Sunday, May 08, 2011

Shabbat Gaming

Nadine and Elisheva (formerly Ksenia) came over for some afternoon gaming; we had invited a few others, but they didn't show up.

I took out Sumeria, read the rules, and we all played our first game. The game play is simple enough that I think we only got one rule wrong, which was turn order in each round. When I read the rules, I thought that the last player in each round was the one with the least number of people in the new "first place" province, but upon rereading it looks like it should really be the old "first place" province. I don't know how much of a difference that made.

Sumeria was the final game published by Reiver Games, the publisher who also published my game It's Alive (of which a few copies are still available). Sumeria is a fake-themed abstract, much like many modern light Euros. Each player has a number of pieces that he places on, or moves around, the board, the object of which is to score the most points over a series of rounds. In Sumeria's case, it is an area control game, with each placement or move not only establishing further control in an area but also raising or lowering that area in scoring order.

Each player gets three moves over the course of six rounds. At the end of each round, only the first three provinces in the pecking order score anything at all, and only the first or second place players in these provinces score. Scoring players collect chips in one of four colors. At the end of the game, your score is the triangular number according to the number of chips you have in each color (1 chip = 1, 2 chips = 3, 3 chips = 6, etc). Between each round, the scoring provinces are placed last and the other five provinces slide up the order.

On your turn, you can place a piece from your supply onto any empty space or move a piece one space or over any other pieces landing in the first empty space. You can also remove a piece from the board back to your supply. Whenever you move into a province, that province moves up in the scoring queue. When you remove a piece from a province, that province moves down in the scoring queue.

The game lends itself to a number of tactical considerations. You have to have a piece in a province in order to be able to remove it from that province. When you move a piece, you can move the farthest one in a line of pieces, thus maintaining an unbroken link of pieces, or you can move one from the middle of the line, which prevents other pieces farther away in the line from moving to where you just moved (since they must land on the first open space). The paths on the board seem random, but you quickly realize that every province is mapped out exactly the same.

There is, however, almost zero strategy, from what I can see. Provinces become blocked all too quickly, and once full of pieces, hard to manipulate in the rankings unless you can manipulate some other province to swap with it. With only three actions per round, this can be hard to do. You are far better off spreading yourself around the board for the flexibility of being able to effect swaps than you are concentrating in one area, which leaves you essentially powerless; you won't even score those areas in which you concentrated, because others will swap your areas out of scoring. That's what happened to Elisheva.

The game's muted picture that provides zero theme might bother some people. It's light with little in the way of anything new happening each round, although points grow as you collect chip sets; this is not a bad thing, since the rules feel almost natural. Some (like me) might have liked to have seen a little more variation in city effects, special abilities, board arrangement, or something, to add a little more in the way of surprises.

Nevertheless, the game works and is what it is, which is achievement enough for a quick game from a small publisher. I would play it again. I'm curious to see how the game holds up after a few playings.

Nadine and I came very close; I was 11 points ahead of her. Elisheva was many, many points behind both of us.

We then played Puerto Rico. Elisheva had played once before, long ago, and I had to reteach her. We helped her during the game. I started off rather weakly, but gained strength with a coffee monopoly; Nadine not only let me keep my monopoly but let me trade coffee with two coins on the trader at least twice. She was doing quite well, otherwise. Near the end of the game she had a Large Warehouse which she had bought simply for the points. She ended up using it, and, combined with her Harbor, it netted her a 9 point shipping after everyone else had no barrels to ship.

I squeaked a win over that, 55 to 52, with Elisheva at 44.
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