SR: 21st March 2008 – Utopia

This week we travelled to Utopia to help the Utopian king develop its four islands by inviting princes from the five great civilizations to visit and build monuments and wonders around the many districts of the kingdom. The game was designed by Ludovic Vialla and Arnaud Urbon and published by Matagot / Rio Grande.

Utopia is played in rounds until one player has accumulated at least 50 prestige points to trigger the endgame.  Each round proceeds the same way.  First, Guest tokens are drawn randomly until you have 3 times the number of players.  Each Guest token has a picture of a citizen of one of the 5 civilizations as well as a symbol corresponding to one of the 4 islands on the board.  In the first phase of a round, the arrival of the Princes, the players will, one at a time, remove one of the Guest tokens from the board and place one of their matching Prince tokens on any of the districts of the appropriate island.  If a player is able to group 3 of their prince tokens of the same civilization together in the same district, the tokens may be removed from the board and replaced with a monument of the appropriate kind. Also on their turn, if a player has a Prince from each of 5 civilizations on the same island, one of the 4 wonders can be built on the island.  The builder of the wonder immediately receives 6 prestige points and, whenever any other player builds a monument on that island, he receives between 1 and 4 additional prestige points.

In the second phase of a round, development of the city, all players are randomly dealt 5 Action Cards, which are simply cards depicting each of the 5 different civilizations.  Then in turn order, the players carry out as many actions using their Action Cards as they so choose.  A player may refrain from using all their cards, but may only carry over a maxium of 5 cards.  The actions involve adding, removing or moving princes, or altering the popularity of a civilization. The last of these can be important because after all players have taken their turns playing action cards, calculation of prestige occurs.  In scoring, the players receive prestige points for each monument they possess based on the civilization’s popularity so each monument can be worth between 1 and 5 points. If a player reaches 50 or more points in this phase, the game ends at the end of the round and the player with the most points wins.

In our game, Steve started off trying to control the Island of Water and for the most part succeeded in persuading others to concentrate elsewhere, at least for a while. Most people tried to establish one or two quick monuments, although the early builders, Mark K and I, found that the monuments of these civilizations magically weren’t terribly popular. Guy was the first to build a wonder and did so on an island where lots of monuments had still to be built. However, he was also able to build some monuments soon after and his position looked very strong. Mark G soon managed to get 1 monument in each of the five civilizations so then was guaranteed to rake in 15 points per round. My challenge faded when I misread one of the monuments on Steve’s Island of Water and so the wonder I was seeking to build there ended up a man short and Steve built the wonder ahead of me on the next turn. It did mean I was able to build a couple more monuments in the final round and scored a massive 24 points in that scoring but I still came up short with Guy maintaining a fairly comfortable lead.

Utopia seemed to be nearly a very good game. It took longer to play than we had expected and it was a bit dry and brain burning. However, it played solidly and the production is top-notch, although distinguishing between different monuments and civilizations should have been made easier.. All of us thought it was a borderline 6/7 but most of us came down on the 6 side. I wonder how playing with fewer players might alter things.

Race for the Galaxy – 2 player session 30th March 2008

Having missed out on Friday’s regular session, Chris and I sat down on Sunday afternoon to play Race for the Galaxy. The game takes a bit of explaining but Chris picked up the basic strategies pretty well. However, with this being his first try at the game, he was further down the learning curve as far as determining how the card combinations work well together. We played the advanced two player version with each player picking two actions per turn, as I thought this would get the game moving a lot quicker.

Chris went down the military route and built up his military capability reasonably quickly but he did not have any cards with consume powers which definitely hurt him. This was especially true as I was drawing cards that helped with the consume / produce route of play. Chris built the Alien Tech Institute and with an alien production world and two windfall worlds got a nice 9 point bonus at the end of the game. I had the Mining League and had managed to draw and build both Mining Robots and Mining Conglomerate so also got an endgame 9 point bonus. However, I had managed to Consume x2VP twice for 10 VPs each time, which made all the difference and I ran out a comfortable winner 45 – 28.

Even though he was finding his feet, Chris did enjoy it and I’m sure we’ll be playing again. I’m just now starting to see some of the real strategy options from certain card combinations and this is raising my opinion of the game as the big variety of cards means there are lots of variables to explore each time you play. In a month where the new games played have not quite hit the mark for me, Race for the Galaxy looks like being my Game of the Month for March.

SR: 14th March 2008 – Kingsburg

This week, we had another go at Kingsburg – our January game of the month. Guy had not played before but, as it is a dice game, we explained that Mark G was hot favourite.

Well, the first turn sort of went to form as Mark G rolled an 18!!! However, Guy and I covered both the 6 and 12 and Mark K, who had himself rolled a 16, used one of his +2 tokens to cover the 18, meaning Mark G had no space on which to place. We all said that this was a very harsh course of action for Kennett to take – very funny but harsh.

After the experience of our first game, most of us concentrated on the Inn/Market/Farms building row to gain the extra white die. Mark K achieved that first but I managed it a season later, from which point on, I suffered several turns of rolling less than 10 on four dice.

Unlike the last game, we did encounter some of the nastier monsters but Mark G was always a match for them having built up his protective buildings. Nige seemed to keep lacking the resources he really wanted to build with and this hampered his progress a bit, while Guy seemed to be happy experimenting with the less popular building rows. The last winter was pretty devastating with everyone other than Mark G losing a building and a couple of VPs but he wasn’t quite able to peg back Mark K who always seemed to be comfortably a step or two ahead of the rest of us.

Again an extremely fun game, with Guy also rating it highly even though he ended up quite a way behind the rest of us points-wise.

SR: 29 February 2008 – Darjeeling, Cartagena II

This week, Guy joined us for the first time and we started out by trying Darjeeling, a game based on the tea trade by Gunter Burkhardt and published by Abacus / Rio Grande.

The game play revolves around collecting tiles representing tea crates in four different colours from the plantation area and then shipping sets of these tiles through the harbour. At the beginning of their turn, a player will earn VPs based on the crates he has previously loaded onto boats in the harbour. The points earned are determined by the position of the boat in the harbour, with boats in higher positions yielding more per crate than those lower down. The player then moves their plantation pawn to a new tile, which is placed behind their screen, and a new tile is placed in the pawn’s vacated location.  The player can then end their turn or choose to ship tea. To ship, a player must combine his tiles to form complete crates of one type (colour) of tea. Shipping causes the boat at the bottom of the harbour to sail with the remaining boats moving down the harbour by one position. The player loads his crates onto a new boat, placed at the top of the harbour, and may receive VPs depending on the market demand for the type of tea shipped and whether he has shipped four or more crates. This continues until one player reaches 100 points, at which point the game ends immediately. All players lose 1 point for each unfinished half crate, and the player with the most victory points wins.

This is a game where you need to time your shipping right to maximise your points but there is a nice balance between shipping lots to maintain decent points through the harbour and getting bigger shipments where you score many points each time you ship. The bonus for shipping four or more crates is good if you can manage it but, to me, often isn’t pursuing when you need to get crates into the harbour. In our game, Guy managed a good 3-crate shipment at a time when others weren’t ready to ship themselves so he got 9 points for two or three rounds before getting knocked down. He and I built up a bit of a gap on the scoreboard while the others were building up large shipments. Mark K had an impressive “5 crate-r” with a five point demand bonus, which brought him back into contention but Guy was just too far ahead and soon after was able to reach the 100 point target and claim the win.

Darjeeling is quite good, although it wasn’t to Nige’s taste (obviously not a tea drinker!) The market demand shoot is quite clever but picking tiles from the plantation fields and adding replacement tiles is very fiddly. Some say this could be a Spiel des Jahres contender and it may be, because the theme is good and it is fairly simple to explain. For me though, it didn’t quite have that spark to set it apart from the crowd. Still pretty enjoyable.

Cartagena 2 is designed by Leo Colivini and published by Winning Moves / Rio Grande. The gameplay is very similar to the original Cartagena but has different rules for regaining cards and you now have to ferry your pirates between two islands.

Players are racing to be the first to get all six of their pirates to the Pirates Nest and hoist the Jolly Roger. On their turn, the player takes up to three actions and can choose between three options: playing a card to move one of their pirates forward to the next space on the board matching the symbol of the card played; moving an opponent’s pirate forward to the next space occupied by one or two pirates and drawing one or two cards; or moving the ship between the two islands.

I slightly preferred this version to the original because you need to help others and so a back marker is unlikely to fall out of contention. Nige was the first to get a significant presence on the second island and it wasn’t long before pirates started arriving at the Pirate’s Nest. There was much tactical positioning of the boat to force opponents to waste actions moving between the islands. Guy managed to get a decent run of leapfrogging pirates on island 2 and I assumed he had run out of that type of card having spent three on the last turn and only having one left. However, he had managed to draw four identical ones and my pirates helped him get his back marker pirate home. After that, Guy was able toget his remaining pirates home in fairly swift order and claim a second win of the night. Perhaps we shouldn’t invite him again!!

Cartagena 2 is, like its predecessor, a quick fun game that can be played easily by gamers and in a family setting. It’s not a great game but it’s one that is likely to see quite a bit of play due to its accessibility.

Counter #40

The latest issue of Counter arrived yesterday. Apart from the very (blindingly so) yellow cover, this 84 page edition features reviews of Amyitis, Brass, Chicago Poker, Darjeeling, In the Year of the Dragon, Owner’s Choice and Race for the Galaxy, among others. There is also the traditional top 5 lists of 2007 (or 2005 as the contents page suggests – sack the proof reader), some variants for a number of Ragnar Brothers games, a comparison of El Capitan and its predecessor, Tycoon, an interesting piece on downloadable cardgames (which I need to investigate further), the usual letters column and more.

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