Tag Archives: Agricola

Boardgames in the News: The Great Escape?

Over the last decade, Asmodee has swallowed most of the big names in modern family board games, including the likes of Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures, 7 Wonders, Dominion, Agricola, and Pandemic amongst others.  This has been through the relentless acquisition of the companies that produce these titles, in particular, Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-man Games, Mayfair, Lookout Spiele, and Repos Production.  This monopolising of the market cannot be a good thing for gamers, indeed the effects are already being felt with the introduction of Minimum Advertised Pricing (MAP) and now the loss of customer servicing for all Asmodee products.

HeidelBÄR Games Logo
– Image from twitter.com

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope, however.  Three years ago, the German publisher and distributor Heidelberger Spieleverlag was acquired by Asmodee, with the publishing part splitting off to form the Asmodee Studio, HeidelBÄR Games.  Last year, however, ownership and with it the nucleus of the HeidelBÄR team, was transferred back to the previous manager, Heiko Eller-Bilz.  The resulting enterprise is much smaller than it was, but the most important asset, the people, are in a position to develop new titles.

Plaid Hat Games Logo
– Image from plaidhatgames.com

More recently, Plaid Hat Games have made a similar, slightly slower, journey.  Around five years ago, Plaid Hat Games was bought out by Canadian company F2Z Entertainment, then the parent company of Z-Man Games, Filosofia Éditions and Pretzel Games (now known as Asmodée Canada).  However, earlier this year it was announced that Plaid Hat Games had been reacquired by Colby Dauch, the original founder, albeit without the rights to some of their biggest products, including Dead of Winter, Aftermath, and Mice and Mystics, which remain with the Asmodee Group.  Plaid Hat Games retained the rights to Summoner Wars though, and are currently developing a new product, Forgotten Waters, which will be the first game released by Plaid Hat after their Great Escape.

Forgotten Waters
– Image from plaidhatgames.com

Boardgames in the News: Who are PAI Partners and what do they want with Asmodee?

A couple of months ago, Reuters reported that according to un-named sources, investment bankers had been hired to run the sale of Asmodee.  The claim was that the sale “could value the company at over €1.5 billion”, but there was no credible information as to who the potential buyers were.  This mystery has now been solved with the announcement that PAI Partners have entered into exclusive discussions to acquire Asmodee, a company with an enterprise value of €1.2 billion.  So, who are PAI Partners and what do they want with Asmodee?  Well, PAI is a European private equity company, that grew out of the merger between the French banks, BNP and Paribas in 1993, with a management buyout completed in 2001.  They have invested in a wide range of companies covering everything from yoghurt (Yoplait) to tyres (Kwik Fit) to cargo handling (Swissport).  Obviously PAI are interested in making money from Asmodee, but at this time there is no evidence to suggest that would by by asset stripping.  Price increases would be almost inevitable however, as the Studios would be under pressure to provide a good return on the investment.

PAI Partners
– Image from paipartners.com

15th May 2018

As Blue and Burgundy finished their dinner, everyone else arrived and we began the “Who wants to Play What” debate, and particularly, the “Who wants to play the “Feature Game” tonight” discussion.  The “Feature Game” was to be Caverna: The Cave Farmers, a game that is so similar to Agricola, that it is often referred to as “Agricola 2.0”.  In Agricola, the idea of the game is that players start with two farmers, a large field and a wooden hut and try to build a farm, by planting wheat and vegetables, buying and breeding animals, extending and upgrading their hut, and expanding their family.  It is a worker placement game which takes place over a set number of rounds and in each one, each family member takes one action.  The actions that are available are very limited at first, but more are added as the game progresses.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor MisterC

There are three main differences between the Caverna and Agricola, and the first (and most obvious) is the theme.  Instead for medieval farmers, players are dwarves living in the mountains, building a dwarfish community with dogs and donkeys.  This means players are developing their cave system (rather than their hut) and cultivating forest land rather than pasture.  The game play is very similar though with players taking it in turns to place one of the dwarves from their community on one of the action spaces and then carrying out that action.  Again during the game, the number of actions available increases.  Many of the actions are different though as players cultivate the forest in front of their cave and dig into the mountain, furnishing caves for their clan as well as mining for ore or ruby.  This leads to another obvious differences:  Expeditions.  In order to go on expeditions dwarves need ore to forge weapons, and the better armed the dwarf, the more exciting the adventures they can go on and the better the rewards.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

These features are largely cosmetic though, and the real differences are in the game play.  In the advanced game of Agricola, each player is dealt a hand of fourteen cards at the start, which are used to add variety and interest to the game.  There are hundreds of possible cards available and players can either choose from their starting hand, or to make the game fairer, they can be drafted.  The problem with this is that for players who are unfamiliar with the game, choosing which cards might be useful or will work together is a very painful process.  In Caverna, the depth is introduced by the addition of forty-eight different buildings tiles which laid out so players can see what the options are throughout the game.  Critically, there is one set of tiles and they are all used in the advanced game.  This means Caverna doesn’t have the infinite variety of Agricola, but the buildings deliver a more balanced game with a lot of options that are available every time.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

The games also feel very different:  with Agricola the game is always a struggle, with players fighting to balance feeding the family and developing the farm.  At the end of the game, a large proportion of players scores come from fulfilling a checklist of animals and vegetables.  This means that there are one or two main strategies and successful players are generally those who are most efficient in these. In Caverna, there is more variety in the strategies available, but without the feeding mechanism and associated peril of starvation, there is a lot less stress in the game.  All in all, it is generally a lot easier to build a productive engine and more difficult to make a total mess of it in Caverna, while still providing a lot of the same sort of challenges.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Both Agricola and Caverna take up a lot of table space and a while to set up. As Ivory had never played it before, and even Burgundy, Magenta and Green had not played it in nearly four years, we decided to play the introductory game.  It turned out that this was just as well, as it still took the best part of three hours to play.  By random selection Burgundy got to go first and effectively choose his own strategy, while Green went last and was more or less forced to let his strategy be dictated by what was left over.  The first few turns were the inevitable resource grab—anything and everything that players could get hold of.  Being a cave based game, stone and ore were particularly popular to such an extent that Green found he was struggling to get any by the time his turn came round, which pushed him towards a more Agricola-style farming strategy.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Although Magenta had played Caverna once before she had little recollection of it as it had been at 3am one Christmas Holiday.  As a result, the game was all a bit of a mystery at the start.  Nevertheless, she got into sheep farming early, but did not neglect her mountain either, regularly chipping away giving her ample opportunities for rooms and mines.  She was struggling outside though:  she managed to get some more animals, but couldn’t get the pastures to keep them in, and without crops she was constantly struggling for food.  She was able to build an oven, but this meant that as fast as her flock grew she had to slaughter them to keep her hungry dwarves fed.  With her lack of outdoor enclosures though, this might actually have been a help.  In the end, it was her mining and interiors that helped give her the best scores and she did eventually manage to cover her whole player board by the end of the game to avoid negative points.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Ivory and Green were the first to grow their families and, fed up with being last in the turn order, Green used his larger family to good effect and nabbed the start player marker. So the very next turn he was able to grab a wheat and veg while planting a field and pasture at the same time.  Then, with his second dwarf he immediately planted another field and pasture to plant that self same wheat and veg, and thus started his crops growing. He then supplemented this with an improvement tile which enabled him to convert a wheat and a veg into five food which meant he was never short of food to feed his family and was free to expand whenever he was able to mine the mountain and build extra rooms. With crops aplenty, he then set about acquiring animals and fencing in fields, leaving his mining for the last few turns in a frantic dash to increase his final score.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

Burgundy and Ivory, both decided to bet heavily on arming their dwarves and sending them on expeditions to bring back lots of exciting goodies. Several times, Ivory exchanged a precious ruby to play his fighting dwarf out of turn and grab the four-goods expedition before Burgundy could. This strategy served them both well, especially as they were able to keep mining in order to locate more and more ore to help weaponise more dwarves.   Burgundy held on to his gems and managed to build a special room to help them score him more points. He also managed to also cover his whole area and “discovered” two ruby mines.  Ivory neglected his farming and failed to plant anything till right at the end of the game.  Ultimately, that counted against him as he was left him with empty spaces that lost him six points.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

The last two harvests were both interrupted by the special tiles which caused everyone a few problems and in the end it was really quite close. It was Burgundy who took the glory though, a handful of points ahead of Green who was a single point ahead of Ivory.  It was a good game though and everyone enjoyed it—Burgundy professed to prefer it over Agricola too, a game where he reckons he always struggles to do well in.  Meanwhile, the next table started with a big debate about what to play.  Several games were considered, but Black made the mistake of mentioning Keyflower, which is one of Blue’s favourites and thereafter, there was only one game she wanted to play.  Other games were suggested, but for the most part, there was a good reason why these were not ideal, and, in the end, Black pointed out Blue’s interest in Keyflower, and everyone else agreed to play it.

Keyflower
– Image by boardGOATS

Everyone had played the game before, but it was a while ago and Pine had little recollection, so a rules run-through was necessary first.  The rules of the game are not terribly difficult to understand, but combine to make a complex game.  Played over four rounds (or Seasons), players bid on hexagonal tiles which are added to the winners’ village at the end of the round.  Bidding is carried out with coloured meeples (or Keyples as they are known in this game), and counter-bids must follow colour, usually red, blue or yellow.  Most tiles are action spaces, so as well as currency for bidding, Keyples can also be used to activate spaces.  Any space can be activated at any time by any player when they place one of their Keyples on a tile, any tile, one in their own village, one in someone else’s, one still being auctioned.  At the end of the round, Keyples used in winning bids are lost, while those involved in losing bids return to their owners and any used to activate tiles are adopted by the tile owners.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of
BGG contributor punkin312

Essentially, that is really all there is to the game, but there are lots of consequences of this simple mechanism and a lot of complexity underlies what players can do with the actions on the tiles.  In Spring, most of the tiles available provide resources of some description, in Summer there are more advanced resource and related tiles, while in Autumn the first of the scoring tiles arrive.  The majority of the scoring comes from the Winter tiles though, and these are selected by the players, who are dealt a small number at the start of the game and choose which to introduce at the start of the final round.  This is particularly clever as it provides players with possible strategies if they choose to follow them.  Invariably, though, the best laid plans go completely awry and players are left choosing which of their tiles will be the least useful to their opponents and hope that others will be forced to play something more helpful.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Once we’d run through the rules, we laid out the Spring tiles and began.  Keyflower plays two to six players and unusually, it plays well acrioss the whole range, but is different at each number due to the fact that different numbers of tiles are used during the game.  With two players nearly half the possible tiles are removed from play, so the game becomes very tactical rewarding players who can keep their options open and change their plans like a politician changes policy, when they find the tiles they need are not available.  With six players, all the tiles are available, however, with so many opponents lots of competition is guaranteed.  Black pointed out that Keyflower is particurly good with four though as almost all tiles are in play, and there is lots of competition as well.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

There are other consequences of changes in player number.  For example, at the start of each Season, ships arrive delivering Keyples and Skill tiles; players bid to have first choice of these.  The number of arrivals is dependent on the number of players, however, no matter how many arrive it is never enough, worse, as the game year progresses the number of Keyples arriving steadily decreases.  This is because players are spending less on buying tiles and instead are reusing workers that have been activating tiles.  Regardless, having a means to get extra Keyples is invaluable and it was with this in mind that Black began bidding for the Ale House.  This tile generates another Keyple, each time it is activated, two once it has been upgraded.  Largely on the principle that if someone else wants something, they should not be allowed to have it, Blue started a bidding war.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Unfortunately for her, Blue won, but at a cost.  This was very much counter to her usual strategy, as she usually avoids overpaying at all costs, often leaving her with the fewest tiles at the end of Spring, sometimes none at all.  Pine on the other hand, fancied the Pedlar, a tile that turned yellow Keyples into green ones, and green ones are Special.  Green Keyples behave in exactly the same way as red, yellow and blue Keyples, except there are none in the game at the start so their extreme scarcity means they are very powerful, especially when bidding. Pine also went for gold and Purple took the Keywood, which gave her substantial wood producing capability and the Workshop which allowed her to produce any resources she wanted.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Summer and Autumn proceeded in a similar fashion, except that everyone started out much more careful with their Keyples, which meant everyone ended Summer with lots of stuff they didn’t want.  Black finally got his Keyple generating tile when he took the Brewer, however, that needed Skill Tiles and he didn’t have a source of them.  Blue was worse off finishing Summer with a random assortment of boat tiles she didn’t really need.  Pine and Purple did slightly better, taking tiles that convert Skills into resources and transport/upgrade tiles and adding to their gold producing ability.  Autumn saw the advent of round two of the bidding war when Blue started bidding for the Sculptor and Sawmill and Black decided to join in.  It ended with honours even, but there was more to follow.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

In the final round, some of the strategies became clearer, when the Jeweler, Craftsman’s Guild and the Windmill appeared.  Everyone was hustling for the tiles they wanted, trying to maximise their points for the end of the game.  It was then that Black finally finished the bidding war, taking the Sea Breese boat tile, which gave him only one point, but cost Blue nearly twenty points.  Pine who had struggled throughout the game suddenly found he had lots of points, sixty in total, just two behind Black who finished in first place, thanks largely to the vast number of Keyples he finished with.  On the next table, Caverna still had some way to go and there was still time for one more game, so Pine dipped into Burgundy’s back and brought out Splendor—at least with Burgundy occupied elsewhere, everyone else had a chance of winning for a change…

Splendor
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

We’ve played Splendor a lot within the group, an awful lot, and have just begun exploring the Cities of Splendor expansion, but after the last game, everyone wanted something they were very familiar with, so we stuck to the base game.  And it is a simple game of chip collecting and engine-building with a very loose gemstone theme. Basically, on their turn, players can take gemstone poker chips, or use chips to buy a card. Some cards have points on them and all can be used like the poker chips to buy cards (but without having to return them). The cards also give players access to “Noble tiles” which also give points. The winner is the player with the most points after someone reaches fifteen points.

Splendor
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

The game play was very unusual this time, because the black Opals came out very late, and on the odd occasion that they did appear Blue pounced on them and immediately reserved them.  This had two effects as it both prevented anyone else from getting them and also ensured that she had a plan each time she had to pick up gemstone poker chips.  The problem was made worse by the fact that three of the Nobles required Opals.  With the strangle-hold she had on the game, it was not surprising that she was the only one to get any Nobles and quickly brought the game to an end finishing with eighteen points, well clear of Pine in second place.

Splendor
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

Learning Outcome:  Sometimes winning a bid can be worse than losing.

Boardgames in the News: Asmodee For Sale‽

Over the last few years Eurazeo have developed Asmodee from a small French games company primarily known for a clever little kids game called Dobble, into an industrial conglomerate swallowing up the likes of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-man Games, Mayfair, and Lookout Spiele.  In the process, Asmodee added some of the most high profile modern boardgames to their portfolio, including Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Pandemic, Agricola, Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game, SplendorDead of Winter, Settlers of Catan (now known simply as “Catan”) and as of this weekLove Letter.  Speculation as to the end result has been rife, here and elsewhere.  Indeed, three months ago we raised the question:

…it would seem that Eurazeo is not looking to hold onto Asmodee for the long haul, instead they will be looking to maximise Asmodee’s growth and then make their exit, probably in the next two to five years.  So the big question is, how are Eurazeo going to make their “controlled exit”?

Reuters now reports that according to un-named sources, the answer is, “Sell Asmodee”.  Apparently, investment bankers have been hired to run a sale process which they claim could value the company at over €1.5 billion (quite a return for Eurazeo who originally paid €143 million for Asmodee in November 2013).  As yet, there is no credible information as to who the potential buyers may be, but if the news that Asmodee is to be sold is true, there will no doubt be plenty of speculation over the coming weeks and months.  Possibilities range from a major toy manufacturer like Hasbro or Mattel wanting to add expand their range of boardgames, to venture capitalists companies going for maximum short term profits, leading to reduced quality and increased prices.  No doubt, time will tell…

Asmodee Logo
– Image from
escapistmagazine.com

Boardgames in the News: What is Asmodee’s Grand Plan?

Four years ago, Eurazeo bought a small French games company called Asmodee from the investment firm, Montefiore.  Asmodee were a small company hitherto primarily known for a clever little kids game called Dobble.  With the financial might of their parent company behind them, over the next few years, Asmodee proceeded to gobble up many larger, well-established companies, including Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-man Games and most recently, Lookout Spiele.  Those companies produced some of the best known modern games including Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Pandemic, Agricola and Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game.  Not content with that, they also acquired the rights to the English language version of the Settlers of Catan (now known simply as “Catan”) and all the related Catan games as well as gobbling up a number of smaller and/or newer companies like Space Cowboys (producers of Splendor and Black Fleet) and Plaid Hat Games (producers of Dead of Winter and Mice and Mystics) and entering into a distribution agreement with many others.  There are now very few games companies of any substance that are not somehow tangled in the Asmodee web.

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor adamfeldner

The last major purchase was F2Z Entertainment in 2016, and since then it has been relatively quiet.  With the new year comes a new wave of acquisition, however, so at the end of January Asmodee announced that they were in exclusive negotiations with Rebel.  Rebel is a relatively small, Polish company responsible for games like K2 as well as Polish editions of many popular games like 7 Wonders and Codenames.  Perhaps more importantly, Rebel also produces the Polish language versions of many of the Asmodee games and is the largest distributor in Poland.  And Poland is a big country, smaller than France or Germany, but bigger than Italy and the UK,  globally Poland is the thirty-forth largest country by population.  That is a lot of Poles and they do like playing board games in Poland.

K2
– Image used with permission
of boardgamephotos

This announcement was almost immediately followed by the bombshell that Asmodee had acquired all the residual assets from Mayfair and with it, Lookout Spiele. Although this is by far the largest deal in recent months, Asmodee have not been resting on their laurels and there has been a lot going on behind the scenes.  In December last year they announced that Esdevium was to be renamedAsmodee UK” bringing them in line with the “Asmodee North America” and “Asmodee Canada” brands.  At around the same time, Eurazeo announced that French publisher Purple Brain Créations would be joining the Asmodee Group.  Furthermore, they have also been streamlining their distribution network in North America.  Having reduced the number of distributors they deal with to five in 2015, in June last year Asmodee North America announced an exclusive distribution deal with Alliance Game Distributors, effectively creating a monopoly of supply within the USA.  This coupled with their Minimum Advertised Price policy (or MAP) gives them a stranglehold on the US market in a way that would never be allowed in Europe.  Whether they are planning to take that one step further and acquire Alliance themselves still remains to be seen, but that looks like a real possibility.  Finally, they have been pushing in a new direction, developing electronic versions of some of the most popular games through their studio, “Asmodee Digital“.

Asmodee Logo
– Image from
escapistmagazine.com

So what is Asmodee‘s Grand Plan?  Where will it all end?  Well, there are still a couple of other large manufacturers out there that are not yet part of Asmodee.  Looking at the companies they have already absorbed there is a clear trend: they typically have one particular feature that Asmodee are interested in.  In the case of Days of Wonder, that was the Ticket to Ride series, with Z-man Games it was Pandemic and Carcassonne, and with Rebel, it was probably their distribution network that caught the eye of the executives at Asmodee.  Going forward, the most obvious targets are probably Rio Grande Games, Czech Games EditionQueen GamesHans im Glük and maybe 2F, or Pegasus Spiele (who have just announced a partnership with Frosted Games).  For example, it would be surprising if Rio Grande Games have not been approached given the popularity of games like Dominion and Race/Roll for the Galaxy.  Similarly, Czech Games Edition are a small company with some very juicy morsels including Galaxy Trucker, Dungeon Lords/Petz, and the hugely successful Spiel des Jahres winner, Codenames.

Codenames
– Image by boardGOATS

Ultimately they may or may not add some or all of these to the Greater Asmodee Empire, but it is clear that at some point, eventually, there will be nothing left worth taking over and growth of the company will plateau, so what happens then?  And this is the crux of the matter. Some have speculated that the aim is to add Hasbro to Asmodee’s ever growing dominion, but Hasbro has a market value of $11.9 billion—Asmodee are mere minnows in comparison.  On the other hand, the parent company, Eurazeo are worth approximately $5.7 billion, which at least puts them in the same ball park, although even they are small by comparison.  According to the “Vision” page on the Eurazeo website:

The purpose of Eurazeo is to identify, accelerate and enhance the transformation potential of the companies in which it invests, even long after its exit. An active and committed shareholder, Eurazeo assists its holdings in the long term – 5 to 7 years – with control over exit timing. An extensive role enabling it to combine business development and corporate social responsibility.

So, it would seem that Eurazeo is not looking to hold onto Asmodee for the long haul, instead they will be looking to maximise Asmodee’s growth and then make their exit, probably in the next two to five years.  So the big question is, how are Eurazeo going to make their “controlled exit”?  With this in mind it seems unlikely that acquiring Hasbro is on the agenda, but making Asmodee attractive to Hasbro just might be…

Hasbro Logo
– Image from stickpng.com

Boardgames in the News: The Consequences of Losing Catan—The Demise of Mayfair

The dramatic growth of Asmodee has been the subject of much comment over the last few years, but more recently it appeared to have slowed a little.  It would seem that perhaps the consequences are now beginning to kick in though.  Nearly two years ago, Asmodee acquired the rights to the English Language edition of the Catan series of games from Mayfair Games.  At the time there was some speculation as to the effect this would have on Mayfair as the Catan range had dominated their catalogue and provided a high proportion of their revenue.  The loss of such a large part of their portfolio inevitably led to major restructuring particularly as the then CEO of Mayfair, Pete Fenlon, left to become the CEO of the new Asmodee owned “Catan Studio” taking a bunch of other people with him.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by boardGOATS

Thus, Mayfair not only lost the Catan franchise, but also their entire development team and graphics department. Essentially, they were left with Alex Yeager as lead developer, head of acquisitions, and marketing manager and a catalogue of about a hundred games including some of the popular 18xx series, Martin Wallace’s Steam, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Lords of Vegas and Nuns on the Run.  Mayfair also had a controlling influence in the German company, Lookout Games which they had acquired back in 2013, and this partnership had produced games like Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, Costa Rica and Patchwork. The Mayfair strategy was primarily to focus on the partnership with Lookout while continuing to support their existing catalogue, and then, once that was stable, further develop the Mayfair-exclusive products.

Mayfair
– Image from twitter.com

Questions were first asked when Mayfair didn’t exhibit at PAX West or PAX Unplugged, despite featuring in the exhibitor list, though they did present as usual at BGG.CONAt the beginning of November, however, Alex Yeager announced that he had left Mayfair, and this, together with the earlier departure of Julie Yeager and Chuck Rice indicated that the chairs were being shifted on the deck of the Titanic, and there were rumours that Mayfair was in trouble.  Mayfair had not independently produced a new title since the loss of the Catan franchise, but they still had their controlling stake in Lookout Games and producing the English language version of the popular Lookout range of games seemed like the basis for a strong partnership.

Lookout Spiel
– Image from lookout-spiele.de

Lookout Spiele was a highly successful German company responsible for developing games like Agricola, and more recently Bärenpark and Grand Austria Hotel.  At Spiel in October, Mayfair and Lookout shared an extremely popular booth, and it seemed so successful that there were rumours that another merger was on the cards. Sadly however, this was not the case, and on Friday it was announced that Mayfair had sold its three remaining assets (their games inventory, the IP, and their 74% stake in Lookout GmbH) and was closing their doors after thirty-six years.  Simultaneously, Asmodee acquired the remaining 26% of Lookout from the original owner, Hanno Girk and on Friday announced their take-over of Lookout.  With that, one of the most productive and popular of the German board game companies joined the likes of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Space Cowboys, Z-man Games, Pearl Games, Ystari, Plaid Hat Games and of course Catan as yet another “Studio” in the great Asmodee Empire.

Asmodee
– Image from lookout-spiele.de

31st October 2017

The evening began with Blue handing out Essen orders to Red (Sole Mio!, a relative of Mamma Mia!), Green (Thunderbirds and all the expansions), and Burgundy (lots of Concordia and Orléans bits).   Just to make sure Ivory and Pine didn’t feel left out, she had also brought a whole flock of boardGOATS to pass round – all suitably decorated.  There was a lot of discussion of the games at Essen, but Spiel has grown so much over the last few years that it was impossible to see everything as was evident when Green trotted out the fruits of his research and what was “hot”.  Altiplano, Clans of Caledonia, Photosynthesis, Gaia Project, Charterstone, and Noria were all completely missed for various reasons, but Pink and Blue had managed to look at Agra, Meeple Circus, and Kepler-3042 and had picked up copies of Keyper, Queendomino, Mini Park, Montana, Captain Sonar and Azul (Blue’s tip for Spiel des Jahres next year) among other things, all of which will no doubt appear over the coming weeks.

A Flock of boardGOATS
– Image by boardGOATS

With the chit-chat and pizzas over, it was definitely time to play something.  With six of us, it was almost certainly two games which was fortunate as Green wasn’t keen on anything Halloween themed, which ruled out the “Feature Game”, Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game. That wasn’t a problem though, as Pine was keen to play and everyone else was happy to be a third.  In the end, it was Blue that joined them as she hadn’t played it before.  With two novices, that meant a full explanation of the rules.  Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game.  There are a number of things that make it different from other, older cooperative games like Pandemic.  For example, there is a group objective, but each player also has a secret, personal objective:  players must achieve both to win.  There is also the addition of a traitor, who’s objectives are counter to everyone else.  Both Pandemic and Shadows Over Camelot have this mechanism integrated as part of an expansion, and in Dead of Winter, this is also optional, or (like another of our favourites, Saboteur) can be played in such a way that there may, or may not be a traitor present.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor mikehulsebus

Perhaps more significantly than these though, is the nature of the ticking clock.  In Pandemic there is a deck of cards that which dictate what happens and, ultimately, how long the game is going to go on for as the game ends if they run out.  The situation is similar in the other Matt Leacock games like Forbidden Island and its sequel, Forbidden Desert.  In contrast, Dead of Winter, is played over a set number of rounds.  There is still a deck, the “Crisis deck”, but this sets the tone of the round and provides the “team” with a task that must be completed before the end of the round otherwise nasty things happen.  In general, the Crisis sets a tithe of cards that must be forfeit by the “team” during the round.   Of course, as in real life, the “team” consists of people who have different agendas, and one who may be out to sabotage the colony…

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor adamfeldner

So, at the start of the round, a card is drawn from the Crisis deck and then everyone rolls their dice and the first player takes their turn.  This begins with another player drawing a card from the Crossroads deck.  This player is supposed to read only the first line, unless the condition is fulfilled in which case they read the rest of the card.  These are quite clever, as they end with two options—the eponymous “Crossroads”. The text on these cards adds a lot of atmosphere as well as adding to the sense of impending doom as sometimes the card might be activated by something the active player does.  Each player starts with two Survivors and the active player has one die per character and an extra one.  The Survivors have special abilities and the dice are “spent” by them carrying out actions.  For example, a player could attack a zombie which costs one die, but the value of the die needed will depend on the character:  James Meyers who is a bit of a wuss, is rubbish at fighting and needs a six, on the other hand Thomas Heart is a violent sort who loves a good brawl and anything at all will do.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor mikehulsebus

As well as attack a zombie, there are a number of other actions that require a die, including search a location, clean the waste, and build a barricade.  Searching is the only way players can get Item cards.  Around the central game board, there are a number of special locations and each one of these has a pile of Item cards.  The distribution of the different types vary and depend on the location, for example, weapons are unlikely to be found a the hospital, but medicine is quite prevalent.  Like attacking zombies, ability to search depends on the different characters and some Survivors have a special ability which means they are good at searching in a particular location.  In contrast, anyone can build a barricade or take out the bins, so these actions can be carried out by anyone with any dice, as long as they are in the right place.  In addition to actions that require a die, players can also play a card, help deal with the crisis, move a Survivor, turn food cards into food tokens, request cards from other players, hand cards to other players or initiate a vote to exile someone.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor mikehulsebus

While there are lots of things players can do, there are also hazards along the way.  For example, moving from one location to another is risky, so the Survivor must roll to see what damage the exposure did.  It may be that they were well wrapped up and nothing happened, but it is also possible that they were wounded in the attempt, or caught frostbite which is nasty because the effect progresses in later rounds.  Worst, of course, is getting bitten because the Survivor dies straight away and the effect spreads to other Survivors at the same location (who also have to roll the exposure dice).  Once every player has taken their turn, the zombies swarm, arriving at each location that where there are Survivors, with extras attracted by noise.  If a location gets overrun by zombies, they start killing Survivors.  Every time a Survivor dies, they Colony’s moral drops.  The game ends moral gets to zero, the requisite number of rounds have been played or if the main objective has been completed.  Our main objective was simply to survive the five rounds we were to play.  Blue began with a serious lack of practical ability in David Garcia (accountant) and James Meyer (psychologist).  Fortunately that was made up for by Ivory and Pine who began with Thomas Heart (soldier), Andrew Evans (farmer), Janet Taylor (Nurse) and Edward White (chemist).

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image by BGG contributor The Innocent

Andrew Evans, Janet Taylor, Edward White and David Garcia all had special abilities when searching and Thomas Heart was excellent fighting off zombies, while James Meyer just had an especially uncool anorak.  We started well and for the first couple of rounds, the zombies were only faintly annoying and the biggest issue was fulfilling the requirements of the Crisis Cards.  Early on, Ivory armed Andrew Evans with a rifle which enabled him to take out any one of the undead, something that proved very handy and made up for the enormous amount of noise Andrew Evans had been making during searching.  During the second round, Blue gained an extra couple of characters (Buddy Davis and Harman Brooks), which gave her extra dice and more special abilities she could use, but the downside was they came with a load of extra helpless survivors (folk that are a bit of a dead-weight and just need a lot of feeding).  It seemed like a gamble, but in the third round, Ivory “found” Sophie Robinson (a pilot) as well.   By the end of the third round, it was clear the message had got out to the zombie hoards and they were coming to get us (possibly due to the racket that Ivory had been making with Andrew).

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

The fourth round was tight especially as everyone’s attention began to turn to their secondary goals.  The otherwise fairly useless James Meyer suddenly found himself some courage and a baseball bat and set about the un-dead with great gusto.  Pine decided that he really, really wanted that extra character that he’d been persuaded out of earlier in the game and acquired Alexis Grey, a librarian with an ability to search the library efficiently.  Going into the final round, we had to be a little careful in a couple of areas and moral was low, but it was clear that unless one of us turned out to be a traitor, the game was won.  And so it turned out: there was no traitor and it was just a question of who had succeeded in their secondary goal.  At the start of the game, Pine had been highly conflicted, needing medicine for Edward White’s special power, but also having a goal of needing to finish with two at the end of the game.  Since he started his final turn with no medicine, he thought the boat had sailed, but with his very last action, he happened to draw two medicine cards to satisfy his second objective.  Ivory also needed two medicine cards for his goal and had managed to hoard these throughout the game.  Blue’s challenge was more difficult as she needed the colony to have lost three members to the hoards.  Despite her best efforts to kill off some of her own Survivors, Pine and Ivory had generously helped keep them alive, so she failed dismally, the only one not to complete both victory requirements.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

Although we had all enjoyed the game, it was unfortunate that there wasn’t a traitor as the lack of an enemy within meant it felt a bit like communal puzzle solving.  It was also unfortunate, that so very few of the Crossroads Cards actually had an effect as they mainly affected characters we weren’t playing with.  This wasn’t helped by our habit of forgetting to draw them and/or reading too much of the card.  We felt the Crossroads Cards would have been more interesting with extra players, but it was already a long game and we felt the down-time would really drag with more.  Certainly, some turns, especially as Blue and Ivory acquired additional Survivors, seemed to take an unbelievably long time already.  Certainly four would probably be the maximum we would want to play with, though we would also increase the likely-hood of a traitor as we felt we’d missed out on half the fun.  In conclusion, Red and Burgundy’s comment at the start now made sense, “It’s a good game, but if there’s something else more interesting about…”

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor zombiegod

Meanwhile, on the next table, Green and Burgundy were teaching Red how to play Puerto Rico.  This is a much older game which was the highest rated game for many years and is still well regarded.  Red had never played it and it was a very long time since Burgundy or Green had played it as well, so they were keen to see how it held up against some of the more modern games.  In Puerto Rico, players are plantation owners in seventeenth century Puerto Rico growing up to five different kind of crops: corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Each plantation owner must try to run their business more efficiently than their competitors. First they must grow their crops then they must store them efficiently. Finally, players must sell their crops at the right time or ship their goods back to Europe for maximum benefit. In order to do this most effectively, the plantation owners must make optimal use of the arriving colonists and develop the capital city, San Juan, building useful amenities.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

The flow of the game is quite straight-forward in that on their turn, the active player chooses a “role” then everyone takes it in turns to carry out the action associated with that role. Each role has a “privilege” which the active player gets which gives them a little bonus (as well as the opportunity to take the action first. Once everyone has chosen a role, the remaining role cards are “improved” by the addition of money, the used role cards are returned to the pool and the start player (The Governor) moves one player to the left before the new Governor starts the next round. The aim of the game is to get victory points which are awarded for buildings and for shipping goods. However, to build, players need money, and before they can ship goods, players need to be able to produce the goods with a plantation (and where necessary process them in the appropriate building).

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

Each building/plantation has a special bonus, but for a player to receive this, the building needs to be occupied by a “colonist”. All these activities are carried out through the role cards. For example, the Builder enables players to construct a building, but the player who chooses the role gets the privilege of paying one doubloon less than they would have done otherwise. Similarly, the Craftsman is used to produce, but the privilege allows the player who chose the role to produce one extra item (of those they had already been able to produce). Other roles include the Captain (enables players to ship goods); the Trader (allows players to sell goods for money); the Settler (players can take a plantation tile and add it to their island); the Mayor (the ship of “Colonists” arrives and they are divided among the players), and the Prospector (everyone does nothing except the person with the privilege who takes a doubloon from the bank).  The game ends when either, one player has built their twelfth building or the supply of victory points or colonists has been exhausted.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

The first few rounds were a little tentative. Green started with the Governor (through random selection) and chose the build action first. Burgundy chose Mayor using his extra citizen to occupy both indigo plantation and production building. Red needed a little help to suggest that she place her citizen on her Corn rather than her small market since this would enable her to produce something, whereas in the market she would have nothing to sell. So inevitably Red then chose craftsman. This gave Red a two corn, Burgundy an Indigo and Green nothing as he only had indigo and one citizen.  From there, the game progressed as you might expect, with each player following a different strategy.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

Green relied on his indigo resources and built a Small Market and an Office (so he could sell multiples of the same type of goods), dug a couple of quarries, and clearly went for a money and buildings strategy. When he started losing out in the Captain (shipping) phase he was able to very quickly buy a Wharf and always managed to ship something and thus stay in the running on victory points. He was the first to buy a big building of course and chose the one which gave him extra points for production buildings believing he could fairly easily add to his already reasonable tally. Burgundy went for a diversified portfolio of goods and as able to add a factory building which started to really rake in the money with four different types of goods. He was only missing corn, which he easily added to make an extra five doubloons every time craftsman came up. As a result he was not far behind Green at buying a large building.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

Since he had been shipping regularly and gathering victory points Burgundy took the building that would give him an extra point for every four points he had, however about half way through the game he began to struggle with his shipping. Red had begun to regularly take Captain, which meant that he was last to load and would often miss out being able to load all his goods—without any kind of warehouse was regularly losing all his stock of two or three goods each time.  Eventually, he had enough of this and decided to do something about it.  The choice was between a Wharf and a Harbour:  increasing his victory point income every time he shipped, or gain an extra ship he could always ship to.  It was a tough choice, but in the end he chose Wharf only to then discover he did not have quite as much money as he thought and so had to settle for Harbour after all.  This nearly proved his undoing in the end, as with two or three more captain actions happening he still found himself unable to ship everything, losing several goods in the process—Red and Green made quite sure of that!!

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

Red’s game was a little more tentative, as she found her feet, trying to figure out how the game all hung together. She struggled a bit with getting the buildings and plantations all occupied in the right way to produce what she needed. She ended up with a lot of Sugar, but her small warehouse meant that early on she did not have to discard it and was able to make a large shipment later on, locking out Burgundy, the other Sugar producer in the game.  In the end she ended up with more citizens that she had spaces and so for a while had an occupied Indigo Production building but no Indigo Plantation. It seemed it didn’t really matter though, as she had a good thing going on with the Captaincy, shipping large amounts of Sugar regularly giving her a regular supply of points. With everything else that was going on, Red didn’t get round to buying a large building.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

As the game neared conclusion, we thought we would run out of Citizens first, but selection of the Mayor slowed and Captains became a more regular feature so the victory points dwindled fast. Green was worried that he might not get his large building occupied before the victory points ran out, so when he became Governor for the last time, he chose the Mayor in an effort to extend the game, much to Red’s chagrin.  She claimed that it was allowing Burgundy to get his large building occupied and thus gain more points, which is true, but it helped Green too.  In the end it was Red’s Captaincy that ended what proved to be an incredibly close game; Puerto Rico is not a game we usually think of as being so well balanced that the scores are always close. The hidden victory points and various other ways to gain points tend to keep players guessing right til to the end and it is usually possible for one player to quickly build an efficient engine which wipes the floor with everyone else.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

That wasn’t the case this time.  Although the actual game play is quite simple, Puerto Rico can be a challenging the first time as it is hard to really work out the best way to play, and things only become clear after two or three rounds.  So Red did really well, not only to keep pace with two experienced players, but especially to take second place against two players, scoring fifty points.  Green’s lack of resources to ship, even with his wharf, let him down and it was Burgundy, who scraped a win with fifty-three points.  While packing up, there was a lot of discussion about the game:  did Green really hand Burgundy victory by choosing that Mayor? We concluded probably not, as if Burgundy would have chosen it if Green hadn’t.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

Puerto Rico used to be the gamers’ game of games for quite a few years, until Agricola elbowed its way to the top. Since then that top spot has been fiercely fought for and, as in Formula 1, (where everyone now talks about Schumacher, Vettel and Hamilton), everyone seems to have forgotten poor old Juan Manuel Fangio, the unsurpassed master for decades. Once in a while it’s good to bring out the old tapes and watch the old master at work though, and so it is with Puerto Rico.  After so many years it was interesting to see how it stacked up against the newest masters of the gaming world.  We concluded that it still competes very well: it has variety and simplicity at its heart, great interaction and just enough complexity to make it a challenge without needing a PhD just to understand the rules.

Puerto Rico
– Image by boardGOATS

Dead of Winter was still going and it sounded like there was another half an hour play, which meant there time for another, shorter game, and the group settled on Coloretto. Everyone knew it quite well it was a quick start.  On their turn the active player either draws a coloured chameleon card and places it on a “truck” or, they take a truck and its chameleons (which means they’re out for the rest of the round). The idea is that players are collecting sets of cards, but only three will yield positive points, with the rest scoring negatively.  There are some “special” cards as well, including multicoloured joker chameleons and “+2” cards which give an extra two points at the end of the game.  So, everyone was shocked when  a “+3” came out of the pile came.  Clearly there were some expansion cards in the deck and nobody had noticed despite having played with it several times before.

Coloretto
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

The first round was also remarkable in that first a yellow card was pulled, then a purple (placed on a different pile), then another yellow, which was placed on the purple pile, then a purple, which was placed on the yellow pile, to make two identical piles. So, what were the colours of the next two cards? Yes, yellow and purple! Burgundy and Red bailed at this point but Green decided to see where if he could get a second yellow or purple and ended up with a red instead giving him three singletons.  From there, the game progressed in the usual way. Green collected more new colours each with only one card, but that meant he had a wide choice to specialise in. Eventually he chose green as his primary colour, which the others found difficult to prevent him from getting. Burgundy was trying to keep his number of colours down, concentrating on just brown and yellow, but Red and Green kept ganging up on him to make sure he had to take something else very time.  To get round this, he ended up taking single cards several times, but that meant he didn’t get as many cards as he might otherwise have collected.  Red was the lucky one who took the rainbow joker and otherwise went for blues and purples.  She was forced to collect too many other colours though.  In the end, it was again Burgundy who managed to eek out the best score, despite Red and Green’s combined best efforts.

Coloretto
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor SergioMR

Learning Outcome:  Sometimes winning is impossible, even with teamwork.