Sunday, November 09, 2008

Recent gaming: Shadows over Camelot: Merlin's Company and Dominion

Shadows Over Camelot: Merlin's Company
My roommate won Merlin's Company in a drawing on BGG, so he bought Shadows Over Camelot in anticipation. For a long time the expansion never came, and when I asked him about it he said he tried to email Days of Wonder about it, but he wasn't sure if the email actually went or something, and that he didn't want to deal with it. "That's silly" I thought, so I emailed Days of Wonder on his behalf inquiring about the prize, and they said it had been returned in the mail back in August! While I don't know why they wouldn't have tried to contact Ben about this, I gave them the correct address and they said they'd resend it the next day - and what do you know, a few days later it arrived!

Friday I finally got a chance to try the game with the expansion, and with 8 people, 1 traitor in the mix for sure, probably 2. The group may not have been the best for that kind of experience, as one loyal player did some blatantly awful things like a false accusation, letting a fairly obvious traitor out of prison* and suggesting they also make a (false) accusation. If not for his behavior, I would have been convinced I knew the identity of the other traitor (and would have been correct), but he talked me out of it.

* In Merlin's Company, whenever a player tries to move to a quest he has to draw a Travel card which has some effect. Sometimes nothing happens, sometimes Merlin accompanies you on the quest (which is good in general, but if you liked where he was before then it can actually be a detriment to move him away from there)... but most of the time the travel card is a nuisance which makes you discard some cards, fight a siege engine, or simply lose your turn. Knowing the contents of the travel deck one can protect against it by carrying a Grail card and a pair of fight cards that they don't otherwise need (preferably 3's or better, so that you have a good chance vs that siege engine if need be) at all times, but that's a lot of work. If you don't prepare like that then you run the risk of losing your entire turn trying to move and failing. One of the cards is called CAPTURED! which not only ends your turn, but says that your turn is skipped until someone discards a special card as their Heroic action - so not only does the captured player lose their heroic action, but so does one other player, AND the knights lose a special white card, AND whatever quest the captured player was going to advance is delayed AND they have to try and move there again in the future!

I think what I'm saying is that I don't like the expansion much. The up-side is that you get Merlin, who hands out white cards to players for free, but the up side doesn't seem to me to be all that attractive compared to players simply having to lose their turns in a game where you only get to do 1 thing on your turn then wait a while for your next turn.

One good thing about that Captured! card is that if a player who you suspect is the traitor is captured, they not only have to skip their turn (unable to wreak havoc), but at the end of the game, if they're still captured, then they don't get to turn 2 swords from white to black!

In other news, I finally played the "new hotness" - Dominion. I played it "irl" at the RinCon game convention last week, and then I figured out how to make BSW work on my computer again (firewall was blocking it) and I've played a handful of times on there. As with Race for the Galaxy and Magic: the Gathering, I prefer Dominion as a 2-player experience, but in this case I'm more tolerant of the multiplayer game than I am with those other two card games.

Dominion is a game of competitive deck building. You begin with a small deck of 7 coins (copper, value = 1) and 3 Estates (worth 1 VP, but useless otherwise). Each game there are cards you can buy into your deck, there are Treasure cards (Copper, Silver, and Gold) which you use to buy other cards, Victory cards (Estate, Duchy, and Province) which count as victory points toward winning, and Kingdom cards (there are 25 different cards) which do different things to help you build your deck. Each game you use only 10 of those 25 Kingdom cards, so the ones you want to add to your deck will be different depending on what combination of cards are available. There will be 10 of each of the 10 Kingdom cards.

On your turn, you get to do 1 Action, and then 1 Buy, then you put all the cards you played, bought, and those left in your hand into the discard pile and draw a new hand of 5 cards for next turn. Your discard pile will cycle through back into your deck when you run out of cards to draw. An Action means playing one of the Kingdom cards, which give you some effect and might give you additional Actions or Buys to use that turn, or money to spend that turn. The idea is that you buy cards which will help construct a deck that does what you want, with the goal being to have the most Victory Points in your deck when the game ends - when 3 of the piles of cards run out (get bought up).

That's it. Dominion is pretty simple rules-wise. The effects of the cards in combination with each other is what makes each game interesting. You are trying to build a deck which performs well, while other players are trying to do the same thing. The number of each card is limited, and buying the popular ones up hastens the game end. The trick is that all these neat Kingdom cards don't actually count toward winning, so you have to figure out how to translate their effects into buying Victory cards. Some people online have suggested that the hands play themselves, but that there's some interesting decisions in which cards to purchase. I disagree. Of course it depends on which cards are available and which cards you buy - if you only draw 1 Action card, then you can only play that card. In that respect your hand plays itself... but in many cases you can be building a deck that contains card combinations which lend themselves to more choice. Sometimes it feels like I'm playing an old Magic combo deck, drawing card after card, getting lots of actions, and ending up having played half of my deck each turn. And in any case, whenever you have a Buy to make there's a choice which can be very significant.

In the end, I like Dominion pretty well. I think it takes long enough to set up that it can be annoying, but if you're playing several games in a row then maybe it's acceptable. I wouldn't want to lug out all the tiny 10 card decks and everything just to play 1 hand and then pack it all back up. It's cool that you can play online, but with laggy connections and long stings of cards to play I don't love waiting for my turn to come around in a 4 player game. But as I said, multiplayer Dominion is a lot more tolerable than multiplayer Race or Magic. I really like the competitive deck building feel I get from playing Dominion.

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