Sunday, May 26, 2013

Shabbaton Gaming: Merkator, Hanabi, etc

My Jerusalem community spent shabbat at the Poriah youth hostel overlooking the Kinneret. The view was beautiful; unfortunately, there was a heatwave all weekend, so I spent all of Friday and shabbat inside. Still, I had a lovely shabbat with a great group of warm, spiritual, supportive people. Can't really do better than that.

Friday evening Nadine and I tried Merkator. First play for both of us. Uwe's rules are getting simpler, but the number of components in the box and the complexity of play remain voluminous. This game comes with 9 little folding boxes in which to place the roughly 400 wooden cubes of 8 colors and some additional tokens (his previous games had just as many pieces but they were just heaped onto or beside the board).

From the box, the game looks like it might be a route delivery game, but it is not. Each turn you pick a destination, take the cubes there (adding bonus cubes if you have any bonus cards for that destination), distribute cubes in other destinations, take or pay some "time tokens", and then fulfill any contracts that you have for that destination and for which you have the cubes. Fulfilling a contract gives you a new higher value contract; you keep the old one but you pay the cubes. A contract is worth its value in points at the end of the game or in money if you sell it during the game. Since you can only have 5 contracts at the beginning of your turn, you are always selling off the smaller ones.

Money is used to buy bonus cards that give you more cubes in certain destinations and "buildings" which are end scoring cards for certain conditions, like X points for a certain number or arrangement of cubes or cards.

There are two more rules, neither of which I particularly like. The first is that, on another player's turn, you can fulfill contracts at the space that he went to by paying some time counters. This means that on your turn you have to be aware of every contract of every other player and calculate not only how much you get from picking a certain place but how much every other player will get if you pick it. The second is that after every three or four time counters taken from the supply, everyone randomly loses 1 or 2 cubes. In our game we always had piles of cubes, so this didn't do much damage. If it had done damage, it would have been worse, since it simply randomly screws one person for little sensible reason.

There are some fiddly rules thrown in that look like the result of balance issues that must have arisen during play-testing. It's over when the last time counter is chosen or the first top-level contract is fulfilled. Everyone gets one more turn.

The game bogged down near the end as we had to evaluate the best net differential in points on our turn. Despite this, the game was interesting and enjoyable. As Nadine noted, there are no (or almost no) negative effects (like starvation in Agricola), which makes everything either a benefit or a bigger benefit. The calculation is very heavy; not mathematically, but cube to cube to point swapping.

As I mentioned, I didn't really like the "joining in" mechanic or the cube loss mechanic. The rule book suggests that you can play without the cube loss. I was also skeptical of the time counter mechanic; I didn't see what this added to the game, although I was always short of them and Nadine always had many of them. I'll see how this goes on the next play.

Overall, not for the squeamish, and not for the AP prone, but rewarding to see your contract levels grow turn by turn.

The next day I played and fairly quickly won a game of Chess against a 9 or 10 year old boy, who lost graciously.

Later on he joined Nadine and me as we played Magic. Nadine has a limited supply of cards for learning purposes. For some reason her decks were each 47 cards. I stripped out 7 unnecessary cards from each deck. We played and then swapped decks and played again. I won both times, but the second time was because she got mana screwed.

Some teenagers joined us and I brought out Hanabi. I had played it once at a BGG.con. This is a cooperative game where you can't see your own cards. Each turn you either give clues to the other players (the team loses a blue chip), discard a card (the team gains a blue chip), or play a card. You have to discard or play when you run out of blue chips (you start with 8). If you play a bad card, you lose a red chip (you start with 3). You win if you play 25 cards correctly. We did our best, trying to remember all the time not to look at our own cards. We totally sucked at the game and lost fairly quickly. I think we all liked it anyway.

Having taught the girls a game, they decided to teach me a game: Pounce. Everyone plays with a complete deck of cards and has 5 piles, once of which is the Pounce pile. Whenever another pile opens up, you can take a card from your Pounce pile and put it into the open spot. You can stack cards like Klondike on your own piles (black 2 on red 3, etc) or place them in ascending order on any pile in the center, like Spit. Every ace can be played to the center, so there may be a dozen or more piles in the center onto which to place cards. A pile is removed when completed with a king. Players cycle through their decks three cards at a time, repeating as required.

Toward the middle of the game, the play gets bogged down until someone manages to find a card to play, which either leads to a trickle or a flood of new cards played. In this way it's a lot like Klondike.

The game is over when someone's Pounce pile is empty for any reason. Your score is the number of cards you played during the game minus the number of cards left in your Pounce pile.

After Pounce, the girls taught me an unnamed card game that they created. It was, astonishingly, not bad; given the number of bad games that I have received to review, that's high praise. I made a suggestion for the starting positions in the game; they had designed this to be random, but I felt that a random start had the potential to be highly unfair. The rest of the game was making piles and placing blocking cards on your opponent's piles, and it worked. I hope they continue to develop it and other games.

I saw another family at the hostel, not from our group, playing Settlers of Catan and went to talk to them about it.

Lastly I played a game of Scrabble with an avid player (right after Nadine finished a game with his wife). It's really a much better experience playing off the computer; I don't like playing where you can't play a word that isn't in the dictionary (the computer won't let you), which allows you to play hundreds of sequences of letters until you happen to find one that the computer will accept. In our game, I got out a good bingo that crossed with a questionable looking word that he challenged. It was an acceptable word (YAR) so I got to go again. This time I played another questionable word that he didn't challenge. It turned out to not be an acceptable word. You can't do things like that online.

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