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I have no idea what's gotten into me, but for some reason, this year I've decided to predict the nominated games, finalists, and winner of the SdJ Game of the Year Award. Maybe the fact that it's such a wide open award this year makes this an irresistable challenge. Check here if you want my reasoning, but if you just want to see my picks (and laugh at how far off I am), here they are:
(Incidentally, Bohn Hansa and Edel, Stein & Reich just missed)
And the Winner
The New Spring Collection
Here's my take on the games that have been released during the last couple of months, along with a numerical rating for each of them. (A brief description of the upper half of my rating scale: 10 - One of the all-time best; 9 - Superb; 8 - Very Good; 7 - Good; 6 - Pretty Good; 5 - So-so.)
Amun-Re - My favorite of the Nuremberg games. There's nothing hugely innovative here, although the bidding mechanic is a genuine improvement on Evo-style bidding. The monetary sacrifice is a nice touch as well. Other than that, it's a typical Knizia mix of enough diverse elements to make the game challenging and provide multiple paths to victory, all superbly balanced as you'd expect from the good Doctor. It's a good thing, as this may be the last heavy Knizia game we see for some time. I've played this half a dozen times over the last month and enjoyed every contest. Among my Reiner favorites, I rank this one behind only Stephenson's Rocket and Euphrat & Tigris, and that's pretty good company. Rating: 8.
New England - This is an exceedingly clean and elegant design, which seems almost too simple to work, but it plays very well. Gameplay is fast and smooth, with tough decisions on almost every turn. The game's main innovation is the selection of the turn order/item prices at the beginning of each round, but more often than not, players go the cheap route, diminishing its impact. It may turn out, however, that choosing higher values is the better strategy. The theme is kind of thin, but it works for me, and I find the use of pilgrims, ships, and barns as economic units charming. All the components are attractive and oversized, which also adds to the game's appeal. I'll need more playings to truly judge this game's worth, but right now, my Holy Triumvirate of Moon/Weissblum games consists of San Marco, Capitol, and New England. Rating: 8.
Mare Nostrum - I've only played this once and enjoyed it quite a bit. Lots of good ideas and many difficult choices. I had the good fortune of playing with someone who had played several times and was free with his suggestions; I think this enhanced the game considerably. My game had a greater military aspect than I thought it would, but that only added to the tension. It does look as if this is a "pile on the leader"-type game, but that usually doesn't bother me as long as the game moves steadily toward a conclusion. Obviously, it will take a great deal of study to learn how to play the five nations well, but based on my first game, it will definitely be worth the effort. Rating: 8.
Mystery Rummy #4 - Has there ever been a series of games by one author that has maintained such a high level of excellence as the Mystery Rummy games? Okay, other than by a designer named Klaus? #4 is no exception. This time, the main twist is that you get a big bonus for melding completed sets, which gives the game something of the feel of Canasta. Assisting you in your quest to acquire every card of a set is the fact that no card in this game is safe, whether it be in your hand, in the discard pile, or melded in front of you-there are special cards for grabbing each of these. This can be played lightly if you wish, but if you take it seriously, it's quite an intense game. This may turn out to be my favorite game in the series. Rating: 7.
Bohn Hansa - Played with the right group, this is an awful lot of fun. There's trades, deliveries, strategy, and a good deal of action. It's possible that the card draw can force you to play your own game with little interaction, which would make the game pretty much of a yawner. But unless I start experiencing this with some regularity, I'm chalking this up as yet another success for one of my favorite designers, Uwe Rosenberg. Rating: 7.
Scarab Lords - The game has something of the feel of a CCG, but it's much more streamlined and (to me, at least) more interesting than games of that ilk. I found a single game match to be enjoyable enough, but I can see that the extra cards and the multi-game deck building rules would add plenty of variety. Yet another solid Knizia card game (stop me if you've heard that before!). Rating: 7.
Balloon Cup - This design by my good buddy Stephen Glenn was probably the most played game at the last Gathering of Friends. The design is ultra-elegant and, even though the gameplay feels light, repeated sessions reveal some subtleties. I find myself liking it more each time I play it. Rating: 7.
Eiszeit - The game feels quite a lot like El Grande and, like the Kramer/Ulrich classic, is pretty chaotic. The "pay for good cards, collect for bad cards" mechanic is the main innovation and it's a very good one. My one game of this was interesting, but it ran long and seemed to drag toward the end. However, it may very well move quicker once all the players are familiar with the basic tactics. So right now I'd call this a good design, but it still feels slightly disappointing, given my expectations of a Moon/Weissblum/Alea effort. Rating: 7.
Mermaid Rain - There's quite a few interesting board games that have come out of Japan over the last few years and this set collecting design may be the best of them. The use of cards to both determine turn order (by forming poker hands!) and to move is an imaginative and unique mechanism. There are quite a few other innovations as well, including paying the Sea Witch at the end of the game! Your choices are still pretty much determined by the cards you draw, which relegates this to family game status, but it's still a superior example of that genre. Rating: 7.
Magna Grecia - The design is undeniably clever, but I found the game to be kind of abstract and one-dimensional. Lots of staring at the board and trying to eke out the optimal move. I suspect this will turn out to be a game I admire more than I like, but I need to play it more before I make my final decision. From a physical standpoint, the board is just awful and the selection of colors makes you doubt the sanity of the artist, but fortunately the thickness of the tiles make them stand out enough that it's fairly easy to distinguish the different players units. Rating: 6.
Queen's Necklace - A nice game from the two Brunos, with some clever design touches. The depreciating prices of the items gives you quite a few tough selection decisions and the supply and demand valuation of the jewels is very elegant. I think I'd rather be lucky than good when it comes to predicting how the jewel sales will turn out, but the psych majors amongst us will probably fare better than I at that aspect of the game. A pleasant medium- to light-weight game. Rating: 6.
Stop It! - This very silly and very frantic Moon/Weissblum card game consists of nothing more than grabbing cards from a bunch of stacks on the table. But there's actually a little judgement involved and, while it may constitute a guilty pleasure, I kinda liked it. I wouldn't hesitate to play it again when a fun, fast filler is called for--but be prepared to play standing up! Rating: 6.
Coloretto - This is a decent filler, but I don't think it's nearly as good as some others do. Sound judgement is required to play well and the scoring is clever. But I've found that players tend to agonize a bit over their selections, so it's a little too long for its own good. Moreover, four rounds is too much--I think three works better. Finally, I'd just as soon take the Wild Cards out of the deck, as they're hugely unbalancing; I've yet to see a player turn one down the turn after it's revealed. Rating: 6.
King's Breakfast - This is a quick and completely harmless game that serves as a decent filler, but I've yet to find an iota of strategy to it. You can be aggressive and grab some large portions, hoping for an eventual big payoff, but your opponents will no doubt employ Emerald the dragon to munch away at your favorite foodstuffs. It's probably better to try to fly under the radar and hope for some good fortune. Rating: 5.
Alhambra - This is probably the biggest disappointment for me from the Nuremberg crop. I've never cared for Stimmt So, the game it is derived from, but I had hoped that the castle building would add several new layers to the base mechanic. Sadly, it's still set collecting, but the inclusion of the castle walls makes it even less likely that you can collect the cards you want. However, the outer wall scoring does add another element, which, with fewer players, enhances the gameplay. Don't even think about playing this with five or six; the downtime is much too great. Alhambra is best with three and acceptable with four. However, even with these numbers, the extra level slows the game down. The end result is a game that's just too long for what you get out of it. The game would be decent at 30 minutes; at an hour, I think I'll pass. Rating: 5.
Capt'n Clever - Certainly there's enough to this elegantly designed children's game that adults can play it. But the play really bogs down at the end, with the entire table striving to keep the player who's one treasure away from winning. To be honest, I don't find the rest of the game that enthralling either. And I don't really think this will be such a great family game, since kids and adults will be playing on such different levels. Rating: 5.
De l'orc pour les braves - This is one peculiar game. The drafting at the beginning was practically a random process for my memory-challenged mind, although it's hard to imagine anyone particularly excelling at this. I liked the second phase better, when you assemble your armies and fight to the death. But the mix between order and chaos is an uncomfortable one. The theme is good and there are some nice design ideas, but this is simply not the game for me. Rating: 5.
Paris Paris - No opinion on this game yet, as I've only played it once and had no idea what I was doing, but I will make the following observation. Many gamers compare it with Web of Power (another Michael Schacht design) and to me, it's the exact opposite of that game. Web of Power, with its big map of Europe and multiple ways of scoring, seems like it should be a heavy game, but in fact it has a pretty light feel (albeit with plenty of decisions). Paris Paris, with its sparse map and limited choices, appears at first blush to be light, but in the game I played, there was a lot of thought and agonizing over decisions. Further playings will tell me if this observation is correct, as well as give me a better idea of the worth of the game. Unrated.
Europa Tour -
The only games of this I've played have been with four players and they've
all featured lots of downtime and little control. The card selection mechanic
is also problematic, since the discard piles quickly get clogged with Boat
cards (there may be too many of these in the deck); consequently, there are
usually only one or two countries to choose from. However, it seems likely
that this game plays best with two (co-designer Aaron Weissblum is one who
feels this way), so I'll withhold my final opinion until I've played with
this number. Unrated.
International Gamers Awards
For the past few years, I've considered the Gamers' Choice Awards to be the most accurate indicator of the best Gamer's game of the year. Well, that hasn't changed, but a few other things have. For one thing, it's now called the International Gamers Awards. For another, they are no longer affiliated with the Strategy Gaming Society. Of greatest interest, however, is that they've decided to change the time frame of their award to coincide with the major German awards (so the 2003 award will cover the period from July 2002 to June of 2003, instead of all of 2003). I think this is an excellent decision, ensuring that this important award will be more comparable with the SdJ and DSP awards, instead, for example, of being announced almost a year after the SdJ is. To cover the "missing" first half of 2002, there will be an interim award. For more information on this announcement, along with lots of other fascinating stuff about the IGAs past, present, and future, check out the International Gamers Awards web site.
Modern Rules for Moderne Zeiten
As you can tell from the Hot Topics that follow this one, I'm a big fan of the new Glimne/Rejchtman game Moderne Zeiten. Over the past few weeks, a controversy has arisen over the proper way to play this game. To summarize, it appears that, due to an error in the English translation of the rules, not only have I been playing this game incorrectly, but virtually everyone in the U.S. has been doing so as well. I haven't had a chance to play this one properly yet, but I wanted to publish the actual published rules, since there's a good chance that many other gamers have yet to get the word on this.
The way I've been playing, a player can end the game if he has the majority in an industry and there are no unclaimed spaces of that industry between the player's Zeppelin and the end of the track. This is not correct. The actual rule is that a player cannot end the game unless all of the spaces between his Zeppelin and the end of the track have been claimed by other players. If this situation occurs and the player is able to play at least one card from his hand, he must end the game by moving his Zeppelin to the last space of the track. The player does not have to have a majority in any industry to do this. He gets to play cards before he ends the game and presumably no Market Crash is triggered, even if the total number of cards exceeds the threshold, but the game ends immediately, before any other player can play.
Incidentally, Jumbo changed one game-ending rule from the designers' original version. According to Dan Glimne, in his submitted version the player ending the game was not able to play any cards during his final turn. Another difference is that in Glimne's original rules, no Victory Points are awarded players who tie for the majority in an industry at the end of the game (in the Jumbo rules, all the tied players get one point).
As I said, I haven't had a chance to use the proper rules yet, but it appears that this represents a fairly significant change from the rules that I, and many other players, have used up to now. Planning for the end game becomes much more important (according to Glimne, this is a major part of the game's strategy). It also seems likely that moving rapidly down the track will be much more risky, since players following this strategy may very well find themselves unable to move while their slower moving opponents are still claiming spaces. I look forward to trying out this "new" version of MZ. Although I can't predict how it will play, I am comforted by the fact that if I don't care for it, I know of a really good variant that I do like!
I'd like to thank Mik Svellov for his role in getting the word out about the proper rules for this game.
Postscript: I now have played Moderne Zeiten with the proper rules and, somewhat surprisingly, it didn't seem to affect the game much at all. The endgame took no longer than the way we had previously played and there really wasn't much of a battle between a player cleaning up early and one methodically working their way down the track. However, I think the real change was one of attitude. The fact is, no one did race down the track, intent on ending the game early, since they knew they probably couldn't. Players were careful not to jump over too many spaces. The game-ending conditions basically changed our approach to the game. I think the game is just as good as I thought before, with the "new" rules possibly adding a little more interest to thinking at the end of the game. Moreover, since I had previously thought the five-player game ended too quickly, I'm anxious to see how the proper rules work with five. So, less fireworks than anticipated, but a happy ending nonetheless.
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