New Game Weekend: New York 1901

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I’ve been a fan of old buildings for pretty much my whole life, having grown up working for my family’s historic building renovation company. I took my childhood experience of working with 19th-and-early-20th-century buildings off to graduate school and got a master’s degree at the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation program in the early 1990s. While eventually landing working in digital media in NYC, I spent a ton of time along the way with various internships with venerable organizations like the National Trust For Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

NYCSkylinePostcardMy panoramic NYC vintage postcard from a Brooklyn flea market

Even though my professional pursuits have moved away from old buildings, they remain a keen interest of mine. I’ve collected a fair number of books about the history of New York’s urban environment and some nice postcards of the old city, including a nifty folding panoramic vintage postcard of the old Gotham skyline view from my adopted borough of Brooklyn (above). My everyday life in New York City surrounds my in a wondrous timeline of architectural and engineering marvels. And so as a gamer, New York 1901 allows me to live through the early days of this history right from the comfort of my tabletop.

IMG_6843New York 1901 game in progress

A big hit at GenCon 2015, New York 1901 by Blue Orange Games places up to four players in the roles of early real estate developers at the southern tip of Manhattan at the dawn of the 20th-century. New York 1901 is the first foray into Euro-style strategy games from Blue Orange which is best known for family, educational and party games. The game hits the right notes of strategy, ease of play and short game time creating a great balance for players of all ages who may already be steeped in modern classics like Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride.

IMG_6844A player’s set-up in New York 1901

In the game, each player takes turns as burgeoning real estate developer (including a couple female roles) acquiring building lots, placing workers and erecting buildings. The lots occupy the lower Manhattan grid laced with famed streets bordering colored lots. At the beginning of the game, a ‘marketplace’ of four lot cards is set next to the board. In turn, players have two options. First, they may select a new lot and place worker to claim the lot on the board. Alternatively, a player may remove a worker or workers on contiguous lots to build a new building or demolish an existing building and construct a new one. Buildings come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including straight, square, rectangular, ell-shaped or other more complex shapes. The structures also represent three separate progressions of age — bronze, silver and gold. The combination of color and building shape gives each building a point value which is scored on the track at the edge of the board. Only once certain levels of points are achieved may a player begin to play the next color category of buildings.

IMG_6845New York 1901 Legendary Skyscraper tiles

Like real estate development in actual New York, constructing a new building may involve demolishing earlier buildings to replace them with new, larger and higher-valued structures. Multiple buildings on adjacent lots may also be torn down to allow for even larger buildings to be built. Once the gold level of buildings is reached, players may also select from four unique high-scoring ‘legendary skyscraper’ tiles, including the Metropolitan Life, Park Row, Singer and Woolworth buildings, and then mark the building with their own trophy piece marking the achievement as a master builder. Special action cards allow players to perform one-off acts like acquiring two lots at once or constructing two buildings in the same turn. The game ends when a player first depletes their building tile stock, and final bonus scoring is made according to random cards defining building dominance along prominent streets or other combinations of construction feats.

IMG_6846Workers and building tiles rise on lots in New York 1901

Fitting the buildings onto lots gives New York 1901 a spatial puzzle-like quality many have compared to Tetris. To me, the action of occupying lots and erecting buildings to block other players from doing the same gives the game a feel more akin to Cathedral. The combination of worker placement, area control and card play combine to touch on multiple major game mechanics, again making this a great intro game for newcomers and a quick, satisfying play for more experienced players.

IMG_6847A player builds the Metropolitan Life building and scores 12 points

While the game rests many popular mechanics, New York 1901 departs from many games in the Euro genre with a dazzling design of building tiles depicting graphics looking very much like the vintage postcards I collect. Steeped in history and the grid of New York’s Financial District, the game also serves as a creative potential jumping off point for families and school groups to learn more about the city’s history or tour some of the sites away from the game board of New York 1901.

News 12 Brooklyn Visits Metropolitan Wargamers

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I was fortunate to be elected as President of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY a few months back, having been a visitor and then a member for much of the past ten years. Our club occupies a private basement space on a quiet residential street in the heart of historic Park Slope. Members have 24/7 access to the space, and the walls are lined with shelves holding all manner of miniatures and board games covering just about every scale and genre imaginable. We meet up to game practically every day of the week, and our weekends can see board games and miniatures scenarios playing out on our multiple tables, including several sand tables. The games we play can last ten minutes to ten months. Our membership spans a large age group of early 20s to mid-70s, and we hail from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. What our membership has shared in over three decades of existence is a passion for gaming, and Metropolitan Wargamers continues to be one of the premier gaming spaces in New York City.

Recently, we were visited by a News 12 Brooklyn reporter who captured just a little bit of the flavor of our corner of the New York City gaming universe.

If you’re interested in joining our group, please register at our NYC Wargamers Yahoo group, introduce yourself and come by to play a game.

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New Game Weekend: Evolution

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This past summer, Evolution garnered a fair amount of attention during its successful Kickstarter campaign which netted over $120,000 on a $10,000 goal. Many gamers were familiar with the game’s producer, North Star Games, and their previous casual party game favorites such as Say Anything. Evolution was a big jump into strategy game design, and the result is box a gorgeous components and a very playable game for a whole range of ages and experience. The game has been hitting the table at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY over the past week or two, and this past weekend I had a chance to get in on a six person game of Evolution.

evcardsSample trait cards from Evolution

Evolution begins with each player in possession of one species and a hand of four “trait” cards. The 129 beautifully painted cards are the core mechanic of the game. A player’s turn begins by throwing a required card into the watering hole at the center of the table, contributing to a food pool with the value at the lower right corner of the card. The player then decides to play some or all their other cards in a variety of ways. Cards may be discarded to increase a species body size, grow population, spawn an additional new species or, most importantly, evolve the species by playing trait cards. This where the real action comes in.

Up to three cards may be played above a species to create evolutionary traits for that creature. Some traits provide benefits every turn with things like Long Neck allowing the species to eat first and the Fertile trait which grows species population every round. Defensive traits such as Hard Shell, Horns and Burrowing aid in providing defense against being attacked by a species with Carnivorous trait. Carnivores might add aggressive traits such as Good Eyesight, Climbing or Pack Hunting to counteract the defenses of other species.

IMG_4752Special Kickstarter first player miniature

With multiple species growing in size, population and traits, Evolution plays out as nature’s arms race for supremacy and food. After every round of playing cards, all species are fed in turn from available food in the central primordial watering hole. Each species must feed up to its population size or risk a die off of that species. Carnivores by their very nature do not feed from the pool but on other species around the table, and those species must defend using their available traits and body size. Once feeding is complete, food tokens are swept from the species cards and stored in a bag. At the end of the game, the player with the most food points, living species and trait cards played wins.

IMG_4754Player pieces and the watering hole in Evolution

The designers of Evolution claim over 4000 species can be created using differing combinations of cards, and this is where the replay value really shines. Each game plays fast, with a six player game only representing about one play through the deck of trait cards. Timing and choices are critical in the game, and a player needs to figure when is the right time to create a new species or focus on building up the population or size of existing species. Keeping an eye on what other player species are evolving toward as well as the available food supply necessarily inform strategy.

IMG_4753A player’s carnivore goes after the other species in Evolution

In my first game this past weekend, I chose to focus early in the game on scoring points by getting two species with large populations going at once. With a number of protective traits played on each of my species, I was able to hold off three other carnivore species for most of the game as they ate some of the weaker species of other players. In the end, the carnivores were effectively in a three-way stand-off with each other as the final round of food was tallied and the win went to one of them who had more than 40 points to my losing 25.

With North Star’s previous focus on word and trivia style games, Evolution is a really fantastic surprise for their entry into strategy gaming. The building, card and food resource management has a feel like so many civilization building or other Euro style games, while its relative simplicity makes the entry skill level appeal to a lot of serious and casual gamers alike. The game would be a great way to break up a school biology class or engage a dinosaur-obsessed kid in gaming. Evolution plays out with nature in all its beauty and danger, and it presents a world where only the fittest player species who can wisely manage their own growth and resources is going to survive in the end.

New Game Weekend: Brass

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Canals have been a part of human history for as long as people have sought to move large quantities of goods from one place to another along routes without natural waterways. Beginning in Mesopotamia in about 4000 BC, canals have fuelled the expansion of human settlement and trade just about everywhere. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th-and-19th-centuries saw an enormous boom in canal construction in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. To this day, engineering marvels like the Suez Canal and Panama Canal are critical to moving goods around the world.

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Map of New York State canals with Genessee Valley Canal (1840-1880)  in green

Growing up in the 1970s, every kid raised in Western New York State was surrounded by the mythology of the Erie Canal. Stretching 360 miles from Albany to Buffalo, the canal opened in 1825 and connected the ports of New York City with the booming Great Lakes region and the territories beyond.

Some of my earliest childhood memories of thrashing around in the woods in my hometown of Piffard, NY occured along the remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal which ran as a southern spur to the Erie Canal from 1840-1880. In my mid-20s I found myself living and working in Southwestern Pennsylvania, once again surrounded by the ghosts of canals and later railroad lines which fuelled the economic expansion of the old western frontier. Today, many these old canal lines have new lives serving as recreational arteries like the Genesee Valley Greenway and the Pittsburgh-To-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway.

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The Brass game board depicting Northern Engkand

My life has had a lot of canals running through it, and so it was great when I recently had a chance to try my hand at playing out the canal and railroad boom era in Brass. Produced by Treefrog Games in 2007, Brass takes players back to an England at the dawn of its massive industrial expansion. The game divides into two parts — a Canal Age and a Railroad Age — and is played on a map of Northern England cities and ports connected by transportation routes. When cards are used up points are scored at the end of the Canal Age for industries built, canal routes constructed and income earned. Canals and industries are then removed before play procedes through the Railroad Age after which there is a final tally of points for victory.

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Brass industy cards (left to right: coal mine, shipyard, iron works, port and cotton mill)

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Sample Brass location cards

Cards depicting cities and industries are dealt to players at the beginning of the game. Canals and lower tech industries are built in the first half of the game, and railroads and more advnaced technologies are built in the game’s second half. Each turn a player may develop industries, build canal or railroad sections, develop their existing industry, sell cotton or take loans for additional capital investment. The player who spends the least money on their turn gets to go first on the next turn, one of the game’s many mechanics which makes for a good balance of cautious and aggressive play.

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The “Canal Era” in our game of Brass at Metropolitan Wargamers

Industries are built on specific locations by playing both a location and industry card in combination and then spending the appropriate money and resources. Connecting canals and railroads may also be built to establish routes between cities and ports to transport goods and resources. Multiple industries built by multiple players may be built at the same location, allowing for some level of shared collaborative play. A hub city like Manchester holds four industries and connects along five separate routes, making it a potential key location for players. Building routes to ports and foreign export of cotton becomes important as the game develops and generating more income for construction is needed.

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The “Railroad Era” in our game of Brass

There’s a ton going on in Brass, and fortunately I had an experienced player walk me through my first game. I’ve heard the rules themselves are a bit hard to decipher, but playing the game my first time was pretty easy to follow. Brass plays like many Eurogames with a balance of area control, building, managing resources and playing cards. Ultimately the game becomes one of competition for routes and resources and biding one’s time to export cotton goods to foreign markets when demand is at its highest.

I won my first game of Brass in a three-player game, but I’d like to try it at its full four-player maximum. I managed to have an enormous amount of cash on hand to invest into developing my industries and transport routes pretty early in the game, a strategy that didn’t allow me to play first in most turns but paid off in the end. Playing an economic game like Brass makes for some very different play than my usual rolling of tanks and advancing platoons of soldiers. For a gamer like me with canals and railroads flowing through my blood, I’ll take an economic victory just as easily as a one won on the battlefield any day.

New Game Weekend: Dixit Journey

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I play a lot of games with my kids. I started them at an early age, so they have a pretty healthy knowledge and love for hefty wargaming miniatures games like Flames of War and elaborate strategy games like Settlers of Catan, Village, Canterbury and Civilization. Even with a big stack of boardgames crowding our shelves, we regularly run into new games that capture our imagination in new ways. After several rounds of of Dixit Journey with three generations of my family over the Thanksgiving weekend, we have a new favorite in our constantly-growing list of favorites.

journeycontentsDixit Journey is a variation on the family of games and expansions from Asmodee , an award-winning French Eurogame publisher. In essence, Dixit is a storytelling game with the only real skill needed is your imagination. Each round a storyteller player secretly selects an illustrated card from their hand of six cards and announces a clue somehow referenced by the picture on the card. Anything can be used for a clue — song lyrics, characters from a book, famous quotes, historical figures, TV shows, sounds, news stories, etc. — provided it somehow references something depicted on the card. After the clue is announced, the other players then likewise secretly select a card from their hands which they think may also depict the clue in some way.

Cards are then revealed and laid out along the edge of the board. All players except the storyteller then place their guesses on the card they think is the storyteller’s card. Player guesses are then revealed with points going to the storytller if their card is selected and to other players whose cards were also guessed on. Choosing an overly-obvious card and clue combination everyone guesses correctly results in no points for the storyteller, so balancing a clue and card pairing that is both guessable but not too literal is key to the winning the game.

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Like many Eurogames, Dixit is simple on the surface with minimal rules and reading but creatively open in how it plays out. In our games, one clue was given as an interpretive dance of sorts. Other clues included movie references, literary allusions and just flat-out odd phrases inspired almost wholly by the cards themselves. Part of the fun of the game is to see how it plays out with different people’s minds interpretting the same clue in multiple cards.

For a taste of how a game of Dixit plays, check out  the episode below of Wil Weaton’s always entertaining Tabletop web series.

Dixit is a gorgeous game with trippy, weird and abstract cards that may be reused over and over again. The many expansions available add more storytelling possibilities to the game, and the Journey edition makes some improvements on the scoring and game board included in the first edition box. Playing in about a half hour and with multiple players or even teams, Dixit makes for a great nighttime game with family or friends of all ages after the dinner plates are cleared.

New Game Weekend: Power Grid

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This year I’ve been fortunate to have both the time and a revolving line-up of patient opponents at Metropolitan Wargamers to introduce me to nearly 30 new games. Lots of times I’ll hear the name of a game or references to its mechanics tossed around by other members, and I’ll just file that name away in the back of my head for a future gaming option. One of the games I’ve heard come up again and again is Power Grid, and this past weekend I finally got my first shot at playing it.

What a fantastic game.

Power Grid is a game of building power plants along a grid among interconnected cities and managing the resources to power the system. Originally published in Germany over 10 years ago, Power Grid began as a crayon and paper game. The version available since 2004 from Rio Grande Games is a more typical Eurogame with a two-sided playing board (Germany and US maps on either side), cards and scores of wooden playing pieces.

The game play unfolds over a series of turn phases. First, player order is determined by the player with the most cities built. Player order is very important in the second phase when power plants are auctioned among players. Some primitive coal, wood or trash-burning plants may come cheap but power few cities or require lots of resources to fire them. Other plants, like solar fields and wind farms, come at a higher initial cost but require no resources to fuel them since the wind and sun come for free. At the far edge are high-tech nuclear plants which can power many cities but require the rare and costly uranium fuel.

And so that leads to the third phase of buying resources. In turn order, players buy coal, wood, trash and uranium which fluctuate in a market of varying demand and pricing throughout the game. Each player’s plant holds double the resources it requires, so a coal-fired plant that requires two coal to run it can hold four coal resources. In terms of strategy, players buy resources for use in their own plants, but they may also choose to stockpile resources and rob other players of the ability to buy resources for their plants.

In the fourth phase, players build cities and their grid. Building cities begins at a $10 value but rises to $15 and then $25 as the game progresses and the grid becomes more crowded with development. Connections between cities also costs money, so creating a close network of cities along a compact grid can make things cheaper for you and more expensive for your opponent as the game goes on. To wrap a turn, players fire up their grid, burn resources and collect income based on how many cities they are able to supply with power.

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Power grid is a fantastic game of economics, resource management and area control, hitting all the marks of a classic Eurogame. A mix of strategies of building and resource management makes for a realistic yet streamlined game requiring just some basic rules, no reading during the game and simple components. The

Numerous expansion sets are available for Power Grid, including additional power plant cards and additional two-sided regional maps from around the world such as France/Italy, Central Europe, Russia/Japan and China/Korea. A rabid international online fanbase has also created custom homebrewed maps of just about any country or region on the planet.

With the topic of energy and natural resource consumption on the front page of just about any paper in the world on any given day, it’s easy to see why Power Grid resonates so widely. The game also plays without any reading required (other than a basic understanding of one of the translated rulesets), adding to its international appeal. Not only is the game a huge draw for hardcore gamers, I could also see it as a very instructive tool in teaching any group of engaged kids on the challenges of managing ever-increasing power demands.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Survive!

surviveboxBy the early 1980s, I had a shelf full of games from Parker Brothers. Like millions of other kids, I was brought up on Parker Brothers classics like Monopoly, Clue, Risk and Sorry! Most of these games were already a couple generations old by the time I first played them, and, despite their updates, they were showing their age a bit. But then in 1982 Parker Brothers introduced Survive! which has gone on to be a new modern classic for gamers of all ages.

The story of the game involved each player trying to get their tribespeople off an island which is quickly sinking into the sea. At the beginning of the game, the hex land tiles – beach, forest and mountains – were shuffled and then placed randomly on the board to create the island. Then, in turn, each player placed their ten tribespeople tokens with up to three per hex except for beach spaces which held only one. Each player piece had a number value etched into the bottom, and saving the higher-valued tribespeople was key to scoring and winning the game. Cardboard lifeboats were then placed floating at the edges of the island and a sea monster figure went in the lagoon at the center of the island.

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Each turn, players moved their tribespeople and then removed a tile, beginning with beach hexes and then forests and mountains. Player’s pieces which fell into the water drowned, but you could also move your a piece to a water space as a swimming would-be survivor. Boats carried up to three survivors at once and could carry tokens from multiple tribes at once. Removed tiles had special events on the back and might indicate the appearance of a whale, dolphin or shark in that hex. Finally, a die was rolled to move a sea creature dipicted on the special die.

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Strategy for the game involved getting as many of your tribespeople to the coral islands at the corners of the board before a mountain hex piece was turned over to reveal a volcanic eruption killing all survivors not safely away. Moving a whale to a space with a boat capsized the boat, tossing any passengers into the water. A dophin could carry one tribesperson swiftly through the water. Sharks ate swimming survivors and the sea monster destroyed a boat and all its passengers. Other tiles revelaed different special actions, including whirlpools which destroyed anything in that and immediately adjoining spaces. The combination of all the possible outcomes and actions of the other players made for a mix of competitive and collaborative play, always balancing what was best for your tribespeople against what the other player’s actions were.

At the time, there were a number of things that set Survive! apart from most other conventional board games. The board featured hex-shaped spaces like many of the fantasy and RPG games I was playing then. The board was also different each time you played, adding a randomness factor not found in most board games featuring a traditional static set up every time you played. The game components were a bit less abstract and more like the “meeples” now a common part of just about any Eurogame.

A European version of the game appeared a few years after the original with a few variations. In 2010, Survive: Escape from Atlantis! was released by Stronghold Games with an updated game using elements of both versions in one. Since then, Strongehold Games has also released a number of expansions including a 5-6 player variant and others containing extra sea creatures. The game remains widely available, and the 30th anniversary base game released in 2012 can now be picked up for $40 with expansions running for $10 (all cheaper online).

More than three decades on, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! has entered the modern canon of board games. Whether your tribe includes kids or a group of friends looking to pick-up a quick new game, heading back to the island of Survive! is well worth the ride.

Collector’s Note: While Survive: Escape From Atlantis is now widely available, original copies of the 1982 first edition of Survive! can be found on eBay for $25-50. Individual game components are also available for a few bucks apiece, just in case any of yours were swallowed-up by a sea monster over the years.