Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 Board Game Review – Part 1

I’m back from Lone Star Gaming Fest again, four days of nothing but boardgaming.  This year we were at a new hotel as the previous one was remodeling (something known about), but part of that remodeling was a reduction in conference space by half (something found out only at the end of summer).  The new facilities were good physically, but the hotel had air conditioning issues, especially during the middle of the day.  My room was OK, but the conference room got warm and the public men’s room was as warm and humid as an indoor pool, including the chlorine smell.

(Note: Yes, it was New Year’s weekend and we are in the northern hemisphere.  Air conditioning was none-the-less necessary and I spent the weekend in t-shirts and shorts, wearing flip flops.  Welcome to Houston “winters”.)

That aside, it was a great con and I had the chance to play several games I wanted to check out and several games I’d never hear of.  Here is my first set of reviews of the games I played at the convention, all for your edification.

Hamster Wheel (2-4 players)
This is a German game and is actually named Hamsterrolle.  Sadly, it is out of print at the moment, which will make it more difficult to track down a copy and I want one.  The game is a block balancing game where you are trying to be the first person out of blocks.  The trick is that you are balancing the blocks on short ledges INSIDE a wooden wheel about a foot in diameter.  Everyone has to put them on the same side, which causes the wheel to roll, moving along the table as each new piece is added.  As previously added pieces climb the “backside” of the wheel, they will eventually fall out.  If that happens after you place your piece, you get all the pieces that fell out of the wheel.  Now you have to place those as well before going out.

It sounds simple and at its core it is, but the strategy comes from placing your next piece in a way that forces the next player to have to play on the next “spoke” up, a spoke that might be angled so their piece will not actually stay or, even better, cause several other pieces to fall when the wheel rolls.

We played on a table with a table cloth, which I think slows the wheel from turning.  On a hard surface, the wheel should roll easier, making the game more challenging and jerk-moves even jerkier.

All the components are made of wood and consist of the wheel and four sets of seven pieces, each piece in a set a different color and shape (although 5 of the 7 are planks of varying lengths).

Inca Empire (3-4 players)
This was a Christmas gift from my in-laws.  I saw a picture of the board when doing a Google image search for something else and new I needed to own it, so I put it on my Christmas list.  The game did not disappoint, although we were doing scoring wrong the first time we were playing, which soured my wife on the game.  The second time I played it, we did the scoring correctly and it made a big difference.  Turn order changes at set point in the game and is set so the person losing goes first and the person winning goes last.  Early in the game, going last can suck.  Later in the game, there is some advantage to going last.

Inca Empire is mostly about placing sticks (one-inch long wooden pieces) on the board to claim paths from the starting area to city sites (where you can build cities and then temples on cities, all for points), outpost sites (where you can build outposts for points), and to territories to conqueror (which both score points and contain the city and outpost sites you want to build on).  You can also build terraces which grant a single victory point each, but also provide more workers.  Conquered territories provide one to three workers and zero to four victory points based on the markers randomly placed on them (face down) at the beginning of the game.

The game plays over four eras, each era having one to three rounds with scoring at the end of each round (except the first round, but that is an exception).  The rounds have a number of phases based on the era with four types of phases: Inca Phase (get workers), Sun Phase (place sun card, which help and hinder, on the Sun Board - more on this later), Worker Phase (where things get done), and the Supa Inca Phase (at the end of the each round and when scoring happens).  The whole thing is laid out on the board with a piece marking the current phase, so players can easily see what phase is coming up next and how long the game has.  The board has a three-player side and a four-player side, the only difference being the starting territory being split for three or four players.

This is essentially a rail building game with an Incan theme, but it has the right level of complexity that makes it fun to play without being overwhelming for new players.  Once cities, temples, and outposts are built and scored, any player can build a path to them and get points for them, but only one path per link on the board, so strategy involves playing paths to get you what you want, but make it difficult for others to access thing you built.  The points for building is better than the points for merely being connected during the Supa Inca phase, so building is very worthwhile.

The Sun Cards, as stated, do either something good or something bad and you have a hand of three of them to select from during the Sun Phase.  The tricky part is that you play them on the Sun Board in turn order and the Sun Board is divided up into sections equal to the number of players, each section bordered by two different player colors, and limited to on Sun card play per section each Sun Phase.  This means any card you play will always effect two players, for good or ill, and you might not be able to play that good card so it affects you if you are late in the turn order.

I’ve now played two games of this with three players and it plays well (especially when you do the scoring correctly).  I look forward to playing it again with four players.

Defenders of the Realm (1-4 players)
Defenders of the Realm is Pandemic with a fantasy theme and dice rolling for movement and fighting minions (what would be disease cubes in Pandemic).  Instead of curing each disease, you have to fight the general leading each villain faction, each of whom is slowly marching in to Monarch City, a space in the center of the board.  The amount of dice you roll to attack the generals is based on what cards you discard and you have to discard cards with the correct color.  Then you roll the dice and count how many dice beat a target number (based on which general).  Then you check to see if you rolled enough successes to actually kill the general, which requires about seven or eight successes.

As per a collaborative game, there are many ways to loose.  If one of the generals gets to Monarch City, the players lose.  If you run out of minions of any color, the players lose.  When you reach critical minion mass in a place (based on number of counters, not per color) you place a taint counter AND spread minion counters to adjacent areas.  If you run out of taint counters, the players lose.  The only way to win is to defeat all four enemy generals.

As you may be able to guess from my short summary, I am not a fan of this game.  The dice mechanism just makes the game take longer and can be frustrating, especially against the generals.  There is a ton of free material for this game online from the designer, but after playing it and getting a feel for it, I think I’ll pass.

Martian Dice (2-however many players you have)
Martian Dice is a dice rolling game where you are Martians gathering samples from “Earth”, trying to determine who is actually in charge there: the chickens, the cows, or the humans.  You roll all 13 dice at the start of your turn, each die having one tank, one human, one chicken, one cow , and two death rays.  You set aside tanks (which are bad for you) and then select all the dice showing one of the other four symbols (chickens, cows, humans, death rays).  Set aside the tanks and whichever set you chose and decide: stop here or roll again.  If you roll again, you re-roll the dice you did not set aside.  If you stop, you check to see if you score points.  To score points, you have to have death rays equal to or more than in number than tanks.  If you do, the other dice score one point each with a bonus of three point if you collected at least one each of the chickens, cows, and humans.

To complicate things slightly, after you roll and set aside any tanks you just rolled, you cannot keep dice matching dice you previously kept (except death rays, which you can always choose).  Stated another way, if you kept humans on the last roll, you cannot select humans for the rest of this turn.  If you every roll dice and the only things you rolled are things you already have (except tanks, which are bad, and death rays, which are an excepting), you stop rolling and score.

This is fun and quick and plays anywhere you have a rolling surface.  The one house rule I’m thinking about adding states that any death rays you keep over the number of tanks you have score one point each.  I’ve seen folks with 2-3 tanks and eight or more death rays because of how the dice rolled.

As an aside, I strongly recommend Zombie Dice from Steve Jackson Games.  A similar style game and the game Martian Dice wanted to be without getting sued.  You roll three dice at a time and the dice not in use stay in the cup.  Dice have brains, footprints, or shotgun blasts.  How many of each depends upon the color of the dice: red dice have 1 brain, 2 feet, and 3 shotgun blasts; yellow dice have two of each; and green dice have 3 brains, two feet, and 1 shotgun blast.  There are three red dice, four yellow dice, and six green dice and you blindly draw dice from the cup, so you are never certain what you are going to get.  When you roll, you set aside brains to one side and shotgun blast to the other, footprints are kept for re-rolling.  Then you can stop or draw dice (until you have three) and roll again.  If you accumulate three or more shotgun blasts you fail that turn, put the dice back in the cup, and pass the cup to the next player.  If you stop, you score the brains you have accumulated this turn, put the dice back in the cup, and pass the cup to the next player.  When one player gets to 13 or more points, everyone else has one last round to beat the leaders score or lose.

Next Up:
Endeavor, Shogun, Age of Steam, Fortune & Glory, and Factory Fun

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