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.

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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.

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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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Game Night: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic, and Catan: Explorers & Pirates

At some point I may backtrack to our Fourth of July Game Night, in which we played the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game for the first time, but as yesterday is fresher in my memory, and will give me a chance to bash two games for a change—one that I generally like but has become monotonous, and another that I have always disliked despite my general appreciation of its theme mash-ups—I’m jumping on that game night first.

This was our first long game night in a few weeks, and we were able to get in a good game selection that included Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic and Catan: Explorers & Pirates. We hosted for a change, and made a huge pot of potato soup with vegan cheese sauce to drizzle on top, as well as homemade rolls, and our friends brought their recent crop of homemade cider and a vegan cake. Our house isn’t as cool, so to complete the backdrop, you have to imagine the constant sound of two wall air conditioners and all of our celing fans.

First we played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which we have found enchanting since we started playing it late last year. Now that we’ve played it about eight times, the spell is starting to wear off on me, and while I still enjoy it, I’m beginning to find the placing of black tiles unrelenting, the haunt too easy to defeat, and, most importantly, it’s a co op game that doesn’t inspire co op play until the Haunt forces it. That it’s a co-op game which doesn’t inspire co-op play should be obvious to anyone else that has left a fellow player writhing in webs in order to open a different door and hopefully find an item. This happens every time the Webs Event Card is drawn in our gaming group. Many of the RPG games that Betrayal at House on the Hill is based upon (e.g. D&D and Call of Cthulhu) get criticism online for creating a style of game play humorously referred to as “murder hobo,” the definition of which you can find by clicking the preceding hyperlink, and Betrayal at House on the Hill seems to have found a more alienating formula of co op play, as even “murder hobos” work together as a group to kill the monster and grab the loot, while Betrayal encourages the group not only to split up, but to ignore the needs of the others. Betrayal at House on the Hill may have been a better game if it kept what was excised from its RPG simulation: a game master, to encourage the cohesion of the group. This may be why every time we play this game, I think of playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG.

There’s also been an unpleasant sense of deja vu that I have played something like it before, and I realized yesterday that Betrayal is just a more intelligent version of the Dungeon boardgame. Dungeon also destroyed the strongest aspect of RPGs like D&D by removing the game master from the game and requiring a style of play in which everyone is out for themselves. While in Betrayal acting independently isn’t required, but only strongly encouraged by the game dynamics, in both Dungeon and Betrayal I see a strong parallel, in that the effects of removing the game master from a RPG are similar in both. Do I find it slightly existential that in removing the authority from a RPG, there is no reason for players to be good or to act as a group? Yes, I do, but I’ll save that for another essay on the intersections of what I call Amoral RPGs (RPGs without a GM) and Existentialism.

All this said, in the face of my growing consciousness of the repetition of black tiles and the unsatisfying co op element, I did enjoy this game, and it did surprise me for once by having the Haunt (#42) win for the first time. An unlucky Haunt roll no doubt contributed to this win, as we were only 45 minutes into the game before a player rolled a 5 on eight Betrayal dice when the Haunt score was at 6. As the Haunt was revealed early in the game, we had few items and almost no useful Omens to battle the traitor, who found us easy pickings. This was gratifying to me, because after an unbroken seven-game winning record against the Haunt, I was beginning to wonder if the game was weighted too much in favor of the players.

Generally, our gaming group is pretty agreeable, and we play things that we all like, which may give you the impression that I am too nice in my Game Night summaries. The truth is, however, that I am like everybody else in the fact that I have negative opinions about some things, including a few games that we have played. This can be awkward when the game is a gift from our game-playing friends, and my wife thinks it is wonderful, so my ongoing strategy to conceal my shameful loathing of this generous gift has been to make suggestions to play better games. In fact, the best implied criticism of this game that I can make is that there are SO MANY better games that this has been successful for about seven months. Yesterday the eventual train wreck finally happened, and I found myself staring at the most underwhelming theme mash-up in recent tabletop history, Munchkin Panic. It was on my table like a vile, poisonous, beast, and as I didn’t feel Panic, but Dread at the amount of my life that it would suck away, I suggest renaming it the more apt Munchkin Dread. And, in the spirit of critical honesty, I’m going to call it Munchkin Dread not only for the rest of this review but for the rest of my life.

Why the contempt for Munchkin Dread? Basically, I consider it a crime to underwhelm, and I can’t find enough of the splendidly over-the-top hilarity of Munchkin in Munchkin Dread. Where’s the Munchkin in Munchkin Dread? I can’t find it. There’s Munchkin art crammed onto the cards, but as the card text is dull and humorless, they’re not anything like Munchkin cards. A mash-up should be a natural fusion of two games’ themes, and not a superficial dressing up of crammed content.

Additionally, I am a big fan of co-op games, the best of which create a sense of drama by making the game board mutable and untrustworthy (Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island), or by having cascading events (Pandemic). Compared to these great co op games, there is no drama and lots of tedium in the sliding of 39 monsters, and a half-dozen curses, towards your castle walls, and the presence of a Huge Rock in the bag of baddies makes me think of the myth of Sisyphus and wonder when the game will end.

These are pretty acidic criticisms, and just to be clear that Steve Jackson Games have given me some happiness in my life, from Car Wars as a teen to Gurps in college to Munchkin, Star Munchkin, and Adventure Time Munchkin in recent years. But Steve Jackson himself could not sell me on Munchkin Dread. Which is not to say that I won’t play it again, as it has three fans in our gaming group.

While in our first game, it was obvious that the honeymoon was over, and the second game was one for which I have never had any illusions at all, our third game of the night, Catan: Explorers and Pirates, already my favorite way to play Catan-the game I love to hate and hate for loving it—was such a refreshing change of pace that I felt a wave of relief. Even as I felt the wave of relief, I knew it for the cliche that it was, but that did not stop the cleanness and purity of the feeling that I was happy to be playing a seventeen point game of Catan.

Yes, we picked the longest scenario in the box, so we were using the all three of the leader boards: Pirates, Fish, and Spices. Due to time constraints and wanting to play other games, we have only played this scenario one time before this. I forgot how much space it takes up on our table. The last scenario in E&P is so immense that I don’t think it would fit on our friends’ game table without us going without drinks and snacks, and we’d have to use an end table for the game resource bank.

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I went gung-ho into this game with off-board play, which I’ve mentioned before at length. To reiterate, in every version of Catan you can score points both on the board in the forms of settlements and cities or harbor settlements, and off the board in the form of other scoring opportunities, which in basic Catan are Longest Road, Longest Army, and Victory Point cards, and in Catan: Explorers and Pirates are the one to three points you can get on the Pirate, Fish, and Spice leader boards, plus the one point bonuses you can get from the Best Fisher, Best Spice Merchant, and Greatest Pirate Scourge cards. Catan: Explorers and Pirates makes it even easier to focus on off-board scoring, because you don’t have to worry so much about creating more resource-producing settlements due to the fact that when your numbers aren’t rolled you get gold.

Given an opportunity of three sidebars to focus upon, I focused on Spices, as each Spice obtained comes with an in-game bonus, and then I focused secondarily on Fish. I entered one Pirate battle just to get 1 VP off of that leader board, although from watching the other players go at them I realized just how much faster a player can climb up that board than the other leader boards. It takes six spices or six fish to get to the top of the Spice or Fish leader boards, but if you’re lucky or a good planner, you can get to the top of the Pirate board with only three battles. I may implement more Pirate raids in another game, but I will have a hard time prying myself away from the more immediate advantages of the Spices.

The most important Spice hexes to reach are the ones that give you +1 Move, as when you have both of these hexes locked down, you have a 6 Move instead of a 4, which then makes it easier for your ships to get other Spices, more Fish, and drop off crew to battle Pirates. Some players might not see that there’s much of a difference between a 4 and a 6 move, but over time it adds up so that it’s the difference between moving your ships 36 hexes over six turns instead of only 24. After those two, it’s good to have at least one of the hexes that allow you to trade a resource for a gold once a turn. As I only used three bricks in the entire game (one road, one settlement, and one settler), I used that throughout the game for the alchemical trick of changing brick into gold.

Fish require some careful planning to capitalize upon, as you have to keep an empty ship somewhere equidistant from as many Fish-producing hexes as possible in order to do well on that leader board. As two of the players rarely sent out empty ships, that meant there were only two players on the Fish board for most of the game, although another player managed to get one in on their last turn.

I won the 17 point Catan: Explorers & Pirates scenario with 9 points on the board and 8 points off the board: three harbor settlements, three settlements, three points on the Spice board, two points on the Fish board, the Best Fisher card, and the Best Spice Merchant card. For most of the game, I had only five points on the board, two harbor settlements and one settlement, as I wanted to ensure that I was getting as much gold as possible. So my weak production funneled into my strategy. Gold is more versatile and can’t be taken by the robber/pirate ship, and if I needed a resource, I simply bought one.

Overall, it was an enjoyable game night. While I had the most fun playing Catan: Explorers and Pirates, playing the other two games added to my understanding. For instance, my avoidance of Munchkin Dread had become something like a superstition in that I no longer remembered why I didn’t want to play it, and playing it yesterday made me a lot more conscious of the good reasons why I dreaded it. Additionally, heckling something distasteful can be a way of enjoying it and redeeming the wasted time. In a way, I found the game I hate a more profitable experience than the one that I love, which is no doubt a common feeling among critics. My usual tendency is to write about things that I like, but as the format of my Game Night recaps forces me to talk about all the games that we play, even the ones that I don’t like, I’m finding that I enjoy just as much writing about the bad games as the good ones. That said, I’m still a game player, not just a game reviewer, and I look forward to playing more games that I like.

Catan: Explorers & Pirates Expansion 5th Edition

Munchkin Panic

Betrayal At House On The Hill – 2nd Edition

Game Night: Dragonwood, Spyfall, Mysterium, and Ghost Blitz

Fortunately, our past game night transpired during a respite from the scorching hot days that we’ve had recently, and while it was still cheerily sunny, it was also cool and breezy. The weather was conducive to chilling outdoors, which led to us playing a game on our friends’ front patio. For dinner we had vegetarian chili and cornbread, and we had cider apple fritters to snack on.

First up we played both Basic and Advanced Dragonwood, Gamewright’s game of cards and dice. I recently reviewed Dragonwood on this site, but to quickly sum up if you don’t want to click the preceding hyperlink, in Dragonwood you use a combination of played cards and rolled dice to capture the monsters that plague Dragonwood. In Basic Dragonwood, you simply reload your hand of cards from the face down Adventurer deck, and in Advanced, you have the option of drawing one of two face up cards or from the face down Adventurer deck. While this means there is more of a strategic element in Advanced Dragonwood, and less trusting in luck, Basic Dragonwood has its strategies as well, such as how much of your hand do you commit to your Scream, Stomp, or Strike? Do you commit five of your nine cards in hand to be certain of putting down the troll and not wasting a turn, or do you go for a lucky roll and commit three or four, in order to conserve resources if you are successful? Dragonwood is not that long of a game, and as this means that the number of cards that you draw during a game is limited, it follows that investing your cards wisely can be one of the ways to win.

For instance, in our first game I committed six cards to attack one of the game-ending dragons. Also, I had invested early in the game in the Bucket of Spinach, which adds two to a stomp. Since I used a lot of my resources and my actions in obtaining these two victories, I ended up only getting a tied score with my wife, who was ruled the winner because she had more cards. Both of our games went to a player that either had the most cards (3 extra points) or was tied at having the most cards (2 extra points to both). In my review of Dragonwood, I did mention that it seemed that ABC (Always Bag Creatures) was the way to win Dragonwood, and I was right. In these games, however, I was testing that strategy to see if there was a more dramatically satisfying strategy that I could find, and I arrived at planning early on to get both of the dragons. Hence, after I bought my Bucket of Spinach, I was spending round after round reloading in order to prepare a six card attack for when a Dragon fell into the Landscape. Meanwhile, my more practical adversaries were trouncing spiders, goblins, and other tiny creepy crawlies. Every monster card you get is worth at least a point, and having the most nets you another 3 points, so going after any monster you can when you are able to do so seems to be the most battle-tested strategy for Dragonwood.

After playing six games of Dragonwood, it has become apparent to me that there is one Enhancement that everyone should be going after: the Mushroom. The Mushroom is easily obtainable, and it lets you reroll one of your attack dice in every capture attempt. Not only are you almost always likely to get any monster with a decent investment of cards, you can also spend just one card to attack a weak 1 VP creature, and if you roll a low number, you can re-roll to get your victory. The player with the Mushroom has won four our of the six games of Dragonwood that I have played.

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Two bowls of chili and a few apple fritters later, we were playing Spyfall. We loved this game for a lot of reasons, but the most unique thing about Spyfall, in a market saturated with tabletop games with lightweight paper and wooden pieces that are not suitable for playing anywhere but in an indoor venue, is that Spyfall can be very easily played outdoors. As there are no game tokens, and no game board, and all the cards are tucked in groups of eight inside sealed plastic bags, it would take very strong winds to blow the game pieces away. This makes Spyfall an ideal game for playing outside, whether on the front porch as we decided to do, or at the beach, or a campground, or waiting in line for Hall H at comic con in the wee hours of the night.

In my review of the Board Game Bento Investigate box, I mention what I call the dual dynamic of Spyfall: those who are not spies must “find their crew” by using words charged with enough meaning to bring your fellows out of anonymity, and those that are the spies must gather intelligence on the scenario without breaching their anonymity. In my review of Spyfall which will come later, we’ll talk about this dual dynamic, and how Spyfall depends on 1) this pre-existing condition of anonymity, and 2) the players’ attempts to illuminate, as obliquely as possible, the scenario.

Let me just tell you that it is VERY difficult to compose statements that will elucidate your role to your compatriots while not also dispelling the fog of ambiguity which beclouds the spy. As such, despite the game designers’ attempts to handicap the spy as much as possible, I found it much easier to be the spy. Here’s an example from our game night:

Player 1: How much money do you have with you?

Player 2: Five thousand. (To me:) Did you lose anything?

At this point, only two questions into the round, I decided to make my move. As the spy, I have the right to reveal myself at anytime, and if, after consulting the locations in the rules I correctly identify the scenario, I win the round. In a four player game, once two players have identified themselves to each other as these two have just done, it is a good idea for the spy to attempt this, or he will lose that round just seconds thereafter. I correctly identified “Casino” and won 4 points, and as this was the last round, those points stole the victory for me.

Next we played another guessing game, Mysterium, a popular co-op game which puts one player in the role of a ghost that is trying to guide the other players, in the role of psychic investigators, as they attempt to solve a murder. This was my second time playing and my first time as the ghost, which meant that I had the responsibility to guide the players to solve the ghost’s murder.

Mysterium‘s rules explicitly state that the ghost should be silent, and so for the 45 minutes or so of the game duration I concentrated on communicating with the method allowed in the game: via the Vision Card deck. Every time I needed to communicate my vision to a player, I could use any number of the seven Vision Cards in my hand, and as the Vision Cards are of exquisite art value but often end up bearing conflicting symbols that can sabotage the intended meaning of one card with the unintended meaning of another, I often relied on just one card to communicate to the living. After playing a card, I filled my hand with new draws from the Vision Card deck. This means if I’m only playing one card or maybe two, I’m then stuck with all the cards I passed on and only a few new additions, and if I’m not lucky, I have nothing that matches with the story that I must tell the psychics. Fortunately, the game designers accounted for that by allowing the ghost a certain number of times to cash in all their cards and get a hand of brand new cards.

Mysterium is a co-op game, which means that either everyone wins or everyone loses. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Unlike Clue, in which just one investigator has to correctly guess the contents of an envelope, in Mysterium, all of the psychic investigators have to correctly guess a number that the ghost has hidden in an envelope. I can happily report that my clues enabled the psychic investigators to identify the killer and allowed the ghost its final rest.

Finally, we arrived on Ghost Blitz, which is a simple family game involving no strategy at all, but simply hand/eye coordination, dexterity, and the ability to quickly process colors. While I don’t have much to say about this game, I liked it, but think it would be better to use as an in-between game, because as the last game of our evening it was anticlimactic. The object of the game is to grab a game piece before another player does so, which means that everyone is madly nabbing the game pieces, and this repetitive fast hand movement gets everyone’s blood pumping. The pumped up feeling that we had after playing this game would have been nice to have when segueing from one long game to another.

Overall, this was a pretty great game night with a lot of variety in the theme and content of our games: card war, guessing spies and murderers, and a game of hand/eye coordination.  Our game of Mysterium had a very oblique narrative told by a silent ghost with impressionistic cards, and our game of Spyfall had five quick collaborative narratives pieced together from statements carefully screened by their speakers so as to bear nearly no meaning.  Usually strategy games like Catan, 7 Wonders, Splendor, and Power Grid are our go to games, and this game night was very different.  While Dragonwood is played strategically, Spyfall is a social game that requires some collaboration, Mysterium is fully cooperative, and Ghost Blitz requires dexterity, but no strategy.  As only Dragonwood was definitely on the agenda, this well-rounded evening of games was put together more or less spontaneously.


Dragonwood A Game of Dice & Daring Board Game

Mysterium

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Spyfall Card Game

Ghost Blitz Board Game

Board of Life uses affiliate links.  Gamewright provided a review copy of Dragonwood.  Board Game Bento provided a review copy of their Investigate box, which included Spyfall.