New Game Weekend: Africana

westsideFor the second time this year I found myself in Los Angeles for work this past week, and once again I also wound up linking up with the West Side Gamers. The meeting of the group I attended at an IHOP just south of Culver City was the organization’s 510th consecutive club get-together. The group meets weekly in local restaurants, camping out over several tables and booths chocked full of dozens of games toted along by attendees. A weekly theme game is featured, but players split into groups to play whatever people are up for from about 6pm until well past midnight.

This past week’s featured game was Power Grid played on the recently-released Quebec map, although more than a dozen different board and card games were played throughout the evening. More than a couple dozen players spent the evening munching on diner food and hunched over tables of games.

20131010-233030.jpgOf the many games being played that evening, I  had the opportunity to play a game new to me, 2012’s Africana from Z-Man Games. Playable by up to four participants, Africana uses a few familiar card-driven mechanics within the context of the travel and exploration of the African continent. The game board features a map of Africa divided in two by the equator and laced with routes between cities. Each player’s expedition uses color-coded movement cards to trek between locations. A series of five adventure cards at the bottom of the board allows a player to pick a starting point for a research expedition to another location. Setting off on an adventure gains either a movement card or silver coins used to buy from the two adventure books.

africanaEach turn, players may either draw movement cards, move their explorer aroundthe board or purchase up to three pages from the wooden book racks. Purchasing pages from the adventure books north and south of the equator provides another quest opportunity to gather artifacts or hire additional workers to help move your expedition along the board. Collecting combinations of artifacts and completing adventure routes gain more coins and score victory points at the game’s end. While having multiple workers in your hand can help move you quickly around the board, holding too many at the game’s end deducts points from your total. As the game progresses, adventures become more valuable and players may be working on several adventures at once. Once all the adventures are drawn from the deck, the game ends and the player with the most victory points wins.

20131010-232920.jpgThe travel mechanics of Africana don’t allow for a lot of opportunity to really block other players on the board, although completing adventures ahead of the competition or acquiring valued artifacts from the books does allow for some strategic play. Moving your pawn to key port cities such as Cape Town allow for quick moves around the continent while moving inland is a bit more circuitous, so choosing adventures wisely is also key. The player who won our game focused on high-value adventures late in the game while my second place finish was scored mainly through the collection of artifacts. Even in this relatively light travel game, akin to something like Ticket To Ride, I could see the possibility of trying varying strategies.

Deep down I dislike just about everything about traveling for work — cabs, hotels, airports, living out of a suitcase — but heading to Los Angeles and a chance to meet-up with the folks at West Side Gamers makes the trips to the West Coast a bit more worth the journey.

New Game Weekend: Tzolk’in

This past week’s introduction to a new game came some 3000 miles away from where I typically do my gaming in Brooklyn. I was travelling in Los Angeles for work, and, like any dedicated gamer, I sought out a local gaming group with which to connect. After some online searching, I came across the Westside Gamers who bounce around each Thursday night to a different restaurant or coffee shop in the west LA area. The group typically has about a couple dozen players show up to their weekly boardgaming events, but this week’s gaming night at a Denny’s restaurant in Santa Monica had maybe 30-40 gamers in attendance, many travelling in from out of town for the weekend’s Stragicon convention on West Century Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Each week, the Westside Gamers pick a theme game, and this week it was the late-1960s bookshelf game Mr. President, chosen in honor of the upcoming President’s Day weekend. While a few players hunkered down into this four-player game where two teams of two players  each face off in a Presidential election as running mates on competing party tickets, there was plenty of other boardgaming going on around the tables and booths in the restaurant. Members of the group bring loads of games from their personal collections to their meet-ups, so there was an array of new and vintage card and boardgames to choose from in the piles scattered throughout the diner.

I teamed up with three friends — two from Alaska and one from Arizona — for an introduction to Tzolk’in, a wildly-popular Euro-style game based on the Mayan calendar. The game was introduced in 2012 and has become a gamer favorite for its interesting design and play mechanics based around a series of interlocking plastic wheels which mimic the passage of time on the Mayan calendar. The typical collection of wooden and cardboard chips, markers, cards and tiles make for a dizzying array of pieces to manage, but everything ties back neatly to the rotation of the wheels.

Like a few other Euro-style games I’ve played, such as Lords of Waterdeep and Settlers of Catan, Tzolk’in is a worker management game. Each player represents a Mayan tribe with a group of tribespeople workers to manage. In each turn, players either place or pick up one or more of their workers. Placing workers costs corn markers which are used as the primary currency in the game to pay for the health and upkeep of your tribe. Picking up a worker allows you an action such as harvesting corn or wood, gaining resources like stone or gold, building a temple, earning new technologies, paying homage to the gods or earning points through the play of a special crystal skull piece.

But about those wheels. Workers are placed on the wheels, and as each turn progresses, your workers rotate to more beneficial positions and actions. The game involves a lot of planning ahead as you balance resources gained by a worker on one wheel perhaps to be spent constructing a building or advancing a technology on another. Specific strategies seem like easy ways to win, like focusing on placing crystal skulls or earning praise of the gods in the temples. That said, the game isn’t as straight forward as just focusing on a single strategy, as the interplay among players can shift the strategy throughout the game.

Two of the guys I played with had a couple games of Tzolk’in under their belts, and their quick focus on building up stockpiles of resources and their presence in the temples allowed them to easily come out on top as we tallied points at the end of the game. About halfway through the game everything started to click for me, and I realized where I could’ve capitalized a bit more on my early game crystal skull focus rather than diversifying my gameplay. In all, Tzolk’in has quick play of about 90-minutes for four players, and I look forward to hopefully getting in a few games of this back in Brooklyn.