Tuesday, August 31

Summer Board Gaming: Maine

Earlier this summer Cait and I spent a week and a half in Maine with her family. We stayed in cottages instead of the usual camping (a concession to her pregnancy), so we were able to pack and play a wider variety of games than normal.

Ticket to Ride was the absolute breakout hit of the vacation, as befitting its “gateway” reputation. It was slightly surprising to me, since we were not a crowd that would shy away from direct confrontation in general, and none of the new players seemed to maliciously block (though there were instances of speculatively grabbing some valuable short routes, particularly the midwest north-south ones). The tension of getting everything built while not knowing how well your opponents are doing was enough to keep us engaged. It didn’t hurt that you can explain the rules in five minutes, either. We’re planning on picking up either Europe or Märklin for the holidays, though, as Cait and I are not sure how many more rounds of the USA map we’re interested in playing.

I was happy to try Nuns on the Run with more than two. That definitely improves it. We liked it well enough, though we had some trouble seeing how to win as the Abbess/Prioress. I worry that it’s a bit too fiddly given how much you actually do on each turn. The dice rolling, counting, and token placing dominates the play time.

We were subjected to an evening of Contract Rummy at one point, which I’ll admit was not the most exciting game experience ever. In later rounds it devolved into drawing cards one-at-a-time until you got all the cards you needed. My guess is that the game would be somewhat improved by jokers, since throwing wilds in there would reduce the number of times you’d need to draw to get what you needed, but I don’t see myself playing again to find out.

On the positive side of cards, we played a number of rounds of Setback, which could be considered the family game. I had only played with four before, and we had enough people to do both six and eight. Eight gets interesting because you deal out the entire deck. This guarantees that the Jack is in someone’s hand, leading to more aggressive betting.

Pandemic was ok, but I’m starting to think that four is too many. We like two players a lot, and maybe a third would add some depth to the puzzle-solving, but at four it’s too easy to split into leaders / followers. That being said, I’ve never played with four experienced players, which would make a big difference (or just lead to unconstructive disagreement).

The Battle for Hill 218 didn’t go over well with Cait, I think because it’s entirely tactics over strategy.

I remember Bohnanza being mildly successful but not jump-up-and-down, zomg need to play this again as I expected from its reputation. It may be that we’re not as sophisticated as we should be in deciding whether to make trades. It was rare that there’d ever be two offers on the table, so making an unbalanced trade was still better than nothing.

We had a five-player game of Risk (using the objective-based rules from the 2008 edition), which was possibly my first complete game with more than two players, at least since childhood. I won, though I think it had more to do with taking care to play to the win conditions than being particularly tactical about conquering. I also locked in North America early.

I suppose it’s nice that the objectives keep the game from going on forever, but some of them are a bit tricky, more like video game achievements than milestones on the road to victory. For example, taking over eight cities in one turn is something you have to plan for in the sense of preparing your forces, which is thematic, but also requires that you have left at least eight cities in vulnerable-enough places! If you took those cities on earlier turns, you’d be unable to make this objective.

Our game was also a lesson in the meta-game: look too strong or get too belligerent at the beginning and you’ll be the first one out. I huddled in North America while everyone else rallied against the player who had his sights loudly set on controlling Europe. A peace treaty to the south and strong forces in Alaska and Newfoundland kept me secure.

We used the new edition’s rules for drafting countries, which was a poor choice in retrospect. There’s not a lot of incentive to be the one guy who tries to keep another player from taking that last territory in a given continent, so some of us started at significant advantage over others. If we play again, I think we’ll use the random start rules. While it’ll make the game longer as everyone first has to fight their way to consolidation, it’ll be a much more even footing.