zwischenzug (ZVI-shen-tsoog) — noun

A chess tactic in which a player, instead of playing the expected move, first interpolates another move, changing the situation to the player's advantage (such as gaining material or avoiding what would otherwise be a strong continuation for the opponent).

Showing posts with label European style. Show all posts
Showing posts with label European style. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review of China

In our last monthly gaming session, the I managed to get a couple of new games to the table: King of Tokyo and China.  As I said in my review, the former is a great family/casual game.  The latter is on the edge.  Since I gave it a 9/10, and also because it seems to be on sale right now for almost half price at online retailers like Thoughthammer and FunAgain, I should let you be the judge.

China is the brainchild of Michael Schacht, the German game designer that also gave us Zooloretto.  Over the course of a 45 minute game, each player attempts to gain control of different territories and roads in ancient China.  At the same time, players try to form alliances between other territories that may not be under their control.  In the end, the person with the most territorial control and influence becomes the new Emperor of China!

Or not.

This game is a European style game.  Like many games of this style, determining the winner is accomplished by counting Victory Points.  The player with the most VPs wins.  Many European style games, like China, have very little connection between the theme or storyline of the game and the gameplay.  In fact, there is another version of this game which uses a European map called Web of PowerIn China, the primary mechanism is called Area Control/Influence.  Specifically, you are trying to get more pieces in the various spaces than the other players.  There is no direct confrontation, such as in Risk.  It's not possible to eliminate other players or their pieces.

On his or her turn, a player will have a hand of three colored cards.  (Cards have not values.)  They use these cards to place pieces according to a simple 1-2-3 rule:  in 1 territory, a player can place 2 pieces using their 3 cards.  For each piece placed, the card must match the color of the territory played into, though two matching color cards can be substituted for one card of any color.  (If I have a green card and two yellow cards, I have two options.  I can play two pieces into a yellow territory using the two yellow cards, or I can play two pieces into a green territory, using the green card for one and using the two yellow cards as a green card for the second piece.  If I have green, yellow and purple, I could play one piece into any one territory of those colors, but that's all.)  Pieces consist of houses, ambassadors and fortresses (in the advanced game).  Houses are played onto house spaces, which set on roads, with one house per space.  Ambassadors are played onto the "dragon space", which doesn't have a fixed amount of room.  However, the total number of ambassadors in a territory cannot exceed the total number of houses in play in that territory.  That's it!  You've just learned 90% of the rules.  The hard part is the scoring.

Image by Chris Norwood
Scoring China is a little complicated because some of the score is relative.   I will leave out fortresses in this review.  There are two ways houses score points.  The first is that they score 1 point for each house that is part of a string of at least four houses along a road.  That's pretty straight forward.  There are a fixed number of house spaces in each territory.  The person with the most houses in a territory gets 1 point for each house in play in that territory.  The person with the second most number of houses get 1 point for each house that the player with the most houses has in play.  The player with the third most houses gets 1 point for each house the player with the second most houses has in play, and so on.  (For example, if Adam has 4 houses, Bonnie has 3 houses and Carl has one, the scoring comes out like this:  Adam gets 8 points since 4+3+1=8.  Bonnie gets 4 points for Adam's four houses, and Carl gets 3 points for Bonnie's three houses.)  This forms one of the basic strategies:  how hard to I try to control something, since putting more houses down only gives someone else points unless I manage to have the most.  Ambassadors score by a simple majority, however, I must have the majority of ambassadors in two adjacent territories to score points.  Add to that the fact that the total number of ambassadors is limited by the total number of houses in the territory at any given moment, and timing comes into play.  The tension between these two different area influence scoring systems is where the fun is!

As you can probably tell, this game is a little "thinky".  Depending on your gaming style, that is either good or bad.  As you can tell by my rating, I like games that require thought (have I mentioned Chess recently?), particularly if the rules are simple.  China's rules are simple; once you play the game through the first scoring, it will all be crystal clear.  The rulebook does a far better job explaining than I did.  (But then, Mr. Schacht takes a little more room to explain the game than I did.)  If it does suit your style, this would be a great game for casual play, or for family play with older children.  It might be tough for the 10 and under crowd.

As I said, the game seems to be on sale right now in the US.  That's probably because the US publisher has been out of business for a few years now, and online stores are dumping the last of their stock.  At roughly $20 USD, this is a great buy if it appeals to you.

                Ages:                    12 and up
                Time:                     45 minutes
                Players:                 3-5

 If you like games that require some thinking, otherwise no.

It's Your Move!

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Tasteless Fun: Dominion -- Great Game, Little Flavor

I have to confess that Dominion is completely out of style with the games I normally like.  In fact, I probably would never have played it except for my brother's family.  The year it was published, it was quite the rage.  Yet, its reputation as a themeless game put me off.  So did the constant card shuffling I heard about.  Then why, in the end, did I end up giving it a rating of 9 out of 10?  After all, I like games that drip with theme, telling a story as they are played.  I was just as surprised as you.

Incredible fun in 30 minutes!
That year, when my brother and his wife came back from visiting one of their kids, they raved about Dominion.  For my brother to do this, it must be a huge success as a family game.  His motto is, “If it starts to feel like work, I’d rather work.”  This game he was anxious play with us.  For Christmas they gave my son a copy.  I still wasn’t convinced.  Not until we sat down to play it a few months later was I completely won over.  We got home late the night of our first play, but still took the time to break the seal on my son’s copy and get it ready to play.  A few days later I bought a copy of Dominion: Intrigue, which is the first expansion, but is also playable as a standalone version.  This way, when Big D (he has grown taller than me since I started this blog!) goes off to college, I am sure to have a copy.

Dominion is a card game which is supposedly building up a kingdom, a dominion, by adding various places, people and features to it as the game goes on.  However, the game doesn’t really feel like you are doing any of that.  Typically, this is where I take a pass.   The game play in Dominion is so good, however, that it makes up for any lack of flavor. 

Players have a deck of cards that sits at their left hand, and are holding five cards.  At your right hand is your personal discard pile.  More cards of various types are on the table for purchase, including cards which represent money and cards that are victory points.  On your turn, you can play one card from your hand for an action and/or buy a card from the table, and then you “clean up” by discarding everything you bought, played and your hand.  Five cards are drawn from your deck for the next turn.  An action allows you to draw more cards, make more than one purchase, play more actions, attack or defend or some combination thereof.  When your deck runs out, you shuffle the discard pile and make it the deck and keep going.  When the game ends, the person who has the most victory points wins.

Some of the cards from Dominion (Image by Gary James)
 That’s not a thorough description without going into the cards, but it does go about that fast: 30 minutes for a complete game.   It’s not terribly complicated.  (Little ones will have trouble with shuffling and reading text on the cards though.)  Your deck grows as you buy cards and they eventually cycle around.  The fun is in the interaction of the cards.  I love trying to buy cards that will work in combination to allow multiple actions or buys, or more valuable buys.

The game components consist exclusively of the cards and the rules.  While available at Target and Barnes & Noble, don’t look for it on the same rack as Rook, or Monopoly Deal.  This game comes in a full size box.  That’s because it doesn’t have the usual 50 – 100 cards; there are 500 cards in the box!  The artwork is adequate, though not awe in inspiring.  As I said, the excellence of this game is in the game play.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider that Dominion was the 2009 Spiel des Jahres winner.  Since its publication, the game mechanism of buying the cards you will play with later in the game has appeared in a lot of games.  I haven’t played any of them, since I love this game so much.  It’s hard for me to justify another game that largely plays the same way.

I gave this game a 9 / 10.  That's pretty high praise from me; it's a rating for games I don't imagine giving up. 

It's Your Move!

 Dominion: ages 8 and up, 30 minutes, 2-4 players.
Good Casual Gaming! Kid Friendly!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thanksgiving for Games! (Plus a Review of 7 Wonders)

But not so much for actually playing them.  At least not this year.

Normally games hit the table more at Thanksgiving.  We did spend Sunday with my brother and his wife, playing two games of 7 Wonders.  My son and I also managed to get in our first game of Star Trek: Fleet Captains.  The jury is still out on Fleet Captains, since it took about four times as long to play as advertised.  The game does have a lot of moving parts, but most of that was “first play delay” issues.  I have since made a player aid that will help, and we will go at it again and hopefully soon.

Promotional Image
This post I will talk about 7 Wonders.  Not only did we play it this past weekend, but it’s also in my Top 10 lists, so I thought a review was in order.  The game was published last year and was immediately a hot seller; my copy was back ordered for four months.  This is due to a combination of rare attributes that came together in this game:  a civilization building game that plays in under an hour and the wide range of players supported.

In 7 Wonders, each player is attempting to build the most advanced civilization, choosing from among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as the centerpiece:  the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.  Players lay down cards from their hand to represent building they construct, or alternatively construct a stage of their Wonder.  The structures built provide either victory points or more capability for construction later.  Players then pass their hand to their neighbor, and do it again.  There are three ages to build in, and six turns to build in during each age.  Each successive age has more advanced structures which are worth correspondingly more victory points.  The person with the most victory points is the winner.

A civilization on the rise (Photo by Igor Mustac)
 Games with this theme have a reputation of being long games; over four hours in play time is not unheard of.   As boardgaming becomes a more popular hobby, the demand to better fit games into a busy lifestyle has grown.  Games in general have shortened in playing time, and seem to be targeting that 60-90 minute playing time range, which seems to be a sweet spot.  This is also true of civilization games; only a handful of truly good games managed to get this down to that time frame.  7 Wonders is one of two or three civilization games that actually reduced it further: 30 minutes.  This always gets gamers skeptical attention.

The second promise7 Wonders made was to cover anywhere from two to seven players.  Really?  Many games of this type cover three or four, and occasionally five.  Two is particularly complicated for a civilization game, since there is normally some type of game mechanism, like negotiation, that needs three people to work well.  More players normally means more time, particularly in a civilization game, since the interaction amongst many players is so much higher.  To play seven players and keep the playing time at under an hour seemed like an impossible combination.

Since 7 Wonders is in my Top 10, it’s pretty easy to guess that it delivers.  There are three things that contribute to this.  The first is that it is a card game, which tends to shorten games to begin with.  Secondly, all actions are resolved simultaneously.  The third characteristic is truly innovative.  Regardless of the number of players, each player only interacts with their immediate neighbors to the left and right.  Limiting interaction and simultaneous resolution means that the play time of each round is completely independent of the number of players.  7 Wonders does work incredibly well from three to seven players.  Due to the lack of full interaction with two players, there are special rules for this situation, which I haven’t played.  (Honestly, there are so many great two player games that I probably never will play this game with only two.) 

A game that plays in 30 minutes can’t be too involved.  Playing time and complexity tend to go hand-in-hand.  However, civilization games are notoriously complicated as players work out the societal, commercial, martial and technological growth of their empire.  Packing all of those factors into a short game seems too good to be true.  7 Wonders does this by having different colors of cards, suits if you will, which correspond to different aspects of the society.  Brown cards are raw resources, gray cards are manufactured goods, yellow cards correspond to commerce, blue are cultural items, red represents military structures, green are scientific achievements and purple cards are guilds.  Seven suits of cards, coupled with the plethora of icons on the cards, are where this game does get somewhat complicated.  One or two plays, however will sort things out, since the colors aren’t as important as the icons, and there is a system to the icons that quickly becomes apparent.

A couple of the cards used in 7 Wonders (Images by Julien Kirsch)

Since my son is now 14 and an experienced gamer, he isn’t a good gauge on how kid-friendly this game is.  My wife, who as an educator really understands children, hasn’t played it.  It certainly wouldn’t be for every child.  I can’t give it a kid-friendly vote due to the above complexity.

For older kids and adults, 7 Wonders is a great game that has multiple paths to victory.  Part of the fun is that “look what I built – how cool is that!” feeling you get at the end of the game.  This is definitely a great family or casual game that can be pulled out nearly anytime.  While it would be best to have the game taught by an experienced player, a little time with the rules and patience in playing the first couple of games will quickly make this a family favorite.  At seven players, it almost covers those party game situations for those who (like me) aren’t the biggest fans of party games.  It’s not quite a must-buy, but is pretty close.

It's Your Move!

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Friday, September 2, 2011


Earlier this week I discussed Rio Grande Games.  At the end, I mentioned Carcassonne, which is a “must have” game for everyone.  Realizing I have never reviewed it, I thought I would correct that problem today.

(Image by Big Woo)
My wife would tell you that Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are the two games that everyone joining my gaming group should play before playing any deeper games.  They show new players who are generally used to Monopoly, Risk and probably their kids’ roll-and-move games something entirely different; games that have a lot more going on and are incredibly fun.  I am not so exclusive.  However, Carcassonne scratches the strategic itch in a way that many games do not.  There are a lot of reasons why you should by this game.

(Just to clarify – I am not one of those that believes a game must be strategic to be a good game.  Many games, like Bananagrams for example, are primarily tactical, and are very fun.  However, there are times when I want to play something more strategic.  Hmm, maybe I need to talk a little bit about strategy vs. tactics in an upcoming blog.)

The first gotcha for new players is the fact that there is no board, just a blank table and a bag of tiles.  The board is built during the course of the game!  On their turn, each player lays a square tile with several possible terrain features on it: city, monastery, road or field.  Tiles must be place so that they touch a tile already  on the table, and each side must match the features of adjacent tiles.  The player may then place a token (meeple) on the tile just placed to claim it.  Once enough tiles have been place to build a complete road, monastery or city, they score points.  Farms are scored at the end of the game.  As you might guess, with a somewhat abstract theme and both ongoing and end game scoring, this game classifies as a “Euro”, a European style game.

Carcassonne in play  (Image by Aaron Tubb)
 First of all, Carcassonne plays 2-5 people, and six with the Inns and Cathedrals expansion.  Many games claim to do this, but few actually are a good game with the full range of players listed on the box.  I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t dwell on it.  Suffice it to say that Carcassonne works really well for 2-4 players, and is still a good game with 5 or 6.  Regardless of whether it’s two people alone after the kids are in bed, two couples getting together, or a fairly large family, this game will work for any number.

For the amount of strategy in this game, it is accessible to new players.  This game is easy to teach, and is one of those uncommon games that can be taught in stages.   Cover the basics of tile placement in a few minutes, then after a turn or two explain in more detail how scoring is done.  As the game rolls along, the game explainer can show how players interact in the game.  At the same time, there are many experienced hobby gamers that are completely willing to play this – including me!  Once again, it covers the range of players.

Lastly, this game accomplishes all of this in an hour.  With some experience, the games will move quickly.  A few years ago and another job ago, I played at lunch with a couple of others.  Once everyone knew the game, it was not uncommon to get in two games within our hour lunch.  The three of us even managed to play three games in an hour one day!  The game length is just about perfect for any evening.

This is the one expansion to get! (Image: Surya Van Lierde)
Carcassonne has a lot of expansions.  A lot.  Some are very good, and some are downright silly.  Personally, I think there is only one worth getting:  Inns and Cathedrals.  This expansion adds one more player (the sixth player) and several more tiles.  Two tiles have cathedrals on them, and several have inns on them.  Cathedrals make cities high risk, high reward propositions; inns do the same for roads.  They can be played for yourself to increase your score, or played late in the game to foul up your opponents big plan.  Of course, it may not work out as planned!  I would leave the other expansions alone.  While Carcassonne can be bought in a “Big Box” version that includes several expansions, I would save my money (and my shelf space) and just by the base game and Inns and Cathedrals.

I guess the biggest endorsement of this game is that we own 3 copies.  Yes, I said three.  Three copies of Inns and Cathedrals, too.  One set is at home (and it has a few more expansions which largely just sit in the box).  One set is at my wife’s place of work, and one is at her mother’s house out of town.  This is a game that we all enjoy, which can be a trick in our household!  It hasn’t made it to the discount stores yet, but I have seen it at Barnes and Noble as well as game stores. 

It’s Your Move!

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Game That “Settles” In, Never To Leave - Yeah!

Promotional image from Mayfair Games
One of the great family games of all time has to be Settlers of Catan.  Not only did it win the Spiel des Jahres in 1995, but it is the game that really brought German style games to the American market.  It has broken ground again in being one of the first German styles games to move into the mass market; Settlers is available at Target stores.

In Settlers, players are on a resource rich island, attempting to build their colony the fastest.  Players collect resources (wood, sheep, wheat, ore or brick) based upon the location of settlements they own, and then use those resources to build more settlements, roads which connect them, or upgrade the settlements to cities.  These, in turn, produce more resources.  Cities and settlements count towards victory points (as do a few other things), and the first player to ten victory points wins.  Negotiation is a big part of the game, since the trading of resources is allowed.  These negotiations are full of worries about helping the other players more than yourself, particularly if you are negotiating with the point leader.

A game being played with a Third Edition copy. (Image by Mikko Saari)
 The first reason this is such a great game is how reachable it is.  With some help, a child down to about age eight could play this.  After a time or two they could play on their own, though they won’t play particularly well.  Once the boy or girl hits double digits, however, this game will take off.  I have successfully taught this game to a lot of people.  Keep in mind, it isn’t the first game I teach people, unless they have had some prior gaming experience.  It is a great second game.  I can’t stress that enough.  This game is a classic.

The second reason this is such a great game is that it has both dice and cards in it.  Most people are used to the idea of cards and dice in a game, but not necessarily together, and not used in this way.  These are not “roll-and-move” dice.  We are not thinking “draw a card, play a card”.  Dice are used to generate resources, and the resources are represented by cards.  This is a great game to break those notions of how dice and cards are used, and lay some groundwork for other games that use traditional game elements in non-traditional ways.

This game also has a modular board, which is a concept that is also life-altering when you first see it.  The “board” is made up of hexagons which are shuffled and set out, so the board configuration is always changing.  This means that your strategy and tactics need tweaking with every play, and Settlers stays fresh longer than many other games.

This game has some serious fans! (Image by Matthew M Monin)
Lastly, this game is fun.  I have played it somewhere around 25 times.  It’s not often the first game I pull out, but that’s mainly because I tend to play new games as often as I can.  It comes out every few months, and we enjoy it immensely.  In fact, most of our “Do you remember the time…” gaming moments come from Settlers games.

Settlers of Catan is a available at many game stores and online.  In my neck of the woods, it is also at Target and a Barnes and Nobles.  I highly recommend this game for your collection if you don’t have it already.  This game is a “must-have”.

Risk (Revised)
                Ages:                    8 and up
                Time:                     90 minutes
                Players:                 3-4

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Game for the Whole Herd - Zooloretto

This weekend our gaming group met, and we featured the Spiel des Jahres winning games I own.  I have owned Zooloretto for several years, but had never managed to get it to the table.  Our group has recently (and suddenly!) grown to over ten players, some of whom are not familiar with hobby games.  I had heard Zooloretto worked well as an introductory game, so it was time to give it a try.  The game is thematically fun, has good components and has simple and elegant gameplay.

Image by tiggerix
In Zooloretto, each player is attempting to build the most complete zoo; the zoo that would attract the most visitors.  (No visitors were harmed in the playing of this game.)  Players are rewarded for filling their animal pens, building vending stalls, and expanding their zoo for more.  However, having too many animals and vending stalls is costly; they are stored in the barn and reduce your chance at winning. 

This game has solid, quality components.  Coins are wooden disks painted gray.  The animals, stalls and random coins are represented by tiles.  Coins on tiles are worth the same as the disks.  Each player has their own board to play on, which represents their zoo.  These are not the full thickness of a normal game board, but they are certainly sufficient.  There are wooden tile racks, referred to as “delivery trucks”, which are also included.  Each rack holds three tiles.  There is no real “awesomeness factor”, but the art is certainly of good quality.  If there was one drawback, it was that some of the players had trouble telling which animals were which on opposing zoo boards.  While the instructions discuss setting out three draw piles for the tiles, a draw bag is included so that is handled.

The game is played over a series of rounds.  The end is determined by how long the tiles last, which is impacted by how many players are in the game, and how full the trucks are upon delivery.  On their turn, each player chooses to perform one (not all) of three actions:
·         Draws a tile from the bag, reveals it to be an animal, coin or vending stall, and places it on a delivery truck;
·         Picks up a delivery truck, which may or may not be full.
·         Performs one of several money actions, which are primarily about expanding your zoo and moving animals around.
The catch is that once you have taken a truck, you get no more turns this round!  That’s where the biggest decision point is:  do I wait to receive a full truck, or do I take a truck with tiles I want early to make sure I get those tiles.  (Hmmm, or do I take the truck early to make sure you don’t get the tiles you want!)

Image by Chris Norwood
After everyone has taken a truck, everyone simultaneously places their tiles: animals in their pens, vending stalls on vending sites, and coins in with the money they already have.  If you have a male and a female, they immediately produce a baby – a free animal!  If you don’t have space for any animals or stalls they go in the barn.  Of course, you can only have one animal type in each pen, which is what drives the truck decision I mentioned above.  Now the next round begins.

After the game is over, points are scored.  Points are given for how well you have filled your pens and built vending stalls.  Points are taken away for animals and vending stalls stuck in your barn. 

As you can see from the theme and the overview of the rules, this is a game well suited for children and those who dislike direct confrontation.  As a result, it makes a good casual game, but it makes a superb family game.  I completely understand why this game won the Spiel des Jahres.  It is definitely a game that I will be pulling out for certain friends of ours for whom building a zoo would make a fun game. 

There are expansions, quite a few of which I own but haven’t played.  When I get a chance I will review them.

Vital Statistics:

                Ages:                     8 and up (little ones will want in; they may need Mom or Dad)
                Time:                     45 minutes
                Players:                 3-5

It’s Your Move!