Saturday, June 28, 2008


Ladies and gentlemen, I am now a year older, though whether I am any wiser or not I leave to the philosophers to ponder. Yes, my birthday was this last Friday. So what did I do for my birthday? Well, I spent the morning volunteering my time at the Edgewood Children's Center, as part of my company's Day of Service initiative. We had ~200 people descend on the place to do all sorts of maintenance work. Then, in the afternoon I worked from home. In the evening, I listened to the new CD my brother, Christopher, got me (Kate Campbell's Blues and Lamentations, which is completely rock awesome if you like folksy roots-style music) while reading a book. So, yeah, very low key, but this is me we're talking about; have I ever been high key? Ever? At any point in my life? I don't think so.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Star Fleet Missions

Star Fleet Missions is a card game by Amarillo Design Bureau, the people who produce the Star Fleet Battles game. It is a simple game, where each of the players has a hand of cards that represents various starships, and each round there is a mission that requires different capabilities to successfully complete, such as combat ability or diplomacy, or something else. The players then select ship cards to play, and (usually) the highest rated ship wins. Play continues like this until all of the mission cards in the game have been won. So, it's like the card game War, but a bit more involved.

The only thing that saves this game from being lame is the variety in the missions. Many missions ask for one of the ratings (Space Combat, Diplomacy, Science, Cargo, or Marines), but some of them ask you to combine ratings, or take on rating and subtract another, or use two cards and combine them, or not allowing cards of some specific race to count, etc. Each mission puts a different spin on the basic rules, and keeps things somewhat interesting.

The ship cards themselves represent 18 different ships each from 6 different races (Gorn, Star Fleet, Klingon, Romulan, Tholian, and Orion Pirates) which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Star Fleet Battles. The variety in ships not only gives the variety in the ratings on the cards, but also some visual variety, as each ship is pictured on the cards. In fact, one of the rules variants has each player only having ship cards from one or two of the races, which can make it feel more like you are actually playing for a particular side, as opposed to the basic game which just mixes all of the different races together into one big pile that all players draw from.

In the end, this game is average at best, and probably a bit below average when taken as a whole. It is really simple, and may appeal strongly to a younger audience that likes the Star Trek universe, but for a more experienced gamer, the game doesn't provide enough strategic variety to really make it feel like the player's skill let her win; it's just too random.

My Pseudo Birthday

I don't actually turn 34 until this coming Friday, but since my younger brother, Mark, was in town this weekend my family celebrated my birthday on Saturday. To start the day, Mark and I drove down to Victoria Glade and hiked around for 1 1/2 hours or so. I have to admit, the glade was not what I thought it would be based on the Nature Conservancy's description of the place. I thought it was supposed to be drier than it was, but we have had a lot of rain this spring, so maybe that is the cause. We also learned that another appropriate name for the place would be "tick glade," as there were probably millions of ticks in there. No, that isn't an exaggeration. We were knocking ticks off our clothes most of the time we were in there. I'm still glad we went, though, as there was a great view near the end of the hiking path that was really sweet, and not in the tick-infested part. I got me some good pictures of the place, like the one below.

After that I opened presents, and ate cake while playing a board game. Because I like board games. And I got new board games for my birthday, so now I have even more games to play. You should be detecting a trend here. And then after I left my folks place I went to a friend's house and played another game. I really do enjoy doing other things, it's just hard to tell these days!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Starfarers of Catan

This time up in my run through my game collection, we have Starfarers of Catan, essentially a variant of the designer's famous Settlers of Catan game. Whereas the original game had the players colonizing a small island, this time the players colonize the galaxy.

Each player starts out with two colonies and a spaceport in the home systems. Colonies and spaceports are important, because each planet has a number. Colonies and spaceports are always between two planets. Every turn the active player rolls two dice, and whichever number comes up, those planets produce resources for the players with colonies or spaceports next to them. Thus, numbers that come up more often, like 6 or 8, are more desirable locations to have. If a 7 is rolled, you lose resource cards if you have 8 or more, and whoever rolled the 7 gets to steal resources from the other players. This is basically the same system as in Settlers.

The differences quickly become apparent, though. In this game, you have spaceships, either colony ships (which build new colonies), or trade ships (which build trade stations at alien outposts). You have this monstrosity called a mothership, which represents the qualities of all the ships in your fleet. You can add guns, engines, and trade modules to your mothership, but you also move ships by shaking your mother ship and seeing which colored balls fall out the bottom. Yeah, it's about as weird as it sounds, but it works. The colors give you different numbers, and you add the numbers together to determine how far you move. You also shake the mothership to conduct space combat against pirates.

However! If you a black ball comes out when shaking for movement, you draw an encounter card. Or, more specifically, the player to your left draws the encounter card, and then reads it to you. You almost always have an option on encounter cards: trade or not, fight or not, try to skirt the black hole or not, etc. As the active player, you don't know what the results of your actions will be. For example, many encounter cards involve meetings with alien traders, and you have the option of trading resource cards to the alien. Sometimes if you don't trade, they bad mouth you and you lose fame (which earns victory points to help you win). Othertimes, they feel sorry for you and you get free stuff. And sometimes the trader is really a pirate posing as a trader, and they just steal your stuff without giving anything back. I must admit that I like this system quite a bit, as it adds some new twists to the game, but not enough to really through the balance out of whack.

The planets on the map must be explored before founding new colonies with your colony ships. Many planets are able to host colonies, but some house pirates or are ice worlds, and in both cases you have to clear the planet before founding a colony next to it. Pirates require lots of guns to eliminate, and ice worlds require lots of trade capacity to eliminate. This is a bit of a pain, but you do get victory points for clearing those hurdles, so it can be worth it. As you colonize more worlds, you get the chance to earn even more resources from the rolls every turn, as well as victory points, so you will want lots of colonies. Colonies can also be turned into spaceports. This gives another victory point, and also lets you build space ships from that point. This can be critical, and you will need at least one additional spaceport deeper into the map to allow you to make new colonies and trading posts quickly.

Trading posts are also very important. Not only do trading posts let you gain bonuses from the aliens you trade with (anything from bonuses to weapons or engines, to allowing easier trading of resources, to bonus resources, and beyond), but the player who has the most trading posts with any specific alien becomes their "friend," and gets two bonus points. In the game I played, this is how the winning player got to 15 victory points way before anyone else even had a shot; while everyone else was trying to build colonies, he just went straight after the aliens for trading, and got 6 victory points. He lost 2 of those points after another player put more trading posts on one of the alien stations, but he was too far ahead by then, and it was all over.

In the end, the game was more fun than I thought it would be. It definitely feels like a Catan game, but has a number of important differences from the original Settlers game, and it plays like its own game. Definitely one I'll want to play more in the future.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Poorly Written Headline of the Day

Noticed over at

"2 hikers rescued Mt. Ranier; one dead"

How does a mountain need rescuing? And was it lost? Or had it fallen down and couldn't get up again? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Black Hole

And now for another game that has been in my collection for over 10 years but which I have never played, Black Hole. This is one of the Metagaming microgames from the '70s. I almost felt bad cutting up the counter sheet, as this game was in mint condition before I played it, but I told myself that I would play everything that came up, so there you go.

The plot of the game is that in the future, there are companies that mine asteroids in the asteroid belt beyond Mars, in order to gather minerals that have already been plundered from Earth. Well, two mining companies happen to try to lay claim to the same asteroid at the same time, and they come to blows. To make things more interesting, this asteroid is unique; it is in the shape of a torus, and has a micro black hole at the center.

The map itself is one of those where all edges bleed onto each other. So, if you leave the west side of the map, you re-enter from the right. If you leave the north end of the map, you re-enter from the south, and so on. In addition, half of the map is the "outside" of the ring, with limited laser fire range, and slower movement. On the "inside" of the ring you can move a bit faster North-to-South, and laser weapons have their range increased from 1 hex to 18 hexes. Yeah, you can pretty much hit anything with a laser on the inside of the ring.

Your combat units are various vehicles. The ones with nastier weapons move slower, while those with the lighter weapons move faster. In addition, the fastest units can do a special movement on the inside of the ring, where they "jump," or fly, to the other side of the ring, but at the risk of disappearing into the black hole. In addition, on the inside of the ring, units with missiles can just fire a missle at a unit on the other side of the ring, rather than normal missile movement.

Normal missile movement has you shotting missiles up to a range of 6 hexes. If the missile hasn't hit a target or a mountain (which blocks missiles) at the end of that turn, that missile stays in play. Next turn, the missile will move 20 hexes, but in a straight line only. It will keep flying until it hits a mountain and detonates, or hits a combat unit (from either side!) and detonates. This makes missile combat a bit gonzo. I think this was supposed to add to the fun of the game, but I personally found it a bit annoying. Overall, I don't think missiles are near as good as lasers, though they do have their uses.

One other thing; your units don't start on the asteroid. Each turn, you can land up to 4 units by dropping them onto the asteroid from your orbiting spaceships. You can try to land a unit anywhere on the ring, but it is MUCH safer to try this on the outside. The closer you get to the inside center of the ring, the higher chance of not landing where you intended, or just getting sucked into the black hole, all together. This adds a bit of fun in seeing how risky you want to be with your landing choices, but some bad dice rolls can really mess you up.

In the end, I found that the game was just too much on the momentum of dice rolls. Get a number of good rolls in a row, and you can decimate your opponent before they can really land any significant forces on the asteroid. On the flip side, with a few bad dice rolls in a row you can get overwhelmed no matter what your strategy is. It felt like the game was just too influenced by the dice. With that, and the fact that missile combat wasn't as fun as advertised, I don't think I'll ever be playing this one again.