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New to Me: Summer 2018

As usual, my New to Me reviews cover games that I’ve never played before, whether they’re new to the world or not. (They mostly were this time around.) And, as usual, they’re rated by how I personally like them, as a midweight eurogamer.

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Terraforming Mars: Expansions. I’ve now played through all the Terraforming Mars expansions, and I’d generally recommend them, with some qualms about one of them.

Hellas & Elysium (2017). This is a double-sided map that provides two different playing surfaces for the game: the south pole and the other side of Mars. Changing what the terrain looks like provides very valuable variety, but is of limited interest. However, Fryxelius took the next step and also included different milestones and awards on each map. This makes a huge difference, because it changes what you’re competing for in each game, and makes this supplement highly recommended.

Venus Next (2018). This is the biggest expansion for Terraforming Mars, adding a lot of player cards, some corporations, and a small new playing board that delineates a fourth terraforming objective (Venus). From the gameplay point of view, it’s a strong addition because that fourth major way to gain terraforming points allows players to differentiate more and each seek their own strategy — making it less likely that they get into an unhelpful competition with someone else. The rules additions are also relatively minor, related to that one new terraforming track. With that said, it’s enough new rules that it’ll make the game harder to explain to newcomers, and there’s no way to easily pull it out once you put it in, and those are the factors than can poison a game. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good expansion as is, but it makes me very hesitant to expand the game any more.

Prelude (2018). The newest expansion is quite small. It contains new corporations and a few player cards, but the main expansion is a new set of “prelude” cards, which you choose at the start of the game, then play on a pre-round of play to give yourself some slightly notable advantages. Despite the fact that it’s small and doesn’t change the game a lot, I think this is a great little expansion. From the game design point of view, it helps players get a little bit ahead at the start of the game. This eliminates a less-fun round of play when you’re trying to find your footing, gives you better direction from the start, and also helps to warn other players off of competing in your play space. I think it’s all around a benefit, in much the same way that Leaders (2011) for 7 Wonders (2010) was. Even better, if you decide the complexity is too high for a specific game, you just don’t use the prelude cards.

Broken Token Organizer (2017?). I’ve come to love organizers for my most-played and most-loved games, and Broken Token is my favorite creator. Their organizer nicely fits everything except the Hellas & Elysium boards and keeps everything organized both in the box and in play. I personally like the heft, feel, and smell of the wooden boards, though I know some of my players prefer the plastic boards produced by other publishers because you can slide the original cardstock player mats into those. (I thought they looked cheap, but have to agree that there are advantages to having the original player mats as opposed to wood with the rules for how to use the various resources burned in.)

Carson City: The Card Game (2018). The new Carson City product is a pretty standard blind-bidding auction: each player has a set of nine cards, numbered 1-9 and they’ll use one each turn in a series of nine auctions, then they’ll do the same for another series of nine auctions. Easy: no muss, no fuss. I always enjoy this sort of auction where every player has the same resources.

The joy of this game comes in what you’re bidding for. There’s always a special-power character that you can get, but the rest of the auction items are little square cards that are each broken into four parts, showing four different things that you can build in your Carson City. There are ranches and empty lands, mines and mountains, and houses and any number of special town buildings. The cards can be put fully or partially on top of each other in certain circumstances, and you actually want to arrange them pretty carefully, because you get lots of points from what’s next to each other. The result is a really open feeling and creative game that likely develops differently every time you play.

Near & Far: Amber Mines (2017). Near and Far is a delightful euro-adventure game that I first played last spring. It combines character-based adventuring with tight resource management and evocative storytelling. Amber Mines is a small supplement for the game that does pretty much everything that you want a supplement to do. First, it better balances town by revamping two of the less popular locales (the General Store and the Mystic Shop). Second it adds just a bit of variability to the game by creating a new subgame in the Mines (now the Amber Mines). Third, it plays to the game’s strengths: two new adventures reuse old maps but provide totally new text for the quests. The only downside of this supplement is that it makes a complex setup even more complex by increasing the number of components in the game. Still, I think it’s a must-have for any Near & Far gamer.

Sprawlopolis (2018). This is one of the wallet games from Button Shy. I’ve never played any before, but this caught my eye because it was a teeny little co-op. Physically, these are neat games. This one is eighteen cards and it comes in a little fold-over wallet. You can literally keep it in your pocket.

The gameplay is surprisingly like Carson City: The Card Game. Players play city cards with four sectors, and they can be placed mostly or partially on top of each other. You’re trying to form large regions of each of the four city districts, you’re trying to form long, contiguous roads, and you’re trying to meet the victory conditions of three of the cards. Together this creates enough chaos and complexity that you won’t be able to do anything well.

As the co-op design guy, I found the cooperation of this disappointing. It’s undeveloped. There are also potential problems with AP and the scoring is really opaque. Despite those issues this is a tight, fun little filler that’s pretty unique.

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017). Image Pandemic where the diseases are actually water that is quickly flooding the country. It’s a good conversion, but it’s more than that because Pandemic: Rising Tide goes further than previous Survival Series entrant Pandemic: Iberia (2016) in creating a game that’s pretty different from the original but still recognizably Pandemic.

That’s largely based on the simulation system, which is expanded quite a bit. You now have water that naturally flows from space to space, and you also have dikes that can hold it back. This adds both complexity to the simulation and better player control. It also can create pretty great cascades: a single dropped dike can do a lot of damage if you can’t resolve it.

As you’d expect, there are lots of new characters too, and the new characters tend to focus their special abilities on other new elements of the game, including the pumps (which automatically drain water) and the ports (which allow rapid movement. These all work well, and provide more variation from Pandemic.

My first game of Rising Tide was played at the easy difficult, and it was too easy, which is always disappointing in a co-op. My rating could easily go up with future plays, especially if I particularly like the alternative-objectives variant, which I haven’t used yet.

Abandon Planet (2017). This game’s main selling point is that it’s by Don Eskridge, who designed The Resistance (2009) and nothing else since except spin-offs and expansions. Abandon Planet is the game that proves that he’s not a one-shot wonder.

Abandon Planet is a simultaneous-selection game where you’re trying to collect the right resources to build a rocket to get off a doomed planet. There’s some interactivity that comes from the selection: you can steal resources from someone who selected the same locale as you. You also might get hit by a falling meteor if you don’t choose the one safe place. Those fallen meteors also add color and complexity to the game, because they create spaces with special powers as the game goes on.

However, the true joy of the game, what makes it both interesting and innovative, is that it’s a team game. Sort of. The thing is, you can’t abandon the planet (and win) alone. You have to do so with one partner, who you select from a specific set of players in the game. That takes the game to a whole other level where there’s some hidden info that you’re sharing with some people. And you want to do right by your potential partners while simultaneously punishing their potential allies who aren’t you. It’s what I called a “partial partnership” game, with Whitewater (2012) and Between Two Cities (2015) being other examples, but this is a very interesting take.

I always rate the games in these “New to Me” articles based on how much I like them. Frankly, there’s too much human interaction in this game for my liking, and I never deal well with the backstabbing that’s a requirement of this gameplay. I still think it’s a strong, innovative game, and I think people who liked that sort of play would easily rate it Very Good or even Great.

The Ninth World (2018). This is a full-fledged auction game (something that you don’t see a lot of anymore) from the folks at Loneshark Games. It’s a five-currency auction, where the different currencies (“skills”) are used in different types of auctions, but can also be used at a minimal value “out of suit”. The various auctions allow players to: scout out future cards; buy action cards; buy mission cards; kill monsters (possibly with repercussions); and improve auction cards.

The “skillbuilding” of the game is definitely one of its strong points: players get their auction currency back every turn, and they can also improve it in the final category of auction. This gives players the opportunity to really mold their strategy and to try and take advantage of the openings left by other players. The other strength of the game is its wide-ranging set of special powers and special missions. They give players lots to think about beyond the auctions themselves.

Unfortunately, the game is held back by two factors. First, the components don’t have great usability. There are several different factors (color choice, small print, insufficient use of icons, a zig-zag scoreboard) where the game becomes harder to play than it should. Second, it’s too long. Though the game claims 60 minutes, I don’t see how anyone could manage 45 auctions in that time, especially not when there are an equal number of bid-increase rounds and lots of fiddly card use. There is a short version of the game, but I think it in turn wouldn’t offer enough time to really “build” the skill sets. So this is a rare auction game where I’d say play it with a lower number than the max (3 or 4).

The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)

Artifacts, Inc. (2015). This dice game has a simple enough mechanic. You roll a handful of dice and you use them to apply various abilities. You find artifacts, you sell artifacts, you buy cards, and you dive for artifacts. The points in the game tend to come from the cards and diving, with some majority control at the end.

The big problem with Artifacts, Inc. is a soul-crushing amount of downtime. Oh, I’ve played games with much worse downtime (I’m looking at you, Java), but the sitting around and waiting for other people to roll their dice and figure out what to do with them in Artifacts, Inc. is so far out of whack with the enjoyment you get of rolling your own dice and trying to figure out what to do with them, that by the two-thirds point I just wanted the game to end.

Beyond that, I felt like the game was poorly developed. There was a first turn that was entirely set because everyone needed to grab the extra-dice cards before they were gone, then the individual turns had fiddly finances and fiddly decisions. And lastly, I felt like the need to push forward and earn points as quickly as possible (preferably every turn) was sufficient that the game ended up being more stressful than enjoyable. Obviously, YMMV.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples