Games We Play: New Year’s Day Edition

The Empress of Whisky rose at a decent hour on New Year’s Day to go hiking with a friend.

Afterward there were two things on her mind: brunch and vengeance.

The brunch part I probably don’t have to explain. She picked me up, and I joined her and her friend for a lovely brunch at a nice vegan restaurant nearby.  (No, I had not expected my first meal of the year to be vegan. The place has surprisingly good pancakes, though.)

As for vengeance, it was due to my having won all three games we played the night before.

A sweep like that is a rare feat for either of us,  as we’re pretty evenly matched.

At any rate, with a holiday at hand and nothing better to do while we waited for the traditional New Year’s Day meal to cook, we pulled a few games and set about continuing The Project.

 

Travel Blokus

Details: Designed by Bernard Tavitian for Educational Insights, 2005.* 2 players. Quick.

*(The game is now titled Blokus Duo and sold by Mattel.)

Source: I bought it for The Empress nearly 12 years ago, because we’re  big fans of the original Blokus, a four-player game. A two-player version was too good to pass up.

Overview: The game is played on a 14 x 14 grid. Each player has a set of shapes, ranging from one to five squares, that they will take turns placing upon this grid. When placing a new piece, it may not be orthogonally adjacent to any of your already placed pieces, but it must be diagonally adjacent to at least one corner of a previously placed piece. A piece may be (and will sometimes need to be) orthogonally adjacent to any of your opponent’s pieces.

If that sounds complex, well, it isn’t. It takes a couple of minutes to get the hang of, but the concept is pretty easy to play. The execution, though — there’s the game.

Thoughts: Make sure you like the person you’re playing against because this game inevitably gets a little in-your-face. As the name implies, much of the game play involves blocking your opponent. Many times you will need to be mean to succeed. (However, sometimes leaving your opponent with an opening can lead to you having a greater opening … it’s a balancing act.)

Result: On New Year’s Day, The Empress beat me, 11-15. (Lower scores are better.)

Verdict: Keep. No question.

 

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Details: Designed by Ted Alspach for Bézier Games, 2014. 2-4 players. Medium.

Source: I played it with My Friend the Pharmacist and immediately thought The Empress would enjoy it, so I bought her a copy.

Overview: You have a foyer. That’s not enough. It needs hallways, stairs, living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and more! But not necessarily all of those. Maybe you just really like outdoor spaces, and so you go nuts with the gardens. It’s okay. No one minds when you’re a mad castle architect.

Castles is a resource management game, in this case the resources being money, opportunity, and time. The games plays quickly enough, once you’re familiar with the rules, and the key to victory depends on how each player manages the varying options that come up in any particular game. A deck of cards deals a steady flow of room options each turn, and players use their money carefully to choose which ones to buy and how the ones they buy will fit — physically and thematically — into what they have already built.

Thoughts: I thought The Empress would enjoy this one, and boy was I right. Something about this type of game —  a game of careful resource management, with a high degree of importance on selecting from a variety of options with varying values based on how they interact with other already chosen options — just sits right in her headspace.

I also thoroughly enjoy this one. I like games where you build the board, especially when the board is actually the thing you are building — in this case, each game piece is a room, and you physically have to fit the rooms together to make a castle. Fun!

Result: On New Year’s Day, The Empress beat me in a squeaker, 74-73.

Verdict: Keep. Honestly, we could probably get rid of almost every other game we own, and a certain Castles addict would still be happy.

 

Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries

Details: Designed by Alan R. Moon for Days of Wonder, 2007. 2-3 players. Medium.

Source: A family member gave it to The Empress for Christmas several years back, shortly after it was published, I think.

Overview: I can’t write about this without writing about the parent game. Ticket to Ride, in its original (and still available to purchase) incarnation, is a train game with a map of the United States. It came out in 2004, won the Spiel des Jahres, and launched an empire. There are currently more than a dozen variants of the game, most consisting simply of applying the base rules to other maps.

Those base rules? You collect cards representing different colors of train cars. You use those to place your trains on the map and connect cities. While doing so, you are attempting to complete greater routes between certain cities (as determined by card draw). You are also trying to avoid your opponent, who will often be placing cars exactly where you need to place your own, forcing you to instead use costly and time-consuming alternate routes.

However … Moon has a quirk about not duplicating the rules exactly between versions. At least, I assume it’s a quirk because if not, then he gives two otherwise identical games tiny rules variations just to confuse me.

The Nordic Countries version diverges more than most, though, because it’s a 2-3 player game with a somewhat small map, whereas most Ticket to Ride games are for 2-5 players on a robust map.

Otherwise, Nordic Countries plays like the base game, with a few additions. If you’re familiar with Ticket to Ride, it’s that plus tunnels and ferries. Also, you can pick up a locomotive and another train car in the same action.

Thoughts: We love the Ticket to Ride family of games. We own several versions, and I imagine we’ll be getting to all of them before this project is over. We do not, however, own the original version. Several friends and family do, though, so we end up playing it a fair amount, anyway.

They’re fun games, easy to learn, with lots of replayability.

Grab Nordic Countries if you regularly expect to play with just two or three. (The bigger games work fine for just two or three, but you can tell Nordic Countries, with its smaller map, is designed to put more pressure on a pair or trio.)

Result: No sweep on New Year’s Day. I beat The Empress in impressive fashion, 87-37.

Verdict: Keep.

 

(The following is a new section, which I am including for the inevitable replays that will occur throughout the year. While these results are not, strictly speaking, part of Games We Play, which is about playing everything once, it may be enlightening to see which games we go back to throughout the year.)

Games on Repeat

Repeated Game: Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries

Result: The Empress won, 97-65. Ouch.

Games We Play: New Year’s Eve Edition

Some years we go out, many we stay in.

This was a staying in year, at least after a nice dinner out with friends.

Afterward, it was just the two of us (and Best Cat) at home, relaxing away the last hours of 2019, may it rest in pieces.

Somewhere along the line we decided to play some games, which led to us standing in the den, where (most of) the games are, and that’s where the following conversation occurred:

THE EMPRESS OF WHISKY: We have too many games.

ME: I don’t know you anymore.

THE EMPRESS: No, look — there are games stacked in that chair, a few on the floor, some on that end table …

ME: I have been saying we should buy another bookcase.

THE EMPRESS: We don’t need another bookcase!

ME: <gestures at the games stacked in that chair, a few on the floor, some on that end table>

THE EMPRESS: Look, we don’t even play some of these! We should get rid of the ones we don’t play.

ME: So, everything but Castles, then?

THE EMPRESS: <gives look>

ME: Okay, maybe we don’t just play Castles, but we have been playing a lot of Castles, lately.

THE EMPRESS: True. But there are lots of games here we haven’t played in years. Or, ever. <points> Those are still in shrink-wrap!

ME: <stares at shoes, hoping to avoid another conversation about game spending>

THE EMPRESS: <sighs the sigh of the long-suffering spouse of a game addict>

ME: <idea bulb over head>

THE EMPRESS: <worried look>

ME: Let’s play them, then! All of them! A new year starts in just a few hours. We can make this our 2020 project.

THE EMPRESS: <slightly excited> And any we don’t play get rid of?

ME: Well, I wouldn’t go that far … we might not get to all of them.

THE EMPRESS: Uh, that’s kinda my point!

ME: Let’s say we’ll get rid of any we don’t enjoy playing. But we have to play them first.

THE EMPRESS: Okay.

ME: No repeats!

THE EMPRESS: Wait a minute …

ME: Decide now when in 2020 you want that one game of Castles to be.

THE EMPRESS: Maybe we start each time with a game of Castles as a warm-up!

ME: <sighs the sigh of the long-suffering spouse of a Castles addict>

 

And so began The Project.*

*(The results of which will be chronicled here as Games We Play.)

Look, I don’t know how many games we have.

It’s not that I can’t count that high or that they’re so unorganized that I can’t find them all to count them. I just … don’t want to math that much, okay?

Suffice to say there are a lot. Like a lot, a lot. So many that we will not realistically get through all of them in a year, even if we really pick up our playing rate.

But we’re going to give this a go, anyway.

And so as to give us a head start, I am going to count the games we played on the last day of 2019 because, at least in spirit, they are part of this. Don’t hold their year against them.

 

Deadly Doodles

Details: Designed by Samuel Mitschke and Randy Scheunemann for Steve Jackson Games, 2019. 1-4 players. Quick.

Source: I bought it for The Empress at Christmas 2019.

Overview: It’s fun. We played it with my younger sister and her husband on Christmas Day at their house. (We also “played” it with our five-year-old nephew. He drew lines. It was cute.)

The game comes with four dry erase map boards, markers, and a set of cards. Draw four cards each turn to tell you what segments you have available to draw that turn. Attempt to connect segments to collect treasure and weapons while fighting monsters and avoiding traps.

Thoughts: This is not a deeply strategic game, but it does require some careful thinking and planning to win. Spot of luck in the card order doesn’t hurt, either. You don’t see what other players are doing while it’s going on, so it’s sort of a play-against-the-game sort of game, but there are some interactive actions (traps!) and it’s fun at the end when everyone shows off their mad (or mad!) orienteering skilz.

Result: On New Year’s Eve, I beat The Empress 28-24.

Record: Jon 1, The Empress 0

Verdict: Keep

 

Carcassonne

Details: Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede for Hans im Glück, 2000.* 2-5 players. Short-to-medium.

*(The German original. My version was distributed by Rio Grande Games in the United States. The U.S. license has since been purchased by Z-Man Games.)

Source: I bought it, jeez, shortly after college? When it was still newish, anyway. It won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001, and my copy does not have that on the box, so it’s an early edition.

Overview: Each turn you draw a tile, then place it adjacent to matching tiles already in play, thus slowly creating a sprawling countryside full of castles, roads, fields, and monasteries. When you place a tile, you have the option to add one of your meeples to it, thus setting yourself up to score points on the growing castle, road, field, or monastery.

Thoughts: It’s a classic for a reason, and it popularized the tile-laying game style. Carcassonne itself has about a dozen expansions adding tiles and rules. Our copy includes extra tiles from at least four of those, but we prefer to play under the original rules. There are several other Carcassonne games with different themes (and varying rules) out there, and we own a few. Maybe we’ll even get to some of them before 2020’s out.

No two games are the same, and it’s fun to build things while blocking, stealing, and generally aggravating your opponent(s). There is some luck in the tile drawing, but tile and meeple placement weighs much more heavily in the outcome.

It works fine as a two-player game, but — as is the case with many multi-player games played by just two — it can get pretty intense with the direct, head-to-head nature of play. It’s really fun with three or four players. Five (or six, with an expansion) players can make it seem to drag.

Result: On New Year’s Eve, I beat The Empress, 189-188.

Record: Jon 2, The Empress 0

Verdict: Keep.

 

The Downfall of Pompeii

Details: Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede for AMIGO, 2004.* 2-4 players. Short.

*(Distribued by Mayfield Games in the States, at least my copy was.)

Source: We bought this one after playing it at Steve Jackson’s Ogre Launch Party in Austin back in October 2013. (Another couple had a copy, and they were very excited to have it, as it had just come back into print after a long time out.)

Overview: It’s another acclaimed tile game by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede! This time, the tiles aren’t that big of a deal until the end, though. It’s more a card and meeple placement game until then. First, you populate the city, before rapidly de-populating it once the volcano blows.

Thoughts: This games is always a hoot. Nothing says “fun” like tossing your opponent’s meeple into a volcano! (The game includes a really spiffy 3-D volcano.) The card draws can make it play pretty random and swing-y at times, but it’s ultimately a game of strategic meeple placement, followed by a quick, mean game of tile placement and meeple burning. See also: “fun.”

This plays very mean with just two people, and it’s really better with three or four. It’s actually one of my favorite three-player games. (Good, balanced three-player games are hard to find.) It also plays reliably short, with built-in timing based on fixed numbers of card and tile draws.

Result: On New Year’s Eve, I beat The Empress by several escaping meeples, but I forgot to get an exact count.

Record: Jon 3, The Empress 0

Verdict: Keep

Special Appearance: Best Cat tried to stay up to watch us play, but she ultimately decided to sleep through the transition from one year to the next.

Games We Play: An Introduction

The Empress of Whisky and I play a lot of games: board games, card games, role-playing games.

We’re pretty competitive about the board and card games, and we are most definitely not that couple you hate because they’re always helping each other out when you play a game with them.

Hell, no.

In fact, we have a saying: “I love you … outside the game.”

(In a sign of how seriously we take this, the line made its way into our wedding vows.)

Inside the game, we fight like strangers at best, but more often like neighbors with a long-simmering dispute over that one tree on the property line that no one wants to prune or rake up after.

It’s awesome.

We love playing games with friends, and we’re always thinking it’s been too long since we went to or hosted a game night. (It always is!)

But we also play a lot of two-player games, just us, head-to-head.

That’s how we spent New Year’s Eve, ushering in 2020 at the dining room table over a series of games.

Then we got up and played several more on New Year’s Day, after brunch and while the black-eyed peas were still simmering.

As we were doing this, I decided it would be a great thing to write about, since it’s a subject I haven’t hit on before — at least, not regularly — and I’d been looking for something in the semi-regular feature category that wasn’t just more whisky.

So, here we are then.

First proper post will show up shortly after this one, detailing those games we played on New Year’s Day, then others will follow throughout the year as we play through our collection.

Oh, right. The collection.

We have a lot of games. Like, a lot, a lot. So many that storage is becoming an issue. Thus we’ve decided, with reluctance, to prune out a few.

The only fair way to do that? Play ’em all, of course.

May the best games win.