Saturday, October 20, 2012

Shabbat Gaming

Eitan, Emily, and Nadine came to Raanana for shabbat. We played at Abraham and Sarah's on Friday night. For Sat lunch and games, Elli and Susan joined us at my house.

Friday night Abraham, Eitan, Emily, Nadine, and I ran though a few rounds of Caylus Magna Carta, the card game version of the board game Caylus. First play for everyone. Nadine and I teamed up, and we only played through three rounds so as to get the idea.

Caylus the board game is a worker placement game with complicated moving parts. Five different colors of cubes, five different colors of buildings, dozens of building types, tons of little interactions. There is a series of favor tracks, castle tracks, turn order and passing order tracks, and so on. You have to get these cubes to get that building to play on this building to get these cubes (and money) to get that building to get one of these buildings. Each building needs more cash and or cubes.

I find Caylus to be too long and finicky for what it is, which is a decent worker placement game. And I'm not thrilled about the provost mechanic, over which you sometimes have little control. But it's ok as a two or three player game. More than that and I'll bring a book to the table and read while waiting for everyone else to think through their turns: I'll probably lose, but there's a limit to how much time I'm willing to invest in figuring out the right move. Too often a designer mistakes "complicated" for "strategic".

Caylus Magna Carta appears to clear up some of the problems with the original board game. It dispenses with the bailiff (the other white guy), the favors, the having to play in the castle, the other half a dozen irrelevant buildings like turn order, and so on. Instead it introduces a random card draw - annoying, but it's not clear that some cards are necessarily better than other cards, so no complaint.

CMC appears to be shorter and play quicker, while preserving the basic worker placement, cube collection, and building upgrade mechanisms. We had finished the first phase of the castle by turn three.

I had a green building in play, but was well away from getting a blue one. I'm wondering how likely I would have been able to get out one or two blue buildings by the time the players concentrating on building the castle would have been able to end the game. I suspect not very likely, which makes me question the viability of pursuing blue buildings altogether. On the other hand, I have to trust that the game isn't THAT badly imbalanced. So we'll see.

First player has a huge advantage, being the only one with easy access to stone on the first round. In Caylus, the first player advantage is taken care of by giving successively more money to the other players in turn order. It seems patently obvious that this should be the rule in this game, as well. Abraham went first and, as a result of turn order, he was killing us by the end of the first, second, and third rounds. Maybe I misread something in the rules.

Still, I'm willing to give it a full try, especially as the turn order problem is easily solvable. The game still has the provost, a mechanic that kind of works but I don't really like.

After lunch, Ellis, Susan, Eitan, and Emily played Taj Mahal. I quickly taught them the game, although some of them had played once before. I didn't catch the final scores. Everyone seemed to get the hang of it.

Abraham went out for a short time, so Nadine, Sarah, and I played Through the Desert while waiting for him to return. TtD is a camel placement game where you extend your five camel trains (only two placements each turn) to touch oases and cordon off areas of the board before other people can block you. It has several different avenues for scoring points.

Nadine had played only once before, a long while ago. Sarah gave her a series of rules reminders in no particular order. I could have reminded Nadine about certain scoring opportunities to remember during play, but I didn't, so I squeaked out a victory over the two of them (71, 69, 66).

Abraham returned and the four of us played Tobago. First play for Abraham and Sarah. It's been a while since either Nadine or I played. We removed the curses before starting. This decrease one of the unfair luck elements, though it also allows for very long treasure maps to grow.

Tobago has a nifty card play mechanic: you are hunting for four treasures on an island . Each card indicates a condition about a treasure, and you can play the card onto any of the four treasure hint piles. Each card placed om a treasure hint pile has to narrow the possible locations on the board at which that treasure might be located. So one card might say "Not on in the biggest mountain range" and the next might say "within two spaces of a hut"; both of these cards played to the same treasure hint pile mean that that treasure must be located somewhere on the board at a location that satisfies both of these conditions. Players continue playing cards until only a single possible locations remains, at which point whomever wants to can (instead of playing a card) pick up the treasure. The loot is then divided among the person who picked it up and all players who have played cards to that treasure, one share per card played. After treasures are located, amulets that give free turns or other benefits appear on the island at known but changing locations.

Nadine was sure that concentrating on getting amulets was the key to victory, so she went straight to a point on the board where an amulet was going to appear. After the first treasure scoring, she was no longer sure about this, since it took time to get the amulets in return for which she scored less points. I don't know. I think giving up a turn now for utility later can be worthwhile, but it depends on the circumstances.

Nadine's was the only amulet collected after the first treasure, so there were five amulets on the board after the second one. I picked up one, then used it to pick up the second, and so on all the way across the board, taking five amulets and using four of them. I wouldn't call the amulet mechanic broken, but I don't really like things that can be collected without limit, used without limit, and give you entire turns for free. It disrupts too much of the game.

I'm also not happy with the "last player who collects a treasure starts the next one" rule, since the last person to collect a treasure is often the one who scored most, rather than least, and so doesn't deserve this arbitrary advantage. I think this rule was meant to benefit the loser; I could be wrong. It doesn't, in any case.

What I love about the game is the card play mechanic; even though the game is fairly dull otherwise, the card play is great. It would make a great solo puzzle game of some kind.

Update: I forgot that Emily and Eitan played a few games of Saikoro. Too bad the company that made the game went out of business. Still a cute game.
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