Roux Dat #38: City Builder: Ancient World, Dwarf, and Storm Dragons!

Hey board gamers, BJ from Board Game Gumbo here back with more tales of gaming down on the bayou. Our Gumbo Game Nights have been going strong of late, with a couple of dozen people showing up each Wednesday night at Anubis Game & Hobby in Lafayette to try out the latest hotness or our favorite classics. Plus, we are still getting together frequently online with gamers around the country to try new games.

Hit us up on Twitter or on Facebook and let us know what games you’ve been playing during this crisis and what games you think we should play!

But that’s enough blather, let’s get to the games!

This time, we are recapping our recent plays of City Builder: Ancient World from Inside Up Games, Dwarf from Dragon Dawn Productions, and Storm Dragons! Our thanks to all three publishers for the review copies.

ROME IF YOU WANT TO…

What a pleasure when the publisher teaches you one of their new games. Unfortunately, there’s less pleasure when it’s a digital implementation instead of on the tabletop. That’s why I was excited when Inside Up Games sent us a review copy of City Builder: Ancient World. Since 2016, I’ve documented the many ways I enjoy dropping tiles onto a game mat and counting up points. Does City Builder do it differently enough to excite me?

Short answer: an emphatic yes.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves a bit, as we need to set the scene. City Builder is a four player tile laying game based on an ancient Roman emperor’s desire to spruce up the city. Players are competing magistrates, taxed with building beautiful monuments according to the Emperor’s plans.

Players start with three basic tiles, and a starter section of their part of the city. Each turn, they will place one of the tiles connected to other tiles, and if they close in parts of the city, and can match the requirements of colored buildings, they will be able to claim matching cute little “settler” meeples for placement in the city.

And there’s the rub of the game. The meeples come from shared boards between you and the player on your right or the player on your left. The further you geaux down the row, the more points you score. If both sides are chasing after the same row, that can only mean one thing — a tug of war that one person will eventually win by getting just a little bit further than the other player and stopping both of their progress.

For such a little box game, with such a short play time, too, there is a lot of meat on the bones of City Builder. So many micro decisions to consider! Which row of citizens to grab, how the other players are developing their boards, what tiles will combo up into bigger and better enclosures, and when to score a monument are all very thinky, very crunchy, but very delicious decisions.

One of the biggest decisions is magnified each game: not only do you have to focus on which partner/player you will draw settlers from, to make sure you don’t get locked out of the biggest point opportunities, but there are two different types of settlers, each with their own requirements for placement and different point levels, and a bonus purple type of settler that takes even more planning.

I loved my play of City Builder: Ancient World online, I loved it as a two player game with my wife in person, and so far, I have loved playing City Builder with four players, too. (Side note: we have not yet played the cooperative version, yet, or tried it at three players on the table.)

Ah, but there is one issue with the game, unfortunately. The art on the tiles is so detailed and so busy, that every single group I played it with struggled with some of the counter lines and some of the objects on the tiles. I’m not the only one that noticed; Alex of the Dukes of Dice podcast noted the same on a recent episode. But, he also reported that Inside Up Games has a fix on the way, so the copy you get will probably not have these issues.

On the other hand, the rest of the production is outstanding. The insert holds everything and can be removed to help set up the game, the double-sided settler point tracks are double-layered so the settlers don’t get jostled around if you bump the table. And if you like the art style, there are tons and tons of different illustrations to keep you busy while you wait for you turn. You probably won’t wait for long, because City Builder is one of those breezy playing games where it always seems to be your turn.

Roux Dat says: Problems with the artwork aside, any fans of games that play a lot bigger than their boxes suggest will be very pleasantly surprised when they play City Builder: Ancient World. My first time opening up the box and playing a whole game reminded me of my family’s discovery of another little box game called Walking in Burano, another wickedly deep game with a short play time. City Builder was one of my most anticipated games from our Punchboard Media Mixer after Gen Con 2020, and it was as solid as I thought it would be. I’m looking forward to more plays as we discover how the monuments interact with the tiles.

NO ONE TOSSES A DWARF

Oh how I love worker placement games! I’m always on the lookout for games that somehow find fresh twists on the genre. When I saw that Dragon Dawn Productions had a worker placement game with a dwarven theme that promised a different board every game, I was certainly intrigued.

In Dwarf, from one to three players take turns placing their dwarven miners onto an ever changing tableau of cards representing an ancient mine guarded by fearsome monsters. The “mine” consists of a three by three grid of cards, each with a different action spot. The goal is simple: strategize your way into having more gold, steel, or legendarily crafted items than the other player at the end of the game, but with a little bit of a twist — you need to win two of those three categories to win the game.

The spots on the board are printed right on the cards, and will come in one of four varieties. Monsters hurt every player, but only if none of the players give up one of their miners to defeat them. Get Help cards temporarily double your workers from two to four, letting players tackle the multiple monsters that sometimes flood the mine. The mining sections give you resources, and the forge cards let you turn those resources into other better resources or even into the rare items.

During our first play, we struggled with the rulebook as well as the iconography on the cards, which slowed the game down considerably. I dove onto BGG’s forums for some quick help, and luckily, there was a lot of activity around the game in terms of questions and answers for some of the exact issues we had. (My other issue with the way the rulebook was laid out was also a sentiment shared by others.)There are some universal symbols that most games share, a lingo if you will, that makes learning games faster and more intuitive. I think the publisher would have been much better served looking for commonality with other games instead of uniqueness on those cards.

Rulebook notwithstanding, the tug of war that goes on in trying to win two out of the three categories is not only fun but just stressful enough to make every player stare at their spot and at their rival’s every turn. Do I spend these resources, which knocks me one back of my opponent, but gives me a chance to rocket past them in another category and burn the extra for the third category? Can I chain those actions up in a cool way? Even the description of the struggle sounds enticing to me just writing it up.

Let me not get carried away; this is familiar territory, converting resources, blocking spots, and being very efficient with your actions. But there was one thing that really stood out about Dwarf that makes me want to play it again. I really enjoyed the wacky game breaking special cards that players have access to each round.

Instead of placing a worker in the mine, players can instead choose to spend two workers (or alternatively, pay four ‘medals’, which are your rewards for defeating monsters) and play one of the special cards that are available. These are randomly shuffled into three stacks at the start of the game, and players can see three face up at any one time.

Some of the cards introduce absolute chaos into the game, shifting cards around in the stacks or on the tableau, which are my least favorite. But others can really amp up your ability that turn and are so much fun to play. Give your opponent a knowing smile as you casually toss four medals back into your bit bowl, destroy their best laid plans by choosing the right card, and maybe finish off the play with a quick wink.

Your opponents will appreciate it.

ROUX DAT SAYS: Dwarf is an interesting take on the worker placement line-up weighed down a bit too much by the rule book and the hard to decipher iconography. The jazzy swinginess of the special cards and the unique shifting tableau in the mine were not enough for us to be completely satisfied with the gameplay. A pity, too, because the idea of tapping into dwarven lore, stealing treasures from a dragon’s hoard, and racing to forge legendary items before your opponents is truly enticing. This is a game with a cool theme, interesting take on worker placement, and some spicy special cards that playfully break the game even if only for a second. Games like Space Explorers or Century: A New World do some of these concepts better, but if the shifting tableau, quick pace of play, and dwarven theme appeals to you, the game is compact, quick playing, and might be worth a look see.

THERE BE DRAGONS IN THE SKIES

My unicorn is the search for the perfect dragon game. I grew up loving the Dragon side of D&D, and the terrifyingly beautiful creatures are like sirens when I walk by a box cover containing one. Dragons riding trains would be a perfect game in my world, but I digress.

I have yet to find that 10/10 dragon game, but I’m always happy to check a new one out. The folks at Dragon Phoenix Games from just across the border in Texas sent us a review copy to play. This card game plays two to six players in about an hour, and features clans of dragons battling high over the sky at the annual Brimstone Brood Games. I convinced my nephew, Jerod, a big gamer in his own right, to help me explore the box.

Each player will have a deck of dragons, with various titles from King to Spy, and will play these dragons in an attempt to win each trick — err — dragon battle. The battle can be influenced with the play of “storm” cards causing major changes in the weather above the battlefield (i.e. changing the game state or player’s card power), plus, players can also affect whether the dragons are battling in the day or in the night. Some dragons are good at battling in the early morning mist, I guess, while others are useless the next morning after finishing off an illegal burrito from Izzo’s after 8p.

I speak from experience there.

On the plus side, the oversized tarot cards and gorgeous artwork lent some authority to the play of the game. Each dragon is unique, and figuring out the best way to combo your first dragon played with the rest in your hand was a delicious decision. Timing the storm cards, or switching out your leader, or dumping cards for more draws — all of these are quick but meaningful decisions.

And the production is pretty top notch, typical of what you find in a Kickstarter. Playmats, thick cardboard bits, shiny metal coin to denote night and day — it’s all there.

But the problem is like many kickstarters. This is a decent trick taking game dressed up in very fancy clothes, maybe a little too fancy if you are eating the three street taco deal at Izzo’s (if you do, geaux for the southwest ceasar sauce). As much as I like wearing a tie, in my heart of hearts I realize that it is not appropriate attire everywhere. On the other hand, the system of playing cards that instantly change the strength of your play or comboing up storm cards with a strong dragon or messing with the game state appealed to Jerod much more than I did — he loves any kind of two player battling games and got into the concept right away.

For me, something the Secret Cabal said recently about trick-taking games hit me — a good trick taking game needs some cool twists without being so overbearing either in theme or in rules that you lose sight of the smoothness and elegance of the gameplay. I wish it had not been, but that was my experience here. A battle trick taking game all about fierce dragons should be swift, terrifying, balance shifting, and intuitive, and unfortunately, Storm Dragons was none of those things. Like I said, Jerod and I split weirdly on the two games this week — I liked Dwarf more than he did, and he liked Storm Dragons more than I did — and while I am looking forward to another of Dwarf with the Gumbo Krewe, if I play Storm Dragons again, it will be either at a higher play count or even in the cooperative mode that comes with the game.

ROUX DAT SAYS: Storm Dragons is in a genre I love, trick-taking games, and you will not be disappointed by the production value. It certainly strives to turn the familiar mechanic on its head a bit. But where Yokai Septet introduced a wicked twist on how you look at the power of your cards, or Diamonds took the familiar Hearts/Spades concept and messed with the scoring, Storm Dragons takes a concept of having two separate game states with variable power cards and influence cards but did not on our first experience combine them smoothly enough to wrestle for multiple plays. I like the thought process but not the execution, but that means I will be on the look out for other games from Dragon Phoenix that might mix the new with the elegant in a better fashion. That being said, I love the artwork, the contents of the game are stellar, and there’s more than just one game in the box. Maybe next time we just ditch the theme itself, concentrate on the trick-taking portion of the game, and let ‘er rip.

So that’s it for our recent plays. Roux Dat will be back soon with more early looks at recent plays. Board Game Gumbo thanks for the publishers for providing review copies.

Is there a game out there that you or your friends are curious about? Hit us up with a tweet @boardgamegumbo and we will see if we can get our hands on the game!

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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