Recent Boardgames

In appraisals, boardgames on May 4th, 2008 at 1:38 am

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to play a few boardgames that are new to me, and this post is a roundup of my thoughts on them.

Parenthetically, I’ll have material for a similar post by the middle of next week. Gil Hova and his lovely wife, Heather, are touring the Maritimes, and they are stopping by for a couple of gaming sessions. They’ve brought a few titles that I want to try out – Thebes, In the Year of the Dragon, and the lesser-known game Industria, first published by Queen several years ago – along with them. I’ll share my impressions of these games soon.

In the meantime, here’s five opinions to chew on.

Leonardo daVinci

This is also a game that I have been able to try out thanks to the Hovas. They were sending me a package anyway and generously included their copy of this Essen 2006 release as a loaner that I’ll be returning in a couple of days.

I won’t be looking to replace it with a copy of my own, either. Leonardo appeals to me a lot more than its “worker placement” predecessors Caylus and Pillars of the Earth, but

  1. The advantage of completing an invention unopposed is too great. The money (=victory points) savings are huge. Openly indicating which inventions a player is trying to accomplish wouldn’t alleviate this problem, but players could make informed decisions about the risks they want to take. Balancing this change would require making some other adjustments, of course, but that’s fine. I’m just getting started.
  2. The two “research only” rounds at the end of the game are ungainly, and show off the worst aspects of point one. They’re almost a luckfest.
  3. There is a real rich-get-richer issue. You can come back from falling behind early, but it requires a coordinated effort at bashing the leader, and some real luck. I may be wrong, but I think this is always a problem in games where victory points are the primary currency except in cases like Medici and Princes of Florence where players can get as much as they need for currency purposes.
  4. Ultimately, the strategic element is more of a tease than reality. The advantage gained from collecting symbols on the invention cards is flavourless, and different paths when building your infrastructure do not make the game feel different. You’re always trying to collect the goods you need and crank out inventions quickly enough to claim them without competition. You can’t focus on gathering resources more efficiently, or play a cash strategy, or a manpower strategy, etc. It all boils down to turning the same crank as fast as you can.

On a more personal note, I really don’t like the “place a worker to get another resource” mechanic, unless it has a serious twist (see below for an example). Leonardo takes a step in the right direction with the “pay to use an action multiple times” mechanic, but it is still too restrictive for me.

I have it rated 6 on BGG right now.

David & Goliath

I’m going to write about trick-taking card games as a genre soon. There’s a lot more to the genre that it seems at first glance. David & Goliath takes part in this tradition – the split takings and the scoring mechanic are neat twists – but it ultimately fails to stand up to better games like Ninety-Nine and Sticheln. High cards are almost always bad – especially when there are more than three players – and that makes the luck of the draw too important to be fun.

That’s a shame, since this is otherwise a mind-bending game. In a good way. The open display of what cards each player has taken promotes analysis paralysis, but it also gives the game a lot of depth. If high, medium and low cards were better balanced, this would be a tonne of card game fun. Maybe I’ll take a swing at tweaking it some day.


Schotten-Totten is a game that I have wanted to try since my earliest days on Boardgamegeek. Although it has now faded into the background, it used to divide Eurogame fans pretty deeply between those that like it and those that hate it. Many people love it for its purity and elegance, offering tough decisions and light strategy with barely more than a page of rules. Others find it dry as the desert, with few highs and lows. Also, many detractors find it too random, while fans argue that there is plenty of opportunity to adapt to what you draw.

Thanks to my Sticheln deck and nine poker chips, I got to try it out as a café game recently, and I am on the “pro” side. I think it is a wonderfully taut hand-to-hand battle where you have to balance risk-taking and planning. You can try to be conservative, playing only what you have in hand as much as possible but passing up risky opportunities for the power play, or you can do the riverboat gambler thing, committing to an all-or-nothing gambit that hinges on drawing a key card.

More play may prove me wrong, but I intend to add it to the “rotation” for now.

Stone Age

Brettspielwelt added this new Hans im Glück title to its offerings this week. Since it is one of the most anticipated releases previewed at this year’s Nürnburg International Toy Fair, the opportunity to play online was too much to pass up.

To be frank, I expected to dislike this one. It combines a pair of recently trendy ideas in Euros – worker placement-based resource management and nouveau dice-rolling – that have not succeeded in converting me yet. Amazingly, Stone Age works for me so far. It’s quite a bit of fun.

The reasons why this game has succeeded for me where so many popular predecessors – on the one hand, Caylus, Pillars of the Earth and the above-discussed Leonardo daVinci, on the other, To Court the King and Kingsburg – feel blah, or even boring, are numerous, and interrelated.

  1. It is a well-developed, polished design. So many of the games that have been hits recently – including the major worker placement games – lack focus and have rough edges in their rules. Bernd Brunnhofer, the designer of Stone Age and lead developer at HiG, has a lot of experience at ruthlessly cleaning these sorts of games up, and it shows here. Even though there are several subsystems at play, Stone Age plays cleanly and effortlessly, and he focused on making every worker placement interesting. Except for a few of the symbols used to keep the game language-independent, learning Stone Age’s rules takes about three rounds (and a game lasts several times that). By comparison, Caylus is a rattling clunker.
  2. As a true middleweight, it doesn’t feel that bad getting hosed by luck once or twice a game. Compare, if you will, with Ra, where a couple of times each game you will see a “perfect” lot ruined by an awful tile draw before you can do anything about it, to say nothing of end-of-era drawfests. It’s not that bad, though, because each time represents only a tiny fraction of the total game. In Stone Age, a card you want will sometimes come up at an awkward moment, and you will get hosed by the dice a few times. Again, though, each action is such a small part of the game that it’s easy to shrug and move on.
  3. The civilization cards add an element of strategy that so many worker placement games – even Leonardo daVinci – sorely lack. The cards do a good job of differentiating positions a little bit, which adds replayability and makes the player interaction less about getting to the good stuff first.
  4. The dice make resource collection more interesting than slap a guy down and get your reward, which I find dull. Instead, Stone Age offers a cross between risk-management and resource management. Can I get away with one less guy on the river so I can claim another building? Will four men get me enough pips to feed all of my workers? The decisions are meaningful and tough. It’s worth the minor sacrifice of letting bad luck mess with you two or three times out of 20 or 30 rolls.
  5. You get to choose the order in which you execute your actions, instead of following a game-designated script. This should be a minor point, but it feels like it makes a world of difference. It gives you flexibility when planning out your turn, and it lets you adapt to the unexpected. Ultimately, one of Caylus’s “great innovations” was a stultifying straightjacket, and it took Brunnhofer to show it.

Stone Age is not the best game ever to come down the pike. The dice do what dice do, Central Limit Theorem be damned, and, for my taste, the actions in the village area of the board are too clearly better than the other actions at the start of the game. It is on my want-to-buy list, though. In the last couple of years, that is enough to make a game stand out for me.


This is another online preview, this time web-based using the French site Des Jeux sur un Plateau. Jim “ekted” Cote and I played a trio of two-player games (he shares his thoughts in the latest episode of The Metagamers podcast), two with the “family” rules and the third with the “advanced” rules. The experience was similar enough that I wouldn’t recommend one strongly over the other.

The weird, Dorn-ish spatial auction mechanism and the distribution of building sizes make for some cool tactics that are fun to explore. In the last two games we played, for example, I succeeded in manoeuvring Jim into a situation where he could not stop me from claiming three or four spaces in a row, closing out the game suddenly, and racking up a lot of points in the process. Also, the “if I go here, he’ll go there, and then I’ll go there” calculation has a smaller decision tree than working out chess variations, and it doesn’t make you grind your gears too badly. It’s just enough to be engaging. Finally, the vaguely Clans-ish secret objectives add a little bluffing into the mix.

I’m not dying to try out any variant of Metropolys with more than two players, but I would definitely play again with two. More players would kill most of the tactical tricks that I enjoyed owing to a precipitous loss of control. The replayability doesn’t strike me as being huge, either, since one game is quite similar to the next aside from a couple tactical niceties. All in all, it’s just a mite dry.

Even for two I already own games I’d rather play, so I’ll leave Metropolys for online play. It is the first Ystari game I’ve enjoyed enough even to say that, though. All of the systems are clean – the rules only take up about two pages – which is a first for Ystari in my experience. Even Mykerinos is baroque by comparison. If they can keep the systems pure while offering a little more bang for the buck, they may earn a new customer in a game or two.

  1. My only issue with Stone Age (the game) is that the buildings pay VP exactly equal to the value of the resources you must spend to build them, which is a function of your dice rolls. That is, the VP you gain through buildings is (almost) proportional to the sum of the dice you roll in the game. Wood is the most efficient because, with tools, there is much less of a chance of a “wasted remainder”. Many of the buildings require more valuable resources, but this only serves to add more randomness to the game. That fact that you can acquire some resources from civ cards helps to mitigate this issue a little bit.

    Overall, the game is not bad other than the terrible BSW implementation. 🙂

  2. Jim: I haven’t played it online yet, although I’ve watched a few games online so I think I fully grasp the game flow. I’m curious as to what you think is so bad about the interface.

    As for the game itself, there is one strategy that seems quite powerful, to the point where I wonder if the penalty for not feeding your people is high enough…

    I will be interested in trying it, if I can get online as the same time a everyone else…

  3. Interesting, Gerald. My main concern with Stone Age is that it may be *too* developed – with the exception of the starvation strategy, which may be more powerful in some groups than in others.

    Big kisses for Heather and Gil!

  4. Ok… I’m in the second round of my first game, and I agree, the interface is horrible. And Melissa, that’s exactly the strategy that I mean. I watched 3 games yesterday, and the starvation/building strategy wiped the floor in one of them, got a close win in another, and wasn’t used in the third.

    Thanks for the link, though.

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