Monday, 30 June 2014

Board Game Roundup

Monday, June 30, 2014

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Cuba Libre.
Besides the roleplaying we're doing with M:0 we've been playing quite a bit of board games these past few months (not much mini gaming though) and I thought I'd share some thoughts and impressions on some of the new(ish) games that have found their way into my possession.

You might have seen some images of Star Trek: Fleet Captains in my Twitter or G+ feed but I don't think I've talked about it here. I got the base game and the Romulan expansion earlier this year when I heard the expansion had gone out of print. It's one of those games that I've wanted to get for a long time but have held off because of the price. I'm really glad I finally pulled the trigger though as the game is great fun! I'm not really much of a Trekie - I watched and enjoyed TNG in my youth but was far more into Star Wars. However in recent years I've come to appreciate the original series and how it tries to be something other than a mere sci-fi action series (the new movies really have made a 180 on that!). Anyway, what attracted me to Fleet Captains was the potential of having a space ship based game that had a good balance of detail and number of ships, that had both combat and exploration mechanics and that played quickly while still not being too light an affair. That it was a Star Trek game really didn't affect my decision one way or another.

Three player game with me as the Romulans.
I've played it a bunch of times now, mostly two player games which but also a couple of three player games, and we've had lots of fun with it! While it's certainly a bit of luck involved in card draws the game is nevertheless quite strategic and it's interesting to see how effective plays changes depending on your fleet and tactic deck composition. Having a larger fleet with many light ships is very different from having a fleet consisting of a few heavy hitters. The Federation and the Klingons that are in the base game play similar to each other although with a different distribution of missions (and the Klingons can cloak of course!) however the Romulans from the expansion  are very different and is definitely a different experience from the others! With the introduction of espionage missions and saboteurs they make for a very characterful addition and usually sneak around the other factions rather than confront them directly. Bottom line: good fun and with a quick playtime of about 90 minutes. With the expansion (that is being reprinted now) it becomes even better and the game is at its best with three players now, although I expect this to go up to four players with the upcoming Dominion expansion. Recommended! Oh, and more on the models later...

Beautiful cover!
I remember seeing the cover of Expedition: Northwest Passage and instantly thinking "I need to get that game". By that time it was only in the prototype stage so I had to wait for a but late last year I could get hold of it thanks to a nice gentleman from Belgium. We've played it a few times now with two and three players and it's a good tile laying game that really bring out the theme thanks to the ships/sled mechanic and the way the seasons make the ice freeze and thaw. I've always been fascinated by the polar explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries so this was a good fit for me. You get points for finding the northwest passage first and for being the first back home, but also for finding cairns, establishing communications with the natives, mapping straits and finding leavings of the lost Franklin expedition. This means you have quite a few different strategic options open to you so, for example, if you find your way to the passage blocked or cumbersome you could simply try and rack up as many points you could by going after straits and Franklin clues and then be the first back home.

Not only is the cover of the box great looking but the rest of the components as well. There are many small details that really add to the atmosphere - Matagot has done a great job with this! It plays in about an hour or 90 minutes if you're prone to AP when getting your tiles out. Hehe! For added immersion I suggest having the Shackleton mini series on in the background while playing and if it's winter time opening a couple of windows!

Next up are two games actually, but since we haven't actually played either of them to completion yet I'll talk about both of them together. We first tried to play my friend's Cuba Libre by CIA analyst Volko Ruhnke but we did the mistake of following the extended play example which is great for learning on your own but not so great when in a group. So we never really got into it and decided to have a proper game further down the line. Then I got Andean Abyss and after having taught myself the game so I felt I could teach it to others without much trouble we played a three player game. This time we simply played as normal except we used only three propaganda cards, but even so we had to break early so the startup was slow when the others had to get to grips with the basics.

Anyway, both games, as well as A Distant Plain and the upcoming Fire in the Lake are part of GMT's counterinsurgency, or COIN, series and use the same game engine. There are four factions in all of the games and in Andean Abyss they are the government forces and then three insurgent forces: the Marxistic FARC guerilla, the right-wing AUC militia and the ever present drug cartels. All four have different victory conditions with the government and FARC battling for the support of the people while AUC want to outgrow FARC and the cartels simply want to make oodles of cash! The other games in the series have similar factions but with different paths to victory and operating procedure. For example, in A Distant Plain there are two counterinsurgent forces in the form of both the Afghan government and the coalition forces as well as the Taliban and the warlords.

Andean Abyss set up for play.
The gameplay is card driven but instead of having a hand of cards like in Twilight Struggle there is one active card per turn and the card for the next turn gets flipped over and revealed. Each card has an even that can be triggered and also tells you the order of play for the different factions. This all combines into making a very interesting game of fleeting alliances and desperate measures. The game integrates politics and economics well with the actuall military operations and the asymmetric gameplay is very well done! I have another game planned for next week which will hopefully run full course, so expect more on Andean Abyss later.

We've played Pax Porfiriana a couple of times and the three friends who I introduced it to really took to it quickly! My first play last year didn't go over all that well, but at the same time I knew that time didn't really have the right target audience. Jacob and Claes really enjoyed it and we played another game with Micke a week later. In Pax you play as rich hacendados in Mexico 1898-1920 and you are all struggling to take the power from the sitting dictator Porfiriana Diaz. It's a card game but in true Eklund style brings a lot of theme, history and details to the table. When you read the rules seems like too much and you wonder if the game will simply crash and burn under its own weight but then as you start playing everything clicks neatly into place and the lumbering behemoth you half expect to trip and fall never does but instead create a sublime gaming experience! Here's the writeup I did on BGG for our three player game: 

"While Pascual Orozco (Jacob) amassed huge amounts of gold from his Froth Flotation driven mines and Francisco Madero (Claes) used the clout his banks gave him to invest in a lot of land Bernardo Reyes (me) worked with modest resources. Reyes only had a single mine and a gun store but managed to amass a number of allies and quite a few troops to his cause and he was always quick to support the sitting Diaz.
As the American annexation and the Revolution topples came and went without any effect the country turned into a state of Anarchy that lasted until the end of the game. Seeing his chance as Diaz grew older and more senile, Reyes used the new anti-trust laws to muscle Madero out of his banks and sent Japanese-Mexican agents to assassinate his wife Angela Terrazas.  
Orozco tried to simply profit among the anarchy and ride it all out with the money his high tech mines provided, but Reyes managed to just snatch victory away from him by getting enough Loyalist support to make sure the power passed to him as Diaz retired. Salude!"

The middle of the game described above.
Just like every other Eklund game I've played to date the theme comes through so well not simply from what's pasted on the box or what images are used on the cards but through the actual game mechanics themselves. Having some additional historical notes in the back of the rulebook just adds to the experience! Excellent game that is being reworked and combined with Origins to make Phil's next game Greenland, that is out later this year. 

I got both Andean Abyss and Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan through a trade on BGG (traded my mint copy of Kölin: Fredrick's First Defeat) and these two games could hardly be any more different - both in theme and in mechanics! Sekigahara is a mechanically quite simple game but with a lot of depths thanks to the how the battles work, the hidden forces and variable setup. The board and the large wood blocks you use to play are beautiful and have a nice minimalistic vibe aesthetic that goes well with the theme of feudal Japan. It's a two player game where one side takes the role of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the other Ishida Mitsunari. You win by either controlling most of the board after a seven week period or instantly by killing certain important persons (like the boy emperor Toyotomi Hideyori).

Sekigahara ni action.
The blocks represent forces from different clans and are hidden from your opponent. The cards have the corresponding clans and you use them both for movement and during battle to activate blocks of the same clan and also to keep them loyal. On the map you try to control castles and resource locations that are worth points and also give you an edge during the reinforcement step. As I mentioned the mechancis are deceptively simple but the gameplay is very deep. During my and Fredriks first game a couple of weeks ago I made the mistake of not kicking Tokugawa out of the Kansai region around Kyoto and Osaka which meant I didn't have my back free. For a moment it looked like I might have been able to catch Tokugawa himself near Kitanosho, but he managed to escape back to Gifu castle and when it was time to calculate victory points I was handed a crushing defeat of 7-19! Having read quite a bit of Japanese history and even visited Tokugawa's grave in Nikkō it was easy to get into the theme of the game and having nice looking components certainly didn't hurt. Now I just need to prepare for a rematch!

Finally I also got to play Hobbit Tales from the Green Dragon Inn! I pre-ordered this game directly from Cubicle 7 last year and have been oogling the lovely looking over sized cards and enjoyed reading about its integration with the The One Ring roleplaying game, but I hadn't had a chance to play it until this last weekend. Basically you portray a number of hobbits drinking at the Green Dragon and trying to outdo each other in telling tales of adventure! The narrator draws a number of cards that he need to connect together to make a reasonable tale with a beginning, middle and end while the listeners try to interrupt him by playing Hazard cards that lead the narrator off course. I suppose it's modeled in some ways on Once Upon a Time (which storytelling game isn't?!) but with oh such a more rich and suggestive theme! Every card has a title a (beautiful!) image by Jon Hodgson and others, and a quote from Tolkien - any which could serve as the inspiration for the tale being told. 

Claes narrating his tale...
I was a litte uncertain how a storytelling game like this would actually play when on the table and Claes, who was first out as narrator, was also a bit intimidated by the prospect of total improv! But the cards really are great inspiration and being old roleplayers we were soon boasting like the most proud hobbit of our deeds and wanderings. Claes told us of the time Thorin Oakenshield came to visit during that great storm when he had battled the living dead and had to rescue some very dear silverware. I told a tale about the time I walked the moors close to Mirkwood and was chased by a wolfrider into the enchanted wood only to fall asleep by a stream and nearly falling victim to an evil old oak. Finally some woodmen took me to their town and gave me some runes for protection on my way home. Finally Anders started telling us how much he distrusted elves and the way they can talk to animals and how they told the birds to eat all his corn! This forced him to grow crops near the old marsh which never really worked well and led to his reputation being ruined.

It's a quick game, usually not lasting more than 30 minutes, so we played twice and enjoyed ourselves even more the second time around as we broke out the beer to really get into swing of things! For such a small little box this provided great entertainment and I look forward to playing it with four or five players at the end of a session of more serious brain-burner games to see what we come up with! Oh, and using it for journeys in The One Ring looks like fun as well. 

There were other games played as well of course: some Star Wars LCG which is always fun, Firefly with the new expansion which certainly improves interaction, High Frontier with a new player, Robinson Crusoe where we died of frostbite, and a fourth of a game of Britannia!

Finally, there have been some miniature gaming as well, but more on this later. :)

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