Gamer Life Update

What follows is a fairly stream of consciousness run-down of the games I've been playing for the last couple of months.

Through The Ages (TTA) has almost certainly been the thing I have played the most. It's essentially Civilization turned back into a tabletop game by Czech board game designer Vlaada Chvatil. It's not for the faint of heart (clocking in somewhere north of one hour per player), but it's remarkably well designed and well balanced. Well, it is once you know what you're doing anyway. The way in which you draft cards from a shuffled deck gives it remarkable re-playability, but only if you've learned that falling behind on military means almost certain death (the game is quite unforgiving if you fall behind). Lately my crew has been playing via e-mail using a Vassal module of the game in addition to playing it live. I've even got a spreadsheet now with our last ten results and counting. Mike Turian is the best - probably not a surprising result to anyone who has tried any form of drafting game against him.

Agricola is still in heavy rotation as well. Once I invest the time it takes to learn a game, I like to keep playing it. As a result my favorite games tend to be the ones with sufficient randomness in the set-up that each game is unique. That way, you learn some over-arching truths about what matters or what sorts of strategies tend to do well, but you're forced to improvise essentially every single time you play. Magic has this characteristic too — you're constantly learning new tricks that you can apply int he future, but you can never learn enough to just play by rote memory. In Agricola there's a nice core mechanic where you take turns deciding which action you want to do (somewhat similar to Puerto Rico, but with more options available). The real depth, though, comes from the deck of Occupations and the deck of Minor Improvements. You get a hand of 7 of each at the start of the game and much of the game-play comes from trying to maximize those resources while also reacting to whatever your opponents have put into play.

I know an Agricola expansion came out at Essen last week. It looks like they made some fairly major changes to the core mechanics. Has anyone played it yet? How is it?

Congrats to Donald X. Vaccarino and Dominion on winning Spiel des Jahres, by the way. That's a great game that I can recommend to just about anyone. The only thing resembling a complaint that I have about it is that the first expansion seemed a bit too busy as compared to the base set. I haven't had the chance to play the second expansion yet. Hopefully, he finds his voice and keeps this game fresh and vibrant for years to come.

I've also been dabbling in iPhone games pretty consistently. Drop7 remains one of my staple games, by the way. I know I recommended it before but it's really quite a nice game for anyone who has ever enjoyed Minesweeper, Tetris, or Sudoku. I kind of wish there were new goals to shoot for (a weekly friends leaderboard would go a long way toward keeping me invested), but even just trying to up my all-time high score and my average is enough to keep me playing in spare moments.

The other infatuation I had was a surprising one to me: I Dig It. It didn't seem like something I would like, but Richard Garfield recommended it so I tried it out. In retrospect I still don't understand exactly why i liked it, but I definitely did. I completed both the campaigns modes (each of which takes several hours of accumulated play, and that's after you figure out the basics and stopped accidentally getting yourself killed). The idea is that you have some sort of funky bulldozer that goes underground and digs up various valuable things - ores, gems, alien artifacts, etc. You start with a small gas tank, a tiny cargo hold, crappy radar, and an engine that overheats if you go very deep into the earth. As you dig stuff up and sell it, you can improve each of these things in what amounts to a fairly clever twist on the usual RPG level-up mechanic (flavored totally differently, and feeling totally different, but tapping into that same emotional love we all have of seeing our stats get bigger). It's more than just bigger numbers, though, you also feel more powerful. the kicker for me is that on top of all that there's this coolness that comes from building your own tunnel system. It's like a weird form of emergent gameplay — I'd never really thought about the most convenient way to dig mine shafts, but it was fun.

One game that I want to like is Dungeon Hunter. It looks like a fairly slick Diablo variant, and I played a ton of Diablo II back in the day. It's got nice graphics and seems to have all the action RPG goodness you'd want. I get occasional framerate issues on my 3G (which probably means it's great on a 3GS and bad on the original iPhone). My real issue, though, is that I'm stuck. If anyone knows where the hell the exit is from the Thamos Catacombs, please tell me.

In terms of tower defense games, I've played several lately. The Creeps has a cute mechanic where you have to attack the land around the track so as to clear spaces for future towers. Decent, but nothing earthshattering. Defender Chronicles is probably the tower defense game I have liked the most since finishing Field Runners. I like what they've done with altitude as an important consideration and it's well polished in addition. However, I lost a lot of interest in it once I realized that it's a grinding game — you have a hero who levels up as you play and it means that when you're having trouble with a level you probably just need to go beat the earlier levels again so you'll be stronger. Yuck. I want my tower defense levels to be self-contained puzzles that require me to be clever. Meanwhile, my office-mates at Mind Control all seem to love GeoDefense. I'm not sure why it failed to grab me, but the fact that several of them really love it means it's probably the one to check out if you only check out one of these (esp. since it has a lite version).

I've also been playing some with Zendikar on Magic Online. It seems like a decent draft format. It's quite fast, but I like the return to normalcy that comes from have 1 and 2 color decks, where it matters that you can read and send signals during the draft.

I've also played a ton of games with Kira — my 5-year old daughter. That's probably a subject worthy of a blog on its own, though.  Suffice it to say that she's now old enough to think strategically, which is super fun to watch evolve, and Pokemon is teaching her to do math.


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