Area 51 – Top Secret: A four-sided Kickstarter preview

Area 51Area 51: Top Secret* is a family board game with elements of action selection, set collection, area control and hand management.

The wafer-thin theme says players are building bunkers at the legendary Area 51, in which they’ll be trying to store various alien artefacts. But beyond the board and card art the theme is as real as the aliens themselves.

While I’d class it as a family/gateway game – around the complexity level of a game such as Ticket to Ride or Catan – it has an extra level of deviousness and some memory elements that give it an interesting level of emergent strategy.

I was sent a pre-release copy of the game so will not be including my own photos here (except one), as the finished product will have different components. However, in terms of gameplay, it was essentially the finished article.

The game takes two-to-six players about an hour to play and works well across those numbers – although I’ve not yet played two-player (if this changes I will amend the review accordingly). In the box you’ll find a modular board (setup changes depending on player numbers), around 100 artefact cards and a bunch of pieces representing towers/tower caps, security markers and means of transport (trucks, trains and level markers).

Teaching

Area 51 prototype

NOTE: This is an image of my prototype copy, not the finished game – here the board and cards are paper, and the plastic/wooden components are also prototype. Even the art may change.

As noted above, the basic actions available in Area 51 are very much of the ‘gateway game’ variety and very simple to teach.

On each of your turns you get to choose one of four actions: draw cards, build/improve a tower, move a truck/train, or empty a hangar into the towers.

If you take cards you get three; from the six face up cards or blind from the draw deck. There are four colours of card and these match the colours of the towers and trucks/trains. The cards also range in value between one and four, with the split/amount of cards differing per colour. There’s no hand limit.

If you build a tower you take a coloured tower of your choice and place it in the area of your choice (there will always be three areas, with the size of them varying depending on player count). You pay for it with two cards – one to do the action, which needs to be the same colour as the tower you chose, and any one other (which signifies the level of tower you’re building – they all start as ‘level one’, hence one extra card).

On later turns you can upgrade a tower (you mark them with a cube/tower cap of your player colour) by again playing one card of the tower’s colour, plus one more (any colour) card per level it has become – so to make a level two red tower into a level three, you would pay one red card and any three other cards.

Moving trucks/trains works in the same way. There is a train and truck of each tower colour, all of which start off the board. If you want a vehicle (they’re mechanically identical) to be based in an area, simply pay a face-up card of its colour plus up to eight other cards and place it facing out of the area you choose, pointing towards either of the other areas. The amount of extra cards you pay is denoted by a marker next to the vehicle: if anyone wants to move it later, they’ll have to pay more than you did (so paying the full eight extra cards means that vehicle can never be moved).

Importantly, all the cards you pay to do these actions are placed in the area you build/upgrade your tower or place a vehicle. The card you pay to do the action (matching the tower/vehicle colour) is placed face up – but all the others are placed face down. It’s also important to note here that each area has a number of hangars (two or three) and you can spread your payment between these in an area as you see fit.

Area 51 cardsThe final action is scoring a hangar. Up until now the numbers on the cards have been insignificant – but now they get interesting. The player takes all the cards (face up and down) from any one hangar (not area) and places them face up in front of them – and then works out how best to score them.

This is largely scripted, but can throw up some interesting decisions. Each tower in the area the hangar is in – plus any towers in areas connected by an appropriately coloured vehicle – can take just one artefact of its colour from a hangar when it is scored; as long as the artefact’s level is equal to or lower than the tower (so a level two blue tower can take a level one or two blue artefact, but not a level one red, level three blue etc).

The player scoring chooses which artefacts go where, and in what order; but must place artefacts in towers where possible. Any cards that couldn’t be accommodated then go into the active player’s hand. For example, if there were red towers of level one and four available, and the active player had found both a red level one and level four red artefact in a hangar, they could legitimately place the level one artefact in the level four tower first – meaning there was no room left for the level four red artefact (which would go into their hand). Sneaky. Points are scored by the players owning these towers, so not necessarily the person taking the action, at a simple one point per level of artefact ratio.

When you upgrade a tower you use a security marker, which are limited in each area. When two areas run out of these markers the end game is triggered – with each player getting one more regular turn; and the game then continuing until all the hangars have been scored. Finally, there are end-game bonuses for the biggest towers in each area.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Area 51 is a really clever game design. The mechanisms are simple, yet the decisions can be fiendishly tricky – especially once you start to forget where you’ve put your cards (which happens to me almost immediately). It’s always nice to score a hangar if you know you’ll get at least three cards excess; but can you really be sure you will? Or maybe it’s better to get a vehicle down to divert a possible score there first; but then the hangers in that area will be made more tempting for other players to score… I love these kinds of decisions.
  • The thinker: While this game feels far more tactical than it does strategic, it has clever elements of both. There are elements of area control and you constantly feel at the behest of others; but once you’ve played the game a few times this can become hugely satisfying. However at first it can feel very frustrating – I just hope players give it the few games it deserves to start to see the possibilities. Also, in terms of area control, it’s a shame they didn’t think more about the end-game tower scoring – as in my games to date it has felt largely inconsequential.
  • The trasher: Half of me hated Area 51 – it has totally the wrong theme and consequently suffers from a complete lack of personality. But once you get your head around what’s going on (at least half a game) its tactical nature becomes a real treat. Timing and placement are both crucial, but you’re constantly rethinking your position after the moves of others – which keeps you watching their moves. I didn’t find the decision space too big though, but some did – the game seemed to stop some player’s in their tracks and they really took against it, without really being able to pinpoint why. I think it just presses an interesting collection of buttons.
  • The dabbler: Sadly I wasn’t really won over by this one. It doesn’t look great and the theme totally doesn’t make sense: why on earth would we be running competing bunkers within Area 51? Stupid. And while it may have a clever modular board there is no attempt to add personality through artwork, player customisation, interesting cards, or the like. It should be illegal to make a game with a sci-fi theme where you’re storing crazy looking artefacts – and simply give them a colour and number! Where’s the fun in that? As arid as the Nevada desert!

Key (Kickstarter) observations

Area 51 boardArea 51 is on Kickstarter now (until September 16, 2016) with a backing target of just €6,000 – and from a publisher with a track record of delivering good quality games.

At €35 the base game is well priced, especially if you can collect free from Essen in October – and is still good value with the extra €10-15 shipping to Europe, the US and Canada.

But that is of course dependent on component quality. While the art is fine (if unspectacular), the base pieces we were sent were not fit for purpose and the train/tower pieces were the polar opposite of vibrant. Mechanically though, it’s sound!

My one criticism is that the game lacks a little bit of a personality – and it is frustrating to see that this may be added via stretch goals. The ‘Contraband’, ‘Alien Spaceship’ and ‘Prosperity’ expansions? These sound awesome! No, they’re not 100% necessary and the game will be staying in my collection with or without them – but it would have been great to have a few more things to shout from the rooftops about. But I guess I just have to accept that this is how many game publishers like to use Kickstarter.

Conclusion

For me, Area 51 is a highly enjoyable light-medium euro game with some really clever and devious mechanical twists. It’s packed with interesting decisions and has a fluidity that keeps me glued to the board, while it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But I can’t promise you it will be a hit with your group! I’ve played it with nine different people to date, all of whom I’d thought could like it – and its actually turned out to be quite the Marmite experience (for the uninitiated – they loved it or hated it).

I think two things work against it – both of which I’d say will turn out to be strengths in the long run. First the in-game scoring takes some getting used to and is unintuitive, so can throw people off and frustrate them early on. Secondly and connected is the lack of card knowledge that can leave players feeling they have little control; which goes against the game’s seemingly euro nature. But I feel these are both mostly ‘first play’ problems.

So if you like euro games I would say this is a game you should definitely try out. There are enough familiar elements to lull you into feeling at home, but enough quirks to then immediately knock you off your comfy perch. I just hope enough people back it to open up those stretch goals – and that they consequently add that little bit of extra character the base mechanisms so richly deserve.

* I would like to thank Mucke Spiel for providing a prototype of the game for review.

Con report: The Cast are Dice (TCAD) 2016

TCAD logoAfter having a cracking time at both SorCon and the UK Games Expo this year I decided to have a crack at The Cast are Dice – one of the many other smaller UK board game cons.

Around 200 players descended on Stoke-on-Trent 6th Form College for a Saturday and Sunday of gaming.

I’ve decided to compare the event directly with SorCon as they’re very similar and appeal to the same crowd (I saw many faces at both), but this means your millage will of course vary; many of the things I prefer at one to the other would be the total opposite for others, so rather than skipping to the conclusion please take all the points on their merits and remember this is simply my experience!

Location location location

Here’s a great example of why your opinion may differ from mine, as for me this was a complete knockout for SorCon’s Holiday Inn over TCAD’s college campus. And before I go on its important to point out that both had great, friendly staff, well-lit rooms and reasonable/reasonably priced food.

The first problem is TCAD kicked you out at 10pm on Saturday and 8pm on Sunday, while at SorCon I was still playing at 4am on Sunday morning. And while I was dry as a bone at TCAD, there was always the promise of a beer or two if you wanted one at SorCon.

Stoke TCAD collegeThis had the added effect of meaning early (Friday) arrivals such as myself had nothing to do – while late leavers (again like myself…) also had nothing to do on Sunday evening.

And it was in a crappy area, with nothing but a Subway (bleugh) and some really grotty looking dogburger takeaways for sustenance: SorCon is surrounded by chain restaurants.

This was made worse by the shabby ‘recommended’ North Stafford Hotel. The prices were OK, as were the food and drinks, but with a drunken 18th birthday do on the Friday night and an Indian wedding on the Sunday it was a million miles from what I’d hoped – and barely any other gamers were to be seen.

Secondly, I much preferred SorCon’s big gaming room to the ‘lots of small rooms’ approach of TCAD. It rarely felt like you were part of something and many of the people even had the doors closed to rooms, which just made you feel unwelcome. But as I said above, this is personal taste and I have no actual complaints – it just wasn’t really for me.

Available board and card games

On the flip side this was a big win for TCAD, which was excellently run by the friendly staff and family/friends of Stoke’s own Shire Games. A weekend ticket was just £15 which included a ‘guaranteed prize’ raffle. I randomly drew a ticket for the crappiest prize table and still managed to get a copy of Tichu (£8).

There was also an excellent (and well run) games library with hundreds of games, with a great mix of classics and recent releases and a wide range from quick fillers to long, complex euros. We never found ourselves short of choices and the games were all in good condition.

In comparison SorCon had no prize draw and a library of about 20 games – but that wasn’t an issue as you knew that in advance so brought your own. But more importantly it makes TCAD more of an inclusive event as in theory anyone could’ve rocked up and joined in, whether they were a gamer or not.

Gaming highlights: Old favourites

Cant StopI’d expected this to be a weekend of three-player medium weight euros, but what I ended up with was a weekend of five-player light weight board and card games – which, apart from lugging a bunch of games I didn’t play on the train, was fine with me.

I ended up teaching some of my favourite games – Ra, Notre Dame, Can’t Stop and For Sale: all of which were in my last top 50 and were in TCAD’s impressive games library.

I think Can’t Stop went down the best, with it being both the first and last game we played over the weekend despite it only going to four players (although I’ve pimped my own copy out to play five and you can easily add more cones to take it to six) – not bad for a 35-year-old game!

The other three are great with five and also went down really well. For Sale continues to go up in my estimations as its so easy to teach, always gets a reaction and is out, played and back in the box in 30 minutes tops. Note Dame is probably at its best with three but still sings at five (I don’t mind the extra game length at all), while Ra is a great game from three to five players.

Gaming highlights: New favourites

Isle of SkyI learnt three new games over the weekend and bizarrely managed to win two of them, but it was the one I didn’t win that left the biggest impression.

Isle of Skye was number five on my Essen wishlist last year and has since gone on to win the coveted Spiel des Jahres Kennerspiel award – so it’s hard to believe I’ve only just gotten around to it!

It’s a really solid tile-laying game that played in about an hour, even with five players. There are plenty of genuine decisions to make and while there was quite a bit of luck-of-the-draw, it was fine for a game of this length.

There were just enough new and interesting ideas to merit its lofty status too, but despite all this I won’t be seeking it out as it isn’t quite strong enough to knock the likes of Maori or Entdecker out of my collection.

I also enjoyed my first play of Augustus (gamer bingo!), but it was very light and I can see the shine wearing off quite quickly. As for The Networks I enjoyed the theme and humour on the cards and the gameplay was good; but it was terrible with five and had that hallmark ‘slightly underdeveloped’ Kickstarter vibe – especially in the effect the random show draw affected points in scheduling, and the unbalanced Network cards.

That said, I’d happily player either of them again – with the caveat that I’d only play The Networks with two or three players max.

TCAD: Will I be back in 2017?

To be honest, it’s highly unlikely. Despite being really well run neither the location nor the hotel/con venues would tempt me back. I’d rather try my luck at a different event, as there are so many others out there to check out. Stoke was a pain in the arse for me to get to and it really didn’t feel like it would be worth the money/effort a second time.

But a big thanks to both the organisers and my gaming compadres for the weekend (Keef, Claire, Becks and Fin) – I still had a really good weekend of gaming. And if you’re not really a drinker/late night gamer, live in the Midlands and like to play board and card games The Cast are Dice convention comes highly recommended.

Pocket Imperium: A four-sided game review

Pocket ImperiumPocket Imperium* is a sci-fi-themed abstract area control game using programmed, simultaneous action selection to plan and carry out your moves.

It’s a microgame that attempts to pack the idea of a 4X game (expand, explore, exterminate, exploit) into a tiny package – and does so with aplomb.

It was originally released on Brett Gilbert’s fantastic Good Little Games website and if you want to try it out it’s still downloadable there in its basic form – but the boxed copy adds plenty to the original.

Pocket Imperium plays in under an hour and says two-to-four players on the box; but I’d say anyone looking specifically for a two-player game should look elsewhere (more on that later).

In the small box are seven cardboard tiles and 50 tokens; 50 wooden ships, and 14 linen finish cards. You can find it for about £20, which is solid value for what’s in the box – all the components are of a high standard and are well designed.

Teaching

Pocket Imperium in play2Pocket Imperium is, on one level, a very straightforward game – but it can take people a few rounds to get to grips with some of the specifics.

During the game players will vie for control of ‘systems’ (which I’ll call planets) and ‘sectors’ (which I’ll call hexes); by each round placing new ships (expanding), moving them (exploring) and attacking with them (exterminating). At the end of the round they will score points (exploit); and they do this for six or eight rounds, depending on player count.

Each player has 12 ships (destroyed ships return to your stock and can be used again) and three cards that represent the three available actions. The ships and actions are identical for each player – hence the game’s abstract nature, despite the theme. At the start of each round all players simultaneously decide in which order they’ll do their three actions, placing the cards face down in front of them.

The order matters in terms of tactics (you may bolster your forces before moving or attacking; or perhaps you’re at full strength, so want to attack first to have ships to reintroduce later in the round); but also in terms of how powerful the actions will be. Once all players have chosen their action order, everyone turns over their first card at once.

Pocket Imperium cardsIf you’re the only player to choose an action in a position, you do it three times – but just twice if two of you pick it, and only once if three pick it in the same slot. This adds a nice bluff and reading element to the game, as sometimes it may be obvious what particular opponents should do while you may have less obvious options.

Once each player has completed their first card you reveal your second cards and complete those; and then the last cards are completed (all actions are optional, in full or in part).

The ‘exploit’ part of the round sees each player choose a different one of the hexes to score (this is compulsory). Players score points for any planets they control on that hex – but other players will also score ones they control on the same hex. This means you often have to give points to other players, making your decision a little trickier than it could be. Then whoever controls the largest planet chooses a second (unscored) hex to score.

Finally, at the end of each round every space can only sustain a certain amount of ships: any extras on a space are lost, which stops you building lots of ships on a single space.

The four sides

Pocket Imperium alternativeThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I was a fan of the original print and play version of Pocket Imperium, but this is a definite improvement in all departments. The great old three-player original is largely intact and plays the same way, but moving from cards to hexes allows for different layouts; while some different planet setups on the reverse of the hexes also add to the replayability possibilities.
  • The thinker: This is an impressive abstract strategy game in a small package, with even the random element that some may be wary of having a tactical element. It’s important to emphasise how important initial placement can be. You get to place two ships on each of two planets before play begins and depending on how the hexes are randomly laid, there can be some real advantages to be had. But as in all area control games its up to the players to real back in the leaders and not let someone grab a clear lead; which can be a great leveller versus more skilled players.
  • The trasher: While I like a good area control game, I’m on the fence about this one. While you do get a good ebb and flow as powers rise and fall, the euro-style components make it a bit of a personality vacuum. On the flip of that I like the simplicity of the combat, with ships simply neutralising/obliterating each other in a fight. But I’d have loved to have seen some individual player powers, or scenarios, rather than just the different map set ups that – while looking like they add variety – don’t do anything to change the core elements of the game.
  • The dabbler: This isn’t my kind of game at all, but it’s not as bad as some and is quite short! One plus point is the fact the points you score are kept face-down. This gives an opportunity for the talkers in your group to persuade the others of how their plight is doomed – even if they may actually be right in contention. It’s also nice that the ships of different colours are also different shapes; but there is no attempt within the rules to give the game any added personality. This may be a ‘pocket’ parody of big brother Twilight Imperium, but don’t expect to get into character.

Key observations

Pocket Imperium componentsPlayer count is a definite issue here. While Pocket Imperium is great with three I’ve found it very zero-sum with two and I wish they hadn’t put that number on the box at all.

The game is fine with four, but strangely they’ve added two rounds – presumably so that each player goes first twice. The problem is it makes the game drag on too long for what it is, while six rounds feels about right with three. We’ve started playing just four rounds in a four-player game and for us this works just fine: there’s enough ebb and flow in this shorter variant of the game to make you feel you’ve got your money’s worth.

I also have a small issue with some of the choices in wording – a common bugbear with rulebooks. Using phrases such as ‘sector’ and ‘system’ just confuses people – and what’s the point when so little else has been done to add theme elsewhere? All it does is serve to make explaining the game a little more difficult.

Replayability is a common issue that comes up in reviews and comments from others, but taken as a quick filler you play occasionally this won’t be an issue – although I can see why people see it as more than a filler if trying to play the full-length four-player game. But no, this is not a game you should be picking up if you want to play it every week! But then how many games really are?

Conclusion

Pocket Imperium in play1Pocket Imperium is an impressive microgame. But despite the nice artwork and pasted on theme, this is very much an abstract game in a small package.

If you like abstract games that have a random element, as well as area control, it is definitely worth taking a long look at. Games tend to be very close and once you’re familiar with the rules it should only take about 30 minutes for three players – and both setup and pack-down are quick and easy. There are even a couple of small expansions available.

I would never play it with two players (I’d suggest taking a look at The Rose King) and would only play our shortened version with four. But it’s great to have another really good microgame on the market (you might also want to check out – self-promotion alert – Empire Engine). Overall then, an impressive achievement.

* I would like to thank designer David J Mortimer for providing a copy for review.

Essen Spiel 2016: The build-up begins

Essen 2016 logoWith Essen Spiel 2016 just 10 weeks away, the anticipation is starting to build for the world’s most important annual tabletop game event.

While those in the US will want to get GenCon out of the way this month before getting too excited, those of us of a more euro persuasion – both in terms of location and gaming tastes – are already looking towards October.

And once again it’s looking like being a landmark year. For the first time there will be more than 1,000 exhibitors at the event. And no, that’s not a typo – 1,000 exhibitors. And over the four days they’re expecting 160,000 people through the turnstiles (which includes the likes of me four times, as you’re counted each day you enter).

This will be the fifth year I’ll be going, this time for six nights, but it always feels fresh and new. This is partly due to staying in a new hotel every year, so fingers crossed for this year’s choice – InterCityHotel Essen. I’ve previously stayed in two good ‘gamer’ hotels, a budget nightmare and a pretty fancy non-gamery place – all of which have given me some stories to tell. Let’s hope they’re the right kind this time…

I’ve written a few blog posts before that anyone heading to Essen may find useful. Here’s a couple of my Essen guides from last year that should still be useful:

Wearing three hats (again) – or maybe four…

Having a press pass is great because you don’t have to queue to get in – but unlike an exhibitor pass (which I’ve managed to get before thanks to AEG) it doesn’t get you in early. That has proven invaluable in the past in terms of getting in for demos early, so I will have to be more focused (read: sneaky) this year in terms of getting organised.

There’s still a chance I may be able to get one of said passes, as one of my co-designs might make it to the show – but the publisher admitted it was a “very ambitious” target to make it with the time we have left. Having seen some of the early artwork I think it’s going to look amazing, so I’m desperate to see it there – but won’t be holding my breath.

Essen balconyAt the other end of the game design spectrum, it’s getting to crunch time in terms of getting prototypes ready for showing to publishers – and then arranging the meetings. I can’t believe its only 10 weeks away! Ye gods… Two older games will definitely be there, while two more have the potential to be in good enough shape to show. But for that to happen we’re really going to have to get our houses in order.

If I’m honest it has been a slack year for me in terms of design; I just haven’t felt motivated, which hasn’t been helped by the slow progress of other games that are already with publishers. I need to shake that off – and hopefully the thrill ride that is Essen will help me get over this malaise.

Then of course there’s the fun of trying to grab the games I want most from publishers without having to buy them! With almost 100 game reviews to my name now, and having kept all my reviewing promises from last year, I’m hoping this will be a little easier in 2016. But to be honest I enjoy the challenge of bartering, so bring it on publishers!

And finally, of course, I’ll be there as a punter; as a gamer (and as a drinker). It’s the world’s best board game shop for one week a year and it was open for eight days rather than four I’d still be heading in every day. I may not love the smell of gamers in the morning, but I do love the games themselves a possibly unhealthy amount.

The preparation begins…

So all my trains are booked and the hotel is confirmed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of preparing for Essen.

Now it’s time to start reading the press on all the new releases that will be coming out at this year’s show. It’ll probably be close to 1,000 new games this year, so narrowing that down to about 20 I want to check out is going to be the usual mammoth task. And yes, I LOVE IT! Bring on the Geek lists 😀

But before then I’ve got about 10 other games sitting on the shelf I need to review. And there are those prototypes to work on. And those publisher meetings to organise. Can it really only be 10 weeks to go…?

Dice Heist: A four-sided game review

dice heistDice Heist* is a light set collection card and dice game. It has an interesting push-your-luck element, but is a family level filler game that anyone can enjoy (some suggest kids as young as six could play).

The game comes with 15 dice and 56 cards, packed neatly into a small box (about the size of two packs of cards – the same as AEG’s Sail to India).

The card quality is fine, the dice are small (but do the job) and the cartoony artwork ranges from great to average, keeping the price of the game down to around £15 this side of the pond – or less than $20 in the US (which seems about right – unfortunately UK prices for board and card games suck right now).

The box actually says 14 and up as an age range, but I think this purely comes down to not wanting to spend money on the extra testing needed to certify games for younger age groups. The only real issue I could see are the dice being a choking hazard!

Teaching

Dice Heist in playThe rules to Dice Heist couldn’t be much simpler: your goal is to have the most points once all the cards in the deck have been claimed.

On each turn (you simply go clockwise) you first reveal the top card from the deck and add it to the appropriate museum (each card has a flag); if the card has a ‘plus’ symbol you add a second card (and so on).

Next you either try to rob a museum, or add a sidekick (extra dice) to your team. Each player is a thief represented by a black dice; if you take a sidekick you simply add a white dice from stock to your pool of dice – and your turn is over.

If you try to rob a museum you choose which one, then decide how many dice you’ll be using. You always go yourself, but can take as many sidekicks as you want with you on the heist. Each of the four museums has a number on it (from two to five); and to successfully pull off the heist, one of the dice you roll will need to beat that number.

The kicker is that, if the heist is successful, all the participating sidekicks go back to stock – so the trick is working out how many you should take to give yourself the best odds of succeeding. If you fail your heist your sidekicks hang around, waiting for a payday – but of course you have essentially wasted a turn.

The various treasures score in three different ways: cards with a purple pot (or two) are worth one or two points (and are kept face down to stop people working out exact scores); those with a coloured triangle are scored triangularly by colour (one is worth one point, two is three points (one plus two), four is 10 points etc); and the works of art have values – the player with the highest total art value scores eight points, the one with lowest loses four.

The four sides

Dice Heist art cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Dice Heist sets up in two minutes, can be explained in three and takes about 20 minutes to play – giving you the entire experience in less than half an hour. Its light and breezy, has stand-up dice rolls/laughs, but is so obviously luck/fun driven that there’s no room for misunderstandings: this is a palate cleanser, game night starter or pub game and does exactly what it says on the tin.
  • The thinker: What’s to think about? No matter how much I debate what to do I’m still playing the odds, meaning it’s essentially a crapshoot. The right thing to do to beat The Louvre when I only have two dice is to take another dice – but that doesn’t stop the next guy flinging his one dice and luckily getting a six before my next turn. If this kind of thing annoys you, or you find it pointless, there’s very little for you here.
  • The trasher: As a filler I enjoy Dice Heist quite a bit. Especially in the second half of the game there’s a bit more tactics to it, as you can start to assess who is collecting what in terms of scoring. Getting those eight bonus points for art can be a big swing – but equally stopping someone getting their fifth triangle of the same colour stops them getting five points – meaning a trip to a less appealing looking museum may actually be more advantageous than its two cards might suggest.
  • The dabbler: Love it! Some of the art is funny, while the simple rules and fast play time keep everyone involved and laughing throughout. It doesn’t take much imagination to start giving the dice some personality and bringing a bit of roleplay to proceedings, with talk quickly turning to weakening the security for the next player or laughing as someone rolls a couple of ones while trying to take on an easy task. This will always be in my bag for family game nights now, as well as for sessions with non-gamers and as a filler for everything else.

Key observations

Dice Heist gallery cardsIf you don’t like dealing with the luck of the dice, Dice Heist is simply not going to be for you. It’s super light – but claims to be nothing more.

My only slight issue with the game is that the four countries chosen for the museums all happen to have the same colours in their flags.

This can make it hard to quickly place cards in the right stacks, which is annoying in a game that otherwise plays very smoothly. But when that is the worst of your worries, you know you’re playing a very solid game.

Conclusion

Dice Heist pot cardsI like Dice Heist a lot. It’s a simple and quick tactical push-your-luck game that has a small element of strategy thrown in during later rounds – but that is so quick and breezy you really don’t have time to worry.

And it has had a surprisingly high hit rate with my gamer friends, despite some of them not usually taking kindly towards such light fayre.

I can only surmise that your average player, however much they may prefer a deep strategic puzzle, can still appreciate a game that does what it sets out to do so well – and I feel that’s what they’ve managed to achieve with Dice Heist: a simple take on familiar mechanisms, but with a neat twist and just enough thematic connection to create the right atmosphere.

* I would like to thank co-designer Trevor Benjamin for providing a copy of the game for review. For full disclosure, I was a playtester on the game and the designers are both friends in the Cambridge design group (but hopefully you can trust I’m being honest!). 

The Rose King (AKA Rosenkönig): A four-sided game review

Rose KingThe Rose King (previously available in German as Rosenkönig) is a two-player-only abstract strategy game that plays in around 30 minutes.

In the small box (8x8x2-inch) you’ll find the game board, 52 rose tokens (wooden in the old versions, cardboard in the new English one), 32 cards and a wooden crown token.

The board is a well-drawn old-style map of northern England, where the War of the Roses was played out between royal rivals from Lancaster and York in the 15th Century – but in game terms it is just a nine-by-nine grid of squares. The card art is nice, if just functional rather than elaborate, but does the job perfectly.

You can find the game for less than £20 and (spoiler alert) there is more than enough game in the box for that price. However, since the original (with wooden pieces) was about the same price, I’m surprised they didn’t lower the cost of this significantly. Why not go the whole hog, make the board thin card, and sell two versions – the ‘deluxe’ original and a super-cheap cardboard one for under a tenner to try and grab some more fans?

Teaching

Rose King boardAs with all classic abstract strategy games, the rules of The Rose King are very simple – the skill comes from the tactical decisions you make; or often in what you fail to see that then bites you in the ass.

The crown piece starts the game in the middle square of the board. Each player starts with four one-shot ‘hero cards’ in their colour; and is dealt five face-up cards from the shared ‘power card’ deck. A player may never draw a card if they have five power cards.

Taking it in turns, players choose to either play or draw a power card (simply draw the top one from the deck). Each power card displays a direction (N, NE, E etc) and a number between one and three; and the cards of both players are face-up throughout the game.

When playing a power card, you place it in the discard pile and move the crown token from its current location by the card’s exact amount and direction (eg, three spaces NE). You may only play the card if it is legal: the final position of the crown token must be within the board’s boundaries and the spot it is moving to must be empty. If this is the case, place a rose token of your colour in the square and place the crown on top of it.

The exception is if you play a hero card. These are played along with a power card and allow you to move the crown to a space occupied by your opponent’s rose – and flip their rose to your side (you can never move the crown to a space you already occupy). But remember you only have four hero cards and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Play continues in this way until either all of the rose tokens have been placed on the board; or until neither play can play or draw a card. Players then score their rose tokens, with larger orthogonal clusters scoring significantly more points; it is the number of spaces squared, so a cluster of 3 will score just 9 – but a cluster of nine would score 81.

The four sides

Rose King in playThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I can’t believe how many interesting decisions, and swings, The Rose King packs into such a simple and short playing game experience. When to use your hero cards is key: when you have none left and your opponent does you are extremely vulnerable – but if you have the opportunity to take a lot of points, it’s hard (and possibly a mistake) to resist. Without them the game would be average; with them, for me it’s a classic.
  • The thinker: Fans of games such as Go and Chess may baulk at the random elements on show here, but I would urge them to give it a try. While it lacks the purity of strategy those games thrive on the tactical challenges the game throws up have their own charm. A good player should always beat a novice, but it won’t take an intelligent gamer long to get up to speed – and then you’ll be in for some close games. And there isn’t always an optimal move, leaving genuine choices rather than a simple right or wrong move.
  • The trasher: While I’d prefer more theme, The Rose King is a brutal game and probably the most fun I’ve had with a two-player abstract. The game is purely tactical, while not giving you too many decisions to parse at once, so it zips along nicely but can throw you some real curve balls. You can think you’re in a really strong position, then your opponent draws the perfect card for themselves and suddenly you’re on the defensive. And there are so many time you want to use those hero cards to swing the tide, but they’re like hen’s teeth!
  • The dabbler: This game isn’t really for me. It’s OK, and clever, but because there is no theme – and no mystery (every playing piece is visible) – the stand-up moments just aren’t there. Sure, there are those ‘oh no’ moments when you realise you haven’t seen what’s about to happen to you – and it feels great when you spot those and your opponent doesn’t, letting you score a big area. But at the end it tends to feel like you’ve lost my making mistakes, which doesn’t make me feel too great! I prefer a game with shocks and moments where players feel they’ve made a great play, rather than waiting for the mistakes of others.

Key observations

The Rose King is often criticised for its random elements, and lack of control – and so for the lack of strategic planning. All true – this is largely a tactical game, but I don’t think it’s any weaker for that. I guess some may get the wrong impression by its look, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it pretends to be anything it isn’t.

Speaking of its look, the complete lack of theme has some bemoaning the fact they tried to paste one on at all – while others complain it is very dry, perhaps because they expected a War of the Roses game to have more than pictures of knights on cards, a map and some tokens with roses on. These are points of view I understand, but I don’t see them as really slights against the game; so yes, it is a little dry – but good dry.

Tactically, you can argue hero cards are a little too important – as the player who runs out of them first does tend to lose. So holding them back is the play – but if you hold on too long you can end up not being able to use them, so it isn’t quite that straightforward. And finally some complain games can be a blow-out, with a big scoring area blowing the other player out of the water.

To these points I’d say two things. First, I don’t think this is a game people should overplay – it’s not an every day or back-to-back plays kind of game for most people. As for blow outs, you need to remember this is a 30-minute experience – we’re not talking one player starting to get hosed then having to be beaten down for a few hours.

Conclusion

Rose King back boxAlongside Ingenious and Can’t Stop, The Rose King has been one of my favourite abstract games since I picked it up back in 2012 – but I’d been playing it for years before online at Yucata.de (as ‘War of the Roses’ – a great place to try it out).

I love that you can teach it in five minutes and play it in 30, making it a great lunch break experience – especially to introduce to Chess or Go playing colleagues as an introduction to our great hobby.

I’m a little disappointed with the inferior cardboard components in the most recent English edition, but I wouldn’t let that stop me recommending this fantastic game to anyone who loves a bit of an abstract tactical challenge with a sprinkling of luck thrown in.

* You may have noticed the lack of my usual ‘class A’ photos (ahem). This is because the version I own is the German original which has different components (but exactly the same rules), so I’ve used the Kosmos promo images here instead. 

CVlizations: A four-sided game review

CVlizationsCVlizations* is a two-to-five player action selection family card game, that plays in about an hour.

The art and name owe much to game publisher Granna’s previous release CV, but the game itself is a very different animal (although it will also set you back around £20).

There is also a thematic resemblance, but here you’re showing the history of your civilisation rather than your personal career development.

In the hugely oversized box (it’s the same as the equally oversized CV box) you’ll find a small game board, around 100 cards and 100 or so wooden and cardboard tokens – again closely mimicking CV (it even has the same insert, although there’s no pencil and score pad). The component quality is high throughout and artist Piotr Socha’s illustrations are once again fantastic. But here the CV comparisons stop.

Teaching

CVliz in playThe basic concepts of CVlizations are very simple and easily explained to any group. And while players play their cards face down each turn everyone has the same cards, and are playing for open rewards, so it’s easy to repeat rules as you go.

The game is played over nine turns, split into three ‘ages’ of three. In each turn players will play two cards, so over the course of the game you’ll play a total of 18 actions. At the end of the game, the player with the most (surprise surprise) victory points (happiness) is the winner.

Each player starts the game with an identical set of eight cards. Each turn they choose two of these to play and then discard, meaning six of their eight cards are played in each era. At the end of an era you get those six cards back (then rinse and repeat).

Each card lets you do a different (fairly standard) action: three let you take one of the three types of resource (food, wood, stone); three let you trade, take or steal resources; while one gives straight VPs. The last lets you double up whichever action you chose with your other card in that turn. The actions are done in order, with each action having a number on the card (so for example taking a log is a number two – no sniggering at the back!)

CVliz actionsThe trick is players play one action face up and the other face down – and the amount of people that play each determines how well it work for each player that chose it. Most work OK with one, best with two, and either poorly or not at all with three or more players choosing it at once – so there is lots of second-guessing going on.

Finally in each round, players have the opportunity to buy ‘ideas’. There are four available per round, each costing a varying number of resources and giving either victory points, a special ability or both. Abilities are standard fayre: giving bonus victory points for doing certain actions; discounts on later ideas; and generally bending the rules a little.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m really not keen on games with a large memory element, and CVlizations falls into this category if you’re actually trying to win. You’re desperately trying to remember who has played what so you know the chances of doing something well that round – but I guess that’s me, not the fault of the game. We did try playing with face-up discards, but that just makes the dreaded ‘analysis paralysis’ monster rear its ugly head. It’s a game you probably need to play more lightly – but at the same time, it doesn’t really feel like that sort of game.
  • The thinker: This is not really a game for thinkers, although at first I thought it might be. A clever player can fairly predict the kind of actions others should take, but that only gets you so far – and unfortunately there isn’t enough difference in the amounts taken to make the decisions that meaningful anyway (even if you could accurately predict them). And unless you’re start player that turn, who knows what might be available to buy anyway? An exercise in frustration, unfortunately.
  • The trasher: CVlizations has the potential to be a real screw-your-neighbour type game, but instead they’ve decided to keep it family friendly. Even when the steal action lets you take more than one item from opponents you have to take it from different ones – annoying if you have a clear leader. both the actions and idea cards lack a little in imagination too, bending rules a little rather than a lot: they could have made it much more swingy and fun, or put in some alternative cards for those who wanted a less friendly match.
  • The dabbler: I enjoyed this one quite a lot. It is fairly easy to pick up, fast playing and it looks great, the funny illustrations really adding to the experience. You can’t plan much so you chat while you play, and there’s enough randomness to know that over-thinking your moves is a waste of time – it’s more fun to just go with the flow and see what happens. But I don’t enjoy it as much as CV, because it doesn’t quite pull off the narrative arc as well. At the end of CV I can really see the life my character had – I don’t look at my ideas here and see how my civilisation evolved.

Key observations

CVliz leftFirst and foremost, gamers that don’t like randomness need not apply! Especially at higher player numbers it’s a real crap shoot.

You never really know what resources you’ll end up with, which is kind of OK, but then unless you’re first player you don’t really know what will be available to buy either – making planning pretty impossible.

What ends up happening is everyone tries to get a good spread of goods to give themselves the best opportunity to get something/anything useful – which is where the next problem rears its head: what promises to be a bit of an engine builder usually turns into ‘buy what I can afford and hope the best’.

The problem is that each card is going to be worth at least one point, and you’re only going to get the chance to buy nine at best. Missing out feels like a lost opportunity, while holding out for something better next round could just as easily turn out to be an exercise in futility. All the while your neighbour is watching their accident engine fall perfectly into place…

CVlizations seems best at three players and OK at four – but not great at two or five. With two you have the dreaded ‘dummy player’ – or a tedious ‘advanced’ version that sees both players also playing dummy hands; while at five it has downtime issues – and some of the idea cards start to swing a long way to either being super useful or super useless, as the chance of three players choosing the same action increases.

Conclusion

CVliz cardWhile my review of CVlizations probably doesn’t come across as very positive, I think it’s largely because I’m not the target audience.

I saw a lot of families playing and enjoying this at UK Games Expo and it has a Board Game Geek rating well over 6.5, which is pretty strong for a lighter weight family game.

But this kind of gateway level game is usually right in my wheel house. I’m always happy to play the likes of Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and the rest, but something about this one just doesn’t sit right. For me it doesn’t get the mix of randomness and skill quite right – while it also fails to capitalise on the theme, where CV really nailed it.

But don’t get me wrong: this is a solid game with great art and components. Unfortunately it just isn’t for me, as I’ve seen too many examples of poor luck meaning a player simply isn’t able to compete – not a big deal for many at this price point and game length, but it just sticks in my craw a little too much to stick with it.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Frost: A solo deck-building PC game on Steam

FrostI’m pretty wary of computer games that mimic ideas from the board and card game world.

It’s very rare they manage to capture the subtlety required to make a truly great tactical or strategic game, focusing more on visual bells and whistles and (usually) adding too many luck elements to hold the interest for long. Unless they’re a direct port from an existing tabletop game, they rarely seem designed for gamers.

So it was with some trepidation I approached ‘Frost‘, a game found via Steam’s auto recommendations and described as, “a survival solo card game inspired by deck-building board games like Dominion, Ascension and the like”. While I’m no Ascension fan, the fact the designer was name-checking ‘proper’ games gave me hope this may be a winner.

Style

Frost introBut the first thing that struck me was the game’s visual style, which I find absolutely beautiful.

The drawings are stark and simple, which perfectly fits the theme, while the dark, brooding and tribal soundtrack brings a strong sense of foreboding.

The premise here is you’re a small group of survivors trying to find your way to a fabled safe refuge through a harsh winter landscape and relentless storm. It has a post apocalypse feel, but long after it rather just after: we’re talking finding fruit and making sticks into spears here; not finding cars and shooting guns.

The intros are really nice (but thankfully skip-able once you’ve been through them once ot twice) and the screen often fades out to pure white, helping to hold the mood of perpetual snow and of not knowing what could be around the next corner.

Substance

Frost in playAs with most deck-builders you start the game with a deck of 10 cards (in this case usually four survivors, two food, two (building) materials and two fatigue) and draw a hand of five.

There is a frost meter at the top of the screen that starts on 8: it will drop by one each turn in which you don’t complete a Region card, and go up one (to a max of 8) on turns that you do. If you drop below 1, the frost has gotten the better of you and it’s game over.

You need to travel a certain distance (usually 25) to win the game, with the number equalling the amount of Region cards you need to complete. These cards come out at random and will need a varying mix of food, survivors and materials to move past.

Each location will also have a random Event which stays until the location is passed. These can be a potential benefit (letting you trade items, for example) or a hazard (an enemy to overcome). Hazards should be dealt with before you leave the Region (some can be bribed with food, others need to be killed with a spear); as if you don’t you’ll take damage as you leave (you only have four health points).

Deck building works in two ways – using survivors in your hand to search, or by buying Idea cards that become available (one at a time) each time you draw a new hand. Cards bought usually cost resources (which go out of the game) but are upgrades on the base cards: everything from cards that generate resources, to weapons, to cards allowing you to draw more cards, discard some fatigue, or look at upcoming cards (and sometimes choose the one you want).

Using survivors from your hand is risky, as they may die (out of the game) or add a fatigue to your deck; but equally they may find extra food or materials cards (which are added to your hand, while the survivor goes in your discard pile). This almost always seems worth the risk, but equally has a nice tension and can end in some nasty situations.

Fatigue works in the same way as curse cards in Dominion, or similar cards in every deck-builder: they clog up your hand. Certain advanced cards let you deal with them, or if you draw a really crap hand you can discard all of the fatigue in it out of the game – but the rest of your hand is discarded and the frost counter moves on one too.

Replay value

Frost in play 2Beyond the (useful and nicely done) tutorial the game has two main modes; ‘classic’ and ‘scenario’.

When you start, classic is broken down into ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ options – with ‘hard’ and ‘endless’ modes opening up after you’ve beaten the game once on medium level.

There is a noticeable step up in difficulty to medium, but more interestingly it also opens extra win conditions you can meet rather than the simple ‘survive 25 Regions’. You get two random options each time, which may need you to discard a bunch of resources, win a certain number of fights or discard a certain amount of fatigue.

On ‘Hard’ mode you have to complete two of the three available objectives you’d get on medium level (but still by the time you make it through 25 Regions), while ‘Endless’ – as you’ve probably guessed – just lets you see how long you can survive.

Winning games can also open up scenarios (there are four right now, with the designer hoping to add more later). These again open up interesting twists on the base rules, as well as having their own nice little intro sequences and characters.

(Minor) niggles

This is a small game from an indie publisher, so you have to expect a few little problems to sneak in. None that I’ve come across have been game-breakers, but some are definitely worth flagging up.

My biggest issue is that when playing on anything above ‘easy’ level the game removes the handy ‘resources’ window that lets you know what you currently have in your deck (in terms of basic resources). This feels to me like the only time the designer slips from knowing what gamers are really about: generally we like to plan and to calculate, not be thrown a memory element as an extra ‘challenge’.

On the tech side, the game can open on the wrong monitor if you have a two-monitor setup (this will be fixed later), which is super annoying; but you can hold down ‘shift’ as the game loads to change this (and also to choose to play in windowed mode). But this really needs to be available in the standard options menu.

Finally, another (due to be fixed) problem is you can be set an impossible win condition on medium and hard modes. Random advanced cards are unlocked as you play more games, which is a nice system; unless important ones aren’t. A case in point is the ‘lose 12 health on a journey’ condition – impossible to complete unless you’ve unlocked a healing card. However, as there are always two win conditions (plus the standard survive 25 regions option) this again doesn’t break the game (and you can simply restart).

Final thoughts

Frost endgameFrost can be fairly compared to Friedemann Friese’s solitaire deck-builder Friday; a game I enjoyed for several plays but didn’t buy.

While Friday is a clever and tough solo game, it just lacked that level of variety to make me want to invest.

Frost is a similar game in some respects, but there’s so much more replay value here – and at around a fiver on Steam it is an absolute bargain. I’d actually like to see this made into a ‘proper’ card game, as while some of the elements may be a little fiddly to pull off I think it would quickly find an audience.

If you like deck-building games and are looking for a digital solo game, I can’t recommend Frost highly enough – especially at this price. I just hope enough people invest so that designer Jerome Bodin can put in the extra work he clearly wants to on the project, as there is so much more that this system could have to offer. A fantastic achievement.

* I would like to thank Studio des Ténèbres for giving me a review key on request.

Board game Top 10: The best worker placement games

Snowdonia workersWorker placement games have steadily become a hugely important part of the hobby since the release of genre classic Caylus back in 2005.

These games see you use ‘workers’ to claim spaces that in turn grant you actions you then use; the key being that most or all of these action spaces are contested between all players and so have limited availability each turn. This makes placement order important, as well as considering denial of certain spots to others.

It has proved a fertile space for design, with many variations on the original basic concepts in everything from theme to mechanics; such as specialist workers and individual player boards. But there have also been many interesting cross overs with other popular mechanisms such as hand management, dice manipulation and area control.

If you’re new to this genre and looking for a gentler way in, I would suggest one of two games that aren’t on this list: Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep. I think Stone Age is both the better game and the better gateway, but if you really like D&D and/or the fantasy genre above all else then Waterdeep is a solid enough choice. Stone Age would’ve made my top 10 a year or so ago, but I simply feel I’ve outgrown it (hark at me!).

Also just missing my list were Targi, Sail to India and Crisis. Targi is a great small box two-player game that condenses what makes worker placement great into a small package – no mean feat (and for me it does it better than Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small). Sail to India is a fantastic example of putting a big box experience into a micro game, but sadly it can fall flat on occasion. I haven’t played Crisis enough yet to justify putting it on here – but I have high hopes and it’s worth checking out.

Honourable mentions also need to go to Terra MysticaKeyflower and Mombasa – three of my favourite games that include a worker placement element, but that probably aren’t worker placement-y enough to fairly include on this list. I’ll also talk about some games that other people rate (but I don’t) at the end, but for now here’s…

My Top 10 worker placement games

Egizia10. Egizia (2009)
2-4 players, 90 minutes

Something of an overlooked gem, this Egyptian-themed game pushes all my buttons: worker and resource management, variable actions available each round, some hidden scoring, and the chance to mess with your opponents. Another nice touch is that the actions are spread out along the Nile and once you move past an action space, you can’t go back to it. This creates some delicious decisions as you try and work out just how juicy those later actions are – as you may have to miss out on some others to ensure you grab it. This is exacerbated by the fact you have eight workers available, and there are 26 action spaces, so if you move too far ahead you may end up wasting some of those workers (there isn’t a cop-out catch-all space where you can place spare/unused workers). Available to play online at Yucata.

Empires Age of Discovery9. Empires: Age of Discovery (2007/2015), 2-6 players, 2 hours

Originally titled Age of Empires III, this classic was finally re-released in 2015 – but sadly in a beautiful yet unrealistically priced edition. As much as I’ve loved the game, I’m not willing to pay £75 for what should also have a £40 price point. However, that gripe doesn’t get away from how great a game this is. The main focuses here are having several different types of worker that can achieve different tasks; area control; and the order in which you place your workers. The game has quite a high level of conflict, so by placing your workers in spots that give away your plans early risks telegraphing your plans to others – but there are limited spaces in the more significant action spaces, so leave it too late and you may not get to do it at all! Definitely better with more players (five or six), this one isn’t overly complex but can be pretty brutal.

Fields of Arle8. Fields of Arle (2014)
2 players, 90+ minutes

The last game in this Top 10 that I don’t own, I’d only buy Fields of Arle if I was lucky enough to find myself a new girlfriend that loved board games; the reason being it is custom made for the two-player experience. As you’d expect from Uwe Rosenberg, this is very much a resource management/conversion game – and like most of his more recent games it is more forgiving, prefer to let you score points for everything and rewarding good planning, rather than punishing poor play. There’s little innovation here, but I do like how he has split the actions into two ‘seasons’ – with very limited scope to access actions from the season you’re not currently on. There are also multiple routes to victory, which pay out at various speeds and levels of commitments, giving it a sandbox feel. But the fact it’s specifically designed for two means you always feel the pressure for action spaces.

BoraBora_box7. Bora Bora (2013)
2-4 players, 90 minutes

One of my favourite games, Bora Bora is only so low on the list because it’s the one game here some would argue isn’t a ‘pure’ worker placement game. Personally, I don’t see why. Sure, your ‘workers’ are dice – but they are placed to choose actions and your choices are limited in scope depending on other players’ selections. That’s worker placement to me. As you’d expect from a Feld game there are multiple paths to victory and everything you do is going to score you points – plus the tropical theme is pasted on (but pretty) and everything can be heavily mitigated. But the important thing is all your decisions are agonising and there’s just enough of being able to mess with other players (by accident or design) to keep things interesting each play. There’s a varying number of actions, depending on player count, meaning it plays well across the board – and while placing high-numbered dice gives you better actions, placing lower ones restricts the availability of that action for other players.

Caylus6. Caylus (2005)
2-5 players, 2 hours

For many this is the original worker placement game – and even if it wasn’t, it was certainly the game that brought the mechanism to the eyes of the general gaming populace. But more importantly it still holds its weight today, with some random elements and potential nastiness keeping it constantly replayable. The evil charm of Caylus is while you choose what actions you do before you get to do any of them, other players can then move the goal posts so that you can’t do some of those actions. You can of course play safe, but the best actions are (of course) the riskier ones. There is also keen competition to gain kings favours (which can give sizeable bonuses), while you’re constantly looking to build new action spaces. But these are then available to all – although as the builder, you’re going to profit from others if they use it. But then you want to use it too… So much to think about, such a great game – and one I need to play more.

manhattan project box5. The Manhattan Project (2012)
2-5 players, 2 hours

The Manhattan Project was a real breath of fresh worker placement air on its release, introducing a range of clever ideas to the genre –  not to mention its unique theme are wonderful art style. More importantly the theme really plays into the game’s mechanisms: you never quite know when the game will end, lending proceedings a nice air or paranoia; while you can build up your own tableau of usable actions (in this case factories/power plants etc) – only to find your opponents blowing them up or, worse, sneaking in and using them, blocking them for your own use. To further confound it introduced the concept of either placing workers or ‘bringing them home’ on your turn, meaning you could block spaces for as long as you were happy to leave your workers on the board. This is an absolute ‘must play’ for anyone keen on worker placement s it really does add a lot of interesting ideas to the genre.

Tzolkin4. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012), 2-4 players, 90 minutes

While some initially labelled the cogs on the Tzolk’in board a gimmick nothing could be further from the truth: instead they enable the simple implementation of what would otherwise be an unfeasibly fiddly mechanism – but what a mechanism. Workers are either placed or removed from cogs each round (players choose to do one or the other); with those that stay on the cogs moving to a stronger space at the end of each round. Waiting for later rounds is clearly beneficial, but balancing your need for immediate results versus extra value makes every round deliciously brain-teasing. The game is also gorgeous, interactive/competitive and variable, while really rewarding repeated plays.

Copycat3. Copycat (2012)
2-4 players, 90 minutes

The only game on this list outside the BGG top 300, Copycat is ranked a lowly 904 (June 2016) – but it’s one of my favourites all the same. It is seen by some as a bit of a gimmick, unashamedly ‘stealing’ mechanisms from classic games such as Agricola (worker placement), Through the Ages (card buying) and Dominion (deck building). But when combined these elements come together as a beautifully simple and coherent worker placement game. Sure there aren’t a wealth of routes to victory, but the cagey nature of play and deck-building elements make up for it in spades. I do think it’s a game you can overplay, and I’d dearly love an expansion to add some variety; but as a game to play and enjoy three or four times a year I find it an absolute blast. And the humour in the theme and art really compliment the experience.

Caverna2. Caverna (2013)
1-7 players, 1-3 hours

Uwe Rosenberg is the master of the worker placement art, so it seems fitting he’s the only designer with two titles on the list. I could easily have added Agricola to the list too, but I thought the two too similar for individual entries – and I prefer Caverna (just). The real difference between the two is that Agricola limits your options early by way of a card draft/deal and is very unforgiving; where Caverna is much more open. I also see Caverna as a 2-4 player game, as the solo game is weak (Agricola is much better for this) and more than four makes it restrictively long. What makes these games stand out is the mix of worker placement with tableau building and resource management. There are so many ways to win and the key is often getting out of sync with the other players so as to get the best out of action spaces (many of which improve on turns they’re not used). A fantastic challenge every time.

Snowdonia1. Snowdonia (2012)
1-5 players, 1-2 hours

2012 was clearly the year of the worker placement game (there are four in this top 10 list alone), so it seems fitting it also provides my number one ranked game in the genre. Snowdonia offers all the usual tropes of a worker placement game but brings two excellent innovations of its own: weather and the-game-as-player. Weather changes every round and has a big effect on the power and availability of certain key actions (you can plan and mitigate for it enough to keep it interesting without being too random). But better still is the mechanism in which the game essentially plays itself: each turn a certain amount of resources are drawn from a bag – and if certain cubes come out, the game itself moves the game forward by taking an action the players usually have to take themselves. The power of this action is also affected by the weather, meaning the game’s length can vary considerably – but this can also be mitigated a little, as the less resource cubes you ‘use’ (ie, put back in the bag) the more chance there is of the game taking actions. Additionally the game is supported by a large array of expansion tracks, each adding extra nuances to the base rules and adding a near endless level of replayability.

The ‘best of the rest’ that missed the list

Dominant SpeciesThere are five ‘proper’ worker placement games currently in the Board Game Geek top 50 that I haven’t mentioned above, including Orleans (at 44) which I haven’t played.

Of the others, Dominant Species (30) is probably my favourite – a brutal and complex area control game that I simply haven’t played enough of to include on my list (but it is brilliant).

Le Havre (21) is also great, but personally it opens up too big a decision space and I lose the mental capacity to enjoy it near the end (I’d definitely class it as a ‘heavy’ euro game).

I’ve had a couple of plays of The Voyages of Marco Polo (37) but it hasn’t gripped me enough to trouble my top 10 – solid, but no more. However, I didn’t care much for Russian Railroads (50). I found it quite fun on my first play but was already getting bored of it half way through the second; but I’m clearly in the minority on that one. It just seemed to have too few interesting paths to victory to hold my interest.

Ice Cool: A four-sided game review

ice coolIce Cool* is a flicking dexterity game for two to four players, although the more people that play the better it is.

The game plays out in about 30 minutes, but it’s the kind of game you can dip in and out of and play for as long as you like – it’s a party game.

Age-wise it’s listed as six and up but I can guarantee you’ll find people of all ages that will never be able to play this game (hi Candice! Hi Nat!) – but otherwise the age range seems about right. The game sold out at the UK Games Expo but is being reprinted in time for visitors of GenCon to grab a copy in the US in August. It cost £25 in the UK, which is a great price for the amount of stupid fun you get in the box.

I remember once laughing at a job ad in a newspaper looking for a ‘cardboard technologist’, but if this is what they do for a living then they’re awesome. As you’ll see in the pics below the game box has four more boxes inside that together make up a two-foot square play area. You’ll also find a bunch of wooden fish tokens, a deck of small cards and four weighted Subbuteo-style plastic penguins…

Teaching

Ice Cool boxesThe theme goes a long way in helping to describe the rules of Ice Cool. Each player is a penguin, at school, just before lunch break.

Each round you’ll either be playing a naughty penguin trying to sneakily grab some fish before the others – or the hall monitor trying to catch them first.

The ‘school’ has five rooms connected by seven doors – three of which doors have fish tokens above them (one per player on each doorway). The naughty kids (or ‘runners’) are trying to slide their way through each of these doors to collect their three fish and end the round – while the monitor (or ‘catcher’) is trying to catch them all before they do (to also end the round). Each player will get to be the catcher once (or twice in a two-player game), after which the game ends.

Ice Cool red penguinThe game begins with the catcher placing his penguin in the room opposite where the runners start. The runners then take turns first, each getting one flick before the catcher starts to come after them; after which you continue in turn order until the round ends.

Scoring is a simple affair and very easy to explain, although as with most party games it’s much more about the laughter of playing than caring about who wins in the end.

But what really makes this game stand out is the penguins themselves. The weight in their base and the shape of their heads makes two types of trick shot possible: swerves (flick the base on one side and at the right pace to make it veer that way) and jumps (by flicking the penguin’s head). This makes some amazing plays possible – if highly unlikely – and gives big dexterity game fans something to master.

The four sides

Ice Cool cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: what I like most is how Ice Cool mixes dexterity with some real tactical decision making. Much like in a real kids game of tag you need to think about who to target as the catcher, or who to avoid (for the same reason) as a runner – and what the safest route is to hit your goals. But one great, or totally lucky, shot can change everything.
  • The thinker: One nice touch is the scoring cards. They range from one point to three, nut the one-point cards have a secondary function: if you collect two you can use them to take an extra go – but you’ll still score the points at the end. This is a nice way to mitigate the luck of the points draw and is another example of the intelligent thinking put behind what, on the surface, looks like a simple party game. Is it a thinker’s game? No. Is it fun? Absolutely.
  • The trasher: Nothing quite beats a dexterity game that is pure take-that in nature, and Ice Cool is just that. But while it’s fun swatting noobs, I really want to get good at this with a group that does the same. It’s interesting that the penguins are actually a little too tall to go through the doorways upright, meaning they only go all the way under doorways is at a slight angle. But especially as the catcher, getting caught in doors is usually a strong tactical position. Each room has a red line drawn about an inch in, so if you’re close to a wall you can move to this line to get a better flick. If you’re in a doorway, you can choose which line to move to – letting you cover two rooms from the one position. Just another tactical thing to think about.
  • The dabbler: The artwork throughout the game is absolutely gorgeous. The classrooms are beautifully realised and really ad to the experience, while the penguins themselves are delightfully dumpy and cute. The action is fun and frenetic, and the sliding penguin theme makes sense as well as being cute: the floors of the rooms are even made to look like ice rinks. But strangely he theme just didn’t work for me; it’s a really kiddy theme for a game which is much more aimed at a wide range of age groups. But it takes nothing away from the game – it just adds a lot less than I’d expected it too.

Key observations

Ice Cool blue penguinSome people simply aren’t any good at dexterity games, or flicking games in particular, and Ice Cool gives nowhere for those people to hide.

In most dexterity games you can set your own goal: beat your previous score, try to get to a particular point, grab a particular scoring marker etc. But here it is all versus all and the only way for the game to move forward is in ‘every man for himself’ fashion. This means that a bad flicker is going to get miserable fast as they fail and fail to get any score cards.

I also fear that, with the rules as they are, the game will have limited replayability for even its biggest fans. A difference in ability shows itself fast so whoever owns the game will soon find it tough to find opponents who are a challenge.

It would’ve been nice if designer Brian Gomez had come up with an alternative, non-confrontational way of playing the game – maybe a race scenario or similar. Sure, you could make one up yourself; but when so much thought has gone into the rest of the game it’s a shame a little more didn’t go into some alternative ways of using the fantastic components on offer here.

Conclusion

Ice Cool green penguinIce Cool is way more fun than it has any right to be. It doesn’t take long for those good at dexterity games to start to get a hang of the various flicking techniques, but you’ll find even the best players having terrible turns.

The attention to detail – from the artwork to component design – is top notch, while the rulebook is beautifully done and covers all eventualities. So as long as you accept that some players are going to really take against it, I highly recommend the game to any groups that love a clever little dexterity game – especially if they also like a take-that element to their games.

* I would like to thank Brain Games for providing a copy of the game for review.