Billabong Boardgamers - 20th June, 2000
Present: Alan, David, Craig, Donna, Tina, Debbie, Torben, Steve, Rob
Steve Gardner writes:
Debbie, Tina, Steve, Rob
On a board representing medieval Germany (perhaps I should say "Frankreich") are 20 hamlets and 25 cities, arranged in ten provinces, and arrayed in a network with a bewildering profusion of connections between them. Your aim is to build the most powerful and influential trading network. Influence points, displayed on a scoring track around the outside of the board - a motif which is threatening to become a fad - are scored during the game by controlling hamlets (1 point each) and cities (2-8 points), and at the end of the game by presence in provinces (2 points per province), and money (1 point per 20 guilders).
The most important decision you have to make on your turn is whether to take income from a city where you are already established, or to strengthen your position there. Income is necessary to establish trading centres in cities you haven't reached yet. Strengthening your position means you forgo income from that city for that turn, and reduce your income on future turns - but you move closer to control of that city (achieved by having an absolute majority of the available markets in that city) and hence to scoring the victory points for it, and possibly closer to blocking key strategic trading routes from use by the other players.
The result is a game dynamic with a self-contained, organic feel to it. Money is scarce at the beginning when networks are just getting started, plentiful in the middle game as players tussle to stretch their trading tentacles far and wide, and scarce again at the end as the cities get filled in and victory points get cashed in. The competing pressures to exploit markets for profit or consolidate one's position balance out nicely.
In our game, Debbie took a position in the top right of the board (I'm afraid I can't remember the names of the cities), Tina the top left, Rob the lower left and myself in the centre and lower right. In retrospect, I was fortunate in my starting city disks in two ways: I was able to place all but one of these disks in places close to my starting position (which I chose for that reason, but I was fortunate in being able to find a starting place which would allow this), and secondly, that place happened to be the centre and lower right. This area of the board is the least connected part, and is slightly less valuable and profitable, containing no cities with more than six markets.
As a result, I was left alone for the first part of the game while Debbie and Tina (and to a lesser extent, Rob) fought over the more lucrative routes elsewhere on the upper half of the board, forgoing income and spending big to do so. By the time they had sorted themselves out, Debbie had emerged with a clear advantage in trading position but not a lot of money; meanwhile, I had made a lot of money and strengthened my position considerably, and taken a moderate-sized lead on the scoring track.
Still, after I missed an opportunity to grab control of a 5-market city in the heart of Rob's network, and Debbie gained absolute majorities in 3 valuable cities for 18 points in a single turn to take a 10 point lead near the end of the game (just reward for her hard graft earlier), it seemed that Debbie might have done enough to win. But with a chance to end the game on my turn, and good advice from the other players, I saw that I could score 11 points in majorities of my own, and that I had presence in 8 provinces to Debbie's 6. Which meant it would come down to money. I'd been spending my middle-game earnings on expansion, while Debbie had been replenishing her coffers. Would she have enough?
Almost, but not quite. Scores:
Steve's rating: a 7, could become an 8. I liked it and would definitely play it again. I would even consider buying it. I think the board is more difficult to understand than is necessary - in their search for a medieval feel, Rio Grande have gone for a board which is gothic in its complexity. The central metaphor of building up trading networks would have worked just as well in, say, modern Europe, or the USA, which would have authorized a more streamlined look. Still, I got used to it. Oh, and the money is all the same colour, a pet gripe of mine, although that may have been done deliberately to make it more difficult to estimate the wealth of others.
David, Steve, Torben
Donna, Debbie and Tina had gone home, so the remaining six of us split into two threes. Alan introduced Craig and Rob to the joys and perplexities of Taj Mahal, while Torben and David decided to re-acquaint themselves with Cosmic Encounter, neither having played for it more than a decade.
David played Magnet/Grovel, Torben was Sorcerer/Busybody, and I played Doppelganger/Laser. Briefly:
Magnet dictates alliances for one player. Very powerful in a three player game where only one player is available to ally in each challenge.
Grovel begs you not to perform game actions (eg pointing the cone, inviting allies, playing a card, using your power). If you don't agree, you lose a token to the warp. David had a lot of fun with this, but he didn't role-play it enough for my taste. Not *once* did we hear David say, "Sahib, your lowly servant most humbly begs of you not to play that card."
Sorcerer can swap challenge cards after they're played but before they're revealed. One of the strongest powers in the game, and mind-twistingly evil to play against. Will he swap or won't he?
Busybody can examine the challenge card played by one of the main players if he is not involved, and exchange it for one from his hand if he wishes.
Laser makes you play blind by selecting your challenge card for you, randomly.
Doppelganger doesn't get a hand to start with, but every time he's a main player, he can ask any player for two cards from their hand. If he doesn't like them, he gives them back, and takes two cards from the rest of the player's hand. Knowledge of other hands is a powerful weapon in CE, and this is an excellent power.
This was a classic CE game, with an interesting mix of powers, and full of twists and turns to the very last challenge.
In the opening salvos, nobody was able to win their first challenges, as the defensive powers of the Magnet made itself felt, and David outfoxed Torben into swapping when David had played a -6. Eventually, though, I was able to grab the early lead and get to three bases.
Predictably, this united Torben and David against me and I began to find life a lot tougher. After some overconfident or perhaps just reckless commitment of tokens to the losing side of challenges, tokens in the warp became a real concern for me, with seven of my tokens finding themselves in the warp. Then Torben plagued me, sending 3 more of my tokens to the warp, and gutting my hand. I managed to contrive a 4th base thanks to a 17 I Doppelganged out of Torben's hand, but even this cost me a token after I had to refuse David's grovelling to play a different card. I then went all out for a win, but was easily beaten, and lost another 3 tokens in the process. With not much of a hand, and 13 tokens in the warp, I really felt like I'd shot my bolt.
Meanwhile, Torben was putting the Sorcerer power to good effect and had got to 4 bases himself. One of those he basically extorted out of me in a deal - I had to agree to a base in exchange for nothing, since I couldn't afford to lose more tokens to the warp, the penalty for a failed deal. With no token worries of his own, and the Sorcerer power playing havoc, Torben began to look the inevitable winner.
Challenging for the game, he was foiled only by some artful teamwork and a desperate stratagem from David and myself: at my suggestion (table talk is encouraged in CE), David Magnetized me onto *Torben's* side of the challenge. I took along a single precious token, in the process giving up my third home base and losing the use of the Laser power. Torben duly won the challenge, and for a brief moment must have thought he'd won the game. But I then played the Traitor Flare, causing my side to lose the challenge. In this way we managed to defend the game, but I paid a high price for doing so.
David won both his next two challenges (both against Torben), to get to 4 bases himself. With all players on 4 bases, the game had reached the critical point. It was now my turn to challenge for the game for the second time, with 13 tokens in the warp, and my best card an 11. I hoped to challenge David and avoid having to mess with the Sorcerer, but the flip of the Destiny pile revealed Torben as the defensive player. I had one slim hope, though: the Doppelganger power might offer me something good from the hand of an opponent. In particular, I believed that Torben had a Cosmic Zap (nullify the effect of an Alien Power) in his hand, a fact he'd revealed earlier in the game. He offered me two Kickers (cards which multiply the Attack card you play them with): a x2 and a x-1. No Cosmic Zap, so I rejected the proffered Kickers and went looking for the Zap. It wasn't there! Unknown to me, David had taken it out of Torben's hand as consolation in an earlier challenge. In fact, David had played it on me during his last turn. Doh! I was dismayed.
But then I saw in Torben's hand the Warpish Flare - the perfect Flare for my dire situation: add your tokens in the warp - 13 of them, in my case - to your total in the challenge. Suddenly my greatest weakness is transformed into a tower of strength! With one token on each side of the challenge, I played a 10 (not the 11, in case Torben swapped), and Torben played a card, and a Kicker, obviously the x2. Torben declined to swap, so we revealed cards. Torben had played 10x2. Totals: 21-11 to Torben. But with the Warpish Flare, 21-24 to me, and a stylish victory in a memorable game.
Thanks to David and Torben for a great game. And my apologies for the long blow-by-blow description.
I would just like to add that, after a dire and very boring game of Mu (of which I am generally a fan), I had a very enjoyable game Cosmic Encounter. Whilst I never challenged for my 5th base, I always felt involved in game and had fun with the situations presented by the Racial flare cards, and play cards. Sorry if I didn't role-play it much, Steve, but my thanks to you & Torben for a fun game.
Craig Macbride writes:
I'd heard about this game and read about collecting palaces or elephants, but had never played before.
Alan made a very slow start. Rob made a fast, effective palace-based start and shot ahead. I made a medium, mostly elephant-based start. Mid game, Alan shot from the back to the front and Rob fell back to where I was. Both of them had lots of palaces and the non-discarded wild cards, which I never got because I almost never got palaces.
However, as the end of the game approached, I had lots of elephant cards, and managed to pick up a couple of those non-discarded wild cards on turns 9 and 10 which lasted until turn 12. On turn 12, Alan was in the lead, but had about 5 or 6 cards and had to lead. I had about 9 cards, 4 of them wilds. Alan played a card which I was able to play exactly the same as. He withdrew getting nothing at all, Rob got a couple of valuable palaces with good connections, while I got the +4 palace and the elephants gave me the goods.
Alan Stewart writes:
Players: Alan, David, Donna, Craig, Torben
A familiar game for most of the players, but new to Torben who picked it up very quickly.
Alan started as chief, with David as partner, but it was a disastrous bid.
Donna 218, Torben 195, Craig 192, Alan 112, David 48