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New to Me: Winter 2019 — Knizia, Breese, Cards & More

This post got delayed a bit because of April 1st and 15th falling on Mondays, allowing me to post a few special articles. And then I got sick. (Sigh.) But this is still my “New to Me” post for the first three months of the year. As usual, these are games that I played for the first time (no matter how new or old they are) with a rating of how much I liked them (as a medium-weight eurogamer).

The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

Key Flow (2018). Take Keyflower (2012), a game that I found most brilliant for its interrelation of auction and worker placement. Keep the worker-placement and resource-management elements of the original game, but replace the auction mechanic with a different sort of action selection: card drafting. Voila! You have Key Flow.

Though I think that Key Flow cuts out some of the best parts of Keyflower, the card drafting is a perfectly acceptable alternative, and the result is a game that’s a bit shorter and more approachable. Even though I love Keyflower and will continue to play it, I think Key Flow is pretty good too, just in a slightly different category.

This one is also a bit more solitaire and really, really intensive in its end-game scoring. (There really should have been a score sheet.)

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Great Western Trail (2016). Rarely have I had a more intimidating rules teach than this, because the game encompasses multiple rules systems (the first of a few “mashups” that I played in winter) and contains a system of somewhat obtuse icons. Despite that, it worked pretty intuitively once we got into the game.

At heart, this is a resource-management game. You work hard to earn money, which you use to hire workers, build buildings, and purchase cattle. You then sell those cattle for more money. And there are a lot more bells and whistles, such as the ability to collect various tiles, improve your locomotive, and place discs. Oh, and there’s a small deckbuilding element that’s pretty clever. Whew! There’s a reason the rules were so intimidating.

Unsurprisingly, when you have all those different game elements, you also have a lot of game depth. There’s a lot of variability, a lot of different paths to victory, and generally a lot of ability to master the game (or not). So, if you’re looking for a middle-to-heavy euro with some good western theming, this is it.

Keyper (2017). Richard Breese has a genius for constantly reinventing Medieval-based worker-placement games and making them feel totally original and innovative — and Keyper does it again. Whereas most worker-placement games create tension as players strive to take critical action spaces before their opponents, Keyper instead requires players to give their opponents an opportunity to join them, and even gives them rewards if they do! The big disappointment in the game isn’t if someone takes your space (though that can still happen), but instead if you go to take a space, and no one wants to join you!

The other big innovation of the game is its country boards, which are weird folding cardboard puzzles that can be flipped back and forth to create multiple different configurations. Sadly, this is an innovation gone wrong. All they do is layout four different setups that a player can enable each turn, and it’s kind of hard for new players to find those options! So: pure style over substance, a cool component that makes it harder to play the game. (Fortunately that board manipulation just occurs at the end of the round.)

Beyond that, Keyper is about what you’d expect. There’s resource management, there’s building, and there’s upgrading. Then, there’s the opportunity to stack up a lot of different animals (and sometimes resources and meeples) to score at the end. (But the worker placement is what you’ll find most notable about the game.)

Pandemic: Iberia (2016). This is the first of the “Pandemic Survival” games, and it looked to me to be pretty similar to the original: you’re fighting diseases and eventually must cure research four of them to win the game. Some of the rules are slight variants from the original Pandemic game: sea movement is not limited to ports, and a disease has to be researched in a hospital of the appropriate color. But there are wider differences in two new game systems: water purification allows players to buffer entire regions against disease, while a railroad can be used to dramatically speed up movement.

It turns out that these new systems result in a pretty different game — which shouldn’t be a surprise, because Matt Leacock is a very clever designer. He went out of his way to make what seemed like small rules changes into major elements of the game, in large part by making sure the specializations of the characters heavily promoted the new rules systems. But, the new rules systems themselves were also deceptively simple, while simultaneously having large repercussions: the railroads can dramatically change the tactics of a player’s turn, while water purification can dramatically change how the challenge simulation works.

And even after all of that, Pandemic: Iberia is still a tight, fast game just like its predecessor.

Railroad Ink (2018). This is a very simple (perhaps even simplistic) roll-and-draw game. You roll a set of four dice for the group that show various railroads and roads, then everyone draws them on their own board. Repeat six more times, then score. Connected exits, longest roads, longest rails, and central lines all score positive points, while dead ends score negative points. Most points win.

Though there’s not a lot that’s mechanically innovative, the creativity makes this game a lot of fun, as you plot out your own routes and figure out what to do as you get one awful roll after another. Be warned, this is pretty much the definition of multiplayer solitaire, and I find it offensive that the publisher (CMON) makes you buy two copies of the game to get all the special rules.(Those special rules add rivers, lakes, lava, and meteors in the blue and red versions, respectively.)

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

Arboretum (2015). Take the climbing mechanics of Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities (1999), but place your cards on a two-dimensional grid and require players to hold onto some of their best cards so that they’re actually allowed to score, and you’ll get something a little like Arboreteum.

Don’t think this slightly older game is derivative though. It’s a clever, innovative, and original card game, and it’s got quite a bit of depth. Whereas I feel like Lost Cities is a fairly simple game with some really delightful tension, Arboretum is also a really intricate puzzle. At first I wasn’t sure I’d like Arboretum because of its thinkiness and its complexity, but it won me over. (My biggest complaint turned out to be its randomness, as drawing “8”s can make or break a game.)

[Here’s why this isn’t rated higher: early on in my eurogaming years I really fell in love with filler card games like King’s Breakfast, No Thanks!, and Coloretto, but nowadays I’m looking for games with more depth, especially since super-fillers like Race for the Galaxy have replaced the old filler category with a new type of depper play. So I might have rated games like Arboreteum and the Parade that follows much higher 10-15 years ago, but now I generally decide that I’d like something with more depth. But still, Arboretum comes pretty close to these deeper games I like, since its play is practically tile-like.]

Charterstone (2017). Charterstone is a very basic worker-placement game. You place meeples, you generate resources, then you transform those resources into buildings, crates (of new components), or other sorts of victory points. There are a few different paths to victory, but the action-to-victory-point ratio is tight enough that it often feels like there’s not a lot of variation, particularly not in early games.

The catch is that Charterstone is a Legacy game. You’re going to be building up your worker-placement village over the course of an entire campaign. Despite the basicness of the game, seeing your little hamlet expand game by game is a lot of fun, particularly as you’ll see new things over time when you pull them out of crates: as is typical for Legacy games, not everything is visible at the start of the game.

Is that enough to make Charterstone a really playable and replayable game? Maybe. It really depends on the players. If you absolutely love creative construction in a game (like I do), the shallow mechanics will be overcome by the evocative and almost unprecedented ability to build over a number of games. And, if you don’t, the gameplay alone probably won’t be enough.

(Personally, it’s been a great game to play with my wife, and we’re enjoying seeing our village expand.)

Teotihuacan: City of Gold (2018). Teotihuacan says it has worker-dice, so we’ll kind of accept it’s a worker-placement game, which it kind of is. Except the workers move around a roundel. In different spaces, they gather resources, use those resources to build a ziggurat, build houses, and gather technology. In other words, it’s a pretty standard soulless euro. Mind you, there’s lots of nice strategy (as you figure out how you’re going to make your way around the roundel) and lots of nice tactics (as you figure out how to take advantage of clumps of “workers”, as they either makes actions more expensive or else give you more opportunity to collect food).

With all that said, Teotihuacan is one of the biggest mashups I’ve ever seen. It mushes together resource management, worker placement, a teeny bit of engine building, roundel play, tile laying, pattern matching, set collection, and probably a few others that I’m missing. The problem with that type of design is that it’s hard to be great at any of your disparate elements. And, I feel that’s largely the case here. Take the ziggurat, which contains the tile laying and the pattern matching. It’s very reminiscent of Dragon Castle (2017) where you’re similarly building a 3-D building with tiles and matching icons, but Dragon Castle has been much more carefully developed to minimize AP while maximizing tactics, while Teotihuacan just has too many unwieldy possibilities when you’re stacking up the tiles. (Mind you, it’s possible to make a mashup successful, as Great Western Trail show, but I think that game is both more careful in how many game systems it incorporates and frankly a better design at making those game systems unique and innovative.)

The one exception, where I think Teotihuacan did manage some great development, is in its “worker dice”, which are sorta workers that get better as they go (and are eventually turned in for a big bonus). It’s a great innovation that adds a whole secondary level of tactics. It makes me wish there was more focus on those workers and less on mashing all these other systems together.

The Quest for El Dorado: Heroes & Hexes (2018). I’d really been looking forward to this new Quest for El Dorado expansion, because I felt like the biggest limitation of the original game was its relatively small stock of different cards. But I found this expansion somewhat underwhelming.

Demons are the core system for the new game. These are new purple spaces on the board that cause you to draw demon tokens, which give you various short-term disadvantages, from the need to discard certain cards to the introduction of useless demon cards into your deck. I felt like the original El Dorado game had a little bit too much certainty, even with its card draw, so this was a nice addition (as was the introduction of several new maps using the demon tiles). Many of these demon tiles also include tunnels, which are short cuts, and I’m a little less certain about their use, because they can give players a big jump with lucky draws.

Meanwhile, there are a few things to make life easier for players. Familiars are new starting cards that can be used for a one-time bonus. I suspect the intent was to help players out when they get stuck. Heroes are great cards that you can get if you make a stop at the Hero Tavern. They’re pretty neat cards, and they do support deckbuilding since you get to choose one of three, but I wonder if they’re too good.

Of course the thing I was really looking forward to were new decks of cards and there were just four of these, but they introduced some good variety, including a card that lets you move onto mountains! Of course what the game really needs at this point is the ability to choose which cards come into play, as those rows and rows of out-of-play cards were already unwieldy.

Overall, this expansion is staying in my game, and the demons are a nice new challenge, but I was still a bit meh on the new introductions.

Parade (2007). This older release is a clever card game of the sort that I’ve seen in other Japanese releases, like R-Eco (2009). In this one there’s a line of cards in the middle of the table, and you play cards that simultaneously protect you from taking certain cards at the head of the line and that require you to take color matching and lower number cards from later in the line. You’re harshly penalized for the cards you take, earning their value in (negative) points, but if you can earn a majority in a color, the points become worth just one point each. As a result, it’s almost always bad to play cards, so you’re trying to balance out which ones are the least bad to play. Though there’s definitely a lot of luck of the draw, the deeper you get into the game, and the longer the line gets, the more strategic thinking that’s required as well.

And as you can guess from the game’s position in this list, I found it interesting, but not something I’d ask for.

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

Lost Cities: Rivals (2018). Lost Cities seems like a theme this quarter, and this is basically Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities meets Reiner Knizia’s Ra. In other words, the players are creating lots, and eventually someone starts an auction to buy the cards. The winner of the auction then gets to decide which cards he actually wants to take. He adds them to his expeditions, following the usual Lost Cities Keltis rule of never-decrementing value. He leaves what he didn’t want, and even gets to trash one.

Personally, I didn’t find this to be a worthwhile variant of Lost CitiesRa is great because of the push-your-luck aspect, where you can add detrimental things to the lot, and there’s very little of that here. Lost Cities is great because of the tightness of the play, where you have very limited options for what to add to your expeditions, and that’s also sabotaged in this design, since you get to choose what to add to your expedition. So I felt like the end result was OK, but not a masterful game like most of the other Lost Cities games I’ve played.

Admittedly, I may have played this in the worst circumstances, with just two players. (My experience is that most auctions are better with more players, and BGG agrees that three or four is ideal.) Nonetheless, I think playing with two is fair for a Lost Cities game.

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