Roux Dat #39: Nidavellir, On the Rocks, and New York Zoo

Hey board gamers, BJ from Board Game Gumbo here back with more tales of gaming down on the bayou. Gumbo Game Nights have taken a hit lately, with most people hunkering down to COVID or because of the recent hurricane. So hit us up on Twitter or on Facebook and let us know what games you’ve been playing, 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 Nidavellir, On the Rocks, and New York Zoo.

Back-to-Back-to-Back

Long has it been since a meaty card game enthralled us enough to want to play multiple games in a row in one night. (ed.’s note: actually 2.5 times).

Jeremy Howard from Man v Meeple talked up this game pretty highly, so it should not have surprised me, because rarely does Jeremy steer us wrong on Gumbo Live! Nidavellir, designed by Serge Leget (Mare Nostrum, Mystery of the Abbey, Shadows over Camelot) is one such game.

Jeremy stumps BJ and Verla with Nidavellir!

I actually got this in trade from a BGG user, and cracked it open right away. Dave and I learned the game by playing the first age, and then we played back to back games with Jerod. Long time readers know that I’m an early riser, so waiting to start TWO games until ten o’clock at night kind of tells you how much we got excited reading the rules and working through mechanics.

Nidavellir is a card drafting, set collection tableau game but with an absolutely wicked blind bidding system. The system allows you to either grab the cards OR sacrifice your position in the bid to upgrade your bids for the next round. Plus, jumping the other players by grabbing lots of different cards gives you a chance at hero cards that can really ramp up your score, literally changing it by 50, 60, 80 or even a hundred points. (Think Fantasy Realms or Red Rising but with bidding instead of hand management).

Players will draft cards using those bids in two ages, which compromise (in a three player game) of four turns of drafting. There is just enough information out there that strategic players will draft for their tableau but also with a little bit of ‘friendly’ hate drafting. Each color of card scores differently, and we are still working through after 2.5 plays which color might be the strongest. At the end of the second age, and after the last of the shenanigans have happened among players throwing down Hero powers, each player scores based on how many of each faction card is in their hand plus their upgraded coins.

But our trip to Nidavellir was not just a one time jaunt. We went back to Nidavellir on the livestream on Twitch this week, and it was as good as ever. Each of us are trying out different strategies every game, and the pattern that I am seeing is that it is not so important what color you do or which strategy you pursue, but more how efficient you are at performing the strat. There’s no dice rolls to get in your way, it is just the mind game of figuring out what other people may want to buy versus what you want to get for your tableau. We have Thingavellir on the way, so I am looking forward to more visits to the universe.

Roux Dat says: Nidavellir is simple to learn, but as soon as the game starts, the mind games among players begin, and they are absolutely irresistible. The art is serviceable, but the production is fantastic, with a wonderful 3D display of the bidding coins that reminds you that they are not only points in your hand, but also power to be wielded. And the tiebreaker? That’s something we never talk about in board gaming, but the tiebreaker in Nidavellir is one of the most intriguing that I’ve ever played. Nidavellir has shot up to the top of the games that came out in 2020, and I’ve got some serious pondering to do to figure out where it goes.

Closing Time, You Don’t Have To Geaux Home

Next up, my wife and I enjoyed playing On the Rocks, coming to retail from 25th Century Games and designers Christine and Michael Pittre. Opening this box was an absolute visual treat. The graphic design work and production in this game is over the top goodness, which in the version we have looks like something a runaway Kickstarter company would send you at the end of a very successful campaign.

Thankfully, it is not. On The Rocks is a pleasant, strolling experience of a game. Players draft marbles Azul style from “jigger” cups of “ingredients” to score points. Each player has room for up to three drinks on their “order”, and get rewards for completing the order correctly. But watch out — spills could happen which can slow them down. After three complete drink orders are turned in correctly, the game finishes and players get points for completed drinks, any tips they received, and any bonuses they got for finishing faster than the other players.

There’s just enough player interaction that side long glances at the other players’ boards will be rewarded. Most of the tip cards are positive benefits for the player (as long as they are willing to give up the points on the card), but some of them cause spills, too. And of course, there’s the standard euro “I’ll take what you need” interaction in drafting the marbles. The decision to slow another player down can cost the other player a bunch of points, so in our games, it has generally been reserved in an attempt to ‘catch up’.

I got to play this as a two player game as well as solo. In both cases, the rules were done well enough to get us up and running quickly, and there’s a handy dandy “questions” card that addressed most of the edge cases and was also a good reminder about the quirkier rules in the game. By the end of the first game, my wife was enjoying the tiny but important decisions inherent in the game: what ingredients should you save from round to round; how many drink orders can be handled at one time; is it better to race to finish nine first, or mix in some four drink rounds for the extra points. These aren’t difficult or AP inducing decisions, but they are meaningful.

ROUX DAT SAYS: 25th Century Games has a well deserved reputation for finding games that take a familiar mechanic, and then spices them up with amazing production, elegant upgrades to the gameplay, and visual appeal. The production of On The Rocks really amped up the theme — sure, this is essentially a puzzly efficiency game about placing the right ingredients in the right bowls to help you complete the recipes faster than the other player. But the jiggers, and the artwork, and the dual-layered drink order board, and the tip cards, all added up to put us in the mood. Having just played Beez recently, I could not help comparing the two in my mind. Where Beez seemed to me to be all about the production without much interesting gameplay, On The Rocks on the other hand combined a stellar production with very breezy gameplay that gave us interesting things to do on every turn. I can easily see this one taking the place of Azul or Sagrada for experienced players or even for groups wanting that Azul experience but with more theme.

And They All Asked For You

My wife and I have a common love for polynomial tile laying games. I am glad I have her as a partner because this might be the least favorite mechanic with the rest of the Gumbo. I’d never have a chance to play them without her!

Jerod came by with New York Zoo, published by Capstone Games, another exploration of the mechanic by the master of polynomials, Uwe Rosenberg. We’ve enjoyed Patchwork and Cottage Garden and Indian Summer and Spring Meadow in the past. Each one has a little bit of a twist on the same “place a tile, do something cool with it” mechanic.

New York Zoo has it’s own little wrinkle. On the surface, New York Zoo is pretty standard racing game fare, where players are trying to be the first to fill up their board with animal enclosures and concession stands. The production stands out from the other games we’ve played, though; the pieces are adorable little wooden representations of each of the animals, and there’s a long strip of cardboard that serves as the “market” for the tiles that you get. But there are a couple of unique angles to this game that made our plays enjoyable enough to warrant a half dozen or so plays over the past weekend.

Essentially, players will move the cute little elephant meeple down the path, picking up tiles to make enclosures or restocking the enclosures already on their board with more animal meeples. Once a tile is filled with the same animal, they can be turned in to purchase concession tiles which help fill in the gaps.

The game plays very quickly as each turn takes only a second, and I love the “follow” mechanic that allows other players to expand their animal in the enclosures anytime another player crosses over the animal breeding spaces. It keeps players engaged the whole time.

ROUX DAT SAYS: Patchwork is a better game, only because of the button economy, but honestly, New York Zoo rises above the rest of the polynomial games from Rosenberg because of the racing element and because of the “turn the animals in” mechanic. We saw a version of that in the Cottage Garden series of games, but I think it’s done better here. The ability to “split” your animal herds into different groups to breed faster is an intriguing one because it makes for a juicy decision: do I race quickly to fill tiles, or split the animals so that I can get a perpetual engine of concession tiles every turn? Making that choice each round is delicious fun. Probably the biggest thing I can say for New York Zoo is that we leave it set up after each play on our breakfast table, ready to play again.

THE WRAP UP:

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 publisher of On The Rocks 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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