Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Picture of the month...

My good friend Kelly at the cottage teaching everyone Dominion

Monday, July 23, 2012

The "elephant" strategy rears its ugly head...

About 10 years ago, I could honestly say that Reiner Knizia's classic Euro Taj Mahal was my absolute favourite game.  It had everything I wanted - simple tough choices, fascinating and highly unique game play, and multiple paths to victory.  If you haven't tried it, you really should - it's a fascinating card/board game of chicken and bluff that rivals anything put out today.  Unfortunately, after an uncountable number of games, it became obvious that an experienced player could win over newbies every time by simply taking all the elephant cards and winning the elephant tile most rounds.  Frustratingly, this became something that always needed to be explained every time new people played and the game lost a little bit of its sheen.

Fast-forward to this summer and we've played a bunch of games of Hawaii, a fantastic Euro with a bit more depth than Taj Mahal.  Unfortunately, in the last couple games one player has decided to try the 'red price token' strategy.  If you aren't familiar with Hawaii, almost every turn you grab a price token and a whole bunch of them are red.  One can purchase tiles in the game which award bonus points every time a player takes a red price token and these bonuses are most certainly cumulative.  By the end of my last game, my parter was earning 7 points every time he grabbed a red price token and he ended up winning handily.  The gap in the previous game was even wider.  Sigh. 

Of course, this is manageable if all the players are onboard. Much like how everyone can't let one player grab the elephant tile every time in Taj, the players can't let one player grab red price token tiles every round in Hawaii.  I suppose it isn't broken, but the last thing I wanna do in a game like Hawaii (where turns are intentionally very limited) is waste a turn blocking an opponent's play.  It's like wasting trains in Ticket To Ride to block someone's route.  I hate that.

Having said all that, Hawaii is still quite an excellent game (as is Taj Mahal).  Now it just requires a discussion during the rules explanation about the "elephant" in the room...

Monday, July 16, 2012

A review of Morels...

One of the highlights of the Origins game convention this year was picking up my signed copy of Morels directly from the designer himself. I'd read it compared to Jaipur and Lost Cities, two of the most enjoyable 2-player card games I know, so I placed a pre-order a few weeks before the con. Unfortunately for me, I've only been able to get in a few games just in recent weeks which is too bad as it's actually quite a lovely, beautifully-produced indy game that deserves a much wider audience.

The rules of the game are relatively straightforward, much like most of the Kosmos 2-player line that inspired it, although there are few quirks that may take a practice game to wrap one's head around. In the abstract sense, this is a game of set collection a bit like Rummy but where the cards actually have a short window for you to grab them. In practice, though, the game is quite a thematic little ride of grabbing mushrooms before they rot and then cooking them for points or selling them to further one's opportunities.

The mushrooms and other cards that players draw each turn are lined up in the forest from left to right with the two right-most cards being free and the increasing in cost the longer they'll be in the forest (or the farther left they are). On most turns, a player will just take the simplest action which is to grab a single card from the forest. At the end of every turn, they then toss the right-most card into the decay and shift all the others in the forest down, adding one or two at the left. Players also have the option of drawing all the cards in the decay pile (possibly up to 4) but always need to adhere to the strict hand limit. And it's this hand limit that makes things a bit trickier. You need to save up at least 3 of the same kind of mushroom to cook them all at once but eventually after a drawing cards each turn, you'll hit the maximum and need to burn some cards. One option to help with this is to "sell" 2 or more of the same type for foraging sticks instead of cooking them for points. Now the sticks are what you can turn in to grab cards further into the forest instead of just from the two rightmost cards. And this leads to one of the many interesting decisions this game presents. Should I sell for sticks and more options later or should I wait and cook for the points that will win me the game? Simple but effective.

That is mainly how the game plays although there are some special cards which keep things quite interesting. Butter and apple cider cards add bonus points to sets of mushrooms at the moment you cook them, pans are required for each set of mushrooms you cook, and baskets raise your hand limit allowing to you grab the decay pile more often, a BIG advantage. And of course there are the moon cards and the night deck, a very clever touch that adds opportunity with some risk. If a player grabs a moon card they immediately grab the top card of the night deck. The night deck includes one of almost every type of mushroom in the game but each night mushroom counts as two cards of that type. So one takes a chance with the mushroom they receive but are guaranteed to at least be able to sell it for sticks if nothing else.

One final card, a poisonous mushroom called the Destroying Angel, can show up and hinder one's plays for a few turns.  The main effect is that your hand limit drops to 4 (plus basket modifications) for a certain number of turns that are dependent on how many sets you've cooked so far.  It can actually be a positive card if played right allowing one to discard some unwanted cards that you wouldn't have been able to toss otherwise.  Unfortunately, the rules surrounding the Destroying Angel are a little hard to follow in the rulebook and we struggled a bit our first round.  Also, the rules state that a player who is unlucky enough to be dealt a Destroying Angel at the beginning is basically stuck with a dead card until they pick up another Destroying Angel so they can discard it.  This was a bit hard to explain to the first person I played the game with and seemed a bit unfair.  In following games, we just chose to shuffle the DA's into the deck after both players had received their starting hands and this worked just fine.

Plastic frying pans and wooden foraging sticks
But setting minor rules quibbles aside, the game really does offer some interesting strategic decisions.  Since the cards fly by so fast, a player must try to commit to certain sets of mushrooms.  As in many great games, if you try to do too much, you really will succeed in very little.  For example, should you try to collect 3 of the 4 rare Morels for a huge score or just get a bunch of Tree Ears and cook them in butter to increase the score?  Even more interesting decisions involve when to grab foraging sticks instead of points and of course certain mushrooms offer many more foraging sticks.  I've found myself in at least a couple games grabbing foraging sticks early in the hopes that I can scoop the rare Morels and Chanterelles before my opponent can reach them or they rot in the decay.  The game is full of these meaningful but relaxed decisions and definitely benefits from multiple plays.

If one could lodge any complaints, I would say that you will find yourself shifting cards down in the forest over and over and over.  As well, the rules surrounding certain cards feel a tad involved for the lightness of the game, either that or they just aren't as clearly explained as I'd hope them to be.  The game does feel a bit heavier than the elegantly simple Jaipur but all of the different cards do really add to the depth and theme without bogging it down.  It's clear that this game was very well play-tested - from the touch of randomness and risk which I love in the Night deck and the Moon cards to the values of points versus sticks on the different mushrooms - everything seems to add choice and play value.  And the wonderfully illustrated cards and the handmade foraging sticks really do make this little game come alive.

My signed copy.  Awesome.  Just awesome.
If you've had any interest in the Kosmos' 2-player line over the past years or are even just looking for a good couples games, I'd highly recommend Morels.  It takes a game to get the hang of the different cards and how they work, but it is relaxing and fun and rewards multiple plays without ever feeling too heavy.  And to top it off, it's a lovely, high-quality production from an independent designer who rightly deserves more recognition.  And he's also a really nice guy who'll probably sign your copy, too, if you ask him nicely.

You can check out Morels and even order it here. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ideal post-secondary institutions....

If game design is your thing and you don't already have a ridiculous amount of useless degrees like me, then this post about gamer-friendly universities might help you out.  It's mostly video game-related but there is at least one instructor mentioned who makes her students play Clue to sharpen their skills (although I think could name at least a few much smarter deduction games than Clue....)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A New Kid on the Block

I want to start off by introducing myself. My name is Daryl Andrews, and I will be joining the Death of Monopoly writing team. I recently moved into the KW area, and met Eric through some mutual board gaming friends. I am exciting about the opportunity to write about great board games and events. Please check in often, share with your friends, and leave lots of comments.

Yesterday, I received an email from one of my board game heroes. I got an email from Alan Moon. Eric & I are both big fans of Mr. Moon. He is the designer of great games like: Ticket to Ride, San Marco, Airlines Europe, Oasis, Skyline 3000, and many many more great games. The email I received included access to an annual invitation-only gaming event hosted by Alan Moon. The event started about 20 years ago, and continues to this day. The Gathering of Friends started with only a handful of guests, but now includes over 300 of the top designers, publishers, and reviewers from around the world. I have heard many prototypes & early copies of games (before they are released to the public) are tested at the event. I am honoured to be invited, and look forward to the opportunity to play many games. Also, pending permission from designers, I hope to share some sneak peeks on yet-to-be-released games. However, the event is not until April 12-21, 2013. So meanwhile, I wait...

TTR meets Dominion?????

TRACK-BUILDING!!!  DECK-BUILDING!!!  The designers of Trains will have REALLY had to screw things up for me not to love it...