Some new-to-us board games.

by waxbanks

On Wednesdays we get together for our Gentlemen’s Nights (aka Nerd Nights), which consist of…

  1. one or two beers apiece (I generally drink water)
  2. parental/marital/professional commiseration
  3. board games.

What a great word ‘commiseration’ is, eh?

Some games we’ve recently (re)played:

Settlers of Catan

The old warhorse. We’ve played a million times over 15 years, of course. I’ve no idea whether the boardgamegeek obsessives still like this game; I suspect the heavy randomness now puts many of them off. It remains, though, a perfect (relatively) casual eurogame, with a handful of paths to victory and plenty of interesting choices to make. The trading system is ingenious; it’s the most fun element of the game and essential for victory, which seems to me like a case of correctly identified design priorities. Yes, the initial placement phase can be nearly determinative, but if you play with minimal savvy you can’t lose the game at that first stage — being shut out of wood/mud early on means you need to focus on cards, cities, and pushing hard into trade, and control of the Thief (and the Largest Army) will be essential for you.

Settlers doesn’t get as much attention as it used to; it was the first big stateside eurogame and has been superseded over the last 10-15 years by other novel creations (e.g. Dominion, the most perfectly pitched the best eurogame I’ve played). But Settlers hasn’t lasted because it was first. Along with Cosmic Encounter and Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the most effective social game I’ve played that has any real substance. Just as every copy of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters should be magically replaced one evening by a Mwandishi album, every copy of Monopoly or Taboo should be replaced with a copy of Settlers — and I say this despite being an ice-cold murderer at the Taboo table.

Hawaii

Setup for our first game took more than an hour. We didn’t even make it through our first game in three hours of play. It felt like a disaster. We tried again a week or two later with three of the same players and a newbie; everyone played a different strategy and the three second-timers finished within a handful of points, with a surprise come-from-behind one-point(!) victory.

Like Clash of Cultures (below), Hawaii has a bit too much stuff on the table, and an enormous amount to keep track of in your head. The rulebook’s enormous — not Mage Wars enormous, but admittedly that’s a special case — and it seems at first like every fiddly little subsystem is a new hassle rather than an opportunity. First-time players won’t love it. But it grows on you. I haven’t played the games it’s compared to on BGG (Vikings, Stone Age), but I can tell you that randomness plays a small part and it falls equally on all the players; the fiddly little subsystems fit together ingeniously; there’s room for a wide variety of approaches; the pace of the game picks up as at progresses, building drama quite nicely.

Best of all, the rules really do become second nature after a play or two. I don’t think we could bring our playtime down to an hour, but it could definitely be a 90-minute game. Heavier cognitive load than the mechanistic Puerto Rico, less direct interaction than Settlers, but this is a very rewarding game. Props to the designer of the tiny icons indicating the function of each piece — they do a lot of heavy lifting.

Clash of Cultures

We played last night. Once you know what you’re doing it speeds up immensely, but this took ages; for all that, it’s a surprisingly effective game, immediately reminding everyone of the Civilization computer game (none of us have played the Sid Meier board game, though my fondest childhood gaming memories are of Avalon Hill’s classic Civilization) but taking on an interesting dynamic of its own.

We haven’t yet fully wrapped our heads around the interplay of Clash‘s mechanical systems, and here’s the main reason why: you’re keeping track of 7ish resources and 50ish(!!) civilizational advances, and at least half of the latter entail situational modifiers in play — so there’s a huge cognitive load unlike that of relatively light games like Settlers or the great Carcassonne (or pre-eurogame American games, of course). At my age, I don’t generally want that kind of upfront hassle — I can’t abide complex character creation in RPGs, for instance. But once you have a sense of the pace and scope of the game, how many choices you’ll actually have time to make, it’s possible to string together great millennia-spanning strategies which pay off in the final two rounds.

Best thing about our first play, mechanically and thematically: the way random elements shake up the game and afford new opportunities even while foreclosing on strategies to an extent. Because of the random board layout, I ended up hamstrung early by Barbarians, opting to abandon my initial strategic notions (science! education!) in favour of a war footing and deal sharply with my local belligerents. This ended up being a path to near-victory for me — wiping out a big barbarian tribe brings major rewards (gold) and can transform your economic status. Andrew’s strategy kept getting delayed by the vicissitudes of fate too — but by the time we quit for the night he’s established a mercantile empire that had begun to soak up enormous amounts of gold every turn. Ian’s ‘ISIS strategy’ — fanatical militarized religious zealotry — proved hugely effective, as his smartly optimized early buildup of Advances let him march triumphantly across the board in the midgame.

He insisted on wailing allahu akbar after each act of sterile illiterate savagery, i.e. constantly. So that was tiresome. But his strategy worked perfectly.

I can’t say whether the game’s a complete success, but I’ll say this: I’d definitely play again despite the time commitment. I’ll also say this, though: it had me longing for AH’s Civilization. Since Civ is a stone classic, that’s no insult to Clash of Cultures, which seems like an excellent game. But I do wonder.

Mice & Mystics

Clever, this! Feels almost exactly like D&D 4th edition pared down to a minimal engine — perhaps a bit simplistic but that’s OK — combined with a relentlessly forward-moving ‘story engine’ of sorts. Everyone’s always engaged, the challenges are judiciously selected, and the story’s charming and surprisingly immersive. A compelling middle ground between a combat-focused RPG and a relatively simple board game. Not the deepest game in the world, sure, but a perfect frame for a low-key evening of game-centric socializing.

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