First Play of Serenissima

This game sat on my shelf too long – in fact, it was the only “big box” game
remaining in my game closet that I had yet to play. I know, compared to many
that isn’t a bad track record – I’ve seen a number of game collections with 10
or more games still in shrink wrap. Still, I’m a gamer not a collector and I
want to play what I have. Ken Rude and I arranged a late evening during the
week where we could get together to try this one out. Brandon, Ken’s son,
joined us for a three player game.

Serenissima is not a new game – it
was released in 1996. I picked up because, well, I’m still a wargamer at heart
and I find it hard to resist games that can be played in a single sitting but
still harken back to the days of youth playing Avalon Hill war games. That’s
why Wallenstein is at the top of my
list of games right now.

This is not exactly a wargame though – economy is at least as important, and
it is through the trading and shipping of goods that money and ultimately
victory points are earned. Each player takes on the role of one of the great
nation-states on the Mediterranean – Venice, Genoa, Turkey, or Spain. In a
three-player game, Turkey is not played. Each player starts with 2000 ducats,
10 sailors, and two galleys. Each turn starts with bids to determine player
order. This turn order is used within each of the turn phases, which are:

  1. Buy trade goods, build ships and fortresses, hire sailors
  2. Movement
  3. Combat
  4. Capture and control ports
  5. Sell goods and generate income

The goal is to control shipping ports and to fully populate their warehouses
with a diversity of trade goods (there are 7 in all). There are three kinds of
ports – large (6 goods in the warehouse), medium (4), and small (2). Players
score 10 points for each large town with a filled warehouse, 5 points for each
medium town with a filled warehouse, and 2 points for each small town with a
filled warehouse. Towns with unfilled warehouses score 1 point each, and if
you control your main city you score 10 points.

Combat between ships or from ship to port is a function of the number of
sailors on each side. In ship to ship combat, each player attacks
simultaneously and rolls a d6, adding the number of sailors on the galley to
the roll. Divide the result by 3 and round down, and that is the number of
sailors on the opposing galley that are sunk. It is possible to capture
opponents’ galleys if you eliminate their sailors and have enough of your own
to move over and capture (each galley must have at least 1 sailor).

Within each galley there are five holding slots, and these can be filled with
any combination of sailors or trade goods as long as there is at least 1
sailor and no more than five total items on the galley. A ship’s movement
range is equivalent to the number of sailors. So it is clearly an advantage in
both movement and combat to have more sailors on board; however, this will
limit the number of trade goods that you can carry around. You can check out
the complete rules right here.

Ken played Genoa, Brandon was Spain, and I played Venice. Things started off
nice a peaceful – I expanded east into Turkey and was getting a decent
diversity of goods. Ken capitalized on some goods that Brandon had not yet
traded yet in any of his ports by trading that good to his major town. Twice
he earned a 1000 ducat bonus for these trades! While it helped brandon
populate his major town with goods, this was clearly a good move for Ken since
it allowed him to quickly get an advantage in both ships and sailors.

As so often happens in three player games, the first to get aggressive often
pays dearly. I decided to attack an ill-defended port of Ken’s (I believe it
was one of his gold ports) and successfully capture it. Unfortunately it
brought on his wrath and not only did I lose that port back to him the next
turn, I also lost two ships in the vicinity.

Ken played very well – he intuitively figured out (I suspect now that this is
a common game strategy) to diversify his fleet by keeping some trade ships
around with few sailors (usually 2) while building a separate fleet of combat
ships with 5 sailors each. These ships, with their extensive range, were able
to wreak havoc on my ships and ports. We decided to cut the game a bit short
(I think we played only 8 turns instead of 10), and though I did a pretty good
job of holding off his final attack, he did manage to take a port away from me
at the end. It didn’t matter much though – Ken had filled a good portion of
his medium ports (because of the shortened game, nobody got a completed large
port) and beat us handily. I don’t have the final scores in front of me, but
Ken beat me by at least 10 points, with Brandon finishing behind me by about
10 points.

Fun game – I suspect it can be played in 2-3 hours and I look forward to
playing it again. One criticism of the game is that it often follows the same
pattern – trade or the first 2/3 of the game, then just start hammering the
opponents by attacking. Ours certainly played out the same way.

Eric Arneson’s Top 10 Games of 2003

Eric Arneson just published his
Top 10 Games of 2003 list. I
agree with many of his choices, though I haven’t played all of the games he
mentioned. I especially appreciate his nods to I’m the Boss, New England, Mystery of the Abbey, Balloon Cup, and Battle Ball. I don’t think Battle Ball would
have made my top 10 list, but it is a fun game, especially for one that has a
mass market presence. I’ll have to publish my top 10 list shortly…

Operation Hero Miles

If you know me or read this site very often, then you know that I travel quite
a bit. So much so that I have a hard time using all of my frequent flier
miles, particularly those I accumulate on airlines I use less like Delta and
Alaska. Operation Hero Miles is a great way to
support our troops with almost no bureaucracy standing in the way. Here’s some
information from their website:

In September 2003, the Pentagon started giving soldiers stationed in Iraq
two-week leaves in the largest R & R program since the Vietnam War. Soldiers
on R & R or Emergency Leave are flown by the military to Germany or three
airports in the United States, Baltimore/Washington, (BWI), Dallas/FortWorth,
(DFW), or Atlanta, (ATL ) for free.

The soldiers have been responsible for flights the rest of the way in the
U.S. to their destinations, until Congress provided funding for this purpose
on November 3, 2003. However, this funding is not yet available and may not be
sufficient for all the troops or troops on “Emergency Leave”.

More than 470 soldiers a day are arriving in the U.S.

Many soldiers on R&R leave must purchase high-priced last minute airfares
to connect to their hometowns once their military flights land at the airports
in Baltimore, Dallas or Atlanta. Soldiers on “Emergency Leave” must still pay
the full cost of their domestic travel when they are rushed home for the
family death, birth, illness or other emergency. The military does not pay the
cost of their travel in the United States, so your frequent flyer miles are a
huge help.

Americans have donated their unused frequent flyer miles to the Department
of Defense to help troops travel home and spend quality time with their loved
ones, without worrying about how much it will cost.

I just found a place to use my Alaska and Delta miles!

Another Reason to Like Apple

As I’ve mentioned before, I recently purchased a new iPod and a used iBook. I also enrolled in the
iTunes service to see what all the hype is
about. The idea of paying about $1 for singles is appealing to me. There are
quite a few artists out there with songs I like but I’m tired of paying 15
bucks to get just 2 or 3 songs I like.

Unfortunately, my first experience with iTunes wasn’t all that great. First
off, I don’t find the interface to be as spectacular is many others have
claimed. I find myself staring at the screen quite a bit trying to figure out
what to do (particularly when it comes to the online store and maintenance of
my account). I chose 3 songs to purchase and download. Unfortunately, they
wouldn’t load into the iPod because iTunes claimed it wasn’t authorized to
play the songs. I suspected that this was related to the fact that I
originally used the iPod with Windows and not OSX.

Around that time I upgraded the iBook to Panther, wiping the box clean with
the exception of a few documents I had stored on the iBook. I didn’t backup
the downloaded music.

This weekend I wiped the iPod clean and rebuilt the music collection from my
library. I then went back into iTunes to download my music again. I just
assumed that once I purchased the music, Apple would track the purchase and
allow me to download again at a future date (like
Audible). Wrong! When you purchase from iTunes, you
are getting a one-time download. This means you better protect the content or
you’ll have to buy it again. This is clearly written in the iTunes terms &
conditions, but who reads those? Lesson learned, and I’ll make sure I protect
the content in the future.

I sent a support request into Apple explaining my problem, and begging to get
those three downloads again. Here was their response:

The Music Store Team has carefully considered your request for a new
download. As a gesture of goodwill, we have re-granted your download access
for your order history.

Please note that this is a one-time exception to the iTunes Music Store’s
Terms of Service, which clearly states that you will be responsible for
backing up your own system. In the interest of fairness to all customers, the
Music Store Team will be unable to make additional exceptions for you. To
download again, open iTunes 4 and select Check for Purchased Music from the
Advanced menu.

Very cool. And I got this response just 24 hours after my inquiry.

Gaming at Kevin’s – December 7

Jacob and I cruised over to Kevin’s last weekend for some Sunday gaming.
Normally a long haul for us, it was very convenient this time because Jacob
and I were able to get in some Christmas shopping for Julie and Matthew at the
nearby shopping malls. Jacob spent his own money on his gift for Matthew and
was a great helper while we found a few items for Julie.

Kevin always has such a friendly crowd at
his place, and the group is usually a good, manageable size (6-9 people). Onto
the games…

Condottierie

As the ‘geek likes to say, this is a “card game that’s masquerading as a board
game” – a fun opener that almost always seems to end too quickly for me. I’m
sure this is partly because each game has been played with 1 or 2 first
timers. Players play cards to participate in an auction for provinces with a
goal of owning three contiguous. Most of the cards have face values, while a
some can be played to double a player’s bid, force each of the facecards to be
worth only 1, or force an auction to end early. Jacob set up the winning play
this game by contesting a province adjacent to his that would give Kevin
enough contiguous provinces to win the game.

Unfortunately not enough strength stayed in the hand, and I wound up 1 or 2
points short of Kevin’s total (he had few but sufficient cards) and he won the
game.

Medina

This game will soon hold the record for game I’ve seen played the most without
ever playing it. This looks fun – the bits are so cool and I haven’t played
many building games like this.

Domaine

Ahhh, Domaine… this one I’ve been wanting to try for some time. Jacob and I
saw a large format version of this at GenCon last
summer, and since that time it has been on our short list of games to try. So
when the opportunity to play it came up, Jacob and I snatched the box and
Sabrina joined us.

Domaine is a very spatial game (you can read an online tutorial). There is a random layout in each
game with the 9 land tiles (a fixed center), and players alternate placing
each of their four castles on the board with an adjacent knight. There are
some special squares on the board – some help produce victory points (villages
and forests), others produce income (mines), and then there are the meadows
which are essentially empty space. The goal of the game is to segment off
chunks of the game board with borders, creating domains around your castles.

If you try and get too greedy and build a huge domain, it will either take too
long or your opponent will just disrupt your plans. Economy enters the game as
players must pay gold to perform actions, which include training knights,
building borders, or expanding an existing domain into an opponent’s. The card
deck composition is creative – cards are labeled A, B, C, and D, and all of
the “A” cards are shuffled together, then the B’s, etc. The A’s are placed on
top of the B’s, B’s on the C’s, and the C’s on the D’s. This creates a
changing economic environment in the game. For example, action cards to build
borders are more common early in the game and often cost less than later in
the game. The easiest way of getting money is selling your action cards – they
have a sale price as well as an action cost (the selling price is always less
than the cost). Cards that you sell back to the bank go face up in a pool of
cards that your opponents can then purchase back.

We made a few serious rules blunders during play (I was teaching Sabrina and
Jacob how to play while I taught myself), the most serious being how knights
are handled. Nobody was building knights early on because we missed the rule
that said you can only expand into someone else’s domain if you have more
knights in the expanding domain than in the opponent’s. This is obviously a
critical reason to recruit knights, and without this understanding it doesn’t
make much sense to ever hire a new one. We pointed out to Kevin how worthless
the knights seemed, and he quickly corrected us. This came just as the domains
were getting completed, so there ensued a rush to build knights. We also
missed the rule that you can’t steal a knight adjacent to a castle (hence the
configuration you’ll see below in the end game).

I held a fairly healthy lead for a while, but Jacob and Sabrina came on strong
as they began to complete their domains. I pulled out the victory by expanding
a domain and grabbing a resource monopoly at the end which pushed me slightly
ahead in victory points (I was orange, Jacob blue, and Sabrina red). This game
is on my short to-buy list – after the holidays though (hey, it’s Christmas –
we shouldn’t be buying stuff for ourselves!).

Clans

Kevin, Jim, Jeff, and Sabrina then played a game of Clans. This is most
definitely not on my to-buy list. This is an abstract game with a fairly
weak theme, and my one playing with Angela wasn’t very enjoyable. Maybe I
should give it another try… but really, why, when there are some many games
I like out there?

Aladdin’s Dragons

A new guest arrived that I hadn’t met before – welcome Greg! Greg is an
experienced gamer but hadn’t tried Aladdin’s Dragons yet, so I offered to
teach it to Greg and Jacob. I enjoy this game and will rarely turn down an
opportunity to play it. This game is an auction game with a few magical twists
(artifacts and spell cards that can be used to disrupt auctions or alter the
game mechanics). Each player has a series of tokens numbered from 1 to 9
(minus the 3), and players take turns bidding face down with the tokens on a
number of spaces (caverns where you can get gems, the town where you can get
cards and other advantages, and the palace where you can get artifacts). The
player with the most artifacts wins the game. The basic strategy is to acquire
gems early on so that you can by artifacts as the game progresses. This game
is always pretty close when I play it, and this was no exception. I managed to
pull out the victory with one more tile than Greg, and two more than Jacob.

Well, that was it for this session (for Jacob and I anyway – it was getting
late and Jacob had school on Monday). Stand by for another session report – we
had a game day it our house yesterday with a huge turnout and a number of
interesting games played.