Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches (Game Reviews)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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My partner Katy’s made a great many board game trades recently. All the T.I.M.E. Stories are gone (!), but as I have a review of them coming out elsewhere soon, I shan’t talk about them here. Instead, gather ’round to hear the tale of how we ditched Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches.

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PUERTO RICO

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How could we get rid of such an august pillar of Eurogaming? Fairly easily, as it happens. I never wanted to actually play Puerto Rico. I had a positive aversion to the game, and would only participate if someone else in the party really wanted to. Katy thought for a good long while that this meant I hated ‘role selection’ games generally. I think that actually I just find Puerto Rico especially tedious.

I’m finding it hard to identify why Puerto Rico was mechanically such a drag, because I haven’t opened the box in ages–in fact I last played it when we were only somewhat into gaming. Perhaps this means that I should have given it another go, but honestly I wasn’t eager enough to do so to overcome Katy’s manic urge to pack a game the instant a trade’s accepted. Puerto Rico also isn’t considered a good two-player game. We didn’t have the Official two-player version, and you have to jury-rig a sub-optimal variant. Thus it’s not great for our two-person household.

Puerto Rico‘s art’s acceptable, and its components are fine as far as quality goes, but I’m never over the fact that the basic game concept is plantation slavery, and no one thinks that’s weird. That is weird. Calling the black-person-coloured little tokens ‘colonists’ (…) can’t really sufficiently abstract the game from its obvious historical inspiration, especially when you’re directing your ‘colonists’ to do all the productive actions of slave labour. That’s basically necessary in order for you to play. The game thus positions the player as historic overseer and omnipotent controller of fully-objectified workers rather than as participant.

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They could have TRIED, you know? The colour of the tokens could have been green or blue rather than mahogany. ‘Puerto Rico’ could have been a historical location associated with colonists rather than slaves, or it could have been an invented fantastic location. The game’s available, necessary actions could have elided options like ‘work this plantation for me’. The underlying mechanics of colonialism might still have been at work (and ‘Eurogaming as a collection of colonial tropes and engines’ needs interrogated and deconstructed in its own right), but active racism might thus be thwarted.

Of course a racist male relative made a meeeeeal of this when we played because he’s the type of guy who thinks it’s funny to ‘get my goat’. This made the creepy content not just ‘Erin being over-sensitive’, but skin-crawlingly inescapable. Sure, it’s just a game. But I’m not keen on the idea of ‘Holocaust Monopoly’ either?

I do think the conceptual underpinnings made me less willing to engage with an otherwise loosely themed and mechanically ‘basic’ game. I don’t see Puerto Rico as all that similar to Race for the Galaxy, one of my all-time favs. I know they share a developmental lineage, but to me, that’s evidence that Puerto Rico was a key evolutionary building-block we’ve now rather moved beyond.

A friend was shocked that a game this tone-deaf/racist came out in 2002, and that that’s not *the thing* people say about Puerto Rico, which is, let me remind you, *the 12th most popular game on BGG*. Guess that’s what happens when a hobby’s pretty white&male, not self-reflexive and doesn’t give many fucks about inclusion?

As board gaming expands as a hobby, gaining more of a foothold in a broad base of casual players (exactly the sort of people who’ll be introduced to Puerto Rico as a classic game), this is really the kind of thing we’ve got to start critically examining. Are you going to comfortably teach Puerto Rico to your black friend who’s come to the game cafe to hang out with you and maybe get into this? If not, are you then comfortable playing it in her absence?

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POWER GRID

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I struggle to see Power Grid as a Eurogame, really. To me it feels like a representative of the better class of ‘standard American board games’. I almost want to pop Ticket to Ride and Turn and Taxis, both of which I like better, in that category as well.

The theme is well-integrated, and while there’s nothing terribly objectionable about providing Germany with a better power infrastructure than your competitors (other than a demonstration of the massive logistical waste endemic to capitalist competition, I guess), there’s nothing terrible compelling about it either. The resource competition mechanism annoys me a little. I don’t tend to like petty, in-game push-pull shit with other players all that much. I’m fine with competing on a larger scale, but squabbling over resources is kind of distasteful. At ‘about 120 min’ (per BGG), Power Grid is rather long for what it is. It drags somewhat, and there’s not all that much to do in terms of making choices. The box is huge, and as shelf space is a finite commodity, that’s not a plus.

I don’t really know how Power Grid‘s ranked 23rd, other than that it’s not that difficult, so a lot of people must play it and then rank it highly? I suppose it’s a decent intro to more complex gaming and thus has a place in the ‘gaming lifecycle’. Peoples’ interests get more developed and specialised as they get more into gaming, and they get better at games generally. What initially seemed difficult and absorbing might now amount to two hours of going through the motions. Katy also changed her mind about gaming and themes some time after we bought Power Grid, and started to hunger for games with more enticing subject matter. We didn’t play Power Grid that much after we started to find games better suited to our particular developing palates, and I’d be a little surprised if people who’ve gotten deeper into the hobby find themselves turning to it all that often, except as newbie ‘seduction’ fare.

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DIXIT

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People in board gaming have the lowest art standards, I swear to god. Everyone raves about Dixit‘s cards and they’re… fine? You know, a bit fun. Sort of hotel paintingy, but you could almost see some of them on the cover of a mediocre collection of Angela Carter reprints.

Dixit has a simple mechanic. People have hands of cards with mysterious semi-surrealist paintings on them. They go in turns to say a clue, which they hope will lead one and only one other person to guess their card correctly. Everyone else then chooses and lays down one of their cards, and everyone tries to guess the ‘correct’ card that inspired the initial clue. Points are awarded to the clue-giver for having one person guess, and not awarded for garnering either no correct responses or too many. Other players whose contributions fool people into thinking their submission was the one the clue related to receive points. Correct guesses also get you points.

Gameplay is fairly fun, and I like that Dixit relies on intuitive, social intelligences and communal clue-giving. It works more like charades or something than a traditional Eurogame.

The problem becomes, who the fuck do you play Dixit with? In any group of people gathered together to play games, it is really easy, due to the uneven nature of social relationships, to clue one and only one person into most hints. People have varying degrees of shared references, and know one another from different places. It’s not fair for me to play with my girlfriend Katy and anyone else: a giant clam comes up, and I could play badly on purpose and say ‘pearl’, but I can also just say ‘Harry Sullivan’. Katy knows Doctor Who as well as I do and will definitely remember the time in “Genesis of the Daleks” when the companion of that name was memorably almost eaten by a giant clam. If we play with my sister, that favours me, because I know both of them better than they know one another. If we play with Katy’s work friend, that favours Katy. No composition of people won’t be lop-sided. You’d have to all know one another fairly poorly and not have lots in common (in which case why are you playing board games, how excruciating) or all know one another about equally well and share about an equal degree of cultural context. I guess I could save Dixit for a reunion of my uni housemates, but even in that ideal scenario–I still have a bestie? He and I would fucking own? If you played with two couples the advantage would still be with the person better friends with one member of the couple. Dixit might be a uniquely awkward way of making that sort of thing obvious.

I guess you could deliberately try to play Dixit badly by eschewing all ‘personal’ clues, but that sounds difficult to do and like an unpleasant play experience. A game that requires you to fuck it up so it’s functional is a bit broken. Also it’s for 3-6, which makes it not great for our two person (occasionally ‘plus variable numbers of guests’) household.

Maybe Dixit works better for people without really developed shared bodies of knowledge. People without fandoms or anything like them, essentially. But it’s a board game. Played by nerds. So good luck with that, I guess.

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STAR TREK: FIVE-YEAR MISSION

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When I first got this game, the fast pace and relentless cascades of consequences annoyed the hell out of me. We were still often bad at it when we got rid of it. We couldn’t play it that much because it’s for 3-7 people, and we are most often a party of two. Perhaps if we’d played it more we would have gotten speedier, but it’s a dice-based game, so while there are a lot of decisions to make, there’s also a ton of luck involved. We never played it with more than three people–it might have been easier if we had, though of course given that every person must add another challenge to the stack when they begin their turn, more crew members means more problems. However it would also mean more of the die that solve problems in play, so I think ultimately it’d have been in our favour.

I don’t think we were ever in agreement about how collaborative Five-Year Mission was supposed to be. I thought fairly fully, i.e. you can make suggestions to the currently-placing player, whereas Katy thought that was out of order.

Because it necessitated an additional player, this got brought out as a sort of ‘party game’ when we were visited by people who also liked Star Trek: a stressful, random barrage of shit happening while you ran out of time and your beloved ship was destroyed. Welcome to our house, I guess.

Five-Year Mission combined a theme I’m deeply interested in with no plot to speak of, random dice-rolling over engine-building and decisions, timed elements and threat-addition: my only hate sprung from my only love. It was like a pizza topped with sardines, or an ice cream sundae where the chocolate scoop is actually just a big shit. Frustrating. Unhygienic.

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THE WITCHES

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The designer of the excellent Discworld: Ankh Morpork also brought us The Witches, and both games’ theming is on-point. Fun, detail-heavy, integral to the mechanic, worked through the components and play, developed, pleasing to the fan but not alienating for the novice: everything you want theming to be in this type of game.

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It’s unfair to compare the mechanics of The Witches to those of its sister-game, D: A-M, because D: A-M is one of the most mechanically exciting, promising titles in the past several years, and few things are in its league. But if I were going to do that unfair thing, Witches would be a bit of a let-down. It’s fine, pleasant even, but a bit too dice-rolly and luck based. The strategy, card-based, deck-building element is the most successful component of the game, but even that is very ‘luck of the draw’.

The Witches is a goodish game I would happily have played more, but it was never destined to be a perennial favourite, and I wasn’t that sorry to lose it.

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WHAT’S NEW: 

So what did we trade away all those games to try?

A Study in Emerald
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Boardgame (2002) (not, unfortunately, a game with almost the exact same name, which she thought she was purchasing)
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1981)
Near and Far
Marrying Mr Darcy
Lords of Waterdeep
Innovation
Coup
Citadels
Artefacts, Inc
Android: Netrunner

A few of these Katy also found going used/at good rates. One (Near&Far) she bought full price, and on the day it came out (she really liked Above&Below). But in general, this is just the trading system working out well for us.

Hive (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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Everyone in board gaming goes on about how high-quality X’s of Whatever’s cardboard bits are, but Hive doesn’t fuck around: it has thick, pleasing Bakelite tiles that stack nicely in the (admittedly shoddy) plastic insert. (My edition does, at least: I know there are some wood ones going as well.) The insect-etching colours aren’t my fav, but overall: noice.

I can overlook the accompanying weird, 90s plastic tile-bag that looks like a soccer ball or a Bop-It accessory. It’s a good thing to include though, for portability’s sake. I just wish it wasn’t quite so Toys R Us.

The game mechanic involves simple strategy. This will explain the rules, though you don’t really need to know them to follow along. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit chessy. Not like the expansive, tactical/logistic chess midgame, more like the tight, ‘move in for the kill’ endgame. Which isn’t my favourite part of chess, really? If I sat down and did endgame puzzles I’d get better I guess, but it wouldn’t be *fun*, exactly. It’s this chessy quality that makes my girlfriend, who is very good at all kinds of the trad Euro games Hive doesn’t really feel like–games that certainly involve thinking and some planning–really dislike Hive. She’s not super-practiced at the ‘causal chain’ thinking chess demands (which might be a native leaning or a learned skill, or both). If you don’t enjoy or have a knack for that, if you’re really more a Eurogames person than someone who could really go for a round of checkers when the mood takes them, there’s a chance Hive won’t do it for you.

Neither of us find Hive that fun–and not just because of the win-imbalance. For me, there’s not enough to do in this game. If I wanted this sort of strategy experience I’d play chess (or I would if bloody anyone in the house wanted to play chess with me*), or maybe like, Chinese Checkers? That’s the sort of game this feels like, and it is interesting to see someone developing games along those lines, even if the result isn’t really for me. The rounds are quick, which was both a bonus and a sign that the game wouldn’t hold my interest. If they weren’t quick, it’d probably be due to analysis paralysis. I feel like if I really learned Hive I could potentially develop strategies etc., but I’m not grabbed enough for that. Hive doesn’t have chess’s complexity, glam lore or variants to draw you in.

VERDICT: We traded it on for ‘Hey! That’s my fish!’ I was not involved in this decision. We’ll see, mate. We’ll see.

* I don’t miss chess in a ‘casual game once in a while’ way, though? Either I’m in a period and situation where I’m playing 5 games a day with people around me or I’m not. I don’t really want the online experience or a game once a month. I don’t NEED chess, either. I think that part of my brain gets, for the most part, satisfied by Eurogaming. But it’s odd–I do feel I have a certain quality of itchy, compulsive thinking these hobbies answer in a way my chiefest pursuits (reading, watching, writing, cooking) don’t, really. I sometimes get the vague sense that it’s ‘healthy’ for me personally to do some gaming, that it gives me a feeling of Having Done Something which is not to be dismissed when you have depression and honestly often don’t. Accomplishment breeds accomplishment.** Maybe.

** I have always thought this and then I ran smack into mad, manic-depressive Dickens saying exactly the same thing in a letter and thought ‘oh christ,’ so I’m er, more aware it may be self-justifying bullshit, at this point.

Battle Line (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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NUMBERS NUMBERS NUMBERS!!!!

Hey, kids! Do you like NUMBERS??? Just pulling them from a deck and putting ’em down like it’s 1850 and good games haven’t been invented yet?? Well you’re in LUCK!!

Okay, that’s not really fair, but it’s also: why we’re ditching the highly-rated Battle Line.

According to Board Game Geek:

“Two opponents face off across a ‘battle line’ and attempt to win the battle by taking 5 of 9 flags or 3 adjacent flags. Flags are decided by placing cards into 3 card poker-type hands on either side of the flag (similar to straight flush, 3 of a kind, straight, flush, etc). The side with the highest ‘formation’ of cards wins the flag.”

There’s definitely strategy and calculation in this game. You’re making plans, you’re paying attention to what your opponent is doing and what’s on the board, etc. It’s a fairly cognitive game in these respects. But for all that, at its core, I would say Battle Line is about luck: whether you’re going to happen to draw the cards you need, and in time, or whether your opponent will.

And despite the (thin) theming and the possibly-disruptive tactics cards, it remains an essentially dry game, far more concerned with math and logic than with Alexander the Great. This review has it right. I’m beginning to think I need to check whether Reiner Knizia was involved with titles before we commit to them. His name seems almost a sure-fire harbinger of gamed I’ll dislike for variable yet somehow math-and-theming related reasons.

A final word on the formations element:

I kept checking back with the thin paper rule sheet to determine the relative value of the various tactical arrangements of cards. I think I’d have enjoyed this game significantly better (and learned it markedly faster) if the box had included two of those little rule-reminder tiles.

I briefly mentioned tactics cards above. There’s a secondary deck you can draw from each turn instead of the ‘numbers’ deck. This consists of tactics cards that may totally destroy your opponent on a given flag or may not help you much. The incentive to fuck with tactics cards, however, is low. Your opponent can only lay down one more than you do, and if you take but don’t play these cards they just clog up your hand. Taking them slightly diminishes your chances of getting regular cards you really need, while playing them potentially enables your opponent to pull weird unforeseeable bullshit. There’s an arms race mechanic here, and the Cold War has never been my favourite historical era.

I like the idea of a random element in this tightly corseted game, and I suppose more confident or risk-taking players might want to employ tactics more. All in all, though, playing tactics feels like a bad gamble. This mechanic seemed insufficiently supported by the structure of the rest of the game.

Some game mechanics are kind of counter-intuitive and have a way of making you feel like a total moron. I could not wrap my head around the way flags are decided and closed off in Battle Line for the longest time. My girlfriend is typically great at explaining rules and mechanics to me, yet we had little luck here. It made initial rounds of play really frustrating for me (and a bit embarrassing). I only really got the game after maybe five plays, and by the subsequent and final plays, one or two of which I won, we already knew we were trading the game on. I still don’t love Battle Line, but I finally knew saw what was up, could play competently and competitively, and enjoyed the game, like, at all.

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VERDICT:

I liked Battle Line better by the end and could see its virtues as a mechanical system, but I’m still not sorry to see it go in favour of: Hive.

The Grizzled (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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The Grizzled is a war game like no other. Instead of the colourful abstractions of area-control mechanisms and the imperial grammar of exploration, civilisation building, races and conquest (or alternatively, Risk-ish or Twilight Struggle-esque military-political power-play), here you have a focus on cooperative survival. A small group of friends, French soldiers, attempts to get through a variety of ‘missions’. To do this they must deplete their hands without then encountering too many of the same elements either on cards laid down in the centre or on personal trauma cards, while also contending with a variety of other personal ‘hard knocks’.

Essentially the point is not to ‘win the war’ but to endure it as best you can as a small collective. You survive or don’t together. Your characters don’t have much in the way of pre-set personalities, but they have names. More even than the survival focus, this trauma mechanic fundamentally challenges the morality of war-based gameplay, highlighting the weirdness of what we do when we play at combat by shifting the terms of engagement from the machinations of kings and ministers to the effects of conflict on people. The Grizzled is almost a tight survival horror game.

Yet for all that, it is a game. I’d argue that The Grizzled makes more of an effort to be thoughtful about its premise than many conflict-based entertainments, but I’m not sure whether it’s ultimately more or less respectful to gamify trauma. I’m fairly uncomfortable with the premise of The Grizzled, but unsure whether it’s good or bad that I’m more comfortable playing more ‘abstracted’ conflict games, even ones about real events. The game also teaches you to be less uncomfortable with its set up via repetitive play.

Speaking of actual play, thematics aside, Grizzled is rather awkward. Whether you make the attempt with two players or five, it’s murderous if you take a lot of cards in a round in an attempt to rush through the deck and achieve the win condition. However if you play with two people and take the minimum allowable number of cards each turn, it is, if anything, too winnable: the game feels broken, here. It’s just a matter of going through the motions. Three people playing conservatively can also expect to win pretty easily. This strategy will not avail you with a large group: the difficulty ramps back up to ‘incredibly slaughterous, with no obvious way of alleviating that’.

It’s an odd play length. At thirty minutes, in its small box and with its simplistic mechanism, The Grizzled ought to be a filler game. But its difficulty makes it unsuitable for group play with newbies (and if we have a group over, it’s usually at least part newbie), who want wooed into Eurogaming and don’t exactly relish a collaborative ass-whooping. Experienced players will also find themselves unduly frustrated with newbies’ poor play in this collaborative, tense situation. Due to the difficulty and the subject, The Grizzled can make for high-strung gameplay.

If you want a short game as part of a session of short games, or if you’re looking for a filler game to warm you up, The Grizzled is too glum and low-energy for your purposes, really. It’s not that short, at thirty minutes, but neither would I think of it as a medium-length game. It’s got too simple a mechanic to support being treated as one, too. The game can be a desperate grind–even very conservative play is rigid, not admitting errors. The hard knocks can be fierce, and bad luck there could easily destroy your team. Sure that’s an accurate reflection of the horrors of war, but is it the stuff of a good filler game?

I do really like the rallying speech and sympathy mechanisms: they’re effectual, conceptually pleasing, and add a sweet note of camaraderie and support. However the Christmas Truce card throws me right back into my welter of questions about the ethics of the game, and reminds me unpleasantly of Sainsbury’s dubious recent attempt to use the Christmas Truce (a historical event I’ve always found ridiculously affecting) to sell biscuits. I’m not sure whether The Grizzled is unethical, or so ethical that it reveals a moral issue inherent in a lot of gaming that’s more serious than I customarily want to credit it with being, or both. I am sure it doesn’t quite work for its intended market-niche, or as a game generally.

VERDICT:
We traded it for Mr. Jack Pocket. Vive le trash.