Game Night Verdicts #1

Welcome! These are the Game Night Verdicts. Impressions, impossibly self-assured judgments and esoteric musings that followed playing a game. Enjoy!

Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn – I’ve written a piece in German about my impressions of the game. I generally like it, as I think it scratches a similar itch to Scythe. But without the excessive chrome, and more importantly without the slowdown, when you make a mistake. In Scythe those feel like you’re missing a turn, in Civilization even mistakes feel like boosts to another action due to the focus row. You pick an action, put it back on the first spot and slide up the rest of the actions. Every time an actions moves forward in the row it becomes more effective, more flexible and more powerful. This makes every decision feel as if you’re propelling your civilization forward. Outside of the positive reinforcement that even seemingly pointless turns trigger, it makes the game fly by. Ultimately, the manageable game length and ease of play lead to it not really feeling like a true “Civ-Game”. Whereas wrestling control from an intimidating beast of a game seems to me the defining feature of those games, A New Dawn is just happy being a modern design with a focus on optimising your engine, and fairly damage-light interaction with other players. So far I’m happy to keep both this and FFG’s 2010 offering in my collection.

SOL: Last Days of a Star – This game is pretty abstract, and a pretty abstract, too. (Thank you. Thank you very much. I’ve hired an American sitcom writer to write this opening line for me. And he was worth every one of the $7500 I paid.) You’re building up momentum to escape a dying sun, that your ships and space constructs orbit until the timer runs out and whoever has gained the most momentum wins. I didn’t enjoy playing this game. You’re going over the same route over and over again, constructing buildings out of ships. Those buildings allow you to get closer to the centre of the board (which is beneficial, though costly), generate energy (to be used for building ships) or generate buildings that generate momentum, if you have energy to spend on them. It’s all quite interwoven. There’s a sense of the game trying to impress you with the way it folds in on itself. SOL most reminded me of Great Western Trail, just without all the dross ladled on top of it. A recurring route, expanded and changed over the course of play, with benefits for competitors if you need to use one of their constructions. But all of it is reduced to such an extent, that game flow is both precise and elegant. Sadly, even with added elegance and very clean visual design and art direction, the game ultimately feels a bit hollow.

Sweet Nose – A 2016 release that found its way into my collection by way of BGG math trades. The background is patently absurd in a way that feeds into the exoticism reputation of Asian designs, without actually being all that exotic. It’s just odd. Something about players trying to create the least sweet dish in order to avoid the wrath of the god of thunder. In play you’re setting up personal VP multipliers in secret for each of the five available ingredients. During play you swap ingredients with other players and they with you. Swapped ingredients can not be swapped again, so eventually one player runs out of ingredients to swap and the round ends. You multiply your points and that’s the round. After three of those the game ends, and lowest score wins. (No tiebreaker, thankfully.) What makes the game neatly mean and amusing, is the market which at any one time holds 3 ingredients. Those are not added to your ingredients, but instead to your multiplier. So as you are jocking to collect as many of the low multiplier ingredients as you can, somebody might sneak them into the market, driving up your low multiplier and showering you with more points than a Georges Seurat painting. The game’s shortness helps in keeping investment, and therefore frustration low. The design is neat and clean which makes playing the game a breeze to play, but there might be some too easy to reach calculability of moves waiting for experienced players, that could push this from a light and breezy amuse bouche to an obstinate struggle for OPTIMAL PLAY!!!1!

Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysium Quadrant – Like a good hype-fueled gamer, I’ve given in to online peer pressure (aka the entirely imaginary sense of disconnect from my gaming brethren) and picked up a copy of Sidereal Confluence after all. Despite originally cooling on it, when I was at Essen partly due to the price point and the player range implying a far larger target group than I can usually muster on my game nights. First impression: there must be some kind of subliminal message in the text and layout of the rulebook that makes my eyes and focus just wander off. It’s a short rulebook, but I could not for the life of me finish it in one sitting. Even an entire page took huge mental effort. (The teaching guide on BGG on the other hand was fine.) So that was odd. Which also meant our first play was plagued by something that usually doesn’t happen: I was half-prepared when introducing the rules, and had to continuously look up and correct myself after the fact, when I misremembered a rule. In fact we even played the entire game with one small, but influential rule wrong. Despite those setbacks the majority at the table seemed quite taken with the game. I was a little more hesitant, in that I was interested, even intrigued but not quite excited after one play. But what I liked, I liked a lot. Sidereal Confluence does away with some of the pettiest and most churlish part of a lot of tight euro-game designs: obscuring or outright hiding pertinent information from players’ sight. Either by keeping player reserves hidden, or by putting so many steps between your investment now and the return in VP later, that making an informed decision becomes a fool’s errand. (This also neatly ties into a particular eye-roll-inducer for me: people who claim to play by gut, because they don’t realise that their math skills are at a level that most estimates have a solid basis in reality. Competitive maths is not what I game for, or respect in players.) But that’s a tangent for another day. The game itself is interesting. It’s basically a euro-game without a board to travel or slide markers on. Or rather Cosmic Encounter retro-engineerd by a mid-level eurogamer who has overheard some fanboys vaguely gushing about that game. Negotiation? Variable player powers that change the game? Alliances and cooperation? Sounds grand! And true to eurogame doctrine, there is no actual cooperation, but there is mutually beneficial exchange. Something that I’ve always felt a lot of negotiation game fans claimed their genre has, but that I never really saw myself. Partly because of the lack of shared victories. Sidereal Confluence at least takes a first step towards reconciling those two stances, by explicitly dispensing with end-game tiebreakers. (Thank you, Tauceti Deichmann!) While the game still obscures whether a trade is mutually beneficial or not until the very end, it’s reasonably easy to tell if certain trades are rip-offs as they happen. Simply by giving every player a general baseline of what resources are worth in relation to one another. Players have a shared understanding what a roughly equal trade looks like. Coupled with the fact that everything but the accumulated VP are open information to the table, you have (in our case) 4 players trying to make their engine and special abilities work and seeing what came out the other side. As this was our very first game, we were still very much into exploring options and experimenting with combos, which was fun in and of itself. A little insight that sadly too many games seem to forget: play should be rewarding in itself, not just good play that scores points. But of course old eurogamer habits die hard. Starving other players of resources, refusing trades or hiding stock (an innocent mistake, as I had overlooked that rule in the book) happened without any immediate prompting by the game state. Which meant that that typical euro cattiness and passive-aggressiveness was always just hiding under the surface. This is ultimately what made me pull back from falling in love with this game. Despite the openness of the design, the positive reinforcement baked into the rules (at least with the four recommended starting races) and the fact that sharing is name-dropped as part of the turn structure, it’s still not quite enough to guide the group into a collaborative experience of a competitive game. It remains a thin veneer of comradeship draped over a gulf of sneering backstabbiness (with the occasional front-stabbiness to even things out). Which proves my theory that eurogames are heavily dependent on the players, whereas Ameritrash are heavily dependent on the mood of said players.

I promise to add pictures next time. 🙂

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