The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Hasta Manana, Llama

with 4 comments

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

Wild Blue Yonder Initial Thoughts

I finally got to play a pair of 2 v 2 dogfights for Wild Blue Yonder, so a few thoughts. I poked around for a review for Rise of the Luftwaffe I wrote years back and found it on BGG, and not much has changed, for the dogfight. Simply, during your turn you pick an enemy (if you aren’t already in a furball) and play an attack card (which may give you position, or actually fire your weapon, or do a few other things). Your target may respond. You may respond to his response, etc. If the ‘attacker’ played the last response, the attack card takes effect. If the defender did it’s cancelled, but you can play as many attack cards as you qualify for (actually attacks cost “bursts” which are limited by your plane and position, but maneuvers are typically always playable, unless you already tailing your target).

Since most response cards cancel 2-3 cards, there’s probably a decent amount of skill of knowing the best way to cancel. You can also count cards. On the bigger picture you have to decide when to target a leader or the wingman, and play with altitude. I suppose its not surprising there are no strategy articles on BGG. It seems so simple, but I suspect even the dogfight has real depth. Yes, its a card game, so even a bad player can win sometimes, but skill will usually show in an equal match. (I do think the supposedly equal match (based on card VPs) that I offered was in fact slightly unbalanced, the British planes extra HP being less valuable than the better hand size for the Germans. The Germans won handily against the novice British, but the second game was much closer, although still a German victory, but with significant losses).

Unlike prior entries in the series, each side has their own deck of cards, which means if you draw the very good Ace Pilot cards (cancel any other card), I may still have mine in my deck. Ditto any other good or bad card. They may still cycle out in a bad time (when a wing-man draws their mini-hand) but at least its not “He got aces and I got deuces.” Your aces may show up later — possibly too late, but statistically it is more likely to even out. A nice touch.

I’ve read the campaign rules and would like to play a campaign. There was a solo campaign promised but it doesn’t seem to be anything like the regular ones. I guess I should have expected that, given the complexity of the card game, but I’m disappointed. There are many, many campaigns. The rules don’t seem complex, but they are numerous.

I was ready to really praise the insert. As some of you may know, I typically just chuck inserts. This seemed great. It could hold the cards while storing most counters underneath (although bagging the campaign pilots to keep them out of the way). But when I put the actual airplane cards in I discovered the space was so tight I couldn’t easily get them out, even with a thin blade I could only pry up 1/2 at a time. (When they were shrink wrapped pulling one out pulled them all out). Insert tossed. The box is the nice and sturdy type GMT has. I haven’t sleeved my cards, but I may if I play it frequently. (The cards seem generally nicer than the ones I remember, but its been a few years since I traded my copy away).

I think even interested ten year olds could play the dogfight. I’m hoping to interest the TaoLing in the campaign at some point. We’ll see.

Written by taogaming

December 18, 2017 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

First Impressions of the L5R LCG (based on rules only)

OK, I just read the learn to play book and glanced at the reference book (which does seem exceedingly well organized). Off hand three things jump out at me:

First — There seems no provision or even possibility of multi-player. Now, I played a lot of tournament L5R, and the game was perfectly fine that way, but the ability to play multiplayer was a huge draw. Shadowfist and L5R were the big mutliplayer CCGs (IMO).

Second — L5R had a lot of positive feedback. Take out a province, and you are closer to victory, maybe killed your opponents characters, and reduced their cardflow by 25% (or more). But now — people don’t die in battle (automatically, presumably there are still battle effects that kill people). But people do die/retire. When you buy a character, their base cost only gives you one turn of usage. You have to pay an extra fate (the currency instead of gold) for each extra turn you want them. Decide when you buy.

That change intrigues me. Losing a tightly fought, everyone goes battle and you probably haven’t lost the game. Honestly, unforgiving has a certain charm, (maybe more than one). But they also have some nice positive fixes — mulligans for both decks.

Finally, Simultaneous play  — Each player does upkeep, buys characters (dynasty phase), plays cards, and then each player may attack twice. (But one attack must be political, and one military. Political attacks are the same but each character has two skills). Each attack must also declare a ring type (which can’t be duplicated during the turn) and if the attacker wins he gets the ring effect. This seems like an interesting system.

Also — There’s no ring victory in the rules, but presumably that may be a card effect.

Look, I still have more L5R cards than I could safely lift from the ground (I could deadlift them if they were free weights, but paper takes up so much damn space), so I was always going to try this and reading the rules hasn’t changed my opinion. I’m cautiously optimistic, but in practice I think I’d be better off catching up on my netrunner collection and playing that. But we’ll see.

The differences in more detail (I may have mentioned this above, this was my list of notes as I read the rules).

  • 25 Honor wins, 0 honor is a loss. (This is a narrower range, presumably gaining/losing honor is harder)
  • Each province has a special power from the get go. One of the provinces is the stronghold, which cannot be attacked until 3 non-strongholds are destroyed.
  • When you buy a character, they cost some # fate tokens. You only get them for one turn, but can put additional fate on them when you buy them to increase their duration.
  • Fate tokens are also spent to play cards.
  • Starting player is random. None-starting player gets one bonus fate.
  • You get to mulligan some or all of your starting dynasty cards and fate deck (now called conflict deck).
  • You can reshuffle either deck when needed (must, in fact) but it costs you five honor.
  • Turns are simultaneous:
    1. Reveal Dynasty Cards. I did not see rules for event cards, its mostly characters. Holdings may modify the province, like regions.
    2. Gain Fate (determined by stronghold)
    3. Alternate buying dynasty cards or pass. First passer gains one fate), but is done.
    4. Each player secretly and simultaneously decides on how many cards they want to draw 1-5. The catch is that the low bidder gets the difference in honor from the high bidder.
    5. Next is the conflict phase. A conflict has one of the five (ring) elements and is either military or political. Each player player can only declare two conflicts each turn, and only one of each type. If the attacker wins the conflict, they win the ring effect.
    6. Conflicts (even political ones) work like battles, but you can attach cards as a battle action. Apparently there are also character cards in the conflict deck, as you can play a character from hand into a battle!
    7. Attacker wins ties in conflicts (unless tied at zero). The player who wins the conflict wins the ring of it. Each ring element can only be named once/turn (so 4 out of the 5 elements can appear in conflict each turn).
    8. Losing characters do not automatically die!
    9. A lost province looses its ability and cannot be attacked again, but still can be used to buy cards from!
    10. If the attacker wins a conflict, in addition to the ring token, they get the matching ring effect:
      • Air — Steal one honor from your opponent or gain 2.
      • Earth — Draw a card, opp randomly discards one card.
      • Fire — Dishonor a character.
      • Water — Ready a character or bow a character with no fate.
      • Void — Remove a fate from a character.
    11. You get the favor by comparing the glory (a stat) of your unbowed characters after the conflict phase. The favor is just a +1 political or military bonus (the player getting it must choose) during each conflict in the next turn.
    12. You then remove fate from each character and discard (as above) and add fate to each ring token that was not selected or claimed in the last turn, which goes to the next player to initiate a conflict with that Ring. (Ala Puerto Rico, and others). Ah, then you return all rings to the pool, so I guess there’s only one of each ring.
    13. Dueling works using the 1-5 honor dial. You add your bid to the skill, but the low bidder gets the difference in honor (as with card buying).

Written by taogaming

October 5, 2017 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

Do you even optimize, bro?

I’ve been whittling my best Factorio time down, and got a launch just over the nine hour mark (on peaceful). I think with more play I can make the eight hour achievement. I’ve also kept a factory going longer just to tinker … sometimes you want to play the big game. I’ll probably start a game on hard setting just to get more into the military side, and I haven’t even touched trains (except in the scenario and my first game). Then there are mega-factories. Launching one rocket per minute (RPM) is an impressive feat (I’m going for a second rocket in one game and thinking about just building a rocket factory).

Then there’s the guy who built a factory that averaged one RPM over its lifetime (granted, that was a few hundred hours so he could spend time launching multiple RPM to balance out the first).

And then there’s this guy. His factorio is called Grey Goo Mark I, which is an insanely descriptive name in computing.

And I haven’t yet even taught trains to dance.

So, factorio has that elusive “Just one more,” bit. “Oh, I’ll just balance my belt lines.” “Oh, I’ll just expand my belt factory.” “Oh, here I go murdering again.” And suddenly its 1.30 am.

Update — It also has styles of play. Speedrun (I’m speedrunned out, right now). I just finished every research achievement, and built up a base that has launched 7 rockets. Now I’m trying to figure out advanced trains and started a new game with actual enemies and a goal of a decent (non-spaghetti) design. I may be going too slow. And playing Multi-player with the TaoLing ….

Written by taogaming

February 18, 2017 at 11:17 am

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with



In the game’s defense, my first play took way too long and had the wrong crowd. (I suggest against a five player game with multiple new players). Obviously this game appeals to people — it’s popular.

I guess its capitalizing on the War-euro. (Wareuro? Weuro? I never know how to spell that contraction). It has combinatorics (you combine faction with resource chart). It felt like a point salad game with some clever warish designs to score bombs (win a combat? Get a star! And maybe steal some resources). Fine …. but it didn’t grip me.

If it took 1.5 hours instead of 2.5, that would have helped, but mainly because I could have played something else afterwards. I suspect if I think hard I could better describe my problems with the game, but for now I just say:

Rating — Indifferent, I may try it again and see if I missed something.

Written by taogaming

February 13, 2017 at 10:48 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tiny Malevolent Lifeforms

Got my copy of Jump Drive (note to local game stores. I’m willing to wait a week or two after I see “I got my copy at my FLGS” to buy it, but when you aren’t even willing to admit the game is out, that’s when I go online and buy it).

Anyway, it’s good, but not great. Then again, is the game really meant for me? I’m reminded of the time I told Frank that Fugger, Welser, & Medici’s basic game seemed simple and solvable.

“Yes, by people like us. We play the advanced game.”

It has a lot of depth … for a 10-15 minute game. But now I feel what others did when they said Race was over before it began.

Rating — Suggest, but not as good as Race. Then again, few are.

Edit — “Suggest, but not as good as Race” is probably true. My (80 hours later) thought is that it’s closer than I originally thought. I played the City (which isn’t as good as Race, or Jump Drive, IMO) nearly 100 times and that had a language barrier I had to sell.

Since it is new my de-facto Jump Drive rating is Enthusiastic (but I assume that’s temporary). There are more subtleties than I expected in it (even knowing who designed it). I’m playing it a lot right now. I mention this because the idea of my ratings is objectivity (actions speak louder than words) and my actions rate this higher.

BUT — It was typical for me (time and opponents willing) to play a game 4+ times in a weekend if it was hot, and those were long (Euro or Longer) times. In the same amount of time, you can really crank up Jump Drive’s play count. Given the TaoLing I can come home, play a game, start some soup, play a game while it cooks, take it off the stove to let it cool, play a game, etc.

I’m averaging a game every three hours since I got the game.

Written by taogaming

January 25, 2017 at 8:50 pm

Posted in Race for the Galaxy, Reviews

Tagged with