Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Board Games

Tabletop Glory with Formula D

In the first place, tournament grade board gamers are cold-hearted, merciless lot. They play flawlessly, too. They’re quick to read the board and they just don’t make blunders. The kicker, though, is that racing games are doubly brutal. You might lead the pack, but everyone trailing you has every incentive to take on risks that can propel them ahead. You’re just not going to walk into a convention and do well against these people unless you’ve played the exact game hundreds of times already.

I sat down at the Formula D heat anyway. I’m not even clear on the finer points of the rules, so I was doubly out of my depth. The game is rightfully a classic, extremely accessible to all ages and yet difficult to master.

Somehow I got the pole position. This was actually bad for me because I couldn’t copy other people’s moves! I drove through the first three turns like a maniac, burning through my tires and wearing out my brakes. I was still in the lead, though… but then I missed a roll with exactly the wrong amount. It was extremely unlikely… but it was just enough off to send me into a spin-out.

Somebody at the other end of the table piped up: don’t have to worry about him anymore!

An absolutely crushing remark that put me way down on the tabletop hierarchy. It rolled right off of me. See, this isn’t 2016 Jeffro we’re talking about here. This is 2018 Jeffro… whose very brain has been rewired to accommodate his top lobster mindset. That tail-flick reflex that would normally steer me safely away from conflict and potential humilation? It was nowhere in sight. Flushed with high levels of serotonin, I calmly set myself to taking consistent, moderate risks with essentially no margin for error. And over the course of the two lap game, I found myself passing one tournament-grade player after another until I was in second place.

I was barreling toward the penultimate turn of the game. I needed to land inside it in order to maintain my position and threaten to win. It came down to a two-in-three chance that I could pull it off. If I’d had more of the brakes that I had carelessly spent it the opening phases of the game, it would have been far more likely to succeed. But I throw the dice… and I find myself spinning out for the second time in the game.

It was still awesome. Guys at the table that might have looked right passed me congratulated me on my climb from total irrelevance to “my gosh, he could actually pull this off.” I wasn’t going to the final on this one… but I was awash in a feeling of tabletop glory anyway.

Clawing my way up through this particular bucket of crustaceans was flat out exhilarating.

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One Turn of Metagaming’s Trailblazer

I muddled through one turn of this with my son. I like this one way more than him– he say’s it’s complicated. He keeps telling people that a single turn takes thirty minutes.

The main problem with this game is that there’s too much data involved with the tracking of each trade good at each world, where your fleets are and what you have in your cargo holds. Every transaction has you rolling dice to check to see if there is an impact in either demand or production. It’s hard to visualize what is happening so that you can make informed decisions.

BUT… for all of this bookkeeping and clunkiness… you get a toy universe to play with. And for that, I really dig this game.

We started with our ships at Sol. We each had 20 units of money. I chose three transports and my son took two transports and a scout.

My son bid five for the two ships that are produced at Sol… I bid six… then he went to seven and I quit. He took them as transports instead of scouts. That left him with 6 units of cash. He spent the rest of his money on 2 holds of weapons and 2 holds of industrial tech.

Sneaky mean old me then got to pick up all the cargo I could carry at a cost of 1 unit of case each! (I’m a stinker.) I took 3 holds of germ plasm, 1 hold of industrial tech, and 2 holds of medical tech.

We checked so see if there was a change in production for each of these items and there was no fluctuation.

There is a chance that fleets will get randomized on a move– and less of a chance if a fleet has one or more scouts. We selected our destinations. And everybody made their movement rolls just fine:

  • My transport that went to Alpha Centauri sold one germ plasm for 2 and one industrial tech for 18. (The demand number for germ plasm increased by +1.)
  • My transport that went to Kimberly sold one germ plasm for 5 and one medical tech for 2. (The demand number for medical tech increased by +1.)
  • My transport that went to  Libertas sold one germ plasm for 18 and one medical tech for 7. (The demand number for medical tech increased by +1.)
  • My son’s fleet of two transports sold two units of industrial tech at Jahsworld for 24. (The demand number for industrial tech increased by +1.)
  • My son’s fleet of two transports and a scout sold one of his two units of weapons at Kimberly for 28. (The demand number for weapons dropped by -1.)
  • My cash total after this was 66 and my son’s was 52.

The chart for determining the price of goods sold is very slick. You cross reference the demand number with total number of units sold to get the price. Higher demand numbers and fewer goods sold means more money per unit!

There are a few rules we ignored just to get through the gist of a turn– stuff with factors and exploration. But this is the gist of the game. (There is a system for adding new planets to the game and randomly determining what they produce and consume as well, for instance. I’d try a turn of this every now and then, but the bookkeeping and the difficulty in “seeing” what is going on is a real barrier to my son’s attention span.

The real “gotcha” in the rules that I saw in this is that the player that rolls high in the movement phase goes first… so the people at go last can come into the same places as you and flood the market. And the randomized fleets could be really irritating if someone rolls poorly for that. (What star trader is unwilling to manage a little risk, though?) But the system of determining the sales price on trade goods is pure genius. Of course, the amount of bookkeeping will varies directly to the number of ships in play… which is too danged bad. Nevertheless, I still think this game is the bee’s knees.

Somebody suggested I make a spreadsheet for this thing, but I don’t think that would solve the game’s problems. (I’m biased, though– I don’t want to look at computer screens during a game session.) I think slightly better play aids would do the trick, especially if it was easy to tear down and set up.

One rule that I flubbed in this session was I forgot the penalties for the rolls that adjust the production levels. If I get what’s supposed to happen, the production is liable to seriously drop for the stuff that people aren’t buying… and when/if demand kicks in… players will be trying to stimulate the production of items that have zeroed out. Really… some kind of world tracker play aid with the sequence of play and the key calculations laid out so that you don’t have to think about them would be super neat. If they could be laid out in such a way that they become the star map… oh golly!

Yeah, I’d totally play that. All day, even.

Dragon Rage: Getting it Played

The designer of this particular entry has said that his favorite game is “the game of designing games.” Me, I just play ’em… but the game of playing games isn’t always so straightforward. Old school microgames are a particular favorite of mine, but they are are distinctly out of step with the tastes of more conventional gamers. Finding opponents can be pretty challenging. With Steve Jackson’s Battlesuit, for instance, I ended up playing it solitaire a good five times. When I actually met someone that would give it a try, I was completely ready for that odd chance. Dragon Rage has a similar sort of learning curve, and when it got passed over a few times over the past few months by my gamer friends, I realized I was going to have to call in a few favors to get this one on the table in any kind of serious manner. So for my birthday yesterday, I went ahead and asked my friends to give this one a go even though I knew it wouldn’t be their first choice.¹

One thing I learned the first time I played this, your first game is going to be a fairly demanding didactic exercise. This is not like Revolution!, say, where you can play through a turn or two and soon find yourself facing stiff competition from a new player. Because of that, I begged my friends to stick around for a second game if it was at all possible.

I taught two players at once and we played for about eight turns before we called it. They each took one side of the board. The guy on the left side got swamped by my Hero and cavalry units and quickly got his legs cut down in the docks area. The guy on the other side of the board wandered into the range of three archers firing from towers and was soon hurting as well. They did not quite grasp the need for hit and run tactics while their mobility was still up….

I lost one of the players right there– he took the chance to exit when the phone rang with some birthday greetings. I can’t say I was surprised by this. He mostly prefers the medium-weight eurogames like Agricola, Power Grid, and Puerto Rico. Me? I hate those games because of the passive aggressive negotiation and the musical chairs style game mechanics. The games I like are more like Dragon Rage: direct, open conflict… with real tactics. Table talk can’t do a whole lot to change the standings. Indeed, all smack talk can be put to the test straightaway without any shenanigans.²

Anyway, my other friend stuck around and tried out a second game. After having some snacks and reading over the rules very carefully, he thought he had a winning strategy that he could try out on me. He was confident that he would stomp me, too. And he did!

He flew his dragons in together the second time.³ They landed in the city on their first turn and I moved my forces towards them a bit. On the second turn, he then ignored everything else on the board except my Hero. He moved his dragons to where they could both use their breath weapon on him. They wounded him and then finished him off in the melee round. From there on out, all of my units had to pass a morale check in order to attack the dragons at all. I’d also lost those wonderful +1 to-hit bonuses that my Hero would have given to adjacent units! I did what I could, covered my bases, and tried to hold on until the reinforcements arrived… but it wasn’t enough. On the start of turn eleven, my opponent was positioned so that he could pick up a total of 18 points. I was defeated.

If you are curious about this game or are considering picking it up, these are the primary factors that will determine whether or not it is going to be your thing:

  • Playing time for that second game was right at two hours. If we stick with it, I could see that getting smaller, but really… you can get in three games of Ogre in the time that it takes to play one game of Dragon Rage. On the other hand, you can play three games of Dragon Rage in the time it takes to play one game of Axis & Allies. The overall weight, depth, and intensity here is fairly close to that of a Star Fleet Battles starship duel.⁴
  • I can’t say that there are any complex rules here. There’s just a whole lot of crucial constraints on every single aspect of the game. There’s so many of them, you will have to repeat them several times when you teach it. The real challenge of learning the game is not so much the rules, but it’s getting the hang of seeing beyond them so that you can harness them into effective tactics.
  • One rule that I really kept having to go over had to do with the dragon’s movement. When they walk, they get a free 60° turn before they move into a new hex. When they’re flying, they get to turn after they’ve moved forward two hexes. Players that don’t grok this will end up being pretty cavalier with the dragons’ facing.⁵ There is a very strong temptation to mix the flying and walking movement modes in the same turn. This seems reasonable to the uninitiated, but the real crux of the game depends on the various pieces not being able to get exactly where they want as soon as they want.
  • This game puts the defensive player in a fairly agonizing position. The defense has to cover his bases or else the dragons will quickly level the city. But to do any significant damage to the dragons, he will have to have to create openings for them while spending valuable spell points and putting the Hero at risk. It could be that I haven’t “solved” this yet, but I don’t recall seeing a game that put you on the horns of a dilemma this strongly in a long time.⁶
  • The biggest thing about this game compared with, say, Ogre and Car Wars: it doesn’t always feel like you can do a whole lot in a single turn. The dragons can’t take off and land in the same turn. They might overrun an infantry unit in a hex and end a turn sitting in a victory point hex. On their next turn, they will want to tear up the city and fly away… but they can’t do both! This may come off as arbitrary or even unrealistic to a new player… but I keep saying over and over to them, this actually is the heart of the game.

So those are the main factors that nail down what this game actually is.  It is a “thicker” game than Ogre/G.E.V. and certainly less chaotic than Awful Green Things… but among the old small box games that have been brought back in super-slick, extra large editions, this one brings something entirely different to the table.⁷ I could play this all day, but it is not what the average eurogamer is going to expect– and even die hard microgame fans are liable to be surprised. If you do get this game and get a player lined up… try to find someone that can commit to playing it more than just once in a single session. You may have to play Pacific War or something with them in return… but you’ll at least get something closer to the real Dragon Rage experience….

¹ I lowered my expectations for the session accordingly. (Everybody wants to be the alpha gamer….)

² Now that I’m taking Dr. Lewis Pulsipher’s game design class, I see that my opinion on these games is due to my more “mathematical” view of how these things should be enjoyed. Not everyone is like that, of course. Some want story above everything else, while others actually consider negotiation antics to be a legitimate part of the game experience. Go figure!

³ It wasn’t clear to me from the rules if it was okay for the dragons to enter while in flight mode. As game-teacher-guy, I went ahead and ruled that this was okay.

⁴ Obviously, there are lot fewer rules in Dragon Rage. It’s the engagement implied by the rules that I’m saying are comparable. Dragon Rage gets the same degree of “oomph” as Star Fleet Battles, but with a lot less cruft and extraneous detail. (Dragon Rage is clearly the product of the Japanese rock garden philosophy as applied to game design.)

⁵ The defenders, on the other hand, will have a huge motivation to count out every single movement point and turn that is expended by the dragons. Every hex and facing change matters a great deal because time is just about the only sure weapon that the humans have!

⁶ Steve Jackson’s Battlesuit was at least as grueling, but that game was fairly terrifying more because of the sense of vulnerability of your troops. (You had to risk getting shot with reactive fire in order to attack… and it didn’t take much to damage or kill a trooper.) Dragon Rage feels different because the constraints on movement for both sides along with the short attack ranges lend a more chess-like feel to the game. You have to weigh the cost of every potential exchange and there are no easy choices.

⁷ It’s hard to imagine the kind of value people were getting when they were picking this up in the early eighties. There’s just so much game here!

Marathon Gaming Weekend of Doom: Part Two

I didn’t expect this to happen until next year some time, but a long time gaming friend was passing through anyway, so we made time for another weekend of nonstop gaming. (See here for details of the last one.) Here’s a list of the games we played along with notes on how they stack up against each other:

Reinforcements arrived just as the last bits of the city burned to the ground. They did, however, have a darn fine ferry at their disposal.

Dragon Rage — I have waited a long time to finally get this one out! While it is superficially similar to Ogre in its overall design approach, it nevertheless has several key differences. The default scenario features two dragons on the attack– reminiscent of two very angry Ogre Mark III’s– but the “command post” here takes up most of the map, and it has to be broken down one bit at a time. The overall tone of the game is thus closer to Rampage than Ogre. The fact that it is almost impossible to wipe out the defenders means that the dragons have to focus more on property damage than fighting. Also notable is just how terrible Ogre defense tactics play out here: you can’t just surround the dragons and pound on them, but you have to consider how to stall them while keeping all of your bases cover. If you are looking for a portable old school microgame with top of the line game components, don’t mutilate your Ogre set. Get this instead…!

Yellow appears to be ahead, but red has control of some surprisingly valuable locations on the board….

Revolution! — My friend was disappointed when we didn’t get to this one for our previous session, so we made sure to make time for this one. I knew it would be easy to teach and play even when we were starting it after midnight. This game is so easy to teach and it appeals to a wide variety of folks: serious gamers, casual gamers… even kids. I seemed to be in the lead for most of the game, but my opponent wasn’t hopelessly behind. I didn’t go easy on him, but I never took the time to count out the current standings down to the last point. As such… I was shocked when my friend actually won the game by seven points on his first try! (Philip duBarry did a fantastic job on the game design here and the theme is a perfect fit for what you’d expect from something with Steve Jackson’s name emblazoned on the side.) Of all the games in my collection, this is the one that is most asked for. Even more surprising, it doesn’t seem to be getting stale even as we approach 25 plays. This is truly a remarkable game.

“There stands Jackson with not a confederate in sight — rally round the cavalry!”

Battle Cry — My friend had played Commands & Colors: Ancients on his last visit. He was so impressed, immediately picked up a copy of this. The game turned out to be a lot simpler. I don’t think we had to pick up the rule book once we started playing. There are no evasion rules or elephant rampages to puzzle through– and no elaborate reference card, either. You just kick back, move your men, and throw the dice in this particular variant. Though the learning curve for the rules is easy going, I was shocked at just how much the tactics change when you go back to this incarnation of the game. I put my confederate troops all on a hill… where just about every single Yankee on the board could take pot shots at them. Oops! If Stonewall Jackson hadn’t retreated behind it, he’d have been blown away! (In our game, he never would have earned his appellation!) I sent J. E. B. Stuart to take out an artillery unit, and I found out that this can be really painful when it doesn’t work out. (Are you sure there’s no evasion rules in this set…?) I only just barely eeked out a win by getting that last flag in the end. And though leaders don’t have quite the impact here as they did in Ancients, old J. E. B. pulled through for me by providing with the very last hit I needed! This is a great game though– it is sure to see a lot of play because it’s so easy to teach and quick to play. It’s also very “moreish” and a loss is not as painful under this system for some reason. After all, you can always blame your opponent’s victory on the cards.

It took just a few minutes to play out a duel between two Mark I’s.

Ogre — My son had been playing in the snow for most of the morning, but when he saw Battle Cry on the table, he forgot all about it. He played against our guest and completely crushed the Yankees. (I found out later that his opponent was going easy on him.) My son liked the game well enough, but expressed some concern over the absence of the “battle back” rules from ancients. That afternoon, I encouraged him to try his Ogre strategy out on his new found opponent. It turns out that his all-G.E.V. force is not an imbalanced choice, and my son’s units were wiped out to a man. My son asked for a Mark I duel and it ended the same way as the Mark VI duels did: with one Ogre immobilized and the other destroyed. They tried one more game of the Basic Scenario and switched sides. Our guest then tried out four howitzers and four G.E.V.’s and got completely annihilated by my son’s Mark III. Still, one of the best moments of the weekend was seeing my friend’s eyes widen when I brought this game out the first time…!

A winning power structure in a two player game of Illuminati.

Illuminati — This game… is simply not reccomended for two players. We got it out and played it anyway. I just love making power structures and pushing the money all along those tentacles of power and corruption. We built took over some groups while we tried to pick up on the rules. I don’t know what it is about this game, but it seems stupidly hard to learn it again when you don’t play it for a while. There’s so many rules that you can remember half wrong or that it is difficult to track down when somebody is waiting on you to finish your turn. Anyway, why does this game not work so well when it’s only two players…? Well at some point the two illuminatus will come into conflict: one might be trying to neutralize a major wing of his opponent’s power structure, for instance. If the victim does not have enough money to block this… he basically loses the game right there. His opponent will be getting more money every turn from his bigger power structure… and so he’ll be able to neutralize (at the very least) things as much as he wants. Odd ball cards can derail this occasionally, but that’s pretty much how it is. The whole design of the game hinges on the other players being able to cooperate to keep back the leader. (I can see this game functioning sort of like the old Avalon Hill Dune game. Even if you can’t get a good five players together locally, it’s famous enough and hip cool enough that you should be able to make it happen at a reasonably sized con.)

The hammer is about to fall here….

Space Empires: 4X — This game is much denser than the others, so we saved it back for after the kids went to bed. I tried my best to explain the things that usually trip people up– things like how bases and ship yards are built and how and when they appear at a new colony. We got started, and though I had intended to use the full set of advanced rules, neither one of us bought any fancy stuff beyond the pipelines. (I remembered from Star Fleet Battles that its bad form to kill a new guy with something weird, so I didn’t break out the raiders or the mines like I was wanting to.) I sent a fleet of two battleships, four destroyers, and two scouts out that was more or less at Attack-1, Defense-1, Move-2. I ran over some decoys when my opponent was rolling over my colonies, but I kept pushing forward while I tried to react and build back up. I was about to bust up my opponent’s colonies in retaliation, but he sent out a fleet to try to kill my forward fleet and I shrugged it off. I realized that his forward colony probably had a base on it, so I ignored it and headed towards his home world. He sent another small fleet out instead of hanging back with his armed shipyards… and somehow, I managed to demolish him. After the game, my opponent was just plain flabberghasted– he couldn’t figure out where my fleet came from and why it was so effective. After sleeping on it, though he says he has a bit more respect for the game and a desire to try it again sometime. I’m thinking that a decent set of combat examples covering some typical tactics and situations will help him wrap around how the game works– because this thing sure doesn’t play out like Axis & Allies. It rewards aggression and it’s more of a quick and dirty knife fight than it is an accounting match. I love how that forward fleet can’t rebuilt or repair– and even better, it’s liable to be slightly inferior to the defending home fleet. It takes a lot of nerve to send those ships out and leave your home systems open to counterattack…! But that’s how the game is played….

So that’s how it went.

  • Revolution! really stands out in this group of games. The fact that a new player can actually develop effective tactics during his first game is remarkable. It is also easy to get players for a fuller game, too. This is the most versatile game of the bunch. (One game played… with somebody showing up Sunday afternoon to randomly ask for another!)
  • Battle Cry is also very good. You get a lot of game there without a whole lot of overhead. There’s not a lot to it, though– I just don’t see its chassis being able hold the massive number of expansions that Commands & Colors: Ancients has amassed for itself. But for a good, non-brain-burning two player battle game, it’s hard to beat. (Two games played.)
  • Ogre is crunchier and a little more dry in comparison… and though it may lack the chaos of Battle Cry and the misdirection of Revolution!, it is at the very least short and to the point. The thing that really stands out about it is not only do ten year olds quickly develop their own pointed opinions about the relative utility of the various defense units, but they also create their own scenarios and demand to play them. (Three games played.)
  • Space Empires: 4X really does require more than one teaching session I think. There’s just a lot there and it can be difficult to express it all concisely in the heat of a session. It can be frustrating in comparison to something more familiar like Axis & Allies, but a game of Space Empires can be completed far sooner and your tactical and strategic options are far richer. I think it’s worth the investment. (One game played to completion in four hours.)
  • Dragon Rage really fascinated me, but my opponent said it was a little complicated for what it was. (Of course, he tends to like the less complex games of my collection in general.) The first session of a game of this vintage is nearly always going to be a slog, though. The game really picks up its tempo once you get the hang of it and once a few key units are weakened or eliminated, but there’s enough to this that I wouldn’t recommend teaching it unless you can agree in advance to push through three or four plays with it. Still, I especially want to play it again because I know I can do so much more with my wizard than just toss a single lightning bolt like I did this time…. (One game played.)
  • Illuminati, I hate to say, but this game sort of tanked in this session. It just needed additional players in order to be a real game and we didn’t have them. On the other hand, playing it this way is worth the investment I think because we’ll have worked through all of our rules questions by the time that we actually do get a good number of players together to play it! (One game played.)

Epic Game Night With My Daughter

I’d set up for the Giants scenario, but my daughter quickly had us fighting with the Nurkott map on the reverse side…!

My son was out and about with mom on Saturday night, so my eight year old daughter demanded her chance for a big gaming night. Here’s how things fell out:

Pictureka — I’m not sure how this game turned up at the house. I’m not even sure if we were playing this right– my daughter taught me the rules by herself. If there was a borderline case, she adjudicated it by putting the card back in the bottom of the draw pile. After two passes through the deck, she decided it wasn’t that fun and put it away.

Cadoo — This is the Cranium board game adapted to kids. My children love it, but they are just a bit too old for it now. (I wish we’d gotten it a couple of years ago.) It contains Pictionary, Charades, and “Claytionary” type challenges. The kids really get into it, too. It is not, however, all that well adapted for two-player games. Complicating that, my daughter insisted that we remove the timer. (She really didn’t like that timer!) After two games of this, I asked her if we could please try something else.

Tickle Fight — I won this one, but my daughter claimed I had an unfair advantage due my greater size and weight. In retrospect, this was easily the most fun game of the evening.

Battleship — This would be a fun game, but my daughter can’t stand two things about it: missing… and getting hit. If I tried to clarify something to make sure we were communicating, my daughter would accuse me of unfairly fishing for clues.

Dragon Rage — It was time for my daughter to go to bed, so I got out my current underplayed favorite for a solitaire run-through. My daughter insisted on getting to play, so she got to stay up until 10PM– waaaay past her usual bedtime. I started to set up the Giants vs. Esirien scenario, but my daughter insisted that we play with the Nurkott map of “Orc Town” instead. We didn’t quite grok the rules for how the human units enter the board, so she just placed them together in the grass on the north side of the map. The Hero moved in with a unit to try to smash in a gate on the west side while the Wizard summoned an Elemental to start fighting inside the city. This resulted in a slow grind and pretty soon my daughter turned her attention to an entrance on the east side of the map. I ruled (incorrectly) that the wirlwind spell would open up the gate there, and soon we were fighting back and forth just inside the gate with several units. We both missed for nearly a dozen turns until I rolled two sixes in a row. This is when my daughter started to cry. I ruled that two sea serpents joined the battle on her side and she used them to pick off the rest of my orcs and bust down the seaside victory point hexes. One of her sea serpents died, but she ended up killing everything else.

Battleship (Again!) — The next day, she insisted on another game after catching me playing Commands & Colors: Ancients with her brother. I put all my ships together in the middle, thinking that this would give her a huge advantage. But then she put all her ships in nearly the same configuration as she’d done in previous games– all along the four sides! I made a total of five misses as I eliminated all of her ships. When I won the game, she had damaged or sunk all of my ships and only needed three or four shots to finish. This was a devastating loss to her, but maybe the lesson on ship placement will sink in– assuming she ever plays this with me again! (She was sure I was cheating somehow when she’d hit five squares in a line without sinking anything!!!)