Thursday, November 27, 2008

One Goddamn Reed!

I planned out the 60 point game of Agricola on the bus this morning, where I'd get a fireplace and a well and a stone oven and 60 or more points depending on how the cards came out. The cards came out nicely - Sheep came out second which meant when I slaughtered them for food I had 4 more food than in the worst case scenario. Then Family Growth came out first in its group, so I was able to reorder my plans and have a baby two turns sooner than planned and get two extra actions. That put me well ahead of the plan, but I had to do a lot of work to figure out the consequences as some actions which depended on a certain number of resources being available couldn't be brought forward. Then in about round 12 it all went screwy - I'd forgotten to gather food for the last harvest, and I had no reeds for the Renovation to stone - I'd taken reeds in round 5, when I should have taken them in round 6. I had to move Family Growth without Space from round 13 to round 14 in order to take reeds, which meant I had one action less in the last round and couldn't take sheep. Having one sheep instead of 8 cost me 3 points, and I ended up with 58!

As I write this I think I probably could have planned to eat a cow (which would have cost me a point) but I would have been able to do the Family Growth (which would have got me an extra action, 7 sheep and 3 points). Maybe that's what I get for playing at bed time.

Earlier in the evening I played Dominion with the kid... we used a random deck for the first time. It was Bureaucrat, Chancellor, Witch, Spy, Market, Woodcutter, Smith, Remodel, Adventurer and umm... maybe the Money Changer - no cost 2 cards. We both took Witches of course, and both used Remodel to change Curses into Estates. However I took fewer action cards than he did, got more money, and when I started remodelling Golds into Provinces I was well ahead. Remodel defined the game more than the Witch did, no matter how much fun she is. I remodelled my Estates into Remodels, and planned to remodel my Remodels into Gold, but that never quite worked. With no +2 Actions and no Chapel to hurry things along it was a bit of a longer game than I've played before. My final score was 54, the kid was 29.

Edit: CyberKev points out that we played with too many Province cards - you're only supposed to have 8 in a 2 player game.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Friendless the Crap Agricolyte

Agricola arrived on Monday. It's interesting but not exciting... exciting was past in about April. I read the rules that night, and settled down for a couple of solo family games. It is still a good game, despite the sorry saga attached, and it got me sucked in. In my first game I played as if I was playing multiplayer, and ended up with a miserable 33 points. I realised afterwards I'd spent too much time taking resources that would still be there later anyway - in multiplayer they won't be. I also decided I should try to use the combo actions better, e.g. Sow and Bake Bread. With those ideas and another glass of red under my belt, I went on to score 44 points in the second game. I went to bed trying to figure out an optimal field placement.

The next morning I wrote down all the actions and the major improvements and spent the bus trips to and from work trying to figure out a better plan. I decided that I would work on a plan involving a Clay Oven so that I could play a mega-move involving Renovation, Major Improvement and Bake Bread for 5 food. As there are two Renovations in a game then I could choose another Major Improvement, and that was to be the Cooking Hearth so I could convert animals to food or Bake Bread to get 11 food in one turn. So that meant I needed 3 clay for the Clay Oven, 4 clay for the Renovation, 4 clay for the Cooking Hearth.. and there were only 14 clay in the game, so I couldn't also build a clay hut. So I had to build a wood hut, and along with 15 wood for fences and 8 wood for stables, that was all the wood used up as well. If I wanted 5 houses I'd have to build two stone houses, which is difficult because the stone arrives late in the game. I put a lot of thought into this plan, but was twice interrupted by the bus arriving at its destination.

This morning I got up early to test out my incomplete plan. Sure enough, on about Round 7 I was at a loss what to do next - it's easy to plan the start and the end, but there are too many combinations in the middle. I could tell I wasn't going to manage a 5th house, so I took a 5th field instead. I got maximum points for fields, pastures, vegetables, sheep, family members and stables, and missed one on each of grain, boars and cattle. I got 8 points for 4 stone rooms and 3 points for Major Improvements, for a total of 55.

Let me pause this narrative to say there are some posts on BGG which say "oh yeah, I played the family game solitaire, got 60 on my first try...", to which I reply (a) HOLY CRAP! and (b) what rules mistakes did you make? On my 3rd game with over an hour's planning I only got 55. I'm no savant, but I'm no goose either. For someone to get 60 on their first game is unbelievable. Anyway, I have heard of someone getting 62. When I can manage 60 I'll start with the cards and try the campaign mode.

After this morning's experience I've decided I need to get more than 3 points for Major Improvements. My revised plan involves a Stone Oven and a Well worth 7 VP in total. I'll probably need a Fireplace as well so I can convert animals to food. To execute this plan I'll need 29 wood, 13 clay, maybe 8 reeds, and at least 10 stone. I can get away with 28 wood if I lose a point on pastures. I have two more bus trips tomorrow to work on this plan!

I'd love to be playing now, but the school Christmas concert has sucked my soul, and I have to go to sleep. Goodnight!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shilling Dominion

There was a bit of a fuss on about Valerie Putman and Dale Yu "shilling" for Dominion, i.e. writing about the game they were developing in a way that was perceived to be promoting the game. I can sort of see where the critics were coming from, i.e. is usually perceived as an independent source of news about board games, and in this case it was clearly not independent. On the other hand, Valerie and Dale's columns never purported to be about anything other than their experiences in the gaming hobby, and that was what they were doing.

The thing that slightly miffed me was not that they were telling me about this allegedly great game, it was that yet again I was being told about a great game that I couldnt have. It was like teasing. I just skipped over those columns because it was just too frustrating. The scars that I bear from the Agricola experience are long and deep, and still growing. What a fuck-up that is. So Dominion was on track to piss me off like Agricola has pissed me off.

However the Dominion experience has been a much happier one. Remember I ordered Agricola last November and don't have it yet. I first heard about Dominion in April after CyberKev returned from the Gathering of Friends. He told me it was a very good game, and CyberKev can usually tell these things. Sure, he said the same thing about In The Year of The Dragon, and that sucks, but I can recognise that it's a decent game that I just happen to despise. But then a couple of weeks ago, Tom the Swiss Guy turned up in Brisbane with a German copy of Dominion. All of a sudden Dominion was a real game that people could get, and I started to pay attention to it.

We played it under less-than-optimal circumstances - in German, with 5 players. It's only supposed to take 4. And I came dead miserable last in the interactive game. As I hate being attacked in multi-player games (I have a shirt which "Why are you attacking me? <- Attack them ->") it wasn't conducive to my enjoyment at all. We even played a rule wrong - we played that you could buy a curse and give it to someone else. So everything was against the game. Nevertheless, I recognised that my awful performance was mostly my own fault, and the game wasn't so bad.

After the interactive game we looked at the other cards in the box. Some of them were really cool - Throne Room lets you play another action card twice, Chapel gets rid of those painful curses, while the Witch inflicts them. We switched out all of the cards which we'd used a lot in the interactive game and switched in some of the others and played again. I can't remember the cards in the game, but Witch and Gardens were two of them, and I realised they could work together so I invested in Gardens. I won that game.

That was Wednesday. On the Friday the kid played it with Tom the Swiss Guy and liked it, so on the Monday I emailed the FLGS and asked if they had Dominion. They ordered it in, and it arrived on Wednesday. I'm up to 7 plays now, and would expect to pass 25 before the end of the year.

What I mostly like about the game is the puzzle of how to play a particular set of cards. Having read Valerie's strategy tips on the Chapel I play Big Money pretty well, but First Game just confuses me... I can't work strategies that depend on the Dorf / Village. Of course any deck that includes the Thief will break a Chapel strategy as well, so I don't know how to handle that. I like that I can be a wizard sometimes and hopeless other times. My kid likes that too.

Yeah, sure, Dominion has been hyped. But as someone on BGG said, hype is overhyped. Good games bring their own hype. Don't avoid Dominion just because someone said it was good, play it first and then avoid it if you still want to.

The Fiction of the Filler

There's been a bit of debate on BoardGameGeek about whether a filler like Dominion should be ranked as highly as it is. There are a number of wild assumptions in that debate, such as:
  • Dominion is a filler
  • Fillers do not deserve to be rated highly
  • Proper games are long or heavy games
That's all crazy talk of course. BGG has a very strong bias towards heavy games - not ASL heavy, but Puerto Rico heavy. BGG's audience loves that sort of game, and people who love that sort of game are attracted to BGG, so it's self-reinforcing.

It's also reinforced by the point of view that if a game is light it's not a proper game. I know a couple of guys who like to play at least one meaty game per game session (and strangely, they all agree that it should be Power Grid.) I almost agree with them. I certainly like to play games that require some thought, and an evening of dexterity games and Bohnanza would underwhelm me. However I do see value in a lot of shorter games which require thought - Hey! That's My Fish! is a perfect example.

However games like H!TMF! get lumped in with games like For Sale! as "fillers", which is almost a derogatory term. What does "filler" mean, exactly? I was under the impression that it was supposed to mean "a game that you play to fill in time while waiting for other players", but I also recently saw it defined as "a game you play to relax between meaty games". That second definition is biased towards meaty games in the extreme... if you never play Power Grid is there no reason to play For Sale!?

The first definition is pretty weak as well. This is what happens at Critical Mass where I experience most of my multi-table gaming... four players complete a game of Reef Encounter. At the other table, phase 3 has just started in Power Grid so they won't be much longer, so when they're done the tables can cross-pollinate. The Reef Encounter people decide to play Ingenious as a filler. Two of the players haven't played Ingenious before so the rules need to be explained, then a great deal of thought is put into each move of Ingenious. The Power Grid people finish, and notice that the Ingenious game is only half over, so they start Through the Desert. And so the evening passes without anyone swapping tables at all.

Obviously, the Reef Encounter players may as well have just started Key Harvest instead of falling for the filler fiction - Ingenious is just as much of a game as any other, and it probably takes 45 minutes no matter how quick you imagine it might be.

The only games that PROPERLY work as fillers are games that can be abandoned in an instant. At Critical Mass I often set up one of these as people are arriving, with the intention that when people come in there's something to play, and they can peel off to other games when they get organised. Games that work in that way are Set, My Word!, Bamboleo and Ricochet Robots. Tsuro is almost as good because the games are over quickly, players can learn the game by watching, and it plays from 2 to 8, so when one game is finished some people can leave and others can join the next game. However almost anything else is not much use as a filler.

As for Dominion, it's a great game, but it doesn't perform many of the functions that I need from a filler. Some people may classify it as such, but they probably like Power Grid anyway.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friendless Names First Black Gaming Opponent

The news this morning that Barack Obama has named the first black attorney-general (of the U.S.) reminds me that it's important to emphasise people's race when talking about them. Especially if that person is black, you need to mention what they've done. Hence I feel it important to tell you about my first black gaming opponent.

Rowdy was my best mate in the late 70s when we went to school together for 4 years. He wasn't African-American (I think I'm still waiting for my first African-American gaming opponent), he was Dutch-Indonesian. As a result he had a bit of an identity crisis - he didn't know whether he wanted to be a brown superman or Johan Cruyff. As Johan Cruyff was not famously good at cricket, and that was what we played, I think he emphasized the brown superman aspect. And when I was stuck bowling for an hour and I just couldn't get through his defences, the brown superman claim was (a) credible, and (b) annoying.

Anyway, the only board game I can recall us playing together was Chess, and he was better than me at that too. I've got no idea whom I ever played against other than Rowdy, but lack of experience was no reason to be happy about losing. I remember I did beat him once with a very cunning plan where I had an attack set up behind a wall of pawns down the left hand side. When he attacked the wall of pawns the trap was revealed and I burst out to attack the rest of the board. I think that was the last game of chess I won until about 2004 when I played against my kid.

Rowdy (and I) are all grown up now, and we're back in touch. He has two gorgeous kids. He's still better than me at cricket, and I see no need to spoil my Chess record. Maybe one day I'll make him Australia's first Dutch-Indonesian attorney-general.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The last few months have been an absolute disaster for gaming. Scrabblette and I spent probably 3 months being sick, during which time we were miserable as well. Being sick meant I couldn't go out to game with the guys, and being miserable meant I didn't even game with Scrabblette and the kid. I made a conscious decision to try out some PBEM gaming at so that I was at least playing something... and besides, I might find some interesting new games. Here's what I've been playing.

Conhex - Conhex is a proper abstract somewhat related to Hex. I'd like to tell you about the differences, but to be honest after about 10 games I don't really understand it. I think I might win one of my next 5, unless my opponent is getting better as well. I've improved a lot since my first embarrassing games.

Lambo - Lambo is one of Cameron Browne's new designs, and it's probably my favorite so far (though I like Mambo a lot too). One player is blue and one is white, and the aim is to complete a group of your colour (so blue won this game). When we first started playing people were losing games due to stupid mistakes. When we learnt what a stupid mistake was, people stopped losing, and very soon neither player could force a win. A couple of rule changes later, it seems to have settled into a very interesting game.

Superbo - This is the curiously attractive love child of Mambo and Lambo, i.e. it's a game Cam invented using the tiles from both games. One player plays red and one player plays blue. The objective this time is to complete a group of your colour containing an eye (a white hole), so blue has won this game. I don't really get the game yet (by which I mean Cam keeps beating me) so I'm not convinced it's as good as either of its parents.

Mutton - Mutton is a design from Cameron Browne and abstract game guru Stephen Tavener. It's a very curious asymmetric deduction game - one player is a team of wolves in sheeps' clothing, and the other is a farmer with a shotgun. As the wolves eat the sheep, the farmer blasts away trying to kill the wolves. The wolves' score is the number of sheep that die. Then the players switch sides and the new wolves try to get a better score.

I find Mutton to be quite a brain-burner, but it has a luck factor that can ruin your game - if the farmer has 6 options and guesses right, the wolves are in trouble. Nevertheless, there are few games which involve shameless ovine sacrifice, and it's an interesting game for that alone.