Some recent games, September 2010

Well, consider the lesson learned. If you’re going to start a blog, don’t stop writing for it barely a month after starting it. The play I mentioned earlier has been keeping me pretty busy, and I’m quite proud of how it’s going so far. Because of all the rehearsals, I can’t usually write until the weekend, and when the weekend rolls around, I mostly want to just spend time with my son and wife. So all that to say, I’ve not forgotten either of my readers. Thanks guys!

Some games I’ve played lately that you should check out.

Toe to Toe Nuk’lr Combat With the Rooskies – This is a little game by Victory Point Games. VPG is a small-press publisher, with a fairly extensive line of games, all of which come in plastic bags and feature very spartan productions. Put it this way: I have to provide my own die for the game. Most notable is that VPG carries a lot of games meant to played solo. Toe to Toe is one such game.

The game comes with a paper map, a small deck of cards, and maybe two dozen counters. The player takes the role of a B2 Bomber pilot. There are four different bombing runs to make over Russia, where you will drop nukes on selected targets. It sounds pretty dark, and it is, but it’s played in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way, and it’s all in good fun.

I really enjoyed this little game. A single game plays in about 15-20 minutes, and you can string together several missions into a campaign. There are four difficulty levels to play on. A lot of board games (Arkham Horror and Agricola being two I’ve already mentioned) have a great solo version, but these tend to have a lot of overhead and tedious housekeeping to keep them working. Toe to Toe sets itself apart by playing quickly, with almost no setup or overhead. It has a small footprint too; you could play it on an airline tray table. And yet, in that 15 minutes, it pulls together some cool story-telling, using straightforward mechanics and excellent graphic design. The only downside is that the game lacks some variety. I imagine that I’ll hit a point where I have basically seen everything it can offer. But it’s definitely worth a look, and VPG’s other solo games now have piqued my interest.

Brass- Brass is another entry by the famous Martin Wallace, designer of the classic Euro, Age of Steam. I’m not particularly familiar with many of his games. The only two I’ve played are Steam (based on Age of Steam) and Automobile, both of which I liked. Wallace games tend to have labyrinthine scoring systems, lots of interlocking systems, and fairly strong economic themes.

Well, Brass has all of those things, but the labyrinthine scoring is the one that stood out to me the most. Players are entrepreneurs in the English Industrial Revolution, and they form networks of canals and rails to ship iron, coal, and cotton to other cities and to distant markets. Depending on what facilities you build, what you ship, and your network, you get points. After a couple of rounds of this, the highest score wins.

The central mechanic of the game isn’t too complex. Players have a hand of cards, which can be used in numerous ways. I really liked this aspect of it, as it offered some flexibility while still limiting choices and adding tension. What I wasn’t as sold on was the insane scoring. Iron, coal, and cotton all ship and score differently, both from each other, and even from themselves at different points in the game. The end of the game was a bonanza of end-game scoring, which is something I’m not usually a big fan of. Everything in the game is worth some amount of points, and by the end of my game I was thoroughly boggled as to what did what at what point in the game. It’s not so much that the game has tough rules, it’s that each rule has numerous exceptions, many of which don’t always make sense without knowing the theme. That’s the boat I found myself in.

It’s a compelling game though. I really liked the card-play system, and I’m sure I’d like a second game more. I also admit that I wasn’t in a great headspace when I played the game. It was late, and I wasn’t expecting to play it. Usually with a monster like this one, you need to prep your brain. Definitely check it out if you enjoy complex economic games, but be prepared to suck mightily the first time through.

Founding Fathers– This is a game where players take the role of different writers of the US Constitution. Each player has a hand of cards that represent different delegates to the convention, and each card can be used in several ways. You can send guys to debate, have them vote on an issue, or trigger the event listed on the card.

I liked this one a lot. The card-play is sort of cribbed from 1960: The Making of a President and Twilight Struggle (more on that one in a bit). The difference is that this game is meant for 3-5 players, as opposed to just two. While a game about the constitutional convention feels like it should have a lot of wheeling and dealing, with lots of metagaming, Founding Fathers puts a lot of that in the cards. I sort of which that metagaming was still there in a stronger way, but it may be. I’d have to play again to make sure.

It seems really promising though. If you are a fan of US history, this is a great choice if you don’t mind tackling all of the different card events.

Twilight Struggle- I’ve saved the best for last. Twilight Struggle is a terrific game, one that I would give my highest recommendation to. Like Founding Fathers, the gameplay is mainly card-based. The difference is that this is a two-player game depicting the Cold War. Each side (the US and the USSR) has cards that favor them. If you have an event that favors the other side, you can still play the card to do something else, but the event still takes place. It’s a tricky thing to have a hand full of cards that belong to the other side.

The rules aren’t very complex, but the cards make for a wildly different game every time. You find yourself reliving events from the Cold War, like the constant Arab-Israeli wars, Olympic Boycotts, various summits, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The way the cards interact has to be seen to be believed. There are huge swings of fortune (those who dislike luck had best be warned), and the game tells a rich narrative.

Your first game will be rocky, but this is a fantastic game, one that everyone needs to try at least twice. The first game will be a write-off, but the second will absolutely sing. This is a great one. Definitely check it out.

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