Games at Wells 26 January 2012 (Australia Day Edition)

I’ve been overloaded with gaming this past week. The new TV arrived just in time to add some Xbox action to the gaming apartment and the Australia Day public holiday was a perfect opportunity to break in the new TV as well as eat some grilled meat and play board games. On the Xbox front, Castle Crashers seems to be the biggest hit. Gameplay is simple but immensely fun, and harkens back to the beat em up games of yore like Golden Axe and Streets of Rage. Also, the fact that it was about the only game I have that supports 4 player local multiplayer helped cement its popularity. On the board game side, games played on Australia day were: Dominant Species, Thunderstone, Innovation (with the Echoes of the Past expansion), Prolix, Puerto Rico and Dixit.

Dominant Species

We started off with a heavy game, since we knew we had the whole afternoon. We played a game with 6 players initially, while the other group played Thunderstone (Haven’t played that one yet, but it looked like they had fun). Dominant Species is an action drafting and area control game that pits multiple animal types against each other in a contest for dominance before the earth succumbs to an ice age.  I picked Amphibians as my animal, while Jin Wei had Mammals, Ian had Birds, Edwin had Reptiles, Prateek had Insects and Daniel took Arachnids. The game took a while to set up since it was new out of the box, and there were a lot of wooden pieces to sort. Each turn, players take turns to choose 3 actions that they will execute from a common list of available actions. This uses an action draft/worker placement mechanic where each action has a limited number of spaces to put your player marker and the order of the placement determines the order of the actions. Once all the players have selected actions, the actions are then executed in order.

The main purpose of the game is to proliferate different species of your animal and you score points by selecting the appropriate action and a corresponding region. Scores are allocated based on a simple majority, but an important concept in the game is dominance. Your animals can Dominate a region even if it is not the majority. Domination is based on your animals’ suitability to the region, based on the number of matching element types in the region. Each animal has a number of elements or food types that it is suited for, and matching elements will allow you to dominate a region. A minimum matching of elements is also necessary for your animals to survive in a region, and if they cannot survive, they go extinct in that region at the end of the round. When a region is scored, the Dominant animal gets to pick and execute an extra action from the available Domination cards. These card provide very strong bonuses, so it is usually wise to score a region where you are Dominant as well as have a majority in.

Another element in the game is the Glaciation phase, which simulates the oncoming ice age. As the game goes on, players can convert existing regions to Tundra which become harder for animals to adapt to. Elements on Tundra regions can be gradually removed and Tundra regions are also worth less points. This encourages animals to move away from Tundra to still fertile regions and adapt to changing conditions. The game ends when  a player picks the Ice Age Domination card which is always at the bottom of the deck, and the animal that scored the most victory points wins.

Gameplay was actually not too complex once you had a turn or two to familiarise yourself with all the possible actions. However, much like Puerto Rico, I suspect this game is much more punishing than other games for early mistakes. Since it was our first game, we probably dicked around too much at the start since we weren’t aware of the long term implications and strategies. This resulted in an unpleasant scenario where 2-3 players were further ahead than the others, and it was difficult for the others to catch up. Also, Edwin had to leave midway due to a prior engagement and the way we handled his departure may have caused some imbalances in the game. However, now that we’ve completed a game, our next game will be better since we all have a better understanding of what’s important. Even though the first play was far from great, I was actually quite enamored with it. I love how the game models competition between animals and how we migrated to greener pastures and tried to adapt to dominate more regions as the game progressed. The mechanics are not particularly innovative, but are incorporated well and there are many interactions between them. The number of actions available from the beginning of the game is probably the most daunting aspect of this game, and could lead to analysis paralysis for some. Overall, I am intrigued by it and would definitely want to play again. Jin Wei also seems to like the game, and we will probably try to get it to the table again soon.

Innovation: Echoes of the Past

Next, we played a 5 player game of Innovation and included the Echoes of the Past expansion for the first time. This game was quite interesting, as Jon did nothing but draw in the early game before dropping half his hand and claiming one of the new special Achievements. I will need to play a few more games with the expansion to get a better feel for it, but for now it seems like a perfectly functional addition to an already amazing game. If you liked Innovation, you’ll  be happy to have more variety with the new cards. If not, the expansion does not add enough to substantially alter how the game is played so there’s probably nothing new that would change your mind. I guess one downside is the slight additional set up time to have the right number of expansion cards of each age added to the game, but that’s just a minor quibble. The cards from the expansion were interesting, but did not overshadow the original cards. Foreshadow was rarely used, although this may just have been due to luck of the draw. I had Foreshadowed a few cards, but was not keen to merge them since my active dogmas were much stronger. The Bonus points on cards probably had the most effect on the game, as it allowed some early Achievements for Prateek. Prateek also won the game, through 2 amazing turns with Engineering and Pirate Code. After Innovation, the group played a quick round of Prolix while dinner was being prepared. It sounded like they had fun with it, and I’m quite happy with the purchase.

Puerto Rico

After dinner entertainment mainly consisted of Xbox games, but a group of us managed to start a game of Puerto Rico. This was played with the Anniversary Edition of Puerto Rico, with fancy new art and metal coins which I should review some time. We played a 4 player game without any expansions as Jin Wei and Daniel were completely new to the game. For the unfamiliar, Puerto Rico is one of the few “classic” Eurogames that has been highly regarded for some time. It is an elegant game with fairly intuitive mechanics and is one of my favourites. The main mechanic is an action or role draft every round. Each player selects a Role on his/her turn which then allows every player to do the actions associated with that role in order. The active player gets a bonus for selecting the role, in addition to executing that Role’s action first. Once selected, that Role becomes unavailable for the rest of the round and the next player then gets to select a role. There are always more Roles than the number of players, so unselected Roles at the end of the round get a Doubloon/coin added to the bonus for the next round. A similar mechanic has been used in Race for the Galaxy, another favourite of mine. Players develop their own boards which represent their own little corner of Puerto Rico, and gain Victory Points for buildings and shipping goods that they have produced from their plantations.

Ian was the only other player who had played Puerto Rico before, and he managed to get a very good early position with early Coffee and Corn, trading often and obtaining a Wharf for a shipping strategy. I bought an early Hacienda and obtained multiple Quarries to help me get a Factory, which allowed me to later buy up two large bonus buildings. Jin Wei and Daniel also did fairly well, with Daniel getting some good shipping turns and blocking up key ships which forced Ian to get an early Wharf instead of going for a large bonus building. Jin Wei was stymied a few times by Daniel’s Captain turns, but did not have enough cash for a Wharf in time. Ian and I ended the game with the same number of Victory Points, but he won by 1 Doubloon on the tiebreaker. Puerto Rico is still one of my favourite games, and we managed to have a good game of it which made me happy.

Dixit

Finally, we ended the night with a game of Dixit, which is always fun. Aaron was new to the game, but it is so easy that he caught on really quickly. Dixit is an amazing party game that is simple to teach and play. It is similar to Balderdash, but with descriptions of pictures instead of word definitions. Every player has a hand of cards with beautiful pictures on them. Each player then takes turns to be the Storyteller, and places a card face down to the table. The Storyteller then tells a short story or phrase that describes the selected card. All the other players then also put down a card each that they think could also match the description. The cards are then shuffled and revealed, and each player then guesses which card was the original put down by the Storyteller by voting on their tiles. Players who guess correctly score points and the Storyteller also scores. However, if no one or everyone voted for the correct card, then every player other than the Storyteller gets points, since the Storyteller’s description was either inadequate or too obvious. Players can also score points if other players mistakenly voted for their card.

The game is very simple and can be immensely entertaining with the right group of people. It’s always interesting to glimpse the thought processes of your friends through their descriptions and their choices of cards to match descriptions. By far the most impressive part of the game to me though is the art. The art on the cards is just phenomenal. Each card is beautifully illustrated with often very abstract images, but each image has a certain charm or beauty that it is even worth having Dixit for just the art even if you don’t get to play it often. Fortunately, I get to do both. I always like ending game nights with a light game, and Dixit is a perfect game for that.

Australia Day this year was heaps of fun with plenty of video games, board games, tennis and food to go around. I hope this will be a tradition that we can maintain in coming years.

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