It’s often hard for people who don’t share a certain interest to understand what people who do share that interest take notice of. So most of you will have to take my word for it when I tell you that, for board game enthusiasts, one important thing to know about any new game is — who designed it? There are designers who have a reputation in boardgame circles. The king of them all is Reiner Knizia, an unbelievably prolific creator who has designed some of the best games out there (and, given the number of titles he’s done, some clunkers). Sid Sackson is an American designer with numerous successes to his name. Other names that get attention in the boardgame world are Martin Wallace, Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, Alan Moon, Klaus Teuber, Bruno Faidutti, Dirk Henn, and Friedemann Friese. Most boardgamers will not only recognize these names and be able to rattle off the games they designed, but also have a fairly good idea what to expect from these designers.
Another name is Leo Colovini. This is a designer I’ve not had good luck with. My first encounter with Colovini was with the game Alexandros. This is a sort of abstract game in which you something something something. I really don’t remember it well. I was playing with TJ, Dan, and Mike, and it was clear that nobody was enjoying this pointless exercise. Mike got this plastic bone-shaped stick (I think it was an accessory for an action figure) and said that if any of us wanted to quit playing, we could “shake the stick”. As TJ sat and contemplated his move Dan, who was next, grabbed the stick and told TJ, “I don’t know what the hell you’re pondering over there, because I’m shaking this thing as soon as you’re done.” And that was the end of Alexandros for us.
(The term “Shaking the stick” has now become a euphemism among us for disliking a game. “What’s the matter, TJ, you’re not enjoying this?” “Nah, it’s okay. I’m not shaking the stick just yet.”)
A few months later, when Mike brought out Go West, we shuddered upon hearing it was another Colovini game. For this one, the stick never got shaken, but nobody much liked it. Like Alexandros, we found it dull, dry, and pointless. We finished the thing, but never once considered playing it again.
Colovini’s got a reputation for this sort of thing. His games tend to be abstract, with whatever theme there is just lightly dabbed on. People who dig his games maintain that the haters just don’t appreciate the subtleties and depth of strategy. On the other hand, one of the comments on BGG for his game Submarine is, “given the title, it’s ironic that the game is dry and not very deep.” And he does have a few games that many people do like, such as Clans, Magna Grecia, and Cartagena. (I’ve only played the last of these and found it eh, okay.)
All of this is lead in to explain how Dan and I felt when Brian brought Masons to the table. It’s been getting a lot of buzz on BGG, and I liked the photos of it I’d seen, but when we looked at the box we saw the hated words: “Leo Colovini”. Dan and I recoiled in horror and moved it away from our other games for fear of its corrupting touch. But we decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad we did. Brian, Dan, Jiansong, and I were the participants.
Masons is again, pretty abstract. In it, you’re dropping down walls, towers, and buildings. When walls enclose an area, they form a city, and at that point everyone has a chance to play cards to score it. It actually reminds me, in a way, of a Reiner Knizia game, in the fact that you don’t “own” anything on the board, and are just trying to play the board to score yourself more points than anyone else.
It’s not overly complicated, and there seems to be a fair amount of strategy. For example, when scoring happens, you can play one or two scoring cards, or discard one. If you play a card for scoring, you get one new one. If you discard one (without scoring) you get two new ones. Fewer cards means fewer scoring options, so you have to really think about when you want to get points and when you want to get cards. In fact, since the only time you can get new cards is when you score, there were at least two times that I completed a city knowing that I had no scoring plans for it; I was going to instead discard something to get two new cards. In that case I had to try to make sure I wasn’t helping my opponents more than myself.
None of us knew the game well enough to employ much strategy, and for a while there it seemed like we had a runaway leader problem with me. There’s no way to really harm the other players, and no way of knowing what scoring cards they’ve got in their hands, so it seems like there’s a large amount of randomness to be had. In short, once someone gets ahead, there’s really no way to bring that person down or prevent him from getting further. However, the fact that making such scoring leaps requires diminishing your hand helps to correct this, and though I found myself having a very nice lead, I also found myself having not many scoring options. I had to slow myself down just to get more cards.
In the end, I did win, but barely. Dan and Jiansong, who had been behind most of the game, were right up there with me and Brian at the end. I believe there was only like an eight point spread when it was all over with.
Masons is a Colovini game I can truly speak highly of. I’ll be curious to see how it’s received by people who liked the Colovini games I didn’t.