Review: Choice Words

choice-wordsMy first introduction to Choice Words, and designer Bob Kamp, was when he reached out to me, offering to send me the game to review. I’d only played Qwirkle among MindWare’s games, and Choice Words didn’t even have a BoardGameGeek page at this point – suffice to say, I had no idea what to expect. It seems like a variation of classic games like Scattergories, but was there more to it than that? 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 really not too much in the box – 400 cards (okay, admittedly, that’s a lot of cards), a timer, and some paper. Before you go thinking that this is a game that is somewhat pointless to purchase, as you could just make it at home, Bob made some good points in our interview as to why that might not be a good idea (lots of effort went into picking those 400 cards). My main complaint is that the scratch pads are far too small, and there are no pencils included (but mostly, bigger paper, and more of it). For $24.95 MSRP, though, not too much to complain about – that’s about normal for party games.


choice-words-cardsAccessibility:  Though the game isn’t yet up on BGG, the rules are here and there’s more information here. The rules are extremely straightforward: on your turn, you pick Match Play or Scratch Play. Match Play involves trying to write down the same words for three fill-in-the-blank phrases as everyone else, while Scratch Play is using a particular word in phrases that other people hopefully aren’t thinking of. Scoring in each category is pretty simple, and you play until someone gets a certain score (or until whenever, like most party games).


Depth: Obviously, this is a party game, one where you’re simply writing down a bunch of words and phrases. However, I was surprised by how tricky this game can be. Sometimes I would have a really long list of phrases, yet not get many points because at least one other person would always have those, and other players would come up with stuff that I really felt should have been obvious (but it’s hard to think under pressure!). Discussing what we came up with really was far more interesting than I thought it would be going in, and the meta-game during Match Play was sometimes very funny. We had a situation where two players had decided on two different answers, and both switched to the other due to thinking of the other person, so they still didn’t match like they wanted! Playing the game is certainly not difficult, and it’s a party game through-and-through, but there was more bite (well, maybe just a nip) than I expected.


I should also mention that in order to keep things simple, the game has a “two-player objection rule” where if two players say something shouldn’t count, that ends the discussion right then and there. That keeps things moving along, but it’s obviously a rule that can be abused. Bob’s answer was “don’t play with jerks,” and I mostly agree with him, but it’s nice when games have failsafes for awkward situations (like playing with new people). That’s my only complaint here though.


Theme: Let’s think of this as “immersion” (maybe I should change the name). The discussions that came up were enough to keep us interested and thinking about the phrases at hand, but there were a few times where one of us would just get stuck on a word before time was out, and that was a bit of a bummer that kind of took you out of the experience for a minute. Other than that, though, the nature of the challenge was interesting enough to keep us engaged with it.


Fun: While this is a party game, and it generated some laughter, it wasn’t the snorting-your-drink-through-your-nose kind of laughter generated by games like Telestrations or Time’s Up!. This was more of a thinky, interesting way to play with language – perhaps the best way to describe it would be Dixit with words and phrases instead of pictures and phrases. If that sounds appealing to you (especially you language nerds), then there’s a lot of fun to be had here, but I could definitely see some folks not liking it for exactly that reason.


Choice Words is a pleasant twist on classic language-related party games. It’s got a streamlined, simple ruleset, an interesting framework, and the possibility for some fun discussion and even a few laughs. If you’ve enjoyed other language games, you’re likely to enjoy this one too.




3 out of 5

Interview: Darwin Kastle talks Star Realms, Epic

(16 of 33)I’ll never forget meeting Rob Dougherty and learning Star Realms ahead of the Kickstarter at Gen Con 2013. I was wowed to be in front of a Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Famer, and even more wowed by this tiny little game that somehow smushed my two favorite games, Magic and Dominion, into one tiny, cheap little box. A year-and-a-half later and my suspicions have been proven true: Star Realms has won several accolades, including four Golden Geek Awards and the inaugural SXSW TableTop Game of the Year. On the cusp of launching their next project, Epic, a re-imagining of an old TCG with all of the elements of Star Realms’ success mixed-in, co-designer (and fellow Pro Tour Hall of Famer) Darwin Kastle talks to us about that upcoming launch as well as recent success. Thanks, Darwin!

Normally I ask designers to share a little history, but we all know that you are a M:tG Pro Tour Hall of Famer, and an experienced game designer. Maybe you can give us some little-known factoids?


I used to be a dog trainer and I still do it in my free time occasionally. I have a wonderful and well-trained dog named Molly. I also used to be a ballroom dancing instructor. I was raised on a small farm in Connecticut. I have a degree in Broadcast Journalism. One of the things that really pushed me in the strategy gaming direction was winning my dorm’s chess tournament when I was in college. I used to be obsessed with the board game Titan.


Other than the main “killing each other should be the goal” aspect of Star Realms, what other design lessons did you take away from witnessing the rise of Dominion, Ascension, other deckbuilders, and before them, Magic and TCGs?


From TCGs I learned two important things. One, was that you could design a game that wouldn’t just be another game on the shelf, but would actually become something people’s lives revolved around. Two, I learned that no matter how good a TCG you make, it’s almost impossible to build the gigantic player base needed to sustain it, people are too afraid that their
rares will be worthless and that there won’t be anyone to play against.


Deckbuilders seemed like the perfect answer to that problem. You got the fun of drafting, deckbuilding and playing a game that was a bit like a TCG, without having to buy any random packs or worry about whether your friend had a deck. It’s almost impossible to be a dominant player at two major TCGs at once (while also having a life), which is one of the things that really got me into deckbuilders. With Star Realms, I took things a step further than other deckbuilders, by creating a deckbuilding game that would appeal to TCG players even more by having combat and yet like many deckbuilders, it could appeal to non-TCG players as well with it’s easy-to-learn mechanics.


To me, this seems to be a game designed to directly compete with Ascension (and wins by a mile). Is there any bad blood there?


None at all. I was a developer on Ascension and Rob Dougherty, the development lead on Star Realms, was one of the designers of Ascension. We consider those guys to be our friends; we often share booths with them at conventions and trade shows. Ascension was inspirational; it showed that it was possible to take a great game like Dominion and improve it so dramatically that you were reinventing that game genre. It helped me realize that just because I loved Ascension, didn’t mean that I couldn’t make an even better deckbuilder. Besides, I really love space battles. :)


starrealmscardsWhat was the reason for doing Star Realms as a separate company, rather than through Stoneblade Entertainment or taking it to another established publisher?


I actually created Star Realms as a tool to show to game companies that were considering hiring me, to give them a glimpse at my design talent. I showed an early prototype to the guys at Stoneblade, but they were too focused on other projects to pursue it with me. When I showed it to my best friend Rob Dougherty after I had visited a few game companies on the West Coast, he actually suggested we make our own company together and produce it ourselves. This may just have been an elaborate strategy to keep his best friend from moving away to the west coast of course.


Rob had suggested we partner to make a game company before and I’d never felt that we were ready, but with Star Realms we both felt we had a real winner on our hands. It helped that I knew just the guy to go into business with to make sure we would have a great digital version, Tan Thor Jen, the creator of Apprentice.


It’s amazing to me how low the price point for this game is. Clearly, the model has been very successful, but how did you come up with that? Most new companies, I think, would fear that the margins would be too low…  Was the hope always to make it up with digital sales?


It was a calculated gamble. We were swinging for the fences. We had both designed moderately successful games in the past, but the reason we started White Wizard Games was because we were committed to beating the odds and creating a successful game company with a hit product from scratch. The price point was both the risky part and a major part of the plan to hit it out of the park. Most games could sell 10,000 copies and be a success. For us that would mean we would probably break even. We needed this game to catch fire, but having such an amazing price point gave us a lot of lighter fluid. This was one of many great ideas thought up by Rob to really propel the company forward. This formula of a massive amount of game play per dollar has now become the guiding philosophy for the company.While our digital game has become quite successful, our main source of revenue is actually the physical game. At $15 for a great game with lots of depth and replay ability, we stand alone in the physical space and we’ve been selling it as fast as we can print it. Our digital game is free to download, but in the digital space there are thousands of games that are free to download. The popularity of the physical game has really helped people learn about the existence of our digital version. This has resulted in greatly increasing digital sales, but it’s not our big earner. At least not yet. :)



Speaking of digital, this game was designed from the ground up with digital in mind. I’ve found deckbuilders translate very well, especially since you can fast-forward through the rote processes of playing your cards on your turn – Star Realms even has a “Play All” button! It seems that the “discard everything, draw 5” aspect of deckbuilding games has made turns very long, but also made hand management somewhat of a lost art. One of the most crucial aspects of Magic: the Gathering’s design and tense feel was deciding whether to Lightning Bolt their 2/1 creature or save it for the 3/3 they’ll surely have later… Do you think this is a flaw in the design of deckbuilders, or a good thing?


It’s not a flaw in deckbuilders; it’s merely a difference between them and TCGs. You get one type of play experience when you play a TCG and another when you play a deckbuilder. For today’s busy lifestyle, being able to play a great strategy game asynchronously is a huge win for players. Not everyone has the time or the interest to sit down for a few hours of Magic Online.


crissieventsYou’ve also been pushing to make sure Star Realms has competitive play options. Have you seen any crazy combos or scenarios from players that you didn’t come up in development, or are the mechanics and card abilities too basic for that to happen?


Our decision to add the year one promo cards to the digital release of the Gambit Set has led to some really crazy plays and crazy games that we didn’t see much of in the physical development of those cards. We have a great group of digital testers though, so we had a good idea of what would happen when we released it. In all our cards, including promos and expansions, there has only been one card that I would definitely redo if I could (and we can and will!) People that play with the Crisis: Events expansion for a while will probably figure out which one I’m talking about. [Editor’s Note: My guess is Trade Mission…?]


On the same note, now that Star Realms has been played a LOT by many people, it seems even the highest players only have a mid-60’s win percentage. Was this surprising to you? Do you think that’s good, bad, or a just-right balance of skill and luck?


It isn’t overly surprising, because we pair people up against opponents that are of a similar level. While I may only win 60% of the time against other high level players, that percentage shoots way up when I face beginners. With Star Realms, you get the benefit of a high strategy game that strongly rewards skilled players, yet also has enough luck that an upset can happen any given game.


starrealmsartYou’ve announced Star Realms will have a new base game with an entirely new trade deck -every year-. When I tell people that, their first reaction is “Can they really make that many new cards and keep it fresh?” What would you say to quell their fears? How will the multitude of options available translate over to competitive play?


I would say wait and see. Up to this point we’ve always come through with a great product and we don’t intend to change that. We intentionally kept the base game quite simple mechanically. This was both to make it easy to learn and to leave us vast amounts of design space for expansions. Too many companies don’t plan enough for success, we’re determined not to be one of them.


Can you give us the ‘origin story’ of the development of your new game, Epic? (As well as how you decided upon such a simple name…)


pic2472276Several years ago, I worked with Rob at a tiny game company called, which he founded specifically to make a cool TCG that he was creating. Despite the fact that we were running on a pauper’s budget and didn’t always know what we were doing, the game was good enough to be fairly successful. The base set was successful enough to justify the release of an expansion set, we held 5K tournaments and there was even an EpicTCG World Championship tournament with large cash prizes that people had to qualify for. I have long felt that EpicTCG was the best TCG I ever played and if we were as good at our craft back then as we are now, it would have really taken off. With the success of Star Realms, it gave us a chance to do it right. The first thing we did was to decide we were going to follow more of a Star Realms model with the product and NOT make it into a TCG. With a much bigger art budget, streamlined and improved rules and the ability to have up to four players playing out of one $15 box, we feel this will be another winner.



I recently saw the preview KS page for Millenniun Blades, a game where you play as gamers playing a CCG (rather meta). There was a giant warning on the front of the KS page saying “THIS IS NOT A COLLECTIBLE GAME.” I’ve already seen people confused by the ads for Epic saying “TCG-style play.” How do you plan on combating that possible confusion?


This sort of thing happens with all card games in small boxes these days. With Star Realms, I’m constantly having to reassure customers at conventions that there isn’t any randomness. People are reluctant to invest the needed money to play a TCG without knowing if they’re going to like it and if their rares will be valuable. I expect Epic to blow people’s minds the way that Star Realms did, but even more: you get over 120 unique, nonrandom cards in a $15 box that you can play and draft with over and over without having to buy anything else. It’s like if someone handed you a carefully balanced, fully playable draft cube full of awesome cards and only asked you for $15.



What’s the advantage of doing a “build-decks-before-hand”, classical, CCG-style game versus a deckbuilder? Do you think the audiences are the same? Do you find yourself thinking one game is better than the other (Star Realms or Epic)?


One of the great things about Epic is that you don’t have to do any deckbuilding if you just want to start playing. You can shuffle up the deck and hand each player 30 cards at random and just start playing. This is one of the things that sets it apart from other TCG style card games. I do think TCG style games have a slightly different audience than deckbuilders, though with lots of crossover. Deckbuilders have a bit more structure and are usually easier to learn and master. TCG style games usually have a bit more depth and allow for even more creativity on the part of the player. One of the great things about owning your own game company is that you have the option of only working on games that you personally love playing. So it’s not surprising that I love playing both Epic and Star Realms. Star Realms is currently my favorite digital game and Epic is my favorite physical game.


I feel like both games have been coming from a standpoint of streamlining what’s out there, cutting the glut out of the rules until the game is intuitive. At what point in your design career do you feel you made that ‘shift’ into that mindset?


I always felt this sort of thing was important, but I feel that we’ve really refined it with our efforts at White Wizard Games. One of my first published games was The Battle for Hill 218,  which really displayed many of my guiding design principles: easy to learn, fast to play, hard to master and great replayability. My favorite games are ones with lots of strategy that I can easily teach people to play with me, like Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne.


Anything else you’d like to say about Epic?


Over the past year or so, I’ve had people constantly telling me how much they regretted not backing Star Realms on Kickstarter or at least buying a copy during the first print run. I hope people keep that in mind when Epic comes out, because we’ve put together a really great game and a really great product.


What have you been reading/watching/enjoying lately?


I recently finished reading The Kite Runner, which totally blew me away, a really powerful and moving story. I also just finished season two of Black Sails and it was incredible, now I’m eagerly awaiting the new season of Game of Thrones. I have been really enjoying playing Epic (it’s for work – really!)


Anything else?


Thanks for helping get the word out about the great things we have in the works!




Thanks again to Darwin for the interview. The Kickstarter for Epic launches soon!

Review: Doodle Quest

doodlequestBlue Orange Games has quite cleverly found a niche in the hobby – short, simple, enjoyable abstract games like Niya and Battle Sheep. This isn’t too surprising, since they started with the abstract game GobbletDoodle Quest, however, is an entirely different beast. Clearly designed for families and kids just like their other games, Doodle Quest no longer has you moving and stacking pieces but instead drawing with dry-erase markers on an ancient relic called the transparency. (My college students had literally never seen these before.) Can such a free-form medium still bring that fun and light strategy that Blue Orange has found so successful? 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?


doodlequestcomponentsComponents: Blue Orange has been absolutely nailing it with their component quality and quirky, colorful graphics, and Doodle Quest is no different. The artwork is clearly aimed at children and families, striking a perfect balance between simple, fun, and loud. Inside the box are a bunch of different thin sheets with challenges on them, a stiff board for each player to balance their transparency, dry-erase markers/erasers, and a fish stencil (for particular challenges). Oh, and 1 double-sided sheet of directions (yay!). I also love how the scoreboard is also dry-erase, instead of wasting a bunch of paper. Everything is top-notch quality.

If I had the tiniest of complaints on the art, it’s that the cover and spine show someone drawing a loop, which isn’t allowed in the game. A more serious complaint would be that I’d really love to have components for up to six players, as this could be a great party game. I was also surprised that rounds aren’t timed (no timer included), but it was never an issue for us. For $24.99 MSRP though, I really have no right to complain.


Accessibility: Like I said, the rules are a single double-sided sheet. The game is six rounds: each round, you draw a challenge sheet at random, each of which has an easy side and a tough side. The sheet has a picture and a challenge, such as a picture of sharks with the statement “Draw eyeballs for the sharks!” Each player draws dots (in this case, quite often it’s lines or shapes) on their transparency where they think the eyeballs should go, and when the drawing is over, each player overlays their transparency on the sheet and scores points on their accuracy. (Each sheet has its own scoring rules which are explained pretty easily with iconography.) That’s the whole game! It took us probably under two minutes to open the box, read the rules, and start playing with two players.


Depth: This is a weird category to score for this game, since we’re not exactly making “strategic decisions”. However, there’s certainly skill at play here, which is actually really great, since it helps teach kids about spatial visualization. I would expect there could be games where someone really dominates, but I was surprised how close our games were. Furthermore, you can balance the challenge by giving the experts the tougher versions. It was more challenging than I expected, especially for as long as I’ve taught mathematics (I draw at least 20 graphs a day). Replayability might be a concern, but I think you’ll have gotten your money’s worth by the time you’ve done all the challenges multiple times. I do, however, wish there was some interaction as the game is completely multiplayer solitaire, although it’s still very fun to share drawings and see how everyone did. That said, I think it would be cool to have some tokens you could collect that do things to other players.


Theme: This game could have had any theme, really, but I think the undersea adventure theme is very fun and they did a great job with it. The idea of making drawing into a “quest” in and of itself is just a really fun way to teach a very important skill. Even with just adults, we had way more fun with this than we expected and I think the theme played well into that; it gave us something to riff on.


Fun: I originally became interested in this game because I thought I might use the components to have calculus students do a “sketching-the-derivative” game with the components, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the published game. I’m not entirely surprised, but still very happy with the result: though clearly aimed at a younger audience, this is a simple, fun, very unique game for all ages. It feels like a party game, despite playing out like a strategy game – and that’s exactly where I love for my games to be. It’s a good counterpart to Telestrations, where the humor there is all in drawing terribly. This game manages to grab all of the fun and humor out of trying to draw well, which is interesting in its own right.


If you’re wanting to teach spatial skills, or simply want to have fun drawing, Doodle Quest packs quite a punch for a very simple, inexpensive game. Beautiful components and unique gameplay make this a winner.




4 out of 5

Interview: Bob Kamp, Designer of Choice Words

Bob Kamp 1One unfortunate aspect of the board gaming culture of reviewers, BoardGameGeekers, and so on, is that when interesting things are happening in the “mass market” as we call it, we often miss it. I had never heard of Choice Words, a new party game from MindWare, but designer Bob Kamp approached me about giving the game a look. We’ll have a review in a few weeks, but in the meantime, check out this interview with Bob on the game’s long and winding history!


Tell us a bit about yourself: your day job, other hobbies, how you got into gaming, any quirky facts you want to share.

I am 48 years old. I am originally from the Chicago area, but now live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I grew fond of Grand Rapids while doing my undergraduate studies at Calvin College. GR has all of the amenities of a larger city, and you can still get just about anywhere in 10 to 15 minutes.

I am a big backgammon player. I play in a weekly league at a local pub, and I have done so for 10 years now. There is an American Backgammon Tour, which features many weekend tournaments held throughout the U.S. Michigan boasts the largest backgammon tournament on the roster. It is held in Novi each 4th of July weekend. It attracts close to 200 players and the winner typically garners more than $10,000. The tournament is run by Carol Joy Cole in Flint, MI, and her Backgammon News newsletter is in its 37th year in print.

The game is played as a match involving several games, typically an odd number. There is a doubling cube. Much skill comes from adept movement of the checkers, but even more skill is required for the doubling cube – – when to double, when to accept a double, and when to drop a game instead of accepting the double. High level players study with the aid of computer programs.

The game is a great metaphor for life. You don’t control your dice rolls, but you must use your rolls, especially the bad ones, to your best advantage. It is very much a skill game. The skill is in minimizing the luck.

I serve as an in-house attorney (DePaul University College of Law grad 1991) for Auto Owners Insurance.

I have always loved to play games. As a kid, we played cribbage a lot and also many of the traditional American games such as Sorry and Monopoly. Michigan Rummy (Tripoley) was a favorite!


choice-wordsHow’d you come up with the idea for Choice Words?

Let me first describe the game and that will help explain how it came to be. Choice Words features two ways to play. In Scratch Play, players have one minute to write all the phrases they can think of that involve the root word. Players earn one point for each phrase they have that no one else has. For example, for the word CENTER, answers might include center stage, centerfield, front and center, and shopping center. You take the root word and go in any direction you want. In Match Play, players choose single one-word answers to fill in the blanks on a card in an attempt to match the answers of other players. Figuring out what is likely to be the most popular answer is the key here. Players earn points equal to the number of players that they matched. For example, for ___HOUSE, will most players write “poor house,” “out house,” “greenhouse” or something else?

When first married, my wife Jill and I would spend time over dinner working word puzzles in the newspaper – the Jumble and crossword puzzles. This activity likely contributed to the idea for the game. I can remember driving home from a restaurant and remarking to my wife that a contact lens, a contact sport, a contact person, and contact paper are fairly disparate items, yet they all share that common root word. I wondered if there was a game in that concept. This was in summer 1997.

A co-worker mentioned that she like to play Tri-Bond, which requires player to determine a common bond between three items. I thought, if that’s a game, then I probably have a game too.

I starting by going through the dictionary word by word. I soon realized that it would be interesting and more fun if you could generate terms and phrases with words not just after the root word, but in front of it as well.
Alphabetically the dictionary will give you “cut-rate” and “cut throat,” but you need to do some thinking of your own to come up with “haircut,” and “shortcut,” and “cold cut.” The idea expanded to include phrases too, such as “cut and dry” and “cut-and-paste.” In a few weeks I had finished with the dictionary.

I was familiar with Scattergories, but felt that this root word concept allowed for so much more creativity and variety of answers.

On the way through the dictionary I discovered some root words that really too few associations to be used for Scratch Play (where you scratch out the ones in common with other players), and I thought what if there was another type of played where you tried to accomplish the converse?, ie, match other players’ answers. Thus, Match Play was born. CANDY is not a Scratch Play word because there are too few associations, but CANDY___ works great for Match Play. In a recent game I answered CANDYbar and was shocked when every other player had written CANDYcane. A candy cane is a seasonal item, which is brittle and sticky. Candy bar is a year-round tasty snack with filled with chocolate and peanuts and . . . well, I rest my case. The candy bar is a far superior item and answer, but on that day, with those players, I failed to score while the other 5 players each earned 5 points.

The game includes 200 Scratch Play cards featuring root words that are prolific in terms of their ability to generate lots of answers. As for match play (another 200 cards; 600 fill-in-the-blanks), the words chosen are intended to suggest several quick and ready answers, and then the trick is to choose which will be the most popular answer among the particular players at the table.


How’d you get in touch with MindWare? Did you shop around to a lot of publishers or did things just work out?

choice-words-cardsOnce I had the written content, I made a not-so-fancy prototype, and I met with some game agents in October 1997. I called the game “ROOTIMENTARY” – the game of common parlance, because the game is really a measure of what phrases we all use and accept as common terminology. While the agents did not like the name, (I soon changed it to “Offshoots”), they thought the game was terrific. They warned, however, that the game may be missing some plastic extruded gizmo or gadget that bigger manufacturers seem to like (since they are also toy makers as well). The agents presented the game to the several biggest names in the business at that time. This was spring 1998. The agents were unable to place the game, and then I shelved the idea for 14 ½ years.

We had played “Offshoots” at Thanksgiving with my extended family in 1997 and 1998. My wife and I then switched to spending Thanksgiving with her side of the family for many years. In 2012 we spent the holiday with my side again. Some of my relatives recalled the game and asked about it. I reported that I had given up on it.

At their urging, in 2013 I made some better prototypes and threw in a buzzer. A player may object to an answer (typically arguing the term or phrase is not common), and if a second player joins in the objection, then the answer is scratched immediately. There is no interminable arguing. The buzzer gave players the opportunity to reject answers by using the buzzer.

In November 2013, I attended ChiTag, an annual toy and game industry event in Chicago. MindWare invited me to send them a prototype, and within a few weeks they advised that they wanted to produce the game, but without the buzzer (as it should be). MindWare also preferred one of my alternate names “Choice Words” over “Offshoots.”

MindWare was my first choice for the game. They make Qwirkle, after all, which is a game my family loves. MindWare’s slogan is “brainy toys for kids of all ages,” and I think that Choice Words harnesses your brain power.

Incidentally, another game company had accepted a prototype, but they thought the magic of the game was in the buzzer (which they said was too expensive to include with the game). I think that they did not really “get it.” The magic is not in some gimmicky novelty item. The magic is in the stimulating and fun exercise involved in the game and then in measuring your performance against other players.


Choice Words is reminiscent of a lot of classic games like Scattegories. What makes Choice Words unique?

CHOICE WORDS is unique in that it features a 2-player objection rule. This ensures that arguments do not overstay their welcome. The game is well-paced. While typically there is debate over some answers, anytime 2 players object, then the answer is immediately scratched and it’s time to move on.

The acceptable answers are those acceptable to that particular group of players in that game. A player cannot leverage niche, technical knowledge. For each Scratch Play root word, there is a nucleus of acceptable answers for that particular group of players. For the word BAND, my peer group will accept the J. Geils Band, but my children will not.

CHOICE WORDS features root words that are basal, building blocks of our language. This means that the game gives wide berth for players’ creativity. Players are not stifled into providing answers that must fall into defined categories or that require answers to start with a particular letter.

Because there are no right or wrong answers, the game stays fresh. One hundred years ago we had BLUE ribbons and BLUE prints, but today we have BLUE tooth and BLUE ray. Earlier I had mentioned the Match Play example of CANDY___. In 1997 when I first conceived of the game, there was no such thing as “Candy Crush,” but now of course that is wildly popular and might be considered a very strong answer today.

CHOICE WORDS features a knock-out mechanic for scoring, but that’s because it’s an intuitive scoring system that makes the most sense. If you have 10 answers, but I also have 8 of the same ones, then it’s simplest and best to count that as 2 to 0 in favor of you. Of course, the scoring mechanic is not the game itself.


One difficulty with selling party games is that it’s often easy to play with homemade components; I have friends that know Telestrations as the “notecard game” and Time’s Up! as the “fishbowl game”. What are players missing out on when they don’t experience the whole package of Choice Words as the published version?

CHOICE WORDS isn’t easily fashioned by the casual observer. The Scratch Play words have been carefully culled and pared down to the 200 most playable. This tedious and painstaking process involved not only a quantitative analysis but a qualitative one as well. Scratch Play does not work well with just any old word. It’s no fun to think and think and not come up with any answers. The pre-selection of the base root words ensures that they are prolific and support a large number of answers. In addition, the selection of the root words is based also on the quality of them in terms of producing interesting answers. The word TREE is not included because mostly it tends to generate a list of tree types (not very interesting), whereas the word STRING is in the game because the answers it generates are more interesting. A shoe string is a very different thing than a hamstring, and you would find a string quartet in a totally different part of town than where you would find a string bikini. So too, the Match Play words have been carefully selected and even placed on the cards in a particular way so that each card is designed to generate some matches. It’s no fun if everyone matches, and it’s no fun if no one matches. Care was also taken to ensure that each fill-in-the-blank stands on its own merit, meaning that no other word on the same card suggests answers to any other (or that’s the intent at least). WHITE___ and ___HOUSE do not appear on the same card, lest players simply answer “white house” for each.


As a college professor, I’m always interested in ways games can be used to learn both academically and socially, regardless of discipline. I know you view Choice Words as having educational value – can you expand on those aspects for our readers?

CHOICE WORDS encourages a different style of thinking. I call it “auditory recall.” You have to hear the references in your head. If you think strictly about a CAT, you won’t probably think of a catwalk (an elevated walkway) or a cattail (a marshy plant) because they are not directly related to a cat itself. You have to hear these references in your head. Similarly, with BED, there’s a bed time and a bed spread, which are directly bed-related, but also bed rock and flower bed, which are not. You have to think beyond the literal word itself.

For the Scratch Play word BIG, I recently wrote “BIG salad.” My opponents rejected the answer, and I could not defend it. Although the reference was up in my brain somewhere, I couldn’t remember where I had learned it. Later some other friends advised me that there is an entire Seinfeld episode [episode 88] that is entitled “The Big Salad.”

A related point is that it’s not a trivia game, where you either know the answer or you don’t, which isn’t much fun in either case. Unlike trivia, the more thinking a person does in this exercise, the more loose bits of information surface. The game is great for English-as-a-Second-Language students, stroke victims, or folks suffering the onset of dementia.

CHOICE WORDS exposes differences in our vocabularies. I know that a PAPER tiger is an idle threat, but my kids may not. While the answer may not count, the cool thing is that we all may learn something new from each other in the process. “LONG in the tooth” means that someone is old. Who knew?


To me, some aspects of the rules seem to be inherently unfair as they can allow meta-gaming, such as two players teaming up to shout down other player’s answers even if they’re probably legitimate. But you view the game as inherently fair.. What levels the playing the field in the game and how do you deal with “meta-gaming” like the situation I described?

The game is inherently fair from the standpoint that a player cannot leverage niche, technical knowledge which only that person knows. If 2 players haven’t heard of that term or phrase, they can and should object. It doesn’t matter that the term or phrase actually exists; if 2 players at the table are not familiar with it, they may fairly object.

The rules specify “Objections must be fair. For each Scratch Play word, there will be a solid core of clearly common/acceptable answers, and then some that are less common.” Where the perimeter of that core lies is for the particular players in the game to decide. For the word CUT, certainly there can be no debate, a “haircut” or a “shortcut” are common/acceptable answers. If a player is objecting to those answers, then the player is either from Mars or the player is a jerk.

At times, no matter what game we are talking about, incessant arguing can bog down an otherwise good game. In fact, the inclusion of the 2-player objection rule is to stymie such bad behavior. Of course, 2 jerks can use the rule to their advantage. Solution: Don’t play with jerks!


Sometimes, the reading of the rules of the game make the fun seem impossible to understand until you sit down and play the game. Until players get their hands on their own copy, they might be wary – can you express just what makes Choice Words fun?

Everything counts! . . . words, terms, titles, phrases.
Everybody plays . . . every turn.
Everyone contributes . . . regardless of age or education
Easy . . . you already know all the answers.

The banter is generally good-natured and tends to be either congratulatory – “Good answer! I didn’t think of that” – or critical – “STRING theory? . . . sorry, I’ve never heard of that; it doesn’t count.”

The universe of answers is so broad, that usually every player will have a couple answers that no one else did. The game makes everyone feel good; like they contributed. I am reminded of the story of the 6 blind men who feel the elephant. Though each describes a different feature, each one is correct. Each has found a piece of the truth.

CHOICE WORDS provides a pot, a burner, and some broth, and the players bring the peas and carrots, so to speak. Because people have differing ages, educations, and life experiences, the gumbo comes out differently depending on who’s playing. Fun!


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

I have been attending my weekly backgammon club, of course. I have also been enjoying The Resistance and Skull and Roses when I’m not trying to introduce new players to Choice Words. [Editor’s Note: Great taste!]


What’s next for you in game design?

I have been working on a trick-taking game for the past 6 months that I am really excited about. I know that you are a fan of trick-taking games, so I’ll have to send you a copy.
I also have a tabletop dexterity game that am sure will be coming to market in some form or fashion in the near future.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Choice Words supports large groups, which makes it a great game to pull out on Thanksgiving with the extended family!




Thanks again to Bob for taking time out of his schedule for the interview. If this sounded interesting, go give Choice Words a look!

Interview: A.B. West and Dan Schnake Discuss Wizards of the Wild

wizards_boxHere at MeepleTown, we don’t talk about Kickstarter much as I’m pretty cynical on the whole thing, but sometimes a project comes along from people I know and trust. The campaign for Wizards of the Wild is in full swing, and this is coming from guys with a lot of experience and talent. Adam and Dan created Z-Man’s super-cool ninja worker placement game Ninjato; you can see our review here and our previous interview with Adam here. I’ve gamed with Adam many times (I actually used to live in his neighborhood) and can attest to the fact that these guys are for real. Adam and Dan were kind enough to take some time away from running the campaign to answer a few of our questions. If you like what you hear, don’t forget to back Wizards of the Wild!


The last game you guys did was published by Z-Man and other publishers in other regions, though you’ve self-published before. What’s the reason for going back to self-publishing with this design instead of shopping around for a larger publisher?

Adam: Well, publishers are really loaded up with games for one. Also, there’s just not as much motivation to go with an established publisher this time out. The work to get the game ready is pretty much the same in our experience. Certainly a publisher can off set the risk financially and can generally reach further in retail distribution, but you also get a significantly smaller return.

Publishers help with logistics too which is a huge headache when you self-publish. But with Kickstarter, you can offset the financial risk – although KS itself is quite risky as there are no guarantees you’ll make your funding goal. But if you do make your goal (and you set it right!), the return is just greater and more direct. Logistics are getting easier and easier as companies are forming to help out KS campaigns. Don’t take me wrong: working with Z-Man, IELLO and White Goblin have been great – they really are professionals who know what they’re doing. So maybe we’ll go back to them at some point in the future.

Dan: We like having control over everything. If a publisher brings something to the table for a future game, it could work out, but we’re comfortable where we are.


wwcards1How did you come up with the animals-as-wizards theme? How does it to tie to the gameplay? Could this game have a different theme, or are the mechanics intimately tied together with the theme?

Adam: Theme is very important to our designs. This game had wizards since the beginning, but having *animals* as wizards came later. We wanted a magic vibe to the game – it gives us a lot of room to explore with powers which is nice. Anything can happen with magic! We were very deliberate to make this game as approachable as possible – and that drove us toward animals. I don’t think the mechanics are intimately tied to the theme, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine any other theme for this game. It feels right to have animals casting spells in this strange world where humans no longer exist. And of course, it’s great fun and very friendly for everyone!

Dan: The initial idea was inspired by some art with fantasy animals. You might notice that we constrained ourselves to woodland animals rather than just any creature. That was also very deliberate because if possible – if the Kickstarter does well – we’d love to extend this animal wizard idea in a few other thematic areas. Maybe even during the campaign? It’s something we’re still thinking over. I would love to make this into a series of games where the cards are compatible throughout.

Adam: Another bit that was very deliberate in the theme was separating ‘pets’ from woodland creatures. The ‘pets’ run the entire contest thematically – and that gave us a fun thematic moment. So dogs and cats (and whatever other pet comes up!) are dressed up like aristocrats – a bit of a nod to Animal Farm maybe where [SPOILER] the pigs eventually become more like humans again [END SPOILER]. Hmm. Maybe you should mark that one as a spoiler for those who haven’t read Animal Farm :).


When I look through the pictures, it seems to me a game in the vein of Magic: the Gathering, Epic Spell Wars, etc. (except with animals). What about the gameplay of Wizards of the Wild makes it unique from others in the genre? It seems that dice are more central here – what’s the reason for mixing dice with cardplay instead of just using one or the other?

Adam: MtG makes it very difficult to design a card game! Every card game is compared to it. Certainly we know Magic and how it works. It’s incredibly admired and really an amazing design in itself in a number of ways. There’s been many others for sure – and really right now there seem to be just a ton of card games being made. Wizards has cards and they can combine to create new effects – but this is only slighly like MtG I think.

Wizards is a lot more focused on creating direct ‘engine’ mechanics where one card helps another. Also unlike MtG and more like Deck Builders today (or any number of other games with a display), you acquire cards while you play. That creates a bit of the interaction between players – squabbling over this card or that. You don’t have a hand of cards in the sense that things are hidden – everyone is getting and putting cards face up to create open information. That means I know what my opponents are working on and I can work against it – I call this “open planning” in game design and I really like it. So just fundamentally things are different from MtG.

Dan: And of course, MtG is based on direct conflict between cards, and ultimately the “health” of the players is at stake. It’s a battle game. Wizards of the Wild has some conflict, but the focus is far more on creating an elegant “engine” out of the various powers you acquire.

Adam: And there are really two major types of cards – Spells and Challenges. Spells are more engine components that you can use every turn in the game – even the turn in which you acquire them. Whereas Challenges are more a one-time benefit, but worth more victory points at the end of the game. So there is a bit of building up and then churning out things to get more points. Since every single card is unique and you only see a few in any one game, there’s really a huge amount of things that can happen in any one game – lots of replayability.

wwdiceNow about the dice. It’s just a fun thing for the most part – rolling dice and using them to acquire cards. Dice are fun! These are custom dice – really nicely engraved dice with unique faces on them. Then you spend time in the game trying to control those dice – to enable you to not really care so much what you roll in the game because you can use results to create other results. That’s what spells often do. A good example of that are what we call ‘skulls’ in the game which normally you want to avoid a roll of those and as a result it curtails re-rolls in the game. But then there are these spells that let you convert or leverage skulls to benefit you. Things like that are really fun – it makes a player feel clever while playing.

Dan: The game plays fast which was very important to us. And the way that’s controlled is you flip over an ‘acolyte’ card (those pets mentioned before). Anyhow, these acolyte cards control the penalty for skulls and establish an exchange rate for ‘gems’ in the game – another line of strategy to get points. So that’s an interesting idea too I think – having some slight changes to each round of play that is different every game.

Together, I think having dice and cards in Wizards create original feelings while playing. Yes, it has cards with powers like so many games. But it’s very cleanly designed and integrated with dice to generate resources – a bit like Roll Through the Ages in that regard. It’s a bit like King of Tokyo in that all dice results are useful. And a bit like Seasons in that you have engine cards you build up while playing. Package that up with a very approachable and family theme – and you have Wizards of the Wild.


I know you and Dan have been working on other prototypes. How did you decide to go with this one next, and how did you realize that it was a finished product amid all of your playtesting?

wwcards2Adam: Yeah, we have a few other games in the works! I suspect that any designer has a number of things going at the same time. I think I have about 7 designs right now in various states – some pretty close, others pretty far away yet. So Wizards of the Wild is primarily a Dan design. We were working on Deadline (I think you played that a few years back at GenCon?) [Derek: Yep, I did!] and it’s just a really difficult design to pull off right. I’m hammering away at this Deadline game and Dan was building up Wizards with his son Abe who was in from college for a few summer months. It just came together pretty quickly.

Dan: Wizards is in a lot of ways an easier design. I mean the mechanics are not too troublesome – it’s pretty straightforward without a lot of moving parts. Except of course for the variety of cards! So that’s a lot of what we’ve worked on over time – getting those cards priced right and playing right. So we decided that Deadline could wait a bit (might even benefit from some time away from us) and move toward Wizards which we felt had a much better chance to get us into Kickstarter – lower price point, broader appeal, cheaper shipping, etc. We were then spending time trying to tighten the play and make it faster and faster. Just cleaning everything up and trimming it down.

And that’s the one aspect that made Wizards easier to finish: the speed of play. You can get a game done from start to finish in 20 minutes or less. So you know – that’s like 3 or 4 times faster than our other games!

Adam: So how did we know it was done? It’s a good question with any design. You’re always looking for fun. That’s the main quality. I remember one play tester said, “It’s kinda bland” and that’s really great feedback! It hurts a bit, but it’s reallly helpful. We went back and spiced up combos and continued to steamline and simplify. We brought it back later and he really liked it – it was just so much improved! “This is way better!” So you could see improvement like that through play testing. Eventually, you keep playing and tweaking and then just find there’s very little to change that improves the game. We’re still playing by the way – so there might be some more tweaks to card powers here and there – continuing to clean and polish is something we always do right up to sending it off to the printer. Also since we have a PnP out there now, anyone can pitch in and help us out! I’d love to hear more feedback.


As experienced designers, I’m sure you’ve become more and more disciplined as you think of new ideas to incorporate into a game. What kind of things did you come up with in development that you had to scrap? What new ideas snuck into the game during development?

wwcards3Adam: What’s most important is knowing your target with a game. In this case, we wanted a fast game that had engine building. And we wanted something really friendly that just evoked fun by looking at it – to get people engaged and interested – and gamer parents who want kids to get involved in the hobby have a great path to do so. And we wanted a smaller game – not a big box game. So originally, you can put things together that add up to that. But Wizards started with more complications – I think that was the largest change from initial design to now. There was another resource involved for example. And a lot of spell types as well. Overall, the cards were more complicated. So we were trimming things down after that – removing resources, making cards more obvious to play because we wanted speed. The thing that snuck in was the idea of animal wizards.

Dan: The thing that can be hard is cutting out something that’s fun and clever. Designers can especially become attached to clever parts because we want to do really original mechanics. But you have to be ruthless. If it slows the pace of the game too much, makes things too confusing, messes up other parts of the game somewhat, or anything like that — it’s a candidate for the chopping block. A good pace is a virtue unto itself.

Adam: And the way that the acolyte cards work which was a continual reduction in design: to get a single card that works as the round marker, start player marker, start impact, turn impact and end of round impact – that’s compression in design and streamlining. Another bit that was there and later removed was storing cards. Some games let you pick a card off a display and pay for it later – Wizards had that for a time. We ditched that to keep it simple. Or an effective card limit per player – which we did originally to keep the game tight, but then ditched because of simpler rules during play. Everything was bent on keeping the game light and fast – but with these interesting combo situations.


Kickstarter seems to just be overrun with new board game projects. And yours doesn’t even have zombie miniatures! Why should KSers back Wizards of the Wild over the many other projects vying for their wallets?

Dan: That’s the multi-million dollar question! It’s boxed awesomeness, for one thing.

Adam: I’d say we’re hoping folks are now more discerning of games with good designs. I think it’s clearly true that KS backers are more discriminating and some see that as constraining games on KS. But it’s also an opportunity for higher quality to rise up and stand out. If you look around KS right now, you’ll notice that campaigns with lower quality illlustrations or pricing that’s too high or a message that’s too confusing – these just don’t fund as easily any more.

Dan: In the end, we know what it takes to compete with the best game projects. Go check out Wizards of the Wild on Kickstarter and you’ll see our real answer to this question. We make the best case we can with that page.

Adam: We’ve really watched KS since it started and I think we have a compelling campaign. Our price point is very good – very competitive and in the sweet spot I think. We’ve got a ton of great art in this game – just very fun stuff. And it’s an easy message: it’s a game with cards and dice that plays fast. And we’re good designers with experience from start to finish – not just design, but we’ve self-published before when it was much more challenging! Moreover, we’ve offered everything up – the game is out there right now as PnP. So you can see everything we’ve got at this point. So all of that makes us trustworthy I hope.


The concept art seems proof that components really do make the game, despite all the wargames that seem to insist otherwise. How central do you consider the components and art to the actual enjoyment of the game? Do you consider them part of the game itself, or is the game merely the rules?

Dan: Depends on the game, of course, but we obviously obsess about art. Great images and components draw you into the game. A designer cannot control what kinds of moods the players are in, what their personalities are, their preferences even, but we can go all out to make the experience as engaging as possible. I love the idea that fellow players can get together and the right game can make an awesome evening.

Adam: Art is an enormous part of a game without a doubt. Even the war gamers – their art design is evocative of a cold, calculating war game: numbers and information on a map. Personally, I love great art. I also want to get more great artists into gaming. I feel there’s no reason to have poor art in a game any more. There’s just too many fantastic illustrators out there in the world. I even make ‘pretty’ prototypes because I truly believe that the way the game appears is critically important to the design – things like how easy is it to understand when playing? This goes way beyond rules. Can you tell what you do next while playing? A game is a message to the players and you want to clearly communicate. Folks who say don’t waste time on a prototype – that’s true maybe for a first rough cut – but after that, art is everything. Yes, it takes time. But that’s what it takes to make a game.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Adam: I’m sweating bullets over our KS campaign! We’ve really put alot of time and money into it and I hope we are successful. It’s funny about game design: each one is so stressful! But then you go make another one anyhow. If we are successful, we have several other designs coming along that I *really* want to finish. Hopefully, gamers will agree and get us funded. If we are well funded, we of course have stretch goals – but more than that, we’ll be able to go faster on our next games!

Dan: Yes, Kickstarter is an intimidating process. It’s like having a play open on Broadway. I fret about every detail.

wwwandsAdam: Oh! I do want to say one thing more. Our Collector’s Edition of Wizards of the Wild. It has a wooden box and this hand made wooden wand. Truly beautiful! I’m not saying everyone will want that, but if you *do* go for it, you won’t be disappointed. It will look like a family heirloom at that point – and maybe that wand *is* magical. Who knows?




Thanks again to Adam and Dan. Like what you hear? Check out Wizards of the Wild on Kickstarter!

“Criminally” Underrated Games, Part 1

Recently, I joined a discussion on Facebook (oops) and mentioned how much I’d enjoyed being the first written review of Splendor on BGG, just loving the game at first sight, and seeing that love confirmed by many others. Someone rightly called me out that other’s opinions shouldn’t validate mine, but what I meant was more that sharing the joy of that game with others gave me the warm fuzzies. I certainly don’t mind being the lone voice in the wilderness, and I’ve been that guy plenty of times, but slamming a game just isn’t that fun or that exciting to write. So, instead, here’s a list of games I think are fantastic, and seem to be quite underrated on BGG, criminally so. If I’m going to stand alone, I’m going to talk about some really great games while I’m doing it.

Wait, criminally? I’m not going to call the cops on anyone, but let’s quantify that. In my experience, most games are just mediocre – maybe around 6 to 6.5 on BGG. It seems that the good games manage more than a 7.0, and the great ones manage a 7.5 or higher. These games all score below a 7 on average at BGG, but I’d rate them as 9s or 10s (and have reviewed them on the MeepleTown scale as 4s or 5s). Over 2 points difference? That’s criminal! Each entry in the series will try to explain why a couple of games are so great, and give some conjectures as to why the BGG masses disagree. Here we go!


augustusboxRise of Augustus

BGG rating: 6.91646

My rating: 9 (Our review)

Why It’s Awesome: “Remember the glory days, back when the Spiel des Jahres nominees were good?” What, you mean like, yesterday? Guys, they might not be ‘hardcore’ like they used to be, but they’re better than ever. In a different year, this might’ve won the award if not stuck against the innovative Hanabi. Yet Rise of Augustus is innovative in its own right, turning Bingo into an actual game – meaning instant accessibility, along with all the push-your-luck excitement present in Bingo (even more, in fact, since Bingo merely gives that illusion). Top it off with amazing artwork from Vincent Dutrait and super cool awesome card combos which is about my favorite thing ever, and this game is an instant classic. It’s a personal favorite; the only reason I rated it a 9 over a 10 is that I fear the Senator-rush is probably a dominant strategy. Where’s that expansion, people?


Why BGG Got It Wrong: I think this is entirely about perception. This is a (very) light family game, and could have been a big hit in chain stores with slightly simpler rules and a different theme (this one’s too… hobbyist). Instead, it’s got all the wrong marketing going against it. First, Paolo Mori’s last big game was the drab gamer’s game Vasco da Gama. Second, it’s got a gigantic box relative to the game; it’s a Ticket to Ride style box, yet the whole game fits in the cloth bag it comes with. Finally, despite only having a $40 MSRP, the tiny-contents-versus-box-size conundrum betrays the game and makes it feel like a bit of a ripoff, even though those 40 dollars are well-deserved after all the designing, playtesting, artistry and printing/distribution. A smaller box, fewer abilities/rules and more family-style theme, and this game would be selling like hotcakes. Instead, everyone’s missing out on one of the best games of 2013. I shed a tear every time I see this game on clearance.


relicrunnerscoverRelic Runners

BGG rating: 6.74576

My rating: 9 (Our review)

Why It’s Awesome: You can tell just by playing this game that Matthew Dunstan put a lot of thought into the mechanics of this game, just as he said in our interview. The general concept of an “emergent game” comes through – the game starts simple, but really escalates as the game progresses. 7 Wonders gives me a similar feeling with its structure, where you seem to be doing somewhat piddly things in Age I, but in Age III you’re building cards with these crazy costs. Here, instead of just picking crazy-looking cards, you’re pushing that feeling to the extreme by doing insane moves and combining a bunch of different special abilities in whatever way you can imagine. A rewarding byproduct of the escalating complexity of the game is that when big scoring turns happen (the “relic runs”), you feel extraordinarily clever for pulling them off, unable to avoid some humblebragging while you count up your points for the turn. Many games have you feeling like you’ve “lucked into” some big moves; even if that might occasionally be true in Relic Runners, every big score still feels like a well-earned accomplishment. While that’s my favorite aspect of the game, it’s got everything else you could want – a simple central mechanism surrounded by cool special powers (did I mention I like those?), reasonable playing time, gorgeous artwork and twenty holy-crap-amazing relic miniatures, and much more.


Why BGG Got It Wrong: It’s perception again. This is not a family game, despite Days of Wonder marketing it as such. It’s got too many rules, especially a few tiny, easily forgotten ones. But it’s not just that – this game is a brain-burner! Five Tribes, despite all its accolades, got some slack for just having too many dang options, although they dwindle as the game goes on. The options in Relic Runners grow instead of shrinking, but on any later turn, there are so many options across the tiles on the board, your abilities, your paths, your toolboxes… And the fact that your opponents’ options are somewhat possible to anticipate, just adds to the brain-burning, while Five Tribes is so overwhelming that you just play from your gut. The rules of the game also make it look like multiplayer solitaire, but it’s deeply interactive – if you’re not attentive to what others are doing, you’ll have your moves stolen right out from under you. Everyone who (wrongly) crapped on Kingdom Builder for its 1-terrain-card restriction and its lack of interaction should be playing this instead, but it’s like no one got the memo. Truly an amazing game – I might argue that this was Days of Wonder’s first gamer’s game, but, hey, what do I know?


What games do you find “criminally” underrated? Sound off in the comments or on Facebook!

Review: Diamonds

diamondsboxI’ll admit, when I first heard about this game, I was a little peeved. I’m a huge fan of Clubs by North Star Games, and this game seemed to have stolen the concept (expanding past Hearts and Spades) and even the tagline (“If you love Hearts and Spades, you’ll love…”). Despite my grumbling, I kept hearing about how great the game was, so eventually I gave in. Was I disappointed? 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?


diamondscards2Components: The components for this game are a very mixed bag. On the bright side, I really like having the player screens, and the game includes a lot of acrylic crystals (i.e. diamonds) in two denominations which look really nice. On the other hand, the graphic design on the cards is very bad. I’m not sure what’s really even supposed to be on the cards (vaults?), but they all look very bland and very similar, meaning you can only really distinguish sits by looking in the corner. Some friends with poorer eyesight easily confused spades and clubs, which could have been remedied with a large icon in the center of the card, instead of… whatever’s there. The art is unique per suit, so you could use those colors eventually to keep track, but our habit as avid Euchre players is to refer to the classic suits, which are now only in the corner – why?

diamondsreminderThe other problem is with the reminder cards and the player screen. Players had a hard time for the first round remembering what trick did what, and the iconography isn’t that helpful because the open vault picture (i.e. going to the vault) versus the closed vault picture (i.e. showroom) look too similar. In addition, the picture on the reminder card for the showroom has the diamonds outside of a screen with a closed vault, but the actual player screens have the picture with the open vault. I would have much preferred reminder cards with actual text, along with reminders about end-of-round scoring, etc. The full rules (as reminders) could have fit on the cards. I also don’t like the wonky box size, which I’ve never seen before out of playing almost 500 different games in my life.

All that being said, those problems are not insurmountable, and $24.95 is reasonable when you consider the beautiful crystals and the six player screens. The crystals really do step the game up a notch, and make it so that you don’t need paper and pencil to keep score. I wouldn’t let the components keep you away, but they could be better.


Accessibility: If you’ve played any trick-taking game, then this game is quite an easy one. I’m truly amazed at just how natural the rules are. There are a few subtleties I didn’t catch on the first read through, like getting two Diamonds actions (which is awesome) if you don’t take any tricks. This is one of those “easy to learn, hard to master” games, for sure. From the get-to, you have a strong sense of how to play and also how to win, which is just as important – you don’t want to be muddling through without a path to victory in sight, or new players won’t have any fun. It’s one of the easiest games I’ve ever taught, and certainly a little simpler than Clubs due to the “normal rules” for what constitutes a trick. That being said…


Depth: This game threw me for a loop! It’s more akin to Hearts than Spades or Clubs, in that running the table isn’t necessarily a good idea. I got stuck with the lead in Hearts, and while I was running out my hand, players were playing off-suit and doing much better things, like stealing my crystals or taking crystals straight into their vault. This game requires a much more delicate touch than it seems when you first read the rules. The balance of the huge bonus for no tricks against trying to vie for a majority is quite a delicious struggle. Playing off-suit is powerful, which often isn’t true in other games, and that’s such a unique twist. The timing of the game is very clear, but really interesting, especially how off-suit actions happen mid-trick. I led a high Spade in hopes to hide the single crystal in my showroom, and the next player played a Club off-suit to steal it, making my trick worthless! Little subtleties like that develop the more you play, and have me very excited to play again.

I should mention, though, that we’ve always played with the variant where you deal out the entire deck, and I have no intention of playing this with two or three players. I appreciate publishers’ efforts to make the game as widely playable as possible, but having all the cards out in play is one of my favorite things in trick-taking games, and I find no appeal in playing with a portion of the deck at a time. I also really liked having the dealer pick how many cards to pass, but we weren’t huge fans of always passing left (I assume this was done to keep the rules simple). I’m thinking you could always pass one farther left until you’re back around to a “Keep” round, similar to how passing goes Left / Right / Across / Keep in Hearts (obviously not the same order though).


Theme: I guess the fancy artwork is an attempt to give this game a theme around putting diamonds in vaults… I appreciate the effort, and I think I would like it even more if the graphic design was maybe a bit more… white, with a focus on making each suit clear. Much like the poker chips in Splendor, the crystals give a tactile element that other trick-takers don’t have, and make stealing crystals with the Clubs suit seem fun instead of mean – which is not easily accomplished!


Fun: I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think this will convert players who don’t like trick-takers, but for long-time players of Hearts, Spades, Euchre, and the like, this was a fun, fresh, innovative twist on a tired genre. What really elevates the game is all the cleverness lacking in other trick-takers: every suit does something exciting, cards collected (or not) matter in all kinds of ways, and yet the rules are quite basic. I still prefer Clubs, but I see that more as a stepping-stone from Spades to Tichu and a whole different style of play, while this is a more natural move within the same world of “standard” trick-taking for players who prefer Hearts over Spades (I’m the opposite).


Diamonds overcame my misconceptions entirely, proving to be one of the best card games released in 2014. Any fans of trick-taking should give this one a shot.




4 out of 5

Review: Qwixx

qwixxgamewrightSomeone accused me a while back of being a “Top 40 Gamer,” as in someone who only plays the “pop music” of board games. (R.I.P., Casey Kasem.) Though I hate pop music, I happily embraced the sentiment. I don’t have time to play tons of super-long hardcore games, and I often look to things like the Spiel des Jahres for interesting new games that might appeal to me. Last year, I hadn’t even heard of Qwixx when it became a nominee (later losing to Hanabi). Designed by Steffen Benndorf and published in the U.S. by Gamewright Games, Qwixx is a fast-playing, simple dice game that draws comparisons to Yahtzee despite playing nothing like it. 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: I’ve talked a lot about how I love clean, elegant, minimalist components… and you can’t really get simpler than this. The box contains the rulebook, score sheets, and six dice. Yes, that’s it. However, Gamewright is always classy with their releases (look at how amazing Forbidden Island is compared to its MSRP), and they did a great job with their cosmetic upgrade of the game. The game comes in a kind of tuckbox that feels very sturdy and thick, not what you usually think of as a tuckbox, and closes magnetically. There are a lot of scoresheets in the box which are double-sided and look great. The dice are also a nice size and look good, if a little plain – but the plain look probably makes the game less intimidating for casual gamers. You also can’t really beat the $10.99 MSRP – between shipping, licensing, and so on, I can’t imagine they could make money on much less of a price. So, while there’s not much in here, it’s all done the best way possible. I guess if I had a complaint, it would be the lack of pencils or some other writing utensil.


Accessibility: This game is mind-numbingly simple. On your turn, you roll the six dice (just once!). The two white numbers from a number from 2-12 that anyone can cross off on any of the four colored rows on their personal scoresheets. Then, you can pair a white die with a colored die to cross of the corresponding number on that color’s row. The key to the game is that numbers can only be crossed off left to right – once you a skip a number, you can’t go back! The goal of the game is to get the most points by making the most crosses, but the points increase greatly if you cross off many numbers in the same row. Eventually, rows can get ‘locked’ which will end the game, or players will misthrow enough times to end the game. (If you don’t cross anything off on your own turn, you get a ‘misthrow’ which is -5 points.)

That’s the entire game. It took maybe two minutes to teach it to my parents. The only (very short) moments of confusion are when my dad thought the numerical value of the die was how many points you got (i.e. cross off a 12, get 12 points) and when he thought locking a row meant no one else scored for that row (it means no one can cross anything else further from that row). It’s a simpler game than even Yahtzee, and I would defy you to find someone who doesn’t understand the game and how to play it well enough to form a strategy during the first game.


Depth: Some other reviewers went so far as to say this isn’t even a game, due to the lack of decisions. I wouldn’t go that far. Each turn (even other players’) you have to consider the risk of crossing off a number to keep up with other players’ points against going past numbers you can no longer cross out. However, the endgame can definitely stall out (especially with two players) where you just keep rolling misthrows even though you’ve played well, because 2s and 12s are the only way to lock rows, and they aren’t exactly easy to roll. I think the ‘locking’ rows is supposed to bring in the interaction, but it’s so freaking hard to do it, that it’s rare that I can try and forcefully lock a row to block someone else who is really going to town in that row – and that’s even more so because you must also have five crosses in a row before you can lock it.

Aaand let me say that I wrote that last part a few months prior to this paragraph, which has included a dozen more 2p games. There’s much more to this game than I thought, and anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t played it enough. My initial strategy was just to always cross things off when given the chance, and it turns out that’s not necessarily the way to go. Part of it is intuition, but part of it is also appealing to the probabilities of a 2d6 – I read someone slamming the game for not taking 2d6 probabilities into consideration like Can’t Stop does – but I would argue the game actually does; it’s just on you to strategize around them.


Theme: Well, there isn’t one. This is a very classical game in the vein of Yahtzee and Farkle, and to be honest, I like that. It makes it appealing to people who are traditional dice chuckers and card players, without it looking unnecessarily fancy. Considering also just how simple the game is, I think the lack of a theme is extremely appropriate.


Fun: This is a good game if you want something easy to introduce to budding gamers or family members. My wife liked it because it was simple and quick, if we wanted to play something after a long, tough day with the baby, or while she takes a catnap. My parents seemed to like it okay as well. I’ve read a lot of people say that this has replaced Yahtzee for them and theirs – but, I think Yahtzee might have just a little more strategy, if less interaction.

At first, I couldn’t understand how this was nominated over La Boca and Escape: the Curse of the Temple, two amazing, simple, innovative games that were merely recommended. The more natural comparison for me is Las Vegas, the 2012 nominee which lost to Kingdom Builder (and should have won, in retrospect). Las Vegas is also an insanely simple dice game, but features a fitting, exciting theme that appeals to a broad audience, some seriously direct player interaction, and some great laughs. Qwixx first felt like “yeah, okay, I guess I’ll cross this off.” After playing the game a bunch more, I’ve found the joy and excitement of playing it, and it’s one of the fastest, simplest, easiest, games I have, and that’s what makes it a ton of fun. I would have argued against its SdJ nomination a while back, but now I certainly see it. Hardcore gamers may turn their nose up, but this has become my go-to dice game with the wife, the parents, or just about anyone.



I can see how Qwixx isn’t for everyone, but for those that enjoy fast, quick, easy dice games in the vein of Can’t Stop or Yahtzee, they’ll find a faster, quicker, easier, and even more fun game in Qwixx.





4 out of 5

Review: Shadowrun: Crossfire

Shadowrun CrossfireShadowrun: Crossfire is Catalyst Game Labs’ first real foray into boardgaming. It bills itself as a co-operative deck-building game, which I’ll admit piqued my curiosity.  I love Dominion-style games, and I love co-ops.  What could go wrong?

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: The box feels a bit sparse for a retail $60 game.  There are a few dozen thin cardstock “boards” for players and scenarios, a few various tokens, and about 240 cards.  The card quality is decent but not great, and since this is a deck-building game with a lot of shuffling, I’d recommend card sleeves at least for the Black Market cards (the ones that go in the player decks).  There are also several sheets of stickers, which can be used to create persistent characters; as players complete missions, they can affix the stickers to their player boards as “upgrades”, similar to how the board in Risk: Legacy evolves over multiple plays.  While there’s a decent amount of stuff here, everything would have easily fit into a box half this size, which hints at future plans for a lot of expansions.

In fact, there’s already one available.  Usually, we review only what’s in a game’s retail box, but I feel the need to point something out here.  Shadowrun: Crossfire – Character Expansion Pack 1 was being sold at Gen Con, and the staff at the Catalyst booth (as well as the text on the package) were pushing it as “all new characters and upgrades”.  This is pretty misleading; the expansion contains more of the same character types that are in the retail box, just with different artwork.  The “new” upgrade stickers are just more copies of the original stickers.  There’s not actually anything new in the first expansion, and unless you’re planning to play a lot — or just really want more character board artwork — this is a complete waste of money.

Accessibility:  Shadowrun: Crossfire isn’t a difficult game to learn.  Player turns consist of few steps, and all of the phases are printed on each player’s Role card.  The group ultimately wins by defeating a series of Obstacle cards, which are pretty straightforward: simply play cards matching the colored symbols on an Obstacle to deal “damage” to it.  Characters have distinct stats like money and health, but these are simple concepts that are easy to grasp.

The problem is the game’s absurd difficulty level.  Look, I love hard co-op games.  My all-time favorite boardgame is Space Alert, and I adore the ever-brutal Ghost Stories despite amassing an embarrassing record of losses.  The problem is, when I lose those games, I can look back on my group’s moves and figure out where things went wrong; I can see why we lost.

In Crossfire, difficulty is dictated by the Obstacle cards come up.  My issue is that the strength of the cards in these decks varies too widely.  In one game you might get a first round of high-health, high-damage Obstacles that will absolutely wreck the party.  In the next, you might get a bunch of easy Obstacles and breeze through the first wave in a round or two.  Sure, the harder cards yield a better reward (money that players can use to buy cards and upgrade their decks), but that’s of little consolation when the group finishes the first round with everyone a half-step away from death.

When I consider a game’s accessability, I’m not just thinking about how easy it is to learn or teach.  I’m also looking at the ability to analyze a game after the first play and come up with new ideas for strategies.  With Crossfire, when you lose — and you will — it’s difficult to look back and figure out how things could have gone differently.

Depth: Here’s my other big concern.  I haven’t played this very much yet, but I feel like I’ve seen all of the cards multiple times already.

Turns are often dictated by the cards in your hand.  In many cases, there will only be one or two Obstacles on the board that a given player is even capable of damaging.  The only alternative is to pass and do nothing.  It’s extremely frustrating to feel like you have no options.

And then there’s the most glaring issue: There are only three scenarios included in the box.  Three!  Considering the progressive nature of the characters (you “level up” as you complete scenarios), this is unforgiveable.  And only one of the three seems possible to win with entry-level characters, meaning you’d have to play it over and over (or cheat) to make the other scenarios viable.  There are a few other scenarios available online (including a convention demo that really should have been included as the “beginner” scenario), but I’m more concerned with the lack of content in the box.

Theme: I’ll admit that I know very little about the Shadowrun universe, but Crossfire’s art design and gameplay style convey the idea of a desparate band of misfits and outlaws trying to survive in a dystopian future.  The card art is consistently good with just a few rough spots, and the character boards are beautifully illustrated.  The integration of the mechanics is a bit weird; if I’m trying to evade the authorities by defeating obstacles as quickly as possible, why do I keep stopping at the Black Market to buy stuff every few minutes?

One of my fellow players has a long history with the Shadowrun role-playing game, and he mentioned that while the card art is faithful to the game, nothing in Crossfire’s mechanics made him feel immersed in that universe.  “It’s all just matching symbols”, he complained.  I can’t disagree.

Fun: We eventually managed to win a session, and then another — but there was little joy in our shared victory.  Compare this to my last play of Ghost Stories, where the final move of the game resulted in shouts of elation (and, I’m not too ashamed to say, a victory dance by yours truly).

Our two Shadowrun: Crossfire wins felt like we’d been through a grueling experience together.  We gained enough experience to put a “power up” sticker on each of our character cards, but we could tell from each others’ expressions that we were unlikely to ever take advantage of them.  Nobody wanted to play again, and we packed up the game in awkward silence.


2 Stars

2 out of 5

Review: Las Vegas

vegasboxIn 2011, the Spiel des Jahres jury split the award into the original prize, intended for families, and a connoisseur’s prize (the Kennerspiel des Jahres), with games too complex for non-gamers (though there are certainly even heavier games than the ones that get nominated for the KdJ). One byproduct of this is that it seems lighter games are being more commonly nomianted for the regular SdJ award; this had already been happening somewhat with winners Keltis and DixitLas Vegas is one of the lightest games nominated for the award, and in fact, publisher alea rates it a “1” out of “10” on their complexity scale. Designed by Rüdiger Dorn, it’s a dice-chucking game of risk-taking at casinos… Can a game this simple also be fun? 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?


vegaspicComponents: There isn’t that much stuff in the box, which is alea’s standard medium-sized box. You get a pile of 54 bank notes (relatively standard cardstock), six cardboard tiles to represent casinos, a start player card, the rulebook, and most importantly – 40 (!) dice. The dice are relatively standard in size and look, but they’re solid and roll easily. The casinos and bank notes are where the art comes into the game, and it’s okay, but it doesn’t look as exciting as it should, because alea knows nothing about bright colors or fun graphic design. (I wish this game had been put by North Star Games…) Additionally, the scantily-clad showgirl on the spine is rather awkward when you pull the game out at a party, since the game is totally kid-friendly otherwise. The MSRP in the USA is $34.99, which I think is totally reasonable, although maybe a bit high for the mass market (and the game should be there).


Accessibility: I already made a stink about how light the game is, and I’ll prove my point by explaining the rules here. Each player begins the round with eight dice, and the game is played over four rounds. On your turn, you roll all of your remaining dice (once) and place ALL of one number on the corresponding casino (the casinos are numbered 1-6). You keep going around and doing this until everyone is out of dice (some people exit earlier in the round when they run out of dice). At each casino, whoever has the most dice gets the biggest bank note, whoever has the second most gets the next one, and so forth until the notes are gone. However, before you pass out the notes, any tied players have their dice removed from the race! You do this four times, and that’s it. The only other thing to note is that bank notes are put on each casino until the sum is over $50,000, so different casinos have different numbers of bills. So, yes – anyone can play this game.


Depth: Based on the last section, you might think this game is pure luck – and it’s definitely a dominant factor. However, I definitely feel like I have several good options often in the round, and the first roll is tough from the beginning. Do I commit a lot of dice to make sure I get one spot? Do I try to sneak in to each casino? What makes the game work is the “ties get nothing” rule. It can be intensely frustrating to roll your last die, which you have to place on the rolled number, and make yourself get stuck in a tie when you were going to make out with some cash. However, that danger is exactly what makes the game fun, and enhances the push-your-luck aspect of the game. It’s not, you know, Terra Mystica, but for a pure dice game, I think it offers more interesting decisions than Yahtzee, Farkle or Qwixx.


Theme: The theme for this game is just perfect, and it’s amazing that they could find such a fitting theme for a simple game that is pretty abstract due to its tiny, tiny ruleset. The gambling, push-your-luck feel of the game goes with the Vegas theme perfectly, as does the dice-rolling. I only wish that art was bright and colorful instead of being typical drab alea colors. I should say that the art isn’t that awful; I just think it could be much, much better.


Fun: This game is an absolute hoot. Somehow, that one tiny rule about ties not only gives you that risk-taking feeling, but also causes hilarious moments of ‘schadenfraude’ when other people get stuck in ties and lose out big. The rules are so simple that this is a great family game, full of cheering and moaning (depending on how things go).

I suppose this isn’t related to the fun of the game for me personally, but please explain to me why Castles of Burgundy (also by alea) is being sold in Barnes & Noble in the U.S. and this game isn’t. It’s just plain idiocy. This was a Spiel des Jahres nominee, perfect for families, and perfect for the uninitiated American gamer who might think Settlers of Catan is too complicated.  I can’t imagine anyone buying Castles of Burgundy sight unseen who isn’t an avid gamer being able to even make sense of the rules, or even being drawn to the cover. Las Vegas has a theme that Americans will immediately recognize and find appealing and fun. What the heck, alea? This game should be in Wal-Marts, Targets, and Meijers all over America. Yet another reason I kind of wish this game was with another publisher.


All that being said, this game is a fantastically fun one that absolutely anyone can play, and that’s far truer about this game than similar statements about other games. A true gateway game, a true classic, and the game that probably should have won the 2012 Spiel des Jahres. This game is an absolute pinnacle of game design – go check it out.




5 out of 5