WBC 2014 after-action report

I just got back from the 2014 World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. This event is the “brain” half of the split vacation my wife Cathy and I generally take every year, the “brawn” half being summer weapons camp. WBC is a solid week of tournament tracks in strategy and war games of all kinds, with a huge open pickup gaming scene as well. People fly in from all over the planet to be here – takes less effort for us as the venue is about 90 minutes straight west of where we live.

Cathy and I aren’t – quite – steady world-championship-level players. I did make the Power Grid finals (top 5 players) two years ago, but have been unable to replicate that feat since. Usually we do make quarter-finals (top 64 to 125 players) or semi-finals (top 16 to 25) in a couple of our favorite games and then lose by the slimmest of margins to people just a hair better (or at least more obsessive) than we are. That’s pretty much what happened this year.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of my whole week, but rather try to hit the dramatic high spots in a way I hope will convey something of the flavor to people who aren’t deeply immersed in tournament gaming. I think the best way to do that is to organize by game rather than chronology. The section titles link to game descriptions.

Terra Mystica

I’ve been enjoying this one a lot lately and was very pleased to be able to fit a pickup game in on the first night. Three to six players, 2.5-3 hours, fantasy-themed – contending factions with magical powers trying for interlocking levels of area control on a multicolored hex grid.

This game is strategically deep and tricky to play – very “crunchy” in gamer slang. Suits me fine; I like my games super-crunchy, which is an elite taste even among strategy gamers. If Terra Mystica becomes a WBC tournament game (which I think is extremely likely to happen within two years) a trophy in it will earn more respect than one in a lighter, “fluffier” game.

Some of you may be entertained to know that my joke name for this one is “Eclipse: The Gathering”. For the rest of you, this hints at similarities to a game (Eclipse) I often play, and another (Magic: The Gathering) that I used to play.

The one flaw the game seems to have is one that’s common in games with asymmetrical player powers; the factions aren’t quite balanced, with some chronically stronger or weaker than average (this sort of thing can slip through even careful playtesting sometimes). The Darklings, for example, are often said to be about the winningest side; my one time playing them I did very well, pulling a strong second.

This was about my fifth play of Terra Mystica, maybe fourth. This time I drafted the Engineers – I’m trying to get to playing every one of the 14 factions. I cannot recommend them. I had to work hard to pull second even though all the other players were less experienced than me; the Engineers have real trouble getting enough workers to expand even though my first couple of actions were the expensive ones required to reduce my terraforming cost to 1 worker. Copping the bonus for most area controlled and maxing out the Air cult track helped a lot.

Commands & Colors: Ancients

I love ancient-period wargames. Phalanxes, peltasts, barbarians, war elephants – I actually prefer a straight historical to fantasy-themed stuff. I’d say my favorite single period is the wars of the Diadochi (lots and lots of war elephants, hurray!), but anything set from the late Bronze Age to the fall of the Western Roman Empire will easily catch my interest.

Commands & Colors: Ancients is, in my opinion, one of the best game systems ever devised for this span of time. While not as crunchy as some of the older simulationist games like the PRESTAGS system, you will get authentic results when you use period tactics. Knowing what historical generals did, and having some idea why, actually helps significantly. There are expansions and scenarios for hundreds of different historical battles.

Alas, the game is flawed for tournament play. The problem with it is that when two highly skilled players meet, they can counter each others’ tactics so well that the outcome comes down to who gets good breaks on the battle dice. I’m quite a good player, but I had skipped competing at WBC for the last few years because I found it too irritating to lose to the dice rather than my opponents.

This year, however, I had a hole in my WBC schedule where the C&C:A tournament was and decided to give it another try. The scenario was the battle of Bagradas, Carthaginians vs. Romans during the First Punic War. With elephants!

Three games later I had: 1 narrow loss to a player who afterwards shook his head and said “You played that very well, I just got better dice”; 1 solid win against a player not quite as good as me; and one heartbreaker of a loss to a player about my equal where we both knew it came down to one failed die roll on my attempted final kill – which, by the odds, I should have made.

That wasn’t good enough to get me to the second round. And it was just about what I expected from my previous experience; the tournament game is a crapshoot in which it’s not enough to be good, you also have to be lucky. I prefer games in which. if there’s a random element at all, luck is nevertheless relatively unimportant.

I’ll probably sit out C&C:A next year.

Ticket To Ride

TTR is a railroad game in which you build track and connect cities to make victory points. It’s relatively fluffy, a “family game”, but has enough strategy so that serious gamers will play it as a light diversion when circumstances aren’t right for something crunchier.

I am difficult to beat at the Europe variant, which I like better than the American map; the geography creates more tactical complexities. In my first heat I kerb-stomped the other three players, coming in 19 points ahead of 2nd and sweeping every scoring category and bonus.

The second heat looked like it was going to go the same way. I built both monster tunnels (St. Petersburg-Stockholm and Kyiv-Budapest) on succeeding turns for a 36-point power play, then successfully forced an early game end in order to leave the other players with unused trains (and thus unscored points). When we started endgame scoring everyone at the table thought I had the win locked in.

Sadly, in order to get rid of my own train tokens as fast as possible I had to give up on the longest-continuous-track bonus. Another player got it, and piled up just enough completed route bonuses to get past me by 1 solitary victory point. Hard to say which of us was more astonished.

My schedule was such that it wasn’t possible after that to make the second win that would get me to semifinals guaranteed. But I was a high alternate and might have made it in anyway; I was just checking in with the GM when my wife ran in to tell me I’d squeaked into the Puerto Rico semifinals running at the same time – and that’s a game I take more seriously.

Ah well, maybe next time. I think none of the WBC regulars in this tournament would be very surprised if I took gold some year, if I’m not preoccupied with more serious games.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was not quite the first of the genre now called “Eurogames”, but it was the first to hit big internationally back in 2002. The theme is colonization and economic development in the 16th-century Caribbean; you build cities, you run plantations, you trade, and you ship goods to Europe for victory points.

This game is to Eurogame as apple is to fruit, the one everyone thinks of first. It looks light on the surface but isn’t; it has a lot of subtlety and tremendous continuing replay value. It has outlasted dozens of newer, flashier games that had six months or a year of glory but now molder half-forgotten in closets.

My wife and I are both experienced and strong players. The WBC tournament referees and many of the past champion players know us, and we’ve beaten some of them in individual games. We seldom fail to make quarter-finals, and some years we make semi-finals. I think each of us can realistically hope for gold some year.

But maybe we’re not quite good enough yet. Cathy got two wins in the qualifying heats, good for a bye past the quarter-finals into semis. I scored one utterly crushing victory at the only three-place table in the second qualifying heat, playing my default factory/fast-buildout strategy. Then, only a close second – but that made me second alternate (one of the guys I beat in that game was last year’s champion) and I got in because a couple of qualified players dropped out to do other things (like play in the Ticket To Ride semis I passed on to play in these).

Cathy pulled third in her game; she says she was outplayed. Me, I got off to a roaring start. Play order in the initial round is known to be important from statistical analysis, so much so that in championship you bid competitively for it by agreeing to deduct victory points from your final score. I got fourth seat (generally considered second-best to third) relatively cheaply for -1.5.

Usually I plan to play corn shipper when in fourth seat. But, due to the only random element in the game (the order plantation tiles in the game come out) and some good money-accumulation moves, I managed to build and man a coffee roaster very early. That pointed me back at my default strategy, which aims at a fast city build-out with minimal shipping using Factory as a money generator – one coffee crop comes close to paying for the (expensive) Factory.

Damned if it didn’t work perfectly. I had the only coffee in production, which scared other players off of triggering production, particularly styming the bulk shippers. For most of the game it looked to everyone at the table like I was cruising to an easy win. There were admiring remarks about this.

The one drawback of this strategy, however, is that it has a slow ramp-up. You make most of your points quite near the end of the game through big buildings. If anyone can force game end before you’re expecting it, you take a bigger hit to your score than shippers who have been making points from the beginning.

That’s how I got whacked. There were these three or maybe four guys down from Quebec specifically for the Puerto Rico tournament; gossip said they weren’t playing anything else. One of them – Matthieu, I think his name was – was sitting to my left (after me in the turn order) and pulled a brilliant hack that shortened the game by at least two rounds, maybe more. Doing this deprived me of the last, crucial rounds of build-out time when I would have pulled down the biggest points.

Those of you who play the game know that one way to accelerate the end is to deliberately leave buildings unmanned so they suck colonists off the colony ship faster; when those run out, you’re done. There’s a recently discovered ambiguity in the rules that makes this tactic work much faster – turns out that someone playing Mayor is allowed, under a strict reading, to refuse to take his colonists, casting them into the void and leaving his building empty to pull more out of the boat on the next round.

The resulting vanishing-colonist play may be a bug produced by poorly crafted rules or a bad translation from the original German (wouldn’t be the first time that’s been a problem, either). The tournament referee is not happy with it, nor are the WBC regulars – it screws with the “book”, the known strategies, very badly. The ref intends to brace the game’s designer about this, and we may get a rules amendment disallowing the play next year.

In the meantime, nobody could argue that the guys from Quebec weren’t within their rights to exploit this hack ruthlessly. And they did. Three of them used it to finish at the finals table. Matthieu, the one that dry-gulched me, took the gold.

There was a lot of … I won’t say “angry”, but rather perturbed talk about this. I wasn’t the only person to feel somewhat blindsided and screwed (though we also admired their nerve and dedication). These guys were monomaniacs; unlike most top WBC gamers, who (like me) play up to a half-a-dozen games very well, the Quebeckers were laser focused on thus one game and studied it to the point where they found the hack that would break the standard book.

Sigh…and that’s why no trophy for me this year. (Everyone in the final four would have gotten one.) Cathy and I will try again. Nobody would be surprised at either of us making the finals, but it could take a few years’ more practice.

54 thoughts on “WBC 2014 after-action report

  1. You’ve summed up the reason why I was never enthused as much about Borg’s games (CC:A, Memoir ’44) as you were.

    The strategies, once known, are simple enough to execute perfectly – and it comes down to the dice. It’s a side effect of trying to make something that does “wargaming” at a simplicity level such that you can teach it to a newbie in 30 minutes: The ability to mess with someone else’s OODA loop, or to bluff, feint or otherwise do something unexpected goes out the window.

  2. >You’ve summed up the reason why I was never enthused as much about Borg’s games (CC:A, Memoir ’44) as you were.

    I didn’t like Memoir ’44 at all. The left/right/center zone-order system is a really bad match for troops with radios and ranged weapons. On the other hand, I still think it’s well matched to ancient-period capabilities, and the evidence for this is that when you apply period tactical doctrines you get period-plausible results.

    I also think you underestimate the game’s complexity. I know the game backwards and forwards and even I couldn’t teach it in 30 minutes. There are choices like that between evasion and battle-back that aren’t clear-cut, especially later in a batttle with partial units running around.

    And, yeah, you can do unexpected stuff – that’s what the rarer cards like Darken The Sky are for; much of the advanced play is concerned with when to deploy such things for maximum advantage. The first time someone throws down Clash of Shields just as you’ve maneuvered your line into contact will permanently disabuse you of the notion that there’s no tactical surprise in the game.

  3. “Everything in war is simple. The simplest things are very difficult.”

    Tactical warfighting is about preventing your own error cascades, recovering from them once you’ve recognized them, and inducing them in your opponent. Tactical surprise is making the enemy see something that aligns with their expectations that is not actually the case.

    Borg’s game engine does neither of these particularly well. Your examples are “deployable rules-exceptions” as cards. I like and use cards as timing mechanisms – a deck of cards is not just a stack of commands, it’s also a clock. I’ve found the cards used in Borg’s games trump position and tempo in many cases, and find that there’s a cap to skill with the game that makes everything boil down to card luck or dice luck. In large part due to domain knowledge in games in general, I ran close to that cap pretty early.

    Remember that you taught me the game in about 30 minutes, won a close game with me the first time, and lost the next two by a considerable margin – it wasn’t that I “knew how to use cavalry” better; it’s that I could visualize the capabilities of my units, there was an “obvious best way” to use them, then it came down to dice.

    At no point, in any of those three games did I feel like there was a reason to dither or contemplate possible outcomes within my decision-tree.

    I also did this to Dominion and I may be a specialized case. In a lot of ways, I look at games the way you look at refactoring Python.

    PS: You totally should do the University First strategy in Puerto Rico. :)

  4. I have a group of friends with whom I play Puerto Rico a lot. We know the “book” and each other well enough that seating order at the table is important.

    That rules hack is both interesting and disturbing. I may mention it as a possible house rule variation (no way would our group accept that as standard) next time we manage to get together to play.

  5. SOmehow I get the feeling that rules lawyering in gaming is as popular as language lawyering in C.

  6. I’ve re-read the English rules, as published on Rio Grande’s web site (http://riograndegames.com/getFile.php?id=675) and it makes no mention of the Mayor being able to skip taking colonists from the boat, only that he *may* take a colonist from supply first. Since I don’t read German well enough to translate,

    Quoting:

    ————————–
    THE MAYOR (mayor phase -> arrival of new colonists)
    The tiles (plantation, quarry, or building) have 1 to 3 circles. A player may
    place one colonist on each circle on the tiles on his player board. If there is
    at least one colonist on a tile, it is considered occupied. Only occupied tiles
    may use their functions; unoccupied tiles never function!

    action:
    each player takes and places colonists
    privilege:
    the mayor may take one additional colonist

    The player who chooses this role may first take one colonist from the
    colonist supply (not from the colonist ship!) as his privilege. Next, the players
    take the colonists from the colonist ship one at a time, starting with the
    mayor. The players continue to take one colonist at a time, in clockwise
    order, until none remain on the colonist ship.

    A player may place his new colonist(s), together with all the colonists he
    acquired from earlier rounds, on any empty circles on the tiles on his
    player board. Thus, a player may move a colonist placed on a circle or San
    Juan in an earlier round. If a player cannot place all his colonists,
    he may “store” them on the small city of San Juan on his player
    board. The colonists remain there until a later mayor phase when
    they may be placed on empty circles on the player’s tiles.

    As his last duty, the mayor puts new colonists on the colonist
    ship to be used in the next mayor phase. For each empty circle
    on the buildings on the player boards of all players (empty circles on
    plantations and quarries do not count!), the mayor takes one colonist from
    the colonist supply and places it on the colonist ship. However, as a
    minimum, the mayor should always place at least as many colonists on the
    ship as there are players in the game.

    Notes:
    – Usually, all players place/move their colonists at the same time. If, however, the
    players feel that their placement decisions may depend on other’s placements, the
    players should place their colonists is the following order: first, the mayor and, then,
    the others in clockwise order from the mayor.
    – If a mayor forgets (players may remind him) to place new colonists on the colonist
    ship, players later place the minimum (number of players) on the colonist ship.
    – When the colonist supply runs out, the mayor may not use his privilege and, of
    course, he does not refill the colonist ship.
    – No player may choose to place colonists in San Juan if he has empty circles
    available on his player board. All empty circles must be filled, if possible. Colonists
    may not be placed on the circles other than in the mayor phase.
    ————————–

  7. And with further research, I found the loop hole:

    ————————–
    THE ROLES
    Each role grants the player who takes the card a special privilege, and also,
    a specific action that can be taken by each player, in clockwise order,
    starting with the player who took the role (exception: prospector).

    Basic rules for all role cards:
    – If a card has one or more doubloons on it, the player who takes the card
    gets the doubloons in addition to the privilege and action associated
    with the card.
    – The action associated with a role card is always taken first by the player
    who took the card, followed by the others in clockwise order.
    – A player must always take a role card when it is his turn to do so, but he
    may choose not to use the action or privilege of the card he choses. The
    other players, of course, get their turns at the action of the card.
    – The action of a role card is optional (exception: captain). A player may
    choose not to or be unable to use the action on his turn.
    – A role card remains in front of the player who took it until the end of
    the round. It may not be taken by another player in the round.
    ————————–

    So you can choose Mayor, but choose not to collect colonists. But my reading would suggest that that other players would divide the ‘extra’ colonists, not remove them from the game.

    EG: Colonist ship with 9 colonists and 4 players. Normally the Mayor would (optionally) get 1 colonist from supply, then starting with the Mayor each player would take 1 colonist, repeating as necessary until the colonists are all exhausted from the boat. This would give the Mayor 3 colonists from the boat, and each other player would receive 2 colonists from the boat. If the Mayor chooses not to accept colonists, then each other player would receive 3 colonists.

    The only advantage would be to keep your buildings empty, so as to cause early colonist depletion, but the downside is that all the other players get more colonists, which usually translate to more power (from manned buildings) or more resources generated during production. I don’t see that as a viable long-term strategy, instead just a one-off tactic.

  8. Note, any player can choose not to participate in a role (except Captain, which is mandatory for all), so in the 9 colonist scenario, 3 players could choose to skip colonists, which could (in theory) leave 9 colonists for 1 player (who would then want to purchase and man the Fortress).

  9. Nb. “Ticket To Ride” has an Android version, and was once in Humble Bundle.

  10. TTR is also playable online as a Java applet, and I used to be a very active player, though I’ve let it fall off in recent months. I find that the tactile difference changes how players play, especially in a 2-player game where you might end up with a hand of 30+ cards.

    Jay: Have you ever heard of the Munchkin Player’s Handbook or the card game it spawned?

  11. I’ve played one game of Munchkin with Howard Tayler at the table. I took great glee in taking down his march to victory with a well-timed card, and was congratulated for fully getting into the spirit of the game.

  12. The Munchkin Player’s Handbook was a masterful parody of the 3e PHB, ostensibly aimed at power gamers (for whom rules-lawyering is a requisite skill). The “Boil an Anthill: Go Up a Level” is a direct reference to the advice that since every kill has to be worth at least one XP, characters who need just a little bump should go pour boiling water on a bunch of ants.

    The impetus for writing a book full of this sort of nuttiness didn’t come from nowhere.

  13. “I’ve found the cards used in Borg’s games trump position and tempo in many cases, and find that there’s a cap to skill with the game that makes everything boil down to card luck or dice luck.”

    I do not have the extensive gaming experience of Eric or Ken. I am curious, though, whether the above description couldn’t be applied to real warfare on some level. Given two highly-skilled commanders from the same era with comparable technology, arsenal toolkits, etc. wouldn’t most battles come down to a combination of luck of terrain and completely random luck (read: dice)?

    “Tactical warfighting is about preventing your own error cascades, recovering from them once you’ve recognized them, and inducing them in your opponent. Tactical surprise is making the enemy see something that aligns with their expectations that is not actually the case.”

    On the other hand, I can see that a game that lets you do the above is clearly a better model of actual warfare than one that doesn’t. Things like the fog of war, and using the fact that your opponent is in the dark about the position of a large fraction of your units, don’t seem to be well-modeled in the small set of games I have seen.

    I don’t think I have ever seen a game system that could model something like the advantage that McClellan got over Lee by finding the lost set of operational orders at Antietam.

    “I also did this to Dominion and I may be a specialized case.”

    All I can say is that it is taking me a long time to figure out the optimum Dominion strategies. They were not immediately obvious, and I think my husband has been better at figuring them out quickly. On the other hand while I ran up the skill curve on Race For The Galaxy faster than he did, as time has gone on he has dominated our games more and more. I may have a bad habit of finding a “local maximum” good strategy and then getting stuck in a rut, unable to move over to the next “hill” of better strategy.

  14. “[Ticket to Ride] is a railroad game in which you build track and connect cities to make victory points. It’s relatively fluffy, a “family game”, but has enough strategy so that serious gamers will play it as a light diversion when circumstances aren’t right for something crunchier.”

    I’ve had my eye on this one for a while as a game to play in the evenings with my husband, but I was worried that it was so fluffy it was primarily aimed at kids and would get boring quickly. You’ve convinced me to give it a try. It sounds as though it has at least as much depth as Lost Cities, probably significantly more.

    We are currently rotating through Race For The Galaxy (Alien Artifact expansion; we’ve temporarily retired the 3 expansions leading up to Brink of War), Dominion (Prosperity), and Carcassone (with Traders & Builders and Inns & Cathedrals expansions). Occasionally we’ll jump out and do cribbage, Quirkle Cubes, or San Juan. Lost Cities has been pretty much retired, though we played it quite extensively for a while.

    Any suggestions on other games to add to the list would be welcome. They need to be playable for only 2 players in 30 – 45 minutes. (Though I have seriously considered getting Vanished Planet, accepting that we would need to leave it set up in mid-game and resume the next day.)

    Puerto Rico intrigues me, but I cannot get the 3-player minimum together.

  15. “Though I have seriously considered getting Vanished Planet…”

    Update: I see that it is no longer on the market. Any interesting new games in that sub-genre?

  16. >Any suggestions on other games to add to the list would be welcome. They need to be playable for only 2 players in 30 – 45 minutes.

    TTR might push that time limit. But I know something ideal. Battleline from GMT; check it out on BoardgameGeek.

  17. Don’t know if you’ve ever played Gettysburg, but it’s a supreme historical and strategy experience in which good generalship can overcome even bad dice luck. We play with two game sets and align both boards (which are quite large) side-by-side. You can play with teams, in which each side has an overall commander and various corp under the independent command of your teammates. Corp commanders can consult and receive orders prior to each move, but then must execute individually. This forces the overall commander to both assess the on-board realities and also the competence of his subordinates.

  18. >Puerto Rico intrigues me, but I cannot get the 3-player minimum together.

    You want four players, really. It’s better with four, and that’s the tournament game.

  19. Sorry for the mistaken game name. It’s called BattleCry, but it’s setting is the Civil War and the archetype is the battle of Gettysburg.

  20. >I’ve had my eye on [TTR] for a while as a game to play in the evenings with my husband,

    Another note: don’t bother with the base game (American map). It’s too simple, and the map is poorly balanced. The crunchy variants are the Europe, India, and Asia maps.

  21. I disagree with ESR about the USA map of Ticket to Ride being too easy. I dislike it because it’s too frustrating; there are bottlenecks on the board to certain cities that only one player can build, and once someone builds them, that’s that. In the Europe game, you can use station houses to selectively commandeer one stretch of an opponent’s track to complete your route(s). Each player gets 3 station houses. You get 4 extra points for each station house you DON’T use at the end of the game, but having the option of using station houses to complete routes adds a tactical dimension and stops people from building bottlenecks just to keep others from completing routes.

  22. I disagree with ESR about the USA map of Ticket to Ride being too easy.

    I don’t think that it’s either too easy or too simple per se; the problem is that it’s too swingy. Without the one-long-route setup that Europe has, someone who draws Seattle-NY and Vancouver-Montreal at the beginning is nearly unstoppable.

  23. >I disagree with ESR about the USA map of Ticket to Ride being too easy. I dislike it because it’s too frustrating;

    I’ll go with too easy and too frustrating – it achieves both at once.

  24. A few weeks ago I bought our first board game. Or I thought I did – it turned out that I wasn’t really paying attention: even though it came in a big box, it was actually a Game of Thrones _card_ game.

    The thing, it is surprisingly hard. I think ideal games have a few simple rules that make up very complicated combined strategies – see chess. With GT even the basic rules are complicated enough, with three kinds of attacks, four kinds of cards, and character cards having various possible attributes and classes, but almost every card has an extra rule on it. Playing it with my wife we stop pretty much every second round and realize too late that wait, we forgot something, like actually one of the strategy cards said we shouldn’t have initiated a power struggle challenge this turn, or wait I have put an accessory card under your Arya Stark that says you pay two gold if she participates in a challenge and we forgot about that one, or wait I forgot that if I am attacking with Stannis Baratheon and you have no character of the Lord class you are not allowed to defend at all and so on. It definitely takes time to learn a deck. Maybe the trick is to memorize all the special abilities and stuff of your own deck to be able to warn the opponent in time.

    I wonder if so simple rules as in chess can lead to very, very complicated strategies, then how complicated strategies can be developed in a game as complex as this? Sounds rather mind-boggling. Next time I am at the shop I’ll buy a bloody simple Carcassone I guess.

  25. “I do not have the extensive gaming experience of Eric or Ken. I am curious, though, whether the above description couldn’t be applied to real warfare on some level. Given two highly-skilled commanders from the same era with comparable technology, arsenal toolkits, etc. wouldn’t most battles come down to a combination of luck of terrain and completely random luck (read: dice)?”

    Off topic I guess, but battles yes. Wars no. I can’t remember where I read it, but the idea that most wars look evenly matched, stalemated slugfests until one side runs out of oomph on the logistics side makes sense to me. Quite often the worst fighting is at the point where each side is hoping for the other to break. Being hammered under by better logistics and production capacity doesn’t allow a lot of scope for a commander to make much of a difference.

    I doubt modelling this accurately would make for much of a boardgame though.

  26. Missed my own point – for “a commander” substitute “luck”. Darn.

  27. >This game is to Eurogame as apple is to fruit, the one everyone thinks of first.

    Interestingly, over here people tend to think of Catan first, Carcassone second, Puerto Rico third. I know people who regularly “go cataning” who don’t even fully realize that this is a subset of boardgames in general, and would not identify with being a called a boardgamer (so, are completely outside geek culture as such) – they just think “cataning” is just a part of home parties, like drinking beer. I semi-seriously wonder if Catan’s popularity may depend on it being playable half drunk or not – haven’t tried it either way yet, I’ll stick to 2-player stuff for now.

  28. Thanks for the input. I think TTR is the leading candidate for next game. I’m also thinking about Yggdrasil, Munchkins,
    Conflict of Heroes, and Power Grid.

    TTR and Power Grid feel like they are within the normal range of our past game types while the others are a stretch to something new.

    The 45 – 60 minutes was a guideline to filter out the epic scope games. We routinely play two games of Race for the Galaxy back to back in one evening.

  29. >I’m also thinking about Yggdrasil, Munchkins, Conflict of Heroes, and Power Grid.

    All very sound choices. Well, except maybe for Munchkins, which works better with more players than two. If you’re going to play Power Grid two-hand, do it with the Robots expansion, which can add a couple of rule-governed robot players. Be aware that it runs long.

  30. Ltw: Advnced Squad Leader will nominally let you play various partisan forces versus the Wermacht, if you desire. IIRC you are warned that there is no way to “balance” such an encounter; but I learned ASL by playing with one who knew the rules, not by reading them.

  31. >Anyone tried the Firefly board game?

    I have. Considered purely as an SF pick-up-and-carry game, I don’t think it’s as good as the new Merchants of Venus – but the Verse atmosphere is very well done and can make it a more fun experience than MoV if you were a fan of the series. I like it a lot. My wife Cathy doesn’t.

  32. >esr, what ancient war boardgames would you recommend?

    C&C: Ancients, first and foremost. Notwithstanding the fact that it tends to get random between expert players, it cannot be even nearly matched for authentic play feel or scope (hundreds of battle scenarios!) by anything else.

  33. Thanks – my wife bought it sight unseen, basically; we haven’t made time to play it. Is it playable with only 2?

  34. >I don’t think that it’s either too easy or too simple per se; the problem is that it’s too swingy. Without the one-long-route setup that Europe has, someone who draws Seattle-NY and Vancouver-Montreal at the beginning is nearly unstoppable.

    Not in my group they’re not. Being too obvious about anything will get you gratuitously blocked.

  35. Re: TTR

    I see bottlenecks as a feature not a bug, and using them and avoiding them as part of the game.

    BTW my 5 year old has recently started playing TTR. Only against the computer so far, though. One of his first efforts resulted in a score of 206 vs 1 computer player. The game and map aren’t too hard, but the AI may sometimes be too predictable (he’s watched how my wife and I beat up on the AI in 2 player games vs the computer).

  36. >Thanks – my wife bought it sight unseen, basically; we haven’t made time to play it. Is it playable with only 2?

    If you mean Firefly, probably – but it’s almost certainly better at 3, 4, or 5. Most Euros are designed with 4 or 5 as the sweet spot. In Puerto Rico it’s definitely 4; in Power Grid, 5.

  37. I used to play with really good gamers and realized that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results was driving me batty. Some of these guys used to win their favorite games at gencon BK (before kids).

    Lost touch over the years. I did read an article about a Diplomacy tournament and recognized one of the names. Called him up and 10 years later they still play World in Flames against one of those guys. They have won a game in the 20 years they’ve played against him.

  38. I do historical miniatures gaming.

    It’s very difficult to minimize the effects of luck, but my group has a house rule that helps a lot.

    Once in each game, each player may call for a re-roll. This eliminates the game being decided by a single catastrophic very bad roll.

    As to simulating something like the finding of the “Lost Order” – that requires a third-party referee. Simulation of an operational or strategic level conflict, especially in pre-industrial times, really requires a referee. In a “campaign”, where players or teams of players issue orders to their forces, a random event could be an order being shown to the opposing side.

  39. “Once in each game, each player may call for a re-roll. This eliminates the game being decided by a single catastrophic very bad roll.”

    Given this house rule some folks would be searching for high risk/high gain moves to maximize the value of that re-roll…

  40. “Given this house rule some folks would be searching for high risk/high gain moves to maximize the value of that re-roll…”

    An astute point.

    How many of the games at WBC stress reading your opponent, vs. knowing the optimal strategies and relying on luck of the dice? How popular are such games? In other words, Diplomacy, or more bluntly, poker…

  41. >How many of the games at WBC stress reading your opponent, vs. knowing the optimal strategies and relying on luck of the dice? How popular are such games? In other words, Diplomacy, or more bluntly, poker…

    There’s very little poker-like play. There is a Diplomacy tournament, but most of the games rely on strategic and tactical minimaxing much more than they do on reading opponents.

    Thinking about it, some of our top players are pretty obvious Asperger’s cases. In a game that relied on reading opponents they’d be screwed.

  42. For Firefly, I strongly recommend the introductory story card published on the website for a first game, especially compared to the suggested ‘King of all Londinium’ story card. Though very thematic, that card results in an extremely long game with more new than experienced players at the table.

  43. esr:
    “I know something ideal. Battleline from GMT; check it out on BoardgameGeek.”

    I read the review. Sounds excellent! Play similar to Lost Cities, which we had no trouble understanding, but with more depth and has more options and surprises. Thanks for the reco, I will definitely snap this one up for $18.

  44. esr:
    “There is a Diplomacy tournament…some of our top players are pretty obvious Asperger’s cases. In a game that relied on reading opponents they’d be screwed.”

    I’m guessing that the top Diplomacy players don’t overlap very much with the top players of the other strategy games, then…

  45. esr:
    “Munchkins…works better with more players than two.”

    Too bad, but I can see why that would be the case. This would have been a perfect choice otherwise, as we are former AD&D types who for years as adults read Dungeon magazine and enjoyed the scenarios, but had neither the time nor the commitment to join an actual local DM group. (I haven’t actually played AD&D since high school.)

    I think we’d get a kick out of a silly, humorous, simplified hack-and-slash version.

  46. “I’m guessing that the top Diplomacy players don’t overlap very much with the top players of the other strategy games, then…”

    My feeling is that top players (as defined as competitive for the number 1 slot in any given year) of anything rarely overlap anyway just because of the time commitment involved to be able to play at such a high level.

    But drop out of the top 10 strata to just top 10% level and there’s going to be more crossover. The few top Dip players I recognize by reputation play other (war) games very well.

    Some games are just hard to be very good at without constant play.

  47. @ESR do you intend to blog about the weapons camp?

    I think I will look into learning a bit of historical fencing myself. There is a group here called Fior della Spada who teach the Bolognese tradition (Marozzo’s books). The whole things looks quite sexy to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJfYVk8P2KI Another group teaches the heavy, two-handed German tradition (Liechtenauer’s books), it looks a bit too brutal for me, but also quite interesting, and having a heavy infantry build myself, maybe I should go for the heavy stuff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJf1ZlEYr6s

  48. “For Firefly, I strongly recommend the introductory story card published on the website for a first game, especially compared to the suggested ‘King of all Londinium’ story card”

    Got a link? And is it suitable for 2-player play? (Our regular gaming couple moved out of state, and we’re early in the process of budding a new gamer)

  49. >@ESR do you intend to blog about the weapons camp?

    Probably not this year. Most of it was “Eric learns to fight with a glaive.” I posted a video, though.

  50. It turns out I have a later printing of Firefly – the intro card on the website is also in the box. Didn’t see if the advanced one was (the one where you win by getting in good wiith Niska)

  51. Re: T2R and bottlenecks, it’s true that in Europe a blocked bottleneck is not a disaster, but it is a pain, and it can prevent you from getting the LR bonus. And of course using stations costs points, so you want to avoid them if possible; and with the 1912 expansion running out of stations can be a real possibility too. So I always try to grab any bottlenecks I intend to use, as soon as I can. I’m infamous for my first or second move being either “the pink one-fer” (Paris-Dieppe), “two blacks” (Venice-Rome), “the green elbow” (Kharkov-Rostov) or “no, the other green elbow” (Frankfurt-Essen). Then again, with the 1912 expansion I sometimes find myself leaving Paris-Pamplona or Pamplona-Madrid open, hoping someone else will build it so I can station across it and conserve my trains.

    India’s another ball of wax entirely. Again, bottlenecks: the red one-fer going up from Manmad is usually grabbed by someone in the first round or two, and the exits from Bombay get crowded too, because everyone wants to get it on their mandala, if they manage to build one. And I’ve learned to avoid tickets to Calicut, Quilon, or Erode, because it’s so easy to get blocked from that part of the board, and if you do get there it’s hard to integrate them into a mandala.

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