I finally got to play a game that I’ve covered in this blog – Lords of Vegas! I played a four-player game at the Saturday Eurogame Meetup in Chicago, IL on December 11, 2010. This is a game I’ve been looking at for a few weeks now, and I was glad to get a chance to try it out, to find out whether it was worth the buzz. In this review, I’m not going to talk a whole lot about the mechanics – you can see a general overview in my previous post about the game. I’ve glanced over it, and I think I got most of the rules right there.
COMPONENTS – Let’s talk briefly about the components. In general, I like them. The board is very nicely illustrated, but not so that the art is distracting. In fact, it’s pretty dark, but not so much that it’s tough to see things. I like the layout a lot, with the dice being pretty well distributed. I notice that the strip has the most valuable properties, which makes sense, especially since you’re going to get more points with those. The casino tiles are nice quality, and the dice, while unremarkable, definitely serve their purpose.
Two complaints about the components, one nit-picky and one more of a preference. The nit-picky one is about the colors of some of the casino tiles. The “brown” tiles look red. The brown cards look brown, but the tiles themselves look red. I’m guessing they wanted to go with a brick look, but it was just confusing, especially since the gold tiles look more brown than the “brown” tiles. As I said, nit-picky. My other complaint is about the use of paper money. I was going to rant about it, but I think I’ll just say that paper money is a bad design choice, even if you’re doing it to keep your costs down. Why not print the money on some of the wasted cardboard from the center of the casino tiles, or even just include some thematically appropriate poker chips? I think the game is good enough that people wouldn’t mind paying $50 instead of $45 for the upgraded money.
THEME – The theme is pretty unique – building casinos from the ground up in Las Vegas. However, it’s not that important to the play of the game. Casinos is merely a word that refers to the building tiles. The theme probably could have been something else and the game wouldn’t have suffered. Ernest and Selinker obviously put some thought and work into making the theme fit the game (particularly by including gambling as an action option), so I’m not saying that the theme is pasted on. But it was rare during play that I found myself thinking, “OK, what would I do if I was actually a Las Vegas casino boss?”
MECHANICS – The mechanics are pretty unique and interesting. It’s a turn-based system, so you’ll be going around the circle doing all of your actions before other players get a turn. On a turn, you always get a lot that will be available for purchase (or trade). Then you can build a new casino, reorganize a current casino, sprawl into an empty lot, remodel a casino, or gamble at another player’s casino. These actions can all be done multiple times in a single turn (except for gambling). There’s a fairly low level of interaction between the turn – you may cause another player to reroll their dice, or you may cause them to decide whether to cover a full bet or not, or you could trade with other players. These, although significant to game play, are not necessarily going to happen during a turn, or even a game. In the game we played, no one completed any trades at all. I almost did, but the other player backed out when he realized that it wouldn’t be as beneficial as he originally thought.
There are a couple of unique mechanics that I want to bring up. First, the use of dice. There has been a dice revolution in a lot of board games recently, with designers trying to find uses other than the standard roll and move or roll for damage mechanics. Most of the new mechanics have been attempts to counter luck. I like what this game is doing in embracing the luck of the dice rather than running away from it. Las Vegas is all about luck, about playing the odds. By having the dice printed on the board, you have a strategy element in determining which properties to buy. Do you buy a lot with a one and pay to reorganize, or do you pay more for a lot with a four that is connected to the strip? It’s cool that you have the dice in one state at the start, but that they are not static, and I like what Ernest and Selinker have done.
The other thing I want to talk about is the score track. At first glance, it looks like your standard scoring track with points around the outer edge. However, this one is different because of the intervals. You score points for your casinos when the matching color card comes out. So, if you have a purple casino and a purple card is drawn, you score! You score one point for each tile in the casino. However, once you get to a certain point, you cannot score for smaller casinos. A one tile casino scores one point. However, once you get to 8 points, those will no longer score. The next number is 10. You’ll have to score at least two points to advance on the score track. If you score three points, you still have to stop at 10 because there’s no 11. Then, once you get to 20, you have to score in intervals of three to advance. At 32, you move to 4, and so on. At 81, you have to have a casino of size nine to score points. If you get to 90, you win automatically, even if the game isn’t technically over. This encourages expansion rather than spreading yourself all over the board (a strategy I failed to grasp during our game). It also keeps you from expanding too much, or you want get all the points you are entitled to (such as having a size 5 casino when you’re scoring in intervals of 3). It’s something I haven’t seen before, and I like it. It seems to keep the game fairly close.
STRATEGY vs. LUCK – This is very much a luck-based game. Your starting lots and money are determined by a card draw. The lots that are available to you throughout the game are randomly assigned. Reorganization of the casino is based on rolling dice. Gambling is, of course, a gamble. Sprawling, too, is a gamble, since you’re going into an empty lot that may get taken by another player if the corresponding card comes out. So, yes, you have to be lucky to succeed in this game. But, more than that, this is a game about knowing when to take risks. As I mentioned before, you’ll have to build bigger and bigger casinos to stay competitive in the game. Due to the card drawing, it’s unlikely that you’ll get several lots right next to each other. This means that you’re going to have to sprawl. The sprawling strategy is something that I didn’t pick up on quickly enough, probably because I was a little scared of losing my lots. However, if you’re the boss of a large casino, it becomes very expensive for someone to come in and reorganize, so sprawling to connect a couple of smaller casinos becomes a good strategy. Reorganization of smaller casinos then becomes important, particularly if it has small numbers. There’s no reason NOT to reorganize a one or two (it only costs you $1-2). Then you’re in better shape as the game goes on.
I have only played the game once, so I’m sure that other strategies will occur to me as time goes on. For now, it seems like a game where you have to use strategy to manage the odds, but you’re going to have to take risks to be successful. It’s an unpredictable game, but I think that adds to the fun.
THE WIFE FACTOR – I always have to ask myself a question when playing a new game: will my wife like it? The answer may or may not affect my opinion of a game, but it might affect whether or not I’d buy it. For this game, I think she would like it. She tends to enjoy games that have some luck elements, particularly push-your-luck games. LoV definitely has that. She also likes stuff that doesn’t have too much math, and I think this would be OK. She tends to dislike stuff that features high interaction in terms of combat and screw-your-neighbor type mechanics. This is relatively low on the interaction scale – the only truly direct things you can do are gamble and reorganize, and you’re never certain to succeed with those. So, I think she would like it.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? – Absolutely. This is a great game from James Ernest and Mike Selinker. I’m not terribly familiar with the other games they have collaborated on (Pirates of the Spanish Main, Gloria Mundi, Unspeakable Words, Michelangelo, and maybe some others), and the only other game I’ve played by either of them is Kill Doctor Lucky (by Ernest). This game is pretty tight mechanically, and features a lot of fun in the box. Apart from my (minor) complaints about the components, I think this a solid design that is deserving of the hype. In terms of where it belongs on the gaming spectrum, I might put this as a really good “next-step” game – a game that would be good for people who have already gone through some gateway games and are looking for something a little deeper.
Thanks for reading my first review on this site. Hopefully, I’ll get to do some more soon. Insert clever tagline here.