Saturday, May 13, 2006

Weekend Gaming

I had high gaming expectations for the weekend, since my guests included Nadine from the game group, Mace and his three kids who are also gamers, and three game-curious students of Rachel's.

Mace and the kids arrived before lunch, and while waiting for Rachel to return from shul, we started a few games. The kids played Settlers of Catan, which disintegrated into some sort of fight by the time lunch started. Meanwhile, I introduced Mace to Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation.

Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation

I explained the game and took the dark pieces, while Mace fretted over the seeming imbalance of forces arrayed against him. Then he waltzed into the dark forces with Aragorn and proceeded to wreak havoc with a series of well-timed card choices.

Saruman managed to make a small comeback by killing a few lost Hobbits, but I was still down to three pieces late in the game. Fortunately, they were close to the Shire. We each had two cards left. He had a 1 and a 5, while I had a 3 and "ignore text on his card", which was effectively a 0.

I made the mistake of flying into the Shire with my Nazgul. I played my 3, but if he had responded with his 5, the game would have been over, with me having no way of stopping Frodo from waltzing into Mordor. But he played his 1. I was now able to walk into the Shire faster than he could get to Mordor. Mace said that he had forgotten about that alternate win situation, so we split the win.

El Caballero

Nadine, Mace, Shachar, and I sat down to play this little cousin of El Grande. It holds more similarity with Carcassonne, however. It's much better than the latter (which I think is good), but nowhere near the former at first glance.

The game consists of a number of land/water tiles, eight caballero tiles for each player, some ship markers, and some castillo markers. The caballero tiles are identical, and are all numbered 1-4 around the sides on one side of the tile, and 5-8 on the other side.

During the game, the map builds in the center of the board, consisting of both land/water tiles and your caballero tiles. Ship and castillo markers are placed onto your scoring tiles, ship tokens on the side of a tile covering a number, and castillo markers in the center of the tile.

Like other games of this sort, let's first start with the scoring rules, after which the mechanics will make more sense. There are two scoring rounds, after the fourth and seventh round. During scoring, for any water area touched by your caballero tile, you score the number of water tiles in the area times the number of ship tokens on your caballero tile adjacent to the area. For any land area touching your scoring marker, you score double its size if you have the highest numerical value on the sides of your caballero tiles adjacent to the area, single if second highest, or nothing at all.

Which is to say that water areas share all points without any conflict, and land areas must be contested.

Each round, you all play cards for bidding, which indicate both the order you play during the round and the number of caballeros you have to play with that round (you may also have some remaining caballeros from previous rounds). During your turn, you adjust your caballero count according to your bid card (using any spare caballero tiles to keep count), must place a tile on the board, may adjust the position of caballero tiles already in place or may add new ones to the board, by paying for these actions from your caballero supply. You may also deduct caballeros to add ships or castillos to your caballero tiles in play. Castillo tokens "protect" your caballero investments, as follows.

All caballero tiles can only have one face touching land. If a tile is placed that causes the tile to have two faces touching land, the caballero tile is lost. If you have a castillo on the tile, the invested caballeros and any ships on the tile are returned to your court; otherwise, they are returned to the general supply.

So the basic tactics of the game are to ensure that no one can place tiles so as to knock away your existing caballero tiles in place. The basic strategies are to achieve high scoring water areas or control of high scoring land areas.

There is more control here regarding tile selection than in Carcassonne, both because you select your tile from a pool of face up tiles instead of picking from the draw pile, and because you auction to determine the turn order in selecting these tiles. But the geometry of the available tiles can still make the difference between being able to secure an area or not.

Still, as I liked Carcassonne (actually, Carcassonne H&G), I like El Caballero. It is certainly a more substantial game, with a great many more options to do on your round, and some interesting tactical side-effects owing to the way the rotation of the caballero tiles interact on the board. I wouldn't pay top dollar for it, however. If you don't like Carcassonne, I can't see liking this game that much more. OTOH, Nadine likes the game, and didn't like Carcassonne, so there you go.

In our game, we were only able to play until the end of round four before Nadine had to go. I held a marginal lead at that point. Nadine had secured some water points, but I was able to secure the largest land area in a way that just barely kept both Mace and Shachar at bay, although it took a long time to convince them that this was so.

Amun Re, Yinsh, By Hook or By Crook

While we were playing El Caballero, Rachel's students decided that Amun Re was the coolest looking first Eurogame to play. And had a very good time. They pretty much got the hang of it by the end of the first round, and happily played to the end with out any major problems. The one who received the most cash at mid-game ended up winning at the end.

Two of them then played a game of Yinsh while some of us went for a walk. When we came back, the Yinsh players had taken out By Hook or By Crook. I warned them that the game wasn't up to the standards of the other games they had seen, but we played anyway. I took the game, and they both pretty much agreed with my assessment by the end of it.

Tadhg Kelly, on his video gaming blog particleblog, asserts that an interviewer can determine if a candidate is a good video game designer by sticking him in a room for four hours with a blank deck of cards, some dice, and some tokens and asking him or her to create a unique and enjoyable game from scratch.

"If the game that he invents is fun (or potentially fun), then he has talent. If it is not, then he does not."

Ah, if only it were that easy to create a good game. I wonder who retains the rights to these interview creations.


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