Review: Nefarious (second edition)

nefariousboxIt’s tough being on top. After the astonishing success of Dominion and to a lesser extent, Kingdom Builder, Donald X. Vaccarino had set the bar so high that his subsequent releases, which weren’t as grand in scope, couldn’t possibly meet expectations. Thus, Nefarious from Ascora games went quietly out of print and gamers moved on. However, the game is back with an awesome new look and a strange new publisher, USAopoly, who is mostly known for party games and licensed versions of Monopoly, Risk, and so on. Will all these changes result in Nefarious getting a big enough following for that expansion fans are desperate for? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

nefariouscomponentsComponents: This version of Nefarious has two huge things going for it. The first is that I love the new artwork and graphic design – it’s clear with great iconography, somewhat minimalist, and hilarious. The second is the super competitive price point – $30 MSRP is completely fair, even surprisingly low for this game – a lot of other companies would have charged $40. The actual components are hit-and-miss. I like the smaller, King of Tokyo box size, as I think it says a lot about expectations for the game (this is a filler with a bit more meat on it, much like KoT). The cardboard tokens are fine, and the meeples are pretty great, but the cards are very thin and wobbly, to the point where I got a bit scared when playing at lunch with ungentle types. I put them in solid-backed (i.e. a bit stiffer) Ultra Pro sleeves and now I can finally sleep at night. The Twist cards are also thin and unfortunately hard to find sleeves for (Dixit size), but at least no one touches those during the game. The insert looked nice but didn’t quite fit the pieces if you’re going to bag them, but I tossed it anyway when I sleeved the cards. Overall, I think the killer price and artwork outweigh the weak points.

 

Accessibility: Learning the rules of this game is quite easy, and it’s easy to teach. Anything someone doesn’t get will click in the first turn or two. At first when I looked through the cards, I was disappointed by the limited variability of the Invention cards, because they’re all just permutations of the same few icons (no text other than card titles). However, makes the game waaaay easier to teach than, say, Dominion. While playing the game, there’s a lot of crazy things going on simultaneously, so that takes some getting used to, but it’s certainly not that hard. The rulebook recommends you play without Twists for your first game, and I say nuts to that, because they are definitely what make the game what it is. Instead, I think there should have been a recommended beginner game set of Twists. As an example, you might just use the one that makes Work give $6 instead of $4, and the one that keeps you from doing the same action two turns in a row. I think this could even be a gateway game for some.

 

Depth: First off, keep in mind that this is a quick little game with lots of simultaneous play – we’ve consistently gotten two games in during a lunch hour with six players. The second thing to know is that it’s very chaotic. Cards are flying everywhere, as players “Invent” (play down cards for VPs with special effects) simultaneously, and you resolve them clockwise from yourself. Many cards make you draw or discard, place or lose Spies (formerly Minions), gain or lose money, and so on. Plans can often go awry because of losing cards or money, or other players not doing what you planned. And of course, this is all exacerbated by the Twist cards, which are the heart of the game. These are two special global effects for that entire game, and you randomly pick two of the thirty possible options for each game. This is truly what makes this game replayable, as it can feel very different from one to play to the next (and it usually does).

The other way to interact other than card effects (which hit everyone equally), is predicting with your Spies what your neighbors will do for their Actions, and you can even gamble on getting that income at the start of the turn. In that way, it’s reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy (you’re also drawing and discarding, quickly and often, from a common draw pile), and I honestly think this game just feels like DXV saying to himself, “What if Bruno Faidutti had designed Race for the Galaxy?” Now, I still think there’s a lot of strategy here, or about as much as can be had in 15-20 minutes, but this game is still a crazy ride (in a good way). If I had a complaint, it’s that there are just too many make-people-discard effects, which is more annoying than losing Spies or money because it ruins what little planning component there is. I’m hoping the already-designed expansion just has none of those but a bunch of new Invention cards, to dilute that effect somewhat.

 

Theme: I realize this is not necessarily saying much, but this is the most thematic game Donald X. Vaccarino has designed to date. The card names and corresponding art are hilarious and have just the right touch of humor in the art, and the effects actually make sense with the icons. When you invent the cloning machine, everyone gets an extra Spy / Minion. When you invent the aphrodisiac, you get a bunch of money. Almost all of the cards tie their ability close to their concept, much moreso than Dominion or Kingdom Builder did. The Twist cards are equally humorous and thematic, and even the mechanisms of just having fast, furious play and crazy cards going everywhere appropriately puts the “mad” in “mad scientist”. Great job here.

 

Fun: I was really taken aback by this game and how much I liked it. The comparatively low scores on BGG had me worried, as Dominion and Kingdom Builder are two of my top ten games, and I was a little disappointed with Temporum. However, we had a wonderful time with this game, and it’s great to have something more crazy and less thinky than 7 Wonders that’ll play a crowd even more quickly. I wouldn’t pull this out as a main course, and I think it’s main advantage is its speed with a large group (I wouldn’t bother with two or three players), but I had a heck of a time playing this one. I love crazy card combos, and this game has that in spades, with a great combo of theme and art. Card combo geeks like me should definitely check this one out.

 

Nefarious‘ new edition has a killer price point, great art and theme, and the gameplay is quick and fun. If you don’t mind sleeving your cards and a big ol’ splash of chaos, then go check this one out.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Review: Codenames

codenamescoverThere’s one thing you can say for certain about Vlaada Chvatil: no two of his games play the same. He’s one of the mad scientists of the board game world, designing everything from epic civ games like Through the Ages, to real-time cooperative games like Space Alert, to extremely silly party games like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose. He’s back this year with another party game, the hotly anticipated Codenames. In Codenames, two teams are using word association clues to get the rest of their team to guess the appropriate words, while avoiding the words belonging to the other team and to THE ASSASSIN. Is the game as good as the hype? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

codenamesplayComponents:  This game looks quite nice. The cover looks a tiny bit serious, which fits with the gameplay. There’s a ton of cards to use in the game, all of which are double-sided, which is very helpful as it makes a second game easy to set up. Including the optional timer was also a nice touch. The cardboard tiles also make the game play and feel much nicer even though they aren’t necessary (but I do wish each side had their own separate 9th tile). The box is a weird shape, but the right size for the components. The MSRP of $20 is super competitive. They did a great job here all around. If I had the tiniest complaint, it’s that the very well-thought-out cards show the same word right-side-up and upside-down but with one variation in a much lighter color, so I end up reading the upside-down darker text anyway. (That might be the most nitpicky thing I’ve ever written in a review.)

 

Accessibility: This could easily be someone’s gateway game, as anyone who’s not into gaming but plays the occasional party game can pick this one up easily. Vlaada Chvatil’s rulebooks sometimes value humor over organization, but this one was very thorough and clear while still having a fair amount of humor. However, getting started playing was a lot more difficult than I expected! You have to spend the first minute or two with everyone just processing what twenty-five cards are on the table, and the spymasters have to then start thinking about which cards belong to which player. I played as the spymaster my first game and was awful at it, although some other players took to it quite naturally. The game is so quick that you can just play again, and once you’ve played the game just a few times, things start to really click. It’s by no means hard to play, but there’s definitely a learning curve in the first game or two. Fortunately, those are only about ten minutes each.

 

Depth: This is one of those cerebral party games, like Spyfall or Dixit. Actually, calling this game a party game is kind of weird in the first place, although I don’t have a better name. Yes, it’s a word game, and it’s occasionally funny, but it’s mostly super intense! Every time a player touches a card in the tableau, it’s super suspenseful. As the spymaster, you’re just cringing, hoping they understand what you meant. (And in my case, regretting your clue just as soon as you spit it out…) We played four times in a row our first session, and we were really starting to see the game open up as we played more and more. It’s amazing just how much language games can tease your brain. For example, in one game I needed to give clues about Drill, Crown, and Back. I would have been okay with them only guessing two. I eventually went with “Hair: 2″ (the number is how many cards fit the clue), but I didn’t think about the opponents having the word Root because in my head, I was only thinking about plant roots. Someone pointed out later I should have done “Dentist: 2″ but it didn’t cross my mind because I couldn’t get off of the typical definitions of drill and crown. The game is full of opportunities for cleverness like this, and is overall very strategic for a “party game”.

 

Theme: The actual theme of this game is quite weak – the two spymasters are trying to make contact with their spies who are only known by their codenames. It’s a thin veneer, but I like it, and I think it works for two reasons. The first is that it gives the game a great aesthetic – everything about this game looks great. The second reason is that it matches the feel of the gameplay. Picking cards after being given a clue really feels like you’re trying to defuse a bomb that’s going to explode when you pick the wrong card. It’s loose, but there’s definitely a connection there. And this is about as good as it gets for a party game, I think.

 

Fun: This game is awesome. Gamer types who traditionally frown upon party games are going to enjoy this because the gameplay is plenty deep, and it’s not just a silly game for laughs. On the other hand, it’s an easy transition for beginners from other party games, as the mechanisms aren’t particularly weird. The only way I can see people not enjoying this is that they hate “feeling stupid” when they screw up in team games, something I’ve seen happen with people yelling and ruining Time’s Up!. So it’s not for quite everyone, but it’s definitely been a hit with me and everyone I’ve taught it to. I will say, though, that this is really only for four to six players. Past that, the teams get too big, and you can only play the game cooperatively with two or three, which takes the competitive tension away.

 

Just about everyone should find themselves enjoying Codenames – it’s fast, it’s deep, it’s tense, it’s awesome.

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

 

Game Designer Interview: Sergio Halaban

Bruno Faidutti, left, Sergio Halaban, right

Bruno Faidutti, left, Sergio Halaban, right

Tell us a bit about yourself: your day job and family, how you first got into gaming, what got you to start designing, etc.

My name is Sergio Halaban, I`m 51 years old.
I`m married to Sílvia Zatz, she is a writer. We have three kids (7, 10 and 13 years old).
In 1997, two years after we married, Sílvia and I decided to host a weekly game night at home and invited André Zatz (Sílvia’s brother), as well as his girlfriend at that time.
None of us were a “real gamer”, so we started with the games we used to play in our childhood and adolescence (Monopoly, Clue, Risk, etc.). At that time the Internet was a novelty and through it we discovered a wonderful new world of games! So from the Hasbro “classics” we moved to Settlers of Catan and then we never stopped!
At that time, Sílvia, André and I, wanted to develop some creative activity together, which could evolve to become a part time job for us. I don’t know from where we got the “stupid” idea that the gaming market could offer this kind of opportunity. Probably because we were not gamers and we did not know much about what happened in the game market between late 70’s and the modern board games boom.
We visited some toyshops to research on board games and to our surprise there was nothing new! The same old games that we played in our first game nights were still the blockbusters!
So we started to develop our first games. :)

 

Your best-known games are co-designs with Andre Zatz. How would you describe your collaboration process?

We (Sílvia, André and I) have discovered and explored modern board games together. And from the very beginning we wanted to develop games together. Our fist published game Corrida Presidencial (something like “Presidential Campaign”) was released in 1998.
In the year of 2000 we started a company to develop games for many purposes: from board games for the toy market to corporation-minded and training games. In fact we worked for anyone who would like to hire us ;-). We have even developed some games for the main Brazilian TV network (Rede Globo).
Since 1998 we have designed and published (with distribution only in Brazil, and mainly oriented to the toy mass market) more than 40 games. Our best selling game, Floresta Encantada (Enchanted Forest) has sold already 380,000 copies.
In 2004 Sílvia decided to leave our partnership, so she could focus on her writing career.
In 2013 we (André and I) decided to split our activities. André decided to specialize in games for corporative and training demands, and I decided to focus on board games for fun. :)
Regarding our collaboration process, it is almost a marriage… Actually, today I am learning to work alone. For me, the natural way to design a game is in a collaborative environment. It is a fluid process. One of us came with an idea and while presenting it to the other, new ideas and possibilities pop up and are added by both of us. Before we notice, that first idea that one of us has brought is already something that belongs to the two of us.
The most important thing (I think) is that the two of us must have a chance and space to add something to the first idea. We understand that in any project we must feel that we have made at least one significant contribution. Obviously this is not always easy. Often we have to convince each other of our ideas and contributions. Once we have this feeling, that each one has added something, we can say that the project now belongs to the two of us. I believe this was the secret of our partnership.

 

Another unique thing about the two of you is that you’ve done two co-designs with Bruno Faidutti, with much of the work being done before you ever even met him. What was that like? What advice would you have for other designers who want to collaborate over long distances, and who are trying to find design partners?

My advice is to give a try. The answer “no” you already have, so you have nothing to lose. :) But be prepared to hear that “no” you’ve got from the very beginning. And be prepared to accept that other people will modify your “little baby”. Especially if you are collaborating with a well-established game author.

Our collaboration with Bruno Faidutti was very easy and enriching.
For the first game, Formula E, we (André and I) had this elephant racing game that we had submitted to many editors. From the feedback we received we knew it was a good game, but apparently something was still missing. I suggested to André to show it to Bruno. My inspiration for that came from an old interview with Alex Randolph. In this interview Mr. Randolph tells about his collaboration with Leo Colovini for Inkognito, Mr. Randolph tells how he was immediately gripped by the theme and few fresh ideas he saw in Mr. Colovini’s game that he offered him to work together. This story gave us the courage to approach a designer we admire like Bruno, and submit him our idea. Surprisingly he liked our game from the first moment. It was a great honor for us to work with such a talented and experienced game author.
We (André and I) were prone to accept all Bruno`s contributions unless they change too much the main idea of the game. In fact he suggested a lot of changes that made the game more fun and suitable for the family market. All these new ideas were tested in Brazil and in France at the same time. We exchanged a lot of e-mails for several weeks, and the final result pleased very much all of us. Unfortunately, the first print run of Formula E was a little small and despite it selling out very fast, apparently there is no plan for a second print run in the near future…
Few months after this collaboration I sent Bruno a second game idea that also caught some attention from editors but apparently was lacking something too. We worked in the same way and the result of this second collaboration is the game Warehouse 51, to be presented at Gen Con by FunForge and Passport Game Studious.
In May 2015, after two collaborations and a little more than two years talking by emails I finally met Bruno in person at his Ludopathic Gathering in Etourvy.
I am very proud of both collaborations. It’s very rewarding and kind of strange at the same time when you have the opportunity to work together with one of your “heroes” :)

 

sheriffboxSheriff of Nottingham has been a huge success! If I understand correctly, this is the third iteration of the same game system. What lessons have you learned as the game continued to take shape, even after being published?

It is indeed! I’m really proud of it!
André, Sílvia and I started to work in this game in 2003. In 2004, Sílvia “abandoned” the development, but André and I persisted. In 2006, Kosmos released its first “incarnation” under the name Hart an der Grenze. It was our first game published outside Brazil. This first iteration entered the recommendation list of the “Spiel des Jahres” in 2006.
In 2011, Galapagos Jogos released its second “incarnation” called Robin Hood, distributed only in Brazil. It was nominated for best Brazilian game of the year at “Prêmio JoTa”.
The third “incarnation” is Sheriff of Nottingham, is the most successful one. For our surprise and big happiness, it won the 2015 Origin Awards for best board game! I must thank Bryan Pope and Scott Morris (from Arcane Wonders) for the terrific job they did, and are still doing, in the edition and promotion of this game.
All this process has thought me many things. Some of the most important are:
First that a game development is never actually finished :), even if it finds a publisher.
Second that different markets have different cultures and different players. And you should be aware of this and respect it. Fortunately we were lucky enough and the game found three good and talented developers for its three “incarnations”.
Third and most important, is how a good marketing strategy and promotion plan is important for a game success. Of course the game itself must have some qualities too 😉

 

Can you tell us a bit about your design process? How do you go from the idea for a game, to a prototype, and so on? How do you know when to scrap an idea, when to keep working, or when it’s done?

I would describe my design process as more intuitive rather than structured. Although I have a big familiarity with structured development processes, I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering and professionally worked for more than ten years as a product designer. But when it comes to game design, I put all the development theory aside, and follow a chaotic and intuitive process.
Usually I start from a theme or from a game situation. Then I try to find a mechanic that can fit.
The design process itself is similar to most designers, I think.
I try to assemble a playable version as fast as possible, play-test, adjust, play-test, and adjust…
When a game is done? Never :)… but at some point you have to stop. I usually stop in one of two cases:
I am satisfied with it, I just like playing it, or,
I don’t see how I can improve it anymore. I prefer when I arrive to the first case 😉
Even though it is hard to figure out when the game is done.
One of my main difficulties is to leave an idea that is not working well, I tend to insist to find a solution for problems I am experiencing in playtests. Sometimes I wish I could give up and go to the next idea instead of losing a lot of time in a hopeless idea, but I can’t. Another difficulty I have is that I take too long before I assemble the first playable version of a new game idea. I know I said I try to go fast, but most of the times I don’t succeed in doing it :)

 

How have you gone about trying to find publishers? I know some situations have just been serendipitous, but how did you go about getting started with your first designs?

Well, we are in this business for a long time now. This allowed us to build a good network. When we started, almost 20 years ago, the “competition” was smaller and we managed to make good contacts with many editors and publishers. The Internet, which was still in its beginning, helped a lot, shortening the physical distance between Brazil and Europe.
We have always submitted our game ideas through emails. In the first contact we usually send an overview of the game with some important information as number of players, target public, game length, etc. If there is any interest from the publisher they will ask for a playable version. The next steps (if they happen) are the natural consequences from the previous ones.
About luck, it definitely plays a huge role. More than I’d like to admit. Of course the game must be good or at least have some qualities. But it also must be in the right place at the right time.
To give an example of how important the circumstances are, After Hart an der Grenze was published, Wolfgang Luedtke (from Kosmos) told us that when he received our submission he found the game interesting, even though he was in doubt to ask for a prototype just because if they didn’t like it, it would be expensive to send it back to Brazil. I don’t remember how we told him that there was a playable version of the game with a friend of ours in Germany. And this information changed everything. After he knew about it, Kosmos asked for the playable version and the game ended up being published. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Since then, I adopted as my politics, to never ask for a prototype back. If a publisher rejects one of my submissions, I just ask them to destroy the prototype, without any mercy. There is no need to send it back to Brazil.
Another situation involving luck occurred to our first published game in Brazil. It was called Corrida Presidencial (Presidential Campaign), published in 1998 by Toyster / Game Office (a Brazilian toy manufacturer). In this game each player was the coordinator of a presidential campaign. At that time the owner of the company used to play himself with the game designers. During our game, he managed to make some smart moves, which made him very happy with the game. Than he had to leave, for another meeting, in the middle of our game… We finished the game with his assistants and when he came back he already had made his decision in favor of the game. One week later we signed an agreement. Later we found out that he was lacking a “strategy” game to fill a gap in his line, because another designer could not complete the development in time for the release of another game the company had already signed for. Besides the owner of the company just loved politics. Of course our game had its qualities. We have worked a lot during its development. We too liked politics at that time (I confess I am not very interested anymore…), but it is also obvious that we arrived in the right place with the right product at the right time.
And as with these two games, if I look with a broad perspective I will find out that with every game I have published until today, lady luck or mister chance were always present somehow. So to publish a game is only a mater of luck or chance? Not at all! But as I used to say: You should believe in God, but don’t forget to tie your horse 😉
Personally I believe that chance rules a big part of our lives. I think it helps me to keep my feet on the ground. I know that when I succeed, that’s not 100% due to my creativity or capacity or whatever. And when I fail, it is not 100% my fault as well. And thinking this way helps me a lot to deal with the inevitable frustration of the constant refusals we have to deal with when submitting our ideas to evaluation.

 

warehouse51Can you tell us about Warehouse 51? How does it play? What makes it exciting? How does the theme come through?

Warehouse 51 was my second collaboration with Bruno Faidutti. After the collaboration for Formula E I felt more at ease to show Bruno some other games I had. One of them, an auction game called “National Museum”, which had a very classical mechanic and theme, caught his attention. After all, there were some interesting ideas there, that motivated Bruno to start a second collaboration.
Again we exchanged lots of emails, Bruno proposed a lot of changes and the result was a quite original game (thanks to the great ideas Bruno brought), but still with a not very exciting theme. Even though it found a publisher. Rob Merickel from Passport Game Studios was interested in publishing the game but with one condition: He wanted to change the theme to relic collectors instead of ancient art. We immediately agree! Rob’s idea was just great a solved two problems at once: The new theme was much more exciting, and thematically fitted much better one of Bruno’s ideas, that was to associate effects (blessings or curses) to the art objects (now relics). It makes much more sense that “Thor`s Hammer” will bring you a blessing than the Hammurabi`s Code. And then Warehouse 51 was born!
One year later, Bruno played Warehouse 51 with Philippe Nouhra from FunForge, who liked very much the new theme and suggested the pawnbroker idea. As Rob and Philippe had some business together (Passport is the distributor of FunForge’s games for the US market), they reached an agreement and the rights of the game passed to FunForge.
Warehouse 51 is an auction game, where players are in the role of eccentric multi-billionaires, who collect real relics. In the year is 2038, after decades of borrowing money from the rest of the world, the USA finally went bankrupt. In a last desperate move, the federal government decides to auction its most secret treasures: the artifacts and relics stored in warehouse 51. And there’s serious stuff in there, such as Aladdin’s Lamp, The Hammer of Thor, the Golem, and the Philosopher’s Stone. These relics are organized in four groups (representing four different mythologies). Players will dispute for the most prestigious collections in each one of the four groups. The player with the most prestige in the end of the game is the winner. Looks simple? Well, it isn’t that simple. Some relics will be fake (in each game the fake relics are different, chosen at random), each player knows about some fakes but never about all the fake ones. Most of the relics will cause an effect (blessing or curse) to the player who buys it. Some effects take place immediately, some last for the entire game and others will happen only in the game end. With all these effects the game is always full of surprises and lots of bluffing. And to make things even more challenging, the money circulates among players in an unusual way. The player who wins an auction will pay his bid to the player seated to his left. This simple rule generates an interesting and challenging money administration for players. There is also a pawnbroker where you can pawn a relic in order to get some extra money during the game.
It`s a game that I enjoy very much playing.
FunForge did an awesome production job! They found a very talented illustrator called Rafael Zanchetin, who is also Brazilian. :)

 

Can you tell us about your involvement in Ludomania (and what that is exactly), and what the board game culture is like in Brazil?

In 1998, after we published our first game, Corrida Presidencial, André learned a little about HTML and published a site in the web to promote it.
With this experience André decided to publish another site to promote board games in general, the idea was to create a space to put information about board games. It was the first web site in Portuguese about board games.
André has a degree in journalism and was interested in explore the possibilities of the Internet. So he could join two of his interests in one activity.
At that time, to play board games as a hobby was something almost nonexistent in Brazil. So in short time our web site became an important source of information . A little later we adopted the name “Ludomania”. In the beginning we were focused in the Brazilian market. Then André started to write about Chess, which he played a lot wen he was a teenager, and other classic and traditional games. After that we started to write about modern games, etc. For many years this site was a big reference and brought many people to the hobby.
With the growth of the board game community in Brazil, many other sites appeared, doing a great job in terms of bringing information about our hobby, and André gradually lost interest in keeping our site updated. There is a lot of job to keep an interesting site ;-). I tried to replace André for almost a year, but I don’t have his ability to do this. So today it is completely abandoned in the web.
The board game scene in Brazil, together with the geek culture, has been growing very fast in the last four or five years. Today we have at least four companies that produce or import games licensed from USA and Europe, translated into Portuguese. Lots of virtual and physical shops specialized in board games. Lots of sites, blogs, podcasts, video reviews, etc. specialized in board game information. All over Brazil there are groups that organize regular gaming events. These events can gather from 10 to 100 people for an afternoon of games. Among some dozens of groups in Facebook there is one that has more than eleven thousand participants and is still growing fast..
We have at least two platforms for crowdfunding, where board games are doing quite well. Lots of new game authors with lots of great ideas are releasing their own games.
If I think that two years ago we didn’t have even one third of all I have just mentioned, I’d say that the board game culture in Brazil is a snowball that is growing fast :)
On the other hand, as all this is too recent, many of these initiatives are still in their beginning. It will take some time before we can have a more experienced and professionalized market with consolidated companies, producing and selling games.

 

Playing the Warehouse 51 prototype

Playing the Warehouse 51 prototype

What have you been reading/playing/watching/enjoying lately?

Reading: Quando as mulheres saem para dançar (When the woman comes out to dance) and Hombre (Western roundup #3 Hombre), both by Elmore Leonard.

Playing: Prototypes, Caverna, Imperial Settlers, Prototypes…

Watching: Soccer :)
A movie that I`ve watched recently and recommend to everybody ever since is Relatos Selvagens (Wild Tales). If a Brazilian is recommending anything made in Argentina, believe me it must be very good :)

Enjoying: Learning to play Magic with my 10-year-old son, to play Go with my 13-year-old son, to play Summoner Wars with my 7-year-old son (who thinks he is 13), weekends with wife and kids, listening music (mostly jazz and blues).

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts and my history in the board games world.
I hope you have found it interesting or at least entertaining.
See you around!

Review: New York 1901

ny1901boxBlue Orange Games has been blazing a trail in the U.S. for the past couple of years, putting out excellent games like Doodle Quest and Battle Sheep – great, simple games with small boxes and low price tags, aimed at a younger audience. This year, Blue Orange has set their sights higher, moving into the realm of “big box” games – now, I’m talking Ticket to Ride size here, not Twilight Imperium 3. Their first effort in this realm is New York 1901 from new designer Chenier La Salle, and veteran artist Vincent Dutrait. Speaking of Ticket to Ride, this game is being constantly compared to that one – is that good, bad, or irrelevant? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

ny1901backComponents: First, let me ease your fears. You may have seen some early reviews or Facebook posts (including mine) with some mismatched colors – I was sent a pre-production copy, and that’ll be fixed in the final print run. Apart from that, though, the components are great! Vincent Dutrait did a fantastic job with the artwork, and there are a bunch of nice little touches. The character tiles have names and places of origin, and the back of the board has a beautiful painting, which I’ve never seen on the back of a board – entirely unnecessary, but it really ups the overall quality of the product. The skyscraper scoring markers are another nice little touch. The heart of the game is the puzzle-piece skyscraper tiles, and they’re great also. (I don’t know if the final game will have punch boards, but my game came pre-punched if so.) I’m really impressed, and I think you get more than your $50 MSRP worth, compared to other games in the same vein.

 

Accessibility: This is a weird one. This is most definitely a Spiel des Jahres-level game, that’s very easy to get going – once you grok the rules. And the rules aren’t complicated – they’re just, I guess, new. This is a very unique game, but it doesn’t seem as unique as it is, since everyone’s done the most basic aspects in other games (place puzzle-ish tiles on a board, draw cards from a tableau, etc.) However, although there are only two options on your turn, one is an and/or action of two parts, and that often had players thinking they could draw cards on turns when they demolish/rebuild, since you can do it when you build (you can’t). The back of the cards have a sort of reminder card thing going about the two actions, but it’s entirely iconography. Still, I didn’t put that to use in any game I taught, and I should have. I also wonder if it would have been equivalent, and simpler, to say that your turn has two phases: first, you may take a lot card OR remove buildings, and then you may build something. I also struggled a bit when reading (without having the components in front of me) the idea that you always need to clearly mark a lot as yours once you own it, either with a worker or a building. This is not a hard concept – but my first rules read-through was at 2AM, which was probably a bad idea.

But then I also think I’m making a huge mountain out of a very small molehill. Players usually fully understood what was going on within a few turns, and I’d like to point out that I’ve seen beginners make ten different mistakes in their first games of Ticket to Ride – I never had nearly that much trouble here. I never had a player complain or get upset about misunderstanding a rule, because those clarification questions will come right out of the gate in the first few turns. It’ll go perfectly if the teacher fully understands the rules and can clarify – but “learning together” for your first play is probably a bad idea. So, while this isn’t as simple as those true gateway games like Hey, That’s My Fish! or Las Vegas, it’s about the same complexity as Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne or a little under, and it’s certainly simpler than Dominion or Settlers of Catan. I’ll also mention that the squares on the tiles, indicating the number of spaces you need to fit the piece on the board, are extremely helpful.

Speaking of Ticket to Ride, let’s throw that comparison out of the window, now that I’ve already used it more than I should. This game is constantly being compared to Ticket to Ride, and they have a lot of surface-level similarities (similar art, audience and setting), but they play nothing alike. This game has no “currency” like how you cash in cards in Ticket to Ride, and the puzzle-piece and blocking aspect is much different than the route building of Ticket to Ride. While you do draw cards from a tableau, that’s in many games, and I’m not positive that Ticket to Ride was the first. I would say that a closer comparison is that this is probably the gateway area-control game that Michael Schacht was trying to design with his many iterations of China but never quite pulled off like it’s done here.

 

Depth: Boy, was I surprised! The first few turns of our first game seemed very obvious, and I was wondering when the game would get interesting. Now, I realize that simply throwing some pieces on the board without much thought was probably not the best idea! This game opens up more and more as you play, both within a single play and from one game to the next. You have to consider the majority bonuses for the roads, the Challenge card, getting lots big enough to fit those gold pieces and communal skyscrapers, the lot cards available… For such a simple game, optimizing your strategy is not as simple as it seems. In every game I’ve played, I’ve gotten the 13-point skyscraper and still lost. It’s 13 points, but it’s also only one skyscraper for those road bonuses. I have a sense of how to play and have a basic strategy, but I have no sense yet as to how to win effectively – and I love that.

Some people have said that this game can be cutthroat, and it can, especially as a two-player game. However, with three or four players, you’ll do some incidental blocking, but just trying to hose one player just helps the others, so there’s not too much of that. There’s definitely competition over cards and lots, and it feels tense, but it doesn’t feel mean – so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

 

Theme: This is such an original theme! The only other game I can think of in the same ballpark is Skyline 3000, which is set in the future, rather than glorifying the first skyscrapers of New York. I also love the little facts in the game: the communal skyscrapers have measurements on them (which is used as a tiebreaker), and the rulebook points out that each of these was a real building that, when built, was the tallest building in the world! How cool is that? At its heart, it’s still a point optimization game, and the skyscrapers feel more like puzzle pieces than skyscrapers, but for a simple, family game, the theme here really works. It doesn’t hurt that the art is amazing, either.

 

Fun: Wow. I’ve enjoyed Blue Orange’s other releases, but they “feel” like the small, filler games they are. This is the full gaming experience, still at the family game level, but with so much more to chew on. If you’re the gamer who gets excited about games like Jamaica, Ticket to Ride (oops, I did it again), Tokaido, and so on, rather than looking down at those games as too simple, then this is an easy, easy recommendation. I’m amazed at how they were really able to make something brand new and innovative, without making it feel that different from its predecessors. This is one of the best games I’ve played in 2015 so far, and one that I intend to keep playing for years to come.

 

If you’re like me, and love those family-weight games, New York 1901 absolutely belongs on your shelf.

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Another Blue Orange Games Double-Down: Dragon Run, Sushi Draft

Hello friends! We’re back with another double-dose of small games from Blue Orange Games, Dragon Run and Sushi Draft. Let’s get straight to it!

 

Dragon Run

DragonRun_Pkg_Flat_HiResDragon Run is a push-your-luck game for 2-5 players from the renowned Bruno Cathala and newcomer Ludovic Barbe. It’s also another gorgeous piece of art from Vincent Dutrait (Rise of Augustus, Madame Ching, New York 1901). On a player’s turn, he can either charge into the dungeon to find treasure and hopefully not find the dragon, or, if he’s scared that the dragon’s about to come out, he can try and sneak, or cry like a baby. Charging usually rewards treasure, but there are only 10 location cards, and as they exhaust, it’ll be much more likely that you’ll find the dragon (who will hit you, and if you’re hit twice, you’re dead!). The dragon also is the only way to reshuffle the locations, so it becomes a bit of a game of chicken at points in the game. Sneaking runs the risk of still having to reveal a location, but only costs 1 gold to do, while it costs 2 gold to cry like a baby and essentially skip your turn, passing the buck to someone else – but having the most gold (from treasures) is how you win! On top of this, add unique player powers, potions and talisman treasures with special effects, and you’ve got a proper Cathala-ization of the classic push-your-luck tropes.

You most definitely have to go into this game with the right attitude. It’s mostly luck, and the special powers are ridiculous and can really hose players, and you can also have awful turns where you just flip completely crappy cards while other players snatch up a ton of loot. I’ve heard people say the character powers are uneven, but I think they’re all pretty powerful, and some good ol’ meta-gaming can mitigate that. It really is a proper 15-minute throwback to games of the 80’s with its fast-and-loose gameplay. If you’re someone who wants a tight, thinky game even from your fillers, you’ll probably hate this.  I haven’t played with kids, but I imagine they would love this game. I have a couple of minor complaints: the box size is a little weird (I thought it was the same as Jaipur, Citadels, etc. but it isn’t), and a few minor timing rules weren’t clear, like if you could use a potion after the dragon ends your turn. It’s also way better with more players (probably best with five). Those are minor caveats, though. If you want to emulate a dungeon crawl (or, shall we say, run) in a short amount of time with great components and artwork, then I feel this game is worth its $25 MSRP asking price.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Sushi Draft

SushiDraft_Pkg_GameOpen_Flat_HiResWell, it’s impossible to talk about this one without mentioning that other sushi drafting game, Sushi Go! from Gamewright and Phil Walker-Harding. Sushi Draft is actually quite a bit different, but, there’s obviously an upper bound on those differences – after all, both games are 15-minute fillers about passing sushi cards around the table, and that’s a pretty dang specific niche. Unfortunately for Sushi DraftSushi Go! has already garnered a lot of attention, sales, and awards, but Sushi Draft still stands on its own.

In Sushi Draft, players again draft different types of sushi, and different amounts of each type are in the deck. However, each sushi is scored the same way: strict majority, but if players tie for the most, then the next player in line who isn’t tied gets the scoring chip (it’s the same rule from Las Vegas). This is interesting, but not quite as much as it should be – with five players, and only six cards per player, there were way too many ties, and quite often even the people in second place for something were still tied. With three or four players, you can deal out bigger hands to mitigate this. (There is also an advanced variant where wasabi-laden cards are only half a card for scoring, but the icons are hard to see.) I do like the fact that there are only 32 cards and you know exactly what might be in the deck, because I dislike games of Sushi Go! where there’s not even three Sashimi available in all the cards dealt, due to the large variance of the deck. It did make the game go a little faster, and I do think the rule that you can keep one card from each hand to possibly use later adds a little bit more strategy. I think both games are probably equally strategic, but Sushi Draft has that negative element where ties often make me feel like I never accomplished anything.

Components-wise, Sushi Draft‘s are simple and effective, consisting of the 32 sushi which are card-like material but actually large, circular discs, and then a bunch of scoring tokens. I don’t like tins, but Sushi Go! has the same problem, and Blue Orange’s tins (Attila, Niya) are stackable (take note, Bombyx!). I really wish the discs were cards, though, because they’re insanely difficult to shuffle – but on the other hand, they’re pretty fun to hold. Both games are priced about the same (they’ll both run you roughly ten bucks), so nothing really to say there, other than that you’re not taking too much of a chance on either one.

Sushi Draft is a solid, enjoyable game, and I don’t have a huge preference one way or the other over it or Sushi Go! – but I think the variable scoring mechanisms of Sushi Go! and the occasionally punishing ties of Sushi Draft give Sushi Go! a slight edge. However, I still really enjoyed Sushi Draft and would always be up for a quick game (even 5 players only took about 15 minutes).

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Good Cop, Bad Cop

goodcopbadcopboxIf you’ve perused our site much, you know that we love hidden role and bluffing games – The ResistanceCoup, Sherriff of Nottinghamyou name it (well, don’t name One Night Ultimate Werewolf). So, when I heard that Good Cop Bad Cop was like ‘Coup meets Bang!‘, I was definitely intrigued. Now that I’ve got a few games under my belt, where does this game fall in what’s becoming a crowded genre? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

gcbcintegrity_cardsComponents: First, let me note that this is the second edition, which comes in a Jaipur / Citadels size box, not the very small original edition. There’s plenty of room for everything, but still a simple but useful insert to separate the cards from the large, cardboard gun tiles and reminder / first player tile, which also come with very helpful plastic stands. There’s also a couple of cardboard ‘Wounded’ tokens, but that’s it. For an MSRP of $20, this is a steal. There’s not much stuff, but what’s there is done excellently, with a fantastic rulebook and a fun, cartoony art style. Hats off.

 

Accessibility: This is only a 10-20 minute game, and it’s relatively simple to play. I think it took me about three minutes to explain, and we were up and running. The small points of confusion are easy to catch as you read the rules – you aim a gun at the end of your turn as a separate step if you have one (setting up who you’ll shoot next turn – maybe), and playing Equipment cards is not an action. Other than that, the first player marker has a reminder of your available actions and the turn sequence, which is incredibly helpful. I don’t think we had any rules questions during our games, which is pretty incredible. I’d say this could very easily be someone’s gateway game, especially someone who has played Mafia / Werewolf.

 

Depth: I’m not sure where I fall here. This basically a far, far superior version of Bang!, but it’s still a fast-and-loose game full of action cards and desperation moves – it’s not the thinky semi-logic puzzle of something like The Resistance. So, I don’t think I’d be any means call it a game of skill where the more experienced player will win, but you do feel like you have more than option available to you, especially in the early turns, and that your decisions do matter. You can also have crazy situations where the other team has far more players than you, or other players change your allegiance, and so on – so this is more of a roll-with-the-punches kind of game.

 

Theme: I think the artwork here is great, keeping the theme alive but from being too serious or gory. I also think the equipment cards do a great job of incorporating the theme with mechanisms. The other central mechanisms don’t make much sense theme-wise – why would I drop a gun? I guess you can make arguments about the three possibly-changing loyalty cards in the sense of how much someone leans one way or the other…. But when you put it all together, you do have a game that coalesces into something that reminds you of those old cop TV shows with sudden surprises and lots of laughs.

 

Fun: I went into this comparing to Resistance for whatever reason, and it’s absolutely not that. This is much more in the spirit of Bang!, except it’s a far, far better game, even if only because it lasts a proper 10-20 minutes. On top of that, though, there’s much more deduction and rationale for decisions, but still lots of excitement and tense moments. “Shoot him! Shoot him!” Another nice thing about this game is that we can bust it out with four people (unlike The Resistance), and it’s still pretty good. I’ll be hanging on to this one, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the Bombers & Traitors expansion.

 

If you wish Bang! was shorter and had more deduction, or if you wish The Resistance was far more swingy and full of action cards, I absolutely recommend Good Cop Bad Cop.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Parfum

parfumboxIn 2010 (back before the Kennerspiel des Jahres existed), though Dixit pulled out the Spiel des Jahres victory, Eurogamer types were drooling over Fresco from Wolfgang Panning, Marco Ruskowski, and Marcel Süßelbeck, which was an SdJ nominee and won the German Game Prize. The latter two are back with Queen Games for Parfum, a dice-and-tile family game about making and selling perfumes. That’s an awesome, original theme, but does the gameplay do it justice? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

parfumgameComponents: Although there aren’t that many components in the box, they’re of extremely nice quality. The game is mostly tiles, but there’s also some cardboard chits, fifteen dice, and the central board. I really like how the perfume bottle tiles flip over to form bottles, and the little wooden flacons (it’s a real word, even though WordPress doesn’t believe me) are super cute. I generally dislike how all of Queen’s games look like the same washed-out tannish yellow as their boxes, no matter who the artist is, but I actually found myself quite enjoying the art on this one. The $49.99 MSRP is about normal for what you get. Nothing to complain about here.

 

Accessibility: This game is so simple that I had to read the rules again to make sure I understood. It’s at the point where gamers are going to be confused by the fact that they expect there to be more than there is. For example, I thought for sure there would be competition over grabbing the dice, but you actually put them back at the end of your turn for the next player to use. The lack of any kind of endgame scoring also makes the game very simple and clean, although maybe somewhat to its detriment in the next category. I think this is a true gateway game that you could teach more easily than any of the classic examples – Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, or Settlers of Catan.

 

Depth: Gateway games are a tricky thing. This is a great introductory game that new gamers will easily sink their teeth into, but ideally there’s an “extra layer” for veterans to mull over. For example, if I teach someone Ticket to Ride, I still have a lot of interesting decisions, and can even just give myself an extra challenge with an early, aggressive ticket dive. While this game hits the right spot for newbies, the game is very simplistic. I feel like the dice are very underutilized – they’re basically just a skill check to see if what you want to do is possible to do. You can reroll or turn them with water tokens, but there’s nothing clever about them – no interesting faces, no cool ways to manipulate them with special powers, nothing. There’s also nothing clever at the end of the game – I expected there at least to be bonuses for collecting customers of certain colors, or having the most icons of a certain ingredient on your completed perfumes, since that’s all in front of you at the end of the game. New gamers won’t see that layer missing, but the veteran teaching them might be somewhat bored.

 

Theme: The theme of this game is really what makes it tick. I’ve never seen a game with a theme even close to this one, and it’s really original and attractive. I’m not sure what water and flies have to do with distilling perfumes, but that’s probably just because I’m ignorant. The mechanisms of the game are otherwise very thematic, in my opinion. Different customers come to the shop wanting different things, but you have to somewhat predict what’ll be in fashion, and assembling your perfumes is both tactically and aesthetically awesome, as are the little wooden flacons. This is by far the best part of the game.

 

Fun: The more games I play and review, the more I realize the… finitude… of board gaming. Most games are just derivatives of the others, and if you see people’s favorite games lists, it’s often full of games from their early gaming experiences. When you’re completely uninitiated, you just become amazed at some of the cool things going on in this hobby, but then you realize later that there a lot of games just like the one that you thought was so incredible. The point being, a new gamer might love this game after being sucked in by the theme, and that’s awesome! But the best gateway games have something for the veteran too, and this game is missing that, I think. However, this would be a great game to teach new players, and it’s about time we saw more themes that might appeal more specifically to women. (I’m not trying to be sexist there, but the opposite – I think if we have games about traditionally male-dominated hobbies like football, then we should have games about traditionally female hobbies also.) Anyway, all that to say that this is a great gateway game, but one you might not find yourself coming back to later down the road.

 

Parfum is an excellent gateway game, but it’s missing that extra level that keeps you coming back once you’re deep in the hobby.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Nations: the Dice Game

nationsdiceboxA while back, a game called Nations stood to to take Through the Ages’ place as a shorter, leaner civilization game, much like Eclipse tried (and succeeded, in my opinion) to do against Twilight Imperium. We can argue all day long as to whether Nations succeeded in that regard, but we can’t argue that it was certainly a success otherwise, climbing to the Top 40 on BoardGameGeek. And, inevitably, success leads to a dice version of your game! So now we have Nations: the Dice Game, from Rustan Håkansson, who is only a quarter of the team that brought you Nations. It seems like early opinions on this game are split – where do I land? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

Components: Much like Nations, the first thing you’ll probably note is the $50 MSRP dice tag. While it’s a lot for a dice game, this game has a ton of different components, and oodles of custom dice. And it’s not out on a limb alone: the most recent similar game, Roll for the Galaxy, has an MSRP of $60. I didn’t really care for Nations‘ look and it’s recreated here, but it’s recreated easily and faithfully. All of the iconography is very clear and I do really like the dice – good size, easy to read, and they feel good in the hands. Setup and tear-down is very easy. I’m not blown away, but I also don’t have anything to complain about. Oh, wait, I have one complaint: I wish this had been called Dice Nations. The logo could still imply its relationship to Nations, without people feeling like it’s a cash-in on Nations or that they need to play Nations first.

 

Accessibility: I think if you teach this to gamers who haven’t played Nations, you’ll have absolutely zero problems, and you could probably use it as a gateway game for the uninitiated. I actually think the game is a bit too simple for its intended purposes. For example, the events have been scaled down all the way to where you can just “cash in” swords or food for points, and that’s it. The abilities on the tiles are also of few very types, and very simple. It might take one play-through to get the phase order and timing issues right (some phases are in reverse player order), but overall, this is a very simple game for its type.

 

Depth: I just can’t decide exactly where I fall here. The central mechanisms of this game are great, but they’re under-utilized. The tile abilities aren’t varied much and are somewhat uninteresting, and more importantly, you have very few ways to tinker with your dice. You can spend a reroll chit (if you have one) as your turn and gain more of them later, but there are no clever ways to change your dice around or do interesting things with them, other than being able to pitch an already-used die when buying a blue building. That would be okay, except for the fact that some of the rolls are very uninteresting. For example, swords can be used to satisfy events, for turn order, and to buy certain tiles, leading to tough decisions. But on the other hand, food, books, money, and stone each serve exactly one purpose. You can use two dice with any face showing as a semi-wild (they can’t become swords or books), but there’s just so much more that could have been done, even without making the game that much more complicated. For example, some tiles cost money and some cost swords – it would have been easy to make some cost food or books. There are decisions to make on your turn – when to grab a tile or risk spending your turn building or re-rolling, choosing which tile to take or give up, anticipating your opponents, etc. – but it could have been a lot more. Speaking of which, I can’t believe there are no unique player powers on the game boards – one of the great features of Nations.

 

Theme: I never felt that Nations was a very thematic game, and it’s pared down even more here. But, much like Nations, you do get a nice sense of growth as you gain more tiles, especially as you grab more and more dice. In games like this, I focus more on interesting combos and interactions than the theme, anyway, but I didn’t find much of that here, either.

 

Fun: I did enjoy playing this game. I love chucking dice, and I thought the game had some interesting decisions. However, I feel like the game is too pared down from Nations, and hampered by its simplicity. It would benefit greatly from an expansion. As it stands, though, it doesn’t hold up to the other “gamery” dice releases of recent years. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s a good one and I enjoyed playing it – but it’s not a great one, and probably not one I would go out of my way to play. I could see an expansion making it amazing, but I’m not sure I want to wait around on that. I imagine huge fans of Nations (I enjoy it, but it’s not one of my favorite games of all time) are going to enjoy getting that vibe again here in a shorter amount of time.

 

Nations: the Dice Game is a good, solid game, but I wish the abilities and mechanisms were a bit more fleshed out.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Onward to Venus

Early in the year, I was accidentally sent a copy of Onward to Venus I had originally declined. I’m generally not a fan of Martin Wallace’s games (except for the excellent A Few Acres of Snow), and I had never even heard of Doctor Grordbort. But, since the game was already here, I figured we should go ahead and give it a go. Many months later after I should have written this (whoops), the game is still stuck in my head. In a good way or a bad way? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

otvcards Components: I’m talking about the non-deluxe version, but the components of this game are still great. In fact, I think I prefer the cardboard units (with information on them) to wooden pieces, and the huge planet tiles, the cards, the small-but-great-feeling dice – everything about this game has a great, quality feel to it. The MSRP of $50 was actually surprising; I expected $60. I’m not sure what else to say here. Usually I have small gripe, but I can’t think of any. GREAT!

 

Accessibility: Usually, it’s such a tight line between streamlining a genre and sucking the fun out of it, that games fall too far one way or the other. Martin Wallace is known for making complex games, but here he somehow manages to take the space genre and streamline it considerably while keeping the fun intact. I grokked the whole game and easily explained it from a couple times through the very good rulebook, which is clear with just the right amount of conciseness, explaining important details as needed – and it’s also humorous, without the humor detracting from the rules. Even in our first game, I don’t think we had any rules mistakes or misunderstandings. Now, it might take a game or two to fully grok strategy – getting a sense of when Crises may happen (not that often, apparently), how the timeline of the game goes (only three rounds!), and so on, but the game is short enough that you could play two in a row on a big game night.

 

otvplanetsDepth: One thing you’ll quickly find in this game is that this is a true throwback to the space games of old. The cards are ridiculously powerful, and do mean things like make your opponents discard at random, do clever combat tricks, and so on. Dice rolls can also really screw you. This felt like the a space-game version of the early days of Magic, except with the refinement of today. So, while some people might think the game is way too lucky or devoid of strategy, I never felt that way – I loved every second of it. There’s a constant tension because you never know quite what kind of insane cards your opponent has in hand, but at the end of the day, you still feel like you can blame yourself for whatever calculated risks you took. This game plays quickly and furiously; it’s not a “thinky” 4X game like Eclipse – but there’s still plenty of strategy for sure.

 

Theme: I have to say, I was originally a bit put off by the art of this game. I’ve always been more into fantasy than science fiction, and the sci-fi I know and love is more Star Wars and less of the classic science fiction. And obviously, I’ve never read the source material. However, the game really drew me in to its universe the best that it could, with everything down to the font chosen and the style and dry humor of the rules adding to the experience. The mechanisms for the game were fantastic for this too – the somewhat indirect way that you are racing for money and victory points but still fighting each other, and the fast-and-loose old-school cardplay, just made this an incredibly unique experience that you won’t find elsewhere in 2015.

 

Fun: I may have just had low (well, no) expectations from this game, but I was quite impressed. I can see why people would have strikes against it – it seems like a relic from a bygone era, where maybe the game isn’t balanced down to every last move so that no one can run away with it, or whatever. But it’s tense, exciting, chock full of theme and big moves. And that’s the kind of stuff that got me into gaming in the first place. I can only imagine how much more awesome it must be for people who enjoy the source material.

 

If you know what you’re getting into, Onward to Venus is an excellent game of space combat.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Spyfall

spyfall_boxAt the end of last year, I suddenly heard a ton of buzz about a party game called Spyfall, by Alexandr Ushan. I found this strange for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very rare for a party game to be such a big deal among hobbyist board gamers. Second, it was published by Hobby World, and my initial two impressions of their games were middling (World of Tanks: Rush) and terrible (Berserk: War of the Realms). Despite that, Spyfall has now reached U.S. shores, thanks to Cryptozoic Entertainment (which was also a surprise). Does it live up to the hype? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

spyfallcardsComponents: The only things in the box are the rules, and over 200 cards, with about 30 corresponding plastic baggies. Playing the game involves taking one baggie of cards and dealing one out to each player, and there are no components otherwise (you need a timer of some sort, but just use your phone). I sort of like the fact that it comes in such a little box (the same size as recent two player games like Patchwork, Targi, Lost Cities), since it helps keep the MSRP down to $25, but on the other hand, I had every intention of sleeving the cards, but there’s no way they’ll all fit back in the box if I do that. I do have one large complaint about the components, and that’s the fact that there’s no list of locations for each person, which is a necessary part of the game. Beginners are going to catch spies just because they’re eyeing the rulebook to try and guess the location. After you’ve memorized most of them, it’s not so bad. I’ll probably print off reminder cards, but since this edition has extra locations, I’ll have to wait until someone makes a new set for this edition. This could have been easily solved just by having the backs of the cards have the location list instead of just saying “Spyfall”. That’s a huge oversight, but otherwise, the components are just fine.

 

Accessibility: Well, this is a party game, and it’s easily explained. A random deck is pulled out, one person is dealt a card that just says “Spy”, and everyone else is dealt the same location card – so everyone except the Spy knows where we are. Players take turns asking each other completely freeform questions, trying to suss out who the Spy is, while indicating that they know the location without giving it away. Each round lasts at most eight minutes, so it’s very easy to just play a few learning rounds. The rulebook has a convoluted scoring system that we don’t use and never will – it’s more fun to just play round after round, almost like how we never keep score in Telestrations. Our only point of confusion was when someone stops the clock to accuse, if the Spy can “interrupt” and make a guess if he thinks he’s about to be caught (we ruled you can’t, which I’m pretty sure is right). I don’t think it’s even unclear in the rules as much as it was one of our desperate Spies trying to sneak. This is perhaps one of the simplest games I’ve ever played in terms of rules – however, it does require some creativity to play well, and people who can’t think and respond quickly might have a hard time with it.

 

Depth: No other party game is this challenging! But it’s not a taxing, difficult kind of challenge – just one that requires cleverness and sneakiness, and it’s hilarious when someone messes up, so you never feel like the game is “difficult”. However, there are all kinds of strategic moves, both in how you ask questions (hint: “yes/no” questions are pointless), how you decide what to do as the Spy (I had a game where I was totally in the clear and made a bad guess when I think I could have stayed hidden), and much more. The closest is maybe Dixit, but this requires you think much more quickly. I’ll also mention that in terms of both theme and depth, you should absolutely use the roles on the cards. Sometimes we had players shifting between a made-up persona and thinking about their own real life experiences, which got confusing – but embracing the role on the card makes it more strategic, and also more thematic and fun.

 

Theme: This is actually somewhat role-playing, I suppose, or as close as I’ll get to it. In that sense, it’s highly thematic, although maybe a bit nonsensical that the spy doesn’t know where he is. And as mentioned above, embracing the roles also heightens the theme in the game greatly. I really enjoy the spoofy, cartoony artwork also, although a few of the cards are a little risque (but if that’s a problem, you can just remove those locations). The more I’ve played, the more a different kind of theme has developed: there’s been some hilarious meta-gaming as questions are reused in funny ways from round to round and game to game. I love it!

 

Fun: Despite my complaints about the components, this is easily one of the best party games – in fact, one of the best games – I’ve ever played. This is on the same level as classics like Telestrations, Time’s Up!, and Say Anything – and perhaps even past those. It took maybe an hour to go from me introducing the game to laughter-induced crying, more than once. I don’t know how long it will last, but for right now, if I want to play a party game, this is the one I pull out. I’m even tempted to bring it out over playing classic hobby strategy games, which is atypical for me. It’s just that good.

 

Spyfall is easily the best party game that’s come out in years, and right now is my pick for the best game of 2015.
Rating:

5star

5 out of 5