Review: The Rose King

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Review: Commissioned

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

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

Perhaps because of my own many disappointments in the realm of Christian media, I came in expecting very little from Commissioned, but hoping for quite a lot. Designed by Patrick Lysaght, Commissioned is a cooperative deckbuilding game (somewhat similar to the Legendary series) that has players taking on the roles of apostles of the early church, spreading the Gospel outward from Jerusalem, overcoming various difficulties along the way. Can it accomplish a seemingly impossible task? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

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

 

Components: The game is played on a board consisting of a large map of the area surrounding Jerusalem in the time of Acts. While cubes, meeples, and pawns are constantly moving on the board, there are also several different decks involved in the cardplay. All of the pieces (especially the large, helpful player boards) are of fine quality, though I think the artwork is a bit drab. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be evocative of the theme or if it was a budget thing, but I’d love for the game’s hopeful approach to the theme illustrated colorfully by someone like Vincent Dutrait (Discoveries) or Xavier Collette (Dixit Journey). Other than the “seriousness” of the art (which may appeal to some!), the game’s components are very nicely done, and the $45 MSRP is more than reasonable.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Review: Onitama

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Review: Tally Ho!

tallyhocoverWhen I first became a true “BoardGameGeek,” I began hungrily searching for the best and most well-known “modern classics,” and that search led me to the KOSMOS two-player series time and time again. The most famous game in the line is probably Lost Cities, but there are many other excellent choices, such as Kennerspiel nominee Targi or personal favorite Dragonheart. Thames and Kosmos have heard this over and over again as well – since beginning to do their own U.S. distribution, their most requested games have been from this line. And they’ve answered, with Tally Ho! and The Rose King arriving just recently on U.S. shelves. Ostensibly a game about animals and hunters, Tally Ho! is at its core a tile game of hidden, randomized setup followed by chess-like gameplay. How does the game stack up against the KOSMOS two-player legacy? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

 

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

 

Components: As I mentioned, there are very few components to this game – literally 48 tiles, the board, and the rulesheet. However, it’s about as competitively priced as it can be, with an MSRP of $19.99 (around $13 online). The artwork is good, and the tiles are thick and sturdy. Not sure what else to say. No awkward rips from the punchboard? Nothing that stood out as super impressive, but everything was very good. I like a lean, efficient package, and that’s what you get here for sure.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Rating:

2 Stars

2 out of 5

What is Innovation?

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

 

1. Nothing is truly innovative, anyway.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

P.S. A Note on Plebs.

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

Review: Steam Time

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

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

Here’s a reminder of our review categories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

4star

 

4 out of 5

Review: Star Realms: Colony Wars

pic2652401Somehow, despite backing and promoting the Kickstarter, and after hundreds of physical games and thousands of digital ones, I never got around to reviewing the original Star Realms. It’s quickly become my most-played game, and even my favorite game of all time. I’m not missing the boat this time, though, as Colony Wars has finally arrived in U.S. stores and I’ve gotten plenty of games in. How does it stack up with the original Star Realms? 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: Colony Wars comes packaged the exact same way Star Realms did – squeezed into a tiny cardboard tuck box with an MSRP of $15. While it took me all of thirty seconds to throw the box away and put it in official Star Realms sleeves and an official plastic flip box, I appreciate their pricing model and I think it’s done a lot to get the game into the hands of more players. The actual contents are just a rules sheet and a bunch of cards. The artwork meshes well with previous releases, although I still think the game’s art looks a bit washed out (but good otherwise). Some players do not like the cards given to keep track of life totals, but I always use them in physical games and think it’s definitely better than nothing. If you’ve played Star Realms, nothing here will surprise you – otherwise, you might be surprised at just how deep of a game is packed in such a tiny, inexpensive package.

 

060_EmperorsDreadnaughtAccessibility: One of the biggest strengths of Star Realms is just how simple and intuitive the gameplay is, even for those uninitiated to deckbuilders. As an avid payer, I was really hoping that Colony Wars would shake things up considerably. To my initial disappointment, Colony Wars is mostly just rearrangements of the original, although there are a few surprises among the higher-cost cards. After enough plays, I think the experience is fresh enough with these small tweaks, and they made the right choice. (Good thing I’m not on the design team.)

The only minor complaint accessibility-wise is that there is a new ability that takes immediate effect, allowing you to play cards directly after buying them. The ability is a bit wordy, and because other cards don’t matter until later, players often seem to skip reading the text until they’ve played their hand out and are ready to buy, which can lead to some “oh, well if I had known that!” type moments. That’s a minor niggle, though – overall, this version is just as easy and smooth as its predecessor.

 

Depth: Star Realms has surprised with me just how deep it is. Several thousand games in, I still find surprising and clever moments quite often. Colony Wars seems to be just as deep, but even better than that, it’s fresh. I love being able to dig into this game’s synergies all over again, to see that the classic strategies need to be adapted or abandoned, to be “young again” in my Star Realms experience. And when that wears off, I know I’ll still have those new moments, and as the card pool widens, mixing sets together will keep things fresh. (I haven’t even tried mixing the Crisis packs or the original set with Colony Wars yet!)

 

Theme: Star Realms is quick and simple, and that means it can only get so far in the theme department. However, they’ve made the best effort they can. Each faction has its own identity, the cards do have good artwork (I think the printing just looks washed out), and there is flavor text on some cards as well. When the game is over, you also feel like the deck you’ve built has its own unique identity, and that is a great feeling that Star Realms accomplishes better than most other deckbuilders.

 

Fun: So far, I think I like the initial Star Realms release just a little better, but Colony Wars is still a huge success. If it had only been half as good as Star Realms, it still would have been an auto-buy. As it stands, it’s a great new incarnation of an incredible game, and is a must-buy for long-time fans. If you’ve never played Star Realms, I might start with the original, but this is still a fine introduction.

 

Colony Wars accomplishes a lot with just a little bit of tweaking – and by far its biggest accomplishment is that my favorite game of all time gets to feel fresh again.

 

Rating:

5star

5 out of 5

Expansion Round-Up: Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach, Twilight Struggle Promos, Qwixx Gemixxt

An eclectic mix for you today! Let’s get to it!

coltexpresshorsesstagecoachColt Express: Horses & Stagecoach

I was initially a bit middling on Colt Express, but I’ve come to appreciate it in the same way I do Camel Up: it’s a game for families made appealing by unique bits and a strong theme, which overcome the lack of strategy. It’s maybe a bit complicated for very young gamers, but they can still play without quite knowing what they’re doing, and they’ll still enjoy the 3D train. For adult non-gamers, it’s a great introductory piece. And I was so glad to see it win the Spiel des Jahres over the lackluster Machi Koro.

While winning the Spiel des Jahres inevitably invites expansions, this is the kind of game that requires delicate care. I’ve grown grumpy about expansions over the years, especially when they take a away a game’s greatest strength – its accessibility. While the additions in Horses & Stagecoach are somewhat interesting, together they turn both setup and gameplay into a far too complex affair, when the game was already pushing that boundary for its relatively low depth. While there are many more options, you are still victim to the cards that you draw, and the personal decks are even slightly larger now with the horse cards. The horses and stagecoach look fun, but it’s too many rules to remember at any given moment for a game this light. I could see playing with the whiskey tiles in every game, as they are an interesting twist that helps mitigate bad draws. Other than that, though, I think this one’s a pass, unless you have friends who really love Colt Express and play it all the time, the way some fanatics do with Catan or Munchkin.

 

tspromosTwilight Struggle Promo Cards

If you backed the Twilight Struggle digital kickstarter, one option was to get some small expansions for the physical game. I backed for both Turn Zero and the promotional cards, but have not used Turn Zero yet. However, I will say that after we played with the promo cards, we have no real desire to play with them again. Some were certainly interesting – for example, one permanently changes Zaire’s stability number – but there are a couple of glitches with them. The biggest problem was somewhat unexpected: because of the added cards, when we got to Late War, we were one card away from not reshuffling in Mid War, which would have left a Late War deck with zero Scoring Cards. Slogging it for 3 turns just for final scoring seems like the game would be breaking down a bit. The card Kremlin Flu seems immensely powerful, but on the other hand, it’s no worse than most other Early War Soviet cards. Most of the cards were just “interesting” and not all that powerful, which is… okay, I guess, but I feel like then they didn’t add much. Also, the card First Lightning is ambiguously worded, which is a problem that has always plagued Twilight Struggle – but the game is over 10 years old, how could they not have figured things out by now? I’m also surprised that previously released promo cards were not included. All in all, these probably weren’t worth the purchase, except maybe as collector’s items. (I don’t know how available these will be later.)

 

qwixxgemixxtQwixx Gemixxt

One of the most played games in my collection is Qwixx; the game was a godsend when our child was firstborn and we wanted to play games together but couldn’t do a whole lot of high-level thinking. Qwixx gemixxt is nothing more than new scorepads for Qwixx, with no other rules changes. These do change the game considerably though – one scorepad type has the numbers in each row jumbled up, and the other has the numbers in order but the colors jumbled up. Both made the game considerably more thinky (though that doesn’t mean much for Qwixx), and I wouldn’t always play with them, but I’m excited to play them every once in a while. I especially liked the mixed up numbers – the shift in the probabilities meant that new strategies were viable, depending on the row you were considering, and it is considerably easier to lock a row on a 3, 4, 10 or an 11 instead of a 12 or a 2, eliminating a major complaint I had with Qwixx (too many games ended from misthrows). This is a fantastic expansion, and even though it’s small, it’s a model for what I think expansions should be: adjustments that shake things up without expanding the ruleset much (or at all, really). I had to import it, unfortunately – it’s available currently from GameSurplus. Hopefully Gamewright will release an American version – and hopefully those scorepads will fit in the box…

 

 

Next week (if I’m ever over this cold) we’ll get back to some big releases, but in the meantime, enjoy this serving of expansion soup!

Review: The Builders: Antiquity

buildersboxGreetings again fellow gamers! The last time I was here I was playing The Builders: Middle Ages, and I predicted there could be more on the horizon for this game. Today I am excited to be sharing my thoughts after playtesting The Builders: Antiquity! How does this sequel stack up to the original? To find out, I’ll be running through the following criteria:

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?

 

builserscomponentsComponents: Just like its predecessor, Antiquity comes in a nice compact tin. I like these little tins for small games due to their reliability…no matter where I’m headed, I can toss this game into my bag and not worry about dinging the corners or spilling pieces.

Also returning is a deck of worker cards, a deck of tile-sized building cards, and delightfully-clicking plastic coins. Additionally, this version includes some new investment cards, four of which are transparent plastic.

Once again, the artwork is bright and top-notch. I noticed right away that the coins were a much simpler design than they were in Middle Ages…but I also quickly realized that since we’ve gone further back in time for this installment, it makes thematic sense. While you are likely to be able to find it for less, I think the MSRP of $18 is just fine, as the quality of the artwork and components is excellent.

 

Accessibility: I playtested this one with veteran gamers, most of whom had no prior The Builders experience. With the addition of the investment cards, this version of the game is a bit more complex, and therefore not as quick to learn (or play) as Middle Ages.

Each player still gets three actions on his or her turn. In addition to the original possibilities of collecting buildings, collecting/assigning workers, or collecting coins from the bank, you now have the option once per turn to purchase an investment card, of which there are four types: prisoners, tools, loans, and education.

Prisoners are workers who (after being purchased) may be assigned to buildings for free, but hurt your VP score if you don’t pay for their freedom by the end of the game. Tools can be picked up by a worker (or freed prisoner) for no additional cost when he is assigned. The education cards are the transparent plastic overlays which permanently improve one of your workers (or freed prisoners.) Loans work just how you’d expect them to.

With these additions, there are now enough little rules to track that I wouldn’t automatically go to this one for novice gamers, especially since there are no player aids. That being said, the instruction manual is very well organized, efficiently color coded, and simple to reference.

By the end of their first game, my newer playtesters felt they had a good understanding of it, and were willing to play again, though they thought it might be nice to try the original first. My veteran The Builders playtester was able to pick up the new investments rules without much trouble.

 

Depth: With more decisions to make on each turn, this game is perhaps a bit deeper than the original, but it also plays quite differently for a couple of reasons.

First, there are dramatically fewer workers in Antiquity (18) than there were in Middle Ages (42!) Especially with more than two players, you are likely to run out of workers to draft for your team, which really pushes you to use those investment cards.

Second, when you purchase an investment card, unlike the worker and building decks, you get to look through the stack to select the one you want. Together, these two elements make Antiquity feel a lot less random overall.

 

Theme: Instead of a medieval town, this time around you are working to complete wonders of the ancient world. This theme works just as well as its predecessor, but again I would love to see something fresher. I know this theme has proven gamer appeal, but I can just as easily imagine The Builders with a less conventional modern setting…you could even have interns that you eventually hire (or not) instead of prisoners that you eventually set free (or not!)

While there are still no women on the cards (hazard of the time period?) this version of the game does feature multiple cultures, including Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek, which is fun to see.

Between the variety of art and the clickity exchange of currency during gameplay, this small game certainly delivers on its theme.

 

Fun:  After my initial games with four players, I wasn’t convinced that this new version was necessarily an improvement over the original. While I thought it was fun to purchase tools and education to upgrade my workers, taking out loans and purchasing prisoners was not as enticing to me, purely for flavor reasons. Also, due to the longer turns, Antiquity didn’t truly shine for me until I played with just two players. Not only were the two player games better paced, but there were also plenty of workers to go around, which resulted in the investments feeling more like strategic options, rather than as forgone conclusions.

Overall, The Builders: Antiquity is another fun release which crams a lot of game into a portable package. Does it make sense to pick it up if you already have Middles Ages? I’d say it depends on how often you play with two players, or if you prefer less randomness in your games. Since they play slightly differently, Antiquity does not render Middle Ages obsolete; if you just can’t decide which version to pick up, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have both on your shelf!

For the quality and replay value you get at this price point, I am happy to recommend The Builders: Antiquity as another easy addition to your collection.

Special thanks to my playtesters: Julie, Shawna, Tristan, and MB

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

 

Review: Eclipse: Shadow of the Rift

Hello everybody! Time for a WRITTEN review! Let’s hop to it!

 

sotrboxEclipse: Shadow of the Rift

This is the third big box expansion for Eclipse (there are also quite a few promos). Rise of the Ancients introduced a ton of new modules, tiles, and races, much of which Shadow of the Rift expands upon. Ship Pack One was primarily a box of plastic goodies, but it did have a few new tiles, and a great new turn order variant (and Shadow of the Rift includes tokens for the new races to use that variant as well).

The first thing I noticed when I opened Shadow of the Rift is that though all 3 expansions have had a $50 MSRP, there is a major dearth of plastic this time. I’m guessing they think you have enough basic ships, since these races are all in already-used colors, as well. I imagine that we’re not far off from Ship Pack Two, which means excluding new basic ships here makes logistical sense – but it makes the price tag a little harder to swallow.

Additionally, most of the new stuff is a continuation of what we saw in Rise of the Ancients. There are Development and Rare Tech tiles again, along with new Discoveries and Exploration Hexes. There are also new Special Reputation tiles, and the new Exploration Hexes have Anomalies and Deep Warp Portals (see the rules here). I’ll give my opinion of each module individually, in order of preference:

 

Special Reputation Tiles. I see no reason not to always toss these in. They don’t disrupt the game flow, and you need not worry about them until you find one in the bag. Yes, they add more luck, but more than that, they add more fun. It’s way more exciting to pull from the Reputation bag now, and even more rewarding to do it early.

 

New Discoveries, Rare Techs, and Developments. We always play with Rare Techs and Developments, as well as with all the Discoveries mixed, so I am happy to have more. The rules say you should maybe limit the number of Rare Techs in the bag, but I’m crazy enoueclipseshapersgh to use them all. The thing I don’t like is that all three modules have several items that are tied to the abilities of the new races, and in each case, they are somewhat clunky when that race is not in play. It’s also too much of a hassle to take out those select few items when not using the new races, except I guess the Developments. Overall, I’m positive – I love the new cannons and other Ship Parts. For example, there is a new Transition Drive that moves you 3, requires no energy, but lowers your initiative.

 

New Races. There are 3 new races, one of which is duplicated on both player boards. The Octantis have access to Evolutions, which are basically small upgrades that are drawn randomly out of a bag and cost a new fourth resource, Mutagen, which this race produces. These are okay, but I feel like you spend a lot of the game piddling around with your upgrades rather than just starting with a cool bonus and trying to take full advantage of it. They seem a little underpowered, but I could be wrong.

And this was early on in Turn 5!

And this was early on in Turn 5!

The Shapers of Draco also have a bag of upgrades, which allow them to do essentially take actions early and pay for them later, or pay for things early and receive them later. If early actions are not paid for on time, the Shapers lose VP tokens and they also gain VP if they do fulfill payments. However, it seems like ignoring payment is an extremely valid strategy, especially in lower player counts. Being able to get Positron Computer, Tachyon Source, or Tachyon Drive turn 1 is definitely worth the VP penalty, after you’ve looted all around and left your opponents in the dust. Of course, the tiles are randomly drawn, but the Shapers (and the Octantis) can use Colony Ships to draw out different techs. I don’t think this race is overpowered, but the base game rules say not to use Planta or Hydra for 2 player games – I would add Shapers to that. It’s too powerful for them to have those early ship upgrades if they only have one opponent to attack. However, it’s much more fun to play than Octantis, simply because, like most races, you get that exciting feeling of having something super powerful that other players don’t have, right away.

The last new race is the Pyxis Unity, which is one of those races that makes you gasp and shout in excitement when you just look at their p

layer board. They have only one resource for everything, do several actions in combination, and perhaps most interestingly, can combine two ships of one type into one of the next type, or go backwards from 1 ship to two of the weaker type, for only one resource. They also have super-cool Deathmoons instead of Starbases. And unlike the Octantis and the Shapers, they have no bag of tiles or any other convoluted aspect to their play – their player board is just full of awesome tweaks that makes them exude cool. I’m most eager to play with them again; I was less impressed with the other two races. And of course, all you need to play them (since there are no ships here) is the board and some tokens – most of the contents of this expansion were the tiles for the other two races.

 

 

New Exploration Tiles. It took several read-throughs for me to even understand how Anomalies and Deep Warp Portals (which are not related Warp Portals from Rise of the Ancients – confused yet?) even work. We’re reaching critical mass here with Eclipse, and too me, the weird tiles are the least interesting way to complicate the game. If we’re going to keep adding tons of extra stuff, I want simple, interesting twists, not something this complex. I have a box of Eclipse stuff I won’t ever use because getting everything back in the base game box is now a joke. It’s got the 7-9 player stuff, for example, and now it’s got these. If I’m going to include weird tiles, I’ll most likely start with the Ancient Home Worlds.

However, I should definitely mention that the weirder Exploration Hexes are not the only ones in the box. There are a few more basic Hexes that simply have a new spot which is an “Advanced Wild” spot, meaning if you have Advanced Economy/Mining/Labs (any of them!), you can put an appropriate population cube on that spot. This is what I’m talking about! Simple, new twists on the game. I love these.

 

Conclusion. So is Shadow of the Rift worth the purchase? I don’t know. I freaking love Eclipse, and parts of this expansion are extremely cool. There’s no question in my mind that you should get Rise of the Ancients first. Ship Pack One is mostly chrome, and I tend to just use the basic ships anyway, because some of the new ones are too big for the hexes. So, if you’ve fully explored Rise of the Ancients and are still eager for more, I think you’re going to have a lot of fun with this expansion. Two of the three races I really enjoy, and others may disagree with me about the third. There’s also a lot of the same “more good stuff” that Rise of the Ancients had with the Discoveries, Developments and Rare Techs, and the Special Reputation Tiles are an auto-include. Honestly, we don’t use nearly everything in Rise of the Ancients, either, and I’d probably be totally sweet on this expansion if the MSRP was $35-40. So if you’re a major Eclipse fan, I think this is one to get – but be prepared for the fact that you aren’t getting the same bang-for-your-$50 that you got from Rise of the Ancients. 

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5