New Game Weekend: Revolution! and Carcassonne

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This past Saturday was International Tabletop Day, a day where tens-of-thousands of people around the world crowd around tables in dining rooms, basements, clubs and hobby shops to do what many of us do year-round — play games. My youngest son and I spent the afternoon at Brooklyn Game Lab, a recent entry into the growing list of New York City venues dedicated to unplugging and playing tabletop games with friends and strangers alike. The scene in Brooklyn was like that played-out worldwide with a packed house of experienced gamers and newcomers joining together, rolling dice, racking up points, playing cards, placing tokens and role-playing through a massive variety of games. At Brooklyn Game Lab, players faced off with a variety of games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Love Letter, The Resistance: Avalon, Tokaido and even a few games of Chess. My son and I had a go at two games which were new to us — Revolution! and Carcassonne.

rev picIn Revolution! from the decades-old Steve Jackson Games  players vie for power in a town through a secretive combination of blackmail, strong-armed force and out-and-out bribery. With four new players at the table, Revolution! was a quick learn and exciting fast play in just under an hour’s time.

securedownload-1A player’s secret bidding card in Revolution with Gold, Blackmail and Force tokens

Revolution! has an interesting secret bidding mechanic where players simultaneously bid their Force, Blackmail and Gold tokens on a dozen citizens of the board’s town such as the General, Priest, Printer, Mercenary or Spy. Once bids are placed, players remove their screens to reveal their bids. Bids to influence the same character are resolved through a simple Force beats Blackmail, Blackmail beat Gold and ties result in no effect for the round. Once a player wins influence over a character, the effects dealt out through additional earned Force, Blackmail and Gold tokens, Support points or placement of Influence markers in one of the town’s areas such as the Tavern, Town Hall, Market or Harbor.

securedownloadOur game of Revolution! from Steve Jackson Games at Brooklyn Game Lab

The game continues with subsequent rounds of bidding which progress into evolving strategies and agendas as the town’s areas fill up with player Influence. As the board is filled, players in Revolution! shift in their need for Force, Blackmail and Gold tokens, seeking to not only control the board but shift and undermine their opponent’s already-placed pieces. Controlling an area of the town brings additional Support points when the game ends, and the player with the most points on the outer scoring track wins.

carcassonneFor our second game of the day, we got into the now-classic Carcassonne from 2000. Distributed by Z-Man Games in the United States, Carcassonne is a tile-placement game where players build-out and a kingdom dotted with cities, roads and monasteries. Carcassonne is a quick learn, and the random tile choice at the beginning of each player’s turn creates choices in matching the tile to the multiple potential fits on the table.

In placing a tile, a player also makes a choice in placing a meeple on the board and in doing so, placing a bet on potential points. In placing the first tile of a city, a player may place one of their colored meeple pieces with the hope of closing off the city with additional tile plays which score points on the number of subsequently connected city pieces at a two points apiece. A monastery scores nine points when the eight surrounding tiles are placed, and roads are scored at a tile each once a route is closed between two endpoints. Victory points are tracked on a scorecard next to the growing kingdom of Carcassonne, and each tile played reduces the chances from the finite number of potential tiles in the draw pile. Playing against three experienced players in my first game,  I was able to score highest on some chancy bets and lucky tile draws.

International Tabletop Day is 24 hours of celebration of games, chanced strategies played out and opportunities to try something new. At the Brooklyn Game Lab this past weekend I found myself in my element surrounded by passionate gamers questing for victory and fun and more than a few hours of play. Games focus on this one day per year, but for a lot of my fellow gamers, they play out week after week until next turn  rolls around on the calendar.

Gaming The Rails

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I’ve been a railfan for as long as I’ve been a gamer. I grew up taking daily school bus rides past the rail yards of the short line Genesee & Wyoming Railroad. As a kid, my brothers, father and I built an enormous HO scale model railroad in our basement, complete with mountains, tunnels, trestles, lamp-lit streets and a working waterfall. After graduate school, I found myself living in Western Pennsylvania surrounded by and visiting railroad landmarks like the Gallitzin Tunnels, Horseshoe Curve National Landmark and East Broad Top Railroad. To this day, I rarely walk by a magazine rack without leafing through the latest issue of Model Railroader Magazine. There’s just something about trains.

For dual fans of railroading and gaming like me, there are a lot of options. Railroads lend themselves to gaming with their familiar cultural history coupled with thematic economic and mission/route-completion mechanics. Real-world competition among railroad companies, investors and promoters also contributes easily to any game presented within a railroading context.

AARailBaronAvalon Hill’s Rail Baron from 1977 is widely considered the grandfather of railroad games. Based on a 1974 board game called Box Cars, Rail Baron presents players with a map of the US with 28 historic railway routes. Players compete, as did the railroad moguls of the past, to complete routes, upgrade to faster trains and collect more cash to pour back into their empire. Rail Baron became one of AH’s all-time best-selling games, and most modern railroad board games owe more than a little to this classic.

Ticket

A longtime favorite at my house is Ticket To Ride, the award-winning 2004 game from Days Of Wonder. TTR is a pretty straightforward game where players complete routes between US cities, scoring points based on the length of the rail line and connections made along the way. Players balance holding cards in their hands attempting to build more longer valuable routes with the risk of their opponents building the highly-prized lines before them. The game is great for kids since play is fairly straightforward with little-to-no reading required, and various expansions have added to the replay of the game over the years.

steam box

A couple weeks ago I had occasion for a first play through Steam at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Steam, released by Mayfair Games in 2008, is similar to many train games in that it has a a route-completion component. The basic game comes with a two-side board featuring the US Northeast and the European Rhine/Ruhr region on the flipside. Aside from building routes, players transport goods between cities and upgrade towns to become new hubs. The game is competitive, but players can also balance sharing the wealth over some lines as tracks are strategically completed. Various map expansions add geographic possibilities in Europe, Africa, Asia and the West Coast of the US. Steam Barons expands the game further with a heavier economic mechanic of investing in the stock of multiple railways.

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In my first play through Steam I really enjoyed the Eurogame feel with choices made each round in various focuses of upgrading trains, building track, establishing new stations and moving goods. Bidding for turn placement also becomes increasingly important throughout the game as the board becomes crowded with competing routes and available goods begin to dwindle. Access to capital also shifts during the game, as access to lots of money becomes less important late in the game after a focused growth mode early on. Having played through the game, I’m anxious to give it another ride soon with the Steam Barons expansion’s added stock market elements.

RussianRR

The latest favorite rail game hitting the table at the club in Brooklyn is last year’s Russian Railroads from Z-Man Games. In classic Eurogame style, Russian Railroads is driven by worker placement mechanics as players push to develop increasingly technological superior trains ahead of the competition. While I haven’t had a chance to play the game yet, it did make a lot of people’s top games of the year, so I’m certain to jump into a game in the very near future.

Like myself, I’ve found a lot of gamers who are passionate about trains. Maybe it’s the competition inherent in railroad history that make them appealing. It could also just be the boyish thrill big trains never cease to bring. Regardless, like a passenger waiting at some rural depot with ticket in-hand, we’re all waiting for the next train to arrive with the possibility of adventure and fortune somewhere down the tracks.

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: King Of Tokyo & Chinatown

A fun, quick boardgame is a good thing any time, and this past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn I tried my hand at a couple which were new to me. In King of Tokyo and Chinatown, players get to run through some very quick gaming (less than hour each) under very different mechanics and themes.

King Of Tokyo

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Whether you’re a fan of old Godzilla movies, remember playing with Shogun Warriors toys in the 1970s or caught this summer’s Pacific Rim, 2011’s King of Tokyo may be just the thing for you. Battling as giant monsters like Gigazaur, Cyber Bunny, Alienoid, Meka Dragon or Pandakai, players duke it out through a cartoonishly-funny game to become the ultimate King of Tokyo.

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Each turn, a player rolls six special dice with values of 1 through 3 or a symbol indicating an Attack, Heal or Energy result. Numbers score victory points, Attacks take swipes at other monsters, Heals allow you to regain health points or evolve your monster, and Energy results allow for the collection of green cubes to spend on special ability cards. With three Heart results, not only does your monster heal but it also allows you to pull an Evolve card which gives you monster specific upgrades. Players choose to re-roll some or all of their dice three times each turn before finishing up and passing the dice.

Through the “king of the hill” action of the game, monsters jump in and out of Tokyo to heal and avoid being attacked by the other menacing players. Once you’re strong enough, you can choose to charge your monster back into Tokyo. The special ability and evolution cards give you added strengths to affect your and your opponents’ monsters. The expansions for the game add additional cards and room for 5-7 players so two monsters can occupy Tokyo and nearby Tokyo Bay simultaneously. The artwork of the cards and combinations of monster evolutions and special cards makes for a lot of variety and fun as the monsters pound away at each other until 20 victory points are achieved or all other monsters are destroyed.

Chinatown

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There’s no battling monsters or references to Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 modern noir movie Chinatown in the boardgame Chinatown, but a different kind of intrigue abounds on these streets. Released in 1999 by Z-Man Games, Chinatown is a club favorite at this point for its pure economic strategy play. In the game, a map shows a series a of city blocks with numbered lots all set within the street grid of Chinatown. In six turns (or years), each player first draws and selects random building lots and businesses. Businesses include such common Chinatown landmarks like dim sum restaurants, pet stores, antique shops, florists, jewelers, laundries and factories. Players need to build businesses on their lots to earn rent. For example, a tea house requires three contiguous lots to complete while a restaurant requires six. The bigger the business, the more rent collected at the end of each turn. Partially-completed businesses can score modestly (maybe $10,000 per turn) but a sprawling big business can earn big money each round ($100,000 or more). Strategy might focus on completing multiple small businesses, one or two larger ones or a mixture of businesses of all sizes. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.

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Unlike a more typical economic game like Monopoly, Chinatown is very fluid and involves little in the way of traditional game mechanics. There is no set play within a turn, no dice and a minimal amount of chance in the game. Players can buy or trade combinations of lots, businesses and money through an open negotiation process which only ends when there’s an agreement for no more that round. You might offer a business another player needs in exchange for a building lot you need on one of your blocks. During the draw phase, not only are you thinking of the lots you need to build your businesses but those which may prove valuable to your opponents. Balancing what you earn in a trade and what another player may gain in the exchange makes for both a competitive and collaborative game, much like the environemnt you would fine in any dense Chinatown.

Whether you’re up for some giant monsters slugging it out in Tokyo or some urban development on the crowded streets of Chinatown, both King of Tokyo and Chinatown make for very different but very entertaining games. At just around $40 each, these games are a sure thing for any group of new or experienced gamers looking for some quick yet engaging play.