Billabong Boardgamers
 

Billabong Boardgamers - 18th April, 2000

Present: Doug, Janet, Alan, Julian W., Steve, Debbie, Tina

Previous session report

Steve Gardner writes:

RA

Steve, Tina, Alan

Another Reiner Knizia game I've been looking forward to playing for a long time: RA. This game couldn't be more different from Tigris and Euphrates (apart from the tiles, which are about the same size, and which display the distinctive Doris Matthaus touch). Whereas Tigris seems deep and complex, with the potential for all kinds of cut-throat nastiness and mayhem, Ra has a real lightness about it. The individual decisions are still challenging, but they're yours to make. You don't have to sit helplessly by and watch your opponents savage you; your fate is in your hands, and those of the Gods. Well, so it seemed to me after one session.

To the game itself. I started with what I thought of as the middle set of suns: 4,7,10,11. I felt immediately comfortable with the bidding system; perhaps playing El Grande has sharpened my skills a little in this area. I bid aggressively and scored heavily in the first epoch, but left myself with very weak suns for the second epoch: 1,4,7,9. You can't bid aggressively with suns like that, so I adopted a tactic of invoking Ra early and often, looking to take the high suns for the third epoch. This kind of play also reminded me of El Grande, where ideally one wants to bid high-low-high between the scoring rounds. I can't be sure if it was these Ra-invoking tactics or just the luck of the tiles, but scoring in the second epoch was low for everybody, preserving most of my first-epoch advantage. I also got my suns, starting the third epoch with 5,9,12,13, but Alan and Tina were starting to look very strong in Monuments, an area where I was underdeveloped.

In the end, it came down to luck and the suns bonus. Alan scored big time on Monuments, but I was lucky enough to pick up an extra God and be able to exchange it for a rare flood tile (all the floods had seemed to come out in the second epoch), worth six points to me at the time. But I got overconfident about the suns bonus and nearly finessed myself out of a win. With an empty Auction track, my 6 the only sun left to play, the 13 in the centre, and the game to end on the next Ra tile, I tried to ride my luck and pick up a few extra points - and drew a Ra tile first up. Fortunately, 5,6,7,12 for 30 suns was just enough to beat Tina's 29, giving me the suns bonus and a narrow victory in a tight game. Alan commented that the game had been well-played by all; I was chuffed.

My rating: 8. Definitely one to buy. Today.

Scores:
Steve 47
Tina 45
Alan 38

Doug Adams writes:

TAJ MAHAL

Doug, Debbie, Alan, Tina

** Warning - wishy washy description of mechanics follows **

The new Alea boxed game from Reiner Knizia appears to be something very special. What we have here is essentially a turbocharged game of poker, where the stakes are claiming influence points. Influence points come in three flavours:

  • via claiming fortress chits from the game board
  • via palace placement on the game board
  • via claiming region disks from the game board

Players begin the game with a hand of six cards, and nothing else. The cards require a little explaining - they are distributed between four coloured suits, with some white "wild" cards thrown in. Depicted on each card are one or two symbols. These symbols are divided into six separate classes - four peoples classes (from memory royalty, religion, military and politics, but for ease of playing referred to as yellow, orange, green and purple), one crown class and finally an elephant class. In a nutshell, four coloured suits with two of six symbols on each card.

The game board is divided into 12 regions. Each region consists of four or five spaces, connected via a road network. This network leads off into other regions, and resembles a point-to-point wargame. The game is played over 12 turns, in each turn a different region is contested for influence in the six classes listed above. As the order in which the regions are resolved can vary from game to game, because of a random distribution of twelve numbered region disks, you essentially are playing a different game each time you sit down to it.

Regions are contested for the influence available there. The contest takes place via the cards. Play passes around the table from player to player. On their turn a player may either play a card (along with an optional wild card) or withdraw from the round. If they play, they are strengthening their bids in some of the six classes of symbols present on the cards. If they withdraw, they immediately assess if they have a simple majority in any of the classes and if so, may claim them for influence points.

This poker like card play turns into a giant game of chicken - you do not have a lot of cards to play with, so if you commit to a hand you enter a world of pain that is heightened with each subsequent card play. You are praying for your opponents to drop out before you do, but if they go with you card for card, you are both getting hurt. Cards are pure gold in this game, run your hand down and you may struggle to get back into the game.

Winning in any of the six classes allows you to score influence via either forming chains of palaces on the board, or claiming goods via special chits or elephants (elephants claim the region disks). Which way you base your strategy on is interesting. From our first few games, elephants seem very popular - there far more elephant icons on the cards than any other symbol, and taking goods via elephants triggers those types of goods to score again, should you have them from prior wins. This accelerated scoring mechanic can result in some big moves on the score track late in the game. Chains of palaces appears to be more difficult to accomplish, as you have to effectively (but not always) take two spots in a region to ensure your network is preserved across that region, thus making it linkable to other regions.

At the end of a round, when you withdraw, you get to choose two face up cards from a pile of seven (in a four player game). Thus, the last player surviving in a round will only receive one card, the last remaining. This makes the decision to withdraw or contest a real balancing act, juggling your current hand, what's on offer in the face up draw pool, what's on offer in the current region, and so on. On top of that, if you withdraw without playing in a round, you get a further bonus card from the deck!

The game ends when all twelve regions have been assessed. Players may augment their points by adding a point to their score for each card in their longest suit remaining in their hand, as well as a point per special card held. More decisions - do you contest the lucrative final region, or withdraw early and potentially claim 3 points from three lucky pickups? Fascinating.

Onto our game....this was a first for Alan, game two for Tina and Debbie, and game three for Doug. Tina and Alan appears to begin strongly, with Tina rounding the first corner on the scoring track by about turn five. Doug made his move on about turn 3 and caught and held Alan on the track, while Debbie appeared to be lagging badly, but building an impressive hand of cards (something that I couldn't appreciate, viewing it from side on).

The world came crumbling down for Tina from about turn 6 onwards. From a towering position of strength (ie. about double second place on the scoring track), her hand was shot to ribbons over the next few turns by Doug. Doug was holding about 8 green cards and reasoned the only way to catch Tina was to prevent her scoring *anything*, and thus proceeded to match her plays card for card, ensuring she never had a majority in any symbols (she did get elephants in one turn though - curses! :-)

Forcing Tina to withdraw after committing strongly to two hands, and getting little back, effectively ended her chances as she had a small hand size for the balance of the game. A small hand size means limited bidding potential.

Alan had used Tina's fall to push forwards, but Doug jumped out to the lead via claiming two teas (his strong chit suit) and using the +2 influence special card to good effect. Debbie was putting the monster hand to good use and closing in rapidly. By turn 12 it really could have gone either way....Doug pulled out early to guarantee some card pickup points, Alan claimed Agra (I think) and took the lead, and Debbie completed a seven region linkup.

Alan was two points ahead of Doug on the score track when hands were revealed and influence points added in. Doug had five points from the cards...so did Alan :)

Alan: 39
Doug: 37
Tina: 33
Debbie: 29

Game play was 75 minutes, which was excellent considering it was Alan's first game. This appears to be a truly fabulous game. Very simple mechanically, but boy can you get it wrong in the bidding. I'm really looking forwards to exploring this one more in the near future. Solid 8, likely to rise.

Julian Warner writes:

LOST CITIES

Janet and I were the "left-overs" who were not taking part in the reserved places only Taj Mahal game. We played one round of Lost Cities whilst waiting for others to show up.

Janet: 15 Julian W.:26

Our two unremarkable scores at the end of the one round we played were indicative of the fact that we started with similar hands - all big cards - and both had the same problems in trying to get cards down fast enough to avoid big negative scores where we had used multipliers.

I'd be interested to be around for a four-hander when it occurs to see how the changed game mechanism works. As a two-hander, this is a fun filler game.

BAZAAR

Julian: 34
Donna: 23
Steve: 24
Janet: 21

I was keen to give this game a try having seen it played by others once before. The mechanism is different to anything I've seen before. If anything, it is a fairly deviously-designed game.

Basically - you want to buy cards but have as few gems as possible left over when you buy. Maximum points are achieved when you buy with exactly the right number of gems. On each turn players either roll a die to receive a coloured gem - five different colours plus a "choose any colour" option - or they perform one trade (with the "bank") to exchange one or more gems for different gems. The trades are all conducted according to rules set out on two cards. For example: two red gems may be exchanged for two blue gems and one white gem or one blue gem may be exchanged for two whites, a red and a yellow - etc. Trades work both ways so in the example above you could trade two blues and a white in to get two reds. Each game starts with two "rule" cards which are randomly chosen from a set of them. Therefore there is a strong chance that each game will run very differently because of the changed trading opportunities.

Once a player has rolled for an extra gem or traded (but not both), they can then purchase a card. There are four stacks of cards with the top one of each exposed and available for purchase. Each card costs five gems to purchase but there are varying combinations of gem colours required. Some cards have to be bought with five gems of all the same colour (e.g. five green) and some can be bought with one of each colour with a range of variants in between. After purchasing a card, you receive points according to whether you have none, one, two or "three or more" gems left after the purchase. There are cards marked with a star which earn bonus points and the points are ramped up after the first pile of cards runs out.

There is not a lot of player interaction in the game other than cursing the player who has bought a card which you were thinking of buying. You can see what gems other players have and you know what trades they can make so you know whether someone else will be able to beat you to buying a card. The only random element is in rolling the die to obtain a new jewel. Strategy revolves around whether you buy a card just because you can and take what little points are available or whether you trade away gems to increase your probable points and wait another turn to purchase. Just occasionally you can be lucky where the previous player buys a card and reveals a card which you can buy with your existing gems (OK - rarely!).

On our game, some like me, crept along point by single point on fast purchases. Others bided their time for the bigger points. My win came from scoring maximum possible points - for a "star" card when the points had been ramped up with no gems left after purchase - which gave 12 points in all. If not for that, it might have been anyone's game. However, cards using red gems had been rare and we were all starting to stockpile reds for that big point winner.

Interesting. I'll have to try it again.

ANDROMEDA

Debbie: 59
Julian: 84
Donna: 64

I remember Alan (who else!) grumbling about how this game was totally luck-based but I was keen to see how it worked. There are obvious graphic similarities to 6 Billion but the game mechanism is very different with no pretence to reflecting population expansion.

The key to playing and winning the game is in collecting sets of cards - up to seven in a set - which then, when played, allow you to take various actions in your turn. The turns are played in rounds. In each round, the lead player has a great advantage in trading and the ability to take three actions. The other two players can take two actions but the third (or last) player has distinct disadvantages in trading.

I won't go into the complexities of trading but it can make a big difference to the composition of your hand. Sets of cards are played to allow such actions as increasing hand size, allowing more cards to be traded, or the all important "shake". The "shake" either allows one of your own tokens to move to a point-scoring satellite or an enemy token to be banished to the earth. There's quite a lot more to the mechanism of the game but it becomes obvious from only one play that a terrific amount of luck is involved.

The big points come from getting counters onto high point scoring satellites. You can only do this if you have a set of cards for the appropriate planet so you have to be lucky in what you are dealt and lucky in your trades. The initial set-up is also mildly random so you can have good or bad luck in how your cards match up with planets where you have a majority or minority of counters.

I won purely by getting lots of high point satellites. Debbie equally could have won but she was unlucky with her "shakes" and only succeeded (in most cases) in sending other people's counters back to earth. Donna could have won too but she was probably worst placed in where here counters were (this was not reflected in the scores). The difference in scores from top to bottom was only the difference between getting or losing two good satellites.

The mechanism of this game was different and interesting but it is not a game to play if you like winning on the strength of your skills.

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