Terra Mystica Tiers

I played Terra Mystica for the first time this weekend. It was fun, a very dense game. It made me think of Settlers of Catan crossed with Seven Wonders, except that there is no uncontrolled randomness: no dice, no hidden cards, just player choices. The headlining feature is that it has 14 asymmetrical factions. Having read a bit online, most people agree that the factions are imbalanced. They just disagree on which factions are weak or strong.

There are some consistencies. Many people argue the factions are balanced enough, so it does not matter below competitive play (and there are balancing methods there, since you can start with more or fewer victory points). Most ratings have some overall similarities: Darklings and Mermaids are strong, Giants and Fakirs are weak. Then you start seeing radical differences in assessments, some of which are backed by data, and some of the data seems conflicting (which should diminish at larger sample sizes). Grabbing the first few examples I found on Google: are Cultists “worse than terrible” or the winningest faction? Or darklings were mid-tier those statistics but #1 in this larger pool of statistics. I see Alchemists ranked both in the top 4 and the bottom 4. Or this thread is a good example of divergent opinions being professed with or without support.

The answer I favor after a lot of reading is “it depends,” which has more nuance than you might think. Like Smash Up, some factions do better or worse with more or fewer opponents. Some do better or worse against particular other factions or combinations of factions. Some do better or worse on particular maps, or with particular bonuses in the game. Some are more straightforward while others require unusual strategies or expert play. Some factions will be better than others given your usual play environment. This is especially true if your usual play environment includes people who consistently pick the same faction or strategy and are particularly good/bad. I am convinced that most cries of imbalance in games can be traced back to who is the best player in your gaming group and their play preferences. That differs, so different players see radically different results on whether a game favors or penalizes combat, quick expansion, or a particular branch of the tech tree.

Which is not to say that there cannot be imbalances. Maybe one degenerate approach is particularly strong, or it is easier to excel with a certain strategy, or a configuration that favors X is more common. One of the fun rankings is those links is about how resilient the faction is: some are situationally powerful but often weak, while another might be a consistent B across most options. Of course, given that Terra Mystica is a game with all information available at the start, reading the board and knowing which faction to pick (and factoring in others’ picks) is an expert-level skill. See also players who refuse to think about team composition in League of Legends or switching to counters in Overwatch.

This can also poison data-driven rankings. The strongest faction could easily come out ranked mid-tier because everyone knows it is the strongest faction, so the weaker players flock to it as a handicap, and they still lose. Meanwhile, expert players both know their situational strategies and recognize those situations, so some of the weaker factions can rack up wins punching above their weight. When someone makes a weak pick, you rarely know if they are too bad to know better or too good for you to see their reasoning.

: Zubon

[TT] Battle Sheep

Battle Sheep is an abstract game of territorial control themed around sheep. The visuals and theme are cute and light. The play is surprisingly cutthroat.

The entirety of the rules fit on an index card, so this is an elegant game getting a lot of distance out of very simple mechanics. A full game with four players takes about ten minutes, so your investment is low. It is simple enough to teach anyone but has surprising strength for serious gamers.

The whole game is assembling a pasture (so it is not identical every game), starting with a stack of sheep on the edge, and dividing a stack each turn. When you move sheep, they carry on in that direction until they hit something (an edge or another sheep). Your goal is to occupy the most space in the pasture, preferably herded together. That’s it. That’s the whole game.

How does this give rise to interesting decisions? The main one is how many sheep to take or leave each time you split. You want to box in your opponents while avoiding being boxed in yourself. You can project a lot of power all at once, but that also means most of your sheep are headed right next to an opponent who could be countering you. Project too little power, and opposing sheep will just walk around you.

The game is quick, simple, competitive, cute, and strategic. The components are high quality. I have never heard anyone describe this as a “must play,” but I stumbled on it and found that it beat my expectations. The next game up that night was the much more highly rated Istanbul, and I found myself thinking, “but is all this added complexity worth it?” Battle Sheep does a lot with very little.

: Zubon

[TT] Munchkin Shakespeare

Munchkin Shakespeare is Munchkin with lots of Shakespeare references. If you like either or both of those two things, this is for you.

When I think of Steve Jackson Games, I think of Ogre, GURPS, and Illuminati. I think of hardcore gamer games with niche appeal. And then they published Munchkin, which apparently pays for everything else they do. If you are not familiar with Munchkin: it is a casual, humorous card game, distilling fantasy RPGs down to “kick open the door, kill the monster, loot the room, stab your friends in the back.” It is light, but it is entertaining. There are now several dozen versions, some of which have more than a dozen expansions. They cross all genres and frequently cross over with other games. This is SJGames’s equivalent of Monopoly (except that Monopoly is kind of horrible).

Munchkin Shakespeare had a successful Kickstarter, so much so that they made a deluxe edition. The deluxe Munchkin games come with decorate bits that add fluff but no crunch, primarily a board. People seem willing to pay more for bigger boxes and a board than for decks of cards you could store in a sandwich baggie. The board is genuinely useful for tracking levels. (If you ever want a safe Kickstarter campaign, Steve Jackson Games is good for that. Unlike folks making their first game, they have been doing this for almost 40 years. They deliver what they say they will, on time, even stretch goals extend the project. These are professionals.)

Our friends liked Munchkin Shakespeare over the (few) other sets they have seen. It has the usual mechanics, refined and clarified over the course of a decade. The humor is good, with lots of bonuses for literature majors. It is entirely appropriate to pause the game for a soliloquy. You might fight Two Bees, or the more dangerous Not Two Bees. You might wield the Slings and Arrows of outrageous fortune. And those are just the first Hamlet jokes that come to mind. Many of the jokes are obvious or explained, others are left as Genius Bonuses.

It’s fun.

: Zubon

Early Endgame

What I have often found dissatisfying about the tabletop games Pandemic and Agricola is that the endgame starts now. If you do not start with the end in mind, you will do badly.

A usual plan in games as in stories is to have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. In games, that often means a bit of feeling out the game and exploring the space, seeing how the variability came out in this game, with some balance between rewarding exploration and early specialization. I feel like Pandemic and Agricola are games that require almost immediate pursuit of long range plans to be effective, otherwise you get behind necessary curves and realize you needed to be planning ahead several turns ago, in a game with not that many turns per player. Commenters: care to recommend other games that do this well or badly?

In a competitive game, accelerating the endgame can be a strong strategy, although it can be taken to absurdity. Most games that allow an early rush to the finish have an easy counter to it, so there is the standard rock-paper-scissors of early rush, balanced defense, and immediately building for the late game. Is calling for “no rush” games still a thing, for people who want paper to be the only option? I remember Blizzard discussing that in Starcraft balance, explicitly considering an early rush a legitimate and risky strategy, so no they were not nerfing scissors. (Pandemic is cooperative and Agricola has a fixed length, so perhaps this paragraph is just digression before the topic comes up in comments.)

I tend to be a strong strategy gamer, and there are certainly times that I like being reward for immediately being goal-oriented, but I do like a bit of wiggle room for exploration and unfocused fun, and it feels like a nasty surprise on the other players who were not starting their endgame plan on turn two. It feels a lot like games that give you lots of options, but on the highest difficulties only one or two of them are really viable. In a competitive game like Agricola, you can just play with people who are also content with somewhat lower scores and we all play in that league. In a cooperative game like Pandemic, we all lose if someone is not on the ball, so it leans towards the degenerate problem of one player effectively making the decisions for everyone.

: Zubon

[TT] Cultists of Cthulhu

I played Cultists of Cthulhu, which is in the vein of Betrayal at House on the Hill or Arkham Horror. If you clicked the link, you know I was not a fan of Betrayal, but I kind of wanted to be (I am told the second edition is better). I was hoping that Cultists would be a better version of Betrayal. I did not enjoy it much.

Like Arkham Horror, Cultists is a much longer game than Betrayal, about two hours. Like Betrayal, it has multiple scenarios, although far fewer and with the traitor role known (to the traitor) in advance. There is more strategy and gameplay than Betrayal’s interactive story, but there can also be a lot of randomness. Like the first edition of Betrayal, the first edition of Cultists has unclear rules with ambiguities and misprintings. It does not have a lot of rules, but enough to make your first game(s?) clunky rather than elegant.

We just did not have a lot of fun, which is about as big and simple an indict as I can give a game. The game felt cumbersome, slow, and little under our control, even for a first playthrough. In retrospect, some of that was a rules misunderstanding. The rules as written are susceptible to that and could use a bit more editing. With only five scenarios in the game, they could have playtested a bit more to check for obvious edge cases.

What were our big negatives?

  • There were apparently no monsters in our scenario, and it was unclear what was supposed to happen with the one tentacle that spawned; we walked around it without it ever touching anyone.
  • The stars mechanic became completely irrelevant after the cultist was revealed.
  • The cultist found her experience completely unsatisfying because her reveal just gave her a cool gun. Which blew up on the first roll, slightly damaging her and not damaging any of the heroes.
  • Two unlikely dice rolls swung the game.
  • One of our players was colorblind. The cards use red, green, and blue icons to indicate what is going on. Ouch. Even for those of us not colorblind, the shades of blue and green could be mistaken for each other in low lighting.
  • Our scenario had a misprint. Instead of the Elder Sign, it showed “G” (“good”). Small thing, but again, there are only five scenario cards to proofread. There were also ambiguities in the scenario, as the rules say a scenario ability can only be used (successfully) once, but ours required using it three times. So is it only that one that could be used three times?
  • Characters can die and get stuck watching. Did I mention that a game can run two hours? The cultist’s goal is to kill the academics, so we should expect at least one academic to be sitting out at least a third of the game, with more players having nothing to do as the game progresses.

We liked the atmospherics, the variety of characters to choose from, the several options you had each turn, and the feeling that you had some control over your destiny. We had a good time accusing each other of being cultists. We were amused when thematic elements came together, like the fellow who drew a shotgun and trenchcoat.

Maybe it would play better on a second playthrough. But I played with random people at a board game party, so unless I take to playing this with a regular group, it is usually going to be someone’s first time on a multi-hour game. I cannot say that I can recommend the game at this point. I welcome others’ experiences in the comments.

: Pietro

Crowdfunding Projects

Kickstarter seems to be the on deck circle for most new tabletop games, and we have not had a thread in a while to discuss projects there. What are you watching? Comments are open.

I am watching several but have yet to commit:

  • Dead Man’s Doubloons is the latest from ThunderGryph Games. It is a game of pirates and treasure, where you keep playing as a ghost ship even if your ship is sunk. The rules are online if you want to read through. Pretty, but does its complexities resolve to elegance?
  • A Touch of Class is a small book of D&D classes from EN5ider. It looks fun, but I don’t have a 5th Edition game going or on the horizon.
  • Gloomhaven is going to a second printing. This is a premium gamer product, a $100 box with a living campaign. This video is a good explanation of why that is awesome and maybe not for you. I don’t have a group together to make a thing like this work, even if I think it looks pretty cool.
  • The City of Kings is a smaller take on a cooperative PvE campaign. Another cool, 5 kilogram box of stuff I cannot imagine getting on the table very often in the near future.

Thoughts on these or other games that yet lie in our future?

: Zubon

Proximate Goals

My wife and I played Agricola and Lords of Waterdeep in quick succession, and I must pass along her observation: Lords of Waterdeep benefits strongly from having short term goals. Both are worker placement games, but scoring is radically different.

Agricola scores everything at the end, and everything is in play. You get a penalty for everything you did not do, a penalty for every space you did not use, and a variable number of points for each of nearly a dozen things. It is a complex balancing game, and it does not pay off until the game is over. Your long term plans could come together perfectly or be scuttled in the last round, sending you scurrying for Plan B or C. In many ways, it is the epitome of eurogames, where it is not over until it is over.

Lords of Waterdeep instead gives most of its points out as you go through the game. You get a few victory points for a few actions. You complete quests, each of which has a set cost and reward. You are not plotting out a goal ten turns from now and working backwards through reverse induction. There is still the big kicker of points at the end when you reveal your lord and get the quest bonus, but there is a feeling of progress along the way and of achieving small goals all the time.

Agricola is a strategic game. Lords of Waterdeep is a tactical game. The basic strategy of Lords of Waterdeep is to complete quests where you get bonuses, where the major sub-strategy question is to go for fewer, bigger quests or more, smaller quests (tip: “more” is usually better, especially at lower player counts). That’s about it. In a five-player game, you have only two actions for half the game, and you work on a much shorter time horizon.

Agricola definitely has appeal to the hardcore strategy player. Lords of Waterdeep tends towards a broader appeal with its playstyle and simpler rules. (And I have a friend promising to show me Caverna soon.) This seems backwards for their themes. Farming games have broader thematic appeal than Dungeons and Dragons, and farming has a seasonal reward cycle while I expect the lords of Waterdeep to be working grand schemes that only pay off after decades.

: Zubon

Countless Generations Unfulfilled

This weekend, I was in the mood to play a worker placement game. The question dawned on me with rising horror: how many generations now lie buried and insensate, gone to their biers with a nameless ache because worker placement games had yet to be invented?

Have you ever gone to the kitchen, in the mood for something, but nothing looks quite right? You are hungering for a dish that does not yet exist. The plant that would placate your eager taste buds has yet to evolve. And there you stand, wondering if a little more mayo would do the trick.

When you are bored on a Sunday afternoon in the long, dark teatime of the soul, those hours are stolen by your need to do something that does not yet exist, for a career in a field requiring another century of technological advance.

And there lies your bier, wondering whether you took the time to play a worker placement game.

: Zubon

[TT] Upgrade Kits

Under the heading of “cool but impractical”: Meeple Source sells game upgrade kits. Replace the standard meeples that come with your tabletop games with pretty, custom ones. Now, you know that I love pretty, custom meeples, but generally under the idea that you buy one really nice set and use it for everything.

Meeple Source takes that in the opposite direction, in the way only a fanatic can really indulge in. If you are a hardcore player of a particular game, I can see buying a set. If you play Agricola every week, it could be nice to get pretty resources or farmer families. They won’t take up much more space than the circle tokens, and let’s be honest, the Agricola tokens for wood and clay are annoyingly similar. But replacing everything would cost $77, and the game itself costs $49 on Amazon (as I type this). The Lords of Waterdeep upgrades cost 3.8 times the game itself (and lock you into the theme of the game). My favorite example is Tiny Epic Kingdoms, where you can get a custom set of 112 meeples for 5.5 times the cost of the game itself. Also, that would be way bigger than the box itself.

I am not saying the prices are unreasonable. About a dollar for a custom meeple, or a quarter for a resource, does not seem like much given costs of production and running the shop. I have some of their meeples, because I think they are cute and neat (and some work nicely for multiple purposes). It’s cool stuff if you want to pimp out a game for the premium nerd experience. And by the way, Tesh’s latest Kickstarter for metal steampunk meeples is in its last week, if you want to be more cool but less custom.

: Zubon