Bison and San Juan session

Last night five of us were due to play Princes of Florence for our Eurogames tournament. Before the holidays, Richard couldn't come in the last minute; this time it was Paul B. So we decided it was only fair to postpone again. Will we be third time lucky?

Bison box coverFortunately, many other people had no pre-arranged game and hence there was no lack of choice of which games to play and with whom. In the end, I decided to join Ester, Julian and Pete for a game of Bison, which I had never heard of before. It turned out to be another K&K (Kramer & Kiesling) area control game, with a dash of Knizia and Carcassonne. It was Pete's game but he couldn't remember the rules, so we had to endure a painfully slow and confusing rule explanation process, in which Pete half read the rules aloud and half re-explained them. After half an hour we got it (except Julian, who got the basic cost mechanism only half-way through the game). The rules are actually quite clever and put together familiar mechanisms.

The game is played in 4 rounds, with each player having 4 actions per round, from a choice of 6 possible ones. One of the actions has to be laying a tile drawn randomly at the start of each round. Each tile has three areas (prairie and mountain, separated by a river), with zero or more animals (salmon, bison and turkey) on each area. As the tiles are laid, the areas get connected, and whoever controls a contiguous area, gets at the end of the round as many animals (i.e. food) as shown in that area. The player with the second-highest control gets only half the food, and all other players present in the same area get as many food as shown on the tiles they stand on. Control of an area is basically obtained by having the biggest tepee (or canoe in case of a river) and/or most meeples (cubes, actually). The other possible actions are putting meeples on the board, moving them around, and building tepees and canoes. Each player only has 7 meeples (like Carcassonne), and meeples only get on the board if they're put on the just laid tile (like Carcassonne). To get meeples back into your hand to settle them elsewhere, you have to replace them by tepees or canoes. All actions cost food (e.g. the biggest tepee costs 4 of each animal kind!), and you can only build at most one tepee and one canoe per round, and there are only 4 rounds.

You get the idea: it's a very tight game, where every action counts and food is never enough to do want you would like to. The cherry on the cake is the Knizia touch in the final scoring mechanism. The score is the least number of animals of the same kind you get at the end of the last round. For example, if the area control you achieved by the end of the last round awards you 10 bison, 7 salmon and 3 turkey, your score is 3.  It's therefore a game where you have to diversify, instead of wasting resources to get the control of one or two very big areas. Being second in an area is often just as well. However, without controlling at least one area, you don't get enough food for all the expensive actions.  Of course, we only realised all these finer tactic details at the end of the game, by which time it was too late: Pete (the only one who had played it before) won with a score of 6, followed by Julian (5), me (4) and Ester (3). The final scores show well how tight the game is.

To sum up, a rather abstract and slow game. It took us nearly 2 hours, not including rule explanation, for the 64 actions (= 4 rounds x 4 actions x 4 players), due to the downtime to compute mentally the gain of each action. However, the game has a very nice build up of tension. I'll gladly play it again.

San Juan box coverWith still one hour until closing time, we decided to play San Juan. I was the only one who never played it before. Pete quickly got me through the rules — this time he knew them by heart :). I played miserably, wasting money on the wrong buildings at the wrong time. I built an expensive triumphal arch, which gives extra VPs for each monument built, but I had no mounuments. I built a chapel rather early, which allows to add one card per round for an extra VP each, but seldom had enough cards in my hand to spare one for the chapel. I built a tower, which allows to keep 12 instead of 7 cards in your hand at the end of each round, but never came close to the 7, let alone the 12 card limit. With such pathetic decisions, it's no surprise I came last, with ridiculous 17 VP. The others chose their buildings wisely, getting e.g. extra cards when producing and selling goods, enabling them to keep a smooth 'production engine', with always enough cards in their hand. Ester had a palace (which gives a 25% VP bonus) and a tower and monument, achieving 20 VP. Julian built a chapel later than me but added 5 cards to it and also had a further VP bonus, for a final score of 23. Finally, Pete, like me, had no VP bonuses at all, but was the first to achieve the 12 buildings needed to finish the game. He built 4 (!) silver smelters, which kept his income going throughout the game. Just the buildings got him a whopping 34 VP!

I now realise why I lost: San Juan is the Dominion version of Puerto Rico! The first (and only) time I played Dominion, I also came last with a pitiful score. I guess my brain blocks in these fast-paced games (at least there is the pressure for me not to think my usual 5 minutes...). I definitely must practice them more often to get a bit more agile.

As for what else happened, it was again full house, with the tables filling the whole room. André, the two Nicks, Keith and Chris played Imperial; Matt, John, Dan, Graham and David played Endeavor followed by El Grande; Manuela, Richard, Michael, and Paul H. played Mission: Red Planet followed by Fische Fluppen Frikadellen; Nigel and Damen played Twilight Struggle, while Sam and Ian played Combat Commander. Definitely a variety of good games!

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