Players: Nige, Mark G, John, Garry
I had just received a new order from Adam Spielt and knew that Nige would be keen to play this new game from Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. I’ve not seen news of an English edition yet, so spent Thursday evening translating the rules. They turned out to be pretty simple but deceptively so because the game is full of difficult choices.
Australia is themed around groups of Rangers who are working on nature and industry projects throughout the country in the 1920s. It could, however, just as easily have had another Tikal/Java/Mexica tag because the gameplay is fairly abstract. The board is a map of the country, split into 24 regions in six different colours. In each region, there is a nature project and an industry project which pay out Victory Points once they have been completed. Bordering each region are a number of bases where rangers can be placed. Players control an aeroplane and a limited number of rangers and are trying to place the latter in order to optimise their scoring potential when the projects conclude.
Each turn, every player will perform two out of three possible actions: Fly your plane to a region; play a card to collect money and place Rangers from your supply into the region where your plane is situated; or remove up to four rangers from the region where your plane is. The cards determine which coloured region you can place rangers in, how many rangers can be placed (between 1 and 4), and how many dollars you can collect (3 if you can place just 1 ranger / zilch if you can place 4). The dollars are then used to turn the colour of a card to a different one of your choice, move a ranger from any base to any other base, or for VPs at the end of the game.
Scoring occurs when projects are completed: for nature projects, this is when every base in that region has at least one ranger on it; for industry projects, it is when a certain number of rangers are present in that region. Whoever triggers the scoring receives 3 VPs and then every player receives 1 VP for each ranger they have in that region (or 2 VPs for rangers on a base at sea). In the advanced game, rangers can also be involved in a windmill project, which scores every time a certain number of nature/industry projects has been completed. Every time, a card is played, a replacement is taken from one of the four draw piles, and once a player runs out of cards and cannot draw a replacement, the game ends. Dollars are then converted to VPs and whoever has accumulated the most VPs wins.
This is an excellent game, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. Although your choice of actions is limited, there are lots of scoring opportunities and choosing which to concentrate on is tricky. Two actions is never enough and your supply of rangers (11 in a four player game) is so limited that you are constantly having to weigh up when to fly your plane into regions to remove rangers for use on your next turn. Also, very often you are trying to set yourself up for scoring on your next turn, but at the same time you risk setting an opponent up before you. We thought early on there might be a runaway leader problem, as John raced ahead and looked to be nicely placed for future scoring. However, he got pegged back while having to recover rangers for use elsewhere and by about three quarters of the way through, we all were within five points of each other (at around 90 points each). I then managed to capitalise on one turn being able to trigger three sets of scoring and this pushed me ahead enough so the others were unable to catch up. We played the advanced version, which isn’t much more advanced than the basic one, and John scored lots of easy points as he was the only one really to concentrate on the windmills. It will be very interesting to see how players approach the next game, as I am already thinking about different things I could have done to score better (despite the fact I won). This is a pretty good sign and I wouldn’t bet against this being there or thereabouts for the Spiel Des Jahres this time. It’s got plenty to think about but is very simple mechanically.
Result: Garry 137, John 133, Nige 119, Mark G 107
Ratings: Garry 8, John 8, Nige 9, Mark G 9
Players: Nige, Mark G, John, Garry
We then tried Aaron Weissblum’s bluffing balloon game, which has recently been released by Out Of The Box in the UK. I played the original FX Schmid version several years ago and really enjoyed it. The OOTB version is a bit more streamlined and works ok for a light family game, but the game is a bit poorer for some of the elements they’ve left out. Greg Aleknevicus expands on this in his Games Journal review.
Everybody starts with their playing piece in the balloon and players take turns controlling the balloon. The controller rolls a number of dice, which will show a combination of cards that the player has to discard from his hand for the balloon to successfully rise to the next level. The higher the balloon rises, the more points are available to be scored. Between rolling the dice and playing cards, each player other than the controller has the option of getting out of the balloon and banking the points accumulated so far on this flight. If they stay in, they could get more points if the controller has the right cards but, if he fails, the balloon crashes and anyone still in the balloon scores nothing. Players start with six cards each but only draw one additional card after each flight, no matter how many cards they’ve played meantime. Several flights are run until someone reaches 50 points at which stage the person with the most points wins.
John again set off to an early lead, whereas I was lagging at the back. However, when I was in control of the balloon, I kept rolling blanks and so conserving my cards. I managed to push a solo flight to 15 points which pushed me into the lead and just 14 points from the finish line. Nige and I then embarked on an epic flight and although I bailed out at 15 points, I knew Nige couldn’t catch me, although he did successfully get to the maximum 25 points to finish just one point adrift of my score. Again we enjoyed this as a light filler but next time we play, I’m going to re-introduce the rules left out of the OOTB edition.
Result: Garry 51, Nige 50, Mark G 43, John 42
Ratings: Garry 6, Nige 5, Mark G 7, John 7