Oct 182013
 

tal1[1]By Strange Prawn

I can’t control my brain

Things are definitely taking a turn for the autumnal up here in the far North. The leaves and the air both turn crisp, and the nights are fair drawing in. How delightful then, to be mentally transported to an island paradise in the warm Southern seas? Aah, when I close my eyes I can almost  smell the salt on the air, feel the tropical sun dappling on my skin as I lay beneath this coconut-laden palm. Somewhere I can here the trilling of birds of paradise, mingling with the screams of the villagers as they flee yet another volcanic catastrophe…

Honestly, they never mention this stuff in the mental guidebooks.

Still, apart from the constant volcanism, the island of Taluva has a lot going for it.

Taluva is a game that sees you and one-to-three of your chums take charge of one of this island’s tribes and guide them in their efforts to out-develop their rivals. To this end you’ll be deploying your huts, temples and towers across the lushly forested island. Firstly though you’ll need to create said island, and like all the best geological processes that’ll involve a stack of cardboard tiles. Not your squares or hexes here though, oh no sir. These are a Y-shaped  conglomerations of hexagons, with each of the three component spaces depicting one of several different terrains, one of which is always a volcano. The first thing to do on a turn is always to take one of these tiles and place it so that at least one edge connects to those already in play. Once that’s taken care of, you can get on with one of the building options and get on with trying to win this thing.

tal2[1]Most straightforward is starting a new settlement, which just involves plopping down one of your lovely, pointy wooden huts on any unoccupied first level (first level you say? Hmmm…) space, and that really is any space, you’re not limited to the tile you just played. Which for an old Carc-head like me took a little getting used to. Secondly you may expand an existing settlement of huts/hut by nominating a terrain and scattering an appropriate number of your huts across any spaces of that terrain touching them/it. This is nice, you’ll want to do this, because if you have a settlement of at least three spaces in size you can use your building to throw up one of your temples next to it. Lastly, if you’ve occupied a space next to an empty third level space (levels again, what could it mea- och, I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now) you can pierce the heavens themselves with one of your majestic towers.

Which is all excellent and tribal and so on, but what’s it actually for? Well, to win at Taluva you need to build more temples than your opponents by the time the last tile is placed. Thing is, everyone’s only got three, so you’ll probably tie. Not a problem though, as the tiebreaker goes to whoever built the most towers. Oh, except you’ve only two of those, so same issue… Ah! but then that tie is goes to whoever has the most huts built, and you’ve twenty of them. So that’s fine. Mind you, you, it’s also possible to bring proceedings to an early conclusion by using up all of your supply of two of your categories of building, garnering a tasty insta-win. Caution, however, should be advised since if at any point you are unable to build legally… well,  you are out of the game aren’t you, you careless little tribesperson.

tal3[1]Now, about these levels… So, when you’re plopping down those tiles to build the island there is another option open to you. Providing you cover a volcano with a volcano, and that doing so changes the direction of the volcano’s lava flow (which is just an in-game way of saying you can’t place a tile directly on top of only one other – there must be overlap with at least two beneath) and as long as there are no gaps beneath your intended location, by all means feel free to build high for happiness and place on top of the existing island. This is where those levels come in you see first is touching the table, second on top, third and then… dare we dream, fourth…? As an added bonus you can also destroy your opponents’ structures  (well, only their huts, but it still feels good) with such a manoeuvre, providing you don’t send an entire settlement to a pumicey grave.

Taluva plays very cerebrally. It won’t be many games before you and your friends are sitting round in silence, all calculating whether it would be more advantageous to your position to destroy some huts before someone can build a temple, or try and reach level three so you can finally get a tower down, or go for a massive expansion so you can create a settlement so large you can afford to destroy some of your own huts, thus creating two settlements large enough that you can play a temple into each a couple of turns later (a most cunning stratagem), only to blink and realise you’re only going to get two more turns out of that somehow-so-diminished stack of tiles. It may just be my experience, and/or the people I play with, but it does always seem like just as I’m beginning to pull my strategic threads together the game is ending, and oh, it doesn’t matter anyway since somehow someone else has managed to forge an unbeatable position out of nowhere and now this is my last go.

The sheer speed of the thing is only one way Taluva works to keep you on your toes. Like Chess or Go it’ll also tickle you with the chance of high risk move, leaving yourself open to crushing blows if the others at the table see what you’re up to, but if they don’t…? Well, then you’re only a hop, skip and a temple away from certain victory. I can’t tell you how often you’ll be sitting there, watching the action move round the table crossing everything you’ve got that no-one covers up that one space… of course they will. And what on Earth were you doing planning around something you couldn’t control? Huh?

tal5[1]I don’t mind any of that though. I actually rather like it, because despite everything I know why I’m being beaten. Once you’ve climbed into the game’s headspace it becomes fairly straightforward to pick apart what went wrong. I concentrated on gaining height too soon, or I was locked in a race for the quick win, but the back and forth stymieing between me and my opponent allowed another player to hang on for the regular win once the tiles ran out. I spent too long trying to get all my temples down without realising someone was one good expansion away from using up all their huts, and they’ve already got both towers out… Whatever, I can endeavour to ensure it never happens again. I mean, it will, but I like to try. All of this gives it the feel of a beautifully wrought abstract game, the rules are simple (only four pages, and that includes pictures!), the thematic flourishes of island life are superfluous (and that’s being kind) and there is no luck outwith the tile draws (and you won’t be building an entire strategy around trying to get one particular tile anyway. At least, I don’t think you should be.), all of which is a bit odd.

It’s a bit odd because Taluva, despite it’s perfectly-machined clockwork abstract heart, is, and I can’t stress this enough, gorgeous.

tal6[1]“Hang on” you yell, “Chess is possessed of a martial beauty and Go’s pixellated Rorschach of an endgame generates a wondrous aesthetic!” Yes, yes… I quite agree, but Taluva is legitimately, hang-it-on-a-wall, ask-nervously-if-you-can-buy-it-a-drink, gets-out-of-speeding-ticketsbeautiful. From the lushness of the tile art to the unusual forms and pleasing shapes of the buildings right on down to the just plain lovely chunky tactile thickness of the tiles you’ll just want to eat its face off. Which is all a bit of a shame. It’s a shame because Taluva is a brilliant design. It really is. It’s one of my favourite ways to pass half an hour to forty minutes, and if only it was a bit more portable it would be shooting up my recorded play charts like Hive or Hanabi. It’s a shame because for all its brilliance, and as much as it feels as though it’s exactly what its trying to achieve in all its aesthetic glory, It never transports you to those distant white beaches and palm-fringed lagoons.. You won’t be lost imagining mango juice and goldfish-nibbled toes. This is a game too precise for that, a game that generates a mental race as furious and cutthroat as it is silent and internal, a game that now it’s finally back in print I have no hesitation in suggesting you get off your damn hammock and pick up as soon as you can.

Jun 082013
 

citow1[1]Keep on rockin’ in the old world

By Strange Prawn

I hear you talking you know. When you think I’m not around. I know you all think I’ve got it easy, being the incarnate manifestation of an aspect of evil birthed by the psychic agony of all the sentient beings of the universe. But it’s not all roses you know. For instance, after a hard day at the office, corrupting the pure and tending my pestilential wastes (yes, I know, there’s a cream for that), I love nothing more than unwinding over a nice board game. I know, I  know… you’d think the last thing I’d want to do in my downtime is emulate my work slog, but it’s alright for the  renaissance merchants and galactic warlords amongst you. Always managing to convert your real-life expertise into effortless victories – you don’t know how lucky you are. But where’s my game? Something that lets me take advantage of my… Wait! What’s this come tumbling through the vortex of despair to land at the foot of my throne of bone and brass? ‘Chaos in the Old World’ eh? Okidoke, let’s take a look.

citow2[1]Chaos in the Old World invites you and three of your friends to take on the role of the Ruinous Powers of Chaos, the dark gods of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe. As you may have inferred from the title, this is the original grimdark fantasy-esque setting, not to be confused with the grimdark sci-fi setting of Warhammer 40k.  If you’re only familiar with the latter, meh, the gods are the same in both strands, just think Orcs not Orcz. If you’re familiar with neither, don’t worry too much, it won’t be a problem. Knowledge of the backdrop to these exploits is not necessary to play and enjoy the game, but I shan’t lie to ya, there’s definitely an extra kick of pleasure to be had from familiarity with the lore and bestiary of the universe, little touches of flavour text and small thematic flourishes will pull you deeper into the game if you get them, but won’t exclude you if not. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but it’s just the first example of the excellent balancing act on display inside this box.citow5[1]

Anyway, enough of such fripperies; To the game! Once everyone has selected and gathered to them the player sheet, tokens, upgrade cards, chaos cards and awesomely sculpted army of miniatures appropriate to their god, the board is randomly seeded with a few starting tokens and the unholy crusade for the hearts and souls of the hapless peoples of this benighted world begins.

Each player takes it in turns to exercise their godly powers by either summoning their minions on to the board, or playing their chaos cards into the regions of the map. These cards act as orders or magic spells that affect the targeted region and/or any minions therein. Each card will cost you power points to use, and of course if you’re summoning things that’ll cost you too. Your use of these power points is tracked on the player mat with an upsettingly-easy-to-lose marker. There’s three flavours of unit for each player, Cultists, Warriors, and the subtly named Greater Demon. Warriors and Greater Demons are mainly for intimidation and fighting, whereas any Cultists that survive the oncoming battles will deposit little corruption tokens in their regions.

citow3[1]Ah, yes, the battles. once everyone’s summoned and cast to their heart’s content, or their power is exhausted, any areas containing opposing forces see battle fought with heretical warcubes… okay, dice if you must. Following the slaughter comes the chance to score points. If any player has enough minions and/or expensive enough cards to exceed the value printed on the region containing them, they score some lovely points, and the first to fifty is the winner. Mind you, that’s only one way to score points…

Another is with those puny cultists you’ll have spread across the board. While they’re useless in a fight, what with doing nothing but praying and sacrificing, if any survive the battle round they drop corruption tokens for you. If any region ever contains twelve or more, then that region is ruined. This means the farmer’s market there will have to close, and also that the whole map is scored, with a set number of points going to each player depending on the number of their corruption tokens present. There can be five of these ruinations in a game, and if nobody’s edged past the magic fifty points when they’re all gone, whoever has the highest score is the winner.

citow4[1]What Chaos in the Old World is then, is that hoariest of game mechanics – area majority – decided not with numbers of troops but with these corruption tokens. What sets it apart is the layers of finesse and theme draped over it by the finest of publisher Fantasy Flight’s chrome-weavers. Well, that’s one of the things…

The main selling point is really the third way to win the game. Threat. As well as the decidedly genteel point-gathering routes to victory, and thrumming away profanely beneath the whole affair, is the ichorous pulse of the third route to victory. You see, each of the four gods available to play has a slightly different… peccadillo.  Bloodthirsty Khorne cares only for the slaughter of war, pestilent Nurgle wishes to see all things end in corruption and disease, Tzeench the fate-weaver seeks the fearful beauty of change and mutation while Slaanesh pretty much just loves to fu… party.

By pandering to your god’s desires, be it instigating battles say, or corrupting populous regions with plague after plague, you will earn the much-coveted threat advancement tokens. These will allow you to tick forward your threat dial on the board and be rewarded with points, upgrades or other useful things. Tick forward enough and the little window in the dial will show text declaring you the winner.

citow6[1]Here’s where that balancing act comes back to the fore. Chaos exhibits the best kind of asymmetry in games – asymmetry done well. Each of the gods will have to tick that dial round a varying amount, and each of the different prerequisites to do so have different levels of ease to accomplish, meaning for some players this route to the win is a more valid prospect than for others. Khorne, for instance, just has to kill something to earn a token, and doesn’t have to tick it as far to win as poor Nurgle, who has to get nearly all the way round by trying to preserve two cultists per turn in the heavily-contested populous regions. This is offset though by Nurgle’s ability to summon swarms of cheap units in an attempt to reach the points victory. Of course, both these strategies are in danger as soon as other players realise what you’re up to and react accordingly.

If I have a serious, or semi-serious, reservation about Chaos, this is it. It will take a few games before everyone at the table is able to spot the weaknesses each god’s likely strategy. Initially everybody at the table will swear blind that Khorne has a far too easy ride on the threat dial. A few games in, you’ll all be certain there’s nothing to be done about Nurgle’s corruption tokens being strewn willy-nilly across the board. Then Tzeench’s card’s are overpowered. Then, having worked out what to do about all of these, it seems obvious that Slaanesh’s dial advancements are earned far too easily. Only then will you look down and realise you’ve all been perched on a tightrope so fine as to be rendered invisible this whole time. This is when you’ll start doing a lot more counting of corruption tokens and ruination-based maths. My only other slight quibble is that the box says this plays 3-4. It does play with three, sorta, I guess. The problem is the four gods consist, more-or-less, of two mutually antagonistic pairs. Once you’ve seen the tightrope, if you’re playing with three, the player lacking their ‘opposite’ will, more often than not, be more secure in their footing and take victory.

citow8[1]To hell with it though, that only matters if you’re considering Chaos as a finely balanced area-majority based eurogame. Which it is. But, wait for it, it is also a trashy, dice based, plastic-laden pile of fun. The components, from the myriad tokens, via the gruesome plastic minis, to the lush board trompe-l’oeiled onto stretched human skin, are as lush and lovely as they are unwholesome.

Yeah, just a word about that, if you’re not the kind of person who can happily recognise/wallow in the campily dark-and-evil overtones for the nonsense that they are, you’ll have a hard time enjoying the game no matter how good it is. Back to the point though, the crowning achievement here is, at least for me, the way the game encourages you to almost start role-playing your character without even noticing it. If you’re Khorne you’ll be spending all your points throwing down terrifying monstrosities amongst your opponent’s forces just itching to start a scrap. Before long you’ll actually begin to feel a thrill of glee at the inevitable demise of those pathetic whelps. As Nurgle  your cultists will move in clusters far and wide to both avoid conflict and extend your infestations across the world. Tzeench, whose card-drawing mechanism is slightly different to everyone else’s, will be covering the board in magic, to both cycle through spells faster and facilitate those dial advancements, all the while influencing what your opponents can do and trying to predict what cards will be useful where and when. Playing as  Slaanesh requires you concentrate your cultists in areas with noble or hero tokens, as well as trying to get everyone else to just stop fighting and fu… party already.

citow7[1]Ah – hang on, I haven’t told you about the Old World deck. At the start of the game this is going to be built from the large deck of Old World cards supplied. From this you’ll extract, at random, one card per game turn. That’s seven or eight if you weren’t paying attention earlier. At the start of each round one of these is going to be drawn and placed onto the board. Up to two of these can be in effect at once and they do things like add tokens to the board, give out points for various things, or (particularly unwelcome once when I was playing as Tzeench,) forbid the playing of chaos cards. These global effects mean that every game of Chaos has a slightly different flavour, that the gameplay will flow in subtly and not-so-subtly different ways depending what comes out and in what order, adding some excellent replay value to the whole thing. Oh, and here’s a fun thing, if the Old World deck is exhausted without anyone winning, that symbolises the peasants and princes of the Old World resisting your nefarious advances and everybody loses. Ha!

Here then, is a game deserving of your attention. It is both a knife-edge points race and dice-fuelled confrontation. What’s more impressive is that these two conflicting halves of its psyche sit so beautifully together, and while a player’s character certainly influences the way they’ll play it, a canny god can still confound their enemies’ expectations and adapt to changing circumstances. It’s not unheard of for Nurgle to win through threat, or Khorne through points. As a three-player game it’s an excellently atmospheric iteration of dudes-on-a-map, and as a four-player it absolutely sings.

At last! Finally my day-to-day life as an unspeakable entity of the Pit has stood me in good stead for a game I can share with my friends. To celebrate why don’t you all come over and after a game or two of Chaos in the Old World, we’ll slaughter a couple of innocents, scrape off our buboes and retire to the blood pools where we can all fu

Mar 192013
 

pic1432939_t[1]Of course, here in Scotland it’s pronounced ‘cow’

By Strange Prawn

Much as technology and my bank balance tend toward miniaturization, there seems to have been a recent trend for compact, fast but beautifully formed games, ‘microgames’ I believe the kids are calling them. The poster boy, or rather poster princess, for these recent offerings is undoubtedly the well-regarded Love Letter, a game that revolves around you passing a note of affection to the object of your amorous desires without the knowledge and interference of your fellow players. Brilliant.

Hot on Love Letter’s coat tails, or rather creeping along in the shadows behind it, leering and cracking its knuckles, comes another little beauty called Coup. or possibly ‘Coup City State’. Or ‘Coup: City State’. ‘Coup feat. City State’?

I assume we owe the ambiguity to the pre-existence of another game called Coup, but that’s by the by.

Coup is another one of those games, like The Resistance and Skull and Roses that sidles up to you uninvited and whispers in your ear, all hot breath and spittle, “Do you trust your friends? Family? Spouse?” only to respond with a crack-toothed and doubting grin when you assure it that yes, yes of course you do.

coup2[1]A game of Coup takes about ten minutes, and a more queasy, uncertain and enjoyable ten minutes you will be hard pushed to find, yes sir. The aim of the game is to eliminate every other player by forcing them to turn over the two face-down influence cards everyone is dealt at the start of the game. Once revealed these cards become useless, and as before, if both go face-up you’re out of the game. In theory play revolves around amassing coins, for once in possession of seven of them you can initiate an unopposable coup against a fellow player to force them to flip one of their cards. Towards this end everyone can take one action per turn, the most straightforward of which is to claim income, and take one coin from the bank. Or two if they claim foreign aid, but unlike taking one coin, and in common with everything else you will do in the game, this is not without risks…

See, those influence cards, they represent the people at court over whom you can exert, well, influence. There are five different characters, each appearing three times in the deck. Oh yeah, this tiny box contains 15 cards, some coins, rules and player cheat sheets, and that’s it. And it’s worth every penny.

The first of these jokers (there are no jokers), is the Duke. The Duke’s a fun guy to have around, he’ll net you three coins on your turn, but there’s more, he’ll also let you block any of those other scroungers from claiming foreign aid, should you wish to. The Captain is also handy for your economy, as he enables you to extort two coins, not from the bank, but from another player. Pay up suckers. He also protects you from anyone else trying to pull the same thing on you. As does the Ambassador, who, aside from this defensive sideline, gives you the chance to switch out your influence cards if you don’t like what fate dealt you.

coup3[1]The final pair are the nefarious Assassin (assassins get invited to court now?), who allows you to forego all the couping, and just pay a bargain-price three coins to force another player to turn one of their cards over. Unless of course that player has the final courtier, the Contessa, whose sole purpose in life is apparently to distract Assassins. How she achieves this is a closely guarded secret.

I’m sure from the brief and ham-fisted descriptions above you’ll have been able to deduce some of the finely balanced and gossamer-like network of interaction and counteraction that exists between the roles as designed in the game. It is clear and clever and counts for nothing.

For here is the dark heart of Coup, and every beat pumps not lifeblood, but deceit and distrust. It matters not one iota which two cards you have actually been dealt. You are free to lie, to claim  influence over anybody, and use the associated abilities, whenever you like. Of course, that’s only true as long as you follow the golden rule of Coup: Don’t Get Caught.

For all the talk of coups and assassinations, it is often this very distrust that proves the decisive force in this game. If you sense something fishy going on, say a fourth player has just claimed influence over the Duke, you are free to challenge their action. If you were right to doubt the lying scum, and they cannot produce evidence of their truthfulness by revealing a Duke, they must immediately turn over one of their cards. Contrariwise, if they do show you they had a Duke all along, you must flip one of yours. They then get to shuffle His Dukeness back into the deck and draw a replacement. Who knows what they’ve got there now.

The counteractions can also naturally be challenged, leading to the possibility, nay inevitability, of exchanges like the following:

“I take two of your coins with my Captain”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Really”

“Uh huh.”

“Fine, here he is *shows Captain*”

“Balls. *flips over a Contessa* Okay then, I’ll block you with my Ambassador.”

“What!? Why didn’t you do that to start with!? Rubbish. Don’t believe you.”

“Orly?”

“Yup.”

“Ahem…” *Shows other card, it is an Ambassador*.

“You arse.” *turns over Assassin that replaced the Captain – and was last card*.

coup4[1]I have been on the receiving end of this particular manoeuvre, in all its ruthless tactical brilliance. Look at it, it should be obvious that no one would attempt such a patently ridiculous ploy unless they wanted to be challenged, but then you knew better, didn’t you? You, dear reader, saw that one coming, yes?

Because that’s the other thing Coup says to you. Honeyed words of flattery: You’re a smart cookie, right? You can tell when you’re being lied to, you can look someone in the eye and divine their honesty or otherwise, right? Because, after all, aren’t you just that little bit smarter than they are..?

Of course you’re not, and of course you can’t. But we all like to believe, don’t we, that in that moment when wits clash we have the ability to spot the tells, untangle the deceit, peer down into someone’s very soul and correctly catch them in a heinous lie.

There’s a fine line you need to walk to play the game well, one that meanders between not appearing too strong, not being too obvious and trying to misinform in ways that aren’t so offensive to the other players that they’ll challenge you. Unless you decide to be one of those people who chooses to not to use a power you possess until it’ll definitely piss someone off, in which case I loathe you. I would never do that.

Uh-uh. Not I.

Hopefully sticking to this tricky path will see you into the last two or three, at which point it becomes all about trying to work out, using your suspicions about what your opponents have as well as everyone’s relative wealth, which card or cards you need to ensure victory. Ideally you would actually have them, but hey, as long as they think you have them…

The first few times I played Coup I thought this mathematically predictable aspect to the endgame was  a bit anticlimactic, taking all the bluffing derring-do of before and flattening it into a grey plain of dull inevitability, but I was wrong. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. I now realise the whole game (all ten minutes of it!) should be spent trying to get yourself into a position where the inevitability tilts your way with the final other player, at least assuming you were right about their cards. Which you probably aren’t.

This aspect adds yet another axis of deduction to the n-dimensional bluffogram that represents this game mapped onto fibspace.

So yeah, I usually try and round these things out with a wee bit tying into the introduction, maybe pulling together some of the similes and metaphors I’ve strung throughout the review, if I’ve remembered to do that. But I am just going to say this. Play Coup. Because I can’t think of anything else to say.

Or can I? Aaah….

Coup is available from:

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Mar 082013
 

pic1054375_md[1]By Strange Prawn

Dontcha hate it when someone is legitimately excellent at something you suck at? Along they come, smug as you like, effectively rubbing your nose in your own squalid failings as they make apparently no effort to sketch a drawing, prepare a three course meal or play Agricola. And while your sweaty, sweary and fumbling exertions will result in indistinct smudges, inedible lumps of something, negative points, or any other outcome that would shame a baboon composed entirely of thumbs, this sainted paragon will churn out masterpiece after masterpiece while stifling a gentle yawn. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but just imagine what it must have been like to be a Roman emperor. It can’t have been easy not marrying close relatives and not letting cities burn to the ground. But how much harder to live with these transgressions in relative temporal proximity of the man who completed extensive public building projects, saw the empire to its largest geographical area, instituted progressive social reforms and, most impressively, did it all without pissing anyone off – well, except for maybe the newly conquered peoples?

Still. Bloody Trajan!

tr5Trajan is a game from the labyrinthine mind of designer Stefan Feld, who also sired Castles of Burgundy, amongst others, into an unready world. Like many of his oeuvre the connection between the actual gameplay and the goodest of good emperors is perhaps tenuous, but you don’t buy a box of this many pastel wooden bits for a gung-ho weapon wielding imperial simulation, you buy it for the chance to experience the interlocking mechanics brought forth from the designers brain, and, given time, hone or even perfect your use of them.

If you are unfamiliar with this particular designer, it is perhaps worth noting that he is somewhat known for tying deceptively simple options together into a seething morass of strategic and tactical possibilities to allow the player the possibility of building up devastatingly effective combo-turns with massive point scoring potential. Also worth noting is that these games often have an unconventional or innovative driving mechanism to determine the options that become available every turn. With this in mind it is possible to regard Trajan as Stefan Feld’s logical conclusion.

 

Enough pontificating (although I hear there’s an opening just now), come along, let’s have a look at the damn thing shall we? The aforementioned unusual or tr2innovative driving mechanism here is a mancala wheel of six ‘bowls’ each containing two coloured wooden markers at the start of the game. Each player’s turn involves taking all the markers in one bowl and dropping them off again, one at a time, in the next clockwise-adjacent bowl. The placing of the last marker allows one to take the action associated with said bowl. Simple. Until of course you somehow manage to end up with all twelve markers in the same place…

The available actions, though it would be perhaps more accurate to call them mini-games in their own right are:

  • Shipping, which involves trading and stockpiling goods from a deck of cards.
  • Building, which allows you to collect sets of monuments and take free actions, provided you have enough builders. You can also hire builders.
  • Forum, where tiles supplying the needs of the populace, senate votes, extra turns and other such goodies can be acquired.
  • Senate, this gives you some raw pointage as well as giving you a chance at first choice of bonus tiles at given intervals.
  • Conquest lets you hire soldiers, move generals to get more of those lovely forum tiles, and then send armies to join the generals for more points.
  • Finally the Trajan action gives you a chance to take a different kind of tile from the board that confers a permanent advantage when achieved (as well as more points). These are added to the mancala wheel until you land on the adjacent bowl and that bowl contains markers of the two colours printed on the tile.

There is one further function of the wheel… at the start of the game you’ll have no choice but to move only two markers, but as the game progresses and they pile up like some terrible motorway accident, you’ll have to move bigger and bigger handfuls of them, but for each and every one you move the game’s timer ticks along to one of the intervals where you must meet the needs of the people and, ultimately, the the game’s end.

The nice thing about Trajan is pretty much whatever you do will score you points one way or another. It feels lovely to score so freely, at least until you take a glance at your opponents’ score markers and wonder how the hell they got so far ahead…

The game rewards the ability to walk the fine line between identifying and executing viable long term strategy and being flexible enough to react to the times when said strategy is stymied by your opponents actions or, more often, the current configuration of your mancala. Indeed it is to this engine of empire we must turn to find the anima of this game. If you have the mathematical and prognosticatory ability to manage it in such a way as to ensure your desired options will always be available, well, then I doubt your humanity frankly. But it is the ability to at least bend it to your will for a turn or three in a row that will grant great rewards and leave other players agog at your skill. It’s these moments where you feel like Michael Fassbender’s character in a film I’m pretending was never made, manipulating esoteric alien control systems made of coloured blobs and effortlessly subjugating them to serve your desires. Pass the flute thingy.

tr7There is also a pleasing immediacy to the effects of your actions on the board itself, as your legionaries sweep across Europe, your builders complete city districts, and your merchants exhaust trade routes leaving them less valuable to other players. There is satisfaction in using an engine of chaos to bring the order and glory of Rome to the map laid out before you. It is almost the opposite sensation to the one engendered by Burgundy, rather than building a little fiefdom in front of you by draining the central area of resources, you are using your own arcane device to change the world. A loudhailer rather than an ear-trumpet. Of course those are basically the same thing from a different angle.

Which is kind of my final point. Having heartily recommended Castles of Burgundy, can I suggest you need Trajan too? I think I can, albeit with a proviso or two. There is enough difference between the two, and especially between the two driving mechanisms, that Trajan is certainly worth a look. Rather than making the best of fate as you do with Burgundy’s dice, in Trajan, to quote a woman who knew what she was talking about, there’s no fate but what you make. All your markers only allowing you to reach the one target bowl? Shoulda diversified earlier. Not enough time left to accomplish your goals? Shouldn’t have been moving so many markers. And so on. Trajan also excels in one area that even the most doting Burgundy lovers (myself among them) will concede is lacking from that game. It looks gorgeous. The forced perspective map from an Italian POV is truly lovely to behold.

tr4However… if you merely like Castles of Burgundy or Macao or any other Feld game (or, for that matter, find them soulless and inscrutable pieces of work) then I doubt very much Trajan is going to be the game that changes your mind about the man and may not be something you want to spend your hard-earned cash and time on when other options are available. In my case though, when it comes to depth, ingenuity, multiple paths to victory and clever new ways of using old components, Trajan is fast becoming one of my favourite games, and Stefan Feld one of my favourite designers. The swine just makes it all seem so…effortless.

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Feb 072013
 

www.uplay_.it_Tzolkin__Il_Calendario_Maya400x400[1]By Strange Prawn

Right. let’s get back to heavier some heavier fare to see us through these cold winter nights…

I expect you were aware last year of some brouhaha involving the end of the world. The Mayans, those ancient Mesoamerican darlings of the new age crystals-and-chakras crowd, were somewhat fans of a calendar. Their reckoning of time ran on several scales, the longest of which came to an end/ticked over last December. Obviously a portent of Armageddon. Or not. You have to wonder if a future civilisation will get antsy every December 31st. Probably not. They’ll have banned chakras by then. Anyway, coincidentally or not, thundering along on the coat tails of the fin-de-long-count zeitgeist comes Tzolk’in: the Mayan Calendar, highly regarded new boy on the worker placement block and bane of spell-checkers everywhere.

You can’t sit down at a table to play Tzolk’in without immediately noticing the big draw- and the thing that sets it apart from its numerous mechanic-sharing brethren- the huge functioning cog-wheels embedded in the board, baring their teeth at you in a brazen attempt at intimidation. Let’s put those aside for one moment however, and pretend giant wheels are run-of-the-mill.

Tzolk’in is, in many ways nearly identical to the granddaddy of worker placement games, Caylus. There is the same sense of trying to optimise your very limited actions with a dollop of attempting to anticipate and, if possible, stymie your opponent’s strategies on the side. There are even analogous tracks for advancement on the board, with the technology track standing in for the King’s favour and the temples where one must earn the favour of the gods, sorta-kinda an equivalent of building the castle. Of course, if you aren’t familiar with Caylus, dear reader, this tells you nothing. Likewise if you are a stranger to Agricola it would be pointless mentioning the similar necessity to feed you workers with some of the valuable corn you have gathered at critical points in the game. So I won’t.

Instead I’ll go back to the start…

You begin the game with four so-called wealth tiles from which you must choose two which will bestow upon you your starting resources and possible freebie advancements on the technology or temple tracks. This is the first agonising decision of the game, and yet acquiring the stuff you want, nay need, will never be so easy again. Once everyone’s tooled up it’s simply a matter of going round the board deploying your columnar minions as you see fit. Or rather, as the game sees fit to allow you. You may place one or more of your pieces onto the bevelled spaces on the various gears (assuming you can meet the corn cost of doing so), or you can take one or more of them off to accomplish an action, but not both. No sir.

Then, once everyone has either put down or pulled off, time marches on and those gimmicky gears are rotated, causing any pieces to march onwards with them.

tzolkin4[1]And we come round and back again to the gears.  There are five action-granting gears powered by the central Tzolk’in calendar wheel. Each gear is themed around an ancient Mayan city. Bountiful Palenque grants the treasures of the forest, harvesting wood clears fields to provide corn. Yaxchilan’s rich mines provide stone, gold, and of course crystal skulls, whereas the cultural centre of Tikal allows technological advancement and building. The bustling markets of Uxmal allow for corn to be exchanged for resources (and back again) or religious favour, and new workers to be recruited. Lastly sacred Chichen Itza is where you must seek the favour of the gods with offerings of crystal skulls, for which you will be rewarded in the next life. With points. In common though, each wheel’s actions become more powerful and allow access to rarer bounty, the longer you can afford to let you workers sit there, otherwise achieving nothing, with the final spaces being wild cards of a sort, allowing you to access any ability of the chosen wheel.

Tzolk’in is a harsh mistress. Not a game for generalists, this. Unlike other games with a feed-your-workers element I don’t feel the knot of frustration at having to throw away hard earned resources to not lose points. Instead I feel it at the sheer lack of time and ability to accomplish all that I want as time goes marching oh-so-thematically on. I’m fairly sure the best course of action is to pick a strategy and stick with it, be it climbing the temples, placing skulls or tailoring a strategy to a monument, one of the special buildings that cough out points depending on certain things achieved during the game. Even then however, without careful forethought turns will be used sub-optimally, valuable time will be wasted, and the gears only turn a finite number of times.

Tzolk’in is a temptress, sitting there with all her buildings laid out that I can’t use no matter how hard I try. Piles of resource cubes sit on the board, more than could possibly be acquired in the time the game allows. Oh,  and a score track that goes up to a hundred. Ha!

Tzolkin2[1]I called the gears gimmicky earlier, but that’s not fair. The passage of time is portrayed so well in the game, right down to the countdown to feeding days on the central wheel. In a strange way it lends a very thematic feel to play. Not relating to Central American civilisations, but almost a meta-theme relating to change and inevitability that can be quite beguilingly immersive.  For all this talk of immersion however, don’t go near this thing if you’re looking for adventure, or if you derive pleasure from, you know, achieving things. What you’ll get from this is the very cardboard embodiment of the old adage about the running shoes and the lion. You won’t outrun the inevitable progress of time, but as long as you’re slightly further ahead than everybody else, well, that’s all that matters.

Still, what keeps me coming back, and I will becoming back, is the nagging suspicion that this is all my fault. I’m missing something, I’m sure of it. I dream of insouciantly casting my pieces on to those wheels of fortune like a child casts grains of sand into the sea, knowing exactly when and where they should be deployed, smiling gnomically as crystal skulls pile up beside me and edifices spring into being like wildflowers after a rainstorm. I know Tzolk’in hates me, but I am stuck in a mutual spiral with this abusive partner, I’ll keep crawling back because it’s convinced me that I’m in the wrong, because it’s alluring and interesting and I think I can change it.

Because I love it Trisha.

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Jan 242013
 

2013-01-23[1]By Strange Prawn

“Come closer hatchlings… did I ever tell you of the time I saw the shining dome of the galactic capital on the blasted throneworld of Mecatol Rex?

As you may already know in the time of our grandmothers’ grandmothers, when our planet’s twin was still green in the sky, the great Lazax emperors of old ruled from Mecatol. That is, until the complacency of the emperors themselves coupled with the treachery of their subjects wrought the downfall of the Empire and the extermination of the Lazax. It was in the wars that tore the Empire apart that the Humans and the Letnev committed the atrocities against Archon Tau that left it the grey husk we see in the evening skies…

What young hatchling? Sorry.. sorry, the mind wanders…

*puff*

Where was I…? Yes, when I was a young Xxcha myself, not much older than you are now, I was joined to the Royal Fleet, like my mother, and his mother before him. My first post was on the cruiser Ccjys, patrolling the border between our Eastern colonies and Letnev space. It was just another day on board when we heard that the Lazax had returned.

We picked up the faint signal announcing their presence, but we were not alone in doing so. Long range chatter that told us the Letnev, Yssaril, Humans and the Mentak Coalition had also received the transmission.

Immediately our representatives in the Galactic Senate put forward our case to hold regency of the capital until a course of action could be decided, and for a while, it seemed we were listened to. We established a tentative peace in our region of space, despite a paucity of resources. Even the Letnev, of all species, conducted politics in a civilised manner, suggesting a limit on fleet allocations amongst the spacefaring peoples, though this was defeated and may have been a ruse… You know what they say about giving a Letnev a lectern… Ahem…?

*puff*

Oh yes, Well, as I said, it seemed as though a united galaxy was ready to deal with the return of the former Emperors, The Humans had even entered an uneasy trading relationship with their new homeworld, only… well, as you know, they weren’t the Lazax of old, but nightmarish technological chimerae that called themselves the L1Z1X, and the Humans grew uncomfortable being so near to their inscrutable new partners… It wasn’t long before the first shots were fired.

2013-01-23[1]The Letnev, never ones to pass up a chance to assert their might, took immediate advantage of the breakup of peace and flew a massive fleet through the Alpha Wormhole, thankfully bypassing our territories, but harassing the colonies of the Mentak, our allies. Alas, we had not the ships to send direct assistance. We pleaded for calm through the proper channels however. Though, as a precaution, a massive fleet-building program was initiated above Archon Ren, while the fleet containing my ship, the Ccjys, was deployed to the space bordering Mecatol Rex… to provide protection for our diplomatic envoys you understand. And the Yssaril… the Yssaril waited…

Whilst we stood vigil at Mecatol, the Techartisans on Archon- including my clutch-mates Sachkki and Kaaz- were frantically trying to increase our capability to achieve our objective, though with little available income, progress was slow. Then, suddenly, we heard peace had been struck between the Humans and the L1Z1X, the latter were now heading directly for Mecatol with an armada of terrifying dreadnoughts. Our captain, a grizzled old reptile whose name sadly escapes my old mind, snapped his menn-root pipe and swore that he would not inhale another lungful if anyone was allowed to seize the capital by brute force.

We were unsuccessful…

Sorry, I shall just re-light my menn-root…

Anyway, the cyborgs overran the planet, and fortified their position with an enormous space dock, belching out ever more of their hideous warships. Salvation came from an unexpected quarter…

With all parties outraged by the L1Z1X’s mad power-grab, the Letnev released vicious technopathogen into the atmosphere of Mecatol, one designed to attack the L1Z1X’s unique cybernetic physiology. We took our chance. The Ccjys lead the charge into the planet’s airspace. The Massive weapons batteries of the enemy’s dreadnoughts were as nothing against our superior defensive plating. Casualties were suffered, but we emerged victorious… at least in space. On the surface itself the ground forces of the L1Z1X were too entrenched for our warriors.

It was then that the opportunistic Yssaril broke off from their border disputes with the Mentak and appeared suddenly in the midst of our still-recovering fleet. We had no choice but to withdraw and look on as the Yssaril accomplished what we could not, flushing the L1Z1X from Mecatol Rex.

The Yssaril plasma cannons were not cold before two things happened at once to bring a perhaps premature, and some may claim unsatisfying, end to the hostilities. Firstly, A massive Human fleet appeared out of hyperspace, also bearing down on the beleaguered throneworld. Secondly, and more terrifyingly, a wide-band transmission was received from the L1Z1X by all other parties. The message was silent, merely text and a verifiable vidlog. The text read, in the languages of all sentient peoples, “WE HAVE THE WARSUN”. Yes hatchlings, the most feared battlestation ever developed by the shipyards of the Jol-Nar, and somehow those demented cyborgs had recreated it!

All species recognised our only chance was to sue for peace, and with no small diplomatic input on the part of our ambassadorial corps, eventually a tripartite regency was established between the strong and numerous Humans,  the Letnev, who managed to leverage their control of the wormholes into a strong political position, and the L1Z1X. A peace, an uneasy peace, but  peace nonetheless established that lasts to this day.

Though for how much longer I cannot say… Sorry? Oh, just thinking to myself hatchlings…”

Or in other words, I got to play some Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) this weekend. Look what it’s done to me.