Saturday night landscaping in Four Gardens (@kbgpublishing, 2020)

Long ago, in a beautiful Eastern kingdom, a queen and her people pleased their Gods by building a mystical pagoda. The pagoda housed the four Gods and towered strong over the magnificent kingdom. As time passed, the queen fell ill and she summoned her people to compete for her crown. The crown would be passed on to the person who could build the most pristine garden around the pagoda. The heir would be chosen by the four Gods themselves.

Introduction, Four Gardens, Korea Board Games, 2020

Three contestants came forward, the first was the village elder who had much experience. The second was a son who was renowned for his ability to see patterns in the wilderness. The third was the youngest but had fought in many battles often emerging victorious.

The contest started slowly as the three worked to learn the rules of the Gods. It’s not that the rules were difficult, for they were not, but the mystical pagoda that they could manipulate to appeal to the Gods for materials to build their gardens was an always-moving puzzle that took time to consider.

The elder was the first to complete a panorama, but the youngest warrior quickly followed. As the contestants mastered the simple rules of the contest they started building faster. The elder almost won, but a small mistake stopped him short of victory. The second son noticed the patterns and announced the warrior was going to win. Sure enough, the battle soon ended. As the Gods judged the contest, the second son and warrior were surprised to discover that the Gods favored them equally. It fell to counting who had the most panoramas, and here the warrior was ahead, and thus he emerged victorious yet again.

The three held council and discussed their contest. All three agreed the Gods had favored them all with such a beautiful Pagoda and a simple contest that created such beautiful Gardens. They agreed that this Four Gardens contest was worthy of repeated attempts, vowing to compete again and further to share the contest with others.


So went our first play of Four Gardens (Korea Board Games, 2020). Our copy arrived courtesy of my favorite niece in Korea for the game is not yet available in the US. I was drawn to the game for several reasons, amongst them the fact it is published in Korea and it has a beautiful table presence thanks the the four-story, rotating pagoda. The game includes instructions in both Korean and English so there is no language barrier!

From the moment you look at the box of Four Gardens, you know that this is a game of beautiful components. From the incredible box cover to the pagoda to the two-sided cards with watercolor landscapes to nice little wooden resources, this is a game that will look beautiful on any game table.

In Four Gardens, players work to convert cards from Groundwork into Landscapes. These Landscapes in turn build Panoramas to score points. Each turn, players can take three Actions. They can play a card Groundwork side up from their hand to their Garden (tableau). Some cards can be discarded from their hand to Take a Wild resource and play it to their Planning Tile (storage) or directly onto a Groundwork card. The players can also discard a Handcart to Reallocate Resources, moving their resources from the Planning Tile to a Groundwork card. Finally, they can discard a card to Rotate & Collect which rotates a floor of the pagoda after which they collect resources as directed. When all the necessary resources on a Groundwork card are collected, the resources are returned to the supply and the card turned Landscape side up to become part of a Panorama, scoring points for the player. The first player to complete a number of Landscapes based on the number of players triggers the end game after which points are totaled. Highest score is the winner!

With few exceptions, the paragraph above pretty much covers all the basic rules of Four Gardens. The game rules are dead simple. The challenge is in determining what order to play your cards and collecting and moving resources.

The pagoda in Four Gardens itself creates a nice spatial puzzle. Each of the four floors is one resource and the sides are 0-1-2-3 of each. When players Rotate & Collect, the card tells the player which level can be rotated 90 degrees either way and then which order (top to bottom or bottom to top) resources are collected. At first figuring out what was happening when the pagoda moved was a challenge, but very quickly we figured out how it all works. By the end of the game I was actually able to visualize the movement of the pagoda and there was much less analysis paralysis. Our first game took about 90 minutes, double the game box play time, but we all agree that future games will go quicker because we now understand the core mechanics.

A beautiful pagoda focus players in Four Gardens (Photo by RMN)

Game nights in the RockyMountainNavy household tend to run to wargames or strategy games with lots of conflict. Four Gardens is a welcome change from our norm, in no small part because it just looks so dang beautiful on the table. The pagoda rightly serves as the centerpiece of the game and the puzzle it delivers is challenging but not overbearing. The fact that the pagoda can be stacked differently each game means every game will be different, if for no other reason than the shuffle of the cards and the different stack of the pagoda.

I am very pleased that Four Gardens has joined the RockyMountainNavy game collection. It is an excellent family game with beautiful components and relatively simple game play. I wouldn’t use it as a gateway boardgames, but it certainly can be the “next step” amongst family and friends who want to step up from something like Catan or Ticket to Ride. I am confident that Four Gardens will make many more appearances during out Saturday Family Game Nights.

Scattered to the winds – Organizing Battle Stations for Game of the Week

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Note to self…placing a plastic compartmented game box on edge is NOT a good idea!

Really wanted to get Battle Stations (Simulations Canada, 1984) to the table tonight for my Game of the Week but first I need to organize all the counters. Well, a good chance to really look at the game components.

Rulebook – Eight pages including the cover and back page which double as the box front and back. Rest is five pages of rules (double column) and one page player aid with tracks and Combat Results Table. Upon closer inspection, all the actual rules are in five columns of text the rest being scenarios (~three columns) and Designer’s Notes and Charts & Tables (~two columns).

Map – the 16’x24″ map is divided into four areas; The Northern Gap, The Eastern Mediterranean, The Southern Sea of Japan, and Open Waters. Each hex is 24 (nautical) miles across. So not a lot of maneuver given every game turn is about five hours (an interesting design choice…not your usual 4 or 6 or 8 or 12 hour turn).

Counters – Small (1/2″?) with lots of data crammed onto the little space. So little the ship class is not shown; one must cross-reference rule 9.1 UNIT ID NUMBERS TO CLASS LISTINGS to determine what each counter is.

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A Spruance-class “CG” and an un-targetted Kashin

By today’s standards a very DTP-like production job. But the real heart of the game is a simple combat model.

After movement in order to attack a ship must be targeted. This is a simple die roll (with just a few modifiers) against the Electronic Warfare (EW) rating of the target.

Different units can attack at different ranges, rated as A thru D and AU. Ships like aircraft carriers can attack at Range A (23 hexes) down to smaller ships or aircraft only able to attack the same hex (Range D). Ships are also given ratings for different types of attacks. These include Anti-Air (AA), Anti-Ship (AS), and Anti-Underwater (AU). Combat consists of multiple segments counting down the range. At each range, units compare attack strength to the EW rating – rolling the given die range results in a hit and destruction of the target. Combat is fast and deadly. That’s even without using rule 6.8 OPTIONAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

Rule 7.8 SEAPOWER & THE STATE INTERFACE points out that Battle Stations shares the same data base for units as the strategic game, making them easy to use together. I seem to recall reading many years back on CONSIMWorld that the designer does not have the formulas or other info to recreate the unit values. That’s a shame since the simplicity of Battle Stations could make it an interesting quick-play naval combat game of the modern era.

 

#FirstImpressions #TheExpanseBoardGame (WizKids, 2017)

From the publisher’s blurb:

The Expanse, a board game based on the Syfy television series of the same name, focuses on politics, conquest and intrigue similar to the board game Twilight Struggle, although with a shorter playing time. The card-driven game uses key images from the show, along with action points and events that allow players to move and place “Fleets” and “Influence”. (BGG)

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Authors collection

It is not often that a publisher’s blurb captures a game so completely as WizKids has done for The Expanse Board Game (TEBG). After purchasing the game and playing it a bit, I am torn in my feelings for the game. To me, TEBG feels very much like a “classic” Eurogame – in a negative connotation of the definition; great mechanics with a pasted on theme.

The BoardGameGeek Wiki defines Eurogames as follows:

“Eurogames (or alternatively, Designer Board Games or German-Style Board Games) are a classification of board games that are very popular on Board Game Geek (BGG). Though not all eurogames are European and not all of them are board games, they share a set of similar characteristics. A game need not fit ALL the criteria to be considered a Eurogame.

Most Eurogames share the following elements:

  • Player conflict is indirect and usually involves competition over resources or points. Combat is extremely rare.
  • Players are never eliminated from the game (All players are still playing when the game ends.)
  • There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of, in a Euro.
  • The Designer of the game is listed on the game’s box cover. Though this is not particular to Euros, the Eurogame movement seems to have started this trend. This is why some gamers and designers call this genre of games Designer Games.
  • Much attention is paid to the artwork and components. Plastic and metal are rare, more often pieces are made of wood.
  • Eurogames have a definite theme, however, the theme most often has very little to do with the gameplay. The focus instead is on the mechanics; for example, a game about space may play the same as a game about ancient Rome.”

TEBG hits all of these points, but with mixed results.

TEBG does a good job of capturing the feel (theme) of The Expanse TV series. Using Eurogame mechanics the players place influence (tracked using small wooden cubes) on various bases throughout the Solar System. To place influence usually requires a fleet in the orbital above the base. Although the game mechanics are simple, each player/faction has unique asymmetric abilities which allow them to “break the rules” in thematically appropriate ways. For instance, while is usually cost 1 Control Point (CP) to take the second action card, the United Nations (UN) player has Planning as their initial Technology which means the first two action card slots cost 0 CP. As the game progresses, more thematically-appropriate technologies are gained by each faction.

“Combat” in TEBG consists of removing influence or fleets (which can be rebuilt). This is not a cooperative game; ruthlessly building your influence while reducing your opponents is the real core mechanic.

TEBG uses much artwork from The Expanse TV Series. Although this makes the game appear like The Expanse, some of the artwork does not have a clear connection to gameplay. For instance, the action card Scopuli can be used for 2 Action Points or as an Event by the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR) or UN. The Event states, “Place 1 influence on each Saturn Base where you do not have influence.” I do not see how this is related to the Scopuli in the TV series which is [SPOILER ALERT]:

…a Martian light transport freighter fromĀ Eros that was in service to the OPA. One of its crew was Julie Mao and it was attacked by the Stealth Ship Anubis. It was later used as a lure in the ambush and destruction of the Canterbury.

To me this is a thematic disconnect. I think Scopuli should be used as an Event to the advantage of the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) or ProtoGen. Granted, most of the action cards have a picture that ties well to the event described, but I think to make the connection one must be a real fanboy. If a player is not knowledgeable of The Expanse the immersion into the game will not be served by the graphics.

The full impact of all these design and graphics decisions is an area control game that looks like The Expanse. The game comes across as very functional; simple game mechanics with some asymmetric differences in a kinda staid, plain package.

Finally, I have an issue with the component quality in TEBG. The board uses a non-glossy finish that, while good for pictures, has already shown rubs and scratches after just two plays. I also have a major problem with the Quick Start Rules which use white text on a semi-transparent background over a starscape page. The font, smaller than that used in the main rule book and the third layer of printing has lost all its edges and is nearly impossible to read.

It is going to be interesting when The Expanse Board Game lands on the Family Game Night table. All of the RockyMountainNavy Boys know a bit about The Expanse, but none are fanboys, Thus, the success of this game will stand not on theme alone (which appears to be much of the buzz around the game) but on its ability to blend graphics and gameplay into a enjoyable gaming experience.