Mini-Reviews: A Feast for Odin, Manhattan Project: Energy Empire.

Ahoy. Here are some thoughts on recent workers I’ve been placing.

A Feast for Odin (played a handful of times): It’s Uwe Rosenberg’s latest medium-heavy worker-placement game. You already know if you want to try it. First of all, one can (and I will) distinguish between Rosenberg’s such games that are “loose” (lots of ways to get resources to do what you need, you never really need to scramble to feed people, you rarely feel other players or the game have a knife to your throat) and games that are “tight” (the opposite). It’s the difference between Agricola (“Crap, I’d better do this sub-optimal thing so I don’t starve!”) and Caverna (“Rubies for everyone! Wheee!”). Feast for Odin is squarely in the “loose” category. This isn’t my preference, in part because I find it enhances the sense of multiplayer solitaire. It lessens the screwage of wonky turn order issues, though, and I respect those that care about that deeply.
The board-filling of Odin is made yet more interesting by the ability to get more boards, many of which initially put you deep in the red but allow you to potentially generate more income and net a lot of points. Odin thus feels a lot like an investment game; you take out these “loans” (boards with negative points) and try to pay them off (by covering them). It’s hard to initially grok how much that income can help you, so new players are at a pretty deep disadvantage; but that’s to be expected.
I was worried that my aversion to spatial puzzles would turn me off, but my concern was ill-founded. I’ve been having a great time with the game. I still prefer Agricola (my favourite Rosenberg, and probably my second-favourite worker-placement game), but it’s close.
But as I said, it’s Rosenberg’s newest. You already know if you want to try it.

Energy Empire (played twice): I received this game as a review copy from the publisher. Taking the opposite tack from Odin, Energy Empire gives you a board giving you lots of points from the outset, and you lose them as you cover your landscape with pollution (you only score at the end, but the effect is the same). There’s a bit of player interaction here, in that to place your workers you need to pay one more than the previous occupant did–but in practice that doesn’t lead to much. The neatest thing about Energy Empire is its round structure, in that it doesn’t have one. On your turn, you either place a worker and activate buildings you’ve built; or you take all your workers back, roll some dice to generate resources, and possibly pollute. You just keep going around the table until you’re done, no end-of-round cleanup phase or anything. It makes the game fluid, which is nice. A note that some people compared this to the play of the original Manhattan Project, which I haven’t played.
I didn’t find anything special about the game, though. You’ve probably played games like it before–perfectly pleasant, functional Euro. The fact that it’s a worker-placement game adds to that sense. The theme is also a bit of a hash (some energy policy, some domestic commercial production, some geopolitics[?!]). I will say that the components are very nice, though–tokens that are far thicker than they need to be, resource pieces that are very evocative and attractive (those oil barrels are super heavy!)… It’s a nice package.

Comparing the two, it’s interesting that Rosenberg’s intuition–even in his less harsh games–is always to penalize, to put his players in a bit of a hole. Most Euros, Energy Empire included, hand out bonuses for which you might not qualify instead. These two approaches often result in the same net score, but the experience of play differs considerably. For example, in Energy Empire, you get a 3 point bonus if your last-to-be-polluted column is unpolluted at the end of the game. Rosenberg, I’m certain, would instead give you a 3 point penalty if it had been polluted. In this case, given that it’s the easiest to keep unpolluted, I’m definitely with Rosenberg on this one–but Energy Empire has taken the conscious choice, it seems to me, of being friendly, even when it results in things that come off as a bit odd. Similarly, Odin asks you to acquire things that put you considerably in the red, rather than merely lowering the possible payoff you might get later. Which approach you prefer is a matter of taste.

But in lowish interaction games, I’d rather the sense that something is in my way.

What No One Will Tell You about Cosmic Encounter

So most of you have heard is absolutely true. It’s a bona fide classic of designer board games; it made possible many of the design principles that we now take for granted; it inspired Magic: The Gathering. Okay, so two out of three are great.

Many critics also praise Cosmic Encounter to the skies, praise that I think is entirely well-deserved. I love the game and will play it at pretty much any opportunity. What I find strange, though, is that I’ve seen next to no discussion of Cosmic Encounter’s many shortcomings. But surely those that have played it often have seen the same things that I have. Maybe they forget out of fond feelings for the game, or maybe they decide that the warts are relatively small next to Cosmic’s manifest virtues. But the warts are still there, and I think it’s incumbent on everyone–especially those of us that love Cosmic–to discuss them.

Before I proceed any further, though, allow me to say this: whatever else I have ever or will ever say about Fantasy Flight Games, their edition of Cosmic Encounter is a masterwork. Their card design and their editorial choices have been brilliant, and even if the aliens in some expansions have been mediocre for the most part they’ve done an amazing job. Timing issues and rules ambiguities have been kept to a minimum, and while Cosmic will always be a beautiful mess FFG’s take on it is more beautiful and less messy than any previous edition by a light year. You can quibble with some of their details in Cosmic, but you can’t seriously dispute the claim that theirs is the best Cosmic.


…but Zombie still deserves compensation…

MOVING ON.

Let us be truth-tellers, even about those we love.

1. Many people hate Cosmic Encounter.
I find it staggering that no one acknowledges this when recommending Cosmic to new gamers. I mean, it’s demonstrably true–a substantial proportion of people, even when exposed to Cosmic under ideal conditions, will dislike the game. It’s a chaotic experience with lots of deal-making and rules-parsing, and that’s a pretty specific bag. It’s a testament to Cosmic’s brilliance that it isn’t more of a niche product. I’m hesitant to put numbers to it, but let me put it this way: I can’t remember a game with new players where at least one of them didn’t have serious misgivings about the game and was generally unengaged and/or annoyed. You might be inclined to think that that is just because playing with me is a lousy experience, but my generalization has held in every game I’ve seen where I wasn’t playing.

2. It has rules that are difficult to remember.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a neophyte, a hard-core consim player, a veteran of crunchy Euros, whatever–I’ve seen gamers of all kind get utterly stumped by Cosmic’s rules. I’ve also seen people of all stripes take to it like a fish to water, which makes experienced gamers’ confusion all the more interesting. The distinction between defender rewards and compensation, the timing for alliances (or indeed the timing for about anything), what allies get, when to get new cards, etc.–I’ve seen lots of confusion over lots of legitimately confusing things. I once had to explain to someone totally at ease with heavier Euros what the Regroup phase was five separate times. And this is before powers start interacting with other powers, and flares, and… Sure, the latter stuff is all interesting and part of the game, but a player can’t engage with the fun rules questions unless they first have a solid understanding of the core rules. And Cosmic is a game many people have difficulty grokking on a basic level. Some people are intrigued by these intricacies, but some aren’t, and point #2 helps to explain some of point #1.

3. Some alien combinations are not fun.
For me, a good game of Cosmic is one where everyone got to use their power interestingly at least once. That’s a pretty low bar, but sometimes it’s not met–you can counsel that new players avoid the Offense Only and Defense Only powers, and that helps, but sometimes the power mix is just unfun. For example, Healer is a classic power (heal some ships, draw a card) that becomes rather unfun when Remora (whenever someone gets good stuff, you also get a little bit of good stuff) is in the game. Every time the Healer draws a card, the Remora gets to as well–additionally, the Remora is getting all sorts of other benefits on the side and doesn’t have to heal anyone for the privilege. Sure, there are mild side benefits that the Healer can exploit that the Remora cannot, but let’s be frank here–one of the primary appeals of the Healer is the influx of cards. In my estimation, the Remora power isn’t inherently problematic (the more common design intent is that when other players are drawing, say, three cards, the Remora draws only one), but it seems to just trump the Healer in a lot of respects. It becomes a lot less fun to be the Healer. And that’s not even remotely the worst example! Some powers are pretty much directly invalidated by another merely being in the game. For example, Masochist (win when all your ships are in the warp) can’t win when Healer is in the game. Oh, sure, Masochist can sit on a Cosmic Zap, and try to time it just right, but let’s be honest. Masochist is widely regarded as a pretty bad power, sure, but the point stands. Even if you cull a lot of aliens, unproblematic aliens become very problematic in the wrong configuration. It’s an almost inevitable consequence of Cosmic having so very (very, very) many configurations.

4. Some hands are not fun.
In an average game of Cosmic (yes, I know that sounds silly), you’re only going to get a relatively small number of cards. And sometimes those draws will suck. I don’t mean weak–that’s a different problem–I mean they’ll suck. The last time I played a player drew nothing but middling attack cards. No flares, negotiates, artifacts–you know, the fun stuff. That’s bad enough, but what if that player had been the Pacifist (win when you play a negotiate against an attack)? Cosmic works as a game in no small part because of the hand management, and I wouldn’t ever want to change that. But it is unfortunate that some hands just aren’t very fun to play.

5. The Destiny deck looks stupid.
I adore the Destiny deck so much–it eliminates whining (“She’s winning! Attack her, not me! I’m not winning.”), it allows for powers that manipulate it (oh, the sweet pain of a douchey Dictator), and helps distribute aggression roughly evenly so hopefully no one gets too picked on. But it looks stupid, and I’ve seen more than one gamer write off Cosmic when they heard about the Destiny deck. Okay, maybe this isn’t a shortcoming of Cosmic Encounter after all–but I just wanted to talk about how amazing the Destiny deck is and how it’s underappreciated.

There you have it. Allow me to reiterate–I love Cosmic Encounter. You should try it if you haven’t. But even I would never tell someone they’re wrong for disliking it, and I am in the unfortunate habit of telling people they’re wrong. And if you’re going to recommend it to people, you need to issue at least some mild caveats.

Mini-Reviews: Vast, Terraforming Mars, Mare Nostrum: Empires

I apologize to you, my three readers (does my dad count?), for my protracted period of inactivity. No doubt you have been bereft without me. I did some traveling, which in my case is never a good idea, and returned home ill. Certainly not the illest of homes, but you know, sick. I will be returning to “work” soon enough.

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve played but not enough to do a full review:

-Vast: The Crystal Caverns
I only played once. In some ways, the paradigmatic Kickstarter design–though it didn’t have miles of stretch goals nor mountains of plastic, this is a game that got by on novelty, charm, and enthusiasm as opposed to solid development or design. The much-vaunted asymmetry is indeed pronounced, but it ends up feeling like a collection of several unengaging eurogames shackled together for no good design reason. A wins by killing B, who wins by killing C, who wins by… As a result, you have precious little reason to care about what most of the table is doing; at best you can engage in some clumsy kingmaking. All this brings the downtime from “bad” into “excruciating.” The rules are an utter mess (a hallmark of many Kickstarter games), and the game ends up being very shallow in actual gameplay but unreasonably complicated when all of the different mini-games are added in.

-Terraforming Mars
Also after one play. A perfectly inoffensive tableau builder. You get cards and use those cards to build yourself an engine and try to get points come out the other end. The key intial input in that chain, cards, enter the game at a fixed rate, which struck me as unsatisfying. Plus, there’s next to no meaningful interaction with other players, aside from the rare (arbitrary) resource-stealing effect or the occasional “hey, I got there first.” Drafting would seem to add little to that, as players’ tableaus get so packed that it’s difficult to quickly ascertain what they’re looking for. The design is solid, but honestly I don’t have much enthusiasm for multiplayer solitaire engines anymore, not when there are plenty of euro tableau-builders with more substantive player interaction (off the top of my head, I’d say Ginkgopolis and Ora et Labora; Race for the Galaxy has about the same level of interaction, but is just plain better and less than half the playtime). The theme, though, is really cool, and the hard-science trappings were nice for a change; it had vague Eklund overtones. I suppose I’d play again, depending on what else was on offer.

-Mare Nostrum: Empires
After a handful of plays. This is an impressive iterative improvement over the original, which almost but didn’t really work. There are a couple of lingering edge cases in the rules that can be blamed on translation issues (oh, international releases!), but overall the game is really quite simple and smooth for all it covers. I tend to appreciate such games. I’ve come to the conclusion that I personally don’t enjoy the trading system in Mare Nostrum; it seems to add considerably to the playing time completely out of proportion to the actual decision-making. The game also only really sings with experienced players–otherwise someone will probably accidentally hand the game to someone else. That isn’t really a flaw per se, but all things being equal I prefer a game that can be less ruined by (predictable) beginner misplays. It gives the game the vague feeling of being rather scripted. I would certainly suggest you give this game a try, as it’s at least interesting–but I’ll stick with Antike/Antike II for my light civ jollies. Senji also scratches much of the same itch. Do I sound like a broken record about those games yet?

Anyway, there you go. I’ve also been playing the games I’ll be doing a full review of soon.

Why I (Probably) Won’t Be Reviewing Captain Sonar

My priority for these past few weeks has been to review games a) about which I felt I could say something passably interesting, and b) apt to be of interest to the gaming public–hot new releases and the like. Captain Sonar definitely is of the latter category; I have access to copies; and I’ve played it a few times and my opinion is reasonably solidified.

I’m not going to review it, though, for the simple reason that I don’t think I can say anything useful about it. You see, Captain Sonar divides players into two teams and has each of them fulfill a specific role within that team. And two of those roles–Captain and Radio Operator–are pretty much inaccessible to me as a gamer and as a critic.

Those roles have you do real-time spatial puzzles. The Radio Operator, in particular, gets this ever-expanding set of data they use to narrow down the enemy ship’s location. The data expands in real-time, so they don’t ever have the luxury of pausing the game so they can just work through possibilities in their head.

The thought of being a Radio Operator fills me with a sensation that could perhaps best be called “dread.” I can’t stand many kinds of puzzles. My friends back in Cambridge would do the MIT Mystery Hunt, and I would hear the kinds of things one does in that event, and it struck me as the least fun anyone could have this side of a Tough Mudder Electro-Race (that’s what they’re called, right?). In University, I almost failed symbolic logic because of a certain puzzle-like kind of problem called derivations. Metatheory, which stumped many of my colleagues, was no issue for me–but I could toil away at a derivation for hours and get nowhere. I speak from experience.

To a certain extent, I realize that this puts me in the minority of gamers. Puzzle hunts and related things seem popular with our set, and more power to them. But I want no part of them–I find them frustrating, inscrutable, tedious, and in a real-time team context, inordinately stressful. Quite honestly, the rare times I’ve been caught in competitive challenges of the sort I’m apt to just concede very early and move on with my life… but I wouldn’t have that luxury if a team were depending on me.

Let me say that the puzzle in Captain Sonar seems very nicely done. It certainly has an elegance to how it integrates communication, usable data, unusable noise, and nifty components. But I can’t evaluate it, because it’s categorically Not My Thing.

And I don’t want to make a review where a substantial portion of the analysis can offer no insight past “it’s Not My Thing.” I don’t think anyone with my dislikes could read the rules or consume any news of the game without knowing it’s Not Their Thing, either. So, in short, a review of the game wouldn’t allow any sort of substantive critique or analysis. I couldn’t compare it to other kinds of mechanisms in other games, because I avoid those types of mechanisms like the plague. I couldn’t give you any useful description of what it is like to play the game in those roles, because all I’d be able to offer is “dear Lord make it stop.”

I mean, I could talk about the roles I can do competently (First Mate and Engineer), but that’s just half the game. Less than that, really, since the Engineer is pretty low on agency–which, it is worth noting, is how I most enjoy Captain Sonar. And I do enjoy it in those roles, make no mistake, but really I can’t contribute anything to discourse about the game. Mostly I’d just suggest that people try Space Cadets: Dice Duels, which you really ought to–it is more flexible in player count, if nothing else.

I say all this not because there’s been a groundswell of demand for me to review Captain Sonar–the only one I’ve gotten multiple requests for is Inis, and let me tell you if I could get access to a copy I would indeed review it–but because I hope my decision not to review Captain Sonar illustrates a little of what I’m trying to do and not do in my reviews.