Another Christmas has come and gone, and three new board and card games were left in my stocking. None have hit the table yet, but I figured it was worth a post to present my pre-play thoughts.
I’ve played plenty of this trick-taking game on Brettspielwelt, and I already know that I like it a lot. At the start of the hand, you pick one of the suits (colours, actually) to be your “pain” suit, and winning cards of that colour in a trick is a mark against you, while taking cards of any other suit scores positive points. While skillful play sucks a bit of the fun out, it is a real Schadenfreude game, as you try to stick the overly ambitious with pain cards. Mmmmmm…
Sticheln is not quite of the same quality as Ninety-Nine, but it all works out well in the end. Ninety-Nine is ideal with three, while Sticheln hits its stride with four and five players. While the game technically goes up to 8 players, pacing and chaos and the ability to play most hands decently all get a bit wonky around the 5-6 player mark.
As an added bonus, having a durable linen deck that runs from 0-20 in six different suits means that I can try before I buy a vast array of other card games, although in some cases I will have to mock up some supplementary props.
When I looked at the rules to Taj Mahal before, there were a couple of elements that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. I gave it a couple of plays against the bots over on Stan Hilinski’s Gamebox, but my experiences, as you might guess, were a tad random. Nevertheless, I liked what I saw, and when Rio Grande announced that they were reprinting this classic, I had to get a copy. I had faith in my ability to get past my difficulties.
I don’t know if it was having diagrams and game components this time, or knowing more about games and mechanisms now, or if I just reread the rules on a good day. When I read the rules on Christmas day, though, something just clicked, and I think I now see Taj Mahal in all of its glory! It’s probably an instant 9 in my BGG ratings, and a 10 seems inevitable within a few plays. It has even affected how I am going to write my final major series of essays on elegance.
I love the physical production, too. It is right up there with Goa for my favourite physical design of a typical German game. This edition faithfully reproduces the components of the original alea run, except for the box and the alea logo. The board is lavish and colourful, but clear. The tiles and chits are good quality and attractive, if not as thick as some, and I love the departure from the generic player colours (colourblind players may be less enthusiastic). Did I mention hordes of miniature Indian palaces? Franz Vohwinkel outdid himself with this one. It’s a shame that the full-size cards are smooth, rather than linen-finished—the only thing barring Taj Mahal from production perfection—but that was to be expected given TM’s alea heritage.
I usually hold off on buying the hot new boardgames. The last time I can think of was my first game order, which contained Goa and Saint Petersburg hot off the presses. Now I prefer seeing what the major complaints about a game are once the new game shine has worn off a little. I decided to make an exception for RftG after other members of my game group said that they would like to see a little more variety in the types of games that we play.
Race’s provenance as Tom Lehmann‘s version of the Puerto Rico card game, started before Andreas Seyfarth decided to take a swing at it himself. I play Seyfarth’s version, San Juan, on BSW sometimes, and I’ve warming to it over time after a rather “meh” first impression. My largest remaining complaint about San Juan is how few truly distinct strategies are available. Scuttlebutt has it that Race addresses this issue, while providing enough twists on the San Juan concept to keep it fresh. What the hey I thought.
I’ve done a couple of solo plays over the last couple of nights, getting a feel for the game. So far, I am happy with my decision. RftG seems to be a decent middleweight strategy game.
The luck factor is non-trivial, but acceptable. The variety of 6-cost developments—roughly equivalent to the 6-cost buildings in San Juan—is interesting, and there may be strategies that do not revolve around 6-costers, too. Race puts shipping goods for VPs back into the mix, while it is absent from San Juan. I think it is the extra dimension that leaves me a little flat about San Juan.
Many have praised Race for it’s design and card art, but I would say that both are functional, but unexceptional. The layout is good in principle, but is flawed in execution. with small icons that must be hard to read from across the gaming table. Race does swim in icons, too, but there are extensive player reference cards, however. Further, most of the common ones are intuitive, and the less common ones are explained on the cards.
The art, meanwhile, is inoffensive, but uninspiring and muddy-looking. Again, I think more could have been done to make cards distinctive from across the table. I don’t want to exaggerate, though. While I complain, I don’t know if either of these areas is a serious problem. All areas of graphic design would have benefited from better use of contrast, though, and the cards just aren’t as good as they could have been.
The game box is unusually large for a large deck of cards and some VP chits. This seems to be a product of how large the reference cards are and (I suspect) an effort to increase the game’s shelf presence. It’s not something that bothers me much, but know some people find inflated box sizes annoying. The cardboard box insert is functional, and is not just the standard plain white, either. Dividing the main well in half would have been nice, but, again, it’s no big deal.
The big, pleasant surprise for me is that the cards are linen-finished. They should wear well, although the black edges may force me to sleeve the cards anyway.
What games did you get for Christmas? What do you think of them at first blush? What games did you want that failed to make their way under your tree?