Tag Archives: Rio Grande Games

Between Angels and Insects – Myrmes review

Myrmes COVER

Stuart “The Judge” Platt is back once again, this time checking out Myrmes. A Eurogame about the adventures of competing ant colonies, its been divisive to say the least… but which side of the fence will he fall on?

I tend to review games that I feel passionate about – one way or another. I find it easier to convey a strong sense of what makes a game great or dreadful through an overt emotional response. The following review is harder for me to quantify as I have mixed, and somewhat ambiguous feelings. So join me as I explore the good, the bad and the ugly of Myrmes.

There are several good videos and articles on the rules, so I shan’t cover them in detail here. For introductory purposes, however, Myrmes is a worker placement / spatial tile game where players control the fortune of an ant colony as it expands, all the while searching and competing for illusive Victory Points. The theme is novel and relatively unique (though the Fragor Brothers mined similar colonies with Antics) but does feel somewhat pasted over the top of an abstract mixture of mechanisms. Even the very attractive and well-presented board, and presence of small, detailed plastic ants that act as your workers and soldiers aren’t quite enough to make you invest in your troop of insects.

Myrmes PLAY

Players will place their Nurse Ant workers on a personal board to spawn larvae (a resource you’ll need along with dirt, stone and food) and recruit additional worker or soldier ants. The workers then either generate resources themselves from within the colony or venture out on a suicide mission into the big scary world beyond. I say suicide, because the worker is guaranteed to perish at the end of this trip, but has the option to kill ladybugs, spiders and other insects along the way. Upon dying, they drop a ‘pheromone trail’ tile (which I think is a boardgaming first) which will generate MORE resources to be harvested each turn.

Let’s look at the mechanisms in that last paragraph: Worker placement – Resources – Spend Resources – add tiles to board – Resources. This is a simple mechanical description, but a neat distillation of how it feels to play. It doesn’t feel like I’m expanding an ant colony – I’m doing A to B to C to make Victory Points, nothing more. Inherently this isn’t a problem as long as the game is captivating. Bora Bora, to quote a recent example, does this spectacularly well. (Actually, Bora’s more like A or B or C or D or E to make points – see my review for more). So it’s rubbish then? Not entirely.

So what is good? Well, the puzzle is interesting. The fact that (by default) you can only store 4 resources per turn is an interesting bottleneck – particularly when you consider that you are FORCED to harvest resources from each of your tiles every round. Without clever planning to use said goods, you will find yourself discarding the very little wooden cubes you were busting a gut to generate. In addition, a major source of victory points are the ‘missions’ which can be solved over the course of the game. The first person to claim a mission also gains a chunk of points any time another player solves the same mission after you. So earlier is good? Well, yes, but to claim a mission forces you to commit one of your Nurse pawns – a sacrifice that can severely reduce your effectiveness from turn to turn.

So things are pretty tight? Yes, actually. Even more so, when you consider that there are only 9 turns in the whole game – so every action counts.

Now, I can imagine someone reading that and saying “Yes! That sounds great – I love tough decisions” and so do I. Agricola often feels like you are pushing a large boulder uphill, and I like those pressure filled situations; that is one of the better elements of Myrmes.

"And *that* is how you end up with ants."

“And *that* is how you end up with ants.”

Anything else worthy of note? Well, I like the random “Special event” action mechanic. Each year (game round) a die is rolled for each season (turn.) This provides a special bonus on certain tasks – extra larvae when you collect larvae, bonus workers, access to larger pheromone tiles etc. Planning your turns around these variable bonuses requires medium-term planning to get the most efficient use out of your limited actions. Which would be lovely – if only the game were about 40% more fun.

Which is the single reason why I cannot recommend this game – it’s just not enough fun. Throughout the games 2 hour plus length, I couldn’t help but think of several other games of a similar run-time / depth / complexity which I would be rather playing instead.

Well, this has been a fairly wishy-washy review – which seems somewhat appropriate for such a wishy-washy game. It tries. It tries really, really hard and chucks lots of different ideas against the wall. Loads of disconnected mechanisms – all lightly sprinkled with an interesting theme – that ultimately falls well short of the sum of its own parts. I wanted to enjoy Myrmes. I was charmed by the idea of the theme and developing my own little colony – but it doesn’t hold together. In summation, the game is far too abstract, mechanical and uninvolving to capture my imagination, and there’s not enough here otherwise to allow me to overlook these failings.

I’ll be looking at Myrmes myself next week, but in the meantime if you’d still like to check out the game for yourself you can grab one from Gameslore for £34.99. The game was designed by Yoann Levet and is published by Ystari and Rio Grande Games. 

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Up In The Sky – Airlines Europe review

I get a lot of people contacting me looking for answers to questions they have about games. This is quite a scary thing, simply because I never looked to set myself up as some all-knowing authority on games – I’m just someone who loves to play and talk about them. However, the questions come in, and I do my best to respond. One that comes up pretty frequently is this old classic (or something like it):

“I’ve just got back into board games but don’t really know what to get – do you have any suggestions?”

Our thoughts immediately go to the Holy Trinity: Carcassonne, Catan and Ticket to Ride. Great games, easy to pick up, that show off our hobby well. There are others that could be given the title of gateway games, but it’s always those three that come out in a single breath. Now though? Now it’s time to add a fourth to the list. Perhaps the planets have aligned, maybe the gods deemed it time, but I reckon Alan R. Moon has succeeded in creating the Fourth Gateway, and it’s called Airlines: Europe.

It was a long time in the making, it has to be said. This was originally a more complex (and dare I say it, less fun) stocks and shares game simply called Airlines. Released in 1990, it was well received but it seems the designer wasn’t happy – much tinkering was performed and a new version of the game themed around railroads came out in 1999, the well respected Union Pacific. Evidently Mr Moon still had some issues with the game and continued to refine and streamline, eventually coming up with what will hopefully be the final iteration: Abacusspiele‘s latest release, Airlines Europe. Taking elements from both of the earlier titles, I honestly think he’s come up with a winner.

Players are investors throwing money into the airline industry, purchasing licenses to fly between cities. By picking up these routes across Europe, the value of the companies in the game increases. Shares in these companies are procured throughout the game and when one of the three scoring cards appear, points are doled out. After the third scoring round, the winner – as is so often the way – is whoever has the most points. While this may appear to be a rather simple game, like all the best, it hides deep strategies and the possibility of being really mean to your opposition.

You’ve got four options per turn as you bid to become the lord (or lady) of the skies. First, you can spend some of your money to invest in a company or two. Each route is marked with a bunch of numbers – these signify how much it will cost you to put a plane there and how many points up the investment track that company will move. If you choose to do this, you can only go for the smallest number on a route AND it must be linked back to the company’s home city (shown by a little plastic dome of the same colour). You are limited though – even if you have the cash, you are allowed only a maximum of two new routes per turn. When you’re done you get to take a share card from the five available face-up (which is called the Market) and put that in your hand. Option two is all about getting those share cards to the table – only ones that are in front of you count for scoring, remember! You may place two cards of differing colours (or as many as you like of the same) down, each card netting you 2M Euros (yes, it’s set in the middle-ish 20th Century, but the game uses Euros, deal with it). If you can get a decent set of one colour down, you can make yourself a nice pile of cash! Very useful indeed in a game where large sums of money are hard to come by.

Some of the shares available in the game - with a few nods to the games industry.

Third choice involves a separate company – Air Abacus. This is a company that is not represented only by shares and can net you an awful lot of points if you manage to get your hands on some. Trading in any share at all from either your hand or the piles in front of you will net you a single Air Abacus card, while any three will get you two. While they have no representation on the board, they are valuable things to own and should not be underestimated. Abacus shares need to be played to the table in the same way as normal shares and also get you the same 2M Euros per card played. Last of all, if you’re in need of money, you can top up your funds by taking 8 Euros from the bank. This will invariably happen a lot more than you’d expect – cash is hard to come by in Airlines Europe!

Each company is designated a colour and represented by a handful of share cards and a bunch of dinky planes. Some are plentiful (Air Amigos has sixteen of each) while others get scarce quickly (White Wings, for example, has only seven) so players must balance collecting the share cards while boosting the value of the companies by purchasing routes. One thing to remember is that the you actually don’t own the planes you place at all – this game is all about making the companies you’re investing in as lucrative as possible… Every time a company has a route purchased for it, their marker moves along the investment track showing how many points an investment is potentially worth. This track is split into sections, each one labelled with points values, as you can see below.

Whoever has the most shares in Rio Grande (Blue) gets 10 points when scoring rolls round. Next highest gets 5, then 3, 2 and 1. Even a small amount of shares can get some good points!

So why is Airlines Europe so good? Why do I think it could be the next Great Gateway Game? Simply because it hits so many bases. Primarily, despite the fact it looks initially daunting, it’s incredibly easy to get to grips with. With over a hundred little planes in a variety of colours, it may appear cute, but spread them across a board with stacks of share cards piled up everywhere and things potentially take a turn for the terrifying. Take a step back. Breathe. Remember, there’s only four things you can do, so choose one and do it.

Those early games will generally take the same pattern, all players racing to get planes down all over the board, focusing only on what shares they have and attempting to bump up the value. But then you start looking around the table – and this is where the second great thing about the game comes in. With more plays comes more understanding, and with more understanding comes more opportunities to cut down your opponents. You’ll be sneaking in, paying that little bit extra to cut off a route that will trap a company’s planes that someone on the other side of the table was really pushing. You’ll realise when you should dump a pile of stock that you thought would be lucrative but may well be better off exchanged for Abacus shares. You’ll react to the strategies of others, concentrating on a small range of shares as they play the odds getting one or two of everything (or vice versa). This is a game that encourages multiple plays, that will reward observation. In the same way that great Carcassonne players realise that it’s not a game about building towns and roads, but actually about trapping your opponents early, Airlines Europe will see the devious, the cutthroat, the downright nasty players who are willing to risk everything come out (more often than not) as victors.

Nearly finished, but that board still has plenty of space...

Slightly less important, but still something to consider, is the production quality. Abacusspiele have made a lovely looking game which put me in mind of something Days of Wonder may have produced. There’s something incredibly satisfying seeing the board covered in a rainbow of planes at the end of a game – Airlines Europe is a beauty, pretty enough to pull in the attention of the uninitiated. Never underestimate a good looking game! There’s also the fact it can be played in less than an hour, hitting that magical mark of being substantial but not overstaying its welcome.

It’s still early days to say whether Airlines Europe will truly make the leap that other gateways have managed to do, but I believe that it’s good enough to do so. That path of learning I mentioned, starting with simple games that race to a finish developing into deeper, more strategic affairs… it reminds me so much of games like Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride, games that would (and do) appeal to a wide audience, if only we can get that audience to see them. I strongly encourage you to check out Airlines Europe – after all, Alan R. Moon’s spent over twenty years getting it perfect! It would be impolite to not try it out at least once…

Airlines Europe was published in 2011 by Abacusspiele (and is being handled by Rio Grande Games in the States) and was – of course – designed by Alan R. Moon. Between two and five can play (two requires slightly modified rules), though I think it works best with four. It’ll cost you around £30 in the UK, and around $35-40 in the US. Seriously, try it out. You shan’t regret it.

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Electric Avenue – Power Grid review

One of the reasons a lot of people shy away from playing certain games is theme. It’s often pretty easy to convince people to get involved in a game where a bunch of you are questing to defeat a monstrous demon or play as astronauts colonising a distant planet, but look a little further away from these standards and you’d be surprised at what some games are based on. I recently played and reviewed 1960: The Making of The President and loved it, even though I never thought that I’d be into such a theme. The survival of the fittest may not be the first thing you think of when picking something off the shelf, but GMT’s Dominant Species is incredible. With a decent enough mechanic, you could probably make a game based on anything – even setting up a national energy grid. Or you could, if it hadn’t already been done – Power Grid has already beaten you to it.

Designed by the prolific Friedemann Friese, the game does indeed see you and your opponents attempting to build up a network of cities while collecting and upgrading power plants. You also need to make sure you have enough resources to fire these plants at the end of each turn (which earns you more money), and the game ends when a set amount of cities have been connected by one of the players. They may not necessarily end up being the winner, however – the glory goes to whoever is able to power the most cities on that final turn… but how do you get there?

Despite looking quite daunting initially, the game is pretty simple once you break it down into the different parts. Each round has five actions that each player gets involved in. They’re not all mandatory, but miss out on too much and you’ll find yourself lagging behind pretty quickly. The round starts by determining the player order, followed by bidding on one of four available plants (and keeping an eye of the futures market – a row of plants that are potentially for sale soon). These produce their electricity by using resources which happen to be picked up in the next round – coal and oil begin the game as the cheapest, but there are also plants that burn garbage or use uranium. Next up, you need to develop your network of cities, then finally spend your previously purchased resources to generate the electricity to power as many as possible. This generates you the necessary income to do the whole thing all over again, eventually building up as large a network as possible.

The early stages of the game are always tentative, not only down to you having a lack of funding but also that only one player is allowed to be in each city. Things get a little more confrontational as soon as the first network of seven cities is created – Step 2 of the game kicks in, allowing shared ownership of cities. The second player to set up in a city has to pay a little extra, but if you want to expand enough to win the game you have to become the embodiment of “speculate to accumulate”. You’ll get nowhere in Power Grid without spending money, and as the game progresses you’ll find yourself needing to pay out more and more to improve your power plants. Cheaper ones may well only generate enough electricity for one or two cities, meaning that after a few turns they’ll become somewhat redundant – remember that the more cities you supply, the more money you’ll get at the end of each round, meaning a greater chance for investing in more efficient power stations. Believe me, you’ll need them.

As well as thinking about your ever expanding network and keeping on top of the power plant situation, you need to consider what you’re going to use to keep them going – the previously mentioned resources. At the end of each round the resources are replenished to a limited degree, hopefully meaning they’ll become more affordable. The market constantly fluctuates depending on what is in demand – for example, if no-one is buying garbage the price slowly drops, while if coal or oil are in high demand they’ll be hard to get limited and expensive to boot! It’s an ingenious method that really demonstrates how supply and demand works, forcing players to adapt their plans dependent on what others are doing and what they can afford. If you can pay for it, you can also buy up extra resources and store them on your power plants, meaning that your opponents have to lay out more to even be able to fire up their generators. A mean strategy, but all’s fair in business!

So very pretty.

Power Grid is a game of multitasking. You need to keep on top of many things, but after getting a couple of rounds under your belt you’ll find that it’s not as difficult a task as you may have originally thought. Being able to see the plants that are available in future allows you to come up with potential strategies, but you need to make sure that you don’t rely on them actually showing up – more often than not, they won’t, especially if they’re of a high value and they appear early! With a little concentration, you’ll find it easy enough to balance your purchases and expansion plans without running out of cash. Runaway leaders will often find that they get caught within a few rounds, and as the winner is decided by who can power the most cities on the final round, it’s always in your interest to fight for every last uranium rod.

Having been around for a little while, Power Grid has a pile of expansions available in the form of extra boards (generally double-sided, like the USA/Germany map included in the original game) or new sets of power station cards. There’s also a few promotional items available, of which I’m lucky enough to have a couple including the Flux Capacitor and Generator cards – if you fancy getting your hands on these, you’ll have to chance your arm on eBay or Board Game Geek! This is a wonderful game and a great step up from your Euro gateways – there’s a little more thought required in comparison to releases such as Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, and despite the slightly curious theme I’d really recommend you give it a whirl. One of the best mid-level Euro games out there and, in my opinion, Friedemann Friese’s greatest design.

Power Grid was first released in 2004 and is – of course – still available today. Designed by Friedemann Friese with artwork by Maura Kalusky, it originally came out through the 2-F imprint, but is now produced by many companies worldwide (though mine is from Rio Grande Games). Between two and six players can get involved, though I find it’s best with four – however, it scales incredibly well, limiting areas of the board dependent on how many are playing. Available from your local game store and online (Amazon often have it for less that £20, a total bargain!), you need a copy of this in your collection.

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Cards for sorrow, cards for pain – Dominion review

For the balance of deep strategy against sheer portability, there’s little better than getting into a trading card game. You may choose to throw your lot in with the daddy of them all – Magic The Gathering, while not the first, is certainly the most popular. A worldwide phenomena, it has been running since 1993; however, even it’s most ardent fans will admit that it has issues. Perhaps you could choose something newer – I personally favour the World of Warcraft TCG, a tight game that draws inspiration from the MMORPG of the same name. Recently relaunched after shenanigans at original developers Upper Deck, it has now been taken (unofficially) in-house to Cryptozoic, a part of the Blizzard empire. Whatever you choose, though, you’re going to have one problem – updates.

Card sets for all notable TCGs appear with regular abandon, usually on a three- to six-month rotation. Certain older cards are phased out, replaced by newer versions or even scrapped entirely from tournament play. What could well be an all powerful deck that has taken you ages to build (and cost you a small fortune in trying to accumulate rarer cards) can be worth little more than the paper it’s printed on by the time a few updates have rolled around. The only solution is to spend more, update your deck and wait until the next set comes out, where the whole process happens again. Alternatively, you could invest in a dead TCG like the brilliant but expensive Netrunner, but finding decent opponents may prove difficult. For sheer numbers, you need to be playing something current, and you need a good deck or you will be destroyed.

But what about those of us who can’t afford a whole stack of glimmering rares? Where can we go for our regular card-gaming fix? Well, a few companies have realised the value of a decent card game, releasing new offerings that are entirely self-contained (or supposed to be, anyway). Some games have come out that require you to buy multiple copies in order to build decks you may want, thus defeating the purpose of getting it in the first place. If you’re looking for recommendations for a game that you only need to buy once, there is one word that you will hear again and again: Dominion.

Now, I can already hear the moaners. “Dominion has expansions,” they cry. ” There’s Intrigue and Seaside and Alchemy and promo sets and there’s that new Prosperity one coming out before the end of the year!” – and this is true. But you don’t need them. For the outlay of the original set, you’ve got a game that will serve you well for ages – no need to get the other boxes at all. You can, of course, choose to splurge on the extra versions, but there is absolutely no need whatsoever. Everything you require is in the box. Everything and more besides.

What you get are cards… lots of them. There are several different types. Treasure is split into Copper, Silver and Gold – you’ll need these to purchase others cards, or indeed more treasure. Twenty-five sets of Kingdom cards are included, of which ten are used in each game – already, you’ll see that there is a huge amount of variety in Dominion. In fact, there are thousands of possible combinations of Kingdom cards – more than enough to last a lifetime, in fact (see now why you don’t need the expansions?). These allow you to take actions, all of which are detailed on the cards, perhaps allowing you to buy extra things, grant you bonus money or even attack an opponent. Finally, you have the different Victory and Curse cards – these are the important ones, because they’re worth various amounts of Victory Points (or can deplete your score) at the end of the game. Quite simply, whoever has the most points at the end is declared the winner.

Every player starts with 10 cards – 7 copper which you use to buy things and 3 Estates, worth one point each. Shuffle your deck, draw five cards and away you go. Turn order is easy to remember: just follow the ABCD rule. A stands for Action – play one action card, do what it says, and keep going until you can do no more. B is Buy, where you use money to buy whatever you please from the available piles of cards. C means Clean Up, where every single card you have touched in your turn is placed face up on your discard pile. Finally, D is for Draw, where you take 5 new cards. If there aren’t enough in your stack, shuffle your discards and start a new draw pile. Basically, that’s it – build up your money by using actions, buying new things, upgrading treasure and Victory points cards. The game ends when either three supply piles (any of them, not just Kingdom cards) are exhausted, or all the Province cards (the ones worth six points) have been bought. As soon as that happens, the game is over and players tally up all their Victory points to discover who is on top.

Reading that back, Dominion sounds dull as ditchwater. Thankfully, when you’ve got the cards in your hand the game is way more compelling. There’s little downtime, and any spare moments are spent working out how on earth you can build up your own deck while scuppering your opponents’ progress. While it isn’t exactly the same as a regular TCG, it shares so many different traits with the genre it would be churlish not to include it with the likes of Magic – it just handles it in a slightly different way and actually makes deck building an aspect of the game. The selection of Kingdom cards at the start of the game can be selected at random and every different set-up will change the way the game plays. There are plenty of sites out there that suggest combinations, but the best I’ve found is Zack Hiwiller’s fantastic randomizer – set the parameters of the game you want and it’ll choose a set of ten for you.

Dominion is, undoubtedly, one of my favourite games around at the moment. I have to admit that I was late to the party having only got my copy of the base game a couple of months ago, but man – I have fallen for it fast. The simplicity and purity of the design, the various levels of strategy and approaches you can take  to win, the insane replayability… it all adds up to a brilliant game. If you’ve not played it, I heartily recommend giving it a go – you won’t be disappointed.

Dominion was designed by Donald X. Vaccarino, is published by Rio Grande Games (among others) and was a worthy winner of the 2009 Spiel des Jahres – along with many other awards worldwide. Between two and four people can play – it works well with however many – and it’s available here in the UK for around £30. Seriously, go play it. It’s aces.

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