The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Hands in the Sea

with one comment

I finally played Hands in the Sea (which I’ve owned for going on two years).  Most of that time it was the only un-played game in my collection (barring  brief moments when I had a new game for a few days). For those who don’t know, HitS uses a similar system to A Few Acres of Snow, but has many more options. I feel like there were 20 some player actions in a few broad categories (expand, income, draft cards, fight, card management). Honestly, I haven’t played AFAoS in nearly seven (!) years but this felt much more complicated.

We got many rules wrong, but I think the feel worked pretty well. Basically each time Carthage shuffles is one round, and twelve rounds ends the game, with a few other ways to end early . There are also random events, strategy cards (each player can only have one at a time, and each provides some rule break or bonus). That randomness may be too much for a game that’s this long. As Rome, I definitely felt like I got lucky because many of the events just roll for victim, and I never suffered much. (All those that hit me were basically nothing, sheer chance).

It took a while to get going, I think it was about three hours with 1/2 an hour just reading the rules. Several pauses to re-read a section.

Given that I’m several years late to the party, I suspect there is no “Halifax Hammer” strategy, but I haven’t read any strategy. I’ll try to get a few more plays of this before an opinion beyond “I’d like to try again a few more times.”

Also Played Today — Wild Blue Yonder, Roll through the Ages (25th play!), Galaxy Trucker (with 5!), Magic Maze, One Night Ultimate Alien (more random and the app has some jokes, but you know what you are getting with these), Magic Maze and some Taboo-esque “edgy” game whose name I forget. (Meh).


Written by taogaming

September 2, 2018 at 12:51 am

Shards of Infinity

with one comment

On my fifty-by-fifty geeklist entry for Star Realms, several readers suggested Shards of Infinity.

I picked up a copy about a week ago. Shards of Infinity approximates Star Realms rules and feel, but improves the experience in several ways (my review of Star Realms):

First — “Mastery”. Players start with no mastery (the 2nd player gets a bonus as a balancing mechanism), and can buy one/turn. Naturally cards can give Mastery, but more importantly some cards provide bonuses if you have a certain level of Mastery. The most important of these is the Shard of Infinity (which is a starting card) which does two damage base. If you have ten Mastery, it does three damage instead. At twenty Mastery it does five damage and at thirty, it does …. infinite damage.

While there are a few cards that reduce your opponents Mastery (slightly), it tends to ratchet inexorably upward, and is a big ‘bomb,’ that adds a few flavors to the game:

  • Since you don’t need a card to appear to buy Mastery, you’ll have some turns where your choice is great card costing X, or a lesser card(s) costing X-1 and another Mastery
  • Without cards, you only purchase one Mastery a turn (max), but your starting deck averages three damage every other turn. That goes up with Mastery and many, many of the cards you can buy do damage. So there’s a tension between getting thirty Mastery while avoiding losing. If one player is obviously winning the Mastery race they may stop trying to damage their opponent and just buy healing cards, and a loser may stop buying mastery and just try to build up an attack deck. Ditching mastery frees up money, and often its not clear who is winning.

Second — Mercenaries. These cards can be purchased normally, in which case they are put in your discard pile. But you can just use them once (and then they are replaced in the “available cards” deck). There is a little less trashing in SoI than Star Realms (I think), but the ability to use an effect once (right now!) without bloating your deck provides options. A card that may not be worth taking up a slot in your deck (like, just ‘heal four’ if you are trying to beat your opponent down quickly) may be worth using once, while also denying it to your opponent.

Also, many cards have a kicker ability if you have already played a card of that faction (or the three other factions), so a timely mercenary may give some oomph. (You can also mix your card play and purchase order, as in Star Realms).

Some minor improvements:

  • There are still bases (called champions) but almost none force your opponent to attack them before targeting you. They may still be worth killing, of course (to get their ability off the board, since many do damage, or provide mastery, or money), but its up to you. That, coupled with the fact that you cannot go above your starting health means that it is tough for either player to build up a massive defense. (And infinite damage is always lurking in the future).
  • There are some cards that you can reveal from hand to shield against an attack (they have a shield icon), which also makes the choice to kill champions (and let a weak attack that may be fully shielded) or just send all damage at your opponent another tough choice.
  • The card quality is much nicer, both in terms of thickness and art.
  • There are player tokens that track health and mastery. They look nice, but I have trouble reading my own, much less the TaoLings, so we just use poker chips.

Theoretically, this plays 2-4, but multiplayer would be weird. You can attack whoever you want, so I suspect that whoever jumps out to a perceived lead will get beat down, and its a diplomacy and perception game. That may be fine, but I think the two player game is likely purer.

This will likely be appearing on my fifty-by-fifty list in the next month or so.

Rating — Enthusiastic. and has also dropped my rating of Star Realms to Indifferent (as this has strictly improved on it).

Also, I think I have under one hundred hours of targeted gaming to finish my fifty-by-fifty list, and I’m trying to dedicate at least a few hours a week towards it, so it appears doable.

Written by taogaming

August 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with ,


I’m honestly not sure what Dragoon’s target audience is … it’s a bowb-ing game with a kaiju-load of luck. Humans pop up randomly. Take that cards. When humans fill the board the thief takes some of their gold and he pops up randomly, maybe close to you, you steal it. Maybe close to me, I steal it. Every turn each player rolls a die 3-5 you get normal money, 2 you get none, 6 you get double and 1 you get no money and lose some stuff. So I get 10 gold (50 wins) and you get none and lose a village for the insult.

If other Dragon’s get too far from their base you may be able to sneak in there and steal some gold. For mechanisms its listed as “Action Points” and “Area control.”  That …. doesn’t mesh with anything I just said.

Honestly, if this game really was 30 minutes, who cares. But ours wasn’t … even accounting for a rule’s change that slowed the game down, it was still an hour after we fixed it.

Rating — Avoid. It does look nice, though. And it has an inexplicable high rating, so somebody is in the target audience.

Written by taogaming

July 30, 2018 at 8:40 pm

Posted in Reviews

Galaxy Trucker Expansion thoughts

My gaming bag rotates slowly. It’s a big heavy red bag and I can still carry it instead of roll it although I feel the weight more than I did a decade ago. It usually sports about a dozen games in it; so I put in into the trunk and leave it. Every few months or so I rotate a game or two  … and last month I realized I hadn’t played Galaxy Trucker in a while. (I have the 10th anniversary edition). On game night I got in a play and it was good, although everyone made a profit– even the new players.

But Galaxy Trucker qualifies as a “gang aft agley” game. You make your plans as best you can, and then watch things go downhill. Dungeon Lords mines that vein (not as well, IMO). A few other games also scratch that itch. What makes Galaxy Trucker great is the (immensely amusing) rulebook and setting, and the sand timer and general mad dash means that your plans are already somewhat skewed.

I imagine most of my readership has played the base game, but maybe some — like me — had never tried the expansion. I’d played G.T. a dozen(ish) times, but always with a delay and new people. Never with a group confident enough to throw some in. And — having introduced the game to the TaoLing — we played a series of 2 player games and added all the other moving parts (not at teh same time). They work wonders. The right mix of expansions drives you along the knife’s edge.

One single bad roll can smash you ship and start a chain reaction of doom … not great for the serious intellectual exercise, but howlingly fun.

Thoughts on each of the expansion parts:

The fifth wheel and new components — These add more components … mostly new types. Theres a new cyan alien (and each one is unique, first player to finish gets first pick). Stasis pods give you backup crew (but you must always have a human between losing people and awakening new ones), Indestructable shielding is just that. Boosters let you boost your cannons for a huge jump, but blow up the cannons. Reactors let you recharge batteries. Jump boosters let you skip past entire cards (again, blowing up engines in the process). There are also bidirectional cannons and cannon/laser combos. This works well — a fair amount of the new components are highly situational, which makes for “bombs.” In the right mix of adventure cards, these can be godsends or a waste of space.  Shield boosters let you ignore large cannon fire (for a double cost). And all boosters and reactors must be adjacent to what they boost, making design trickier.

Also — when playing with less than five players you remove 25 components at random (for the entire game) for each players. (This rule is easy to backport to the base game, except you only remove 25 for each player under 4). This means that one game may be very short of lasers, or batteries, and you don’t discover it until the first trip. I like that.

Another minor point — you start with no money but can take out a loan for $10 (with $12 due before the end of game). That’s easy enough to throw in.

Rating — Enthusiastic. With new players leave out the boosters / stasis chambers (as they have a few corner cases) but the plating, cannon lasers, bidirectional lasers and even cyan alien’s aren’t that difficult.

The new ship classes — These are surprisingly difficult, each in their own way:

  • The IA (alternate first ship) can be rotated (once, prior to launch) and is a much bigger target.
  • Having two ships for IIA, each requiring its own crew, no ability to share batteries, and speed equaling the slowest (but sharing laser strength) is fine. Also, two smaller ships means you will more likely have a vital component — the loss of which may take out half a ship.
  • IIIA has gaps (which let you put lasers/thrusters mid ship with no real loss of space) and is wider, which means lots of possibilities for side laser/meteor fire to defend against, at the cost of halving your laser offense.

Rating — Enthusiastic. Not for beginners

Rough Roads — These are random rules modifiers you draw before a trip. I’ve offered this as a preferred variant for  Shadows Over Camelot and Food Chain Magnate and this works amazingly well here. Two cards roughens up the game significantly. Here are some samples:

  • Paranoid aliens — Whenever you land on a planet take a heavy cannon shot from the front.
  • Metal Fatigue — After every open space roll for coordinates … anything on those coordinates is destroyed.
  • Batteries don’t work as well (takes an extra battery to power everything), or explode if destroyed.
  • Worker’s Comp — Pay for each dead crew member.

These are great (and difficult). Some involve some trippy rules and may need to be explained, but you could just reshuffle and/or explain them.

There’s also Evil Machinations — each player gets a hand of events and tosses one into each trip (that the others can’t see). We tried this once, but with just two players it wasn’t very important.

Combining expansions really ramps u the difficulty.  We had an trip using IIA (two smaller ships) with Space Psychosis, which has a check to see if human crews go crazy …. if they do, they destroy their cabin. You don’t wan too many cabins, as the check occurs after every card (you roll coordinates — if its a cabin then spablooey!), but too few and you risk having no crew via a bad roll. And — yep — it happened to me. This level of randomness will annoy many. I love it. I’ve now had several games where I was easily negative (including one where I ‘won’ with -20 or so).

I’ve always rated Galaxy Trucker fairly highly, but I’m glad to have suggested it again. As a two player game it doesn’t shine, but its still enjoyable.


Written by taogaming

July 14, 2018 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

Games without (High) Frontiers, (Cold) Wars without Tears

As a big fan of High Frontier, one of my regrets for this years GoF is that I didn’t get to try Leaving Earth. (And in a teeth-gnashing development, Mrs. Tao played it and liked it!) Well, we had a game day last weekend, and one of our coworkers owns that as one of the games in a tiny collection (he’s more a rocketry history enthusiast). So a copy arrived!

I missed that game, too.

But we borrowed his copy and I read the rules. There’s much to like:

  • The genre feels right. I could do without the entire chance that you get to Phobos and say “That’s no moon!” but hey — the 50s were days of wonder (from a Space Race perspective). And the bureaucratic nature of the space agencies …. lovely. Losing unspent budget is one of the more delicious rules I’ve encountered0.
  • Graphically beautiful. ‘Nuff said.
  • Like High Frontier, Leaving Earth models fighting Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation well. There is math (that’s unavoidable) but its understandable. To run a big mission you have to expend a lot of rockets and you need stages.
  • Fun research rules: For each tech you get you build a deck of three cards (without looking). Whenever you use the tech shuffle up and flip one an get a success or failure (major or minor). Rockets that fail may not fire (minor failure) or have a rapid unscheduled disassembly (major). If you drew a bad card, you can get rid of it for $5 ($25 is your yearly budget). If you drew a good card you can get rid of it for $10! Why do that…. well, if you never get rid of it, can you really be sure your rocket won’t fail when it’s the final stage of a Mars probe … where nobody is around to fix it (or after you’ve spent 5 stages getting it there?) — If your deck only has one success card, you get rid of it for free. Between $10-$25 (plus costs for parts expended in testing) you can prove a technology. Or you can just keep using it and slowly gaining confidence that the deck is all successes (but never knowing for sure). It’s a risk/reward.
  • More risk/reward. Send an astronaut on a mission or not? They aren’t cheap to train (thematically correct that they aren’t free … but let’s be real, it costs millions of dollars to train them, not 20% of NASA’s yearly budget) but they all have benefits (converting specific major failures to minor failures, for example) …. but if they die that’s negative VP.
  • As for the math …. The rules provide good example missions, including one involving leaving stuff behind in orbits and re-joining with it (which requires a technology). Leaving Earth’s (LE) mechanisms differ from High Frontier’s (HF), but like synchronous orbits you arrive in the same place.

So I setup a solo game and worked through an easy mission (winning) then a harder set of missions (failing).

And here’s where I started to feel the big difference. In HF, you can play a variety of missions and rules. The scenario may guide you, but it may not. In LE the missions change the game in the sense of “Well, the superpowers have decided that sending a probe to Mars is more important than a manned lunar mission, so let’s do that, boys!” but you are always working from the same (common) set of parts. Your Juno/Atlas/Soyuz/Saturn rockets stay the same from game to game.

HF forces you down different paths. A game where you build a solar sail driven raygun robonaut will naturally play out differently than your E-M buggy. It drives your mission and paths. More subtly, you can tweak your fueling and time vs fuel costs to  a much greater extent. LE does have this by combining rocket stages, but even by the third game this felt somewhat repetitive and while looking up a rules question  I stumbled on a “Book of Missions” that just laid out “Well for this mission the following stages are optimal.” (I didn’t read it, but just glanced at it).

I then tried two multiplayer games (with the TaoLing). Tense games. But I’m also less enthusiastic than I was pre-rule reading.

Firstly, a minor launch failure on your first rocket is wonderful. You chuck it for $5 and the minor failure (unlike success or major failure) does not use up the rocket. So, you are ahead of someone who has a success but pays $10 to thin out their deck to prove it. (You are up $5 and a rocket). This — coupled with the paranoia of even after 5-7 checks wondering (what if there’s a disaster lurking in the deck) makes proving out nice. I’m not sure how I feel about this. There are some catchup rules, but there’s also some snowballing. I can’t claim this is a dealbreaker (since I play HF).

Secondly, this is much more a push your luck game. Which is fine, but it’s a push your luck brain burner that’s slow. So in my last game I made a relatively low-risk play of sending up a mechanic to orbit with two capsules to earn the “Space station” mission. No, I hadn’t tested life support, but the deck is 4/6th successes, 1/6 minor failures and 1/6 major failures (I didn’t know this at the time, but I knew it was roughly 50+% success). In order to fail I had to draw two major failures (since I had the money to pay to remove the first failure, it would not be redrawn). I rolled snake eyes (1/36…actually slightly less likely because cards not dice) and so my 6 VP for first space station became negative 2VP (death) and  a bunch of time and money lost. On the other hand, I then later did a daring “Don’t test everything, let’s just have a Soviet-style run for the Moon” and risking 3 years budget on unproven rockets and I got a yahtzee. So, it balances.

BUT …. dice versus cards. If I get a bunch of bad cards, that means that other people are getting less. Compare that with HFs hazard dice. A minor point, perhaps (and HF is a longer game where everything can hinge on a roll, so that’s not a downside). You never have to make a roll in HF if you don’t want to, and any events that happen happen to everyone. They may hurt someone much more than another, but it feels linked.

I do have a few nitpicky rules which could be more thematic / better. (Surveying takes no time and is practically automatic. Rockets that fail during a suborbital phase can be recovered. Life Support is assumed for single year missions, it should really be called multi-year life support).

But what keeps coming back to my head is that even after a handful of games the missions felt predictable. “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” There only real combinatorics of the game are weight and mass. Even without the support module (or the other more complex ones) HF had more surprises after a dozen games than LE did after three. I suspect there is an optimal opening, and for the missions nobody says “Well, what patents do you have?”. And there are no faction differences.

It seems unfair to blame LE for not being High Frontier, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I like calculating space missions more than the average gamer, and I’m always on the look for solitaire games, but after 8 hours of this I’m nowhere near the same level of enthusiasm.

I am far from writing LE off — I spent a fair chunk of this weekend playing it — but it does not appear to threaten to displace HF in the long run.

RatingIndifferent plus, I’m willing to explore it a few more times. The rest of my family is looking at acquiring a copy, so I may have an opportunity.

Written by taogaming

June 3, 2018 at 10:43 am

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with ,

Hasta Manana, Llama

I played Altiplano yesterday. By about 10 minutes into the rules explanation, I considered gnawing off a forelimb. Sure, it sports llamas (“Llamas, Alpacas … whatever camelid floats your boat, Lana!”), but it sounded like the JASEiest game that ever crossed a trade route. Movement, exchanging bits, point salad scoring, blah. But my rules explanation borrowed heavily from Memento script and went backwards in time. Finally I hear the “hook” — You power your engine with goods and drew them from a bag and planned out your move.

In other words, somewhat like a Mage Knight puzzle — “Here’s your hand, how do you best play it?” With the restriction that each location only had a certain number of actions, and you could only move locations for free once a turn (you can buy extra movements).  (Using chips and a bag instead of cards, but same idea).

So I calmed down a bit and played, and surpriseI loved it.

Just kidding. Meh.

I’m told that Orleans uses the same system, but I’d scrupulously avoided playing that.  In fact, practically all of the review on BGG say “How does this compare to Orleans.” So at least I get to ignore those as well. (Actually, many people say its more cut-throat, so perhaps I’d like it more than this).

Altiplano wasn’t bad … it held my interest for about 30 minutes after the initial few turns where I mentally deciphered the rules, but:

  • Too long. I’m guessing the game was only 2 hours, and that could come down, but that’s at least 45 minutes too long.
  • Point salad. 7 wonders score sheets are ridiculous, but this needed it. Scores ranged from ~90 to ~156 with points all over the place. Most tokens score points. Some cards modify tokens. Some cards give bonus points if fulfilled, but cost you the points of the tokens used. You get points for fulfilling rows in your warehouse. Some cards give a bonus ghost token, which …. counts as points! Plus some base points for the card! Pfft. When the game ended it was 5-10 minutes to find out who won. That’s never good.
  • I’m not at all convinced that the starting roles (bonus actions only you can use) are balanced. The fact that some people literally cannot get and/or use some of the goods in the game at the beginning makes it weird. Yes, Race has New Sparta, but any player can get military. 2/5s of the players could literally not get fish until the endgame. Perhaps I am mistaken about how the world works, but that feels wrong.

Things I liked about the game:

  • The planning puzzle — while not nearly as interesting as Mage Knight — did actually work. I think the combination of movement restricting locations but getting one free movement a turn is clever.
  • The deckbuilding (chit-building) had built in deck-trimming (via warehousing stuff out, which let you keep points and get bonus points) as a built-in rule, not a special feature.
  • Less spitting than usual around those foul creatures
  • I kept all of my limbs

So — Indifferent. I’d likely play again to see if anything improves, but I’m not smitten.

But here’s a nice falindrome — On a lit lap, Altiplano!

Written by taogaming

May 8, 2018 at 9:54 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

Good God, Man! — A review of John Company

At this year’s Gathering, the big game for me was John Company, which I played four times.

Containing a descriptive taxonomy of the gameplay

John Company is the latest title from Sierra Madre Games, but not by Phil Eklund. (Cole Wehrle is the author). The game focuses on a single company but it is definitely not cooperative … there’s a winner and many, many losers … but the player’s all have an interest and multiple positions inside the British East India Company (EIC). The board depicts the positions in the EIC and players will move cubes (representing family members), ships, barrels (representing guns or goods) and the cards that depict the eight Indian regions around the board to indicate the situation in India and “The Company.” At it’s heart, John Company is the Principal Agent problem distilled into a few hours: Each player controls one extended family. The families run the company, but not necessarily for the company’s benefit.

John Company is not particularly complex, certainly nowhere near the difficulty of other SMG titles, and its also shorter, but that doesn’t mean the game is easy. Part of the difficulty comes from the vague rulebook — which does look beautifully like a 1700s tract but doesn’t exactly show how to layout some aspects and may be ambiguous, but the game is not difficult. You have four phases:

  1. The Family Phase — Player’s send their latest generation into the company in a variety of positions (shipbuilder, factory owner, back office writer, captain, officer, shareholder). These have a variety of costs and limitations. A player may also buy a manor, which is simply 2 Victory Points (VP).
  2. The Company Phase — Each position has a function and the family currently in control of that position makes it. For example, the Chairman fills any vacant executive position(s) (and the China Office, if it is open) and controls the budget. The Director of trade fills non-executive positions from the writers and assigns ships and goods to the Presidencies. Purchasing officers spend the company’s money according to reasonable rules — they must buy cheaper goods first — but can direct money towards the family of their choice when all else is equal (and it usually is). The various presidents can try to subjugate regions, send out trade shipments, or open new regions to trade and appoint regional governors, who in turn can invest in regions to improve them.
  3. The Trade Phase — Players generate their family revenue through what I refer to as “honest graft,” (the game does not use that term). Governors can divert tax money towards themselves, Presidents get bonuses for successful trading, Captains earn a steady income. (Officers do not get money during trade, but a successful offensive campaign earns plunder). Each player’s family has a special power and some of them generate revenue for certain conditions. The company will have (hopefully) collected money from trade routes, and now it has to pay its expenses — guns, captains, debts. If there’s not enough money, the Company can take out emergency loans granting £5 but costing £1/turn for the remainder of the game (the Chairman can take out one non-emergency loan each company phase, as well). Assuming there is money left over, the chairman can pay out dividends — which go to the family members in the shareholder box. If no dividends are paid, the share price falls. If they are paid, it rises. If it falls too low, the company collapses and is bailed out. (A bailout removes all but one of each family’s shareholders, or one if they only had one).
  4. The Event Phase — Those pesky locals have their own agendas, which include things like “not being British Subjects” and “settling centuries-old feuds.” Regions improve or depress, revolt or conquer each other. Parliament is also pesky, and may hold a vote on a relevant law. Or there may be a shortage of goods, or the China office may open (or close) based on their own strange customs. Also during the event phase, executives may retire (“attrition”). That’s when you earn VPs — during retirement a family may buy a position, turning family money into VPs. The exact positions (“Prizes”) are dealt out randomly during setup. Some convert a few pounds into a VP or two, while maneuvering into a Royal Marriage costs £17 for 7 VP. Some may also give a special ability (like extra votes in Parliament). Also, some positions that can be purchased in the family phase are worth 1-2 VP, but the bulk will come from retirement.

There are two other main rules.

First, there’s an anti-nepotism rule. If you are assigning a position then if you assign it to another of your family members then you owe every person you passed over a “promise cube.” (These are taken from your limited stock of family members). If you don’t get it back by the end of the game, its worth -2 VP (but nothing to the holder). You can always buy such cubes back for £2, or force a swap if you hold one of their promises. Or if you promote one of their cubes, then that’s a repayment as well. And you are free to trade money and promise cubes at any time you like. The Walsh family is short a pound to buying young Jonathon a Captaincy? Maybe they’ll accept your help for a promise.

Finally, some actions take a die roll, (called a “Check”). A check has a strength, which is the number of dice you roll (less any ‘penalty’, which subtracts dice). Roll a 1-2 on any die, you succeed. Failing that, if you have a 3 or 4 you fail, but take no personal blame. But roll only 5s or 6s and you fail catastrophically and are cashiered without the chance to earn any VPs.

Why this reviewer finds John Company enchanting

John Company is an experience game, which is well within my preferred genre. And economic engines are a favorite. As I’ve mentioned before, I find the Agency Dilemma a delightful topic in gaming and while I am not particularly well informed about the EIC, I have done some readings on the Golden Age of Sail, which is tangential to this topic. Long, complex games where you can later described what happened without referencing any rules and where anyone (even a non-gamer) can understand, are my particular friends. Here’s how my last game went (although I’m just randomly picking names I can’t remember)

Four families vied for control of the EIC and got off to a good start, with the Presidency of Bombay opening up Hyderabad to trade and with the company conquering Madras and Bengal. I, as the Paxton family, sent out our scion into the fleet as a Captain, earning solid income. The Company was flush with early success and one Paxton and a hated Hastings both managed a Royal Wedding to help secure our family fortunes, with the Walsh and Jones having neither Capital nor Connections to secure the future for their posterity. But the company floundered as those incompetent Walsh failed trade mission after trade mission and the debts piled up. Parliament bailed out the company. I offered some promises to take control of military affairs and used it to force out some officers for my own relatives but disaster struck when our boys failed to subjugate Maratha (meaning no plunder) and Walsh failed a trade mission that even the hated French could manage. This would have seen me promoted to an executive position right at the time to take the blame, but fortunately before that could happen the company collapsed. However, my unfulfilled promises meant that there was some murmuring about Paxton reliability, leaving Hastings as the most prominent family.

So, John Company is an experience. (Of course I’m eliding over many details, but in the end you often only remember broad brush stories). What stories can I tell about Azul? Not many. (And I like Azul). There may be beautiful plays, but they have a technical beauty only. No abstract ever caused a belly chortle.

John Company excels in giving opportunities to chortle or proclaim in an English accent — “Good God, Man” was said after every failed die roll (often followed by “Just like a Walsh. Typical.”)

“Capital idea, Hastings. I mean that literally. Take out debt and capitalize us, post-haste!” You get the idea. I rather like my accent, and few games give me such opportunity to listen to my own voice and chortle happily.

And for an experience game, I’m used to investing 3+ hours. Games like 7 Ages or Magic Realm or Here I Stand or High Frontier are all chockablock with complexity and take a full afternoon (or 8 hours). A full narrative story in 2-3? That’s efficiency. So far I’ve only played the Early Company, but one game had a nice steady build, another had a successful EIC bloat but struggle on with only one bailout around turn 9 or 10, and the last game had a full blown collapse on turn five or six.  But each game had an arc. And there are other scenarios (later scenarios add rules to deal with dissolving the Company into competing interests).

A digression concerning negatives as posted in other broadsheets

I suspect much John Company’s divisiveness revolves around the intersection of negotiation and dice. Perhaps control vs randomness. John Company is a negotiation game, and often players are trying to “do right” by the Company (because it improves their own position). But all of the negotiation in the world is for naught if you fail a few 4 die (or 5 die) rolls, and your position crumbles. Additionally, the attrition roles swing many VP because you got out at the right time (when you were flush with cash) or didn’t and you were forced out in disgrace when the company got bailed out (you can still gain VP during a bailout, but at a £2 premium, and money is tight).

Let me be perfectly clear — you can play well and get crushed by fate. You can build up a warchest and have your octogenarian chairman stick around until the game end, never earning any VP. You can catastrophically fail a 5d6 role (<1% chance). You can retire when you are a pound short of a Royal Wedding and have to settle for 2 VP instead of 7 VP because nobody has money to loan you, even if you were willing to offer a Usurious amount of promises.

You can also spend an hour with not much to do. Many office holders make few decisions, even the most powerful office will do nothing if the Chairman doesn’t include them in the budget. Or you don’t climb the greasy pole and get passed over for negotiations and don’t have much control of the company. Both of these complains (randomness, and long periods of time with little control) are true of most of SMG’s games. (Ask TauCeti about the solar flare that nailed him near Ganymede in our game).

I’m not sure why some people who like SMG games seem to complain about this one. My gut feeling is that this randomness is particularly galling in a game which is primarily about negotiation.

The other complaint I’m seeing (in forums) is about the rules complexity. That complaint I find laughable. The rules could be written better, but in terms of complexity John Company is nowhere near as difficult as any other SMG title. There’s practically no chrome, many rules are on the board and cards, the back of the rule book has a summary of “Who Hires Whom?”, “What’s Happening in India?” (how to resolve events), and an odds chart (both for the dice, and for how the events engine will play out for each region). (The events took us a few turns to get out, and there’s a lot of hidden order in how each region’s event chart works, but at its heart there are only 5 events that occur and one of them is “nothing.”) Compared to any experience game I’ve mentioned above, the rules are simple.

Here I suspect that the nice board is lulling people into a false sense of simplicity. Nobody would look at Bios:Megafauna or 1830 and expect to understand it in a few minutes. John Company is easier than either, but it looks much, much easier. Just a few cubes and cards around a (relatively) inviting board. It’s one thing to walk into a concert knowing the composer is an atonalist (or minimalist or other “challenging” style) but I suspect that if Miley Cyrus decided to ditch her normal playlist for an avant-garde atonal 3 hour jam, there would be a riot.

Still, I can’t quite point the finger at that. Sierra Madre Games is famous for complex, sandbox games with broken victory conditions and downtime. Everyone just shrugs and decides who did best based on common sense. Surely not all of the complaints can be unaware of what they were getting into.

But for those of us who do play other SMG games, the expectations may be biasing us in the other direction, because John Company actually has working victory conditions. It’s still a sandbox, but its an actual game. It may not grant the level of control you’d find in a Euro (or even an Ameritrash game), it may give you little to work with even if you play well, but I honestly do not understand the criticisms of it (from reviewers I respect) calling it “not a game.”

It’s in the experience game genre, but by the standards of that it is one of the most game-like. Given that it needs 3+ players, I doubt I’ll get in 4 games over the remainder of the year, but I will try, and I encourage others to try.

Rating — Enthusiastic (at least, for now)

Written by taogaming

April 19, 2018 at 10:55 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with