In appraisals, boardgames, role-playing games on August 6th, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Yes, I am still gaming. In fact, I’ve gotten to play a bunch of new (to me, anyway) stuff, including one new RPG. This is an omnibus post of my opinions and comments about them, in no particular order.

In the Year of the Dragon

I got to play this when Heather and Gil were up, and now I am in the middle of a game using the still-in-beta MabiWeb implementation. Year (I am not going to try navigating that acronym) has a reputation for being a meatgrinder, and it can be if you get a nasty sequence of events and you fail to find your niche. It is still a building game, though, and I don’t think a typical game will result in slaughter and barren land as far as the eye can see. Between the minor setbacks, your position develops, and in the end a winning score is going to be high enough to feel like you accomplished something.

It also has a nice creamy dollop of that all too rare strategic planning, which I always enjoy. You have to decide which events you are going to take seriously, and which you are going to let pass you by, or else you will end up going nowhere in particular. This and clear core concept make Year a pleasure to play. It is fresh and interesting, but also recalls the best of the alea big box series like Princes of Florence and Taj Mahal. I would highly recommend it to any fan of heavy euros, especially if you crave those all-too-scarce strategic eurogames.


I am not a big fan of “family” eurogames. The time to play and the rules complexity tend to be comparable to middleweights like Saint Petersburg or Ra, but they have the depth and variety of fillers like High Society or Liar’s Dice. I know this works for a lot of people, but to me it just ends up like poor return on time invested. The primary exception is Carcassonne, largely because it’s rules are clean and simpler than most games in this niche. If you add on more than one expansion (and I would say only Inns & Cathedrals), even it gets creaky. I’ll play stuff like Alhambra or Settlers, but I try to keep it to a minimum.

Despite this, I’ve been eager to try Thebes for some time now. It has a rather glowing reputation among euro fans, and there were some systems – the time track, for one – that had me wondering if it might break the family game mould.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite there for me. The system is a lot of fun, but the game runs a bit long, and it is what Chris Farrell calls a “fixed fun” game – Only so much of interest is going to happen when you play, and adding players only drags things out and increases the downtime. It is also random, random, RANDOM! Worse than Settlers or Alhambra random.

The tactics of the time track are fun, though, and I like the theme a lot. That’s enough for me to slot this as my number two choice among family games (although I have yet to play Ticket to Ride yet) behind basic Carcassonne. That’s not high praise, but I’d happily take it over some of the stuff my game group loves.

Shadows Over Camelot

Strangely, one of my friends has owned this game for over a year, but it didn’t hit the table until Gil and Heather came up. We had six people for a while, and Shadows was a good game to fill that niche.

It was my first time playing a (semi-)cooperative boardgame, so I was rather curious to see how I took to the genre. In the end, I discovered that I liked them (which is not that big a shock, since traditional roleplaying games have a similar structure), but I don’t think Shadows is the best example of the form.

It’s alright – there are some tough decisions for the group to navigate, and the traitor (which is the semi- in brackets in the last paragraph) keeps you honest. For the level of decisions that it offers, though, Shadows is rather bloated and baroque for my taste. I’d rather it had half the rules exceptions, and maybe one fewer major systems. It also overstays its welcome. It should be a 45-60 minute game (a bit more with a slow group like mine), but it takes 75-120 minutes.

I want to play Shadows again, since it is readily available, but I don’t expect it to become a favourite. I am encouraged to think that there may be a cooperative game out there for me, though.


Although I am not a huge fan of party games, I’ve played Attribute a zillion times (give or take) on Brettspielwelt. Most of the time, there has been a healthy dose of risqué, or even x-rated, material, which is not how the game is meant to be played (I think). Heather brought her hard copy up with her, so I got a chance to play it face-to-face, with a minimum of innuendo, as Casasola Merkle intended 🙂

I have to say that it works really well, too. The pace is good, the atmosphere is fun, and it doesn’t drag on. Sure, it’s more fun when it’s smutty, but this proved that it doesn’t have to be (and you can play it as an R- or X-rated game face-to-face if you want to, there just aren’t decks customized for it). Even before this, I had considered picking up a copy of Z-Man‘s reprint sometime, just to have a good party game in my collection. It is now my clear choice for that niche.


I’ve wanted to try Industria for years. I love a good auction game, and this had a bit of a reputation for being a hidden gem on BGG. Gil Hova is one of it’s biggest admirers, so it was a natural choice for him to bring along.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me. It’s just a bit clunky and constrained. You want to set up paths of connected buildings and technologies in order to score more points, which should make the game strategic, but the way the tiles come out is too regimented. As a result, the game leaves little room for imaginative play. The money system is pleasantly tight, even with a steady influx of currency, and the auction system has a couple of neat twists, but they’re not enough to overcome the dead weight of the tile draw system.

There’s a good game in here that wants to be free of the shackles that have been placed on it.

Ubongo Extrem

Heather fell in love with Nova Scotia during her spring visit, and couldn’t wait to come back. Thus, she returned in July, and she had a couple of games along for the ride.

The first one that I got to try was Ubongo Extrem (there is no final e in the German word), the follow up to Kosmos‘s puzzle game Ubongo. Like that one, UExtrem is a game of fitting shapes together to create a larger shape shown on the player’s randomly assigned puzzle card. Time is limited by a small sand timer. The original Ubongo used puzzles based around squares, but UExtrem changes this to shapes built from hexagons, which is a neat twist that may increase the difficulty, as well.

From what I gather, the scoring system is a little different from the original, too. Each player that can finish in the time allotted receives a randomly drawn gem, and the first and second players to finish receive an additional gem of a specified colour. Each colour of gem has a different VP value, and when a player reaches a certain number of gems, that player must tackle the larger and harder puzzles that are the back sides of the cards, providing a bit of a catchup mechanism.

I really enjoyed Ubongo Extrem. While I am not very good at spatial relationship puzzles of this sort, I was able to do okay with the basic puzzles (the larger, harder ones on the back sides kicked my butt). The range of values for the different gems makes scoring a bit more random than I’d like, but that can easily be adjusted to taste. The timer maintains a quick pace, though, and the number of puzzles in the box is enormous. Fiddling with the puzzle pieces, trying to get them to fit together like a weird little jigsaw puzzle is just fun to me.

I would say that this is a must buy except for one thing – it’s not available from an English-language publisher. Z-Man Games made an English edition of the original Ubongo, but I guess it didn’t sell well enough to warrant picking up the sequel. Since it is a Kosmos large box game, like Blue Moon City or Pillars of the Earth, buying an import copy would be enormously expensive. There are other games as high on my want list that I can get for a lot less, even if they don’t fill the same niche.

It’s a shame, really.


The other new-to-me game that Heather brought was the much ballyhooed cooperative game from Z-Man, Pandemic.

As I mentioned above, my only other experience with cooperative games was one play of Shadows Over Camelot, so I’m no expert on them. This came much closer to hitting my sweet spot than Shadows did, though. The theme is original, interesting and well-implemented; the systems are fairly clean; the pace is snappy; there is a good narrative arc to the game and everything is over in an hour or less. The outbreak mechanic is pretty neat, and, along with the recycling of Infection cards, puts a nice amount of pressure on the players. Any cooperative game is bound to have a pretty hefty luck factor (based on what’s available so far), but that’s a lot more palatable in a medium-length, snappy game like Pandemic than in a behemoth like Shadows. In fact, playing Pandemic really did a lot to affirm my impressions of Shadows Over Camelot. There does seem to be a little something missing that would add that spark that classic games have, but that may come with more experience and better understanding of how the game works.

I think this is a buy, although now I’d love to play the 500-lb. gorilla of the field, Lord of the Rings.

Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition

Finally, in the roleplaying arena, I am playing a campaign of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, I’m DMing it, which is a shock to me – I haven’t run D&D in about 20 years. I made a brief stab at running a 3.x (actually, an Arcana Evolved) campaign, and gave up in almost no time. The pain of making up encounters was just too much for me. After that, I assumed I would never run D&D again.

My mind started to change as the previews of 4th Edition came out, and they said all the right things to pique my curiosity. Faster-paced fights, cleaned up rules, a system based around in-combat decisions, not character build strategies. And monsters could be prepped in a matter of minutes. Almost every criticism I had of 3.x was being addressed, if the publicity was true.

It is. And here I am, running D&D and enjoying it. Creating encounters is fun; building new monsters is a breeze (it takes about 10 minutes, even the first time you try it); and the bulk of the rules lie in the special abilities the players can take. A player can pick up the basics of 4e quickly, then only have to deal with his own niche until he feels at home with the game.

It’s not perfect – *cough* Skill Challenges *cough* – but it’s a huge step in the right direction. There is too much to cover in a quick comment like this, so I will offer more thoughts in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that I have enjoyed running it.

I still have a few games in the want-to-play queue, including Meuterer, Die Macher and Survive! (which I found in a neighbour’s broken down shed). It’s been an interesting few months, though.

  1. Yes, you really do need to play Lord of the Rings. It actually is that good.

  2. Seth,

    Yeah, I know. For a long time I had a weird hangup about cooperative games not being a good fit for my group. That kept me from wishlisting it, even though I wanted to play and figured I would really like it.

    I was well over that long before I played Shadows Over Camelot, though. It’s just that I have a looooong wishlist 😀

  3. I really DID fall in love with NS while I was there… even more so the second visit when there were leaves on the trees & I didn’t have to wear 3 layers to stay warm.*

    But about the games:

    1. Thebes: Even I’ll admit that it’s very high on the random scale, but when I pair that with the theme, I feel it’s a justified randomness. Archaeology is a crapshoot!

    2. Shadows: Gil and I own this but don’t get to pull it out often enough, sadly… it doesn’t really fit our game group’s aesthetic. This was the first time I was the traitor though, and I had to work hard at not giving that away. I have no poker face to speak of and was worried about you figuring me out (he was across the table). Gil was next to me and paid me no mind as he was focussed on his stuff. Luckily for me, you picked on Gil first and EVIL PREVAILED. 😀

    3. Attribut: Smuttribut is great fun, but it’s hard to be dirty on command given the cards in hand vs sheep colour sometimes.

    Next on my (corruption) hit list for you & your gang: Space Dealer, Agricola, and either Kingsburg or Stone Age. See you in October!

    * a note to everyone that’s going to tease me about Canada being COLD: I’m ALWAYS cold… always carry a sweater with me in the car as a ‘just in case’. 😀

  4. Next on my (corruption) hit list for you & your gang: Space Dealer, Agricola, and either Kingsburg or Stone Age. See you in October!

    What? No Zooloretto?

    Also, I’ve played the Kingsburg AI, and I wasn’t impressed. Rolling high is just a little too good, and getting blocked from a key space is just a little too painful for my tastes.

  5. Decision made, then. Replace Kingsburg with Zooloretto, which I clearly forgot about.


  6. Agricola is awesome. I’m crappy at it, but love it anyway. Kingsburg is a lot of fun too. And I’m glad you’ve joined the ranks of co-operative play with pandemic cause that’s a fave too. Still haven’t played attribute, smutty or otherwise so I’ll have to track that one down. You should road trip and join us down here in California for a weekend board game marathon!

  7. *grin*

    Do you have any idea how long a road trip it is from Nova Scotia to California?

    I will keep your invite in mind though 🙂

  8. I’m clueless about Canadian geography (sorry!) so I looked it up – yeah that’s a LONG drive. Might want to flap your wings or something! But I did say weekend game marathon! Wouldn’t want you play for less time than it took to get here!

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