Review: EXCEED

exceedboxIn second grade, I went to a friend’s birthday party, and he had just received Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo. Despite being a large group, we decided to watch each other play, with the winner getting to stay in the round. I was the only player who could throw Hadokens or any other projectile. Let’s just say I didn’t have many friends at school the next day.

Since then, despite realizing just how poor I really was at SFII, I have always enjoyed one-on-one combat games, not only in video form but also in tabletop card games like Magic: the Gathering and Summoner Wars. Recently, there have been many attempts to translate the likes of Street FighterMortal Kombat and their many cousins more directly to card format – Yomi, BattleCON, and many more. The EXCEED fighting system by Level 99 Games and D. Brad Talton (Pixel Tactics, BattleCON) is the latest attempt at doing so.

The idea behind EXCEED is to have an accessible-but-interesting system adaptable to different game worlds, allowing different characters from various areas of geekdom. This sounds great, but is the game system any good? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:


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


Components: First off, let me say that I have only played one of the four upcoming packs, which had four fighters: Satoshi, Mei-Lien, Baelkhor, and Morathi. The artwork on the cards was great, and the iconography was very clear and useful once we had the rules down. I also really like how the ultra attack cards were foiled. I wish the “fighting area” was a board and not just 9 plain-looking cards, but I think the $25 MSRP trade-off for four characters is worth it. My only real complaints is that the box comes in a somewhat low-quality tuckbox (which stunk to high heaven, but I’m told that’s an anomaly); I’d rather have a traditional, sturdy game box with a lid or magnetic case.

Prudish Comment: Take this or leave it. If you look at the Kickstarter page for EXCEED, many of the characters are scantily clad, for lack of a better phrase. However, the particular deck I was sent did not have this problem with any of the fighters. I do not think I’ll pick up the other decks for this reason, but if that’s an issue for you like it is for me, you can safely pick up this set and have a lot of fun with it.


Accessibility: The point of the EXCEED system is to have something simple enough to “graft on” many different types of fighters, but still complex enough to be interesting. In this, I think Level 99 has succeeded. It’s not a gateway game, but it’s an easy game to understand for veterans of games like Magic, Summoner Wars, Dominion, or any other card game with lots of text and abilities.  I also think this game is one of those where it’s easy to jump in and begin playing, even if you won’t necessarily be playing well. It’s fun just to explore the characters the first time and read some of the crazy abilities, especially on the “exceed” (i.e. powered-up) side of the characters – a fun throwback to many video game fighters.


Depth: A huge part of this game is learning the characters and their decks inside and out. At that point, the game becomes more about reading your opponent than figuring out the system that you are working within, and this is a very good thing. It’s a very well-done parallel to the same “mental paper-rock-scissors” happening in other card games and particularly in the video game fighters that EXCEED draws its inspiration from. For example, one character has an ultra attack that’s a ridiculously large amount of damage, but it only hits if he is exactly 3 spaces away from his opponent. Once you’ve lost to that once, you’ll know how to play around it. The subtle things, like keeping track of your opponent’s Gauge costs and the amount they have on hand, or the ranges and effects on their unique attacks, come with time. I could definitely see this becoming a lifestyle game for people in the way that Magic and many LCGs have done.


Theme: Although I don’t know the history of these characters, the art in the game and their unique abilities says a lot about them. I felt like each character had an overarching “theme” to their abilities and those came out very well during the gameplay. Level 99 has said they made sure to pay careful attention to having these characters play similar to their original form in Jasco’s Universal Fighting System, and though I haven’t played that, I can tell that these characters were carefully crafted and refined. The fighting game theme is linked about as tightly as you could possibly imagine to the gameplay.


Fun: I have unfortunately never played BattleCON, but I have played Yomi, Magic, Summoner Wars, Mage Wars Academy, and a slew of deckbuilders and two-player card games. This is the game that I feel best simulates my “glory days” of Street Fighter, Tekken, and Killer Instinct in a way that’s got the right level of accessibility and game length for me. Games only take 15-30 minutes, and I suspect they’ll be quicker as we get better at the game. I look forward to playing the game more and to see what other game worlds end up licensed to the system.


If you’re looking for a video game fighter simulated in a tabletop card game, and you want it to be accessible but deep, look no further than EXCEED.




4 out of 5

Review: Between Two Cities

btcboxStonemaier Games is known for two things: excellent customer service, and excellent game design. Both qualities originate from founders Alan Stone and Jamey Stegmaier. What happens when the founding duo takes a chance on outside designers? Between Two Cities is just that. Designed by Matthew O’Malley and Ben Rosset, Between Two Cities is a 20-30 minute filler game of tile drafting, with a twist: you build a city with both of your neighbors, but only the weaker city counts for scoring. Is a crazy twist and a great publisher enough to make this a great game? 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?


btcartComponents: Between Two Cities comes in a small box, primarily because of its few components: for the most part, the game is just a giant pile of square tiles, with a few duplex tiles mixed in. These tiles are quite large, with great (though drab-colored) artwork and clear, distinct iconography. The game also comes with cards for scoring reminders, and randomizers for seating order. The tiles are so chunky and beautiful that the game really wowed me in this regard. $35 MSRP is totally normal for a game of this range, and you’re getting quality components for sure.


Accessibility: Actually playing this game is incredibly short and simple – you are simply picking two tiles at a time in the draft, and putting one on each side of you, making cities collaboratively with your neighbors. There aren’t too many weird restrictions – your tiles need to be oriented “upright” and your city needs to make a 4×4 grid – that’s it, really. The trickier part of the game is the scoring.

None of the individual scoring rules are that complicated, but together, they provide a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s easy to intuit among an individual hand what might be a good idea (well, past the first hand, which is a crapshoot). On the other hand, it’s also very hard to quickly add up how you’re city is doing, to tell if you’re truly balancing your two cities. Back to the first hand, though, the inability to “math it out” means that the game is not ruined by donwtime among players who would do so. The main problem is that unless we’re complete idiots, scoring the game takes almost as long as playing the game, and there’s no easy way to do it. If you can get past that hurdle, though, it’s a cinch to play.


Depth: One interesting byproduct of the game’s rule that you score your worst city is that the game generates quite a bit of discussion as you decide which of your two tiles goes where. I like that a traditional “Euro-ish” drafting game has this negotiation element to it. I also really appreciate the rulebook having an explicit rule for what to do in “power gamer” situations where someone wants to decide after someone else (you go in order given by the randomizer). We never had an issue with that, and I really enjoyed adding this “soft skill” to the mathematics of the game.

In the game, you only look at 7 different hands of tiles, and pick two each time. I found that I was never making particularly tough decisions, especially later on in the game. However, that’s okay – after all, the game only takes 20-30 minutes to play. I don’t necessarily think the game plays itself – sometimes, you have to decide between equally good or equally crappy choices – but sometimes, there’s just the good choice and the bad choice.


Theme: The theme of city-building is thin, but it’s there. It’s relevant in the scoring, not wanting houses near factories, but wanting taverns near businesses, etc. It also feels like you’re developing the cities you build as you do it, which is impressive given the short time frame in which the game has to generate the feeling. You’ll get more of the theme out of a game like Suburbia, but Between Two Cities does the best job that it can within its constraints.


Fun: The easiest game to compare this to is 7 Wonders, where you are also developing a city civilization through drafting, and both can accommodate seven people. However, Between Two Cities is a chatty game, while the competitive nature you have with your neighbors in 7 Wonders makes more for a quiet, determined attitude. Personally, 7 Wonders is my preference of the two, but it’s also very hard to learn by comparison. Between Two Cities is a fun game in its own right, and a great introduction to drafting games for new players – especially since they have two other players to rely on as they begin to learn.


Between Two Cities is clever, quick, simple introduction to both city-building and drafting games, making it an easy recommendation for family gamers.




4 out of 5

Interview: Jamey Stegmaier talks Charterstone, Scythe, and Community-Building

jameystegmaierMy first introduction to Stonemaier games was when a friend insisted I play Viticulture. Another overly complex, boring euro, I thought, but I entertained him anyway. What a masterpiece!Intuitive and thematic, despite being a medium-heavy Eurogame. Since then, Stonemaier games has established a strong following and rapport with Kickstarter backers, recently with a 1.8 million-dollar campaign for Scythe, and now buzz is beginning for their first Legacy-style game, Charterstone. Many thanks to Jamey for the interview! (Beware: way at the bottom of this page are some Pandemic Legacy spoilers, with plenty of whitespace and warnings in between. Beware, though, before you scroll to the bottom.)


I assume you’ve played both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy. What did you think as you played those games?

Indeed, I have. Risk Legacy was my favorite gaming experience of 2013, and I had a great time with Pandemic Legacy in 2015 (we played through the entire thing in a few weeks). I really enjoyed the sheer amount of innovation in both of them. I love the idea of starting with a simple ruleset and adding complexity with the various unlocks. I love the surprises. And even though I had my doubts, I found myself loving the idea of permanence in both games. To me, permanence wasn’t a gimmick—it was a carefully crafted feature to enhance the player experience.

You advertised Tuscany as a “Legacy-style expansion” to Viticulture and now Charterstone is a Legacy-style game. What does the “Legacy” phrase mean to you? How wide are the parameters of the definition?

There has been some debate as to whether or not Tuscany is actually a legacy expansion, which is understandable. The legacy concept in Tuscany is that every time you play a game (or every few times), the winner of the game selects a new expansion to unlock and permanently add to every subsequent game. It’s the opening of each new expansion that amounts to a permanent change to the game, hence the legacy element. However, there’s nothing preventing you from putting that expansion back in the box and not using it again, which is why some see it as not a “real” legacy game.

In those regards, permanence in Charterstone is truly permanent. You peel building stickers off cards and permanently put them on the board. You open tuckboxes with new content that will never go back in those tuckboxes. And so on.

So, to me, “legacy” amounts to a permanent change that persists from game to game.


charterstoneWhat separates Charterstone from other Legacy games? I know there’s nothing “destructive” – did you experiment with that at all? What elements will seem familiar to Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy players?

So, I want to emphasize here that I love Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy, and I’m incredibly excited about Seafall and Gloomhaven. Each of these games does some unique things, as does Charterstone.

In Charterstone, you’re building a village with other players, where buildings are the action spaces (it’s a worker-placement game). Each player has a “charter” that only they can build in, but you can place your workers in any charter. The buildings start out on cards that you can unlock/draw in various ways—when you have the resources to build them, you peel off the sticker and place it on the board. Hence the “additive” nature of the game. It doesn’t feel like a good fit to destroy things in a game that’s about building.

There is a plot of sorts in Charterstone, kind of like the plot in Pandemic Legacy. The difference is that Pandemic Legacy tells a specific story that you follow. In Charterstone, the order of the story is highly variable depending on what players unlock. There’s no sequence—players are in control.

The last thing I can talk about is what happens after you’ve unlocked everything in Charterstone. With Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, and from what I’ve heard about Seafall, you play a campaign and then you’re done. I enjoy that sense of completion in those games, but in Charterstone, it’s a new beginning for your fully formed game board. From that point on, instead of playing as the same charter each game, you’ll randomly deal out the charters and play the game just as you would any other board game. There will still be plenty of variable elements to keep the game fresh each time you play (like the variable elements in Terra Mystica and Tzolk’in).

It seems that other Legacy games require serious “investment” among the players, both time-wise and emotionally. As I understand it, each game of Charterstone is designed to be pretty quick (20-60 min?). How do you balance that garnering type of investment and payoff against a game with a time frame indicative of a “quick filler”? Is Charterstone able to play both of those rules?

The playing time varies based on the player count and the number of workers you have (workers are unlocked throughout the campaign). I don’t think it will feel like a quick filler. The idea is moreso that you can play multiple games in a row if you want (and still have time to play other board games). Those playing times will probably be adjusted a bit as I collect blind playtest data, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

You’ve talked a lot about the “worldbuilding” done with Scythe. Is Legacy play the natural evolution of worldbuilding?

I think legacy is one aspect of worldbuilding. For example (no spoilers), in Pandemic Legacy, Rob and Matt designed a world where a specific plot happens, and players interact within that plot. That plot is the world they’ve built for players to interact in, and the players make permanent changes to that world—those changes become a part of the world.

In Scythe, Jakub Rozalski built the world that players interact with. It’s a world of mechs and farmers, of a mysterious factory and robust characters. You play the game within that world, and then you put the game away. When you open up the game again, you start over with the same world and play again. So players are coexisting within that world on a plateau—the world is not malleable.

scytheSpeaking of Scythe, it’s on its way out in the world now, right? How does it feel this time around, compared to the release of Viticulture and Euphoria? Do you have a mental “regimen” you go through to prepare yourself in these moments just before a game is unleashed upon the world?

It’s getting close! I’m writing this on May 5, when assembly is wrapping up in China. It feels similar to Viticulture and Euphoria in terms of logistics, as that’s mainly what’s on mind at this point. The pieces have been in place for a while now, but there are certain things that can’t be arranged until all pre-orders are final and you know the weight of all the components.

As for preparation for release, my sole focus is on my backers. I hope we sell the game to distributors and retailers so non-backers can discover and enjoy it, but my backers come first (as do pre-order customers). I want to make sure that the journey they embarked on with me last year ends with a moment of joy when they open the package for the first time.

It seems to me that your games continue to expand in scope with each release. How has your playtesting process evolved as you’ve moved from Viticulture, to Euphoria, to Scythe, to Charterstone? How do you even balance a Legacy game?

The process has changed extensively from game to game (Tuscany and Between Two Cities are in there too), with the biggest change being in the way I blind playtest. I completely underestimated the value of blind playtesting when I worked on Viticulture, so I did a lot more of it for Euphoria. Scythe is completely asymmetric game, so I knew I’d need a ton of blind playtesting (we ended having over 1,000 recorded blind playtest sessions).

Charterstone isn’t to the point of blind playtesting yet, but I think it will be smaller and more focused than Scythe, as I’ll need the same groups of people to play a number of sequential games. As for balance, part of it involves the same rules for balancing any game, but I think part of it is also creating self-balancing mechanisms. For example, in Pandemic Legacy, if you lose a game, you get to put more “funded event” cards in the deck the next time you play. If you win, you remove funded event cards. That’s a self-balancing mechanism.

Between Two Cities is your first “outside design” – how has that process gone, now that the game has been out there a while (and garnered some awards nominations)? Do you think you will continue to publish games outside of your own designs?

I can’t speak highly enough of how great Ben and Matthew have been. I got really lucky that they were the first outside designers I worked with, because they were so open to feedback, and they were able to get the game to the table hundreds of times—basically, they relied much more on data than intuition, which proved me, as the developer, wrong at important times (and proved me right at important times too). They’re awesome, and I’m excited to see what the next iteration of the expansion looks like (so far I’ve only seen an early version).

I’m definitely open to publishing games outside of my own designs. It’s gotta be a game I really love for me to spend the amount of time and money that we do on our games. I’m spending most of Gen Con hearing pitches from designers, so maybe I’ll find some games like that.

You are one of the Kickstarter success stories, and I think one of the most unique aspects is that I don’t think people view your company as a “KS company” or an established company that “just uses KS for preorders” (said in a derogatory way). Somehow, you’re viewed as an established company, but your KS campaigns are seen as “legitimate.” Am I correct in that assessment? Is this entirely accomplished through community-building (see next question), or are there other factors that you think led to this?

I’d like to think that. 🙂 Though, I’d like to think that all KS campaigns are legitimate. I try to be very intentional about using Kickstarter. If something isn’t a good fit for it, I don’t use it (like for my recent Moor Visitors and Token Trilogy campaigns, both of which were done in different ways, and neither on Kickstarter).

That’s an interesting question about how peoples’ perceptions of Stonemaier and the influence I have on those perceptions. It’s tough to answer, because I think those perceptions might vary broadly from person to person. I do have an overarching philosophy (make it about them) that helps to guide me when I make decisions. The basic idea is that instead of making decisions based on what I want or need, I try to make it about what’s best for the customer.

One way I’ve viewed your success is somewhat in parallel to my own job as a professor at a Christian, residential liberal arts college. Our culture is -very- focused on residential life and the idea of “intentional community” among faculty and students, meaning that we’re going to their games and concerts, eating lunch with them, etc. – in other words, supporting them holistically and not just academically. I view you as having the same work ethic, living in “intentional community” with your customers via social media (e.g. avid blogging, the -name- of your book, recent viral post about helping an Aussie customer). This conversation in academia, though, always becomes a tough one regarding the balance of home life and work life. To that end – how do you stay sane? How do you separate work life from home life? Or do you choose not to?

Yeah, I really like that example of intentional community. I hadn’t thought about applying that term to the way I interact with people in the gaming community, but it’s an apt comparison.

I have very little separation between work life and home life. I’m single, I work from home, and I work a lot (7 days a week, often 70-80 hours a week). But I’m also acutely aware of my needs, and having such a fuzzy/nonexistent line between work and home can often help me address those needs. For example, this afternoon I felt a headache coming on, so rather than working through it, I took a nap. Now I’m working again, and I’ll continue to do so until I go to bed at midnight. There are few office environments that would give me that kind of flexibility.

What’s the biggest challenges you’re facing right now regarding 1) development of Charterstone and 2) Stonemaier games as a company?

Charterstone: The real challenge in these early stages of designing Charterstone is the amount of work that goes into prototyping the game, only to have that prototype rendered unusable for future playtests. I’m working on some ways to prevent that from happening to the extent it currently does.

Company: This was hard to think of, as I’m really happy with the way things are flowing in my company right now. So I rephrased the question as follows to help myself: What’s something other companies have that I wish my company had? Like, say, Fantasy Flight. What do they have that I wish I had? The one thing that comes to mind is submission playtesters. That is, when I’m at the local playtesting stage, I have a number of people who—quite kindly—are often willing to playtest games of my own design. They’re friends. It’s harder to get those people to playtest games submitted to us. Very few games even get to that stage, but when they do, I wish it were a little easier to get them to the table (particularly games that require more than 2 players).

What are you reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately?

I’ve had the pleasure of watching 3 excellent DVD movies recently: Spotlight, Creed, and The Big Short. I’m also super excite to see Captain America on Saturday. In terms of new-to-me games, I’ve had some incredible experiences with Ora et Labora and TIME Stories (the latter isn’t new to me, but the latest module is). As for books, I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy. I really liked the conclusion to a trilogy called The Emperor’s Blades, and I’ve become a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. I’m currently reading his book Elantris (but secretly I’m waiting for more Stormlight and Mistborn).

Just to have the dates right… is Viticulture now eligible in Germany for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year? (I’m doing my prediction ballots soon…)

Indeed, Viticulture has been released in Germany. There are so many other great games out there that I can’t imagine it being considered for any big awards, but I’m very appreciative of Feuerland (and Uwe Rosenberg) for helping us release it in that way in Germany.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, I’ve been doing all the talking, so I’d love to turn it around to you for the last question. Could you tell me about your most memorable moment playing a legacy game? Full spoilers are allowed as long as you preface them.





And per Jamey’s request (he encouraged me to share), PANDEMIC LEGACY SPOILERS FOLLOW!
























My biggest memory of Pandemic Legacy was simply the catharsis given by tearing a bunch of stuff up. My partner in crime was a little freaked out (he rarely trades or gets rid of games, so you can imagine), but I had him tearing up a few things by the end. And since we marathonned the whole thing in one weekend, we have some pretty cool pictures, like this one:


Interview: Christopher Chung talks Lanterns: the Harvest Festival

lanternsWhen deciding what to review here at MeepleTown (beyond our review copies), we try to keep an eye on games where the public opinion is different than ours, or the game is underrepresented. And that often means we don’t get around to reviewing games that are so dang good that they’ve taken the world by storm before we’ve had a chance to sink our teeth in. Such is the case with Lanterns: the Harvest Festival by Christopher Chung, a game that’s recently won a MENSA award and been in the running for several others, with a TableTop episode on the way as well. Rather than tell you what you already know (the game is great!), we decided to interview Christopher and see what other tidbits he could leave for us. A lot of the “standard” questions I might’ve asked were covered in this excellent interview with The Inquisitive Meeple, so you should view this as a sort of follow-up to that discussion. Here we go!


1. I know you’re a recent university graduate and dove right into game design. Are you hoping to pursue game design full time? In the mean time, can you tell us a bit about family life, day job, other hobbies?

It’s funny that it’s actually turned out that way, but as for pursuing game design as a full time profession? I can’t do it. It’s one thing to really be passionate about your design career, and kudos to those who have made it a full-time gig such as Josh Cappel and Eric Lang, however I’m not at that level yet. There could be a possibility that I may have success down the road but I don’t want the design process to drive me crazy, knowing that they’d be the primary source of my income, it’s not enough to help raise a family on nor do I want my games to feel like they’re work. Its hard work to make a game, but I always want it to be a fun passion first and foremost.

As for family life, I live with my relatives, and I just got out of a day job working for a mutual fund company. I’m definitely looking for a career in the financial industry, non-profit sector, or public sector, but in the meantime I guess I’m a full-time game designer! Other hobbies include video games, watching Twitch streams, watching sports and anime, dragonboat paddling, and reading. Now I’m getting back into going to a gym regularly and trying to shape up to be healthier!

2. You mentioned that Lanterns originated at Bento Mise, a co-working space for game and web developers. How often do you interact with designers and developers in other spaces (web, video game), etc., and how does that affect your board game development? What lessons could board game designers learn from those areas?

**Bento Miso**

I often go to Bento Miso for their “Play Games with Friends” dates that open up playtesting opportunities for my games, and that opens up some conversations about what we play, in either tabletop aspects or video games. In terms of affecting my board game development, I’ve definitely seen how they’ve produced their games in terms of working in team dynamics, best practices when developing games, and finding sources of income from them as most of them are full-time video game designers. I think we can take a lot from what a lot of successful independent developers have done in regards to creating accessible games that combine hidden complexities in an inviting package that gamers would enjoy. The barriers of entering in video game or board game development have never been lower today, and that makes for a lot of cross-pollination opportunities that wouldn’t have existed before, and we can always learn best practices from collaborations, finding publishers and audiences for our designs, and design parameters that come with games we’ve enjoyed before.

3. You’ve talked before about how key the change to decreasing scoring was for the strategic depth of Lanterns. I’ve also noticed that the piles of cards can run out very quickly and can lead to some interesting – and cutthroat – moments. How intentional was that part of the tension in the design? How do you decide what level of interaction and “meanness” fits a game?

That’s a very excellent question. I wanted the game to feel tense from the initial design, and although the game naturally carries a very peaceful feel to it, the joy of being able to really hinder your opponent was a very intentional way of adding a level of competitive feel that when missing, would almost make the game feel trivial. When I design, I want to focus on tense game features such as limited supplies, and short-term opportunity losses for long term gains, and I feel the level of interaction melds with the nature of the gameplay. Players will step up to the plate if they get to hinder their opponent’s plans.

4. I’ve read the story of your introduction to Foxtrot Games, but can you explain a bit about the connection to Renegade Game Studios and how that affects you?

Funny story is that I heard about Renegade Game Studios through Corey Young, who designed Gravwell and is a great friend of mine. When we were playtesting a game at GenCon, he had mentioned that Scott Gaeta from Cryptozoic was re-publishing Gravwell as part of Renegade Game Studios and they were a new company to look forward to knowing. Long story short, Randy of Foxtrot Games and Scott had come together to partner on the publication of Lanterns during the Kickstarter campaign and I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Both companies are doing excellent with their games (World’s Fair 1893 winning a Mensa, too!) and I would love to work with Renegade on a game in the future.

5. Lanterns has been out for a while now, and has been racking up awards and nominations. This is your first published game, and the first time to see the reactions – not only the awards, but the variety of comments and reviews, both good and bad, on BGG. How do you process these praises and criticisms, emotionally?

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions really. To have your first game be in the limelight of some of the biggest awards of the year, and a soon to be Tabletop episode, it’s overwhelming, and I couldn’t possibly thank everyone for their support, but if you’re reading this and you love Lanterns, thank you! But with the good comes with the bad, and yes there have been really negative comments, and I try to not let them be in my head, because focusing on the positive is what I should keep on doing in game design and in life itself.

6. You’ve wrote eloquently on the idea of “Minimum Viable Game” and the great importance of simplicity and elegance in design, which Lanterns illustrates wonderfully. I can only assume that the success of Lanterns motivates an expansion or follow-up, and certainly we’ve already had a few promo tiles. How do you balance that game design philosophy against, on the business end, a desire to expound upon the game?

So in term of what we’ve accomplished of Lanterns’ success, the Minimum Viable Game really now plays a part in what we do, because from a business standpoint, I know that it makes perfect sense for us to design an expansion, and truth be told, a lot of fans of the game would probably want something to more to bite on, so fingers crossed that we can achieve what we’ve already highlighted in the base game with something that can bring a fresh take of strategy on the game.

7. This may be a strange question that others have figured out, but I have a strong dislike for Twitter because I simply find it too hard to manage conversations. What tips (apps, settings, etc.) do you have for budding designers (or reviewers) who want to start using Twitter to good effect for networking?

That’s fine if you do, it’s a very hard platform to keep track of where conversations go to, but for those who want to start using it, I highly do recommend so. I tend to pop my head in from time to time and jump into threads when I can, but often times I tweet nonsense or about game design. The latter got me a contract! I recommend getting Tweeten to manage your twitter feeds. I also have a column dedicated to Cardboard Edison cause they’re a wealth of knowledge that I constantly use!

8. During our games, a friend suggested to me that going first may be a small disadvantage, since the last player to go may even have enough cards to score by his first turn. Do you have any thoughts on strategy in the game and tips for new players?

I’ve had both argument of last person having an advantage and first player having an advantage, and quite honestly, the game is light enough that we did not feel a change in what we provided players based on their turn order really makes a difference in how the game felt to players in the end. Our playtest results signified that games were won by all players in relatively equal proportions. If there was a big enough disproportion we would’ve explored a change but luckily it didn’t have to come to that!

In terms of strategy, I often go for the 4 of 1 color Dedication tile if I can first. Yes it has the least amount of points provided starting out, but it’s the most efficient ratio of trading in cards for points at a 2:1 ratio versus everything else to start the game with. A good tip would also be paying attention to what your opponents have. Often times you can lay a tile down that gives your opponent what they need to make a combination on their very next turn. If you can help it, give them something they may not be able to use for another turn!

9. What games, movies, books, and music are you currently enjoying?

I’m in love with piano music right now. Marasy, Ludovico Einaudi, and Kyle Landry are few of the many new age composers I listen to every day. I’ve been playing quite a few board games more recently, when I actually have time to get together with folks, and I’m really loving Above and Below and Mission: Red Planet. I’m currently reading Console Wars by Blake Harris and I have an overdue fine on that so I better get on that straight away! And finally I just watched Big Hero 6. Great movie.

10. What’s next (that you can share)? Anything you’d like to add?

I’m currently working on a comic book-inspired game where players will be superheroes and choose panels on a comic book page to fight the evil-doers or rest, in which they will create tension that will hinder their success. The villain will be a semi-controlled AI where they will deploy henchmen to fight and they will fight as well however they may end leaving themselves open for the heroes to counter attack! I hope to be able to work on this more with my team and be able to pitch this by the end of the year. I’d love to be able to transfer this game to an existing comic book license. Hopefully we’ll a home for it because I know it definitely has a lot of potential!

Review: The Rose King

rosekingRecently, Thames & Kosmos began doing its own distribution of the KOSMOS brand in the U.S., and a key piece to this initiative is the well-known KOSMOS two-player series. They’ve republished the famous Lost Cities, as well as Kahuna and Tally Ho!, and they are also making The Rose King widely available in the U.S. for the first time ever. Designed by Dirk Henn (ShogunAlhambra), the game feels very much in line with the rest of series, presenting a card-driven chess-match of sorts. But does it stack up against the KOSMOS legacy, or should it have never seen the light of day in the States? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:


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


Components: There are very few components to this game – a small deck of cards, a bunch of small cardboard tokens, and really, that’s it. However, everything looks very nice and elegant (though that could also be taken to be mean “a bit plain”), and the price is super competitive ($19.99 MSRP). Not much to say here – I like the very plain, slick look; it does a good job evoking the rather abstract nature of the game in a way that still looks cool. And all of the pieces are of very good quality.


Accessibility: You can easily have a game going in minutes. Each player is dealt a hand of five cards and you either play a card or draw a card as your turn. Playing a card moves the central token in one of the eight standard directions (orthogonal and diagonal) exactly 1, 2, or 3 spaces, and you claim the resulting spot on the board. You can’t land on an occupied space, except that four times in the game, you can land on an opponent’s space and claim it as your own. The game ends when the tokens are gone or nobody can move. The goal is to score points by having large connected regions of your color. That’s it!


Depth:  The KOSMOS two-player line has always been a series about balancing a fair dose of luck with interesting strategy in a short playtime. The Rose King gets the balance just right. There is certainly luck in the card draw, but since both hands are face-up, you can anticipate both when you and your opponent are about to have useless hands, and you can also cleverly force your opponent into situations where none of their cards are useful, so they are forced to draw a card (or even skip their turn, if their hand is full), allowing you to essentially take several turns in a row. The interaction of the cards with the board space is both simple and brilliant, allowing for tons of tactics as well as long-term strategy. This game would be a perfect game to study in a game studies or game theory course – it’s profoundly deep despite being so simple, with just enough luck to make it interesting and not a simple counting exercise.


Theme: Presumably, this game is about two knights of the rose, fighting, or something. There’s also a king? I don’t know. It’s white versus red on a chess board of sorts. Despite being a full-blown abstract, I appreciate what the veneer of a theme accomplishes here. It makes the game look very nice and gives it more life than it would have otherwise without it. I like the faded map under the board spaces, and the crowns and swords on the cards. You should know going in this is basically an abstract, so you can gripe about the lack of theme, or be thankful for the nice touches given by what little theme it has. I’ll go with the latter.


Fun: The Rose King feels very much a relic of the games of a few decades ago (it was originally published in 1997), but I see that as a good thing here. It’s simple, yet deep, without any unnecessary chrome. Many of the more popular games these days involve deep social interaction or heavy production values like miniatures – you won’t find any of that in The Rose King. What you will find is an incredibly fun, quick, two-player abstract with a perfect mix of luck and skill, strategy and tactics.


The Rose King is all the best things about the simple, clever two-player games that KOSMOS is known for. This one definitely holds up, almost 20 years later.




4 out of 5


Review: Commissioned

commissionedWhen I first became a Christian in high school – whoa, 16 years ago now – one of the more difficult struggles I found myself in was assimilating into the media of evangelical culture. Overcoming stereotypes from the misinformed (like how playing Dungeons & Dragons is a one-way ticket to hell) was a battle I still have to fight every day. And the impression I got back then was that while Christians were happy to have their own “Christian version” of everything, most of it, well, sucked. I didn’t use to be a metalhead, but I found that somehow that was the only genre where Christians were on par or ahead of their secular counterparts, probably because most fundamentalists thought screaming into a microphone meant you were devil spawn anyway. (Don’t get me started on movies…)

While the mere concept of Christians insisting their own separate versions of everything has its own problems, it has its own unique considerations within board games. Certainly eras of early Christendom have been represented in roundabout ways, through games about the Roman empire, for example. Typically, this is representation has been negative or roughly neutral, which is not altogether strange for today’s society. Yet the stories of both the Old Testament and the early Church are, if nothing else, rich in narrative, and have a lot of potential as board game themes. We’ve seen a surge in this idea recently, moving from tacky Bible editions of Apples to Apples to serious considerations of these themes, with games like Kings of Israel from Funhill Games and now Commissioned from Chara Games. We’re arriving at a chance to do something for Christian games and media that music certainly couldn’t do in the 1990s or 2000s: to be engaging, inviting, authentic, and actually good.

Perhaps because of my own many disappointments in the realm of Christian media, I came in expecting very little from Commissioned, but hoping for quite a lot. Designed by Patrick Lysaght, Commissioned is a cooperative deckbuilding game (somewhat similar to the Legendary series) that has players taking on the roles of apostles of the early church, spreading the Gospel outward from Jerusalem, overcoming various difficulties along the way. Can it accomplish a seemingly impossible task? 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: The game is played on a board consisting of a large map of the area surrounding Jerusalem in the time of Acts. While cubes, meeples, and pawns are constantly moving on the board, there are also several different decks involved in the cardplay. All of the pieces (especially the large, helpful player boards) are of fine quality, though I think the artwork is a bit drab. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be evocative of the theme or if it was a budget thing, but I’d love for the game’s hopeful approach to the theme illustrated colorfully by someone like Vincent Dutrait (Discoveries) or Xavier Collette (Dixit Journey). Other than the “seriousness” of the art (which may appeal to some!), the game’s components are very nicely done, and the $45 MSRP is more than reasonable.


Accessibility: It’s easy to see that a lot of effort went into this rulebook, as well as the how to play video. I read the rules, but the other players who had watched the video ahead of time were consistently more “on top of things” than I was, so take that for what it’s worth. We had the occasional rules question, but I found that the game was very careful with wordings and definitions of in-game objects, which was really helpful. The game’s deckbuilding concept could be new to some who are buying the game based on the theme, and the way that the turn “order” works takes a little getting used to. Those are not major complaints, however. I wouldn’t quite call this a gateway game and I would think non-gamers buying this could use a teacher, but any experienced gaming group will have zero trouble learning this one.


Depth: My one concern with this game is that it may become somewhat repetitive. On one hand, there are a variety of ways that the game sets up variability – you can do a different scenario; the decks to buy from are randomized; you can play as different apostles each time. On the other hand, the Trial deck is the same from game to game (other than choice of difficulty mode), and the ways that you interact with the board are somewhat basic. It’s entirely possible that I’m making something out of nothing, though – we’ve played a couple times, but I haven’t exhausted every scenario and our games did have different challenges. Much like other deckbuilders, I would love for this game to be boosted by a variety of expansions. Until then, I feel confident that the game will keep your interest for a good long while, but I’m not sure that the system is varied enough to keep you playing indefinitely.


Theme: This game has taken delicate care of its thematic integration, and the result is noteworthy. Most importantly, the challenges faced by the Apostles are interesting, but “nameless” – there are no particularly villainous bad guys like in Legendary, and I think that’s for the best. This game is more about the church figuring out its own struggles and becoming the beacon of good news that it should be, and that’s a wonderful angle to take. There is a small trade-off in that the “nameless” challenges can for that reason feel generic at times, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off. Everything else just clicks, and presents Christianity as it should be, not as how many often perceive it today.


Fun: I enjoyed Commissioned quite a bit. It didn’t skyrocket to the top of my want-to-play pile, but it’s a game I’d be happy to sit down and play with anyone who’s interested. I expect it will be a great tool in teaching both Christians and non-Christians about the history and message of the early church, and I believe it does so in an authentic way. You can tell the designers were inspired to make a good game about their faith and not to just sell something because it said “Christian” on it. I suspect that if expansions are ever made, I’ll be very excited to come back to this one.


Commissioned is a solid game, and more importantly, a turning point, at least in board games, for the authenticity of “Christian” media. If you’re interested in the history of the early church, or just enjoy cooperative games or deckbuilding games, Commissioned is worth a look.




4 out of 5


Review: Onitama

onitamaboxThe Dice Tower Essentials line, a series of games put out by Arcane Wonders and hand-picked by Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower, was off to a fantastic start in 2014 with Sheriff of Nottingham. Roughly a year and a half after that release, Arcane Wonders has finally released the second game in the line – Onitama, an abstract strategy game (!) by Japanese designer Shimpei Sato. The game seems different in just about every way from Sheriff – but despite that, does it continue the high quality of the Dice Tower Essentials line? 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?


onitamaplayComponents: I hate to use the word “over-produced”, because I strongly believe games should look amazing, and this one does. Despite coming in a very awkwardly-sized box, the components of this game are about as blinged out as possible. The pawns are very nice plastic miniatures, the board is a beautiful neoprene mat, and the cards are large, elegant, Tarot-sized beauties with impeccable graphic design. Even the insert is great. My only weird complaint is that the rulebook fits awkwardly along the magnetic lid (which is also very stylish in the way it wraps around the box) instead of having its own place. The game could have been cheaper without this treatment, but I’m willing to pay the $29.99 MSRP for a game to have this level of production value. It’s the same principle that led to the success of games like King of Tokyo, and it works well here too.


Accessibility: This game draws obvious comparisons to Chess, but even for people who don’t play that classic abstract, this truly is an incredibly simple game to learn. You move your pieces in an attempt to either capture your opponent’s “King” (Master Pawn is the phrase, I believe) or to move your own “King” to the center of the other side of the board. The unique aspect to this game is that the styles of movement available to you change each game, and the five moves available in a single game rotate between the two players. That means any powerful move you use will soon end up in the hands of your opponent. This is an incredibly clever twist, because it allows for some very tough decisions without increasing the complexity of actually learning the game.


onitamaboxopenDepth: The comparison to Chess is a valid one; I’ve lost five games of Onitama in a row to a friend who is an avid Chess player. The game rewards long-term planning, but it requires a different way to wrap your head around it than Chess, because you have to be very aware that the way each piece can move is constantly in flux, both for you and your opponent. While that could lead to a game of cumbersome difficulty (Chess, by comparison, is incredibly hard to play at a high level), the very small board and low number of pieces prevent the game from overstaying its welcome, both time-wise and mind-wise. It’s easy to play several games in a row, but I would encourage players to stick with the same five cards for several games, to see how that particular combination opens up. And since there are 4,368 five-card combos to use (ignoring starting distribution!), there are plenty of new rearrangements to study once you feel like you’ve completely explored that one combination. There’s endless variety, and more importantly, every game has been exciting and mentally satisfying, regardless of the cards used.


Theme: I have never seen so much work put into the theme of a game obviously meant to be advertised as an abstract. Between the box art, the awesome, chunky miniatures, and even the flavor text on each card (which are named after animals, similar to some martial arts styles), the game brings a level of immersion I would not have considered possible for this game before I witnessed it. The work put into the game on this end has me thinking I should quit letting abstract or abstract-Euro type games off the hook in the theme department – it can be done, people!


Fun: This game certainly requires a certain type of gamer. If you don’t like the gameplay of other two-player abstracts (not necessarily Chess, but games like Kamisado, Niya, Othello, and so on), you won’t like this game, despite all the effort put in. But if you’re a fan of that genre, this one lands right near the top of the list for me. I’d have no problem recommending this one as a blind buy to abstract lovers.


Onitama proves that abstract strategy can provide things you’d never expect, like thematic integration and infinite replayability, while still retaining everything we already love about the genre. I hope to see the Dice Tower Essentials line continue this level of excellence.




5 out of 5

Review: Tally Ho!

tallyhocoverWhen I first became a true “BoardGameGeek,” I began hungrily searching for the best and most well-known “modern classics,” and that search led me to the KOSMOS two-player series time and time again. The most famous game in the line is probably Lost Cities, but there are many other excellent choices, such as Kennerspiel nominee Targi or personal favorite Dragonheart. Thames and Kosmos have heard this over and over again as well – since beginning to do their own U.S. distribution, their most requested games have been from this line. And they’ve answered, with Tally Ho! and The Rose King arriving just recently on U.S. shelves. Ostensibly a game about animals and hunters, Tally Ho! is at its core a tile game of hidden, randomized setup followed by chess-like gameplay. How does the game stack up against the KOSMOS two-player legacy? 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: As I mentioned, there are very few components to this game – literally 48 tiles, the board, and the rulesheet. However, it’s about as competitively priced as it can be, with an MSRP of $19.99 (around $13 online). The artwork is good, and the tiles are thick and sturdy. Not sure what else to say. No awkward rips from the punchboard? Nothing that stood out as super impressive, but everything was very good. I like a lean, efficient package, and that’s what you get here for sure.


Accessibility: The game is actually very simple, but explaining seems to somehow take a few more sentences than it should. There’s a great rules reference on the back of the rulebook (more companies do this, please!). The only reason it’s a bit awkward to explain is that for the game to work, there are several rules that are in there simply to avoid “lock-up” scenarios (e.g. you can’t move a piece back to where it just was, you can’t move a green tile that was just flipped), and they damage the “elegance” of the game somewhat. However, it’s still a very simple game, and can be explained in under 5 minutes. And since the game only takes about 20 minutes, it’s easy to play a practice round and then go again.


Depth: There are most definitely strategic decisions that can be made in this game. That being said, the initial setup is both random and hidden, so there’s an insane amount of luck in the early game as you reveal tiles. Reveal your opponent’s bear right next to your lumberjack? Too bad. As the tiles get revealed and the board opens up, there are many more interesting decisions to make, but I felt that our five games were primarily determined by luck of the draw. For example, in one game, the human player lost both his lumberjacks early to bad luck, and several of his hunters were surrounded by trees, meaning that they could never be used. While this does make for games where anyone can win, which can be exciting, sometimes the way that lucky setups would stymie interesting play made the game much less exciting.


Theme: This is quite clearly an abstract game with a thin veneer of theme-paint. That being said, I prefer the paint to no theme at all, and the rules at least make thematic sense, regarding who can capture whom. It’s not a theme (hunting) that appeals to me much, but it’s also one that’s criminally underused in the board game world, so I applaud the choice. I really can’t complain here.


Fun: The game is quick, has some interesting gameplay, and a healthy dose of luck. Unfortunately, that luck can also be at times frustrating, and the game doesn’t seem wide enough to allow for really creative play. It’s an “inoffensive” way to pass the time, but there are many other games in the KOSMOS two-player line that I would grab first.


Tally Ho! is a carefully designed game with some interesting decisions, but the simple gameplay and extreme amount of luck keep it from being a standout member of KOSMOS’s two-player line.



2 Stars

2 out of 5

What is Innovation?

pls1This past week, the BoardGameGeek awards were announced, with Pandemic Legacy making a four-category sweep, including the category Innovative. In that category, it beat out both 504 and Time Stories. This has led to comments from the peanut gallery along the lines of “this is what happens when you let the plebs pick the awards.” On the other hand, I thought Pandemic Legacy was both a reasonable pick and one that proposes an important question: what is the difference between “Best Innovative Game” and “Most Innovative Game”, if any? Well, I have an opinion on this, but let’s take it one step at a time…


1. Nothing is truly innovative, anyway.

As much as we humans take great pride in our accomplishments, our ideas are always inspired by others, even if we can’t identify the source. This is evident, I think, to most mathematicians, who understand this from the very way that they write. They don’t create or invent, but prove, clarify, and discover what is already there. We see this time and again in the board game industry as well. Most designers happily admit when their inspiration comes from another person’s design (see this recent post by Bruno Faidutti) and even those who allege to hide themselves from outside influence end up independently discovering the same thing (take, for example, the well-known story of Reiner Knizia unwittingly recreating Qwirkle, or even Leibniz and Newton independently discovering calculus). For myself and other believers of any Judeo-Christian tradition, there is also a Biblical truth to this (Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”) Whether you see it from faith, from science, or simply from game design, I think we all know that “pure” innovation is impossible. That doesn’t mean that we don’t see or play things that feel fresh and new – but we should remember that they always come from somewhere.


Dominion2. Effective re-implementation is a form of innovation.

This headline seems quite contradictory to my previous point. Despite the fact that nothing is “truly” innovative, we still have this concept of innovation and one that we at least subjectively perceive and understand. Touch screens, for example, I think we would consider an innovation, though they were obviously a slow evolution (of previous concepts – see point one). In the board game world, Dominion was considered quite innovative even as it borrowed so obviously and heavily from DXV’s roots in Magic: the Gathering.  Yet we still feel like this concept exists and should be rewarded. I think we should actually be generous with what we consider innovation, and here’s why.

If we establish that nothing is truly original or innovative, then why do we feel that sixth sense when we think we “see” innovation? I don’t think it’s just that we see something that we thought we never had before. That might happen, but if it is not tied to a powerful, enjoyable experience, it is useless. Innovation is bringing a new experience to the table (literally in the sense of board games). Taking a previous mechanism and making its experience better (or even making it good if it wasn’t) is an example of doing just that. I would never argue that Lords of Waterdeep is the most innovative or the best innovative game of 2012, but I would argue that it is innovative. It took a well-known concept, worker placement, and finally placed it in a proper gateway game with mass appeal. That in itself is innovation. Even though no individual component was new, the game brought a new, fresh experience to the table for myself and many others. To me, that is the heart of what we mean by innovation.

This obviously varies by degrees. You might say that, based on my argument, every single game is innovative. Well, sure. But for, say, an award, we are probably going to narrow down to the five “most” innovative games, the five that feel the most fresh and original. By my argument, I would say that both, for example, Pandemic Legacy and Codenames are original – they bring something new to the table despite having no new individual parts. And you could say the same about one of the games people are holding up as most innovative of 2015, 504. It has no original parts, it just mixes them (or, well, provides the cookbook and makes you mix them) in new ways. And probably all of those games are more innovative, than, say, Star Realms: Colony Wars, as an extreme example.

I should also stress a point here – we often make the very false assumption that innovation requires the addition of something in order to be new. Back to my Lords of Waterdeep example, in my mind, that game was innovative in that it simplified and cleaned up the classic worker-placement games, making one that is simple and accessible. To me, that’s a huge innovation. It’s the same innovation that Transamerica and Ticket to Ride brought to train games, all to great success. I’m not alone in this idea of “innovation through deletion” – Love Letter, a mere 16 cards, won the Innovative category of the Golden Geeks in 2012.


splendorbox3. “Best Innovative” and “Most Innovative” should be synonymous.

So, let’s say you narrow down a list to the five most innovative games of 2015. (A note here: some have said that Pandemic Legacy shouldn’t even make such a shortlist, which I find patently ridiculous. Many thought the Legacy concept was a one-off and certainly that it could not work well with a cooperative game.) Should the best game on the list win? Or the most innovative? I posit that they are one and the same. If we accept that improving upon established mechanisms is innovative, then the best game among the nominees is the in my mind the most innovative game – it felt fresh enough to make the cut, but its innovations combine with the rest of the package to make the best game. And I’ll say that I do not like my previous sentence. “The rest of the package” is in itself an innovation, because this is an entirely new game, is it not? In my mind, these things coalesce, and there is no distinction between Most Innovative and Best Innovative.

You could make the argument that I’m in essence saying Game of the Year should be the same as Best/Most Innovative Game of the Year, if I’m going to have this broad a definition. In a sense, I am. Last year, Splendor won the 2014 BGG Golden Geek Game of the Year, a game virtually nobody considers innovative – except me. Much like Lords of Waterdeep, Splendor‘s innovation is one of “deletion”, of trimming familiar concepts down to a bare-bones but beautiful game that is so addictive precisely because it is so simple. While I doubt many others are as extreme as I am in this regard, the more important point is that in an already narrowed-down category of “innovative” games (whatever that means), I think there is no difference between voting for the “best” innovative game and the “most innovative” game.

Why do we even have the category, then? I don’t know. I’d be okay with getting rid of it. That wasn’t where I was headed when I began writing, but I’m there now.


P.S. A Note on Plebs.

There seems to be a general disdain for “people’s choice” awards like the Golden Geek. Let’s be very careful not to turn awards in our hobby into the Oscars, where we find ourselves so disconnected from the general audience that our awards become meaningless. What is the point of board game awards again, anyway? Isn’t it to point new players in the right direction? After all, hobbyists already have already bought all the games we are discussing. To think that the opinion of an “educated” few is superior to the general populace in this regard is just hubris. Games become popular precisely because players who are introduced to them find them enjoyable. Let’s not forget that our hobby is a social one, first and foremost.

Review: Steam Time

SteamTime-coverSteam Time is a new worker-placement game set in a steampunk-flavored version of 1899.  Players command steam-powered airships as they race across the world (and through time!) to collect and exploit the supernatural resources of this alternate Earth.

The game was designed by Rüdiger Dorn, a Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (for 2014’s Istanbul) and multiple-time SdJ nominee (for Jambo, Arkadia, and our much-loved Las Vegas).  With such a respected pedigree and an intriguing theme, I was very excited to put Steam Time through its paces.

Here’s a reminder of our review categories:

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

Components: I tend to enjoy very tactile games, with lots of big, quality bits to handle.  Steam Time delivers here, with nice, chunky cardboard central and player boards.  The plastic “crystals” are standard boardgame fare — you’ve probably seen similar ones in Incan Gold or Valdora — but shuffling them around and placing them in the holes on your airship board’s reactors is quite satisfying.  The module upgrades nestle cleanly into grooves on the airship boards, which is a nice touch.  The stock used for the various cards is serviceable, but after about five sessions they were beginning to show slight color chipping on some edges.

Accessibility: I’ve taught the game to several different groups now, and everyone has picked it up very quickly.  The rules are well-written, though there are a couple of edge cases where I had to look up a clarification online.  Play time on the box is listed as 90 minutes, and that feels about right; sessions can stretch out to a couple of hours with newer players, but it never feels like a particularly long game.  I found Steam Time to be best with the maximum four players, but it does scale down well to two- or three-player, with separate timestream boards included for each possible player count.

Depth: Steam Time falls solidly into the “light-to-medium weight Euro” category.  It’s not exactly a brain-burner, but there are interesting decisions to be made each turn, and every action feels important.  There isn’t any direct player conflict, though there’s the standard worker-placement “take that” feeling of snatching up an action that someone else needs.

The game offers several different types of resources such as Steam, Gold, and even Time, but the colored crystals are what really drive everything.  They not only power your airship by adding significant bonuses to their related actions, but they’re also expendable resources for buying airship modules (your production engine) and reward-bearing Expedition cards.  Deciding the correct time to save or spend crystals is the real meat of the game, and it’s a delicate balance.

I made it a point to try completely different strategies each session, and all seemed viable to some degree.  Fortunately, a planned path to victory is not set in stone.  The Mission cards, which act as semi-hidden, points-scoring goals for the game’s end, always require you to collect something, but they come in such a wide variety that it’s usually possible to switch tracks mid-game.

Steam Time also contains two optional mini-expansion modules in the box.  “Sabotage” adds the ability to lock out specific actions on the game board, which enhances the level of player interaction.  “Specialists” assigns the players a small deck of cards that can temporarily bend the rules in various ways until another card is played.

Steam Time boardsTheme: I love the steampunk style of the game and components, and you really do feel like an engineer shuffling steam power and crystals between the airship’s different systems.  Your journeys may take you to famous archaeological sites, and you may even meet some famous discoverers and inventors from the Encounter deck.  None of these details are vital to the gameplay, but it was a nice surprise when Galileo showed up to hand over some victory points.

The artwork and board layouts are hit-and-miss.  It’s all consistent with the time-traveling airship theme, but there are heavily-saturated colors everywhere, and everything appears overwhelmingly busy.  The central timestream boards in particular are a headache-inducing mess of brightly colored icons, board elements, and background art.  Honestly, it looks a bit like a unicorn threw up on the table.

I’m a big fan of heavily-themed Euro-games, but this is one instance where a bit of subtlety would have been appreciated.

Fun: I’ve enjoyed every one of my sessions with Steam Time.  The careful balancing act of efficiency versus future income is engaging, and the very tactile nature of the game’s components adds to the fun factor.  After several plays, the varying paths to victory have kept the game from becoming stale.

Visual issues notwithstanding, Steam Time is a fun and well-balanced worker-placement game.  It may fall a bit short of being an all-time classic due to the lack of revolutionary new elements, but it’s an extremely solid choice for any Euro-game fan’s collection.




4 out of 5