I’d play more than a couple times in a row, but it’s definitely accessible without feeling over-simplified.

Bananagrams
Tile-based word game: Each player draws letter tiles from a common pool and arranges them into his own crossword configuration. You’re trying to be the first to have used all your letters to form valid words when the pool of letters is exhausted.

I’d play this one again, but begrudgingly. It’s kind of like Speed Scrabble, which pretty much eliminates the appeal of Scrabble for me.

Qwirkle
Tile-based puzzle game: Each player has a “hand” of tiles with different-colored shapes on them. Score points by arranging the tiles on a common crossword-like configuration to form sets with all the same shape or all the same color.

I’ve played (and like) this one a lot, because it was designed by my friend Susan McKinley Ross. This year, it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, the most prestigious award for board games, which is as fantastic as it is completely deserved.

Shadows Over Camelot
Board game: Each player is a Knight of Camelot, taking quests to win white swords for the Round Table before the forces of evil fill it with black swords. Also, one of the knights may or may not be a traitor working against the others.

This is probably the one I’ve been most curious about, so getting to try out a loaner copy was much appreciated. It’s another game by Days of Wonder, so again, it’s extremely well made and it makes a fantastic first impression. And it gives me the same feeling of being not quite there.

As with the D&D board games and Pandemic, each player chooses something bad to happen to the team on his turn, as well as performing his own action. But unlike other cooperative games I’ve played, the negative cards in Shadows Over Camelot feel discouraging, not challenging. (One of the most common negative cards is actually called “Despair.”) On top of that, the actual “questing” just involves playing combinations or sequences of individual cards, one per turn. That means that they feel more like battles of attrition; there’s little decision-making involved, and it’s very difficult to make a sudden victory move that turns the tide significantly in your favor.

It has to be mentioned, though, that the “Giant” Shadows Over Camelot board set up in the main lobby was one of the most impressive sights at the convention.

San Juan
Card game version of Puerto Rico: Each player plays cards to build plantations and port buildings on Puerto Rico, to build the most productive shipping operation.

As I understand it, the attempt to design a card game version of Puerto Rico split into two designs: one became San Juan, and the other grew more complex and received a sci-fi re-theming, becoming Race for the Galaxy. The games are extremely similar. (And San Juan does feel very much like a simpler version of Puerto Rico).

I like Race for the Galaxy a lot, I own a copy of it and one of its expansions, and I’ll probably never actually get a copy of San Juan. I still think I prefer San Juan, though. Race for the Galaxy has always seemed needlessly complicated to me. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s almost as if it’s challenging you to have fun with it: the rules are perfectly comprehensible after you’ve played a couple of times, but they’re presented in such a way as to make them feel a lot more arbitrary than they actually are. Although San Juan doesn’t have the other game’s depth, I enjoyed playing it more because I could focus on strategy instead of having to remember which version of the Trade phase let me do what.

7 Wonders
Card game: Each player is building an ancient civilization, playing one card per turn to construct a building or complete part of that civilization’s Great Wonder. Each player interacts with the players on his left or right, buying and selling resources from them as well as determining which cards will be passed to them on the next turn.

This is the popular game of the moment, and playing it at KublaCon sucked. I’d already played it once before, and I liked it fine, but not enough to convince me to actually go out and buy a copy. The two times I played at the convention were a lot of fun, though, so now it’s back on my wish list.

Last Night on Earth
Board game: B-movie humans versus zombies.

I haven’t played this one yet; I picked it up on the dealer floor of the convention, partly as a souvenir and mostly because I keep seeing it in game stores but can never convince myself to buy it. I was a little disappointed to open the box and find that it was a pretty straightforward set of humans versus zombies; I’d been conflating it with its companion game Invasion from Outer Space, which has the same system but pits carnival freaks against Martian invaders, making it infinitely more interesting. The thing that’d convinced me to buy it was seeing a group playing the two games combined one night, humans and carnies vs. zombies and Martians.

On the plus side, the game has the “This Could Be Our Last Night On Earth,” which can only be played on a human male and female character on the same tile and causes them to lose a turn, and I fully respect that in a game mechanic.

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