Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Test Drive Update- Scotland Yard

I recently dragged several non-gamers into a game of Scotland Yard to see how it would fly. Our options for the evening included Settlers of Catan and Bohnanza so expect some test drive results of those games in the future.

Scotland Yard has one player trying to escape from the other players across a map of London. All the players move their play tokens through a series of bus, subway, and taxi routes. The person being chased ("Mr. or Ms. X") has to tell the other players which sort of transportation they are using and the detectives use deduction to guess where the criminal is located.

The game itself played pretty smoothly. The deductive player caught on quickly and was able to track Mr. X's likely position with frightening accuracy. The player who likes strategy was able to circle the area and use the transportation system to his advantage. The complete beginner player took a few turns to catch on. I played Mr. X and barely stayed a few spaces from the pursuers.

I really enjoyed the game, especially the excitement of being chased and almost being caught on several occasions. The other players had mixed feelings. It's probably simplistic and obvious (although it wasn't to me until this game) but Scotland Yard is great if you love chasing and being chased. It also absolutely requires a desire to think systematically and logically. This is a game for people who can manage chess or Clue. On a positive note it did take perhaps five minutes to explain the rules and even the absolute gaming beginner was playing with ease in a turn or two.

After our test drive I'd continue to recommend Scotland Yard for families looking for an exciting chase game. Keep the caveats in mind however, impulsive players may find the system too stuffy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures Game

Since we're touching on the subject of plastic miniatures in tactical gaming let's look at another option. In years past Avalon Hill was the world's greatest wargame company. It was like the Cadillac of game companies. This is not to slight their competitors but AH was really the awesome giant in the field. It was the pinnacle of cool for a certain geeky type of teen. The years have passed and Avalon Hill is now a company with a fairly limited range of products, the most successful being the Axis and Allies game. That franchise has been expanded in recent years to include some collectible miniatures games.

Collectible games are based on the premise that you buy a package of game tokens- cards, figures, pieces of some sort. Some of the tokens are common, some are found less often. The rare tokens are usually especially powerful in the game milieu. It's rather like buying a big bag of office supplies knowing that you're fairly likely to get paper and pens but only one bag in twenty will have a stapler. As you could imagine the stapler becomes a highly sought after item and people in the office might trade thirty pens for one rare stapler.

In the Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures Game (AAN) players purchase a starter set which gives them enough ships for two players, along with game rules, maps, dice and counters. The players assign each other a few ships and lay them out on the game map, which resembles the ocean and may have some islands upon it. The rules provide you with a mechanism for sailing your ships, firing at enemy ships, sending in waves of attack bombers, dealing with submarines, and other aspects of naval combat.

The game system in AAN is simple and intuitive: guns are assigned a certain number of dice to roll when firing. The larger the gun the more dice are rolled. The player counts up the number of times they roll four or more and compares that number of successes to the targets protective rating. Roll enough fours and you damage or sink your target. The game system includes rules for air combat and submarines. These are also based on attempting to roll a number of successes versus some target number. Roll well enough and you may shoot down enemy aircraft or damage submarines.

There is much to like about AAN. The rules are clearly written with plenty of examples and diagrams. There are a number of special rules and modifications to take into account specific differences between certain ships and aircraft. And the ships look pretty decent. In many ways this is a very nice introduction to tactical gaming at a decent price.

A few caveats come to mind with regards to AAN. This is certainly not a very accurate simulation game and if or when your child is looking for more detail and historical backup then it's time to move on. At the same time I have noticed that with games of this sort the more realistic they are the more interminable they are, to the point where the most realistic war-at-sea games are almost unplayable. The only other caveat to AAN is the collectible element. It does set the player up to throw down more and more money just for that elusive ultra-rare ship. In AAN's favor I don't see this as being as addictive as Magic or Pokemon (though I'm sure Avalon Hill wouldn't mind if it were) so the money drain risk is probably slight.

I like Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures Game as a good introduction to naval strategy and tactics. For very little investment you can give this genre a spin and if it's appealing move on to more realistic games.

Pros: Cheap and easy introduction

Cons: will cause historians to roll in their graves

Beyond the Basics: a gigantic hobby, a wealth of literature, art and history

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Miniatures Review - Victrix Napoleonics

On occasion I'll talk about miniatures gaming here on the blog. As one might gather, miniatures gaming makes use of miniature figures of some sort. Examples might be soldiers, aircraft, or spaceships. Usually these figures are moved around a board designed to look like some sort of terrain. In the above examples you might have a board depicting a field in Spain, the sky, and an area of space with asteroids and planets. For more examples turn to Historicon, a large convention dedicated to miniatures gaming. One drawback to miniatures gaming is that the miniatures in question are traditionally made with lead. This of course makes their use by children a little questionable at best. Recently we've seen the appearance of high quality plastic miniatures. Let's talk about one brand today.

Victrix is a new company operating out of the United Kingdom. They manufacture a line of miniatures depicting soldiers from the Napoleonic wars. The figures are sold in boxed sets, each box delivering a set of troops appropriate to a certain country and location. For example, I'm working on a box of French Napoleonic Infantry 1807-1812. When I'm finished I'll have sixty plastic soldiers, ready to use in table top battles.

Victrix sells their plastic soldiers as components which need to be assembled. You get a collection of arms, heads, rifles and backpacks along with instructions as to how to glue them together. This, of course, leads to one of the downsides of the plastic soldier. Assembling these figures takes a good amount of concentration and careful work. In addition the instructions are not absolutely the best. Once you get into a groove the soldiers come together nicely but this is not an activity for someone who is unmotivated.

Once the soldier is assembled it's ready to be painted. This is the second potentially tricky issue. Painting detailed miniatures can be a lot of fun or a real ordeal. Parents should think ahead and decide whether their child will find the job fun or frustrating. I recommend praising the teens for any work they do and then noting improvements in their technique over time.

The end result is a gang of soldiers ready to be pushed around the table and fight with other gangs of soldiers. Victrix includes a simple set of rules for Napoleonic battles in each box to get people started. I think the Victrix line has a lot going for it. It's relatively inexpensive. I'm very, very happy about the lack of lead. The miniatures are nicely detailed and proportioned. I have about a dozen done so far and with my mediocre painting skills they still look terrific.

On a down side they require some concentration to construct them correctly. I don't see these as being an introduction to hobby painting. Rather, they're a great next step for someone who knows that they want to play with miniatures and would like to avoid to lead. For interested teens and their parents the Victrix line is an awesome value.

The Hobby Bunker stocks Victrix products and the staff can give you tips on how to construct and paint them. They also have painting guides to help you pick colors for the troop's uniforms. Playtime in Arlington also stocks inexpensive acrylic paint and supplies for assembling and painting plastic figures.

Pros: Awesome figures, inexpensive, no lead, a great stepping stone towards a terrific hobby

Cons: tricky to put together, mediocre instructions, potentially intimidating

Beyond the Basics: for the interested teen this is the gateway to geekery. Also the gateway to a fun hobby filled with history that can last a lifetime.

Note- painted miniature the work of Andrew Taylor.

Scotland Yard - Classic Chase Game

I took my kids to Belmont Toys yesterday and made some happy discoveries. One was that the staff there are really good with kids and the store has a nice ambiance. Two is that tucked away in the game section was a copy of Scotland Yard- on sale. My kids left with good memories and I left with a copy of one of the classic games of deduction and pursuit.

In the game of Scotland Yard one player is the mysterious Mister X and all the others are detectives. Mister X has to elude his pursuers for the duration of the game and as you might guess, the detectives are trying to, well, Not be eluded. All the action takes place on a detailed map of London. The map is marked with various landmarks of the city and criss-crossed with the city's bus, subway, and taxi lines. Each player starts at a randomly determined subway stop. In each turn they choose one means of transportation (bus for example) and move one stop down the appropriate line. Mister X does not appear on the map, that player logs their moves on a hidden sheet of paper. Every few turns Mister X has to reveal where they are on the map, then they move secretly again.

There are some tweaks and details in addition to these basic rules but the gist of the game remains as described. The detectives fan out across the city in the hopes of landing on the space that Mister X is on. Every few turns they are told where he is and then they must race in that direction, knowing that as they race towards him he'll be moving away. The key to the game is to say "OK, if Mister X is on that spot, where can he get to in the time it takes us to close in?" For the Mister X player they key is to be on spots where there are many transportation lines and to not be boxed in. Some spots may only have a bus line for example. If Mister X is revealed on that space the detectives know that he can only leave via bus and that limits the places he'll be next turn.

Clearly Scotland Yard has a component of luck. The detectives will be doing their fair share of guessing in between glimpses of Mister X's location. At the same time there is a component of strategy and planning, as well as a need for the detectives to work together. Finally, the game does have the necessity of trust. Mister X logs their moves secretly and the other players have to assume that the moves are being done legally. To some extent, though, why play with people you don't trust?

Scotland Yard is a fun, light game. It's great for people who like logic and deduction components. I don't find it as epic as Race for the Galaxy and the components are certainly old school in comparison to the extravagant productions that Fantasy Flight Games or Worlds of Wonder releases. Still, it's a clever and well crafted game that has good staying power and is likely to be pretty palatable to the whole family.

Pros: simple, fun, exciting

Cons: see below

Beyond the Basics: It's a basic game. I like it, I'll never Loooove it like I love Race for the Galaxy, but I may be playing Scotland Yard ten years from now and I'm not sure I'll be playing RftG even five years from now.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Age of Steam- A Real Train Game

I created the category of "trains" as part of the Ticket to Ride review and since then I've felt pretty guilty about not providing any more train game reviews. Let's do a train game review.

I can't say I have the details straight but apparently Age of Steam is a game mired in copyright issues and controversy. That being said it's also known as one of the best train games ever. I was a little let down by Ticket to Ride, which seemed like a abstract game with a rail theme. Age of Steam, on the other hand, seems like The game for train lovers everywhere.

The basic premise of Age of Steam is that the players all run small train companies and compete to see who can expand and develop their companies best. This may involve building tracks, improving locomotives, moving freight, and managing sticks and loans. In order to win a player has to choose which task to address first and how to balance expenses and revenue. Clearly this is a game for the older kids.

A given turn has several important phases. Players may issue shares in their company. These raise money but nothing comes for free and there'll be interest to pay later on. Then players compete for special abilities or powers which they will use to build their company. Examples include "Locomotive," which allows you to upgrade your engine. The "Engineer" ability allows you to lay more track upon the map. Players have to weigh how much they want to pay for a given ability. It may deliver a big advantage, or leave them broke if they bid too much.

After abilities are doled out the players go through a process of laying down track upon a board, moving freight, and then receiving income and paying off interest. The board depicts the Ohio valley and over the course of the game rail track will be laid between cities and new cities will appear. Of note, expansion boards offer you the chance to lay track anywhere from Vermont to the moon!

Certain aspects of Age of Steam are pretty familiar. Race For the Galaxy has a similar mechanism in which players choose a different ability each turn in order to reap some benefit. Perhaps because I'm fond of RftG I find this game mechanic to be appealing and a source of great fun and variety. Do you risk money to lay more track or save money and just take whatever ability comes your way? The idea of raising funds through shares but then paying the interest later is exciting as well. Will your investment pay off or leave you being chased by angry shareholders?

The track-laying and city building dynamics are not uncommon in modern board games. It's always fun to watch maps being developed over time. I also like the rules for moving goods which include paying to use other people's tracks. Smart players try and connect certain cities that need certain goods and then specialize. Speaking of moving good, there are some fairly detailed rules regarding sales, taxes, and where goods may appear. Again, this is a game for older members of the family.

In theory any game is a collection of math equations which may simulate reality to a greater or lesser degree. Chess may be less "realistic," and SeeKrieg (look it up sometime) much more so. I like Age of Steam because it seems just "realistic" enough for me. More so than Ticket to Ride but not excessively so. I think it would be far to complex for younger children and possibly kind of uninteresting to some, but for a player who finds trains and company building interesting this should be a big hit.

Pros: great system, lots of tough choices and nail biting

Cons: not for the little kids, potentially dry subject matter

Beyond the Basics: endless numbers of expansions and extra maps