War Never Changes: Twilight Struggle, Game Two

There’s something beautiful about the way Twilight Struggle uses dice. Any time a die roll is necessary, it comes down to one toss of a single six-sided die. It’s simplistic, utterly mundane, and wildly chaotic—and yet it represents coups taking down established governments, national realignments in political ideology, and sending mankind into space.

It was during one of these momentous occasions that I realized just how random Twilight Struggle can be—and yet it gives the players so much grip on what happens that the more skilled player is far more likely to succeed. In the last game I played, as the United States, I secured an early lead and maintained it throughout the game, and yet two decisions—one by my opponent, one by me—ultimately led to my downfall.

First, I was lucky enough to draw the War Games card. As an event, I could give my opponent six points and, if I was still in the lead, end the game in victory immediately. I sat there trying to stay deadpan, even getting ready to apologize, play the card, and tell him he played well. After mulling over his hand for a few minutes, he realized it was best to use a card that let him steal one from mine before I played all the good ones. He was right. He stole War Games.

In the second case, I was one advancement on the Space Race track away from winning by points alone. Then I started going over the risks. I mean, it’s only a 50% chance of working. What if it doesn’t? My position in several regions is precarious, if not outright in my opponent’s favor. If he gets lucky with scoring cards… okay, I’m going to play Missile Envy, tale his highest value card, improve my position, THEN take a chance on the Space Race, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m still in a better position than when I started. So long as that event isn’t for the US or neutral and degrade DEFCON from two to one…

It was. Boom. Global thermonuclear war.

Technically that means the world ended, but it was my fault, so in game terms I assume the ragged band of survivors is slightly more miffed with my side of the conflict, assuming there are any survivors. Or maybe the ghosts of all human society will be making snide comments at me for all eternity. “Good going, jerk. This isn’t even a fun place to haunt anymore.”

This was after several hours at the game. I should have been annoyed that such a long progress towards victory can be upset entirely in a moment. For most games, I would be—but not with Twilight Struggle. We made those decisions. I decided which risks were worth taking. It went wrong because I didn’t know how to weigh those odds well enough.

The way Twilight Struggle uses random chance is brilliant. It gives a player caught behind hope. It can all be manipulated through the choices of the players. Perhaps most importantly, it adds tension in a way that I don’t think any other game has, especially in a setting as tricky to implement as the Cold War. You have to do away with the idea that nuclear war is bad because both sides lose, and impose on the game a winner anyway—but Twilight Struggle found a detour that does just the trick.

2015 Challenge: The Castles of Burgundy, Game One

Castles of BurgundyThe Castles of Burgundy feels like an autostereogram—one of those optical illusions that looks like nonsense until you cross your eyes just the right way and a 3D image pops out.

The game has a charming if completely run-of-the-mill cover, and the artwork in the game seems as though it was made with little to no concern for user friendliness. Heck, it sometimes feels like they chose their shades of green out of spite.

But, if you can see past it, it all clicks. The basic mechanism of the game—rolling two dice, using those dice on actions, and your options being limited by the numbers on the dice—is a strong and elegant foundation. All the arcane systems built on top of it make perfect sense with that in mind.

I played a two-player game last weekend, and it just flowed. I could quickly prune my options based on my dice and what was on the board. Then I evaluated which would be the best options, and what I could likely accomplish before the board reset. Even on the occasions where I was beaten to the punch for what I wanted to do, I had backup plans fresh in my mind.

And, of course, there’s one of the lovely mechanisms in this game if you’re ever completely locked out of taking an action, or just don’t find your options appealing. You can use a die to get two worker tiles, which simply let you adjust future die rolls up or down a number. It doesn’t even feel like a consolation prize. It feels like taking a breather so you can spring forward and do something amazing in just a moment.

The game could use more colorful and user-friendly bits and pieces, and the rules seem to obscure the core of the game. It’s like they wanted to keep a really clever game under wraps, pushing people away.

It didn’t work. I’ll be glad to play this game more in the coming months.

2015 Challenge: Terra Mystica, Game 1

Terra MysticaWhen I was a college student in my senior year, I decided to broaden my horizons and take a class in computer programming. What skill I developed in it has almost entirely rusted away, but it did give me an experience that let me empathize with my friends who majored in computer science. Programming, more than anything I’ve ever tried, made me feel alternately like a genius and an utter moron.

When I played Terra Mystica, all of that came flooding back to me.

It’s an incredibly complicated game, both to play and to explain. I defy anyone to teach the rules without sounding like Ben Wyatt of Parks & Recreation describing The Cones of Dunshire, and the game has been called by myself, my friends, and some folks I spoke with online as, “essentially Cones of Dunshire.”

And it’s everything I wanted it to be. Continue reading “2015 Challenge: Terra Mystica, Game 1”

Review: Friday

pic1513328…and a new perspective on solo games.

1 player, 24 Minutes

In my article on Agricola, I mentioned how I never played solo board games before. Nine of the ten games of Agricola I played this year ended up being solo; clearly, I enjoyed playing it all by my lonesome. In the end, though, I accepted the fact that, given the option and without a motivation to do otherwise, I’d rather just play a video game than a solo board game.

But then something strange happened. I was in a simple card game review—look forward to reviews of Red7 and Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz sometime soon!—and I decided to better understand their rules by playing some mock games against myself. In the middle of one of these phantom games, I realized that I really would like to play a proper game.

And then, naturally, I found a copy of Friedemann Friese’s Friday sitting on the shelf at a local shop.  Continue reading “Review: Friday”

Review: Eldritch Horror

I like to think that I can make a reasonable, educated guess about what games I’d enjoy. Few games surprise me after doing a bit of research. That’s what made this review such a tricky one—Eldritch Horror defied my expectation. Unfortunately, I was expecting to have fun playing it.

Eldritch Horror is a cooperative horror board game, set in the ever-popular Levecraft mythos. Elder gods, cultists, ineffable horrors, all that jazz. It’s the spiritual successor to the much-loved Arkham Horror, and based on multiple reviews and aggregated scores, it sounded as though Eldritch Horror was at least as good if not better than Arkham Horror.

Getting my thoughts together on this involved me facing why my guess was wrong. There are things about this game I was sure I’d enjoy. Was I hypocritical for not liking the game? It certainly received a lot of praise—was I wrong? Was there something I wasn’t getting?

In short, no. My opinions just run against popular consensus on this one—and I’m prepared to back it up with a list of reasons why Eldritch Horror just fell flat. Continue reading “Review: Eldritch Horror”

2015 Challenge: Twilight Struggle, Game One

wargamesThe only winning move is not to play.

Those words have struck a chord with me for a couple of reasons. Obviously one reason is that I played my first game of Twilight Struggle of the year, and the other is that I’ve been on a losing streak since December. (Except when it comes to Netrunner. Just putting that out there.)

More than most other games, it is incredibly easy to lose at Twilight Struggle. One of the first bits of advice I’ve heard for new players is to never play an event that gives your opponent operations points while at DEFCON 2. The reason for that is that they can then launch a coup in a battleground country, degrading DEFCON to 1. In game terms, that means thermonuclear war.

But it was still your turn. Your fault. Your loss. And you didn’t even realize it was a possibility. Continue reading “2015 Challenge: Twilight Struggle, Game One”

2015 Challenge: Agricola, Games One through… All of Them?

Okay, so this one’s a little bit odd. I have ten plays of Agricola ticked off the list for this year, but there’s something strange about all but one of them. You see, I’ve played nine of those games solo.

Honestly, I had to confront the fact that I never quite got the appeal of playing a board game alone. Like many board game fans, I adore video games. Board games may eat up some of the time I would have spent on video games, but there’s no way they would ever be a replacement. I understand what each does better than the other, in the same way that books and movies have certain strengths the other lacks.

One of the things I love about board games is the personal interaction. Not only are more and more games abandoning split-screen coop (though there are always great exceptions), it’s just more intimate to sit around a table, facing each other and interacting in a more meaningful way.

So… why would I play a board game instead of a video game when I’m all by my lonesome self? Well, now I get it… sort of. Continue reading “2015 Challenge: Agricola, Games One through… All of Them?”