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Played this week: Endeavor, Ascension, Downfall of Pompeii, [REDACTED]

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I was hoping to tie this blog's board games section to my played games at BGG, but unfortunately, BGG doesn't make its plays accessible through its API, which basically means it's impossible to get good play data out of the site.  So, no seamless integration for me.  Instead, I came up with the brilliant (okay, not really) idea to simply summarize my plays in a weekly post.  I'll keep doing it as long as it remains useful to people.

I finally played Endeavor for the first time, after having it on my radar for more than a year now.  This was a three-player game, and I don't think the game's so hot at that number.  I also made some mistakes early on that I realized only later.  Not the best session, but I'm still interested in trying again.  It proceeds at a pretty good clip, although there was some serious downtime towards the end of the game when I didn't have any more actions to do, and Ben and Matt were taking a while on their actions.  I do like the exploration theme, in spite of the fact that it is basically "be a colonialist asshole."  At least this game doesn't whitewash what you're doing, like some I could mention.  6/10


I also tried Ascension, and the masses are not lying when they say it's just a Dominion clone.  I've made my peace with Dominion as a fast game that has its place as filler for gamers.  I think I like Ascension a bit better than Dominion, mostly because I like the theme a lot better.  The various factions do a lot to emphasize the theme and I even enjoy the borderline cheesy colored pencil art, even if it does occasionally look like it came out of the margins of a high school notebook (Apprentice, ouch). 

Sometimes, I feel like I've played Dominion after I see the initial layout of cards, and the rest of the game is just a long resolution step.  Matt pointed out that Ascension clevely solves that by having new cards come out consistently through the game, meaning you are constantly making new decisions based on the new information available to you.  A nice twist for sure.  7/10


I also played The Downfall of Pompeii when I was home for the weekend.  I figured it would be a hit with my parents, with the lighthearted gameplay and tossing guys into the Volcano.  I was not wrong.  I had already played this, and I'm not sure I'll keep it forever, but it does make a nice, fast, light gateway game.  6/10


And finally, I played about 7 games of something that I can't reveal here.  It's going to be a surprise at the winter gaming retreat this year, but I will say that we picked it up at the Sauk Centre thrift store, and it was ludicrously fun.  It had all of us, even my parents, whooping and giggling like children when we played it.  That's going to be all I say about it here, as I want it to remain a secret.  With apologies to Danny Devito in L.A. Confidential, it's off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.

What the hell is up with Heads of State?

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This game is terrible.  Or at least, it should be.  But somehow it's not.  Let's go down the list of what the game does badly.

The graphic design is terrible.  You've probably noticed the terrible hack job that is the box cover.  My group has nicknamed this "Heads of Photoshop" to call to attention just how bad this is.  If the reduced size image here is not enough to convey the tragedy of this box, you can head over to BGG for a much higher resolution image.  The same terrible Photoshop jobs are all over the cards and the tiles for this game.

The theme is ludicrous.  Players are trying to place nobles in the courts of France, England, Spain, and the German States from 1579-1879.  But what  do the players represent?  Political factions?  War profiteers?  Hard to imagine what kind of group or faction is one that is stable enough to last for three hundred years, powerful enough to control kings, and far-reaching enough to span four different countries.  Maybe Agnus Dei or the Knights Templar if you read a lot of Dan Brown novels.

The mechanics are derivative.  The card drawing system is the familar system of choose from X face-up cards or a face-down card from the deck.  Then you perform the thrilling task of set collecting to create your nobles.  Then you score, either by placing the firstest or the mostest.  In fact, I can't think of a single mechanic in this game that I haven't seen somewhere else.

The components, aside from the artwork, are clunky.  The noble tiles have a color of the noble, as well as the color of the player, which causes endless confusion as you, for instance, try to figure out whether the black on that tile represents the player who is playing with the black pieces, or whether it's the slightly grayer black that represents a Duke.  They give you cubes when you don't need them, to do a randomization process that could be simplified with a d4.  They don't give you cubes when you do need them, instead opting for tiles that are more difficult to parse visually.  Then, the coup de grace is that the cards are flimsy, having the same lack of resistance you usually associate with a deck your grandma bought at a truck stop.

But somehow the game hangs together well.  The victory points that you get for different goals are very granular, ranging from 1 to 16 for different tasks.  The high granularity allows players to play intuitively, as the victory point reward for doing a task very closely aligns with how difficult it is, meaning there doesn't seem to be any artificially strong strategies that players need to learn to focus on, like the actions track in Hansa Teutonica, the cards track in Goa, or the jesters in Princes of Florence.

So, yeah, Heads of State shouldn't be that good.  But it is.  It's one of those squeaky-clean Little Euros That Could.  It's a shame this wasn't better handled by the publisher.  This could have been great.

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