Monday, March 28, 2011

Castle Panic's Master Slayer, or Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

I had always sort of disregarded the Master Slayer aspect of Castle Panic, thinking of it as something of a novelty in an otherwise straightforward cooperative game. I now see that it’s actually the entire point of the game. Defending the castle becomes secondary because everyone suddenly has no interest in helping each other, only in collecting orc and troll skulls. I’ve mentioned before that I find the game fun, but exceedingly easy. This seems to solve that issue since you are once again pitted against other people, rather than some sort of easily defeated game mechanic.

Playing with the Master Slayer (which is actually the way that the game should be played, the more cooperative game is an alternative to it) gives points to the players for killing monsters. Tougher monsters are worth more points. Makes sense. But the game is really structured so that players trade cards and help one another out by planning together. The cards are even played face up on the table, the game presents the illusion that we are all actually working together to save this castle. Which now seems sort of ridiculous since everyone is in constant competition, hell bent on killing the Troll Mage. The thing that makes it odd is that the game is very short sighted. If you offer me a card for a Blue Archer I know exactly what you are going to do with it. You are going to shoot the goblin in the blue zone. I don’t want to help you kill that goblin. I suppose if you offered me a Green Knight that I needed it would be, at best, a zero sum exchange as we both get something that we need. And what’s really the point of that? In a game like Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza trading is a big part of the game, but you don’t necessarily know the extent that you are helping your opponent and can always tell yourself that you are getting the better end of the trade. In Castle Panic the entire board and all of the player’s cards are on display.

The real catch comes with what is now the possible game endings; either one of the players wins or nobody does. That’s interesting. The game ceases to be cooperative. Sure, you could look at it as somewhat of a victory if you successfully defend the castle but one of your partners is the Master Slayer, but who feels that way? Who wants to sort of win, when someone else wins a little bit better? The last time that we played I fell behind pretty early on in the game. The cards I had just weren’t matching up to anything good, and the other players were racking up the kills. At that point it was really in my best interest to let the castle be destroyed so that we would all lose. It wasn’t coming from a point of bitterness, but why would I help someone beat me? Three of us played this afternoon and within a couple of turns the castle was in shambles, orcs and trolls having caused numerous breaches in our walls. No one was looking to trade anyone a brick so that they could be a new wall for it, we were too busy reloading our crossbows. It certainly becomes much more difficult to actually win.

Well, the Master Slayer has addressed what I found to be the biggest fault with Castle Panic. That is, that the game is too easy. I guess I was wrong in writing the game off so quickly and probably should have played the game the way that the designers had really intended it to be played.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Grand Dames of Smallworld review

If there is one thing that Smallworld doesn’t need it’s probably more Races and Special Powers. A better tray to organize them perhaps, but the Races and Powers have everything pretty well covered. Of course that did not stop me from indulging in the Grand Dames of Smallworld expansion, which focuses on several new all female races to make the game that much more expanded. Or something like that. It has three new Races and two new Special Powers, all of which fit well into the game. One thing that I do like about it is that none of the Races or Powers are particularly overpowering, which is frequently a pitfall of many expansions. This one is pretty good though. I also think it's fitting that two of the Races have powers centered around going into decline, since they are all female that is probably going to happen pretty quick with no one to reproduce with. So what do we have here?

The three races are the ghostly White Ladies, the pious and somewhat insulated Priestesses, and the wandering Gypsies. All of them are user generated contributions, apparently Days of Wonder had some sort of contest and got people to send ideas in to them and then made the best of them. They did a good job. The White Ladies are kind of tough to play, but can pay off in the right circumstances. Since they are ghosts they pretty much stick around forever, haunting your opponents with their ability to just sort of hang around. Their special power is that once they go into decline they become immune to conquests and powers, making them pretty much invincible. The winning combo here is Stout White Ladies to start the game. The big issue is that you only get two of them (plus the number from the power) and if they are not available early in the game they are not all that useful. But, if you can spread them out over a couple regions and then go into decline they can really pay off over the course of the game. Think about it, say you are able to conquer three or four regions over the first two turns and then go into decline. For the next six turns they will be paying out three or four coins a turn until the game ends. Not only will they pay better than any other declining race, you also don’t have to worry about defending them. But if they don’t come out early they are not all that useful.

Like the White Ladies, the Priestesses have a power that is triggered when they go into decline. When they throw in the towel all the holy women gather together into a single “ivory tower” in an occupied region. Each turn they score points equal to the number that are holed up inside this temple of learning. So they are essentially digging in and relying on each other for defense. The issue that I have with them is that they are just begging to be attacked. I can’t imagine that a single region that is generating six or seven gold a round is going to last for all that long. Smallworld is sort of all about being mean to one another. This tower has a huge target painted on the side of it. Unlike the White Ladies, it has no additional defense so the Dragon could wipe it out with one move. Ha ha, that sort of cracks me up. And the thing that I don’t understand is what happens to all of them? There is probably a rule somewhere that explains it, but I assume that they are all killed rather than the typical one in a conquered region. I mean, there is nowhere for them to go? I also don’t like the look on their face.

The Gypsies are my favorite of the Grand Dames. For one, sexy ladies in half shirts that are flipping knives in their hand are just sort of cool by nature. I think that we can all agree on that. And their power is original, productive, and really sticks to the stereotypical view of the vagrant gypsies. I am sure that there are many Roma out there who may take issue with them, but I think they are awesome. Every time a gypsy abandons a region they are given a coin for doing so, you just can’t reconquer it this turn. This is good on a bunch of levels. You can actually flee from superior forces, don’t need to worry about defense all that much, and can free up more forces for conquering. Winning! When they are combined with Flying they make one of the most formidable races in the game since they can abandon their area and just go to the most vulnerable spot around. They don’t work as well with powers that generate more coins for specific land types (Forest, Swamp, Hill) since by nature they will want to abandon them, but most powers work real well with them.

The new special powers are not as interesting as the races. Historian gives bonus coins for races that are in decline, going into decline, or when they go into decline. It is very circumstantial to be of any actual use. At most it will generate, what, five coins in a game? That doesn’t really seem to be worth it. Peace Loving goes against everything that Smallworld is about. If you go a turn without attacking an opponent you get three coins. Aside from not being fun at all, I just don’t know when this would work. How are you supposed to do anything without attacking the other rotten races that are trying to inhabit the world that is rightfully yours? No sense. Are you just supposed to sit there and occupy the same spaces all game? Apparently Days of Wonder were going to name this power Boring, but decided against it.

I think that the Grand Dames are a very worthy expansion to Smallworld, however it’s not all that necessary to making it a better game. There are so many possible Race/Power combinations that one could play for a long time before seeing them all. It is very cheap though (I think that mine was ten bucks) so I certainly couldn’t argue with someone who wanted to spice up their game of Smallworld.