Sunday, April 10, 2011

Master's Gallery review

I’ve really enjoyed both Incan Gold and High Society from the Gryphon Games bookshelf series, so I though that I would give Master’s Gallery a shot, which is another game in the series of quick playing games. At first I was intrigued by what I thought was a pretty clever game mechanic and I enjoyed the quick play. However, subsequent games have left me a little bit disillusioned and feeling like the game actually lacks much strategy and that playing it is sort of like running through the motions without having to think very much. I know, it sounds like a real blast.

Master’s Gallery is a card game for two to five players played over four rounds. There is a deck of 95 Masterpiece cards, each of which is a painting from one of five famous artists; Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Vermeer, and Renoir. Players take turns placing a card in front of them on their turn, once a single artist has six cards out on the table (five in a two player game) from all of the players combined the round ends and the players score for that round. The artist with the most cards gets a three placed on their artist card, the second most gets a two, and the third gets a one. The other two artists do not score for this round. So, If I have three Van Goghs out when the round ends and each Van Gogh is worth two points I wind up with six points for them. Very easy. Almost too easy, actually. The scoring tokens earned each round stay with the artists for the entire game. Next round each Van Gogh card is already worth two points, plus whatever it may earn on each round. Because of this game mechanic cards are worth much more in the latter rounds of the game since they have been accumulating tokens from the previous rounds, which seems like it should matter a ton but I’m not sure that it does.

The problem is that every time I have played it the game seems to sort of go the same way. Something like this: Player A plays a Renoir, Player B plays a Vermeer, Player C plays another Renoir. It’s now my turn. I have a couple of Van Goghs in my hand that I would like to play, but it’s not really worth it since they will probably wind up with little value. However, if I play a Renoir it is all but assured of being the high valued artist for that round and I want my cards to be worth the most. So I play a Renoir. On the next turn A and C follow suit with another Renoir, as do I and then the turn ends (if it even makes it back to me) and we all share in the wealth of the high valued Renoir. Why wouldn’t I play a Renoir? So I can put down a single Van Gogh and get one point for it, when a Renoir is going to be worth three? It’s just sort of a system that doesn’t reward anything other than joining with the masses and trying to get in on the big score before the round ends. And it will continue each round because Renoir cards are already worth three points, so keep playing whatever Renoir cards that you have!

There are some cards that have an additional action attached to them when they are played, such as playing another card or putting an extra point token on an artist. These make the game even less interesting in a way because they seem to really determine who wins the game. Using the above example let’s say that on his first turn Player A played a Renoir with a symbol on it that allows him to immediately play another card of the same artist. So he has two Renoirs out now. This is just letting Player A end the turn even quicker and score even more points. I have played multiple rounds where one or two players only get to go once before it ends and wind up with practically no points, whereas some players have four cards down thanks to some special powers that they happened to come by randomly. I guess my complaint is that it’s just not very fun and frustrating, and not even in a good way because it made me think hard about strategy. But frustrating because I think I’m playing the game the same way that my cat would play, and that’s not a knock on my cat or myself.

One thing that I really didn’t like about this game is that the description of the game says that the players are art dealers and gallery owners involved with valuing the Old Masters. I didn’t feel that way at all. I just felt like I was putting cards on a table, the thematic implications of those actions were so removed from the game that I didn’t even think about it. Would it have been too much to give each player a sheet that looks like a gallery wall with empty frames? Maybe then I would have at least have had an idea of who I was and what I was doing, rather than just numbly placing paintings on the table. I mean, the word is gallery is even in the title of the game. In comparison Incan Gold is also a rather simple card game, but it tells a nice story and contains a narrative as you go. I felt none of that in Master’s Gallery.

I can’t really complain about the art in this game considering that it is done by some of the great painters in history. I’m not a real big fan of Impressionism, but I can’t really argue with Monet and Degas. Thematically the art is the focal point of the game, which is actually pretty cool. Honestly though, I find myself barely looking at the actual paintings, my focus rarely going beyond the colored border and the symbol that may be in the corner.

In the end Master’s Gallery falls short of being a good game. There just doesn’t seem to be much reason to play. It does only take about 20 minutes to play a game, so I suspect that it will find it’s way onto our gaming table from time to time just because we can play an entire game quickly. When a game’s best quality is that it ends quickly it probably isn’t all that good to begin with.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

High Society review

Once, deeded lands and blue blood were required to be among society’s elite, but now you can just buy your way into the upper crust! In High Society players compete to see who can squander their newly found riches the fastest by amassing a collection of expensive and ostentatious items. Gems! Yachts! A carriage! Okay, so the carriage isn’t quite as exciting but you do need some way to transport all of your new stuff I suppose. Obtain the most gaudy and frivolous wealth and you win! High Society is a quick playing card game for three to five players. The whole thing takes about 20 minutes to play.

Gameplay is very simple. Every player begins with a bundle of cash in a bunch of different denominations. At the beginning of each turn an item comes up for auction and the players take turns bidding on it, with the high bidder eventually winning the stained glass window or the champion thoroughbred. Each of the ten items is valued at somewhere from one to ten (the carriage is worth one, while the chateau on the lake is the most valuable). At the end the player whose items total the most in value wins. It isn’t quite that simple because there are some catches to how you can bid and score.

The real strategy comes in how you bid and spend your money. Each player has eleven money cards to spend, each of a different value from 2 million to 25 million. Once you bid on an item you can’t pull that particular bill from the table, you can only add to it. For example; if you bid 4 million on a painting and then your opponent bids 8 million, you are not allowed to replace your 4 million with a 10 million. You can add a 6 million to it for a bigger bid but that 4 million stays in place. It matters because you may find that you have used up all your small bills when you want some towards the end of the game. It may make sense to lead with a big bill and try to scare the other nouveau riche away from the bidding altogether.

The other tricky things are the negative cards that come up for auction. I’m not sure what sort of auction house allows a Mansion Fire to go up for bid, but unfortunately it is a reality of your situation. The negative cards totally suck for everyone. You are either going to wind up with something that really crushes your final score or you are going to spend a lot to not have to take it. Essentially players are paying to not have the negative event effect you. I actually think that this might be the best part of the game. And it’s also why you need to hang onto some of those small bills, so you can maybe get out of the negative auction without having to throw down some massive dollar amount. Wouldn’t you rather spend it on a castle?

The final twist comes when the game ends. The player that has the smallest amount of cash left in their hand immediately loses. It’s as if the crocodile from Cleopatra wandered over to 19th century America for a snack. So make sure you keep some cash in the bank or all of your worldly possessions mean nothing. The remaining players then add up their total value and adjust for whatever negative cards they have. Someone wins. I’ve seen players win with a single luxury item, often the big spenders find themselves eliminated in the crocodile round.

In some ways High Society has the same pitfalls as Incan Gold in that the art is sort of crummy. I would be way more impressed with the castle and inclined to spend millions on it if it just looked a little more extravagant. The game is really simple, which is why I think it could use a little boost from the art in the game. Don’t get me wrong, the art is not dreadful. But I do think that a game like this is fun when people get into the feel of the game and actually want the items. Which would be easier to do if they actually looked awesome. I like High Society. The best thing about it is that is quick and really easy, but that’s not a knock on it at all. The world needs game like this because sometimes you only have a half hour and still want to enjoy a game.