Monday, May 23, 2011

A long review of a short game: Gloria Picktoria....

If you've read this blog before, it's no big secret that I am and always will be a fan of Alan R. Moon. His modern masterpiece Ticket to Ride has seen more plays with my friends, families, and colleagues than any other game in my collection.  And he has many other wonderful games - Elfenland, Oasis, and the brilliant San Marco to name a few - all of which remain go-to games around our place. There is something very simple yet refined about his designs that I've played, a removal of complexity and calculation without sacrifice to the strategy, and always just the right balance of luck.

One of the first games I played of his was 1993's Freight Train which involved getting majorities in the various types of cards, an idea he probably smartly "acquire"-d from Sid Sackson. And although I still love Freight Train, the manner in which the cards are drawn during play for collections can make for some very slow and agonizing decisions. Freight Train was a bit of a card game version of his game Airlines from 1990.  I never played Airlines but I owned its successor Union Pacific for many years and enjoyed its clever but overly long gameplay. Just before Union Pacific arrived, Moon had rebooted Freight Train as another card game called Get The Goods (or Reibach & Co. in Germany). The goals and scoring were very similar to Freight Train but the gameplay was much, much faster making it far more accessible. Jump ahead more than a decade and Moon decided to update his Get the Goods design again (probably at the same time he's thinking about his redesign of Airlines and Union Pacific). And now we have Gloria Picktoria, a rather silly-looking game with Zoch's now famous chickens, cleverly illustrated as always by Doris Matthaus. And Gloria Picktoria really is mostly just a remake of Get The Goods. But there is one change, a small but important addition that takes an already great little family card game and makes it a suspenseful, agonizing 30-40 minutes of pure awesome. Seriously.

So if you haven't managed to play Freight Train or  Get The Goods, the main idea behind the games is pretty simple.  There are 10 or 11 different types of cards in the deck with about 9 or 10 of each and you're trying to play them face up in front of you to gain majorities in as many as you can.  During the scoring, for each of the different types of cards, the player with the most gets a set number of points (2 or 3 depending on the game) and the second place player gets 1 point.  And that's basically it.  In Freight Train the players play through most of the deck in each of the three rounds and the cards are drawn during the game by taking the top cards from face-up rows of cards revealing others for the opponents to grab leading to the long calculations.  In Get The Goods and Gloria Picktoria, however, players draw from the draw pile or take one from the three face-up cards.  Very simple and MUCH quicker.  As well, in GTG/GP, on each turn they have a certain number of actions that they must use to draw cards into their hand, start collections by using cards for place markers, and/or add cards to their different collections.

 So basically they are all games of getting majorities in as many rows as possible.  This leads to various not-so-simple choices with only a limited number of turns.  In GTG/GP, similar to Union Pacific, there is a clever timer counting down -  ten scoring cards shuffled randomly into the deck which seem to show up at the most inopportune moments.  The game is halted immediately for scoring when the 4th, 7th and 10th show up and this adds a surprising amount of tension to the game.  If there's 3 scoring cards already up, should you take that really good wild card from the draw pile and risk drawing the 4th scoring card?  Or should you rush and play your cards to the table for a majority as they only count at scoring if they are played face up?  It's a simple idea but adds a push-your-luck element that makes for some tough decisions.  And up to this point, as far as I can remember, Get The Goods and Gloria Picktoria are pretty much the same game, a very good one, offering lots of interesting decisions, interactions, and suspense without much complexity.

Where Gloria Picktoria really takes off from Get The Goods is in the small addition of a wooden fox.  And it adds only a minor rules addition but it doubles the anxiety of the original.  Where the scoring cards already made things ugly, the fox acts like a hot potato, jumping from one collection to the next causing whatever collection its on to be worthless.  It's simple but very effective.  When it gets to your turn, the player to your right has been nice enough to place the fox on one of your collections.  So now you have a choice: waste an action or two moving the fox off your most valuable collection (and your neighbour will ALWAYS place it on your most valuable collection) or take your chances in drawing cards in the hopes that a scoring round doesn't occur on your turn.  If only 1 scoring card has been pulled then it's usually pretty safe, but if there are 9 scoring cards and you really need to grab that one face-up purple to gain a majority in the collection before the end of the game, well, then it's a different story.  And in a game where people often win by one or two points, it can be a really tough call.  Add to that the fact that you have to use all 3 of your actions every turn but you lose points at the end for cards in hand and empty collections, and the last 5 minutes can be delicious, vicious agony.

It should be clear by now how much I enjoy this little card game.  It's been revised and rebuilt many times and I think this version is by far the best.  The addition of the fox, possibly the contribution of the second designer Mick Ado (pseudonym?), makes the whole thing feel like a good old game of Hot Potato.  And it's the first time I've seen this childhood game so cleverly encapsulated in a card game.  Now, okay, it's not a game of deep strategic subtlety but it is a game of observation, tactics, and effective use of your limited actions.  And it's also a game of some luck but in a round that lasts about 30 minutes, it only makes for more fun. 

This game has been a hit for me, usually with the optimal number of 4 players (although 3 and 5 are fun, too).  After my first play of the it, another round was immediately requested and played and I was asked politely to "please, bring this game back".  Amongst our friends, all that has been requested for the last couple weeks has been what we now call "Chickens" (we also always call Circus Flohcati "Fleas"...)  It's a very good game, nay, a great game and probably the best filler game I now own.  Having played my lovely new copy of Airlines Europe last week, which is another great game and a vast improvement over Union Pacific, I'm still glad I have "Chickens" to thoroughly scratch that itch when I only have a short play time.  If you like Alan Moon games, then this is a no-brainer, and even if you don't, you'll probably find something to like here.  Fun, fun, fun little card game that makes your stomach churn like you're playing a game of Pandemic.  You really should check it out.