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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, October 24, 2005

Against the Grain: Part 3

In Part 1, I looked at how my ratings compared to the collective BGG averages. One trend I observed is that a large portion of my Thumbs Down ratings are given to titles that have decent averages (7.0 - 8.0). This week, I look at some of those that have the highest averages.

The one game in the BGG Top 10 that I give a Thumbs Down to is Wallenstein (BGG mean of 8.02). Many proponents of the game praise the inventiveness of the cube tower which is used to resolve combat, and are also impressed with how the design blends Euro mechanisms with traditional multi-player combat (MPC) elements. I actually dislike this hybrid of MPC and area-influence design; I find that the players get so caught up in the business of money, feeding, and buildings that they neglect the required diplomacy (e.g., who should be attacking who). La Citta, for one, does a better job of tying in the VP goals with the drive to conquest. Fans enjoy the agonizing choices, but appreciate that the limited combat actions prevent folks from getting overwhelmed. I guess I just don't find most of the choices that meaningful other than the combat-related ones, and I always find the excessive downtime painful. This game would be tolerable if played within a 60-75 minute window, but I always find myself waiting a lot during the simultaneous order phase. The design is not appealing enough for me to apply anything beyond what the 80-20 rule dictates.

The last two matches (both 5-player) I played of Wallenstein were pretty bad. In the first, I had horrible luck in the drafting and ended up with my forces distributed all throughout. The other players would cede no territory to me, and I got munched up very quickly. In the second, I ended up with the central position, and the other four players (each well-established in one of the four edge regions) all focused on central territory. After that, Wallenstein became the only game I vowed never to play again.

Two cooperative games show up on this list, Shadows Over Camelot (7.7) and Lord of the Rings (7.27). What gives ShOC the edge over LotR on BGG is the presence of a traitor; note that the same mechanism is available as the Corrupt Hobbit variant for LotR, and I think it works much better in the latter. I think the lack of role-playing in my group may be limiting our enjoyment, and I do not care much for the setting; I would like to try a Wild West cooperative game, as I know our group is up to the task based on our games of Bang! and the like. Despite the simplicity of the decision-making, I would much rather play LotR than ShOC, as the latter has horrible downtime; once a player is committed to a quest, the next few turns are mapped out, yet other players may be in a more dynamic situation. In LotR, players are generally working on common quests, which makes it more engaging.

Amun-Re (7.66) is a game I may come around to some day. Positive comments are along the lines of "tough choices", "multiple paths to victory", and "lots of ways to score", but I am not personally inspired by the do-a-lot-of-things-get-a-lot-of-points family of victory conditions. Add in the busy (and mostly obvious) work of the triangular action system, and the crapshoot of the action card draw, and this one has always been a dud for me.

Carcassone (7.64) has more than its fair share of detractors, and I think the root cause of its problems can be found in a single fan's comments: "Solid turn angst. Must be played quickly due to luck factor." I do appreciate its simplicity, but disagree with the many who praise its accessibility, as I would rather introduce new gamers to games with less boring victory conditions. Another game with a rating largely due to its accessibility is Bohnanza (7.37), and here I can greatly appreciate the social element of the trading mechanism. However, I find the game wears out its welcome (I have not yet tried the variant where you only go through the drawpile twice), and it becomes way too frustrating when you do not have the proper beans to be involved in the negotiations, which really undermines the key appeal of the game.

I like the push-your-luck element of Union Pacific (7.61) well enough, but I think the playlength is far too long for a game featuring this mechanism. Contributing to the length, but not the depth, of play is the largely extraneous competition for space on the game board; at the very least, the element of having different track types should have been streamlined in development. I am not crazy about set collection and card drafting games to begin with, so tacking on a bunch of nonsense really irritates me.

Judging by its comments, Web of Power (7.58) would not rate as highly if it didn't play so quickly. My personal feelings about the game are reflected in Chris Farrell's comments: "Fails to engage on any level, either theme, strategy, player interaction, or fun". With a new child in the house, my gaming time is too precious to waste even 20 minutes on mediocrity.

Citadels (7.46) is certainly a unique design, and I can see why folks enjoy the suspense, surprise, and psychology that emerges from the guessing game. I am uncannily bad at this game, i.e., I always find myself the target of the Assassin and Thief - even when I give up and choose characters randomly! - but that is not enough to condemn the game. What is enough is the excessive downtime, luck-of-the-draw in the building draws, and the busy point accumulation which has nothing directly to do with the core attraction of the game. However, the element of fun makes this the one game on this list that I actually request within my gaming group - it's the game that I love to hate.

Two other games that I have not played often or recently enough to recall exactly what I disliked are Princes of the Renaissance (7.71) and Showmanager (7.47). I think my problem with the PotR was that it lacked the dramatic tension and keen tactics found in similar games like Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence, I found Showmanager to be awfully fussy in moving the cards around while not offering enough to raise itself above other games that have heavy luck-of-the-draw.

Possible trends:

I do not like "point accumulation" as a victory condition. This plays a big part in Amun-Re, Carcassone, PotR, and Web of Power showing up on this list, and also explains why other top-rated games such as Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, and Goa, do not get higher than a Thumbs Up from me. Among my Top Shelf games, the one game that best fits this category is actually my very favorite game, Taj Mahal, but, aside from the Princess and small pick-up bonuses, I find that most of the scoring in Taj is more along the lines of set collecting, with palace connections having a spatial element.

I do not like games that are highly tactical, yet not too deep, because of the downtime . Wallenstein (which should be more strategic), Carcassone, Citadels, and Shadows Over Camelot are the big offenders here. "Agonizing choices", indeed.

I am apt to give a Thumbs Down for extraneous elements which add to downtime. Amun-Re, Wallenstein, and Union Pacific are guilty here. At least in the case of Wallenstein, the extraneous elements add to the theme (especially the need-to-feed and peasant revolts).

I prefer to have players engaged at all times. Most of the games here (and many of the other top-rated games I only give a Thumbs Up too) fall short, but Shadows Over Camelot, Wallenstein, Citadels, and Carcassone especially so. Maybe I have a deficiency in my attention span, but I find that I'm not the only one disengaged from the general action, idly waiting for the cue to take my own turn.

Of all the trends I looked at the last three weeks, the only one I see a strong trend for is the first trend listed in this post, something I have observed for some time now. Perhaps my ratings are somewhat arbitrary, or influenced by a variety of biases. In the end, all I can say is that I like what I like, and am comfortable saying so without apology.


  • At 3:56 PM, Blogger Dug said…

    Actually, Citadels is also the game that our group loves to watch Dave hating.

  • At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's a bit scary to me how similar our opinions are on a lot of these - I agree wholeheartedly on Wallenstein, Amun Re and Citadels. I come from a group that tended to play very quickly, so the downtime issues with Bohnanza and Web of Power were never really a major issue (we'd burn through Bohnanza in ~1hour, IIRC, which I think is quite fast).

    Both coorperative games leave me pretty cold - I didn't enjoy LotR all that much (and I DO enjoy the setting), and Shadows over Camelot hasn't really engaged (ok, not entirely true - it was fun the first couple of times, but I think it's pretty much worn out it's welcome).

    Anyway, just thought it interesting that our taste (or, at least here, our dislikes) are as similar as they are.

  • At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Tim said…

    That above post is from me, BTW - I could've sworn I had "other" checked, with my name filled in!

  • At 8:11 PM, Blogger Jon said…

    The interesting thing I'm picking up is that it isn't the games themselves that you're not liking but how your particular group of gamers play them that isn't to your liking.

  • At 10:51 PM, Blogger Alex said…

    Although I can certainly understand how someone could dislike PotR, say if they really didn't like auctions, I don't really see how it's all that similar to either PoF or PR. It feels a lot more like a group of people trying to intrigue their way to the top while trying to navigate through a few mainline strategies to find the one that will work this game and manipulate everyone else to do what you want them to do.
    Arguably that's a decent description of PoF, but there's much more ability to mess with your fellow players in PotR.
    I find PoF and PR much dryer and ultimately not as tense, but also completely different game experiences.

    (This post has been brought to you by Acronym City! For all your Acronym Needs!)

  • At 2:32 AM, Blogger dave said…


    Most of my gaming experience has been with either the Rip City Gamers, or at cons such as Oasis of Fun. I've noticed that I generally have much more fun playing the "serious" games with my group, and much more fun playing the "pure fun" games outside my group. My first play of ShoC was at a con, and the group was a blast to play with, but that doesn't mean those five turns of playing 1-2-3-4-5 against the Piths wasn't otherwise a bore.


    Thanks for your inputs on PotR. My criticisms are centered around the accumulation of tiles. The battles themselves may be enough to get me to turn the corner on this one. Like most in my group, I'm a big Martin Wallace fan; that alone will get this one back on the table for sure.


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