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Dominant Species

What do you get if you take all of your favorite game elements – area control, worker placement, variable player powers – and cram them into one game? If you’re designer Chad Jensen, you end up with Dominant Species: an area control game where each player controls one of the major animal classes (mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect) and attempts to have that class grow and thrive, adapting to the available food sources and spinning out more species, while the threat of the oncoming ice age looms ever larger..

The game takes two to six players, although I’ve only played it with four or higher (and in fact, I suspect that four players is the sweet spot). At the start of the game, there are a half dozen hexes on the board, with various food sources spread out between them, and each animal has a handful of species in play. This is an area control game, but there are two types of area control. The first one is simple: if you have more species in a hex than anyone else, you’ll get the most points when that hex is scored. Animals higher up in the food chain win ties, so the mammals win all ties, the insects lose all ties, etc. (Turn order starts out in the reverse of the food chain order, so inserts move faster than everyone else…and they’d better, to not get eaten!) The second type of area control is dominance: each animal has a number of food markers (“elements”) on its display, and if you have at least one species in a hex and match more markers than anyone else, you’re dominant over that hex. For example, if you have two meat and one grass on your display, while the hex has two meat, a grass, and a water, your total dominance score is 2×2 (meat) plus 1×1 (water), so you beat anyone with less than five dominance. There’s no tiebreaker here, however; if there’s a tie for first, then nobody is dominant on this hex.

Why do you want to be dominant? One of the actions (remember, this is a worker placement game) that you can take is to score a hex; when this happens, points are awarded based on the number of species in the tile, then whoever has dominance gets to take one of the five cards that are available each turn. These cards can do all kinds of things, from awarding extra action pawns to killing everything in a hex, and fighting over them tends to be fierce!

So what are the other actions? You can gain initiative, which moves you up in the turn order. You can adapt, which adds another element to your display (to a maximum of six), making it easier for you to survive. You can add more elements to the board, and more hexes. You can add another glacier to the board, forcing species to flee the oncoming ice. You can add more species to the board, or move the ones that are already there. You can also kill off some of your opponent’s species, of course. Finally, there will be upcoming events that may be unpleasant for you (removing elements from your display or from the board) and you can use actions to prevent that.

As with all good worker placement games, there are always more places that you feel like you need to go than you have action pawns to actually play, and with a limited number of each action available, you never know if it’ll still be there when play comes back to you. Further, each species has a special power, so different actions tend to have different values; I find this to be one of the best features of the game. The mammals, for example, can keep one species from going extinct each turn (this normally happens if a species ends up in a hex with nothing it can eat), while the arachnids always compete (allowing them to kill other species without using an action pawn) and the birds can migrate several hexes rather than just one. The amphibians, which I had in my last game, have no special power…but they do start the game with more elements on their display than anyone else, allowing them to dominate more hexes early on.

This is definitely not a quick game, or a cheap one; it tends to run around four hours, and retails for $79. However, if you have a group where you can get it out, it’s totally worth it; especially with four players, you’re usually pretty involved so there’s not too much downtime. In the wrong group, however, I could easily see this getting very political (“I’ll leave you alone on that hex if you attack the spiders on this other hex”); fortunately, that’s not really how my group plays (and it could be that you enjoy that style of play, I just don’t care for negotiation games). Still, I was impressed enough after one play of this game to preorder the second printing (the first sold out very quickly); I don’t think it’s going to be my favorite game, but so far I’m really enjoying it. What I like about this game is that it feels really “meaty”; there’s a lot going on, with more actions you feel like you need to take than action points available to take them, and every decision has a direct impact on the game. Additionally, I enjoy the assymetric play, with each person needing to choose a different strategy based on his special ability and the other species on the board.

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Tichu Strategy, Part II: Using the Mah-Jong

Not too long ago, I was playing a hand where the opponent after me had called Grand Tichu. I passed him a 3, then played the Mah-Jong and wished it out of his hand. Why was this a bad move?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the pass; that’s standard according to the usual passing convention. Wishing for what you passed is standard as well; the reasoning is that the card you passed might have improved your opponent’s hand by making a pair (or worse, a straight) and you avoid possible disaster by making him play it as a single; additionally, since you know that he has that card in his hand, you avoid the risk of forcing your partner to play it.

All of that is true..but there’s one more factor at work here. Your opponent called Grand Tichu!

Different people have different rules about when they feel a Grand Tichu call is justified, but it’s generally safe to assume – particularly after the pass – that his hand contains as least one ace. In this case, he’s likely to play the low card you passed, then end up winning the trick with the ace (and that is, in fact, what happened).

On the other hand, suppose you wish for the ace! It was going to get played anyway, but this time he doesn’t get a chance to play the low card, and again you don’t have to worry about hitting your partner (since it’s very unlikely that your opponent would have called Grand Tichu without an ace in his hand, and his partner will be passing his best card as well). There’s also the possibility that he has all of the aces and will do something dumb like playing an ace bomb…which is exactly what happened the last time this situation occurred, when I did wish for an ace!

Now, suppose we’re in the more usual situation where nobody has called Tichu or Grand Tichu before the Mah-Jong is played. In this case, you usually do want to wish for what you passed, with a couple of exceptions. If this isn’t the first hand and your opponent already played what you passed him, you may want to refrain from making a wish to avoid the possibility of hitting your partner. More importantly, if you’ve called Tichu and then used the Mah-Jong in a straight, you should never make a wish. Why? It’s likely that you’re not the only person to have a straight, and your opponents will be playing over yours if they can anyway, but by making a wish you can force a straight out of your partner’s hand…and it really sucks to force your partner to screw up your Tichu call! If nobody has called Tichu (or better yet, if your opponent has) you can make the wish, but recognize that you do risk messing up your partner’s hand. Of course, the nice thing is when you suspect your opponent has a long straight, and you force him to play a smaller straight, leaving him with a bunch of singles…very useful!

The Mah-Jong can be a bit of a pain if you get stuck with it – the only way to get rid of it is to lead it, as either a single or part of a straight – but it played correctly, it can really mess up your opponent’s plans. Tichu!

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Notre Dame….Rats!

Leaving aside the fun of going around yelling “rats!”, Notre Dame is a fun strategy game that doesn’t get enough attention. Set in Paris at the end of the 14th century, each player controls one family attempting to gain prestige. There are many paths to power, but beware…the black death is an ever-present threat! If you don’t take the effort to keep the rat population down, you may find your people dying of the plague..

Notre Dame is the 11th game in the Alea big box series, and was a 2007 Spiel des Jahres recommend.

Constructing the board takes only seconds; each player takes an identical mini-board representing his borough, each of which is placed adjacent to a center piece representing Notre Dame. There are three, four, and five sided cathedral pieces, making everything line up nicely; with two players, a modified four-player setup is used.

Each player has a deck of nine cards, which represent the actions he can take in the game; each one allows him to move one of his workers. He also starts with four workers, three coins, and his trusted friend. Each card sends a worker to a particular area, which allows you to take more workers, coins, or points, kill rats, or move your carriage around the board collecting messages (which are worth points and allow you to take workers, take coins, and kill rats). Finally, one card sends a person to donate to the cathedral (which scores you points based on how many coins you donate), and the trusted friend card lets you move him anywhere except to the cathedral.

The game is divided into three rounds; each round consists of three turns. Each turn, you draw three cards from your deck, choose one, and pass the other two to your left; you then keep one of the two cards you receive from the person on your right, and so on. Starting from the first player (marked with a hunchback figure), everyone plays one card; this happens twice. Thus, you’ll play two of the three cards you ended up with, discarding the third.

At the end of the turn, you have the opportunity to hire one of three people who can help you out. There are 15 person cards in the game; six come up in each of the three rounds, two per turn, while the other nine come up one time each. The Alea Treasure Chest expands this with another nine people who can be mixed up with the first nine. These people are always very helpful, and always worth hiring…but you do have to have one coin to hire someone, else you lose the be careful with your money!

After hiring, look to the bottom of the person cards and you’ll see between zero and four rats on each; you’ll need to move your rat marker up one spot for each rat. This rat marker keeps track of how many plague-infested rats inhabit your district; if it goes past 9, you suffer the black death (which in this case means you lose two points and a worker). Fortunately, for every worker you have in the hospital at the end of the turn, your rat marker goes down by one; this happens at the same time as you would take rats.

After the third turn, the cathedral is scored; it is worth some number of points (depending on the number of players), and that number is divided by the number of workers present, who each score accordingly before returning to your supply. The cards are then returned to their owners and reshuffled for the next round.

The nice thing about the game is that there are different ways to win. You can try to send lots of people to the residence, which gives you a point for every worker there whenever someone moves there, or you can go with the park, which for every two workers there gives you an extra point whenever you score points. Because the player on your right will see many of your available options before you do, which path you take will depend largely on what he does; should he choose a particular strategy, you should strongly consider a different one!

Overall, Notre Dame is an excellent game and is well worth picking up.

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Ticket to Ride: An Excellent Gateway Game

Ticket to Ride is probably one of the most popular gateway games, and for good reason; in fact, it was one of the first eurogames that I played. The same is simple, easy to learn, plays in around 45 minutes, and is fun for both gaming newbies and experienced gamers. It’s also one of my wife’s favorites, which is one of the main reasons I play it :=).

The eponymous first game in the Ticket to Ride series was first published in 2004, and won that year’s Spiel des Johres award. The game consists of a map of the United States with a number of cities (and the routes between them) marked, train tickets, route tickets, wood scoring markers, and a number of plastic trains. One thing I like about Days of Wonder is that they give you extra pieces in case you lose any; each player (the game takes two to five) needs exactly 45 trains, and there are two extras in each color.

Players start by taking their trains and randomly drawing some ticket cards, of which they must keep several. Each ticket shows two cities (fortunately, it shows where on the map they are as well as the names) and the point score for connecting them. As long as you can trace a path from one city to the other over your trains at the end of the game, you’ll score the points…but if you cannot, you’ll lose the same number of points! You also get several train cards, each of which shows one color of train car (or a locomotive, which is a wild card).

On each turn, you do one of three things: draw two more train cards, either randomly or from a set of face up cards (1 card if you choose a face up locomotive), draw another three tickets (and keep at least one of them), or claim a route. To claim a route, you choose a route between two cities, which will take between one and six cards of the same color (again, with locomotives being wild), play the cards required, and place your trains in that spot. Grey routes can be claimed with any color, but all of the cards still have to be the same color. If you don’t have enough trains to cover a route, you cannot claim it. Routes score based on their length, with one- and two- length routes being worth only one and two points, respectively, but a six length route being worth a whopping 15 points.

The game goes on until someone ends up with two or fewer trains left, at which point everyone (including that player) gets one more turn and the game ends. Everyone scores points for their tickets, and whoever has the longest continuous line of track scores additional points for the Longest Route card. Most points wins!

My main problem with the original game is that the train cards sucked; they were small and difficult to hold (and you accumulate a lot of them at some points in the game!) In 2006, Days of Wonder solved this problem with the Ticket to Ride 1910 expansion, which includes 35 new 1910 tickets, a bonus card for completing the most tickets, 4 tickets that originally appeared in the limited edition Mystery Train expansion, and a complete set of replacement cards that are a lot easier to handle. This is a fairly inexpensive (under $20) expansion that I consider a must-have; most of my games in the series are of the base game with the 1910 expansion.

It seems as if nearly every successful game begets a number of expansions, and TtR is no different. The first, in 2005, was Ticket to Ride: Europe; this is a complete game that features a European map and some new gameplay elements. Tunnels add a bit of risk, as you never know exactly how many cards will be required to complete a route until you try it, while water routes require locomotives to act as ferries (don’t ask me what the logic is, that’s just how it works!) It’s a lot easier to get blocked from cities you need to get to in this version, but there’s a way around that; each player gets three train stations, which can be played to let you use someone else’s route towards completing your tickets at the end of the game. Each one that you don’t play, however, gets you four bonus points.

In 2006, that was followed by Ticket to Ride: Marklin. Taking place in Germany, this set has a non-gameplay twist: each of the cards depicts a model train made by the Marklin model train company. Aside from completing tickets as in the other games, players also attempt to move passengers around, and collect more points for moving them on longer routes and being the first to move passengers to or through each city.

In 2007, we got two new versions, each made for 2-3 players (whereas each of the others could take up to five). Ticket to Ride: Switzerland comes with a board and tickets but requires the train pieces and cards from either Ticket to Ride or TtR: Europe (Marklin has a different card distribution) to play. In this game, locomotives can only be used for tunnels, and some tickets allow you to end your route in any of several countries. Nordic Countries is similar, covering Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland; however, it was a limited edition that was initially available only in the Nordic Countries, and then had a limited worldwide release in 2008. I found Switzerland to be too easy for my taste – a friend and I actually ran out of ticket cards, and completed all of the ones we drew! – but Nordic Countries is the hardest of the batch, and it’s very easy to get locked out. With experienced players, it’s probably my favorite of the set.

There are also some more expansions that don’t include boards. Europa 1912 is an expansion for Europe that adds new tickets, much as 1910 did for the original game, as well as a few new rules. Meanwhile, Alvin and Dexter makes the game a bit more surreal, adding a monster and an alien to foil player’s plans.

Another new set, TtR: The Dice Expansion, lets players roll dice rather than collect train cards, while still using the trains, tickets, and map from any of the other games. Finally, there is something called Ticket to Ride: the Card Game, which is actually a not very good memory game that doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the series.

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