Gamer's Notebook

There can be no bigger news this time than Avalon Hill's substantial withdrawal from the boardgame market. Rumours started around the middle of April and leaks at Historicon compounded the worries. By the time you read this the news should be generally known and confirmed. Details are still sketchy, but the withdrawal seems to be in favour of computer game production I now have the firm impression that Sumo and the other boardgame journals are fighting a rearguard action! It is assumed (fingers crossed) that they will be finishing development on games in the pipeline (such as Maharajah (Britannia in India) and Richard Berg's Geronimo). One also presumes ASL is safe but even that is an unknown with news that the ASL Annual is no more. It is not known what will happen to existing lines, or Victory Games, or The General, but it is reasonable to conclude there will be far fewer new boardgames, if any. When the implications of this have sunk in, I'll be able to comment further.

It is a real shame that one of the last games to emerge from Avalon Hill may turn out to be Assassin, their recent re-issue of Chris Baylis' Eurohit. In all honesty, I could never bring myself to play Eurohit because the rules were unintelligible and the fiddly cards were unusable the fact that it ended up remaindered may indicate that others agreed with me. Anyway, I had intended to do a full review of this one but couldn't bring myself to spend the time, so I issue the following warning for those who might be considering purchase at an unreasonable £16- £19! The game is really pretty awful. The system is dull and unimaginative, the play is random in the extreme, the card system is unusually basic (and the distributions are completely askew) and, worst of all, there seems to be a flaw in the central premise. The idea is to travel around Europe visiting as many cities as you can using planes, trains and automobiles. The twist is that one of you is an unrevealed assassin and, to score bonus points, must arrive at a city containing another player and 'shoot' him. The trouble is that all players quickly fan out from Vienna using the all too rare destination cards and the chances of you catching or getting ahead of them seem to be close to zero. You would have to have the same destination card, be in the same part of the map, get there at the right time, and catch him while in (usually rapid) transit all pretty unlikely. In truth, you can't be bothered anyway. Only one of the six people playing wanted to continue after half an hour, and he has since been found to be a shareholder in Eurotunnel. Without a strong assassin element the game loses not only its raison d'Étre but also all interaction. The net result is a mad rush around Europe trying to keep awake until, blissfully, the card is turned that ends your misery. This really does rank as one of the most boring and pointless games ever designed. Not quite Star Fleet Missions, but worryingly close. What puzzles me is why AH even considered publishing this game, and having done so, why it was released in this sorry state (gameplay, not graphics), but this may remain a mystery. It won't save Avalon Hill if you buy this game, so save your pennies.

Games & Puzzles will have had two or even three issues out by now and I have to say I like it among others, I though the introductory Go articles were the best I've seen. Apart from the fact I can't do the puzzles and I would like to see many more boardgame reviews, it has struck a good balance and seems to be pushing into those markets with lots of players. If we can hang onto its coat-tails in some fashion then that is fine with me and I have certainly picked up a good number of subscribers from my advert. I question the lack of coverage on German games (rationalised due to the small market size) as unless their profile is raised then there never will be a market, but Paul Lamford seems to know his stuff and survival would seem to be feasible under his guidance, which is the important thing. Apart from ad hoc assignments, I am covering the PC column which is good news as it will cause minimal conflict with Sumo's content and at least enables me to keep the lid on my workload. I will make every effort not to duplicate reviews in the two magazines, because I know how annoying this is, but it may occasionally be unavoidable. However, with low-key European games coverage in G&P, the fit looks pretty good and we can retain complementary roles for the short term. I have high hopes for this one.

Pete Bartlam of Games & Jigsaws tells me he has upped and moved the shop from downtown New Malden to affluent Putney. His new shop, called GamePoint, is at 23 Putney Exchange, Putney High Street, Putney, London SW15 1TW, Tel: 081 789 1126. Pete will be continuing to stock his excellent range of boardgames and jigsaws along with one of the best selections of PC strategy games in the capital. The main problem with going to the shop is trying not to spend a small fortune as Pete is both a knowledgeable and enthusiastic salesman. He is also a graduate of the Anti- Marketing school and won't sell you anything that you don't need or isn't suited Pete and I spent an interesting two minutes convincing each other that we didn't need to buy the others' products! What a pair.

In the foreseeable future there should be two more special issues of Sumo appearing, once I get the time to put them together. One is the inevitable Retro II which will cover reviews and articles from Sumo 9 through 16 and will only really be of interest to those who don't have the back issues which, again, are in short supply every time I increase the print run, I get more subbers who want all available issues. What a bind. The other publication is Sumo Abstract, which will feature reviews of the many abstract games that have appeared recently along with perhaps a few completely new reviews that may not make it into Sumo. These will include Ko-An and might include Terrace, Cathedral, Connections and Carat. There will also be a piece by Chamelequin's designer, Richard Breese, on how best to play the game. I have no idea what the page count and thus price on either of these will be, but they should be appearing in shops soon. If any subscribers want either publication, drop me a line and I'll send you a copy against your credit balance.

A quick note on subscriptions. Because of the recent run of big issues, a number of subscriptions went overdrawn, some to the extent of several pounds. Being a kindly and trusting (some would say stupid) soul, I sent the respective subbers issue 14/15 anyway and promptly received renewals from most. However, having offset the debit balances, some of the subscription credits were rather depleted (especially overseas subs, particularly Ken Hill), so much so that some will require renewal again this time. Just thought you'd like to know what happened in case you have another reminder slip this time. If any American subscriber would like to top up his sub at a premium by obtaining me a specific book, please let me know by phone. DigiDie was a product I spotted at the Olympia Toyfair which I would think can only be a success. If you can imagine a large six sided dice with seven LEDs set in the top like this

O     O
O  O  O
O     O

you will get the picture. A quick press of the button gives a random 'roll' and the LEDs light up accordingly. I guess you would need two or more for most games, but DigiDie aren't losing sleep over this. It will inevitably sell by the cartload to RPG gamers who seem to rather like these gadgets. The prototype version apparently needs some work on its random number generator and the production model will be of high quality plastic. DigiDie will be in full production later this year and will be available from the usual retail outlets.

The first efforts at computer translation (German-English, using commercial packages in the £100 range) have returned from the test sites and reactions are mixed. It is promising to see the general structure and words coming out as well as they do. You can certainly get the gist of the sentences and paragraphs as a result. What you don't get is anything approximating to usable text and at the very least a re-write would be in order. The results can be quaint, Pythonesque, wordy or just pretty funny. Many thanks and Legion d'Honneurs to Bob Scherer-Hoock and Mike Schloth for their efforts and, well, back to the drawing board and relying on our even-more-highly-valued translators.

Fantasy Football seems to have been something of a runaway success, spawning Fantasy Cricket, Rugby League, Tennis, Formula One and even Political clones. Mike Clifford tells me there are close on 300,000 players in The Telegraph league and many more elsewhere. I entered the Telegraph as it is a bit of fun, cheap and with a minimal workload. We have a private competition among our game group plus Mrs Farquhar who is soundly beating all of us. I was going fine until a friend spotted I had spent £25m instead of the £20m permitted so it was goodbye to Speed, Le Tissier and a decent defence. The game was going fine until the Telegraph printed the running points totals before the entry deadline (bright move) which allowed all the City types to move in and work out P/E ratios for the players. This turned the game into more of a spreadsheet analysis rather than a sports prediction game and ensured total Telegraph scarcity in the Square Mile. The good news is that there may well be some scope here for players to move onto more sophisticated postal games and the PBM hobby should be ready, just like the amateur postal hobby won't be. Whatever, I never made the top levels as did Mike Clifford (top 20 after the first week) and jokes were made about my being relegated to The Sun's league. I should have learned from my earlier ventures that while I can pick a decent forward line, I am hopeless on defence. I guess I'd be okay if soccer clubs had offensive coaches (and they don't come any more offensive... no, very old and obvious joke).

Very quickly on the subject of PBM, to assuage the many offended bods the world over, when I use the letters PBM I mean the professional arm of the postal hobby, not the many amateur magazines that churn out pages of chat and game reports each month for 50 pee and the price of a stamp. I have nothing but admiration for these people (well, outright concern in some cases) and certainly do not include them in my disparaging remarks about value for money (doing so would make one undisputed King of the Churls). As individuals I have no complaints whatsoever (and indeed still subscribe or trade with a number of titles) but as a Hobby they seem incapable of going anywhere or allowing some form of active leadership, yet are always making noises about spreading the word exactly as I do, in fact! The pro PBM boys get a return volley in the letter column which I think probably completes the postal picture for now.

I mentioned the handmade,'buy from a backpack' range of games from DB Spiele last time. I have now had the chance to play all four and can confirm that Al Capone is by far the best, closely followed by Spekulation (yet another variant on the stockmarket theme, but a good one) and then, more distantly, Carat (a neat little abstract game owing not a little to Revolution). I was disappointed only by Hopfen & Malz, a basic card game which really doesn't offer much play depth it works well, but it is simplistic. Al Capone is a clever little card game by which you are trying to take majority control of a variety of gangster related businesses in Chicago. You have a hand of numbered cards which are split into suits corresponding to four areas of Chicago. Each area contains a card, perhaps a gunsmith, a laundry or a betting shop, with a numerical value. If you can exceed the numerical value with the appropriate area suited cards you can claim the business card, and if you can match it exactly, you gain a free turn as well. When a business card is claimed, it is replaced at random by another which is up for grabs next turn. If neither of these options is possible (or preferable), you simply pick up numbered cards for the future. In this way, you build up holdings in the six types of business, always with the intention of maintaining a majority. At two variable points in the game (a la the Airlines wertung cards) the points are awarded for your holdings, and again at the end importantly, the points awarded increase throughout the game. The game fairly cracks along and you will be hard put to spend more than half an hour on it.The decision making is of a medium weight there is a degree of deciding whether to wait for more cards or grab those you can, and then you must decide whether to specialise in one or two categories or go for everything you can pick up. Beyond that, the game will be pretty obvious but it works extremely well and I have no doubt that if Al Capone were marketed in a Ravensburger box and graced with professional graphics, it would rank with the best small games on the market. As it is, you can only buy it from the publishers direct and I recommend it highly.

I received a good idea from Paul Barker who suggested that if I have all these fringe gaming interests that don't get into Sumo, what about an occasional bit of relevant news or views from each one? Well, yes, that seems fine. I can't see anyone being much interested in the new Foundry Napoleonic figures, Carrom, painting techniques or Subbuteo (hah!), but there might be occasions where this works. An ideal starting point is We the People, the introductory American War of Independence game from Avalon Hill which I have been playing a lot recently. While there is little doubt that this game fits into the board wargame category, and only accommodates two players (a similar system to accommodate more could be rather interesting), it is one of the most playable, easily learned and quick wargames I've yet seen. It is hard to say these days, as a veteran gamer, just what constitutes an approachable game but I suspect this comes close the rules are clear and concise (no 30 pages of stodge here), the mechanics are not too distanced from some of the German games you are familiar with and you can easily play it in much the same timeframe as Elfenroads (two hours or less). Despite the wargame tag, there are no hexes, no combat results tables and even minimal die rolling. The emphasis of the game is firmly political you aim to sway the populace to your cause (by way of an almost abstract sub-game of placing counters) and it is this aspect, rather than constant military action, that is important.

The game system runs off of action cards, which are self- explanatory you choose the card, play it and resolve the action, then your opponent does the same. Seven plays constitute a year's worth of campaigning and political turmoil. In much the same way as some of the European games, it manages to cram a lot of action into a remarkably short play length and for this reason encourages you to play again and again we frequently play back to back games, changing sides. For those who enjoy history, there is a good of feel for the period, mainly generated by the cards and the map. There are simple but effective mechanisms depicting British naval power, reinforcements and the role of the French while the battle sub-system is actually a simple card game. The result is a real sense of campaigning, even to the extent of not getting to do exactly what you want, and trying to influence that fickle populace. My experience with the game indicates that there is a slight bias in favour of the American player, but others with more experience suggest that it is balanced. Either way, if you want to build in a handicap, give the stronger player the British. Ironically, We the People seems to be bereft of the Smithsonian tag which is a real shame because it represents the best introductory game released so far in that otherwise patchy series. It is also the best overall for some while. As a crossover game from the 'fluffy' area, or as a wargame in its own right, it is well worth your time and money which, in the current market, you can't say about many of the titles on offer. Very highly recommended.

The Double Six Club was launched early this year by a couple of those media beings who have the power to pull every newspaper and TV station in for an interview. The resulting splash was enough to alert most gamers in the capital and those that have been along have enjoyed it, although mainly I suspect because there is a big sign over the door saying, 'Here be Women Gamers'. I haven't been myself, and doubt I will bother, but you are free to play any boardgames you take along or you can choose from a range including Ker-Plunk, Colditz, Triv and Pop Quiz. It costs £4 to play till early in the morning and drinks, at club prices, are on hand. I may be wrong, but I get the impression the club is pulling in a similar trendy crowd to the Vertical Refreshment Co, but with the benefit of a more central location. The Double Six meets every Tuesday 7pm-3am at Wildes, 13 Gerrard Street, London W1. The Boardroom, meanwhile, is a little more refined and according to visitors has more the feel of a Bridge Club in the days of The Raj (but without the punkawallahs). This amounts to a large basement and verandah in Media Vale which offers much the same facilities (and fee structure) as the Double Six but bring your own booze. The idea is to provide a place to play games and perhaps get away from it all for a few hours. Sounds good to me. The Boardroom is at 51 Maida Vale, London W9 1SJ Tel: 071 266 0155 and is open 7 days a week, 1pm till midnight.

James Wallis has moved the required mountains and put out the first issue of Inter*action which has to be one of the most impressive debuts in gaming literature. With over 120 pages on interactive narrative in games, professionally presented and written, this looks more like a academic journal than a fanzine (and I mean that in the best possible way). The first issue features articles on freeform games, re-enactment, solo gamebooks, psychology, morality, the history of RPGs, realism & playability and interactive fiction on computers, nearly all of which I found fascinating reading. There are also a few reviews which throw the unashamed puffery of the monthlies into stark relief. Some of the writers take themselves a little seriously, and we stray very close to 'gaming as an art form' hogwash at times, but every piece made me think about the issues and that is good writing as far as I'm concerned. For anyone interested in interactive narrative, the theory of game systems and wider issues of games, this is an excellent journal. Inter*action is available for £20 (UK) $40 (US/World) for five issues from Crashing Boar Books (haha), 29a Abbeville Rd, London SW4 9LA or you should be able to get hold of the first issue from most retail outlets.

The computer gaming front has picked up recently with a number of new games dropping through the letterbox a fact not unrelated to my Games & Puzzles column. What with that, the promising PC Player launch and John Garrett starting up a new strategy games magazine (details from John at 45 Arthur Rd, Wokingham, Berks RG11 2SS), the loss of Strategy Plus (as a viable read) is eased a little. There have been a number of outstanding games since Christmas: Merchant Prince, Championship Manager, Master of Orion, Unnatural Selection, UFO, the final few missions of Syndicate (the first computer game I have ever finished, I think) and the amazing Doom but in the top slot is Sim City 2000. This is a GREAT game. So good that, just like Squad Leader, you want more and more of the same: English/European style buildings wouldn't go amiss, much more architectural variety and points of interest, more views, more zoom in and out, underground power cables, easier laying of tube tunnels, more leisure facilities, more arcologies, more prizes, 1700 and 1800 start years, flythrough facility and so on. Shouldn't take long. The only tiny gripes are the difficulty of building over hills and the deadly bulldozer icon that can accidentally wipe out a $200,000 arcology (he said, with feeling) an Undo feature next time please, Maxis. Even without these, it is a brilliant design.

I quickly cracked on NHL Hockey which is great fun even with one joystick against the mouse, and I am also slowly getting into Myst, bought despite a long-standing dislike of adventure games. But this one is about books and time and dimension travel and has the best atmosphere, still graphics and sound effects seen on a computer game, bar none. On the downside, I have been disappointed, to varying degrees, by X Wing, TFX, Comanche and Privateer. Like me, you will have spotted the flight sim link here and I wonder if that is the answer (though Strike Commander was pretty good), but I cannot believe these are the same games as glowingly reviewed in the various magazines. X Wing, sound effects excepted, is hopeless no impression of movement, way too difficult and amounting to sitting in a stationary gun turret while TIE fighters swoop in from behind. About as much fun as a wasp in a tube train, I reckon. Privateer is much better but combat is too hard for me to have a sporting chance at the trading side of things, and where did those box graphics get to? Perhaps I should have bought Elite II after all, but the poor graphics put me off. Mauve skies? I ask you.

Coming along are so many computer games that could be good, I am worried about finding time to experiment with, let alone play, them. Harking back to my earlier piece on the subject, once you get into them they really do eat up the time so I'll have to monitor this closely or my sleep is going to suffer even more. Many of the forthcoming attractions are either tried and trusted boardgame conversions (such as Harpoon II or the half dozen games due from Avalon Hill including Advanced Civ and Blackbeard) or concepts and graphics so exciting that they just have to be tried. Links 486 (wow), Outpost, Lands of Lore II, Space Simulator, Theme Park, Chaos Engine, Great Naval Battles 2, Buzz Aldrin CD, Battle Isle 2, Settlers and Genesia all look enticing in their own way and that rotter Vasey is already tempting me with glowing IndyCar reports, which until now I have bravely resisted.

Mark Green recently showed me a new French game he picked up in Paris. Europa Universalis covers all of European History for the period 1492-1792 with an emphasis on military action. If my initial assessment is correct, I can sum the game up in two words: beautiful and unplayable. But for those who play Conquest Europa before breakfast and regard me a mere pantywaist, this could be ideal. For a start, the period looks panoramic and unusual actually, it looks like Empires in Arms pulled back 300 years. The designer seems to have hurled in everything you have to dig into the box to get to the bottom of the bits. It cries out to be played, or at least set up, but I know deep down it almost certainly won't work. From the publishing angle, it features interesting use of DTP. There is a colour map (area movement) and 1400 (!) full colour diecut counters which are a bit fuzzy in appearance but still striking. Essentially, this is a top of the line DTP production and the far end of the road for gamekits. I have no idea how many he has produced but there is a large hole in his banque balance. On the downside, there is no play length indicated on the box (rather worrying, though there are shorter scenarios) and there are sixty Five Year turns for the full game! Worse, the French Rules run to about forty pages, plus big scenario and table booklets which may not be a problem if your French is ace, but otherwise we wait for M Green to find a couple of spare weeks in his schedule. If there ever was a designer that should have read the enclosed Downsizing article, it is this one! The publishers are A.W.E., Philippe Thibaut, 16 Rue Bachaumont, F-75002 Paris, France and it seems to cost around £45, as you might expect. I am not sure if Just Games will be bringing this one in but it may be worth checking with Mark Green.

We have had a lot of fun with Outburst recently. We have also had some hassle, so I doubt it will come out again for a while. This is the game where team one reads out a subject from a card and the other team get two minutes to shout out as many words as they can on the subject, trying to match the ten listed on the card. This is good because anyone can play, almost everyone knows at least one answer and the lateral thinking derived from a mixed group usually gets one thinking around the subject (and you need to, to get Tranquility as one of the Names of Seas category). The trouble is that there are 'easy' cards (places where hair grows, military ranks), and 'difficult' cards (films featuring Victor Mature) depending on your areas of knowledge. Linked to this, you can fire out words for two minutes and unless you identify the often obscure items chosen by the question setter, you will score very few points this is simply frustrating. What is more annoying is the old Trivial Dispute problem where someone answers 'computer', the card says 'personal computer' and the obdurate soul holding the card won't let you have the points for being inexact. This prompts tit-for-tat reprisals and hurt feelings all round. Nevertheless, one of the better family games that I have played.

Another family game that caused some amusement over Easter, though of a strictly limited nature, was Notability. This is the game that comes with a small grand piano on which you are required to play melodies, in the style of Rolf Harris and his amazing Stylophone. This is achieved by following numbered note sequences corresponding to oversized keys on the plastic Steinway. Your team is somehow expected to Name That Tune based on a few beeps and the average gamer's complete lack of tempo. My stunning renditions of Seasons in the Sun, Knees up Mother Brown and Wandrin' Star have already been remastered for CD release. The game is difficult to the point of torment and half the time no one would know the tunes anyway, even if played by the original artist. An odd combination of hilarity, humming, hopelessness and ultimately boredom.

The new edition of Statis Pro Basketball has recently been out on the table. After a couple of experimental All Time Great games, a friend and I tried a Knicks vs Bulls best of seven series to test it out. I say tried advisedly as the games were taking around three hours each to complete, so we abandoned with the series tied at 2-2. Once I had struggled through a couple of solo sessions, the box was shut up and put back on the shelf. This is not to say the system is a bad one, it is actually about the best there is (since the disappearance of Fast Break), but it simply takes far too long to play. Sadly, this seems to be the general reaction around the UK sportsgaming hobby and I don't know of anyone, hardened league players aside, who is still playing it. I'm not sure if this is down to loss of interest, computer games, expectations from shorter European games or just available time (mine is the latter), but the reaction is summed up everywhere as 'Way Too Long'. Bruce Wilson raised the interesting old chestnut of quickly simulating all but the last five minutes and then switching to Statis Pro to finish off, and that idea still may have a market. Years ago, I found the All Star Replay quickplay system (Vol 3 No 1) useful for Basketball Strategy, so there is no reason this variant couldn't be tweaked. As for the game itself, Don Greenwood has done his usual good job on taking one of the better basketball stat systems and pulling it into the nineties. Gone are the base eight cards replaced by a decimal system, the stamina rules are now extremely clever and workable (it is so obvious I can't think why it hasn't been done before) and there are numerous other tweaks to make this a cracking game. Ten years ago I would have been fainting with excitement, but I guess we, our expectations and our available time change with time.

We played Gold Connection recently which has the reputation of being a bit of a sleeper. I believe it appeared at Essen two or even three years back and has built up a steady following since this is based purely on chats and phonecalls where people keep mentioning it, whereas most games go pretty quiet after the initial rush. The idea of the game is essentially the same as Can't Stop or Pass the Pigs ie you are trying to collect gold bars from a safe but for each one collected you have to pass a die roll test. If you succeed you can carry on collecting until you decide to stop and fill your swag bag, but if you fail you lose everything for that turn. However, Gold Connection adds three intelligent twists to the basic mechanism of scoring points. Firstly, the board represents a map of the vault and you actually move around it trying to collect the bullion. The further you move, the more difficult it is to pick up the next bar and you also have to plan your route around the vault. Secondly, once players have grabbed a certain amount of gold, you are free to move to their space and steal, often to order, from them a nice piece of interaction this. Thirdly, the bullion is coloured and numbered and can only be stolen in sequence so you are also playing a type of Rummy/Pit system where you only want to collect low numbers or gain mastery in certain categories (the higher numbered gold being harder to acquire but worth more in bonuses). These tweaks are enough to get the game through its 30- 40 minute duration but, like all systems with a luck element, if you have a run of stinking die rolls you will not be winning this game. Within the constraints of an abstract dice/gambling game, I thought Gold Connection worked extremely well and I'd want to play it again. I don't think it is a classic, or even one of the best, but it works, is quick, offers a good challenge and is fun to play. Recommended.

A while ago I saw Aristo, a French boardgame about the Court of Louis XIV and apparently similar to En Garde in theme if not execution. It looked lovely, and quite playable, but we didn't have a translation. In that slow but reliable way of the rules bank, the missing rules eventually appeared so now, two years later, we have finally tried a game. And I rather liked it. Apart from the old problem of large numbers of cards that need occasional translation from crib sheets (unless your French is pretty good), it worked fine. This is a good old fashioned political card game that hardly needs any rules. The cards drive the system and add loads of flavour of the period. Alliances and scheming break out almost immediately in the pursuit of money and favour at court and there are of course plenty of laughs born out of Carry On films, Franglais and our deep love of the French. I had a fine time playing Adeline de Larminat, Lady in Waiting to the Queen. Popular with Louis but loathed by her Majesty because of my Dutch sympathies, I presented a stunning figure at court and, though of modest means, represented the most desirable totty for miles around. Through various ploys, not least an attempt to impress the King by playing billiards and slipping him several philtres, I married the wealthy Jean de Nive, who died horribly at war with the King of Spain even before our marriage was consummated. Sadly, he left all his money to his sister Jeanne. Nevertheless, I became the King's favourite, schemed to appoint Lord Bruce of Aberdeen chancellor, and was clearly the true power the behind the throne. Then we had to stop because the pizzas were ready. Good fun and I'm after a copy.

Amigo's 6 Nimmt comes recommended from the Merfyn Lewis Hard School of Gaming, up Anglesey way. If a game emerges unscathed from Merfyn, his able rules sidekick Chris Mellor and a critical session or two at the local youth club, then it probably works pretty well. A Wolfgang Kramer design, this is one of those little card games that could acquire Hols der Geier/Career Poker status in time it accommodates from three to ten players with equal ease and all of them will groan at least once in the game. You get a pack of cards numbered from 1 to 104. Each card carries a penalty value, from one to five, with doubles such as 55 being the highest. The idea of the game is to avoid picking up cards and thereby aggregating the fewest penalty points. Once any player has reached minus 66, the game ends. The game starts with four cards laid in the middle and you are dealt ten cards. A round consists of everyone choosing a card and revealing. The lowest revealed card lays first and, if higher than all those on the table, is placed on the column with the least difference in numbers, eg the 56 would be placed in the same column as the 55. If the card thus laid is the sixth in a column, you have to take the preceding five cards as penalty points (so why isn't it called Take Five?, asks Mr Brubeck's accountant). In the event that your card is lower than all current columns, you must replace a column with the card and again take your medicine. After ten plays you check for the rubicon and play another hand if required. It is always tough to play the right card and I haven't yet fully worked out the strategy, but I did win just. Very promising.

Attacke and Flinke Pinke are two recent card games from Reiner Knizia. While they are good games in themselves, they are not systems with the depth and prolonged interest of Modern Art, or even Tutanchamun, but then as Herr Knizia indicated recently, they aren't meant to be. Both games are lightish diversions that work well, and have novel mechanisms, but don't reveal anything more on repeated play. Worth playing a couple of times though as long as you are aware what you are dealing with, but play before you buy as they are undoubtedly light. What will be more of interest to Sumo readers is Reiner's latest, New Games of Old Rome. This contains no less than fourteen completely new card and board games with various ancient Roman themes and it comes complete with all pieces, cards and boards to play the games. The rules are understandably lengthy but the English versions are currently being worked on. Although they are not yet available over here, Reiner also has two or three further releases due later in the Spring including the much heralded Auf Heller und Pfennig from Hans im Gluck.

After the review of Zankapfel last time, Tom Naylor of Fibonacci fame tells me that he is now the UK Agent for VSK and that supplies of this excellent game, as well as the rest of the range, are now available. Just Games and others should have stocks by the time you get this. If you have any difficulties in finding a supplier, Tom can be reached at Naylor Associates, 5 Dryden St, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9NW.

Amigo's Oskar is a little card game that could be rather interesting, but because of one flaw I have been unable to test it in what may be its natural habitat the five or six player game. Having played three and four player wherein the flaw became apparent, the natives revolted and refused to give it any more table time. My view (a hunch, no more) is that it might work on a different level with more players, but quite why the designers didn't spot and test this out, I really have no idea. Unless of course we have a rules problem. The game is a simple enough trumps variant with that slightly odd feel of Sticheln you can lay any card you choose, so traditional trump play goes out the window. The key to the game is that at the start you each roll two d6 marked with icons representing six types of films crime, western, romance etc. These depict the type of film your studio is making while the points you win in card play represent, I guess, the votes of the Academy or perhaps bums on seats. Essentially then, you are trying to win tricks with high point values. The twist is that other studios (players) may be making the same type of films as you and your points count towards their films, and vice versa. So if you have Horror/SciFi and Bubba has Horror/Comedy, you are working together on Horror (whether you like it or not) but are also trying to get points for your other category. If you get 120 votes (of the 238 on offer) between you, all holders of horror dice win an Oscar, with five Oscars winning the game. Trouble arises if you have two categories that no-one else has, in which case you are on your own. This is meant to represent your studio being out of step with the trend. The clever bit, and the flaw, arises because the highest points winner must re-roll his dice at the end of a hand. The middle players may re-roll or stand pat to follow the trend and the lowest scorer has the most flexible choice to try and hang onto coat-tails. What we found though, particularly when one player has rolled doubles, is that you get to the point where there are so many dice of one sort, by luck or re-rolling, that award of an Oscar is automatic in that category. This actually makes playing the whole hand largely pointless what it does do is determine who scores the most points and therefore must re-roll but by that time it had all fallen apart anyway. Add to that the problem of being 'untrendy' where all the rest gang up on you and you have a couple of major hitches to balanced play. My feeling is that this may not be so aggravated with 5 or 6 as the points will be more thinly spread and you could have multiple, complex partnerships around the table (which is the appeal), but I could be wrong in which case sell the bastard now. I cannot see a solution for being untrendy and the ganging up will usually happen anyway, cards permitting. However, the good thing here with more players is that you will almost certainly be last so as to have a good chance of following the trend in the next round. Good stuff otherwise, and the chance to do a deeply moving Tom Hanks speech when you win.

Leisure Three's Prospecting is a Siggins Special obscure game, picked up in California a couple of years back because of the subject matter and because it was cheap. We recently tried a three player game and would report as follows: interesting game, highly inflationary system (cash permitting, why would you not buy something?), a little fiddly in places, surprisingly adult and effectively summed up as a sub-Acquire business game on which the theme of mining is largely superfluous. Okay, but not up to the real thing.

An den Ufern des Nils (On the Banks of the Nile, Abacus) has had two outings recently and while I would normally give it a full review, and probably will in time, I have refrained because I feel we have yet to do it justice. The game concerns growing and selling grain and veg in the Nile basin back in the time of the Pharaohs. Yup, we are definitely in Dicke Kartoffeln territory again but the market mechanism is simpler, the game is faster and smoother and the emphasis is not so much on what to grow and how, but where. This is because the Nile is prone to flooding and if you have chosen one of the fertile plots near the river, which produce the best quality crops, you have a good chance of having your seeds washed away. Conversely, when the Nile ebbs, the sands of the desert can encroach upon the furthest fields with equally disastrous results. The idea is to strike a balance and grow successfully to get your goods to market at the right time. To summarise the game, based on two almost complete playthroughs, I would have to say it is strangely unexciting 'dry' would be an awful pun. I for one was not grabbed, as they say. Considering that many thought Dicke uninvolving, this does not bode well for this new release. The game features many clever little systems, not least the ebb and flow mechanism, a neat game length randomiser, the market stalls and the actual agricultural process. However, it feels bitty, relies on action points (always fiddly) and does not hang together all that well. It is also rather non-interactive and low on decision making you flood your rivals when you can and it takes little thought to decide what to plant. Finally, the game seems too short not just in time, but also in scope. With the speed of play and a semi-random mechanism to end the game, you barely seem to get going before it is time to add up and put it back in the box. In general, it feels like half a game. Anyway, those are my initial thoughts and though mainly negative, I believe there may be something there and will try it again.

Successful Gamekits Dept. Phil Eklund, almost millionaire publisher of Lords of the Sierra Madre, writes to tell me that the game is now completely sold out and that Decision Games' plans to re-publish it in February '95 are well advanced. In response to the massive demand from Sumo readers, clamouring for more of the same, Phil has turned his hand to two new games: Luftschiff, a solitaire WWI game featuring an assortment of Zeppelins, will be published by Moments in History while Burros & Bandidos is a role playing system set in the same timeframe as LotSM. Now this is interesting, not least because this, rather than LotSM, came first. While I haven't completely absorbed the massive wad of paper that flew in recently, there are lots of original ideas in here that both draw on the boardgame and add plenty of new features (and more gun types than you'd ever need). Whether this will appeal to boardgamers, figure gamers or roleplayers, I really can't say but if there is going to be a successful crossover product this could be getting there. More details when I have taken it all in (and cut it all up...). B&B is available from Phil at Sierra Madre Games, 3262 W Avenida Manana, Tucson, AZ 85746 USA for US$16 plus $5 p&p which is a bargain for the material on offer. And no, I haven't forgotten those reviews of Phil's Trilobite and Insecta next time perhaps. Talking of Lords, Martin Wallace of Warfrog has already hit the century of sales of Lords of Creation and is creaking under the pressure of game production, while Ellis Simpson of Select reports encouraging sales of the excellent Fastcard Soccer. So if you move into the gamekit big leagues and start advertising in Sumo, you'd better be ready to put in lots of overtime and start deciding if you want a sunroof in your new Porsche...

Brainrot Dept. A very quick note on Die Hanse, against which I warned you last issue. Please ignore those comments as I seem to have fundamentally misunderstood a key rule. Basically, you do not move only the ship in front of you, but both ships in which you have shares. So you do have some leverage on negotiations. Sorry, but I suppose this kind of slip is inevitable once in a while. We'll try it again I'm rather looking forward to it now. Review elsewhere by Stuart Dagger who kindly pointed out this error.

It would be a doddle to write pages on Magic: The Gathering, but I shall refrain from doing so. I have decided to keep it to a paragraph or two for fear of alienating 99% of the readership and, to be frank, I've pretty much had my fill of the subject. I would however buy Carta Mundi shares now if I were you as the latest print run is reckoned to be thirty five million cards and the international factory set, about which almost everyone sniffed, is now selling for £120+ in the starved US market. Aiming to fill this vacuum (and trying not to miss the boat), TSR have got a look-alike game ready for a June launch (another limited edition, naturally) and it would be a brave man who bets against multiple look and feel lawsuits over the coming months. There is also talk of the collectible card game idea going mainstream featuring Star Trek amongst other subjects.

For those who wish to read more about the subject, I can recommend The Duelist (the house organ which is effusive, vaguely surprised, colourful, and good solid material) and there are at least a couple of me-too fanzines about already. One of these, From the Mana Born (yeuchh), is from Julian Snape (and The Maltings). Sadly, it is pretty dire stuff for your £2. Despite a useful multi-player variant by Eamon Bloomfield, it lacks depth (to say the least), is way too thin for the money (24 pages), and the 'humour' is worthy of the third form. It has cash-in written all over it, but no contact address as far as I can see. Most suppliers have it and I am sure it will sell in the thousands until the public realise that there isn't much to be said about the game beyond listing the cards and announcing new sets.

The game meanwhile goes from strength to strength and UK game shops seem to be getting a boost from Magic sales. This is good news. There are also stories upon stories of the worst excesses of collecting mania and rip-off dealers (up to £6 per booster pack in some places, based on a 70p trade cost) and even tales of packets being opened, rare cards removed and replaced by commons, and then re-sealed. Nasty. It also seems to bring out the very worst in competitive gamers who are to be found avidly trading in corners of gameshops. All very depressing there is nothing like the zeal of a reformed collector! I'll admit I was there for the Arabian Nights and Antiquities sets, and might well return for the forthcoming Middle Earth variant, but otherwise I'm done, cured, and out of the market. You can buy my surplus cards at cost in the sales & wants section.

Otherwise, the review comments hold the factory set adds variety and spices things up a lot but also unbalances the game unless you are careful because there aren't enough lands in proportion. Those that are smitten by the game (a minority of whom could bore for England) know all 500-odd cards like good friends, what they can do and how to compile that ultimate killer deck. In that respect the game has a detectable challenge in finding the best combinations. For me, unwilling and unable to learn each card's powers, the game itself has little staying power. For that reason alone I guess the bubble will burst (but I'm setting myself up for a fall here). It was fun for about ten sessions but then tailed off rapidly it very much depends on what you like, what you are used to and whether you are willing to trade till you drop. A sensational success to be sure, but one I'm glad to be out of.

Future Zone have, as expected, trimmed their boardgame and wargame displays in the London store with most of the room given over to computer games. The RPG section seems largely untouched though. The news, and I leave you to draw your own conclusions, is very much on pricing. Sim City (£45 rrp) was savagely cut to £23 as a loss leader which started a ripple of price cutting around town. This trend has continued and is a long awaited development. It goes some way to encouraging off the shelf buying, rather than waiting for postal orders to arrive (sounds a bit Bunteresque, that). The interesting factor, and one you might be advised to note, is that on first appearing on the shelves, Caesar (GMT, £45), We The People (AH,£38), Kolin (CoA, £45) and Myst (Broderbund, £50) had prices marked well above market. Within a month, or sometimes less, they had all dropped by £10 or often more. Initially I thought this may have been a pricing error by an over zealous label gun wielder, but having seen it several times since I suspect it might just be intentional. Is this trend repeated in their other shops?

The suggestive powers of Mike Clifford have finally worked their way into the subconscious. The traditional Christmas and early year lull between Essen and Nuremburg (the Gaming Doldrums?) was filled with visits to Just Games who, depressingly, had nothing new to sell. So, in the sprit of adventure I went back to some old titles, until then gathering dust in the vaults. And what did I experience? Some bloody good games and a creeping realisation that Clifford Might Be Right. A worrying concept, this. We got through a couple of games of Drunter & Druber, Dune (must play this six player soon), Can't Stop, Ave Caesar (soon to be re- released in F1 guise), Rail Baron (overlong, a touch random, but oddly intriguing), Mhing, Boomtown, Formel Eins, Karawane (Ohhhh, those graphics...), Flying Carpet (ditto), Heimlich & Co, Elefantenparade, Favoriten, March Madness (my Tarheels finally lost their unbeaten streak), Junta and Rummikub. All just as good as when they first appeared, or better in some cases, and now likely to get further outings.

The really pleasant surprise was Spear's Mhing, a game I have always assumed was horribly complex, but compared to an abortive session with Hanafuda, learning it was a breeze. And what a (belated) find it is. Essentially nothing more than a card game version of Mah Jongg (simplified I assume?), it amounts to a sort of Oriental Rummy with Twiddly Bits and a lot of flavour. It is tough to play well, and I suspect a full game would take two or three hours, but it is both meaty and entertaining enough for an hour's play. Yet again, one of those games that slipped through the net and so good that I have splashed out on a Mah Jongg set comments next time. Hanafuda meanwhile got off to a very disappointing start and as a game seems to offer little in comparison. In fairness, I think we must have been doing something badly wrong but I checked all the rules and it seemed correct. The main problem was that we spent a lot of time trying to identify the cards from the coloured examples in the rule book and by the time we had sorted out which one was a Cherry, Peony or Wisteria (it sounded like Gardener's Question Time), everyone had become a bit disillusioned. We shall try again, though I suspect it would be a lot easier to have someone show you how to play.

Pax Britannica has been on my To Play list for years but it took my organisation and five rapidly ageing brains to finally read the rules and get it off the ground. After all that it was, umm, interesting. A good game with some clever systems, I enjoyed it and thought it surprisingly atmospheric, even as Germany, but it was about as long as I'd expected. It was just getting down to the nitty-gritty at the three and a half hour mark and, true to form, it lost impetus and stopped right there. I've come to the conclusion that there's no real point in having a long term plan in lengthy games (or miniatures battles) as they rarely get finished live for the now, spend your command points early and don't design games that take longer than four or five hours to play. I reckon eight or even nine hours (forty five man hours!) might have seen Pax finished, though due to a unpleasant dispute in Tanganyika we could well have had a Great War in 1892! The problems seem to be heavy bookkeeping, the limited scope for the US and Japan and the absence of Russia and Italy as player powers in the five payer game. A major problem was the admin required to run Britain and we are now looking for a volunteer masochist or an accountant to play them next time out. The good thing to know is that with team effort it is still possible to get these big games off the ground. Empires in Arms is next up for the team treatment.

Rules Bank Update and Inevitable Whinge: On the upside, I have cleared absolutely everything recently (about time, I hear you say) so there is no backlog that I am aware of. Any outstanding requests are either a) unavailable from the bank and your request has been noted or b) lost in the post. I f you do need anything else, please re-request and don't forget the SAE and the blank cheque. On the downside, the Bank has been operating in Building Society mode (many more withdrawals than deposits) for the last nine months. Aside from the tiresome work this creates, I am down to about six reliable sources of rules (you know who you are) and there is silence elsewhere, yet in some cases I know these rules are out there. Please send them in if you have them; if you don't want them circulated, fine please mark them as such, but I would appreciate the chance to play these games myself! By the way, is Streng Geheim the same game as Jumbo's Top Secret?

Perhaps it is just me, but I have had a feeling for two or three months now that gaming's profile might, just might, be breaking out of its slumber. It is a gut feeling really, based on a number of positive events and unprecedented publicity that seemed to start around Christmas. The Double Six club for a start, a number of games reviews in national papers, Games & Puzzles relaunched, LaTrel certainly, a much improved and upbeat Toy Fair, Radio 5 featuring a string of sports games fiends on Friday afternoons, a reputed fifteen good new games from Nuremburg and so on. Then again, I've had the exact same feeling before and little has happened! We shall see. What it seems to do to me is, between the odd but worryingly frequent phases of, 'I think I'll give up games, or at least Sumo, for a while and do something else', are bursts of enthusiasm that confirm that I have a great, seemingly permanent, hobby. I regularly want to be staying up all night (we're just mad and reckless here, you know) playing, designing, reading and writing about the things. Ah, what a sentimental old buffer I am.

On to the review of The British Toy and Hobby Fair or back to the Introduction.

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