Game night usurped both night and day in our past session, with beginnings in breakfast over bagels, snickerdoodle coffee, and Broom Service, and continuing through 7 Wonders, Terraforming Mars / Elysium, Takenoko, Splendor, a gobi masala dinner, and then a dessert of Forbidden Desert, Azul, and Settlers of Catan.
Once among my very favorite board games, Broom Service is probably still in my personal top ten, as I’ve long admired its unique game mechanic of bluffing to drive both movement and scoring. (If you’re curious as to how this works, through this link you can find my full review of Broom Service.)
Broom Service is also a very generous game, as it contains not only the basic game, but several mini expansions that you can play on either surface of the double-sided game board, and these variations give Broom Service good replay value.
We played side A with Amulets, which is the best way to play this game. In standard Broom Service, there are only two ways to score points: delivering potions and playing weather fairies to collect lightning. Side B lengthens setup, game time, and takedown, and adds too much busy work for a seven round game.
As a happy medium between these two extremes, adding Amulets to side A emphasizes the strategic importance of the witch cards, as the risk of playing your witch brave might pay off with a point-scoring opportuntity, but more often than not will be parried, which also stalls your movement toward the amulets. The race to get amulets takes players all over the board rather than towards that square tower in the upper right corner where you can drop potions for big points ad nauseum until the final round. In the basic game, all the witches are clustered around that point chute by round seven. So if you’re wondering how to bring some life back into Broom Service, add Amulets to side A. We may end up playing mostly on side B at some point, but for now side A with Amulets seems to present the right pace for the table.
In our game, the winning player had all three amulets (+15 points), plus nineteen points of collected lightning. That was me–I had a four game winning streak which started with Broom Service and ended with Takenoko.
Scores were close in this game, ranging from 44-51.
While I won this game with a three point lead, the second place player started playing armies in a bid to take the lead, and if she had one more miltiary card, would have had a seven point lead instead. Our recent games of 7 Wonders have emphasized this tendency of military cards to dominate the point-scoring dynamics of third age. Running a postmortem on the score sheet usually indicates that the victory might have gone any of three (or more) different ways depending on the third age military scoring, as each player can score anywhere from -2 to +10 in that round on military.
Usually I play a lot of brown and grey cards, but to economize in this game, I played yellow cards that allow the option to choose one of several resources with each purchase. Combined with the flexible resources on Side B of Alexandria–which I lucked into again–along with a yellow trade card that bumped down costs when trading with the second place player, I only paid one or two coins here and there, even in the third age. While an investment in yellow resource-modifying cards requires fewer card plays than investment in brown and grey resource cards, the obvious drawback was that my income from flanking trade partners dried up, reducing victory points from coins, which I had to make up elsewhere. Fortunately, I had two guilds and six blue civilian structures.
Terraforming Mars: Hubris in TM and Winning With Inventrix
At this point in my tabletop hobby, Terraforming Mars is the main event for me, so this section of my recap is the largest, as I have more thoughts, to the point that this is a kind of mini-essay inside the larger essay. Which is not to say my admiration for Broom Service, 7 Wonders, and Splendor were not sustained during this game night, and in the case of Splendor, increased. Just that Terraforming Mars attracts my interest not only on the level of strategy and theme, but narrative. Every game, a compelling narrative of cooperative competition unfolds, in which crucial decisions and expenditures, sometimes very small, create a continuity between generations, and it is in this continuum, as much as on the board, that Terraforming Mars is played.
Whether you win or lose Terraforming Mars, there are a handful of poor decisions that negatively influenced or did not affect your game. In some games, the temptation to make a grandiose expenditure counterproductive to your strategy cannot be resisted, simply because you desire the effect of a card. While any game that allows you to act contrary to your best interests incorporates a certain amount of hubris into its game mechanics, Terraforming Mars is a meteor of hubris that strikes constantly during the game. This means that often the winner is not the player that did the most, but the one that resisted hubris and picked the right plays consistently. If you’ve never played Terraforming Mars, you may wonder why I’m using a term from Greek drama to describe a tabletop game, but if you’ve played it even once, you should know what I’m talking about. Just because Oedipus and Tharsis Republic do the most in their respective theaters doesn’t make them winners.
This sense of competing in an unbalanced narrative and an inimical setting inhospitable to, but forgiving of, missteps, fuels a microcosmic doubt and dread that feeds back into the optimism created by a slew of cards that spell a contrariwise tale of scientific accomplishment and frontier creation. When you’re looking at your own cards and player board, you have the sense that you’re winning, but when you look at other players’ projects and production, you always feel like you could be doing more, and it is often in resisting this vanity of competition that you can wrest a victory from the game.
If you value the quantity of your time, do not play Terraforming Mars; if you value the quality of your time, play more Terraforming Mars.
This was my first time playing Inventrix. While there are threads on Board Game Geek bemoaning this corporation, this awesome card fits in well with my off-board strategy of accumulating critters to amass oodles of victory points. If you can’t shake the urge to compete with the others in tiling the board, pick your other corporation. But if you like playing animal and microbe cards, Inventrix’s flexibility in getting these out onto the board super early will mean these critters will come out even sooner and be worth even more victory points. Best of all, Inventrix is more or less hubris-free, with a special ability that will not tempt the player to leverage it to the point of self-destruction, rather than achieving victory.
To be honest, at times it was nail-biting to watch the other players smacking down trees while I ended the game with two. While I had cities, their points were mainly from other players’ greenery tiles. I also had the fortune of placing a Commercial District between four cities (!), and the Capitol around three oceans. Along with these cards, and my Large Animals, Ants, and Pets, I was not hurting for victory points by the end of the game.
That said, Inventrix is not as strong a card as say, Tharsis Republic, Helion, or Ecoline, all of which have wonderful special abilities (complicated by the hubris associated with those abilities). But a savvy player with a strong strategic game can win with this corporation. The secondplace player was only six points behind me, which means that if I was not playing strategically–not, for instance, grabbing the Ecobiologist Milestone and funding the Celebrity Award when I had the chance–I would have lost with such a brief margin between us. So if you have a strong animal and microbe game, want to get those cards into play even earlier, and can watch your other point-scoring opportunities like a hawk, you can win with Inventrix.
While Takenoko is competitive, it offers a laid-back, amiable style of play in which it is difficult to mess with other players, which makes it a good game to play on days with more aggressive competitive games like Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders, or Splendor. It’s a competitive game that feels like a a cooperative game, in that the players grow the garden during the theater of play.
Which is not to say that Takenoko is entirely nice, just that you have to use a certain amount of intuition and guesswork to move the Gardener or the Panda in a direction inimical to another player’s board development, so generally it’s more strategic to work on your own game rather than guess another player’s.
Generally, I work on my Tile objective first, then my Panda, and then my Gardener. As tile objectives are easier early in the game, and as you can luck into easy victory points from draws from that deck late in the game, I tend to draw at least two more Tile objectives during the game. While Gardener objectives can score big points, they also often require the combined use of the Gardener, to grow, and the Panda, to trim, the stalks on the card, especially where the groups of stalks three high are concerned.
While I play a strong Splendor game, Splendor broke my winning streak for the night, as my wife started producing points as fast as Hermione Granger casts spells.
While I don’t have any strategic takeaways from this particular game, you can read my review of Splendor through this link. Splendor is one of my favorite tabletop games, and it increases in my estimation with every play.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I believe Splendor is one of those games that will follow us through history for centuries or millenia, not unlike chess, checkers, or backgammon. While right now I am enamored with Terraforming Mars to the point that that game is always set up, either on a table or on the cortex of my brain, I must admit that Terraforming Mars has too many components when you compare it to the more streamlined games that have transited from the ancient world to today. The transition of tabletop games to a double format of cardboard and digital, going forward, may alter history’s preference for simplicity in tabletop gaming, but based on these historical trends, I must admit that my second favorite game is likely to enjoy a longer historical period than my favorite game.
While we are about 50 / 50 in our win / loss ratio of Forbidden Desert, when you consider our Legendary Forbidden Desert game, our win ratio takes a massive hit, for I believe we have only won this game once on Lengendary, and this particular game of Legendary Forbidden Desert also was lost, or won by the game or the game designer, however you would like to look at it. Forbidden Desert is such a well-constructed co-op game that even when your team is trounced, it only enhances your admiration for the game.
You may not wish to listen to our excuses…BUT, our first eight tile flips revealed devices! We didn’t find our first piece of the aircraft until there were less than twelve sand, at which point we triggered our many Dune Blasters, but, drawing five cards a turn, we were still buried in sand.
Usually luck doesn’t play quite so strong a component in other games as it did in this one.
We actually played one and a half games of Azul, for one of the players accidentally pulled twenty tiles from the wrong side of the board, and as it would have been mostly guesswork to reconstruct it, we started over.
Since we first played Azul at Tekko, we have acquired a copy which gets some two-player use in our house, as it is both quick and perfectly balanced regardless of the number of players. While balanced games can be boring for me, as I like a game that has a sizable challenge embedded in the game from the gate, Azul does not suffer from its balance, but is a better game for it.
However, I do think that Azul plays better with four players. I’m not yet certain why this is. Perhaps it is because of the larger selection of factories and tiles.
Settlers of Catan
Nostalgia gnawed at me all night to play Settlers of Catan, the tabletop superpredator that got me back into board games. We rocketed through straight ten point Catan in a little over an hour, mainly from not taking it as seriously as we once did. For instance, this was the first time my joking offer of “trade a settlement for a city?” was answered with “do you have a three to one port?”, for, as it turned out, he had three cards needed for a settlement, plus three of a kind, all of which they traded for my three ore and two wheat, so that I could drop a settlement on my turn, and they could drop a city on their turn. This was a wonderful and amazing thing that rarely happens in old school Catan.
Alas, while our amazing trade will pass into our anecdotal reservoir, and it had the advantage of scoring us each one quick victory point, neither of us went on to win the game.
My only tabletop days of comparable length were in marathon D&D sessions on Saturdays in college, and those were both shorter and more fatiguing, as we played few other games to relieve the monotony of the D&D. This is the sixth big game day we’ve played this summer, and I have to say that I like playing all those games back to back; in playing eight tabletop games, we had eight fresh starts.
With so many games played, you would think it would be easy to pick a favorite, but instead all were happy expressions of their games. While there are many angsty games of Settlers of Catan in which the robber and road barricades unsettle the table dynamics, our island was a tiny paradise; similarly, Mars was gardened fairly quick, and with a cluster of close scores. Overall, this was a pleasant and amusing day made even better by our friends’ homemade Indian food.
Here are links to the games we played:
Ravensburger Broom Service – Strategy Game
Asmodee 7 Wonders
Terraforming Mars Board Game
Stronghold Games Terraforming Hellas & Elysium the Other Side of Mars Expansion Board Games
Terraforming Mars: Prelude Expansion
Stronghold Games Terraforming Mars Venus Next Board Games
Forbidden Desert Board Game
Plan B Games Azul Board Game
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