I know that this is Ezra's turf, but I actually got the chance to play some board games this weekend and decided to step up. On deck this time: two Catan spinoffs.
The long weekend took us up to Big Bear. We learned something vital about Elaina, the youngest: she gets carsick on windy roads. Exorcist-carsick. To be more precise, Katrina learned that; I had to be in a deposition Friday and drove up later, something I will be paying for in blood and sweat for the foreseeable future. We also learned that Elaina (27 pounds at 15 months) should not be picked up too rapidly or carelessly by her hairsbreadth-from-middle-aged Daddy, who spent a portion of the weekend in the hot tub or lying on the hardwood floor with an aching back. I didn't have anything stronger than Advil, and had to content myself with two good bottles of Cab and a regrettable number of soju cosmopolitans. My liver has hired Javier Bardem to kill me.
But I was forced to drink, really. It wasn't just the pain. It was the rental cabin. Now, city law requires every rental cabin in Big Bear to have one bear tchotchke per bedroom, like smoke detectors. This can be charming in a why-are-we-paying-$600-per-night-for-rustic sort of way. This cabin, however, was bear-infested to an unsettling degree. The most bear-free room was the smallest bathroom; it had only three bear-themed items. We gave up counting in the main room. The bears were held in check only by the decorative B-plot of cute snowmen. Now, I am a supporter of bears in their place. Negotiating with cartoon rangers? Fine. Warning kids about forest fires? Fine. Devouring the occasional Old Testament waif who is impolite to a fellow member of the Hair Club For Men? Peachy. But, dude, dial it back from 11. About the time bears get cartoonishly omnipresent I start parking the kids in front of Toy Story on a loop and hitting the bottle.
Anyway, in the evenings, after the kids were down and we had stopped drinking, it was time for board games among the four adults. These two couples are big fans of Settlers of Catan, and decided to try two variants: Starfarers of Catan and the Knights and Cities expansion to Settlers. My ratings, respectively: meh and great.
Starfarers is a complete new game rather than an expansion. Much of it will be familiar to players of Settlers: the players compete to place settlements (or, in this case, space colonies), get resources depending on the adjacent land (or, in this case, planets), and spend resources to buy more settlements, etc. Starfarers adds some interesting elements: you can upgrade the speed and power of all of your ships, which helps move around the board faster and win occasional random encounters with pirates. You can establish trading relationships with alien species to get victory points. Random encounters range from merchants (who may or may not look on you favorably and give you cool stuff if you give them enough resources) and pirates (who may yield resources or fame points if you defeat them).
Even though I find the addition of a few more avenues of chance to be agreeable, the game as a whole didn't grab me. First, I'm angry about the production value. The sizzle selling-point of the game is a set of four "motherships," one for each player, to which you add cannons, boosters, etc. like a model rocket. Sounds cool, and it is until the cheap plastic on the damn things began to snap so that you couldn't add the expansion pieces any more. Considering how expensive the game was, this is a major flaw. Second, I found some elements of the game poorly designed to the point of unbalancing. Take the wormhole random encounter, for example: if you happen to run into it, you can find yourself on the far side of the board among unexplored planets with no competition for the nearby resources and easy and uncontested access to the most lucrative trading opportunities. Third, the X-factor — it simply didn't grab me. Aside from the unbalancing elements, it seems too linear, too predictable, yet lacking the deceptive simplicity that makes the original Settlers a hit. In short, not a bad game, but not one I'd recommend if there's something else available.
Now, to the thumbs up. Our friends brought Knights & Cities of Catan, an expansion pack to Settlers. I loved it. The expansion adds several elements that make the original a much richer strategic experience. First, there are knights, which can be used to ward off the periodic barbarian attacks, move the robber, block other plays from expanding into a particular area, or kick out other players' knights. The mechanic is fun and leads to interesting tactical possibilities: the barbarians attack with a strength equal to the number of cities on the board, while all active knights held by all players defend. If the defenders win, the player with the most knights gets a victory point; if they lose, the player or players with the lowest number of knights lose a city. This leads to tough calls: do I activate my knights if it will lead to my foe getting a victory point? Can I time activating my knight so that the barbarians win but my opponent loses a city rather than me?
Other elements are also pleasing. There are three new advanced resources that players use to advance in three types of technology. There are new advancement cards — obtained more easily as those three techs advance — with a wide variety of cool effects. The advancement cards bring a nice cutthroat air that was missing from the original — some of the effects are brutal. In short, it keeps many of the best elements of the original and adds a layer of strategy and tactics that works very well. It's a sharper learning curve than the original, but four rather tipsy occasional players were able to figure it out in a half-hour. We all agreed it was our favorite of all the Catan expansions or variants, and the probable first candidate for future play, possibly even surpassing the original.
We drove back today, sorry not to have the time to play another game. This time Abby hurled, mostly into a bag that had previously been occupied by high fiber bread. I blush to admit that I abandoned the bag of barf on the side of the road in a rather nice development in Redlands. Sorry.
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