Game Night: Broom Service, Seven Wonders, Terraforming Mars, Takenoko, Splendor, Forbidden Desert, Azul, and Settlers of Catan

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.

Broom Service

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.

7 Wonders

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.

Takenoko

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.

Splendor

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.

Forbidden Desert

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.

Azul

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.

Conclusion

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

Asmodee Splendor

Forbidden Desert Board Game

Plan B Games Azul Board Game

Catan
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Game Night: Terraforming Mars, 7 Wonders, and Castles of Mad King Ludwig

We hosted a fine game night yesterday, and this will mark my first game night takeaway in almost two years. To set the stage for you, the table held not only three board games that night, but vegan tacos, with the following fillings: black bean and tofu, potato and jalapeno, and roasted cauliflower. Our friends brought Zimas and these little margaritas in a can that I’ve never seen before, as well as a bottle of sweet homemade wine, and an apple pie.

Unlike many of my past Game Night recaps, this post contains takeaways for people who have played these games at least once. At some point, I may revert to the more didactic style of the past Game Night recaps.

Terraforming Mars

Here’s a game of Terraforming Mars that I won, while I never felt that I was winning. That pleasure was mainly to be had by “Green,” who had the luck to have not only Tharsis Republic but Immigrant City as an early play, thus getting a 2 MCR income boost for most of the cities played; Green went on to get most of the temperature TR points, as well as win a Milestone, and fund and win two Awards. Green had a splendid Terraforming Mars game, when you consider just how many more cards they were able to buy than I was due to their income engine.

What I had going for me were Pets, or rather the Pets card, which was the third card I played, so while Green was getting tons of income from cities played, I was getting oodles of aninals and their consequent victory points. With Pets, every city played (not just your own, but all players’) adds an animal to the card, and every two are worth one victory point. Protected Reserve (one animal for every plant tile that I played) was also an early play, and overall I had over thirty victory points just in played cards, plus I had a decent city and plant game, as you do if you want to be competitive at Terraforming Mars.

While my income was never on par with the other players, I shorted myself strategically many times, taking no cards twice, and the other strategic move that may have helped to win the game was being the first to fund an award that I would clearly win, Miner. I had Miner’s Guild, and while the other players were doing their best to tile the steel and titanium reserves on Tharsis, I nonetheless was able to get 6 Steel production fairly quick, and as I was not fortunate enough to get lots of Builder tags on my cards, I had a heap of Steel at the end of the game, which at least gave me the undisputed leadership of the Miner Award.

This was an exemplary game in that it will allow me to point out two Always Buy, Always Play cards: Immigrant City and Pets. Their impact, of course, is much more dramatic when played early. The animals on the Pets card not only have NO prerequisites, but they are invulnerable to others’ played cards. Immigrant City is such an OP thing to have when you have Tharsis Republic that I am surprised it does not say “Cannot Play with Tharsis Republic; Tharsis Republic discards and draws another card.” That said, the combo was not undefeatable. However, my victory was not an exhilirating one; all the exhiliration was to be had by Green, despite his surprise upset in the aftergame victory point calculation. (Which is not to say that I did not have fun, just that my fun was less carefree.)

There were no other cards played that had as dramatic an impact on the game as these two cards.

This is also an exemplary game in that it illustrates my point in “Thoughts on Terraforming Mars” that this game is unbalanced, as Green had only played one game of Terraforming Mars prior to this, and Tharsis Republic gave him the appearance of victory, if not victory itself, for most of the game. I would like to emend my thoughts there on Miner’s Guild, however, as while it remains one of the strong corporations, it can be not so good if you’re not drawing Builder Tags. I probably would have done better with Thorsgate, which I discarded although I had four energy tags in my starting hand.

7 Wonders

Despite Green having 32 points of Blue cards, I won this one by three points, mainly by not passing Green more than one military card in the third age.

I played side B of Alexandria, as 7 victory points and flexible resources are better than 10 victory points and not so flexible resources, especially when it comes time to the third age, and you need so many different symbols to buy things.

The more that we play 7 Wonders, the more that it seems that hoarders of Blue, Guilds, and Military usually win the game. Science can be sneaky every now and then, and it can be a great thing to save if no one in your group is saving them, in which case you become the de facto ruler of Science in your group. This will probably only work one time, though, after which your group’s relation to the Science cards will become more thought out.

Also, side B is almost always better than side A, except in the case of Gizah, which requires you to slide four cards to get 20 points. Side A only requires 3 cards to get 15, and that extra card can often be worth more than 5 victory points. Plus Side B of Gizah requires you to diversify into too much resource production, while side A is simple.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I’ve talked about often here on Board of Life, and I don’t have any new takeaways, other than not getting very good bonus cards really bites.

I not only lost this game, I came in last, mainly due to overemphasizing Downstairs buildings, focusing too much on depleting stacks, changing my guiding strategy three times, and more or less ignoring the leaderboards. Even though my bonus cards were bad, I won’t blame that on losing the game.

I do love Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and losing this game always feels better than winning Settlers of Catan. Like Terraforming Mars, and like Catan, Castles of Mad King Ludwig has a strong narrative: you are a castle builder, and trying not only to outbuild but outprice your opponent. There are several different types of strategy in this game. I mainly ignored the pricing game this time, mostly due to changing my strategy three times, and in a game that is generally only 11-12 rotations of the Master Builder long, you don’t have time to do this.

Also, I was more concerned at the shape of my tiles than their content, as I was wanting to deplete several stacks. This is usually a good way to win Castles of Mad King Ludwig, but it didn’t help me this time.

Despite my loss, I will always recommend this game. While we do not have a copy here, and I can’t personally attest to its two player value for couples, I have a feeling that it would be fun with two players as well.

Conclusion

Not only did we play three of my favorite tabletop games, and two at the very top of my list, but it was extremely nice to play Castles of Mad King Ludwig on a phyical table, as I currently only own it on iOS.

My only regret is that I didn’t play Thorsgate in Terraforming Mars, as it is one of the two corporations I have not yet played. When I saw Tharsis Republic come out, I chose the corporation that I thought would give me the better game, rather than choosing to play a new “character.” As it turned out, Miner’s Guild only helped me a little; I did get the card that let me fund oceans with steel resources, which I used a few times, and I got the Miner Award. Up until now, I have always jumped at the chance to play a new corporation, and I wish I had done that this game. Although I might have lost—for playing a frustrated (by few builder tags and my opponents competing for the metal reserves on Mars) Miner’s Guild required me to short myself and play very straegically, rather than try to outspend my opponents—playing Thorsgate instead would have been at least a new way of playing Terraforming Mars. Which is one of the wonderful things about Terraforming Mars—each corporation is really its own game, so that you have a dozen games in one box.

Two posts in two days. I won’t say that this is going to mark a new trend, but I have been feeling guilty about this blog being on the backburner, and it’s nice to return to it.

The following images link to the Amazon page for each game we played:

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Bora Bora

Game Night: Bora Bora and Ticket to Ride

On Saturday, we had a short game night with our friends, in which we played Bora Bora for the first time, and also played Ticket To Ride, which we had not played in over a year. The food was great, as usual, with the highlights of the menu being baked tofu sandwiches and a roasted vegetable soup that combined roasted garlic, cauliflower, and potatoes into a kind of creamy stock, though the soup was vegan. The highlight of my week, though, was that I was sitting upright for longer than fifteen minutes, as my recent surgery had required that I be reclining for most of the week.

Bora Bora and the Bora Bora Effect


For the last half dozen game nights, we’ve been focusing on playing games that we already know, as it lets us play more games, but tonight we decided to try a new one. Unfortunately, the game that we learned to play was Bora Bora, which is like the game Puerto Rico—already a Machiavellian pasttime—overinflated with a half dozen house rules pulled from Terra Mystca, Power Grid, and the inscrutable and sadistic games played by Arioch and the Lords of Chaos. While usually I’m down with the maniacal laughter and hand-wringing required to appreciate the most fiendishly convoluted of strategy games, the complexities of Bora Bora were lost on me, as the poorly translated rules were bobbing around in the gas bubble trapped in my left eye by my recent retinal detachment surgery. And, as the discomfort of reading twelve pages of Ravensburger tabletop game instructions apparently exceeds the discomfort of recovering from eye surgery, none of the other players rose to the occasion, and I was still our groups’ de facto game interpreter. Not that I blame anyone for their reluctance to take command over such ambiguous rules; rules which say one thing, while the symbolic task tokens seem to say something else, so that although we played the game accurately according to the written rules, for most of the game we were uneasy with our textual intepretation of it.

When I was a gaming noob, I would sometimes confuse my skill at tabletop games as an appreciation for them, and equate a victory with liking a game, but setting up hundreds of games of Catan not only gave me an honest appreciation of that game, it also helps to peel back the veils from other games. And in this case, winning with a huge lead didn’t soften my antipathy,

And losing obviously didn’t create a bias for the game in our other players, though all of their reactions varied widely: in all six rounds of play, one player begged to be released from Bora Bora so that we could play other games; another grumbled here and there, but since then hindsight has ameliorated her opinion, so that she now says she likes it; and the third—the buyer of the game—cheered louder for the game than a Ravensburger company shill. Of all the games that we have played, this game was the most polarizing, so that I might refer to it in future installments on Board of Life as the Bora Bora Effect—which I’m basically swiping from the Rashomon Effect. If you read the Rasahomon Effect entry on Trope TV, you basically know the Bora Bora Effect: each tabletop game is actually a nexus of shared experience, so that there isn’t just one Catan, there are millions of different Catans, each nuanced differently according to the players of Catan. The main way that the Bora Bora Effect might differ from the Rashomon Effect is that the Bora Bora Effect describes games, which are closed systems, and the Rashomon Effect describes perceptual experience, which it is assumed is less ordered and open-ended. I’m going to resist the sidebar, though, and return to the Bora Bora Effect when our gaming group has a larger selection of polarizing games.

I almost called it the Boring Bora Bora Effect, but spite doesn’t really serve the spirit of inquiry.

To those of you that visit this blog for the strategic takeaways, my main recommendation to you if you want to win Bora Bora is to invest yourself in building your temple as fast as you can, bevause the building blocks of your temple are worth much more in the earlier rounds (10VP eeach) than the later rounds (7VP or 4 VP). Also, if you build the temple entirely, you get a 12 VP bonus—6VP for having a full temple and 6VP for having a finished temple—unlike most other completion bonuses, which are 6 VP. This is on top of the 24 to 60 VP that you get for selecting the Builder role cards over six successive rounds. In addition to often playing Builder, I was able to complete my temple by putting high rolled dice on the Helper role card as often as I could so that I could get the bonus resources for my temple. Other than focusing on building my temple, I used my remaining dice to diversiy my VP investments on the board. Unlike Puerto Rico, you can select a Role card more than once per round, and I did this as many times as I could, prioritizing Builder and Helper, and only investing in other roles when necessary.

Diet Ticket to Ride


Next we moved into Ticket to Ride, which, with Catan, was one of the first games that we played as a group. It was extremely pleasant to return to the world of Ticket to Ride. Something about Ticket to Ride inspires us to be nice to each other in ways that Catan doesn’t, so that while on any of three successive turns I could have interrupted another player’s route, I just didn’t feel like doing it. And, as a point of fact, no player during the entire game deliberately interrupted another’s route just for the sake of doing it. Upon reflection, I feel that we may be ruining the game by being too nice as we play it, so that we’re not really playing Ticket to Ride but a Diet version of it.

Ticket to Ride has many virtues: lightning-fast set-up; speedy play; eminently teachable; multiple winning strategies. If Ticket to Ride went for the viscera like Catan so that it was half as gripping as that game of hexes and dice, we might have played the former more than four times as a group in the last three years. While an inviting game, it’s not very compelling—at leas the way that we currently play it. Because of this, I’m considering resisting my natural inclination to be a nice Ticket to Ride player next time, and blocking every single route that I can, just to see if it makes the game more dynamic and memorable. After some more experimentation—to see how far Ticket to Ride game play can be bent—I’d like to review Ticket to Ride here on Board of Life.

My current takeaway from Ticket to Ride, when players are playing the game nicely, is that the main struggle in the mid game is knowing whether or not you should risk getting new routes, as well as knowing when you should get them or when it is too late to get them. If you’re satisfied with a low number of finished routes, then you need to switch to saving cards in order to buy the biggest routes that you can. That said, if a nice player also decides to be cautious in their investment of routes, it is a very hard game to win.

Here’s what I project: if you’re going to play Ticket to Ride in the nice way, you should invest in a sprawling, easily diversified, series of routes, and get new routes frequently in order to capitalize on that investment. If you’re not going to play Ticket to Ride in the nice way, you should finish your initial routes as quickly as possible, and then spend the rest of the game saving cards so that you can play them strategically in a manner to cut off others’ route investments. This is actually what I had planned on doing going into this game, but as everyone else was playing in the nice way, I decided to play nice as well when the time came.

Conclusion

On the surface, I found Bora Bora to be overcomplicated and torturous, and Ticket to Ride to be enjoyable and gratifying, but bland, but upon reflection, this game night was more fruitful than many others as it has given me pause enough to consider that games have a Rashomon-like separation of individual experiences, and that sharing of the jointly-perceived game may be as important as the playing of the game. On top of that, I have begun to deconstruct the way that we play Ticket to Ride, and I wonder whether long term enjoyment of tabletop games depends on continual examination and deconstruction of their game play.

Bora Bora Strategy Board Game

Ticket to Ride

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Traveller

Game Night: Classic Traveller RPG, Catan with 5-6 Player Expansion, and 7 Wonders

We had another Big Game Night on Labor Day, with a ninety minute Traveller RPG session spanning a terrorist attack on a starport, its resultant explosion chasing the players’ free trader, and a speculative trade adventure in three agricultural planets; Catan with the 5 to 6 player expansion; and, 7 Wonders. Just as in our Memorial Day Game Night, our game choices were dictated by our large player count, as while we have a preponderance of four player games and maybe a dozen five player games between us, we only have a few games that can withstand six players or more. (Not counting the vintage RPGs on my shelf, of course, as any RPG can have as many players as the gamemaster can tolerate.)

The Labor Day repast was exceptional, with black bean burgers, and hot dogs for both meat eaters and vegans. Not only the black bean burgers, but both the vegan hot dogs and the ever-flowing alcoholic spirits, were of home manufacture, and a testament to the culinary skills of our friends.

Classic Traveller

Based on the laughter and general player-participation in our first chapter of Traveller, this was the most successful of the games that we played on Labor Day. Even among the two players that were new to our group, while one was a little reticent, the other took to the RPG concept like a duck to water. The latter individual did have a wealth of game experience, being a Minecraft moderator for instance, but both of them had little modern tabletop game experience, with not a single game of Catan between them. What I’ve learned playing RPGs, though, is that knowledge of rules is only important in the gamemaster, and that good players are determined by the same things that drive other artistic endeavors, such as creativity and both ability and willingness to engage in a little improv. (The gamemaster should have these things, too, but also has to have mastered the forms of the game.) Not unlike John Keats’ idea of negative capability (“…when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”), the new player can do just as well as the experienced player, as it is not reaching for knowledge that drives RPG performance but spontaneity and the free flow of ideas. So I’m never surprised when new players like RPGs and do well at them. There are very few examples in life of activities with no learning curve that satisfy the creative impulse as purely as an RPG, as in most creative outlets you’re left with an end product that can trigger a critical response in the creator. In RPGs, on the other hand, after the creative act you’re only left with the memory of the game, which is certain to be a good result if you were amusing yourself and others.

If that isn’t good enough reason to play RPGs, then you should just get on the bandwagon now before they’re made trendy with the mad fandom-faddom for Stranger Things.

So what is Traveller, and why did we have so much fun playing it? Traveller is a first generation science fiction role playing game. Of the first generation RPGs, only AD&D is more influential, and Traveller is equally long-lasting, with new iterations dropping every now and then over the last 38 years. The brainchildren of arguably the two most famous pen and paper RPG creators, Gary Gygax and Marc Miller respectively, AD&D and Traveller were undeniably—after RuneQuest—also my favorite RPGs to play as a teenager and college student. AD&D 1st edition so deeply engraved my cortex that I still no longer need to consult the rule books, and with Traveller, I have only needed a few refreshers to prepare this adventure.

In Classic Traveller, after the somewhat lengthy but fascinating mini-game of player character creation, all you need to know from then on is:

  1. 1) 8+

  2. 2) stay out of the way of bullets, blades, and lasers, and

  3. 3) go for the moolah.

8+ on two six sided dice is the standard action roll for everything in the game, with your native attributes and skills acting as positive modifiers, and with environmental and situational modifiers acting as either positive or negative modifiers to the roll. Much action is ridiculously easy in Classic Traveller, just as it is in real life, which usually translates to players not doing stupid things. When it takes 20-25 minutes to make a character, and you’re staring down the barrel of a sub-machine gun (in-game: SMG) at short range (+3 for SMG), and unarmored (+5 for SMG) to boot, that means your opponent only needs to roll a 0 or better on two six sided dice. Yup, he’ll do it every time. And on auto-fire, he gets to roll two times. Hence my second recommendation above: stay out of the way of bullets, blades, and lasers.

Yes, I’m showing the extreme end of Traveller combat, but that is more common than a battle in which everyone has battle dress and Fusion Gun Man Portable TL 14s. And in that high-tech battle, most of the shots are hits too, and nearly all of the hits are kills. Don’t trust your armor in Traveller—trust your jump drive. The best way to survive a gun battle or sword fight in Traveller is to be in a different star system.

And guess what? Traveller doesn’t penalize you for avoiding battles. Unlike other games in which a murderhobo needs a healthy blood lust to earn experience points, only bad things happen to your character in a Traveller battle, because Traveller has no experience points or experience levels. Traveller is a skill based game. Also, it is unlike nearly all skill-driven RPGs in that combat and adventuring do not improve your skills either.

When you don’t have to fight and kill things to go up a level or improve your skills, far from it disincentivizing players, it encourages role-playing and, on the part of the GM, some ad libbing. Players can do exactly what they want in Traveller, just like in real life. And in Traveller players have much more mobility than they do in most games. They’re travelling in starships instead of walking or riding to the dungeon.

This is why in Traveller I tend to go for a more free form style instead of a narrative style. Instead of creating adventures like chapters, for this game I stocked the Rezayn subsector and let the players loose. To begin the first session, I did have to funnel five characters from different walks of life into a common situation, but after that, they reacted in their own way.

The setting was the hellhole planet Sonekaos (B552976-B Hi Po A NA), a water-poor planet with thin, tainted atmosphere, and eight billion inhabitants that had to wear respirators to survive. The Imperium classified it an Amber Zone not for those reasons, however, but because Sonekaons enjoyed a dueling culture and there were hundreds of pirate clans that would sack incoming and outgoing vessels. And, on top of that, there is a Zhodani Naval Base there, not that they have anything to do with the Sonekaons at all, nor do they police the sector or interfere with the pirates.

The only thing that sane people would do in such a place, unless they were born there and inured to its noxious charms, would be to leave it, and that is how our adventure started: the players were in an airport waiting for a orbital carrier to carry them to the starport that orbited Sonekaos.

As adventures invariably begin with either opportunity or coincidence, I chose the latter, and a mass transit bus full of terrorists plowed into the airport and started shooting anyone in an uniform. The player characters, though not targeted by these shooters, wisely took cover, and after the entrance cleared, they started talking about what they should do.

Here is where the advantage of free-form play comes in: the players could have 1) waited for law enforcement, 2) seized weapons from fallen security guards and pursued the terrorists, but instead they 3) seized weapons and went to the runway, where they “borrowed” an orbital craft to take them to the starport, as one of the players had a free trader docked there. They were, however, one step behind the terrorists, who had already raced to the runway and stolen a craft themselves.

At the starport, they arrived behind the terrorists, and with some encounters along the way, managed to board their free trader and escape the starport in an exodus of starships as the explosion triggered by the terrorists effectively removed Sonekaos from what little trade it enjoyed in the subsector.

After this, the player characters managed to leave the star system, activate their jump drive, and then start a little bit of mercantile adventure in a string of agricultural worlds. Interestingly, the players had just as much fun wheeling and dealing in this part of the adventure as they did in the more action oriented leg of this ninety minute Traveller session.

Settlers of Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion


From here, we went into Settlers of Catan with the Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion. This is just like 3-4 player Catan except the island is bigger and players 5 and 6 have green and brown tokens to choose from, in addition to the standard red, blue, white, and orange. Also, the Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion introduces the Special Building Phase, an extra phase in every players’ turn during which any of the other players in the game can build, but not trade, in clockwise order after the player who just took their turn. By “build, but not trade,” this means that you can’t hand four wool and a brick to the bank on special building phase and get a road, as neither maritime trading or trading with other players is appropriate during that time. However, if you have a slew of cards, and want to get rid of them so your assets are not halved by the robber, this is a good opportunity.

The Special Building Phase encourages players to get cards out of their hand, and discourages them from hoarding cards (at least when they are being honest), as in a six player game the odds are likelier that you will get your resources halved by the robber. In a four player game of Catan, when you pass the dice to the player to your left, the dice are only rolled four times before you get to spend resources again, with a 51.77% (1-(5/6)4) chance of rolling a seven and triggering the robber; while in six player Catan, the chance of rolling a seven in six rolls is significant higher at 66.51% (1-(5/6)6). Also, with six rolls for production every time around the table instead of four, resources are generated much more rapidly, so the odds that someone would have too many cards in a circuit around the board greatly increases in a 6 player game.. The combination of these two facts—increased production and increased likelihood of the robber mechanic triggering the halving of these increased resources—is undoubtedly the reason why the special building phase was implemented in the 5-6 player expansion, because players would be dissatisfied with a game that kept crushing their production.

That said, we went about twenty rolls of the dice before a seven was rolled. Statistics are not a law, just a study. This was another game in which the Tyranny of Numeracy reared its ugly head, as while there were plenty of 8s and 3s and even several 2s and 12s, the number 6—in which I unfortunately invested—was rolled exactly three times in the entire game.

7 Wonders

I was pretty excited to play 7 Wonders with six players, as we had only played it with that high a player count on one other occasion, usually playing four players with our regular gaming group. Coincidentally, the meaningfulness of both six player games was wrecked by the same kind of misstep, happening identically in both cases—a player ended up with 20 played cards despite only having the ability to play one card during each of 18 rounds. Now, I’ve mentioned before that there is at least one Wonder that allows you to have more than 18 played cards. That Wonder allows you to have 19 with its A side, and 21 with its B side, assuming that you are able to use the card’s special power every possible time and you don’t cash in any cards for coins. But neither of the “overplayers” in either six player game had this Wonder.

There aren’t that many ways that a player can end up with too many cards in 7 Wonders. The final card of every age is intended to be a discard, and a player could retain these either willfully or through inexperience. The other way is through group missteps. I did not notice this in the first six player game of 7 Wonders, but we all noticed it in this one when we realized that some players had three card hands, others had four cards, and there was a pile of four cards on the table. In other words, some players had gone one play ahead of the others, and unfortunately four cards were not passed when this happened. We thought that we had compensated for it once we discovered it, but apparently not.

The lesson here is for every player to make a grand show of playing their card at the same time and not to get caught up in the passing of cards instead. I’m almost to the point of recommending that just like in Broom Service every player should say “I am the brave witch and I…” at the beginning of their action, that every player in 7 Wonders should say “I am playing so and so a card.”

Another observation that I had in this game of 7 Wonders was that there is a pretty big difference between 4 player and 6 player 7 Wonders in that in the former, your missed opportunities can return to you at the end of an age. In four player 7 Wonders, after you make your choice from your initial seven card hand, those cards make their way around the table, diminishing by one card with each pass until you have the chance to pick another card from the three remaining cards that are left from your initial hand. Sometimes this doesn’t work out, as you’re staring at three cards that you previously rejected, but other times you find yourself looking at a card that you almost played in the first round, but decided to forego for another card. By comparison, in six player 7 Wonders, your starting hand never comes back to you, as you play the first card of your initial hand, player 2 plays the second card, and so on, until player 6 plays the sixth card and discards the seventh card, then depleting your hand so that you never get another look at it.

My final takeaway is that cashing in cards has its strategic advantages. It will hurt your score, as you’re penalizing yourself a played card in a game that only has 18 played cards, but it might take away victory from another player in so doing. I know this from experience, as the player to the right of me in the Third Age showed me a guild card that would have given me ten victory points and the game, just before cashing it in for two coins. I know, right? By consolation, this player was the lowest scoring player in the game, and it served little purpose for them, but it does serve as an instructional example for the rest of us 7 Wonders players that are wondering just how useful cashing in a card for a measly two coins can be. It isn’t a game winning move, but it can help you stick it to another player, that’s for sure. So ideally, you would want to get some other player to do it, if you feel yourself above fair play.

In any event, since a player ended with 20 played cards in an 18 round game, the whole game was invalid. Only the winners of a misplayed game might disagree.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a pretty great game night, even though our 7 Wonders game was a meaningless stalemate for all due to our missteps in the Second Age, and even though the Tyrrany of Numeracy plagued my game of Catan, because the Traveller adventure set a pleasant tone for what was to come.  We’ve played so many satisfying games of 7 Wonders that an occasional game with a misstep isn’t so bad, and as for Catan, my column Catan Blues tracks my ongoing love/hate relationship with that game, and I know what I’m getting into when I start assembling the hexagons.


Here’s a helpful link to a variety of Traveller variants

Catan 5-6 Player Extension – 5th Edition
7 Wonders

Board of Life uses affiliate links.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Game Night: Imagine, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Broom Service

We had a quick game night last week, during which we introduced two games to our usual game night friends, both Imagine, which I’ve reviewed on Board of Life, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which we have wanted since playing it for the first time at Replay Fx. It was also the first time in a good while that we played board games with the kids. We also played Broom Service, which we haven’t played in a little while.

Dinner was spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread, and our friends also opened some home brewed wine that was as sweet and good as any regional wine I’ve tried. It reminded me of some of Lonz’s desert wines, although much stronger.

Imagine


My first takeaway from playing Imagine for the first time on someone else’s table is that though it has no board, Imagine takes up a larger section of your table than most board games. While the rules depict two circles of transparent Imagine cards, we ended up with three very large circles, and then had to spread them out even more to make the game play area in the middle.

The table also presented some resistance to the transparent cards, or rather, lack of resistance. We initially dealt out the cards on the table surface, but the plastic Imagine cards, due to a combination of thinness and slipperiness, not only were hard to pry from the natural wood, but also slid right onto the floor several times. So my friend put down the card game overlay that he built with craft materials, as it is softer, more textured, and an easier surface from which to play card games.

Which presented a new problem, as the predominantly blue, Star Wars themed, overlay and the dim light had the effect of obscuring the images on the clear cards. So, add to my game play criticism in my review of Imagine that this game has environmental limitations that stem from its components. There are other scenarios that immediately come to mind that would be averse to playing Imagine—this isn’t a game that you would take camping, for instance, unless you had a bright white tablecloth and a very powerful light either inside or outside your camper or tent. Fans of Imagine may want to have a coarse white tablecloth handy, or a white overlay similar to the one my friend built, for play indoors.

This was the first game of the night, and the kids didn’t jump in until the next game, but this was still our first time playing Imagine with four players, as we had only played with three beforehand. Which brings me to my second takeaway–that Imagine seems to improve with more players at the table. While an extra person playing Enigmas didn’t make much of a difference to game play, an extra person guessing made it much more competitive. So while I maintain that Imagine is a suitable game for tabletop sessions that have a low player count, it can have a more exciting dynamic with additional players.

Also, comparing this game with the one we played next creates a very stark contrast in terms of replay value. While everyone enjoyed Imagine, no one wanted to play it again immediately thereafter, despite it being a fairly short game. One play through was enough to satisfy everyone at the table.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf


One Night Ultmate Werewolf, on the other hand, we played twice with just the adults and then five times with the kids included. I’m planning on reviewing this one later on Board of Life, so I’m going to save my analysis of the game itself for later. You know, the intrinsic stuff, such as how you play it, how you win, strategic analysis, if any, and why it’s fun as an activity or any good as a game–which are separate criteria, we’ve learned, from our examination of Imagine. You won’t find any of that here. What follows are just some notes on some of One Night Ultimate Werewolf’s extrinsic values, specifically that it’s easy to learn, it bridges all ages, and it has a ton of replay value.

In terms of learnability, One Night Ultimate Werewolf can be played by anyone that can speak, and although it can be played better by those that have mastered some social subterfuge, it has almost no learning curve until some of the more complicated roles are added to the mix. The first time we played it with our friends, it was just us four adults, and we simply played the One Night App with the recommended seven roles for beginners’ play and told everyone to listen carefully for their role and do exactly what the voice said. Then we played again, and then we recruited the kids for an eight player game.

The kids had a great time playing it, which led to us playing five games in a row with them and speaks not only to the fact that One Night Ultimate Werewolf is exemplary all-ages entertainment, but also that it has very high replay value. It isn’t that each game of ONUW is dramatically different, as while you can swap out role cards here and there, the game experience is essentially the same each time: listen to the narrator, do what it says, and, in the discovery phase, either shoot the werewolves or, if you’re the werewolf, try not to get shot. When you open the box, ONUW looks customizable, but that assumption turns out to be merely a cosmetic one. So why can’t gamers play just one game of ONUW? Because that game experience, despite its ongoing homogeneity, is simply that fun and addictive. Only time will tell as to whether ONUW will age poorly, and as Bezier Games continues to toss expansions to One Night fans, the dust may take a long time to settle.

Broom Service

I’ve discussed Broom Service in one review and two (here’s one; here’s two) previous Game Night recaps, and I don’t have a lot to add. However, our friends’ daughter has been wanting to play games with us, and she did sit in on this one, which not only made it a five player game with no bewitched cards, it also gives us another opportunity to examine tabletop games and their intersection with the small set.

So how does Broom Service mix with kids? Both of our daughters are pre-tweens and a year apart; my daughter—who occasionally likes to play Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, and watches Tabletop—does not like to play it, and their daughter—whose favorite board game is Machi Koro—had to be strongly encouraged to stay at the table and be prompted to take her turn. Honestly, both of these girls are probably more interested in tablet games, but both of them are fans of certain tabletop games, and with a concept like witches delivering potions, you would think that Broom Service would be able to crossover to that age demographic. Why it does not is puzzling to me, especially in the case of my daughter, who loves Kiki’s Delivery Service and Harry Potter and for whom Broom Service seems made to order.

That said, Broom Service may have a higher age range than you would think, as the game is currently 0:2 with the pre-tweens in our gaming group.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a pretty good game night, with its high point being seven games of One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Honestly, I’m suprised that I like One Night Ultimate Werewolf as much as I do, as I prefer more strategic games. This may be because ONUW is successful at relating its premise and concept with every single round, unlike many other games with more complicated staging that lose their way at times somewhere in the mid-game. On the other hand, while I have some admiration to Imagine’s design and concept—make the inscrutable imaginable and, ultimately, recognizable—the game’s shortcomings become more and more apparent with each play. Lastly, I discovered that while I find Broom Service to be a pleasant diceless refuge from Catan, younger gamers in my orbit do not like it.

Imagine

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Broom Service – Strategy Game

Board of Life uses affiliate links. Gamewright sent a review copy of Imagine.

Board Game Brunch: Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan

Our other game-playing friends, who figured in a previous Game Night recap from June, came over this past Sunday morning for brunch and board games.

The main difference between a Game Night and a Board Game Brunch is that in the former, your opponents may be too mellow or tipsy to have good judgment, while in the latter, they are wide awake and alert.  Also, preparing a brunch is more work than doing a game night, as the eating stretches from breakfast to past lunch, and kudos to my wife for creating such a hit spread to fill eleven mouths—the four adults, our two kids, and their quintuplets. She made mini chocolate chip muffins, apple cinnamon donuts, guacamole, and more, and all of it vegan. I contributed a three bean salad to the table as well.

In terms of the games we played, we had time to teach and play Puerto Rico, a new game to our friends, and also a plain Jane, ten point game of Settlers of Catan.

Some Notes on Teaching, Learning, and Mastering Puerto Rico

As Puerto Rico is not a game that you can easily learn from playing a round, both of the times that I have taught this game to friends, I have opted for ten minutes of Puerto Rico 101, in which I went slowly and methodically explained each of the game elements. Until I conceive of a better way of teaching Puerto Rico other than my ten minute Show and Tell, this is the way I’m going to do it for the forseeable future, as both times the new players were able to jump in with a very small learning curve after my mini-lecture.

Puerto Rico is an easy game to teach and to learn if you take your time. If you don’t take your time explaining Puerto Rico, new players are likely to feel ambushed in the first few rounds, when there is so much going on that they are unlikely to be prepared for the actions of other players.

The hard part of mastering Puerto Rico is learning the rhythm of playing role cards, which is something that players can usually only learn by playing. For instance, playing Craftsman may seem a really good move for you, but if the player right after you plays Captain, they’re going to reap the benefits more than you will, as while you were the first to get goods in your Craftsman phase, you’ll be the last to load goods in their Captain phase. Similarly, most of the time you can let someone else benefit from the extra colonist obtained when choosing Mayor phase, but every now and then you need to be the one. You might really want to choose Trader to sell your Sugar, but if another player has a Coffee to put in there, you’re giving them a chance to get 4 coins, and if you’re both saving up for the 10 coin Guild House, you may have just lost it with your unintended generosity. Not only do new Puerto Rico players need to learn how choosing one role card can set up the next player’s role card, they also need to learn how players can benefit during their role card selection.


Puerto Rico Game

Puerto Rico: The Hospice Early Acquisition Strategy

(This next section delves deeply into Puerto Rico strategy, so if you are unfamiliar with the game, you may wish to skip to the seciton on Settlers of Catan that follows.)

Earlier on this blog, I analyzed the opening moves for the first player in Puerto Rico, and during this game, I had an opportunity to begin a game, because we decided that after giving our friends an introduction to the game that it would be best to have me go first, then my wife, and then our friends. I thought this would be a good way of reinforcing the concept of both the governor and the role cards before they had a chance to select one for themselves.

As I stated earlier, there are two preferential moves for the first player in Puerto Rico: the Settler and the Builder. Conventional wisdom says that it is good to open with the Settler, but I tend to disagree and prefer leading with the Builder. What I did differently this time around was that instead of picking the Small Market, which is a free purchase for the person who selects Builder and allows the player to conserve their doubloons for a good second round purchase as well, this time I decided to lead with the Hospice.

The reason for my change is that I am trying to come up with strategies for colonist economy, which I perceive to be the weak point of most players’ games. Most Puerto Rico players put a strong emphasis on doubloon economy after playing their first game and realizing what a disadvantage it can be not to be prepared to make a building purchase every time someone selects Builder, or to have a good ready to sell when someone selects Trader.

When you end the game with five buildings and another player has completed their city, that is usually the galvanizing factor that causes the new Puerto Rico player to pay special attention in the early to mid game to not which role cards will give them the most victory points, but the most doubloons. There is, however, a next step in developing a mastery of Puerto Rico: colonist economy. A shortage of colonists in the early to mid game can wreck a player’s production during Craftsman phase, which is not only fundamental to having goods to sell for money, and to having money available for buying buildings, but also a necessary step to having an advantage in victory points from shipping at the end of the game.

The easiest way to correct a shortage of colonists is either with the Hospice or the University, as both provide free colonists, the former on new island squares, and the latter on new buildings in the city area. As the University is out of the price range of players in the early game, I decided that the Hospice would be a good early buy.

Interestingly, in a four player game, player one can buy the Hospice at the outset. This is because in a four player game each player has three coins, and though the Hospice costs four coins, selecting the Builder role card gives you the additional privilege of deducing one from the cost of your selected building.

The obvious disadvantage to picking this expensive building in the first round is that the player then has zero coins for their second round purchase, which means they will probably not be able to buy something in the second round. This will be a disadvantage, unless no one plays Builder in the second round due to also having depleted their coins or preferring to save their coins. Also, it will become an ongoing disadvantage if player one does not then immediately focus on selecting role cards that will reward him or her with doubloons.

That said, was starting with the Hospice, and not with a free Builder purchase in the opening move (Small Market, Small Indigo Mill) as I have previously suggested, a viable strategy? Did the increase in colonist production offset the disadvantaged doubloon economy?

Here’s what happened. Player two took Mayor to put colonists on their small indigo mill and their indigo plot, and this enabled me to put a colonist on the Hospice right away, so that for the rest of the game, whenever a player took Settler, I got a free colonist with my selected island tile. And, on every subsequent Mayor phase, I could move those colonists around, just like other colonists I had acquired during Mayor phases, so that if I selected a Coffee and had no Coffee Roaster, no matter, I could take those Coffee hands and move them to my Small Sugar Mill instead.

IMG_4306

Entering the midgame and all but one colonist circle is filled.

Having the Hospice at an early stage also helps the player plan the future of their production. That is, I could plan for the future by building a Tobacco Storage facility and then colonizing it right away even though I had no corresponding Tobacco plots on my island, as all I had to do was select a Tobacco tile during Settler phase, and boom, I was already processing cigars.

Whereas other players had from half to two thirds of their island and city tiles occupied by the end of the game, all of mine had colonists, plus I had a few extra colonists in my windrose. My wife was able to buy a Hospice in the fourth Builder phase, and she had nearly all of her tiles occupied as well. Despite that fact, I do not think it is a mistake to buy it in the first round if you have the chance, even though you may suffer through a few early rounds of doubloon deprivation, as having the Hospice early in the game had an immense influence on my production. The first two times Settler was selected, I took Corn, and as it was immediately colonized, I was producing two corn and staking out a cargo ship at an early point in the game. To maximize this strategy, of course, another early purchase had to be a Small Warehouse, which was my fourth building purchase.

Can the Hospice Early Acquisition Strategy be adopted by players two, three, or four? Yes, but unfortunately, if player one selects Builder, and player two, three or four want to make an early Hospice purchase, as it is just outside of their three starting coins, then they need to either save their money or make cheap purchases (small indigo mill, small market, etc.) until they can amass the funds for it in subsequent rounds.

The above strategic analysis assumes a four hand game of Puerto Rico. In a five player game, of course, any of the players can buy a hospice as their initial purchase as each player starts with four coins. And in a three player game, no one can buy a Hospice in the first round as each player only starts with two coins. The best strategy for early Hospice acquisition in three player Puerto Rico is to take Prospector in the first round, and then hope you get to take Builder first in the second round. The earliest a player could buy a Hospice in three player Puerto Rico would be the second round, and it would be Player Two, who would have to select Prospector the first round, not make any purchases, and when they become governor in round two, immediately select Builder.

The best proof of the Hospice Early Acquisition Strategy is that I had my highest score ever in this game—60 points!

Settlers of Catan

While my tabletop gaming interests are gravitating toward diceless mechanics, and my choice of games is influenced by that, as well as a desire to sample hot new games and make time for my short list of favorites, there also seems to be an omnipresent fourth category, that is neither diceless nor new nor favorite: Catan. Catan is like a demigod or demon of the tabletop gaming table; it doesn’t get set up on the table, it haunts it, and as you begin to unbox it, you’re acknowledging that the eternal form of Catan will always be on your table.

Our old friends haven’t become jaded by Catan playing yet, as our game nights were put on hiatus by the arrival of their quintuplets a few years ago, and when their hands were full figuratively and literally, we have gone on to prefer other games. Game night with them used to be pretty much synonymous with Catan night, as that was our favorite game to play then, and although when we started to have Game Night again, I first taught them Broom Service, then today Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan was an inevitable destination because it seem like the right journey to make with them. Or I was compelled by that demon Catan. I’m not really sure.

It was basic ten point Catan, as well, which would be blindingly fast, except we have a few bad Catan behaviors, like bribing people with a resource for robber immunity and constant trading. Our new bad Catan habit is lack of confidence in the dice, which caused us to swap the dice out twice for another pair during this game. Still, it was around a 90 minute struggle until a player had the winning total of three cities, one settlement, the longest road, and a victory point card. And it was as if he won by having the greatest amount of “Catan virtue,” as he traded only modestly, never bribed anybody with a resource to avoid the robber, and never suggested that we swap out the dice. What a guy: the father of quintuplets and a Catan saint on top of that.


Catan 5th Edition

Conclusion

While scratching my Catan itch is always satisfying, what was really pleasant was teaching more friends how to play Puerto Rico, one of my favorite games.

In terms of comparing Board Game Brunch to the Game Night model, I recommend the former as a great change of pace. Not only are gamers in orbit around their coffee in the morning, they’re getting a sugar rush on donuts and muffins, and everyone is alert and ready to play. Gamers seem more adaptable in their strategies in the morning as well, myself included. During Game Night, I would have went with my traditional opening Puerto Rico move, while in Board Game Brunch, I tried something new to develop my thoughts on colonist economy.

You can find my review of the Puerto Rico app through this link.

You can find my columns on Catan, “Catan Blues,” through this link.

Board of Life uses affiliate links.

Game Night: Catan: Traders and Barbarians, 7 Wonders, and Sheriff of Nottingham

Our most recent game night was the pinnacle of a perfect day. Earlier that day we had gone to Market Square, where we ate veggie dogs at Franktuary, played a game of giant Jenga, and returned with two bags of coffee from Nicholas Coffee Company. We brought one of the bags–Cinnamon Pecan Praline—with us to our friends’ house, where it paired well with the home-made peach pie they baked. We didn’t start playing games until late, but we were still able to squeeze in three games due to selecting the fastest official Catan variation, the eighteen round game 7 Wonders, and the eight round game Sheriff of Nottingham.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably seen that our sweet spot seems to be three games, as that is usually what we end up playing no matter how much time we have. This is a curious phenomenon which I believe to be an ultimately explicable attribute of game size, as measured by Scope, Scale, and Span. Just hold that thought, though, because this is a Game Night recap, and I won’t be going into depth on that subject here. We’ll call it fodder for later installments.

To complete the setting of the stage–the bright, sunny, day pierced the windows, and we had salads, roasted potatoes, and tofu marinated in cayenne pepper, garlic, and cracked pepper (the vegans), and various seafood including shark (the non-vegans). (Actually, the tofu was so good that everyone was eating it, so my overly simplistic demarcation is a bald-faced lie.) My youngest watched DVDs we brought of Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and The Superfriends, so classic animation would crackle and flash in the background.

Catan: Traders and Barbarians: “The Fishermen of Catan”

First, we played “The Fishermen of Catan” scenerio from Catan: Traders and Barbarians. With so many variations of Catan between us—I have Seafarers, Cities and Knights, and Explorers and Pirates, and my friends have Traders and Barbarians and Star Trek Catan—it isn’t long before this demands expression in wooden empires on hexagon-ological islands. In an informal survey of our gaming group, only one of us had a clearly stated favorite tabletop game, and that was Catan. As for myself, Catan is the game that I hate to love and love to hate, and I acknowledge that there is a sixth element in Catan, aside from wool, wheat, ore, lumber, and brick, and this sixth element never leaves your hand and pulls you back to the game. It isn’t that we possess Catan, it’s that Catan possesses us.

I’d like to say that we selected Catan: Traders and Barbarians, the Catan box that we open least frequently, because we wanted to give the included scenarios another play, but it was because we had brought Catan: Cities and Knights and found that we had left the Cities and Knights progress and commodity cards in my 5-6 player C&K expansion box. So my friend took T&B down from his shelf, and we set up “The Fishermen of Catan.” It is the fastest scenario in Catan: Traders and Barbarians, and possibly all of Catan, as it is not only a ten point game like standard Catan, but the accumulation of resources is accelerated by the introduction of fishing to the game.

The fishing mechanic in “The Fishermen of Catan” is completely unlike the fishing in Catan: Explorers and Pirates scenarios. While in E&P, the player retrieves a wooden fish token with a wooden ship token, the simulation in T&B involves no movement of tokens. In fact, the game board is similar to standard 10 point Catan, with the exception that the desert is replaced by a fishing hole, and fishing shoals are placed between harbors. Fishing shoals and the fishing hole produce fish when their numbers are rolled, and you have a settlement or city bordering them.

Fans of standard ten point Catan should see immediately how this scenario will speed up play. Instead of a desert hex, which is a dead, non-producing, hex, that limits the value of settlements and cities bordering it, “The Fishermen of Catan” has the fishing hole, which produces a fish token on a 2, 3, 11, or 12, which combined is as good as having a 6 or an 8, circa 16% likely on a given roll. Additionally, if at the beginning of the game, there aren’t any good three hex spots left when it’s your turn to place your second settlemtn, the coastal region is much more attractive as there are also regions there that produce fish when a number is rolled. In Fishermen of Catan, it is much more likely that all four players will have both a six and an eight, if they would like to have both, due to there being many more spots on which to border a six or an eight. In fact, sometimes the coastal regions are much better than the island interior in “The Fishermen of Catan.”

Each player can only have seven fish tokens at once, but in both of the times that we have played this scenario, no player ever reached this limit as the fish tokens are so useful. You see, each fishing token has from one to three fish on it, and you can exchange a total of two fish—not tokens, but the fish on them—-to remove the robber from the board; three fish allows you to steal a resource from another player; four fish allows you to take a resource from the bank; five fish gives you a free road; and, seven fish gives you a free development card. Game statisticians will no doubt point out that resource producing numbers will be more efficient than fish-producing numbers at building roads or buying development cards, but fish can’t be stolen by other players or by the robber either, so they give each player a secondary, 100% secure, production bank. Well, not each player—just the players that were wise enough to focus on gathering fish.

So, with resources entering “The Fishermen of Catan” normally, and fish production being exchanged for resources, roads, and development cards on top of that, you can see that this scenario enabled its winner to hit ten victory points quickly. This is probably why there is an “Old Boot” concealed in the fish tokens that any player can give to another player with more victory points, and that player stuck with the Old Boot needs 11 victory points to win instead of 10.  In this game, however, no one ever found it, so the winner won with three cities, the Largest Army, and the Longest Road.

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7 Wonders

In games with score cards, our game night group dates them for posterity, and this meant that when I opened our 7 Wonders box that it was a black and white fact that we hadn’t played this marvelous game since May 28th. There’s really no excuse for this, as 7 Wonders is not only currently in a three way tie with Puerto Rico and Broom Service to be my favorite game, but it is fast and epic. Not only can you always find room for 7 Wonders in a game night, it is such an excellent game with so many different winning strategies that you should strive to do this at all costs. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a sin against the god of game night, but yes I would.)

I’ve discussed 7 Wonders in some detail on Board of Life, and each time we play I have a different takeaway. It seemed that both players to either side of me didn’t need the resources that I was saving either to build their Wonder or to supplement their strategy, so I learned how to win at 7 Wonders when I wasn’t getting any income. This was a marked difference from my previous win at 7 Wonders, when both of my flanking players were trading with me constantly.

We were using the B side of the cards, and selected our wonders randomly. Mine was Halikarnassos, and while I was initially disappointed with this one due to it only rewarding the building of its wonder with only three victory points, the Halikarnassos B side also has an outstanding special ability.

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It enables you to look through the discards once per age, in the round during which the wonder stage is built, even selecting from cards discarded that round. As I would have the greatest selection of discards at the end of each age, I decided that whatever happened, my sixth card every turn would build a stage of my structure so that I would be able to pick from the four discards in the sixth round for a free build. I was only getting three points from completing my wonder, so it was paramount that I grab the discard that was worth the most points to me. In the third age, the other players realized what I was doing, and the only discard at the end of the third age that was worth any points was the Arena. Which I grabbed anyway, as three victory points is nonetheless three victory points.

One strategy that I considered, but did not use this game due to rejecting its shadiness, involves abusing the rule that allows a player, instead of playing a card or building a stage of their wonder, to discard any card they want on their turn for 3 coins. I thought of discarding a card that I was unable to purchase so that I could then grab it for free immediately after by building a stage in my structure. I would be one card short at the end of the game, but I was already being rewarded for building my wonder by getting additional cards in my play area.

The strategy that I decided on was much simpler. After a heavy investment in brown, grey, and yellow cards in the first age, from that point on I simply picked the card from my hand that was both 1) a free build for me, and 2) worth the most victory points. Then, in the final, sixth round of each age, I would build a stage of my structure so that I could grab a free card from the discards. (It was very important that I not build it prior to that sixth round so that I have the largest selection of discards, as our group doesn’t cash in cards for coins very much.) By the end of the game, I had a set of green cards, several blue cards, and three of the purple guild cards.

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One general consensus in our group is that it is a mistake to over-invest in the green Science cards. The possibility of scoring twice with your investment in them is appealing to the math minded, but in practice it never works out. The player with the least amount of victory points had 26 points for six science cards, which sounds great until you consider that’s only 4.4 points a card, and there are many more valuable cards in the third age that are passing by while you’re completing your second science set; the three purple guild cards I grabbed were a total of 22 points, or about 7.3 points a card. If you can get a set of science cards before the end of the second age, that’s a good thing to grab, but go for the blue and purple cards in the third age. Even in the second age, the three blue cards (12 victory points) are worth more than a set of three green cards (10 points).

Sheriff of Nottingham

Next up was Sheriff of Nottingham, a game which has won my admiration after only two games despite the cold hard fact that I am horrible at playing it. This is partly due to the fact that I cannot keep from smiling when I am passing contraband, and my strategy to be always smiling like a fool, so as to conceal when I am actually doing it, simply means that my bag is always checked for contraband.

Some of you are saying, “contraband? bag? what?” Let me backtrack. As this is the first time I’ve discussed Sheriff of Nottingham in any length on my blog, for the uninitiated I’ll delve into the facts of the game, but as I may end up reviewing it on Board of Life, this will be a capsule summary.

Sheriff of Nottingham is best played with four players over a total of eight rounds. Each player is the Sheriff in two of those rounds, and a Merchant in the other six rounds. In every round, the other three players are Merchants that declare from their hand of cards—Chicken, Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Contraband—one type of good in any quantity to be in their bag. In addition to playing cards, Sheriff of Nottingham actually has enclosed not just cardboard coins, but also five “merchant bags” that are large enough to enclose them.

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When the Merchant makes a declaration, he must correctly state the number of cards in his bag, and he also must pick just one type of good to declare from the four honest goods in the game, either Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Chicken. If a Merchant makes the declaration “Six Cheese,” the bag might actually have six cheese in it, or four cheese and two bread, or one cheese and five contraband, or six contraband and no honest goods, or any other combination of six cards. If the Merchant actually has six cheese, that’s awesome luck, beause not only will the Merchant earn huge points from that haul, but the Sheriff will undoubtedly inspect and end up paying a penalty on that lucky haul. More than likely, however, the Merchant will make smaller declarations, whether for honest or dishonest reasons.

After all three Merchants have made their declarations, The Sheriff must decide whether each Merchant is telling the truth. He or she can inspect any bag they want, and if they find an incorrect declaration, the Merchant must pay him a penalty. However, if they inspect an honest declaration, the Sheriff must pay the Merchant a penalty.

Merchants can bribe The Sheriff if they want to do so—sometimes this is because they are trying to get contraband through, sometimes this is because they want the Sheriff to check another Merchant’s bag, and sometimes this is because the Merchant is trying to entice the Sheriff to inspect an honest declaration, so the Sheriff has to pay the Merchant a penalty. So bribery can be massively strategic in Sheriff of Nottingham.

In this game, I had a huge setback when I decided that I would try to be clever. In my first round, I played it safe and declared three cheese honestly. In the next round, after my draw, I again had three cheese as well as a bread and two contraband. I thought, why not declare the two contraband and a bread as three cheese? It will probably be passed through, and then when I declare three cheese—this time honestly—for a third time, it will undoubtedly be inspected so that I would be paid a penalty. Nope. The bread and two contraband were inspected because of my irrepressibly goofy smile, and my game never recovered from that.

Despite the fact that I was never able to catch back up after that initial loss, I still had a lot of fun playing Sheriff of Nottingham, just as I did the first time that I played. It’s fun to watch the Merchants try to get one over on the Sheriff, and it’s amusing to watch players try to rat each other out by bribing the Sheriff to check others’ dishonest declarations. And at eight turns, the game is of a perfect length, so that if you’re losing, you’re not losing for long, and if you’re winning, you get to savor your triumph quickly.

Conclusion

This was such a satisfying set of short strategy games that I recommend this exact combination for any game night in which you only have a few hours ahead of you. All three games took less than an hour while engaging our mental muscles in the strategic way that we usually expect much longer games to satisfy.

My curiosity is still piqued as to why three games seems to be the magic number for our gaming group, and once I have a large enough sample of Game Night recaps for analysis, I might speculate further on this mystery.


Catan: Traders & Barbarians Expansion 5th Edition

7 Wonders

Sheriff of Nottingham

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