Thursday, January 3, 2013

Old Games Revisited: January 2013

When we published our review and discussion of Kingdom Builder, one of our readers gave a great suggestion: in addition to our first-impression style review, it might be interesting to go back and write a more detailed review later on, incorporating more discussion of strategy and how our opinions of the game have changed over time. Discussing strategy and particular optimization decisions is coming; it's on my list of resolutions for the new year. But the idea of revisiting old games to see how well they've held up or how our approach to them has changed is especially intriguing, since a particular game could lose its luster after playing it only a few times, or the strategic implications of a game might only become clear after running through it once or twice.

Kingdom Builder

Kingdom Builder has been a frequent installation in our all-too-seldom game nights thanks to its straightforward mechanics and reasonably fast play. The analysis paralysis I mentioned in the initial review has abated a bit as we've gotten more familiar with the rules, which has made Kingdom Builder quicker and more fun. We're still getting new combinations of map tiles and scoring objectives--in fact, in our most recent game, we drew the "Citizens" objective for the first time ever--so the game continues to feel fresh. Most importantly, we haven't played with the disastrous combination of Paddock and Hermits again, but we have played with both Paddock and Hermits alone, and the game worked just fine.

Verdict: Kingdom Builder is still good. Now that the rules are more familiar to us, and now that we've identified the rare combinations of mechanics that break the game, it's actually getting better. Almost as importantly, Kingdom Builder is short enough that we can play it multiple times in the same night and engaging enough that we actually want to.

Small World

My co-author Alex first introduced me to this fantasy-themed territory-control game, and I played it again for the first time in a couple of years when we got together over the Christmas holidays. Like Kingdom Builder, Small World features enough mechanical combinations that each game feels different from the last, which is emerging as a pattern for making games continue to shine far past their purchase date. Another similarity to Kingdom Builder is that some of these combinations are far more powerful than others, but such game-breaking scenarios seem rare.

Verdict: I still enjoy Small World also, but it's clear to me that it would require several, perhaps dozens of, play-throughs before you could develop anything approaching an optimal strategy. That, combined with Small World's inherent low variance, could make this another game that's worth coming back to. I'd love to try Small World in its iPad incarnation; like Ticket to Ride, this game has to be more fun when the computer takes care of the constant but unexciting numerical computation for you.

Tongiaki

Another one I first played with Alex, Tongiaki is a constant fixture in our game days due to its low-pressure environment and hilariously, constantly shifting alliances. We've played this one enough that we have developed some ostensibly optimal strategies: some of us like the "build up your forces on a single island" approach while others go with "explore outward as much as possible," and above everything else, "keep 5-point islands to yourself at all costs." Of course, like finches in the Galapagos with no external pressure, we've converged onto the same strategy without knowing how anybody else does it, and it would be fascinating to play Tongiaki with a new player just to see what new strategies emerge.

Verdict: we're not playing Tongiaki for the deeply complex tactical experience; as far as I can tell, we've exhausted all the possible strategies at this point, and we know that winning it is as much a function of variance as of good gameplay. Instead, the reason we keep coming back to it is that it's fun to make your friends' boats sink, and it's a refreshing "palate-cleanser" between more demanding games.

Blokus

More of a visual puzzle game than a strategy board game, I've played Blokus with a few different groups but most recently with my parents. It's worth playing mostly because it tests a completely different set of skills than the intensely mathematical strategy contained in most of the Euro games in our arsenal. The real strategy behind the small 1x1 square piece is starting to become clear (use it to escape jams in enemy territory!). Also becoming clear is the game's biggest limitation: despite the rules workarounds for two- and three-player games, it really does need four players to work correctly.

Verdict: Blokus is a game that is probably going to appeal to an entirely different set of people than the "heavy" Euro games will, and it's a bit unusual in that it doesn't neatly fit into the strictures of "Euro" or "American die-roller" or "party". Play this one if you're into visual-spatial puzzlers. Don't play it if you don't have exactly four people.