Today, I’m continuing our series on “criminally” underrated games that have missed their chance in the spotlight. In my experience, most games are just mediocre – maybe around 6 to 6.5 on BGG. It seems that the good games manage more than a 7.0, and the great ones manage a 7.5 or higher. These games all score below a 7 on average at BGG, but I’d rate them as 9s or 10s (and have reviewed them on the MeepleTown scale as 4s or 5s). Over 2 points difference? That’s criminal! Each entry in the series will try to explain why a couple of games are so great, and give some conjectures as to why the BGG masses disagree. (Check out Part 1 here!)
BGG rating: 6.55771
My rating: 9 (Our review)
Why It’s Awesome: The Keltis series is a personal favorite of mine; while the namesake game is a little too ordinary, Neue Wege, Neue Ziele and Das Orakel are fantastic, and its original inspiration, Lost Cities, is still loved by many BGGers. Madame Ching is essentially Keltis given the Cathala / Maublanc treatment. Cool, unique theme? Check. Action cards and special abilities? Check. New spins on old mechanisms? Check! For me, this game hits all the right notes. Being as math-obsessed as I am, I love the distillation of the colors and numbers into the patterns on the board, and how arithmetic everything is – yet, Vincent Dutrait’s wonderful art never gets in the way of the extremely helpful graphic design, so you don’t need to be a math nerd to play. An abstract game like that, in my opinion, deserves an exciting set of chrome on top, so the “lack of thematic integration” doesn’t bother me any, and it’s there to a small degree in the Skill cards and action cards. This game has essentially replaced Keltis for me, and that was no easy feat.
Why BGG Got It Wrong: Bruno Cathala is hard to pin down. It’s partially because he partners with so many other designers, but partially because his interests seem so varied. He does the special-action thing great and comes up with cool game themes (Abyss, anyone?), yet it seems like his mechanisms are often from the classic, you could say Knizian, school of thought, and he’s even designed his fair share of abstracts, yet he’s somehow avoided the “pasted-on theme” complaints that plague the good doctor. Some games bring that game theme through more than others – Abyss has had some complaints (partially because that theme is just so dang unique), while no one would question Cyclades on the matter. His work with Ludovic Maublanc seems to be primarily been theme-driven (which isn’t a surprise, when you’re talking about the designer of Cash n’ Gun$), but as soon as you see that this is a game of colors and numbers, suddenly it’s a disappointment to many. Especially since, much like Abyss, Madame Ching has a rich, exciting theme, putting a new spin on an old favorite (Chinese pirates instead of Caribbean).
I’m assuming Hurrican’s in good shape financially, but it seems like they have a bit of a marketing problem. Much like Rise of Augustus, this game’s box and components make it a little too big for its britches. The weirdest thing about this game is that except for one action card, the gems and coins are purely cosmetic, overly-complicated ways to score points – they could have just put a VP amount on each Mission tile (some give a choice of options, but you could just turn it over or something to indicate which option was chosen). This game feels like Lost Cities with a bunch of Cathala chrome, and in some sense it is, and that’s why I love it – but I think the box size and unnecessary components betray the game and make it look like a bigger affair than it is. The other strange thing about this game is that the two-player “variant” is actually by far the most enjoyable way to play the game, which does the game a bit of a disservice, since it’s my experience that the adjusted two-player rules are usually a crappy half-baked version of the game so that publishers can “lie” about player counts. Not so here – there’s an immense amount of strategy in controlling two ships, a lot of neat tricks you can’t do in a 3- or 4-player game. I actually think the game worsens with each added player, which is counter-intuitive and might lead to some bad first games and initial ratings.
BGG rating: 6.93242
My rating: 10 (Our review)
Why It’s Awesome: I love, love, love this game. I gave it a 4/5, but nowadays I would give it the full 5. I describe this game as Poker without the numbers. There’s no probabilities here, although you can do a bit of deduction and guesswork as players lose their “cards” (coasters). Rather, this is simply a game of making bluffs (or not), and calling them (or not). It’s an incredibly simple game, and yet one that generates laughs every single time, even after countless plays. Turns simply involve laying face-down cards that have either a Rose or a Skull, and then a round of betting on just how many Roses you can turn over without revealing a Skull. If you can pull off your winning bid twice, you win. There’s a bit more to it than that, but not much. And the game really only consists of six sets of four coasters each and six mats to put them on – to me, this is the amazing, original micro-game, not Love Letter.
I suppose if bluffing isn’t your thing, you might not enjoy this game. But I’ve found that players that don’t like Coup or The Resistance due to the heavy amount of lying seem to like this one just fine, since you’re not necessarily saying out loud that what you’ve put down, so no real lying is happening here. This is actually my favorite style of bluffing, because it feels more clever when you manage to trick someone than just saying a lie out loud (or the yelling matches that The Resistance can become).
Why BGG Got It Wrong: Skull has had somewhat of an identity crisis. The initial two versions, Skull & Roses and Skull & Roses Red, had biker gangs on the coasters that seemed somewhat sexist and even racist, and really emphasized the idea that this is a “bar game,” when it need not be – even us teetotalers can love it. Then the game got a much-needed facelift, although with a bump in MSRP, and now has this amazing artwork by Tom Vuarchex (Jungle Speed) representing ancient civilizations in psychedelic patterns. The two problems with the new edition, though.
The first is that the facelift came with a name change to Skull – which is ridiculous. Try googling this game now. Furthermore, Skull & Roses is a beautiful name, with a bit of mystique to it, that makes you curious. Now the game’s name is generic and impractical. The second problem is the one that’s been there since the beginning – all each player needs are three cards with one symbol and a fourth with a different one. $25 MSRP for what is literally a box of cardboard coasters is a hard sell. For me, though, the incredible game design as well as the amazing new artwork makes the game more than worth its price. This is probably my favorite party game – it’s the perfect time-killer when game night is pretty much over, no one wants to play another long game, but no one wants to go home yet.
I hope you guys enjoyed this continuation of the series. Got a favorite underrated game? Sound off in the comments!