A trip to the relatives for a holiday always involves bringing a box of games these days; the ladies in the family, while not up to the level of true "gamer's games" like Tigris and Euphrates are definitely up to the challenge of middle weight and light strategic fair. This 4th of July weekend was no exception.
This time we brought a number of new games, and some old classics, and introduced them to a new audience. On the table this weekend were several games of China, a few of Through the Desert, and Gemblo. The ladies are definitely attracted to the bright and colorful games.
Gemblo, published by DG Games from Korea, is a beautiful multiplayer abstract strategy game that plays from 2 to 6 players and scales quite well by changing the size of the playing area on the board based on the number of players. Although it can be a bit hard to see where the demarcation lines are for the variable areas are under poor lighting.
The game play is very similar to Blokus, but the pieces are more attractive and the game plays with more than four. The ladies have played Blokus before and seemed to have a slight bit of trouble with the different placement rules; that the pieces don't touch at the angles, but have to be placed one away to line up, and older eyes had more trouble with the variable play area. But other than those issues it was a rather fast and tensely competitive game. I won by quite a bit, and the ladies spent the rest of the weekend trying to get their revenge.
Other than the placement rule being slightly tricky it really is a very simple game. On your turn you place a piece, following the lines of apex from one of your other pieces. They can not be next to one of your own pieces, or jump over an opponents piece. When you can no longer place a piece, you pass for the rest of the game, when everyone passes, the winner is the person with the least number of gem pieces left. Simple, yet the play is highly aggressive, blocking your opponents while trying to get your pieces in place.
The pieces themselves, gems, look colorful exactly as that, the board is a bit thin and colorless, but the other pieces more than make up for it. The rule book is easy to understand and has colorful illustrations to explain the odd placement of pieces. The only drawback I can really find to the game is the enormous stop sign of a box. Its very difficult to store.
For the next day I had the pleasure of introducing them to one of my all-time favorites; in its new form as China from Uberplay, designed by Michael Schacht. They allowed me to pick the next game, since they had chosen the bright and colorful previous selection. I wasn't sure it was going to be something they liked, and they were a bit apprehensive as I explained the rules, but bravely gave it a try. It was a very solid hit, and they immediately asked to play again after the first game. An indication of a wonderful game, and it re-earned its place as one of my top games.
China is based on the same system as Schacht's previous game Web of Power. In fact, if you have the now out of print older version, there is really no reason to have both. I merely have China to play more often and not risk damage to the precious out of print pristine copy. Plus, I've found China to be slightly more balanced in some areas that make it particularly easier on newer gamers.
It is an area control game, you are placing your houses so as to have a majority in different regions, or in neighboring regions of emissaries for alliances. On your turn you can play up to three cards from your hand, place up to two of your pieces into any one region. The 3-2-1 rule can take a few turns for new players to catch on to but once understood the mechanics are truly simple.
Scoring also can take a few regions scored to catch on to, but then it to seems to be a marvel of simple balance. When you score the region, the person with the most houses scores one point for each house in the region, the second place scores one for each house the first place person had in the region, the third place person scores one for each house the second place person in the region has. Rows of houses in a line of 4 or more score one for each at the end of the game. Alliances score between adjacent marked regions if the same person has the majority of emissaries in both of those regions; then the score works as the houses do.
All of these simple but perfectly balanced mechanics make for a highly strategic game with many paths one can take to attempt to score points. Its possible to concentrate on lines of houses, claiming majorities in regions, or placing emissaries in neighboring regions, or any combination of the above. There are never enough cards or pieces to do all that you would like to do, and sometimes the end of the game sneaks up on you when you still had plans that had just that one more move to come to fruition. And each and every one of these plans can be foiled by the actions of your opponents.
It is one of the tightest most well designed games I've ever played, and permanent classic in my collection. It plays quickly, the games are short but highly enjoyable and tense. The colorful board and pieces are lovely and bright. The double-sided board sports different maps for differing numbers of players. Its one of my favorite games for 2 or three players, and I highly recommend it in either of its forms.
For the last game one of the ladies chose one I had brought before, and one I'd made a birthday gift of to my sister-in-law; Reiner Knizia's Through the Desert from Uberplay games. This one definitely has appeal for the ladies, as I must admit; no one seems to be able to resist the plastic palm trees and pastel colored camels. Sometimes in working with newer games that visual attraction, to either the box or the components is the key in making them willing to give the game a try. Plainer games, that might be just as good, are harder to get onto the table.
Not so with Through the Desert; it does its own advertising. Then you teach them the simple rules for placement; you must place a camel next to another camel of your own in that color, and not next to a camel of an opponent of the same color. Next you teach them the even simpler turn mechanics of pick up two camels on your turn, place those two camels. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
Its beauty, like China, is that those simple rules offering a wealth of tactical options, and depth of play. Many have compared it to the ancient eastern masterpiece of Go. There are multiple ways to score that will determine how you are going to place those camels. If you place a camel on a water hole space, you take its marker and score the number of points indicated on the chit. If you run one of your caravans past an oasis, indicated by the palm trees, you can claim a 5 point marker. If you can enclose areas, from edge to edge, with a string of camels you get points for every space and take possession of every water hole in the area you've claimed. Finally, at the end of the game the player with the longest caravan of camels in each color claims the 10 point marker for that color.
All of these opportunities to score lead to a plethora of tactical options. And the game is far more tactical than strategic, because your opponents are going to see what you are attempting to do and try to block your caravans with their own. It is a perfect information game, nothing is hidden. By the time it is your turn again, you often will not have the move available to you that you planned. A balanced plan seems to be the best, concentrating all on one method of scoring, such as the longest camel caravans, does not always play out well.
Like China, it is also a game in which the end can sneak up on you. Don't get caught with your pants down, and have the game end before you can complete that last space to an enclosure; keep an eye on how many of each camel color are remaining, because once all of one color has been placed the game is over and final scoring begins.
This game is another one of my all time favorites. The rules are simple enough for casual, new or family style players; but offers depth of play that still leaves heavier gamers fighting for mastery.