Welcome to Memoirs of a Board Gamer  Tuesday, September 30 2014 @ 09:48 AM EDT

Review: Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890

As early as 1770, coal barges reached deep into Germany, up the otherwise unnavigable Ruhr river to load up on the rich coal deposits that lined the river. The river was littered with dams and mills and the barges could only travel short distances downstream until they would need to transfer their loads into barges waiting on the opposite side of the obstacle. Every transfer reduced the quality of the coal and by the time it reached Ruhrort it was sometimes only dust. After the barges reached their final destination, they would be drawn upstream by teams of horses. Over time, 14 locks were built along the river to allow the barges to freely transport their cargo from as far deep as Witten all the way to Ruhrort without transfer. By the end of the 19th century, the water-based coal route was replaced by a railway.

As you might imagine, Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890, gathers 2-4 players to transport and sell coal along the Ruhr river and to make it as profitable as possible.

BGG classifies the game as a pick-up and deliver and a worker placement game but in my opinion that’s a bit misleading. At the core is a set collection mechanic that players strive for to match patterns on an individual player board. Match specific patterns of delivery and you’ll unlock other features of the game allowing you take actions other players cannot and to establish board position to gain end-game victory points.

The board is split into two halves with the downstream half (the left western half closer to Ruhrort) “unlocked” at the beginning of the game. As the game progresses, players will gain the necessary tokens opening up the eastern half of the board.

The game lasts 12 rounds and in each round, an historical event occurs. In most cases this is a positive event but in some cases it represents a negative point in the history of coal transport. In addition to the historical event, an obstacle/demand marker is drawn from a bag. The demand tiles place money on delivery points along the river representing a higher demand for delivery (this money sweetens the deal when delivering to these locations). In other cases, they represent some limiting factor for the round (low water, etc.)

After the event/demand/obstacles are dealt with, players choose a single action and pay it’s cost. These actions allow players to haul their boat up the river to a coal deposit, uncover a new coal deposit, the freedom to ship farther downstream than is normally allowed, etc. Once chosen, the player’s coal barge is placed next to a coal deposit (a die). Some drawn obstacle tiles block the use of some of the actions for the round. Players are required to haul and deliver coal to a destination every single round.

After all players have placed their barge next to a coal deposit (taking debt to pay to haul their barge up the river if they’re out of money), players ship their coal (the die) downstream to a delivery point, selling it for money. If the coal passed obstacles it loses value decreasing the amount of money the destination city/port is willing to pay for it.

Players place resource cubes on a personal player board depicting where they’ve delivered coal and of what type (black or white). These resource cubes establish a pattern and if the pattern matches those of the individual tiles on the board (you can see the little dots in boxes above the tiles in the image below), the player earns the tile, unlocking a new feature of the game. Players start the game with a matching set of permanent game features they can unlock but there are some limited, one-time use markers that players can earn and then use when it’s most effective for them.

Players are then free to purchase items with the money they’ve earned but you’re limited to what you can purchase based on what features you’ve unlocked in this and previous rounds. Players can build locks, build warehouses in the cities and coal depots, in Ruhrport’s export area, etc. Building things earns the players immediate victory points and helps establish end-game victory points depending on what features you’ve unlocked during the game.

I really like this game. I’d read that the rules were a mess so I stuck to the rewritten rules available at BGG. Even using the rewritten rules requires some persistent reading. There’s a lot going on in those 12 pages of densely packed text. But stick with it; it’s worth it.

The game rewards a player that sticks to a strategy but can remain flexible in the short term to weather particularly nasty demand/obstacle tiles or the effects of other player’s actions. The game also features a highly variable turn order mechanism as one progresses through the different phases of a turn. As players vie for different positions to load high-valued coal and deliver it to locations needed to unlock feature of the game, turn order must be taken into consideration as it’s always east to west, down the river (highest upstream to lowest downstream). Some resources are limited and if you don’t go first you may miss out or at a minimum have to pay more to stick to your strategy. There is a lot of indirect player interaction taking spots other players want or need before they can making them shift tactics, pay more, or take debt at just the moment when they can least afford it. Points are tight, with the end-game in the low to mid-thirties in my experience.

A copy of Ruhrschifffahrt is a bit hard to come by. I managed to pick up a copy in a BGG auction for about $50. Don’t be surprised, however, to pay $70 or more for a NIS copy.

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Review: Cartography

A few weeks ago, Jon Adams, contacted me to see if I would be interested in reviewing his new game Cartography before the Kickstarter launch on October 14th. I’m always excited to play a new game so I jumped at the chance.

Cartography is an abstract but there is a hint of theme albeit small (think chess or Go). Players face off in a territory grab but there are no rules concerning dominance or majority. Instead, the game focuses on positioning. Early in the game, players focus on playing triangular-shaped tiles to the playing area to build up the map. Many of the tiles depict walls that segment the map into regions that become the regions to fight over.

On each turn, players have the chance to place one “stone” onto a dot on the map expanding their cluster of stones in a region. If you can fully trap the other player’s stones into a corner of the region, you can capture their stones to earn points. Players take turns attempting to trap the other player until both players pass ending the game. Players count the number of stones remaining on the board and the number of captured stones and the player with the highest sum wins.

Cartography is often compared to Go but since I’m not a Go player that doesn’t hit home with me. I can see the resemblance, yes, but if I were to pick a game or two to compare it to, I would definitely choose Hive or Fjords.

Both of these games are also abstracts that have a strong sense of positioning and to do well, you will need not only strong spatial skills but also patience. Unfortunately, I’m not a patient player which gets me into trouble quickly. In my opinion abstract games tend to reward the player that can recognize and capitalize on the other player’s blunder. Recognizing that blunder, however nuanced, is key of course. I usually mistake a seemingly poor move, with an aggressive response and only then realize, too late, that it was a trap.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many gamers enjoy this tight, head-to-head match-up in an all-or-nothing battle of skill and cunning. That’s not my style of game but I greatly appreciate the effort and the design. It’s very elegant and I can see how other players would like this. I know of a mother/son duo that would love this game and I’m hoping to introduce it to them in the coming weeks.

I wish Jon a lot of luck on his launch. I really think there are some good ideas here and it really looks great even at the prototype stage. Very well done Jon! Keep an eye out for this on Kickstarter, I know I will be.

Kickstarter: Aquasphere

I can't help it. I'm a sucker for more point salad from Feld and a way cool looking board.

Click to head over to the Kickstarter for Aquasphere

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Kickstarter: Ophir

Looking forward to Ophir from Terra Nova Games. The ship artwork looks very similar to my recent Kickstarter delivery of Fantasy Frontier but I'm a sucker for pickup and deliver/ship games.

From the Kickstarter page:

Ophir is a pick up and deliver, set collection, resource management game set in an ancient, prosperous world for 2-4 players. In Ophir, you're an influential merchant of government, trade, or religion with a singular focus - the construction of the Temple. The Temple is built layer by layer through collective contributions of Silver and Gold. These precious metals are delivered by your merchant ship for Victory Points at the Temple, one of the seven locations you'll be visiting in Ophir. To afford these precious building materials, you must navigate the region's seas against your clever rivals to collect Goods. You must then decide whether to fulfill the demand at the Market for Coin, or exchange the goods for Favor with the Temple. Well-timed trades, efficient cargo storage, and tactical transportation will be the keys to your success. But you must be swift in your travels, because the game ends immediately once the construction of the Temple is complete. Will it be you whose name is spoken alongside the stories of Ophir's wonder? Ophir's accessibility makes it a joy to play for families -- and with its modular setup, exclusive player roles, and mercurial market, Ophir has tactics, tension, and replayability for experienced gamers to savor!

It's got some pretty cool 3D bits too!

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Review: Harbour

A few weeks ago I threw my name in a Tasty Minstrel Games-shaped hat in hopes of getting a review copy of Harbour sent to me and I was lucky enough to be picked. I’ve reviewed games direct from the designer and publisher before but it’s not all that common and I enjoy the opportunity to play and review what’s coming up.

Harbour is a card collection game that uses an action selection mechanism via the placement of a single “worker”. A field of cards in the center of the table provides a selection of buildings you can purchase and when someone builds their fourth building, the round ends and the player with the most points (from the buildings) is the winner.

A turn requires the player to move their single worker from one building to another building and to take the action the building provides. Players are trying to earn goods (tracked on a personal board) and time the sale of those goods in the volatile market to earn money to purchase a building. However, owning a building doesn’t mean its action is out of play; it just means that other players might need to pay you to use its ability.

Players start with a special starting building that includes a special ability that other players do not possess as well as small tableau where one keeps indicators of goods earned. In addition to a building’s action, they also depict a purchase price, a point value, and special icons that provide other bonuses and/or stacking features when the owner takes actions during the game.

I’ve played the game the game a few times and I must say that it’s, frankly, not much fun. The game seems to work mechanically but I found no reason to want to play again. The last time we played, we decided to shut it down after everybody built only two of the four buildings.

The buildings depict consistent iconography for their actions but in a strangely mathematical manner. A player in my game group went so far as to call in Algebra. The game has a much slower pace than I'd prefer since each building provides only meager advancements in earned goods. The market is extremely volatile and it's easy to get trapped with large number of goods that were worth a lot but when the market collapses after a sale you can be left with a relatively worthless load of crap. Luckily the cards provide enough chaos that within a turn or two you might be back in the running.

I found the artwork whimsical but not to my liking. The artwork didn't provide anything to the enrichment of the theme of a harbour depicting trolls, gnomes, skeletons, robots, etc.; a mishmash of characters with no cohesive plan and at times, uneven. The backs of the building cards have very nice artwork but then the fronts seem to have been designed by someone completely different with an entirely different style.

Unfortunately I was disappointed in the game but I hope they can clean up some of the rough spots before Kickstarting it in a few weeks. I wish them luck though.

Kickstarter: Yardmaster

I'm a sucker for quick and easy card games and Yardmaster really fits the bill. 1-4 players vie for points in the simple set collection game with attractive minimalist artwork. Players are essentially collecting goods to load onto an appropriate cargo car and when they do that they can claim the filled car for their own freight yard. Depending on the type and value of the last card in your train, you may or not be able to attach the filled car to your train but when you do, it's permanent and you can score the points. The first person to meet a point goal determine by the number of players wins.

This game is currently up on Kickstarter and was just recently funded so give it a shot and help get the amount up to some of the nice stretch goals.

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Review: Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Review: Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a cooperative game for 1-4 players. Designed by Brian Mayer for a 2012 release, the game has players select a unique role and participate, as a group, in helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. The game has a unique system of movement of “slave catchers” that roam the eastern United States looking for slaves that players are trying to move north to Canada all taking place within a rich historical context.

At the beginning of the game, players select a role from one of the characters. They’re not specific historical characters but a type of character that would have played an active role in the Underground Railroad. This character gives each person a unique special ability. The game lasts a maximum of 8 rounds and within each round, players first roll a pair of dice to determine where the slave catchers move on the large map. If the catchers arrive at a location where slaves are present, they’re captured and sent to the slave markets to return to the plantations.

After the catchers move, each player gets a chance to purchase up to two tokens from a selection of three types: support, conductor, and fundraising. The game features an interesting time movement across the years 1800-1865 split into three periods: 1800-1839, 1840-1859, and 1860-1865. Tokens and cards are placed in each region but the items in the regions aren’t available until the game progresses to that point in time. However, rather than time moving at a regular pace through each round, it’s up to the players to purchase the support tokens in each period to advance the time clock and unlock the next region. The support tokens are very expensive and represent the local political and personal support for the abolitionist movement. You can’t win without purchasing all of them so as a team, you need to obtain the local support. But since they’re so expensive, at times you’ll need to make some sacrifices to spend money in other ways. Money in the game is extremely tight.

After purchasing up to two tokens, players then get to perform a actions from a list of available options. The purchased tokens let players move slaves out of the plantations and from one city to the next across the map. However, as they move, they trigger the slave catcher movements towards moving slaves. Sites for slaves are limited but another prerequisite for winning is that you must move a specific number of slaves safely to Canada (the exact number changes depending on the number of players). To make it difficult (and sometimes seemingly impossible) slaves have to move out of the way of the plantations leaving openings for other slaves to escape but doing so may (most definitely will) trigger the slave catchers to catch somebody.

At the end of each round, a new group of slaves from the slave market must be assigned to the plantations and if you don’t have enough room to house them (because you didn’t move enough out onto the map in the previous turn), the remaining slaves are “lost”. Lose too many and you’ll lose the game. When the slave catchers catch slaves, they are assigned to the slave markets so they aren’t immediately lost but the captured slaves will come back onto the board at one of the southern plantations (if there is room) in hopes of having another chance at freedom.

At the very end of the round, some cards in a queue of “Abolitionist Cards” are discarded and new cards come out from the deck assigned to the period of time you’re currently playing. Players can buy & resolve one card per round which gives an immediately ability or an ability that can be saved for later. However, there are also, “bad” cards that sometimes trigger negative things when they’re purchased or removed from the queue (e.g. you must return one support token to the board) or trigger a bad situation as long as they’re present in the queue (e.g. support tokens cost more than normal).

I really like the game and find it very challenging. The theme is outstanding and play is a bit puzzly trying to figure out how best to play cat-and-mouse with the slave catchers drawing them back and forth across the map as slaves move north. As I said, money is very tight. You need it to purchase tokens to move slaves and cards to take advantage of their actions but you so badly need it to purchase support tokens. The team has to manage many aspects of the historical context to pull out a win, the cards in the Abolitionists Queue providing real historical events and people to the theme, so discussion of what people will do on their turn is strongly encouraged (and is definitely going to be necessary).

Exploration, Adventure, Point to Point Movement, & Network Building

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute a blog entry to TableTop. I suggested several topics and they settled on "traveling while board gaming" which is a fun topic and easy to write about.

I'd love to add more remote places to my list of gaming destinations but I'm extremely grateful that I've been able to experience what I already have in Iceland and New Zealand. I am planning on attending BGG.CON later this year for my first time (registered and the hotel is booked) and I'm really excited to do that. If you'll be there, let me know and let's see if we can get a game in.

One of these days I'll attend Essen...

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The Knights Who Say Niche!

Board gamers are a varied lot but given its continued success, BGG must be serving them all with the nourishment that the species desires. Amid the normal banter about actual games, rules questions, image uploads, new game announcements, Geek of the Week discussions, contest announcements, website bugs and suggestions, etc., BoardgameGeek (BGG) is also well-populated with topics that border on the über-niche. These topics never cease to amaze me.

Here’s a run down of sample of some “über-niche” topics gleaned from just a few minutes of browsing topics. I didn’t even have to search, I just paged through recent posting made in the last hour or so…

  • Awkward grammar usage in rules and counting uncountable nouns (e.g. take two wood)
  • English speakers from Lima, South America that are specifically interested in historically accurate military games.
  • The design of the Amerigo cube-tower and how its printed construction directions don’t provide adequate statistical “release” of cubes as does the supposedly exact design of the Wallenstein tower
  • A man in Greece wanting information about where in Palo Alto one might pick up specific types/brands of paints so that he can tell a friend to get them and then bring them back to him in Greece.
  • Is it time to re-rank all the games in the database (debating pros and cons)
  • Hasbro's customer service, "Sucks Balls"
  • Introducing a new dice roll simulator mobile app including comments concerning the accuracy of using words like dice and die correctly
  • Debating if Modge Podge could be used to repair stickers on wooden tokens
  • How do you store your Carcassonne?
  • A designer requesting feedback concerning how long should a rule book should be for a design he was working on. Should they use longer rules with examples or shorter rules and an “almanac” style companion booklet.
  • Who has the best wife. Seriously. Of course, it was geared towards how well wives (and really spouses in general) tolerate and/or embrace games.
  • Should a game collection be insured? When/why?
  • A request for game “meet-up groups” for “girls” in Georgia
  • A Belgium-only Math Trade announcement
  • A question regarding good cards games for 6 year olds
  • Discussions about what celebrities will be attending BGG.CON in November
  • What games can be played successfully outside
  • A request for help to name a game where “players control a team of two bicycle riders (in the 30s-50s), trying to coordinate them to take advantage of other players moves to slipstream and avoid exhaustion from being in front. Until the end, where the point is to be in front.”
  • An announcement for a Kickstarted “Pot: The Board Game: Trade and barter frantically to collect 7 grams of the most potent cannabis. First player to 420 points wins!"

Again, keep in mind this is just a sampling and more comes out every day. On one hand you get a front row seat to discussions where OCD and pedantic behavior are common. Internet trolling exists but BGG moderators and the community do a good job at keeping overt negative behavior in check. On the other hand, we’re an intellectual crowd, I learn something new most days, and I do feel a kinship to many members.

I didn’t pull any topics from Chit Chat which borders on insanity but very fun (“Who has the best donkey?”) or RSP (Religion, Sex, Politics) which also borders on insanity (“Subject: Majority of Americans without health insurance now oppose Obamacare. Perhaps our freedom-hating, thieving, economic-wrecking plantation overlords can finally admit defeat -- and go away?”). Although I never post in RSP, I periodically browse and lurk and learn how to and and how not to debate a topic intellectually, factually, and without emotion. Even amid the knights that say NICHE!, there’s something to learn if you go looking for it.

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VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game Unboxing

VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game Publisher Unboxing from Dice Hate Me on Vimeo.

A first look inside an advanced production copy of VivaJava Dice!

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