Boardgame Review: Beer & Vikings

Beer & Vikings – of course I had to review this new Italian boardgame, the follow-up to 2011’s Sake & Samurai in the “Spirits & Warriors” series. Let me say at the outset that the game art shows little influence from actual Viking Period material culture and the text shows little influence from Old Norse literature. This is a humorous game about Conanesque barbarians with beards and a mighty thirst. I accept this point of departure and will look at the game’s qualities within the given parameters.

The game is played with cards and tokens. The winner is the player whose character drinks the most beer from the communal barrel (i.e. collects the most tokens from a pot). If two drink the same amount, the tie is resolved by who kills the most opponents (by draining all their hit points). But designer Matteo Santus has built interesting checks into the twin goals of drinking and manslaughter: each beer token usually disables one of your abilities, and the ghosts of the slain form a team that can also collect beer tokens and perhaps beat you. So in a way this game teaches barbarian moderation. It’s not a long game once you’ve learned the rules. It plays 3-8 people and takes ~10 mins per participant.

My group enjoyed the game quite a lot. The four of us each graded it a 6 or 7 out of 10. Regarding game design, we found that the minions do little and might be taken out without lessened enjoyment – they’re basically walking hit points. And the option to throw your axe past an opponent’s defences is overpowered. Particularly if axe-throwing happens as a third action in addition to the two cards you are allowed to play each turn. The rule book certainly allows for such an interpretation but does not make the matter clear. People with little to middling experience of boardgaming will be confused by the fact that each card can mean at least six different things depending on which part and side of the card you choose to use. But seasoned players of e.g. Carl Chudyk’s popular card games with their steep learning curves will take this in their stride.

The game art by Jocularis is fun and attractive. It’s basically caricatures of Vallejo’s and Frazetta’s barbarians plus beards, with absurdly oversized axes and muscles and bosoms that could never be used in real life. We laughed at the rotund and muscular valkyrie Blenda Småland who appears to be wearing a pair of Obelix’s striped pants pulled up to her armpits.

With finicky rules covering eight pages of fine print, this is clearly a game aimed at gamers rather than the general public. It’s a fun filler for people who like beer and Vikings, and that fits almost every hobby gamer I’ve ever come across. It has strategic depth but is not too long, and after your first game I believe your group will want to give it another go pretty soon.

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Boardgaming Retreat

This past weekend saw my third annual boardgaming retreat: 48 hours in good company at a small Nyköping hotel during the slow season, all meals included. Me and my buddy Pieter took a walk upriver to the first bridge and back past the castle ruin late on Saturday night, but otherwise I spent my waking hours in the gaming/dining room.

I played eleven sessions of nine different games. To give you an idea of how popular each individual game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank. For instance, Indonesia’s “98th” means that right now there are only 97 board games that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly than that game. I’m not quite so enthusiastic about it myself.

  • Oregon. Ranked 540th. A Norwegian abstract game with a thin coat of 19th century Frontier theme. Short and sweet.
  • Chaos in the Old World. Ranked 47th. Each player assumes the role of a chaos god vying with his buddies for domination of Games Workshop’s fantasy version of Renaissance Europe. Oddly you don’t kill or corrupt the civilians much. The game’s graphic design is ugly but the mechanics are fun.
  • Sid Meier’s Civilization. Ranked 40th. This is the second, more successful attempt to make a boardgame out of the wildly successful computer game of the same name which took some inspiration from a classic 1980 boardgame that takes 14 hours to play. The best new game I learned at the retreat.
  • Indonesia. Ranked 98th. The board is a big drab map of Indonesia, divided into a myriad small districts. You move square cardboard chits and little colourful wooden boat markers around. Game money changes hands. Nobody really knew the rules, it took over five hours and I was bored to tears.
  • Glory to Rome. Ranked 70th. I brought a recently redecorated and much prettier edition of this intricate card-based logistics game. It was designed by Carl Chudyk who later released the excellent Innovation. Good fun, not too long!
  • Castles of Burgundy. Ranked 23rd. A dry, drab and abstract game which is largely concerned with the movements of hexagonal cardboard tiles, which, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is odd because on the whole it isn’t the small hexagonal cardboard tiles that the game is supposed to entertain.
  • Yggdrasil. Ranked 336th. I brought this fine French cooperation game about Norse mythology. “Oh how prog rock” said one participant when he saw the board art. Sadly the forces of chaos overran Asgard.
  • King of Tokyo. Ranked 145th. It may only be simplified Yahtzee with a deck of cards and some giant monsters, but the art is so good and the in-yer-face-ness of it all so entertaining that we had to play it twice in one sitting.
  • Gem Dealer. Ranked 6605th. Short and bland.

I blogged about the gaming retreats of 2010 and 2011 too.

Fazer Chinaman Gone, Leaves Hat

Fazer's old packaging

Fazer has removed the cartoon East Asian from one of two versions of the packaging for their chocolate-covered puffed rice. Only the conical straw hat remains, an “abbreviated motif” as Karl Hauck would have put it. Tørsleff still has the guy on their gel agent. Gabob recently published the fine boardgame Wok Star which is full of cartoon East Asians.

Tørsleff's gel agent

Thinking about these images, I’ve decided that I don’t find them racist. The old Fazer and Tørsleff cartoons are certainly outdated, since few people in East Asia wear conical straw hats or queue hair any more. The Wok Star images are up-to-date. And none of the images denigrate East Asians in my opinion. Granted, it’s hard to understand why there’s a cartoon Chinaman on the gel agent, but the chocolate has rice in it and is named “Kina”, and the boardgame is about a Chinese family restaurant.

The Wok Star boardgame

I’m thinking that when Chinese cartoonists draw friendly caricatures of their own people, then they probably look a bit like this. If we can’t allow cartoons of people with non-Europid features, then we just make them invisible in part of the public space.

What do you think, Dear Reader?

Update same evening: Dear Aard regular Christina points to an ongoing fracas in Canada where a South Asian woman depicted on a draught for new paper money was replaced by a Europid woman.

Heptagonal Dice Trays

I don’t like the loud rattle of dice or the way they careen across the table, scattering game markers and ending up on the floor. And so I’ve been thinking about buying a dice tray. With low walls and a soft interior surface, it solves both problems. When my friend Foaad gave me a huge gift certificate at Dragon’s Lair, one of Stockholm’s best board and card game stores and the only one to my knowledge which offers gaming tables, I decided it was time.

Check out my beautiful new handmade dice trays! Per Landberger makes these without even being an underpaid Third World sweat shop worker. And it took me a while to realise that they’re heptagonal. That’s how crazy this guy is. Order them here.

(I also got the 2011 cooperative boardgame Yggdrasil about the twilight of the Norse Gods — which employs one big chunky six-sided die — and the 6-player expansion for Settlers.)

Vacation Fun

Spent a week gloriously off-line at my mom’s glorious summer house in the archipelago. Oh the joy of reading 300 pages for fun in one day without feeling the need to check e-mail! Here are the books I read:

  • Invented Knowledge. False history, fake science and pseudo-religions. Ronald H. Fritze 2009. One amazing essay covers the scifi con-man religion Nation of Islam. Did you know that Louis Farrakhan started out as a calypso singer, and that George Clinton’s Mothership was a concept borrowed from NoI mythology?
  • Falling Free. Lois McMaster Bujold 1988. Charming fast-paced scifi. Four-armed gene-mod people optimised for zero-gee! Thanks for the book, Birger!
  • Plain Tales from the Raj. Ed. Charles Allen 1975. Colonial India was almost as alien as that scifi novel’s world.
  • Medieval Lives. Terry Jones & Alan Ereira 2004. Countless factual gems from Medieval England, like when a besieged nobleman hands his 5-year-old son over as a ransom to the besiegers, and they threaten to toss the child into the fortress with a catapult, and the father yells that he doesn’t care since he still has the hammer and anvils to make a better son. (The kid was never thrown and grew up to become a succesful and violent knight.) Thanks for this one too, Birger!

And the boardgames I played with my buddy Micke and our wives:

  • Lord of the Rings: Confrontation
  • Lost Cities
  • Innovation
  • Wok Star
  • Bohnanza

What have you done for fun lately, Dear Reader?

Weekend Fun

i-6510db6f1fcedc73e2b745a00fef2c3a-gaming dudes.png

  • Played Eclipse for the first time with my new Muscovite friends Anton & Maria and frequent guest Swedepat. This Finnish 2011 boardgame has become a runaway international hit and is currently ranked #7 on Boardgame Geek. It’s about interstellar colonialism: good fun, very neatly designed, and has a lot of inherent replayability. I look forward to future games. Guess which player ended up way ahead of the cluster of three stubble-chinned losers at the end…
  • Cycled in brisk & sunny weather for a second attempt at two recalcitrant geocaches. Found nada. How the great have fallen.
  • Had dinner at friends’ place and made the acquaintance of their recently adopted 2-y-o. Lovely, bright & cute!
  • As head of the Carthaginian forces, managed to lose the unloseable 217 BC Battle of Lake Trasimene in Commands & Colours: Ancients. One fatal mistake I made was to not leave any room for my front units to flee when their morale broke. Interestingly, I learned that my opponent for the evening, Max, descends from inhabitants of Gammalsvenskby, dislocated Estonian Swedish-speakers who mass-migrated from Crimea to Sweden in the 1920s.

What where the highlights of your weekend, Dear Reader?

Boardgame Review: Pergamon

i-3b620a4d1c2ab098b17f961f86409d12-pic890889_t.jpgThere are some good archaeology-themed boardgames out there. None depict archaeology as an activity directed towards the gaining of knowledge. Let’s look at the top three on Boardgame Geek.

  • Tikal has a pretty absurd premise. A number of archaeological expeditions reach an area of jungle-covered ruins in the Yucatan peninsula at the same time and realise to their surprise that they all have permits to dig in the same region. The expedition leaders react to this coincidence by ordering an all-out plunderfest where everybody tries to get as much fine loot as possible, employing the locals as manual labour.
  • Thebes really makes fun of my whole profession. Sure, you play the role of an early 1900s archaeologist who does research in libraries and goes to the areas of ancient civilisations to do fieldwork. But the goal of the game isn’t to find out about it past: it’s simply to become as famous as possible. When you dig, half of what you find is termed “useless junk” and you don’t even bring it home from the site. You just look for “treasure” that you can exhibit in European capitals. And one strategy that works is to simply go to as many conferences as possible and make sure everybody knows about you — even though you never dig.
  • Lost Cities is a fine two-player card game decorated with a thin veneer of archaeological practice. You mount archaeological expeditions to up to five forgotten civilisations, one of whose imagery is heavily influenced by 1st millennium Scandinavia, and try to secure funding from fickle donors who will reward you lavishly if you find anything good but also punish you if you fail. Quite what the victory points you amass here represent isn’t spelled out.

I recently bought a new archaeology boardgame simply on the strength of the theme and its decent BGG rank. A 2011 release from Eggertspiele in Germany, Pergamon received its first review on BGG in February of last year. It was designed by Stefan Dorra (none of whose many other games I have played) and Ralf zur Linde (whose 2009 co-designed game Finca I like).

In Pergamon, the players are German archaeologists in 1878 who compete over excavations at the site of the same name in modern-day Turkey. Here you are only partly competing for fame or fine finds as in the above-mentioned games. Each victory point instead represents an unspecified number of visitors to the Pergamon museum in Berlin. The visitors only want to see well-preserved objects, they prefer older finds over newer ones, and they soon lose interest in stuff that’s been around the museum for a few months. So during each of the game’s twelve monthly rounds, you compete for funding, dig for stuff, reassemble broken objects, and exhibit them in the museum. The dig itself is shown as a kind of mining operation, where the various crews apparently burrow horizontally into the side of a tell.

The game seats two, three or four, is playable to a smart 7-y-o, and takes about an hour depending on how experienced everybody is. The pieces are nice chunky cardboard with a pleasing design, as is the board. There is little down time unless someone gets Analysis Paralysis. There is ample opportunity for strategic planning and decision making. You can get Pergamon for €19 or $32 + p&p depending on where you are.

All in all, a pretty short but still meaty game with an easily understood theme, playable to Muggles but also enjoyable for the game geek. An excellent gift to the archaeologist in your life, who will appreciate the ironic museological slant to it all: whoever gets the most punters to his display cases wins.

Sunzi’s Ancient Art of Cheating

i-01e6c6044c7d27fff2224074a080b316-ancient_art_of_war-6.gifWhen I was a kid I enjoyed playing the 1984 computer war game Sun Tzu’s Ancient Art of War. Last spring I visited Tiger Hill in Suzhou where there is a small temple to the great strategist’s memory.

The game is good fun, not least thanks to the scenario editor that was years before its time and allowed an unusual level of creativity. However, my friend David and I eventually discovered an “exploit” that pretty much ruined the game for us. Here’s what we did.

The game keeps track of each troop unit’s fatigue level. Fresh troops fight way better than tired ones. What we found out was a way to always have fresh troops. You see, fatigue is registered on the unit level, not on the level of individual soldiers.

When on your way to battle with fresh troops, detach one guy (Ernie) to stay behind and take a nap or something. After the battle, your main force will be fatigued, and Ernie will be fresh. If you add Ernie back to the main unit, he will become as fatigued as they are. But if, instead, you add the main unit to Ernie… everybody’s suddenly rested again.

I wonder if even old Sunzi knew of this trick.

Most-played Boardgames of 2011

When a buddy of mine learned that I keep stats on the boardgames I play, she said, “If I didn’t know you, Martin, I’d say you probably suffered from Asperger’s syndrome.” But hey, Boardgamegeek.com has a nifty book-keeping function, and I enjoy keeping notes! Here are the ten games I’ve played the most during 2011, all highly recommended.

These are mostly shorter games as such have a greater likelihood of getting played several times in one evening. The three longer ones that I have played the most are Death Angel, Acquire and Settlers of Catan. I’ve played 75 different games this year. Looking back since mid-2008, the number is 134.

Boardgame Review: Place

i-ca82df7ee960957ba539e5e8153cfc82-placebox.pngPlace is a new Swedish boardgame, the first offering from Spelmakarna i Sverige Ltd who are based near my home. After reading about their product in the local paper, I asked them for a review copy, which they kindly delivered to my doorstep. (No, we’re not acquainted.)

It’s a geographical trivia game with five main parameters contributing to who wins.

1. The ability to recognise scenic places worldwide from pictures
2. The ability to place them correctly on the world map
3. The ability to answer trivia questions about the places
4. The ability to remember the answers to the questions
5. Blind luck

The game has an odd age recommendation: 15 or higher. This might suggest complicated rules, but no: they fit on half a piece of paper. Instead the age thing has to do with the fact that you need a pretty solid eduction to do well at parameters 1-3. My kids, 13 and 8, weren’t very good at those. But they each have a good memory, and the dice aren’t less friendly to them than to grownups. So what happened in our first test game was that Junior won through use of parameters 4 and 5. He remembered the answers to the questions and got lucky with the dice.

More importantly, both kids quite enjoyed playing the game despite not doing well at the aspects of it that I might consider important. The game is a good educational tool since it encourages memorisation of geo-trivia. So I suggest 10 years as the age recommendation for future print runs.

The graphic design and the selection of images are two of Place’s strengths. Very good-looking product. But I have issues with the trivia questions. They’re poorly copy-edited. They vary wildly in difficulty. And some are filler text with an unrelated question at the end. “Blah blah seed bank blah safeguard botanical diversity blah blah great big underground refrigerators. What’s the capital of Svalbard?”

I give the game a middling grade because winning it is to such a great extent based on chance rather than knowledge, and the strategic element is slight. The player who liked it the most in our group was 8-year-old Juniorette. But I realise that nobody in our group belongs to the target audience, half of us being grade schoolers and all of us being boardgame hobbyists with a taste for meatier strategy games.