Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year's Renaissance

The last several years, I've hosted a big game at my house on New Year's Day.  In January 2009, we played a Wooden Ships and Iron Men fleet action.  On New Years in 2011 was a multi-player game of PanzerBlitz.  Last year we played History of the World.  This year, Keith F., Brian G., Glenn W., and W.J.G. joined me to advance the civilization and develop the markets of Europe with the epic game Age of Renaissance (designers Don Greenwood and Jared Scarborough, artists Stephen Langmead and Kurt Miller, publisher Avalon Hill).

Keith (Barcelona), Brian (Venice),
and Glenn (Paris)
(not pictured - W.J. [Genoa])
Keith chose Barcelona, Brian selected Venice, Glenn took Paris, W.J. picked Genoa, and I was left with London.  The action started early when Glenn opened with a French crusade to reclaim the Holy Land for Christian rule, but his power play attracted a Spanish-instigated Rebellion as well as English-hired Pirates.  The next few turns ran their expected course.  While securing my position in Albion and Scandinavia, I managed to advance English galleys south to establish markets down the Atlantic coast of France, around Iberia, and into the Mediterranean.  After developing Seaworthy Vessels, I secured grain markets in Seville, Sicily, and Belgrade and played the grain card for my first big pay-out.

For much of the game, the English managed to avoid the growing misery that haunted continental Europe.  The Enlightened Ruler, King Arthur, protected the British people from the effects of Mysticism that seized the Romantic populations to the south.  Whereas the Italians saw a Misery Index as high as 600 later in the game, London never exceeded 125.

Meanwhile, a well-timed English contribution to the Church led to a Papal Decree banning all advances in Exploration just as Paris and Venice had positioned themselves to invest in Overland East and cross the Dardanelles into the rich markets of the Black Sea.  The game progressed well for London, although Paris and Barcelona were not too far behind.  Just as the English developed a military advantage in armor, the Spanish simultaneously revealed the might of both stirrups and gunpowder, backing up their aggressive expansion with martial force into competitors' markets, including the Parisian holdings in the Middle East.  Suddenly Barcelona was a force to be reckoned with.

I faltered in the mid-game when I tried to do too much at once.  I wanted to monopolize both the spice and the fur trades.  I could not wrest control of the spice market in Acre from Barcelona, which had reinforced it from both Jerusalem and the Levant.  So I turned to the fur markets in the Black Sea, only to be faced with a market surplus that drove fur prices down.  I decided I needed to make sure that I could remove the surplus, so I elected not to invest in any expansion tokens so as to hold the first-player initiative.  My timing could not have been worse; just then, Barcelona sponsored Christopher Columbus and developed Ocean Navigation. I was ready to invest in Ocean Nav as well, but with no expansion tokens, the Spanish would move uncontested into the Far East.  And so Barcelona moved immediately into the gold and spice markets of India.
Late-game board position:  Paris moves on the English wool market in Edinburgh.  Note the London and
Barcelona advances in Ocean Navigation, and the low English misery compared to their European brethren.

Paris, having developed the Longbow, and seeing the threat that the Spaniards posed to parity in the European markets, declared war on Barcelona.  The gamble paid off, as four Spanish markets were turned over to the French to settle the terms of the peace treaty.

My earlier stumble turned out not to be devastating.  I upgraded my ships in the next turn, which Spain neglected to do.  Thus I was able to expand into both China and the East Indies, unchallenged by Barcelona, which could support no more overseas markets.  I was also successful in holding two spice markets in the Mediterranean.  Now the unbelievable happened.  Genoa, thinking that the card would have to be played sooner or later anyway, opened the spice market.  My windfall was insurmountable.  A Spanish plot to release plague-infested rats on the coastline of the eastern Mediterranean was too little, too late.  I was still able to play my own spice card in the same turn; even with the loss of two markets to the Black Plague, my cash position was flush.  Not even Alchemy set me back for long.
London's perspective on the Far East - not so bad from where I sit

Genoa declared War on London, but soon after, W.J. had to leave (eight and a half hours into the game), so the War was suspended as Genoa effectively entered into Chaos.  (We didn't establish how the rules actually handle an ongoing War when one of the belligerents enters Chaos.)  The rest of the game was something of a foregone conclusion, as London achieved all advances of the Renaissance in the same turn that the Epoch 3 cards were exhausted.

I really enjoy AoR, but it always takes so long to play, even when most of us have played it before.  We get to it so infrequently that every time is like the first time, re-learning the rules, re-thinking the strategies.  I remember being stunned at how fast the regulars at PrezCon can complete a game.  When you are already familiar with the flow of the game and the kinds of decisions you want to make, you don't have to re-invent them from scratch.

Another problem that I think I have with AoR is the runaway leader problem.  Strictly speaking, a good set of experienced players will ensure that the tallest blade of grass will get cut first and that no one will secure a commanding position.  But when an inexperienced player plays the a market card that gives an overwhelming advantage to an opponent, the lead grows harder to overcome.  More income and advances means more opportunities to further one's position and dominate the game even more completely.  I think that's what happened for me on Tuesday.

So I don't know when I'll get back to it again.  I don't often have the occasion to devote an entire day to a game (nor do my friends), and I'm reluctant to make a play-by-email commitment, either.  If I were more of a masochist, I might throw myself into the PrezCon lions' den again, but I already know that just wouldn't be fun.  So AoR goes back on the shelf for now, along with Third Reich and the other epic games of yore.

But what a way to kick off the new year.

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