Zvi’s WBC 2011 Championships Report

Zvi Mowshowitz

Many years ago, famed (although not sufficiently to be Hall of Famed) Magic player Mike Pustilnik and I headed off to AvalonCon. This was a place to play and compete in the games of legendary board game publisher Avalon Hill, by far the best place to find quality games that are Serious Business; this was before the wave of German style board games began by Settlers of Catan. I played Diplomacy and Advanced Civilization, walked around to see how things were and bought a bunch of back issues of The General, Avalon Hill’s old magazine, winning my first Advanced Civilization game only to get last place in the finals when things broke badly late. I had a great time as did Mike, and we planned to return next year only to discover several days later that Avalon Hill was bankrupt. There would be no more AvalonCon, Wizards of the Coast ended up purchasing Avalon Hill and due to Hasbro being greedy bastards on licenses, most of their games ended up out of print.

What I did not know was that a new event rose from the ashes. Unwilling to let the world of quality board gaming go without its marquee event, a few noble volunteers stepped up to the plate and organized a new event: The World Boardgaming Championships. Every year it features 100 of the best board games ever made, excluding Diplomacy, Chess and Go because they have their own championships. The games that are least popular rotate out, and a new batch is voted in on a trial basis. The event costs a hundred bucks for the whole week, so the only real cost is finding a place to stay. I realize US Nationals is awesome, but this is an event not to be missed.

Randy Buehler found the event last year, and reported back in full. Worries that players would be too casual or not fun to play with were unfounded, and he had a blast while winning Vegas Showdown and Through the Ages. I wanted to come along as well, and had to decide between going to WBC or going to US Nationals. In theory, I could go to WBC for a few days and then on to GenCon, but I never seriously considered that because when going in unprepared, my record at Magic events is atrocious. The main issue was getting off work for a week, but once I took care of that I was ready to go. I hopped on a train to Lancaster and arrived for my first game.

Randy was there, as was Mark Globus, and I was ready to start my first tournament. Randy showed me the technology of bringing your own game and setting it up so as to avoid playing against anyone else who also did the same thing, which was excellent advice, and the first game began.

Through the Ages

Summary of Game
Through the Ages is a Civilization-building game. Your job is to use your limited set of resources and actions to make the most of your opportunities and dealing with the problem areas that come up every game; if you only have one crisis, you’re probably doing well, and it’s where you are weakest that is most important. Areas include science, production, food/population, happiness, civil actions, culture (victory points) and military, with falling behind too much on military being very, very bad. The game has three Ages, each with its own cards, many of which are technologies, and you use actions to draft cards from a card row that fills up with these cards; as they move through the row they cost fewer actions to take into your hand. Culture can be generated by seeding events, building buildings that generate culture per turn, in events, wars and aggressions from being ahead on military or from the Age III “Impact” cards that reward all players based on how well developed their tableau is at game’s end.

Number of Players : 2-4. They are three very different games, all of them excellent.

Playing Time : 90 minutes/player, faster with experts, but slowing down in tournaments or with heavy thinkers.

Complexity : Medium. While there are a decent number of rules, they are all easy to grok and everything is intuitive, especially for players of Sid Meier’s Civilization series and/or Advanced Civilization.

Rating : A+. This is currently my favorite board game. Game is highly recommended for all.

Preliminary Heats
The first heat is a three-player game between myself, a friendly guy who knows what he’s doing up to a point, and a guy coming in at the last minute from the Age of Renaissance final. The finalist talks like he knows what he’s doing, but clearly does not. The finalist acts like I’m up to something strange when I go with Julius Caesar and take an early military lead instead of Aristotle and going for science. Looking back I actually regret that, because when you invest in military alone there’s the chance you don’t draw the cards to punish your opponents, which is what happened in this game. If I’d gone the other way, I’d have been ahead in development with the skill edge and could have safely ground out the win. Instead, I was down a lot of resources and had to work hard. A second problem came up later when the Impact cards didn’t co-operate, and I wasn’t sure I was going to win. In the end, the points actually ended in a tie, which I was reminded gave me the victory as the first player in turn order. There were going to be more winners than slots in the second round, so we had to play again, but I was going to do that anyway.

The second heat I randomly drew the two player game against a new player. Since he hadn’t played the first heat that would have knocked him out entirely, plus it wouldn’t have been much of a game, so I asked the GM for a switch and they swapped in a volunteer who could at least put up a fight, but it was clear that he didn’t understand the game on the same level that I did. I took an early edge and leaned on it, pulling some of my classic two-player moves; when the Republic and Constitutional Monarchy came up in the same turn, I took them both, and with the Pyramids on my side, he was stuck on four civil actions into age III and never recovered.

With two wins, I’m a lock for the semi-final with a better chance to avoid other double-winners. At my table, I draw the GM for the tournament, but miss both Mark Globus and Randy Buehler, along with past winner Jason Ley.

Semi-Finals
We’re playing with the original version of the game, which looks mostly the same but is just different enough to make my head hurt a little until I adapt to it about half way through (the two are functionally identical). I jump out to a strong start and end Age I ahead of the pack, but not by as much as my opponents may think. I have the choice of whether to go for a military win, and I choose instead to springboard off Christopher Columbus and use Wealthy Territory II and Architecture to build a bunch of Journalism into Multimedia to generate culture and science, since that seems like the safe route and should be good enough. Everyone at the table assumes I’m going to win, as I’m generating lots of culture per turn and have a strong board, but the Terrorism I seeded ends up hitting a Multimedia as I gain more culture faster than I expected, which makes my Internet weaker than I thought it would be and makes my lead remarkably small. This ends up being problematic because I don’t draw any of the Impact cards that I could crush with.  I’m the favorite going into the Impact cards, but I don’t know what they are – I end up winning small despite a stupid oversight that costs me four points and could easily have been the game. However, we all agree to wait and play the final the next day.

Finals
The finals of Through the Ages was fully chronicled, so I expect three reports: The GM’s, Randy’s and mine. This may have been the most advanced game of Through the Ages ever played, as my three opponents were the first World Champion  (Jason Ley), last year’s World Champion and Magic PT Hall of Famer Randy Buehler and Andrew, who happens to be the man who runs the online Through the Ages leagues. The semi-final had been the first high level game I’d ever played, and this was a whole different level. That was what cost me second place and probably a shot at the win, even though I’d still have been short. The initial board was terrible, with Randy getting Pyramids in second position but there not being much else, but Aristotle ended up falling to me, so even without a wonder I got a decent opening.

The first problem was that I missed Knights. I thought I could send it around the table as the other two were already out there, and the alternative was to miss Iron. All it had to do was get by Randy at 2CAs, but Randy took it without even thinking. That forced me onto Fighting Band, and Andrew as Alexander used his temporary military edge to Raid out my Philosophy. With no technology cards on the board I could legally take I got stuck a turn on only one science before I could rebuild and get to Alchemy, and I may never have fully appreciated how bad the Raid hurt me.

I had to use Fighting Band and a bunch of Swordsmen to stay in the military race, which turned into a decent situation when no one else wanted Great Wall and I got to take it and build it in one turn off Code of Laws for my first wonder, following that up in age II with Transcontinental Railroad. The problem was that Jason had Heavy Cavalry to get into a good military position and used some rock producing events to get down the Basilica paired         with Michelangelo, and managed to get it working with multiple Organized Religion. He missed both Iron and Alchemy to do it, but managed to get a relatively early Coal and then a Scientific Method after being at two science per turn well into age II, and kept the shields up to jump to a giant cultural lead.

I knew there was only one practical way I could beat him, which was to get Napoleon and crush him in a war, or have someone else do it to knock him down, and I have to take Napoleon for 3 CAs to keep Jason off him. Randy and I are trying to build up, but we’re not making much headway. We get the Constitutional Monarchies, and later I get the idea that we can cut off Republic. I cut the first one, Randy (fellow avowed member of “Team Con-Mon!” to go up against “Team Or-Rel” for Organized Religion) takes the other one to strand the other players as Despots. Right before that, I’m offered a Scientific Cooperation by Andrew and look over at a hand full of cheap cards. I ponder for a while whether to accept, trying to figure out if there’s a chance he’ll only play one technology on this turn. That would let me get Journalism out, which would be awesome. What I hadn’t considered was that he might not end Age II, with only two cards in the deck, leaving Theology and Irrigation in my hand to be played on the cheap, since I’d assumed he had to take his Republic (that I instead counter-drafted on my turn). Instead, he decides he doesn’t have that kind of time and takes Justice System instead, which is the last card in the row so it doesn’t end the age! I don’t get Journalism that turn, but I do get Theology and Irrigation, both of which serve me well. Alas, I’m taking too long to get my army into gear due to how much time we’ve all spent fighting and fighting over cards, and the game looks like it’s going to end before I can get ready.

The turn that seals it was the first of Age III. I was trying to find a way to catch up, and seeded the event that gives +3 culture to the most powerful civilization and -3 to the weakest, since my path to victory involved being strongest, but flipped an International Agreement. Jason used it to take Democracy, which Randy couldn’t then counterdraft, perfectly solving Jason’s biggest problem and locking down the game. After that it was a fight for second, but I kept playing a longer-term game than I should have and took too many technologies into hand, which caused Randy to pull ahead into second.

Finally, Andrew decided he only had one way to catch me. Seeing Air Forces on the board and a timing opening, he declared Holy War on me, knowing that by the time the War resolved it would be Age IV and Napoleon would be dead. On my turn, however, it was clear he had miscalculated, as I had enough rock to build a second Entrenchments army and upgrade one of them to Modern Infantry, solidly winning the war if we both sacrificed. The issue is that I’m now dead in the water as I don’t have the rock for a wonder, can’t start the culture engine and my only seed has been Impact of Strength which I’ll lose on if I sacrifice in the war. We’re talking about it, and it’s clear he’s going to sacrifice, which presumably forces me to do the same.

It’s now Randy’s turn and he goes out to ask the GM a rules question, and he declared War Over Culture against me, which gets me to do even more math and I realize that even if I don’t sacrifice I’m only going to lose the Holy War by 11. I can take back my three miners, then take my turn and build Air Forces and upgrade to a second modernized army, which would then be solidly ahead of Randy and win me that war instead! Randy sees this, and given we’ve agreed to play that as long as no hidden information is revealed or decisions made, you can change your actions, he decides to declare War on the crusader instead, who now has no good outs and decides to withdraw into his inevitable fourth place. The last decision of the game is whether to counterdraft First Space Flight to try and steal second or let Randy have it, and I decide to let it go. As it turns out, it was not close, and I would have been solidly third in both scenarios.

I came away from the tournament with a brain that was a little fried by such an intense experience, but eager to do it again and to see what other games were out there.

Before the final, I also got to get a quick lesson and demo (and by demo, I mean watch an hour of the semi-finals) for Victory in the Pacific, which had been playing in the same room during the TTA Semi-Final.

Results: 3rd out of 4 in Final, with about 65 entrants to event

Victory in the Pacific
Results 
: Did Not Play

Summary of Game : The game simulates World War II in the Pacific Theater, which is divided into sea zones with a few key bases and islands. Japan has the advantage early plus a special Pearl Harbor rule, and often takes Hawaii, but if America can keep Samoa and Pearl Harbor on his side, the reinforcements he gets later give him a commanding edge late provided he hasn’t lost too many victory points. Players choose where to patrol to try and get points and strategic control, then send raiders out to fight along with air support and marines that can help take bases. Battles take place either at night or during the day, with different types of units getting to attack in each and the defender having an advantage in deciding when the fight will occur. Decisions can get so difficult that players use chess clocks to keep games to 4.5 hours. It is a very skill intensive game judging from the results, with six of the eight top seeds making the quarter finals. They’re actively looking for a good way to give everyone good games and keep everything fair, since the top players just crush newbies and risk driving them away.

Game Length : 4.5 hours is allowed for tournament play.

Number of Players : 2, Japan and the United States. Bidding balances the game, which seems to otherwise slightly favor Japan.

Complexity : Medium, all of it seemed necessary to what the game was looking to do. You won’t get much simpler with this type of experience. I wasn’t ready to play smoothly after an hour, but would have been after one or two more (although not very well).

Rating: Preliminary C+. Good points are high skill level and interesting decisions, along with a lack of needlessly complex rules. Needing Chess Clocks is pretty awesome, and players could post-mortem choices like they do in chess, which was great to listen to. Minuses are that the game likely lacks that much variety, it involves Japan taking Hawaii quite often (which feels wrong) and that event being far too important a Boolean to the result; I was told bad players think the game is all about whether Japan succeeds here, and that the decisions seem mostly tactical. It’s not clear to me where the fun is once you’ve played the scenario a few times. The game seemed like a mostly solved problem at the tournament level.

After the final, Randy and I went looking for something we could play on short notice, and the logical choice was clearly…

El Grande

Summary of Game : Players have a Grande (large piece) and place a bunch of other smaller men into various areas of Spain. Each turn players bid for turn order in a circle, with each bid number available once per game unless reclaimed and higher numbers giving access to less of your reserve pieces to keep them moving from off board onto the board. Each player then chooses one of the remaining actions available, which involve putting some guys from off board onto the board somewhere next to (but not in same place as) The King, whose area can never change while he’s there and is worth more. The place where you have your Grande is also worth more if you are number one alone in the area, or you can place them into the Castillo that, when emptied, scores as an area then sends guys to one of the areas as each player chooses in secret. The goal is to score points by having the most (or less for 2 nd or 3rd most) guys in areas when those areas are scored, which happens every three turns or when some actions are taken; a player taking an action can choose not to score the areas. It’s quick, easy, fun and interesting.

Game Length : Officially 90 minutes, potentially a fast 2 hours.

Number of Players : 5. Can be played with as few as 2, but don’t bother without at least 4 and preferably all 5.

Complexity : Low. Game is easy to pick up and understand.

Rating: A- , with points off only for not letting players count who has what in the Castillo and a Kingmaker aspect that is very hard to avoid; players who have clearly lost have to choose who to favor, and this will often decide the game. However there are lots of interesting and cool things going on with a breezy, easy to learn and elegant rules set. Game is recommended.

The game is highly intuitive, so even though I didn’t fully get it right away I don’t feel it hurt me much. I overheard later that I’d drawn a tough table, with three strong players out of five (and I was #4). I made the mistake early on of making a play that did a lot of damage to the Yellow player rather than spreading it around, and he clearly was retaliating later which hurt a lot. Combined with my early failure to bid high enough for placement onto the board, I wasn’t in a great spot. I did get my starting area (Aragon) the 8-point scoring tile and managed to score it twice, but then lost it for a while and had to spend a lot of time getting it back.  I ended up third out of five.

After that we met up with a friend of Ed Fear’s who gave us a quick lesson and pointed us in the direction of…

Samarkand

Description of Game : There are eight families in the Middle East, each of which has two slots to buy into, and players pay to buy into those families. Once you’ve bought in, you can use your turn to have the family extend its trade routes, and you get money for meeting up with other families for the first time or a smaller amount from being met. Meanwhile you’re assembling a hand of trade cards, and you score points by having families you are in travel to the places where those goods are traded.

Complexity : Very Low.

Number of Players : 5, although it can in theory be played by as few as 2. My guess is that to be good it needs at least 4.

Rating: B . Game is quick to learn and to play, but likely lacks sufficient randomness or variety to hold up well in the long term.

I won my game, although I misunderstood the rules and thought that if you cash in your trade goods you can draw your hand full again. The game could have worked that way, but it did not, and there is a decent chance I would have won the game that way. Either way I chose not to return for the Semi-Final, as it conflicted with other games.

RA!

Game Description : Players are given three ‘suns’ with numbers on them, the sun with 1 on it is placed in the middle. Each player can, on their turn, either draw a tile from the bag and add it to the current batch of tiles, exchange a God tile for anything in that batch, or invoke RA! When RA is invoked, players go around and bid a sun they have left for the tiles; the winner takes the tiles, and exchanges his sun for the sun in the middle, putting the new one face down and out of play for the round. If no one else bids, the player who invoked must take the tiles. Some tiles are disasters, and destroy other tiles that you have if you get the pile. If a RA tile is drawn, RA is invoked anyway, but the player need not bid. If eight RA tiles are drawn, the round is over and everyone with suns left loses out, so waiting is risky. At the end of each round, players score for most pharaohs, having three or more civilization tile types, and having Nile or flood tokens if they have at least one flood, while they lose points if they have least pharaohs or lack a civilization. At the end of the game, players score big points once for having lots of monument types or lots of one monument type.

Game Length : 1 Hour. It goes by fast.

Players : 2-5. I played with 5, probably best with 4-5.

Rating: A. The game is a lot of fun and has lots of decisions to make, if a little lightweight. Game is recommended.

I was playing my first game, and it took a round or so to get used to how things work in the game. I had a great time, although I made multiple mistakes due to not understanding what all the tiles did. Most frustrating was not knowing how many RA tiles there were, or other numbers, which is what happens when you’re not playing with Magic players.

[Editor’s Note: Part 2 of this report will be up tomorrow, starting with Advanced Civilization.]

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3 responses to “Zvi’s WBC 2011 Championships Report

  1. Nice article! Very descriptive.

    I look forward to playing El Grande someday.

    Great description of RA. I have played the game a few times in pick up games with strangers and find it to be very accessible.

  2. Yeah, that game of Through the Ages was really something special. I’ve certainly never seen a game like that one. I felt a little out of my league, but at the same time, I feel like I learned so much from that game that I’m quite a bit stronger already.

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