In which I take a very quick look at the games I played on Saturday at the monthly games day at the Cambridge University Centre — that’s the Grad Pad to you and me!
All four games were new to me, and the first two always appealed, so I jumped at the chance to try them out. I won’t give you the low-down on the rules, just what my designer brain made of them, good, bad or indifferent.
Stone Age — Bernd Brunnhofer (Hans im Glück, 2008)
I really enjoyed Stone Age and would love a chance to play again. As usual from this publisher, the components and artwork are first class. Set-up isn’t fiddly, the gameplay is immediate and intuitive, and because all the choices are public, it’s easy to get going because you can openly discuss other player’s choices without genuinely prejudicing your own.
It’s clear from just one play that competing for the cards is crucial, since they can generate substantial end-game bonuses. I played a 4-player game with Pete, Ray and Robin, and Pete’s victory was crushing, partly because he’d gone after the cards aggressively at the beginning.
The dice keep things lively, and introduce a nice element of ‘push your luck’ where it’s possible to take a gamble in some turns, spreading yourself thinly in the hope that a plan might just come together. Reading the intentions of other players, and trying to pre-empt them is important, as is reacting to tactical opportunities, so the player-engagement is high. This is something else that dice add to any game, because it’s always fun to share the agony and ecstasy of another player as they roll high or low, or to speculate before a roll about exactly what’s coming. For the same reason, I really liked the cards that gifted resources to all players in turn, based on the roll of a set of dice.
Stone Age is deserving of its popularity: a solid 8/10 for look and feel, playability and fun!
Troyes — Dujardin, Georges & Orban (Pearl Games, 2010)
There are lots to like about Troyes. The style of the artwork is excellent, and a welcome break from the familiar, slightly soft-focus magic realism of games such as Stone Age. In contrast, Troyes has a schematic, hard-edged, gothic precision, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought, effort and skill has gone into rendering the complex set of actions and outcomes into a coherent and elegant set of visual cues and icons. The user interface design is really well done!
But Troyes is a much harder nut to crack than Stone Age, so requires more attention from the newcomer and a greater willingness to accept a larger number of restrictions and non-obvious interactions. The dice play creates a really nice core to the game, but there are a lot of dots to join up on the periphery and, in comparison to Stone Age, there is a much greater disconnect between the player actions and the notional narrative of the game.
The game will reward perseverance, so I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a heavier eurogame. But the rules do not easily resolve themselves into intuitive gameplay — Exhibit A: The number of rules queries on BGG! — and the designer in me wanted to see fewer “You can’t do that!” moments. I’m not saying, just to be clear, that I preternaturally know better than the game’s designers; I would not be so presumptive. But throughout our game we needed to consult the rules — often to discover our desired action forbidden! — and this suggests to me that the game’s logic is a little too difficult for the casual player to map. Players have to make sense of any game before being able to play it fluidly, and Troyes, for better or worse and for a variety of reasons, does not make this cognitive leap easy.
Troyes is definitely recommended, but with provisos: 7/10 for intrigue, potential and novelty.
Ascension — Justin Gary, et al. (Gary Games, 2010)
On twitter, and as an immediate reaction to my game, I gave Ascension a one-word review: “witless”. And I can’t say that my opinion has changed. Whatever you think about the deck-building genre, it’s clear that designing a good deck-building game that’s as good as Dominion — which remains the first, best example — is hard.
Successful game mechanisms do not, in and of themselves, make successful games. You can’t simply deconstruct a good game, reconstitute some (or even all) of its parts and hope that an emulation of its creation will lead inevitably to an emulation of its success. There’s a little bit more to it than that.
Dominion succeeds because it limits players’ actions and allows for meaningful choices and genuine strategies. Ascension, in contrast, seems random and futile. Players may have options, but they don’t have choice.
I’ll summarise by giving Ascension three words instead of one: “not for me”.
Factory Fun — Corné van Moorsel (Cwali, 2006)
Last to the table was Factory Fun, which I certainly enjoyed even though I played very poorly. But there’s no getting around it: this is the epitome of multi-player solitaire. The competitive puzzle-solving genre is popular, and Z-Man’s
upcoming new edition of the out-of-print and hard-to-find Factory Fun is likely to be well received (the updated tiles and graphic design look excellent), but the game is no more than a quick, light ‘filler’, and a relatively lonely one at that.
The principle of the game is clever and engaging, but there are plenty of clever and engaging fillers out there that engage more through player interaction than private intellectual activity, and I think I’d rather play those.
But Factory Fun is definitely good for the right crowd: 6/10 for being a nice idea, well executed.
This post also appears on my BoardGameGeek blog.