Monthly Archives: June 2013

On Being a Loser

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.

– Reiner Knizia

I don’t have the original source for the above quote, but it gets thrown around so much that I just have to believe he did say or write it at some point. And I have to agree with it.

I’ve never understood the traditional quadrennial sacking of international football managers when their teams fail to win the World Cup. I mean, seriously – there are 32 teams at the beginning of the finals. They can’t all expect to win. That’s just misjudged expectation. And so it is when I sit down to play a game, be it face-to-face or (increasingly these days) online. We can’t all win. But we can have a really good time trying.

I’ve just finished my first ever game (against someone who isn’t me, anyway) of Vlaada Chvátil’s Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization. I was playing against Olly in a 2-player game on Boardgaming Online. It certainly wasn’t Olly’s first game, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to win… but I wasn’t quite expecting the utter demolition I experienced. Final culture score? 245–108.

Through the Ages is an utterly brutal game, where a mistake in round 3 or 4 can still be haunting you (and ruining your civilisation) in round 20. Being as inexperienced as I am, I made a few mistakes through Age I (the first third of the game), which led to me falling behind in pretty much everything later on. The major problem was falling behind in military strength, and during Age III, Olly suddenly bumped up to pretty much double my military strength and engaged me in a War Over Culture. (He said he was actually being kind by not waiting for Air Force technology to come out, which would have allowed him to attack me with “Napoleon in a plane”. Kind, maybe, but it still nearly wiped me out, score-wise.) I hadn’t really been competitive up to that point, but at least our culture scores had been on the same order of magnitude. Not after that war. I think it was something horrific like 106–13.

Not in a plane, but still a very effective military leader

Not in a plane, but still a very effective military leader

But the whole thing was fun. Really enjoyable. Yes, it felt like I’d been punching myself repeatedly in the face for most of the game, before Olly came and kicked me in the back of the head later on… but it was fun. And that’s the key thing.

Take Galaxy Trucker (another brutal Chvátil game, come to think of it…). Yes, players with more experience are more likely to win, but the real fun of the game isn’t in the winning – it’s in watching your ships being blasted to bits, reduced to a single, drifting crew cabin, hoping and praying it doesn’t reach open space and need those engines it doesn’t even have. It’s a game that encourages you to actively enjoy failing. Well… it depends on your demeanour, I suppose. But the Shut Up & Sit Down guys love the brutality.

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I love playing games. I play to win, and winning’s a little icing on the Grand Cake of Game, but I enjoy it either way, win or lose.

Olly and I are just kicking off another Through the Ages now, so it’s a good thing I don’t mind losing…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 June 2013

I try not to judge a book by its cover, but there are a few things that can put me off something straight away. One of those things is the letter “s” being replaced by the letter “z”, as in “crazy kidz”, “hot dawgz” or Dungeon Petz. I simply cannot fathom why this game isn’t called Dungeon Pets; at no point in the rulebook are the pets referred to as “petz”. If it was an attempt to increase the game’s air of zaniness, it really wasn’t necessary. This is a game in which families of imps run pet shopz… sorry, pet shops… in which they raise monsters, exhibit them in an eating contest and sell them to a passing dungeon lord who wants the angriest, most disease-ridden pet in the shop. Meanwhile, your imps are shovelling pet-poop and being sent to hospital after trying to contain angry pets. This is not your typical Eurogame.

As you might expect with a game from Vlaada Chvátil, Dungeon Petz is not a simple game… but as you might also expect with a game from Vlaada Chvátil, the complexity isn’t a problem because it ties in so well with the theme. If you want to buy a cage, you need to send at least two imps because a cage is too heavy for one imp alone. If one of your pets ends up with a disease “need”, they can shake it off unless they’re living in piles of their own excrement… in fact, it could be someone else’s excrement if you haven’t had a chance to clean out the cage in between pets, because you can’t clean out an occupied cage unless you have the Long-Handled Shovel. There are a lot of rules, but they’re sensible like that.

During the final round. I've taken quite a commanding lead over the course of the game, but it won't last.

During the final round. I’ve taken quite a commanding lead over the course of the game, but it won’t last.

This was a new game to all four of us playing (me, John Sh, Olly and Michael), so no one had the advantage of prior experience. It did mean a full rules explanation, which took about forty minutes, but this game is so fun that even the rules rundown was a good laugh. I took an early lead by managing to snag a couple of pets that would do well in the first exhibitions and sales, but I failed to bring in enough of my imps’ overseas relatives to effectively manage the poop situation that was building up in my cages. My imps became horribly overworked, ending up either out at the market or making sure my playful pets were entertained (a cage with a slide just wasn’t enough for some of mine)… or, even worse, being hospitalised by a rampaging pet.

The upshot of this was that I did really nicely out of the exhibitions and pet sales throughout the game, but then the final scoring came. This basically judges the quality of your pet shop based on things like the number of pets you have, how clean your cages are, how much food you have, etc. I hadn’t quite twigged the importance of this final scoring; for some reason, I’d thought it would be a sort of “icing on the cake” scoring round, rather than my brutal downfall. I scored no points at all in either of the two mini-exhibitions that make up the final scoring, pushing me from first place to last, and propelling Michael to a commanding win. He’d built up a huge collection of artefacts from the market, and he still had a pet left. This was much more impressive than my empty imp burrow, my empty cages full of pet-poop and my two imps stuck out on the market board (one on the selling platform, one sent broken and bruised to hospital during the final round).

I can’t recall the exact final scores, but I know Michael had 53 points and we were all within 10 points of that. In true Chvátil style, it felt like a victory of sorts to have reached the end without killing off a pet or getting zero points. Dungeon Petz was a huge amount of fun, and now I know the rules and the general flow and rhythm of the game, I’d be delighted to play it again.

Next was a true classic of Eurogaming – El Grande. Published in 1995 (making it the same age as that other Euro classic, Settlers of Catan), El Grande still retains a huge charm, not just because of its enormous cardboard castle and outlandishly huge “king” pawn, but because a lot of games have since borrowed ideas and mechanics from El Grande, making it interesting to see how these concepts originated. To me, the most obvious descendant is Dominant Species, but I’m sure there are plenty of other area-control games I haven’t played that owe just as much to El Grande.

On the surface, it’s a very simple game: you can only place caballeros in territories adjacent to the king, and nothing can ever happen in the region containing the king… that’s 50% of the game in two short phrases. The real meat comes from the “power” cards, for which there’s a sort of bidding war at the beginning of each round. The highest number card played gets to choose the first power card to use (and gets to place caballeros first), but gets fewest caballeros from the provinces (out of play) into their court (available for placement). The power cards are tricksy little things, with abilities ranging from “move the king” to “all your opponents lose all the caballeros in their court back to their provinces”.

Test

My blue grande and caballeros dominating Altkastilien.

At least, that’s what we assumed they said. We were playing with Camo’s copy which – by some unknown mechanism of linguistic misfortune – happens to be in German. That meant that every round began with revealing the (fairly wordy) power cards, and then carefully looking up their translations in the printed-out English rulebook. I did German GCSE at school, but that was seventeen years ago and I’ve got pretty rusty since then, so I couldn’t offer anything much speedier than the rulebook consultation. I did manage to pick up on a few things in German that Camo hadn’t spotted while looking up the cards in English, but equally I got several things quite, quite wrong so my net translative worth was roughly zero.

Of the five of us playing – me, Graham, John Sh, Olly and Camo – only Graham and Camo had played El Grande before. And none of us had played in German. I struggled to grasp the rhythm of the game until after the first scoring round, so I was never going to win, but I had a very good middle third to my game. Camo had described his favourite strategy (each of the three scoring rounds is preceded by three playing rounds, so if you play your 2 card on the first and 1 card on the second, you’ll be first to play a card on the third round, in which case you play your 13 and grab the “move the king” card to consolidate your position in the run-up to scoring), which I put to good use in rounds 4–6, managing to score 10 points for Old Castile (Altkastilien on our board) no fewer than four times. That pushed me up into the lead for a few moments, but ultimately experience won through. Camo pipped Graham to victory by a single point, with John and me a little behind and Olly trailing around the corner of the board. There’s no sensible way to record the actual scores, given that the board had no numbers around the score track (a huge usability error), but at the end of the day it’s only the relative positions that count.

Graham had to get going, so John pulled out his copy of Village, with the recently acquired Village Inn expansion. I’d only played Village once before, and it had been six months since that one play, so the full rules rundown for Camo (a Village virgin) was also much appreciated by me. It reminded me of my one overwhelming problem with Village though – colour recognition. The game revolves around the collection of small wooden cubes, in five colours: orange, pink, brown, green and black. Under the lights at Newcastle Gamers, I couldn’t tell the difference between the orange and pink cubes, and the browns weren’t far off. The cube colours printed on the board weren’t any better either. Apparently, the colours are easily distinguished in natural daylight, but I do wonder if there could have been a better selection of cube colours by the publisher. No matter. The repeated questioning by the colour-afflicted (Camo and me) didn’t seem to bother the colour-accurate (John and Olly), and we made it through without major incident.

The Inn expansion adds a couple of extra buildings: the titular Inn and its accompanying Brewery. Alongside the Inn sit three small decks of cards representing characters that one of your family members could meet in the Inn, from the Artist to the Nun (I don’t know what the Nun is doing down the pub, but she seems to have a thing for brown cubes). If you have the requisite beer or money, you can “hire” their services, which might render an instant perk at the time you choose to play their card, or it might be a bonus for the end-of-game scoring.

I don’t know if it was just expansion-fever seizing my mind, but I spent a huge amount of time producing beer at the Brewery and spending it in the Inn to hire all sorts of characters, picking up perk after scoring bonus after perk. I completely ignored the “travelling the world” and “politics” sections of the board, choosing instead to rely on pushing some of my family into the clergy while the rest made things to sell and wasted their lives in the pub. John, meanwhile, visited every single location on the “travelling” map, while Camo had a family member in the top slot of the politics track for much of the game, converting money into victory points at an alarming rate. Olly was playing a well balanced game, with plenty of sales to the marketplace guaranteeing him some decent end-game scoring.

Test

I was genuinely impressed with how well the Brewery (bottom-left) and Inn (bottom-right) were integrated with the main board – you wouldn’t notice they were overlaid unless you were looking for it.

I didn’t think I was playing that well, but I managed to pick up the Artist at the Inn, who provides a substantial boost for scoring dead family members in the chronicle. Once I’d made that acquisition, I started the process of killing off my family. It’s easier said than done, especially in the way that you have to kill off all your generation 1 meeples before you can start killing your generation 2 meeples; it can be quite the little dance just to get your family member in the right place to end up in the chronicle rather than an anonymous grave. It took longer than anyone expected to fill up the chronicle, thus triggering the end of the game, so I managed to pick up some other bonus scoring cards at the Inn too (the Manciple, giving 2 points per goods type I had left at the end of the game; and the Peasant Woman, who gave an extra point for each bag of grain I had at the end of the game – I maximised this by picking up and playing the Farmhand, who immediately fills your farmyard up to the maximum 5 grain). Camo spent much of the final few rounds spending gold in the politics track to convert to 3 points each time.

The final space in the chronicle was filled and the final reckoning came. Although I had no points from politics or travelling, I did have a priest in the church and some good sales from the marketplace (which had again been boosted by an Inn card perk – this time the Barker, who allowed me to sell to not only the people in the market stalls, but also to those in the queue). The Inn cards tipped me over the edge though, with 6 points from the Manciple, 5 from the Peasant Woman and 6 extra points from the Artist (18 points for 5 dead in the chronicle, rather than 12 points without the Artist). I took a narrow, 2-point victory over Olly, somewhere around 65–63, with John and Camo a little way behind.

I enjoyed the Village Inn expansion, although it felt like some of the cards were potentially over-powerful. It’s yet another aspect to add to a game with several paths already to follow, so I was surprised to win having completely neglected two whole areas of the game; perhaps this is an indication that the game swings heavily towards the Inn, where I’d spent so much time. It was also a very long game of Village. Most plays clock in under 90 minutes, whereas we played for more like 150. I can’t say if that was down to the expansion (I don’t really see how it would be) or just a very drawn-out endgame with everyone trying to kill their families off in just the right places (more likely, I think).

That brought us to 1am, so that was the end of the night for me. Highlight of the evening was Dungeon Petz – just really, really good fun and a hell of a brain-testing game to boot.

All photos by Olly, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!