Asmodee October Round-up: Claustrophobia: Furor Sanguinis, Timelines: Americana and American History

Today, you get three reviews in one! These are all expansions or stand-alones based on previous Asmodee games, and I didn’t think I’d have enough to say about any of them to justify an entire article, so here we are. Let’s get right to it!

 

furorsanguinisClaustrophobia: Furor Sanguinis

This is the second expansion for Claustrophobia, after De Profundis introduced new humans and hellhounds for the Demon player, among other things. Furor Sanguinis goes an entirely different route, introducing a third faction: the squamata is one big figure that has a board similar to the Demon player’s, where dice are assigned to different parts of his gigantic body. He has 13 health divided across the different parts, and if a part ‘dies’, its powers can no longer be used. His (rather large) miniature is the only one in the box, along with some tokens, 3 cardboard tiles, and six dice – it’s a lot less physical content than the last expansion, but the same MSRP ($50). I realize they probably didn’t want to print a single card, but one of the new Demons is just printed in the scenario of the rulebook, and that felt a bit corner-cutty. The actual pieces in the box look great, though.

Claustrophobia is the kind of game that appeals to me – a Descent-style dungeon crawl that can be done in 30-45 minutes instead of several hours. However, I always felt that playing as the humans was nowhere near as much fun as all the cool things the Demon player could do. This expansion lets you pit the squamata against either other faction, but to me, it’s a chance to ditch those boring humans. We had great fun pitting the squamata against the Demon’s hordes of Troglodytes, and the first scenario felt more ‘even’ – like a battle between two titans instead of David vs. Goliath. There are some awkward things with the rules and the old material since so much of it references Humans, but it seemed like we were able to properly infer everything we needed to know from the Furor Sanguinis rulebook. We never felt baffled by any of the rules differences. The later scenarios let you pair the squamata with humans as well, which is cool, but the focus is still on the squamata and all of his cool new powers.

However, while this change was a lot more fun, it moves the game farther away from what you might want from a typical dungeon crawl. Part of the appeal for some is the idea of a party of adventurers questing into the dungeon, although Claustrophobia has that unique ‘invasion of Hell’ New Jerusalem spin on it (which I could take or leave). And if you haven’t invested in Claustrophobia but are excited about this mode of play, you’re looking at a hefty $120 MSRP investment (without considering De Profundis). However, if you’re already committed and, like me, find the humans underwhelming, you absolutely should pick up Furor Sanguinis. 

 

americanaTimeline: Americana and Timeline: American History

There’s a double-dose of Timeline this month, hot on the heels of the ASTRA award for “Best Toys for Kids” for American History. I’m just going to offer a few comments about these specific sets of cards. You can see my review of the Timeline system (based on the Inventions release) here, and comments about Music & Cinema as well as Cardline: Globetrotter here.

Before I opened the tins, I really wasn’t sure what the difference would be between American History and Americana, as they sound awful dang similar. American History is basically the things you learned about in school: the Declaration of Independence, when so-and-so was elected President, and so on. Americana has more ‘fun’ things like the founding of the NFL, the building of Route 66, and the unveiling of the first iPad. It’s still educational, but the factoids aren’t things found in history books (but who decided those were the important facts of the past, anyway?). And of course, it’s more fun – Timeline is at its best when it comes at you with nostalgia and humor, like it did with Music & Cinema, not when it comes at you like an attempt to make schoolwork fun. Still, I was impressed with myself how much of American History I did actually remember from school, and I suppose whether that reminiscence is enjoyable for you depends on how much you enjoyed history class and / or elementary school.

americanhistoryI do have one really big gripe about both sets, though. I realize Bombyx is a French company and Asmodee’s North America branch is based in Montreal, but I wonder if these were shown to a typical American family. American History has a card called something like “First slaves arrive in North America” – which I agree is an important historical event, one that we had better not forget. But the card is rather jarring against everything else – it’s a picture of a mostly-naked Black man being shoved off a boat onto a dock by a white man’s hand (you only see the hand). There is also a card called something like “Slave trade ends” which shows a Black man in a field breaking the chains on his hands. Racial sensitivity is something that we should always be mindful of, and I’m afraid that no matter how hard we try, we will never completely put the past behind us – and if we did, we’d probably be at risk of repeating it in some other way. I felt like the first card’s artwork, at least, put a damper on the game and probably made it a bit unappealing for those who would be offended by it. I’m not saying they should have ignored historical events, but maybe zoomed-out artwork would have been better (maybe just a picture of ships arriving). Alternatively, the second card I have no problem with, as it was definitely something we should remember and celebrate – and maybe just having that card alone, without the insensitivity of the first one, can remind us of the shameful slavery that was committed here, while also reminding us that we did put a stop to it.

And then, in Americana, among the many great American icons, such as Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain, we have… “Janet Jackson’s wardobe malfunction,” recreated in all its non-glory. Why? Why would you include this? I’m not sure anyone in America actually wants to remember this event, let alone have artwork of it in their house. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the set. Maybe it was there to be funny, but I just didn’t laugh.

I realize that was a lot of negative ranting. I still love the Timeline series, and I can’t wait to see even more sets come out (maybe a Cardline of baseball stats, or a Timeline of 90’s grunge?). In fact, I think these two sets are two of the most fun, and I’m eager to mix them with Music & Cinema, as much of the American music and movies in that set would fit nicely with the Americana theme. I just need to figure out how to store them all, as the tins don’t stack and are getting kind of out of hand… and I’ve got half a mind to reduce the required storage space by throwing those two cards away.

MeepleThon 2014 to support the Extra Life charity

MeepleThon-banner

Start: Saturday, October 25, 2014 – 8:00am CDT

End: Sunday, October 26, 2014 – 8:00am CDT

What the heck is this?

Your faithful MeepleTown staff (along with some friends) are going to be playing tabletop games for 24 hours straight to benefit the Extra Life charity, which supports Children’s Miracle Network hospitals.  We’ll be broadcasting a Twitch.tv video stream throughout the event, so you can watch us game, talk to us via the live chat, and laugh at our terrible plays.

Extra Life has been running for eight years now, and they’ve raised millions of dollars for the CMN — you can learn more about their efforts here.

We get to play some awesome games and help sick kids at the same time!

How does it work?

Viewers who enjoy our stream can (and should!) donate to Extra Life via a link here or on our stream page.

For 2014 we’ve chosen the Children’s Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham as our sponsored hospital.  Every dollar donated goes directly to the Children’s Miracle Network, and then to the selected hospital – we never even see the money.

If you want to get a head start, the donation link is already available!  Donate here.

How can I help?

There are two things that you can do to help!

  • Watch and Donate
    We’ll be streaming all 24 hours of MeepleThon live on the Internet.  Watch as much as you want, and donate whatever you feel is appropriate.  Every dollar helps!
  • Tell Your Friends
    While we hope to pick up some viewers from Twitch and our MeepleTown readers, the best way to make this work is for YOU to help us get the word out!  Share our stream link on your Facebook or Twitter page.  Tell your friends!  Heck, tell some strangers!  We’re not picky.

We hope that you’ll join us for MeepleThon 2014!  We’ll post our video stream link shortly before the event starts.  Let’s show the world that boardgamers can do amazing things!

Review: Niya

niyabox2014 has truly been the Year of Bruno Cathala: by my estimation, he had at least eight new releases in the U.S. alone this year. While most of the buzz has been on Five Tribes and Abyss, Bruno also has a love of small abstract games, such as his Niya, new from Blue Orange Games. What happens when Monsieur Cathala takes away the special action cards and characters? Let’s find out… 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: This is a small game, in a small tin, with a small price. The MSRP is $12.99, and inside the tin is a great foam insert that holds 16 cardboard tiles, 16 chunky plastic player tokens, and the rulebook. The cardboard tiles could be a little thicker, but the art is very nice and the plastic player pieces each have different characters on them and feel great in your hand. My only niggles with the components are that the two icons overlap in a way that makes them hard to differentiate, although they look great, and the tin is a bit too large to fit in your pocket. Overall, really great pieces here, and an amazing price.

 

Niya_GameOpen_Flat_HiResAccessibility: This game is easily explained in two or three sentences, although I managed to forget one the first time I taught it. The cardboard tokens are laid out in a random 4 x 4 pattern, and each has two of four symbols (a plant and a poetic symbol). On your turn, you remove a piece and replace it with one of your tokens (the first player of the game must play on the edge), and the next player does the same, but removes a cardboard token that shares at least one characteristic with the piece just removed, and so on. You win if your pieces make four in a row (horizontal or diagonal), a 2 x 2 square, or if your opponent cannot move. That’s it! The game is extremely simple, and you can see how to do basic strategy before you even move a piece.

 

Depth: This is a ten-minute game, so keeping that in mind, there’s still a lot to think about here. You can do a fair amount of analysis before any moves or even made, but I tend to just pick a move based on some basic principles (for example, maybe an opening move where the opponent can’t play directly adjacent to you). Even if one particular game becomes rather easy to think through, the random setup of the 4 x 4 grid adds a lot of replayability to the game. I’ve actually been trying to analyze this game quite a bit, and hope to actually write a paper on determining the probability of the first player winning if both players play completely randomly (but legally). That approach to the game has already made me realize just how deep the mathematics are in this game, yet it plays quick and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.

 

Theme: The theme of this game is…. Japan? I don’t know. It just seems to be a mish-mash of oriental tropes, that of course have nothing to do with the abstract game being played. On one hand, the setting and nice art seemed to go really well with a half-hour tea and light conversation with students whereupon I first played the game… On the other hand, it seems a little nonsensical and disconnected, and it might’ve been better just to be colors and shapes like Qwirkle or the GIPF project.

 

Fun: For the time you invest to it, and the extremely tiny ruleset, I found this to be a fun, light, yet mathematically interesting game. To me this is basically the For Sale / No Thanks / etc. style filler for abstract lovers. The movement mechanism reminds me of Kamisado, mixed with the lightness and simple ideas of Connect Four. When you add in the random setup absent to both of those games, you’ve got a real winner.

 

Although this game probably isn’t for people who hate abstracts, everyone else will find a quick, simple filler for two in Niya.

 

Rating

4star

4 out of 5

 

Although this game probably isn’t for people who hate abstracts, everyone else will find a quick, simple filler for two in Niya.

Review: Camel Up

camelupboxEvery year when the Spiel des Jahres nominees are announced, I have a bad habit of dismissing the games I haven’t played at all. This year, I thought surely Splendor would win over Concept – and who’s ever even heard of Camel Up or its designer, Steffen Bogen? So imagine my surprise when Camel Up was announced to be the winner! The game is finally arriving on U.S. shores thanks to Z-Man Games, but do I agree with its victory over the competition? 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?

 

camelupcomponentsComponents: The components in this game are pretty basic, for the most part. You get a small playing board, five wooden camels, a few decks of small (Mini Euro size) cards, some thick cardboard tiles, some thin cardboard coin tokens, five dice, and… THE DICE PYRAMID! The dice pyramid is definitely the defining characteristic of this game. It basically holds the dice and has a slider with a rubber band on the top, that lets you turn it upside and release one die, thus simultaneously randomizing which die comes out, and what face is rolled (by the way, the dice faces are 1,1,2,2,3,3). It is extremely fun to use and makes the game more than what it would be if you just randomly chose a die from someone’s hand and then rolled it. The coins are a little thin, and I don’t know why the higher denominations of coins had to be cards, but the rest of the components all feel great and are really thick. The camels are very large and stack on top of each other really well. The only other complaint I have is that the insert is very basic and there’s no careful spot to place the dice pyramid. For $40 MSRP though, this game has some really great components.

 

Accessibility: When I’ve played this game with adults, the game is quite simple to explain as long as you start out by explaining no one owns any particular camel and we’re just betting on a race. The iconography on the tiles and on the board really help you keep track of how you get money and which things do what. I do think this game is a tiny bit convoluted for little kids, although the box says ages 8 and up, and that’s probably fine. Younger kids could probably participate without really understanding exactly what they are doing, but they’d still understand the idea of the camel race and using the awesome pyramid.

 

Depth: This game is quite random, since the central moving mechanism randomizes both the order of the dice and the faces of the dice. You’re really just guesstimating what you think the results of the randomization will be. That’s not to say there are no decisions to make – some moves are better than others, and sometimes it is tough to decide which thing you want to do – but I would say the depth is closer to fillers like Rise of Augustus and Qwixx. This game also only takes about thirty minutes, so that’s something to keep in mind as well. The only thing that really bugs me is that moving the camels seems to help your opponents far more than you, but you can’t really make any informed judgments until it happens, so there’s kind of a silly game of chicken at the start of each leg. Despite these complaints, I think the theme and fun of the game compensate for the lack of depth.

 

Theme: I’m pretty sure this is the reason that Camel Up won the Spiel des Jahres over Splendor and Concept. Although there are some ridiculous aspects to the theme (camels from the wrong region, character pictures are stereotypes), it’s a fun and somewhat unique theme, and more importantly, the game is built on the theme from the ground up. Younger players and families can immediately internalize what they’re doing, because they’re modeling something that thematically makes sense in real life, rather than working with abstract symbols as in Splendor or even Concept. Betting on a race makes sense, and it’s something people do for fun in real life (unlike, say, farming). On top of that, the randomness of the game actually serves to make the race ridiculous and exciting, and this is one of the few games I know where the typically-annoying random factor actually ratchets up the fun of the game – quite a feat in itself.

 

Fun: I’ve mentioned before in reviews of games like La Boca and Skull & Roses that there’s just something about that sweet spot when games walk the line between strategy game and party game. Camel Up walks that line perfectly, offering some light strategic decisions but also some serious laughs. It makes perfect thematic sense as well, which allows younger or inexperienced gamers to “see” the fun of the game for what it is, and to quickly understand the mechanisms and the goal. Although this isn’t among my personal favorites to play from this year, this is a game where the real joy comes from watching other players’ faces light up with the fun of gaming, when more strategic games probably wouldn’t have had the same effect. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great game that I enjoy – but I enjoy the enjoyment of watching others play this game even more (hopefully that sentence made sense).

 

Camel Up is right there in line with where the Spiel des Jahres jury has been the last few years – and in fact, even if you won’t be delving deep into any strategic thinking, this is the most laugh-out-loud fun you’ll have with any of the winners since Dixit.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Five Tribes

fivetribesboxI don’t exactly know how the hype machine gets rolling, but the buzz on this game has been absolutely crazy. It’s finally in my greedy little hands, but I was a little wary. Bruno Cathala is a great designer whose games (usually co-designs, but not this time) typically appeal to me, but this game looks, walks and talks like a Stefan Feld game (which usually isn’t my style). As far as I can tell, it’s Days of Wonder’s first foray into games with no plastic pieces as well as their first “gamer’s game”. There’s a lot that could go right here and a lot that could go wrong – where does the game land? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

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

 

Components: These components are nice and chunky, like most Days of Wonder bits are. The iconography is clear, the insert is cleverly designed, the art is good – this is Days of Wonder at its usual best. You get a lot of wooden pieces for the fair-and-typical price of $60. And these are really quality wooden pieces, that just feel good to hold. I also love how (comparatively) quick the game is to set up and tear down. This really shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s so awesome that they included five player aids in a four-player game, when many games these days don’t have any, even if they desperately need it. I do have some small complaints about it, as both it and the rulebook are a bit disorganized, and Days of Wonder has a really bad habit of paraphrasing things on their player aid to the point where you have to go find it in the rulebook anyway. There are also icons given with little context – for example, it looks like the Palm Trees are worth 8 points on the player aid, but the icon is instead showing not what they’re worth but what kind of tile they appear on. You can also tell the rules weren’t written by a mathematics teacher – people really got hung up on the Builders Tribe, which really shouldn’t invoke multiplication (sad, but true).  I feel like these kinds of things should be hammered out by now, yet what they have here is still way beyond the current industry standard. I have a habit of ranting more about the niggles than the good things, but rest assured that these pieces are fantastic.

 

fivetribescomponentsAccessibility: My wife described this game as Mancala meets 7 Wonders, the second half in reference to the many different color-coded ways to score points. I think that’s really the only difficulty with learning the game, because the central mechanisms are rather simple. I found the tile actions to be way simpler than I expected them to be, since there are basically two sets of repeats (and I honestly don’t see the point in having both Oases and Villages in the game – just make one kind of tile worth four – it doesn’t seem worth the extra complexity). We got a little hung up on the red and blue meeple actions, I think because of the awkward wordings on the player aids, and because those are the two that could be amplified with slaves. The beginning of this game would just be awful for players prone to analysis paralysis, because the game is wide open. We just picked some moves and ran with it, but we definitely only needed a few turns before we started going “Oh, I see that move, or you could do that…” and then bidding suddenly became more relevant. Our first four-player game only took 90 minutes including a first-time explanation, which I thought was pretty impressive. I do feel like there are some small things that could have been done to make the game simpler (especially what I wrote above regarding the written rules), but the game itself is rather intuitive. In fact, though Days of Wonder calls this their first gamer’s game, and maybe it’s the first game of theirs that’s this thinky, I would argue it has much fewer “piddly” rules than, say, Shadows over Camelot, which actually had two, rather large, rulebooks. Bruno Cathala’s designing skills have come quite far in a decade!

 

Depth: To me, this game hits that sweet spot of being playable within an hour, but still having a lot to think about. As far as I can tell, there’s no one thing you have to do to win – Bruno has mentioned he’s won without camels, won without Viziers, won without Djinns, and so on. The game is definitely one of opportunity, and it can be a bit frustrating to see the game state shift before your turn arrives – but I think that because it’s player-controlled and because of the (clever and simple) bidding system, you still feel like you can only blame yourself and not the game. However, if you’re the kind of person that feels the need to play absolutely optimally, please avoid this game. There is just serious information overload here, especially early on, and you just can’t analyze every little thing. You just have to pick a move that looks good and go with it. You can have a general strategy of what type of points you might go for, but you really need to play this game tactically for it to be reasonable. This is exacerbated in two-player games where you can end up taking up to four turns in a row. I remember seeing one tile with seven meeples and just not being able to process what to do with it. (I think I moved meeples to that tile just to drain it and make it less intimidating.) So I don’t know really how to qualify the depth of this game, because while you can certainly strategize, I think there’s a limit on where the strategizing is still reasonable, and I think the game is best played by making the most of each moment within the context of your greater plan – without too much thought.

 

cardsfivetribesTheme: This game is rather themeless. The setting is fun, and makes for pretty bits and cool-looking Djinn cards, but the setting could have been just about anything. So I suppose that makes it worth mentioning about the Slave cards which are in the Resource deck. A lot has already been said, and obviously Days of Wonder isn’t trying to promote slavery… But one thing that I think hasn’t been mentioned is that, as inhumane as it sounds, they just aren’t fun. They’re rather jarring against the rest of the bright setting, and you can’t exactly riff on these in good conscience, like you might start “Baa”-ing like a sheep during Settlers of Catan. If these were magic lamps (the most obvious choice), we’d be making Aladdin and Christina Aguilera references in good fun, but instead we’re having a bit less fun than we could have because of the awkwardness of the slave cards.

In the grand scheme of things, they’re a small part of the game and their existence is more of an inconvenience. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying what is clearly a very good game, and I think the rest of the game does a great job making for a fun, colorful setting that may not feel like you’re directly in the setting the way Tales of Arabian Nights does, but it gives you enough to work with without detracting from the mechanisms: and here, the mechanisms are the game. (I mean, why are we dropping these guys in different spots and dooming them to life in a bag of darkness anyway?)

 

Fun: Although the theme is irrelevant and the game is terribly prone to over-analysis, the mechanisms in this game are just loads of fun. The tactile element of picking up and dropping off the meeples in fancy loops just feels good, and ending up with a move where you get to do several things (the meeple action, the tile action, maybe a Djinn ability) gives the game the feeling of a card-combo style game without (most of) the cards. The art is great and so are the chunky wooden pieces, and game plays quickly without much set-up or tear-down. The only real nag against the game is that while most games make you feel like you can try and make an optimal decision with the information you have, the information overload in this game makes you a bit more aware that you’re maybe just trying to play reasonably instead of optimally…. but the game is so fun, that it doesn’t really matter how well you played or who won.

 

I have to add my voice to the chorus of hype already being sung: Days of Wonder has another great game on their hands here, and this game should appeal to just about everyone.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Ca$h ‘n Guns (second edition)

cashngunsboxCa$h ‘n Guns is an older game from before my entrance to the hobby, and due to a lack of availability and (sorry folks) an art direction I didn’t much like, I never sought the game out. It’s now back in print with a second edition, with new art by John Kovalic (Munchkin), new guns, and new rules. Is it better or worse than the old version that I never played? Well, I don’t know, but let’s talk about it anyway. 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?

 

cashngunscomponentsComponents: Though I haven’t played the old game, I’ve seen the guns, and that’s a big improvement here: they are now black with orange tips instead of completely orange. However, we live in strange times regarding guns in America, so I’d be a little wary about where you bust this game out. There’s no insert, because the rest of the game is just a few cardboard tokens and standups along with three decks of cards in various sizes. I’m a bit disappointed that the loot is the extremely weird 60mm x 120mm size also used in Jamaica, as it’s impossible to find sleeves of that size. Another small niggle is that I would have liked player aids for everyone instead of just on the Godfather’s chest. On the other hand, the art is great and indeed a large improvement over the old version – except that some of the paintings are “humorously nude” which makes even moreso “not for young’uns” than just having the guns. The iconography is very clear and the price point is fabulous ($40 MSRP). Eight players out of the box instead of six is also fantastic. Overall, I’m very happy with the components here.

 

Accessibility: Ca$h ‘n Guns is one of those games that walks the fine line between a party game and a ‘strategy’ game, much like Mascarade or The Resistance. A key aspect of that genre is to have very simple rules, and Ca$h ‘n Guns has accomplished that by streamlining a lot of mechanisms of the previous version. Though I haven’t played the old game, I understand how the old mechanisms work (Bang! Bang! Bang! cards were faster than Bang! cards, loot needed to be split evenly) and I think the changes make a lot of sense. The turns are very quick, and the drafting of the loot makes perfect sense in this day and age when drafting is an extremely common mechanism in games. You’re in and out in 30 minutes even with eight players, and you’ll understand what you are trying to accomplish even on the first turn, though you may not be sure who to point your gun at.

 

Depth: Although the game may have been simplified, I still think it has a lot going on for what is essentially a party game. You have to decide when to use a Click! or a Bang!, and where to point your gun. Do I go for the obvious person, or do I try to shoot someone in the back of the pack just to have as few people in the round as possible? What if everyone does that? Do I shoot the Godfather just in the hopes that he’ll let me redirect my gun after I see everyone’s aims? When I do I bow out of a round early? Once you add the special powers, you’ve got even more to consider. This will never be a brain-burner, but it certainly isn’t mindless.

 

Theme: This is the kind of game that was surely made from the ground up with the theme as the foundation. The foam guns make the game almost a cross between a toy and a game, and from there a rather interesting, fun, laugh-out-loud game is built. I’m a mathematics professor and often see straight through a pasted-on theme until I’m just calcuatting numbers and symbols, though that doesn’t really bother me, depending on the game. Here, though, you are right in the middle of the theme, and you couldn’t take it out of the experience even if you wanted to for whatever reason.

 

Fun: When we’ve got a group of 6-8 players, it seems like the options are to split up, play an agonizing long version of a game not really meant for that many, or to play party games. I love party games like Telestrations and Say Anything, but for people who really want a modicum of strategy in their large group games, we’ve had great success with The Resistance, Coup, Skull & Roses and similar games. Ca$h ‘n Guns is a great addition to that repertoire, offering a more thematic experience than those games and offering a similar feel without relying on lying or bluffing, which some dislike. Ca$h ‘n Guns is just quick, simple, riotous fun. However, stick with Coup or Skull & Roses at four or five players – you really need six or more for this game to shine, I think.

 

Ca$h ‘n Guns is a fun, loud, riotous pseudo-party game with cool components and a low price point. Just be wary where you bust this game out!

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Review: Samurai Spirit

Samurai SpiritSamurai Spirit is essentially Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai in boardgame form.  The players are samurai tasked with defending a village from an onslaught of bandits that attack in three waves.  If the players can protect at least one family and one farmstead in the village, they win.  If the village falls, or if even one samurai dies, it’s all over.

I think I have an unhealthy relationship with co-operative games.  I love the concept in theory.  Get together with friends and work together to solve a problem.  The issue is that pure co-operative games almost all suffer from the same issue: “quarterbacking”.  Because these games are effectively a collaborative puzzle, and because there’s no hidden information, there are usually one or two “best” moves that the players can agree on.  Unfortunately, this allows for dominant and/or very experienced players to take over a game, while shy or less-experienced players end up feeling marginalized and often don’t actually get to play much of the game.  This frustrates me to no end, and yet I still rush out and eagerly buy each new co-op game that comes out, hoping for some innovation that fixes this problem.

Some games, such as Space Alert and Escape: Curse of the Temple, skirt these issues with a built-in time limitation;  players are so busy dealing with their own problems that they can’t hold anyone else’s hand.  Other games, such as Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, get around this with a “traitor” mechanic; perhaps everyone shouldn’t blindly listen to that dominant player, as he may be working against the group.

When I read that Samurai Spirit was going to be a pure co-operative game, I worried that no matter how good Antoine Bauza’s pedigree as a game designer may be, the game would likely suffer from quarterbacking.  After all, as much as I love Bauza’s co-operative classic Ghost Stories, it’s also one of the most striking examples of this problem.

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: When I picked up my copy of Samurai Spirit at Gen Con, I was a bit underwhelmed; the box seemed extremely small.  While there’s a lot more to a good game than several pounds of cardstock and wooden bits, nice components can add a lot of flavor to a game.  Fortunately, what’s in the box is well-crafted.  The character cards are thick cardboard, and the artwork is spectacular — each board contains a player’s samurai on one side, and its “spirit animal” form on the other side.  The bandit cards are similarly well-drawn, though I’d like to see more variety.  All of the cards of a given value (except for the 6-value “bosses”) have the same artwork.  The other bits (counters and tokens) are fairly standard boardgame fare.

The only real downer is the game board itself — it’s tiny!  While the board is serviceable enough, this game is designed for up to seven players.  At a large table with a lot of people, it can be hard to see the remaining barricades.  These are minor issues, and if these were the design decisions required to hit the game’s $30 retail price point, I feel they were worth it.

Accessibility: Samiurai Spirit is simple to learn, with only a few available actions available each turn.  On most turns, players will encounter a bandit, and will then choose to fight it or defend the village from its specific attack type.  The only other possible moves are to Support by passing the character’s unique ability token to another player, or to Pass, which takes the player out of the current round entirely.  I’ve taught this game to nearly a dozen people now, and almost everyone picked up the rules and basic strategy within a turn or two of starting.  I’m not sure the barrier to entry is quite as low as, say, Forbidden Island, but this definitely shouldn’t require a lot of gaming experience to pick up.

Depth: I’ve played Samurai Spirit several times now with a few distinct groups of people, and so far we haven’t come across an obvious best strategy.  While there aren’t as many moving parts as a more complex co-op game like Ghost Stories or Shadows Over Camelot, there are still difficult decisions to be made.  Ultimately, the samurai are attempting to hit their “kiai” values as often as possible — this is the point where the total value of the bandits a samurai is fighting matches his maximum fighting capacity.  Going over this value knocks the samurai out for the round, but hitting it exactly fires off a unique power and removes a bandit from the field of battle.  This can seem like a blind gamble, as in most situations the players have no idea which bandit card will be drawn next.

In fact, there are a lot of “press your luck” situations in the game.  Defending the village is another example: failing to defend against an attack type can have dire consequences at the end of a round, but keeping a character’s defend icons free allow a player to deal with a high-valued bandit card without getting knocked out.

Fortunately, there are some more complex (and subtle) choices.  While the Support action most obviously confers a samurai’s ability to another player, it can also be used strategically to avoid drawing a card.  Strategic passing can be useful as well; when the deck gets low, a player who has fulfilled his or her defense goals may want to bow out and let the other players get more chances as the icons they need.  When a character becomes damaged to half his starting life value, he shifts into a more powerful animal form (my first character turned into a katana-wielding raccoon — how badass is that?).  There’s a decision here as well: dying loses the game, but getting to half-health makes a character more effective in battle.

Theme: I really dig the samurai theme, and the gameplay mechanics fit in well.  The game effectively conveys the feel of defending a particularly vulnerable village from an endless onslaught of bandits; it may feel overwhelming at times, but it also feels like the characters are legendary heroes capable of fighting off the hordes.  Firing off a kiai power is particularly satisfying and effective, and the rare opportunity to chain two or three of them together is spectacular — watching a hopeless situation turn into a pile of dead bandits because of a clever play is quite rewarding.

Fun: The first few times I played Samurai Spirit, it was with a well-balanced group of four to five players.  We didn’t overthink most of the turns, and we mostly let players make their own decisions unless there was a very pressing need for a different action.  We actually hadn’t planned on playing more than once, but the game was so much fun that we wanted to keep trying new strategies to try to get a win.  The games flowed very quickly, with the first learning session lasting about 60 minutes, and the two subsequent games taking about 45 (with the final game including a win!).

I played a few nights later with a seven-player group consisting of different people.  The difference here is that we had several “alpha gamers” who wanted to analyze and second-guess every move.  This not only turned a fairly light game into a 90+ minute ordeal, but it made some of the less-dominant players feel left out.  A few times I even had to remind people not to simply take other players’ turns for them.  We won, but I had a lot less fun with this group.  Seven players seems like too many for a quick game; four or five seems to be the ideal number, but more can work if the players agree to keep the game moving.

Despite the one poor experience, I absolutely adore Samurai Spirit.  It contains traces of Ghost Stories without being a remake — this isn’t a Forbidden Island / Pandemic relationship.  The game flows with a beguiling simplicity, but there are enough subtle choices to keep things interesting.  The only major flaw is the aforementioned quarterbacking issue, which is more an indictment of pure co-operative games as a genre than anything specific to Samurai Spirit.  You may want to avoid this game if your regular gaming group has a tendancy to meta-game, or if it contains very strong personalities that may attempt to “take over” the game.

For anyone else, especially if you have friends who enjoy co-ops, Samurai Spirit is a charming, easy-to-play game with a deceptive amount of depth behind its simplicity.

Rating:
4star
4 out of 5

Review: Black Fleet

BOX Black Fleet.pdfSpace Cowboys have had a great first year as a company, with their initial release Splendor selling out repeatedly and being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. There second release, Black Fleet by Sebastian Bleasdale, is now here, and it is a much different game from the straightforward mathematics of Splendor. Now, pirates, merchants and navy ships battle it out on the high seas with lots of special abilities and action cards. Will Space Cowboys be as successful with a totally different kind of design? 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?

[Edit: Turns out the final MSRP is $60, which is more along what I would expect. However, I left what I wrote below because this game really is classy enough to have that $70 price tag.]

blackeetcomponentsComponents: There might be a bit of sticker shock with this game’s $70 MSRP. However, Space Cowboys is clearly establishing themselves as publishers of truly boutique games with gorgeous components – unsurprising, considering Sebastian Pauchon (one of said cowboys) is also the owner of GameWorks, which seems to operate on a similar principle. Splendor may have seemed overpriced at $40, but those poker-chip-like gems truly made the game. Likewise, Black Fleet’s incredible production makes the game a truly high-end experience. There are only ten ships, but their molds are incredibly detailed and designed to hold the goods cubes, the coins are a nice clinky metal, the cards are all on quality cardstock and the game board is just lush with color. All the little details are there – the development cards form a panorama, the insert has a skull and crossbones on it, and there’s so much more. You really do get what you pay for with this one.

Accessibility: You can often tell how difficult a game will be by the rulebook, and this one is not particularly thick. A turn simply involves playing a Navigation card and moving the appropriate ships, and then doing up to one Action per ship. Actions can be things like Merchant Ships selling and loading goods, Pirate Ships attacking Merchant Ships, and so on. The mechanism for the winning the game is also somewhat unique yet easy to explain: players get four Development cards costing 5, 8, 11 and 14 coins that they can build in any order to get new special powers, and once they’ve done that, they pay 10 coins to flip their “I Win” card. No mechanism feels particularly new, but they’re mixed in exciting new ways that make the game necessarily easy to learn. If I had a complaint, it’s that some of the abilities on the cards aren’t as completely clear as they could be.

Depth: This is a one-hour, family weight game, and it’s very tactical. You are playing one of only two Navigation cards, constantly getting new Action cards and new abilities from Development cards, and so is everyone else. The ships are always in new places as well, not only due to the shared movement of the Navy ships, but also because when ships “die” they simply reenter the board from an appropriate edge. This means a turn typically involves just figuring out what you can pull off that turn in that particular situation. However, since the game is only for 3-4 players the situations can’t change that much from turn to turn, and you tend to pay attention to how things are developing and changing on other people’s turns just because the cool pieces make it that fun to watch. So while I don’t think the game has much in the way of long-term strategy other than planning in what order you might do your Development cards, there’s still a lot to consider on your turn as you decide what move is best that turn. And it doesn’t feel like “oh, there are no decisions or strategy in this game” – it feels like you’ve got a lot of good options on any given turn, and that’s a fun feeling for a game to have.

Theme: There are certainly inconsistencies with the theme – why am I allowed to move a pirate, and a merchant, and a navy ship? Despite that, the game does feel properly “piratey”, simply because attacking is exactly what you want to be doing every single turn. (Thankfully, the penalties for being attacked feel relatively minimal, so the game isn’t especially cruel.) The Fortune (action) cards and Development card abilities definitely give you a feeling of uniqueness from the other players and the cool sense of “My guys can do THIS!” and make you feel like your crew is especially powerful (even if the cards are fairly balanced). I think the theme comes through fairly well, and you’ll find yourself “Arrrr”’ing a few times, although for me personally, I was abstractly number-crunching for a victory from the beginning – but that’s just my nature and no fault of the game’s.

Fun: The first few turns of this game were relatively unexciting and had me worried that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. As soon as the abilities and Fortune cards come flying out, though, this game becomes highly interactive and enjoyable. After someone mixes some abilities for some clever move against your ships, you can come right back with “Oh yeah? Well I can do this and this and THIS!” and get some revenge (and some money too). This is one of those rare “Take that” games that shouldn’t result in any hurt feelings, which is a major design accomplishment in and of itself. Lots of interesting decisions and a fast-and-loose feel to the gameplay make for an extremely fun, light game.

 

Black Fleet is a gorgeous, fun game worthy of its [not that high] price tag, masterfully mixing old mechanisms in new ways to make a “take that” game without any of the negatives of the genre.

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Abyss

abyssboxI can’t believe just how many new releases Asmodee had at Gen Con in 2014 – it was close to ten, if you count games like Madame Ching that had just snuck out less than a month prior. Yet, one game naturally stood above them all, for the art direction if nothing else: and that game was Abyss. Although the game has a great pedigree in codesigners Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier and publisher Bombyx, the artwork of Xavier Collette (which seemed to be quite a deviation from his usual style) had gamers foaming at the mouth. That’s a lot of pressure for the gameplay to live up to… 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?

abysscomponentsComponents: Like I mentioned, we can’t really start anywhere but the amazing art design. From the creepy five (!) different covers, to the wonderfully illustrated Lords and Locations to the functional and gorgeous game boards, this game might have the best art direction of any board game ever made. The unique theme accentuates the art design even more, but I think the art is so majestic that it even stands apart somehow from what it represents. Prints of this stuff should be in an art museum.

As for the actual pieces, they are cleanly and carefully designed, and show just how much care went into the pieces: you even get little plastic “pearls” for currency to go with the theme. However, this does lead to some niggles I have with the pieces. The pearls require little plastic cups, because if you try dropping one on the table, trust me, it’s gone. They’re so tiny that they’re definitely choking hazards for babies and pets, and they will end up on the floor at some point. (Can you tell I’m a dad now?) The insert is nice, and even leaves enough space in the card well for sleeves… except the wells aren’t deep enough once the cards are sleeved! Ah, someday we’ll get there, I suppose.

I really like the thick, large location tiles and also think the cards have appropriate (if unorthodox) card sizes and good thickness. However, one strange thing is that the location tiles use the symbols from the back of the Ally and Lord decks and then color-code them to identify which race they might be referring to, but it’s rather confusing because it’s different symbolism from the Lord cards, which use the individual race icons… but then have different names for the races (the “job” of the Lords) than the Ally cards, which is completely unnecessary and confusing. They should have been called “Squid Lord,” “Crab Lord,” and so on instead of “Merchant Lord,” “Solider Lord,” etc. It just takes a little bit longer to grok than it would have otherwise, but it’s not a big hurdle to overcome. The $60 MSRP seems a bit high for what you get compared to miniatures-heavy games like Lords of Xidit, but obviously a lot of work went into the art direction and I’d be shocked if a gamer passed on this game because of the price. Despite these complaints, the artwork is so good that I can’t help but feel positively overall about the components.

Accessibility: Other than my comments about symbols and names, this is quite a simple game. Although the “drafting” is very unique, it’s simple to understand, and the game is basically just a set-collection game where the sets are used to buy cards with special abilities. There’s some more subtlety than that, for sure, but I think the complexity is more on the level of Carcassonne or Settlers of Catan than something like Trajan or Village. Even in our first game, we understood what a basic strategy would look like and the tactics of the draft only a few turns in. We immediately a played a second game and knew the mechanisms well enough already to have a proper mental showdown.

Depth: Though this is, in reality, a medium-light family-level Euro with a short playing time, there’s a lot going on here. There’s a risk-taking element with the draft, where you might consider stopping on a weak card early simply so that your opponents can’t buy a good card from you. There’s the angling around piles you create at the Council and considering what Lords other players might pursue. In fact, much of the game seems to be about pushing your luck and mitigating risk, as you have the same factors to consider when deciding how many Location tiles to reveal. There’s also a tough battle about deciding when to get that third key and give up those precious special powers. The game is full of agonizing decisions each turn, where even in retrospect the right decision isn’t always clear – and even if that’s just the illusion of depth, it’s still dang good game design.

abysspicTheme: This is where people may be disappointed. The astounding artwork really draws you into what you’re looking at and can even be mesmerizing at times, but mechanically, this game is themeless. There might be a connection to the names of the Lords and Locations and their special powers, but that’s really it. You could play this game with abstract symbols and icons and the gameplay would be identical. You could literally ‘paste’ any theme on. That being said, this is such a unique theme, and the art direction is so amazing, that I still feel drawn in to that underwater world by the art if not by the mechanisms.

Fun: Although there’s nothing really new mechanically in Abyss, it remixes old ideas in refreshing new ways. The game has tense gameplay with interesting, tough decisions and feels fresh and new, largely because of the art and theme, but the mechanics don’t feel tired at all. It might not be as intense and complex as some were hoping, but for those who enjoy middle- and lite-weight Euros like myself, this game just hit all the right notes. If I had a complaint, it’s really just more of a worry, and that’s that there might be too few Lords (35) and Locations (20). Judging by the many copies I saw being sold at Gen Con, though, surely an expansion is inevitable. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to my next game of Abyss, as it’s one of the best games of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Though the theme only goes as far as the art direction, Abyss’s amazing look and fresh spin on old mechanisms make for a tough, enjoyable, quick journey through underwater politics that will have you wanting to play again straightaway.

Rating:

4star
4 out of 5

Hillary’s Play On Con Top 5

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As you may already know, Play On Con is one of my favorite conventions to attend every year.  So much so that I started volunteering several years ago. This year was my first year as Assistant Programming Director, which is every bit as busy as it sounds, but fifteen times more awesome than you probably think. I also hear some of you asking “Assistant Programming Director, but she’s a gamer girl…?”  This is true; honestly, I’m still trying to figure this one out…

Role confusion aside, this year’s POC was amazing and extremely fun. Here are the top moments from this year’s con (in no particular order, as usual):

1. Strolling through the lobby with my friend’s baby and being played soothing  lullabies by Marc Gunn.

Long story short: Things happened as they do at a con and we were in need of an electronics guru on short notice. The one I happened to have in my back pocket (because what Assistant Director doesn’t have a random collection of people, items, and information that seems useless until you need it “right now”) had a nine-month-old.  After a while, the-nine month-old became bored with being cooped up in the theater watching daddy draw LED circuits on the whiteboard. So, I took him for a walk around the property. The baby and I were delighted when Marc Gunn pulled out his autoharp and began playing beautiful instrumental music fit for soothing any impatient baby’s soul. Baby and I danced together for a couple of songs, thanked Marc profusely, and went back to the theater in a much happier state.

wpid-wp-1407344908051.jpeg2. Being a fangirl and having that be okay.

In preparation for my new role at Play On Con, I knew I would need to familiarize myself with parts of the con I hadn’t interacted deeply with before, including our guests. This year, we scored renowned southern Gothic and Steampunk author, Cherie Priest. I asked my director what I should read by her, and his answer was, “Read Boneshaker first, but Dreadnought is better.” Somehow, between real life, creating costumes, and all the promotion and preparation for Play On Con, I managed to read both… And in the process, I became a huge fan. Like really really huge. By the time the con rolled around, I was so super excited to have the chance to meet the person who wrote those books that I wasn’t sure that I could form a coherent sentence when I met her.

So, when one of the other directors introduced me to her, I simply said “Hi, it’s nice to meet you” and went on about my business. Throughout the weekend, I continued this trend of being cordial but not saying much, so as to avoid turning our conversations into an episode of “The Chris Farley show” from SNL.

Right before Cherie’s last panel of the weekend, I caught her at the door and said, “I don’t know what to say without sounding like a huge fangirl, so I’ll just say ‘thank you’.” To which she replied, “No, it’s okay. Thank you.” Right that second, my director Wes walked by and said to me, “Did you tell her you liked Dreadnought better than Boneshaker? It’s okay, she feels the same way…” Which spawned a conversation about my reactions to both.

The great part was the part where I realized Cherie was smiling during this conversation and seemed genuinely happy with my fangirl reaction. When I told her that I was shaking when I finished Dreadnought and that this is a rare reaction to a book for me (both absolutely true), she grinned and said excitedly, “I’ll take it! Thank you!” It was such a great moment to finally get to talk to someone whose work I really admire and have her not just endure the fangirlishness, but be okay with it and even genuinely happy.

wpid-wp-1407344966104.jpeg3. Actually having fun at a party.

I am not much of a partier, mainly because I am not much of a drinker. POC’s over-21 parties are the stuff of legends, but the stories I hear are always of alcohol-induced shenanigans. This year, I promised my friend Zakura that instead of hanging out in the gaming room all night like I usually do, I would go to her party. I can assure you that me agreeing to this was only because she’s an awesome friend and totally had absolutely nothing to do with her agreeing to loan me one of her gorgeous kimonos to wear.

However biased it may be,  my view of parties is that they are an excused to get hammered in costume.  However, when I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised; there was a definite “party” atmosphere, but the hostess had carefully crafted the vibe: great music, visuals provided by a muted geisha movie in the background, lovely handmade decorations, a flavorful signature drink, and plenty of food. She managed to create a place where both heavy partiers and wallflowers could be comfortable, which is not an easy feat. The Hanamachi party was amazing, and I wish more convention parties were like this one.

Oh yeah, and there was that moment where the hostess’ boyfriend cut his birthday cake with a katana. So rad.

4. Being beaten by a boy at a video game.

Friday afternoon, I actually found myself with free time, and I noticed that the schedule boasted a Dance Central tournament right when I happened to be free. So I ran to my room, got some hasty assistance getting out of my costume — because no matter how entertaining it might be for everyone else, I was not about to try to play a intense motion game in a corset and heels — and hightailed it across camp.

I love Dance Central, and I play now and again, so I thought I would at least do okay. My confidence was even bolstered a bit when someone else in the competition said they might as well not even participate based on my practice performance. Then I went up against my opponent, a somewhat shy, but seemingly nice, geeky guy. After a moment, I noticed that said geek was in costume, and that he wasn’t even watching the screen half the time we were dancing — and was still hitting every move. I laughed at how badly I got my butt kicked, thanked him profusely for the stiff competition and watched in awe as he went on to win the tournament.

wpid-img_20140725_171348.jpgwpid-img_20140725_171348.jpg5. Fire, nitrous, and chemical reactions in the “kitchen”.

Every year, POC hosts a variety of cool panels on different subjects, and this year was no exception: we had costuming panels, panels on literature, game shows with geeky themes, and even a group shooting off paper rockets. This year, my favorite panel was Gastronomic Chemistry (which was not actually held in a real kitchen for a number of reasons). Rob from Mindgear Labs in Huntsville led a panel explaining some of the cool things you can do with geeky kitchen gadgets, a little know-how and some unusual ingredients. It was all entertaining and informative but the best part was watching him use a mini-blowtorch to caramelize sugar on apples. Even better, it produced a tasty snack on which to place the caramel whipped cream he had made with a cool gadget that uses tiny nitrous oxide canisters! Of course, if no one had been around, I probably would have been happy to eat that fluffy caramel-y goodness straight out of the whipped cream can…

Of course, five things never sums up all the cool things that happened at Play On Con, but rest assured, it was epic, and I can’t wait for next year.