As the Worm Turns: Dune (Avalon Hill)

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Bene Gesserit troops by the score charged into Sietch Tabr, representing the entire military might of this coven of hypnotic witches, all to evict the Fremen holed up there, in hopes that the sisterhood’s allies in the Atredies might be able to take advantage of the suicidal raid. Using their weirding ways, they commanded the Fremen to drop their guard, while prescient Paul Atredies peeked into the future of the combat. Success, but at a devastating cost to the victors, who were wiped out as well!

Beware the Bene Gesserit!

And that was just one player’s turn in Dune, Avalon Hill’s revolutionary 1979 proto-Euro game based on the Frank Herbert novel. I had wanted to play this game for ages, and my good gaming buddies Doug Bush, Mike Vogt, Joe Jackson, and Neil and Dan Stanhagen happily agreed to my request. It’s a strange and simple game, with the potential to last from thirty minutes to seven hours, depending on how the cards and combats play out. Luck plays almost no role beyond the variability introduced by card draws; no dice, and the incredibly bloody combat system often leaves the victor as depleted as the vanquished.

Players take the roles of the six main factions vying for the hypnogogic Spice that comes only from this desert planet: the spacing Guild, which uses Spice to fold space and travel between the stars; the Emperor, who rules all and controls the economy of the galaxy; the cunning Harkonnen, who excel at treacherous actions; the witchy Bene Gesserit, who can bend lesser minds to their will; the native Fremen, keepers of the planet and riders of the giant Worms that prowl the sands; and the Atredies, who claim the planet and have in their clan one who can see into the future. Each, of course, has game breaking powers, with the asymmetry between the factions driving play.

Arrakis, near the end.

A standard victory comes from occupying a number of strongholds based on the number of people in an alliance (if any), with several stalemate/end game victories possible as well if the conquest condition does not occur. The Bene Gesserit have an additional path to victory: should they predict, before the game starts, the turn on which a specific faction claims a non-end game victory, they win, and not the faction that triggered the victory. Beware the help of the witches, even if they are in your alliance!

Indeed, all the factions prove to be unstable allies, and the prospect of a solo victory, attained with the erstwhile help of once-allies, can often prove too tempting. Like any good Euro, there are wheels within wheels of decisions, and that’s not even counting the Combat Wheels that are used to secretly dial up committed strength for military enagements.

Fans of the novel and its associated world building will find the book’s background nicely integrated into the game’s play, with traitorous leaders (often in the employ of the Harkonnen), ghola tanks for reviving dead troops, and the dreaded Worm surfacing on Spice blows to consume all the forces gathered to harvest the rare commodity. While the essential game play could be (and has been) transferred to a different theme, the team at Eon (contracted by AH to produce the game) melded theme and mechanic beautifully here.

Dune proves hard to come by on the secondary market, and a flourishing cottage industry of DIY/print-and-play kits (of dubious copyright propriety) exists in the game’s considerable fandom. I can understand the urge to own a copy of this game. With the right group (and the guys who played with me certainly fit that), the mix of treachery, alliance, combat, and cunning proves to be quite compelling. It’s a worthy addition to any collection.

After the wasteful Bene Gesserit raid (and, full disclosure, that was me), the Fremen/Guild alliance (the Stanhagens) managed to fend off further assaults on their territory, using the Guild’s ability to preempt other players’ movement and the generous Fremen movement allowances to decisive effect. They took enough of the Strongholds to claim the desert planet. And, alas, I didn’t predict it…

War by Other Means: Sidereal Confluence (WizKids)

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Financier Raymond Defoe hadn’t played Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant (by TauCeti Deichmann, WizKids, 2017) when he riffed on Clausewitz, saying, “Economics is war pursued by other means,” but he may as well have. This simultaneous-action trading and economic engine building game, which plays from four to nine (!) people, requires that players, taking on the roles of nicely differentiated alien species, cooperate through trading to build up their economies, but behind the polite facade, there’s malice aforethought.

Sidereal Confluence in play.

Players start with a tableau of species-specific technology cards in play, each of which contains the game’s central mechanism, a “converter” that takes a set of resources and, once per turn, ouputs a larger, different set of resources. No species can generate enough outputs to fulfill its specific input needs, let alone to research and upgrade technologies to create new, more efficient converters. So, the game is about trading, and everything in the game, aside from victory points, is both tradeable and public knowledge. Need two white cubes to finish a research project? The table knows what you need (and why, if they’re paying attention) and will price accordingly. But, they have needs, too, and deals can be made. Have a converter you’re not using this turn? Trade it for a turn to someone with the resources needed to run it for a cut of the proceeds.

My gaming buddies (Mike Vogt, Neil Stanhagen, Joe Jackson, and Joe’s son) and I got Sidereal Confluence on the table this past weekend. We’re all wargamers at heart, so we went in looking to cut the other guy out of what he needed to win—and in the process realized that we were harming ourselves instead. After the first turn, where we grudgingly made exchanges and insisted on usurious exchange rates, our economic engines were quite anaemic.

This is not a zero sum game; the converters continually pump more and more resources into the game, and more resources are constantly needed to upgrade to the better (and more lucrative, VP-wise) technologies. No, this is a game about arbitrage, about maximizing delta through efficiency and understanding the flow of supply and demand.

Once we figured out that you don’t need to “win” a trade, you just need to come out of it with slightly more than you went in, either in resources or tempo or even goodwill, everything changed, and that’s when it got nicely nasty. Trading became less about immediate personal needs and more about the table’s needs. Blue cubes (biotechnology, in the game’s parlance) about to be in demand? Figure that out a turn before everyone else does, corner the market ahead of time, and take your pick of the offers to fuel your own economy afterwards. As so often in life, it’s better to be a seller…

Sidereal Confluence is certainly not for every game group. Trading, the heart of the game, takes place simultaneously. There’s no orderly queue for offers—think the Chicago Mercantile Exchange futures pit and you have some idea. It is, frankly, a panic for players afflicted with overanalysis syndrome or min-maxers in general; while they’re trying to figure out what they need for a hyper-efficient exchange, the other players have already traded and re-traded for what they need, and to then prise it out of their hands (or claws or pincers or whatever species-equivalent appendage they have) will cost. All trades are binding, too, so no take-backs if you’re slow to the trading floor or poor at math. One either relishes this kind of free-for-all gaming experience or runs screaming from it.

Sidereal Confluence in play.

As with most card tableau games, it can get messy, and the main knock I have on the game is that the space required to set up your own play area grows along with your economic engine, such that you need a lot of space per player (or far neater gamers than I’ve yet to meet). Pair that with the need to see everyone else’s tableaux and resources, to properly trade, and you have the potential for serious usability issues. With five, in a rough oval, I found myself trading mostly with the two people on either side of me, just because of the difficulty of parsing that set of cards and cubes across the way; add more players, and more space, and I can’t see how the two sides of the table wind up interacting.

Play time clocks in at two hours, roughly, and given the simultaneous nature of gameplay, I’m inclined to believe the box when it says two hours regardless of player count, from four to nine. Most promisingly, the game teaches fast, and after that initial turn of parsimony, we were trading, leveraging, wheedling, and dealing with the best of them. Oh, it was still a conflict, but it’s always best when a dagger comes with a smile and a receipt.

(Top photo courtesy of Mike Vogt.)

WashingCon 2017 After Action Report

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The third time, as they often say, is the charm. WashingCon, Washington, DC’s premier gaming convention, has come and gone again, an agreeable and essential ritual on the local gaming calendar. The convention, started in 2015, no longer takes place in a small church hall playing host to a hundred or so people. And yet, even as it has reached its third year, with nearly a thousand attendees and the space to hold them all comfortably, it retains that personal touch, thanks in no small part to the organizers and volunteers, including the owner and staff of the District’s finest local game store, Labyrinth Games. It is, bar none, the friendliest and most welcoming game convention I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

For this, my third WashingCon, I attended with good gaming buddies Doug Bush and Joe Jackson, as well as Joe’s son. We started with a pair of matches of Quartermaster General 1914, a light Euro/wargame mash-up on World War One in Europe from PSC Games. It’s mostly a card management game with a well-integrated theme, using an ever-dwindling supply of cards to both drive the action and as a resource to pay for those actions.

Quartermaster General 1914 at WashingCon 2017

As an engine for understanding history, the game doesn’t quite deliver—one match wound up with an Austro-Hungarian fantasy outcome, the other with the Ottomans rampant across much of the Mediterranean—but accurate historical simulation isn’t promised on the tin. As a quick playing game that came down to the wire in both of our matches, Quartermaster General 1914 provides an agreeable experience that’s easy to learn and with more nuance than the iffy plastic bits portend.

Next up, Doug unveiled one of the prides of his game collection, the third edition of High Frontier, Phil Eklund’s (in)famous game of space exploration. Lavishly produced, this edition stopped many passers-by in their tracks. Those who knew the game tended towards amazement at actually seeing it get played; those unfamiliar with its Hohmann Pivots, Lagrange Points, and solar winds tended towards amazement that anyone could decipher the board.

High Frontier Third Edition at WashingCon 2017

And, in truth, it takes a lot of staring before one can really begin to read the map’s secrets. Though there’s definitely a game here, I tend to see High Frontier as closer to an experience, since just figuring out how to get a rocket off of Earth, let alone giving it enough fuel to traverse the gravity wells of other planets, becomes a triumph in and of itself, regardless of what everyone else at the table is doing. I managed to colonize Mercury and set up a factory on the Moon by the end, but I think Joe’s son took to it the most. By the end of the session, he was flinging a well-constructed space probe around Saturn’s rings and moons with rather some skill. And thanks to WashingCon’s absurdly generous game giveaway this weekend, he even took home a copy for himself.

The evening rounded out in a very odd playthrough of Battlestar Galactica with two of Doug’s acquaintances in attendance. The Cylon raiders left the humans alone for several jumps, leading to the inevitable in-fighting amongst the humans (and non-revealed Cylons). By the time all three Cylons were revealed (thanks to the sympathizer rules for six player games), the humans began to lose hope, but they (we, I should say, since I was no toaster!) came within one jump of winning. I find Battlestar Galactica to be a game that I really enjoy playing, but only every so often. Once or twice a year, with the right group, feels just about sufficient, and this group was great, with precisely the right level of recrimination at the end.

Day two of WashingCon was a short one for us, but Doug and I revisited World War One with the recently released Illusions of Glory from GMT Games. As the name suggests, Illusions of Glory is a card-driven, point-to-point treatment in the vein of the venerable Paths of Glory. This game covers the fighting in the East, with the Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins fighting the Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Ottomans.

Illusions of Glory at WashingCon 2017

It’s pretty standard card-driven gaming fare, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, and there are nice rules wrinkles to add a bit of piquancy. We only played about five turns of the full campaign (so into Spring of 1915), but it was enough for the Germans to take Warsaw, and my plucky Montenegrins held out in their redoubt at Cetinje. This one will definitely hit the table again for the entire campaign game.

My thanks to Doug, Joe, and his son for a really solid weekend of gaming. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend my appreciation to the entire staff of WashingCon for their efforts. This fine city of ours had long needed a gaming convention, and when WashingCon came on the scene, they provided more than a place for us to play games for a day or two. They created a community.

Now if only they could open the main gaming room earlier in the day on Sunday for those of us who overnight at the convention site, it would be perfect…

Is There a Doctor in the Deck? Doctor Who: The Card Game Classic Doctors Edition (Cubicle 7)

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Sometimes, it’s like they make games especially with me in mind. Doctor Who mixed with Martin Wallace? I’m intrigued.

Doctor Who Card Game Classic Doctors Edition

Doctor Who: The Card Game Classic Doctors Edition (Cubicle 7, 2016) should, on paper, be my most favorite game ever, combining my love of all things Who with an appreciation for the designs Wallace comes up with. And yet, I can’t help but feel that the theme here is pasted onto a fairly simple filler game.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a filler game to take up the time between plays of more elaborate games, but this license deserves something grander than reducing the Doctor (all of them from the First through the Eighth) to a numerical value to be played against enemies (Daleks, Cybermen, and other old-school baddies like the Macra (!) and the Sensorites) who are likewise just numbers.

Doctor Who Card Game Classic Doctors Edition

Some of the companions and other cards do have special abilities that attempt to bring some of the show’s unique flavor to bear, but on the whole, the game would not be changed if the cards were patterned after Babylon 5 or Space: 1999. The experience just doesn’t make for very compelling gameplay once the novelty of pairing up Nyssa and the Third Doctor against the Primords at the Temple of Yetaxa wears off. It’s a fine game, but not much more.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, as any focus on the original run of Doctor Who makes me happy (even as I cringe at thinking of it as “classic Who“). The components are up to standards, with nice quality playing cards and a handful of decently thick counters. I’ll certainly throw it in the bag for a filler, and if even one person is intrigued by the original series, then the game has succeeded in that regard.

One can only wish, though, for a Doctor Who game on the scale and complexity of Wallace’s A Study in Emerald. Now that would be a thing of beauty.

India Pale Meeples: Brew Crafters (Dice Hate Me Games)

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I jokingly warned everyone at the start of our inaugural playthrough of Brew Crafters (Dice Hate Me Games, 2015), the newly released worker placement Euro about, um, crafting brewskis, that brewing the Pumpkin Ale recipe would result in immediate loss of the game. Because, really, that stuff is awful, an abomination to all right-thinking people. But then, after I had installed hop infusers in my fledgling brewery, to increase the value of ales, and cornered the market on fruit, I realized that brewing Pumpkin Ale was a very winning strategy. So, yes, I brewed a ton of the vile stuff and felt only slight shame. Such are the hard decisions in this quite pleasant game about operating a craft brewery.

Thirsty, thirsty meeples!

Some Euro-style games have themes that only tangentially relate to their mechanics, but Brew Crafters is one of those rare spiels that marries the two quite nicely thanks to the beer recipes at the heart of the gameplay. In the Market Phase, players place workers on spaces providing ingredients (malt, hops, yeast, and specialty fare like fruit and coffee), money, or special workers who alter game rules; these spaces may only be chosen by one player at a time, providing a nice adversarial aspect to the game. Then, the Brewery Phase allows players to conduct brewery research, build brewery components like a brewpub and oak barrel aging racks, and assemble the ingredients into differing types of beer, with each recipe requiring a different combination of ingredients and each being worth a varying amount of reputation. The highest reputation at the end of the game wins.

A close-up of the Chris-Craft Brewery

Gameplay is quick, about half an hour per player. Our four player game ran only slightly over two hours, and that even includes time spent getting real beers from the fridge to complement the beer chits we were brewing. The components are above average for a Euro, with a ton of wooden cubes, a handful of traditional wooden meeples, several sheets of die cut cardboard counters, fifty-odd standard-sized cards, and a two-toned wooden glass of stout as a first-player marker. The box is chock full, well worth the $60 retail price just from a component standpoint alone. Throw in engaging worker placement gameplay on a theme near to my heart, and, well, this one is a keeper. There are multiple paths to victory (one of the players in my session tried to crank out as much of the cheap stuff as possible), and there are over twenty different kinds of beer recipes in the game, so there’s a nice degree of replayability in the box as well.

When I saw the demo copy at Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill, my Fine Local Game Store, I knew I had to have it. I’d drink a toast to Brew Crafters, but I already have . . .

Space, the Fiddly Frontier: Asmodee's Eclipse

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Fiddly is always expressed as a function of bits. A fiddly game, then, is a game with either lots of bits or lots of manipulation of bits. Eclipse, a new space exploration/expansion/extermination/exploitation (4X) Euro game from Asmodee, satisfies both conditions, with hundreds of wooden cubes and lots of little plastic spaceships and a gazillion punched cardboard tiles that get shifted and adjusted over and over through the two hour plus play time.

The fiddly nature of Eclipse helps provide a sense of immersion in the game’s theme of galactic civilizations expanding, exploring, and exploding one another through well-designed player mats that track the state of the player’s empire and various technologies. One watches his or her civilization grow (and, yes, shrink). But such fiddility comes at a time cost.

Behold my mighty empire!

Recently, Pablo Garcia-Silva, Michael Vogt, and I put Pablo’s copy of Eclipse through its paces at Labyrinth on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It took us about half an hour to punch the counters and get all the wooden bits and info counters sorted on the various player charts, but once everything was in place, we roared out of the wormholes and finished eight of nine turns in about two hours. I imagine that, with the pieces now roughly sorted, set-up will take less time, probably on the order of ten to fifteen minutes, an acceptable amount of prep time for those of us used to wargames but perhaps a bit long for those weaned on Euros.

The gameplay itself is mostly economic engine/worker placement (take a different action every round, increasing your mandatory end-turn money expenditure with every action), with some simple combat, random board generation, and awesome ship building thrown into the mix for good measure. Victory goes to the player with the most victory points at the end, earned through combat, territorial acquisition, and technology research.

Combat is perhaps a bit simplistic for the wargame crowd, but even having combat in a Euro game is rare enough that I won’t complain. Besides, getting to load up your ships with plasma cannons, gluon computers, and tachyon thrusters makes up for the buckets-of-dice combat resolution.

Flight of the Dreadnaught

One never has quite enough resources to do everything, but there’s always the tantalizing possibility that if you over-extend, you can steal away an opponent’s resources to cover your own shortfall. I can see where an group given to analysis paralysis would hate this game—lots of potential paths to victory and avenues to failure—but if the group is as interested in having fun and flying little plastic spaceships and making poor science fiction puns as it is in maximizing efficiency in an economic engine, it’s a keeper. And at a hundred dollars retail, it better be.

This is another game I see getting a lot of play in the late-night game convention slots just for its support of up to six players and the glorious tableau the game presents on a table. Plus, you know, you get to make spaceship noises.

Once again, my thanks to the crew at Labyrinth for their gracious hosting and to Pablo and Michael for a great afternoon of gaming.