New Game Weekend: Acquire

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Acquire was designed by Sid Jackson and published in 1964 as part of the 3M bookshelf series. Produced from the early 1960s through mid-1970s, 3M’s games were a bit of an oddity outside their core office, medical and industrial supplies business yet they hold a solid place in the hearts and history of the gaming community. Along with classic board games like Go, Backgammon and Chess, the 3M bookshelf games also introduced the early trivia game Facts In Five, the election-themed Mr. President and economic strategy games like Acquire. In 1976, the 3M games were sold off to Avalon Hill which was subsequently purchased by Hasbro in 1998. The chain of ownership of Acquire through the years made for multiple international editions as well as a more recent period of the game being out of print until Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast made the game available again in 2008. For a game based in the economic mechanics of buying and selling, Acquire itself has passed through several acquisitions itself over the past five decades.

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Various editions of Acquire from the 1960s to 1990s

I had a chance to play the modern incarnation of this venerable game on a recent weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. The latest edition of Acquire consists of relatively underwhelming card stock and paper components that is short on charm but does keep the price just under $30. The game board presents a grid of building lots marked with a number and letter combination which coincide with a set of tiles with the same markings. In turn, players play tiles and may opt to construct an available corporation once two contiguous lots are available. Constructing a new corporation gets the player a free stock certificate plus the opportunity to buy up to two more shares at the starting price.

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My first game of Acquire in progress

On a turn where a new corporation is not being founded, a player may instead buy up to three shares total among the existing corporations. As chains of tiles are built out, the value and cost of a stock rises. Over the course of the game, existing corporations expand and larger corporations merge with smaller ones once their chains of building lots intersect. When corporations merge, players with stock may cash out, convert shares at two to one for the new coronation’s stock or hold the old stock for when (or if) the gobbled up company finds a new space to start again on the board. Once a corporation grows to a chain of eleven tiles it becomes safe from a take over, and the game ends once every company reaches at least eleven tiles in size. Stocks are cashed in and money is counted to determine the winner.

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Stock certificates, tile rack and reference chart from Acquire

Acquire’s staying power rests in its simplicity coupled with a lot of strategic and tactical play mirroring something like actual investing. As in the real world, timing, location and having cash on hand to strike when an opportunity presents itself are all key factors in Acquire. The game is also almost purely competitive, and the rules as written offer no opportunity for side trading or off-board deals. Placing a tile is usually a direct benefit to the player or may be a defensive move against another player’s expansion. Swooping in to buy stock to become a majority shareholder right before a merger can cut someone else out of a hefty payout. A merger or expansion of existing companies may also benefit multiple players. The ability to quickly convert cash earned into a new investment and then flipping that into more profit rules the game.

While the modern incarnation of Acquire pales next to past editions with their better components, the game itself remains strong. The buy-sell cycle of investing hasn’t changed much over the years. For a game with a fifty-year history of itself being bought and sold, little has changed with Acquire either.

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New Game Weekend: Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal

AandAguadalcanalboxThe  Battle of Guadalcanal between August 1942 and February 1943 was the first major Allied campaign set on crushing the Japanese foothold in the Pacific region. Fought in bloody air, sea and island engagements, the seven months of battle resulted in a significant shift in superiority to the Allies in the region and led to the beginnings of the downfall of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific.

Most of my wargaming happens on dry land and usually somewhere in Europe. The Pacific War in WWII always seems so separate, sprawling and overwhelming to me with its mix of different combined combats, complex supply lines and different territorial agendas. That said, dabbling in this portion of the war gives me a chance to use some very different tactics and strategies I’m not used to gaming. So, with a short couple of hours to spare recently at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, I tried my hand at some WWII Pacific action with Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal.

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The popular Axis & Allies boardgame series from Avalon Hill (owned by Wizards of the Coast) has been around for more than 20 years and covers many specific eras, battles and theaters of WWII. More recently, a WWI game has also been added in time for the 100th-anniversary of that conflict. The A&A games are readily available from a number of book and department stores, and they vary in complexity and time commitment. Mt first introduction to the series was with the Spring 1942 game which weaned my younger son and I off much simpler war board games like Risk forever. The great design, hundreds of sculpted plastic playing pieces, economic factors and combat mechanics make the A&A games a great way for old and new wargamers alike to engage in hours of very satisfying play.

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A&A: Guadalcanal board and game pieces (including the “battle box” at left)

The Guadalcanal game presents a map of the South Pacific islands and sea zones contested by US and Japanese forces. Victory points are determined by building and controlling island airstrips. As in the actual campaign, quickly capturing islands and building airstrips is critical not only to endgame victory but in providing bases to supply and deploy additional forces. Aside from capturing islands, controlling the three main sea zones at the center of the board (aka “The Slot”) is key in controlling the transport of crucial supllies and reinforcements.

The combat system in the game uses a “battle box” containing a dozen dice which are shaken and reveal various randomized target effects. With land, air and sea units crowding the board, the confused mass of combined arms is neatly accounted for with a few shakes of the unique battle box.

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Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal at Metropolitan Wargamers

In my first play as the Americans, I quickly captured the southern half of Guadalcanal while my Japanese opponent began a big push with his navy toward The Slot. In the second turn I was able to press on to Malaita and build a second airstrip of Guadalcanal to take an early lead in victory points.

With the Japanese navy massing in the central sea zone I made a risky gamble in turn three sending in a huge air attack which destroyed a few ships and damaged a battleship but was repulsed with overwhelming deadly force. With a vastly-depleted air force, I scrambled to build myself back up as the Japanese built an airstrip on Bougainville and I made moves toward Santa Isabel. By turn four my navy headed west along the southern coast of New georgia in the hopes of catching the Japanese navy from behind. While I was able to destroy a number of Japanese submarines at the western edge of the island, my attack on Santa Isabel was halted and the Japanese took the game.

A&A: Guadalcanal moves fast for two players, playing in about 2 hours. The short nature of the game makes every move from turn one onward important with little room for error. My lesson learned in the first game was not to run too fast toward facing-off against the superior Japanese fleet early, perhaps opting instead for a greater build-up of supply to gain island footholds to launch later game attacks.

The Axis & Allies series is fantastic for out-of-the-box playability with the different game versions each offering realistically-specific game dynamics for several WWII theaters and battles. Not being a big Pacific War gamer, A&A: Guadalcanal makes for a perfect way for me to get my feet wet and expand a bit of my gaming experience to another corner of the 20th-century’s greatest conflict.

New Game Weekend: Guillotine

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The French Revolution is a period where one can typically find little to laugh about, unless the mass slaughter of tens-of-thousands of people tickles your historical fancy or massages your deep-seeded hate for European aristocracy. The bloody period did much to shape modern world politics, abolished slavery in French-held territories and opened the door to the rise to Napoleon Bonaparte, but the popular symbol that lingers in most people’s minds is the guillotine.

Developed as an efficient and humane manner of execution, the guillotine was a perfect symbol for the Age of Enlightenment-fuelled violence of the French Revolution — a combination of vicious violence and modern invention. Executions of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and countless other nobles and members of the ruling class were public events during the Reign of Terror of the Revolutionary period. Ironically, Maximilien Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror would also meet his death at the guillotine when public sentiment turned against the violence of the era. Beyond the French Revolution, the guillotine would remain a prominent mode of execution for prisoners worldwide and a mode of terror for governments such as the German Third Reich well into the late 20th-century.

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Guillotine, the 1998 card game from Wizards of the Coast, uses the Reign of Terror as a jumping-off point for an unlikely comical, fast-paced and enjoyable game. Playing in about a half-hour, the game is framed over three days (or rounds) of executions with a steady flow of nobles lined up ready to be rid of their heads. Players score points through the value of nobles executed, playing cards to garner extra points, bump valuable nobles to the head of the line and steal from other players along the way.

The game is set up with an initial queue of 12 nobles lined up before a cardboard standing guillotine. Players are then dealt five Action cards to begin. Each player’s turn involves three steps. First, a player may use an Action card as an option. Next, the player collects the Noble at the front of the line, adding the card to their pool of victims points in front of them. Finally, the player draws back an Action card from the pile.

Once a line of nobles is eliminated at the guillotine, the day ends and the next row of 12 nobles is dealt out with play continuing in turn. After the second day and a third day of executions is complete, players score points from their collected noble victims and the highest score wins.

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Within the game there’s a surprising amount of strategy as players not only collect their own most valuable victims, but also do what they can to prevent their opponents from doing the same through play of Action cards.

Action cards bump nobles up and down the line, reshuffle the line, cause other players to lose nobles they’ve collected and rescue potentially-high-scoring nobles from a certain death.

Potential Noble victims come in color-coded cards: Civic (green), Royalty (purple),  Church (blue), Military (red) and Negative (grey). The grey-colored cards have negative point values, killing innocents or other crowd favorites. Collecting cards in certain color may result in additional bonus points made active by playing specific Action cards. Collecting combinations of nobles like the Count and Countess together or multiple Palace Guards can also reap bonus points.

Managing your own Action cards, your pool of scored nobles and the line of upcoming noble victims creates a great deal of dynamic play within the simple card-based mechanic. The card illustrations are comical and include a number of historical personalities such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre himself, offering a mildly-educational element to the broadly-historical game.

While execution is a grisly theme, older kids will find the game to be entertaining when played along with a group of adults. Like a lot of historically-themed gaming, the nastier bits are pretty well glossed-over in Guillotine. The game does provide some great entertainment for a fast and fun Reign of Terror of your own as the dishes are cleared, the desserts are gobbled up and the last of the French noble class is once again marched to their doom.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dungeon!

In 1975, just a year after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, TSR Hobbies released the boardgame Dungeon!. The game mirrored many aspects of D&D’s dungeon-crawling framework while offering a much lower point of entry for players either new to the genre or looking to just play a quick game.

dungeonadI got a copy of Dungeon! after a couple years of spending hours playing D&D and painting my first lead miniatures from the likes of Ral Partha. Dungeon! offered a traditional boardgame format and came as an occasional break from the open-ended role-playing my friends and I were used to with D&D. Ads for the game at the time (left) were also pitching the game to families and casual gamers as a point of entry and enticement to the larger world D&D offered.

Playing as an Elf, Hero, Superhero or Wizard, players moved through six progressively-difficult levels, encountered random monsters and collected treasure. Each character class carried specific strengths and powers, with more powerful characters such as the Wizard or Superhero requiring greater treasure to win the game.

Large chambers such as the Kitchen, Crypt, King’s Library or Queen’s Treasure Room were surrounded by smaller rooms, color-coded to indicate the level. In each large chamber, a stack of three randomized monster cards specific to that level were placed at the beginning at the game. In each smaller room, one monster and a treasure was placed. When a space was entered, the top card was drawn and combat between the player and the monster ensued with a simple die roll. Winning combat won the treasure while ties or losses might result in a retreat or loss of treasure.

For players familiar with D&D like myself, Dungeon! mirrored a lot of the established canon. Monsters fell along the lines of hobgoblins, werewolves, dragons, mummies and snakes. Dungeon pitfalls such as traps might be encountered. Characters like Wizards held special spell cards such as Fireball or Teleport, and found magic items included an ESP Medallion and a Magic Sword, offering certain characters bonuses to their play. Treasure ranged from meager bags of glod found in the easy levels to the covtted Huge Diamond (worth 10,000 points) hidden deep in the sixth level.

Several editions of Dungeon! followed through the years, the most recent in 2012 from Wizards of the Coast, now-owners of the D&D franchise. Longtime players have also created a rich universe of house rules, customized boards and even hand-painted figures to supplement the basics of the game. Despite its relative ease of play, Dungeon! has remained a classic bit of fun among even the most serious gamers today.

New Game Weekend: King of Chicago & RoboRally

Friday night at Metropolitan Wargamers in Park Slope, Brooklyn had a decent crowd of six of us collected in the back with a few other people up front continuing play of a multi-week and fairly dense American Civil War battle. Coming to agreement on an ad hoc game together for a half-dozen guys is a challenge on its own, but we managed to settle on two games which are standbys at the club but pretty new to me.

King of Chicago

Produced in Denmark in 2005, King of Chicago takes place in the Prohibition-era Windy City where each player takes on the guise of gangster looking to rule the streets by creating and breaking alliances, building their empire and whacking the competition along the way.

The game begins with each player owning a gangster, a car, $1000 and a few resources. Resources in the game are booze, henchman and girls, and additional resources are picked up in various landmarks spread throughout the city. Combinations of booze, henchmen and girls in your gang allows you to build bars, casinos and brothels which create income at the completion of four turns in each round of play. At the end of a round, players collect income, new gangsters are put into play and resources get set on the board. Bidding takes place for gangsters to add to your mob, gaining you bonuses of speed, income, protection and lethalness. Players also bid to bribe the cops, controlling them through the next round of play.

The game offers a lot of strategic play in how a player chooses to build their empire and also in managing relationships with the other mob bosses on the board. Drive-by shootings, shutting down competing businesses and sending the other guys to the hospital or the morgue makes for a lot of opportunity for deals to be struck and double-crosses to take place. Certain cards cause “events” like police raids to be played and others send players on “jobs” which net substantial sums of income. The player who quickly amasses ten points from money, businesses and influence wins the game.

The game looks great with simple components and a wonderful collection of historic photos from the Chicago gangland days depicted on the cards. The many paths players can choose to build their mob empire adds significant replay value to the game.

King of Chicago was released with a limited print run and can be hard to come by in the United States. However, for lovers of gangster movies and the period when the underworld ruled Chicago, chasing down a copy is well worth the effort.

RoboRally

After a couple hours on the mean streets of Chicago, we had a seventh player show up. Our second game of the evening took us in a different direction with the hilariously chaotic RoboRally. The game was originally published by Wizards of the Coast way back in 1994 but was created a decade earlier by Richard Garfield who would go on to design the insanely-popular Magic: The Gathering card game.

The game takes place on a factory floor with each player’s tiny robot attempting to navigate through a set number of flagged gates. This seemingly-simple mission is hampered by moving conveyor belts, rotating gears, solid walls and laser arrays spread throughout the factory. Robots controlled by other players also wreak havoc on your path by bumping into and zapping your robot with their lasers.

At the beginning of each round, players draw up to nine cards each with directional actions such as left and right rotations, u-turns and movement backward and forward. Players secretly place their cards face down in front of them defining their robots’s moves for the round. In turn, players reveal each card and move their robots in order of card value and according to the movements selected. The fun and craziness comes in when well-thought plans quickly go awry as robots beginning bumping into each other and throwing each other off course. Just when you think you have a direct route neatly plotted out to a flagged gate space, some other robot (or two or three) ram straight into you, sending you wheeling off in some other direction.

Lasers cause damage to your robot, reducing your movement choices in a round and only made better by spending a turn shut down repairing. Occupying repair spaces can also provide fixes for damage, and even special robot upgrade cards. The truly unlucky robots will find themselves bumped off the board, returning to their last starting point at the beginning of the next round.

The more players who play only contributes to greater chaos on the board. Our late night seven-player game stretched to nearly two hours of mechanized madness until one player managed to get through a few gates and away from the crowd. My sad little robot, on the other hand, wound up spending the game unluckily bumping into his mechanized comrades and finished the game exactly where it started.

RoboRally has won multiple awards, and its many versions and expansions have ensured its continued love among gamers for nearly two decades. After the cold-bloooded and calculating play in King of Chicago, it was great to end the night on a much more lighter but no less challenging game like Robo Rally.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Gamma World

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures in pop culture were big fascinations of mine as a kid. Planet of the Apes premiered the year I was born, and the movie sequels, live-action TV show, Saturday morning cartoon and toys were a big part of my imagination through the first half of the 1970s. As I grew into a budding sci-fi fan, movies like The Omega Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Logan’s Run, as well as television re-runs of The Twilight Zone further filled my brain with visions of future what-ifs and the destruction of the human race.

In 1981, two things happened. Ronald Reagan became President and would go on to occupy the White House for all my teenage years. During this formative period of my life, my waking mind and night time dreams were filled with the ever-looming threat of nuclear war flowing from Reagan’s amped-up rhetoric toward what was then still the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the fictionalized visions of the end of civilization seemed very, very real.

That same year, I saw Mad Max 2, (aka The Road Warrior). Although shot in Australia with an Aussie-accented Mel Gibson in the lead, the movie resonated as very American to me. With it’s high-desert setting, gunfights, chase scenes and a hero with a hidden past, the film struck me very much like Westerns (particularly those of Clint Eastwood) I already loved. Wrapping the Western genre up in a post-apocalyptic story hit all the right notes in my 13-year-old imagination.

Along the way in the late 70s through early 80s, I was spending a lot of time gaming with Dungeons & Dragons. In 1983, I ran across the second edition of Gamma World in the local bookstore where I bought most of my D&D gaming stuff. Originally introduced in 1978 by TSR, the makers of D&D, Gamma World was a role-playing game set in a post-nuclear war 25th-century Earth populated  by mutants, cyborgs and remnants of the human race. While D&D drew its influence from various fantasy sword-and-sorcery antecedents, Gamma World’s dystopian setting was rooted in the sci-fi themes of stories and movies I loved. From a game mechanics standpoint, Gamma World had a familiar feel to D&D with character attributes, fantastical equipment and a chart and dice-driven combat and encounters system. The similiarities with D&D made it easy to slide into the entirely different storylines Gamma World offered.

I never took to Gamma World with the same depth of interest as D&D, but playing it was pretty fantastic. The world of the game was occupied by giant rabbits, humanoid lizard people, deadly plantlife, robotic killing machines and all other manner of deadly foes and allies. Weaponry ranged from spears and traffic sign shields to laser rifles and nuclear devices. Maps represented entire crumbling city street grids or hidden underground survivalist bunkers. An adventure could involve a quest for an “ancient” 20th-century manuscript holding the key to human salvation or an infiltration mission to destroy a cyborg factory. To my friends and me, Gamma World allowed us to write the scripts and play through the dozens of unmade post-apocalyptic movies living in our heads and influenced by the films already ingested into our psyches.

Gamma World is still published by Wizards of the Coast today, but the popular trend in zombie-themed games occupies most of today’s gaming interest in post-apocalyptic scenarios. That said, for a purely futuristic, dystopian, sky’s-the-limit role-playing game, fast-wording a few centuries to Gamma World can’t be beaten.

Collector’s Note: Original TSR-published Gamma World boxed sets and expansion modules can be found on eBay. Modules and indivdual rule books can run in the range of $15-75 while original complete boxed sets of early editions can run into the hundreds of dollars.