The Estates: A four-sided game review

The Estates* is a mean 60-minute area control and bidding/auction game for two to five players (although I’d say three to five, as I don’t think it plays well at all with two). Released as ‘Neue Heimat’ in 2007, it got a fresh lick of paint and a re-release in 2018 from Capstone Games.

In the box you’ll find the game board, 53 chunky wooden pieces, two draw bags, 60 thin cardboard ‘cheques’ (read: money) and six business cards (to grab when you take control of a company). While you’ll find the usual complaints about ‘paper money’, I feel it works well in this game and overall the components are of high quality. You can find the game (delivered) for less than £40, which is OK value.

The components and theme come together nicely, although they don’t really make much sense mechanically. As the game goes on players will be taking control of developers as they build a new housing estate. You’ll place cubes to build tower blocks, place roofs on them and extend/shorten the play area.

Teaching The Estates

The Estates is very much about player interaction. The rules quickly get out of the way to let the mind games commence. Players start with 12 (million, thematically – but you can’t make change) cash. This is a set economy, with no more money coming into the game. And you can squirrel away one money per turn, so the amount available unusually decreases as the game goes on.

On a turn, the active player chooses an available piece for auction. In clockwise order, players either pass or place a single bid for the item (which must be higher than any previous bid). When you get back to the active player, they either take the money from the highest bidder or pay them the same amount to take the item. If no bids were placed, the active player gets the piece for free.

If you want to put either a building block or roof up for auction, it must be place-able – and the winner has to place it. Additionally if you’re the first player to take a building block of a particular colour you also take the matching company card. You will now gain (or lose) points for that colour. The other pieces (which we’ll get to) can always be chosen to auction, but the winner can choose to either place them or discard them.

The key to winning The Estates is getting buildings you control to score while scuppering your opponents. The starting area is a grid of 12 plots, split into three columns of four plots. The game ends when two columns are completed (full of houses with roofs). Those two will score positive points, the other negative. The remaining pieces you can bid on extend or shrink this area or multiply the scoring of a column.

The game has 36 building blocks, numbered 1-6 in six colours. But only 24 are drawn at the start of each game, meaning the companies aren’t equal. Apart from a few bungalow plots (which can only have a single block and a roof), most can be built high. Until a building has a roof you can place another block on top if it has a lower number. When you do so, the building changes ownership – so the owner of the top floor of each building will score points for it.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While the Estates’ rules are simple it’s hard to teach what you actually need to do. It takes half a game to start to see how things pan out. This should be OK in such a short game but I do see people disengage. This mix of simple but not seeing can clearly be frustration. I’ve heard, “What’s the point?” too many times as players fail to get into the game. Which is a real shame, as I think it is a very intelligent and competitive design.
  • The thinker: While largely tactical, there is important strategy. Identifying strong colours to try and own is the start. But you need to consider their starting positions on the 3×8 cube grid. You can only put one of the six end cubes up for auction, so identifying cube position can also be crucial. If you end up with a company whose cubes are only on the edges, you’ll need to place, roof and then defend those positions. Cubes nearer the centre will come out later, if at all – so you need to work to get them available.
  • The trasher: Vicious. You won’t find many games where fortunes change this quickly. The Estates defines cutthroat, as the colours and columns ebb and flow. What really defines this are shifting loyalties. Think a player has a lot of spending power? Then try and get one of their cubes scoring in a row you want to complete. While you need to think about your scoring colours, remember you can buy any cube. Taking an opponent’s cube can be just as effective as getting one of your own. Especially if you just want to drum up some funds.
  • The dabbler: I didn’t really get the point of the game. The components were nice and the theme made sense on the table. But why would I pick a purple three over a grey one? I didn’t really have a clue what was going on and I still almost won! I won’t be playing this one again.

Key observations

While The Estates generally looks great, one big miss are the bungalow plot markings. They’re super clear – right up until you put a cube on them. It is incredibly frustrating when someone wins bid, thinking they can place a cube somewhere they can’t. We try to ‘wonk’ the cubes diagonally that are on bungalow plots, but that looks stupid and still doesn’t always work. It could so easily have been avoided with a clearer board – as the original Neue Heimat had.

Also, with the wrong crowd, the game can be a big anti-climax. The game averages well over 7.5 on Board Game Geek but I know people whose reviews I respect who rate it a one. And if one or two players aren’t on board, the game can drag much more than the average. Players can simply not know what to do, which is just about the worst thing to feel while trying to play a game. Especially when you know the rules are super simple.

Take a bidding game such as Ra, for example. It has a similarly simple rule set for bidding. But on top of that is a scoring format based around set collection. This opens the game up for euro gamers, while keeping the interest of bidding fans. Unfortunately, The Estates is far less approachable for a lot of players. Half will be totally immersed – but the other half will be genuinely bored.

The Estates: Conclusion

If you’re looking for a tight, elegant, viscous, closed economy bidding game then look no further. The Estates demands you take a long, hard look at it. The game has depth and tough decisions built into a very simple framework. And it can be so mean. A single well-placed piece can literally see you go from first to last place.

But it won’t be staying on my shelves. Especially for players who love euro or abstract puzzlers (which is most of my crowd), what I see as simplicity often translates to bafflement. Intelligent players sitting around looking blankly at the board, not having a clue what to do. I can’t think of a more divisive game. And not enough of my friends were taken by it to keep it. But I think it’s a fantastic game and I know enough others who own it that I can get the occasional fix.

  • Thanks to Capstone Games for providing a discounted review copy of the game.

Friday feelings: Negative reviews (and why I don’t write them)

After a week off from these posts (sorry, SorCon fail) I’m returning to a topic started in my last Friday Feelings: that I’m not worried about negative reviews. To recap, in my view you simply have to accept them as part of the public creative process.

But other than sticking the boot in with the occasional mean comment about a game (the Firefly game being a total write off, for example) I personally rarely do full length negative reviews. So, why?

The most obvious reason is ‘so many games, so little time’. I like to play a game at least 4-5 times before I do a long review. So, if after two plays I’m playing it right and decided it’s terrible, why go on? I have limited time to play games and I’m having to drag others in to play them. My life is too short, and my friends’ patience only so long. Even if I have to pay postage to send it back, I’d rather do that than force people to play a stinker.

Quality versus taste

On occasion I’ll review a game I don’t really like, but that’s different than it not being any good. That’s the main reason I introduced the ‘four sides‘ review format and why I talk about ‘key observations’: so I can talk about differing opinions (so the negative stuff comes here). The number of reviewers who can’t tell the difference between actual quality and their own personal taste is incredible – but I guess that’s what happens when most blogs, videos and podcasts now have no real editorial overseeing.

On a more cynical point, I’m averse to breathing life into bad games by giving them airtime. It’s a ridiculously busy marketplace. While warning people off a poor game has merit, with thousands being released each year it seems more sensible to euthanize them with silence. I review about 50 games each year. Doing a few bad ones simply equates to not bigging-up a few great ones. Why would I do that?

You bought what?

And in the end, I’m writing because I love writing – and getting some free and cheap games is awesome. Any reviewer who thinks they influence more than a handful of purchasing decisions is kidding themselves – just look at the host of top-sellers that get roundly slammed by reviewers. It’s the same in the music and film – no matter what reviewers say, the public go with their hearts.

Any why shouldn’t they? My voice is just one of many. The right one, perhaps, but still…

SorCon highlights: A board game Top 10

I’ve just got back from SorCon in Basildon (well a Holiday Inn on the edge of Basildon, which helps). Knowing my retention span for such events, I thought I’d get it down for posterity as soon as possible.

One of its delights is it doesn’t change much. This was SorCon 12 and apart from a small extra area or two it has barely changed since my first visit four years ago.

While I love the consistency it does make it hard to blog about year on year (check out old SorCon posts for that). So, I’m just going to cover my top 10 plays of the weekend. Thanks to Sarah, Keef and Clare for being competitors/teachers in most of the games – a pleasure, as always!

I enjoyed 15 games over two days, two of them twice – so just three titles missed the list below. The Estates sadly went down like a lead balloon (full review next week); as did Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (an average euro with a regrettable theme). I’m also leaving off Ticket to Ride (would’ve been 8th) as I think it gets enough press from me and everyone else! But in truth I didn’t hate anything I played over the weekend. I put them in order mixing how fun the play was and my general feelings for the game.

10. Space Base (2-5 players, 2018, AEG)

This light and simple game takes the basics of Machi Koro and makes something slightly less rubbish. In space. While you can mitigate the luck of the dice to a degree, you’re still a slave to them. So if one player has a great run of luck, especially near the start, they’re going to win. AEG missed several tricks which would balance the early game without adding many rules (having starting tiles with oft rolled numbers, for example. The difference between starting with a free 7 or a free 12 is massive). I’d expect more from a large publisher. And it felt too long with five players.

9. Sagrada (1-4 players, 2017, Floodgate)

Don’t believe the weird hype levels around this one. Firstly, it is nothing like Azul. This is a pleasant enough dice drafting puzzle game with little to no interaction. But there is a strong element of luck. You get a dice colour you will score on per pip, so if no high numbers are rolled in your colour you can probably forget winning. This rather negates the cleverer elements of scoring and choosing a hard or easy scoring card. But I had a pleasant time playing two games (winning one) and would play again.

8. Orbital (2-4 players, 2018, DMZ)

Still one of my favourites from Essen 2018, but it can be too dry for some. I think putting a space theme on a wholly abstract game can be detrimental as people expect theme from a space game. Otherwise, it’s great. Some majority scoring means you need to pay attention to what others are doing and can hate draft a tiny bit. The economy is incredibly tight and while the placement scoring rules can feel overwhelming, it rewards repeat plays. Which was proved by this being one of my wins of the weekend!

7. PitchCar (2-8 players, 1995, Ferti)

Putting a disk-flicking game on a Scalextric-style race track was simply inspired. Last year this was a SorCon highlight, but this time we played a little too late in the day. People were frazzled so it didn’t have quite the same atmosphere. But it was still great fun – plus I managed to win from fourth on the grid. We’re lucky a friend (hi Sheepy!) has several of the expansions (jumps, chicanes etc) but I’m sure it would be fun in any form. Still behind Tumblin’ Dice on my dexterity game wishlist, but only just.

6. Heaven and Ale (2-4 players, 2017, Eggertspiele)

I played this at Essen 2017, slightly regretted not buying it, then haven’t seen it since. Playing again reminded me what a good euro it is. Under two hours, a bit of of push-your-luck, interesting decisions and clever scoring. Plus, you have to keep an eye on what other’s want, bringing an element of largely passive but significant interaction. I don’t feel the need to own it, but I hope to play it more often at this kind of event.

5. Uptown (2-5 players, 2007, Funagain)

This is one of Sarah’s favourites. It’s an incredibly simple rule set but feels very different from other abstract games I own. And this edition (the game is better known as Blockers) has gorgeous production. It is very interactive, as you try to group your tiles into as few groups as possible while following strict placement rules. We play a lot two-player at home, which is very different, so it is always nice to play with more. I came in third, but Sarah managed to win this four-player game.

4. Azul (2-4 players, 2017, Plan B)

From here down was pretty much joint first place. I enjoy all my plays of Azul, comfortably still the best game of the last two years for me. This one was particularly good as it was tight throughout, with about 10 points between us at the end, and I won on 63. The game is gorgeous, tactile, simple to teach but thinky to play. It’s quick with lots of interesting decisions and some interaction. It falls into a small category of games I think everyone should play and I’m glad to finally own it. A true classic.

3. Tales of Glory (2-5 players, 2018, Ankama)

This was near the top of my Essen 2018 wishlist. The publisher didn’t want to give me a discount (fair enough), so I waited to try before deciding to buy. And now I will, because I loved it (Thanks John for teaching). While abstract, the fantasy art does tell a story and the puzzly elements of the game play are right up my street. It plays fast and there are loads of routes to victory. Choosing tiles is simple but doesn’t always go your way – although no tile is really bad and you can battle for turn order. Two plays, both great.

2. The Oracle of Delphi (2-4 players, 2016, Pegasus)

I think this is now my favourite Stefan Feld design, because the theme/look and race elements are so compelling. It’s a two-hour euro game which takes a bit of learning, but the mechanisms are a simple as they are plentiful. Sure, the game has some luck than can screw you which puts some players off. But I can tolerate it here as it fits the theme and the rest is good enough for me to get past it. Even when I get shafted, I still enjoy my plays. I just need to avoid situational ship tiles, as they screw me every time.

1. Thurn and Taxis (2-4 players, 2006, Hans im Gluck)

At SorCon we added the ‘Offices of Honour’ expansion, which is the perfect addition. It adds a small extra decision space while not spoiling anything of the original design. I came last, faffing around without much of a plan, but still thoroughly enjoyed myself. But there were just five points between first and last. This game is a perfect storm for Sarah and my tastes: euro/German enough for me, while mechanically falling into Sarah’s sweet spot: simple to learn, hard to master – plus competitive route building.

The most important outcome from SorCon was only Tales of Glory hit my wishlist, while I sold two games. This means my ‘owned’ list is still going in the right direction size-wise, so all’s right with the world. Until AireCon in a few weeks…

Magnastorm: A four-sided game review

Magnastorm* is a thinky euro game for two to four players that takes 1-2 hours to play. It’s certainly at the heavier end of board gaming, despite its mechanisms being relatively straightforward, so I think the recommended age range of 12+ is about right.

This game is a real table hog: a four-player game leaves very little room for manoeuvre on my 5×3-foot table. If you like boards, you’ll be in cardboard heaven. Alongside the main board you’ll find four player boards, an action board, a research board and three more cardboard panels; alongside a cloth bag, around 150 cards, 30 cardboard chits, more than 200 wooden pieces and almost 50 plastic ones. The game will cost you in the £40-50 region, but in fairness it does weigh well over two kilograms…

There’s a theme there, for those who want one: you get a whole page of it in the rulebook. Each player is a different federation from earth that’s exploring/studying a new-found planet by deploying research stations to its surface (why they look like turtles remains a mystery). Unfortunately the weather isn’t the brightest, so your scientists are racing to stay ahead of the planet’s storms to build and use these stations. But in truth, this is a euro game pure and simple: take actions, move up tracks, complete objectives, earn points. However, it uses some interesting mechanisms to get it done.

Teaching Magnastorm

This is a relatively easy game to teach, in theory. There are usually four rounds, each made of of lots of short turns. The mechanisms are straightforward: use workers to get resources, then use them to move around the board and claim territory – and use those areas to gain points. So far so standard euro. The clever bit is how you choose workers.

Workers come in two types – a few in each player colour (you start with one each on the action board) plus 12/15 neutral workers (depending on player count). These workers are split between a number of commanders and you can choose any neutral worker (or one of your own colour) to do either a gather or move/claim territory action.

However, you can also choose to pay (read: spend one cube of their colour each) any remaining workers under a commander to claim that commander for yourself. They’ll score you immediate victory points, as well as giving you an ability while you control them. So, choosing which commander to take a worker from is also an interesting decision as you don’t want to leave them easily available to the other players.

If you take a worker to gain resources or move/claim territory, you place them on the next round’s action board (which is an exact copy of the one you take them from – so at the end of the round you simply switch boards and go again).

Again, placing in a column will mean they’re below a particular commander next round – but these spots can also give you immediate bonuses; while different rows see you either gain more resources, or pay less to move. Again, more decisions.

When you move and claim territory, guess what – it’s simple to do, but involves more tricky decisions. The colour of the space you claim will match one of several science tracks – each of which also has a commander: at the end of each round, whoever is the highest on each track claims the commander for the next round (again gaining points).

Additionally the main board is split into six zones, only three of which are active each round. Here you’re also looking for zone majority to score points; as well as knowing you’ll gain bonus resources at the end of each round for active areas you’ve claimed.

But the big points come from the four objectives (randomly drawn at the start of each game). There are two kinds: research (which push you back down science tracks) or recalling your labs from the board. Everyone can do each objective, but those in earliest get more points. But completing them loses board position (so potentially resources and majority points) and/or science levels (losing you commanders – and losing them loses points). So yeah, you guessed it – more tricksy decisions.

The game ends after four rounds – unless one of the players triggers it early by reaching a particular score. This can also add tension, as you may be holding out on doing something to get end of round points, resources and commanders; but if the point score is reached mid-round that end-of-round admin won’t happen. Decisions decisions…

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While Magnastorm won’t appeal to everyone, a lot of thought has gone into the final product. For example, forward movement around the board can be key. If you fall behind you can catch up by using a transmitter placed further around the board – but you pay whoever built it, and they score points for building it. Also, after a few plays, you may find one player in your group has won more than others; so they’ve included ‘artefact cards’ to level the playing field: you take one according to your position in each game, creating a handicap system that gives better starting positions to those who keep finish poorly.
  • The thinker: There is a lot of tactical play here, but I think you’ll only win by focusing on a strategy – you can’t just bimble along and hope for the best. You’re targeting around 25 points to win, with each of the four objectives weighing in at 4-5 points for the first player to hit them – so you need to focus on a couple and do them as quickly as possible. But on top of that you need to focus on a couple of commanders and try and move as fast as possible for those easy transmitter points. It’s a delicious mix, but you’ll have to accept other players are going to mess with your plans – so it may not be the game for you.
  • The trasher: While definitely a heavier euro game, which I’d normally avoid, Magnastorm is highly tactical rather than strategic. Especially with more players, everything can change between turns: a commander may become too cheap to resist, a transmitter may open up new movement options, or a board space you wanted may be taken. Also, cube management is crucial. Having cubes in other player’s colours is useful for buying off commanders (you pay a cube per worker, based on their colour) – but your own cubes are used for most other things: and again, what you may need can change from action to action.
  • The dabbler: this definitely isn’t for me. There’s way too much going on and while it doesn’t play that long, if you start poorly you can know you’re out of it quickly. I couldn’t even just do my own thing and not worry about the score, as things can change very quickly: you can’t get a commander combo you like and see it tick over, because it’s hard to keep them for more than a round. First I got frustrated, then bored, then I just switched off. Casual gamers need not apply!

Key observations

We’ve found Magnastorm can be a little anticlimactic: if a player gets ahead the last round can be a bit of a procession. I know this is a bit more common in heavier euro games and many players will accept that, but additionally this can cause issues if you intend to use the artefact cards. If you’re not going to win, why not finish as poorly as possible to get a better artefact card (meaning you’ll start with better gear next play)? Sure, that’s gaming the system – but unfortunately the system invites it.

A few people have complained about a runaway leader problem, and while I haven’t seen this in my plays it does often feel that the player hangs in there – if not by much. so while it may look like a runaway leader issue, it is more than likely simply better play – you can just see it clearer due to having all the scoring happen in-game rather than end-game. While claiming areas and competing for commanders creates interaction it isn’t the kind of game where you can really work together to pull a player back – it’s more about taking chances to advance your own position. If a player ends up doing things out of sync, or concentrating on things others aren’t doing, they can get ahead.

I think some players will also be put off by the strange disconnect between the game having relatively simple rules but being very thinky to play. This can leave you discombobulated at first, but I’ve found it more rewarding with more plays – and there’s enough variety in the box (several different commanders, for example) to keep the game interesting. But I can see a single play putting some players off.

Conclusion

Make no mistakes: Magnastorm is a medium to heavyweight euro game, despite a small decision space and simple mechanisms. While it won’t be for everyone, it has been slickly produced and well tested. But expect every action to bring difficult decisions, while your tactics will be called into question after every one. So while I won’t be reaching for the game that often, for now it will be staying in my collection and I look forward to more head-scratchingly tactical contests.

* I would like to thank Feuerland Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.

Friday feelings: Watching others interact with your work

Creativity has been a big part of my life. From Lego ‘masterpieces’ when I was small, through sad teenage bedroom poetry, to writing and designing now that I’m, well, less small. Every day I wake up and, at some point, feel that urge to create.

I’m lucky I’ve managed to earn a modest living from writing (certainly not from designing lol) and managed to do most of my creating without having to get direct face-to-face public feedback (managers, colleagues and friends don’t count!). While music has also been a big part of my life, for example, I never felt the urge to perform. The idea of being on stage for anything has always terrified me, which has gotten worse with age as anxiety has started to take a hold on my life.

but unfortunately, every now and again, it can’t be avoided. I had the privilege of writing the programme/booklet for the Cambridge Folk Festival for about 10 years (until 2012). It was poorly paid and managed (the editing process, not the festival), but it meant I got free backstage passes to a festival I loved – what’s not to like? But at the festival, I had my first experience of live public feedback – albeit indirectly.

There I was, sitting in a field with a beer on a sunny day with some good friends and good music – perfect. Then I overhear the people sitting next to us saying, “Wow, I’m not going to see that lot – they sound terrible!” Looking around, I see that the guy has come to this conclusion by reading what I’d written about someone in the programme…

I was mortified. The programme was purely promotional: I wasn’t reviewing these artists, but simply saying a mixture of nice things they wanted to hear (from their own biogs) and a few extra nice bits if I like them. Why didn’t they want to see them? He didn’t know I’d written it (or did he…?), but that wasn’t the point. I suddenly started to feel 20,000 pairs of eyes looking at me…

Of course, I now presume they didn’t want to see that particular band because they weren’t up their street. They’d read the instrument/influence list, who they sounded like, who they’d played with etc – and decided nope, not for me. But for that brief moment I was convinced everyone in that field was reading my programme thinking, “God – all these bands are terrible – what idiot wrote this and what are we doing here?”

A similar thing now happens with my board game designs, when I’m lucky enough to have them published. The most memorable example was at Essen 2016, when Queen Games released Armageddon (co-designed with David Thompson). While ultimately the game didn’t do too well, Queen did an amazing job of pushing it at the event. It must’ve been on 30 demo tables, which were filled throughout the weekend. Walking past those tables, or watching them, was so weird. That’s our baby!

What made it worse is Armageddon is a thinky auction-style euro game with tough decisions. We could often look along a long line of tables and see no laughter, no smiles, no back-slapping – just a bunch of surly, miserable looking faces lol. Luckily a lot of those faces were turning into sales, but it was an incredibly anxiety-inducing and awkward experience!

But on the flip side, I’m not worried about reviews. I’ve been reviewing for years – live by the sword, die by the sword. Not everyone is going to like every game, so there’s no point hoping they will: you just have to hope it’s good enough to get more good reviews than bad, and that those who don’t like it at least understand it and are fair. But even if they’re not, brush yourself down and move on.

Creating for the public is a privilege – but the minute you put your creation into the public eye you must be prepared for criticism. You need to understand that it won’t all be fair, or justified, or even coherent. But more than that you have to be prepared to walk away – not to engage. If you can’t do that, keep your creations to yourself and your friends. Everyone can create, but not everyone is ready for public scrutiny.