Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Indonesia, 7 Wonders, Acquire, Ivanhoe


Eitan, Emily, Nadine, and I played Indonesia. It was the first game for all of us, although Nadine and I had played through the first era once before.

We didn't finish this game, either; we had about one more round to go, so we didn't get to the last round where money scored is doubled. The money situation when we quit was fairly close, although I was behind and Nadine was in front. We also forgot that all bid money is kept for the player's score, and not returned to the bank. Otherwise, I think we got it mostly right. I'm still not sure about placing cities at the beginning of each era, as the rulebook is unclear on exactly how that works.


Indonesia is a straightforward economic game for 2-5 players, though it probably works best with 4 or 5 since it involves area control, competition for limited resources, and auctions. The board is a map of Indonesia with cities placed in various areas; more cities arrive as the game progresses. The game is played over several rounds, each of which has a number of phases: merge companies, acquire unclaimed companies, move up on one of the special tracks, and operate (expand your companies/ship goods).

Each company starts as a single business, available for free on the board, one per person per turn. You are limited in the number of companies you can hold based on how far you've moved up on the slots track.

There are two type of companies: shipping and production. The production companies produce any of four types of goods. Each city on the board needs a single good of each type; after a city receives one good of each type, it now needs two (additional) goods of each type, etc. To get goods, some production company has to create the good and some shipping company has to have a route between the production company and the city. The owner of the production company nets money for sending the good, but pays the owner of the shipping company some money for each space used to ship; the further away from the city, the more paid to the shipper. Shipping to a city is mandatory if the city needs the good and the company produces the good and the shipping company connects them. You may actually lose money shipping the good, paying more to the shipping company than you make in the sale.

Therefore, if you're producing, you want to be the one controlling both the production AND the shipping line between the production and several cities (letting other players ship what is needed to the other cities around the board) OR you want your production close to several cities so that you are not paying more in shipping than what you are earning for the goods. In fact, you want to be making more than double what you are paying to ship, or else the shipping company will be making more than you and win the game; and the shipping company will be making money on several players' turns.

Naturally, if you control shipping, you want to be the only one with a route between cities and far off production locations.

This is all very interesting at the beginning of the game, when there are not too many production companies and shipping lines do not extend too far, and you may influence the competition in the shipping companies to create routes for you. Unfortunately, close to the end of the game, this process becomes not only tedious (which would be bad enough) but foregone if the shipping company has become a monopoly. You can spend a half hour calculating just by how much the shipper is going to beat you. Our game was fairly close in terms of money near the end, but the remaining game play wasn't a matter of what good decisions were left to take; the decisions were trivial. It was simply a matter of calculating hundreds of additions and subtractions to arrive at the trivial answers. Which is not what I would call interesting.

The weakness lies in that mergers are a) forced, and b) irreversible. Once a merger is called between two companies, the company will be merged; the only thing left to determine is who gets the resulting company. Since merged companies can't be unmerged, and there are not sufficient shipping companies to provide any real competition once shipping companies merge, the rest of the decisions are about merging production companies - which holds some interest, but is also fairly trivial once the game is near completion, and operations - which are entirely trivial but cumbersome, as mentioned above.

Like other Splotter games, the game has some great ideas but needs to be refined just a bit more. The initial acquisitions and decisions about how to increase on the tracks is fun and challenging: do you go for more expansion, more slots, better shipping capacity, turn order? The goods delivery works well until about 2/3 of the way into the game. The mergers are half good - merging is a good mechanic, but it lacks the ability to defend against merging and to split merged companies. The choice of shipping vs production, and which goods to produce and when to merge rice and spice into a new good (meals) is good. The game overstays its welcome by 20%, and is unnecessarily complicated in terms of math and fractions ("the bid starts at 140 and increases in values of 7; you get 2/7 of the bid, and you get 5/7" "How much is 5/7 of 243?").

The map looks pretty, but is nearly non-functional with poorly demarcated borders between map sections and sections too small to contain the good markers, making a mess as production fields grow and goods get delivered to the cities. And, like many pick up and deliver games, there is an element of king-making when there isn't a monopoly.

Ok, so all of that is after one play. I made a huge mistake calling for the merger of two shipping companies, one of which I owned, when I didn't have enough money to top the high bid. Getting half the money in no way compensated for the loss of the company and its future monopolistic income, and so I pretty much lost the game at that moment. Perhaps all I'm saying is that a poor play(er) can lose or throw the game in an instant and then you'll be bored for the remainder of the game. Which is not necessarily a detraction for when the game is played between equal, experienced players. Just be sure that you like spending more time adding, subtracting, and dividing numbers than you do making actual decisions.


On Tuesday evening I made my first visit to the game club in Raanana. The club is run by Ellis, who made his first visit to my Jerusalem game club on Games Day on Passover.

Ellis has several hundred board games in his basement, most of them clean spanking copies of war games, but also a smaller shelf or two of Euro games (he has as many Euros as I have games altogether). Five of us played: Ellis, Jon (me), Abraham (former JSGC member who moved to Raanana), Peleg (who also came for Games Day), and H-something (forgot his name, starts with an H).

First up was 7 Wonders. First play for everyone except for me, and I had played only once. I mostly taught, with Ellis filling in the details (he actually had read the rules, while I hadn't).

7 Wonders looks like a big fat Civilization-like board game from the outside of the box, but in fact is as quick and simple as Fairy Tale or Dominion. It's a card game with 3 booster drafts of 7 cards each. Pick a card, play the card, pass the rest to the player on your left. The cards are all non-interactive: no attacks, no thefts, no special turns or actions, no nothing. Just plunk the card down and move on. The only interactive element is that, in some cases, a) the value of your card might depend on what one of your neighbors' has built, or b) you may only be able to play a card if one of your neighbors played some other card, first.

Each card either "produces" a resource, or provides points ala Ra: straight points, points in sets, points based on the cards you or your neighbor has played, points in comparison to how many cards of that type your neighbors have played (that's as far as combat goes in this game), or money to "buy resources" from your neighbors. If you don't have the resources that you need to play a card, you can pay a neighbor for that resource if they produce it (they don't lose it when you buy it; you just also get to use it). Cards are free if you already produce all the resources you need for the card, or if you've already played a card that precedes it in a kind of build path.

There are three "ages" (i.e. sets of 7 cards). Draft and build six of them, toss out the last. Do this three times. At the end of each age, compare the "combat" points and give out a few points. At the end of the game, give out more combat points (now actually worth something) and all the rest of the points. The winner has the most points.

Is it fun? Yes, it's fun. The game is balanced in many ways, many paths to victory. And, unlike other games where it simply doesn't matter which path you take, here your path is constrained based on the cards you are dealt and passed. You have a limited set of interesting choices, and your success is based partly on your neighbor having to choose whether to advance his own points and pass you what you need or block you, probably to his own detriment. Even his ability to block you is constrained: you can always start on a new path without losing what you've already played (maybe a little loss for switching, but not much), and each player can only play one of any type of card.

The game's shortcoming is, other than the lack of any interesting complications or confrontations, that as each player's tableau grows, you have to continuously check what your neighbors have played (only the two immediately on either side of you, not your opponents across the table) in order to know how they will benefit with what you pass them. You also have to continuously check your own tableau; you can play certain cards for free if you've already played other cards, but the information for this is based on the name of the card and a little reminder at the top and bottom of the appropriate cards. Until you get the game down, you will constantly refer back and forth between the card names.

In my last game, I concentrated on green card sets and didn't do spectacularly well. This time I concentrated on brown resources and still didn't do spectacularly well; in fact I mostly helped my neighbors. Peleg won by getting a decent set of just about everything. I don't know how.

We then played Acquire. First game for some of them, but Ellis and I had each played many times. Neither of us won, however; H-something did. Acquire remains a fun game, even after 50 years. I lost because I concentrated too much on outlying chains; I did well, with second place in several important chains. But I had nothing at all in the major end-game chain, and no cash for a few turns in mid-game.

Lastly we played Ivanhoe. First play for me, and I think second play for one of the other guys. I had never heard of it, but as soon as I saw that it was a card game designed by Knizia I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for: set collection or stacking, colored chips, little in the way of theme, a few action cards.

Ivanhoe is a perfect example of a Knizia game. There are five colors. One is led, and you either "fight" trying to beat all previously played sets until all but one player gives up, or you withdraw. If you win the round, you gain a chip of that color. If you win in purple, you can gain a chip in any color. Special cards affect cards already played during the round, white cards can be used for any battle, etc. Very light, entirely theme-less (overlaid with something about jousts and Ivanhoe, of course).

Ellis won before anyone else had collected more than a single chip, and I think only one other person had even managed to do that. Very luck dependent, which is ok for a light game, but this wouldn't be my first choice for a filler. I'd play again to see if I could do a little better, however.
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