Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Thoughts on Saga 2nd edition

I remember when Saga first hit the wargaming scene and the renewed interest it sparked in the Dark Ages period. After a couple of games I was inspired to get figures for the 4 factions listed (Viking, Anglo-Danish, Norman and Welsh), and then proceeded to play many games over the next few months, against many different players. I liked the simplicity of the rules; movement and combat were easy to work out, the scenarios were clear and decisive. I thought the lack of morale rules was strange, as was the use of fatigue, but the rules worked OK so I was happy to ‘refresh’ opposition units to gain combat advantages. The core mechanic, and real beauty of the rules, were the Battleboards. They gave each faction its own distinct flavour and allowed skilled players to tailor their actions to get the most out of the forces on the table. Even though I played numerous games, I tended to switch between factions, so I never truly felt I ‘knew’ the Battleboards well enough, and this is probably why I lost more games than I won. I noticed that ‘good’ players tended to favour a particular faction, one that they fully understood and could exploit efficiently. Interestingly after a year or so, my Saga gaming declined and it has been 2 or 3 years since I last got the toys out of their boxes. This was not due to dissatisfaction with the rules, but simply I had other projects on the go.

Well, the new 2nd edition of Saga has been released and I bought a copy at Salute this year. I’m not going to review the rules and highlight the changes made, because others have already done this and I don’t want to go back and re-read the 1st edition rules in depth. As I have not played Saga for a few years now, I hope my failing memory will allow me to judge the 2nd edition as (almost) a new player. The soft-cover base rule book (£10) is produced to the high standards expected of modern wargame rules, with plenty of informative diagrams plus nice photos and graphics. I like the use of explanatory text boxes to highlight key points, and the summary boxes at the end of each section. It was apparent that some changes had been made to clean up the rules. The movement is now specified as being in straight lines and the move of a unit is ‘mapped out’ by movement based on the first figure of the unit. This is fine but will take some time to get used to; the urge to move figures in a block manner may not be as automatic as previously done. Warlords are now single units that do not combine with others in combat, which seems clearer to me. I like the fact that Levy can now generate Saga dice. All units now have a fatigue limit of 3, irrespective of quality (not sure whether or not I like this). The combat modification process has been clarified, with attacker/defender taking it in turns to make choices, and this should nullify the debates that were previously common in games. Overall, everything appears fine. My only complaints are: (1) There are no rules for buildings! How can this be justified? Stating that such rules will be included in a future Battle book seems to me to be a cop out. In the 1st edition the building rules were simple and covered less than half a page, so unless the authors plan a multi-page in depth revision, then the rules should be included in the base rule book! My games always featured at least one building and the absence of this key bit of the rules is a bad omission. (2) The second criticism is the lack of scenarios. Rather than the single scenario given, I think the authors should have included the 6 basic scenarios from the 1st edition. Again, it stated that scenarios will be provided in the future Battle book, but I think the addition of a few basic ones in the back of the base rule book would have been appreciated.

I also bought the Age of Vikings hardback book (£30). Whereas the base rule book was good value, I’m not sure Age of Vikings was. Essentially what a gamer needs are the new Battleboards, plus the brief details required showing the faction composition/equipment. The rest of the material is fairly irrelevant. Based on my experience of 1st edition Saga, I have never played using legendary characters, elite or ‘mercenary’ units etc. Maybe some players like to change things up, but I have found the generic forces to be fine. The Ragnar text boxes for each faction may turn out to be useful, but I would have found some general advice on strengths/weaknesses/tactics to be more helpful. The cardboard Battleboards will obviously be used in every game, but the Age of Vikings book (although very pretty) will spend most of it time sitting quietly unused on the shelf.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Salute 2018

This year’s Salute show was a different experience because I came down with man-‘flu mid-week and seriously doubted whether I would get to ExCel, but on Saturday morning I felt better so decided to make a quick visit. By arriving late (11:45) I missed the normal queue but failed to get my free figure. The size and nature of the show was the same as normal; rather overwhelming and daunting when first encountered, poorly lit but with plenty of room to walk around. The number of punters seemed similar to previous years but the atmosphere felt less manic, possibly due to my own late entrance. All the major traders are present, plus a great selection of small, niche traders, and generally I found it easy to access the stands I was interested in. I like the balance between traders and demo/participation games and I have noticed a progressive increase in direct links between traders and particular games they are demonstrating, and I find this useful in helping me to decide whether to invest in a game or not. My itinerary at all shows follow a standard pattern; firstly shopping for specific items I need/want, then wandering around viewing the demo games and possibly taking part if possible, then finally inspired by my travels, I make impulse buys. I find this last phase needs to be carefully controlled and if left too long I start to make poor purchasing decisions, so after 2 or 3 hours I need to leave!

This year I managed to get my must buy items: Saga v2 and Dark Age lists; more Peter Pig ACW riverine models; some D12 dice for the Shogun boardgame; some Samurai civilian figures and some paints. Not a huge haul, but I hoped to get some ideas from the demo games and new product releases. A couple of ECW games inspired me to get the new ‘For King and Parliament’ rules, a derivative of the successful Ancient ‘To the Strongest’ rules. I look forward to trying them out on the table. The new RFCM wild west rules were being demonstrated by Peter Pig and look very interesting, and I’m sure I will buy a copy when released sometime in May (they will allow me to get my Plains Indians and 7th Cavalry out of their boxes). Before Salute I was curious about ‘Blood Red Skies’, so I spent some time at the Pacific theatre demo game (very nicely done) and checked out the rules. They did not grab me; some nice ideas but too simplistic for my taste, so in this case, the demo game actually saved me some money! On the whole, the range of demo games was fine but not spectacular. Those that particularly stand out were: A C18th game set in Florida between British and Spanish; an ACW game with a large fort and ironclad; a WW2 Operation Torch/Crete game with nice arid terrain and seaplanes; and a Blood & Plunder pirate game. There seemed to be more SciFi-type games and less historical games than usual. The only Napoleonic game I can remember was a Command & Colours version of Aspern-Essling. There were a few Ancient games at one end of the spectrum and a re-emergence of Cold War games at the other end, with little in between. A bit disappointing overall!

So, that is Salute done and dusted for another year! Not especially exciting, but at least my wallet was not emptied, and I’m still waiting for some new gaming inspiration.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

10 essential boardgames list, 2018

I have finally succumbed to an urge to publish a “top ten” style list of the boardgames I most enjoy. I have resisted calling it a “top ten” because I’m fully aware that my experience and knowledge is not as expansive enough to justify such a label. There are many, many games which I know have great reputations and which I have never played (or sometimes, even seen on the table). Titles such as Twilight Imperium, Cosmic Encounter, Blood Rage, Descent, Gloomhaven and all the Arkham/Eldridge Horror series immediately spring to mind. Instead what I have imagined is a ‘desert island’ type of situation, where I am faced with access to a limited (10) number of games for the foreseeable future. I assume Elaine will accompany me to the ‘island’ and that we will encounter ‘new’ potential players, but we don’t know what their gaming preferences will be. I therefore have planned my list to be representative of the wide expanse of gaming styles, mechanisms and genres.
I have set myself a few ground rules. I will allow inclusion of some expansions to the core game if they can be fitted into the base game box (but for one of my games I would ideally take some additional material). I also assume I have access to the full range of gaming miscellanea; dice, playing cards, pens and paper etc. I also have not ranked the games in the list, so the game listed at number 2 is not necessarily a “better” game than that listed at number 3. Attempting to do this just proved too hard and, actually, did not add any further value to the listing process.
Such lists are always a very personal and subjective exercise. I would gratefully welcome comments and alternative suggestions from readers, and such contributions would be useful to inspire me to get or try out games new to me. The first game I’m going to list is a dedicated 2-player, filler style of game. I think this category of game is very important; sometimes you just want to fill a short period of time with a small, quick, light game. This is the type of game Elaine and I would take on holiday and play in those hours between getting back to our lodgings and before going out to dinner. This is a time to put your feet up and recuperate after a full day of site-seeing. I have selected Schotten Totten to fill this requirement, but it was a close call, just edging out Lost Cities. Schotten Totten is a small,  simple card game that can be a real brain-burner. There is excellent re-playability and every game poses a challenge. Interestingly, we have never played the game variants included in the box because we find the base game to be sufficient, but maybe the isolation of a desert island would encourage us to try these additions. I think the factor which moved it ahead of Lost Cities is its depth; Schotten Totten causes you to really analyse your card play and the bluffing element comes into play more. I would highly recommend Schotten Totten and would consider it a vital inclusion when packing for holiday trips. I definitely want a tile-laying game and Carcassonne fits the bill perfectly. This game is a classic and can be easily taught to new players. I like the scaling to fit varying player counts; it works OK with just 2 players but equally good with 4 or 5 players. The randomness of the tile draw gives good replay ability, there are different routes to victory with a ‘hint’ of take-that. I would take the traditional base game with the ‘River’ start tiles added. There are numerous small expansions to the game, many of which I think are interesting, but I have found they tend to get played once or twice before being left to sit on the shelf. So, I am happy to leave them behind and just play the base game. Carcassonne has been re-skinned many times to fit different themes with some rules adjustments; you can simply choose the theme you enjoy the most. The original theme actually works best for me, because we have spent a number of very enjoyable holidays touring South-West France, visiting Carcassonne and surrounding towns and castles, so it therefore invokes happy memories.
(3) Deck building is such an enjoyable mechanism. It has been widely used in many great games, and therefore demands representation in any games collection. Dominion fits this niche for me, I still the pleasure I got when I first encountered this game. It’s addictive, and this is one possible reason for the backlash it has engendered amongst some gamers; every year there seems to be another (large box) expansion, with more cards, combos and rule additions. I therefore would restrict myself to the base game with a single expansion only. In fact, I would strongly recommend most gamers to follow a single expansion policy for Dominion; the game appeal suffers with the more stuff you get, and it becomes a drag! I am sure there are card types I own that I have never yet used in play, and the number of possible card combos is huge. My personal choice of expansion would be Prosperity because I like purchasing the higher value cards. Another common criticism of Dominion is the lack of theme. I feel you should play Dominion to simply enjoy the card drafting mechanism and the lack of theme is largely irrelevant. Other, more thematic, games of a similar type tend to distract, divert and dilute the card draft mechanics.
(4) The next game on my list is very theme heavy i.e. Dungeon Petz. This game also encapsulates the worker placement mechanic nicely. The game uses iconography brilliantly; the game flow, mechanics and options are nicely illustrated, easily followed, and most importantly, fit the theme perfectly. Players face tough choices about where to place their imps/workers, they need to think ahead, planning for the growing requirements of their ‘petz’, and which competitions/customers are coming up. Amazingly, players frequently become so caught up with the engaging theme, that they knowingly make less than optimal decisions because they have become emotionally ‘attached’ to the particular ‘petz’ that they have raised. Getting those ‘tear’ cubes is so sad (even if there is a customer who wants sad ‘petz’), and the build up of the brown cubes in cages is a source of shame! I love this game and have never felt the need to buy the expansion, although smaller expansions with simply more ‘petz’ would work well. The base game depth is fine for me, and I don’t feel the need to expand the options available. I am surprised that the game has not generated a range of miniature models with clicker bases to replace the card ‘petz’ in the game. If I was more skilled in modelling with clay, I would make my own ‘petz’, and maybe this would be a good project in the future.
(5) No essentials list could be complete without the classic set collection game, ‘Ticket to Ride’. There are so many geographic variants, but my personal favourite is ‘Europe’. I like the presence of and ferries, and the stations make the game less cut-throat. I don’t feel the need to include the ‘1912’ expansion, whereas I feel the ‘USA’ game does benefit from the ‘1910’ expansion. I have played a fair few of the different Ticket to Ride versions and they all give interesting games. Individuals all have their own favourites and I’m happy to play any that get brought to the table. I don’t think the choice simply corresponds to the geography the player is familiar with, for example I’m not overly fond of the ‘UK’ version (too many additional rules to expand the range and technology). As a wargamer I have to include a combat game. My choice would be Battlelore-2 with the expansions for both the red and blue forces. Ideally I would also like to take the purple army to provide greater variability, but these do not fit in the original box, so probably would have to be left behind. The hex game board allows for simple, clear-cut rules and the opposed scenario generation system provides for interesting terrain and force placement. The card-driven command choice mechanism is clever and I really like it, but I don’t find it translates well into ‘historical’ backgrounds. This is a major reason why I’m not a fan of ‘sister’ games like Memoir ’44; I don’t think the game mechanisms simulate the command problems and decision making found on a historical battleground. I think this criticism equally applies to the combat dice rolling, but in a fantasy background, these issues are irrelevant. In a fantasy scenario no-one can argue a point based on precedence; if a designer wants to represent his Orcs as peaceful and caring, then that’s fine, he is simply diverting from the ‘accepted’ norm. Therefore, I think the game mechanics found in Battlelore are great, but only in a fantasy setting; they fall short when translated to historical conflicts. The magic aspects of fantasy combat are also handled in a streamlined way by Battlelore, and the whole package gives a fast paced game, packed with interesting decisions. I enjoy the co-operative genre of boardgames a lot, and the giant of the market is Pandemic. This game has added personal appeal because I am a retired virologist, and the game ‘models’ some of
the issues I used to work on. I would certainly include the ‘On The Brink’ expansion. I love the way this game builds tension, and can throw spanners in the works just as you think you are getting on top of the problem. Interestingly, I find the difficulty increases with more players, and winning is easiest with just 2 players. The win/lose balance is nice, so the game remains challenging even after multiple plays. I like differing character special powers and the discussions the game produces, and I have never encountered problems of a dominant, alpha-male type of gamer taking over; everyone’s input is valued. I have not played the more recent ‘legacy’ versions which have generated a lot of positive reviews, largely because I’m wary of campaigns that require you to play repeated games over short periods. I like to chop-and-change in my gaming choices, being a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none! In contrast to co-op games, I would want a take-that style of game and King of Tokyo does this nicely. This is a very silly, yatzee dice rolling game that is quick and fun to play. I would take the  ‘Power Up’ expansion to add further silliness. I prefer King of Tokyo to its spin-off, King of New York, because of its simplicity. It does not require the additional rules and options the New York game adds, players simply focus on getting into the city and beating up on their opponents. Games are short, so the player elimination aspect is not a problem. My only concern in making this choice is the simplicity of the game, and I did consider taking Small World instead, which has more depth and variation. It was another close call, but I went with the ‘pure’ take-that style provided by King of Tokyo.
(9) The next game on my list involves a role selection mechanism, and that is Glory to Rome. I love multiple uses of the cards and the combo possibilities of the buildings. When you choose a role, other players can follow, so players are constantly engaged. There is a lot of depth and strategy, and I’m sure I am still a long way from playing effectively. I own the cartoon-style version of the game and personally like the graphics used. I have seen the ‘Black Box’ version and found it to be uninspiring on the table. I am not sure how easy it is to get Glory to Rome at the moment, so my alternative choice in this category would be San Juan, which has a similar role selection mechanic and is less complex and easier to understand.
(10) My final choice of game involves players bargaining with each other. I did consider Chinatown, which involves no-holds-barred bargaining, but the game is out of print and is, maybe, too free-form. Therefore I will go with Bohnanza, where players bargain over beans! I was stunned by this game from the very first time I played. The rigid card sequence in the players hand of cards force players to interact and strike deals; sometimes multiple players are negotiating for a particular bean, whilst at other times you have difficulty giving beans away for free! Every game is different and tough choices have to be made; when is it best to plant that extra field? I know there are many versions and expansions out there, but I have never played them, so cannot comment on whether they are worthwhile. I would appreciate any views from readers of this blog.
So, there it is, my personal list of 10 ‘essential’ games. Even as I write I can think of numerous omissions, and the temptation to add more games is very strong. I can see I have included many ‘classic’ games, but I think such games are considered ‘classic’ for a very good reason; that is they are inherently good games. I am concerned that I have not included any puzzle or race games, but I set the line at 10 games, so some excellent games had to be dropped. I would feel sad to think that Catan, 7 Wonders, 5 Tribes and others would be left behind to gather dust, but maybe my stay on the ‘island’ would turn out to be reasonably short.