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.

New Game Weekend: Civilization & Advanced Civilization

CivAdvCivBoxesEarlier in the week I posted about the elegantly quick board game Eight-Minute Empire: Legends I first had a chance to play last weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. After a brief, engaging 20 minutes with Legends, I joined four other players in another game that was also new to me and a completely different experience — Advanced Civilization.

CivMapCivilization game board with Western expansion map to the left

Civilization by UK game designer Francis Tresham was published by Avalon Hill in 1981 and introduced a number of now-standard gaming elements found in many board and video games today. Ten years later, Advanced Civilization offered some refinements, additions and simplifications to the game. Playing with 2-8 players and running to 8, 10, 12 or more rivetingly-complex hours, Civilization has become one of the signature games of the past 40 years.

CivASTAdvanced Civilization’s innovative  Archaeological Succession Table (AST)

At its core, Civilization is an area control game played in the Mediterranean region in an 8000-year period spanning the Stone Age through the Iron Age. Each player picks a civilization and places a single population marker in a territory in their color-coded beginning edge of the board. Territories each support varying numbers of population, indicated in each area. Population doubles each turn, so one marker grows to two. If the space cannot sustain more than the noted number of population markers, players must move and expand their population to new territories or “starve” population down to the maximum load for the territory. A population census grid on the Archaeology Succession Track (AST) notes population growth of each civilization and determines the order of play the following turn.

Moving six population markers to a space with a black square allows the settlement of a city, and twelve may settle a city in a blank space. Establishing cities allows the harvesting of goods the likes of Hides & Ochre, Salt & Timber or Gems & Dye. Drawn in turn order, the stacks of commodities cards also hide calamity cards which have adverse effect on a civilization through such things as Famine, Civil War, Flood or Volcano. Each round includes trading where players must keep certain untradeable calamities while trading away certain goods and other calamities in the quest to collect sets of cards which may then be turned into technologies. The technologies build upon each other through the building of a Technology Tree (“Tech Tree”) which advances with additional abilities and protections for the civilization. Simple beginning  technologies like Pottery, Mythology and Music aid early societies but lose importance over time. Philosophy, Democracy, Law, Trade Empire, Advanced Military and Golden Age technologies score the greatest points and advance a society through the  Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages to eventual victory.

IMG_2859Advanced Civilization at Metropolitan Wargamers

The AST and Tech Tree become the major machines in propelling the game forward, and evolutions of these elements have been incorporated into countless board and video games since their introduction with Civilization. These two innovations make Civilization and other subsequent games like Clash of Cultures focused more largely on elements of managing resources and cultural advancement than traditional combat-focused area control games like Risk. Resource management and building based on collection of resources shows up in so many games, prominently so in the widely-popular  Settlers of Catan. Somewhat controversially, the video and board game versions of the Sid Meir’s Civilization franchise owes a great deal both in its mechanics to the Avalon Hill game which preceded it in theme and name.

Civilization is incredibly compelling and eerily historic in how it plays and forces the hand of history. Players who begin with small civilizations are forced into territorial expansion through population growth or risk starvation of their people. Once cities thrive, feeding those cities becomes another concern and reason for more expansion. Soon, players find themselves in a loop where development begets expansion begets development. Isolated societies have to begin moving farther afield over land of through developing shipbuilding and sailing technologies. Resources become important to build technologies to further enhance and protect their civilization. By building more cities, more valuable goods are obtained and more advanced technologies may be developed. With all players expanding their societies by mid-game, civilizations eventually must compete for room in the region. War becomes somewhat inevitable, but diplomacy and mutual-beneficial trade also gain special importance as the game moves on and civilization begin to settle into specific paths to winning the game.

Of the hundreds of games I’ve played, I now understand why Civilization holds a special place in the hearts of gamers. Committing to hours upon hours of play becomes a game mechanic unto itself as players of Civilization must maintain focused attention on mentally-exhausting detail. Yes, Civilization is a game, but a marvelously intriguing one to play in the context of our own world where population, space, resources and technologies play out with increasingly dire importance as human civilization marches toward our own eventual historical endgame.

A Place To Play: Brooklyn Game Lab

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Living and gaming in New York City is all about space. While gamers worldwide enjoy games in their basements, garages, dining rooms and even dedicated spaces, gamers living in the five boroughs wage a constant struggle for tabletop real estate. It’s in this context that Brooklyn Game Lab opens today and joins a mini-boom in storefront gaming spaces and stores that have opened over the past five years throughout New York.

Brooklyn Game Lab is the vision of Robert Hewitt, a former Silcon Valley game developer, designer, co-founder of game app company HashGo and ESL teacher in Brazil. Carrying his start-up experience and a passion for games and teaching, Bob’s mission for the Brooklyn Game Lab is to provide not only a space for play but to challenge players to think about games beyond what comes right out of the box.

Located in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the core of the Brooklyn Game Lab is an afterschool program focusing not just on kids playing games but evaluating games and creating homebrewed expansions. The curriculum involves player self-evaluation of gaming mechanics, strategy and tactics, as well as a reward system which will allow kids to earn merits as their gaming prowess develops. Euro, cooperative, social and conquest games like Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island, King of Tokyo, Werewolf and Small World will serve as jumping-off points.

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Aside from the afterschool program, the Brooklyn Game Lab also features a number of After Hours gaming events targeting adult players. Mondays are Miniatures Night with a revolving series of fantasy and war-themed minis games the likes of Star Wars X-Wing, Space Hulk, Warhammer 40K and Flames of War for experienced players and curious newcomers alike. Wild Card Night on Tuesdays invites outside groups to host favorite go-to games for their own members and drop-ins from the general public. Thursdays are Singles Night, bringing in 20-somethings to roll dice, play cards and mingle. The old mainstay, Magic: The Gathering, occupies the Friday night slot, and weekends will provide opportunity for open gaming.

The 32-seat space will focus solely on the game curriculum and  special events for the time being, although there may be room for retail and private party rentals in the future. Things are off to a great start for Brooklyn Game Lab which is opening with a fully-booked afterschool program including my oldest son who will be a particpating Monday afternoons. Meeting with Bob for coffee last month, I was glad to connect with another passionate gamer looking to put a spin on New York’s gaming spaces. Getting kids engaged in games for life and igniting a developer mindset in them makes Brooklyn Game Lab a very welcome new space for the community.

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: Canterbury

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This past week I arrived home from work one evening to find a package in the mail containing the first game I’ve received from backing a Kickstarter campaign. Canterbury from Quixotic Games was successfully funded at just over $58,000, a relatively small game when compared to recent runaway Kickstarter hits like Zombicide: Season 2 at $2.2 million, All Quite On The Martian Front with just over $300,000 in funding and the current it-game Mars Attacks which looks to be cruising to a finish over a half-million dollars.

As promised in the steady stream of updates from the game makers, Canterbury is an exceedingly well-manufactured board game with tons of sturdy cardboard playing pieces and typical colorful wooden markers. The game presents a board containing 25 districts, each with six building lots. Each lot contains spaces to indicate water, food, religion, defense, commerce, and culture services which are provided as players build out the board.

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Beginning with a simple well providing water to the central district, players take turns performing one of three actions. A full build action allows 1-2 buildings to be constructed, depending on size and moneies available. Levying taxes gains a full monetrary collection based on the current economic strength of the entire kingdom, and a player using a levy play must perform on full build of 1-2 structures on their following turn. A third option allows a player to collect half the avilable taxes and build a single structure.

Building and placing structures provide services to the board. A small, single-lot building gives that distruct the available service while a medium-sized two-lot building provides the service to that district plus the districts surrounding at right angles. The five largest structures are built at a high cost, cover four building lots and provide their service to the local district plus any five other districts on the board. Planning comes into play as buildings may only be built when previous services are available in a district. For example, religious structures may only be placed when the prerequisite water and food services are already present in the district. Previously-constructed buildings may be demolished to upgrade existing services or expand on already-provided services.

There are lots of points to keep track of in Canterbury, adding up to many strategies toward winning at the game’s end. Erecting a structure gains points for the player as well as the kingdom, and players receive bonus points when breaking ground and building in empty districts. Once the kingdom passes the 100-point mark, players score “district favor” points based on the prominence of providing services to each district. Providing services also moves each player up an additional scoring track with those points scored at the end of the game. Points are again counted at the 200-point mark. Once the kingdom’s wealth takes three laps around the edge of the board to 300 points, the game ends with a final tally of points.

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The game is a bit lighter and faster than other civilization-building games I’ve played like Settlers of Catan, Civilization, Clash of Cultures and Village. That said, even with the brisk pace of the game, there’s a lot of strategy to be had. Players must always balance their own plays for points with the riches and services they are providing the kingdom (and other players) as a whole. Racing to provide services, build structures and gain an early lead on district favor points looked to be the key path to victory in the first game I played with my sons. Collecting and spending money at a balanced rate was also important since sitting on a pile of coins at the end of the game doesn’t provide much in the way of points.

Like any civilization-building game, Canterbury strikes a great balance of real-world competitive and collaborative construction play. My older son thought injecting the game with random events like floods or droughts might spice up the straightforward play a bit, but overall the three of us really liked the quick, well-structured play and progressive organization on the board. As a Kickstarter supporter, I’m really pleased with the results of Canterbury and I’m glad to have been there to see the kingdom’s development from that lone well in the wilderness.

Games Take A Vacation

I’m currently midway through my family’s annual summer vacation week on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and as always, games are on my mind. Renting a vacation house often gives an odd insiderish view to other people’s lives. The weird assortment of kitchen gadgets (who needs three waffle makers?), the hodgepodge of furniture, the collection of beachy knickknacks and bookshelves of worn bestsellers all seem to exist in various forms in the homes we’ve rented over the years. I always wonder how much this conglomeration of stuff reveals about the unseen owners who cash our rental checks each year and how much it tells me about my fellow vacationers.

Piles of games also usually inhabit vacation rental homes. Cottage owners probably provide a few games to start. Over the years families may pick up a game at a local gift shop and then leave it at the house for the next renter. For rainy days away from the beach or late nights after the sand has been rinsed off sunburned bodies, games hold a pretty consistent presence in the vacation home experience. I would hazard to guess that families who hardly ever find themselves playing board or card games together at home do so as part of their sacred vacation ritual.

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Games found in vacation rentals usually fall into a few broad categories. First, there are standard playing cards. Adults and kids alike can find many games for cards, from a calm game of Go Fish with a toddler to a game of Poker on the screened porch for the grown-ups after the children are tucked into bed. The house this summer has no less than ten decks of cards, including two unopened packs and a sailboat-decorated double set like the ones my grandmother and aunts used to use to play Bridge. Cribbage boards are also pretty commonly found along with cards, although I personally know few people who know how to play the game these days. Poking around in drawers and shelves this year revealed five cribbage boards, including two folding portable ones and a folksy handmade version with holes drilled into a slab of age-darkened wood cut into the shape of a whale (pic below). Tucked in a desk drawer I also found a set of five standard six-sided dice still sealed in their dusty package. Like so many items in a vacation home, I wondered at the story behind these dice. Why were they purchased? Why have they been left abandoned for so many years without use?

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The second class of vacation games fall into what I call “American Classics.” These are family-friendly board games like Life, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Checkers and Clue. To these I’d also add word games like Boggle and Scrabble, the dice game Yahtzee and Dominoes, all  of which were with us in this year’s house. Nostalgia and tradition resonate with these games, each offering a familiarity to vacationers year after year. These classics also give the flexibility for  games to be played among family members of all ages and the chance to introduce a new generation to an old favorite.

This year we also found a copy of Mastermind at the house, a classic board game outlier I’d never encountered in a rental cottage before. I hadn’t played in probably 30 years but was glad to find my eight-year-old son was an old hand at the game from playing a school. While not very challenging for me at this point, I was more than happy to pass an hour with this classic deductive code-solving game as part of a rainy day of indoor activity.

Finally, there’s the modern adult party games like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scattergories, Balderdash and Outburst which grew out of the boom in adult board games in the 80s and 90s.  These games are light on rules and big on group participation, making them the perfect thing to fill rowdy late nights for adults well into their gin and tonics or local summer brews. A copy of 1967’s trivia game Facts In Five was in the pile at the house this year, perhaps the result of a local yard sale find in the past.

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Along with packing the car with luggage, beach gear and bikes, we usually stow some games for our annual week away. This year, we hauled along several games from home, including Small World, Civilization (pic above), Settlers of Catan and the horse racing game Winner’s Circle. My kids and wife have developed a liking toward well-designed strategy games and can even be found delivering sneers and eye-rolls at the mere mention of a game like Monopoly. A simple deck of cards or a heap of Parker Brothers classics just don’t make the grade when there are grand civilization-building strategies to be played, even while on vacation.

Like many vacation home renters, I often fantasize about owning my own funky little cottage on the Cape. Part of this fantasy is how I’d decorate it with only the most thoughtful and interesting collection of furniture, useful yet surprising books and top-of-the-line kitchenware. Added to this list would be a set of well-curated games, short on too many classics and filled out with the best Eurogames there are to offer. Maybe a couple basic Dungeons & Dragons books and a bag of polyhedral dice sitting on a shelf would inspire some vacation role-playing. I’d be sure to throw in the occasional retro game for irony, but my hope would be be that my renters would be pleasantly surprised by having their minds expanded while on vacation.

But then, I wake up from my real estate dream and realize most people probably don’t want a challenge on vacation. A deck of cards or a familiar board game is what most folks will ever want on those few precious days away from home each year. For me though, gaming never takes a holiday.

New Game Weekend: Innovation

Humans at one of our most basic levels are builders, and gaming offers a wide variety of opportunities to experience the push of civilization building over time. It’s no surprise then that one of the big genres a lot of board, card and even video games fall into is civilization development. The combination of historical facts and the linear nature of societal advancement through the ages lends the subject to a wide variety of games. Gamers return again and again to the chance to play out the evolution of technology, philosophy, warfare, religion, agriculture and art. Sid Meir’s Civilization, Small World, Settlers of Catan, Clash of Cultures and Tzolk’in are just a few of the games I’ve played that fall into this broad category, both historically-based or set in a fantasy realm.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers, a few of us played through Innovation, the 2010 award-winning card game from Asmadi Games. Retailing at $20, the game consists of 105 unique and text-heavy cards played against a simple set of rules but with a lot complexity in keeping track of your own civilization’s innovation track.

Like most civilization building games, Innovation proceeds along a linear timeline from the Stone Age to the Modern Era. After starting with four cards laid out in front of them, each player chooses two actions in each turn: Draw, Meld, Dogma or Achieve. Cards are drawn from chronological eras numbered 1-10 with cards depicting progressively-advanced innovations. A meld action allows a player to play a like-colored card on top of a card already laid out in front of them. Melded cards supercede the innovation on the cards previously played underneath.

The dogma action is where the meat of the game takes place. Each dogma allows a variety of single or multiple actions that can affect not just the one player but other players displaying equal or greater numbers of symbols such as crowns, factories, lightbulbs, castles, leaves, etc. Dogma actions can result in additional drawn or discarded cards, taking cards from other players or fanning the pile of cards to the right, left, up or down.  As cards are collected and scored, players can take an achieve action to score a level of era achievement for their civilization. Some dogma actions allow a combination of cards to be used to score special achievment cards such as Monument, Empire or Wonder. The first player with five achievements wins the game.

As with most civilization development games, Innovation involves a lot of balance between charting your own progress while keeping an eye on the advancement of other players. Certain dogmas are extremely valuable in moving your civilization forward, but they may also assist the other players, too. This combination of collaborative and competitive play allows Innovation to mirror the arc of human societal development as the ebb and flow of alliances and strength can shift from turn to turn.

Innovation is deceptively easy out of the box, and it’s only through a play through a game or two that the true complexity is felt. Unlike other civilization games which can often  involve managing hundreds of pieces, charts and cards, Innovation’s simple card mechanic is one of its strongest points. The devleopment of human civilization has been a complex road for sure, but with Innovation the road doesn’t get bogged down in a big box of stuff and all the strategy you need is right there in the cards.