REVIEW: SECTRE from Peter Mariutto and Freshwater Game Company

REVIEW: SECTRE from Peter Mariutto and Freshwater Game Company

SECTRE is a new abstract strategy game from the Freshwater Game Company, an organization with a credo to admire. Freshwater is committed to environmentally sustainable games sourced from local businesses and assembled by hand. This Minnesota company has the right idea and Boardgame Babylon certainly supports their effort to create games in this kind of format. After horror stories about mass-produced games with mildew in them, Kickstarter campaigns with copycat titles, and the environmental record of some of the companies producing gobs of plastic for our amusement, Freshwater’s mission is a worthwhile one.

SECTRETheir first game is here: SECTRE

So, great company and vision but how is SECTRE? The video on their Kickstarter page won’t tell you very much. What is clear is that it is a tile placement game with domino-like cards players use to form patterns and score points on a grid. Players are given a hand of these domino cards (in that they have two ends with different colors) and receive a solid distribution of variants from subtle markings on the cards (nice abstract art, by the way). These are the cards you get for the game; it ends when you have played them all. I can also tell you that the game plays with 2-6 players and is over in maybe 20-30 minutes, from our experience. We’ve played with 2, 4, and 5 players so far.

Each turn, players place one of their cards on the grid board, taking up two spaces and potentially claiming one of the scoring cards available to players. These score cards (which range from 5 to 15 points) are acquired by building certain patterns using the cards. While some are just about a certain number of spaces of a color being diagonally connected, others are specific patterns that players need to cleverly get on the board without the other players noticing and potentially grabbing the scoring card before them. These score cards are limited as well, so there is a bit of a race for who can score the cards first. Notably, a single play can lead to multiple cards being collected.

Of course, you can’t just place cards anywhere. They must be placed so that the color on each side of the card is not orthogonally adjacent to the same color. In this way, it helps build the patterns while also providing some restrictions to guide placement. Again, if you create a pattern that matches what is on offer, you can claim it. Also, after the first turn, a little stacking can take place. As long as you follow the other placement rules, your cards can cover other cards. Breaking a previous pattern doesn’t matter; once a card is claimed, it is owned by the player who scored it.

The game ends when all players have played their hand of cards. The player with the most points wins.

SECTRE

Components

SECTRE does feel handmade, which is pleasant. The cards are cardboard and feel good in the hand, but I do wonder about durability of them after manyplays of SECTRE. I welcome the lack of plastic in the game, but it could affect the length of time enjoying the game (although we’re talking decades, not just years). While I was looking at a prototype copy, the principles of the game company suggest it will feel similar. Nice to know your fun isn’t doing terrible things to the environment.

Thoughts on SECTRE

SECTRE is lighter, but still an abstract strategy game. Casual players sometimes won’t take to this kind of game, but ours mostly did. Of course, they were challenged by this GIPF-loving gamer, who won every game. Some players were frustrated when I would claim multiple cards with a single play, so this might be house-ruled away as a handicap.

The game operates on ground that is widely covered in the abstract strategy world, with the use of domino-style pieces and a grid board. At times, I thought of patterns from Hanging Gardens, the old game M, and a few others that wanted to do something new with this combo. Serious gamers will probably prefer something like Tash-Kalar for a game of placement and patterns, or maybe Kris Burm‘s GIPF project for a little less detail than one gets with Vlaada Chvatil’s work.

Yet, SECTRE works as a very light, almost party-level game that plays closer to traditional abstract strategy games like checkers and chess than with modern gamer games. Not every casual gamer is as grumpy as the crowd I schooled. Played quickly, SECTRE is an enjoyable pastime that handles up to six people, and that might be a hole in your collection. How many times can you play Tsuro in one night?

SECTRE comes to Kickstarter on November 15 with attractive pricing, free shipping and no guilt over another game being added to your shelf (and carbon footprint). For more information ahead of the Kickstarter, check our Freshwater Game Company on Facebook.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for SECTRE

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Freshwater Game Company provided a pre-release prototype for independent review.

Ameritrash Confessions, Part 1

Ameritrash Confessions, Part 1

More than a few fans of the old podcast and some close friends noticed a significant shift in my game plays sometime in 2014 but not all of them asked the obvious question directly. Most were coy about it, trying to find a casual way to say what was surprising them about the type of games they saw being featured on my social media feeds. “That doesn’t seem like a game you’d be interested in playing,” said one Facebook friend after I posted pictures of my third play of Mice & Mystics last year (and after three the previous year).

IMG_7599

The observer was correct; anyone who has been listening to my podcast during the last decade or following me on Twitter, Instagram or other social channels with any regularity could say the same thing, “You’re a dyed-in-wool eurogamer – how is it that you’re playing all of these Ameritrash/Experience games? Have you gone born-again Ameritrash?”

The answer is essentially ‘no’ but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I will endeavor to do that now.

A few years ago, I was playing a game with my family and yet I was feeling like a failure as a ‘gamer dad.’ The reason for my feeling was simple – even though I was playing a fun family game with my kids, it was WAY below their age range.

We were playing Qwirkle and, while I love that game, I was realizing that my teen and preteen had been Qwirkle Board Gamestuck in a loop playing games that were too young for them. Now, Qwirkle is good enough for anyone to play but the truth is that my kids were old enough to take on more challenging games but I’d failed to introduce them to the next step in more meaty games and so I was left still playing casual and younger-audience games with my kids.

Some time before, my good friend Devi Hughes, the man behind the Orange County Board Gamers (he and his wife), had talked about playing Le Havre with his kids who were younger than my own. Le Havre! Meanwhile, I was sheepishly playing 6+ and maybe 8+ games with my kids who were both three years older than his two kids. How did I let this happen?

Now, any gamer dad is happy to play games with their kids, almost regardless of what it is. That’s just being a good dad. But I saw the potential for my kids to play more serious games and felt like I’d missed some invisible shift from kid games to something more substantial. Sure, I played with friends and my wife will take on just about any game as long as she gets a play or two in with me first. But I wasn’t bringing my kids fully into the hobby like all gamers plan to do on one level or another.

I’d done so well with them at a younger age. They had played over 200 different games before they ever played Monopoly – and, even then, we only played it when I bought a stupidly cheap copy of it during the holidays and gave it to them as a joke Christmas gift. To my eternal delight, they hated it and my daughter actually uttered ‘It’s stupid that you just roll a die to move in this game.’ Seriously – be still my eurogamer heart.

None of the joy in their derisive attitude towards the hallmark of bad board games could change that I’d missed a transition somewhere. I decided I needed some dire measures to get things back on track.
Soon thereafter, I declared that, as a family, we’d be playing through the complete Alea series in order to kickstart the eurogamer souls I was supposed to be inspiring into my offspring. My daughter had grown less interested in games in the last year but she was sort of pressured into participating. I will say that once she got to the table, she would always have a good time and get into it (she’s a trifle competitive – actually, they both are. Good.)

As we were proceeding through this gauntlet (chronicled elsewhere), my son asked about Dungeons and Dragons. I explained that I’d played the game from elementary school to high school off-and-on but hadn’t played any role-playing games since the 80’s (I guess I’m dating myself there). I had no interest in role-playing games and when I moved on to purely board games (which had played before I ever tried RPGs), my personal group of gamers moved on with me. Other than my friend Clark occasionally complaining, everyone was fine with the move and no one suggested we go back to GURPS, Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and D&D.

Dungeons and Dragons

Yet, as I say, a good gamer dad encourages any kind of games (even video games, which I produced for many years so I was happy with that, too) so I sought out my friend Devi again, who was raising his kids on both board games and RPGs. He was kind enough to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons for us. As it happens, my longtime friend and fellow gamer, Chad Smith (who develops and designs with me sometimes), brought his own son to the game as well. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one whose offspring wondered about the game we had so enjoyed in our youth.

Soon enough, we settled down in our game room and played a massive 4th Edition game of D&D with a few adults and a bunch of kids. While Devi did a great job running the game, it wasn’t my cup of tea. It was about six hours of play for a couple of combats against some kobolds and some time walking down a road. My eurogamer mind imagined how much delightful cube-pushing, auctioning, trading, and negotiation play I could have enjoyed during that one long afternoon. I calculated the mix of fillers, meatier games, maybe a middle-weight or two thrown into the list. That would have been a better day than this excursion to kill kobolds and goblins while teenagers fussed about whose turn it was and wanting to go to town to ‘buy new boots.’ While that wasn’t my RPG experience in the 80’s, I’d always avoided players who did that sort of thing. The lengthy process of resolving battles felt flat to me. I wondered how some of my friends had so strongly embraced 4th Edition when it came out. Devi was a competent DM. The kids were a bit rambunctious and all but the whole thing just fell completely flat. I thought that clearly these experience games and Ameritrash just weren’t for me but I wasn’t done trying.

(to be continued)

Alea Small #3: Die Sieben Weisen

Few probably seriously contemplate the reasons for the gaps in the domestically available Alea game collection. One need only listen to an old Boardgame Babylon interview with Rio Grande honcho Jay Tummelson to learn the logic behind the omissions: they are games Jay didn’t like or didn’t think people in the US really needed. In the case of Adel Verpflichtet

Die Sieben Weisen

(that’s Alea Big Box #5 for those with a secret decoder ring), he figured people had plenty of opportunity to buy earlier editions in the U.S. and that it was an odd choice to add to the Alea library since it was an older game. But games like  Alea Small Box #3, Die Sieben Weisen by Reiner Stockhausen…well, it’s just something that Jay didn’t particularly like. Although I would disagree with him on Chinatown (the charming Alea Big Box #2), it is hard to argue with him on DSW. The game isn’t terribly popular with the BGG crowd either, despite its creative design. DSW is a negotiation game where players partner with one another in a duel of card play each turn. However, your ally this turn is often your opponent the next. The duels are simple enough; cards with numeric values are played but they must correspond to the role you have selected for the turn or be a ‘wild’ Owl card. The roles are various ‘wise men’ or ‘magician’ types that have a rank each turn and each suit has cards valued from 1 to 7. The 1 cards have a trick – if you play both from the role’s suit, they are worth 11 points. There are also spell cards that let players manipulate things a bit. Plus, they’re a good consolation prize – more on that later.

How do you decide which other player will become your partner? It’s mostly in the cards; you pick a role based on your hand and when you see what other roles are selected by other players, you offer to pair up with someone who selected a role for which you have at least one card and hope they might have a card or two for you, too. You get to exchange cards with your temporary partner and then start playing, aiming to amass a higher total than the opposing team using only cards that match your current role or those wild Owls. The other factor is that the role order at the beginning of the round because that will determine which of the winning partners will pick first from the VP markers for the round. This is really a secondary consideration, although if the two VP chits you are currently vying for are a 7 and a 2 (the range’s extremes), you might not want to help the perceived leader (VP are hidden) get too far ahead.

Right away, I knew this setup might be a bit of a challenge with the kids. Players get picked, which means other didn’t get picked, and kids can sometimes have a hard time with that. Both of my kids are middle-school age and that’s a tough time for not being selected. Happily, the rules of the game pretty much made all of those decisions for us. While there is technically an open discussion about who pairs with whom, it is usually a quick decision governed by one player having good cards for one of the other selected roles alongside cards for their own role. In my few plays of this game, every partnership was decided within a moment or two. The other players then have no choice but to ally. This happened time and again in our game with most of the partnerships initiated by me. Once in awhile, a player may have two good choices but even then, decisions are fairly quick.

Then the game gets a little less interesting. Players are essentially just playing cards with a raw value, possibly playing the special ‘spell’ cards which can manipulate things, and possibly bluffing that they have that second 1 value card for their role. The game’s little conical score keeping pieces and a zig-zag track are used to monitor the progress, which goes fast. As players drop out because they lack any more cards (or don’t want to play them), they get to replenish their hand from a small stack of drafted cards, meaning they’ll see a bit of what they’re up against next. The winners divvy up the VP markers based on their role’s rank for the turn and the losers get spell cards from that deck as consolation prizes. Those spell cards range from okay to awesome and can be played whenever appropriate. They can seriously alter individual outcomes, which can be a little maddening when you’ve been saving up for a big play.

And that’s kind of it; the game has a variable end, with a final tile buried near the bottom of the stack. At the end of the game, there are some one point awards for various things including the player with the highest value in cards for each role and every Owl card left is worth a single victory point.

So what did we think of it? Well, both kids got through the game without any arguing, although there was some question about whether or not people made sensible choices in picking a partner once in a while. For the most part, the easy gameplay made the learning curve small and, by the end of the game, everyone felt like they had had enough fun – but not enough to likely ask for DSW to come to the table again. My daughter managed to edge out my score by about two points only because people were really targeting me at the end of the game, refusing to partner with me if I asked. No fair – but that does happen around here sometimes…

I feel like it’s a game to try if you have the chance – the negotiations and changing partnerships give it a unique feel. But the kids were not really excited by that fact. They thought the gameplay was kind of boring and I have to admit they’re right. So, Die Sieben Weisen – back to the shelf for you and on to the next, far more entertaining game in the series: Edel, Stein & Reich.