Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ora et Labora Board Game Review

As I write, my girlfriend and I are listening to David Bowie’s Young Americans album on my recent gift to her: a new Audio Technica Two Speed Turntable. Speaking of Bowie, check out the new Jimmy Fallon Tebowie video. This parody of the Major Tom song is as funny as William Shatner performing Rocket Man: 

Jesus replying to Tim Tebow: 
This is Jesus Christ to Tim Tebow
Please leave me alone
Don't you know my day of rest is Sunday?
And I'm sick of watching all these Bronco games.

Lately, I have been hooked on watching reruns. One of the shows I’ve been watching is The Benny Hill Show on a local TV station which airs mostly kitschy B-List movies and post 70's era shows. Besides the recycled program the local commercials are funny. Previous to watching Benny Hill I only knew two things about the show: the theme song, "Yakety Sax" has been much parodied and the dames on the show have top-shelf bristols. 

Besides watching Benny Hill before bedtime my girlfriend and I have started watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Hilarious, the show is packed with science, nerdom, and numerous pop-culture references. Together we have been enjoying the show so much I ordered Season 1.

This week I am going to review Uwe Rosenberg's new game: Ora et Labora(OeL) recently released by Z-Man Games while interspersing quotes from Dr. Sheldon Cooper, my favorite character on Big Bang Theory.

Sheldon: You know, in difficult times like this, I often turn to a force stronger than myself.
Amy: Religion?
Sheldon: Star Trek.

Religion from an evolutionary biology perspective has numerous proposed explanations. Some evolutionary biologists claim religion fosters group co-operatively and enhance fitness. Ora et Laboram, translated as pray and work, is a game for 1-4 where players control a monastic economy during the Middle Ages. Players control clergyman: one prior (a monastic superior) and two lay brothers to produce goods, upgrade goods, purchase land and construct buildings and settlements. This religious urban planning builds up and improves the community. The player who "prays and works" the hardest wins.

Leonard: Sheldon, why is this letter in the trash?
Sheldon: Well, there's the possibility that a trash can spontaneously formed around the letter, but Occam's Razor would suggest that someone threw it out.

Normally, I don't like to trash a game right out of the gate, but it warrants it. Last Wednesday my gaming group opened Ora et Labora. For the first 30 minutes while reading the rules our group inspected, made fun of, and tried to justify the game components.

The player boards are made of card board thinner than that of Le Havre or Agricola. The two sided rondel must be deconstructed when the other side is desired. Though, it is not necessary to lock the spinner on the rondel. Also, the player aides are made of very thin paper and ideally should either come as France or Ireland version player aides. Instead all information is on one page. Half pages would be more useful. Simply put, Occam's Razor applied to Ora et Labora results in the following conclusion: Cheaper components result in higher profit margins and miffed gamers. I think I will wait until Z-Man Games releases a 10th anniversary edition.

Penny: Ok Sheldon, what can I get ya?
Sheldon: Alcohol.
Penny: Could you be a little more specific?
Sheldon: Ethyl alcohol ... 40 milliliters.

In Ora et Labora there two ways to play the game: as Ireland or France. The differences between the France and Ireland games are some different buildings and Ireland produces whiskey while France produces wine. Now alcohol is important to both countries cultural identities. As a physiologist, I have a strong side interest in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biologists discuss proximal vs. ultimate causation. 

My favorite example of explaining the distinction between the two is using sex. The proximal reason for sex is because is feels good. The ultimate causation reason for sex is copulation produces offspring. The same could be said for alcohol for Raj in the Big Bang Theory. Drinking alcohol is pleasurable and results in a buzz, but the ultimate reason for Raj drinking is to meet and talk to girls. I suspect the same may be true for Ora et Labora. The monks produce alcohol because it tastes good and is probably safer than the local drinking water, but without alcohol who would want to perform manual labor to produce goods.

Sheldon: My new computer came with Windows 7. Windows 7 is much user friendly than Windows Vista. I don't like that.

This is Rosenberg's first game with a rondel. This game mechanism helps eliminate the need to stock the board with additional goods each round like in Le Havre. This stocking of the board in Le Havre was not a major gripe. I admit to liking games with rondels (such as Imperial and Eve). In each round the goods (lumber, peat, clay, livestock, grain, coins, and wild) increase in value when not purchased. Later in game rounds grapes (or malt) and stone enter the game. The game is played over 24 rounds plus a bonus round. Obtaining goods is great, but there's more to the game than the introduction of a spinning rondel.

Sheldon: Oh, Research Lab is more than a game. It’s like the slogan says, the physics is theoretical, but the fun is real.
Leonard: We must not be playing it right.
Penny: All right, five. One, two, three, four, five. Oh, wow, look at that, my Department of Defence research grant is renewed.
Sheldon: Oh! Great roll! Now you can demolish your Soviet-style cyclotron and build the large Hadron Collider.
Penny: Yay.

I was surprised Sheldon would come up with such a boring roll-and-move game similar to the event driven spaces of The Game of Life. There's no dice in OeL; players may take one of three main actions: 
1. Place a clergyman: think take actions obtain goods or use card actions
2. Clear land to produce more lumber or peat: gain lumber or peat and make room for more buildings
3. Construct a building. Goods serve as the cost to construct buildings and settlements. When goods are upgraded by using actions they can utilized to build better buildings or upgraded eventually to victory points.

Before or after a main action: Buy landscape to expand available land and thus building spaces. As they get bought up they become more expensive. Covert resources: grain into straw, coins for a larger denomination.

The use of the clergymen are important to the game because the help upgrade goods. Of course there are no cyclotrons to upgrade, but grapes can be upgraded to wine, livestock to meat, etc. 

Leonard: What the hell are you talking about?
Sheldon: I’m attempting to communicate with you without my meaning becoming apparent to those around you. Let me try again. Have the indigenous fauna accepted you as one of their own? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

Besides a funny Monty Python reference, our first game we did not know what the hell we were doing and why we were building certain buildings. During later game rounds, new buildings become available. Although, there is a player aid I would suggestion looking at the building cards. For instance, building the Chamber of Wonders and trading in 13 different types of good results in 30 VPs. Knowing what's ahead will significantly help planning. Mid-way through our first game we leveled up and realized what we wanted to work towards.

Sheldon: He is 6th on my all-time enemies list between Joel Schumacher, who almost ruined the Batman franchise (you gotta give him that one after the Bat-nipples), and Billy Sparks, who lived down the street from me and put dog poop on the handles of my bicycle. In the words of Khan Noonian Singh from the immortal "Wrath of Khan," "He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him!"

Over the course of the game, players construct buildings by trading in resources. The buildings serve two purposes: 
1. They contact "Place a Clergyman" Actions
2. They grant victory points immediately and additional victory points when settlements are placed adjacent to them. Within the game certain buildings must be constructed on certain types of land: coast, plains, hillside, or mountains. Additionally, the yellow cloister buildings must be built adjacent to other cloister buildings.

Building is a very fun part of the game and equally frustrating. Getting mad at another player for ruining your plans of a future building purchase is amusing. When a player constructs a building they may use its action without expending a coin on their turn and use the action immediately by using the prior. 

Other players may Issue a "Work Contract" and pay 1 or 2 coins to use an opponent's action. This action is similar to the mechanic in Le Havre; The workers are only removed from their locations after all of them have been placed. The maddening part of the game is having to pay your opponent to use beneficial building actions.  

Sheldon: Dr. Sheldon Cooper for the win!
During select rounds when new building cards enter the game to be available for purchase, there is a settlement building phase. Settlements are built by trading in goods with food and energy values. Settlement cards are important because they to add VPs to your score at the end of the game.

Victory points are had in three ways:
1. Upgraded Goods 
2. Constructed Buildings and Dwellings (The Shields)
3. Settlements Points:  (Red House Values) the key is to build next to settlements

After the 24 rounds plus the bonus round, victory points are calculated. Our group was surprised who won. We expected the guy who had many building and settlement points would win; however, another player who upgraded many good won. I definitely want to play the game again and will have a strong strategy in hand.

Thumbs Up:
Another fun Rosenberg game with lots decisions

Streamlined Game Play

Gambling Aspect: Will the goods still be available when you turn comes around

Thumbs Down:
Cheaper Game Components: With great power comes the great responsibility to produce good game components. Opening the box felt like the string on your Ball in the Cup broke. 

Religious theme (Might not appeal to free-thinkers and Richard Dawkins types)

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Ora et Labora English Rules
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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Eclipse Board Game Review

Saturday board gaming and playoff football constitute a good weekend. I was excited to tell a friend I finished a four hour space game, Eclipse. She was happy I wasn't playing the Eclipse Twilight: The Movie game. Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy, released by Asmodee in the U.S., is filled with space exploration, aliens, wormholes, space bases, and epic space battles.

While playing Eclipse I thought of how Star Trek Deep Space Nine (DS9) shares parallels with Eclipse. DS9 is located near the planet of Bajor and travels sometimes require use of a wormhole. What made DS9 unique was it was the first Star Trek Show to focus plots character development and story arcs due its stationary setting. This key feature allowed producers and writers to introduce a fantastic string of prominent  reoccurring characters, my favorite character: Elim Garak, a "plain and simple tailor”, exiled Obsidian Order spy who plotted to murder a Romulan Senator to force the Romulans to ally with the Federation against the Dominion was key to the Federation winning the war. 

Secondly, DS9 transformed the Ferengi people from slithering, bungling fools with S&M energy whips in Star Trek: TNG to a respectful race with culture and customs. No longer were the Ferengi comedic rough shot. ThoughQuark and Odo interactions remain some of the most comical scenes among all of Trek.

As such, I will utilize my review of Eclipse using a Ferengi’s most trusted and sacred source of economic theory and practice: the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.

Rule of Acquisition 34: Peace is good for business and Rule of Acquisition 35: War is good for business

Eclipse is 2-6 player game played over a series of nine rounds. In the game during peaceful conditions or by avoiding fighting, victory points can be gained by upgrading one of your three technology tracks,  opening diplomatic relations with other players and by controlling space hexes via influence tokens or discs. Under war conditions victory points are earned by entering into battle, killing opponent’s ships, and by destroying ancient ships. The victory points are earned by drawing from the reputation tile bag for entering into battle or by taking over a space hex. The space hexes score victory points at the end of the game when a player controls them.

Rule Acquisition 141: Never Pay Retail:
Eclipse is an expensive game weighing 2,680 or almost 6 pounds, but there is value with the price tag. My gaming group likes buying board games by the pound. The heavier the better! If you like heavy board games this game is for you. Agricola, Le Havre, Railways of the World are all fun games and quite heavy. Upon opening the box, I thought the player mat sheet was actually a punch out sheet! The two-sided ginormous player mats do appear confusing with a lot going on, but after going over the rules and playing a few rounds the player mats become intuitive. 

Rule of Acquisition 22: A wise man can hear profit in the wind and Rule of Acquisition 45: Expand or Die
I am not going to explain the rules in entirety; however, I will briefly highlight the different actions to share the favor of the game. On the player mat there are three tracks: Money, Science and Materials. Player's can take the following actions on their turn and expends one token from their available actions:

1. Explore: New space hexes are placed on table to create a modular board. Exploring is a way to expand production of money, science, or materials through conquering a planet. Occasionally, "ancient ships" will be discovered. Upon destroying the ancient ships a player can view a secret tile and either take 2 victory points or a special benefit. It appears, from my experience, early game the benefits are more advantageous and late game the victory points may be a better deal. Following the ancient ship battle a player may place population cubes on the planet of a corresponding color to increase production. Exploring and Conquering a planet in effect requires use of two action tokens (also known as influence discs). 
2. Influence: Move influence discs on the board to hexes without an opponent present or remove influence discs from the board to place back on your player mat. The latter options is a way to reduce upkeep costs at the end of a round the number of actions taken has an associated cost. However, keeping the influence tokens on the board has two distinct benefits: required to increase resource production and controlled space hexes are worth victory points at the end of the game.  Additionally, influence allows you to place additional cubes on the board after you have placed your maximum of three.
3. Research: This action is important! Research allows players to gain technology to increase the effectiveness of their ships in battle, research reduces the cost of future technological upgrades and completing research tracks can be worth victory points. In addition, research allows for players to upgrade production capacity and to produce victory points through use of the build action. What is interesting is each round new technologies become available by random draw and they may also disappear when players purchase them.
4. Upgrade: Players have access to simple ship upgrades: shields, weapons, targeting, etc. After players have researched technology they may perform better upgrades to their ships. 
5. Build: Construct ships for defensive or offensive purposes, space docks to increase defense, orbitals to increase production, and monoliths to score additional victory points.
6. Move: Move through wormholes to other hexes. To engage in battle move ships into other player's controlled hexes. Battle engagements result drawing reputation tiles or victory points. Destroying ships increases the probability of drawing a higher victory point; however, players may only keep one victory point.

Rule of Acquisition 85: Never let the competition know what you're thinking and Rule of Acquisition 236: You can't buy fate
The basic flow of the game takes place during three phases: Actions, Battle, Upkeep and Clean-up Phases. The ingenious of Eclipse is players may take one any of the available actions on their turn and play continues to each player has passed. Even after a player has passed, weaker versions of actions may be taken as a reaction to another player's action. The tension in Eclipse results from wondering when the opponents will strike and how many actions to take on your turn. Increasing your number of actions increases the upkeep costs. Is there enough cash-flow to support the number of actions taken? 

Yes, players can buy fate in this game. Research and Technology Upgrades are key to your ships performing better in battle. These upgrades are vital because during battle ships have a better capability of destroying other players ships and/or ancient ships resulting in better reputation tile draws and expanding your empire. Battles take place with rolling D6: 1 are always a miss and 6 is always a hit. The upgrades affect the dice rolls by altering hit points and damage.

Rule of Acquisition 218: Always know what you're buying
A debate has circled our table during research purchases: Is it better to buy smaller cost technologies to receive discounted prices on future technologies or is a better to spend your entire tech budget for a expensive upgrade, but with kick-ass benefits. Our last game a player was able to mop the table by having strong ship upgrades early in the game. More playtime should resolve this question.

Rule of Acquisition 76: Every once in a while, declare peace, It confuses the hell out of your enemies
Entering into diplomatic relations with another player is a way to declare peace and open trade relations in a loose sense. By this agreement a player take one of their population cubes and diplomat and hands it to another player. It is only worth one victory point, but it immediately increases production of money, technology, or building resources. Last game I declared peace with a neighboring opponent, but was still pinned between two players. It reminded me of the Princess Bride, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." There were too many fronts to defend! 

Rule of Acquisition 16: A deal is a deal....until a better one comes along 
Players may break diplomatic relations and attack previously allied players. Better find a good deal because this action comes with a hefty price tag: The traitor card worth negative two victory points. That player holds this card until another table at the table commits the same treacherous act.

Rule of Acquisition: More is Good....all is better
As previously stated, the game ends after nine rounds and the player with the most victory points wins. Players by default have room for up to four reputation tiles or less depending on whether diplomatic relations were entered. Diplomats occupy the same space as a reputation tile. This game has multiple tracks to victory and equals depends on what your fellow players are working on. 

The introductory game of Eclipse can be played with all human races and the beginning game stats are exactly the same. Meaning players start with the same amount of resources. In our second game, we played on the reverse side of the player mat to play with the aliens. Each alien race has a specific competitive advantage. Examples include starting with more money, being able to research two technologies with one action, being allowed to place influence tokens and population cubes on hexes with ancient ships, etc.

Our group enjoyed the alien side due to the asymmetrical start conditions. However, the random fashion of exploring new space hexes poses a larger problem on the alien side. A bad space hex draw may trap your production of money, technology, or building resources at a low production level. In one recent game I could not make enough money to take additional action. I am diverging once from the Ferengi references to make room for another epic quote.  While playing Eclipse, I started to think of the classic Space Balls dessert scene:

Skroob: Tell him to comb the desert. Do you hear me? Comb the desert.
Col Sandurz: Are we being too literal?
Dark Helmet: No, you fool. We're following orders. We were told to comb the desert, so we're combing it.
Dark Helmet:  Found anything yet?
Trooper with Afro Pic: We ain't found shit.

There are times while exploring new space hexes I felt like, "We ain't found shit!" There were times I when I really when a planet which produces more money. Eclipse forces players to exploit currently what a empire is good at doing. Instead of focusing on a futile attempt to increase production of money, technology upgrades or battle become an option.

Also, worth mentioning is the rules on exploration. Exploring a new space hex allows player to select one the following: inner, middle, or outer ring hex to explore. There are limited amounts of outer ring hexes, which prevents players from becoming too isolated and promotes player conflict. Wormhole technology allows players to bend the rules to allow players to move more freely on the game board.

Finally, Rule of Acquisition 19: Satisfaction is not guaranteed.
I'm competitive and not happy when I lose. No worries it's not my fault that I lost. Luckily, I don't dwell on losses very long. 

Some complaints at the gaming table: "Everyone spent the entire game building up forces and only one massive battle during round 9" In the next game forces were built up and battle never took place. In the third game, forces were built and quickly utilized. With such a small sample size, there is inherit variability in game play; however, some players are left unhappy because their plans were interrupted during the game.

Thumbs Up:
Quality Game Production with epic sized game board and loads of plastic ships
Action Phase is filled with vital decision options 
Second guessing: Is defense or offense a mistake or the right strategy at a given time.
Fun exploring and deciding your empire's fate

Thumbs Down:
Down time during between actions and games have lasted between 3-4.5 Hours.
Players building fleets and not battling

Post thoughts: After playing Eclipse I want to break out my copy of TI3 I have not played in a while. It has been sitting in the hall closet for two years at least. And I leave you with, "Mr. Sulu, set course to GeekBoardis, War Factor Nerd"

Eclipse is currently available for purchase.

Eclipse English Rule Book