Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Huzzah Followup- a Rockin' Good Time

Well it's a little late but I want to write a bit about my experience at Huzzah, a gaming convention in Portland, Maine that took place the weekend of April 30th.

In brief the event was just terrific. But let's hit some of the high points. Last year I drove down to Historicon in Pennsylvania for the country's largest historical gaming convention. I enjoyed about seven hours of traffic through New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. To be sure the Pennsylvania area is just breathtaking but so is Concord, MA and you don't need six hours to reach it. At the event I played in about six games and had a fair time. One game was really superb and the rest were not much better than what my club plays every week. In the end I paid for hotel and gas and food and while food in Pennsylvania is cheap and yummy it was still a bit of an expense. So stage set for Huzzah.

Portland is of course not very far from Boston. We made it in a few hours and even being stuck on the Maine Turnpike because of a burning semi is not too terrible. I walked in the main hall and was immediately struck by the incredible quality of the games being run. There were armies with hundreds of figures, huge castles and mockups of European towns. There was a fabulous depiction of Pacific islands and a model Alamo. Each game was of top quality in terms of presentation and preparation.

Two days later I left on a high note. I don't think I've ever met such a friendly group of gamers. I played a skirmish game depicting the Battle of Hampden (see photo on right) and Eric the game master regaled us with stories of this historical action that took place in Maine during the War of 1812. Not only was the action pretty exciting (ill-trained Americans try and slow down the British) but the story included the typical cast of crazy characters that makes the War of 1812 so interesting in the first place. I also got to play in a battle between Ethiopians and Italians set in 1935 and a skirmish between Germans and retreating British occurring late in the Second World War. Each game was just terrific in terms of presentation and playability. Finally, I got to run my own game, the Battle of North Point, which took place outside of Baltimore during the War of 1812 (see photos on left). I think my game was fair but the players were so good natured that a good time was had by all. Definitely another example of how fun players can make any game a success.

I'd get reservations for next year's Huzzah now if they were offered. I enjoyed a national level of gaming a few hours from home, my wife enjoyed Portland, and I met a great bunch of people. Huzzah! indeed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Settlers of Catan- Maybe Better Never than Late

The expensive and cleverly designed Eurogame has only been in existence a short while. Until recently gamers could enjoy popular games like bridge or chess or delve into the underground with miniatures games or wargames but that was it. Settlers of Catan could be considered one of the first major successes in the world of new games. It's sold over fifteen million copies and has achieved great notoriety. I picked up a copy recently and gave it a trial run.

As with many classic games the rules to Catan are simple. The board is pieced together from tiles selected randomly and arranged into an island. Each tile represents forest, fields, meadows, or some other type of terrain. Each tile is assigned a number from two to twelve. Players get two starting settlements to place on the board and the game begins.

Each player takes a turn rolling two dice. The terrain tiles corresponding to that number "produce" some commodity. Woods, for example, produce wood. Anyone with a settlement bordering that tile gets a "wood" card. After distributing cards the players can then trade cards amongst themselves and then the player whose turn it is can trade cards for some product or upgrade to their civilization. You could buy another settlement, some roads, or a some component of a civilization like a university. The player who accumulates a certain number of upgrades first is the winner.

Catan has many nice touches. Players know that they are more likely to roll an eight than a two so some territories are more likely to produce than others. A player may receive goods during any turn so there is less down time waiting for other people to finish their turns. Finally, players must trade commodities in order to win the game. As a result each turn is really a chance to interact and further your game.

That being said I hated my game experience. I have to say I was in a bad mood when we started and had no desire to cajole people into trading with me. Further, my setup left me with no chance to acquiring a vital resource and that left the other players with exactly zero incentive to ever trade it to me. I found that once I had fallen behind there was no way to catch up and the remaining time was really just dull. So in one sense this is not a game for ill tempered children who hate to lose.

Joking aside my experience does demonstrate some issues with Catan. If you don't want to trade then do not play this game. If you just want to win because of luck or great tactics then this is not your game. This is a game that demands cheery trading and interaction. Further, while I'm sure experienced players will feel otherwise, I think beginners really can fall behind and get left in the dust in Catan. Granted the game is over quickly but even so this may be an issue to consider if you have cranky children who hate losing.

On the positive side Catan is fast and simple and insanely clever in its design. I think the trading mechanic is great for people who want a trading game and probably would work very well for four players. The board has a variable setup which ensure each game will be different and the quickness of play ensures that if a player is unhappy with a given game they will be playing a different one soon enough.

In the end I'm glad I have finally tried Settlers of Catan. I think it's terrific for the right players but not for cranky folks.

Pros: simple, fast, clever design, strategic, fun

Cons: not for the cranky, irascible, or people not in the mood to trade

Beyond the Basics: a subtle game with lots of replay value

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Family Pastimes Treasure Trove Discovered

Family Pastimes is a notorious publisher of cheery cooperative games for children. I've reviewed their Secret Door and Max previously. Their games are characterized by simple rules and cooperative play, in addition to a very homegrown design aesthetic that takes me back to my days playing old old old school role playing games and wargames. Their games are also enjoyed by legions of fans and are nicely priced.

The main drawback to Family Pastimes games has always been finding them in the first place. I was very excited last week to discover that the Waldorf School in Lexington has a huge supply in their basement store. Now the basement store is actually pretty well hidden but the search is fun as you'll pass by workshops and kitchens and various appealing elements of the school. But once your search is over you can indulge in affordable, nurturing, cooperative games!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Perry French Dragoons - Initial Impressions

Some time ago I reviewed Victrix Miniature's line of French Napoleonic foot soldiers. Recently I picked up a box of Perry Miniatures French Dragoons. Both are significant in that they are plastic miniatures as opposed to lead. Plastic miniatures are generally cheaper, easier to tote around, and most significantly, contain no lead. I was interested to see how the Perry brother's work stacked up against the nice figures from Victrix.

The box of dragoons included several sprues of pieces, some bases for the completed figures, and a painting guide. The guide was helpful without being incredibly detailed, more than sufficient for a casual hobbiest. The bases were an assortment of sizes but didn't include any for the dismounted figures. I use thicker bases anyway so that was hardly a deal breaker.

Once I started assembling the figures I was struck by how much simpler they were to construct compared to the Victrix infantry. There is some variety in how the figures can be completed, mainly in how you pose the sword-holding left hand. The horses come in two parts and their stance can vary depending on which two parts you glue together. In comparison the Victrix box included a multitude of poorly identified arm variations that really slowed down construction. The bottom line was that assembling the Perry dragoons was fast and easy.

I did have some worry that the lack of variety would lead to a homogeneous looking group. I was happy to see that once lined up the figures all had some individual character. To be sure they had less than the Victrix infantry but on a tabletop I don't think the difference would be striking. I did notice that the Perry figures seem to be modeled after healthy, slender fashion models while Victrix based their figures on thugs, roughnecks and hillbillies (see redcoats on left). Historically this seems about right and I'll probably continue to use Victrix for foot soldiers.

The Perry Dragoons story had an unexpected happy ending. After assembling the troops I left them out on the kitchen table. My three year old son found them and started examining them. In a minute the troops were lined up in neat rows and we spent the next half hour having horse races across the table. I think it was probably a welcome relief for the dragoons to take a break from harassing Richard Sharpe across the length of Spain and just race around for a bit. Mainly it was heartwarming as h#&% to play with toy soldiers together. As an addendum the figures held up to play just fine and worst case scenario was that I would have to reglue something.

I was very happy with the Perry Dragoons. They assembled easily and the box is a great value. I like the absence of lead which allows me to clutter up the house with the figures, much to the wife's delight. For gaming purposes they look terrific and for playing purposes they are a hit with three year olds. I got my box at the Hobby Bunker in Malden.