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Social Board Games, Part 10: Dominion Essays, Playing Bohnanza

Sorry for the lack of a post last week, and the late one this week. You can blame this new little gamer, who showed up on 4/4/14:

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bohnanzaMom and baby (Elizabeth) are both happy and healthy, although mom and I are quite tired. Fortunately, we have just one week of school left before finals! My sub unfortunately fell through, so the students did not get to play Hearts, and I never snuck in For Sale because both Dominion and Bohnanza took much longer than I anticipated. However, Bohnanza, Hearts, and For Sale all encompassed the same prompt, essentially, which I gave them this week: in all three games, it’s easy to make an emotional decision rather than a rational one. Many obvious examples come up of this being a bad tactic at least in a business sense, but is it ever good to make emotional decisions? (Isn’t that what marriage is?) How do you know if you’re making an emotional decision – and whether it’s a good or bad idea?

I think it’s a good prompt; however, the students did not seem very enthralled with Bohnanza this week. And this goes back to it actually being a rather complicated game. Dominion is the game I thought would give the most trouble, but it again showed why it’s such a favorite of mine: the complexity is in the cards and not the rules, so figuring the game out is natural. On the flip side, Bohnanza is a game created by taking the basic idea of a hand cards and forcing rule upon rule onto it until it creates meaningful decisions, which means it has much more up-front complexity.

The Dominion essays were fantastic, despite a rather simple, “boring” prompt. I told them that, and told them that I thought it stemmed from the fact that they all really enjoyed the game, which inspired them to write better. They seemed to agree as well. I can’t believe it took me getting properly scared by Dominion to think of doing a digital walkthrough of me playing before we began the game. I already had Ticket to Ride on my iPad and should have done it there; immediately after this realization, I went and bought the Forbidden Island app as well. I looked for a Bohnanza app to no avail – maybe someone can help me out there?

 

Next week, we are playing The Resistance, an absolute all-time favorite of mine. I’ll do one more update after that, since I’m using our meeting during finals week as a chance to do a survey on the class and for them to take a study break by playing the games they enjoyed the most. See you soon!

Review: One Night Ultimate Werewolf

onenightI absolutely love lying and bluffing games, especially when they’re simple and quick. One of the biggest advances in this genre was The Resistance, which had a lot of the qualities of Mafia / Werewolf but without the player elimination. So when I heard about One Night Ultimate Werewolf, I was pretty intrigued – no player elimination, and a 10-minute game even shorter than The Resistance, where everyone can have a special role? Sounds awesome, but is it? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

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

 

Components: Inside the box is literally sixteen character tiles that are dealt out to the players, sixteen tokens to show who is in the game, and the rulebook. While the tiles are nice and thick, I can’t believe that the MSRP is $25 for that amount of stuff. Although I really like the thick tiles instead of cards, I don’t think the difference quite justifies the price, when you look at how much stuff is in The Resistance ($20 MSRP) or the fact that Love Letter is $10 MSRP for sixteen cards and some cubes. Now, there is also a free iOS app for the game, which is extremely helpful for calling out roles, but if the price is there to cover the app, then it’s not exactly a free app. The rulebook is very simple and clear, and the tokens have fantastic artwork. I know we’re nitpicking over a few bucks here, but the high price kind of overshadows the nice, minimalist components.

 

Accessibility: Even if you haven’t played Mafia / Werewolf, the rules are abundantly clear. The game is literally one night and one day of Werewolf - everyone gets a secret role, a bunch of stuff happens at night, and then you have ten minutes to wake up and decide who to kill, if anyone. If a Werewolf dies, the Villagers win, and if someone’s a Werewolf but no Werewolves die, then the Werewolves win. There’s a little more to it with the extra roles, but the basic ones are pretty simple, and you can progressively add one more role each time to learn as you go. Narrating the game with no background noise is definitely not the way to play, though. It was hard to remember the order of the roles (although the tokens are numbered) and we could hear if something was being moved. The app is pretty much necessary, since it will call out the rules and has some night-time cricket noises to cover up any sounds being made by the players swapping tiles. With the app, it’s one of the simplest games in existence.

 

Depth: This is where the game falls apart. Maybe we’re a bunch of idiots, but we couldn’t even get this game to really work. After the night phase, it was always abundantly clear who everyone was, and it was impossible to lie your way out of a situation. I have played a lot of bluffing and hidden role games, so it’s not as if I am new to the genre (nor were the other players). As you add more roles and make it so there isn’t more than one vanilla Villager, it’s even harder for a Werewolf to lie unless he knows which roles are in the center of the table, because he can now be called out by the player actually having the role that he claims to be. (Before, he could usually claim to be a Villager with no sure way of being disproved by anyone.) Unless we missed a rule or something (but how could we, when the game is so simple), the game just seems, literally, broken. There’s no “good” partial information like in The Resistance, where you have reason for suspicion but no definite logic. This is either complete certainty or blind guessing. Additionally, the fact that you can switch roles and not know which team you’re on at the end might be comical, but in play it’s just frustrating and stupid.

 

Theme: As I said, the art in the game is great. The special powers also fit the names of the characters very well, and powers like the Drunk and the Insomniac fit the comical artwork just well enough to keep the game from being morbid. It’s also a very cool thematic twist on Werewolf that the game only lasts for one night, as if it’s some sort of double-or-nothing final challenge between the Werewolves and the Villagers. However, the escalating tension as people die each night is what draws you into the fear and panic of Werewolf, and that feeling is the heart and soul of the game. I didn’t feel a single bit of tension in One Night Ultimate Werewolf. The games tended to just end with a noncommittal “Well, let’s kill someone then.”  

 

Fun: We played this game seven times straight with a variety of roles, just trying to make it work. It doesn’t. It was actually more fun to sit and listen to the app and get excited thinking about what may have happened than to actually play the game. What actually happened was always obvious enough to be completely disappointing. If you want a game with lies and bluffing, play Coup, The Resistance, or maybe regular Werewolf - just anything else.

 

One Night Ultimate Werewolf sounds like an awesome idea, but don’t be fooled – the wolf of boredom is hiding in the sheepskin of the great art and concept.

Rating:

1star

1 out of 5

Retro-Review: Twilight Struggle

twilightstruggleAfter years or Agricola and Puerto Rico fighting for top-billing on BoardGameGeek’s ranking chart, Twilight Struggle eventually took over the number one spot. Designed by Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta and published in 2005 by GMT Games, Twilight Struggle is an attempt to retell the entire story of the Cold War in the form of a board game. Many argue whether or not it is truly a war game, but more importantly, is it really the best game of all time? 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: Twilight Struggle is not exactly the prettiest game ever made, although the current Deluxe Third Edition is a big step up from previous editions that had paper boards! The board is nice and thick and very functional – everything is clearly laid out. The influence tokens are relatively easy to handle, and the cards evoke the era well and are pretty clear in their meaning.  There are also some other tokens for when certain events take place, although we generally forget to use them. The $60 MSRP is pretty high but not unexpected for a game of this size.

There are some annoyances with the components that sour the experience, though. A few of the connections between countries are just too dang small to see and criss-crossed (I’m primarily talking about between Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Syria). The wording on a few of the cards is annoyingly unclear, to the point where you end up with endless threads on BoardGameGeek over the same topics. Even though they’re all delineated in various FAQs, it’d be a lot less of a problem if the cards were clearer. Lastly, influence can sometimes get up to 7 or higher in several places, and there aren’t really enough high-value tokens included. Stacking a five and three together gets the job done in a pinch, but it’s rather annoying. So, the components get the job done, but they could also be a lot better.

 

Accessibility: Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise - Twilight Struggle is not an easy game to learn. The first step, just learning how to play correctly, is a bit of a hurdle. There are a ton of different rules to remember, particularly about using a card for ops: placing influence, coups, and realignments. I struggled for a long time to learn the difference in restrictions and modifiers for coups and realignments. In fact, the formula for coups just looks like a made-up math equation! And of course, learning this is paramount, because you don’t want to accidentally do something completely illegal, and you definitely don’t want an unsatisfying DEFCON loss just because you don’t know what you’re doing. Those also tend to take new players by surprise, because they don’t see how they lose because the opponent coups on their turn.

A screenshot from the online (and free) VASSAL module.

A screenshot from the online (and free) VASSAL module.

In addition to just learning how to play correctly, there’s the strategy of the game, which is hugely dependent on knowing the cards in the deck. Until you’ve memorized the contents, you won’t know that the U.S. player probably shouldn’t start with influence in France, or that the USSR shouldn’t place influence in Romania, and so on. I’ve seen games between two beginners take over four hours, just because they can’t deal with their own cluelessness. This is an even more difficult task for Late War cards, because so many games never get that far. I’ve played the game over fifty times between real-life games and VASSAL and I still don’t know the Late War deck as well as I should, because so many games never get that far! I’ve played my share of complex games – card games especially – but this game is not one you just pick up and start playing. You’ve been warned.

One last note: I’ve very much enjoyed playing the game on VASSAL against other players, but I can’t imagine that it would be a good way to learn, as you’d have to find someone with the patience to teach you, and VASSAL does have the occasional bug or two.

 

Depth: If you do put in the effort to learn the game, you will be immensely rewarded. At the height of play – when both you and your opponent fully understand the ins and outs of the game – this is an epic battle for the ages. The strategy is immense, and comes at you from every direction. You have to be prepared for any card still in the deck – you need to know which ones those are, by the way – and you have to be prepared for an attack in any region, all while avoiding blowing up the world. The timing of scoring in the game is brilliant, and compounds with the deliciously frustrating rule that your opponent’s events still trigger when you play those cards for ops. Every decision is agonizing.

Yes, the game can have huge swings of luck, and it has them throughout the entire game, to the point where they mostly balance themselves out. Without those tides turning, if you were stuck neck-and-neck the entire game, it would not be exciting at all. Instead, you have to figure out how to dig yourself out of impossible situations, and how to create those situations for your opponent. There are a few games where I can say “Man, that came down to a 50/50 die roll” – but I let the game get to that point. I can always point to a prior turn or action round where I probably should have done something differently so that my opponent would not have that chance available to take. On top of that, every game is completely different, simply because of the different ways that the cards come out and the dice are rolled. This game is a true battle of wits, the kind you find at the highest level of games like Magic: the Gathering and Android: Netrunner, with all of the variety and none of the expense.

 

Theme: Even if you are not a Cold War enthusiast or a history buff, this game’s mechanics are still worth the experience. That being said, the theme has still had an effect on me, and made me curious to learn more about the Cold War. Some of the events I had never learned about in school, and are as timely and important as they ever were. (For example, I had no idea that Reagan bombed Libya). There truly is a full-on history lesson hidden within this game. The mechanics also perpetuate the fear and paranoia of the Cold War, as you find yourself nervously waiting to see what your opponent does next, or for your chance to spring a surprise strike. It’s also a grim reminder that this war was mostly fought with lives that were neither Soviet nor American. If you are a history buff, and especially if you find the Cold War fascinating, you definitely owe it to yourself to check out this game.

 

Fun: Not everyone is going to like this game. There are wild swings of luck, and it’s a constant back-and-forth, push-and-pull battle until the end. You can win or lose at the drop of a hat nuke. But if you enjoy that high level of one-on-one card play and bluff in games like Magic or Netrunner, this is the pinnacle. This is it. That is the reason this is the #1 game of all time on BoardGameGeek – and that ranking is justified. Yes, it’s kind of ugly and it’s very hard to learn, but once you (and at least one buddy) are set, board games don’t get any better than this.

 

If you haven’t experienced Twilight Struggle yet, prepare yourself for an uphill battle that is so, so worth it.

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Social Board Games, Part 9: Ticket to Ride / Zombie Dice Essays, Playing Dominion

DominionThis week, students got to play my favorite game of all time, Dominion. (Big thanks to Rio Grande Games for sending the games, with literally no questions asked. Jay [Tummelson] is awesome.) I warned them in advance that this would probably be the most complex game they’d play in the class, and I was rather apprehensive after some rules hiccups with more complicated games like Forbidden Island. I was going to write the rules out on the board, but I don’t think students have been willing to wade through a giant pile of instructions scrawled all over the dry-erase board… So instead, at the last minute I got the bright idea to use Goko’s Dominion site.

I wrote some reminders on the board, explained the rules as carefully as I could, and then gave a live demonstration of me playing against a bot and showing how your deck changes as you play. I played pretty badly, because for some reason Goko won’t let you pick the cards you play against bots with, so I was only buying cards in their preset pile of ten that I had made. I made sure to be patient and insist on a few questions being asked while I was still playing (there were about five), and then we got started. I made sure not to participate for the first game so I could answer questions (and there were many, though they were small ones), and brought an extra set from home to ensure that each game was three players (so the games would go quickly enough).

The groups who finished earlier, I gave more complicated sets for the second game, while the last group to finish I had use the same set again, and managed to have everyone finish their second game around the same time (right as class was ending). In one of the second games, a student asked what the point of Chapel was, and I said “Do you know what ‘discovery learning’ is?” A student had actually asked me why I wasn’t playing, but once everyone had things down from their first game, I joined one of the second games and showed them the power of Chapel. Two three-player games took each group about the full 100 minutes they had, so I am very glad I did not do four-player games. (I was going to also teach For Sale, but now I’m going to try to squeeze it in with Bohnanza.) Afterwards, several students raved about the game, and were looking through the other cards and talking about buying the game. Mission accomplished!

For their writing prompt, I made an analogy to how decisions in life work: early on, a decision has a big impact, but as life goes on (i.e. your deck gets bigger), each individual decision isn’t such a big impact in the grand scheme of things, and even further on in life, consequences aren’t so permanent (i.e. when you start buying Victory cards because the game is almost over). It’s a bit of a stretch, but I admitted my real reason for using this game was that it’s my favorite game, although I think it does bring this mental health concept across well enough.

As for the Ticket to Ride and Zombie Dice essays, a lot of the students seemed to really enjoy Ticket to Ride, and one student said Zombie Dice was his favorite of the semester, but overall they seemed a little less impressed with Zombie Dice, although they did understand the intended purpose (to study gambler’s logic). One psychology student who missed class borrowed Zombie Dice from the library (where I had placed a copy) and wrote an entire essay just on it and gambler’s logic – impressive! The essays were pretty middle-of-the-road for the semester so far, but I’m eager to read what they have to say about Dominion next week. In the meantime, here’s a pic of them playing:

photo (4)

Review: Escape: the Curse of the Temple

escapeboxI have to admit that both real-time games and cooperative games are not things that usually get me excited. After some prodding, I played Space Alert with fellow MeepleTown writer Christian Wilson at Gen Con last year, and ruined it for everyone (including myself). But Escape: the Curse of the Temple is being heralded as something different – a real-time game for families, so simple that anyone can play. Designed by Kristian Amundsen Østby and published by Queen Games, it’s a dice-chucking fest that lasts no more than ten minutes… but is it fun? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

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

 

escapecomponentsComponents: The components in this game are great. Queen Games has a strong commitment to green products and to wooden pieces, and they generally stay to that here, although the dice and gems are plastic. There’s a ton of nice, thick cardboard tiles for the temple as well as for curses and treasures, cardboard player tokens and wooden meeples, the aforementioned gems and plastic, and of course, the CD! (And like six unnecessary rulebooks in other languages, which I feel bad for throwing out…) It’s been strangely awkward trying to find CD players when I’ve wanted to bust the game out – we usually use an mp3 from their website and an iPad or other tablet. The two different soundtracks are awesome, both for keeping track in the game but also for pumping up the intensity of the game.

There are two things that I really don’t get, though. One is the double dose of tiles in the game. There are “normal” tiles without the curse and treasure icons, which are then replaced by different tiles which are identical except for those icons when you play with the “included expansion.” It’s great to start off without the curses and treasures for your first game, and I strongly recommend that you do – but you could just ignore the icons on the first go. That way, you wouldn’t have a pile of extra tiles that you’ll never need again and the game could be a little cheaper. Granted, $50 MSRP is fairly appropriate for this game – and Queen’s games are generally expensive, so I can’t complain too much – but it seems like a bit of a waste. Second, I don’t understand why the gem depot has one “printed on” gem. It confuses the crap out of new players – why don’t we just put one more gem down? My understanding is that it’s so you always need roll a key to leave – but why is that important? Overall, though, the components are clear, functional, and very beautiful.

 

Accessibility: The concept of this game is quite simple and brilliant, despite being something that many gamers have never seen before. You are literally just rolling dice as fast as possible to use them for actions that get you out of the temple – moving, opening doors, placing magic gems that unlock the exit, and so on. The game feels so much like a video game, like the faces of the dice are “buttons” that you press to take actions in real time, that just about everyone has very little trouble understanding the rules. Understanding what to do and how to win isn’t very difficult either. There’s even a tutorial on the soundtrack!

What’s far more difficult is making sure you’re playing the game correctly. Errors are bound to be made, where someone re-rolls a black die, or uses the same die twice for an action, or flips a tile too early. This will just get worse as more expansions are added. However, the clock is ticking, everyone is frantic, and all you can really do is roll with it (ha, ha) as it happens. I don’t think any adult (hopefully) would cheat on purpose to make sure that everyone wins, but accidents happen. We certainly have occasionally openly cheated with things like responding to “I’m locked out!” with “Break two, I had a gold, I just re-rolled it a second ago,” for example. Something to be aware of – just make sure everyone in the group agrees on the level of “seriousness” with which the game is being played.

 

Depth: For the most part, this game is just chucking dice as fast as possible. There’s even a bit of a dexterity element, as you can be punished, both in time and by the curses, for dropping a die on the floor. However, there’s plenty to think about – how do you want the layout of the temple to look? You don’t want the exit far from the center! How many gems do we actually need to get rid of? Is it okay to do four here or seven or should we go for ten? Crap, we have to get back to the center before we lose dice! Of course, the most important part of these decisions is how you cooperative with the other players, especially when everyone is screaming and rolling dice very loudly while the soundtrack booms away. While you could play this game solitaire, I can’t see it being nearly as enjoyable, or nearly as interesting. Sometimes the gaffes of your teammates, or at least things you think they should not have done (but maybe they’re right!), are what make the game truly epic.

One small complaint is that the curses are somewhat silly (put a hand on your head, lose dice that fall on the floor, can’t speak), but they’re actually quite a large pain (as befitting a curse), so I think they make sense both in sense of play skill and thematically.

 

Theme: This is one of the most thematic experiences you’ll ever have in a board game. The soundtrack adds a ton to the game, an there’s a real sense of danger as everyone tries to get through the temple as fast as possible, not knowing where they’re really headed next. It’s an incredible thrill ride, very befitting of the setting, and honestly, I’ve found myself perspiring and kinda smelly after two or three games in a row! This is as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like Indiana Jones. I feel like this section should be longer, but there’s nothing much to say: this is immersion at its finest.

 

Fun: Quite honestly, this game should be one of the Gateway Game standard-bearers. We hold up Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Dominion, and Ticket to Ride, but Escape has more excitement and simplicity than any of those games. It’s also an entirely different beast, a kind of game that only gamers have seen before. We don’t have a gateway game for this genre of real-time games, or even a perfect one for cooperative games (Forbidden Island is a touch too simple, but Pandemic is too complex). On top of all that, Escape has got the incredible selling point for people who need to be convinced to play: it doesn’t take any more than ten minutes! (Except that they’ll be playing again and again.) This game is amazing for everyone, and it should be on the shelf of every Meijer, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Toys’R'Us. My guess is that if an uninitiated American takes this off the shelf, they’re going to have a much better time with it than randomly grabbing any of the four games above, except maybe Ticket to Ride.

 

Escape: the Curse of the Temple is an instant classic, one that should be a mainstay of board gaming for generations to come. It’s easily one of the best and most important board games of the past few years.

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Social Board Games, Part 8: La Boca Essays, Playing Ticket to Ride & Zombie Dice

ttrTo start off this week, I have to talk about the La Boca essays. One student said he did not like the game, but almost every other student said it was their favorite game of the semester so far! They really raved about the game. Here’s a snippet:

La Boca is one of the coolest, mind challenging, and unique board games that I have ever experienced.  From the quick communication and teamwork requirements to the visual construction, every single timed turn of block stacking was a blast. ”

 

And I read fourteen more papers just like that! Since the game also played quickly, I’ll definitely have them playing this again next time I teach the course. They also did a great job responding to the prompt about making assumptions about people, and tied it back to the game in cleverer ways than I did. (Apparently when two friends in the class walked back to their dorm after the game, the engineering major admitted to the chemistry major that he had assumed the chemistry major would suck at the game because he hadn’t had the engineering courses!) La Boca and Hanabi were real hits, and I see why they were recommended and nominated for the Spiel des Jahres – they walk that super-fine line between strategy game and party game, and that’s the real sweet spot if you ask me. (I still can’t believe La Boca wasn’t a nominee, though.)

 

zombiediceThis week, we began our unit of strategy games, and applying gaming strategies to real life. I warned them at the start of class that Ticket to Ride is our first truly competitive, every-man-for-himself strategy game. I had a strong feeling that people would eventually get inadvertently blocked in the game, even with all four-player games going (the least cutthroat player count for the USA map, because double-routes are allowed right at four players). I knew they’d finish at different times but not have enough time for a second game, so when they finished I had Zombie Dice ready to go. I originally intended to focus on gambler’s logic for Zombie Dice, but the games have common ground in that they both require you to adapt your strategy based on what the other players do, and both games can end up in a “go big or go home” situation at the end if you want to win and are behind.  For the essay topic, I talked about how you also have to adapt your strategy in life when unexpected situations arise. For me, that was ditching a math education major when I had one semester left of college, and pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do (but it worked out!).

I’m hoping this strategy unit goes alright – as easy as the internet seems to think Ticket to Ride is, there were a ton of rules questions, none of which were surprising:

1.) Can I claim part of a route?

2.) Can I just use any combination of cards on gray routes?

3.) Can I only take one card if I end up drawing a wild from the top?

4.) Do I show my tickets when they’re done?

5.) Do I have to be done with my tickets to draw more?

6.) Am I allowed to still be playing with all my tickets done – i.e. do I have to take more tickets?

7.) Do I have to lay my next trains adjacent to where I already am?

8.) Is longest route just for the biggest number of connected trains?

9.) Do I lose the chance to go for longest route if I have disconnected sets of trains?

10.) Can I do more than one thing in a turn?

Those all happened on Wednesday, and they’re all fair questions. Granted, they were easily answered and I don’t think any games were ‘screwed up’ (although one game spent a few turns only laying adjacent to where they already were). My students are very bright, but it’s just more proof that modern board games are far more complicated than we give them credit for, and we’re not going to be able to grow our audience effectively until we realize that. Zombie Dice went over perfectly fine with no trouble, and though it wasn’t as deep as Ticket to Ride, the gambling aspect of the game got them pretty excited. It’s very, very difficult for game design to hit that mix of simplicity and fun, but hopefully I chose the right games for the course. They certainly did enjoy both games and they also illustrated my mental health topic well.

 

There may or may not be an article next week – my baby is due next Wednesday, on the day of class! So keep checking back for more updates!

Review: Timeline / Cardline Double Feature!

Asmodee just released a double-dose of Timeline goodness in the U.S.: Timeline: Music & Cinema, as well as Cardline: Globetrotter. Since both of these reviews are on the short side, I’m giving you a double-dose today! For reference, you can find my review of the first Timeline set, Timeline: Inventions, here.

 

timelinemusicTimeline: Music & Cinema

I have thoroughly enjoyed the Timeline series and have used the game in class as well. It is probably one of the simplest games I have ever played, if not the simplest. Yet, amazingly enough, this edition makes the game even simpler, saying to just deal everyone four cards, instead of varying by number of players. (A two-player game with four cards each took us about five minutes.) That may sound crazy to you, but it reinforces what I’ve said for a long time, which is that the general populace has a long way up to get to the kind of games us geeks normally play, so I think the new rule is better and unsurprising in retrospect.

In our Social Board Games course, I used this game alongside Wits & Wagers and FaunaWe talked about the varying effects of the different kinds of trivia - Wits & Wagers is more comical because of the ridiculous questions, while Timeline feels more like a traditional game of Trivial Pursuit, in the sense that you feel like you “should” know the rough dates on the cards, because of the educational nature. I really enjoy Timeline, but I think owning up to what you don’t know and enjoying becoming educated at that expense is something you don’t appreciate until you are a little older, which limits the appeal of the game somewhat.

Timeline: Music & Cinema totally changes that, by focusing on a lot of recent pop culture songs and movies. People are much more nostalgic about things that happened within their lifetime, and it makes the game more about reminiscing and less about showing off your brain-power. To illustrate my point, have you seen this AT&T commercial? Timeline has been venturing out to the Cardline series as well, but this makes it more obvious to me that there’s way more to be done simply within dates, because the system is so flexible. If there was an edition that had day, month, and year (i.e. more precise dates) and was just for 90′s albums, we would play the crap out of that.  A simple change of topic makes this by far my favorite edition of Timeline. The only complaint I have is that because all of the dates are so recent, these cards won’t mesh very well if you want to mix them with the other sets – but I’m okay with that, since these are the best cards anyway. This is a great warm-up / cool-down filler that’s bound to generate the most laughs and conversation out of all of the Timeline sets so far.

 

cardlineglobeCardline: Globetrotter

In addition to continuing to put out Timeline sets in different categories, the series has also expanded to Cardline games, this being the second one after Animals. In this game, the cards have a country on the front, and on the back they have four characteristics for the country: population, land mass, GDP, and amount of pollution (all based on 2011 data). A friend I played against immediately said “well, this is going to be out of date soon if it isn’t already,” to which I blurted out “maybe land mass won’t change – oh, wait,” immediately realizing how misguided of a statement that was. Changing facts haven’t stopped people from making plenty of other trivia games in this vein, though, so it’s just something to keep in mind – a slight disadvantage over the after-the-fact dates of Timeline. The larger complaint I have with the game is just how tiny the characteristics are written, on too light of a background, despite the cards being far bigger than Timeline‘s. My friends with poor eyesight had a little bit of trouble with this one. Those are both minor complaints, though.

On the flip side, you get essentially four games in one. At the beginning of the game, you pick which of the four characteristics you are going to compare, and then you can change which one you use for each game. This makes the game last a lot longer, since you won’t be “accidentally memorizing” the same thing each game (and these facts are much harder to memorize than dates anyway, giving much more longevity). Another huge boon is that rather than using stock photos from each country, the cards are illustrated by the magnificent Vincent Dutrait, who absolutely kills it every time. (However, since this is clearly an educational game that would be great for elementary / junior high classrooms, maybe they should have chosen something other than the Manneken Pis for Belgium.)

The last thing to mention is that unlike Timeline: Music & Cinema, we are back to a very educational “I should know this stuff” kind of feel for this game, so it may not appeal to someone who is self-conscious about their education. I actually think, though, that this is easier to ballpark than many of the dates for past Timeline games, since you know the basics – China’s big with lots of people, Canada’s big but relatively uninhabited, etc. So you rarely get that feeling of being completely clueless, which happened to us a lot in Cardline: Animals. For people who love learning, and especially for data geeks, this is another great spin on the Timeline series with the best artwork and most replayability of any of the editions.

Review: Concept

conceptAlthough you probably know Repos Production from their gamer’s games 7 Wonders and Ghost Stories, they’ve done their fair share of lighter games such as Mascarade, Ca$h’n'Gun$  and Rampage, and now they are back with another party game, Concept, which just won the As d’Or in Cannes. Designed by Gaëtan Beaujannot and Alain Rivollet and distributed in the U.S. by Asmodee, the game plays in about half an hour, and is a whole new spin on the “guess my word” genre of party games… but is it fun? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

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

 

conceptcomponentsComponents: Overall, the components of Concept are pretty solid. The game is played by placing cubes and pawns on a central board which just has a bunch of icons on it. The cubes and pawns are a very nice translucent plastic, although in our game, we never needed anywhere close to all of them. There are also two sheets that clarify the icons, some cardboard VP tokens, and a deck of cards containing the words you want people to guess. There’s also a rather useless bowl…

The graphic design is top-notch – it has a very slick, fun look. However, there are some annoying things with the components. The main complaint is the cheat sheets that clarify the concepts. They don’t quite line up with the board, so it’s not as if you can quickly look down for the symbol, and they’re also double-sided, so not all the concepts are on one side. So, you really need both to look at all the concepts together quickly, but one collective sheet is nowhere near enough for a game with, say, eight players. Eventually, we began to internalize the symbols, but I think the learning curve of the game would have been much shorter with more player aids. The other and much more minor complaint is the bowl. You’re supposed to put the cubes and pawns in it, but that’s nonsense, because you need the cubes sorted by color so that you have easy access to each color cube as  you clarify concepts and sub-concepts. We put the VP tokens in the bowl instead, but it’s wholly unnecessary. The MSRP of $40 isn’t bad, but it’s high for a party game, and I think compressing the components a bit could have lowered it enough to get it in places like Target and Meijer, where I think this game really has a chance as a mass-market game. Regardless, despite my whining, it’s a very cool-looking game with a slick, clean design.

 

Accessibility: This game is so simple that I will explain it to you right here. On your turn, you and a partner (your left neighbor) pick a word from a card and attempt to get everyone else to guess it. You can talk discreetly with your partner about what to do, but together you are using the board to clarify the card. You put the green ? token on the main concept, and add green cubes to clarify it with adjectives. You can also introduce sub-concepts with different-colored ! tokens and corresponding cubes. If you don’t follow, the rulebook has great examples of how to do this, and also clever ways to use the components. I did an example before we got started, and then no one had any trouble. Players are allowed to shout things out and ask whatever they want, but other than using the board, the only thing the team members can say is “yes” or “no” (technically just “yes”, but since silence is basically a “no”…). When someone guesses right, they get 2 VPs and each team member gets 1 VP . After 12 turns, the game is over.

As you can see, the game is rather simple. The scoring doesn’t seem like it’s done in a very balanced way – 12 turns means some people get to play more often than others – but as the rulebook mentions, they eventually abandoned keeping score anyway. This game is NOT for uber-competitive types, but for people who simply enjoy the mechanism. Telestrations is a very good parallel; we also rarely keep score in that game. Concept did seem like you should be rewarded for guessing correctly a lot, and the VPs do tend to go in that direction. We played a lot of different ways – with teams, with a timer, and so on, and I think the rules are probably just fine as they are, although if you’re not sick of playing, having everyone go twice instead of twelve turns is probably okay.

One tricky aspect is that the game can stall, and in that situation, the rulebook suggests simply adding a third team member. What would probably make more sense is a timer – and then, if you want, you can play with the suggested variant in the rules that you get more VPs (team and guesser both) for tougher words, so you can do kind of a “Hail Mary” if you are behind with a tougher word, but you run the risk of not finishing it in time. We played with a 3-minute timer for one game, and only once did we not finish our word in time (“soap” was really hard to do!). All that to say, it’s very open-ended, and you can play however you like, but I do think that playing in teams is actually rather important.

 

Depth: Boy, this game is clever. Although similar games like Taboo and Time’s Up! often have you meta-gaming and referencing, for example, experiences you’ve had with your teammate instead of things about the actual word or person, Concept’s requirement that you be relatively silent requires you to actually focus on the, well, concept. However, the mechanism with the board can work in very clever ways. You can see this from the rulebook already. Some examples from our games include: For Ocean’s Eleven, I put the ? on Film/TV, then deliberately put cubes on at a time on the “1″ until people started counting out loud, then kept going until I got to “11″. The number of cubes can really make a difference: someone was doing something about electronics, communication, hands… and then when they finally put a second cube on hands, someone realized it was “keyboard”.

There are definitely different “levels” of party games – for example, Apples to Apples is a bit mindless, while Wits & Wagers requires a fair amount of knowledge and math skills – and Concept falls on the higher end. People who like puzzles and brain challenges are going to eat this up more than people who don’t think games should be ‘hard’, even though it’s a party game. If you appreciate brain teasers, this game allows for a lot of creativity and challenge.

 

Theme: Well, there isn’t one really. However, the game’s graphic design I think presents the, well, concept of the game pretty well, and makes it clear this is a brain-teaser type of game, even with the box cover.

 

Fun: There’s a delicate balance with “smart people” party games… You want the game to be somewhat funny, but also challenging without making people feel stupid. This game strikes a fantastic balance between the two. Simply using the board and cubes in creative ways can be pretty fun, and there’s also a lot of great “a-ha!” moments when someone figures out a word. This is probably my favorite “guess the word” party game I’ve played, because it feels more like a collaborative effort than having the pressure and frustration and competitiveness of games like Time’s Up! or Taboo.

 

Concept is a little open-ended and not for the uber-competitive gamers, but lots of people (language geeks, trivia lovers, creative types) are going to eat this up. It should be no surprise that it won the As d’Or.

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Social Board Games, Part 7: Playing La Boca (and Concept), Hanabi Essays

labocaWe’re finally back after Spring Break, and I was able to hand back the Hanabi essays and finish our communication unit with La Boca, as well as a surprise play of Concept! First, though, let’s talk about the essays.

I’m not sure whether it’s my fault or not (my explanation of Hanabi was much better than the one for Forbidden Island), but the students seemed to really take to Hanabi. Several students called it their favorite game of the class so far. The essays weren’t nearly as deep as I was hoping – I was really counting on them exploring more deeply the topics mentioned in my last post – but I was glad to know they were at least having fun during the game (although several complained that “playing straight” for their second game was “really boring”). The entire experience dramatically changed my opinion of Hanabi – while I enjoyed the game already, after this experience, I realized just how special of a game it is, and why it won the Spiel des Jahres this year.

This week, we started out by playing La Boca. I think the students were glad to be playing a competitive game again, even though it had (rotating) partnerships. The box on La Boca says 40 minutes – and our games before took about that long – but these engineering students must have good spatial skills, because several 4-player games were done in under twenty minutes! The class is 110 minutes, so they were kind of like “What do we do now?” Several groups managed to play on easy mode once and on hard mode (with the red piece) twice in an hour, and they scored well to boot! So, I ended up finishing class a little early, but I had seven students hang around afterwards to play Concept (which is another communication game, so it was befitting). I’m teaching the class next semester as two one-hour segments per week, so it’s good to know that La Boca will fit easily in that time frame. Concept was awesome too; I may end up using it in the class next semester.

At first, I got La Boca somewhat blindly for the class because I knew it was a well-loved game which clearly had a heavy communication element, and the game was quite a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t sure just what I would have them write about, but after my first experience playing the game with my in-laws, I knew immediately what I would talk about this week, which you can see below.

I also need to mention that the only reason we are able to use La Boca in the class is because of the generosity of CoolStuffInc. I made sure to let the class know that too, since one student was already asking about buying the game after playing! We’re not a sponsored site, but this class was definitely sponsored by publishers and retailers alike, so thanks to CoolStuffInc and all the others that made this possible!

I’m actually out of town next week, so there won’t be an article next Friday. To make up the lost time, we’ll be grouping Ticket to Ride and Zombie Dice together, and then grouping Dominion and For Sale. They’ll good pairings, as the things I want to talk about for their essays match up nicely across those pairs of games. See you in two weeks!

Review: Splendor

splendorboxSpace Cowboys is a new company consisting of game designers old and new, and Asmodee is going to be distributing their games in the U.S. Their first release is Splendor from Marc André, ostensibly a game about trading and selling gems in the middle ages. Not a very exciting theme, but what about the 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?

Components: There’s not much in the box here – 90 cards, 10 tiles, and 40 tokens. I absolutely love when games splendorgameare easy to set up and tear down, especially as I get older (Qwirkle comes to mind), and this game fits the bill – yet it didn’t seem like a whole lot in the box for $40 MSRP. However, if you’ve read about Space Cowboys (this is their first game), one of the guys behind it is Sebastian Pauchon, who is also behind GameWorks, and they are known for amazing components. The art on the cards is great, but the tokens are what impressed me the most. I was disappointed at first that they weren’t actual plastic gems (like in Gryphon’s Bazaar reprint), but these tokens are very beautiful and very thick and heavy. It’s amazing how heavy the box is! The whole game lays out very nicely on the table and is very, very beautiful, so I think that justifies the price. My completely minor niggle is that there’s not quite enough space in the very nice insert for cards to fit while sleeved (at least not with FFG sleeves), and it’s so very close! Tighter sleeves like Ultra Pros might work, though.

 

Accessibility: Let me be clear – these are some of the simplest, cleanest rules I have ever read. It’s a very good translation of the rules, which are themselves rather simple. The whole game simply comes down to taking gems or buying cards, with just a few tiny twists thrown in. I felt like I could play right away before I even had the game in front of me. When I see something like that, I want to take it as far as possible, and so I always nitpick about “little” rules. The two in this game are that you can’t take 2 gems of the same color if there aren’t at least 4 left of that pile, and you can’t have more than 10 gems at any time. I wrote an entire audacious paragraph before I had played the game about ways those could have been avoided. When I played the game, though, I realized just how crucial they both are to the strategy of the game (and got a nice taste of humble pie).

There’s also a rule that you can’t snag two noble tiles in one turn, but I don’t see why not. What’s wrong with giant point swings? Someone might get steamrolled, but that’s also how glorious comebacks happen, especially since the game can definitely have runaway leaders even with this rule. The rule isn’t hard to remember though, and obviously the playtesters have played the game much more than I have (see humble pie above). Overall, the game is very, very easy to learn, and you’ll know what you’re doing very early on in your first game.

 

Depth: This game reminds me of the engine-building of Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion mixed with the gems and exchanges of Sid Sackson’s Bazaar. Since those are two of the best board game designers in modern history, that’s pretty high praise. You are constantly trying to figure out how to buy that next card – but do I build up my engine with more cheap cards, or do I go for points? What’s my opponent going to try to take – should I deny him? I have the rare chance to snag two gems of one color – should I do it? You also have to keep the Noble tiles in mind, as they have helped decide the winner in all of our games so far. There’s a lot of luck of the draw with what cards appear from the deck, but I feel like it’s one of those games where a skilled player will win most of the time, with just enough luck for a newbie to have a chance.

I’ve only played with two so far, but I can easily see that as with Dominion, more players will cause more chaos without necessarily causing more fun (too much stuff to track). However, it’s probably best if you learn this game with someone and play it just with them a lot at first, since runaway leaders are quite easily possible. A lot of people don’t like that, but to me, that’s just another sign that the skilled player is the most likely winner – which is good.

 

Theme: My biggest complaint about the game is the overused theme. As I saw a commenter suggest on BoardGameGeek, it could have been buying weapons or recruits to take down monsters or armies (or something more original), but medieval merchants are both overused and unexciting. That being said, the artwork for this game is great although somewhat repetitive, and the simple, elegant design really draws you into the act of playing the game, if not the theme. Which leads me to another point: the game is so abstract (it’s actually rather Knizian) that the theme is mostly irrelevant anyway. But it’s still a gorgeous game, not only in the general artwork but also the graphic design. Splendor has a lot of math going on, but the smooth, simple design ”hides” the accounting aspect. For example, they could have put “+1 [gem icon]” on the top-right corners of the cards instead of “[gem icon]” by itself, but it’s clear as it is and also prettier and less ugh-math-cringe-inducing. The art and layout are a triumph all around, even if the theme is boring. One last defense of the theme, though: it’s a bit more gender neutral than something blood’n'gutsy like I suggested above – my wife was interested in playing it because of the great art, and she probably would not have been as enthralled with a bunch of guns and grenades.

 

Fun: I have to say, when I found this was designed by Marc André, I was surprised and a little apprehensive. I’ve played Bonbons and while it’s a gorgeous game, it’s clearly meant for kids, and was very unexciting to me. Just like I was wrong about those little rules, I was wrong here too. This game hits all the right notes for me – engine-building, card play, quick set up and tear-down, and it’s highly replayable. The game is also surprisingly short, but still packs a lot of punch. At first it seemed a little unsatisfying that it ended so quickly, but I think it’s just long enough to be interesting and just short enough to make you want to play again. (We played it five times the day I received it!)

 

Splendor packs a lot of the engine-building fun of Dominion in a very clear and simple package that also borrows a lot of flavor from Sid Sackon’s Bazaar, all in 20-30 minutes. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then go out and buy this one as soon as possible!

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5