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Airlines Europe

Last night for gaming we had five people, so we decided to give Airlines Europe a try. I felt it was a pretty playable family game, but I don’t have much desire to play it again.

Airlines Europe is a reimplementation of Union Pacific. Your goal is to acquire the most stock in the airlines that are the most profitable (or make the airlines you have the most stock in more profitable) so that you get the biggest payout when the scoring card comes up. Each turn, you can take one of four actions:

  • Play one or two airplanes (each plane claims a route between two cities), which costs $3 or more for each plane; the stock price for the company owning the plane goes up by the cost of playing it. You then draw a stock certificate, either one of five face-up choices or a random one from the deck.
  • Trade in stock for Air Abacus at a rate of 1 for 1 or 3 for 2; Air Abacus shares work like those of any other company, but score based on the phase of the game rather than by the stock price.
  • Play shares of stock from your hand; you can play any two shares, or any number of shares from the same company. Having stock in play is how you score points. For each stock you put into play, you take $2 from the bank.
  • Take $8 from the bank.
  • The game is relatively simple to follow, and ran about 75 minutes with 5 people (including rules). Given the different mechanics (set collection, stock holding), I think it would be a good introduction to more complex games for people who normally play things along the lines of Ticket to Ride. However, it doesn’t have a lot of deep decisions – you play planes where they’ll boost the companies you have stock in, or plan to have stock in soon, and take stock for the companies that are doing well) and I don’t see myself ever requesting it.

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Ora et Labora

I’ve been a fan of Uwe Rosenburg’s big box games since I first played a pasted up copy of Agricola before it was available in English. Le Havre I went to the trouble of having shipped from Europe a while before it was available in the US. After playing At the Gates of Loyang a few times, however, I didn’t feel a big need to play it again, and the Agricola expansions started getting overwhelming, so I didn’t have any particular plans to pick up last year’s offering, Ora & Labora. After one play, however, and knowing that available supplies were selling out quickly, I went right out and bought it. So what’s so special about Ora et Labora?

Ora et Labora box imageIn spite of being an Uwe Rosenburg game, Ora et Labora is not really about farming. Rather, the game is about careful building placement and usage. I tend to call it a cross between Agricola and Le Havre, with many of the best elements of each.

Each player starts with a 5×2 player board on which to construct his buildings (three buildings are already constructed, and trees/peat cover several spaces), as well as three clergymen (workers): a prior and two lay brothers. Each turn, you can play one of your workers, build a building, cut down trees or fell peat, or pay someone else to play one of his workers (which is one of the few ways to use someone else’s buildings). As a free action, you can also turn grain into straw or (once per turn) buy an additional landscape to add to your board.

While most buildings are worth points, as are some goods, most of your points generally come from the settlement buildings. Five times per game, there is a settlement phase during which these special buildings (which have a cost in food and energy, rather than goods) can be played; as they will score for both themselves and the buildings around them, proper placement tends to be extremely important. While normally each person will play five of these, there is a building that lets you play more of them.

After playing this half a dozen times, I put it and Agricola as Uwe’s best games. It kind of “fired” Le Havre for me, because I feel that it takes the mechanics of Le Havre and does them better. This is also a deterministic game – only the start player is random – but there’s enough variety in the buildings (as well as two versions – France and Ireland – which have different buildings) that it hasn’t started feeling repetitive yet, and I expect we’ll see expansions at some point (so far there’s one promo card, available in the Z-Man Essen Pack from boardgamegeek). I’ve taught this game several times and haven’t seen anyone who was willing to play it not like it, so if it sounds like it might be your kind of game, it’s probably worth buying.

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Navegador: A Rondel game

2010 seemed like a slow year for games; aside from Dominant Species, there didn’t seem like much to get excited about. However, there are a few fun little games that slipped under my radar; Navegador, a rondel game from PD-Verlag, is definitely one of them. The game was a 2011 Golden Geek nominee for best strategy board game and an International Gamers Awards nominee for multiplayer strategy games.

Navegador seems like a fairly straightforward engine game – get more of this to get more of that so you can buy more of the first thing – but while you do need to focus on one set of actions and build them up, you can’t really afford to ignore anything. Hiring workers lets you buy buildings, which make it cheaper to hire more workers and build ships or help you make money when you go to the market. Ships let you explore (which gets you money and points) and colonize (which lets you get more money at the market). Privileges cost you workers, but get you money and can score a ton of points at the end of the game. Aside from the usual rondel action (move your pawn around the track a variable number of spaces – in this case, up to 3 spaces plus sacrifice ships to move further), there’s also a free ship movement action that starts with the last player and moves counterclockwise around the table as it gets used.

The trick is to specialize on something that your opponents are not. If you and an opponent are both collecting gold colonies, for example, you’ll be driving the market value down and won’t get much when you take the market action. On the other hand, if both (or several – the game takes 2-5 players) of your opponents are doing gold, buying gold factories and producing it becomes a very attractive choice; you’re helping both opponents, but they split the benefit of your factories while you get the benefit from both of their colonies.

One of the nice things about this game is that there’s no randomness aside from the colony placement, so it’s fairly easy to plan ahead IF you can predict what your opponents are going to do; this helps avoid downtime. The other side of that is that your move will often depend on what your opponents do, since the value of an action to you can change wildly (in either direction) depending on who takes it before you.

If you just play by intuition (I do!) rather than adding up points, it can be difficult to tell who’s winning; in my last game, for example, I had a virtual monopoly on the more expensive buildings for a while, but one of my opponents had a ton of the cheaper buildings and was cleaning up in the market. We had no idea who was ahead until we tallied up the score at the end (he thought I was, I thought he was, and alas, I was right).

I wouldn’t call this a great game (and I don’t own it) but it’s worth playing.

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I Hope You Get Eaten By Zombies!

Although I have a decent-sized game collection, one thing that’s been sorely lacking is zombie games: with Halloween coming up, my only real options were Last Night on Earth and Age of Steam: the Zombie Apocalypse. Having recently been introduced to Kickstarter, however, I was happy to get in on a new offering from Mayday Games: Eaten by Zombies. This is another Dominion-inspired deckbuilding game with, obviously, a zombie twist. It also has a great start player condition: the starting player is the one with the least convincing zombie moan!

What’s in the Box

First off, the components. With one exception, the game is of good quality; it consists of a cardboard ammo box containing a number of cards, with enough room left over to add a couple of expansions. The cards feel like decent plastic; I’ve only played once so far, so I can’t comment on how well they’ll hold up to repeated plays, but they don’t feel flimsy. My only real complaint quality-wise is with the We Have the Bomb promo, which very obviously received no proofreading and contains multiple typos. Additionally, while the rules were proofread well, they would be better if they showed the cards; it’s very difficult to graph the game from reading the rules alone, without the cards to look at. (There’s also no card list, but you can find a summary on the bottom of the box, along with the playing time (20-40 minutes listed, though that’s likely an overestimate) and a warning that the game is not appropriate for small children).

Playing the Game

The actual gameplay is pretty simple. You start with a deck of a dozen cards, consisting of heavy sticks (which help you attack zombies), Hides (which help you run away from zombies), and Sandwiches (which both help you run away and let you draw a card). At the start of each turn, a zombie gets flipped over and you choose whether to fight it or flee from it; big zombies are hard to kill but easy to run away from, and vice versa for small ones. Once you’ve made that decision, you play as many cards of the appropriate type (fight/draw or flee/draw) as you like. If you successfully kill all the zombies or run away, you get to scavenge for swag: however much fight or flee you played, you can buy any number of cards that cost up to that much altogether and put them into your hand. The cards work similarly to Dominion: you deal out two cards per player (three per player if you don’t use the three starting swag cards) and are available to all players to be purchased.

But wait…did I say ALL of the zombies? That’s right…when you kill a zombie, it goes to your discard pile, and once you’ve drawn one you can (usually) only get it out of your hand by playing it on somebody else. Additionally, every time you go completely through the zombie deck, the number of zombies coming out each turn increases by one. Finally, if you’re able to successfully flee the zombies, all but one of them stick around to go after the next player. Eventually, we’re all going to die!

If you fail to fight or flee successfully, you lose cards equal to the total flee value of the remaining zombies (even if you flee successfully, you still lose half this value). The game has a healthy dose of luck in it; in my first game, for example, I had a handful of flee cards, but the smallest zombie game up and one of my opponents played another one, so while I would have only needed 2 attack to kill both of them, I needed 8 flee to get away, and only had 7…causing me to lose half my deck in one turn!

Winning and Losing

At the end of your turn, you draw back to six cards in hand. If at any time you need to draw and there are no cards remaining in your desk or discard, you immediately lose the game and become a zombie. The last player alive when everyone else becomes a zombie wins the game: you’re going to be dead soon, but at least you outlived your friends!

There are, however, two other ways to win. Players can work together to defeat the zombies: in the unlikely case that the zombie deck and discard pile are empty, all remaining survivors are safe (although only the survivor with the most cards is the ultimate winner). Zombie players can still win as well, through directing the zombie horde; killing zombies takes a toll on the mind (represented by the zombies that go into your discard pile) and if you ever have a hand full of zombies at the beginning of your turn, you go insane and the zombie players win!

If this game was longer, I wouldn’t care for it; it’s entirely too random. For a 20 minute filler, however, it’s not bad, and the gameplay fits the theme.

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Australia: A Ranger Placement Game

“All I know is that, of the ten deadliest anything in the world, seven of them are in Australia.”

This was my contribution towards determining the start player for Australia, a board game involving troops of rangers who have been assigned to carry out various conservation and industrialization projects in 1920s Australia.  This is a fairly simple worker placement game for two to five players, with the unique rule that whoever thinks he knows most about Australia starts the game.

Each player gets a little aeroplane, some number of ranges (between 10 and 20, depending on how many people are playing), and draws two cards. The cards are in four piles, face up; each one has a color and shows between one and four rangers, plus between zero and three points, such that the number of coins plus rangers adds up to four.

Each turn, you get two actions, which can be the same. Action one is moving your aeroplane; when you first put it into play it can go anywhere on the board, but after that you have to move it to an adjacent region. You need a plane present to play or pick up rangers, which is pretty much the entire game.

Every area of the map has two counters on it: one, the industrialization counter, is face down, and has a number on it. The other, conservation, is the same in every tile. When a plane moves into the region for the first time, the industrialization counter is flipped face up. Scoring is simple: each region has circles around the edges (which it shares with neighboring regions) where rangers can be placed. If every circle in a region contains at least one ranger, then the conservation token is scored. If the total number of rangers in the region is exactly equal to the number on the conservation token, then it is scored. However, there’s a nice little twist to keep people paying attention: scoring is optional. If you don’t notice that you can score a region on your turn, your opponent might go and score it on his!

Scoring is again pretty simple: whoever scores the region gets 3 points, and then every ranger in the region scores a point for its owner; rangers on boats (that is, ocean circles) score double. In the full game, the tiles are also used to determine when to score the windmill, which adds a bit more strategy.

So how do you place workers? The second possible action is playing a card, which must be the same color as the region; you can also pay 3 coins to treat another card as if it was the correct color. You then take any money shown on the card, and play up to as many rangers as it shows (provided you have enough left in your supply). Finally, you draw another card to replace the one you just played; up until the end of the game, you’ll always have two cards in hand. Run out of rangers? For another action, you can pick up up to four rangers from the region your plane is in and return them to your supply.

What makes the game tricky is that, while you want to have as many rangers as possible present in each scoring, your total number is pretty limited so you can run out quickly.  If you don’t have time to go over and pick up some of the rangers you previously deployed, you can spend $4 to parachute one of your rangers to another location. Of course, every coin is worth a point at the end of the game..

The game ends when the draw decks have all been exhausted and one player is out of cards; since cards can also be discarded for two points, this tends to happen pretty quickly once the decks run out. The windmill is scored again, and whoever has the most points wins the game.

This is the type of game that I like to play occasionally (which has generally meant once every couple of years), but wouldn’t want to play a lot. It’s easy to teach and plays quickly, but there’s not really a whole lot of strategy there; you’re basically looking for a chance to score multiple tiles in one action, for as many points as possible. It can’t compare to a strong worker placement game like Caylus, but it’s a reasonably good introduction to the concept.

My advice? Try before you buy.

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‘Tis Only A Few Acres of Snow..

A Few Acres of Snow is my favorite kind of wargame: one with no dice! The latest entry in the Treefrog series, it covers the struggle between Britain and France to control North America, culminating in the French and Indian War. In our timeline, England captured Montreal from the French and effectively took control of North America, until the colonies revolted a few decades later. In the game? Who knows..

This is a deckbuilding game inspired by Dominion; each player starts with a small deck of cards, from which he’ll draw at the end of each turn until he has at least five cards in hand. He also has two (non-randomized) decks of cards that he can gain for his deck: empire cards, which are purchased, and location cards, which are gained by taking control of the corresponding location on the board.

One nice thing about the game, actually, is the board: the areas in each player’s territory at the start of the name have the name oriented towards that player, so you don’t have someone trying to read upside down for the entire game; they’re also easy to read. (Yes, I am thinking of War of the Ring as I type this).

Each turn, you get two actions (except for the first turn of the game, when you get one). An action is playing a card, buying a card, discarding a card,  or putting a card in your reserve area. You can also take any number of free actions: taking your reserve into your hand (which actually costs money – “free” just means it doesn’t cost an action), withdrawing from a siege, or playing anything that says “free action” on it.

Much of the game consists of buying cards for your deck (largely military-related) and expanding your control. To gain control of a village or town that does not yet have a player marker on it, you must play the card for a village or town you already control that connects to it, another card with the appropriate means of transportation (ship, wagon, or bateaux), and possibly a settler card.  If your opponent already controls the region, you instead start a fight: you still need a way to connect to the village or town and a means of transportation, but now you also add in a military card. There can be two sieges going on at a time (one started by each player) and you check for victory at the start of each turn. Every area starts with a defense of at least 1, and players will add cards to the siege to boost their power. You win the siege if, at the start of your turn, you have two more power than your opponent (one more if you are the defender). The winner puts all of his played cards into his discard pile; the loser returns one of his to the supply. If the attacker won, the defender’s town or village marker is removed and the attacker has the option of settling the area.

The game is quite asymmetric; the French start with more points, money, and military capability, while the English are more able to ramp up militarily, depicting the superior support they received from their home country; this is represented by the different cards players have available. Thus, the goal of the French is to spread out over Canada as much as possible, while the English wish to conquer the French settlements. The game ends when one of the main cities (Quebec, Boston, or New York) is successfully besieged, in which case that player wins (that is, the British player wins the game if he takes Quebec, the French player wins if he takes Boston or New York). Each of the two games I’ve played was won by the second condition: if one player is out of towns or village markers or has captured twelve points worth of those markers from his opponent (villages are worth two points, towns four) then the game ends at the start of his turn if there are no sieges in progress, and whoever has the most points wins. In case of a tie, the French player wins.

After two plays of this, I wasn’t completely sure what I thought about it. A lot of that is not really being sure what’s going on; this game is much like Race for the Galaxy in that, for your first few plays, you’re concentrating more on getting the mechanics right rather than understanding the deeper strategy. I could see that my opponent, who had played multiple times before, was beating me, but I wasn’t quite sure why. However, I find myself strongly anticipating my next play; the only other game that I recall feeling that way about in the last year is Dominant Species.

As someone who used to spend a lot of time playing CCGs, deckbuilding games hold a lot of appeal for me; you can get much of the same type of play without the hassle (and expense) of actually collecting thousands of cards. One way that this game improves on Dominion is simply by having different decks, so players aren’t striving towards the same goal. A game of Dominion between players of roughly equal strength often comes down to who can get the most powerful strategy going first, which generally means either the player who goes first or the player who gets a better draw; in A Few Acres of Snow, while there are a few common cards, you usually won’t lose because your opponent bought the card you needed. Of course, a bad draw can still hurt you, but I suspect not as much as in Dominion if you manage your deck size carefully.

Based on my plays so far, I would rate this one above most of the games in the Treefrog series), but behind Age of Industry. Call it a tie with Automobile for the second best game in the series.

Edit: A Few Acres of Snow, previously available only from Treefrog Games, can now be purchased at Amazon.

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The Admiral is a Cylon!

If you’re not a fan of Battlestar Galactica, then the game probably isn’t for you; many of the mechanics make sense only in the context of the show. If you do enjoy the show, however, you’ll be happy to know that the board game captures the feeling of the show quite well. (Of course, I also know people who have started watching the show because they liked the game, so YMMV!)

Each player selects one of the characters from Galactica; the characters each have abilities in several different skill sets (politics, engineering, tactics, piloting, leadership), which is represented by the ability to draw cards of the appropriate color. Each character also has a regular special ability, a once per game ability, and a disadvantage; for example, Starbuck gets two actions instead of one if she starts her turn in a viper (because she’s an excellent pilot) and can discard and redraw a crisis card (to be discussed later) once per game, because she has a secret destiny. However, she is insubordinate, which makes it easier to throw her in the brig.

On your turn, you draw the cards indicated by your skill set, move (if desired), take one action, and then draw a crisis card. Most characters will spend their time on Galactica itself (which has eight locations you can move to, plus Sickbay and the Brig), but pilots will move around in space on their ships and the president will generally stay on Colonial One, which has three spaces offering political actions. There are also four Cylon locations which are not accessible to humans.

Ahh, the Cylons. Fans of the show will know that the Cylons are machines created by humanity; they rebelled and a blood war was fought. Now they have returned, but rather than being simply metal monstrosities, they now look human, and some even believe that they are human. At the start of the game, each player receives a loyalty card, informing them whether they are human or cylon. However, the other players won’t know how many cylons there are, or even if there are any at all; halfway through the game, another round of loyalty cards is dealt out, and anyone with at least one cylon card is a cylon. (Certain characters receive extra cards, representing their questionably loyalty – or actual cylon affiliation – on the show)

The meat of the game is in the crisis cards that happen at the end of each turn; generally this is a test that the players have to pass, or else Bad Stuff happens. Bad stuff generally takes the form of losing one or more of the four items being tracked: fuel, food, morale, and population; if any of these reaches zero, humanity will be destroyed and the cylons win. They can also make you discard cards, send people to sickbay, place cylon ships on the board, and activate those ships. Resolving the cards is simple: each card generally has a difficulty and a set of colors. Two random cards are put in a pile (face down) and everyone adds as many more cards as they like; those cards are then shuffled and revealed. Cards matching the colors on the card are positive, while others are negative. Since two of the cards are random, if two or fewer bad cards show up, you don’t know if it was just bad luck or cylon sabotage.

Some crisis cards also have the jump symbol, which moves you closer to Kobol. Once Galactica has reached a certain spot on the jump track, she can make an early jump (at the risk of losing population); finishing the calculations lets her jump risk-free. With enough jumps, humanity can reach safety and win the game.

Of course, the cylons aren’t limited to just sabotaging skill checks; once they feel the time is right to do the optimum amount of damage, they can reveal (often damaging Galactica or sending another character to sickbay in the process) and move to the resurrection ship, where they can start sending nasty things at the other players. Much of the game is actually spent trying to figure out who the cylons are; players are unable to work at maximum efficiency because you can’t trust anyone. Anybody could secretly be a cylon, and (if it’s the first half of the game) they might not even know it..

I would definitely categorize this as an experience game: you play it for the sense of paranoia and the fun of trying to figure out who the cylons are, rather than the (rather simple) gameplay itself. Battlestar Galactica is the game that replaced Shadows over Camelot for me; while it’s not one of my favorites and doesn’t hit the table more than occasionally, it’s a decent semi-cooperative game.

And with the expansions, you can finally throw those fracking toasters out the airlock..

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Preventing a Pandemic, or, Why the Dispatcher Really is a Great Role

For many people, the competitive nature of our favorite games can make it difficult to get our families interested. (This is especially the case when we tend to win a lot!) One solution to the problem is cooperative games, in which the players work together to reach a common goal. I cannot think of a better example of such games than Pandemic, in which players cooperate to find cures for four deadly diseases before they can wipe out humanity.

The game rules are simple enough: you have a board representing the major cities of the world, with links between them, and a number of colored cubes representing the diseases. Each player gets a pawn, which begins at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.  On your turn, you get four actions, each of which may be used to move to an adjacent city, play a card to move to the city it shows (or fly anywhere, if you’re already in that city), give a card to (or take one from) another player if you’re together in the matching city, treat (remove) one disease cube from your current city, build a research station, or cure a disease. Curing something simply requires that you be at a research station and discard five cards of the color you want to cure, which can be harder than it sounds given the seven card hand limit.

Of course, at the end of each turn, more cubes hit the board. Early on, they’re not too much trouble, but if too many cubes of one color build up in a city, they outbreak and spread to the surrounding cities. If you have to place more cubes of a color than are available, if you have too many outbreaks, or if you run out of cards…time’s up! You have failed to contain the disease, and the entire population of the Earth is wiped out. Thanks a lot, guys!

Each player also has a special power, given by a randomly-drawn role at the start of the game. The Medic, for example, can wipe out all the cubes of a single color in the city he’s in with one action, while the Dispatcher can move other player’s pawns around, making travel much easier. (Incidentally, while these are only two out of a number of roles, they’re some of the most useful, and the game is much easier if you have at least one of them). Other than the role combinations, players can set the difficulty by choosing how many Epidemics to include in the deck; when one is drawn, three cubes hit the board and the discard pile for new disease cubes is reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck, meaning that cities which already got hit recently are likely to soon be hit again..

The expansion, On the Brink, introduces a few elements that make the game more difficult – the Virulent Strain and the Mutation – as well as new player powers and the ability for one player to take on the role of the bio-terrorist, playing against everyone else with hidden movement. Most players seem to prefer keeping Pandemic a purely cooperative game, though, and find the cards themselves provide enough problems without adding in the terrorist. More roles are introduced as well, helping to keep the game fresh, including the previously released mini-expansion “De Generalist”.

This isn’t a particularly complicated game; it clocks in at under an hour, and is simple enough for non-gamers while still being interesting for gamers. At this is a coop, players need to coordinate their actions to keep things under control; hands are generally kept secret to keep the more experienced players from taking total control of the game. While the subject matter may be dark, the game is simple fun and often gets several players in a row, as a game can easily be finished in half an hour once everyone has played a few times.

The main problem with Pandemic, as stated, is that there’s a definite risk of the more experienced player or players running the entire game, while everyone else watches. There tends to be a lot of discussion as to what the best moves are, and it’s easy for the stronger players to end up making all the decisions. Of course, when you can avoid that situation, the discussion also keeps everyone involved in the game, avoiding downtime. What I like about the game, I think, is the way the pieces fit together: you end up with a different combination of roles each time, and you have to figure out how to make the available powers work together to cure all of the diseases. In that, it’s really as much of a puzzle as it is a game: how can you make the most efficient use of your powers and actions in order to save humanity?

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Arimaa: Chess for Humans

In the field of artificial intelligence, the most difficult problems for computers to solve are those that involve pattern recognition. Humans are very, very good at recognizing patterns (and will even see them where they don’t really exist). Computers? Not so much. In chess, for example, a human will apply pattern recognition to ignore all possible moves except those most likely to be good; in one study, chess grandmasters who were shown a game in progress could later recreate it completely, but when shown a board that was set up randomly, could no longer do so. Computers, on the other hand, generally win by checking every possible move extremely quickly and calculating the estimated value of each.

Enter Arimaa, the first game designed specifically to be hard for computers to play. While it uses a standard chess set (yes, this is a two player only game), each
piece can move forward, backwards, left, and right (except for the pawn, now called a rabbit, which cannot move backwards). Additionally, pieces can be pushed or pulled, and a turn consists of up to four moves. As a result, the decision tree for Arimaa rapidly grows out of control, which is why the top human players have no difficulty beating the top computer players (and not from lack of effort on the programmer’s part – the prize for creating a program which can defeat the top human players started at $10,000 and has grown from there).

So how does the game work? Take a standard chess set (you can also buy specialized Arimaa sets fairly cheaply) and let each player arrange his pieces any way he wants on the first two rows on his side of the board. On each turn, make up to four moves, where a move is picking up any of your pieces and moving it one space in any orthogonal direction (except, again, that rabbits cannot move backwards) More powerful pieces can push or pull less powerful ones, and a piece that is next to a more powerful enemy piece cannot move unless it is also adjacent to a friendly piece. Relative powers are determined by height: taller pieces are more powerful (so the king, for example, cannot be pushed around by anyone, and the queen can only be pushed or pulled – or immobilized – by the king). There are also four pits placed on the board; any piece standing on a pit that is not adjacent to a friendly piece falls in and is removed from the game. Indeed, there is no capturing in Arimaa; shoving enemy pieces into the pit is the only way to get rid of them.

The game ends when either one player loses all of his rabbits, or one of them makes it to the 8th rank (when it would promote, in chess). Each of the games I’ve played ended when one player made a mistake that allowed the other player to finish advancing one of his rabbits. After playing several times, I still don’t feel as if I really have much of an understanding as to the strategy of the game, aside from “watch out for the big pieces” and “make sure your pieces near the pits have backup”, but it’s an interesting challenge. Now if I could just play well enough to beat the computer..

In addition to the game itself, Amazon has a book on Arimaa strategy; additionally, you can play for free (or just check out the rules) at the Arimaa website.

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Antiquity: the Game That Tries to Kill You

Splotter Spellen is a Dutch game club known primarily for their “big three” games: Antiquity, Indonesia, and Roads & Boats. Roads and Boats, which is all about logistics, was their first big hit back in 1999; in 2004, Antiquity brought even more bits and cemented their reputation. Once I’d played Indonesia, which was released in 2005, I imported the three from Germany without even having played the first two. All three games are fiddly brain-burners, with Antiquity being the worst (in terms of fiddliness) of the lot. Antiquity and Roads & Boats also tend to be hard to find, and command fairly high prices. Interestingly enough, the same is actually set in the middle ages…apparently the designers considered that fairly ancient!

Starting setup is pretty simple: the map is made up of two land tiles per player, and you put your first city anywhere on your starting tile. You receive four houses to place anywhere in your city; each house gives you one worker. You also get six wood.

At the start of each turn, you pick up all of your workers from your city (you may also have other workers out in the fields, who will stay there until they’re finished) and redeploy them as you like. You may also build any buildings you want from your supply, provided you have both the materials and the space. Space tends to be the larger issue; more powerful buildings are often larger and come in inconvenient shapes, so they’re hard to fit in, and once you’ve placed a building you can’t move it. Additionally, even if you place perfectly there simply isn’t enough room for everything you need in one city, so you’ll have to build at least one additional one; in fact, building every building requires at least three cities.

The buildings let you do a variety of things; cart shops send people out to cut wood or fish, explorers can find food or luxury goods, a dump will reduce your pollution (very important!) and a cathedral is required to win the game: it lets you choose a patron saint. Your saint determines your win conditions: depending on who you choose, you get a special ability and win by either building all 20 of your houses, surrounding another player, building all of the buildings, or just getting rich (having three each of everything in storage). There’s also Santa Maria, who gives you the bonuses of all of the other saints, but you have to meet two victory conditions to win the game.

Once everyone has placed their buildings for the turn (which happens simultaneously), you discard any goods you didn’t use, unless you’ve built a storage; the storage costs only one wood and can be as large as you want (provided it’s in the shape of a rectangle), but it takes up space and you need a man on it to use it. Next you determine the turn order and then actually send your people out to Do Stuff around your city. Your area of control extends for two spaces from the city unless you have buildings that increase that, so you run out of room pretty fast. Once everyone has played, you get to harvest your stuff (wood, fish, pearls, sheep, etc – each farmer, fisherman, etc brings in one thing per turn until his fields are used up) and then…the famine hits.

That’s right…famine. Antiquity is a race against time: you need to achieve your victory conditions (whatever they may be) before the game manages to kill you. One way it does that it through the famine. At first glance, this may seem easy enough to handle, because you don’t actually have to feed your people; all you have to do is have the food on hand. If the famine level is at five and you have a granary (which reduces it by 3 for you) and two food on hand, nothing happens. Simple!

Simple..except that the famine level goes up by one every turn, plus another one any time someone goes exploring and discovers food. (Why someone halfway across the world finding some food would mean you need more to feed your people, I have no idea; apparently it’s more in the way of food demand, and someone discovering new food sources makes your people demand more). Pretty soon the famine level is up at eight or ten, and since you don’t have enough storage space to hold that much food (and you’ll be using it for building anyway), you start taking graves, which take up space in your cities that would otherwise go to building. Not enough space left in your cities? The graves go on top of the buildings, taking them out of play. At least, until you can build a hospital and use it to bring people back from the dead..

The famine isn’t the worst of it, though. Using the land causes pollution (except for cutting down forests, which leaves behind plains), plus each city generates another six pollution every turn, which has to be placed within your zone of control; a hex with pollution on it is unusable for most purposes. Don’t have enough free space to place all the pollution your cities are generating? For each one you can’t place, that’s another grave..

At the end of the turn, you check to see if anyone met his victory condition; if not, the game goes another turn. Although I haven’t seen it happen yet, if you don’t keep making process towards your goal, you may eventually run out of room to expand and have your cities fill up with graves; at which point it’s quite possible that nobody wins as the game manages to kill you all..

Antiquity isn’t one of my favorite games, and I don’t think it ever will be (plus it can be hard to get to the table) but I’ve turned down several $200+ offers for my copy. (For reference, when it was last in print, I paid $103 new). This is largely a puzzle game; until players start overlapping each other, it’s mostly solitaire, although you do need to keep an eye on what other people are doing so you can anticipate how it will affect the famine level or a few other areas. To me, the largest benefit of this game (aside from it being a brain burner, which I enjoy) is that it’s unique; I’ve never played anything like it.

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