From the gaming front, I report one nice surprise and a couple of disappointments.
My interest in that old standby Puerto Rico was rekindled by the World Boardgaming Championships tournament a few weeks ago, in which I made quarter-finals only to wash out in a game with a mere 4-point spread. Friday night at our gaming group I scored 56 points with a factory/fast-build strategy finishing with Residence and Guildhall, 6 points ahead of a tie for second. Nothing remarkable about the play, but I’m becoming convinced that if you’re running that strategy it’s vital to never skip a build opportunity even if it means you have to settle for a smaller edifice than you really want – otherwise you lose control of the game tempo and shippers get time to blow past you.
I won the Power Grid game after that, too, starting with Wien on the Central Europe board and successfully scoring the 30 fairly early (3 Garbage -> 6 cities). The Wien discount was very helpful after that. I believe that low-balling to buy the 3 in the initial auction in order to place first and grab Wien + Bratislava is the strongest opening on that board – besides locking in the garbage discount and enabling you to build nukes, it’s also a central placement that makes it difficult for other players to box you in.
I’ve been less successful with Innovation, an unusual and initially appealing card game themed around cascading technologies to build up the tech level of a civilization. The game is full of interesting ideas and novel mechanics, and I had a pleasant win streak when first playing it. But my wife and I have been playing it nightly as part of our end-of-day ritual, and having mastered it we’re both noticing the same problem. There are a relative handful of power cards (Code of Laws, Democracy, Metric System, and a few others) and given two players who know what they’re doing the one who melds more of them earlier will generally run away to victory.
The dominating strategy seems to be to go for card splay as fast as possible in order to become immune to the dogmas on attack cards like City States, Pirate Code, Skyscrapers, and Rocketry that could otherwise be used to stop the leader. This is disappointing. We’re hoping it’s an artifact of the two-hand game and that the runaway effect is decreased in three- and four-hand games; our limited experience of those suggests it might be so.
This is reminiscent of something I noticed in the Commands & Colors: Ancients Tournament at WBC. I’ve been competing in that for three years now, and most of the players including myself are masters of the game who know every trick and tactic. Perversely, in this tournament environment skill seems to be almost nullified – if neither player makes a gross error victory is determined by dice and card luck. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Richard Borg, C&C:A’s designer, at this tournament, and he essentially admitted that this is an issue he knows is an issue with C&C:A. Neither of us had a magic fix for it.
This is a disappointing thing to learn about one of my favorite games. It is not invariably a problem in games with a random element; I don’t experience it, for example, in the Conflict of Heroes WWII tactical games. The key seems to be that while CoH uses die rolls, the deviation of outcomes is smaller (fewer analogs of critical hits and fumbles) so tactics dominates luck.
(I made a point of describing CoH to Borg in some detail. As I told him, I want to see what happens when his designer brain absorbs the lessons of that game, which I think is hands down the best tactical WWII game to come down the pike in many a year.)
Since realizing that C&C:A and Innovation have similar problems, I’ve been trying to invent a one-word term for games with this flaw. Ideally it should be self-explaining, or nearly so. The best I’ve come up with so far is “luck-swamped”, which may do.
Now for the good surprise: Vanished Planet. This is a co-op game for up to six players, the single product of a tiny games company located here in Pennsylvania. In fact the copy I played with was delivered to the door of my friends at the House of Chaos by the designer of the game! He happened to be in our neighborhood on the way to a family event.
Vanished Planet has been out since 2003, and I’d seen it played at conventions; it piqued my interest. I’ve seen reviews describing it as like Settlers of Catan, but it’s a lot more like a co-op version of Twilight Imperium (which I reviewed recently). Same big hexagonal board scattered with star systems and maneuvering fleets; same focus on a central planet (vanished Earth replaces Mecatol Rex); same sort of per-species quirks; similar issues with resource management and integrating tactics with grand strategy.
But this is a co-op game – player fleets aren’t fighting each other but a hyperspatial menace that has swallowed Earth and is extending tentacles of doom towards the player homeworlds. Another marked difference is playing time; while it’s not short, it’s half that for a Twilight Imperium game. I played twice, once in a 3-hand learning game and the following day 4-hand; both completed in about four hours.
Both games were a lot of fun. Your ships run around the board tagging planets, nebulas. trade stations, asteroid belts, and research stations to generate basic resources: Colonists, Energy, Ore, and Research. These are then combined in various ways to build personnel (Soldiers, Doctors, Scientists, Engineers, Diplomats) and technologies like Fusion Reactors, Meta-Translators, Dimensional Shifters, and so forth. You use these things to fulfil missions which give you goal points – a typical mission is, say, build a Meta-Translator and take it to the Alien Ruins.
The challenge is to complete enough missions (5 goal points per player) before the hyperspatial menace destroys all homeworlds. This isn’t easy, and the players must cooperate effectively to achieve it by trading resources and developing complementary strategies. As the menace’s tentacles grow longer, movement between the board segments gets more difficult, and players must eventually spend most of their capacity building space mines to keep the tentacles off their homeworlds. The finish is likely to be a nail-biter.
This game exceeded my expectations. The mechanics are simple, the play challenge is very well balanced, and overall it’s quite satisfying. I think it will stand repeated play well, and there are ways to up the challenge level for experienced players.