Review: Evolution

Evolution_BoxLeft3D-1000-3Like many reviewers, I’m always thinking in the back of my mind about my “Top 100 Games”, favorite designers and publishers, and other common questions. And when I think of favorite designers, Dominic Crapuchettes is always there in the back of my mind. Wits & Wagers Family is the only game I can get my dad to play – let alone enjoy – after dozens of tries, and Clubs is one of my all-time favorite games. So when I found out North Star Games was starting to branch out into strategy games, I was quite excited, though I certainly did not expect their first title to be a reworking of Evolution by Dmitry Knorre and Sergey Machin. But, hey, it’s card combos and it’s over in about an hour – that’s exactly what I like to hear. Does the game deliver in the same way that North Star’s party games do? 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?

 

Evolution_2nd-Ed_Component-Shot-v4Components: There’s a lot of stuff in here, and it’s all high quality. Most noticeable is the beautiful card art, which you can tell a lot of effort went into. It’s not my favorite style (I like the over-the-top cartoony stuff), but it’s very, very good, and the card text is clear. They went the extra mile with pretty much everything – the cardboard food tokens have various illustrations that could have just been one, the cloth food bags aren’t necessary but are very helpful, and the giant dinosaur meeple for the first-player marker is similarly over-the-top. The species boards and track cubes are fairly standard but still nice and thick, and it’s again a nice extra that they’re double-sided and oriented differently on each side, so you can pick your style. Weirdest component goes to the player aids – of my six, three have actual scientific words for genus and species, and the other three have, well, jokes. That seems a little strange, but the player aid is still nice to have. While the amount of components is about normal for $55 MSRP, they’re all such high quality that you’re really getting far more than your money’s worth here.

 

Accessibility: This is another area where Evolution is firing on all cylinders. The game itself is not too complicated to play, even if abstracted from its theme. Fortunately, the theme makes perfect sense with the mechanisms, and this is one of those rare games when someone had a rules question, we could correctly remind them and explain it in terms of the theme, which is something I almost never do. On top of that, this is a truly excellent rulebook that has all the reminders in all the right places, along with some nice player aids. I feel like I should say more here just to emphasize how accessible this game is, but there’s not much more to say – it’s just as perfect as it can be as far as learning goes, and would make a great gateway game.

 

Depth: You may not think much is happening the first few turns of the game, or that how much food is in the Watering Hole really matters when over twenty food is dumped there in the first turn. Then, a few turns later, carnivores are knocking out your species and the Plant Food is all gone! There’s a ton to think about, and the game has a good mix of strategy and tactics. The long-term strategy comes from what species you’ve already got in front of you and how to keep them going, but the tactics are a huge part of the game as you have to react to other players evolving their species and particularly the centerpiece Trait of the card, Carnivore. You can really get destroyed during a round of feeding if you’re not careful, so the constant back-and-forth threat around that card makes the game incredibly tense, and also much more confrontational and take-that than I expected it to be. If you’re okay with that, there’s a lot to chew on here.

I will briefly mention that the game has a “quick play” variant where everyone plays their cards at once, and I don’t like that, as it takes away some decision points. For example, if I’m going last and I see a player make two new species and not give them any traits and they didn’t put a new trait (perhaps Warning Call) on their old species, then I’m suddenly much more inclined to create a Carnivore than I was before I saw that. So I’d encourage to play one at a time, unless you’re playing with five or six and the game is going to drag otherwise.  (Personally, I’m not sure I want to play with more than four.)

 

Theme: This is probably one of the most thematic board games I’ve played. The theme is completely intertwined into the mechanisms, both in a way that makes it fun and interesting to play, but also super easy to teach. You’re constantly trying to adapt to new situations on the board, which is exactly what the idea of evolution is. Even basic rules questions like “Can Carnivores eat other Carnivores?” or “Can I get more food than my population through Cooperation?” (yes, no) can be answered through thinking about the theme of the game and what’s actually supposed to be happening via the cards. The theme just works.

 

Fun: What this ultimately comes down to is how comfortable you are with confrontation in your games. Theoretically, players could have an entirely peaceful game, but if that’s happening, it probably means one player’s going to end up having a situation where making a Carnivore is just too good to pass up. The pain of losing a species is somewhat lessened by getting the Trait cards replaced with new cards, but every attack is taking away population (i.e. VPs) and a chance to eat more food (i.e. even more VPs). If you don’t mind this aspect, then this game is fantastic, but I could see players shying away from Evolution for this reason. Hopefully you already know which kind of gamer you are in this regard.

 

For gamers who don’t mind confrontational games, Evolution gets everything right. The art, the theme, the simplicity of play, the deep gameplay – it’s a perfect symphony of gateway gaming. If having your super awesome species eaten alive sounds awful to you, though, this may not be the game for you.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Starfighter

starfighterboxFor whatever reason, the board game industry dumps the hottest games of the year all at once at Gen Con and Essen. This makes for an awesome Christmas-like event, but sometimes this means that there’s just too many games and some miss the spotlight. This is even more true when your publisher has ridiculous buzz for its other releases. So, amidst the hype for Mysterium and an expansion for last year’s hit Five Tribes, Starfighter went unnoticed by me until now. Starfighter, from Ystari Games and designer Stéphane Boudin, is a two-player card game of space combat, which sounds right up my alley. Was I right to skip over it, or did I make a terrible mistake? 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?

 

starfightercardsComponents: love it when games are set up like this! The game is three double-sided ship boards, 100 cards, and a few wooden tokens. That’s it. I absolutely love card games, and the rest here is easy to use. The ship boards are very clear with their iconography and have some great, atmospheric art. The cards look amazing as well, and have very helpful and clear iconography. I was pretty surprised, actually, because my past experiences with Ystari games has been that they look very ugly with clashing colors, but this game is gorgeous.

st1The MSRP is $29.99, which is more than fair (the boards are kind of big and I don’t see how they could have made it into a smaller package). If I had to make up a complaint here, it’s that the anime character on the back of the box is a bit of a tease, because that’s the only character art in the game other than the front cover – the rest of the game is (very good) art of fighter ships, cruisers, and special effects. But I’m just making stuff up here – the game is gorgeous, simple to set up and tear down, and competitively priced.

 

Accessibility: I’m probably biased here because two-player kill-each-other games are my bread and butter, but I thought this game was a cinch to learn. The rulebook is very clear, and when we had minor clarifications to look up, they were easy to find. We had to look up icons during our first game for the first few turns, but they’re actually very intuitive – it was more so remembering the minor details of the icons (for example, that cards are always moved so that they become the highest card in a row). By the way, I strongly agree with the rulebook that you should play at least one game in ‘Training Mode’, which excludes cards that have a few of the more complex icons. Now, while I think the game is incredibly easy to learn, it’s a bit tricky to play, but it’s not enough to become prone to analysis paralysis. You might make some critical errors your first game, but the game only takes 20-30 minutes, so it’s easy enough to shuffle up and play again.

 

Depth: Since the deck of cards is quite an ancient concept, I’m always amazed when people find new ways to use them. Here, each card has a top and a bottom, and when you play a higher card in a column, you cover the top of the previous card. This is relevant because whenever a part of a card is uncovered, due to special effects or a higher card being destroyed, the newly-revealed effects trigger again. Therefore, a huge part of this game is being clever with how cards are stacked, and using abilities that let you move, rotate, or flip cards over for value. This is a whole new way to think about card play, but it’s much more intuitive than you’d think, in part because the cards have very well-thought-out icons that remind you what has been covered. Another awesome, thematic element to the strategy is that if you pass early during card play, you can slide your cruiser to the left or right, changing which fighters fire at which column, adding a huge amount of tension to the gameplay. This is a great example of a game that you can tell has been playtested through-and-through.

 

Theme: Despite the fact that this is a theme that’s been done to death, I think it really works with this game. In fact, one of the game’s primary mechanisms (sliding the boards left and right), would be pretty nonsensical without this theme. The stacking of cards and then revealing of effects, the game’s big “hook”, doesn’t have any logical explanation, but it’s so fun that I don’t care. The art does a very good job conveying theme. There’s also a whole page of backstory in the rulebook, which I appreciate, but it doesn’t really do anything to draw you in during the actual gameplay. I think this is one where the theme draws you to the game, is there enough that you don’t feel like you were “tricked” by a pasted-on theme, but the fun of the game comes primarily from the mechanisms once you start playing.

 

Fun: I was blown away by this game, partially because I knew so little about it. It’s from a brand new designer, and it’s very strange that it comes Ystari, who has published a lot of dry Eurogames. I’m not sure what to do to help get this game out there, but it is an incredibly good game, one I would recommend to anyone who enjoys other two-player deathmatch card games like Magic, Summoner Wars, Star Realms and so on.

 

If you like two-player games with lots of combat and cool card effects, don’t miss out on Starfighter. It’s beautiful, inventive, fun, and inexpensive – what’s not to like?

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Review: Dimension

dimensionboxNow that KOSMOS is doing their own distribution in the U.S., they smartly kicked things off with primarily reprints of known classics like Lost Cities and Ubongo, but they snuck in a few new releases too. One of them is Dimension, a very unique speed puzzle game involving stacking spheres into three levels, instead of the usual tiles and blocks. Does that give it a leg up on other puzzle games? 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: These are great! The spheres are the main attraction here, and they’re chunky and heavier than I expected, but not too large. The player boards smartly have spots to hold the spheres (and rubber feet to keep the board elevated) so they don’t roll everywhere. Another player thought the boards would wear out quickly under the weight, but they seem fine to me (for now, at least). The cards are textless but make sense pretty easily, and we didn’t have any issues with the sand timer or the few cardboard tokens. The only real gripe is that the MSRP is $50, I’m assuming due to the spheres, but most other games in this genre are typically a little cheaper. But then again, this game looks way cooler than all of those on the table.

 

dimensionplayingAccessibility: This game is dead simple to teach, although the rulebook has one ambiguity I’m not sure how to resolve. You use as many spheres as you want to make three levels, 1 on top of 3 on top of 7. Six cards are flipped in each of the six rounds to dictate how you should build your stack, and you lose points if you don’t accomplish those tasks (but get points for each sphere you place). The ambiguity is in how you get end-game bonus tokens: two rules in a row essentially say that you get one if you do all six tasks and use every color sphere, but then the next rule says you get one just if you use every color sphere. Or maybe you can get two tokens? I don’t know. After some discussion, we played it that you only needed to use every color sphere, so that way you still had something to work on, for example, if two tasks cards are in conflict and you can’t possibly do them all, which can happen. That’s pretty minor, though – the box says ages 8 and up, and I don’t think that’s a lie.

 

Depth: There’s a two-fold problem here. The first is that the game is true multiplayer solitaire. There’s no interaction, not even racing to be the first one done, unlike Ubongo – you are honestly only racing against the clock. I think puzzle games have come a long way in this regard and can be far more interactive, like the rotating partnerships in La Boca or the common pool and majority scoring in Mondo. I’d forgive Dimension the solitaire nature of the game, since speed can still be enough to separate the players, except there’s a second problem: the game is too easy. In my first two-player game, we were only separated by one player misunderstanding one task card, and otherwise we finished every task card while using every sphere with time to spare. That’s not me trying to brag, but pointing out a major problem with the game – if speed is the only thing separating us, and we’re all fast enough, then there’s not much of a game here. Ubongo and La Boca made sure to include a harder difficulty setting, but Dimension doesn’t have that – I suppose you could flip over more task cards per round (that’s a variant in the rulebook), but that seems like a lousy fix as things will get out of hand to remember. A better fix would be something more interactive, like grabbing task cards when you’re done and you being the only one to score for them, but getting a penalty if you grabbed one you didn’t truly complete. An expansion or even a promo or updated ruleset could fix a lot of this, I suppose.

 

Theme: This is a pure abstract puzzle game, but the ‘dimension’ theme of having a 3D stack of spheres is really cool and the game looks appealing and draws people in. There’s not much more than that, but I wasn’t expecting it.

 

Fun: This game has a lot of potential, and making the stacks was a very enjoyable, tactile thing. It also probably plays well with kids who don’t think the game is too easy. However, for the time being I think I’d point you towards KOSMOS’ other great puzzle games like Ubongo or La Boca (distributed by Z-Man in the U.S.). With a more interesting ruleset or higher difficulty, this game would be up with those, but as it stands I’d probably only pick it up if you’re playing with kids.

 

Dimension looks great and is a fun kinesthetic experience, but it’s too easy and too solitaire to live up to KOSMOS’ great legacy of puzzle games.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Lost Cities

Lost Cities Card GameNow that Thames and Kosmos is doing its own U.S. distribution, part of the strategy for starting off strong was to begin with reprints of several classics, and none of those reprinted titles are more well-known than Lost Cities. Originally published in Kosmos’s two-player line in 1999 and previously brought to the U.S. by Rio Grande Games, this is one of Reiner Knizia’s most well-known games, particularly among his lighter fare. However, now the game is over 15 years old, and the hobby keeps moving forward – does it hold up? 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: One of Lost Cities’ strengths is how simple it is to get going – just shuffle up and deal out the cards. The game consists entirely of a sixty-card deck, and a small board for holding the different-colored discard piles (nice, but unnecessary). For this new 2015 edition, the cover art has been updated, and the box is now slightly thicker into the new standard square size found in Z-Man’s two-player line and others (and it’s a big improvement, in my opinion). However, nothing inside the box is new, which is a bit disappointing. I like the card art just fine, but I was really hoping for a change in the very weird card size – literally no other game uses this card size. However, sleeving it would be a little silly, since the game still has a very nice MSRP of $19.99 (although maybe without the board, it could have been cheaper inside a more portable box). Nothing I can really gripe about here, but nothing to make me jump for joy either.

 

lostcitiesboxbackAccessibility: If you peruse the (mostly awful) Recommendations forums on BoardGameGeek, Lost Cities is the classic “two player games with the non-gamer wife” example that’s been used for over a decade, since it’s so easy to get into. I don’t think the game is particularly hard to learn, but I don’t think it’s the go-to anymore. Yes, all you do on your turn is play or discard a card and then draw a new one, but evaluation is not that easy because the scoring is far more convoluted than I remembered. I’m usually very good at mental calculations, but I couldn’t do one person’s score for a round in my head without writing some stuff down. It’s also very punishing, as a player could start with two Handshakes cards on a color and never see any high cards of that color, and really dig themselves a hole (and having a terrible first game usually makes it unlikely someone would want to play again). Reiner Knizia is most definitely known for iterating on his designs, and I think he fixes these things in Lost Cities: the Board Game and Keltis: Das Kartenspiel (a.k.a. Lost Cities: the Board Game: the Card Game), but for small card games available in the U.S., I think in this department, Lost Cities has been eclipsed by games like Jaipur and Splendor – two games that make evaluating your move (in regards to victory points) very easy to do.

 

Depth: Lost Cities definitely has a lot to it than you’d think at first glance. A big part of the game which isn’t initially obvious is that the deck is fairly easy to count, so you can quite often deduce what possible cards are left, what could be in your opponent’s hand, and when it’s time to start really slamming down the big numbers instead of trying to make a long row of cards. In some sense, this is a mutual race against the clock of the deck running out, which gives the game a very good feeling of tension.

One thing worth mentioning here is the “cards must be played in ascending order,” which was changed in future Keltis games, which are derived from Lost Cities. In those, the cards must be completely in either ascending or descending order (and Lost Cities: the Board Game has this as a variant, which we use). I could see either argument as to whether this makes for a deeper game or not, but it certainly makes the game feel more strategic (and fun) to go in either direction. You’re much less likely to have a truly bad hand. Another difference in these games is that scoring is based purely on row length, which removes a strategic aspect of Lost Cities (here, the cards are worth the number, so the high cards are very valuable) – but I think the simplified scoring pays off in the accessibility section as noted above. And I think that’s the general rule here – Lost Cities has a lot of depth for what it is, but I’d almost be willing to sacrifice a smidge of that for simpler scoring rules.

 

Theme: This game is also a classic example of a “pasted-on theme,” meaning that the idea of exploring lost temples has absolutely no relevance on gameplay. However, I reject this criticism, because I would always prefer a pasted-on theme to a completely abstract deck of cards. You can stretch a bit and make this one work – you can think of each advancing number pushing you deeper into the temple, although the art doesn’t show that as well as it could. Either way, the theme is fine with me, and I’m happy to have it there.

 

Fun: I’ve been pretty critical of Lost Cities here, but I do enjoy playing it. In fact, more than anything, I thank Lost Cities for its contributions to Knizia’s portfolio – Keltis: Das Orakel is one of my favorite games, and Lost Cities: the Board Game in and of itself is a wonderful step up from Lost Cities (review here). At this point, though, I think the original Lost Cities is surviving on legacy alone, and I’d rather they had brought over Keltis: Das Kartenspiel, which has a bit more going on but with easier scoring. I don’t think I’d flat-out refuse a game if someone wanted to play, but if I’m in the mood for something in this vein, I’d always each for Jaipur or Splendor first.

 

Lost Cities is still a decent game, but it hasn’t kept up with the other fantastic releases we’ve had the privilege of enjoying these past fifteen years.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Dohdles!

dohdlesboxWay back before Settlers of Catan, Klaus Teuber had already won the Spiel des Jahres in 1992 with the dough-puzzle game Barbarossa. Over 20 years later, a reworking of the game, Dohdles!, has just hit U.S. shores thanks to Thames and Kosmos. The best analogy I have is that it’s Dixit with clay, which sounds interesting – but is it any good? 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: There’s not that many components in this game, but they’re all very unique. First and foremost is the dough itself. I haven’t played with Play-Doh in years, but this stuff was very oily. I immediately used some hand-sanitizer after placing my Dohdles on the board. Also, it comes as six different-colored strips stuck together, and they didn’t come apart all that cleanly, so my blue has a tiny bit of purple in it, for example – not that big of a deal, I suppose. My biggest concern other than the dough drying out is that the oil is going to get all over the other components, primarily the board (which is circular, by the way, which is kinda cool). The other cool component is the guess funnel, which works better than I thought it would, and is kind of fun to play with. The other pieces – the small plastic tokens and the suggestion boards are all very well-made, quality pieces. I think you get quite a lot of stuff for an MSRP of $40. Oh, I do have one other complaint, though – there aren’t nearly enough pieces of paper for the clues; you could easily run out since at least 8 are used each game.

 

dohdlesplayAccessibility: I strongly suggest you follow the setup in the rules and lay the pieces out as you read the rules, instead of trying to read the rules in your head. This is an extremely simple game, but for some reason, I could not get it to click in my head on a dry read-through, but once the game was set up and in front of me, it all came together. The concept is incredibly simple and turns are very short, as it should be for a party game – anyone could play this easily. We had some timing issues for when you could answer questions, but we quickly came to an agreement of how we thought things should proceed and it wasn’t an issue.

 

Depth: For a party game, there is a bit of cleverness going on here. The idea is that you want people to need some clues to guess what your Dohdle is, but not too many. It does require quite a bit of skill to “only somewhat badly” sculpt your object – we were a little too obvious in our first games. Although it’s primarily a party game and you can certainly be clever with your questions, the end-game was somewhat anticlimactic – it became clear a couple of turns ahead it was impossible for me to win, and at that point making a guess to help myself would have been king-making due to the points given to the Dohdle creator. The end-game also kind of snuck up on everyone. I would say it’s about the same level of depth and cleverness as Dixit, and it’s got that same kind of free-form feel – although this had a few more laughs than Dixit, which is a game that can feel pretty thinky at times.

 

Theme:  There’s not much of a theme here, but the graphic design of the game really is a wonderful highlight that makes the game look very fun, and the dough sculptures attract people’s attention. This is one of those games where passers-by can’t help but want to chime in and guess (even if they should be quiet). So, I think what is actually here works very well.

 

Fun: This game was more enjoyable than any of us expected it to be. It plays in probably 20-30 minutes, gets a bit of laughter going pretty much as soon as you put your Dohdles down, and has some room for cleverness. My only real complaints with the game are that the scoring doesn’t always work that well and that the dough itself is a little gross to touch. That said, Dohdles! holds its own against other party games, despite its age, and in some ways does Dixit a little better than Dixit does itself.

 

If you’re just in it for the laughs and the party and not to win, and you don’t mind a little grease, Dohdles! is a very good party game.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Review: Warehouse 51

warehouse51coverOne of the breakout hits of last year was Sheriff of Nottingham, the first of the Dice Tower Essentials line and one that I think finally put the names of long-time design team of Sergio Halaban and Andre Zatz into the minds of American gamers. They’ve since teamed up with Bruno Faidutti for the small-box auction game Warehouse 51 from Funforge and Passport Game Studios, which was just released at Gen Con 2015. With a design team known for bluffing games and chaos, can we expect the same from Warehouse 51? 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?

 

The-seven-leagues-boots2Components: Let’s start with the art. As explained in detail here, Brazilian artist Rafael Zanchetin had very little time to do this project, yet this is some of the absolute best artwork I have ever seen in any game. This was his first board game, and I sincerely hope it isn’t his last. The game is just breathtaking to look at, and I love the big, detailed player boards. I also feel like the game has everything just right: standard card size (we sleevers salute you!), clear iconography and text, nice cardboard bits, a box with a small and standard size (Jaipur, Citadels, etc.), and an aggressive price tag in this day and age ($25 MSRP). The insert was take-it-or-leave-it, but I pitched it when I sleeved the cards (everything still fits just fine). A++ here for the artwork alone.

 

Accessibility: This is one of the simpler auction games I’ve played. It’s maybe not quite as easy as For Sale, but it’s quite close. For the most part, it’s just a standard auction game, with three great twists, that are all easy to explain. The first is that every player knows about two cards (and shares that information with different players) that are counterfeit and won’t score at the end of the game, which is one of those rules that accomplishes far more than what it says, but is plenty simple to understand. The second is every card has a special ability, and the nice thing here is that because you auction one card at a time, you don’t have to know all the cards right away. While I’m on this one, a brilliant move components-wise was to not have the abilities on the Counterfeit deck, so even if you know a card is counterfeit, you won’t give it away by forgetting to look down at the card when it comes up (you might have screwed this up if you already knew what it did). The third twist is that you pay the player to your left, which might not be a thematic rule, but it does a great job providing a fluid dynamic for the game and keeping players invested since there is always money at the table. We had no problems playing our first game, as the rules are otherwise quite simple, but what to emphasize here, I think, is how they managed to make such cool twists to the auction genre without making the game complex.

 

Depth: Those three twists I mention make this game very interesting to play. What do you do when a counterfeit card comes up and you know it? How far do you outbid other players to convince them that it’s worthwhile, without getting stuck with it? What if the other player who knows it’s counterfeit gives it away? And you’ve always got the conundrum that your winning bid is going to one of your opponents, while if you let the player to your right get away with having the card, you’re about to rake in some cash. And once you’ve played a bunch, you can begin to anticipate which special abilities are going to come up, as there really aren’t that many different cards. This game is just the right level of tense – exciting without giving you the full-on jitters. And for people who dislike lying games, this is one of those great hidden information games where the bluffing doesn’t involve any “lies said out loud”, so it’s a bit easier to swallow than something like The Resistance.

 

Amenonuhoko2Theme: I absolutely love the theme of this game, as it’s quite original and very interesting. The idea is that the U.S. Government is finally completely bankrupt, and out of desperation they uncover all the amazing magical items they’ve been hiding in a secret facility called Warehouse 51, and they’re auctioning them off to super-rich foreign moguls. And of course, some of the items are counterfeit! This is such a great theme, and it paves the way for the mechanics (especially the crazy item abilities) very well. And when you’re done, you have a bunch of amazing items in front of you as your own personal collection. How cool is that?

 

Fun: I initially thought the game was just “very good”, but as I finished up this review I realize just how excellent this game is. It plays quick (30-40 minutes), it’s got cool card effects and combos, a great theme, tense gameplay, and gorgeous artwork. I’m digging deep for a complaint about this game and I can’t find one. Highly recommended unless you absolutely hate games with hidden information or bluffing (or auction games). Even then, this is the only auction game I own, and I still love it. I will say that I like it the best with three players, since you have far more information (there are two counterfeit cards between each set of players instead of one) and the flow of passing the money around is a bit more direct – you’re either getting money from one opponent, or giving it to the other one.

 

Warehouse 51 is gorgeous, fun, tense, and a whole long list of wonderful adjectives. With a short playtime and an aggressive price point, I can’t think of a reason you shouldn’t hop on this one.

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Gen Con 2015 Recap – Top 10 Games!

Okay, so this title is a bit of a farce, as I only played about 15 games while at Gen Con. I was only there Thursday and Friday, and there are some things I played and saw that I can’t discuss yet (ooooh, mystery!). I did play a few duds, but let’s not talk about these – let’s talk about the ten AWESOME things I got to check out while there. Every single one of these games was fantastic, so much so that it was hard to number this list, but here we go!

 

10. Nefarious (USAopoly)

I’m cheating on a few of these, as I played Nefarious ahead of the con (check out the review here). It looked like the game was getting a lot of buzz at the con though, and I know that some friends who played with me were eager to get their own copies. They had a really cool sign above the booth and seem very interested in investing in this game, which still strikes me as odd, but it’s cool to see USAopoly enter the strategy / hobby game market a bit more, instead of just being those people who make Telestrations and licensed versions of Monopoly. Fingers are crossed for that expansion DXV already has ready to go.

 

9. Discoveries (Asmodee / ludonaute)

Playing Discoveries with designer, publisher, and artist!

Playing Discoveries with designer, publisher, and artist!

I spent way too much time agonizing before the con about what to run for when the early access doors open. Mysterium? Blood Rage? Will Mission: Red Planet be there? And of course, after waiting over an hour for my press badge, the early access line was super long, and then there was already a huge line at the every booth when I got in. C’mon people, Gen Con is for gaming, not waiting in lines! So, I saw Anne-Cecile from ludonaute and sat down to play Discoveries, the new dice spinoff of Lewis & Clark. Designer Cedrick Chaboussit and artist Vincent Dutrait joined us as well, so this is was a truly awesome way to start the con. The game is gorgeous, from the artwork down to the warm, wooden dice that just felt great to roll. I’m a guy who chooses cards over dice 99 times out of 100, but despite that, I thought the game was pretty good. It has a smattering of engine-building, but you need to make sure you don’t waste all your time doing that instead of accruing points (think Dominion in that sense). You can do some pretty cool combos too, and the gameplay is pretty quick – we knocked it out in 45 minutes. I look forward to playing it more in the future.

 

8. Evolution (North Star Games)

An early prototype of the Evolution: Climate expansion.

An early prototype of the Evolution: Climate expansion.

I’m a bit late to the game on this one, but I finally got a chance to sit down and play this and was quite impressed. I’m not sure what took me so long – I love a good card combo game that plays in an hour, and this game hits all the right boxes for me. I don’t much care for the (admittedly quite professional) art, but the components, mechanisms, and theme all come together and this one really sings. I’m excited to dive into the Flight expansion. A rep from North Star also showed me a prototype of the upcoming Climate expansion, which has a climate track that can cause losses or gains of food and population and new cards will affect the track when they are used for food at the Watering Hole. A pretty clever idea, and a natural mechanism to add in a game about evolving animals. Look for that one on Kickstarter early next year. Until then, I’m eager to dig further into what we already have for Evolution. Expect a review of both Evolution and Flight in the near future.

 

7. Warehouse 51 (Passport Game Studios)

Warehouse 51 is a small, 30-minute auction game, which might make you think of things like For Sale, but this game also has a serious amount of bluffing, because each player knows that some different artifacts (which are being bid on) are counterfeit and won’t actually score at the end of the game. The artifacts also have cool special effects, the art is truly freaking incredible, and the theme is super cool. I was taken aback by just how good this game is, and I’m eager to play again. If you want to know more about this game, be sure to check out our recent interview with co-designer Sergio Halaban. Expect a review of this one too.

 

6. Abyss: Kraken (Asmodee / Bombyx)

Get crackin'!

Get crackin’!

Asmodee’s press event is always a highlight of Gen Con for me, and it was no different this time. One of the several games I got to try was the upcoming Kraken expansion for Abyss, complete with a ridiculously oversized Kraken mini that’s basically just a very large token. This expansion adds nebulis (think corruption from Lords of Waterdeep‘s Scoundrels of Skullport expansion), which are gained when you use Kraken allies that are wild cards. Nebulis are worth negative points, but can also be used as currency in limited amounts when you’re out of pearls, so you can sneakily pass them off to other players. The Krakens also disappear when used, which lets you do some sweet tricks when affiliating Allies. There are also some new Lords with cool abilities. The last addition is a push-your-luck Location that requires a separate deck of “loot”, and that aspect I thought was a little take-it-or-leave-it. I always felt Locations were a bit tacked-on to the game, and I’d rather keys just give you a bonus VP based on who does it first, or something simpler like that. Despite that complaint about the overall game, I’m so glad I played this. I haven’t touched Abyss in a while and it was on my for-trade list, but not only did this expansion add super cool stuff without making the game too complex, it also reinvigorated my love for the base game. Again, it’s those cool card combos and short playtime that just does it for me. I like how interactive this game is as well, in the ways that you affect how other players can grab Allies. I’m definitely reminded that it’s best with four, so I’d tell anyone who thought the game suffered at lower player counts to give it another shot with the full cohort. I can’t wait for this expansion to come around (Essen, I think).

 

5. Codenames (Czech Games Edition)

I’d already played Codenames a bunch before the con (review here), but I still stopped at the booth to teach my con-buddy the game. He’s a bit more of a serious gamer and not so into party games, but he fell in love with it just like everyone else I’ve taught it to (about ten people now). This game is just so cerebral, and there’s so much strategy involved. I think we as gamers have a very closed mind as to what the term “strategy” or “strategy game” means. We tend to think of it in terms of decision points with lots of potentially good options, but if you go by that, this “party game” goes even past Five Tribes in terms of the possibilities to think about. And yet, it’s so easy to teach to non-gamers, and as Chris (con-buddy and librarian) pointed out, this would be a great game for educators and librarians eager to promote literacy. One of the best games of the year, which actually isn’t saying much because this year has been absolutely great already, in my opinion.

 

4. City Mania (Asmodee / Days of Wonder)

City Mania prototype during play

City Mania prototype during play

City Mania is due out in February or March for the Nurenberg Toy Fair, but I was able to play a prototype (major thanks to Adrien Martinot and Frank Lefebvre of Days of Wonder!). I’m not sure what all to say, so if you want to know more about the gameplay, go check out this preview from the Dice Tower, so they can get in trouble instead of me. I will say that this game does sound cool before you play it, but it really does not click all the way until you sit down and play it. There’s so much to think about, even with the family game. They smartly kept the design simple in areas where it could have been really complex. For example, the tiles could have each had a different crazy ability, but they’re mostly simple effects and repeated ones. The scoring mechanisms aren’t particularly complex either. I didn’t see much of the advanced game, but the family game made my brain hurt plenty! I think after a few games it probably starts to feel a bit more natural, and this is a simpler game to grok than Five Tribes for sure, but it’s more of a middleweight family game, like Days of Wonder does so well. This is a really fantastic game, and I think it’s one that I expect to become a mainstay of the hobby. Not necessarily in the Top 50 of BoardGameGeek or something like that, but a game that continues to sell year after year, like Catan and Carcassonne. Looking forward to this one!

 

3. New York 1901 (Blue Orange Games)

Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, as I didn’t play this one at the con either. I’ve been playing it a ton already, though, as it’s quite a fantastic family game (review here). I made sure to stop and check out the Blue Orange booth, and as far as I can tell their very limited copies (50/day) were selling out instantly. I picked up the promo, which has way more stuff than I expected (as many Bonus cards as in the base game!), so I’m looking forward to putting it through the paces. I never got a chance to meet Chenier La Salle as he was busy demoing  the game for the whole con, but Vincent Dutrait got me a signed poster… which blew away from a sudden strong wind as I was leaving the con. :/ Still, it looks like Blue Orange’s foray into “family plus” gaming is starting off quite strong, and this game is so good that I can see it becoming a series of stand-alone games, expansion boxes, and so on. Chicago 1899, anyone? I’m eager to see where they head with this new line of games.

 

2. 7 Wonders: Duel (Asmodee / Repos Production)

7 Wonders: Duel prototype. I lost :(

7 Wonders: Duel prototype. I lost :(

7 Wonders is one of my favorite games of all time, perhaps even a contender for the top spot. That’s part of the reason I’ve always been a bit critical of the expansions (though I have them all anyway) – the base game is so perfect that I have very, very high standards for anything you add to it. So, it was with excitement and trepidation that I’ve closely followed the development of 7 Wonders: Duel. Another point of great excitement was that Bruno Cathala was co-designing this one. Bruno has really developed as a designer and made tons of progress – just look at how well Five Tribes and Abyss have done in the past year. For me though, a very little-known game by Bruno has a special place in my heart, and that’s Sobek. I’ve played it on yucata.de a bunch, and as a two-player game, it’s quite nasty but it absolutely shines as one of the best games I’ve ever played. And if you’ve played it, you’ll immediately see the connections to 7 Wonders: Duel – the science tokens work like the event tokens from Sobek, some cards are missing each round, and the game is designed around face-up and face-down cards. So I was more than a little eager to try this game out.

I’m happy to say that this game feels like 7 Wonders in the best way possible, but is totally its own beast. It’s full of chances for clever moves, tense decisions (those alternate victory conditions!!), and just flat-out fun. It’s quick, it’s dead simple if you know 7 Wonders, and it’s amazing. Now, every married gamer is looking for that next two-player couples game, and surely this one could be it, right!?  I will say that this game feels a lot meaner than 7 Wonders, but most two-player games have a hard time avoiding that. From the get-go, I was trying hard to make my opponent have to pick cards that I knew would open up cards I really wanted, or keep from having particular resources, or get stuck having to discard a card for coins. There’s going to plenty of “aw crap, I just screwed up so bad” moments as you play, so I’m not sure it’s much of a couples game if you’re looking for a more friendly, JaipurLost Cities type experience. I don’t care though. The game is awesome.

 

1. Mysterium (Asmodee / Libellud)

Ghosting it up in Mysterium

Ghosting it up in Mysterium

Mysterium was so popular that you had to sign up in advance for demos, and I signed up Thursday morning to play on Friday afternoon. They were letting bystanders play if people no-show, and in our case, there was an awkward situation where we had three no-shows but four very eager bystanders. After some hemming and hawing and the demo guy seeming very unsure of what to do, a light bulb went off and I piped up, “Hey, I’ve read the rules – can I be the ghost!?” He seemed pretty hesitant but eventually caved in. I was a terrible ghost and couldn’t even get everyone through the main part of the game in seven turns, but we went through the final round of the game anyway (and I did pretty well that time). The game is simultaneously much simpler than the rules made it sound and yet way more complex to think through during play, especially since the ghost can’t talk! The theme of this game is brilliant, the gameplay is totally immersive, and it can be as serious or as funny as you want it to be. Libellud has another Dixit-level hit on their hands here, I think (and by the way, nothing’s stopping you from using Dixit cards if you play so much that the dream cards begin to feel repetitive). It’s competitively priced, it’s gorgeous, it’s completely unique, and I can’t wait to play again. What an awesome way to finish out the convention.

 

 

That’s it for this year. What was your favorite game of the con? Let us know!

Review: Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia

euphoriaboxStonemaier Games is known for being one of the best around when it comes to graceful Kickstarters and awesome components. After their success with Viticulture, they followed up with Euphoria: Building a Better Dystopia, a worker placement game that uses dice as workers, but not in the ways you might think. How’s it measure up in the rather crowded genre of worker placement games? 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: Wow, do these guys deliver. Now, this game is expensive ($70 MSRP), but it’s got bits upon bits, and they all look great. The game has an incredibly unique look with its color scheme, steampunk dice and neon pieces. The graphic design is also very good, except that the worker spaces laid over the large amount of artwork behind it on the board makes it a little too busy when you are first learning the game. Otherwise, the board has reminders in all the right places, great artwork on the cards, beautiful components – everything you’d want.

 

20150702_192014Accessibility: For some reason, this game did not click with me as I read the rulebook, even after a couple of read-throughs. I highly recommend Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played! video for the game – another friend and I both watched it on our own and then we were totally ready to go for our first two-player game. However, playing the game the first time was still a little rough – there are so many resources / commodities in this game, and it’s hard to understand a clear path of victory at first (though your recruit cards might help guide you – if you understood what you were picking). Also, we did so little on our first few turns that it felt like something was off, but I think it’s just a matter of the game taking a little longer to get an engine going – also, the spaces that depend on total dice value don’t give big benefits as easily with lower player counts (I was surprised that there’s not really any scaling for different player counts in the game, other than the number placement spots for stars, which is how you win).  I also recently played Stonemaier Games’ other large worker placement game, Viticulture, and the main difference is that Viticulture‘s many moving parts seemed tied together in obvious, thematic ways that made it easy to grok; Euphoria seems like a mish-mash of too many ideas that makes it harder, but not impossible, to learn. (I’ve also been accused of being a “Top 40” gamer in the past, i.e. someone who only likes easy gateway games, so maybe I’m just out of my wheelhouse.)

 

Depth: There’s certainly a lot going on in this game, though that doesn’t necessarily mean deep strategy. I do think the game is very interactive, you need to be very cognizant not only of your opponent’s plans but of their pace, since you need to spend turns retrieving workers. It seems that the main ‘hook’ of the game is the dice-as-workers mechanic, but instead of the typical method of that giving you different options as in games like Castles of Burgundy and Kingsburg (there’s a smidge of that), the main purpose of the dice is to screw you out of a worker if you roll poorly or take too many risks. This can be absolutely devastating if you fall down to one worker, especially if you focus on food and bliss instead of energy and water (the commodities that let you get more workers). There’s also negative interaction when you don’t participate in a marketplace – suddenly, there’s a part of the game that you just can’t do until you go there and fix it. This isn’t particularly fun, because it feels out of place (much like the “block yellow cards” tile in 7 Wonders: Babel) and it’s not particularly strategic, because you cannot possibly know what the market penalties will be until they appear. I think there’s a deep game here, and it was somewhat fun to get an engine going with bonus abilities from recruits, but it seems like most of the game is spent just grinding gears in a way that feels somewhat soulless. It also didn’t seem to scale particularly well down to two players (three or four is probably ideal; I didn’t try with five or six). With two, the tunnels were fairly obvious as to what we wanted to happen and somewhat tedious – the faction track seemed like just one more idea on top of way too many. I’m probably being overly harsh – there’s an interesting game here, but it’s not nearly as tightly designed as other worker placement games, like Lords of Waterdeep or Viticulture. I’ll say that I do really like the race feeling of placing your stars on the board, it makes for a great, tense endgame – that’s probably the more exciting innovation in worker placement, but it’s really not too different than the race method of games like Viticulture, Splendor, and Cosmic Encounter.

 

ethical dilemmaTheme: The theme is there, but it’s subtle. There’s some great humor in the text on the ethical dilemma cards, and in the plain pictures of everyday items on the “artifact” cards, and the titles of the locations. Obviously a lot of thought into the theme coming through mechanically, with the Icarus faction behaving differently, the “knowledge” the workers have, and the tunnels and so on, but you don’t really feel it in the gameplay. If the game was more card-driven, I think there would be more opportunities to integrate the theme, but as it stands, I felt like I was just grinding through a worker placement game, and the dystopia theme never crossed my mind during play.

 

Fun: This is a decent, even good, game, just not a great one. I don’t mind when a game has a lot going on (Twilight Struggle and Five Tribes are games with comparative weight that I enjoy immensely), but the result of that hard work didn’t feel particularly rewarding. It didn’t feel like you could build that much of an engine or to bigger or better turns, and the “negative fun” parts of the game (market penalties, losing workers) seemed to make the game un-fun rather than tense in a good way. Worker placement and optimization fanatics may find a lot to like here, but I’d steer you towards Stonemaier’s other game, Viticulture, for a more thematic and exciting worker plagame.

 

Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia has some redeeming qualities, but there are too many ideas and the ambitious theme doesn’t really come through.

 

Rating:

3star 

3 out of 5

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