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Sunday, July 31, 2011

WBC Day Two

I woke up bright and early for more Hannibal, with only the slightest grogginess after the previous day's marathon of 3 am wakeup, 6 hours driving, and 6 hours of Hannibal. After I post this entry, I'm going straight to bed and luckily nothing is happening for me in the 9 am hour tomorrow, so I can catch up a little bit on sleep.

Round 3: Tim Miller
For the 5th time in a row at WBC, I was Carthage - Tim bid 1 to be Rome, so I was happy to take Carthage once again. The details of this game are a little blurry right now, but once again Hannibal got stuck in northern Italy, eventually killed, but Mago was again able to conquer Corsica and hold onto it. Yet another 9-9 tie for the Carthage madmen...

Round 4: Michael Sosa
I knew I had met Michael before, but neither of us could remember exactly what we had played together a few years ago. He accepted my starting bid of 1 for Carthage, so the streak grew to 6. This time, Hannibal was finally able to make a lot of progress, smashing Romans and taking Samnium. On turn 3, I had a tough call to make. I had the Carthage reinforcement card that gave 2 troops if you were in Lucania, so I decided to make a break for it after using Diplomacy to flip one of the other spaces there to have a retreat path if I lost a combat. Hannibal was able to hold on to Lucania and Apulia until at least turn 7 or so, holding off Scipio Africanus in a number of combats on turn 6. I got to play an event I had never played before - the Adriatic Pirates! They got Mago with 3 extra troops to help Hannibal hold on longer, but eventually I had to sail the big guy back to Spain. Overall it bought me enough time to once again control Corsica and win a 9-9 tie.
Round 5: Henry Rice
Henry won the bidding roll and bid 0 for Carthage, I bid 1, and he took them for 2 - the streak was over! However, after playing four rounds of Carthage in a row, I was worried about being out of sync with the Roman side of things. I held Hannibal to the first two spots in Samnium, but I decided to use Major Campaigns on two different turns to try to attrition Hannibal away, figuring I was going to have a better chance to make battles last longer if I was attacking rather than defending. I'm still not sure if this is worth it, or a good way to lose a lot of troops, since I had Hannibal well controlled. Eventually I did back him up back in Gallia Cisalpina, and then he fled just as Scipio got on the scene. Henry did something pretty interesting during all of this. During one of his Campaign card moves, he moved H. Gisgo into the right most space in Liguria - basically meaning I would have to find some time to deal with him or he might come out at the end of the game to flip some PCs in Italy. In turn 8, Henry moved Hasdrubal back into northern Italy to keep me tied up, even though I was winning with Marcellus in Corsica and P. Scipio in Sicily. Near the end of the turn he dropped Truce to make me not able to deal with Hasdrubal or flip a PC that P. Scipio was sitting on in Sicily (with another next to him). I had Celtiberia Revolts and decided to not use it as the event and make him lose one more PC during the Political Phase, thus keeping the Truce around.
On turn 9, I discovered yet another example of the dislike part of my feelings about Hannibal. I've been playing Hannibal for 3-4 years now and have probably played 50 times. You would think I would know all of the rules, but nope! Apparently Truce causes Naval Combat to not occur, so Henry was able to sail Hannibal with 10 troops on turn 9 with no risk.

Anyway, it was all for naught because during turn 9, Henry used a Major Campaign to move Hannibal to Sicily, but that wasn't it. He hit me with Philip of Macedon's alliance next, and picked out my only 3-card, a Major Campaign. I finished off Hasdrubal, and raced Scipio A. south as quickly as I could... only to be hit by Messenger Intercepted! Unbelievably, Henry didn't even need to use Hannibal to take over Sicily. With him remaining cards after I had played my last one, he was able to move H. Gisgo from New Carthage all the way by land to Gallia Cisalpina and take that province back.

A fun, interesting day, but unfortunately it ended with disappointment. Winning that last round would have meant probably being in top 6 and getting a plaque... and I came so close! Granted, this was the best I've done in a CDG.

All three of my opponents were great - polite, not too fast or slow in their play, gracious in victory or defeat, and generally fun to play against. The people at the WBC are a big factor as to why it's so fun!


Saturday, July 30, 2011

WBC Day One

A great start to this year's World Boardgaming Championships!

Bronwen and I woke up at 3 am to begin the trek to Lancaster PA, and got out the door around 4:30. We made quick progress as Bronwen caught up on sleep and I listened to wargaming podcasts (Point 2 Point and The Messy Game Room... check them out!). We had a nice, quick lunch at Taco Bell and met up with some friends at the Lancaster Host.

Today's pre-convention event: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage!

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Hannibal. It's more like a really like-sometimes dislike relationship. I'm good enough to have a chance to win against most of the players I've come across at WBC, but not good enough to necessarily win consistently. I've gone pretty much 50% wins in the few years I've been playing the event... this is my third year, and I believe I went 2-2 my first year, then 1-1 last year and dropped out to play Paths of Glory. I enjoy playing the game, but at some point around a year and a half ago, my conception of the game changed and I don't quite take it as seriously. Mostly it's the wild swings that can happen from a timely Double Envelopment or Messenger Intercepted, but also the way the game sometimes settles into a stalement, or the way Carthage can win with a lucky Syracuse draw on turn 9. All of that said, once I made that mental adjustment to the chaos of the game, I'm actually enjoying the game more. It's like I have built up a resilience to the frustrations the game can provide, and can take it for what it is, without getting annoyed when I lose.

Round 1: Bill Banks. Bill was a great opponent - he was nice, easygoing, and knew Hannibal well, so the play was smooth and the time flew by. I won the dice-off to bid 2 PCs for Carthage and he let me have it. Hannibal made it as far as Mutina, but got whittled down so had to retreat back home. Bill considered following over the Alps to go get him, but decided against it. With a timely Messenger Intercepted and Diplomacy, I was able to move Mago over to Corsica-Sardinia while Bill was out of cards, and early in the following turn sail Hasdrubal there with more troops while Hannibal held down Spain. I used a ton of 3-cards to buy more troops, which is something I have found myself doing more and more as Carthage as I gain more experience with the game. I wonder if that's the right thinking... Anyway, Bill tried a few attacks but I was able to fend them off for a 9-9 tie, which Carthage wins.

After the game, I relaxed, wandered, and finally went to the nearby Asian Bistro with a friend from home, Andy Latto. We had a great conversation about games, poker, and statistics (such as in WBC favorite Can't Stop), and the food was solid - I had a nice, simple chicken stir fry. Fueled up, I was ready for round 2!

Round 2: Andy Latto. I'm not really surprised by this kind of thing any more. If you play enough tournaments, you are bound to play people you know. I was happy to know that one of us would be 2-0 going into tomorrow. It was kind of funny to have this happen since one of the things we talked about during dinner was our bidding strategy for the start of the game. Andy won the die roll and bid 1 for Carthage, so I bumped it to 2 and was once again moving Hannibal over the Alps. This time, however, Hannibal got stopped at the gates to Italy by a Roman superstack. Hannibal's stack was too big for them to take on as well, so a stalemate developed while Andy just waited Hannibal out. I was able to once again get Mago into Corsica, and even did an end of turn Sicily Revolts and led the turn off with a 3 card to take that province (temporarily). Andy is a tough game player though, and he played very well - not rushing into anything too risky until he had Scipio Africanus. At that point Andy had 47 troops on the board due to the build-up, and my stacks all had 13-16.

The amazing part of the game was that we had FOUR 10-round battles between Hannibal and Scipio on turn 6, one more on turn 7, and finally Andy went for the kill with a Campaign... the last one Scipio got Hannibal in an 8 rounder to have a significant drop in force, then came in with P. Scipio to finish off the big man. It was a hard decision the play before that as to whether to run away with Hannibal yet. He had a stack of 11 or 12 troops and I had no way of knowing Andy had a Campaign card.

The other amazing aspect to this game was that I drew Messenger Intercepted FOUR times, including turn 9 during which I plucked Philip of Macedon from his hand, allowing me to send Hasdrubal with 10 troops safely to back up Mago when Scipio A. moved there after finishing up with the tribes in the north. The ending was extremely close, but unfortunately sneaky Varro had enough Ops points left to move into Northern Spain and take four spots to win by 10-8 province count. We debated my gamble to attack Corsica with my last 3 card before waiting for Andy to be out of cards, but if I waited, he would finish off Mago and flip the PCs, making the sailing attempt significantly more risky, not to mention not having Mago's few remaining troops around. Since I rolled exactly 1 less than sinking, I would have sunk on the way and lost either way.

It's time for bed, and I think this year I'm not going to switch the Paths of Glory. I just don't know enough people who play it regularly to ever be truly competitive at the game, and it's very draining to play even a second round of it, much less three. So for tomorrow, I'll be playing round 3 of Hannibal. I'm thinking that if I win, I will keep going on the off chance I can get to 4-1, but if I lose, I might give serious consideration to playing Through the Ages. I rate TTA much lower than most of my friends, as well as the BoardGameGeek rankings, so I feel like I need to play it more and give it a more thorough chance. Two back-to-back round of WBC play would go a long way towards that!


Saturday, July 23, 2011

LibertyCon Part 2

Day 2 of LibertyCon was on Friday July 1, and I got to play tons of games, including two for the first time. Here was the lineup:

   Dream Factory
   Taj Mahal
   Princes of Florence

This was my second game of Labyrinth, again playing against Andy L. I took the Jihadists since the last time we had played (at the TotalCon game day), I had the Americans. This game has quite a bit of asymmetry! Again Andy took me out in pretty quick order, getting a successful conversion of the Gulf States to Good governance and then rolling from there. I like the learning curve here, there's things to learn about - how do you respond to things that your opponent does makes a big difference in whether you can hold them off or get rolled.

I had been waiting a long, long time to play Indonesia. Every time I've been at Eric's, I've looked longingly at the game sitting on the shelf and even read the rules once while between games. It's highly rated on BoardGameGeek, and sounds exactly like the kind of game I really like: heavy and economic. The way you can merge companies in the game sounded really interesting, and the people at LibertyCon who played it before seemed enthusiastic about it. So finally I was going to get my chance!

After the first play, I was left feeling like I really liked Indonesia. It had some similarities to 18xx games in that you were controlling companies that had to operate, but without the track laying. People have complained about the graphic design and components, which while beautiful, really do get in the way of game play. Some of the areas on the board are way too small, especially since the component used for a city is a glass bead.

One of the most fascinating and bizarre aspects to the game is that you can cause two companies to merge. The strange thing about the way it works mechanically is that one player can cause two companies owned by two other players to merge, and there is nothing they can do to stop it. This makes Indonesia really feel pretty abstract and unreal, but from a game standpoint it's a really interesting mechanic. I was looking forward to playing it again soon so I could try out some different things.

After that, Eric taught us Traumfabrik, which has recently been printed in English as Dream Factory. This game was a lot of fun - you get three movie scripts which require different components: for example an actor, a director, and special effects. Another script might require two actors, a camera, and a director. Some actors are better than others, so all of the pieces have a value. When you finish a film, you get points for it based on how good the actors, directors, etc. that you got were. You are bidding currency in a closed economy: after the winner gets the pieces they just bid on (they come in lots of 2 or 3 components), you divide the money up amongst the other players. This means that the game ebbs and flows for each player because if you are not winning auctions, you are accumulating money for future auctions. You also get to see which lots are coming up ahead, so a key is timing your expenditures so you get the best stuff for your films. The scoring is cute and nicely done: after a certain number of lots, the person with the best finished movie gets some points; at the end of the game you get points based on things like best comedy. I'm not entirely sure but I may have won this game, or at least come close. Considering I hadn't really heard all that much about this game, I have to say I found it really just plain fun. Easy to learn with plenty going on to think about. I'm not sure why this game isn't as popular as some of Knizia's other light, auction games like Ra, Amun-Re, Modern Art, or Medici.

Speaking of other Knizia games, we then got a group together for Taj Mahal, which is one of the games I own that I have not played nearly enough. (Another Knizia, Amun-Re, is also in that category.) I decided I was going to explore the design space in this game instead of focusing on a greedy strategy, which is my default, and instead pick out a more defined strategy to push for and stick with it. For those of you who don't know Taj Mahal, there are 12 rounds of bidding for things in different districts on a map. You play one or two cards which have various symbols on them, or you withdraw from the bidding. When you withdraw, if you are leading in one of the symbols, you get that reward for that district. Four of the symbols let you put a castle down in that district and get a piece that is 1/2 of a special power card, one of them lets you put an extra castle down that doesn't take up a space so can share with someone else, and one (elephants) lets you get a tile from that district that has some picture of a good on it. There are other little tokens on spots that when you put a castle down, you get the token and some of those also have goods on them. You get points when you acquire a good based on how many other of that good you already have. When you withdraw, you also get to pick two cards from an array that is put out before the card plays.

The interesting thing in Taj is that you might not be winning anything and have to decide whether to push for it, or to cut your losses now and try to get an early pick of new cards. This can be a pretty fascinating decision, at times. The strategy I decided to try was to take elephant cards as often as possible, and try to win as many of the goods tiles as I could, and see if that was a viable way to try to win. Eric's son-in-law ran to victory by making chains of castles, which is another way to get bonus points, but I did end up in second, even though my strategy became quickly obvious to everyone at the table and they started actively trying to get in the way of it. Good stuff!

The last game I played on game 2 was one of my all time favorites, The Princes of Florence. I'm biased because it's the game I've done the best at in the WBCs, coming in 4th and 2nd in back to back years. I feel like I've lost my touch a little bit because it's hard to find people to play this game, especially to get a five player game. This game at LibertyCon was with a bunch of WBC eurogame veterans and really felt like the quality of a semifinal game. I've found at WBC the first round heats are very winnable in games that you like a lot and practice at, but the difficulty really rachets up in any semifinal game. I've made the semifinals of lots of games: Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Caylus, Ra for example, but only won a semi in Princes of Florence.

Anyway, this was a really tight game. I had artists with four different buildings since I was in seat 4, so I decided to try to push builders a little more than I normally would. For a game that seems so tight and simple, the variance in the cards you get and the chaos created by the player dynamic adds quite a bit of replayability. I was able to get a late "least open spaces" Prestige card which saved my game a little bit, but I believe I ended up coming in third. I wish I could get a few more games of this in before WBC, but maybe I'll find an open gaming game of it during the pre-cons.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

LibertyCon Part 1

My wife and I were invited to partake in a nearby home-based mini-convention this past weekend and had a wonderful time. The hosts Eric and Claire were fantastic, and I made sure to get in some games with each of them based more on their preferences than mine. Part of that is me wanting to see what they like about the games they like, that I can't get other groups I know to play, such as the 18xx games and the Empire Builder series of games.

Here was the games I got in on the first day:
   Daytona 500
   Thurn and Taxis
   Blue Moon City
We started off with Bohnanza, which I suggested. I have only played this once, many years ago, and remembered really liking it. Since my wife and I love Agricola and Le Havre, I wanted to revisit it. I once again enjoyed it, and appreciated the way the game makes everyone eager to trade without making trading a painful process. Maybe another group would play slower and trade more carefully, but our game had a nice smooth feel to it. I'm not really into buying light games like this anymore, but I would probably play this game when I felt like something lighter and someone had it with them. I ended up winning somehow, which was a nice way to start the convention!

For those of you who have not played Bohnanza, it's pretty simple to explain. You get a hand of cards that need to stay in order in your hand. You have two "fields" on the table where you can plant a bean, and you have to plant the same kind on that stack - so you can have three Blue Beans and three Coffee Beans on the table. When you have a certain number, you can decide to harvest the beans, and based on how many, get 1 to 4 points - you take that many of the Bean cards and flip them over and put the rest in the discard. The cool part is that means there are less of that kind in the deck, which gets reshuffled a number of times. So if you pay a little attention, you might be able to figure out which beans you are likely to be able to collect. There's a little more to how the beans get planted and traded, but that's the basic idea.

Eric suggested another light game next, a really old Milton Bradley game called Daytona 500. I was a little skeptical, but this game was fast and pretty fun. A basic racetrack with spots for the cars, with three lanes but only one around the curves which forces the cars to sort of squeeze in and made it feel a little more realistic. You get a hand of cards with a bunch of number-color circles on them, like Blue 6 - Red 4 - Black 2. That means that when you play that card, you move the blue car 6, the red 4, and the black 2. If a car is behind another when it moves, that car gets to move 1 space. You look at your hand and then pick which car you want. You play one lap around like that and then the first player moves and you do it again. It was kind of interesting how other people were moving your car for you, and sometimes even pushing you over the finish line!

Usually light games are a one and done affair for me, meaning I would play them again but just not in the same weekend. I actually found myself nearly suggesting this one to get my wife to try it!

We got in a game of Thurn & Taxis, a game that continues to be a good choice when I want something light that I know involves a lot of skill so there are things I'm still working at figuring out about how to play well. Since Andy L. hadn't arrived yet, I had a chance - he's a shark at this game. I did decently but not great in this one, as the cards just didn't quite agree with me. I had a weird game where at one point I had a three card route and five cards in my hand which didn't touch the route or each other!

Joe H. showed up, who is known among this crowd as the 18xx guy because his skills with Excel and quick math really speed any 18xx game up, and he suggested this game called Slate. It's a small, relatively quick game by Martin Wallace that was publishing in a German magazine called Spielbox. A nice, interesting Eurogame - you roll three dice on your turn, and they decide your actions - you can get a new worker (as in El Grande) on a 1 or 2, dig a mine on 2 or 3, harvest a mine on 4 or 5, and buy a special benefit on a 6. You cSome of the special benefits get you end game victory points, one of them lets you change one of your dice up or down 1 pip (and you can go from 1 to 6 or 6 to 1 as well), etc. You can reroll some of your dice ala Yahtzee, Roll Through the Ages, or Ra: The Dice Game. Pretty fun game - very interesting for the small amount of rules and playtime.

Andy L. did happen to show up at this point (and I was actually sad he missed Thurn, because I want to see more of how he plays it), and him and Eric's daughter Jo brought out Blue Moon City. I had seen this game at my friends house (D&D Andy) and took a quick read through the rules at some point there and it seemed interesting. Move your piece one square tile left or right on a grid, then hand in cards of various colors to complete the structures on those tiles, getting you rewards such as victory points, more cards, etc. For my money it was a little too abstract. While I enjoyed it, I wouldn't rush out to play it again or buy it.... probably rate it around a 5 or 6. When I first discovered designer boardgames, I would have loved this game. I'm more into heavier games nowadays and I guess I prefer a tiny bit more theme in my games.
I was trying to decide whether to play another game, when Joe H. said that he really wanted to play Rallyman. What I had read about it didn't sound that great, and I would have to say this is probably my least-liked new game in a long, long time. I generally at least like pretty much anything, but this just didn't cut it. It had an interesting take on pressing-your-luck with dice and planning out your upcoming movement, but it didn't provide any twists or changes in game play during the game. The staggered start was vaguely compelling, but the sum of it all was what I would call... tedious. It also really was pretty much the definition of multiplayer solitaire. Well, when you are trying new games, you win some and you lose some, so I'm not upset that I gave it a shot.

This first day of the convention was a nice, relaxing, and fun start - I went home excited and looking forward to playing heavier, deeper games over the next few days!

To be continued....