Review: Chosŏn

chosonboxAs Asmodee continues to expand their operations, they’ve begun bringing games over from other parts of the world – for example, South Korea! Gary Kim’s Koryŏ was brought over by Asmodee after first being picked up by Moonster Games, and now its spiritual successor Chosŏn has followed the same path. But what if, like me, you haven’t played Koryŏ? Let’s see if Chosŏn stands on its own. 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?

 

chosoncomponentsComponents: The game is basically a small deck of cards and some cardboard tokens, in a small-but-weirdly-sized box. The tokens are nice quality, and the cards seem good as well, although riffle-shuffling with no sleeves caused a bit of scuffing. They’re also a really weird card size that doesn’t seem to perfectly fit any normal sleeve. However, the art on the cards is just fantastic. They have this feeling like they’re from a creepy, dark anime or something – bright and colorful art, yet creepy-looking characters (the Reaper has eyes and horns all over his skin, for example). It’s really all top-notch stuff, except that I think the MSRP of $30 is quite high for a card game this small. (However, I’ve seen it lately on sale for $15 at some online stores, and it’s a great buy at that price.)

 

Accessibility: First, let me say that the rulebook for this game is flat-out terrible. It’s really hard to grok as written, when in fact the game isn’t all that complicated. I’m not sure what’s so hard about the rulebook in particular, but it just didn’t click with me. I’ve read the rules to Koryŏ now, and though I haven’t played it, the games are very similar (this is basically Koryŏ 2.0), so I imagine this game will be pretty easy to understand if you already know that game. If you’re teaching the game, I think the toughest thing is being very clear about the event powers and when those happen versus the majority powers and when those happen. I also wish the cards had text, though they look really cool as it is. By the time you understand the icons, you’ve kind of got the game memorized and the icons aren’t all that important. They remind you of what you already know, instead of aiding with an initial understanding. All that being said, I was able to teach two other players and after one ‘learning game’ with a few misunderstandings, we easily shuffled up and played again, with everyone knowing what’s going on. It helps that the game is only about 5-7 minutes per player.

 

Depth: There are definitely some interesting decisions in this game, but the main thing that bothers me is that you get dealt a new hand each round, making the game almost completely tactical. I wish there was some sort rule that you could hold onto a few cards, or maybe some character power that allowed that, so you could plan ahead. Additionally, the number of cards you are dealt depletes each round, so the last few rounds allow for virtually no planning – in one game, I really needed to play an event, but couldn’t draw an event card in my 4- and 3-card hands. I would rather the hands escalate, because you can just pretty much play whatever the first round, and then you’d have more options to plan or be creative in later rounds after game states have been established. As it stands, the limited options in the final rounds make it a little anticlimactic. There’s still some interesting decisions to be made in the short time-frame, though.

 

chosoncardTheme: Well, to be completely frank, the game has a background story in the rules, but I didn’t look for that in the game. I saw cards with numbers for the most part, but I admit the really cool artwork had my imagination running about how the characters came to be as they are and why they were fighting, etc. The game is so short, that I don’t think there’s time to get into the theme, but I also don’t think the theme is strong enough to really care. I was more focused on killing the other player’s 7 so I’d have the most, etc. – thoughts that were interesting to play out, but abstracted away from the theme.

 

Fun: I was surprised by this game. For a 10-20 minute filler card game, it had some interesting decisions and a few “Aw, crap, you just ruined my plan” moments. I’d much rather play it than, say, Love Letter, just because the decisions are far deeper, and I don’t really have any other small card games that fit this niche of being a Magic-esque game of special powers and attacking each other in that time frame. This would appeal to some of those types over other classic fillers like Coloretto, For Sale, etc. Actually, this seems like a weird complaint, but I think I would value this game much more in this category if it had a somewhat smaller box. This would be a great game to bring on trips and bust out in hotels, etc. when you have nothing else to do and little luggage space.

 

Chosŏn was a pleasant surprise. As long as you realize that it’s a short, highly tactical game – and if you can get past the rules and high price – I think it’s worth a look.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: BraveRats

braveratsUnless you’ve been living in board gaming ignorance for the past couple of years, you know of the “micro game” Love Letter by Seiji Kanai and AEG. Love Letter is a game of only sixteen cards, and has been a smash hit of the like our hobby rarely sees, thanks to its short playtime and extremely low price. Fans of the original Japanese version complained about AEG changing the art of the game to fit their Tempest universe, but now there will be Downton Abbey Love Letter, DC Comics Love Letter, and much, much more. In addition, Seiji Kanai is now a name that draws plenty of attention, and AEG is continuing to bring over (and change) his games. Personally, I enjoy Love Letter very little if at all, so I haven’t been too excited to see the rest of his career.

AEG is not the only company getting a piece of the Kanai pie, however. Blue Orange games has obtained another of Kanai’s sixteen-card games, this one simply called R (try Googling that…) in Japanese. Much like AEG, Blue Orange has given the game a makeover, in the form of… cartoony Celtic Rats. Well, I’ve seen stranger things. Is BraveRats any 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?

 

Components: Just how much care and love can go into a game consisting of sixteen cards? Apparently, more than I ever thought possible. This release is just perfect. First of all, the art is fun, colorful, functional, and full of whimsy. Sorry to R lovers, but I wouldn’t enjoy this game near as much without the comical artwork and rats theme. Additionally, the rulebook is overly clear about every possible situation, and there is even a 17th card showing a chart of every possible outcome (!) to a round. I couldn’t find a typo anywhere, which is somewhat sad that I have to  even mention that (it’s quite common in this industry). To top things off, the tiny tin has an embossed title, with the big “R” being a hat tip to the original name, and it even has a custom plastic insert with the name of the game engraved on felt. Seriously? I shed a tear as I threw it away after sleeving the cards, which fit perfectly without the insert. All of this for $10 MSRP? This kind of careful consideration and aggressive pricing had me very seriously browsing the Blue Orange website for more games, as this is the first of theirs I’ve bought.

 

(Yes, I know sleeving a $10 game is ridiculous, but I have a lot of sleeves sitting around. Standard Card Game size, by the way.)

 

Accessibility: This is just a variant of War with special powers. Each player has an identical set of eight hands in his hand, and each player simultaneously picks one and reveals it, with the higher card winning the round (ties are “on hold” and won by whoever wins the next round). The goal of the game is to win four rounds first. That’s it. The trick of the game is that each of the eight cards has a special power which changes the rules for that round. The abilities are all quite simple, and I cannot believe just how in-depth the rulebook still managed to be about how they all interact (and there’s that chart!). I was able to easily explain the game in under 2 minutes and have never had a rules question in the times I’ve played it. One of the simplest games I’ve ever played – literally right up there with War itself. There are also six (!) variants in the rulebook, and none of them are particularly complicated either.

 

Depth: Let’s be clear here: the playing time on the box says five minutes, and that’s sometimes an overestimate. This game can be as quick as flipping over four cards each; the slowest it can be is flipping over eight. For that reason alone, you might think this game is random – but it isn’t. First, let’s talk about Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Mathematically, it seems that all options in RPS are equal, and the outcome is random. And it would be if it was played by two computers who randomly selected R, P, or S. However, two humans playing RPS – repeatedly – isn’t random. It’s a game of psychology. I’ve played lots of RPS while waiting in lines and have seen this human aspect come out firsthand many, many times.

Although I compared BraveRats to War early, RPS might be as good a comparison. BraveRats has more to it than that, of course – after a few cards are played, some choices have a higher mathematical EV (expected value) than others, but the psychology is where this game shines. You do not play this game against someone once. You play it three-to-five times in a row. Then the mind games emerge. I distinctly remember, in my third game of BraveRats (all against the same opponent), we ended up in a situation where the most “right” thing to do for either of us would be to play the Prince – so we both played the Princess. Cosmic Encounter gets me to those same kind of exciting head games, but it gets me to that point in 90 minutes, while BraveRats does it in 90 seconds.

 

Theme: This does feel like a battle – although a psychological one, instead of armies at war – so the fighting theme makes sense. Why rats? I don’t know. I do know that the artwork is fantastic and hilarious, the graphic design is impeccable, and this game sucks me in so hard. This is a game of escapism, not into a fantasy world of medieval rats, but into that mind-game-space that bluffing games like Skull & Roses and Coup also take you. Somehow, though, BraveRats gets you there on the express train.

 

Reeses-Peanut-Butter-Cups-Minis1Fun: This game is amazing. I’m sorry I doubted you, Mr. Kanai! What makes this so much more fun than Love Letter is the ability to make it about reading people – social deduction – almost right from the start. Much of the ‘deduction’ in Love Letter is random guessing early and obviousness at the end – and you’re also at the mercy of your 1-to-2-cards. In BraveRats, you’ve got the same opening eight cards, and that annoying randomness of the card draw is taken away, and you’re left only with your bluffing skills.

What really makes this game stand out for me is its tiny size and its tiny length. I have spent a lot of time in my life with nothing to do while being with someone else – on an airplane, waiting in line, between rounds in tournaments, and so on. BraveRats easily fits in your pocket and makes 15-30 minutes go by in a flash. This isn’t a filler – it’s only a mere morsel – but it’s like one tiny Reece’s cup mini. You know you’re going to sit there for a while and eat the whole bag.

 

BraveRats takes you to the psychological fun of other bluffing games at lightning speed, with awesome artwork and an incredible price tag. Just go buy it already.

 

Rating

5star

5 out of 5

Review: Sheriff of Nottingham

sheriffboxAnyone interested in reading or watching board game reviews is probably aware of Tom Vasel and the Dice Tower, and probably has an opinion on him one way or the other. I’ve watched enough of his videos to know where my tastes overlap with his, and can usually guess my own assessment based on his, for what it’s worth. Lately, Tom has gotten more involved in game creation, both with his own design Nothing Personal, and now with the “Dice Tower Essentials” line from Arcane Wanders, the first of which is Sheriff of Nottingham. This is a revamping of an older title, Robin Hood, which had already been a revamp of a prior game. Is the game now finally ready for primetime? 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?

 

sherriffcharsComponents: These are somewhat of a mixed bag. Let’s start with the good stuff. The artwork for this game is just amazing, and really sucks you into the theme. The rulebook is good and clear, with a handy reference page on the back, and the insert was smartly designed to be useful during the game, although the coins will fly around if you store it sideways. The cardboard coins work pretty well, and the player boards are nice and large, with reminders of the phases, although they should have put way more information on the player boards, even if only on one side of them. I really love how clean and simple the components are as well, making setup and tear-down a breeze. But the most impressive thing is probably the extremely competitive MSRP of $34.99.

On the other hand, there are some issues with the components. While the bags are a great aspect to the game – snapping them open really does add a lot to the experience – of my five bags, one was completely missing and one is extremely hard to open, making it both anticlimactic and dangerous to the cards within. Speaking of the cards, they shuffle well but they’re somewhat flimsy, making me want to sleeve them – but there’s no way I’m pile/side shuffling 216 cards after every game. You really need the deck to be thoroughly shuffled for the game to work well, and it’s a bit of challenge because the deck is so big, and it’s almost completely sorted after every game. Now, regarding the bags, I should mention that Arcane Wonders sent me the missing bag right away (I didn’t tell them about the other one), and I think the game just began another, third, print run, so by the time you’re reading this I’m assuming these issues are being ironed out. Overall, I think the good (primarily the price and artwork) outweighs the bad here.

 

Accessibility: This game is in an awkward space where it has some Euro-like mechanics but is ultimately a party game. The principles of the game are not hard to teach at all, and it didn’t take us too long to get up and running. (Although I should quickly mention that our first five-player game, including explanation, was closer to two hours than one. That fifth person really adds a lot of time.) The Market phase is a little awkward to explain, and I haven’t found a good phrasing to explain the fact that you have to draw off the main deck last, after taking anything from the discards, and I kind of just wish the rule wasn’t there (I don’t think it’d break the game, though it might make really good sets more common). The most common difficulty during actual play for newbies is remembering what’s in each bag, but somebody’s been nice enough to make a file for that. Overall, though, it’s probably a little easier to explain, than, say, Coup, which is probably my closest comparison for this game.

 

Depth: Much like Coup, Skull, The Resistance and other bluffing games, this is a game where you are playing the players, rather than the game. It is a bit awkward since the game has a somewhat complex scoring system with majority scoring, some cards with special effects, and so on. It really didn’t take us long at all to calculate our scores, but I do think it took us a few times around to get a feeling of what the appropriate value is during negotiation. Sometimes we’d over- or under-pay during negotiation simply because we hadn’t thought through the valuations carefully enough – but once you’ve played the game several times, you’ll be able to do that in your gut, I think. What makes this game truly unique among other bluffing games I mentioned is having that large amount of room for negotiation. In fact, if you play with straight shooters who refuse to negotiate (or people who just aren’t into these kinds of games), not only will it be less fun, it’ll be much harder to strategize – there’s very little chance to strategize apart from lying and negotiating. So, keep in mind, this is a “party” game first and foremost, and you can only win by interacting with the players via the game system, rather than by interacting solely with the game system. And to be honest, it’s one of those games that’s probably more fun if you don’t even worry that much about who wins.

 

Theme: Man, oh man. I’m not sure what it is about this game – I think it’s probably the artwork, although the mechanics work well too – but the theme just comes right through. It inspires you to make silly accents, to create back stories, and just to riff on things. Coup feels like the easiest comparison among bluffing games because in both games you actually say your lies out loud and then get caught or don’t, but while Coup is a great game, I’ve never been sucked in to its theme like this. It’s also a great, underused setting, one that just works really well here.

 

Fun: The games I mentioned above – Coup, Skull, The Resistance - are three of my favorite games. Sheriff of Nottingham stacks up well against those games, and most importantly, gives a unique playing experience unlike those, primarily because of the negotiation aspect. I absolutely love The Resistance, but that game is tense, full of arguing, sweat, (bad) logic, and deduction. There are laughs, but they’re somewhat incidental. Sheriff of Nottingham is one that just results in constant laughter throughout the whole game – it feels more like a proper party game. I think Skull delivers just as many laughs as Sheriff in a way simpler package, but the negotiation aspect makes Sheriff a unique experience that’s just as fun to play as all those old favorites.

I should also mention that this game’s fun is increased tenfold if you’re playing with the right people – not everyone likes bluffing games. However, I teach at a Christian university and I did play this with some folk who are morally opposed to lying, even within games, and we still had a pretty good time (the guy who refused to lie ended up winning!). I also played again with some friends who really are into bluffing games and one who isn’t, and he said this was his favorite bluffing game he’d played (though that’s not saying much, maybe), due to the strong theme and negotiation element. Don’t take that to mean you can force this game on players it’s not meant for, but take it as a sign that you’re almost guaranteed a good time with the right crowd.

 

Sheriff of Nottingham ranks right up there with the best bluffing games of the past few years, and is a wonderful start to the Dice Tower Essentials Line. I’ll be interested to see what comes next!

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

MeepleTown 2014 Gift Guide

Green-MeepleIt’s that time of year again, when everyone is eagerly publishing their very own Christmas gift guide!

We’ve given some thought about what we could do that’s unique. The Dice Tower already has a great “12 Games of Christmas” series over on YouTube covering a lot of the new hotness from this year.  The BoardGameGeek Gift Guide does a great job of covering the evergreen classics. But what about those games that are slipping under the radar, but are in fact quite amazing? That’s where we come in!

Without further ado, here is what you might call our Island of Misfit Games, a list of under-the-radar games that are awesome and readily available, along with information on who might enjoy them as gifts. We’ve split them by somewhat general categories, with a stocking-stuffer and a big box game for each – but in my book, these are all great games for gamers of any age.

 

For Kids:

niyaboxNiya Five Tribes wasn’t Bruno Cathala’s only solo release this year! Niya is a small abstract game from Blue Orange Games, for ages 7 and up. The game simply consists of 16 square Hanafuda-inspired tiles laid in a grid, and players take turns replacing tiles with their own beautifully chunky player pieces. The goal is simple: make four in a row, or four in a square, or make it so your opponent can’t move. But the tricky part is that each tile has two symbols on it, and your opponent can only take a tile that matches one of the symbols of where you last moved! It’s quick, it’s simple, it’s beautiful. No text and few rules means that kids can grasp it easily, but still develop some creative and strategic thinking. Once they know the game, kids can quite easily play this with no adults around as well. It’s also a game adults can enjoy – playing it around a small table with some college students while drinking hot tea just seemed like the perfect setting for this game, and is one of my favorite gaming memories from this past year.

Niya on BGG – Our review

 

camelupboxCamel Up – If X-Wing has proved anything about board games, it’s that it’s pretty helpful when a product is part-game, part-toy. Camel Up has learned this lesson well, with its unnecessary-yet-awesome dice pyramid, which simultaneously randomizes which die you roll and what roll you get on said die. Behind this mechanism is a pretty simple game of betting on a camel race, one that has a ton of visual appeal and a surprising amount of laughs, because you’re virtually guaranteed to see some improbable comebacks from game to game, due to the fact that camels can “piggyback” (or is that “camelback”?) on top of one another. Some gamers have been sour on this one, but believe me, Camel Up won the Spiel des Jahres for good reason.

Camel Up on BGG – Our review

 

For Families:

sushigoboxSushi Go! - Primarily thanks to the advent of 7 Wonders, drafting is becoming a more popular mechanism than ever, despite being used in Magic: the Gathering for years. Sushi Go! is a simple introduction to that idea, with a fun, colorful theme and a low price. Rather than having to work up to producing resources for the later cards as in 7 Wonders, in Sushi Go! you simply grab a card and put it in front of you, possibly scoring some points for it. Each type of sushi scores points in different patterns, which are relatively simple, and even if you don’t follow them at first, there’s no rules to break – in the sense that anyone can grab some cards and flip ‘em over, and then find out later how they did and watch it all click. I think it’s actually super-important for the games you teach beginners not to have those frustrating “Oh, sorry, you can’t do that” moments, and this game avoids that conundrum. The only slightly difficult aspect is the Chopsticks cards, but that doesn’t take too long to explain either. A great game for kids and adults of any age, and one that travels well and sets up quickly – you’ll be able to read the rules and bust this one out just after it’s unwrapped!

Sushi Go! on BGG – Our review (Note: the picture in our review is the old edition; the one in print is from Gamewright Games)

 

labocaLa Boca – I first found this game on a whim when I was looking for games to use with college students last semester. What I found was an incredible game for all ages, and one that really did bring our family together. My sisters-in-law have varying levels of interest in playing games, especially the kind of high-strategy games that we prefer – but they all got excited by this one, and it turned out that the sister with the least penchant for strategy games just blew us out of the water. That kind of positive experience, bringing the whole family around the table for a laugh-out-loud good time, makes this an aboslutely perfect recommendation. As a bonus, you’ll be teaching the younger kids about cooperation and spatial reasoning too. You cannot go wrong with this one.

La Boca on BGG – Our review

 

For Teenagers:

skullSkull / Skull & Roses – This is bluffing in its purest form – imagine if Poker was only psychology, with no mathematics involved. The game was originally  called Skull & Roses, and although the new edition has a name much less enticing and much harder to Google (just “Skull“), the new artwork completely blows my mind. I never found much appeal in the biker-gang back story, but the idea of this being an ancient game among early civilizations is kind of cool, and you could almost see it being true, as the game is so dead simple. Anyone who likes to lie in games like The Resistance or Coup absolutely needs to experience Skull. This is easily one of my favorite games of all time. With the recent reprint, there’s just no excuse!

Skull on BGG – Our review

 

BOX Black Fleet.pdfBlack Fleet – When I think back to my teenage years, I think about just how much Magic: the Gathering we were playing. What made that game so fun, was being able to do all of these cool card combos, and just giving yourself special powers and abilities by the cards you played. That’s always been my favorite mechanism in games – having cool text on cards, things I was allowed to do that maybe no one else could. Black Fleet exchanges the typical dice-chucking wild ride of pirate games for exactly that – a deterministic combat system, but otherwise a totally card-driven game chock full of special action cards and special abilities just for you. In fact, winning the game is a matter of just giving yourself more and more cool abilities! Add on the fact that this is an absolutely gorgeous game with cool ship miniatures and one of the most vibrant game boards I’ve ever seen, and you’ve got a winner.

Black Fleet on BGG – Our review

 

For Gamers:

sailtoindiaboxSail to India – After Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter took the gaming world by storm, micro-games became extremely popular, but I also think minimalist designs became somewhat pigeonholed into being very, very light games. Hisashi Hiyashi (more well known for Trains) completely broke that mold by making a classic Eurogame of maritime trading out of only 24 cards and a bunch of cubes. Sail of India is an absolute masterpiece of design, where all the decision tension comes from the fact that your limited number of cubes get used in many different ways – as ships, as money, as VPs, and so on. It’s an amazing little game, one that I plan to take on every long trip I take from now on. Lovers of all things Feld and Rosenberg should get a kick out of this one. The only downside is the lack of support for only two players. Expect a review from us at some point, but for now, trust us – this is a great little game.

Sail to India on BGG

 

HeliosHelios - Some people think that the hobby’s going to have a bubble burst, due to the crazy amount of new games coming out each year – and this seems particularly evident in the area of deep, strategic Eurogames. Among all the hype for games like Five Tribes and Imperial Settlers, games like Helios are getting lost in the shuffle, so it’s our job to bring them back to your attention. Helios has a unique setting and some of the most gorgeous components you’ll ever see in a game. This one’s firing on all cylinders: some actual thematic integration, deep gameplay with simple mechanisms, and that wonderful art. If that hardcore gamer on your gift list is probably going to buy the hot games for himself anyway, this is a great way to surprise him with an under-the-radar, yet awesome, game.

Helios on BGGOur review

 

Those are our recommendations for this year!  Hopefully you’ve got some ideas now on how to truly surprise that love one with an exciting new game. Merry Christmas!

Asmodee November Expansion Round-Up: 7 Wonders: Babel, Dixit: Daydreams

Two more expansions from Asmodee this month for perennial favorites, 7 Wonders and Dixit. Not much more to say here; let’s get to work!

 

babelbox7 Wonders: Babel

Background

First, let me give some background on my view of 7 Wonders. It’s easily in my top five games of all time, alongside Magic, Dominion, Ticket to Ride, and Twilight Struggle (can you tell I like to play with cards?). I think it’s actually not a gateway game at all and a little difficult to grok for new players, but once you have it, it’s so smooth and so fun. I also really like to draft reactively, depending on what avenues other players take. That’s the main reason I did not like the Leaders expansion: to do really well with it, you have to tell everyone your strategy before you even see your first hand, at which point they’ll hate-draft against you. It was a really cool thematic thing though, so I don’t mind playing with it; I just don’t always reach for it.

Cities, on the other hand, is an absolutely fantastic expansion that adds just a hint of unpredictability, by adding a black color in the regular deck, and you don’t always quite know which of those cards are in. It integrates really smoothly, although there are some new icons and effects to remember, but overall no real new rules. I still don’t use it when teaching newbies, but I always want to include it with veterans. Again, the main thing for me is that it continues to let me play reactively, and it lets me have more stuff by playing an extra card each Age, which is to me the center of the enjoyment of 7 Wonders: figuring out how you actually can build that awesome building in Age III after all, and just enjoying watch your stuff grow on the table.

Tower of Babel

Babel is an expansion with two new modules, and I’ll talk about each separately. The namesake expansion, the Tower of Babel, has players drafting 3 pie-shaped pieces before the game begins, and then at any time they can play one of these by discarding a card as a fourth action on a turn besides discarding for coins, building a Wonder, or just playing the card. You get 2, 5, or 10 points at the end of the game depending on how many you build. The tiles themselves introduce a new “law” or “rule” into the game that affects everyone, until the law is eventually covered as you “build” the tower (only 3-4 rules are ever in effect, depending on number of players).

I did not like this expansion at all, for several reasons. The first strike against it is that it’s a lot more to remember and a lot more complexity – a bunch of new icons, but also things you have to keep in mind when looking through your hand, and it’s easy to forget that yellow cards don’t currently work, or that blue cards cost coins as well, or everyone has another resource, or whatever. That increase in complexity needs to have a very high payoff, and it doesn’t, which leads me to the second strike. There’ s just not enough incentive to build these – you can tell by the mere fact that they give a VP bonus, that they aren’t powerful enough to really choose over all the other options on your turn. In one of our four-player games, only two tiles were built all game. And it seems that people who really build a lot of tiles fall behind in points, because these just aren’t as useful as the actual cards you’re discarding. The only really useful time to build these is when you can totally screw someone over, which leads to strike number three. 7 Wonders is a game that, as I said, gives enjoyment from the ability to just figure out how to build expensive buildings and watch your empire grow. About half of the Babel tiles are just ways to ruin the game for everyone else by causing a coin tax on building certain colors, or just flat-out turning off yellow cards, or the majority of the brown cards. 7 Wonders is just not the game for this, and it makes what should be a fun experience really frustrating. And when someone screws you with a Babel tile, it’s not even really a good idea for them, as they’re wasting a turn to do it, and really just giving the game to the other unaffected players.

I read somewhere that Antoine Bauza designed expansions to deal with perceived flaws in the game, one of which is a lack of interaction with people who aren’t your neighbors. I think that the drafting gives enough interaction just fine, and you’re still indirectly interacting with someone two seats away, since their coin and military decisions, for example, affect the player in between the two of you, which in turn affects you – it’s just subtle. And to me the game is best at 3-5 players, so I’m willing to make that sacrifice of a lack of interaction with 6-7 players, because it’s still fun just to have that many people at the table. Now, Cities introduced negative interaction with the Debt symbol, but the main thing about that was that you could choose to lose coins or VPs, and although no one likes negative points, it never screwed your ability to build things, unless you did it to yourself by giving up too many coins. Building things is the fun part of the game – far more than just trying to do things for points. Cities never let someone just take that away from you. Likewise, if someone played a Diplomacy card, you might be screwed suddenly on military for one round, but it’s not like you lost your buildings forever.

The fourth and final strike against the Tower of Babel is the same problem Leaders has, which is that the strategy is dictated by that draft at the beginning of the game, which gives you very little flexibility. I don’t want to plan ahead around my Babel tiles, and in fact, I really can’t. I hate feeling pigeonholed in this game, because I think slightly altering course when needed is an absolute key to victory. So if you get tiles that seem unhelpful, then this whole expansion is just a big waste of time. And if they are helpful, they’re likely to just be mean, which isn’t very fun either. Unlike Leaders, I just actively don’t want to play with this.

Great Projects

The second expansion is called Great Projects. These are (gigantic) cards, one of which is laid out each Age, with one less token than the number of players. It shows when you can ‘participate’ (take a token), which is done by adding coins and/or a resource to a certain colored card. If all participation tokens are taken in one round, everyone who participated gets some sort of bonus, and if they aren’t, everyone who didn’t participate takes some sort of penalty. babel-materiel

I liked this expansion a lot better, and let me give the reasons why. The most obvious thing to talk about is that this expansion still has some harshness to it – the penalties can make you lose cards, or military tokens, or even all of your coins. And if you can’t pay the penalty, you have to take negative point tokens! (Aside: I have no idea why they felt he need to introduce a third kind of -1 token. I feel like more forethought should have went into this.) However, the big difference is that you know it’s coming, and you can do something about it, relatively quickly, by participating. Or you can even ignore it, if you’re confident everyone else will want the bonus enough to participate. In our games, it was rare that the participation tokens weren’t all taken – I think it felt like, well, if I’m going to do this, I want something out of it, not just to avoid a penalty. You can even participate twice and double-up on bonuses. In Babel, when someone screws you with a tile, it happens immediately and you can’t do anything about it. since playing even two Babel tiles in a row won’t cover it. I also felt like this expansion, just like Leaders and Cities, made a conscious effort to make coins more important, although I wonder if that’s now too far the other way if you used all three expansions. This expansion was a bit simpler as well, because there’s just one thing going on, and only a few icons to remember. It also forces everyone to interact with it, in one way or another, so there’s much more incentive. And it does that without wasting turns, since you just ‘add on’ to a card you’re already playing – I wonder how much more I would have liked Babel if it had used this mechanism for playing tiles instead. This was a great little addition, and one that would be very easy to add to even a game with beginners. This is even easier to integrate than Cities.

Other Thoughts

I should mention the components are great, although getting them into the base game box is a bit of a hassle – I think I might actually keep the Babel box, especially since I don’t plan on pulling the Tower of Babel out very often. The Tower definitely looks really, really good, as do the Great Projects and all the new tokens for it – however, the Great Project cards are way too freaking big, and even oversized Magic cards sleeves won’t fit them, and they’re really flimsy. I would have either preferred cardboard tiles or smaller cards. The expansion also costs almost as much as the base game ($40 vs. $50 MSRP), largely because of the Babel tiles and board, but also the many tokens that are used for Great Projects. I kind of wish they’d split them into two boxes, as it’s hard to recommend the whole package – I really like Great Projects, but I’m not sure it’s worth that much money. But hey, if you’re looking for a nastier 7 Wonders, maybe you’ll love the whole thing. I’m not looking for that, though.

 

dixitboxDixit: Daydreams

This is just a pack of 84 more cards for Dixit, so there isn’t too much to say here. These are done by a new artist, Franck Dion, and they are really, really engaging pictures, more in line with the original artist Marie Cardouat, than Dixit Journey‘s Xavier Collette. However, when we played with just these cards, it was one of the ‘worst’ games of Dixit we’ve ever played. By that I mean, no matter how clever we tried to be, our turns almost always ended up with everyone guessing the answer or no one guessing it. And to be clear, we’ve played dozens of times, so it wasn’t lack of experience. It seems like these cards are somehow missing those tiny interconnected details that make it difficult to pick one over the other – that, or we’ve just gotten stupid with age and can’t play the game well anymore. If you’re feeling burnt out on the game, I don’t think this will push it back up for you, but I’m always happy to have more cards and love bringing this game out with new gamers. I wouldn’t play with these cards by themselves again, though.

Review: Colt Express

coltexpressboxIn my recap of Gen Con 2014, I mentioned that one of the coolest games I played there was Colt Express from publishers ludonaute and Asmodee and designer Christophe Raimbault. The board is an actual 3D train!, with players as bandits robbing the train and shooting each other. A great gimmick for a game, but is the game as fun as it looks? 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?

 

coltexpresscomponentsComponents: Well, let’s start off by talking about that awesome 3D Train. It looks really cool on the table, and they even included some decorations to go around the train (cacti, etc.) on the punchboard, which is awesome. The meeples themselves are great, and the cardboard money tokens are okay. Cards seem to be decent cardstock. I do have some complaints, however.

The train takes about an hour to assemble (!), and felt somewhat cheap. I know they wanted to keep the MSRP low ($40 – impressive!), but the cardboard pieces are very flimsy, and I almost bent one of them while assembling without even trying. I just assumed in my head the game was made in China while I was putting it together, although it turns out it was made in Germany. Once it’s all together, the pieces haven’t fallen apart or anything (although the little ‘brace’ piece on the boxcars keeps falling out), but it’s a bit awkward to use, since the meeples often move from the top of the trains to the bottom, and there isn’t much space for my fat fingers. So, while it looks really cool, and the game’s at a great price, I can’t help but think a flat board with a side-view of the train would have been better.

 

Accessibility: This game relies on a programming mechanic similar to Robo Rally or Lords of Xidit, but it’s not easily explained to casual gamers. However, I found that if we just played a practice round with people just randomly throwing cards down, it suddenly clicked and made much more sense. I also think the basic card-drawing rules are just fine, and the expert variant is too convoluted and unnecessary. The target audience for this game, is, I think, casual gamers, and the game isn’t too hard to figure out once you have person who understands it (which might be the difficult part) explaining it to everyone else. Of course, people will inevitably forget things during the game, like the fact that punches move you a space, but that’s actually what makes the game fun. It’s also worth mentioning here that the two-player game is horribly convoluted and not worth it at all.

 

Depth: And the fact that the game’s fun is dependent on the game going horribly wrong is sort of a double-edged sword here. It can be quite funny when plans go awry, but also quite frustrating. One thing I do really like about this game over other programming games is that the programming moves often give you a choice (like move left OR right), that you don’t decide until the card comes up – so you can somewhat adjust your plans on the fly. However, this is a very chaotic experience, even with three players, and the game is much more about enjoying the experience than it is about actually developing a plan.

 

Theme: This is where the game scores just about all of its points. You are quite literally playing as a character, doing things that (s)he would do – shooting and punching opponents, stealing loot, racing around the train and avoiding the marshal. The tactile element of physically moving around and doing those things is really strong. Even if the programming mechanism doesn’t quite fit, it allows for mechanisms that do make thematic sense – like getting wounded from gunshots by adding junk to your deck, and playing cards face-down while in tunnels. This is about the most thematic Wild West board game I’ve ever played.

 

Fun: I do think this game delivers a lot of laughs, but it’s not a game where you can plan much – you’re mostly just watching things happen, and just about all the time you spent thinking about your moves was a waste. This is another game that tries to stride the line between party game and strategy game, like La Boca, The Resistance or Skull & Roses – but this game feels much more chaotic and random than those. The game is good, solid, just not fantastic, which I’ve kind of realized lately is how most games are. I don’t know what it takes to have that spark of absolute greatness like Dominion and Ticket to Ride have, but it’s not here.

 

Colt Express looks great on the table and delivers a lot of chaos-fueled laughter, but don’t expect a very deep experience.

 

Rating

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Artificium

Asmodee isartificium_eng_box_14_die_ continuing its plot to slowly overtake the world, not only by buying Days of Wonder, but also by branching out to Russian publishing partners such as Hobby World, and now, Lifestyle Boardgames Ltd. The fruit of this partnership is Artificium from designer (and artist!) Timofey Shargorodskiy, which won a Russian game design contest called KORNI. In Artificium, players are medieval rulers (?) who are, essentially, converting resources to other resources and getting victory points for doing so. That doesn’t sound like anything new, but does Artificium rise above 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?

 

 

artificiumcomponentsComponents: I was really impressed with the components for this game. First off, there’s very few, which makes me happy – that means quick setup and tear-down. There’s over 100 cards, a player board for each player, the VP track the rulebook (with a nice glossary of the cards on the back), and some multi-purpose coin tokens. That’s it! The cardstock is really good – I don’t know what to call it, but the cards shuffle really well and feel really smooth while being thick, but not too thick. Quite impressive after the terrible cards I just opened for Machi Koro and Evolution. I’m waiting to hear on the MSRP, but really, not much to say here – everything is great! I guess if I had a complaint, it’s that the card wells are too shallow to fit them all, so I had to place some in the central well under the tokens.

 

Accessibility: This is one of those games that seems like it’s mostly played in your head, because you’re basically just playing cards so that you can move tokens around on your player board and score points for doing it. The player board is essentially a flow chart of what resources convert to what others (given that you have the card to do it), and a buy/sell price for all of the resources. Turns simply involve simultaneously revealing a card that either does a special action, or does some sort of resource conversion and grants victory points when it’s resolved. There are “top” cards (a knight and a wizard) that take tons of resources and don’t give any resources back but instead give a ton of points and a special effect. The game is four rounds of just trying to play cards as efficiently as possible. There are some other things to it, such as exchanging cards in the market, but it’s all really simple. The players I taught it to caught on right away, and my explanation probably wasn’t more than five minutes. I would say this could even be a gateway-level game, except for the amount of abstraction going on.

 

Depth: This is first and foremost a card game, and there’s a lot of pseudo-simultaneous play – it’s quick, and is probably always 30-45 minutes (rulebook says 20-50). It reminds me of 7 Wonders in that sense. But the gameplay isn’t so much about engine-building or development of a big tableau of cards, as it is walking the tightrope of cashing in your resources as efficiently as possible without getting stuck. The feel of it actually reminds me of the excellent game Targi, even though the games aren’t all that similar.

The game has both direct and indirect interaction. Each turn, you can exchange cards at the market before the card play begins, and you want to keep a close eye both on what you’d like to have and what your opponents take and give. There are also two quite mean action cards that steal resources and cards. These can be recovered from, but they’re quite dangerous if they hit you in the last round. They also become more chaotic and annoying with higher player counts – I actually think the game is best with 2, because it feels more like a proper duel, and I can actually keep an eye on what my opponent is doing, and there’s none of that king-making aspect with the action cards. While I think it gets a little weaker with every player added, it’s still quick and easy while having some interesting decisions regardless of player count.

Although the game is less chaotic at those low player counts, there’s still a healthy dose of luck here with the card draw. There were surely some interesting decisions to be made, and you had to alter your plans if an opponent came around with an action card or snagged something from the market before you. But the times when I lost – for example, I lost one game by being exactly one coin off of triggering a knight on the final turn – I couldn’t think of a moment where I thought back and felt that I’d made a decision that could have been different and it cost me. It felt like I was making the moves that seemed to be clearly the best and then my luck ran out. I suppose that’s the nature of card games – but the cleverest ones at least hide that fact and make you feel like losing is your own fault in some sense.

 

Theme: The game has a very loose medieval theme, but let’s be honest, this is about moving tokens on a flow chart. I do think the artwork is very nice and clean, although maybe a bit generic.  But on the other hand, the iconography is really clear and so is the game flow, so I can’t fault it too much. This is basically a card game for Eurogamers, who are probably okay with the lack of an immersive theme. And the theme that’s there is definitely better than no theme at all, in my book – but it does little to elevate the game.

 

Fun: I liked my plays of Artificium, and I’ll gladly play it again. But it doesn’t have that ineffable something, that pizzazz that makes you go right back to it. The game is quick enough to play two in a row, but we didn’t really ever want to play a 2nd game straight. This game is quick and easy and fits in that category of things like Splendor or Rise of Augustus, but those games have that potato-chip quality (as W. Eric Martin put it) where you just want to play again and again. Artificium is streamlined, quick, fun, really good – just not amazing.

 

Eurogamers out there who would love to see a quick card game version of resource management will enjoy Artificium, and it’s definitely worth a look for anyone who thinks it sounds interesting.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

Review: Lords of Xidit

xiditboxAlmost ten years ago, Regis Bonnessee’s Himalaya was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. Since then, his company Libellud has become a great success thanks largely to Spiel des Jahres winner, Dixit, and his own recent design, Seasons. Himalaya has now been re-imagined in the Seasons universe as Lords of Xidit. We’re now recruiting wizards and archers to eliminate threats instead of yaks and… whatever else was in Himalaya. Does a fresh coat of paint on ten-year-old mechanisms make for a game that survives in 2014? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

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

 

Components: Wow. Just wow. If you’ve played Seasons, you know expectations are high when it comes to Libellud, but I was still truly impressed. Despite the somewhat standard $60 MSRP, there is an insane amount of stuff in this box, and it’s all beautiful. There are almost 150 small plastic miniatures in a variety of colors, a beautiful large game board, five fancy programming boards, and a ton of cardboard tokens. All of the iconography is clear and the artwork on the board really does invoke the adventuring theme. Just look at that box art, too. There’s no player aids, but I don’t really think you need them, as there are a lot of reminders right there on the central board. There’s no box insert, but I don’t know how you’d fit one anyway, and there are plenty of included plastic bags. These components are truly outstanding – some of the best I’ve ever seen. The only complaint I might have is that there’s just so many, that setup and tear-down take a while (and you have to do a fair amount of maintenance during the game).

xiditcomponentsAccessibility: On a fundamental level, what you’re doing in Lords of Xidit is pretty simple. You’re simply walking around to cities and recruiting adventurers there to take them to other places where the threats are. You do this by programming six actions each turn, and you’ll definitely spend a few turns in your first game having your plans foiled by not considering the other players or planning ahead for the upcoming threats and recruitment tiles. The actual concept isn’t hard to grok, though. The scoring mechanism for the game is rather unique: There are three different categories to score, and they’re scored in a random order each game. During each scoring, the remaining player with the lowest score in that category is eliminated. This makes for some unique decisions to consider during the game when different tiles give you rewards, but the process is easy to understand if it is unique.

What’s actually the most difficult part of the game is the maintenance that you must do during the various steps of the game. I had to reread the sections on resetting the stacks of recruitment and threat tiles and the Awakening of the Titans four or five times, and I’m still not sure I’m always doing it right. It’s a bit of a pain in the neck, to be honest. If you have a player who understands that fully and can take care of it, though, then it’s not really a burden for everyone else.

Depth: There’s a lot to consider within this game, yet it doesn’t feel as deep as it should. The scoring mechanism is at the heart of everything, yet I feel like it doesn’t really amount to anything other than just trying to remember who’s got what behind their screen or in the Bastion and making sure you’re not last in anything. Deciding which reward to get is a relatively simple decision. And accomplishing threats is so difficult that I can’t ever see players trying to aim for any threat other than what seems doable, and then from there making a fairly straightforward decision about which reward to take. Add the fact that sorcerers’ guilds built and bard tokens placed are open information (except for the Bastion) and the decisions become even less interesting.

What’s trickier is programming around the other players and anticipating their moves. You can certainly do clever things like using the Wait action to trick another player into getting the first adventurer when they planned on getting the second one after you took the first. However, overall the game seems a lot of work for very little reward. You spend a lot of time just walking around, so that you can have the adventurers to get, say, two gold, and then at the end you just check who had the least of each thing. On top of this, many turns are spent being frustrated with plans gone awry and walking around doing nothing. A game with mechanisms this unexciting shouldn’t take 75-100 minutes.

Theme: When I taught this game, I sold it as a take on Lords of Waterdeep’s theme except that you literally do the actions of recruiting the adventurers and taking them on the quests to eliminate threats. Although that’s true in some sense, the straightforwardness of the mechanisms and lack of any exciting spin – flavor text, special powers, action cards, or anything to differentiate the players – make the game feel pretty dry, arguably with even less theme than Lords of Waterdeep, which accomplishes a lot through those avenues. Lords of Xidit feels like you’re just going through the motions – very slowly. Even the wonderful art direction fails to save the dry gameplay.

Fun: I may be biased against this game simply because I tend to be very poor at programming games, but I did not feel like it provided much fun for how complicated and long the game was. So much of the game was spent simply moving around in turn, and then the payoff simply felt like “Ok, I get two of this. Now I get three of that.” There was some tension in the programming phase of planning around other players, but no aspect felt particularly exciting. There were no “YES!!” moments. The game has some fun in it, it’s just that the convoluted maintenance of the threat and recruitment tiles, as well as the fact the game really needs exactly 4 players (5 is too long, 3 requires a dummy) dampen that fun too much.

 

Players that really enjoy programming as a mechanism may find themselves a great game in Lords of Xidit, and it’s truly a gorgeous game with great components – but it’s not my kind of game.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

MeepleThon 2014 for Extra Life is underway!

MeepleThon-banner-new

The MeepleThon has begun!

Join us (virtually) this weekend for a 24-hour board gaming video stream to benefit the Extra Life charity! All proceeds go to Children’s Hospitals of America. Watch us play, join the chat, donate and help kids!

Anyone who donates at least $50 to Extra Life using our link can choose the next game we play on camera.  Check out our Geeklist of available games!

Video stream: http://twitch.tv/meeplethon
Donate now: http://tinyurl.com/meeplethon

If you want to learn more about MeepleThon and why we’re doing this, check out our MeepleThon 2014 page.

MeepleThon 2014 for Extra Life starts Saturday!

MeepleThon-banner-new

Join us (virtually) this weekend for a 24-hour board gaming video stream to benefit the Extra Life charity! All proceeds go to Children’s Hospitals of America. Watch us play, join the chat, donate and help kids!

Video stream (starts Saturday @ 8am Central): http://twitch.tv/meeplethon
Donate now: http://tinyurl.com/meeplethon

If you want to learn more about MeepleThon and why we’re doing this, check out our MeepleThon 2014 page.