Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Showing posts with label Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Review. Show all posts

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Papal Pilgrimage: A preview of the sequel to Avignon

The microgame format that Love Letter popularized poses a considerable design challenge.  Fewer cards mean players face statistically fewer different situations.  Pared down to a skeletal structure, a microgame really has to make every card significant and capitalize on every opportunity for interaction. John du Bois introduced a clever two-player tug-of-war in this format with the 2016 Button Shy game Avignon: A Clash of Popes.  To that tight little design Button Shy Games is Kickstarting a sequel, Avignon: Pilgrimage, that introduces new characters that can stand alone as a separate game or that players can mix in with the original Avignon for a variety of interactions.

The games are set during the Western Schism of the Catholic Church in the late 14th century, when rival popes in Avignon and Rome sought to wrest control of the Church from one another.  Each player represents one of the papal factions recruiting key figures into the supporting congregation of Avignon or Rome to solidify that pope's control.  

Avignon in both its original format and its sequel constitutes a logic puzzle of card interactions with the goal of moving character cards to one's own side of the table.  Available actions are simple.  The complexity comes in the individual character card "Petition" actions that manipulate the positions of cards and the victory conditions.  The new sequel, Avignon: Pilgrimage, introduces a number of mechanics relying on the relative positions of other characters on the table and thereby adds a new layer of interactive depth.

The five locations on the road to papal legitimacy
between Avignon and Rome.  The Ascetic is shown in
Genoa, which is where he really wants to be.
The game consists of twelve cards, each depicting one of six characters.  Five cards are dealt in a row on the table between the players.  The starting row represents Genoa.  A card can be moved from Genoa in one direction to Florence, to Rome, and then to the Roman player's congregation.  Or it can move from Genoa in the other direction to Nice, to Avignon, and then to the Avignon player's congregation.  The goal is to collect three characters into one's own congregation - or to meet the special victory condition of a character in play.

Available actions to a player are to pull a character one space closer, to push a character one space further, to excommunicate a character (removing it from its location and replacing it with another character from the draw deck), or to petition a character (activating its special ability).  The crucial rule in Avignon is that although a player takes two actions per turn, they must be different actions.  So only one character can be petitioned for its special effect; only one character can be pulled; only one character can be excommunicated.  So good game play consists of recognizing and implementing the right combinations of actions to gain ground on the opponent in a lasting way.

Some Pilgrimage characters seem more interesting than others.  Petitioning the Courtesan pulls a character whose position is closer to the opponent than is the Courtesan; so her position generally benefits the player to whom she is closer.  The Canonist allows switching the positions of two characters, then pulling one and pushing the other.  Petitioning the Nuncio pushes him one space and then pulls all other characters that are in his new location - essentially having him trade places with everyone else in that location.  

Other characters seem less interesting.  Petitioning the Vicar pushes a Vicar (or Bishop from the original Avignon) two spaces, excommunicates another character, and pulls that character one space - a move that seems to make a considerable position sacrifice in exchange for a random character replacement.  An Ascetic ending the turn in Rome or Avignon automatically moves one space closer to Genoa, making him particularly difficult to recruit (and thereby less interesting).  The Scribe allows a player whose turn starts with the Scribe in Genoa to win with only two characters in his or her congregation.  This effect can be a game-ending (and random-feeling) consequence of pulling a character into one's congregation only to see that character replaced by the Scribe in Genoa to start the opponent's turn.

Having played Avignon: Clash of Popes and Avignon: Pilgrimage separately, I look forward to mixing them together and seeing the cards from both sets interact with each other.  I expect the logical conundrums to deepen even further, and I always enjoy when a small-footprint game turns into a little brain-cell-burner.

Unlike many microgames, there is no hidden information (beyond the draw deck) and no bluffing, so this is not a social game of getting inside the opponent's head.  People who like quick microgames with real logic challenges will like both Avignon games.  Pilgrimage by itself is a bit more dynamic but also a bit uneven relative to the original.  All in all there is a lot of game in this small footprint.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Getting to Know "The Grid"

Games in some ways, like people, have personalities.  Some, like Ticket to Ride, are friendly, fun, and easy to get to know.  Others, like Two Rooms and a Boom, are gregarious and a little crazy; if you can handle the energy, they are very entertaining.  Some are obtuse and a little intimidating, like a Phil Eklund simulation or a heavy wargame.  And some are subtle, reserved, and a little introverted; they don't want to show you everything right away, and if you base your opinion on a first impression, you'll miss what's hidden underneath.

The Mexican industrial design studio Left has devised a unique abstract tile placement game with the understated title, "The Grid Game." This set of 88 hexagonal tiles in a muted color palette has a quiet beauty, like a southwestern desert at sunset.  And it has a subtlety of gameplay that only emerges after patient peeling away of layers. 

Designed by Estudio Victor Aleman, each hexagonal wooden tile is made from three rhomboid pieces, each one of seven colors.  Players will start with a set of randomly selected tiles and play them one at a time to an array, with the constraint that tiles may only touch if they match in color.  After the second tile is placed, subsequently played tiles must touch two other tiles, again matching colors on the touching sides. 

Interestingly, the tiles are cut in such a way that the corners where two rhomboid pieces meet are "taller" (i.e. stand higher above the table) than do the corners that belong to only one rhomboid piece.  This vertical height of the different corners is important, because placing a tile is further constrained by having the touching corners match in height as well.  It took a few plays for me to discover that this height restriction is specifically designed so that every hexagonal tile after the first one has only three legal orientations rather than six.  This restriction has the nifty effect of ensuring that no tile placement results in a theoretically unplayable adjacent space.

Clockwise from left: Black-sided tile
(5 pts), one-color tile (3 pts), two-
color tile (2 pts), three-color tile (1 pt)
There are several categories of tiles - those with three different colors, those with two rhomboids of one color and one of a second color, those that are all one color, and a separate category for those having two black rhomboids.  The tiles with black rhomboids are unique in that no tile - not even another black-sided tile - may touch the black side of another tile when placed.   

Sounds simple enough - place tiles to match colored sides.  Easy as Carcassonne, right?  In fact, at the start of the game, each player has many tiles from which to choose, so the early game is especially straightforward.  And the objective is simply to get rid of all your tiles.  If a player has no playable tile, the turn passes to the next player.  So the goal, really, is to be able to play a tile every turn and so to run out first.  If the game reaches the point where no one has a playable tile, then players score points based on the tiles they have left, and fewest points wins.

By the second play, it emerges that the tiles that are worth the most points - i.e. the ones you don't want to be stuck with - are the hardest to play.  Black-sided tiles are worth five points - huge in this game - and can only be played against two tiles of a specific color and with no other adjacencies.  Tiles that are all one color are worth a hefty three points but are almost as difficult as black-sided tiles to play.  So there is a tendency to unload black-sided tiles as soon after the second round as possible, and one-colored tiles right away as well.  The result can be a very difficult field to play, and in fact our second game ended very quickly when the entire field was essentially blocked with black-sided tiles around the entire periphery, as we each tried to unload black-sided tiles as fast as possible.

At this point I was ready to write off the game as crippled by a negative feedback loop, thinking that the point values motivated players to render the field unplayable quickly by unloading the high-value tiles as quickly as possible.  Our third play, however, revealed that the game can take a completely different direction, when I was able to play all my tiles without a pass.  Gameplay becomes less ad hoc, and attention becomes more focused on how many of which colors a player has - and which colors an opponent is short on.  Further reflection suggests that the tile mix has everything to do with the course of the game, so that a winning strategy can vary with the early game circumstances.  Now the players must discern which direction to take depending on the kinds of tiles that are in play.  Suddenly we found a new richness that did not emerge in our first two games.  Such is the personality of a shy game that takes time and several encounters to get to know properly.

We did establish that the tile draw at the beginning of the game is crucial to the game balance; we found that having significantly more black-sided tiles than an opponent, or more one-color tiles, makes for a considerable disadvantage.  The publisher would do well to include a rule to ensure that players start with the same number of each type of tile to mitigate this effect.  The actual mix that all players share can vary from game to game, and in fact a variable mix can lead to a variety of strategic options.  Balance is important, however, and a disparate tile mix among players appears to bias the game significantly.

An opened game "box" showing the four tile trays (with
five more games in their boxes, behind)
Photo by Victor Aleman posted on boardgamegeek.com
The physical components are remarkable.  The wooden tiles are precisely cut and thoroughly glued, with only the slightest of adhesive residue visible on a number of the tiles.  The game comes in a set of four foam-sided trays that each hold 22 tiles in a snug hexagonal grid.  The four trays stack into a wrap-around gamebox-sized sleeve with a velcro flap that makes for a unique, snazzy-looking package.

A nice table presence, almost as appealing as
or Ingenious
I mentioned the subtle Southwestern color palette, which makes for a beautiful table presence, but in anything less than very good lighting, some of the colors are difficult to distinguish, particularly brown from dark gray and dark gray from black.  Many times during the game we wished for more strongly contrasted colors.  And yet, when the game is done, we marvel at how pretty it is.

An illegal placement due to different
corner height - difficult to tell until you
notice this tile is oriented differently
In the first few games, we found it impossible to tell the difference in height between corners of the tiles until we tried to place them next to each other.  Many times we would attempt to situate a tile only to discover that the corners were not aligned vertically, and it was not initially obvious why.  It wasn't until we discovered that the corner heights are intended to confine all tiles to be placed in one of three possible orientations, 120 degrees apart, that we could naturally identify legal ways to place tiles that would ensure same-height corners would be lined up with each other.  It seems that some stronger visual signifier might help in this respect, although such an indicator would probably change the visual aesthetic of the game.

The player count is ostensibly for one to 11 players.  The review copy did not include solitaire rules, though the publisher expressed an intent to include them in the final production copy.  As for high player counts, I struggle to see more than five or six players around this game enjoying any kind of strategic gameplay value.  With more than eight players, each person will place fewer than ten tiles in the entire game, hardly enough to feel engaged in what is otherwise a game of considerable potential depth.  The publisher admits that in tests with more players, although people found it inclusive, the game slowed down, and players were often distracted.

I find that this quietly attractive, subtly strategic game will appeal to people who favor abstract tile-laying games that evolve with repeated plays and who have patience to discover a game over time.  I would not recommend it for more than five players.  It will not appeal to those who prefer thematic games, games that they can fully appreciate in the first play, or laugh-out-loud party games.

Victor Aleman, Creative Director of LEFT, provided a copy of The Grid Game for this review. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dice, Dexterity, and Tactics: A One-play Review of "Barrage Battle"

The application of dexterity to combat resolution in modern game design appears to be an emerging phenomenon, the Western-themed Flick 'em Up the most notable example.  Raechel Mykytiuk and Matthew Kuehn bring a new innovation by blending dexterity with the card-character skirmish format of such games as Up Front and Summoner Wars in the fantasy-themed combat game Barrage Battle, currently on Kickstarter with a funding date of Friday June 24. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ninja Countdown: A one-play review of San Ni Ichi

In the quintessential neo-tradition of first-time game designer/publishers, Ironmark Games has successfully crowd-funded and released debut designer Mike Sette's rather fascinating little trick-taking game with a Ninja martial arts theme.  San, Ni, Ichi, whose title translates from Japanese as "Three, Two, One," features simultaneous card play with a rock-paper-scissors resolution mechanic.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: Chicago Cribbage

Chicago Cribbage is a 2007 title by Outset Media for two to four players.  It requires a cribbage board (not provided) and familiarity with the traditional game of cribbage.  It comes with its own deck of conventional playing cards plus 28 "Chicago Cards" that modify the game of cribbage.  In a sense, Chicago Cribbage can really be thought of as a "cribbage expansion" deck.

Full disclosure:  Outset Media gave me a review copy of Chicago Cribbage.  No other consideration was given associated with this review.

[Since Chicago Cribbage is intended for players already familiar with cribbage, I refer to standard cribbage terms and rules without definition in this review.]

And a rather handsomely printed deck of cards it is, too.  The playing cards that come with Chicago Cribbage are designed with a font and art deco style reminiscent of 1920s Chicago.  The face cards and aces feature mob characters and icons representing the period.  Overall the game presents a rather nice look and feel just in the conventional deck of cards itself.

The real innovation in the game comes in the form of the additional "Chicago cards," which add a new dimension to the familiar game of cribbage.  Each player starts with a fixed set of seven Chicago cards, each of which may be used only once in the course of the entire cribbage game.  There are two opportunities during a hand of cribbage where a Chicago card can be put into play.  The first is immediately after the deal (before players place cards in the crib), at which point any player may play a "Deal Again" card.  The second opportunity comes immediately after the cut (when the "starter" card is revealed but before any play starts), at which point a player may play one of any of the other possible Chicago cards - "Cut Again," "Trade Hands," "No Fifteens," or "Reverse Counting."

As you might expect, "Deal Again," "Cut Again" (which forces cutting a new starter card) and "Trade Hands" can be played to change the cards that you have to work with.  "No Fifteens" and "Reverse Counting" affect scoring of the current hand.  "No Fifteens" affects all players (including the one who played it); when played, combinations that add to fifteen are worth no points - not when playing cards, nor when scoring hands, nor when scoring the crib.  When "Reverse Counting" is played, all opponents hands (and crib, if the dealer is an opponent) score negative points, but one's own scoring is unaffected.

At first, incorporating the additional Chicago cards takes some getting used to.  The two opportunities to play Chicago cards come almost as interruptions to the normal flow of a cribbage game, at least at first to the conventional cribbage player.  Once the Chicago cards become familiar, however, the opportunities to play them are anticipated and become a natural part of the flow of the game.  We found that when a hand is first dealt, the first thought isn't, "what should I put in the crib" but, "should I play the 'Deal Again' card?"

Likewise, after the cut, players start to evaluate the cut and the cards in hand against one's remaining Chicago card options.  A player holding several fives might benefit from a "Cut Again" in hopes of bringing up a face card as the starter.  Or if an opponent has built a big lead, it may be time to play "Reverse Counting."

We found that the Chicago cards nicely mitigate card luck, which had been a rather significant factor in our previous conventional sessions of cribbage.  A standard cribbage game requires some basic tactics to make the most of the cards that are dealt, but once dealt, the course of a hand is confined to the available cards.  Chicago Cribbage adds several opportunities to make up for bad card luck - but only a few opportunities, so the player must apply them judiciously.

Timing of Chicago card play can be crucial.  In one game, when my wife had built a big lead and I had the deal, I decided to wait to play "Reverse Counting" until she had the deal and the crib, when I figured the effect of the card would be greater.  But instead she scored so high during my deal that she ended up within pegging distance of winning the game.  Since "Reverse Counting" only affects hand and crib scoring (not pegging from card play), she was able to win the game on the next hand regardless of the card I played - a valuable lesson in timing.

We found that Chicago Cribbage is better suited to a full 121-point cribbage game, less so the shorter 61-point version.  It takes the full length of a 121-point game to force careful consideration of when to play a Chicago card, since there are only one or two of each available, and each can be played only once.  Most of them came into play over the course of a 121-point game, whereas they seemed underutilized and less tactically demanding in the shorter 61-point game.

One dimension that Chicago Cribbage adds is a certain poker-like element of trying to read one's opponent's reaction to his or her cards.  If I'm dealt a hand and react too enthusiastically, I can expect my opponent to play "Trade Hands" to take advantage of whatever got me so excited.  Similarly, if my opponent seems pleased with the starter card that is cut, I might consider playing "Cut Again" just to thwart whatever benefit he or she saw in that starter.

All of the games played for this review were in the standard two-player format, but Chicago Cribbage comes with enough Chicago cards to be played with three or four players as well (just as standard cribbage can be).  

Chicago Cribbage is a clever addition of a new dimension to conventional cribbage.  It spices up an old familiar game in a new and challenging way.  Purists might object to introducing new gameplay elements to a time-honored standard (like some chess variants, for example), so I wouldn't recommend it for those who like their cribbage "just fine the way it is, thank you."  For those who have played "the old cribbage" but find it a little dry and uninteresting, however, Chicago Cribbage provides a new element of strategy and thought, perhaps more in keeping with the kind of decision-making and gameplay that characterize more contemporary board and card games.  I would especially recommend Chicago Cribbage if you have a cribbage board gathering dust in a drawer or closet and vague memories of enjoying cribbage but never recently including it in your list of, "so what should we play today?"

I should add that my wife and I are divided on whether Outset Media ought to consider offering Chicago Cribbage as a complete set, with cribbage rules and board provided.  My wife feels that Outset Media could expand its customer base and broaden interest in cribbage by offering the game in a form that players can learn from scratch.  For my part, I'm skeptical that the game would work as a way of learning cribbage itself; to me, the appeal of the product is in bringing new life to an old familiar game.

Chicago Cribbage is recommended for ages 10 and up (although Outset Media's "cribbage game" web page lists it as "8+").  Frankly, the age recommendation is irrelevant; if you are familiar with cribbage, you can play Chicago Cribbage.

Outset Media doesn't sell games from their website but refers customers to independent retailers across North America and provides a toll-free phone number to inquire about finding a local retailer.  I did find that Chicago Cribbage is available at Amazon for $9.99.