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Cracked LCD- The Eurogames Reclamation Project #1- Adel Verpflichtet

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Kickstarter’s sewage flow of dungeon crawling steampunk space marine versus Nazi Cthulhu zombies continues to beg money out of the hobby, Ameritrash is dead and El Grande- one of the best games ever published- is out of print. If you’re not on the mill for one of the expansion-based product lines, you’re behind the curve. Sure, there might be a new Uwe Rosenberg game, but how many times do you need to make cubes of one color turn into cubes of another? Welcome to board gaming circa 2014, where the Cult of the New rat race is at a fever pitch and more and more, the grand history of hobby games is slipping into the past as the scramble is on for next week’s game night sensation. There has never been a better time to drop out, to give the middle finger to the endless streams of detritus flooding the market today, and to get back to playing great vintage games- including those great German family games and Eurogame designs that got unfairly tossed out when everybody got excited about anything with plastic gumball machine figures in the box back during the mid-2000s.

So here is your introduction to my new ongoing series, the Eurogames Reclamation Project. Over the past several months, I’ve been trading and buying my way into some games that I played, enjoyed and passed on before was even a twinkle in Scott Alden’s eye. I’ve been discovering that classic Eurogames- I’m not talking about the funless, post-Princes of Florence style of game that favors following the rules correctly over player interaction and competition- are disappearing from print and are really kind of regarded as past their prime. It’s the exact same situation that classic Ameritrash games were in ten years ago. And just like games that had been shunted off as “old” back then, titles like Fury of Dracula and Dungeonquest, these games are well worth rediscovering in a contemporary context. For my part, I’ve been finding that I actually appreciate some of these games more than I did when I originally played them as far back as almost 20 years ago.

Klaus Teuber’s Adel Verpflichtet makes for a great inaugural title to take a look for the Eurogames Reclamation Project because, as they say, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore. It was also, in 1990, one of the first big Eurogames released in an English version the United States- and by venerable wargames/Ameritrash publisher Avalon Hill, no less. Originally published in Europe by FX Schmidt, Adel Verpflichtet has been in and out of print in various versions and under different titles (“By Hook or By Crook”, “By Fair Means or Foul” and the rather unfortunate “Hoity Toity”) but it is currently unavailable. Which is unfortunate, because this game rules.

It’s also a critically acclaimed game, having won Mr. Teuber a Spiel Des Jahres six years before he would win the prize for his far more widely known Settlers of Catan. Those looking for similarities with Catan might be somewhat disappointed because Adel isn’t anything like it. In fact, Adel isn’t really like anything else before it or after it on the timeline of game designs.

The setup is that the players represent wealthy antiques collectors playing a game of collectors’ one-upmanship, vying to procure and exhibit the biggest or oldest range of artifacts at various castles. The goal is to sally forth from the parlor room at the start of a track and wind up at the best (furthest) seat at the society dinner that ends the game. The kicker is that these “gentlemen” don’t just acquire these fine collections of pipes, celebrity memorabilia, porcelain and other collectibles at the auction house. They also employ some bad guys to do some dirty work. And detectives to catch said bad guys.

The game is dead simple, and it moves at an almost disarmingly fast pace. There is no downtime, and players are constantly doing something. Each turn, players select two cards in secret. The first determines if they will go to the Auction House or visit the current castle. The second card determines what action the player will take at the location.

The second card played at the Auction House might be a check, which will be used to buy one of two displayed antiques provided that the player has played the highest value check. Or, the player visiting the Auction house might play a Thief card and steal the paid check out of the till. The third option is for a player to anticipate another playing a Thief and put down a Detective to lock the bagman up. There’s a jail track on the board that holds the caught Thieves until the cells fill up and the longest serving criminal gets paroled.

At the castle, players will have either selected to put on an exhibit of their collection, a Thief or a Detective. Putting on a exhibit is how you win the game, so it’s pretty important to do so frequently. During an exhibit, all players secretly select three or more antique cards from their collection. Each has a letter, A-F, and a legitimate collection for show is one that has three of the same or consecutive letters. Everybody reveals their collections, and whoever shows the most items gets to advance their marker a number of spaces along the track according to values on the castle where the current leader is located. Ties are broken by whoever showed the collection with the oldest item.

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But here’s one of the places where the game gets really interesting. Showing an exhibit exposes what you have. And if one or more players has played a Thief card, then they get to poach items directly out of what the exhibiting players have shown. So showing items puts you very directly at risk, particularly since a smart Thief can pick items out of your collection that break up a letter sequence. Showing your full hand of collectibles can wind up being a serious liability, but you might need to in order to get yourself back into the race. You might skirt by showing a minimum exhibit when no one else has selected that action, but on the next turn there might be some crooks headed to the castle to keep you in check.

So there’s plenty of guessing, blind-bidding, bluffing, double-guessing and hilarious turns of events. It’s a pretty consistent 45 minutes in my experience, even playing with five, and that is just about right for the depth of the game and its content. The rules- even in the Avalon Hill edition- can be explained in about three minutes and the strategies are easily grasped by the second or third turn. Anyone can play this game, provided they value fun and interaction over process and cold mechanics. It’s such a lively, fast-paced game that it almost moves too quick to complain about anything.

But there are a couple of oddities. That business about using the Thieves to keep players in check may actually be a little too crucial. If someone manages to accrue a bigger exhibition than anyone else, they can pretty much roll the other players if action isn’t taken and their showcase isn’t properly pilfered. There is no income in the game, only the check cards, and the only way to get more is to steal out of the Auction House till. Which you can’t do if your thieves are all locked up. And since it’s a short game that can be potentially devastating if other players aren’t getting busted. It also definitely feels less good with less than four players. The 2004 Uberplay edition (the Hoity Toity one) supports six players and that’s great, but the game was really designed for five and seems to be made for that number.

Like a lot of out-of-print Eurogames, prices are all over the place for Adel Verpflichtet these days. I’ve seen them range from $25 to $80, with the Avalon Hill edition seeming to fall on the lower end and the Uberplay printing on the higher end, likely due to the sixth player addition. The Alea version can also fetch a little more from folks because it was released as part of their numbered line, which included Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico among other titles in the early 2000s. But the components and artwork are only slightly updated from the FX Schmidt/Avalon Hill versions. There are, however, at least two Avalon Hill editions, one of which had those terrible perforated punch-out cards for the antiques. Strangely, at least in the edition I have, the antique cards are also not translated from German. Regardless, those looking for a copy should feel comfortable picking up any available edition, preferably purchased at an antiques shop or an estate sale as would be thematically proper.

By the way, it’s pronounced (according to the Avalon Hill box) “a-dell fair-fleesh-tet”. Which is still better than anything pronounced “hoity toity”.

Cracked LCD- Terra Mystica in Review

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Terra Mystica, the new Z-Man title wherein players representing terraforming fantasy races attempt to change terrain hexes to suit their tastes and build structures on them, isn’t really about building civilizations. There is magic, but this is hardly an enchanting, mystical game. The subject matter is little more than a construct to codify its graphic design and nomenclatures. It’s a game more prone to victory point churning than charming you with its fiction with complex mechanics carrying the day over rich theming or a sense of setting. Terra Mystica is ultimately a game more about mitigating and overcoming restrictions or limitations and incrementally acquiring +1 bonuses that affect standard game procedures. This is a fairly common, high level design principle and it’s not particularly a fault of the designers to utilize it but since this is a mechanics-first game it’s immediately obvious and potentially off-putting.

If Terra Mystica, based on the above, sound very dry to you your impression isn’t far off from the truth. Despite appearing something like a kind of “Advanced Small World” with its Chaos Magicians, Dwarves, Witches, and Fakirs, it is a hardline Eurogame with minimal interaction, no hidden information, and zero luck. Theme is mostly relegated to a general gameplay concept at the highest level and a pair of special abilities or disadvantages for each player race. Conflict is abstracted to the point where friction is generated through four race-to-the-top tracks marking your race’s influence in four elemental cults or by its fixed geography where space is at a premium. High drama in Terra Mystica means plunking a building down on a spot before another player does.

As far as the latter goes, there is a neat mechanic that encourages players to build close to each other to receive a kickback by way of magic power. The magic system is particularly interesting. There’s three “bowls” for each player, and when you gain points you shift tokens into the next one. When they’re in bowl three, they’re ready to spend and cycle back down to bowl one. You can also just throw them out of the game permanently in a pinch. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the game, adding compelling incentives and offering some tough choices as to how to spend your power for maximum effect.

And you’ll be making those kinds of choices often. Overall, Terra Mystica is a heavy, brooding game where turns are defined by choices that fall into three categories: what you should do because of a net gain either in this turn or the next, what you can do but will net you less of a benefit, and what you can’t do at all because of a lack of resources. You’re always one worker, priest, gold, or magic point short. Part of the game is puzzling out how to spend wisely and not come up short or puzzle out ways to squeeze out the amounts that you need to accomplish short term goals.

Usually, those goals are connected to changing the landscape to suit your race based on a rondel-like schedule of terrain types. The further away it is from your desired land type, the more “spades” you’ve got to spend or have available to get it how you like it. Once you’ve turned deserts into forests or whatever, you can spend workers and money to construct a settlement, trading house, temple, sanctuary, or stronghold. Build the stronghold and you get an additional racial ability. Connect a series of four buildings with a total magic value of seven or more and you found a town. Granting, of course, points and a bonus. Temples and sanctuaries also grant you a favor when built, typically cult advancement and yep- a process modifying bonus.

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There’s also this cult business going on, with four tracks representing different elemental cults. Plop a priest down on one of the spots and you move up three or two spaces. At intervals, cult advancement also gives you magic. Eventually, you have to have a town to get into the upper echelons of cult leadership and there’s only room at the top for one player in each.

There are other discrete elements, like a river system that screws with the adjacency required to terraform and build. This is another example of how the game uses limitations and how you’ve got to mitigate them. You can build a bridge or you can advance along a shipping track, ostensibly improving your race’s riverboating skills or whatever, and enabling them to build downriver. Your race can also improve their spades by spending resources. Virtually everything you do in this game nets points of some kind, and it becomes a question of what action will net the most points at any given time.

I do not like this kind of “Action 1= X or Action 2=X+1” gameplay because it lends itself to analytical, calculatory gameplay rather than fun, interaction, and drama. That said, I do think that Terra Mystica is a strong Eurogame with some interesting concepts. But that doesn’t mean that I necessarily think it’s a fun game. I’m not sure that it is, and I’ve fortunately played only with friends that I would have fun playing Cootie or Hi-Ho Cherry-O with. I cannot imagine playing this game with strangers at a convention, or with human calculators that insist on taking 15 minutes per turn to parcel out each action, running the numbers and scratching their chins while someone coughs softly in the funeral silence.

This is also a language-independent game, which means that there is minimal text on any of the cards or components. It’s a wise cost-saving measure for publishers that are looking to print games that are saleable in all regions without having to pay for translation services and different language printings, but for the end user it means figuring out rebuses. This doesn’t ease the learning curve at all. I’m usually not too down on language independence because it often is justified, but in a more complex game like Terra Mystica it can be grating. You will not play a first, second, or even third game of it without constantly having to go to the rulebook to decipher a cryptogram that could have been printed on the player cards.

Despite a definite break-in period before players will become competent enough to play an interesting game and decidedly very right-brain gameplay that won’t appeal to some gamers, Terra Mystica is a very well-composed game with some worthwhile ideas. It’s definitely not fluff, and it’s definitely a very well-considered, measured design. It has a brainy crunch, and those that find value in games with the kinds of decisions that this title trucks in will probably completely flip for it. But for me and my gang, it’s the kind of game I’ve seen often where we play a couple of times, nod affirmatively about its interesting-ness, and no one ever requests to play it again. There’s lots of game here, but not much heart or soul. That said, this would be a dynamite IOS game.