Wednesday, September 1

Summer Board Gaming: Newport

When Cait and I vacation together, we’ll tend to get a comfortable hotel room (hot tub if it’s available), poke around a bit in whatever town we’re in, and spend the majority of the time playing games.

Our recent trip to Newport was just such an excursion, except that we also stopped in at The Game Keeper in Pawtucket to stock up. Though it’s exceedingly hard to find (you have to know it’s in the converted mill building; there are no signs) it may be the nicest game store I’ve ever been in. While it lacked the selection of, say, Games of Berkeley, or the obvious-that-it’s-hereness of The Games People Play, it had a friendly store owner and a nice depth of titles. Games were displayed facing front on nice racks, and were well-grouped (sometimes by theme, sometimes by mechanic). We had a lot of fun browsing, and walked away with a bit of a haul.

The clear favorite was Empire Builder, which is the first in a long-running series of “crayon rails” games. In these games, you have to develop a vast railroad network starting with nothing more than a few (million) bucks, a train, a crayon, and a dream. Over the course of the game you make money by moving goods across the country to fulfill “demand” cards (such as: $39 million to sell coffee in Los Angeles). The routes, however, are entirely of your own devising: the only track on the board is that which you buy and then draw with your crayon, making lines between dots laid out in a hex pattern.

One could consider Empire Builder as a much more advanced version of Ticket to Ride. It shares the building-routes-to-satisfy cards aspect, at least, and the getting-in-each-other’s-way level of player interaction. We enjoy the challenge of optimizing your routes to best meet your demands (pick up something in the east to sell in the west, then get something in the west you can sell in the south) and the constant balance between spending your cash to build new routes versus hoarding it for the $250 million win condition.

Credit goes to The How To Play Podcast for making me aware of this game. It was host Ryan Sturm’s favorite two-player game in the “How to Choose the Right Game” episode.

On recommendation from the aforementioned The Game Keeper proprietor, we grabbed Egizia because we’re worker-placement fans and it’s the latest hotness in that genre. We weren’t particularly taken with the first game, though. While Egizia has an interesting mechanic in that you need to place your workers along the Nile in the direction of its flow, the rest of it seems to be a bit of a mishmash of various elements. For example, there are five different places to build, across three different building sites. They all work differently.

At least with two players, there’s a scarcity of scarcity, the typical hallmark of the genre. As a consequence, play lacks focus. With five different places to build, which do you choose? It doesn’t seem to matter, unless maybe one of them fulfills one of your bonus cards, which is a potentially-unbalanced aspect on its own.

By comparison, Agricola flows naturally and brilliantly from its farming theme. Stone Age has a variety point-making mechanics, but they’re drastically different, so you can get a sense of how to choose one versus another. Caylus is still a mystery to me, but a compelling one. I know that its interlocking features are there for a reason. Agizia currently feels sloppy, with bits glued on in random places rather than joined together nicely.

I grabbed Hive because it is one of the most portable games around. There’s no board you have to find space for, and its Bakelite pieces are easily cleaned and won’t get blown around by the wind. I think it’s the only board game you can reasonably play on a beach. Unfortunately, gameplay-wise it’s not particularly appealing to us. We’re not huge fans of abstract games in general, and the tactical placement reminded Cait (unpleasantly, as you may remember) of The Battle for Hill 218.

We would have played more, perhaps giving Egizia another chance, but over dinner the last night we got to talking about designing a game, and spent the rest of the evening (and next few days at home) hammering out a prototype. The best description right now is somewhere between Careers and Guillotine. Hopefully this is a topic I’ll be able to return to as it’s farther along.