Sunday, 6 January 2008

Carcassonne The Discovery, Niagara, Thurn and Taxis

I paid my 7th visit to Carcasean, on 1 Jan 2008, the last day of my holiday, and I was going to fly back to Kuala Lumpur on that day too. Michelle went with me. This time we played Carcassonne The Discovery, Niagara and Thurn and Taxis. Chong Sean joined us for the latter two.

Carcassonne The Discovery is one of the many variations of Carcassonne. This is designed by Leo Colovini, a designer, like Michael Schact, who is well known for clean and simple rules. This is the second variation which is not designed by the original designer of Carcassonne, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede. The first one was Carcassonne The Castle by Reiner Knizia. After seeing it on the shelf on previous visits, I decided to give it a try, since Michelle and I are such big fans of Carcassonne.

After reading the rules, I found the game to be simpler than the original. There are three types of terrain but no roads. There are only 3 things your people can do (to score), i.e. you place them on one of these three types of terrain. There is no competition for majority on a feature. Everyone can score. So you don't get into those painful battles for super farms or gigantic castles in Carcassonne. But you can use the same tricks like linking your small feature to a larger feature of an opponent, placing tiles to make it difficult for your opponent to complete a feature, etc.

When I played the game, I was surprised that it wasn't as simple as I thought. We played much slower than we expected. I had thought we would play very quickly, because we are Carcassonne veterans. In fact, we played even more slowly than when we played Carcassonne The City. One difficulty we had was there are three types of terrain we need to match, as opposed to 2 types (castle or grassland) plus road. I guess we are very used to the terrain of the original Carcassonne, and we need to unlearn the old and learn the new. The game turned out to be more tricky than I had though from reading the rules. In addition to the challenge in matching tiles, there are a few other interesting dilemmas. Firstly, you only have 4 people to play with. You need to use them efficiently. If a figure placed on the table does not look like it will score much, you might as well retrieve it and use it for something else. This is one big difference compared to the original (and all other versions of) Carcassonne. You can decide to retrieve your people even though the feature it is standing on is not yet complete. In fact, it doesn't get automatically returned to me when the feature completes. You need to use an action to retrieve it. On your turn, you place a tile, and then you can choose to either place a figure or retrieve a figure (of course you can do neither if you choose to). So, your figure will never get "stuck" on the table. But now you have an interesting dilemma of when to retrieve your figure. Do you wait for the feature to complete so that you can score more? It may not get completed. For the case of mountains, even if it is completed, the score may increase further when plains adjacent to it expand further. So a completed mountain does not necessary mean you can't score even more later. Sometimes you also have a dilemma about whether to place a figure or to retrieve a figure. You can only choose one on your turn.

I quite enjoyed Carcassonne The Discovery. It was more challenging than I had expected. It surprised me. It is one of the few games that I have played at Carcasean which have tempted me to buy, the others being Chinatown and Africa. I like it more than Carcassonne The City. I would say both are significantly different from the original game, despite the same basic concepts.

In fact, I enjoyed this game so much that I forgot to take a picture.

Niagara is the Spiel des Jahres award winner for 2005. The one thing that everyone will remember about it is the waterfall mechanism. Every turn the river flows and there may be some boats that will fall off the edge of the board. Oh what fun!

This is a game where you race to collect gems. You either try to get four of the same type, or one each of the five types, or any seven gems. Every round players secretly and simultaneously select a movement tile to play. After that they take turns to move their boats. They can pick up, drop off, and even steal gems from other players. Once every player has taken a turn, it's the river's turn to move. The river "moves" by the smallest number played by the players plus the weather condition (i.e. heavy rain means quicker flow). So, if everyone has played a big number, then the river will flow very quickly and someone may die (or go for a good swim).

The first thing I learned (from Chong Sean, who has played this game before) is: don't spend so much effort rowing downstream. Let the river take you. You need your energy to row back upstream to bring the gems back. Also you need to watch out for people stealing your gems, especially when you are upstream compared to others.

Niagara, just before the two boats toppled over the waterfall.

I found the game to be just so-so. The idea is interesting, but for a game supposedly quite simple and supposedly suitable for families, there are actually quite a number of exceptions and special cases, like when you lose your boat. It can also be quite tricky to plan your moves and to take into account how the river will move. It can be rather taxing to the brain. To me the effort required is more than the fun extracted. We did have two boats falling off the waterfall. Yay!

Thurn and Taxis is the 2006 Spiel des Jahres winner. It is designed by Andreas Seyfarth, designer of Puerto Rico, #1 game at Boardgamegeek. However Thurn and Taxis is a middle weight game, quite different from Puerto Rico. It is more similar to Ticket To Ride, and as Chong Sean commented, also similar in feel to Show Manager.

In this game players compete to establish post offices in various cities in different regions in Germany. To establish post offices, you need to set up a routes, and to set up a route, you collect city cards. There are six city cards displayed on the board. Every turn, you (usually) pick one to start a new route or extend your existing route. When extending your route, you must extend at both ends and must not branch out from the middle. When you are happy with your route, you can declare it complete, and then place your post offices in some or all of the cities covered by your route. You can choose to place an office in one city in each region your route passes through, or you can place offices in all cities of one region that your route passes through.

There are a few different ways to score points in this game, e.g. for the length of your completed routes, for putting offices in all cities of a region or a pair of regions, for putting at least one office in all regions, etc. There is a race element to this, e.g. the first player to complete a length 6 route gets a higher score than the second player to do so. You cannot block your opponents like in Ticket To Ride, because there is no limit to the number of offices that can be placed in a city. However, you can watch how their routes are developing and take the card that they need. It is more subtle.

Michelle and Chong Sean playing Thurn and Taxis.

Close-up of the post offices.

My current route, and my carriage level. You start with a level carriage, and must upgrade step by step, to level 7. You can upgrade when you complete a route longer or equal to the next level. Carriage level gives points too.

The square tiles are the points for having presence in all cities for a region (the grey one) or a pair of regions (orange and red).

I have played this once before on BSW, against Han. However neither of us were very sure what we were doing and we just half-fumbled through the game, and I lost. So, this is my second time playing it. I made an expensive mistake. I had to abandon one of my routes because on that turn I could not get a card that could extend it legally. I forgot that every turn you must extend your route if you have one existing, or start a new one. I should have declared the route complete at the end of my previous turn. I wasted four turns because of this. I came last. Chong Sean, a veteran Thurn and Taxis player, representative of the Chinatown community on BSW, won decisively. He comforted me that at least I didn't end up with negative points, which he said wasn't uncommon when he played with new players. Talk about merciless.

I still found Thurn and Taxis to be just so-so. I like Ticket To Ride better. Both are relatively simple, although Ticket To Ride is simpler. There is some route planning, and you need to watch your opponents if you want to play well. Of course, if you are lazy you can just focus on your own cards and your own plan. This applies to both games, and I guess that's why they are suitable as family games. You can play in a relaxed way and do not need to be too competitive.

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