Wednesday, 17 June 2015

One Step From? One Step Beyond!

Players: John, Jon, James, Paul A, Paul D, Jenaid, Chris, Dan, Noel, Amanda

What makes a good game great? We all have a burgeoning designer within us whether we choose to accept it or not, a keen eye for just what a game needs in order to be slightly more refined, a touch more challenging, or just a little bit better overall. Although our taste in games is naturally subjective, and the changes we would often like to see would only devalue the game for others, there are times where a fundamental change seems so obvious to all that it is a mystery how a game got through development in the first place without it. 
Perhaps the most obvious one in the pantheon of club favourites would be the Poison tokens in Council of Verona, which should have been in the otherwise rather flaccid base game right from the off. Many others come to mind, such as the 'H' mechanic in Sentinels of the Multiverse or the River start in Carcassonne, but these are all examples of things that have already been seamlessly integrated into the original games as an afterthought. This week we delve into those other games that are one step from greatness and still lacking the one thing they need to make the grade.

Beasty Bar 
James and I set up a quick game of Beasty Bar while we were waiting for the eternal game of G54 to crunch to a conclusion. It's one of those games that starts with a very simple premise, playing 'take-that' cards to mess everybody else around, then lathers a ton of complicated stuff on the top that puts it just out of the reach of being the light and airy game it seemingly strives to be. I think it would be a lot more chaotic and fun with more than two, but just not convinced it would sit high enough in the pecking order against other games with similar intent.

7 Wonders with Cities (thanks Paul A)
7 Wonders occupies a strange place for me. I will never ask for it, but I enjoy it in the moment of playing. There was an expansion of some sort added, which probably meant more to those who've played the game to exhaustion. There was much war from John, much avoidance of war from Paul building to a satisfactory end.

Firenze (thanks James)

First game for Amanda which was unfortunate for her in the sense that she was joining a fierce rivalry between James and Noel... Still she picked up the game quickly and showed her true colours when after Noel destroyed one of her towers (with a vicious and uncalled for move) she ignored his pleas to do the same to me as some kind of retaliation... I knew there was a reason why I liked Amanda's all too rare visits

By mid stage I'd managed to create a short lead based on claiming a couple of bonus tiles... Noel saw at this stage that he was going to struggle in the long game, so coupled with the bonus card for 3/4 high towers he started to try and accelerate the end of the game. Amanda had recovered from Noel's treachery and was looking to claim some of the bonus's herself.

Suddenly the end game was in sight due to Noel's strategy... I narrowly survived the near demolition of a 7 high yellow tower and was focused on bagging any points I could get in the last few moves. Noel completed his last 3-high tower and the game was done.

Scoring was tense as although it looked like I had the lead Noel's bonus's started to add up... luckily the last element of scoring with the bonus's for the most tower in each colour helped to push me ahead and I think I won by 5 points... Noel held in his defeat like the stoic warrior he is... but I could tell it hurt ... Amanda looked on in awe at the battle she had been part of.

Kingdom Builder (thanks Paul D) 
Newcomers to IBG, Jenaid and Chris were keen to try something that they hadn't played before and were happy to take guidance on this, so Paul used it as an excuse to table Kingdom Builder which seemed to go down well.

The winning conditions in this game were Hermits (a point per individual settlements), Workers (a point per settlement next to a special hex) and Farmers (3 points for each settlement in the quadrant on the board with your least settlements - i.e. put a lot down and spread them around evenly).

The special abilities allowed players to jump existing settlements, move an existing settlement to the chosen terrain card, add a settlement if it touches three existing settlements and adding a settlement to the edge of the board.

Paul started somewhere in the middle figuring that this would be easiest to spread into the four quadrants. Chris achieved this by using horses and Jenaid with her edge of board abilities. Jenaid scooped up the most special abilities the quickest and therefore was laying settlements most rapidly. Chris found himself a little isolated in one half of the board at one stage, but spread by virtue of two horses each turn (I've never seen a double jump in Kingdom Builder).

The games looked fairly even as the end conditions approached with Jenaid's multiple extra settlement abilities allowing her her finish first. As the scores were totted up, Chris and Paul maxed on Castles and did best on Hermit points, Jenaid had the most workers on Workers and Paul and Jenaid were looking best on the Farmer front. Jenaid was first to get a final count at 57 points. Chris got there with a healthy 55 points. Paul eventually managed to count his Farmers correctly and came in at 56 points (he'd have won if his initial incorrect total was right!). So never a closer game has been before. Final scores: Jenaid 57, Paul 56, Chris 55 (actually I made the numbers up as I can't remember them, but I do remember that we were all separated by one consecutive point in that order).


Welcome to the Dungeon (thanks Paul A)

A wretched tiring week at work for me, so gaming came as a welcome relief. Dan ran away, so it was left for me to introduce Welcome to the Dungeon to Jon and John. For such a light game, I think it actually helps to have played before since we all were far too pushy and daring when setting up the dungeon. As a consequence, the winner was the only one who hadn't died. Still, a fun game, as always.

Istanbul (thanks Noel) 
Istanbul played 4 players in an hour, including a rules explanation for 2 new players (Dan and Amanda), so kudos for that. It was pretty close perhaps only because James thought we were playing to 6 gems but Dan and I would have each got our final gem on our next move. It seemed like only a couple of errant moves on our parts proved the difference to James's streamlined collecting of all the bonus tiles and then the money gem. A fine night on top of the podium for James...until Jon stitched him up in Fake Artist... 

A Fake Artist Goes To James' Face

Paul A: "A Fake Artist Goes to New York is pure genius and just what I needed. How do I draw something that is obviously a donkey, without giving away it's a donkey? Probably it was too hard for the spy, but it doesn't matter."
Dan: "The highlight of the evening was Jon's not so subtle rendition of a giant question mark when hopelessly lost with the mental scribblings he had been handed. Also see the rather scary interpretations of his clue 'James' Face'"

Also played this week: Coup Guatemala '54, Valley of the Kings

On our Boardgamegeek guild page James has initiated an open Q&A session with a new question each week. Feel free to play along at home, and even if you are not a regular IBG attendee you are more than welcome to join in with your own answers!

Last weeks question: "One Step Away from Greatness - With so many games to try and so many new ones coming out each year, those that don't quite cut it are soon to be consigned to the trade pile and largely forgotten. However, some games come within a hairs breadth of being great.

So, what would you choose to do if you were asked to redesign just one part of one game that would transform it into a keeper?

James: "My initial answer to Dan's question is to remove the surveyor from Snowdonia... Turns a good game into a great one as it will force players with limited imagination into following a proper strategy
I'm sure I'll think of something else later in the week...

Noel: "I think deciding when its ok to use your worker for the Snowdonia surveyor is still an interesting decision, as it leaves other spots for cards and resources free for everyone else to use imaginatively and more efficiently . The surveyor bonus cards do seem a bit of a misfit though, as there are only two of them meaning whoever is start player when they appear can grab them. I don't think there are any other bonus cards that people need to take as a blocking action, so not sure this is fits particularly well with the rest of the game. Perhaps if there were more surveyor bonuses that linked with other bits of the game rather than a big old straight up bonus?
For me, its TtR. I think its good but don't play it so often as a 'gateway' because its just so quiet with limited chat. I'd like something in there that causes a bit of social interaction. Not imaginative enough to work out what, I'm a Snowdonian surveyor.

Paul A: "I am always redesigning games, saying "If this was my game, I'd throw out these rules ..." Some recent examples:
* I quite enjoy Imperial Settlers but if I had my way, I'd double the icon size and eliminate the last round.
* Kingsburg is also a decent game, but I can't shake the feeling that it can turn on the roll of the invaders dice at the end of the season and whether you get lucky or not. I'd go for a more graded set of punishments: miss it by one and suffer a small hit, miss it by 3 and suffer a big one.
* As for The Adventurers: The Temple of Chac, if you die you're basically out of the game ... but still playing. I'd replace the binary death with hitpoints / injuries or something. And add a proper modular board. "

Tom: "I feel that Arctic Scavengers is a game that falls nicely inside this bracket. A very interesting take on deck building with a delightful touch of bluffing in terms of the end of turn scuffles. It's just missing one thing that I can't quite put my finger on in terms of making it a game that I am always willing to play. Perhaps a little more screwage in terms of cards like the Sniper and Saboteur? Maybe a reduction on luck in terms of Contested Resources - e.g. a Field Crew is far superior to a 3 person Tribe Family.
Dungeon Fighter: so much fun but so frustrating in terms of the die skidding across the target like Bambi on ice meaning that even throwing the die without the behind the back, under the leg nonsense is borderline impossible.
Eminent Domain - another deckbuilder. This one again has a lot going for it but Lou and I always hit the 90 minutes mark when we play which is a big minus. It feels that there is a very good game here but it just doesn't have that X Factor. Maybe it's a question of expectations and if viewed as something that should be played quickly (e.g. Race for the Galaxy) then that may be the key. It's also perhaps not helped by an unfamiliarity with the available technologies which would help guide strategy otherwise.

Paul D: "The obvious candidate for me is Machi Koro, and especially with the harbour expansion and new draw mechanism. It's such a good game, but even though I like it so much, I must admit that the card distribution and the 'only ten piles showing' mechanism do leave it somewhat unbalanced and can result in a runaway leader, with others not having done much wrong but left trailing in their wake. I'm hoping that the new 'Millionaire's Row' expansion deals with this.
An example of a game that did fall into this category but it's been sorted is Trains. It was a fun game, but the balance between the board and the cards was out of whack and missed the point of what they were trying to do by introducing the board, and so out came the Rising Sun expansion, and it's now genuinely really quite superb, instead of nearly really quite superb.
But there are also a load of games which are close to being there, but as they aren't quite, they're actually terrible. The infamous 'Kings of Mithril' falls into this camp - it was like the designers put a lot of time into it and got so close, but just didn't bother finishing it off properly, so they have a roll and move element which drags any of the good bits down into oblivion. This shows me what a tightrope games designers walk, and as board gamers we're fairly unforgiving of mistakes and anything not thought through ad infinitum will be an utter failure, however many other good bits it has. "

Dan: "Huh, I was also going to suggest Machi Koro but for completely different reasons. The problem I have is the way that you merrily play on for an hour or so then suddenly someone says "oh, I've won" and everything goes back into the box. It feels like an anticlimax to what is otherwise an alright game and I'm left with the feeling that everything I've been doing has just been rendered completely meaningless. I like the idea, the gameplay and the graphic design, but the endgame leaves me cold as I don't feel like I have anything to show for my involvement in the game other than not being the first person to get the game-winning dice roll that I needed."

Tash: "there are so, so many - but I would say one of the most interesting parts of our hobby is that, with any mechanic, there is almost always someone lurking to put those near misses right and fulfil the potential of the mechanic.
I would probably choose Antike as the near miss of all time. It was just brilliantly close to being the quick and simple civ-building/wargame that is the holy grail of one kind of boardgamer. Until we played it a few times and realised there were ways to exploit the wheel that gave a straight-up advantage to the first and second players that there was no real fix for. And a slight imbalance between the resource-building and wargame elements. But... close.

Jon: "I think that Letters from Whitechapel falls into this category for me. It's a game that I really enjoyed playing a few times, but the downtime for the player playing Jack is too much, which is only slightly remedied by turning it into a 2-player game, which then takes all the fun out of the collaborative discussions between the police players. Shame...."

This weeks question: "what are your thoughts on crowdfunding and its current place in game development? Have you backed any games on Kickstarter and the like and, if so, how did they work out?"

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