Review: Sultaniya

SULTANIYA_3Dbox_FRCharles Chevallier is a name you may not recognize yet, but this year is already shaping up to be a very good one for him, with the gorgeous Abyss (co-designed by Bruno Cathala) arriving at Gen Con. This summer, Charles has had another big release, Sultaniya from Bombyx and Asmodee. Sultaniya is a game of using tiles to build a palace in an Arabian Nights setting, and it will invariably draw comparisons to Alhambra, the 2003 Spiel des Jahres winner by Dirk Henn. That’s just a loose comparison though, so what makes Sultaniya different, and more importantly, 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?


Eclate3DsultaniyaComponents: Sultaniya is an absolutely gorgeous game, which is what drew me to it in the first place. Xavier Collette has earned a real reputation as a board game artist (especially with Dixit Journey), and he doesn’t slouch at all here. It’s especially amazing how functional the tiles are while still being gorgeous, because so many pieces of the tile art are important to the gameplay, but they’re part of the art rather than just icons – and yet still clear. The plastic genies and sapphires are extremely awesome, and there’s a lot of tiles, so the $50 MSRP seems okay.

I have two complaints, though, one major and one minor. The minor one is that the box is a weird size that’s too big for my shelf. The major one is that there are no player aids, when the genie abilities are somewhat complicated. The genies (Djinns) either should have been tiles that described what they do, or there should be player aids describing what they do and their costs (it would also be nice for the player aid to list the options on a turn). I suppose you could make and print one out yourself, but that seems like a silly oversight.


Accessibility: The rules of the game are pretty clear on the basics, and the game really is quite a simple one. There are some grey areas, though. It wasn’t fully clear to me how the green genie works, and the red genie creates some weird scenarios about causing holes (and from what the designer has said, it sounds like the “no hole” rule isn’t really necessary). Probably the biggest oversight is that there is no mention of what to do if there are no suitable tiles when you build, after revealing (you take two gems as if you’d passed and end your turn). I was surprised by how often that situation actually came up in our two-player games – probably five times across two games – but maybe we suck at it.

I’m being a little harsh here, I think. As far as understanding the game in general, the pictures are nice, large and clear, and the basic mechanics and goals for winning the game are very explicitly spelled out. There are a lot of important exceptions or notes which are very clearly stated in the rulebook.

Playing the game itself is fairly straightforward. It’s easy to go through the objectives at the beginning of the game, and give everyone a clear understanding of their goals as well as everyone else’s. We felt like we knew what we were doing and had a semblance of strategy just a few turns in. Overall, I think the game is actually probably a bit easier to play than Alhambra, despite those little nuances.


Depth: This game is more subtle than it seems from reading the rules. On the surface, it seems like you’re just looking for the icons you need and playing a bit of a solitaire game and then seeing who did better, without much to consider. However, the way tiles are revealed (or not!) gives the game a nice push-your-luck aspect, more than we realized at first, as we got stuck several times as mentioned above. However, this gave us more of an incentive to use the genies, especially the yellow one which lets you look through the piles. The piles actually aren’t that big, especially in a two-player game, so this proved to be a really powerful thing to do – both to make sure you got certain tiles and to know how many to reveal on future turns. The genies also helped us realize just how nasty the game can be – you can really hate-draft certain tiles (such as the minaret tops) that only show up in limited quantities. The genies can also allow for big comebacks, like when someone uses the red genie to rearrange tiles to have more points or when someone ends the game by surprise with the green genie who allows you to build twice in one turn. So there’s a lot more interaction and strategy here than you’ll see by reading the rules, although I would still say the game is on that “family game” level of Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Settlers of Catan. 

As an aside, some people complain that the “get a lot of gems” secret objective directly conflicts with the “have Djinns at the end” secret objective, and I did get dealt both of those my first game. However, you can get so many points from the Djinns goal – and using them is so powerful – that I think it’s not a big deal (and I still won that game).


Theme: Let’s talk about the art first. Xavier Collette did such a great job, not only with the functionality, but with the beauty of this game. The characters look so cool, and the names obviously inspire references to Disney’s Aladdin, although that wasn’t exactly a movie about palace-building. He really made the setting come to life!

Mechanically, though, it just feels like putting a puzzle together. There’s no logical reason for the tile stacks or the genie’s abilities or anything else. I guess it depends on whether or not you care – for me, it’s a beautiful tile-laying game, whose theme comes through strongly just by the art, and that’s okay.


Fun: I really enjoyed this game and look forward to playing more, but it’s not an instant 10/10 (although I would say it’s better than Alhambra). For some reason, the other comparison in my head has been Splendor, because that is the game this year that made me absolutely flip out with glee. I think the difference is that while in both games, you get a lot of “stuff” (tiles or cards), in Sultaniya your stuff is worth points but that’s really it, while in Splendor it’s worth points but also gives you that feeling of power. What I mean by that is, it eventually feels like “Muahaha! Look what I can do now! I can buy those expensive cards! I can buy ANYTHING!” which is an awesome feeling in games. Dominion feels the same way when your engine gets going, as does Settlers of Catan when you’re generating like five resources a turn. Sultaniya is a fun game in its own right, but I just really enjoy that feeling of growing power and for some reason feel like it should be here as well.

What Sultaniya -does- have is a good feeling of tension – am I going to be able to get the tiles I need? Is someone going to hate-draft them? Is it worth the risk to just reveal one tile, possibly not getting anything? What if I’m giving my opponents too much good stuff if I reveal three tiles? So, in that regard, placing a tile in Sultaniya does often give that feeling of relief – “Whew, I got the one I needed!” if not that feeling of power. I would say it’s a very similar feeling as in Ticket to Ride, when you squeak in that spot just before you get cut off. So it really depends on the kind of feeling you are looking for in a game.


Although it won’t ever avoid the endless comparisons to Alhambra, I think the comparison is in Sultaniya’s favor – this is a gorgeous, tense, interesting tile-laying game. If the normal “gateway game” slew of games is your gaming bread and butter, then you owe it to yourself to check this one out.




4 out of 5

Review: Madame Ching

chingBruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc have become household names among serious board gamers, and now that Bruno is a full-time game designer, they’re more prolific than ever. Most famous for Cyclades, Dice Town and the Mr. Jack series, the duo continues to put out both interesting new games (such as the Spiel des Jahres Recommended SOS Titanic) and new spins on old favorites (such as Le Fantome de l’Opera). Here in 2014, they embark on a whole new expedition (pun intended) with Madame Ching, a game about the adventures of Chinese pirates in the 1800s. How does it compare with the rest of their catalogue? 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?


madamechingboardComponents: What really attracted me to this game in the first place (other than the designers’ pedigrees) was how gorgeous the artwork is. Vincent Dutrait has proved himself time and again, and I think this game is probably the best work he’s ever done on the board game front. Not only is this game beautiful, but the iconography is very easy to understand, and the game board, while somewhat superfluous (I’ll get to that later), just makes the game so much more clear and accessible. All the right reminders and placeholders are in all the right places. Such a great job!

There’s not too much stuff in the box – some cardboard and plastic tokens, cardboard mission tiles, eight wooden ships, the game board, and a whole lot of cards. I love when a game has clean, elegant components! The $40 MSRP is a rather cheap price these days as more and more games are costing $70 or more. A+!


madamechingtilesAccessibility: This is not a very complex game at all, and most turns simply involve adding a card to your own personal line of cards (an “expedition”) and drawing a new card. Yet, I had some trouble digesting the rulebook at first, and I found a lot of small ambiguities that were not clarified in the rulebook at all (though thankfully, Bruno Cathala is very hands-on with the BGG rules forums and has answered those questions). To be fair, I was devouring the rulebook before I had the game in front of me. If you were taught this game by someone else, I doubt you’d have any questions at all, and if you did, they’d be quickly and clearly answered.

The game board does a fantastic job keeping things straight, but I do have two minor complaints about the (lack of) simplicity of the game. First, it is so weird that the coins (which are cardboard) and the gems (which are plastic) don’t do anything other than score points. I don’t understand why they’re different material, other than that some action (Encounter) cards affect gems but not coins, or why they even exist. Why not use the red VP symbol used throughout the game and put it on the Mission tiles, instead of having the gems and coins at all, since they don’t do anything but score VP? This would make the game a bit simpler to learn and lower the MSRP as well. We had some players who thought the Mission’s number was a VP number, and I think if every kind of VP in the game was just this straight up red square icon used on other cards, it’d be more clear. The Encounter cards that affect gems could easily be changed to similar effects. The only upside I see is the tactile element of “getting a bunch of stuff” when you complete a Mission and add the “loot” to your play area.

The second complaint is that the Skills, which are never shuffled and just laid in their respective piles, should have card backs that have the icon of the corresponding skill (sword, map, etc.). When you use a Skill (they’re all one-time uses), you flip it over, and this makes it very hard to keep track of who’s attained which Skills, which is very important because getting one of each nets you the China Pearl (5 points) and ends the game. You could turn the cards sideways instead, and we probably will, but they’re easily bumped among the many piles of cards. This is a simple thing to fix and I hope future print runs make the change. Clearly a lot of good work went into the board and making the game very accessible, so I was surprised to see this problem.

I’m complaining a lot here, just because I like streamlined games and rules. However, this game really isn’t very hard at all, and I would say it’s less complex than Settlers of Catan or Dominion, maybe on par with Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. Like I said above, a lot of work did go into making the game clear and functional, particularly with the extremely helpful game board.


madamechingmorenavcardsDepth: The first few turns of this game, you are going to flip a card, and draw another card, and nothing else will happen. You might think this game will be a little boring. Then, things start to click. You realize, hey, if you’d paid more attention to the cards coming up this turn, you could have went longer and gotten a better Mission tile. If you’d paid attention to your opponent’s expeditions, you’d know someone was going to snag that Navigation card you needed (turn order is decided by how high of a card you play each turn). For me personally, if I’d considered my opponent might have had the Madame Ching Encounter card, I wouldn’t have risked another turn at sea before she suddenly ended of the game!

madamechingcardsThis game has far more to think about than it seems when you first look at it. I find this game very reminiscent of Kingdom Builder, where if you don’t play it well, you’re going to think that it’s a dull game devoid of strategy or decisions. This is a game of long-term planning, and it’s about far more than adding a card to your current expedition. It’s about building an engine across your Skills and Encounter cards, so that your next expedition will be even better. It’s about grabbing that Mission tile or last Skill before someone else does. It’s about finding the right time to play that nasty Attack card. It’s got that engine-building aspect in small doses which is something I love, but it’s also got that tense, race-to-the-end feeling like Ticket to Ride does (which I also love). If the game ends and your expeditions are still out at sea, you get far fewer points for them than if you finished them, so you really have to balance the risks at the end of the game, if you think someone else might end it. All of this before even considering the Encounter cards!

Don’t misunderstand; this game is a family game with an intense amount of luck – but that doesn’t mean the decisions are uninteresting or meaningless. I actually really like the fact that one Navigation card is face-down each turn, because it should keep the AP players from taking forever, simply because you can’t card-count as much as you might want to otherwise. It also gives you that fun sense of risk or gambling when you decide to choose that card over others in the tableau.

If I had a complaint, and it’s a minor one, it’s that the Pilot cards shouldn’t be the ones that cancel attacks, because their other use is so powerful that I never actually use them to stop attacks. So there’s no efficient way of blocking the “take that!” Encounter cards and Skills, and that might be a turn off to some. That kind of confrontational interaction is somewhat bolted onto the rest of the mechanisms, which are mostly classical Euro-style in their indirect interaction.

I should also mention that the two-player game is very different – each player controls two expeditions from one hand of five cards, and can decide which of the two cards they reveal each turn goes on which expedition. This is an intensely more strategic game than with three or four players, because you can do cleverer things, like “sacrifice” one expedition for the sake of making the other one very long, and so on. The rules are a bit wonky if you start with the two-player game, but it’s probably the best version of the game. My only complaint about the two-player game is that it seems like sometimes we had too many Encounter cards, and it became hard to track everything.


madamechingnavcardsTheme: First, let’s talk about the good things. Chinese pirates is a totally new theme to me, a unique spin on the somewhat over-used pirate theme (usually Caribbean pirates). The artwork is amazing, evocative, and has all those nice little extras that make a game fun to just look at: for example, the cards of the same color in sequence form a panorama.

However, halfway through our second game, my wife asked me “What are we supposed to be doing?”. Although the rulebook describes broadly what the Missions are supposed to be, let’s be honest: this game is a pile of numbers, colors, and icons. It’s a beautiful game of numbers, colors, and icons – but the theme doesn’t come through past the artwork. For me, I don’t mind that, and I’d prefer a chromed-up game of numbers and colors over a heavily themed game too clunky to enjoy.


Fun: I’m surprised by the low reception of this game that I’ve seen so far, and I think it’s partially due to the wrong expectations. This is a hand management game – a light card game – not an involved board game like Cyclades, Shadows over Camelot or even Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. In fact, the board isn’t even necessary to play, as the rules could have said “when you end a mission, take the highest Mission tile below the number of cards in your expedition multiplied by the number of colors.” Obviously, that’s a ridiculous rule, but that’s the math behind the numbers on the board (and there’s a reminder about it in the rulebook in case you mess up). The point is that the board in this game is a very helpful placeholder for a quick card game – although our games have been much closer to 45 minutes than 30 (the box says 30-45). It’s not really a “board” in the traditional sense of a “board game”. You might say “Why is this game $40 then?” For the same reason King of Tokyo is – because all of that chrome costs money, and it makes the game that much more fun to play.

Once you have that understanding and attitude for the game, I think you’ll know if it’s for you, and appreciate it more if it is. My wife said the game reminded her of a mix between the Keltis / Lost Cities series (because you play colored, numbered cards in order) and Lords of Waterdeep (because the Encounter cards reminded her of Intrigue cards). I do think this feels like a classic Knizia shell with the not-so-secret Cathala spice on top (special action cards!). I think that’s a good way to estimate whether it’s a game for you – we love the Keltis series, and this feels like games of that genre, with the chrome and flavor Cathala and Maublanc are known for. I almost always think simpler is better, so it’s refreshing for me to see them whittle down what makes their games great, while removing some of the chaff that makes past efforts somewhat clunky. I can think of very few minor rules or exceptions in this game, and the ones that exist are rather intuitive. This is a streamlined, fast, fun family game that we’re excited to play again. My only reservation would be that some of the “take that” aspects of the game might turn off Euro-style gamers who would otherwise really enjoy it, but no cards are particularly brutal.


With Madame Ching, experienced designers Cathala and Maublanc make their most successful foray yet into the world of short, streamlined family or “gateway” games. Easy rules, subtle depth that rewards repeated plays, and a stunning presentation make this one of the best offerings yet in 2014. I fully expect to see this at least on the Recommended List for the Spiel des Jahres next year.




4 out of 5

Game Designer Interview: Ludovic Maublanc

ludovicSomewhere along the way, American gamers seemed to have forgotten to mention Ludovic Maublanc in their worship sessions of awesome designers Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala. Ludovic is the other half of the Cyclades, Dice Town, and Mr. Jack series of games, as well as co-designer of Rampage (now Terror in Meeple City) and the sole mastermind of Ca$h ‘n Gun$. Ludovic was kind of enough to answer some questions about hist recent games as well as some that are due out soon – and he’ll be at Gen Con as well. Thanks, Ludovic!



Tell us a bit about yourself – your day job, how you got into gaming, your favorite games, how you got into design…

When I do not create games, I work in a large toy store . I’ve always played, it seems to me … a lot of roleplay during my teenage years, then I came back to the game board in 1995 with The Settlers of Catan. The games I play the most are those adapted online and on iPad. I play a lot to Through The Ages, Kingdom Builder, Small World and Carcassonne. When we play games with varied people, we almost always play new games, games of any type and prototypes. As I used to play role-playing games and write my own scripts, it seemed natural for me to create my own games when I went back to boardgaming.


You, Bruno Cathala, Serge Laget, Antoine Bauza, and Bruno Faidutti seemed to have formed some sort of French Game Designer Coalition – you’re always working together in various pairs. Gamers have taken notice of some of the signatures that set each of you apart (Faidutti’s love for character cards, for example)… What is unique about your involvement? Do you think that you have any trademarks?

I create all kinds of games, big games as Cyclades, reflections as in Mr. Jack or less serious things like Ca$h ‘n Gun$ … Actually, I make games that I would feel like playing. If I had a “brand” that would be to try to bring elements into my games that are not found elsewhere as guns in Ca$h ‘n Gun$, 3D buildings in Rampage


Recently, The Dice Tower talked about their top 10 designers, and Zee Garcia said that Bruno Cathala’s appeal is that he can also design many games on his own. Likewise, Faidutti and Bauza have had big successes like 7 Wonders and Citadels. Do you feel any pressure to put out notable games on your own, or do you feel like Ca$h ‘n Gun$ was proof enough that you could do it?

Even if it would be a pleasure for me to be in this list, it is not a goal for me. I make games for fun and it is an activity that is more pleasing with friends!


operaLast time we talked, we were discussing Mr. Jack Pocket among other things. Since then, it seems like that version of the system has grown up again, into Le Fantome de l’Opera. Why the change of setting, and how do you feel about the many different versions of the game now? Do you think the new mechanisms (such as the hexless movement system) are an improvement? To me, it feels like Le Fantome de l’Opera is the ultimate, refined, best version of the system – but should we expect more to come?

There is no predefined plan for Mr. Jack’s trend. It turns out that Bruno had the basic idea of Mr. Jack Pocket and we just worked on it … then we wanted to rediscover the simplicity of the Pocket version, closer to the initial game, richer and less risky . It is true that we can say that the Phantom is the refined version of the base of the game as the NY version is the Hard Core version. Again, this is not a purpose, but a reflection of our desire. At the time of NY we played a lot to Mr. Jack and we wanted a harder game. Today we want a game which is simple to explain and offers immediate pleasure. And it was this desire that gave birth to the ghost.


rampageboxRampage was such a huge success this year – easily my favorite game of 2013. How did you and Antoine even get this idea? How did you refine the gameplay of something so crazy – for example, how did you decide rules like “the player cannot inhale for blowing until his chin is on the monster”? How did you decide the dimensions of the components? These are not game rules you are normally thinking about!

The original idea comes from Antoine, he thought it would be fun to play monsters destroying the city and eating poor Meeples wooden pawns . We then had to find a fun game around it . We found some stuff immediately, like the breath … But the first version of the game was still fairly tactical … Then we let the project rest for some time to complete another game (Dungeon Naheulbeuk , based on a French Franchise , let’s say that the game is a mix between a Party and a Dungeon Crawler game) . Then when we were back on the idea of monsters, the image of the buildings built by a stack of Meeples imposed itself and the rest of the game flowed naturally. Of course it took a lot of testing to make it all fluid. For breath, for example, we realized that if a player inhaled and then put his chin on the monster and blew, it gave a too powerful blast . We then realized that blowing in a bended manner gave less power and allowed buildings to resist better. Once the game was signed by Repos Production, we still had to work on the material aspect of the game and had to reduce the number of Meeples to lower the cost of production, and therefore review the form of our buildings. We also had to study different ways to make the game board, modular or not … how to keep the foundations of buildings, how to fix different parts of the board, etc. These are things we don’t think about in a classic boardgame, but that’s what was exciting to do in Rampage.


sos titanicAnother great game of 2013 (a very good year for you!) is SOS Titanic. What were the design goals for this game? What made you think of Solitaire/Klondike/Patience as a game to improve upon? How did you pick the theme? Were you worried that people would find the theme distasteful?

For this game, it was Bruno who came up with the idea. He already had the idea of taking the basic principle of the solitary and the theme of the rescue of the Titanic which accorded well with the mechanics of the game, where the cards are sorted in order to discard them in a certain way. It led to the idea of putting passengers into lifeboats. The development of the game consisted mainly of introducing characters and their powers to players so that everyone could play slightly differently, which is important in a cooperative game. We introduced special cards that bring new opportunities during the game which can lead to discussion between players. The theme has never been a problem for me since the aim of the game is very positive: saving people.


cyranoAn older game I can’t help but ask about is Cyrano, co-designed with Angèle. What in the world made you decide to make a game about poetry? Does it take a certain kind of player to enjoy (or even play) this game?

I had a period at the beginning of my “career” where I wanted to make games on all the subjects which came in my mind. It was during this period that I created “Monstro’Folies” , a game where monsters are created in clay and even Ca$h ‘n Gun$ and its guns. Then I told myself I would love to make a game where players write poems. I had in mind the typical picture of the man in front of the balcony of his beloved. Each poem allows the author to go more or less quickly to the balcony of his beloved … It seemed like a good idea for a game … Only I did not know how to turn the poem into “points” to move the player character . The idea came to me several years later by a single blow. I then tried it this way and it worked the first time! It only remained to refine the game , find rhymes and themes and this is where Angèle , my partner at the time, intervened. She had helped me a lot in some games and this time, I thought she deserved the title of co-designer … even if she did not want it. I introduced the game to my friends of Repos Production and a memorable game at Bruno Faidutti’s Ludopathiques convinced them of the potential of the game. We knew that this kind of game cannot really be played by everyone. Some players get stuck with the idea of having to write … But I assure you that those who overcome this have a great time! Because if you look closely to the game, technically, you just have to find four original words which end with a certain syllable … the rest of the text is just something to make one’s friends laugh … everyone can play Cyrano with a little vocabulary.


Can you give us a summary of Desperados of Dice Town?

Desperados of Dice Town is a new game in the world of Dice Town. This is not an extension but a standalone game for 2-4 players. Each player must free his gang of Desperados currently in prison. To do this, players launch one after another 4 dice which represent your henchmen. There are several types: leader, bad girl, ugly…. When your Desperado is released, he can attack other players who have not released the desperado of this type. Each attack makes the targeted player lose money… The aim is to release your 5 Desperados AND be the richest around the table … You can also win by eliminating all other players because a player leaves the game when he is bankrupt!


Can you tell us a bit about Cyclades: Titans?

Cyclades: Titans will be an extension which can be played by 6 players. It will introduce new game elements that can be used from 3 to 6 players. As in the Hades extension, each new element will be presented in a module that can be added or not to the basic rules. There will be a new game board that will change the habits of many players. A new god Kronos, who lands in with his Titans and brings a lot of movement in the archipelago. There will also be powerful holy relics and new types of Metropolis! All these elements were thought to boost the game and make it even more tense and nervous!


cashWhat’s new with Ca$h ‘n Gun$ second edition? What are the reasons for the changes?

After 10 years of life, the publisher wanted a new look for the game. Repos Production then asked me if I could find out new rules for the game. So I worked on my game again but with 10 years of experience…And I told myself: ! there’s work to do!! My first task was to simplify the game by withdrawing the rules I systematically had to explain several times… No more BANG! BANG! BANG!, no more hidden powers! As such, everything that seemed dispensable like shame points and the Cop version has been removed. By removing materials, I hoped to gain some place to add more guns because it is funnier to play with several players! It was effective and the game now allows up to 8 players. I took advantage of the remake of the game to add a new sharing method which I was saving for an extension. But the publishers and testers liked this version so much that it became the new sharing method of the original game! The few modifications I wanted to bring to the game finally turned into a full remake of the game! Today, it is much easier to explain, more dynamic and for sure, a little nastier too!


chingCan you tell us about the history and gameplay of Madame Ching? It originally had a different theme, right? Who is this game for and what makes it exciting?

Indeed, Madame Ching is a game that had multiple looks… But the main theme of the game has always been travelling. In this game, players make a succession of travels, farther and shorter, more rewarding and less. The first version of the game took place in Cyclades’ universe; we played some heroes who went on a quest. But this version did not satisfy us without really knowing why…So we let the game aside for a year!

Then, during a journey at Bruno Cathala’s house, we decided to work on the game again. To look at the game with a new eye, we decided to change the theme. Players were now space travelers who had to take earth settlers to faraway planets. This change helped us to understand what was wrong with the game and we quite quickly managed to do a version which as satisfying for us.

The testers then made us notice that the space theme did not fit with such a family game way of playing. As we wanted to keep the travelling theme, we thought about Marco Polo. It allowed us to have a pretty look for the game and to help modify the game, which was used to turn the travels’ scoring values into an actual central game platform. The last change of theme occurred after we signed at Hurrican and as we wanted to keep an exotic side for the game, we chose the theme of Chinese pirates. Whatever the look, the original idea remained the same: the players have to manage their cards to realize the best travel as possible. The secret being not to focus on the current travel but to gather cards for your future travels in a way to score more. Of course, like in all travels, we have unexpected meetings and we have to adapt. Madame Ching is a simple family game but we can find many hidden elements which can please hardcore players too.


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

I read much less than before, but I can never resist to the last Pratchett or to a new volume of GoT. I’m fond of series; my favorite remains The Big Bang Theory. I realize that the game I play most regularly is Ultrastar (Singstar PC version). I also like to play with friends on the WiiU. Yet I’m not very fond of video games … Gaming alone in front of the screen does not really interest me. But I just got an arcade machine with 3000 games, I’m catching up in this area … I finally played the old video game RAMPAGE!


Anything else you’d like to add (or any topic I forgot)?

Hey, everyone does his job, it’s not mine to ask questions : p


Thanks to Ludovic! Madame Ching arrives July 23rd in the U.S. and we’ll have a review soon! Make sure to check out Ca$h ‘n Gun$ second edition at Gen Con as well.

Game Designer Interview: Marc André

MARCThe gaming world is absolutely abuzz with talk of Space Cowboys’ debut game Splendor from designer Marc André. It was recently nominated for the Spiel des Jahres and is considered the front-runner for the win. It’s no surprise, as the game is utterly fantastic – check out our review here. Now Marc answers our burning questions about the game as well! Thanks so much to François Doucet at Space Cowboys for doing the translation of Marc’s answers!


Tell us a bit about yourself – your day job, your history with gaming, other hobbies and interests, etc. 

I was born in a family where gaming was very important and bound us together. My father made me play chess at a very young age, as he was president of the local club. As a teenager, I was very much into roleplaying games. As a Economics major, I mainly worked in trade. Buy, sell and make money out of stocks was kind of a global strategy game for me and I loved it. However, it was also very time-consuming so I gave up that kind of work and decided to focus on my family life.


splendorboxCan you tell us a bit about the origin of Splendor? It seems to be a very carefully designed, classical game. You mentioned in an old interview you design games by tweaking old games and putting restrictions on yourself. Is this part of how Splendor came about?

Splendor is based upon a mathematical frame, that’s why it seems so “classic” and regulated.

Deconstructing a game then reconstructing it in a totally different way was and still is  an essential part of my way of designing a game.

But I’m not a beginner anymore, although I keep on learning! So, Splendor has no direct link with any other game.


How did Splendor end up with Space Cowboys – did this come from Sébastian Pauchon at GameWorks  publishing your other game Bonbons?

It was not through Sébastien. Actually, I met Croc at a festival in March 2012. Croc worked for Asmodee at the time, and the game was developed there first. The people who worked on it (Croc and Philippe, under Marc Nunés’ direction) decided to leave Asmodee and create Space Cowboys. They took the game with them, which was fine with me. I don’t care much about the logo on the box. What matters is  people involved with the game are the same from beginning to end (the commercialization).


Space Cowboys is a brand new company with lofty goals. Was there any kind of unique pressure for this game to be especially good, since it was their first product?

I guess there was for them! My only concern was a bit different: initially, people thought of  Space Cowboys as a new society with experienced people doing games for the “core players”, while Splendor is, as you know, a family game for everyone! But it turned out very well.


Along with the previous question, how was the theme decided? Was there concern that this theme is too common, or is that exactly why it was chosen?

Splendor is an abstract mechanical game and my prototype didn’t have any theme. Finding the right one was one of the toughest and most time-consuming part of the design process for the team.


Were you surprised by the Spiel des Jahres nomination? (I wasn’t!) What do you think of your chances? 

The initial reactions were very good. Both from people at conventions and members of the hobby as a whole. So, I can’t say it was a complete surprise, but it was very, very good news! I’m so proud and happy to go to Berlin. To me, the nomination itself is a real award ! So, I won’t bet, but fingers crossed!


Did you have a hand in the final rules-writing? Many French and Swiss games have very poor English translations, but Splendor is one of the best rulebooks I’ve ever read – I knew how to play before even having the game in front of me. Who can I thank for that?

There were some modifications from the initial design. Croc was in charge and I trusted him fully. I don’t know how the translation was done, but be thankful I wasn’t involved !

(François : We send our texts to a translation team in Canada. Then we revise their work in order to keep the “feel” of the original rules)


As a mathematician, I’m interested in that side of development. How did you decide the numbers for the cards, both points and costs? I’ve noticed some asymmetrical costs, and I was a bit surprised by the difficult-to-grab cards in the middle row that require five or six of the same color as the card!

Splendor is based on the availability (or lack) of tokens, balanced with the permanent bonuses on the cards you buy. The five different resources combined with the actions you use to get tokens (and the restrictions I put on them!) allowed me to create a variety of cards with many varied costs. The more tokens of a specific color a card needs, the harder it is to buy. The harder it is to buy, the more prestige points you get.

As all cards give you one bonus token and only one, you face the perpetual Splendor dilemma : buy high value card now, which will take some time, or build your engine to get these cards cheaper… which takes time too!


In our experience in 2-3 player games, only one or at most two cards are bought from the top row, meaning you are stuck with the cards laid at the beginning of the game if you want to buy a Row 3 card. Does this sound accurate to you? Is that an intentional part of the design?

In the first games, cards should be bought in a pyramidal way. More Level 1 cards than Level 2 ones, and a few Level 3 at the end of the game. But this is not the only viable strategy.

We’ve been quite surprised in the tournaments played in France, as some people win games with very few cards, and almost no Level 1 cards ! They don’t really build an engine and go for the big points in the last row, being very aggressive with the reservations of cards and acquisition of tokens.



Some very small rules make a big impact on the game – such as the fact that you can only take 2 gems of the same color if there are 4 or more sitting there already, and you cannot have more than 10 gems. How did these rules come about? Were they just things required to make the central mechanism keep from breaking, or were they introduced to make the game more interesting?

As many authors, I can play a few turns of a game in my mind, even if there is no actual prototype yet. This helps me a lot with the design process.

I created the Splendor rules in this way, before designing cards. The values and costs of the cards were thoroughly tested and revised, and the prototype was a very evolving one !

Therefore, the rules and restrictions of Splendor are necessary to the game, as a whole. You can’t subtract anything while keeping the balance (and interest!) of the game.


Along the same lines, do you feel like the ruleset is as simple as it can possibly be while remaining an interesting game? Was this a goal of yours and of Space Cowboys?

The ruleset is exactly like the game I presented them: streamlined and easy to learn.


Several reviewers (including me) have said the game feels like a 90’s Knizia game. Who are some of your favorite other designers?

Here are the games which inspired me: Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. I studied them very carefully, as each of them is a perfect example of a modern family game.

They all combine fluidity and simplicity. That’s why the golden rule – One action (out of four) in your turn – became obvious.


splendorgameAnother important aspect of game development is of course the component design. To what extent do you think artwork and components affect the enjoyment of a game, and to what extent does a game exist independent of its components? (Certainly the chunky gem pieces are huge part of Splendor’s appeal!)

It’s a very important part of my creative process. More than art, ergonomy matters as it helps the instant understanding of a game. And editors are sensitive to this aspect too.
We could have used cards for resources, but I wanted something very different from the development cards. The big tokens came to mind because you needed to handle and pile them up the whole game. My first prototype used the golden tokens of a Serengeti game.


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

I’m currently reading The Sword of Truth, a Terry Goodkind series of fantasy books and it’s great. When I don’t play with my own games or prototypes, I play Love Letter with my wife and son.


What’s next for you in game design? (Splendor expansions?)
My next game will be Terra Nostra (maybe not the final name !), edited by Matagot.  It’s a game of placement with moves and blocks. No randomness in it, with a smooth gameplay (one action per round), I think it’s a “family plus” game, as we say.
No extensions on the line for Splendor. Still, I created a kind of “follow up” to Splendor, tentatively named The Crown, which uses the same mechanic, with more actions and options, and a much more present theme. To be continued…


Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for the interview. And thanks to François who translated your questions and my answers.

Review: Unita

unitaboxUnita is the third game by Helvetia games, all set in their fictional fantasy world centered around Switzerland (Helvetia). Designed by Steve Brück and distributed in the U.S. by Asmodee, Unita is, ostensibly, a game of warfare, but the units are represented by big ol’ custom dice. How does that work, exactly? 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?


unitaboardComponents: I love when components are minimalist, but still have finesse, and that’s exactly what you get here. The box has the rulebook, a start player marker, the game board, three terrain tiles and three cards for each faction, and then 64 rather large custom dice (the box advertises 20mm). I don’t really like the painting style on the cover, which is also used to represent the factions on the edge of the game board, but the central play area on the game board is just beautiful. It can be a bit busy once all the dice are on the board, but it’s still very pretty. The cards and tiles again use the painting style of the cover, but have very clear iconography which is also explained in the rulebook. The dice are indeed huge, but otherwise, seem pretty normal – they have some blank sides, one side with the faction symbol, and the rest with pips that represent health points. One odd choice is that for three of the factions, red pips represent the starting health of the unit, but one faction has red dice, so the pips are white instead – not sure why they used red dice in this case. For a $50 MSRP game, you get your dollar’s worth in components – even though it doesn’t look like a lot of different components, that’s a lot of freakin’ dice!


Accessibility: This is a very simple game to understand, but it is unfortunately marred by a subpar rulebook. I was able to piece it together, but it’s clearly a rulebook that was directly translated from another language (French?), and then wasn’t read through by a native English speaker who hadn’t played the game before. It seems so simple to fix this just by putting the component pictures and rules up on BGG before the game is out and “crowdsourcing” the issues.

Anyway, the rules are so simple that it wasn’t too much of an issue. Basically, you take your sixteen dice and split them into four “companies” of four dice each and places them on the starting spaces. (either everyone does this at once in the Family version, or you have a Deployment phase in the Gamer version where do you it one die at a time). What’s unique is that your units follow a certain twisting path to the center of the board (a gate where companies exist), and your opponents never cross your path, going along their own. Battles happen when you brush up against another player’s company on an adjacent path – the goal of the game is to have the most life points left on your units when the game is over (which is when everyone has left the gate). Additionally, each team has three cards they can play only one of during the game, and three terrain tiles, placed face-down, that they can use when they land on the appropriate spaces.

It took us a turn or two of just moving around to figure out what was going on, but after the first battle, you get the idea pretty quick. It’s fairly intuitive that when you brush up against another opponent, the two units that face off are simply competing by comparing the pips (life points) on their dice, but what really throws a kink in things is that after a battle, on both teams, the dice that fought go to the rear and the other two dice go to that side where the fighting was. This can lead to some clever plays, but it’s difficult to wrap your head around at first.

One last weird thing to note: you don’t even roll the dice, except for setup! That took some getting used to as well.


Depth: At its core, this is an abstract strategy game with very little hidden information and no luck. The only thing you don’t know is the which of your opponent’s terrain tiles is which, although you know what three they have. That means there is a ton of front-loaded strategy in this game, and you can in theory plan out your entire game plan from the beginning. For me, that’s just too much. I like when a game balances strategy and tactics, where some sort of random element keeps you from having to plan too far ahead. For example, you can plan what you generally intend to buy in Dominion, but you don’t have to think too far ahead because you really can’t until you see your next hand.

Chess is at the point where computers are playing at levels way higher than those attainable by humans. This game probably isn’t as deep as Chess, but that same level of luck (or lack thereof) means that you’re probably not going to play the game at the level you want, and it’s always frustrating for me to play a game knowing that there’s something I probably just can’t see due to the sheer number of long-term variables. On the other hand, some people love games like that, and are going to eat this up.


Theme: Ostensibly, this game is about warring factions, and the humor in the rulebook is kind of funny, how the four factions are based on Switzerland and its neighbors. Apparently some people think the fact that the French people are frogmen is racist, but I wouldn’t really know. Even if it is, the game is clearly very tongue-in-cheek with its setting. The artwork is also very beautiful on the board, and though I don’t like the style of the character art, it’s well-done.

However, when you’re actually playing the game, the units are just big fat dice. You’re literally just moving dice around the board and directly comparing numbers, and trying to get out with the most numbers. The theme is Knizia-level thin, if not thinner. By and large this is an abstract strategy game. That will appeal to a lot of people, but don’t go in expecting Cyclades or something like that.


Fun: I think this largely depends on what you are looking for in a game. People really dig long-term strategy found in abstracts and a want a bit more theme painted on are going to love this. People looking for a game like the one shown on the box-cover, of thematic warfare, are going to be disappointed. For me, personally, the strategy is just too front-loaded and devoid of tactics for me to find the appeal, especially with a large lack of theme.


I think some people are really going to love Unita, but the super-long-term strategy and abstracted theme were enough for it to not really click with me.




3 out of 5

Review: Helios

heliosAs you probably know from my previous reviews (and my undying devotion to Vlaada Chvatil designs), I’m a sucker for any game that integrates a strong theme into the gameplay.  While I’ll happily push wooden cubes around with the best of them, I find that good mechanics combined with high-quality aesthetic elements can create one of the most fulfilling experiences in all of tabletop-dom.

Helios attempts to blend solid Euro sensibilities with a unique and clever theme.  But does it work?  Read on…

Here’s a reminder of our 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: Simply beautiful. Artist Dennis Lohausen has outdone himself here — this is one of the most visually attractive games in recent memory.  The components are top-notch from start to finish.  The sturdy cardboard of the player boards and character cards gives weight to the stunning artwork, and there are plenty of wooden bits to push around.  Each player even gets a tiny cloth bag customized to their character to hold victory point tokens; they’re completely unnecessary, but they add a nice finishing touch to an already well-presented game.

One small blemish is the player quick reference cards, which are printed on standard glossy paper.  The cards are completely serviceable and wouldn’t stand out in most other games, but given the high quality of the rest of the components in Helios, I’m a bit puzzled that they weren’t printed on cardstock.

But I’m being overly picky.  Seriously, just look at that box art!

Accessibility: Helios treads that odd territory between being a great gateway game and a meaty, complex design aimed at serious gamers.  It definitely wouldn’t be my choice for first-time Euro-gamers, though I’d have no reservations about teaching it to semi-casual gamers.  I could also see it getting vehemently voted down by some of the more seasoned gamers in my regular meetup group, many of whom prefer more complex games with lots of moving parts.

I’ve taught this to a good half-dozen people now, and none of them had any issues picking up the rules or basic strategy.  The rulebook is a bit thicker than it probably needs to be, but the rules are well-written, and much of the extra bulk is filled with helpful examples and illustrations.

Depth: When I first read through the rulebook, I worried that Helios seemed a bit simplistic.  After all, there are only three possible actions each turn: place a land tile, build something, or move the sun.  Fortunately, these fears were unfounded.  After multiple plays I’ve found that there are several interesting choices to be made each turn, and several different paths to victory seem viable.  I’m often put off by games with too many scoring criteria (I’m looking at you, Bora Bora), but I’m impressed by the sheer amount of variety available in Helios.  I’ve used vastly different strategies in the games I’ve played, and I feel like there’s still more hidden away.

There are a few aspects of the game that I don’t feel were fleshed out quite enough.  Let’s look at the set collection element: Every action a player chooses has one of three colors (or a “wildcard” color), which are collected under each player’s personal board.  When a player collects four of a given color, he or she gets a free action.  While this does allow for some interesting plays (for example, using the free action to move the sun when no sun action tokens are left), it’s a bit too random.  Often a player is forced into taking an undesirable color, and the net result is that some players will randomly get more actions than others.

Then there are the Character cards.  These point-scoring items can be purchased after each action round, and on their own are an interesting addition to the game.  The problem is that they’re bought with an easy-to-obtain resource (mana) that isn’t used for anything else, other than trading for a paltry amount of victory points at the game’s end.  I also would have liked to see more Character cards to choose from, but I understand why the designers wouldn’t want to increase the complexity of that aspect of the game.  Selecting the best Character can already be a bit of a challenge, even with just eight to choose from.

These are minor issues, however.  Helios will never be regarded as a paragon of complex game design, but it’s a light-to-medium weight game that accomplishes what it sets out to do.  Gameplay is deceptively deep, and I feel like multiple plays will be needed to experience everything it has to offer.

Theme: By far this is the strongest aspect of Helios.  Its theme is brilliant and pervasive.  The artwork and the flow of the gameplay make the world feel alive: your domain expands organically as the sun orbits and illuminates your lands, granting points and resources.  The position and movement of the sun are core facets of the design, and everything feels like it fits perfectly.  The iconography looks a little cryptic at first, but after a few turns it becomes second nature.

If there is a downside, it’s that the characters and their roles could be a bit more fleshed out.  They don’t have names, and while the cards are very attractive, they’re really just a collection of perks and victory points.  I’d love to seem them tied more deeply into the theme — again, they feel a little tacked on compared to the other well-integrated elements of the game.

Fun: When figuring out how much I enjoy a game, I often look at how much I find myself anticipating taking each new turn.  Helios delivers in this regard — when my turn comes around, I’m actually excited to select my action and see the results. Moving the sun around is just plain fun.  Building is complex enough to provide interesting options without being overwhelming or cumbersome.  Even selecting the placement of an earth tile can present some hard choices.

The game seems to scale fairly well between different player counts.  I didn’t have to opportunity to play Helios with just two, but my three- and four-player sessions were indistinguishable from one another.  Players can interfere with each others’ plans to a small degree; however, it’s almost always better to focus on your own goals than to spend a precious action hindering someone else.  While this cuts down on the amount of player interaction, it also makes for a more light-hearted game.

Play time can run quite a bit longer than the 45-60 minutes listed on the box.  All of my plays clocked in at close to two hours, though each game included multiple new players.  Still, I feel that the estimated times are a bit too ambitious, and a 60-90 minute timeframe for semi-experienced players would be more accurate.  While player turns can go quickly, often there are difficult choices to be made, especially when building.

The wonderful blend of theme and gameplay, along with the absolutely brilliant artwork, make Helios a pleasure to play.  It does have a few rough edges, but overall Helios is a charming and fun game with a stellar presentation.



4 out of 5

Review: Desperados of Dice Town

desperadosofdicetownAs designers Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc have explained elsewhere, Desperados of Dice Town is an accidental expansion of the Dice Town universe. After designing the game, (European) publisher Matagot (the game is distributed in the U.S. by Asmodee) thought it would fit well as an extension of the popular Dice Town brand. It certainly worked on me – we love Dice Town at our house, and were excited to see more of the game’s setting. Desperados is a much shorter game with very different rules – but does it retain the fun of Dice Town? 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: Before the game even came, what caught my eye was the $24.99 price tag. That’s pretty competitive pricing, since many small card games such as Jaipur and Citadels are priced around the same. Desperados of Dice Town comes in a bigger box than those, but it’s still pretty small and square. I don’t think I have any other games with this box size, but it will fit nicely in my “random assortment of tiny games” shelf. Inside the box are about 30 cards, 24 discs that represent the various gang members, 4 custom dice, the rulebook, and some very thick poker chips for money. The chips are pretty big and feel very good in the hand; their only real drawback is that they dwarf the size of the other components! The gang member discs are a little flimsy but rotate easily (which you often do in the game), and the dice are small but solid. I haven’t checked the card size, but the cards seem pretty sturdy and the artwork is great – Piero always knocks it out of the park. The only other thing to note is that though the game says ages 8 and up, there is some mildly risque artwork and one of the gangs is named “Red Damnation”, which may be a concern for some people. Overall, the components are really fantastic and the game is very competitively priced.


desperadoscomponentsAccessibility: Desperados is a much simpler game than Dice Town, primarily because instead of the very unique simultaneous dice-rolling mechanisms of Dice TownDesperados has you rolling three times while keeping some dice exactly as in Yahtzee. Five sides of the dice correspond to the different members of your gang, who begin the game in prison in various stages of escape. The sixth face is the “Action” face. Players have two options on their turn: either take Actions, or Draw Cards, assuming you meet the requirements to do either one (you definitely will be able to do one or the other).

If you take actions, you can take one action for each “Action” face you roll, and then your other dice (the gang symbols) tell you who you can activate. So if you roll a bottle, a knife, and two actions, you can activate the “bottle”  character twice, the “knife” character twice, or each character once. Players initially had trouble getting over the thought that multiple identical gang symbols were irrelevant for actions – it was easy to think that two activations of the bottle character would require two “Action” faces but also two “bottle” faces, which isn’t true. At the beginning of the game, activating a character rotates them one step towards freedom (there’s a countdown on each disc), but once they are free, you can use their abilities. Most characters simply take money from other players who haven’t freed the corresponding gang member. This is important because to win, you need to have all your gang members free AND be the richest player – and if you go bankrupt, you are eliminated from the game! The “bottle” character has a special ability once freed, which is unique to each gang, and they’re each quite powerful.

The second option is to draw Wild West cards, which are cards with powerful one-time uses, and though you can’t use them the turn they’re acquired, you can play several in one turn for a mega-turn. If you roll three of a kind, you may, for your turn, draw three cards and keep one. If you roll four of a kind, you may draw four, keep two. Lastly, if you get no “Action” faces and no three of a kind (this is called “Misery”), you still get the top card of the deck (kind of like going to Doc Badluck in Dice Town). The cards vary in power, but they’re all quite powerful while still being simple to understand, and they really are rather important to the game being interesting and fun. They heavily increase the interaction of the game and make it kind of a race to get the good cards while also a race to free your gang.

Ultimately, the game has a very clear goal (free your guys but also be the richest person) and once you understand the necessary conditions for the things you want to do each turn, the game is very easy to understand and you can form a strategy even during your first game.


Depth: Desperados, first off, is a rather short game, though not as short as what it says on the box. (It says 25 minutes, but our four player game took more like 45. Maybe ~11 min/player.) So don’t expect grandiose strategy here, since it is also a dice game. That being said, the game gives lots of options for what to do, mostly because of the cards, which are awarded even when your dice rolls stink. So you are somewhat at the luck of the dice (and cards), but there were times when I was holding cards, setting myself up for the right dice rolls to do something grandiose and clever. The game allows for fancy plays like that, but at the same time, the turns aren’t overly long since you are just rolling four dice a few times. We avoided attacks a lot our first game, but it made the game take a little longer and it was also because we (or at least, I) undervalued the importance of money – I had my gang free for most of the game, but was far too poor to win. Recuperating money is very difficult (one gang can do it, and there’s a card that does it), so it’s pretty important, I think, to try and bankrupt people early with actions.

I would say that the game isn’t particularly deep, but it offers a lot more choices than a game like Qwixx or Can’t Stop while still being a fun, fast dice game with a lot of interesting things to consider and some laughter too.


Theme: Everything from the ground up here works well with the theme. Piero’s artwork is very, very good and is a joyful throwback to Dice Town. Even the central mechanism evokes the theme – you’re trying to get your gang out of jail, and be the richest, rootinest-tootinest gang in town. Maybe the dice and the cards don’t quite make sense in that regard, but the art and concept are so good, and match the confrontational style of the game so well, that the game properly evokes the theme of a Wild West shootout. You can’t expect much more from a short dice game.


Fun: The game is confrontational, even more so than Dice Town, and attacks are pretty targeted. Some of the cards are also targeted as well. However, the game is short and lucky enough that I don’t think any feelings would be hurt, and the game is up-front about its confrontational style. This is the Wild West, after all! If you’re okay with that, the game works very well, and there’s even some good laughs to be had when grandiose plans are ruined by other people’s cards.

It always leaves me a bit skeptical when games are set in the universe of a previous game, but I think it works here. I think the three things that uniquely define Dice Town are Piero’s Wild West artwork, the feel of chucking some dice and hoping for some luck, and the awesome Action cards. All three of those basics are preserved here in Desperados, and despite totally different mechanisms, it still feels like Dice Town Lite - and that’s a good thing.


Desperados of Dice Town is an easy, quick-playing dice filler with lots of theme and interesting decisions. The only real drawback is that I’m going to have a bad habit of wanting to play this instead of Dice Town.




4 out of 5

Review: La Boca

labocaWhen I taught a course on board games last semester, La Boca was an absolute smash hit with the college students in my class. Long before that, La Boca was anticipated by many to win the Spiel des Jahres, although it ended up with only a Recommendation. Designed by Markus and Inka Brand (who brought us Kennerspiel des Jahres winner Village), and published in the U.S. by Z-Man Games, La Boca is a game of cooperative puzzle-solving. Wait, what? 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?


labocapicComponents: The components of La Boca are the heart of the game, and they are rather minimalist. Most important are the wooden blocks, which look like children’s toys. They fit well together and lay nicely on the central board, which actually rests inside the box, with spots cut out for the electronic timer, puzzle cards, and cardboard coins. That’s pretty much of all the components. The game uses the inside of the box quite cleverly, so that the game doesn’t take up too much table space and you always know where everything is. The scoring is also listed right outside the play zone, which is nice. The cardboard coins are nice and chunky as well. The MSRP of $40 is perfect for the amount of stuff you get and the length of the gameplay. My only complaint (a rather tiny one) is that I would have preferred similar-looking, single-sided coins in all denominations to keep scores hidden, since the endgame can be a bit predetermined – but on the flip side, the coins would then be much harder to sort, so maybe I’m wrong to even have this complaint! Aces all around in this category.


Accessibility: I used La Boca as an example in an article a while back of a game that could be explained in three sentences. I stand by that, and it illustrates just how simple this game is. You take turns with different partners (two people play at a time), and you score together as you try to solve a puzzle with the pieces as quickly as possible. You each see a different two-dimensional picture, and need to arrange the blocks so that they create the picture on your side (ignoring depth). The faster the team accomplishes this, the more points they get – but if you both say you’re done and it’s incorrect, no points are awarded! There are some other considerations, such as the fact that hanging pieces aren’t allowed, every piece must be used and everything has to fit in the 4 x 4 grid on the board, but the rules are super simple, written succinctly and clearly on a single double-sided page. I’ve never had a problem explaining this game, and I’ve explained it to about 30 people.


Depth: To be honest, there aren’t a lot of different ways to approach this game. You’re pretty much just frantically laying pieces and shouting (although I did witness a few players try to do it in near silence for some reason). You certainly get better at with experience, and some people are just more naturally talented at spatial reasoning (for example, the engineering majors that were in my class). The red piece in the advanced cards does add a whole new kink in things, and you also have to learn to communicate carefully with each partner, as some people will react differently in tense situations like this. Overall, though, there’s enough going on to keep it exciting, but there’s not a lot of deep thinking going on. One thing to mention, though, is that just about any time I’ve seen people run out of time (you get 0 points once you get to two minutes), the entire group always wants to figure out the puzzle before moving on to the next turn. So even though the concept isn’t particularly deep, it has a certain appeal that keeps people interested even when it’s not their turn.


Theme: Supposedly, La Boca is a colorful neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and the idea is that we are building houses, I guess? I remember going to a similarly colorful neighborhood in Burano, Italy and it was amazing to see, and it’s a cool concept to draw upon. But this game just makes me think of Legos and blocks you play with as a kid, and who didn’t love playing with those!? That’s theme enough for me.


Fun: I don’t really know what makes this game so exciting. It’s not very complex or deep. It’s literally just timed puzzles. But it puts everything together just right, in such a clever way, that the final game is far more than the sum of its blocks parts. This game has a certain je ne sais quoi that you won’t really experience until you play it. No matter what kind of gamer you are, you should check this out. My only complaint is that it’s really only for 4-5 players. It says 3-6, but with 3, you play with each partner four times instead of two which is kind of dumb, and 6 has way too much downtime.


La Boca is even more proof that 2013 was a fantastic year for board games, and should have been a nominee for the Spiel des Jahres. If you enjoy puzzles, tetris, Legos, or life in general, you need to give La Boca a whirl.




5 out of 5

Retro-Review: Dominion

DominionWelcome to my 100th review! It was tough to decide what game to review, but I think it only makes sense to finally review the game I most often mention: Dominion. Now over five years old, Dominion was, by accident, the next step for me after years of Magic: the Gathering and an impromptu, mind-blowing initial session of Settlers of Catan with some friends. I haven’t stopped playing it much sense, spending hours upon hours on isotropic in graduate school, and now still playing often on Goko’s site and in person. In my Social Board Games class this semester, it was also the class favorite. Let’s get to specifics, shall we? 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?

dominionvillagedominionvillagepic363264_lgComponents: If there’s a spot where this game fails, it’s with the components. It’s great how many cards you get in each set, and they’re reasonably priced – but the artwork is stupid, ugly, and inconsistent. I’m tolerant of the non-committal card names, but the art is just bad. It’s quite surprising, really, considering I recognize several of the artists’ names and have enjoyed their work in other games. Some of the tokens and things in expansions are somewhat clunky as well, but the base game doesn’t have that problem. The insert is actually very nice – so nice that I never bothered with some sort of “storage solution” for the game and its expansions. There’s 500 cards in the box – $45 MSRP is pretty reasonable for that.

Accessibility/Depth: I’m putting these together, because Dominion ties them together more beautifully than just about any other game I’ve ever played. When I reviewed Castles of Burgundy, I talked about how it has the best kind of complexity: one that’s hidden in the game and not the rules. Dominion is the absolute mastermind of that. The actual rules are quite simple; it’s the rule-breaking action cards that make it more interesting and fun. The rules are as easy as ABCD: one Action, one Buy, Cleanup, Draw five new cards.

Not only does this make the game quite easy to teach, but it’s also makes this the game that most elegantly divides strategy and tactics. At the beginning of the game, every possibility is laid out before all of the players, so you can develop your strategy before the game even begins – but as you draw each individual hand, you have to tactically adapt that overall strategy each turn. This is one of the many things that elevates Dominion over every other deck-builder, and not just because it was first. I’ve tried at least ten others, and I would always rather play Dominion, because it is both more elegant and more strategic.

Since I’m talking about the base game here, another huge advantage in the accessibility department is the fact that these cards are specifically simpler than the others, making the game much easier to learn. There are a few tough points for beginners, like when to reshuffle, and how +$2 doesn’t mean “gain a Silver”, and so on, but they’re quite negligible given how deep this game is. The base game does get boring eventually, but there are literally millions of possibilities and subtle interactions when you mix all of the expansions together – and yes, that’s a large investment, but it’s so, so worth it.

Theme: The terrible artwork and extremely generic card names make this game practically an abstract. This is where Dominion fails miserably, and people who play games like Magic: the Gathering (Dominion’s granddaddy) because of the cool dragons and the novels about the planeswalkers, not because of the clever combos and tests of skill, are probably going to dislike Dominion. For people like me, who never read the flavor text or looked at the art on Magic cards but only saw possibilities for outmaneuvering an opponent, Dominion‘s lack of theme is irrelevant. It really depends on what type of gamer you are.

Fun: I loved Magic because I loved the competition – the mathematics, the psychology, and the constant variety. Dominion has all of that without end, for a fraction of the price. The competition is even fiercer, since you know the variables when the game begins and won’t lose to something you could not have anticipated or couldn’t afford. Even a free “CCG” like Hearthstone, which I’ve been constantly playing on iOS, doesn’t have that same feeling of truly outwitting your opponent on a completely even playing field. Dominion is like the Chess of Magic - and to me, that’s awesome.

There are deck-builders aplenty these days, but nothing has topped the original - Dominion is still king in my book. If you haven’t given this masterpiece of design a whirl yet, then you are doing yourself a disservice.



5 out of 5

Review: Coup

coupsmallModern board gaming definitely goes through its trends. A few years ago, it was worker placement, followed by deckbuilding with the advent of Dominion. Now, mostly thanks to AEG’s Love Letter, microgames – games with very minimalist components, short playing times, and low price tags – are the new “it”. Indie Boards & Cards has already somewhat embarked into this territory with The Resistance, but they’ve now expanded that world to include Coup by Rikki Tahta, a game consisting of only fifteen cards. How much of a game can you get out of so little? 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?


coupcardsComponents: This game hits all the right notes. I love when games are easy to set up and tear down, and there’s literally nothing to do here: deal everyone two cards and two coins, and get started! Despite only having 15 cards and some tokens, Indie Boards & Cards has really hit a home run with the components in every way imaginable. The artwork is gorgeous and it’s very clear what each card does. It’s also very clear what to do on your turn and how everything works, thanks to the awesome player aids. The cardboard coin tokens look futuristic with their weird shapes. The rulebook is also clear and efficient. On top of all that, $15 MSRP for a card game is quite good. A few microgames like Love Letter are a bit cheaper, but they don’t have quite the polish components-wise that this game does. Major kudos here.


Accessibility: In and of itself, Coup is not a very complex game. The goal is simply to accumulate money and use it to kill everyone else! On your turn, you take an action, which is either one of the three basic actions, or you claim to be a character (to use his or her action). These actions let you take extra money, steal money from another player, or attempt to make someone lose a card, which is then revealed face-up (once you lose both, you’re dead!). The only difficulty in the game is very carefully delineating when challenges occur, because you can challenge both a player’s claim to be a character to take their action for the turn, as well as a player’s counteraction (the Duke, Ambassador, Captain, and Contessa can block what other people are doing). I just make sure to play games with new players very pointedly at first, going around the table clockwise and asking “Do you challenge? Do you?” and so on, so that people are clear on the order of effects. People might be confused during the first game, but the game only lasts about twenty minutes, and then you’re ready to play again.


Depth: Most of this game centers around lying and getting away with it, although you have to think strategically about how much money everyone has, as well as what cards they allegedly have. There can be some group think about claiming to be the Duke, which seems to be the best opener, but what if you get caught? Or what if you’re telling the truth, and you’d love to bait someone into challenging you? So it largely comes down to situations where you are playing the other players rather than the game, which is probably the best way to be playing a game. Although the game is quite short, there’s a serious amount of tension as you see other people’s good fortune rise and fall, as well as your own. One thing I really like about the game is the conundrum the Assassin puts people in: if you challenge that person and they’re actually the Assassin, you’re immediately dead, even if you still had two cards! The game feels like high stakes from the very first turn, with no unnecessary build-up needed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the game is that it works, and works well, primarily because after you prove you weren’t bluffing when challenged, you shuffle that card in the deck and draw a new one. This prevents degenerate situations where everyone knows who everyone is (a problem we had with Mascarade and One Night Ultimate Werewolf), and offers tactical decisions as well, where you may call a card you know is true just to get the card away from the player. There’s only one part that doesn’t quite seem to work… Whenever a game comes down to two players left, it seems like you can instantly deduce who will win, because the prior turns of the game now force a certain outcome that can’t be escaped by bluffing. Maybe we simply need to keep this in mind earlier in our games and make sure that we set ourselves up not only to last to the final two, but to be the one ahead at that time. Regardless, the very final end-game can sometimes be unsatisfying, but that’s my only mark against the game.


Theme: I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when I saw this on Kickstarter, since it was set in The Resistance but wasn’t designed by Don Eskridge, and that seemed like a turn-off. Now that I’ve played the game, I think the setting fits the game very well, as it’s definitely a similar game of deception and intrigue. Since The Resistance and The Resistance: Avalon aren’t exactly the same setting, I’m not sure what the The Resistance’s universe exactly entails, but the artwork somehow managed to feel futuristic and slightly medieval at the same time, so it fits no matter which version of The Resistance you have.


Fun: I absolutely love games with bluffing, and this one is simple, quick, and fun. We play The Resistance constantly with six or more players, and this is great to have on hand when you want to play a similar style game with three, four, or five. (The Resistance is a little too easy to figure out with five players. I also have not played Coup’s two player variant.) Not only do you get the tension and strategy of those games, but it’s also a good laugh when someone gets caught in a lie. I think I slightly prefer Skull (& Roses) because it’s simply a little funnier and I prefer “silent” bluffing to outright lying, but they’re different enough beasts that I’m happy to own both, and Coup works a little better with three.


Coup is a simple, quick, fun game of lies and deceit that works and works well. With great components and a low price point, I expect that this game is going to be a mainstay of board and card games for years to come. If you like The Resistance, Love Letter, or even Poker, give this one a try.




4 out of 5