Thursday, December 06, 2012

Stefan Feld and Me

A long time ago I thought Stefan Feld was a completely disastrous game designer. Now I'm his groupie. Here's the story of what happened.

The first Feld game I played was In the Year of the Dragon in October 2008. I played this game with a cut-throat group, and it went long, i.e. about 3 hours. I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but managed to build up my holdings. Then came a series of random events which I couldn't quite deal with, resulting in my losing a lot of palaces. I fucking hate that. I hate games where you work your butt off to make progress and then it gets taken away from you. I like building games, not wrecking games. So Feld and I were not off to a good start. My BGG comment on ItYotD is: "I'd rather be sick than play this game. If this was the first board game I played, I'd be a stamp collector instead. Frustrating, boring, annoying waste of time."

A couple of months later I played The Name of the Rose. I liked the movie, I didn't like the book, but the game left no impression on me whatsoever and I had to look up whether I'd played it or not. As medieval murder mystery is one of my favourite themes, that's a pretty impressive amount of indifference. No love for Feld yet.

The next Fled game I played was finally at least OK - Notre Dame. It's another game where it's frustratingly hard to get stuff (like Dragon), but it least it doesn't all get stolen from you at once. I thought it was OK but would need to play it more to get how it went properly - I thought I'd been doing OK and was beaten very badly. I was in no rush to try it again.

The next game I encountered was It Happens... which is a dice game about anteaters. I played it because there was a very young lady willing to teach it to me, but I realised very soon that it wasn't working for me. At least it has the excuse of being a kids' game.

Months went by... The Speicherstadt appeared on I had an initially positive reaction, and started a bunch of games before I'd even finished my first play. That was when I discovered that I'd completely overestimated how interesting the game was. It feels to me that you build a points engine, and then the game finishes. So you should have been doing other stuff instead. I admit, the auction mechanism is kinda cool, but kinda cool in a technical way, not in an appeals-to-me kinda way. I stopped playing it. Feld seemed destined to forever produce games that were at best mediocre.

Then something terrible happened. I won the Big Cochabamba photo competition (blogged about previously). Oh yeah, sure, I got 9 of the hottest new games for free, but a lot of the SdJ kennerspiel nominees were by Stefan Feld. That mediocre guy, who designs games that take my stuff. WELL AT LEAST THEY'RE FREE. So I acquired Luna, Die Burgen von Burgund, and Strasbourg, with a sense of dread.

The first we played was Strasbourg. This is a very tight auction game with some other stuff tacked on as a consequence of the auction. I quite liked it, though it took me till round 3 of 5 to realise that I'd lose the game in round 1. It did feel like I could achieve stuff and get some points. But still, not a huge hit.

I was very intrigued by the theme of Luna, so while waiting for opponents I played a solitaire game. That was instructive, as I got the feeling for how the little dudes moved around. We then played a 4-player game, which was also interesting as the players' strategies evolved and conflicted with each other. After a couple more solitaire plays when the rules receded and I was able to focus on what I was trying to achieve, I decided I liked it. You can build shrines, you can get places in the temple, you can score majority points, and generally nobody takes things away from you. I liked that it was complex, I liked the theme, and I liked the bits. Hooray!

Then we played Die Burgen von Burgund, later called Castles of Burgundy (but it will always be Burgen Burgen Burgen Burgen to me). This is a cool game. I'm not a huge fan of its strategic depth as your plans will often be screwed by uncooperative dice, but it does have that Farmville thing going for it where there's always something to be doing, you're always making progress. I played this game with quite a few people, and eventually realised that it had become popular enough that there'd always be someone around with a copy, and I'd no longer need to suggest it, so I sold my copy. It's a very good game, but not something I need to keep exploring.

On the other hand, Stefan Feld was pretty much forgiven by now. The last three games had demonstrated to me that he was a designer of great diversity, capable of producing some systems worth investigating (particularly Luna), rather than being a cold-hearted miser who designed nasty games.

Consequently when Macao was suggested to me, I agreed to play. For the longest time I confused this game with Manila, in which have almost no interest. However Macao was interesting, mostly because, like Luna, there's a lot going on. I did notice for the first time, what I call the Stefan Feld Standard Design Pattern. This is a pattern for structuring the whole game - there's a mini-game for generating resources, then you use the resources to play a variety of min-games on the board involving set collection, map traversal, gathering bonuses, and so on. The games that fit this pattern are Notre Dame, Strasbourg, Macao and Trajan (and Bora Bora, it would seem). This pattern is not necessarily a bad thing, as it's a way of producing complex games that are not too hard to teach, but it is interesting to speculate on whether this is a conscious process or not.

Anyway, the most recent Feld game I've had the pleasure to play is Trajan. This is probably the most complex of the lot, with the mancala resource-generation game being quite a brain-burner even before considering the 6 or so effects of what happens on the board.

Okay Mr Feld, you're forgiven. I'm looking forward to whatever you produce next. But there is no way I'm ever again playing In the Year of the Dragon.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Essen Impressions

Well, my experience with Essen titles is pretty sad, as I don't have enough leave in a year to get to all the places I'd like to go, but I did get some Essen games from Julian at Unhalfbricking who collects money from eager Aussies and invests it in new games for them. In order of play...

Sheepdogs of Pendleton Hill: very definitely a kids' game, aimed at maybe 8 year olds, but with the chance for some slightly cunning play to amuse adults. You place your shepherds on the hill, the players form combined flocks of sheep, and then the flocks move around. If a sheep (as part of a flock) moves onto the same space as a shepherd from the same player, they both score and are removed from the board. So the goal is to make your opponents' sheep meet their shepherd early while your own sheep trundle up Pendleton Hill for more points.

Sheepland: not a kids' game, and not a gamer's game, just an old-fashioned Euro. the board starts with 24 or so sheep on 25 or so spaces. There are 6 different terrain types amongst the spaces. On your turn you may move your shepherd, move a sheep, or invest in a terrain type. At the end, for each terrain tile you have you score points equal to how many sheep are on that type of terrain. When we played CyberKev went for lots of investment in terrain, I went for moving sheep into the terrain I already had, and the result was so close I would say both are viable strategies. This is a Euro of the complexity of Heimlich & Co / Top Secret Spies, or Clans. It's nothing special but it's not bad.

Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island: I bought this for solitaire play, and probably won't bother sharing it with my friends as there are better games to play with them (see below). The game it reminds me most of is Mousquetaires du Roi - there are lots of bits of mediocre quality, and a massive rulebook, but it all works OK in the end. You spend the game sending out Crusoe and Friday and your dog to hunt / gather resources / build stuff / achieve the scenario goals, while the game throws random stuff at you to interfere with your plans. I've only played one scenario so far, but that was interesting enough. The odd selection of bits reminds me of the old version of Prophecy.

Tzolk'in: the Mayan Calendar: Now this is a proper game. You may remember the pictures from BGG, there are big plastic cogs. I'm happy to say that the cogs work well, they're meaningful, they're thematic, and they're fun except if some doofus isn't careful and knocks over all the bits. The big wheel represents time, and as you turn it it moves your workers who are placed on the little wheel so that they can be removed from the wheel to have achieved better stuff. It's something like Macao or The Circle where you plan now what you'll have available to you in a few turns, and the more you wait the more you get. The more you can get your plans working together, the more efficiently you'll generate VPs. We had basically no problems with the rules, everything was where it needed to be, the bits were lovely, and overall the game is a great experience.