Adrenaline: A four-sided game review

adrenaline-boxAdrenaline* is a big box abstract ‘euro’ game with a futuristic FPS (first person shooter) console theme. A game takes around an hour and it can accommodate three to five players.

It’s listed as ages 12+ but a brighter youngster will have no problem with this – I presume the age restriction is more likely to do with the fine array of choking hazards on display.

Speaking of which, in the box you’ll find: two game boards (which are put together as you choose, giving four configurations to choose from) five large and colourful plastic minis, 50-ish cards, some plastic cubes and damage tokens, plus various cardboard tiles. The artwork and graphic design is thematic and nicely done throughout, giving reasonable value for its sub-£40 UK price point.

Teaching

adrenaline-in-playAs any gamer familiar with Czech Games Edition (CGE) products has come to expect, the rulebook for Adrenaline is simple to follow and well laid out, while also being funny to read: it definitely helps bring the theme of the game to the fore.

The 12-page A4 rules are heavy on images and examples, with a great setup guide and a walkthrough of a shorter game for your first play. It also comes with a handy separate supplementary guide to all the various weapons and power-ups on offer (this is an FPS simulation after all – what it be without a bunch of crazy guns to choose from?).

Adrenaline is fairly straightforward to play. The board is separated into five to six rooms, made up of a total of 10-12 large spaces (rooms vary from one to four spaces in size). Each space will either have a ‘spawn point’ (where players materialise, and can pick up weapons) or an ‘ammo crate’ (where you’ll find both ammo and power-ups).

On a turn (taken clockwise around the table), a player will take any combination of two of the three available actions (so you can repeat one if you wish): move fast, move and pick up, or fire. Picking up will either be an ammo crate or a weapon – you can reload any of your weapons at the end of a turn as a free action (using a power-up is also a free action).

One of the nice things about the game is pretty much everything is done in threes, making it simple to learn quickly: you can have a maximum of three weapons, a maximum of three of each of the ammo types at any one time, and up to three power ups. It won’t stop at least one player repeatedly asking you though!

adrenaline-weaponsThese very basic core rules allow two key elements of the game to shine through: the variety of weapons (every one of the 20 available works differently) and the way players score victory points.

Weapons range from close combat (you need to be in the same square) to long range – some even need you not to be able to see your opponent to be able to shoot them! The ones that do more damage cost more ammo to reload – while most weapons also have extra effects you can utilise by spending extra ammo (some effects are even free – especially on lower damage weapons). The weapons stay on theme too, so anyone used to using the likes of tractor beams, sniper rifles and rocket launchers will be right at home.

But what really gives it the FPS theme is the way you score. Each player is essentially an area you’re trying to control by doing damage to them. Players can take 11 points of hits before having to respawn – at which point they’re ‘scored’. First hits, majority, and ‘overkill’ damage is rewarded before the player gets right back into the action. But on their return they’re worth a few less points (although they keep all their gear), making players who have yet to be defeated more tempting targets.

The four sides

adrenaline-player-boardThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Adrenaline has its name for a reason: as you take damage your adrenaline builds, making each action a little better the closer you are to defeat (for example, once you’ve taken six damage you can move a space before you fire). But there is nothing you can do in terms of healing, taking cover etc – this is a knife fight in a telephone box and any thought of strategy needs to leave you mind once you’re tooled up and ready to go. This is purely tactical from then on.
  • The thinker: Despite its shiny exterior and plastic minis, Adrenaline is really a maths challenge in FPS clothing – but that’s not a bad thing. I’d be tempted to describe it more as an abstract than a euro, but the theme does find a way through – just not in the pacing. There is definitely room for analysis paralysis here, as the area majority scoring mechanisms mean you’re constantly calculating where you can eek out an extra point. Games will be close, so every point can really count.
  • The trasher: Designer Filip Neduk is clearly an FPS fan, as the game covers all the right bases. As well as what’s mentioned above you’ll find overkill (kick them while they’re done for extra points), tagging (extra damage you’ll do later as you’re familiar with the target) and final frenzy (everyone’s actions ramp-up in the final round). Played in the right spirit, and more importantly at the right pace, this can give you something close to that shooter feel – but if players start to try and grock it, the game goes from FPS to chess. Luckily the barrier to entry is low, so you can easily teach it to non-board gaming computer game friends.
  • The dabbler: The minis make Adrenaline bright and colourful, the simple rules make it accessible, and the way players immediately come back after running out of health keeps everyone in the game throughout – all big positives for me. You can get a bit of smack talk going too, but if anything the game lacks a little bit of mayhem: there are no random factors and very few laugh-out-loud moments, which I really was expecting when I came into it and looked at all the big weapons. But as someone who doesn’t usually like area majority games, I was still pleasantly surprised and would happily play the game again – especially as it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Key observations

adrenaline-miniDuring your first game, you’ll realise your combo of weapons is the key to success. There are a number of ways to go – all cheap and low damage, weapons that work well in tandem in a turn etc. But this strategic element is likely to be done in your first two or three (of many) turns. From then on, its a rinse-and-repeat tactical battle all the way.

Some love it. Adrenaline is described as simple, smooth, fast and fun by many; an exciting and innovative take on euro game mechanisms (area control and resource management) that captures its theme with skill. The good range of weapon combos offer good replayability, while each turn offers a unique combination of tactical choices as players move around the board.

Others, not so much. The weapon use iconography is a mess, meaning you’ll have players queuing up for the gun manual – especially in your first few games. And once you know what your weapons do, it can become ‘analysis paralysis’ time as you try and work out who to shoot and in what order. And of course, as everyone moves/collects ammo/dies each round, there’s zero chance at forward planning.

For those not sold on the theme, it can quickly become repetitive despite some clever mechanisms (the moving area control element is particularly compelling). It can be seen as a min/max puzzle – rendering it boring, rather than adrenaline fuelled.

I should also mention the extra modes of play that are in the rules: ‘domination’ and ‘turret’. Both add a few extra rules, but really much extra fun – they make it more tactical without adding the strategy some players might be craving. You can also add a ‘bot’ to the mix, but all this really does is prolong each player’s turn a little while doing minimal damage and adding equally minimal enjoyment.

Many would like to see a bigger map and a longer game time as an option, which could certainly appeal, adding a genuine layer of strategy (and perhaps interesting team play) – although you’d need one hell of a table to put it on.

Conclusion

adrenaline-battleFor me, this is one of those rare occasions where I’ve fallen for the hype. The original theme, the look and the publisher’s credentials made me sure I’d love it – but my radar was definitely off on Adrenaline.

The tight map doesn’t sit well with the abstracted euro damage dealing, while there’s an almost palpable lack of chaos: more like a maths test in a library than a knife fight in a phone box. I’m not usually a big fan of random, but this game is surely crying out for misfires, splash damage rolls and random effect cards.

But at the same time I have no complaints. It looks fantastic, is easy to learn and quick to play, with a great rulebook and some innovative design mechanisms. Sadly though, there just isn’t quite enough adrenaline in the box for me – and I’ve never been an FPS fan, so it holds no nostalgia value.

I for one won’t be keeping it, but it’s is a game I’d urge everyone to try. I’ve been unable to predict which of my friends would like it, and while no one has hated the game it has been about 60-40 like-meh. In the end, I find myself asking: if this is the best way to simulate an FPS game as a euro? The answer is probably yes – but that doesn’t automatically make it a great game. But I’m sure many will disagree.

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

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Matthew Dunstan

This is the first in what will (hopefully) be a series of Q&A interviews with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.


matthew-dunstanMatthew Dunstan is the designer of Relic Runners, co-designer of Elysium and Costa Rica (both with Brett Gilbert), and co-designer of Empire Engine (with me) – with several more games slated for 2017 and beyond.

He’s an Australian from a small rural town now living in Cambridge, England, where he recently completed a PhD in Materials Chemistry and continues to work in the field.

But while game design isn’t a full-time job, he already has a Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination under his belt for Elysium.

1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
For my day job, I work as a research scientist within the Chemistry department at the University of Cambridge. I am very lucky to have an understanding boss who lets me take time out for various game design related travel, so it works quite well. Outside of game design, I don’t really have any other creative pursuits – I did play both piano and saxophone earlier in my life but not so much anymore. I am getting into escape room design, but I suppose this isn’t much of a leap from regular tabletop game design!

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
Wow, tough question! My favourite designers include Stefan Feld (favourites include Macao, Castles of Burgundy and Die Speicherstadt – I haven’t gotten to play to rethemed Jorvik yet), Antoine Bauza (7 Wonders, 7 Wonders: Duel), and Uwe Rosenberg (mainly for his 2 player games Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, and Patchwork). But I will also include Andreas Steading and Thomas Lehmann, simply for designing Hansa Teutonica and Race for the Galaxy respectively; two of my favourite games.

Race for the Galaxy boxAs for designers I most admire, this list might be even longer! But I’ll try: Uwe Rosenberg for his incredible ability to design games with so many moving pieces and his rigorous testing procedure; Vlaada Chvatil for being able to design standout games in so many different categories, from Codenames to Through the Ages; Friedmann Freese for being a true game design scientist; Rob Daviau for starting a powerful new trend in gaming through the legacy concept, and for being able to actually finish 3 (!) legacy games – that is an incredible feat; Bruno Cathala for his incredible rate and quality of output, as well as being an amazing collaborator with so many different people – an ability I value very highly; and finally Brett J. Gilbert, a long time collaborator, for his innate ability to seek out elegance in game designs.

3. What drew you to game design?
I don’t exactly remember, but I think I started out by seeing game design as a new challenge I could undertake. I enjoyed playing games, and I thought I could understand how they could work, and so I just started making games. Maybe there is something in me that likes taking hobbies and exploring a side behind them – for example I played many sports when I was younger, and chose to go quite far in becoming an umpire in tennis and hockey (I have officiated at both the Australian Open and on the same hockey ground that hosted the Sydney Olympic Games, for example) – perhaps I like being in control in these things, and where can you have more control in games than designing them?

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
relic-runnersFor the earlier part of my design career, I definitely was a mechanic first kind of person – for example Relic Runners started as essentially an abstract game centred around an interesting network mechanic.

As the years go on I think I am designing more and more with a certain experience or audience in mind – is this meant to be a short family card game, or a thematic family game a la Colt Express, for example. I will always need a strong mechanical identity at the heart of my games, but I am more and more considering the entire experience at the beginning of my process. I think this is really important as publishers are much more concerned with the overall experience a game creates for its players than any particular mechanism that might be present in the game.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect of game design is that very first test when a new idea finally starts to work, and you see the glimmer of what the game is actually going to become for the first time. Its a relief in some ways because now you know that what you’ve been working on for sometimes months or years is going to get there, its going to be finished. A very close second is collaborating. I really like bouncing ideas off another person when it comes to working on games, and I love how efficient it can be moving forward when you have two different heads working on the same problem. The worst aspect are the very early tests that fail, especially with ideas that you had high hopes for, and they don’t even fail in an interesting or insightful way. Failure is fine, and sometimes can lead you towards to best direction for the game, but sometimes all a test will tell you is that the current idea doesn’t work and you should go back to the drawing board. That can be exhausting sometimes.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
I think medium to heavy euro-style games with many interconnected pieces are the hardest games for me to design. I can think back to a lot of attempts that I have made, and often they work, but they just aren’t that fun. I haven’t come up with a good way yet of realising how to get to the fun in these types of games, despite enjoying playing them very much! Probably the other type of game is a children’s or very light family game. I just don’t have a good sense of how much ‘game’ you need for it to be enjoyable for these audiences, and as a consequence I usually put far too much into these designs making them unsuitable for the target market. Oh, and legacy games. They’re stupidly hard to do.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?

My best tip would be to never use the computer for your first prototype – simply get some pen and paper and write and/or draw it directly. I think this helps you to do a few very important things. Firstly, you are forced to be minimal in your first design attempt – it is too difficult to write out by hand 100 or so cards with different text, and so you usually will stick to the minimum amount that you need for the first test.

This will save you a lot of time, as normally you will be throwing out a good proportion of what is in that first prototype, and at least you haven’t wasted time making 100 different cards that immediately need to be scrapped. You’ll also not have wasted time working on art or layout either. Additionally, I think it removes a barrier between you and getting that game to the table for the first time. If I’m working on my computer I think there is some resistance to actually going to the trouble of printing and cutting out the cards and other components – if I just get straight into making the cards directly I can have that first prototype ready very quickly. Basically, remove anything you can that will delay you getting the first prototype to the table – that is where you will learn the most about the game, not on your computer or in your head.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
My worst pitching moment was when I had a meeting with a publisher whom I hadn’t met with before – they were late (which is fine), but this was due to a mix-up in our schedules (also fine). I offered to reschedule, but the publisher (who was not in a particularly good mood) wanted to do the meeting then and there. I pitched one game quickly, and they were interested, but somewhat aggressively wanted 6 months exclusivity to evaluate the prototype. I decided to not leave the prototype with them, and left the meeting feeling the most down I have ever been in a meeting in this industry. It might not have been a particularly bad meeting, but I think its more in comparison to the many many wonderful meetings I’ve had with editors and publishers, some of whom I would count as friends now. To be honest, the majority of my pitching experiences have been very positive, and I think one or two meetings like this are inevitable – and understandable given the pressure publishers are under during conventions!

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Elysium boxMy best game design moment would be a tie – one was going to the Spiel des Jahres ceremony in Berlin when Brett and I were nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres for Elysium – it was just such a spectacle, with the press and ceremony, and it was a lot of fun meeting everyone involved in this process.

The second moment would be at Essen in 2013 when Relic Runners was released – it was my first game, and there it is, splashed all across the Days of Wonder booth, with 5-6 tables playing the game. It was incredibly satisfying and rewarding, and I was so lucky to work with such an amazing publisher for my first game!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
Probably my favourite style of game that I enjoy playing are special power card games – games like Race for the Galaxy, Elysium (yes, I enjoy playing my own games!), Abyss, Imperial Settlers, Macao, Dominion, and of course Magic: The Gathering. I just love the myriad possibilities for how cards can combine with others to form emergent systems and strategies, and every game is different. The other style I really enjoy are euro-style game with a spatial element that aren’t war or majority-style games (well, at least where this isn’t the sole focus). Examples of these that I really enjoy include Hansa Teutonica (which has the finest mechanism for euro-style player interaction that I have every seen or played), Five Tribes, Endeavour and Blue Moon City. Again, they offer so much variation with just small ways in which the board is arranged, and allow for a very satisfying feeling as you work out how best to manipulate the changing geography.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I think the main thing is to be vigilant and continually improving how welcoming and inclusive the tabletop hobby is – from standing up for any members that are the subject of sexism, racism or other similar treatment, to ensuring that these under-represented groups increase their presence in the design and illustration of games (both working in the industry, and being featured in the games themselves). I would love for the game designing community to continue to welcome people from all different backgrounds – I have found it to be a very warm and welcoming community, and I hope that as many people as possible can experience that.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
bucks-fizzI am a massive, massive fan of Eurovision (I am listening to some of the old songs now), and hold a massive party every year to watch it (which started even back when I was living in Australia).

One day I would love to start a Ludovision competition on BGG, where each country can enter one game each year, and then we can vote on who we want to be the winner – although I don’t know if there are enough Eurovision fans to support such an idea!

A massive thanks to Matt for supplying such great and detailed answers. To find out more about his current and upcoming games, keep an eye on Board Game Geek.

X Nimmt: A four-sided game review

x-nimmtX Nimmt!* (that’s the first and last time I kowtow to it’s official exclamation mark) is a small box family card game for two to four players which takes 20-30 minutes to play (and should cost you less than a tenner).

As with all Amigo card games it is very light on rules, but does have a little extra to think about than many of the games in this series – making the ages 8+ on the box feel about right. That said, you can easily introduce it to non-gamers.

You’ll find just over 100 high quality, linen finish cards in the box, along with the rules – that’s it. I have to say I wasn’t overly taken with the colour schemes on a lot of the cards (purple and green? Yum…), but the numbers and symbols are easy to read so the colours weren’t a hindrance. They aren’t even necessary, as they have no impact on play – they simply help you spot cards of different scoring values.

Teaching

x-nimmt-in-playAnyone familiar with 6 Nimmt will be on very familiar ground here – especially for the first half of the rules explanation. All the cards are shuffled and each player is dealt eight.

Three cards are also placed face-up in the centre of the table to show the start of the three scoring rows – with the rest of the cards put to one side for the rest of the round. You’ll play two rounds, with the player having the lowest total score winning the game.

On each turn, each player chooses a card from their hand and places it face-down on the table. Once everyone has chosen these are revealed simultaneously and then placed onto the scoring rows in number order – not player order – with the lowest card placed first.

All cards must be placed sequentially onto their most suitable rows (ie, the one with the closest number to it): so if the 25 and 23 cards are currently at the front of two of the rows, if you play your 30 it would have to go on the 25 – while if you played the 24 it would have to go on the 23. It’s easier to do than explain, and people pick it up in no time. You only get to choose where to lay if you play a card lower than any of those at the heads of rows: you win a row of your choice, and replace it with the card you just laid.

But it’s not only laying low cards that wins you cards- and this is where X Nimmt starts to differ from 6 Nimmt. Each row has a card heading it which are numbered 3, 4, or 5. If you place the card that would be the third, fourth or fifth in the appropriate row, you win the cars there are the card you play starts the new row.

x-nimmt-x-rowAs you’ve no doubt realised, ‘winning’ cards is a bad thing. As well as its number (between 1-104) each card also has a number of bulls heads depicted on it (between one and seven). Those will be your score at the end, with a score of 0 being a perfect round.

In 6 Nimmt, cards you won simply go into a score pile to be totalled: but X Nimmt adds a layer of strategy to the mix. Each player also gets an ‘X’ card (see what they did there?) which they lay in front of them; this counts as the start of their own personal row, which works in the same way as the others (cards in it must go in ascending order).

When you win cards, you choose one of them to add to your X row – the others go into your hand. If you have to add a card to your X row but can’t do so sequentially, the cards already there become your score pile and a card you just won starts a new X row.

A round ends when one player plays the last card from their hand. Any cards left in your hand are worth the bulls heads on them, while those in your scoring pile count double (ouch). But cards still in your X row don’t score at all – so it is possible to win several rows of cards, but still end up with a 0 score thanks to good management of your X row.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While I love the daft fun of 6 Nimmt, X Nimmt just feels like a better game to me. I’m still more than happy to play the original, which is at its best with five or six, but at the same time i’m a little confused while this version was limited to four players. Perhaps because 6 plays so well 5-6 and they didn’t want to cannibalise their own audience? Maybe it will say 5-10 on the box in future? Either way, I’ll be tempted to play X Nimmt with five and six, adding a six-card row to replace the three-card one, so see how it works.
  • The thinker: I was a little on the fence about 6 Nimmt, as while it is well designed it felt a little too ‘random party game’ for me. But X Nimmt gives far more opportunities to be strategic – both thanks to having to place cards into your hand and into your X row. You need to be considering the game state (how many rounds do you think are left?) to make the right decisions, and the times where there is a definite one card worth playing have drastically reduced.
  • The trasher: I love 6 Nimmt because its hilarious watching players pick up massive scores on cards – and because there’s not a mountain of skill involved, it’s even funny when it happens to me. But with X Nimmt you can sometimes actually choose who to stitch up – especially when you’re laying a low card, so getting to choose which row to take. This can make it a little bit personal if you want it to, which as far as i’m concerned can only be a good thing!
  • The dabbler: I love 6 Nimmt, but it was very poor with two or three players (it says it plays from 2-10 on the box) as the rows took too long to fill up and while it kind of worked, it was very unsatisfying. The simple change to three different lengths of row – especially with the super-short three-card one – means you’re getting to the fun of the game (picking up the cards!) much more quickly. However this does mean people think more, which slows it down – there is real room for ‘analysis paralysis’, as players try to work out their best moves.

Key observations

x-nimmt-x-345-rowsIf you didn’t like the abstract card play behind the original 6 Nimmt, this is unlikely to convert you – unless you just saw it as a luck-fest, in which case you should definitely give X Nimmt a try.

The potential flip-side of this is the fact people can now grock things more now – especially as cards go into your hand, meaning people start to remember what still has to come out again. It’s only a small memory element, but it will annoy some; while AP players may well slow things a little, compared to the original.

While X Nimmt generally seems to have been received as an improvement on the original, the low player count is raising some eyebrows – especially as it doesn’t seem to be necessary. Most of the game is still simultaneous, so more players shouldn’t add to the game length by much – especially as the game is shorter now anyway.

Conclusion

Overall I’m very happy with X Nimmt. The new rules add a small amount of complexity but a lot of strategy and interesting decisions, while bringing a good ‘nimmt’ game to the lower player counts. I think the two should sit side-by-side in any good game collection, and certainly will be doing so in mine – X Nimmt compliments 6 Nimmt, rather than replacing it.

* I would like to thank Amigo Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.

Board game Top 10: Christmas stocking fillers for anyone

santa-dogs-playing-pokerWith Christmas about six weeks and one pay cheque away, thoughts inevitably turn to Christmas gifts. Whether it’s a stocking filler or Secret Santa gift, or a thank you to a close friend, these can be tricky to get right. So give the gift of gaming!

The criteria I’ve used is: less than £20; small stocking-sized box; anyone can learn and play; they play in 30 minutes, and they’re currently in print and easily available. Seriously – I challenge any of you not to be able to get a handle on these games straight out of the box in just a few minutes, even with tired and tipsy relatives full of wine and turkey!

This inevitably leads largely to a list of card games, but thankfully there’s an amazing variety of high quality ones on the market. And I have managed to throw on a couple of dice and dexterity alternatives.

Games are linked by the title where I’ve reviewed them elsewhere on the site. And, as always, if you have any questions – or your own recommendations – just pop them in the ‘comments’ below.

My Top 10 stocking filler games

Sushi Go box10. Sushi Go! (2013)
2-5 players, 15 minutes

One of the most popular game mechanisms of recent times is card drafting (or ‘pick and pass’): look at a hand of cards, keep one then pass the rest to your left, taking the cards of your neighbour on the right – until you have a hand of cards to play the round with. Sushi Go! distils this to its simplest form while retaining enough game to be fun.

Not only that, but it costs £10, comes in a lovely little tin and has some of the cutest artwork I’ve seen for a long time. The idea is simply score the most points – which you do by collecting sets of sushi cards in various flavours. The box says eight-plus but I think you could even go a little lower than that (a clever six-year-old wouldn’t have a problem).

dobble9. Dobble (AKA Spot It!) (2009)
2-8 players, 15 minutes

A great leveller between the ages, speed pattern recognition games can really get a family gathering going. This is somewhere your four-year-old can take on granddad and win – as well as mum, dad and teenagers too. And it’s less than £10 to buy.

Each card in Dobble has a bunch of symbols on it – and your job is simply to match two of them. Well, simple except that everyone is trying to do it/grab it at once. Mayhem duly ensues – and when you get bored, there are several different ways to play included in the rules. If people already have and love Dobble, try Jungle Speed – an older game in a very similar vein.

qwixx8. Qwixx (2012)
2-5 players, 15 minutes

While some people get a bit sniffy about Yahtzee, I think it’s a perfectly good game – but it’s just a little long and solitary for what it is. Qwixx takes the base premise of Yahtzee (deciding how to use numbers on dice to get the best score), but does two important things: halves the play time, while making everyone involved in every dice roll.

It’s colourful and simple but there are genuine decisions to be made each round, making it palatable for gamers and non-gamers alike – while it will set you back less than £10 and can comfortably be enjoyed by kids too. If your crowd isn’t into abstract games, it’s worth checking out the likes of Dungeon Slayer or Zombie Dice as cheap, dicey alternatives.

coup7. Coup (2012)
2-6 players, 15 minutes

Coup is a game of bluffing and deduction – and assassinating everyone else around the table. Twice. It’s about £10 and plays from around 10 years and up. The idea is stay alive the longest. You each take two hidden political roles (there are duplicates of each) and each roll has a special ability.

On your go you say a roll and use its special power – but no one knows if you are actually that person. If someone calls you out, and you lied, you lose that character – if not, you get away with it. Roles invariably revolve around assassination – either doing it outright, blocking it, or gaining money to hire someone to do it. It’s fast, mean and funny. Cockroach Poker is another great game that’s also about bluff and meanness, but is many times lighter on rules and will play with younger children – as long as you don’t mind teaching them that lying pays…

welcome-to-the-dungeon6. Welcome to the Dungeon (2013)
2-4 players, 30 minutes

If you know anyone who’s into fantasy but hasn’t really discovered the world of card and board games, this is a brilliant place to start. This little push-your-luck card game is less than £10, has great artwork, and is a great example of how games have evolved in recent years without getting more complex.

Each turn a ‘hero’ (made up of seven equipment cards) enters the dungeon. Player’s take it in turns to draw a monster card, which they either place face down in the dungeon (making it harder) or discard face down – but if they discard it, they must discard a piece of hero equipment. Alternatively you can pass – because the last player left in will have to try and guide the hero through the dungeon by turning over cards and using the remaining equipment to defeat the monsters. A success scores a positive token – a failure a negative one. You’ll need two positives to win – but two negatives and you’re eliminated.

rhino-hero5. Rhino Hero (AKA Super Rhino) (2011)
2-5 players, 5-15 minutes

While essentially a small box card game (once again costing less than £10), Rhino Hero is actually a dexterity game. As the box suggests, you’ll be trying to help our brave rhino hero reach the top of the building – which you’ll be building with the cards in a kind of strange reverse Jenga fashion.

Each player has five floor tiles, which when placed tell the next player what they have to do on their go. You’ll always have to add walls, but you may need to do extra things – lay more walls, move the rhino, or switch direction so the previous player has to go again. It’s clean, daft fun and won’t give grandma a heart attack when the whole thing invariably collapses (although the laughter might wake her up).

coloretto4. Coloretto (2003)
2-5 players, 30 minutes

Coloretto is a great game to introduce to people who get sniffy about even the most basic deviations from traditional card game mechanisms: a set collection game with a really clever twist. On a turn you either draw and place a card into a set (there is one set per player and each set can have a maximum of three cards), or take a set (you must take one each round). The clever bit is the scoring. There are seven colours, but you will only score a maximum of three colours positively at the end (all the rest will be negative) – so you’re trying to make sets you want that no one else will, while not making any too tempting for other people to take. Five minutes to explain and set up, hours of fun.

Diamonds and Clubs are also worth a mention here: new takes on the classic trick-taking card game Hearts, each with its own clever twist (and all of these are about £10).

dice heist3. Dice Heist (2016)
2-5 players, 20 minutes

Dice Heist is a clever yet super simple push-your-luck dice game, where each round you add treasures to galleries then decide to build up your crew (grab another dice) or try and rob a gallery (roll dice). Kids and adults alike will pick it up in no time, there’s low set up time and it plays fast and fun – with the scores worker out through various set collection mechanisms at the end. If you like push your luck and set collection, but not dice, there’s a great new edition of Archaeology: The Card Game out now called Archaeology: The New Expedition.

6 nimmt 20th2. 6 Nimmt! or X Nimmt! (1994/2016)
2-10/2-4 players, 45/25 minutes

While 6 Nimmt! steps outside the 30 minute barrier I put on this top 10 list, it’s new cousin X Nimmt! solves that problem nicely. I include both because 6 Nimmt! can be played in less time by lowering the end game target score, while it goes up to 10 players – making it great for big Christmas get-togethers.

This shouldn’t scare off the relatives either – it’s a simple numbered card deck (there aren’t even suits). Each player is dealt a hand and you play a card each, each round – simple. I’ve even seen players play this randomly by just flipping a card (no, they never win). The key is not winning any cards, as lowest score wins. Cards go into rows and each can only have a certain number of cards in is: if your card should be next, you score the whole row. Players reveal simultaneously, and cards have to go on the row they fit on best. X Nimmt! is great for 2-4 players, while 6 Nimmt! is better with more.

Love Letter box1. Love Letter (2012)
2-4 players, 20 minutes

Don’t let the title or the girly cover art fool you – Love Letter is a mean, funny and quick little game about stitching up your opponents. But it’s light enough, and constantly ‘take-that’, so people don’t feel picked on – or worry about being mean to others. It’s very simple: draw a card, play a card, until someone wins each round.

The cards interact with each very simply but cleverly, and you’ll have the rules down by the end of the first round or so. And better still its huge popularity has seen a bunch of spin offs with a variety of themes including Batman, Lord of the Rings and Adventure Time. You can pick it up in any of its various guises for around £10, or close to a fiver if you shop around. If you want something heavier, Empire Engine is in the same game range…

Essen Spiel 2016 aftermath: Reviews incoming

Essen 2016 logoSo the wonderfully overwhelming and exhausting Essen Spiel is over for another year. It will take me a week to recover, but I’m already missing the mayhem – even if my body isn’t.

Below I revisit my pre-Essen top 10 wishlist, along with a giving a full list of what you can expect to be my next 20 or so reviews. I also list a few games I’m wanting to play that I didn’t manage to get to – but where I’ll find the time is beyond me…

I did of course come home with a copy of Armageddon, designed by David Thompson and myself, which seemed to go pretty well. I won’t be reviewing it (I may be a little biased…) but when I get some more post-show info I’ll give an update on it.

My Essen Top 10 – what didn’t come home with me

papa-paoloAfter taking a closer look at Papa Paolo (my pre-Essen list number 5), I decided against asking for a copy. The game looked OK, but those who I spoke to that had demoed it were unconvinced. I’ll keep an eye out for more reviews.

As I ran out of luggage space (see below…), I’d already tried to get a few minutes with Stephen Buonocore several times and failed. He was the man I needed to speak to about both Fabled Fruit (number 8) and Terraforming Mars (number 1 target), but he was so busy I just gave up. Friends grabbed both, so I’ll get to play them – plus they’ll be easy to get if I want them later.

Ave Roma (my number 7) sold out, while Area 51 (number 10) looked terribly disappointing – it had barely been upgraded from the pre-production version they’d sent me. Despite being promised a copy, I decided I could happily live without it – especially as none of my gaming groups had really warmed to it (despite me liking it).

On the expansions front, I asked for a copy of Deus: Egypt but it will be posted to me in the next few weeks. This seemed very strange – why do that when I’m standing right there? I guess that’s what happens when businesses get to a certain size – pointlessly haemorrhaging what is to them small change is less important than chain of command.

I had a good look at the Ancient Terrible Things expansion but it didn’t seem to offer much that I was desperate for (despite looking awesome). I’m happy with the base game, so didn’t feel this warranted a purchase right now – but I expect I’ll grab it later.

Post-Essen reviews incoming

great-western-trailThe few disappoints above were far outweighed by the good news.

Publishers Amigo, Blam!, Czech Games Edition, EmperorS4 Games, HUCH! & Friends, La Mame Games, LudiCreations, Pegasus Spiel, Pleasant Company and Queen Games were all very generous and provided the following for review:

  • Adrenaline
  • Crisis
  • The Dwarves: Duel
  • Eternity
  • Freaky
  • Gooseberry
  • Great Western Trail
  • The Oracle of Delphi
  • Planet Defenders
  • Risky Adventures
  • Snowblind
  • Touria
  • Tramways
  • Ulm
  • Unter Spannung (AKA: 7 ate 9)
  • X Nimmt

Oh my… Anyone fancy a games night? I’ll update this with links as I get the reviews up, but as I like to play things at least four to five times before reviewing it’s going to be a while before the first ones go live.

Expansions:

  • Celestia: A little Help
  • The Dwarves: Saga, Combined Might & New Heroes

In case you think I didn’t put my hand into my moth-eaten wallet at all over Essen week (except when stuffing my face or drinking), I did buy the small expansions for ConcordiaNavegador and New York 1901. I doubt they’ll be big enough to merit reviews though, but if they are I will do so.

What I’m also wanting to play: The Top 3

in-the-name-of-odinRhodes, Lorenzo the Magnificent and In the Name of Odin were all on my ‘best of the rest’ list, just outside my Essen Top 10 – and again, they would’ve been the next three games I would’ve picked up if I’d had some more luggage space.

I got a short demo of Rhodes and enjoyed it – a tight, interactive worker placement game that plays in an hour.

Lorenzo the Magnificent looked great but once I knew a friend had a copy, I knew I’d rather wait until later to play: if it’s as good as it looks, I’ll be happy to buy a copy later down the line.

As for In the Name of Odin, I just couldn’t get past the alarm bells that went off every time I went near it. Overwrought and garish it just screamed ‘Kickstarter’ at me and, once again, as soon as I knew others had bought it I was happy to cross it off my wishlist.

Kickstarter preview: Steal This Game

steal-this-gameOne of the greatest things about the board games community is, well, the community. And I’m not talking just about the players – I’m talking about the designers, the publishers and the developers in particular.

When I first decided to start dabbling in game design I immediately found myself taken under the wing of first the Playtest UK Meetup group and, shortly afterwards, the fledgling Cambridge division of the same group. Despite my early attempts being rubbish at best, I was positively encouraged via great constructive feedback that only served to inspire me to keep at it (something a few of them probably regret now…).

Once I had a game I thought might be publishable, I started to talking to (you guessed it) publishers and developers. While not every meeting is a positive experience (everyone has shitty days), the vast majority of them have been really supportive and open.

The designers and publishers I’ve met since have been a mixed bunch of characters, but I’ve never met one who thought they were too good for me, or who wouldn’t happily answer some questions or have a quick chat. Sure, there are a few I wouldn’t approach now – but that’s the same personalities issue you get in every walk of life.

In fact, I’ve been amazed at how far many publishers and designers will go to help, even when meeting for the first time or just for a few minutes. Rather than being a secretive, cutthroat closed shop the industry is quite the opposite: if someone doesn’t like an aspect of your game, they’ll suggest a way to improve it – or if it’s not the game for a particular publisher (or they have no room in their schedule), they’ll be happy to suggest alternatives you may not have considered. Clichéd I know, but it feels like a family.

steal-this-game-componentsBut what has all this got to do with Steal This Game?

At Essen Spiel last week – the most influential event in the board gaming calendar – indie board game publisher LudiCreations had its Saturday takings for the fair stolen by a gang of professional thieves.

Luckily no one was injured, but the gang got away with thousands of euros: an event that has hit the LudiCreations team hard, both financially and emotionally.

But rather than sit around and mope, the Ludi team, along with a gang of designers and reviewers, set about making it right. They spent Saturday night designing, testing, reviewing and filming (a review by Richard ‘Rahdo’ Ham) a nanogame – it fits on a postcard – in an attempt to recoup some of the takings. Kickstarter had a stand at the show, so within 24 hours they’d turned tragedy into a live Kickstarter campaign.

Designed by David Turczi, this two-player game pits a game publisher against a thief trying to rob them. But of course the point here isn’t the game – it’s the fact something positive came out of a desperate situation almost immediately as everyone rallied around to chip in however they could.

At the time of writing Steal This Game had almost 2,000 backers who’d pledged almost $25,000. Pledge levels include simply getting the postcard ($5 or more), or getting one of Ludi’s other games (Kune vs Lakia, Microfilms or They Who Were 8) into the bargain for just $14. It’s very small numbers, but together we can help make this right and show once again what a great community board gamers have created. I’m in – now it’s your turn.

One play: Codenames – Pictures

codenames-picturesWhen I received Codenames: Pictures* I was faced with something of a (teeny tiny) dilemma – how do I go about reviewing this?

In reality it’s a standalone game in its own right – but mechanically it is almost identical to the original Codenames (reviewed here last October), just with pictures instead of words. Not really full review material unless you love repetition.

The next option was to review it as an expansion, but again it’s problematic. You don’t need the original game, it doesn’t really change anything up (except for the aforementioned) and it wouldn’t fit my format. So here it is: the ‘One Play’ review.

In truth, the One Play format ended up fitting the bill perfectly because – you guessed it – I’ve only played it the once. But as a big fan of the original I think I’m on pretty safe ground giving you the full picture (ho ho) on this almost inevitable variation on a theme. And I promise you right now, I won’t be doing a review of the ‘adult’ word version (although, if you do want to seek it out, it’s called ‘Deep Undercover’ – just don’t tell mum I sent you).

Codenames basics: A quick recap

codenames-pictures-tilesCodenames is a party game that can be (realistically) played with anything from four players to eight or more, with you all being split into two teams (no matter how many players participate).

Each team chooses a spymaster, with each team’s representative sitting together in front of a single card only they can see. In front of this is a grid of other cards that everyone can see – in this case picture cards. The trick is that the card only the spymasters can see tells them whose pictures are whose, which others are innocent bystanders, and which single card is the assassin (if a team guesses this word by accident, its instant defeat).

Taking it in turns, the spymasters then try to think up a one-word clue that their teammates can use to guess multiple of their team’s words correctly – but at the same time not any of the other words on display.

This is where the genius in the game lies. Sure, you can say “music, 2” because you’ve seen images of a record player and some headphones – but don’t rule out some crazy person guessing at a ‘tortoise’ picture because it’s the name of a band they like… Find more on the rules in my original Codenames review (linked above).

So what’s new here?

codenames-pictures-cardsThe most obvious change is, of course, the pictures. They’re black and white, relatively simply drawn, but they do have that slightly bizarre/surreal feel of Dixit cards: you’ll find a dinosaur riding a bike, a bed riding a wave, a dragon attacking a satellite dish…

But these multiple references mean the game has the same depth as the original word version: where before you relied on the multiple meanings of many English words, here you have that extra dimension visually too. The cards are still double sided, clearly marked so you know which way up they go, and printed on high quality linen finish stock.

There has also been a change in the size of the grid of cards you choose from, which is now 5×4 rather than 5×5 – so 20 rather than 25 cards. This means there are less ‘innocent bystanders’ (4, from 7) and one less clue to guess for each team. In one way this feels like a sensible change, as it makes it more tense but also a shorter game length (in theory). In reality, it has had a mixed reaction – but works fine either way.

So why bother with this one?

Codenames: Pictures feels different, while familiar, which can only be a good thing. Some will find it harder, some easier, depending on how you parse words and pictures. But whatever your decision, it’s great to have the choice.

It’s still a great for non-gamers, and this opens up to even more players as not everyone likes a word game – as well as being language independent, making it great for including those not so familiar with English. For game evangelists such as me it’s another weapon for our tabletop gaming arsenal. And even better, both games fit into the same box.

Why stop with what’s in the box?

Because the game’s rules are so simple, there’s no reason you can’t go hog wild and add in your own images. Have Dixit or Mysterium? Throw them in for a few rounds. Got lots of family photos? Make a special version for Christmas play. Or why not print out pics from friends from Facebook? The world’s your codenamey oyster.

Overall then, Codenames: Pictures will not be for everyone but it’s a delightful take on the original idea. It will appeal to both fans of the original concept and those who prefer to interpret images over puzzling over word games, and is sure to bring even more new people to the hobby.

* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing a copy of the game for review

Armageddon – From the Ground Up (some info)

armageddon-coverSo my new board game, co-designed with the super-talented David Thompson, will be released at Essen Spiel in Germany this week.

Called Armageddon, it has a post-apocalyptic theme but is much more a euro game than a traditional ‘thematic’ one (despite what the amazing artwork from Markus Erdt may lead you to believe).

The game takes about 90 minutes to play and is for 3-4 players. Because bidding is a key part of the game, it really didn’t work with two – and to take it to an extra player would been pricey on components: a risk it probably wasn’t worth taking, considering the probably price hike. But if it does well, who knows…?

So what’s it all about?

The game was very much designed from the theme from the start. The idea was to try and simulate the growing of those small towns you see in films such as Mad Max and Water World where they’re trying to do things right after some kind of global tragedy – only to be whupped by some chain wielding biker types. Well not this time!

The key mechanisms are bidding, tableau building and worker placement. Each round you’ll have a set of workers (there are different types that can different things) who you’ll choose to assign to three areas – two bidding areas (buildings and survivors) and your tableau (worker placement).

armageddon-essen

It has arrived at Essen, thank god…

You’ll take it in turns to place workers (from behind your screen) into an area until everyone has bid into each (once you’ve placed, you can’t change it).

The advantage in going early into an area is order breaks ties – but of course others know what they need to do to beat you. People on your tableau (town) will be working (upgrading types of worker, getting VPs etc) or defending against marauders. So everyone gets some workers/marauders, plus a new building, and then operates their towns.

Some rounds you may really want a juicy building, others you may really want a certain set of survivors (they’re random pulls from a bag), others you’ll want to all hands to the pumps – but usually all the above.

You’ll get benefits from both pacifistic and more violent approaches to the game and both are viable strategies – as is treading a more balanced path. To win you’ll want to work out a strategy, then make the best tactical decisions to try and support it – knowing you may have to change everything on the fly if (when) it hits the fan…

For those not going to Germany, I’m sorry but I can’t put a store date on the game yet – but I’d hope it will be available from UK game stores/websites before Christmas. If you want any more info, just let me know in the comments below.

Animals on Board: A four-sided game review

animals-on-boardAnimals on Board* is a non-religious yet Noah-themed set collection family game for two-to-four players. It’s listed as lasting 15-30 minutes and being for ages eight and up, which feels about right.

The rather lovely premise is that each player is building their own ark, but Noah has cornered the market on the whole ‘two-by-two’ thing – so you’re picking up the slack. This means you’ll earn points for anything but pairs of animals – so lonely animals or larger herds will serve you well instead.

While this is definitely a family game at the lower age range, there is still something there for the ‘grown ups’. The components are high quality and the artwork is really nicely done, with each set of animals (there are five of each type) having individual art – with baby animals (one point) ranging up to older wrinkly ones (five points).

In the box you’ll find 60 animal tiles (in 12 species), about 25 cardboard tokens and four cardboard arks – which are essentially tile holders for the 10 animals you need to collect. At first glance the box is way too big for the components inside, but you soon forgive them when you realise the arks – which you need to construct – can go back in without you needing to build them each time you play.

Teaching

animals-on-board-setupAs with all great children’s games, you can pretty much learn Animals on Board as you play. Each round is the same, and the mechanisms simple, so once you get going everyone should pick it up quickly.

Once everyone has their ark, each player also takes a starting animal tile (which you place on your ark) and one food crate. Nine to 13 animal tiles (depending on player numbers) are placed face up (with one face down) in the middle of the table – and you’re ready to go.

Players now take it in turns to take one of two actions: split an animal group and take a food crate; or feed some animals and take them into your ark. At the start of a round the animals are in one group – so to split them you simply choose as many as you like and make them into a separate group (of which you choose the makeup). No matter how you split them (so with 13 it could be anything from 7-6 to 12-1), you also take one food crate.

animals-on-board-apesTo take a group of animals, you simply spend a food crate for each one you take – and you must take all animals in the group (so a group of six costs you six food). You add them to your ark – and it also triggers the round’s end.

After one player has taken this action, each other player gets one more turn (on which they can take or split animals) – after which you restock the animals in the middle of the table, with whoever triggered the round end becoming start player for the next one.

This continues until, at the end of a round, one or more players have 10 or more animals on their ark – at which point you score. Scoring is simple: pairs are ignored (as they don’t score); single animals score the number of points printed on them (1-5); while every animal in a ‘herd’ (three of more of the same type) scores five points each. Highest score wins, with ties broken by the player with the most different animal types.

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 don’t usually like a memory element in games, but Animals on Board adds just enough to keep things interesting – especially if you’re an adult playing with children: if this was a game of perfect information, and you had good memory, it could get old fast. What they’ve done is start each player with a tile no one else sees until the end (you get to pick one of three), while one of the tiles in the middle that you’re choosing from is always face down too. This adds just enough secrecy to keep everyone guessing, while not making it a randomfest.
  • The thinker: While every round is the same, there are actually different strategies on offer here. It’s tempting to spend food crates as quickly as possible, as the game does feel like a race in which you don’t want to fall behind – but if you hold back, you can start to wield pretty strong power over the other players – especially psychologically – if you’re sitting on six or seven food crates! Suddenly the splitting of animals becomes a much more pressing decision, even at the start of a round.
  • The trasher: While Animals on Board is definitely going to be a light family game for most players, a group of embittered gamers (hello London on Board regulars!) can certainly bring its own dimension to proceedings! Denial is of course a big part of the game, if you want it to be, so sharing info on what you can remember about what other players have picked up – and getting a bit of banter going – is definitely a mood that you can make emerge from all the cutesy stuff if you’re so inclined.
  • The dabbler: I like this one! The animal tiles are really cute, the arks go together beautifully to add a bit more table presence, and there’s plenty of daft (or serious, if you want) roleplaying to be had, especially if playing with a younger audience. While the game is also very fast to play it’s easy to set up and breakdown, or to set up and play again, so there isn’t problems with downtime. And it couldn’t be easier to learn.

Key observations

animals-on-board-tilesPersonally I have no issues with the game at all, as a family game. However, if you’re looking for a two-player game for a couple of adults I’d probably give this a wide berth.

As an adult game it needs more than two players to really shine, both due to the fact it’s very fast playing with two (it’ll take longer to set up and break down than to play) and also because the more grown up elements tend to come into play more with more players (a bit of banter, trying to remember who has taken what etc).

One criticism I can relate to, if not completely agree with, is the cost/component to gameplay debate. The truth is that Animals on Board is a filler game in fancy clothing that could very easily have been a sub-100 card small box game – and then it would of cost less than £10, rather than double that with all the cardboard components.

But if you think of the audience as being families, and especially the children part of that, kids love games that look great – and there’s no doubt this would have less than half of the curb appeal if it was a small box card game. But whether you think there’s enough here to warrant a closer to £20 price tag is going to be an individual decision.

Accusations of ‘no depth’ are, I guess, fair – but then I don’t think designers Wolfgang Sentker and Ralf zur Linde were going for it: why would they? The important thing is that the ‘I split, you choose’ style decisions do get more interesting the longer the game goes on, so it does have a bit of an arc of its own (ho ho).

Conclusion

I’ve very much enjoyed my plays of Animals on Board and would definitely recommend it to families, or groups that enjoy playing a lot of filler games. It’s fast and fun with just enough extra depth to keep everyone happy.

The theme is fun, the light take on ‘I split you choose’ works well and the components, while probably flashier than they need to be, have been well put together. It works well across player counts and never outstays its welcome.

That said I won’t be keeping my copy, but only because I don’t meet the criteria above – it’s the kind of game that would sit on my shelves largely unplayed and I’d much rather it was out there getting some love. But a big thumb’s up from me nonetheless.

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review.

Books wot I red: Paperboy, The Bleeding Heart & The Dwarves

Well I’ve managed to get this latest three-book post out in less than a year, which is pretty good going by my standards – especially as one of them was a 700-page behemoth. And two of them are even by the same author – although I’ve again managed to get a non-novel in (an autobiography counts, right?).

Once again it looks as if I’ll have a four-book year in terms of reading. Maybe I should just accept that’s the way it will always be – at least while my job involves so much reading. But I’m increasingly enjoying time away from the computer screen, while finding less people to play board games with, so maybe things will change.

PaperboyI don’t ordinarily read autobiographies or memoirs, but when it’s your favourite author the idea seems a little more compelling; even if his life was boring at least I know he can write! So with some apprehension I jumped into Paperboy by Christopher Fowler.

Any fears I had melted away immediately. His story feels both honest and compelling, describing post post-war era London (from the 1960s onwards) from within a typically dysfunctional suburban family.

Hi love of books, and perhaps more importantly words, springs from every page; as well as film and television. But the honest portrayal of his family’s problems adds another, more sensitive dimension and stops it becoming something of a pop culture love-in. But whichever tale he’s telling at the time, he conveys with his usual skill; being able to make the reader laugh or cry at will.

You certainly don’t need to be a fan of Fowler’s writing to enjoy this, although it does help explain his fascination with both London and the supernatural. And if you’re an only child, a bookworm, someone who grew up in an ever-expanding London or just a lover of books that are beautifully written, I’d highly recommend Paperboy.

The Bleeding HeartHaving just read his autobiography, it seemed sensible to move onto the latest Bryant & May paperback, The Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler. As ever it was worth the wait – although I was nervous early on.

Bryant begins the book in uncharacteristically dour fashion, while the new managerial foil to the Peculiar Crimes Unit seemed to be following the same plot line as their previous nemesis. But as the various plots unfolded by fears faded away and by the end I was, as ever, left eagerly awaiting more.

for the uninitiated, the Bryant & May novels are like The X-Files meeting Last of the Summer Wine in London for a few pints of ale: two elderly detectives solving the most peculiar crimes, with inevitable links to the fascinating and macabre history of England’s capital city.

This is the 11th outing for the duo, with numbers 12 and 13 already on the shelves and more to come. It’s the best series of books I’ve ever read and unfortunately the first one, Full Dark House, can be a little difficult to get into as it skips between two time zones (present day London and the Blitz, in the detectives’ early career). But the rewards are a wonderfully fluid writing style and a memorable cast of characters, alongside some great plots and fascinating facts about London’s underbelly.

The DwarvesNext I immersed myself in the fantasy world of The Dwarves by Markus Heitz. I’d heard slightly dodgy things about it, but having thoroughly enjoyed the co-operative board game based on the series I was determined to flesh out the characters.

First things first: haters of bog-standard fantasy books should walk away now. This isn’t big and it isn’t clever – in fact it follows the typical fantasy tropes quite frighteningly close to the letter.

Good vs Evil? Check. Bunch of good guys up against unspeakable odds? Check. Dwarves, elves, spells etc? Check. Off on an ‘incredible journey’? Check.

But if you do like that sort of thing, it’s hard not to recommend The Dwarves to you. The writing level is OK (standard for fantasy novels), it’s the obligatory trumpetybillion pages long (about 700) and there are several more books in the series. But more importantly it does a good job of scene setting, character interaction/progression and storytelling.

This really isn’t my kind of thing anymore, but I didn’t find myself skipping pages and was never bored: it moves things on at a fair click and while the over-explanation did at times wear my patience thin (why do these people feel the need to telegraph the characters’ emotions to the point a two-year-old would understand?) I was never close to quitting.

Will I read on past this book? It’s unlikely. But then I’d pick the second one of these up before any other fantasy novel, which has to say something. My one gripe would be that, while several string female characters do emerge at certain points, their coverage (in pages) is way lower than it should be – but then if you didn’t mind that in The Lord of the Rings et al, I’m sure you’ll be OK with it here too.

What’s next on the list?

This time I managed to knock numbers three, four and five off the list, but two of those were new entries – surely I can hit numbers one and two this time. And this has, of course, left room for three new entries:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its fourth time at number 1, having been on six of these lists (a record). I still really want to read it; what the hell is going on?
  2. Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. I got a copy of Cold War board game Twilight Struggle and wanted to put it in proper context. I really should know more about this history I lived through, so this is on the list – three times so far.
  3. Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. New entry! This is a book written by a friend hat I started proof reading for him, but stopped after three chapters (I think it’s fair to say I’m no proof reader). I got a physical copy from Amazon so I could finish it.
  4. The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The next Bryant and May novel. Nuf said.
  5. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. New entry! Lent to me by a friend (hello Candice!) who was very enthusiastic about it. Not my usual fayre though: a book about cases of people with extreme, bizarre neurological disorders.