Boardgames 2023

Yeah, it is totally a matter of “feels.”

Honestly, I think a number of parts of Ark Nova are overdeveloped, and that includes the two-track scoring system. It’s novel. But is it good?

(Not that anyone asked, but the part that especially rubs me the wrong way are the… things. The bonuses? On the left side of the zoo board? You get them when you complete a conservation project? Yeah those! Those… things. It bugs me that they don’t have a name or a thematic meaning, and they don’t operate particularly intuitively. (Don’t accidentally put a regular cube on that project–you need to use a cube from the… bonus place.) They’re great bonuses, don’t get me wrong. The game economy needs them to work. But if I were the publisher I’d tell the designer to find a simpler way to do the same thing.)

And, in case anyone isn’t aware, the action mechanic in Ark Nova (where you have 5 upgradable action cards, and the one you pick becomes the least powerful one after you use it) is 100% lifted from Civilization: New Dawn, which is not from the same designer.

New Dawn has its own set of problems, to be sure, but I kinda liked it.

Had an absolutely miserable time on first playthrough of Endless Winter. Anyone tried it?

There’s so much going on it’s impossible at the start to grok where the big points are going to come from. My cards suggested I could lock up the purchase cards engine but it ran out of resources fast. First player went the islands route early and locked up recurring resources during the eclipse so there was no catching them. None of the 3 of us were within 40 points of the early island player at the end.

Would it go very differently on future plays? Very likely. Will the memory of a 3.5 hour slog knowing I could at best place 3rd after mistakes were made during round one stop me from playing it again? Maybe.

Yeah an extra blight at the start of the game on the healthy island card, and if you own any of the expansions, disregarding the first event card as well.

Regarding the blight - An errata, and a bunch of long-pending FAQs | Spirit Island

As for the event card, it might have been in Jagged Earth manual, or it might have come up in some other discourse.

Totally agree with this. Admittedly, I only played Ark Nova once, but I couldn’t help feeling like the game just has a few too many mechanics for its own good.

I miss the days when Euro games had one or two core mechanics that were the main focus of the game instead of clockwork “throw everything at the wall and make it work somehow” approach that I see in many popular games nowadays. Games like Age of Steam, Tigris and Euphrates, and even Agricola have much fewer mechanics but are still incredibly deep games.

Had a really nice week.

My wargaming partner has been unavailable for a couple months, so it was nice to return to our campaign of Undaunted: Stalingrad. It’s such a tight design; many scenarios come down to one or two plays, and at this point my squads are full of either veterans or ragged replacements.

Other highlights? Pretty much everything was good. Except maybe Ierusalem. I was hoping for something a little more… incisive, maybe.

I had my first multiplayer session with Wayfarers of the South Tigris over the holiday!

Wayfarers is one of the more recent games from Garphill, and I really like the general vibe of their stuff (Raiders of the North Sea, Architects of the West Kingdom, Hadrian’s Wall, etc.). I especially like this one for how it’s about exploration and science instead of the usual themes of production or acquisition or agriculture or citybuilding or yadda yadda yadda. It’s very much its own thing. The setting is the Golden Age of Islam in the Abbasid era, with players as “wayfarers” in ancient Baghdad, organizing caravans to explore the lands and the seas, staffing observatories to scour the heavens for discoveries, filling libraries with knowledge, and publishing your findings to win the game. It’s got tight theming around the concepts of travel, communication, and discovery in the context of simple worker placement and dice manipulation. And like all of Garphill’s games, it’s very smartly designed for “flow”, with a superlative interface baked into the board and components.

I’ve been playing a ton of it solitaire (love the snappiness of the bot!), but got frustrated with how the AI pushes itself across the finish line while I’m still messing around and figuring stuff out. How rude. Once again, I’m discovering how rarely multiplayer designs work for solitaire, even when they’re lightly interactive “Euros” with official solo modes. Basically, playing Warfarers of the South Tigris in solo mode is about trying to find a degenerate synergy before the time limit slams the game shut. This is fine as a kind of “puzzle challenge”, and you can ease up the pressure by playing the easier of the four AIs, but it still has the general feel of solving a puzzle rather than playing against an opponent.

So I enlisted a friend over the weekend, did my best to croak out a teach, and then we had a game. And it was wonderful! My friend did indeed slam the game shut on me, but she did it by following the rules (as opposed to a bot just drawing automa cards that let it magically do stuff), and she did it as a conscious decision when she could see my economic engine was revving up faster than hers. We ended at 53 to 51. I couldn’t have been happier about it. And not just because I won, but because she was able to wrap her head around it so well.

I’ll still mess around with it as a solitaire game, but it’s definitely staying in the collection for the ancient Arabic setting, the focus on science and discovery, and the overall Garphill-ness of it. One of these days, I’ll have to rank my Garphills. It won’t be easy.

Just for the Mongols to come and burn it all down. Ugh.

Sorry, still gets me sometimes.

(But that is a great setting!)

I played the first three Prologue chapters in that Vampire Kickstarter boondoggle with a friend today. The whole setup is weird for those- you’re intended to play them solo, but they also function as a tutorial- the first is about the combat mechanics, the second is the investigation stuff, third diplomacy/conversation, and each is centered around one of the playable characters- they’re all specifically defined with backstories, etc., and each of the stories is a lead up to the main storyline in the game. So is each player in the campaign supposed to play through all of them, just trading the game around and trying to find the time to solo play? Only the character they’re interested in (but then they’d miss all the rules explanation)? Play through as a group, making the decisions together?

That said, they were reasonay engaging. I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t emulating an actual TTRPG campaign so much as a CRPG one (ala Planscape Torment or Disco Elysium)- there’s apparently a 40+ chapter main story, optional side quests, investigation and dialog mechanics that lead to different outcomes, branching conversations and outcomes (examples of which we saw in our playing). My friend is onboard to see where it goes, and I’m hopeful. The narrative has to be better than Etherfields, the base campaign of which we recently finished.

It’s interesting to contrast this with Forgotten Waters, which I picked up a cheap copy of recently off BGG marketplace. Where V:tM:Chapters feels like a CRPG, FW really does feel like a TTRPG game translated to a boardgame- mechanics that reinforce a playstyle for each player/character, crazy goofy fun stuff happening all the time, with a main story but each player having a narrative arc they get to work through. Neat contrast, playing them both relatively close to another.

I just ordered Brewcrafters after wishlisting it for almost a decade! Any play it? I love the theme and really enjoy games where players run businesses, so it looks like it should be a good fit.

I do wish that someone would republish the game with better artwork though. It looks pretty bland compared to more recent games, even from the same company!

Oh ho, look at Mr. Glass Half Empty over here! What kind of Debbie Downer can’t enjoy a Golden Age while it lasts? :)

I bet you’d appreciate the other game I’ve been playing a lot lately: a solitaire design called The First Jihad (one of the States of Siege games, published by White Dog Games, link to store page here). It’s about the first 100 years of Islam that preceded the Abbasids, from the immediate aftermath of Muhammed during the Rashidun caliphate, through the dramatic expansion of the Umayyads until the Abbasids take over. The Mongols have nothing on those early Arabs and the animating force of Islam.

The extent of its historical nooks and crannies is pretty thrilling to me. Of course, Constantinople, the Iberian peninsula, the Caucasus, Egypt, and North Africa. But then the Arab armies tearing through Persia, crossing the Oxus and Indus rivers, all the way to China and India? Alexander was a punk.

Been playing state of siege Mound Builders. Really enjoy quite a few of the SOS games

Got my garage remodel done and my 8 foot table setup. Ready for Mr President.

Oh that does sound nice. But really what I liked about (what you said about) Wayfarers is that it’s about building knowledge, culture, and so on, instead of conquering and burning it down. I feel like board games lend themselves better to this than computer games in some respects–though maybe it’s because a VP chase fits well with “building up different semi-abstract concepts” and that doesn’t work as well for computer games. For example, see how awkward victory conditions like launching a spaceship are compared to the ultima ratio regium.

A few weeks ago I played some games on BGA for the first time, Seven Wonders mostly. It felt really soulless, despite playing with a group that I’ve played it with in person and having a great time then. We left with a strong feeling that we wouldn’t want to play it on BGA again. So, depending on your other experiences with BGA, it might be the medium that you’re sensing more than Earth.

I thinking drafting games lose something when you play then on a computer. There is something really satisfying about getting handed a bunch of cards, looking them over, picking one, and then passing them on. I get the same bland feeling when I’ve played Blood Rage on PC, though I love playing the game in person.

After thinking about it more, I think one of my mai n problems with games like Earth and Wingspan is that they feel like the designed stapled a bunch of mechanics together, balanced them with lots of play testing, and the slapped a non-offense theme on to make it more appealing. I know that the actual design process may have been different than this, but this is how they feel to me.

There are lots of over-designed games nowadays, and many of them are the top games on BGG. Ark Nova, Terraforming Mars, and even Scythe have lots of mechanics and ways to score points, but at least their mechanics are better integrated with the theme (though Scythe was a huge disappointment for me, but that’s a different discussion). Even Vital Lacerda’s clockwork monstrosities still manage to be pretty thematic, all things considered.

Honestly, I don’t have a problem with eurogames that are highly mechanical as long as they focus on one or two core mechanics instead of throwing everything at the wall. Tzolkin is almost purely mechanical, but the wheel mechanic is so unique and the rest of the game revolves (ha!) around it.

I can see that. There’s already such a loss of resolution and scale, where cards and maps shrink to fit the screen. Digital is actually quite for making me appreciate more specifically the best parts of board games.

Gloomhaven intrigues me for being quite good digitally. It has a dedicated client that represents more than most web-page game adaptations. The action is often focused in a smaller area, so it represents fine on the screen without feeling like I’m losing as much information, scale, or beauty. I relish the absence of its setup. And maybe also because it has a hefty chunk of automated opponent maneuvers that trim some additional overhead.

I haven’t played most of the other titles you mention. Scythe disappointed me in the first play-through. I guess I thought it would be more of something. There’s some economy, some territory, some conflict, and a race to the middle. But none of them are really satisfying in their own right, more gestures to the idea of those mechanics, which in turn just have gestures to the theme, and then all trimmed to fit a time limit. The phrase “over-designed” invokes other ideas to me, so I’d prefer a different pithy tag for this problem, but I believe I echo your feelings.

Funny enough, lowered and aligned expectations made later play-throughs of Scythe more enjoyable. There’s plenty of value sitting with friends and already knowing the rules to a game. I think the influx of titles causes my group, by chasing the new, to miss out on the experience of getting better and developing table strategies for how we play a specific game.

I played Brew Crafters last night with a couple friends. It’s an Agricola clone with more interesting theme (IMO) and slightly more forgiving gameplay. That said, it is definitely closer to Agricola than Caverna and actions are limited and worker placement spaces are highly competitive. There is virtually no randomness, as one would expect from this kind of game.

I found the game to be pretty fun, though admittedly I love the theme. It’s probably one of the most thematic euro games I’ve played and I was impressed at the attention to detail with some of the mechanics. That said, one of the people we played with wasn’t really interested in the theme and did not enjoy it very much (he greatly dislikes Agricola too). The game requires carefully planning out actions, which may turn off some players, though the actual game mechanics and scoring are pretty simple. The setup was also kind of a pain, because the game has lots of little chits and tokens.

This is definitely a game that I could see being re-launched at some point with a deluxe edition Kickstarter. Some of its graphic design also seems a little outdated and bland compared to other modern euros.

So it’s not a game solely about depriving your opponents of reed? :)

I used to be really hard on Agricola, and I don’t think I’d ever want to play it with friends when I have so many other fantastic Rosenbergs in my collection: I love that weird resource dial in Glass Road, I love the adorable little vegetables stacking up in Gates of Loyand, I love the fish-gobbling elders in Nusford, and I will always enjoy the drive to steel ships in Le Havre. But as a solitaire game about trying to set up synergies among occupations and improvements within the context of a rather brutal survival game…I’ve kind of come around on Agricola.

By the way, I really dislike Hallertau and Atiwa, which are Uwe Rosenberg’s two most recent designs. Basically, Hallertau has too much randomness and not enough theming, whereas Atiwa has some really fun theming, but not enough variability. They’ve both been consigned to the “get rid of” pile. :(

I have only played a handful of Rosenberg games, including Agricola and Caverna. I found Agricola to be a good game, but almost everyone else I played it with hated it. The first couple turns of the game can be brutal, especially for new players. By the time you have built up a relatively self-sustaining engine, the game ends and you don’t really have much opportunity to enjoy the fruits of your labor. I got rid of my copy years ago, but mostly because I couldn’t find other people willing to play.

I was really excited for Caverna, but it almost goes too far in the other direction. It is a bit of a bloated point salad game where starvation rarely happens and there is much less tension in your actions. Also, the fiddliness from Agricola has been ramped up a notch and there are so many little cardboard and wood pieces in Caverna to keep track of. That said, sometimes I do regret getting rid of my copy, since it was still a fun little building/farming game.

My friend who adores Agricola is responsible for bringing me around on it. When he saw I was getting rid of my copy, he basically sat me down and convinced me it’s all about sussing out occupation/improvement synergies. Unless you’re playing the cards, and unless you know the “economy” well enough to play the cards, you’re not truly playing Agricola. I joke about it being a game about taking reed from the other players, but it’s more a game about understanding the nuance among different types of ovens!

[By the way, another friend of mine had to explain Ticket to Ride to me on a similar level before I was able to appreciate it (hat tip to @Brooski). Well, “appreciate” it. Unlike Agricola, I’m happy to never again play Ticket to Ride, but at least I have a different understanding of it while not wanting to play.]

But my point is that Agricola is from the time before Good Boardgame Design had been invented. It was Rosenberg’s genius in an earlier form, less tailored to the demands of modern boardgaming. I think it holds up fine as a solitaire game (and it’s even got a cool solitaire campaign!). But it would be one of the last Rosenberg games I’d want to play with someone else, mostly because he’s just made so many better games to share with friends and opponents. In fact, you could say Rosenberg has been redesigning Agricola ever since he made it, whether it’s Caverna, Fields of Arle, or Hallertau. You can see the Agricola DNA all up in his games!

And, yeah, Caverna. I have it, but I don’t know it very well, and I feel like it doesn’t translate to solitaire very well. Also, to your point, my friend who adores Agricola absolutely loathes Caverna. : )

By the way, a lot of the fiddliness is getting these games to work with various player counts. Four-player games can be very different from three-player games, which can be very different from two-player games, and a lot of designers have no solution to that other than to front-load the set-up with busywork. I guess that’s the price we pay to play with our friends.