Sunday, February 27, 2005

Review - Reiner Knizia's Blue Moon

In the aftermath of the boom and bust of the collectible / tradable card game phenomenon, there has been a push to capture the magic of the game without the stigma of the collectible aspect. One of the more impressive attempts is the Blue Moon game from Kosmos games (the English version published by Fantasy Flight Games). This attempt is notable because the game is designed by Reiner Knizia, which at the very least guaranteed interest in the title.

In Blue Moon, each player takes a deck of cards built around one of the races on the world of Blue Moon. The races are fighting for control of dragons, which in turn determine supremacy on Blue Moon. Thus, the game is a series of battles between characters, with each victory attracting a dragon away from the enemy or to the side of the winner.

The base game includes two races, the Vulca and the Hoax. The Vulca are a fire-oriented race, very strong and direct in battle. The Hoax seem to be a magic-wielding race that fight with guile more than brute force. The cards are oversized and printed on thick cardstock. The artwork is very nice, at par with good CCG artwork. Also included in the square, flat linen-finished box is a linen-finished game board with labeled areas of play and a turn sequence guide. Finally, there are three identical plastic dragons of different colors. These are very nicely done. The game could have been done in a more portable form factor, as the dragons and board aren’t really necessary. If the cards were printed in the usual size, the whole game would have fit in a package a third of the size. However, one can’t deny that the whole package is very attractive and makes the game distinct from its CCG ancestors.

The Game

The basic framework of a game of Blue Moon is simple. Players shuffle their 30-card decks into a draw pile. Each draws a hand of six cards. The beginning player declares that he is starting a battle, then plays a character card. The character card has two combat values, one in Fire and another in Earth. The player chooses one of the two elements to battle in. The player announces his attacking power. If the character has any special text, that text is read out and the effects applied. The player then draw back up to six cards and ends his turn.

The opponent then must match or exceed the attacker’s power in the element by playing his own character, plus either a booster or support card. The booster is a card attached to the character, and the support is a card that applies to the whole battle. Both types of cards have special effect text, elemental power, or both. Power is added to the character’s power, and the total is the attacking power that now must be matched or exceeded by the opponent.

This goes back and forth until one player is unable to match the requisite power, in which case he is forced to retreat. It's not that simple, of course, as there are nuances as to when to retreat even when you can continue the fight. In addition, special card texts can influence a decision to all the opponent a win at that moment. When a player retreats, his opponent wins the battle and attracts a dragon. The first player to attract an additional dragon when he already has three dragons wins. Alternatively, if a player runs out of cards, whichever player has the most dragons attracted wins. If there is a ties, the player who ran out of cards first loses the battle.


The main interest in the game is in the interactions between cards, usually through the special text or symbols. Examples of various effects are doubling of power, raising power to a specific number, elimination of an opponent’s support cards, prohibiting your opponent from playing specific types of cards, attracting or preventing the attraction of dragons, and changing of the element of battle.

As in many CCGs, timing of card play is important in Blue Moon. In the base set, the Hoax are dependent on timing and interaction of effects. This race is inherently more difficult to play than the comparatively straightforward Vulca. The Vulca can win just by spitting out cards in a Fire battle. Another common CCG trait present in Blue Moon is deck management. Since the first player to run out of cards loses the game, if you can get your opponent to use a lot of cards without ceding all three dragons to him, you should be able to win by decking.

Reviewer’s Tilt

There really isn’t anything in Blue Moon that hasn’t been seen in other CCGs before. The game is essentially a repeating battle between two preconstructed decks, and the entertainment value of such a package has a limited ceiling. Thus, player hoping to find an enduring two player game with high replayability, similar to Knizia’s other two player games like Lost Cities, Schotten-Totten or The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, may be disappointed.

Blue Moon may have some appeal to gamer parents wishing to introduce their younger kids to an introductory game for more complex CCGs like Magic: the Gathering. Blue Moon teaches simple timing and interaction concepts that are taken to a far more advanced level in Magic.

There is no deck construction to speak of in Blue Moon, until some of the expansion races are bought. However, this raises the price point for the game and brings it closer to the CCG structure, which some people were trying to avoid in the first place. If one is going to play a CCG type card game and the total cash outlay is going to be more than a few dollars, then searching eBay for large lots of cheap CCG cards may be a viable alternative. Needless to say, veterans of CCGs (particularly those who have played a game like Magic: the Gathering at tournament level) will likely be bored with Blue Moon’s simplicity.

Blue Moon may also have appeal to people who have never tried CCGs for some reason. Then the ideas in the game may seem fresh and interesting, and the interest may be held for a longer period of time. As such, this is the only read audience that I can recommend the game to.

Game Day / Night - February 26, 2005

Showed up at Javy’s for an afternoon of gaming before we moved over to Frog’s for dinner and even more gaming. Eileen and Deke were on hand, so we decided to give Mexica a spin. Mexica is the last of the Action Point games that I introduced to Javy, and I was interested in what he would think about it vis-à-vis Java, Tikal and Torres. So far, Tikal was “ok”, Java a cool brainburner, and Torres a nice quick diversion.

Mexica [4P]

Eileen and Javy took the first tow turns and scattered from the staging area, planting a few canals but not founding any neighborhoods. Deke and I followed, completing the first two. This first set of Calpulli tokens had the large size 13 neighborhood, which Javy completed on his next turn. All but three of the neighborhoods were founded in quick succession. During this stage our Mexicas were mostly just hotfooting it around the immediate vicinity of the staging area. Once all that were left were the smallish Calpullis, the Mexica’s pulled out their surfboards, started zipping around the board and erecting monuments.

This is the part of Mexica we enjoyed a lot – getting the Mexicas from place to place using the canals and sea routes, and trying to prevent entry into the larger neighborhoods by placing monuments at the foots of bridges. We also tried to close out neighborhoods by using the smaller monuments to chew up as much real estate as possible, in an attempt to prevent enough opponents’ monuments from stealing the top slot away. Deke and I were to only ones to make it back to the staging area before the end of the phase.

At the end of the first phase, in which Javy and I used up all our monuments, Deke built a sizable 18-point lead by having founded the most neighborhoods and having a significant presence in most of them.

The second phase went faster, as the large neighborhoods were founded in short order. The Mexicas made heavy use of the canals, and the teleportation power was needed in many cases due to rampant blockage and large distances to cover. Deke founded the 12 neighborhood in the far eastern side of the island, which forced me to use 11 stories of monument power to exceed him and create a 12-poitn swing in my favor. Still, Deke continued to widen the gap, and at one point was up by 26 points over the next closest player. I expended all my buildings in two neighborhoods – to take first in the 10 and first in the 12. Javy had two mid-sized neighborhoods to the south, and Eileen founded the rest to the north. Deke finished off the last Calpulli token, and I ended the game by using my final size 3 monument and making it back to the staging area alone.

None of us bothered with any unfounded districts, since these were mostly small outlying sections of the island in chunks of two and three squares, and there were very few of them.

Final scores – Mexica:
Deke – 100
Rick – 94
Eileen – 84
Javy – 82

I like Mexica. It doesn’t have the depth of Java or the elegance of Torres, but it’s far more interesting than Tikal. There is a lot of opportunity for clever plays, players do have options to play defensively, and it’s no slouch in the looks department either. Once players are comfortable with the Mexica play time drops to the 60 to 90 minute range, which is around the speed of Torres. While I’m not a huge fan of the majority mechanism, it’s good in this game simply because of the spatial aspect. You can defend against other players challenging you by founding the neighborhoods in distant reaches, closing off access points, and filling the area up with your own buildings. There is no randomness or luck in the game, and there is perfect lookahead, which is always a definite plus for me. Javy and Deke really enjoyed the game, and I think we’ll be able to get this title back to the table in the future.

Greg had arrived with Khalil while we were playing Mexica, so in between turns I taught them Blue Moon. I’ve had Blue Moon on a loaner from Titus and have been trying it out with different people to see how what they thought of it. So far, including this time out, the verdict has been rather similar. Too simple. Boring. Not enough options. Too random. Titus also loaned me the four boosters, but I haven’t had the opportunity to open any of them to try them out. After testing the base game, no one has shown any inclination to explore the game any further. I wish I knew people who had never played Magic. I think the comparison kills Blue Moon easily.

We headed over to Frog and George’s place for dinner. While waiting for George to get home and for the food to cook, Javy, Greg, Khalil and Eileen launched into a game of Quests of the Round Table. This little game is a group favorite, and is fun if you don’t take it too seriously. Greg, being the master of Quests, got pounded on early and fell behind. Luckily, the game has a catch-up mechanism, and he was back in contention. In the end Khalil emerged as foremost among the knights.

When Nix arrived I again pulled out Blue Moon and we played a couple of games. Same story, same opinions. I give up on Blue Moon. It’s just not good enough for us.

George finally arrived, with Myles right behind, and dinner was served. Afterwards, we cleared the tables and split up into two groups. Javy, Nix, Greg and Khalil began the inevitable game of Puerto Rico. I convinced Myles, Frog and George to try out Age of Steam.

Age of Steam [4P]

This would be my first time to play Age of Steam with four players, and I was rather looking forward to it. After the requisite rules run-through, which I think I botched in a few places especially in movement of goods and effect of that on the income track, we were underway.

I repeated my warning on the tightness of cash before the first share issue. George elected to be conservative, Frog and I were aggressive, Myles was in the middle. Bidding had George winning first turn, while Frog and I bailed early to conserve cash. First Move, First Build, Engineer and Skip Bid were the privileges chosen. We all began track in the south and southeast, with Pitt being the most popular city. Everyone built maximum track, and everyone moved two links, except for George who moved one.

After a live demonstration of how goods production worked, and a look at the painful income/expense cycle showed that everyone was bleeding cash, we launched into the second turn. I bailed early again, and Myles paid to go first. Same roles were chosen, and I think that while I was deliberately not choosing Urbanization since I had other plans (I took Engineer), the others didn’t fully realize how strong it was. Oh well, learning game. Pitt was completely closed out except for the southern hexside. I elected to extend some track in the east running south to Pitt, and open a line in the northwest away from the logjam. Myles had similar ideas, defecting to the southwest to take advantage of Kansas City’s sudden goods prosperity due to the production rolls which gave it three goods. George ran into trouble, being unable to secure any good routes in the south and being blocked off from the alternative areas. We all again moved two links, except for George who moved one.

Third turn saw a few more share issues. Myles again won turn order, followed by Frog. George and I bailed early. First two abilities off the board were urbanization and production, while George took loco and I took turn order pass because I wanted urbanization next turn. Frog completed a lucrative line running north to south, while Myles extended his western line. I prepared for urbanization next turn by running a line two ways, both planning to terminate in a new city to the southwest.

At this point, we assessed the game situation and decided to call the game since everyone had learned the basic mechanisms. It was a bit late to restart, and Myles had to take off soon, so a full game of Age of Steam would have to wait. Myles thought that the whole thing was interesting, but Frog’s take was that it was too much like work. George did agree that the game was very unforgiving, and any mistake which resulted in a player being locked out of routes with immediately transportable good early in the game would result in a downward spiral. Not surprising, since that’s the nature of AoS. The fact that all players are bleeding cash in the first three or four turns makes it an early struggle just to establish income. Just reaching breakeven point isn’t easy at all.

I don’t think another game of AoS is likely in the near future.

Over at the other table, Javy won the Puerto Rico game. Khalil had taken off, so Javy, Nix and Greg started up a game of Colossal Arena. The endgame had Javy out since he had just one 4-point bet left alive, his secret bet having been killed off early. Nix had elected not to make a secret bet. When the dust settled, Greg won 11-8-4.

Javy, Greg and Myles said good night, so we needed a light and fluffy game to close the night out. Four player Puerto Rico was just the game we needed.

Puerto Rico [4P]

This was a very strange game, with Nix and I getting the Factories early, but Frog and George countering by taking the Harbors. Nix and I raced to build out, but Nix was ahead with two buildings on that front. Frog and George continued to ship heavily, but Frog seemed to fall behind since he had very few buildings. However, Nix and I were clearly shipping-light. It looked like a contest between George and Nix. On the final turn when Nix built out, I decided to give George the final play and took trader, leaving her with an unmanned Fortress and a mess of goods to ship. She chose to ship.

Final scores – Puerto Rico
Frog – 47
George – 42
Nix – 32
Rick – 31

If George took the Mayor she would have won since Frog made 10VP in that final shipping round. The Fortress was worth 5VP, which was the same amount George made in the final shipping round. Puerto Rico can give very interesting games like this one, which is why we enjoy the game so much, and use it to close out game night so often.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Review - Bruno Faidutti's Citadels

Frenchman Bruno Faidutti is a designer who has made chaos his trademark. Citadels is his best known and most successful design, incorporating direct player interaction with a fantasy theme. In this game, players are city lords competing to build the most valuable district by erecting structures. To aid them, they call on the services of one of seven personages each turn. Each personage provides a particular advantage to his patron. However, these personages are mercenaries (even the King!) and they are quite happy to work for whichever lord contacts him first in the season.

Citadels is published by Fantasy Flight Games. The game is known as Citadelles in French and Ohne Fucht und Adel in German (the latter apparently some kind of pun on a German saying). As part of FFG’s Silver Line, Citadels retails for a very reasonable price, and is one of the best value for money deals out there.

The box contains a bunch of cards, including the eight primary character cards, a ninth for expanding the game to eight players, and a full set of alternate characters to spice up the game and give it longevity. The rest of the cards are the various buildings that players build in their districts. The cards are printed on average stock, which means that heavy handling may cause them to wear out. It’s not such a huge deal given the price – if you play Citadels enough the wear the cards out, just buy another copy. You may need to sleeve the character cards in plastic protectors, simply because you want to prevent them from getting marked. Marked character cards will ruin a lot of the fun. The card art is pretty good, and is on par with what you’d see in collectible card games. The package also includes various counters used as scoring reminders, and chits of the characters used to remind the players of which characters are in use when playing with the alternates. There’s a large crown chit with a plastic stand to mark the start player. Finally, the game comes with some cardboard gold pieces. Later printings of the game come with the much better plastic “butterscotch” gold pieces. That alone makes me wish I bought my copy later. Too bad.

The Game

The heart of the game is the selection of personages or characters. The eight characters are shuffled, and the start player (who gets the crown) chooses one of them to help him this season/turn. He then passes the remaining characters to his left. That player then chooses a character and passes the rest, and so on until each player has chosen a character. When playing with less than seven players, some characters are randomly removed from play each turn. The last player will always have a choice between at least two characters. The last one is placed face-down and is not in play this turn.

The player with the crown then calls out each character, roll-call style, by the characters’ numbers. The order is the same each turn. If a character is not in play, it is skipped over. The players take their turn when their character’s number is called.

On his turn, a player can do three things, in any order. He may take two gold income from the bank, or procure a building (plan) card from the deck (he draw two, keeps one, places the other at the bottom of the deck). Then, he may build one building by paying the building cost and playing the card in front of him. Finally, he may use whatever ability or abilities his character possesses.

Characters have interesting powers. Some of them grant income based on the buildings already standing in a player’s district. Some provide extra gold or cards. Many of them directly affect another player in some manner, ranging from stealing his gold, swapping cards, destroying buildings (or preventing that) or in the case of the notorious Assassin, making them lose their turn. Then twist is that some abilities, including the Assassin, target a player through the character chosen that turn. Thus, when the Assassin picks a target for example, the player is not quite sure which player he’s denying a turn to.

Once a player is done taking all actions due him, the next player goes until all the players have taken their turns. The crown is passed to the player who took the King, who becomes the new start player. The characters are all reshuffled, and players choose their ally for the next turn.

The game ends on the turn when any player builds his eighth building. All players take their turn, then building values are tallied. (Building values are usually the same as their construction cost, with some exceptions.) Some bonus points may accrue to players based on what buildings were constructed, and who completed their district. Whoever has the highest district value wins the game!


With all the chaos, is strategy even possible? Not really, but one can play the doublethink game. The worst possible thing that can happen is to lose your turn. The Assassin is usually sent to take out whichever player has hired the Merchant, simply because money is powerful. Of course, the player with the Assassin may guess that no one will take the Merchant because of that, and choose some other target.

If you accumulate too much gold, the Thief may take it away. Of course the Thief is targeted like the Assassin, so it’s a guess, so your best bet is to take some random character. If you have too many cards, the Magician will ensorcell you into swapping hands with his master. The Magician targets a player, so having a lot of cards is like painting a bullseye on your head.

Otherwise, all you can do is stay alive, build whatever cards you can draw, and try to get to eight buildings as fast as you can. The random draw of the building cards is the letdown here, since drawing a lot of low-value buildings will get you to game end but won’t help you win. Thankfully, the card mix of the building deck seems to be pretty decent, so it shouldn’t happen too much.

Reviewer’s Tilt

When played as a fast game, Citadels is a lot of brainless fun. It’s pretty useless for players to take too much time doublethinking and trying to make the perfect character selection, because there isn’t one. The Assassin and the Thief are as unpredictable as the players that pick them. If a group has consistently targeted the Merchant’s player, then fine avoid him, but that’s some pretty homogenous groupthink going on if ever. I always tell the people I teach the game to that it’s fun trying out all the characters, and some may be more useful than others, but it’s better to get a less-useful character than be dead or broke. How can you prevent being dead or broke? You can’t. So pick a character quick, let’s take our turns, and laugh our head off when Jim gets assassinated three straight turns even if he picked three different characters. I don’t understand when people complain about getting assassinated often – the game system doesn’t favor anyone getting killed more than anyone else.

I like Citadels best with four players. That takes out two characters at the beginning of selection, and leaves the last player with a choice among three characters. Four players keeps the game moving at a very nice pace. Playing the game with fewer players is rather unsatisfying because what you’re looking for here is the interaction among the choices of players. Playing with more than four or maybe five slows the game down considerably unless players commit to choosing characters in five seconds each. I haven’t played with eight players, and I have no plans to try.

Citadels is the only Faidutti game I’ve tried that I enjoy. Its only random factor is the building draw, and the chaos in the game stems from the characters, which is pretty conservative for Bruno. You can’t play the game seriously – you’ll just get frustrated because the point of the game is that there is no real pattern. Enjoy laughing at the people who get stolen from or assassinated, keep the game moving at a good clip, and have a good time.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Review - Wolfgang Kramer & Michael Kiesling's Java

Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling crafted four Action Point games: the 2000 Spiel des Jahres winner Torres, and the “Mask Trilogy” which includes the 1999 Spiel des Jahres winner Tikal. Java is considered to be the most advanced of the Action Point games, combining elements of the others and even some ideas from another Kramer/Kiesling design, Pueblo. The result is a game that many players have shunned for its difficulty, causing many slow turns as gamers struggle with the mechanisms. However, for players who are able to process the game’s intricacies, or those who persevere and improve at it, Java can be an extremely enjoyable and fulfilling game.

Players take the roles of Javanese royalty who have decided to compete with each other in developing the most fertile area of Central Java in Indonesia. The developers under the command of these Sultans build rice terraces and irrigation fields, found villages, construct palaces and hold festival for the greater glory of their kingdoms. Once the development of Central Java is complete, the kingdom with the greatest prestige in Central Java wins the game.

If you thought Tikal was a beautiful game once completed, Java is just as visually impressive, if not more so due to its elevations. Ravensburger, with the graphical design of Franz Vohwinkel, printed the Java terrain tiles on amazingly thick cardboard. Despite their thickness, the tiles are cleanly die-cut and fall out of their frames with a gentle tap. The board is a four-fold linen finished work of art, depicting the undeveloped land of Central Java (in hexes) bordered to the north by mountains and to the south by a plain, with a scoring track running around it. The developers are similar to those used in Tikal, made of smooth wood and colored with earthy tones. The game also comes with some counters and the expected four Action Point menu cards. The only weakness of the package is the festival cards, which puzzlingly are small uncoated cards with square corners. One would have expected larger (say, Torres-sized) linen-finished cards with rounded corners in a package this lavish. This omission is a bit disappointing, but given how the rest of the game looks, it’s still a sight to behold.

The Game

Players have six Action Points on each turn. With these points, they develop Central Java by laying terrain tiles onto the board, they deploy and move developers across the land, they build and extend palaces and they prepare for palace festivals.

The terrain tiles are the main focus of the game. There are three-hex tiles (depicting two terrace hexes and one village hex), two hex tiles (one terrace and one village) and single hex tiles of each type. There are also water hexes for creating irrigation fields. The three-hex tiles and irrigation field tiles are placed in a common supply – all the players draw from this single supply. The two-hex and single hex tiles are given to players as their private supply. Players must play at least one non-water terrain tile of any kind in a turn.

Water tiles may only be laid directly onto the board. The terrain tiles may be laid upon each other, as long as a tile is not laid directly on top of an identical tile, and the tile is not placed on water. This allows players to build terraces skyward by overlapping tiles. You also can’t play a tile on a palace or hex occupied by a developer.

Players score in three ways. The first is by enclosing irrigation fields. Once an irrigation field is completely enclosed, the player with the developer on the highest level adjacent to the pool scores. If there is a tie, the player with the most developers on that level scores. If there is still a tie, no one scores.

The second is by building or extending palaces. Palaces are built in villages, and the size of the palace may not exceed the size of the village. The size of a village is the number of contiguous village hexes that compose the village. A player must have the developer at the highest level within the village to build or extend a palace. If there is a tie, most developers at that level may build. If there is still a tie, no one may build. A player whose developer builds a palace scores prestige equal to half the size of the palace. Palaces are sized from two to ten, even numbers only. If a village grows in size, then the palace may be extended to a larger size, and the player whose developer does this scores for the extended palace.

Once a palace has been built, the village becomes a city. Any player with a developer present in that city may hold a festival in the palace. This requires the use of festival cards. There is a reference festival card placed face up. Players play cards to match the symbol or symbols on the reference card. The player with the most matching symbols scores for the festival. Draws may be offered among the players if there is a tie. In this case, a smaller amount of prestige is garnered by the drawing players.

Once the final three-hex tile is played onto the board, the game enters a final scoring round. The player who played the final three-hex tile completes his turn, and then scores each palace where he has a developer at the highest (full points) or second-highest (half points) level in the city. The other players then take a final turn, scoring in the same fashion.

The player with the most prestige at the end of the game wins!


By experience, the irrigation fields provide the quickest way to score points at the beginning of the game. Players tend to play as many irrigation tiles as they can while still being able to enclose the whole pool in the same turn. (Otherwise, the next player will take advantage of their hard work and score the irrigation field for themselves.) This has the unfortunate side effect of tattooing the board with three-hex irrigation pools all over the place, making it extremely difficult to build large cities. Even worse, players may concentrate the irrigation on one side of the map or the other, rendering that side of the map near-impossible to develop to any degree of satisfaction. Of course, that doesn’t stop anyone from doing it every game – it just ups the difficulty.

One of the neatest moves in Java, as well as one of the most powerful, is using a terrain tile to split an existing city. This allows a degree of reuse of large villages. Just separate the palace from the rest of the city and it becomes a village, ready to accept a new palace. This can be defended against by building palaces as centrally as possible, making it difficult to reuse a substantial portion of the city.

There are more defensive plays possible in Java. Players can deploy most if not all of their developers and post them in places where the restricted development and movement is desired. A board full of irrigation fields and developers is a hostile environment for building palaces of larger sizes. Players can also develop cities with multiple elevations, making it difficult and expensive (in terms of personal tiles) to split the city for further use.

Building palaces of sizes smaller than ten without a good defense is perilous as it allows the following player to extend the palace and score a larger number of points. When building a small palace, try to ensure that there are preventive measures against opponents who are wont to horn in on your action.

Always try to have a couple of festival cards in hand. If a player is up against opponents with no festival cards, he can get a freebie festival. Giving up points free is never advisable. Make it a point to draw two cards when you have one or no cards in hand. If the first card you draw doesn’t match the reference card, consider drawing the reference to guarantee at least one match. During a festival, it’s better to draw with one opponent than to get into a card battle that costs you two or more cards. For more festival card play practice, play Reiner Knizia’s Taj Mahal.

Finally, always be aware of when the final three-hex tile might be played. It’s difficult to go last in the final scoring round, especially if you’re caught unaware. If possible, prepare for the end of the game a couple of turns in advance by positioning your developers in all the cities on the board. Don’t be shy with your personal tiles, but try to hang on to a couple of the single hex tiles for use in your final scoring round. Java opponents can be a crafty lot, and the size ten palace that you thought was securely yours may be snatched from you with a couple of creative moves. If you can place your developer right next to the palace tile, do so. This prevents the guy from getting separated from the palace due to a city split.

Reviewer’s Tilt

We love the design of Java. It’s got a very strong theme, coupled with an amazing tile-laying mechanism that keeps me thinking about moves constantly. My group has a lot of fun with Java. If I had never played Torres, I suspect that it would be in my top ten favorite games. Java is beautiful, it’s challenging and it brings out creativity and cleverness in players. Granted, some people will have difficulty with this type of game. It’s a spatial affair coupled with a wide-open action structure, two elements that can cause some gamers to freeze. However, with the right group, it’s one of the best German games.

I believe that Java plays best with three players. Each player has more control, the turns come around faster, and the timing of the final scoring round is easier to handle. This doesn’t decrease the playing time though, since all the three-hex tiles still have to be played. Java is ok as a game for four, but it becomes more difficult and to some, more frustrating. I don’t like it much as a two-player game due to the terms of the final scoring round, but it is certainly playable with two.

If you’ve been scared off by Java’s reputation, give it a chance, especially if you enjoy Torres or Tikal. It’s not an easy game, but it’s not as difficult for most people as its reputation suggests. As a choice for the heavier end of the spectrum, Java is an excellent addition for most German strategy game collections.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Review - Reiner Knizia's Royal Turf

Whenever Reiner Knizia teams up with alea, the results are usually outstanding. RA and Taj Mahal are two of Knizia’s best, and they were published in alea’s big box format. Deep in their shadow is the good doctor’s other alea entry, Royal Turf, which was published under the small box line. alea’s small box series is a line of lighter games more suited to non-gaming audiences, and that is exactly where Royal Turf falls. It is also one of the best games in alea’s small box line.

Players take the role of gentlemen and ladies spending a day at the races in Ascot at the turn of the 19th century. Each player wagers on the horses. Once the bets are placed, the races take place. The players then get to decide who wins the race by moving the horses based on a die roll. However, it’s not that simple, as any player may move any horse he wishes. Players cooperate to move a horse bearing a common wager towards the finish line, or conspire against horses that other players have backed. The whole exercise usually ends up as a raucous affair, with players chanting for the symbol that they need on the die to turn up.

As always, alea’s production values for this little game are excellent. The small single-fold board is linen-finished. The seven little horses are very nicely done. The single die that drives the race is of the wooden variety. All of the chits are of thick cardboard. All in all, it’s a beautiful package for a fairly low price point. You won’t be disappointed.

The only problem is that Royal Turf was never given an English release. However, the components are language independent, and an excellent English translation is available on Boardgamegeek. There is also a reported reprint of the game by Face2Face Games in 2005. As of this writing, there is no definitive word on the form that the new release will take.

The Game

There are seven horses in the game, each with a name matching the horse’s color. Just for fun, these are their names from memory: Earl Grey (grey), Albino (white), Nougat (dark brown), Sahara Wind (beige), Caramello (errr… caramel?), Red Fox (red) and the interestingly-named Othello (black). Each horse has three race cards. These race cards are shuffled together and placed in a stack face down. Cards are then drawn and placed face up beside the name of the horse on the board until all the horses have had a card drawn and placed (duplicates are set aside for the next race). These cards determine how far each horse will run based on the symbol result on the race die. As the cards are placed, the horses are also placed on the track. First horse with a race card drawn gets pole position, the rest follow.

Based on the revealed race cards, players bet on the horses. Each player may place three bets in each race, two single bets and a double bet. Each bet must be placed on a different horse. The bets are open – everyone can see who has bet on what horse. Players place bets in turn until all three bets have been made. The bets are for that particular horse finishing in the top three (the payout positions). The more players that bet on a horse that pays out, the less that horse pays out. So, maximum payout occurs when a horse with a single bettor finishes first. Of course, that rarely happens, as you will see later. There are no limits on the number of players that may bet on a horse.

Once all bets have been placed, the horses are off!

Players take turns rolling the six-sided race die and moving the horses. The race die bears four symbols: a horsehead (three times), a jockey’s cap, a saddle and horseshoe. Each horse’s race card bears the four symbols and a number from one to fifteen beside each symbol. The number is the number of spaces that the horse will move on the result of the die.

So, the player rolls the die and gets a symbol. He then gets to choose which of the seven horses to move. Some horses move further than other horses given the same symbol. In addition, all the seven horses must move before a particular horse may move again. Thus, it behooves the player to use his race die result wisely. He can simply move the horse he double-bet on, but if the symbol he rolled will have that horse poking along for just a couple of spaces, he may want to use the result to move an opposing horse if that result will also have that horse trotting along disinterestedly. This at least gives someone else who bet on the same horse a chance to roll a better result and move the horse along at a faster clip.

Each horse has a personality. For example, Earl Grey is a notorious sprinter. This lazy equine pokes along one space at a time if a horsehead result is applied to him. However, one or two of the other symbols startle him into moving anywhere from eight to fifteen spaces. So, players who bet on Earl usually try to move him using a non-horsehead result as early as possible. Otherwise, one of the other players will use a horsehead (which appears 50% of the time) to make Earl sleepwalk for one more turn while his opponents whiz by. In contrast, Othello is a workmanlike, persistent steed. Horseheads have him moving seven spaces on all three of his race cards, while most of his other results have him plodding along at three or five spaces. He’s a dependable creature, Othello, if a bit safe and boring. This being a Reiner game, we can be assured that the horses are mathematically balanced in some way.

Eventually, three of the horses will cross the finish line. There’s a payout table on the board which dictates how much each of the payout horses wins for the players who bet on them, depending on how many players actually bet on them as previously noted. Double bets pay out double. Once all payouts are made, the used race cards are set aside, and new race cards are set out for the second race.

There are three races. In the third and final race, all payouts are doubled (double bets are thus quadrupled). The player with the most cash at the end of the game wins!


What strategy? It’s a light and fluffy game! Well, yeah, but it’s a REINER light and fluffy game. That means that there are still excruciating decisions to be made. First off, when betting, do you bet in a crowd, thus reducing your payout should the horse place, but ensure that you’ll have help getting the horse to the finish line? Or do you go it alone or with as few players as possible to maximize your payout and hope that you can outwit your opponents?

It’s risky to bet on sprinters like Earl Grey and Albino alone, as the other players can dump an easily-rolled horsehead on them to make them plod along. It’s less risky to go it alone on a workmanlike horse such as Othello and Caramello since it’s harder to roll up the symbol that makes them slowpokes. Counter programming is also essential, as ideally you’d like to have as many results of the die be useful to you, either by moving your own horses or screwing your opponents’ horses.

Once the race is in progress, look for the best possible play on each horse. Sometimes, you won’t really have a choice, such as when there’s only one horse that hasn’t moved and you’re up, but that situation rotates among the players. Most of the time, you’ll get options. As noted earlier, move your sprinters as early as possible, even if it’s not their “bat out of hell” result, because any result is better than a one-space jaunt. Horses like Othello are defensive plays, since you can dump almost any result on them. Therefore, it’s good to have at least one bet on a sprinter, and one bet on a safe horse. Save your double bet for last and play it based on where everyone else played their bets. I don’t normally use the double bet on a sprinter, but that’s just me. The daring double bet on the enigmatic Earl Grey. You can tell that he’s a popular horse.

Reviewer’s Tilt

I enjoy Royal Turf a lot. It’s a light game that still has some interesting decisions. It’s not Euphrat & Tigris, but you can pull it out with almost any crowd and it’s got a decent shot at being a hit. I’m not too fond of playing it with five or six, as the chaos gets so bad that it’s hard to get anything done solo, especially with the sprinters, but it’s great with four. I consider Royal Turf as one of the great gateway games, even better than Settlers or Ticket to Ride. With its betting component and its tactical application of a random result (which is driven by the betting in the first place), it introduces newbies to the concept of games with much less luck than they are accustomed to. The coming reprint will allow more players to experience just how good a gateway game Royal Turf is.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Carcassonne – The Review

Some game themes take people on tours of interesting places. There are games set in Java in Indonesia, San Juan in Puerto Rico, Tikal in Guatemala, Goa in India and Manila in the Philippines, just to name a few. (P.S. Catan does not count.) A place that’s been brought from relative obscurity to some degree of familiarity by having a game use it as its setting is the medieval French town of Carcassonne.

From the official Carcassonne site :

“The Walled City of Carcassonne is known first and foremost as a fortified medieval town; but this rocky outcrop has been occupied by man since the 6th century B.C., first as a Gaul settlement, then as a Roman town fitted with ramparts as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.”

A couple of other interesting sites on Carcassonne are found here: and .

In Klaus-Jurgen Wrede’s game named after the city, players assemble an overhead faux map of Carcassonne by laying tiles adjacent to each other in an ever-expanding landscape. Players complete walled castles, enclose cloisters and terminate roads, and claim these by placing their followers, in order to score points.

It’s not exactly clear what role the players take in the game. Are they gods, looking down upon a blank slate and painting it like brush upon canvas? That’s a possibility. The followers may represent the gods’ Avatars who are sent to earth as pawns in their little game. This is all speculation of course.

The game is produced by Hans im Gluck, and thus carries the company’s high production values. The tiles are linen-finished and are thick and weighty. The colorful wooden followers might be called “cute”, and have become a mascot for German games fans. A rather convoluted small scoreboard is included. It’s got a winding road design, which is nice thematically, but somewhat hard to use. Players can dispense with it and just keep score with pen and paper – you’ll need a lot of table space to play Carcassonne. All this comes in a too-large box, which is nice in a way because HiG has released a horde of expansions for the game. You can toss the plain cardboard insert and keep a few expansions with the base game in the original box. The later editions of the base Carcassonne include one of the aforementioned expansions, The River, which we will not discuss here.

Carcassonne is remarkable for winning both the Spiel des Jahres (unsurprising) and the Deutscher Spiele Preis (surprising) awards in 2001. Carcassonne is a pretty good game for the family, but it’s not in the weight class of the usual strategy games that the DSP honors.

The Game

Each of the Carcassonne game tiles bears a part of a castle, a segment of road, an open field or a cloister. Some contain more than one element. All of these tiles are turn face-down and are mixed up into a common draw pile (or they can be dumped into a cloth bag, bag not included with the game). A marked starting tile is placed in the center of a spacious playing area. On his turn, each player will draw a tile from the bag and place it on the table, connecting it to a previously-played tile. The only restriction is that any of the edges of the new tile being placed must bear terrain that matches that of any tiles it becomes connected to. This is the nice part of the game’s design. The tiles seem to fit together nicely and form a pretty picture despite the jigsaw puzzle nature of the game.

Once the player has placed his tile, he now has the option of placing a follower on the just-played tile. He needs to place the little wooden fellow to clearly claim either a road, a castle, a cloister or an open field. Once the follower has been placed, he takes up a profession as a brigand, a knight, a monk or a farmer, and remains on the tile until the particular terrain is scored or the game ends. If a castle is completed (i.e., it is enclosed on all sides by walls), the player with the most knights within the castle scores. If a road is completed by terminating its two ends in villages or buildings, the brigand on that road scores. If a cloister is enclosed on all sides, the monk within that cloister scores. Farmers only score at the end of the game, and they score for each castle within their field. Fields are defined by roads and buildings around them. It is possible for more than one farmer to supply a particular castle, in which case the player with more farmers supplying that particular castle scores. Once a follower scores for his player, that follower is taken off the map and returned to the player’s reserve.

Scoring in the course of the game is important because each player has a finite supply of followers. If all of a player’s followers are deployed on the map, then he is unable to create any more scoring opportunities until one of his pending projects is completed and scored.

Once all of the tiles have been placed, the game ends. Uncompleted projects are scored, albeit at a reduced value compared to the scoring for completed projects. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.


Most games of Carcassonne are simple, straightforward affairs. Players play tiles, place their followers, then try to complete their own projects. This is the sort of play expected when with non-gamer friends or family. It can even be approached as a cooperative activity, with each player receiving advice from the others on what the best play for a tile is. When the map is completed, the group can ooh and aah over the nice landscape.

Carcassonne can also be played more competitively, with players placing followers in cities or roads already occupied by other players’ followers in an attempt to steal the score for those terrains. An even more competitive maneuver is to place tiles such that a particular terrain (especially castles) cannot be completed due to the absence of a tile that can fit the resulting space that needs to be closed off to score. A similar approach can be made with opposing farmers. The field occupied by the farmer can be shrunk by building a road around the fellow, severely restricting the castles that the farmer can supply.

The problem with all of this is that the tile draw of Carcassonne is completely random, so players have no way to further any plans they make if they are unable to get any useful tiles.

Reviewer’s Tilt

Carcassonne is a light, random game where the luck of the tile draw determines who wins in most cases. This becomes even more pronounced when playing with three or more players, as the state of the map can change dramatically between a player’s turns. There is a distinct feeling of lack of any kind of control, particularly when a player is drawing nothing but road tiles for several turns.

As such, it is a decent introductory game for people new to German games, but it can be outgrown quickly as dissatisfaction with the tile draw can alienate players. The repetitiveness of the game can also quickly become extremely boring. Adding some expansions into the mix might alleviate some of the tedium, but at heart it’s still the same game mechanism with the same amount of luck.

The game is certainly worth experiencing once or twice, just to see the completed map at game end and to say that you’ve played with the cute little wooden followers. However, once players have been introduced to other more advanced and varied German games, it would not be surprising for Carcassonne to be left on the shelf for very long stretches of time.

My Favorite Games by Number of Players

One of only two podcasts that I've listened to in their entirety up to this point is's Geekspeak. It's a podcast that usually has a person involved in games, and at the end of the show the hosts, Aldie and Derk, ask the guest(s) what his (their) favorite games are. I thought I'd post my answers to these "hook" questions up here for fun.

Favorite games for 2 players
  • Magic: the Gathering [1]
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation
  • Pueblo [9]

Favorite games for 3 players

  • Torres [5]
  • Pueblo [9]
  • Java

Favorite games for 4 players

  • Puerto Rico [3]
  • Tigris & Euphrates [4]
  • Taj Mahal [8]
  • Goa [10]

Favorite games for 5 players

  • The Princes of Florence [2]
  • Amun-Re
  • Puerto Rico

Favorite games for 6 players

  • 1830: Railroads & Robber Barons [6]*
  • The Republic of Rome [7]*
  • Dune*

* Don't get to play these games at all due to length. Whereas even my favorite games for five players finish in around 120 minutes or so, the six player games all clock in around 240 to 360 minutes.

The numbers in the brackets are my current rankings of favorite games overall.

Amun-Re – The Review

Before I begin, I’d like to set the tone for this game. In Amun-Re, players assume the roles of Pharaohs, Great Men who led the people of Egypt in the development of civilization. Under their leadership, the Nile was tamed to feed Egypt, and great pyramids were erected at their behest. This game is their story.

Now, you must read the story of five of these Great Men before we proceed. Follow this link, then return when you have finished.

Back? Good.

I trust that Golakhamen has whetted your appetite to journey to ancient Egypt. Let’s talk about the game.

Amun-Re is Reiner Knizia’s first serious strategy game since the amazing Euphrat & Tigris. Just like E&T, Amun-Re was developed and published by Hans im Gluck, and that practically guarantees very high production values. The game comes in a HiG big box, similar to E&T. Its board, an abstraction of the various provinces of Egypt, is of the four-fold linen-finished variety. The design includes many icons that aid in gameplay, giving the board great utility in addition to being beautiful. This being a game about Egypt and its competing Pharaohs, a bunch of cool little resin pyramids comes with the game. In addition, there are resin pieces that look like Chiclets in the color of the pyramids, representing building stones. Five sets of twin Chiclets in the player colors round out the plastic pieces. The game’s counters are thick cardboard, including stand-up figures of a temple and a Pharaoh. Finally, the game sports a bunch of small linen-finished cards, which includes the game’s currency.

As you can tell, the game presentation is outstanding, which is not surprising coming from Hans im Gluck.

The Game

Players are Pharaohs vying for the favor of the god Amun-Re, with the goal of being known as the greatest dynasty to lead the Egyptians. The twist here is that players are not individual Pharaohs. All the Pharaohs who begin the game perish midway through, and their descendants carry on in the second stanza of this two-part drama. In Egypt, onlt the pyramids withstand the ravages of time. Did I mention this game has a fantastic theme, and that theme is integrated closely with its mechanisms? Well, I have now.

The Egypt of Amun-Re has fifteen provinces. The provinces are either north or south of the Nile, upstream or downstream of the Nile, and are either along the banks of the Nile or not. The Nile is hugely important. Provinces along the Nile are fertile, and can be tilled by farmers. Each of these provinces can accept farmers in various numbers. The provinces that are not along the banks of the Nile can’t accept as many farmers, but may be frequented by camel caravans who trade with them. However, the caravans only deem it worthwhile to visit when Egypt has not had a bountiful harvest.

In addition to their Nile-driven attributes, provinces have inherent resources, such as bountiful building stones, valuables such as precious metals or gems that provide steady income, strong ties to Amun-Re which provide favors from the god, or standing temples to Amun-Re. Players must take all of this into consideration.

The game is played over two Kingdoms, which take place hundreds of years apart. Each Kingdom is composed of three Ages.

The first Kingdom is known as the Old Kingdom. In this part of the game, the dynasties of the players are just beginning to lead the peoples of Egypt towards prosperity.

Each Age proceeds in the same manner. The first thing that players do is bid Gold to offer Amun-Re for the right to settle the provinces. A number of provinces equal to the number of players are available each Age. Bids are made in triangular numbers, and each bid must surpass the previous. In the first twist of many in Amun-Re, a player who has been outbid for a province cannot immediately increase his bid for the same province. He must bid elsewhere. Once each player has bid on a different province, the offerings to Amun-Re are accepted and players take possession of the provinces and all the inherent resources accompanying. Provinces are the most important part of the game, so great care must be taken when selecting a province. While a free province is good, there is usually a good reason that it is not desirable to the other Pharaohs.

The next step is the improvement of the provinces. Players spend Gold to support farmers and purchase seed to grow crops, spend more Gold to support workers and purchase stone to raise pyramids, or spend even more Gold to spread the faith and curry favors from Amun-Re in the form of Power Cards. The second twist of the game is that the cost of each of the three resources increases in triangular fashion, and each type of resource can only be purchased in one batch in each Age. In addition, the provinces held by the player limit the number of farmers that may work in the fields, and the amount of favor that can be had via Power Cards.

Once development is completed, the communal Sacrifice to Amun-Re is held. While the god accepts starlings, asses’ milk and diet cola, Gold is the most important offering. The greater the offering, the more pleased Amun-Re is with Egypt as a whole, and with each Pharaoh as an individual. Each player secretly decides how much Gold to toss into the collection plate. Alternatively, a player may steal Gold from the plate to reduce the total offering. Offerings are revealed simultaneously, then tallied. If the total offering is great, then the harvest will be bountiful, and each farmer will harvest more crops and yield more Gold for their Pharaoh. If the total offering is crappy, then the harvest will be crummy the camel caravans will appear, and the provinces without fertile land will rejoice. Whatever the result of the communal Sacrifice, Amun-Re rewards the top contributor with three boons; the second best with two, and anyone else who did not steal from the offering with a single boon. A boon is a farmer, a building stone, or a favor as the Pharaoh may choose.

Finally, income is paid out to each Pharaoh based on the yield of each province following the results of the Sacrifice. Then, the second Age begins, and then the Third. At the end of the third Age, all the available provinces will have been awarded to the Pharaohs by Amun-Re. This signals the end of the Old Kingdom. Amun-Re awards the families of the Pharaohs for their deed with Points of Greatness. These are given for pyramids built in fashions pleasing to the god, for the state of the last harvest if the Pharaoh possesses provinces with temples, and for fulfilled dictates of Amun-Re as specified in certain Power Cards. Once these Points of Greatness are tallied, great sandstorms sweep across Egypt, wiping out everything on the board except for the pyramids.

Centuries pass, and Egyptian civilization regains its foothold along the Nile. The New Kingdom begins with the descendants of the original five Pharaohs. They inherit the wealth of their forefathers, and the First Age of the New Kingdom begins. Everything is as in the Old Kingdom, except that the provinces now bear the pyramids built by the ancestors of the new Pharaohs.

At the end of the Third Age of the New Kingdom, Points of Greatness are once again awarded by Amun-Re. Whichever of the players has the most Points is declared the Greatest Dynasty and is the winner of the game.


Amun-Re begins and ends with the provinces. Players need to pay attention to which provinces are appearing, as this dynamic drives the Sacrifice, which is the main determinant of income. Cash is king (or rather, Pharaoh) in Amun-Re, as it allows a player to bid more for a desirable province, and to purchase more resources when he needs them. However, a player must ensure that he is getting a good return on his investments in farmers, Power Cards and Sacrifice offerings. It’s far too easy to spend money to buy a lot of farmers, and get crushed by the camel traders in the Sacrifice. Conversely, one might save money to drive the Sacrifice up, but not have enough farmers to make it worthwhile.

Be alert as to which players will benefit from a good harvest, and which will benefit from the camel traders coming in. This will allow you to predict the way the Sacrifice will go especially in the Second and Third Age, and you can bid on provinces accordingly. It is usually a good idea to grab fertile (farmer-heavy) provinces in the First Age, as your investment in farming will pay back three times. Steady income provinces which ignore the harvest are good acquisitions late in the Kingdom.

Power cards are usually good, but they are random. It’s not a bad idea to have the capability to acquire at least two in each Age, on the off chance that Amun-Re will ask you to make a pattern of pyramids or resources that you already have or are close to achieving in exchange for some Greatness. If you get the card in the Old Kingdom, you can try to fulfill it in the New Kingdom, but beware. Crafty opponents may spot the pattern you are trying to complete and foil you in the auction. (Yes, you can play defensively in Amun-Re, both in the province auction and in the Sacrifice.) Power cards can do fancy things, but they aren’t always useful. Good thing you can sell them to the market for one Gold anytime.

My advice is to go for a focused bonus in the Old Kingdom; the best one is usually having the most pyramids in one province on each side of the Nile. The bonus is pretty good, and it’s better than a set of pyramids in each of your provinces. Beware though that that province in all probability be hotly contested in the auction of the New Kingdom.

Reviewer’s Tilt

Amun-Re is a fabulous game for five players. With the full complement of Pharaohs, I’d give it a nine at the very least. However, its performance plummets with less than five players, as the balance of having all fifteen provinces in play is lost due to random elimination of three provinces per player not present. If by chance three camel caravan provinces are eliminated from play in a four player game, it sucks a lot of the tension out of Amun-Re. It’s still a decent game with four players, but it’s hardly remarkable. It suffers even more with only three, to the point that I’d no longer recommend playing the game. You just can’t guarantee any balance with just nine provinces in play. This is the main reason that I can only award Amun-Re an eight on the BGG scale.

Assuming that five participants can be mustered, this is one of the best German games available to being to the table, falling just short of the brilliance of The Princes of Florence. First, you have the awesome theme-to-mechanics relationship, which is just as strong as in Euphrat & Tigris. I can’t think of many other games with a theme this strong embedded into the gameplay and feel of the proceedings. Second, the decisions in the game are extremely tough, especially in the province auction. The triangular bids make each raise an extremely painful one, and the inability to remain in a province once overbid makes for a lot of agony. Third is the simple but effective use of a semi-blind bid in the Sacrifice. I hate the blind bidding mechanism, but used in this context it just makes sense. It’s not really blind either, since you can usually tell who’s going to swing which way just by looking at the provinces they hold. Finally, there are the little flourishes in the game that make it special. The little temples. The card backs for Power cards and money cards being identical. The ability to steal from the Sacrifice and being smited by Amun-Re for it. Crapping in your neighbor’s weaving hut then moving to Nineveh to play Euphrat & Tigris instead. (Okay, Gola made that last one up, but it’s still funny as hell.)

Amun-Re is arguably Knizia’s third-best strategy game behind E&T and Taj Mahal, but it’s his best game for five players. It’s arguably one of the three best German strategy games for five players, along with The Princes of Florence and Die Macher. If you’re able to muster five players the play German strategy games on a regular basis, Amun-Re is a game that you must have in your collection.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

More Torres 2000 vs. Torres 2005

Rick Thornquist over at Gamewire got a shot of the redesigned action cards being planned for Torres.

I still much prefer the original design. Don't like scrapping the text and replacing it with a nice but superfluous 3D illustration when the original graphic is still on the upper corners of the card. The menu also has less utility since it's not all graphical with no text. I understand the thrust for being language independent to save on reprinting, but overall this card design is just less efficient.

Torres 2005 will also come in a Tikal-sized box, which is long and flat. I prefer the original package, which is the size of an alea big box game. Much more portable, and fits in a smaller bag. I can live without the colored rules. Now I really feel good about buying Torres 2000. :)

Goa – The Review

The spice trade was big in the 1600s. The seafaring colonial powers of the time competed to found colonies where the exotic spices thrived. The spices brought money, and the money brought fame and influence. The Portuguese colony of Goa in India was a place where spice merchants and intrepid explorers made names for themselves. Players take this role in Ruediger Dorn’s Goa.

Each player is the proprietor of an expedition and spice-trading company based in Goa, India. He begins the game with a bit of money and some resources – a chartered ship, the technology to harvest one unit of spice a season, a minor settlement in the islands that he has taxation rights over, and one band of intrepid explorers. Each player also has license to participate in a customs auction, where all sorts of goods, rights, services and privileges are placed on the market. Using their seed money, their meager resources and their wits, the players parlay their holdings into great wealth and assets. The greater the assets, the greater the prestige garnered. At the end of the game, which lasts two periods of four years each, the player with the most prestige wins the game and is declared the greatest personage of the period.

Ruediger Dorn’s best-known game prior to Goa was the exquisite game of trade and negotitation, The Traders of Genoa. Goa shares the multiple options and roads to victory of The Traders of Genoa, and is just as much a meaty strategy game as its predecessor. Dorn teams up with well-known strategy game publisher Hans im Gluck for Goa, which was released as a big box game in the same line as Euphrat & Tigris and Amun-Re. This results in an exquisite production. The main auction board is a four-fold affair with a linen finish and a beautiful layout. The multitude of tiles is thick and likewise linen-finished. (I love linen finished anything!) The eight player mats, two to a player, are less substantial but serviceable, having been printed on glossy thick cardboard. The game comes with 16 grey markers for the player mats, and a bag of colored wooden spice counters. Finally, the smallish cards are given the linen finish once more, to complete a wonderful package that lives up to Hans im Gluck’s lofty reputation as a producer of beautiful games.

The Game

The heart of Goa is its innovative auction. Large square tiles representing goods, services, rights and privileges are laid out in an 8 x 8 grid. Player then proceed to whisper in the ear of customs, identifying which items they would like to see auctioned off in that year. This doesn’t guarantee that the player choosing an item will win it, just that it is available at auction. This is accomplished by players placing auction markers on tiles. The lead player begins the game with The Flag, which signifies the right to choose a starting point for selecting tiles to be auctioned off. He puts The Flag up for auction. The next player must choose a tile adjacent to the flag. The next must choose a tile adjacent to the tile chosen by the previous player, and so on, ending with the Flag player choosing the final tile. Auctions then occur for each tile, each auction going once around the table, beginning with the player to the left of the auctioneer and ending with the auctioneer. Should an auctioneer win the bid for his own tile, the proceeds are accrue to the bank. Otherwise, the auctioneer is paid the winning bid. A player may win one, all or none of the tiles up for bid.

Once the auction for the year is completed, the players go about operating their companies. Each player has three actions in a year, chosen from a menu of six possibilities. The player may charter ships, harvest spices, tax his settlements, dispatch explorers, or attempt to found a colony. A player may also choose to invest resources in improving any one of his five basic capabilities, increasing their utility when used subsequently. Improvement of a capability requires an expenditure of spices and ship charters, as spices are brought back from the colonies and sold to finance the new infrastructure. Each capability has five stages of development, and the cost to improve each is identical except for the required spices.

Spices must be grown in spice plantations or in colonies. The rights to plantations are purchased at auction. Colonies are founded by recruiting and dispatching colonists to try and gain a foothold in a distant spice-rich island.

Once all players have taken their three actions, plus exercised the rights to any additional actions gained, the year is over and the players return to auction at the beginning of the next year. At the end of the fourth year, any remaining auction tiles are discarded, and new tiles are laid out for the second half of the game.

At the end of the game, prestige points are tallied. The greater the stage of development of each capability, the more prestige is gained. More colonies founded grant more prestige. Unexpended fruits of expeditions also garner prestige. The greatest wealth grants prestige. Finally, certain holdings, rights and privileges won at auction provide prestige. The player with the greatest prestige at the end of the game wins!


Goa is a complex game, and its strategies aren’t easy to explain in a straightforward manner because throughout the game players are trying to place values on moving targets and are trying to keep tabs on an economy that inflates and deflates. However, there are some basic principles to the game.

Playing Goa many times reveals that one can only concentrate on two capabilities at most and develop those to their maximum potential. The other three capabilities would then be left lagging. A popular choice for concentration is the expedition capability. More advanced Expeditions allow a player to draw and hold an increasing number of expedition cards. These items are random, but can be fairly useful. The most worthwhile allow a player to develop capabilities without using some resources, which essentially saves an action or two.
I believe this is the best approach to take in Goa – what is the cost and utility of one action? It is clear that an action begins with a very basic value of four ducats, which is what one can get if using a taxation action. As each capability is developed, the utility of an action becomes increasingly more valuable. A player should strive to use his actions on his more-developed capabilities as often as possible, and use his less-developed capabilities less in order to maximize his actions. This would tend to indicate that the more flexible capabilities – Expeditions and Taxes – would be those best suited to development. Expeditions are good because there are cards that can substitute for all the other capabilities, and they provide prestige at game end. However, Expeditions are random. Taxation is the other main track. Cash allows a player to be a force at auction. However, that is another problem all its own.

Goa’s auction is, for the most part, a closed economy. The money supply begins at exactly 37 ducats in a four player game. Money only leaves if a player buys his own tile. Money enters via the Taxation action, play of certain Expedition cards, or via certain tiles purchased at auction. If a player has a substantially stronger cashflow than his opponents, he can take control of The Flag, and proceed to purchase it each turn from himself, along with the tile he chooses, without giving his money to anyone else. If there is a tile being auctioned by another player that he desires, he can probably outbid everyone, but in doing so he inflates the economy.
The other thing to remember in the auction is that it is usually disadvantageous to purchase your own tile because in doing so you deprive yourself of a cash inflow. However, if you subscribe to choosing a tile that you do not intend to win and leave it to other players to auction off a tile you do want, you expose yourself to defensive play. There is an important tradeoff to keep in mind there.

Goa’s scoring is triangular in progression . This supports the development of capabilities to their maximum, rather than developing all five capabilities evenly. While it does require more resources to advance a capability at an advanced stage, those resources should be attainable with less actions as the game wears on. This applies similarly to founding colonies and retaining Expeditions.

A final note on the auction and defensive play. My play group tends to play games in such a way as to not give the other players anything in the way of a free lunch, or even a cheap lunch. Never give up big trades in Puerto Rico, never let an early Jester go for less than four digits in The Princes of Florence, never let a player suckle on the teat of a Monument for more than a turn or two in Euphrat & Tigris. In Goa, defensive play is best employed in the auction. Never let a player get an early Nutmeg or Pepper plantation, and if it is unavoidable, make sure he pays every cent he has. Since most of our play group subscribes to selecting a tile that they do not want in order to reap income, the Nutmeg usually ends up being bypassed. The Flag bearer then has the opportunity to position the succeeding auctions so as to avoid the Nutmeg and any free colonists as much as possible, to hamper production of the appropriate spices. If you can’t have the Nutmeg, make sure no one gets it at any price. This kind of play makes Goa a much tighter, tenser game, and underscores its nature as an extremely interactive, thematic game of business maneuvering and screwing your fellow entrepreneur.

Reviewer’s Tilt

I love a complex game with multiple mechanisms. Goa is such a game. From its unusual auction where players have the capability to deny resources to the table, to the action phase where creative play is possible with the combined use of Expeditions, tiles and resources, to the quest to gain that edge that will grant you the prestige necessary to pull ahead, Goa is replete with conflict and conundrums for the discerning German game fan.

Goa does have a steep learning curve, especially for play on the auction board. Over the course of many plays we have seen Expedition-focused maneuvering go from the path of choice to just one among the possibilities due to play adjustment in the group. (We played with the correct hand size rule from the outset.) Play on the auction board began as an afterthought. Now, it is the focus of the game, and all actions emanate from the results of each auction. As in many designs, players are free to take risks with the Expeditions and the founding of colonies if they wish – some players prefer to never attempt founding a colony unless it is assured of success. It works either way. This is a strength of the design. The tension is always present.

The game plays best with four players, and is surprisingly excellent with two players for a game that relies on an auction as its centerpiece mechanism. Goa with three works well as long as players refrain from any alliances, since two players can easily shut out the third player from auctions by purchasing each other’s tiles every time. The game is surprisingly fast once players gain experience. The action phase tends to become quicker than the auction phase the more plays a group has.

Marry intricate mechanisms with a rich theme, vicious player interaction and top notch physical presentation, and you have a game that is a must for the shelf of any fan of German strategy games.

Jenga – The Review

How many words can your write about a set of 54 blocks? Jenga is a fairly common dexterity game. It’s also pretty simple, simple enough to teach in 30 seconds and get everyone playing within a minute. It’s also a themeless abstract, which doesn’t really detract from the activity.

My late-edition Milton Bradley basic Jenga set (the blue box) has a set of 54 supposedly identical “precision cut” wooden blocks. The blocks are unpainted, are wonderfully smooth and weighty, and have the Jenga logo embossed on one side. The whole thing comes in a box that allows the players to haul the tower out in the “reset tray” ready to play.

The Game

The game as described in the rules is quick and easy. The blocks begin stacked as an 18-story tower, three blocks to a story, alternating stories perpendicular in orientation. The object of the game is to build the tower higher by taking blocks from the lower stories and adding them to the top of the tower. A full three-block story must be completed at the top of the tower before beginning a new story.

Players alternate turns pulling blocks from the lower levels and stacking them atop the tower. Players may only use one hand, and may probe the tower but may not move a block without taking the block. Eventually, a player will cause the tower to collapse either due to pulling a wrong block, or by making a mistake in stacking the block atop the structure. The rules say that the last player to successfully take a turn wins.

Cooperative play

I don’t much like the game’s original winning condition. It seems to ignore that all the players were involved in building the Jenga tower.

I first encountered Jenga in a corporate team building activity. The group was split into teams of three. Each team was given a Jenga set. The objective of the game was for each team, following the standard Jenga rules, to try to build the tower as high as they could. The team that built the tallest tower, without the tower collapsing, won the game.

This cooperative play mode appeals to me much more than the standard rules. This way, each player has a stake in making sure that the tower survives. There’s a luck-pushing aspect, since a collapsed tower cannot win. However, if one of the other team has already surpassed the height of your tower, you have no choice but to keep trying to go higher. In the case of a tie, the team that first gets to the highest level is the winner. So if all you do is tie, you need to go one level higher.

The reward of that game was substantial – it was a week of paid vacation time for each of the winning team members. My team won with a tower height of 32 stories. All the other teams collapsed their towers trying to beat 32 stories. I never did get to take that vacation – good thing it was eligible to be converted into cash.


Hey, it’s a dexterity game coupled with a bit of basic physics. Keep the tower’s center of gravity running straight down through what’s left of your original 18 stories. It’s likely that you’ll end up with alternating stories of one block, then two blocks, then one block and so on. I believe that that’s the minimum structure that will support the increasingly heavier top, but I could be mistaken. Poke gently – if the block doesn’t slide out easily, forget it. Taking that block out will likely collapse the tower. Stacking the blocks on top is a way to control where the weight of the whole structure is resting. It’ possible to manipulate which blocks will come loose, but it makes it increasingly difficult to keep the tower’s center of gravity running straight down. Do it at your own risk.

Reviewer’s Tilt

So. How many words can one write about 54 wooden blocks? Quite a lot I guess. I still like Jenga, but I truly believe that its best application is in a cooperative mode against other teams as described above. Others may like it better as a drinking game, because impaired dexterity and a clouded mental state might make the game more entertaining. Sure, whatever floats your boat, but cooperative play provides an opportunity for people to work together towards a common goal, to challenge themselves, and to experience a game that’s not exactly as common as Scrabble or Monopoly. Jenga may not be the fanciest of dexterity games, especially when compared to the newfangled ones like Villa Palletti or Hamsterrolle, but it still fits the bill in correct circumstances.

Tikal – The Review

Tikal won the 1999 Spiel des Jahres, which is a rather amazing thing. While it’s been positioned by Ravensburger as a family game, its main mechanism, the Action Point system, isn’t as simple as the SdJ norm. Tikal isn’t a complicated game though, and it IS very, very pretty (perhaps Franz Vohwinkel’s best work on a boardgame to date), and I’m not going to complain about a game of its nature winning the SdJ. Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling began a series of games (nicknamed “The Mask Trilogy” for their covers) with Tikal, and the quality of the games improved with each iteration (Mexica followed in 2001, and the amazing Java debuted in 2002). Tikal’s SdJ win did set the stage for its superior cousin, Torres, to win the SdJ the year following.

As mentioned, Tikal is a beautiful game. The blank board appears to be an impenetrable jungle canopy. As thick hexagonal tiles are laid onto it, it gives the appearance that the canopy is being hacked away, revealing the contents of each hex. Temple levels are added by tiles that become smaller in size as the temple grows taller, a nice representation of the actual shape of the Mayan temples discovered in the real Tikal. The discs representing treasures sport a variety of interesting drawings. The players’ expedition teams are represented with colored wooden pawns.

The Game

Players in Tikal are leaders of archaeological expeditions that plunge into the Guatemalan jungles in search of Mayan ruins and artifacts scattered about the ancient city. Movement is not easy, however, and it takes more effort to get to some places and less to others. The expedition teams begin in a common camp at the edge of the forest, and each turn they explore further into the jungle to uncover temples and treasure troves. The taller the temple uncovered, the more prestige it can potentially confer on an archaeological team. The more identical treasures a team has, the greater the potential value. When a volcano is discovered in the area, scoring occurs. Each player scores for the treasures they hold, and for each temple where they have the most men nearby. Players are also able to erect private camps deep in the jungle, and deploy more men to work the discovery sites.


As mentioned, Tikal is a simple game that’s not beyond the grasp of an average family that plays Monopoly or Scrabble. The base game of Tikal has the players randomly drawing explored hexes from stacks. Placement of these hexes should be for best access for the placing player if it bears something useful (usually artifacts or a temple), and for more difficult access to other players. This is helped along by establishing a private base camp in a strategic location in the jungle. It usually helps to deploy most, if not all of your team over the course of the game in order to better compete for the most valuable temples. Finally, strategic use of the temple guards, who guarantee ownership of particular temples, help deploy resources in a more useful configuration.

The Advanced Game

Tikal has an advanced variant that allows players to bid victory points for the right to select tiles and place first. This removes the largest source of luck in the game, and makes the game less of a family game and more of a gamers’ game. However, it does have the side effect of lengthening a game that’s already a bit long for what it is (1.5 to 2 hours with 4 players), and it makes a game with an uneven pace (due to the volcano scoring) even less appealing. While this might be the only way gamers would like to play Tikal, there are many other games that would finish in 2+ hours or less that provide the same experience and satisfaction as Tikal. Included in these games would be Tikal’s relatives – Java, Mexica and Torres. The auction variant of the game is useful, and it’s nice that Ravensburger included the bidding tokens with the game, but there is a tradeoff.

Reviewer’s Tilt

Tikal isn’t a bad game, especially for a game that won the SdJ. It has interesting decisions, stunning presentation, and innovative gameplay. However, it suffers from uneven pacing, luck and randomness, and possibly a lot of downtime especially when playing with people who haven’t played a lot of German games. The downtime stems from a large decision tree that doesn’t get any smaller as the game wears on. In some situation, a player can have a huge number of options, many with outcomes with little or no variation. This situation could cause some players to lock up.

I would recommend checking out the other games in the Kramer/Kiesling action point series before committing to Tikal. Mexica has a similar level of complexity with faster gameplay and no luck. Java is a heavier game with more interesting strategy that plays in a comparable amount of time. Torres may be the best alternative; it is the most elegant of the series, plays quickly, has rules that are no more complex than Tikal, and it looks no less pretty and impressive when on the game table. Of these four games, I consider Tikal to be the fourth best. It’s still better than many, many games, but it is not the best in its own class.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Taj Mahal – The Review

Being a politician is tough. Being an Indian politician in Reiner Knizia’s Taj Mahal must sort of reflect how tough it is to be in politics. In this game, players take the role of Indian Maharishis who are trying to consolidate power in the subcontinent circa 1800. They must exert influence in six critical spheres – Economic, Military, Political, Social, Religious and Royal. Visiting each of the 12 provinces of northwestern India, players go head to head in vying for the favor of influential forces in the quest to become the most powerful figure in India after the collapse of the Grand Moguls.

Taj Mahal is the second Reiner Knizia title in the alea big box line behind the classic auction game RA. It won the DeutscheSpielerPreis (DSP) award in 2000, the big ticket award for German strategy games, and it was a deserving winner in a very tough field that included the Kramer/Ulrich masterpiece The Princes of Florence.

As you might expect from alea, the game looks great. Northwestern India is represented on a double-folded linen-finished map which is one of the nicest-looking maps in a German game. Players have little plastic palaces, molded in classical Indian design following the Taj Mahal, to place onto the map. The cards are plastic coated and are sturdy enough to withstand a lot of handling (though I won’t quibble with anyone who wants to sleeve them – this is an out of print game after all). The province tiles and other counters are nice and thick. All in all, it’s another exceptional job from graphic designer Franz Vohwinkel.

Taj Mahal is an exceptionally thematic game. The areas of influence that the players are trying to seize control of are important elements of the Indian political environment at the time. The network of power represented by the palaces on the map gives an excellent representation of political networks that are established across a great geographical expanse. When players bid influence, it feels like a titanic struggle. True to form, in each struggle, there is one winner and a bunch of losers. Fantastic.

This game is currently out of print. However, given the deluge of reprints of Reiner Knizia’s Greatest Hits in 2004 and 2005, I would think that it’s a matter of time before we see Taj Mahal again. One can only hope that it reappears in its original form.

The Game

Taj Mahal is a game that combines bidding with tile (or in this case, palace) placement on the Indian map.

The heart of the game is its bidding engine. Players have hands of cards. Each card is one of five colors, including white. Each card also depicts one or two symbols, with each symbol representing one of the forces that the players are vying for.

The players visit each Indian province, one province at a time. In each visit, a tile representing the forces of that province in each of the six areas of influence is up for grabs. Players bid for these tiles by playing cards.
On his turn a player may play one or two cards. If he plays two cards, one must be white (white cards cannot be played alone). Once he plays a card, the player is committed to that color of card and may only play cards of that color in that visit. His bid is the symbols on the cards he played. The bid for each symbol is considered separately. So, if a player plays two cards, one yellow and one white, the yellow card depicting a monk (religious) and a princess (social), and the white card depicting two elephants (economic), he has entered a bid for three different tiles with that single play.

Each player gets to play cards or pass on his turn. When a player passed, he is considered to have “withdrawn” from the visit. When a player withdraws, his bid is evaluated. If his bid in any of the six areas of influence is greater than that of any other player still in the bid, then he wins the tile representing that area of influence. A player can win all the tiles he bid for, none of them, or anything in between.

For each area of influence (excepting economic) that he wins in a province, a player gets to place a palace on a point in the province on the Indian map. The map point may have a counter, which the player claims if he places a palace there. Otherwise, players endeavor to build a network of palaces representing the latticework of their political power in the subcontinent. The larger and more continuous a network, the greater power it brings.

Seizing economic influence in a province entitles the player to the province tile itself, and all the goods produced by the province. The greater the number of each of four different goods controlled by a player, the closer he is to a monopoly, so the greater the power granted.

Once a player seizes two identical influence tiles, he is entitled to control of a special white card (there are four of these cards). These special white cards are powerful, both for their reusability (they can be played once per visit) and for their effect (watch out for the Princess card, which is the subject of many power struggles – don’t you love the theme?).

Finally, after he withdraws, a player is entitled to choose two cards from an open display of replacement cards, which number one less than the number of players times two. Thus, the first player to withdraw gets a full choice of cards, and the last player to withdraw not only gets no choice, he only gets one card. If a player withdraws from a visit without playing a single card, he gets a bonus (face down) card from the deck. The only other way to get more cards is by snagging a “draw a card” counter from a palace point on the map.

Players accumulate influence points from their palace power network, their control over goods, any direct influence points granted by map counters, and the insidious Princess card. The player with the most influence at the end of 12 visits wins the game.


As you may have noticed from the game description, the province bid is an all or nothing affair – either you win a particular influence tile or you don’t. This is one of the aspects of the game that frustrates many players. It is quite possible to bid a several cards and end up with nothing. Considering that cards are in very short supply, an ill-considered extended pissing contest between two players is bound to end in BOTH players being crippled for the next few visits, if not for the rest of the game. Coming to terms with the bidding engine is the greatest hurdle that players face. Once this is achieved, Taj Mahal comes into its own as an exceptional many-layered strategy game that plays quickly and places players in a tense grip through its entire length.

Province tiles are randomly assigned to the 12 provinces on the map each game, giving the players a new look every game. It is important to have an initial idea of which provinces a player would like to win at the outset, either for the goods granted by the economic tile or for the networking position, but not to set that desire in stone. This is a game of alternate plans and making do with what you can get. The train wreck that can result in going head-on against a rival is enough incentive to be flexible. Don’t take each bid personally, and know when to sidestep a symbol someone else wants desperately. Each bid you make encompasses more than one symbol, after all. Sometimes, getting out early with one symbol and placing your palace first is the most prudent thing you can do. You can adjust your overall plan for that result.

Another key decision to be made each visit is whether or not to sit the whole visit out and snag a precious extra card (and get an early choice from the cards laid out). You get nothing from that visit, but you get an extra card and spend none; your opponents will spend one or two cards at the very least, giving you an upper hand in subsequent battles.

Know when to fight, and when to withdraw. It’s the key to doing well in Taj Mahal.

Reviewer’s Tilt

I purchased Taj Mahal for $60 blindly from a local store that inexplicably still had a copy on its shelves in early 2004. alea and Reiner Knizia were enough to convince me. I have to admit that I didn’t get the game in the first few plays, and lost every time by a wide, wide margin. The light started to go on after I read initially incomprehensible comments from Thi Nguyen in his Geeklist preaching flexibility in strategy (which I initially read to be “play the game purely tactically, which resulted in a few more train wrecks). I considered playing Taj similarly to the way I play Euphrat & Tigris – have a general strategy in mind, but be flexible to adapt the strategy when opportunities appear or stiff resistance to an original goal manifests. That worked, and I finally began doing much better, finally winning a few times since.

I now consider Taj Mahal to be Knizia’s greatest work behind Euphrat & Tigris. Like E&T, it combines a limited dash of randomness with a combination of flexible strategy and creative tactics. The multiple roads to victory allow players to come up with Plan B, Plan C and Plan D should Plan A be shot down. The bidding is a contest of wills, and it’s very unforgiving due to the very limited nature of the resources available. If you run out of cards, you’re dead in the water for several visits. Don’t let it happen. The intricate scoring of Taj Mahal can also turn off players if the bidding engine doesn’t. It’s not intuitive, but it’s not difficult to get used to after a couple of plays. If you like German strategy games, this kind of scoring shouldn’t be a problem.

Taj Mahal is best experienced with the magic number of four players. In this mode, the roads to victory are well-balanced, and the tension is ever-present. With three, the palace network becomes easier to construct, and there is less tension as there are only three competing for the same number of prizes. Taj Mahal with five is a brutal, exhausting affair that’s not for the faint of heart. It’s well worth experiencing Taj in all three forms, as they each provide a different look at the game.

We should all hope that Taj Mahal gets a reprint at some point in the future. It’s a game that fans of Knizia’s work should experience, if only because it’s fairly unique compared to his other games.