Things you may not know about Monopoly

The game of Monopoly is derided on BGG. It represents a “roll and move” game with few real decisions for a player to make on each turn. It is a step above Candyland, where you decide nothing, but not much. You simply roll the dice, move your token, and take your lumps. The board games I like to play are different. In these games, turns involve making decisions rather than the dice dictating what’s next. Instead you usually have to choose something to do from numerous things you can do. What you decide to do may initially hurt you but may pay off in the long run, it may provide immediate results but at the expense of the long term, it may weaken another player, it may be the lesser of two evils you’re facing at the moment, etc. Dice may or may not be used to resolve situations where some degree of randomness is needed but rarely is the game boiled down to simply rolling dice and moving tokens.

So Monopoly is boring right? It lasts too long and it’s just not fun…right? However, when was the last time you read the rules? I suspect 75% of the US population has not read the rules to Monopoly and play by the rules obtained during their childhood from friends and family. Most people, in the US at least, actually don’t play by the written rules. Instead, play is carried out using commonly used house rules and instead of enhancing the fun, they actually diminish it.

Here is a table of lesser known rules taken from the Hasbro site and reasons why playing with them may enhance the game for you and your family. Now, don’t get me wrong, Monopoly is not nearly as fun as most of the games in my collection. But maybe you should try playing with the actual rules next time to see if it makes it better.

Rules Notes
When you land on a piece of real estate you choose if you want to purchase it at the price listed on the deed. However, if you choose not to buy it, the property is immediately put up for auction and sold to the highest bidder. The bidding can begin and end at any value. Monopoly has an auction? I never knew that. Playing with an auction makes a huge difference in play. Players can know buy properties that they don’t land on. The richer you are, the faster you’ll be able to gobble up properties and the shorter the game will be. Since everyone thinks the game is too long anyway isn’t this a good thing?The auction aspect also introduces another level of decision making that goes into your turn. Should you buy the property just so that it doesn’t go to auction?
If you have a Get Out of Jail Free card and don’t want to use it, you can sell it to other players at any price. Monopoly has negotiation? I never knew that. With this rule, I can potentially keep from mortgaging some property by raising some quick cash by selling the card. Again, more decisions in your hands means more control on how well you play.
If you roll doubles three times in a row, you go to jail. I’m not sure if I knew this or not; it’s been too long. However, with the auction in play, I’m not sure this carries as much weight as it would without the auction. Seems mostly a way to let everyone have a chance at the dice without letting any one person dominate the rolls.
Players don’t receive anything for landing on Free Parking. It’s just a neutral place to land. Nothing happens. We always played that any time players were forced to pay money to get out of jail or to pay for taxes and other card-driven items, the money went to the center of the board and would be “won” by the next player landing on Free Parking. Nope…that’s not the rule. In fact, playing with this rule may lengthen the game when weakened players receive an influx of cash. Although serendipitous, you really want weakened players to remain weakened by their own play and not random events.
A player pays double rent when landing on a property when any property in that color group has been improved. Say what?! Yep. Say Player A owns all three properties in a color group and builds one house. Player A can now collect double rent when players land on any of the properties in that color group not just when they land on the property containing the house.
When two or more players wish to build houses and/or hotels in numbers higher than the bank can provide, the houses and/or hotels must be sold at auction to the highest bidder. Really?! Normally, when no houses remain available in the bank, players must wait until players cash them back in when building a hotel. But this rule sounds like at the moment when the houses are running out, players must enter an auction to win the right to purchase the remaining houses forcing other players to wait from that moment forward.
You can’t mortgage a specific property until all buildings are sold back to the bank and removed from all properties in that color group. Basically, you’re required to sell away all improvements you’ve made to the entire property group.
You are allowed to sell a mortgaged property to another player at any agreed upon price but the new owner has a decision to make: lift the mortgage immediately by paying off the mortgage plus 10% interest or just pay 10% interest and leave it in a mortgaged state. However, if you leave the property mortgaged the new owner must pay another 10% when lifting the mortgage later in the game. This rule doesn’t ring a bell with me and I doubt we ever played this way.
If you go bankrupt and cannot pay the Bank after selling back all hotels and houses, your property is forfeited to the bank which immediately puts it up for auction to the highest bidder. There’s that auction again.
Money cannot be loaned between players and the Bank only loans money through mortgaged properties. Again, playing this way reduces the playing time by prohibiting drawn out negotiations, removing any need for record keeping outside the confines of the game, and keeping the weak in a weakened state driving them more quickly into bankruptcy ending the game.

So, I have a few questions:

– When was the last time you read the rules (if ever)?
– When was the last time you played Monopoly?
– Which of the rules above was a surprise to you?

Board Games Are Like Ice Cream Flavors

I’m not one to wax philosophical leading to fits of poetry. I can’t honestly remember the last poem I wrote but what the hell. This is going to suck…trust me.

Board Games Are Like Ice Cream Flavors
Some are simple, others wild
Some are loved, others reviled
Some are bland, others spicy
Some are hyped, others dicey
Some are gourmet, others without cream
Some are straight vanilla, others heavy with theme
Some are good with tea, others with pie
Some are good with coffee, but none with rye
Some are good in winter, others in the sun
Some are rather boring, others are quite fun
Some are for gobbling, other to savor
Some are more abstract, others rich in flavor
Some are heavy with bits, others nary a bump
Some are eaten often, others we’d much rather dump
Some are good for groups, others for solo play
Some are better when it’s dark, others for the day
Some are three in a box, others the same with each bite
Some are flat and uninviting, other stacked high are a sight
Some are quite taxing, others tedious to finish
Some are hard to get rid of, others you need to replenish
Some are best for repeated play, others you have to petition
Some are not to be surpassed, others need another edition
Some are good for kids, others with your honey
Some are quite cheap, others require lots of money
Some are painful when taken too quickly, others are safe if you’re stocky
Some are quite easy to swallow, others quite rocky
Some are about sugar and rum and nuts, others deal only with fruit
Some are exactly as described, others require changes to suit
Some are bought in a store, others are homemade with a crank
Some are best forgotten, others you discuss, compare, and rank
Some are good with more toppings, others without variation
Some are enjoyed in geographic regions, others all over the nation
Some are well known as a 31 flavor, others only to a small group
Some are evolved with a complex dimension, others still stuck in primordial soup
Some are riddled with nuts, others are plain and a bore
Some are rare and difficult to obtain, others are found in every store
Some are best taken in really small scoops, others with a really big spoon
But all are best enjoyed throughout the night when all can sleep ’til noon

Saint Petersburg – Loving to Hate It

Said simply…I can’t win against my wife. We’re talking utter dismemberment, a husk of what was once a thoughtful opponent, a mere crack in the road on her path to victory. I don’t know what it is but after playing numerous games for two it’s not even close. I’m not going to stop banging my head against the wall, mind you, but for all that’s sacred in the universe what in the wide wide world of sports is going on here?!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not surprised that she’s winning. Or more accurately, my overall board gaming win/loss ratio is not so superior that I’d presume to win even more than half the games. Maybe this is just her game to get. She’s probably just that good! But the frequency and the distance between her score and mine are just so mind boggling that I’ve got to be missing some essential vitamin, some nugget of insight, some protein in my genetic makeup.

But when I step back, calm down, and take a closer look, I realize that this is an example of what makes playing board games so worthwhile. Saint Pete’s player aids, strategy articles, session reports, etc. are all readily available but I refuse to look at them. To me, turning to strategy articles elevates winning and losing to a more significant pedestal than I want it to take. I want to figure it out by actually *gasp* playing the game. Taking 15 minutes to scan strategy articles for that key behavior is like looking for cheat codes for a video game or watching the end of a “whodunnit” movie before the beginning. I’m extracting my money out of this game through playing it, not from winning it or showing that I’ve ‘gotten’ it (or more accurately, someone ‘told me it’).

Saint Petersburg is a relatively simple set collection game. Designed in 2004 by Bernd Brunnhofer and Michael Tummelhofer (who, strangely enough, is thought to be a pseudonym representing three other prominent industry personalities), supports 2-4 players for about 45 minutes of play. At a high level you start the game with some money and you attempt to buy cards that grant you money and/or victory points every round. There is pressure to buy victory point cards early so that every round you’re advancing along the victory point track. But there is also pressure to buy cards that grant you money so that you have enough income every round to buy the really expensive cards that show up. Money is tight granting the efficient player the win.

The board is composed of four stacks of cards (green, blue, orange, and multi-colored) across the top and two rows of eight slots for cards. The top row represents the ‘primary market’ and is filled with cards that have been exposed in the current round. The bottom row represents the ‘secondary market’ and is filled with cards that were exposed the immediately previous round. The cost of cards in the secondary market are discounted by one ruble. A maximum of eight cards at any one time will be exposed across both the primary and secondary markets during every round. All eight cards may be in the top row, all in the bottom row, or any combination across the two rows.

A round comprises four phases (one phase per deck of cards: green, blue, orange, and multi-colored) and green cards are dealt face-up into the primary market until a total of eight cards across both markets are exposed. Players alternate taking a single action until everybody passes. At this point, everybody scores the green cards they’ve collected since the beginning of the game (which usually grants each player money but there are cards that can grant victory points as well). The game then progresses to the “blue” phase. Like the green phase, blue cards are dealt face-up into the primary market until eight cards are exposed across both markets. Players again take turns taking actions until everyone passes. Players then score their collections of blue cards (usually granting victory points and at times money). The orange phase is played in a similar granting players money and victory points. The multi-colored phase is similar but there is no scoring round. Instead, these multi-colored cards act as upgrades to previously played cards making them “better” but players cannot reap the benefits of those upgrades until later phases when scoring the upgraded cards.

After the multi-colored phase, all cards in the secondary market are discarded and cards in the primary market are moved to the now empty secondary market. The green phase begins anew by filling the primary market as necessary.

So what do players do on their turn? Players have the option of buying a card in the primary market for the price indicator in the upper left hand corner of the card, buying a card from the secondary market for one less than indicated on the card, pick up a card from either market and place it for free in their hand, place a card from you hand into your play area for the natural cost of the card, or pass. Passing does not disqualify you from taken an action if play gets back around to you in the same phase. You’re limited to a maximum of three cards in your hand and those will count -5 points each against you at the end of the game so holding onto cards you cannot pay to lay down can be risky near the end of the game. When placing a card, duplicate cards in you play area discount the card by 1 ruble so finding matches is beneficial since it’s cheaper to buy and play the card.

The orange cards have a another benefit beside awarding money and victory points. At the end of the game you’re awarded victory points based on the number of different faces you’ve collected. The payout chart is depicted on the board and the number of points can be substantial.

Saint Pete is a great, quick game. Sure it frustrates me but that’s what makes it fun. So here I sit wondering if I should download a standalone PC version so that I can play against bots to figure out for myself what works and what doesn’t. Sound like some fun and maybe I can locate my missing strategy vitamin.

Hamburgum and Chang Cheng

Back in early January, I’d taken some time to pull the shrink and sort out the bits in my copy of Hamburgum. Well, it’s been roughly three months and I haven’t managed to get it to the table yet and I’m a bit bummed. So today I decided to pull it out again, and play a four player game solo to not only teach myself the game again but to get a better feel for how the game works.

The game has several noteworthy features; the first being that there is no luck/randomness and no hidden information in the game. There are no cards to shuffle, no dice to roll, no tiles to flip up. On your turn, you’ve got to decide what to do based completely on your own wits. Win, lose, or draw…it’s up to you.

The second noteworthy feature is the rondel. In the upper left-hand corner of the board there exists a circle divided into named segments: guildhall, dockyard, trade (x2), church, sugar, cloth, and beer. Each player has a token on one of the segments representing your position and on your turn you can move your token clockwise around the rondel stopping on the segment named for the action you wish to take. You can pay victory points to move farther but you get to move up to three segments for free. The rondel is a very clever mechanic for keeping your options naturally limited yet all options are available to you albeit at a cost.

Hamburgum’s design is based on what I would describe as a victory point tree. At the root, you’ve got the three product types: beer, sugar, and cloth. You must periodically stop your rondel token on these items to produce the appropriate type of good. Although it’s not the only way to make money, you must produce goods and ship them to market on subsequent turns by stopping your token on the trade segment. A small chart on the board tracks the value of goods when shipped. Moving up the victory point tree, to ship goods you’ll need ships. Stopping your token on the dockyard allows and caching in ‘lumber’ allows you to build ships. There are only three harbor spaces for ships and the space is limited. As ships fill up the docks, other ships get pushed towards the open see and eventually go back into your hand to be built again. The farther a ship is away from the dock the less good is can carry. So, although you may have goods to ship, you may not have the necessary ships to take them to market.

Moving farther up the victory point tree, to build ships to allow you to obtain cash for you goods, you’ll need ‘lumber’ and to get lumber you’ll need to have cash to buy it. When you stop on one of the two trade rondel segments, you’re allowed to either buy materials or ship goods. Materials available are bricks, lumber, and a church bell (you’re only allowed one of those at a time). Another chart on the board details the cost of buying those goods. So we know lumber is good for ships but what else is it good for and what the heck do you do with bricks and that bell?

Another segment on the rondel is the guildhall which lets you build buildings and place a citizen token on the board. On the right side of the board are stacks of different kinds of buildings that can be built and there types are depicted on the board in a network of connected locations including the churches. When you build a building you’ll need a brick and a piece of lumber. You place the building in front of you and you place a citizen on the board covering the kind of building you’ve built. Sounds pretty easy but there’s a bit more to it than that. The goal is to build the churches and you’re limited to what buildings you can build during the early part of the game by rules governing the connectectness of your citizens. You’re only allowed to build buildings if the placed citizen is connected through one of the lines on the board to one of your existing citizens or back to a church you’ve donated to.

So moving to up almost the top of the victory point tree we have the church donations. The church rondel segment allows players to donate to one of the churches. The value of the donation is variable. At the beginning of the game, all churches have five donation tokens stacked in a specific arrangement along the bottom of the board and the first donation (a brick) grants the player the top donation token (5 victory points). Subsequent donations to that same church allow the player to take one of the remaining donation tokens but the cost of the donation goes up each time (brick and stick, brick and stick plus $20, brick and stick plus $40, brick, stick and bell, plus $10 x # of citizens). So now you see what the bell is used for…that final donation to the church. When all donation tokens have been made, the church is finished and the purple church token is placed on the board. The player making the final donation gets a bonus in victory points: 8 for the first church, 7 for second, …

So why do you want those donation tokens? Well, at the top of the victory point tree are those tokens. They provide victory point multipliers to other things you’ve collected or done during the game. They grant, for example two times the number of ships you have in the harbor, four times the number of citizens you have in that church’s region, 1 times the number of specific building you’ve built, etc. They work a bit like the cards in Stone Age. When you collect specific cards you try to maximize the other feature the cards multiply for you. There are additional rules concerning when you exercise this multiplier since you are not always allowed or it may not be in your best interest to wait until the end of the game.

The game is over when all churches are built. You count up your multiplier points sell your leftover goods and building materials for victory points and the player with the most points wins. Although I only played a solo game I can see that I’ll like it. There are some tough decisions to make and the rondel is just damn clever. Donations at first may seem like more of an end game tactic but you can’t ignore them or set them aside. The game hinges on those donations. As an added bonus, the board is double-sided so if you get board with one side, you can always play the game with a different layout. The game also comes with a different stack of one type of building you can use as a variant. Although it probably sounds rather complicated, it is rather easy to play once you get the hang of it. Clocking in at 75 minutes it’s surprisingly short for what it is.

I did make a few mistakes during play which isn’t surprising given the number of bits you contend with. I kept forgetting to place a citizen on the board when I built a building. This is key to not only tracking the validity of your move (until you’ve completed a church) but the number of citizens on the board as well as their placement affects other players in not only limiting their moves but also the payout of some items. I also paid out the donation tokens incorrectly by not limiting their impact to their source church region. That was a huge mistake but now I know. The rules also state some limitations on when you’re forced to exercise a donation token (cash it in for victory points) and was assuming that all ‘building’ tokens were of a different type. However, after some digging on BGG, I realize that you should consider all buildings, regardless of their ‘style’ as of the same donation token type. In other words, you cannot possess an unexercised sugar production building donation token and a brewer production building donation token. Since they’re both of type ‘building’ you must cash one of them in for victory points.

Okay, I’m rambling, I know but it’s my blog so I can do what I want here. I recently won a game in a BGG auction and was glad to have it arrive late last week. Chang Cheng is somewhat of a sleeper on BGG. Published in 2007, the game pits 2-4 players for 60 minutes in a contest to build the Great Wall of China. Player attempt to earn more victory points than their opponents by paying more wall segments in the different regions on the board. Chang Cheng is a relatively standard area majority game but there are some twists.

Most notable are the modular boards and the three-dimensional wall segments. Regardless of the number of players the game starts out with two, randomly chosen boards placed side-by-side. Each board is divided into regions requiring different number of blocks to complete and each region is worth a specific number of points depicted on the board. However, when the board is placed on the table, small chips are randomly chosen and each region receives a chip designating some additional points the region will be worth in this particular game. As the building of the wall progresses, some regions will have all of their block segments filled triggering and immediate scoring of the region. The player with the majority of blocks in the wall of that region gets the points for the region.

Now, if that’s all there was to the game it would stink badly. However, lucky for us, there’s more…much more. Each player begins the game with wall segments, a tower, a double wall segment, and a set of identical action ‘cards’ which look like big tongue depressors. And on your turn you can place these cards in different regions of the board (face down). When you score a region, you turn up the cards, evaluate them and then decide who has majority. The cards allow for special things to happen before scoring (e.g. act as if you’d laid another block in this region, make the region worth two less points, cancel another action card, swap two wall segments, …). In addition, the cards have a pecking order requiring a particular order to the evaluation. It reminds me somewhat of the hidden territory cards in Mission: Red Planet with a hint of the special tiles in Samurai.

You must play your cards wisely throughout the game since once played you can’t play them again. And since everyone starts the game with the same set of cards, there is a meta-game aspect to knowing what card you might want to play in a region to counteract a card laid by another player.

On your turn, you can do one of several things: place two regular blocks in two different regions, place two cards in two different regions, place one regular block and one card in the same region, place your tower or your double block. The tower has a special rule that if possible you must reserve a spot for a like colored regular block next to the tower.

Seems pretty straight-forward right? Place your cards and blocks along the boards and grab your points after resolving the cards. But…there’s more. After the first three regions are scored, you add another module board opening up new regions for the game. When four players play, a fourth board is added when the next three regions are scored.

So, that’s got to be it right? Nope. At the end of the game, the Mongols attack. On the other side of the wall, there are regions depicted much like on the Chinese side of the wall with the exception that the regions on each side of the wall don’t directly align. As each board is added to the game a set of chips are randomly chosen and one is placed in each Mongol region. These chips always represent negative points. Who gets these points? The player(s) who majority in the region depicted on the Mongol side of the wall. So winning a region on the Chinese side puts you in contention for being the majority holder when the Mongols attack but given that the regions don’t align you may be able to finagle the cards such that you still win but other players take the Mongol hit instead of you. Of course, the other players are trying to do the same to you.

Chang Cheng feels like it’s a neat game. Simple to teach and it looks gorgeous when done. There are no turn summary cards but I printed some off from BGG and glued them to some extra chipboard I had from making my Tigris 2-player board. Although mechanically simple to play, playing well may be rather difficult. There are numerous random features of the game that it may be difficult to determine a smart move over just a valid move. Certainly some real plays of the game will expose that pretty quickly.

Analog Game Night – April 2009

We met at my house for the April 2009 installment of Analog Game Night. I think I’ve managed to convert at least three recent newcomers to the group to avid gamers and of those three, two have turned to the darkside and have started buying games. Some at a faster pace than even me!

Jared brought his copy of Oregon and we quickly got into the rules explanation. Oregon is one of those titles that I’ve got on my wishlist but I’ve just never pulled the trigger on it. I didn’t think quickly enough to get a picture of the game before it was back in the box so I hot-linked one from BGG.

Oregon rates a respectable 6.87 on BGG and supports 2-4 players for about 45 minutes of play. It’s a tile/meeple laying and card drafting game where players draft two different kinds of cards and then decide which type of action to take on their turn (building a building by placing a tile or placing a meeple). The cards you play from your hand dictate regions on the board where you’re allowed to play by indicating a row/column combination and placing tiles next to your meeples or meeples next to existing tiles gains you victory points. There are some additional rules allowing for a Joker and an Extra Turn that gives the brain a good twist in trying to determine how best and when to use them but in general you look at what cards are in your hand, where you’re allowed to play, and make the best play that grants you the most points.

The game is easy to learn but it may take a play or two to see how best to use the Joker and Extra Turn tiles effectively. Since victory points are earned every turn (hopefully) you really have to keep up with the leaders or you’ll find yourself trailing and struggling to catch up. Overall the game is a lightly themed abstract; it could have been pasted up with rabbits, drunken gnomes on a sinking submarine, superheroes, or differently colored marbles for that matter. There are few surprise moves to be made in the game and a particular good move is mostly derived from what you’ve drafted at the end of the previous turn.

I enjoyed the game and was glad to have played but the jury is still out in terms of making a purchase. It’s a quick filler given that there’s not an inordinate amount of brain power going into making your decision but because of that there’s not a lot of depth. I have numerous ‘light’ games for four so I can’t really see purchasing this one myself.

Next up was Kreta. It’s been a little over a year since I’d played so it’s a bit tough to get it to the table. I’ve described the game before but quickly, Kreta is a cross between Samurai and Mission: Red Planet. Players vie for the most influence points in areas depicted on a map. Influence is gained by placing and moving various tokens around the map. Which tokens you’re allowed to place/move on your turn is dictated by what card you play. Everybody starts the game with the same small deck of cards depicting various people (e.g. Commander, Admiral, Abbot, Builder, …) and during a turn you first lay down a card from your hand and it’s the card that dictates what action you can take (e.g. the Admiral lets you move your ship, the builder lets you build something, …) The trick is that once you’ve played a particular card, you’re not allowed to play that card again on subsequent turns. However, when someone plays the Castellan card a scoring event occurs and everybody gets all their cards back. There are 11 region cards along the edge of the board that indicate the 11 scoring rounds of the game as well as which intersection between regions will be scored on the next scoring round. Only two intersections are known in advance so players can plan where to position their tokens with limited future knowledge.

I like the game well enough but I do notice it feeling a bit more dry and less interesting than it did in the past. It’s a game that I do poorly at mostly because I continually find myself engaging in multiple dominance battles with different players that all seem to be more capable at defending their position. I usually end up spreading myself too thinly and end up losing all of them. I always feel like I’m playing catchup like that guy that runs around keeping the plates spinning on the little sticks. Last night the scoring cards were particularly brutal giving a couple of players multiple opportunities to score large almost back to back points greatly outpacing my feeble attempts at intelligent play.

There are variants of the game to try to mitigate this “double and triple quick” scoring but in the end it’s mostly because I’ve not prepared well for the possibility and that’s just the way the ball bounces. Winning these games we play is neither the genesis of fun nor is it indicative of intelligence or lack thereof. Instead, it’s the journey of exploring the games, exercising your mind, and continually trying to do those things you find difficult or frustrating so that you can be better.

I had a lot of fun guys. Thanks for coming and I look forward to the next game night.

Dominion Promo Decks Arrived

In February, when BGG offered the option to preorder two additional promo decks to one of my favorite games (Dominion), I jumped at the chance. For just a few bucks you could pick up both decks and they’re now sitting on my dining room table screaming to be played.

The Black Market card, when played as an action card forces the player to draw the next three cards from a “Black Market Deck” and then they have the option of buying one of the cards with any money they play and/or or have showing on previously played action cards. Any remaining money in hand or on Action cards goes towards the players “normal” buy in the hand.

Before the game, players agree on the composition of the “Black Market Deck” but the rules recommend one card from each of the 15 Kingdom cards that are not currently in play. This makes an interesting feature of allowing Kingdom cards that wouldn’t normally be in the game to make their way into the game. Neat stuff.

The Envoy, when played as an Action card forces the player to turn up 5 (!) cards from you draw deck and the player to your left chooses one for you to discard. You then put the remaining for in your hand for use during your turn.

Both card sound like they’ll introduce even more spice into an already really good game; looking forward to playing.