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Recommended Card Games
Pauls Essen 2009
Let's start with the standard disclaimer. We may well have misread, misheard or misunderstood rules in any or all of the games we played. Whilst a wrong rule is unlikely to convert a good game into a great one, it may well turn a good game to a poor one. So bear this in mind whenever I describe a game in less than glowing terms. Also, most of my opinions are from a single playing of a game. This might be an outlier, and the game may usually play better or worse.
This year only myself and Oggie went. So we played a few games with just two players, but in most cases joined with other people. We also decided to fly for the first time in a few years. This limited what we could bring back, which concentrated the mind on trying to find good games.
This is a worker placement game based in Egypt. Workers are placed in spaces along the Nile. About half of the spaces have a fixed purpose on each of the 5 turns, the other half being made up from a deck of cards. The cards laid in later turns tend to be more powerful than earlier ones. You have eight workers but usually won't have the opportunity to play them all. The innovation in this game is the river placement mechanism. Each worker you place must be downstream of all of your others. This results in players pretty much leapfrogging over each other when placing their workers.
The basic idea is to try to build up a balance between the two primary resources in the game, which are men and stone. Then use these to generate VPs. Most victory points are earned throughout the game, though a not insignificant amount come from bonus cards which may be collected each turn.
Men come in four colours and you may have up to nine of each. You can only use the men of each colour once per turn, and each man uses one brick. These are primarily used to take bonus cards and to build monuments.
We played it twice. Once as a two player in the halls with a couple of obligatory rule misteachings and the other time back at the hotel as a foursome. Nothing revolutionary here, except perhaps the restriction of only taking actions downstream of earlier ones. Nicely done though, and we both thought it was one of the better games we played this year. There’s some German on the cards – particularly the bonus cards, which all have text – but a cheat sheet will sort that out. There’s an English version due out, but I believe it’s fairly far down Rio’s priority list.
This one has been out for a few months now, but was new to us.
The board is split into two areas. One area is a rondel. This has around a dozen spaces, each showing a fruit symbol. Players move around this picking up donkeys and bits of fruit. Your movement around the rondel is determined by how many men share the same space as you. The number of fruit bits you get depends on how many men share the space you end up on.
The other part of the board has a number of demand tiles. These show demand for between one and six fruits. Some are for particular fruits whilst others show wildcards. Any type of fruit may be substituted for a wildcard, though the same fruit must be used for multiple wildcards.
In a turn you do one of two things. Move a man on the rondel or satisfy a demand. You do the former to collect fruit and donkeys. You do the latter to score VPs. You may only do the latter if you have both a donkey and have collected the required fruits. Each tile is worth a VP for each fruit on it. It may also contribute to bonus VPs.
We thought it would be a light little game when we saw all of the colourful pieces but it turned out to need a bit of thought and planning. It played well with two players. In fact, I could imagine this to be the optimum number of players. A nice game, though neither of us felt the need to buy it.
This is played on a board which represents two rivers and the area around them. Well, more accurately it has two wavey blue lines going across the board. The board is broken down into hexes, each of which has a food symbol in it.
Each turn, a number of cards are revealed. These each have one or more of the food symbols on them. Players each take a pair of cards and then place wooden huts on the board. Huts must be placed next to one of the players other pieces on the board. The huts must then be supplied with food. This is done by playing cards with symbols matching those in the same hexes as your huts. Any not supplied are removed from the board.
Pieces on the board then earn VPs and action points. Action points are primarily used to earn more VPs.
I wasn't hugely impressed with this one. It was okay, though I’ve already pretty much forgotten about it. I wouldn’t be too concerned if I didn’t play it again. This was played four player with a couple of Belgian guys.
We played this back at the hotel. Myself and Oggie were just about to crack open my copy when we noticed a couple at the next table were reading the rules for it. They’d already finished punching out a mountain of tiles so we invited ourselves to join them.
As the name suggests, the game is based around a shipyard. Actually, each player is running their own shipyard. They will create and supply various ships which will then be sent out for a shakedown cruise.
Most of the action is based around a rondel which players use to choose actions. In a development from the standard rondel, actions are represented on tiles which move around the rondel. You take one free action from this rondel, and may purchase another. Your free action cannot be one which another player has taken this turn.
Actions allow you to obtain sections of ships, people and equipment to put on ships, cash, and canal tiles. Canal tiles are required to sail completed ships around. This is the primary scoring mechanism in the game. A ship will score a number of points when it is completed. It will get more by moving over symbols on the canals, usually depending on what the ship has been equipped with.
Bonus points are scored at the end of the game. You are given six bonus cards at the start of the game. Four of these must be discarded half way through the game. The remaining ones get you VPs at the end. These can be worth quite a lot of points so are worth pursuing. This allows you to tailor your strategy through the game, and should avoid people following a pre-canned plan each time.
There’s a lot going on so it took us a few turns to get a grip on what we were doing. And we spent a little while figuring out exactly how to calculate ship speed and points. We had heard claims of fiddliness before playing and I can see to some extent where these claims come in there. But once we got that down pat it was plain sailing. It turned out to be a long game, clocking in at three hours. But the box claims 30 minutes per player and I’d believe that to be accurate after you’ve got the mechanics all straight in your mind.
There’s not much you can be doing between turns so three people might be the sweet spot in this game to shave off half an hour. Anyway, we all enjoyed it. Which was just aswell given I’d already bought a copy.
The idea behind this one is to purchase tiles to place in your factory. This is done across a number of turns. Each turn has a number of phases.
Some of these will be familiar to players of Powergrid - auction and bureaucracy - and some of which are particular to this game. The basic flow is to auction turn order, make machines available for purchase, buy the machines, install them in your factory, and then earn profits.
You are juggling six resources – money, factory space, workers, manufacturing, packing, and energy. Workers are used to man machines, bid for turn order, and to determine how many tiles will be available for purchase. Money is used to purchase the tiles, which fit into a player board with a limited number of factory spaces. And the other three resources are used to determine income. The key resource is your workers. You don’t have many so they must be used wisely.
We joined three other people so played as a table of five. One of the demo guys told us they usually recommend only playing with four for people learning the game. A fifth player introduces additional turn order tiles into the game, and some of these give (larger) discounts for purchases.
These can be used to grab a lot of tiles cheaply if the other players aren’t careful. He decided that we’d be fine as we were all Powergrid veterans.
It’s a decent game which moved along quickly, though I could see you’d want to avoid people prone to analysis paralysis. It’s not as good as Powergrid, but then I wasn’t really expecting it to be - it’s a while since we had a really top drawer game from Friedemann so I set my expectations accordingly these days. Oggie thought it was good enough to buy though.
A friend had mentioned this one to us so we stopped to have a look when we saw the stand. The designer started explaining it, and then a table freed up so he played it with us.
It’s a cooperative game, but which only one person can win. Players explore an island made up from tiles. Each turn they may move, use a spell card, use a curse card, or rest. Some of the tiles have monsters on them which players may fight. Fighting uses energy, which resting replenishes. It’s not a standard dungeon bash as players are free to wander off on their own.
The cooperative bit comes in clubbing together to fight monsters, and to try to finish the game within a slightly variable turn limit. If time runs out, everyone loses. But at the same time, curse cards can be obtained and used to hinder your fellows. Actually, it's difficult to avoid using your curse cards as each one you hold limits the actions you can take in future turns.
We hindered a bit too much and lost. The designer explained that we’d played only the basic game, which players usually won. Oops. There was also a trickier advanced version. I think the designer wondered whether it was worth even explaining that one to us as we'd failed to beat the basic version.
It was quite a quirky game, with slightly disturbing artwork. They had two versions of the game for sale, one of which was only 19 Euros. I was very tempted to buy one, despite being convinced my group would never get a win, but just didn’t have the space for it in the end.
I don’t think Oggie’s forgiven me for this one yet.
We got too close to a stand and a demo person caught our eye. I agreed to a five minute explanation of what turned out to be a two player game about gangsters. It was clear after the first minute that we weren’t going to be interested. But we let the guy finish his pitch. And then he smoothly moved one of the bits on the board and informed Oggie it was his turn. And so the poor lad found himself trapped into playing a game he had no desire to play.
It has a gangster theme thinly painted onto a fairly abstract game about moving tiles around a board. Some of the tile edges have gun symbols and you can kill opponents tiles by abutting them with enough symbols. The goal of the game is to either claim the centre of the board or to get a tile to the end into your opponent’s “base”. You might also be able to win by eliminating all of your opponents bits. I stopped paying much attention to the explanation once I'd figured out I wasn't interested in it. Demo guy was obviously a bit competitive as he’d have won in about six turns if I hadn’t pointed the threat out to Oggie. He won anyway, and seemed very disappointed when we told him we rarely played two player games. He was obviously a born salesman as he responded to that by trying to sell us two copies so that we could “have a tournament” with four players!
Oggie was keen to try this one, so we patrolled the Rio stand until a table came free.
This is a treasure hunting game played on an island made up of various terrain types. It has a clever mechanism for narrowing down the locations of treasure, melded with a largely pointless mechanism for driving a little vehicle around the island to pick the treasure up. We didn’t have time to finish this in the end, but played for long enough to get a feel for it.
The island is made from sections which can be put together in different ways. Thus the board should be different each game. It is made of hexes, each of a particular terrain tiles. The core mechanism is to play cards which narrow down the possible location of a treasure. A card may say that the treasure is in the largest forest, or within two spaces of a statue. Once a location is narrowed down to a single hex, players may drive their car to that spot to obtain he treasure.
Treasure is made up of a number of gold cards. Each player may get one or more of these, according to how many cards they played to narrow down its location. The player who retrieved the treasure will normally get an additional gold card. Most gold at the end of the game wins.
The people who freed up the table told us they wouldn’t be buying it but that it was certainly worth a play. I think that was a fair assessment.
Quite by coincidence, after borrowing this, we found two of the players from our game of Fabrik Manager sitting a couple of tables away from us also with a copy. So we joined them to make a foursome.
As most people already know, this is an update of Imperial, from a couple of years ago. I've not played the original so can't really comment about how similarly or differently this plays.
This version is played across a map of the whole world instead of the original's map of Europe. The chap who explained this to us did mention a couple of rule tweaks from the original. One is that players with no country may invest each time there is an investment action. The other involves action selection. This is a rondel game, with the standard move three spaces and pay for additional moves mechanism. The rule change is to combat a problem in the original where a player may just alternate between the taxation and investment actions on the rondel. That used to be a very cheap way to build up money, which count as VP at game end. Now additional movements on the rondel become more expensive for each country over time.
Whilst a casual look at the board would suggest that the game is a Risk variant, in actual fact it's more of an economic game. Players vie for what are effectively shares in various countries. A country use ships and tanks to take control of seas and land areas. Taxation allows a country to generate income according to the areas they control. And this eventually makes it into the hands of players via dividends from their country holdings. This can then be used to buy further shares. A country is controlled by whoever holds the share majority and so can change hands throughout the game.
Turns are fast so there is very little downtime. What will take time is figuring out how best to play this game. It took us all a while before we started to see where we were trying to go. All in all, I thought this was a really nice game. I can see it getting a lot of plays.
Priests of Ra
This was again played with our foursome.
You’re surely familiar with Ra. Well, this game has the same framework but a different set of scoring tiles. The big twist is that many of the tiles are double sided. You may decide which side to use when drawing the tile. One of the types of tiles – priests - allows you to flip another to the other side, but only if you have at least three of them. I think the only other difference is that there is no equivalent of god tiles, so player options are restricted to drawing a tile or starting an auction.
I’m not Ra’s biggest fan, but I quite enjoyed this version. Not enough to buy it though.
This was the last of our games with our newly found gaming colleagues, so another foursome.
This is a play cards to get resources to convert into VPs game. Each player has a set of identical cards. Each card has a role and a number from zero to 10. Each player secretly chooses two cards for the first round. The numbers on the cards are used to determine player order, which can be quite important. This is done by combining the numbers to make a two digit number. For example the 5 and the 2 would be combined to make 25, which would go before someone placing the 2 and 6 cards. In subsequent turns, you choose one of the cards to be discarded and it is replaced with another. So you may use the same card for several rounds.
VPs come in the form of tiles which need certain resources to be claimed. So you may use your cards to get, say, a blue and a yellow cube and then use those cubes to get a tile worth a couple of VPs. The game ends when somebody gets a certain VP total.
The game’s fairly chaotic and had the feel of something which Bruno Faidutti might have designed. In fact it reminded me a little of Citadels. More a filler than a game really, as you can play it in about 20 minutes. It was so short that we played a couple of times. None of us felt compelled to buy it though.
This game is themed around building up a basketball team.
It's played over around six turns, each of which has a number of phases. The core of the game is the purchase of players via auction. Each player begins with a mediocre set of players. Better ones need to be bought. A set of players will be revealed, each with a number of attributes. The most important ones are their ability. This will usually differ each turn. A player may also generate income each turn. He will also have a height, which is used mainly as a tie break. These players are auctioned one by one in a normal round and round the table auction. Once this has been done, the teams with the greatest abilities will win trophies.
Trophies are worth VPs. Additional VPs are earned according to the teams ability at game end. Highest score wins.
We were joined by a German couple for this one so played with four. None of us liked it enough to make a purchase. In fact I think Oggie was close to falling asleep at one point.
One of the Belgians who we played Assyria with recommended this one to me. It’s one of those games which pack a decent amount of game play into around 45 minutes.
It’s played on a small board showing a path between Rome and … somewhere else, I forget where. The path is basically formed from a network showing connections between spaces. Players move carts over this network picking up wooden cubes and flat squares. These generate cash and are paired to create VPs. One nice touch is that you can use cash to buy special moves, but may only hold onto 4. Once you get to 5 cash, it must be converted into 1 VP. This can be a little awkward when you realise that the cube you have picked up has suddenly emptied your treasury.
There is a further way of earning VPs and that is to gamble on which carts will arrive first. Correct guesses earn VPs, bad ones lose them. Each player can only do this three times each game, and each cart may only be selected once.
It turned out to be a nice little game which felt a bit different to the norm. Not great rules though – we had at least three questions which weren’t covered by the rules and needed clarification from someone on the stall. We only played with two, but I think it would scale well to more players.
I didn’t have high hopes for this one as Clementoni aren’t exactly a top rank publisher. But we needed a sit down and this was the first free table we saw. However, I was pleasantly surprised.
It’s an abstract game with a thin theme of settling an island. It came across as sitting somewhere between a game and a puzzle. Each player has a hand of cards which are used to place buildings. They also have a player board, representing an island, on which the buildings are placed. The islands each have a set of attributes, which differ slightly on each island. For example, one might have a road which is adjacent to three spaces whilst on another island it may be adjacent to four.
Cards show a building, then a set of priorities. So it might show a red house which should be built next to a road if possible, then beside a green building if not, then beside a sea area if not, etc. One is chosen to play to your island each turn, and one played to a communal pot. Cards in the communal plot are used against whichever island best meets the criteria. So if road is the first priority, it will go to the island with the most road spaces currently free. If that’s a tie then you work down the chain of priorities.
The trick is to place in such a way as to maximise future options. The more buildings you have, the less spaces are available for further building. Fortunately, sets of houses may be upgraded to palaces or cities. For example, three red houses may be converted into a single red city. Aswell as netting additional VPs, this frees up some spaces on your island.
I liked this, and it didn’t really remind me of anything else. Again we played this just with two, which played slightly oddly as players alternate having two turns each. It should play nicely with three or four in under 45 minutes
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