Nuremberg Toy Fair versus Essen: Spielwarenmesse for game designers

I’ve wanted to go to the Nuremberg Toy Fair since I started down the game design rabbit hole and finally made it happen this year – so thought I’d pass on a few thoughts on my experiences in case any other fledgling designers were considering making the trip.

For the uninitiated, the fair (official snappy title: Spielwarenmesse) is massive: almost 3,000 exhibitors showing a million products to almost 75,000 trade visitors.

While the board game halls are just about two of the 20 or so on offer, the list of publishers in attendance is impressive: alongside all the key German players (Kosmos, Huch, Haba, Pegasus, Queen, Alea, Amigo, Schmidt etc) you’ll find many of the world’s finest on hand – from Asmodee and Granna to Blackrock and Mayfair, and many more in between.

Below I’m going to compare my Nuremberg experience, in as much as I can, to going to Essen – as both a game designer and a game fan/blogger. The two are very different experiences and both have their advantages (or perhaps disadvantages, depending on your point of view!).

Nuremberg versus Essen

1. The great unwashed: One of the great joys of Nuremberg is that it isn’t open to the general public. This means that, in terms of crowding, it is far more relaxed – especially because the board gaming areas aren’t the most heavily trafficked (that’s reserved for Lego and the like).

This also translates to the public transport to and from the show (the price of which is handily included in your show ticket), which is far less packed, while it’s easy to find short food queues once you find some of the more hidden away cafe areas (no, I’m not telling!).

2. The atmosphere inside: After the lower numbers in the halls, the next thing you notice in comparison to Essen is the subsequent volume level. This is a huge boon in terms of trying to have meetings as you don’t have to shout over the crowd the whole time; and the lack of crowding gamers means it’s easier to get from one meeting to the next – not to mention almost all the publishers you’ll need to see being in two adjacent halls.

3. Relaxed meetings: As stands aren’t all hands to the pumps, it means games developers can concentrate purely on taking meetings. And better still, they don’t need to fill said stands with tonnes of games to sell – meaning the stands are much more geared towards meeting spaces with tables and chairs. Having seen games pitched at Essen anywhere from a window ledge to the floor, it’s a welcome change!

Also, as the show lasts a full week, there are usually plenty of time slots to be had (mileage may vary here though). This means you can go for less time, but still squeeze a lot in – we managed to take a dozen meetings in two days, while still having time to eat and wander around the halls a bit – and it never felt as if we were having to rush a pitch.

4. More time for your games: Better still is the logistics of the European game release year. Most hobby publishers will release a lot more games at Essen than at Nuremberg – and the gap from Nuremberg to Essen is longer, meaning that publishers are feeling the pressure is off a little at this time of year (February/March).

This means they have more time to play prototypes – and yours will be fresh in their minds if you show here, rather than Essen. You can also improve on ideas between the two, or work towards ideas they may have hinted at back in October. And publishers will generally be more patient as you bumble through!

5. Outside the fair: Comparing the cities culturally is a total mismatch: Nuremberg has a fantastic medieval castle and district, a great train museum, art of all kinds and German history museum – as well as a bustling shopping centre and some decent restaurants and bars. Essen has something of the latter. However Nuremberg has an accommodation market well used to Spielwarenmesse being in town, so staying during the show is eye-wateringly expensive. That said, as there are way less publishers than at Essen – who have more time slots – you can stay for a shorter break.

So which is better: Nuremberg Spielwarenmesse or Essen Spieltage?

I don’t think it’s possible to say one is better than the other, as every visiting designer will be different. But what I can say for sure is that the two complement each other beautifully: I’ll try to continue to do both, but think Essen will remain the priority.

I fell for Nuremberg as a city and would love to head back for a touristy visit (when it’s less expensive!). I had some great publisher meetings, met some great people and – money permitting – will return next year (perhaps commuting from a nearby city).

But, despite any perceived slights, for my money you just can’t beat Essen. Every publisher worth their onions is there, a thousand new games are released, its organised chaos and something always goes wrong – but it’s the most exciting and exhilarating gaming weekend of the year.

It’s like the difference between a folk festival and a rock festival. One is better organised, has better toilets, you’ll be able to see, things will run on time, and you’ll come away from it with most things you took with you. But the other – once you submit to its rakish charms – will give you the memories you’ll treasure for a lifetime.

Dragonwood: A four-sided children’s game review

This guest review was written by David Thompson, dedicated family man and co-designer of Armageddon.

Dragonwood* is a light family adventure game with a fantasy theme from Gamewright Games, designed by Darren Kisgen.

In the game, players collect a variety of adventurers – warriors, elves, wizards and more – in order to gather magical treasures and capture fantastical creatures.

The game is for 2 – 4 players and plays equally well with any player count. Games take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. Though the box lists this as a game for ages 8+, my five year old loves it (with the occasional probability challenge, more on that below).

While the theme would be considered thin by experienced gamers, my girls gobble it up, carefully poring over the name and art of each creature. The component quality is good, and the art is of very high quality – good value for the sub £20 price tag.

It is also easily portable, so great for holidays and trips. But as the game has just 108 cards and six dice, you may want to decant it into a smaller box when travelling (we can only hope more cards are released for the game later to help fill the box up!).

Teaching

Dragonwood is a very simple game to teach. On your turn you have two choices: take a card or try to ‘capture’ an enhancement (magical item) or creature. Capturing enhancement gives you bonuses later in the game. Capturing creatures earns you victory points.

The game is first and foremost about set collection. There are five different colours of adventurers, each numbered 1 – 12. Through the course of the game, you can use combinations of cards of the same colour to ‘scream’ at an enhancement or creature; cards of the same number to ‘stomp’ an enhancement or creature, and cards in a sequence to ‘strike’ an enhancement or creature. Each enhancement and creature has a different minimum value for their scream, strike, and stomp defences.

During the course of the game, there will always be a landscape of five Dragonwood cards. This landscape includes the enhancement and creature cards that players attempt to capture. Players must declare which card they are trying to capture before any attempt. When you use cards on your turn to try to capture an enhancement or creature, you roll one die per card used.

The dice rolling aspect of the game might be the trickiest part for younger players. Although the dice are six-sided, the faces are not the typical 1-6 distribution. Instead, they use a 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4 range.

This is great for reducing randomness. However, my 5 year old, and even my 7 year old to a lesser extent, occasionally had difficulty with the probabilities for determining how many cards they needed to use (and thus dice to roll) for some capture attempts.

For example, when the Unicorn enhancement comes up (a favourite in my family!), my girls were so eager to attempt a capture attempt that they were willing to make extremely low chance rolls. While this doesn’t break the game, it can slow it down a bit and result in frustration. As long as an adult is nearby to occasionally offer a coaching tip, this isn’t really much of an issue.

One final element of the game is the event cards. Event cards are also in the Dragonwood deck. There are very few of these cards, but when revealed they have an immediate effect on all players. Typically the effect is something like all players drawing new cards or discarding cards in their hand.

When, at the beginning of the game, the deck of Dragonwood cards is shuffled it includes all of the events, enhancements and creatures. But you shuffle the two most powerful creatures – a blue and orange dragon – into the bottom of the deck. When those dragons are captured, the game ends – and the player with the most victory points from captured creatures wins.

The four sides

These are me, my wife, and my two daughters.

  • The dad (serious gamer, prefers Euros and light wargames with the occasional Ameritrash thrown in for good measure): Once kids have learned the core rules of the game (within one play, even for young children), the only obstacle to them being competitive with an adult is their understanding of probabilities, as mentioned above. Once they are comfortable making those basic decisions, children can compete with adults with no problem, especially due to the randomness introduced by the dice. While there isn’t nearly enough skill and strategic options in the game to keep a group of experienced gamers interested, parents will find themselves entertained and engaged throughout.
  • The mum (casual gamer, prefers party games and gateway games with no direct competition): Dragonwood is one of my favourite games in the girls’ collection. This is because I can actually play with the girls competitively without having to teach or coach the game. I like that it’s a quick game; we can usually get a game in within 15 minutes. It’s also stealthily educational, as the girls love reading the card names and abilities as well as counting up the results of their dice rolls and the bonuses from their enhancements.
  • The older daughter (7, more interested in theme, shorter attention span): I love the characters in the game. I especially like some of the enhancements like the Unicorn! My favourite adventurers are the blue and orange coloured girls. Rolling the dice and trying to capture the enhancements is my favourite part of the game.
  • The younger daughter (5, more competitive, better at building strategies): “My favourite part of the game is getting the most points.” (That’s a quote, seriously). I like collecting a lot of cards. I collect as many as I can (the hand limit is 9), capturing enhancements that help me, and then going for the most powerful creatures.

Key Observations

This game provides a great blend of options for tactics due to the set collection nature and the variety of range in enhancement and creature defences.

If there is one minor drawback, it is that I think many kids might tend towards collecting cards of the same colour disproportionately over collecting in a sequence or of the same number, which could lead to some suboptimal attempts to “scream” for capture attempts when other attempt types would be easier. However, this is a very minor point that doesn’t significantly detract from the game or basic strategies.

There are some minor probability challenges with challenge attempts as described above, but these challenges are minor and likely won’t affect players of age 7 or 8 and above. The Dragonwood deck offers enough variety in enhancements, creatures, and events that each game will feel different, with good replay value.

Conclusion

Dragonwood is one of the rare breed of family games that strikes the sweet spot where adults and kids can both genuinely enjoy the game without extensive assistance from an adult.

This is the rare game – along with a few others like Animal Upon Animal and Outfoxed – that our entire family can agree on and happily play.

The girls love the theme of the game, the set collection, the art, and the dice rolling. For parents, there is enough strategy to stay engaged throughout. The key element, though, is that the game design allows parents and children alike to play competitively and enjoy the game together.

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

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Brett J Gilbert

Brett J Gilbert is both a board game designer and board game consultant, who has consulted for international clients such as Lego and Twitter.

His first published board game, Divinare, was recommended by the 2013 Spiel des Jahres award jury. Elysium, published in 2015 by Space Cowboys, was nominated for the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres.

This is the fourth in a series of Q&As 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.


1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
Although academically a mathematician and scientist, I have otherwise worked in publishing and design (at least when I had a proper job) so creation and creativity has always a big part of what I’ve done. [Which , before anyone says any different, is not to say that I believe that science isn’t essentially a creative endeavour but I assume you mean ‘creative’ in the ‘make pretty things’ sense, not the ‘critical thinking’ one.]

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
My terrible secret is that I am not much of a “gamer” and certainly no fanboi of any particular designer’s work. The big beasts of the industry will therefore have to achieve their success without either my patronage or my adoration. [I think they’ll cope.]

But one has to genuinely admire the consistency, determination and, let’s face it, sheer quantity of work done by the likes of Knizia, Rosenberg, Feld, Vaccarino, Bauza and Cathala (to name a few obvious examples). Hats off to them!

3. What drew you to game design?
This is probably a serious and deep question, to which a serious and deep answer would reach far into the psyche and uncover all sorts of private motivations. Why does the painter paint? Why does the long-distance runner long-distance run? Let us not dwell upon such unspeakable things.

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?
[Hold up! Isn’t this the Designer’s Dozen? This question appears to be (at least) two!] But to address the first, I am often inspired by the physical or the visual; two aspects that are neither strictly thematic nor mechanical. And I’d say there’s a problem approaching a new design with specific labels already in place. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Theme and mechanics are answers, not questions. They are the where and the how; they are not the why. As for who [see what I did there to link to the second question?] that’s easy: for me. I genuinely don’t know how a designer could design anything worthwhile for anyone else.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best moments are the ones of discovery; of realising that within an idea, hiding in plain sight, is more than you thought there was. This is, after all, something you made, so looking again and finding something else is kind of miraculous. Of course, you only have to flip this scenario to understand the worst moments: the moments of revelation, no less profound, when you discover that there was nothing there in the first place.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Which is to say: no game design is easy. Doing it properly is always going to hard.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
“Make do and mend” would seem sound advice. Don’t be prissy about prototypes, and certainly don’t spend any real money.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
One of the memorably terrible meetings Matt Dunstan and I endured was with the employee of a very well-known publisher who, it turned out, didn’t have a clue who we were. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant; I mean we had met with this individual before, they had been reviewing one of our games at length and the meeting had been booked to discuss it – and he still didn’t know who we were. After leading us through the Essen crowds for five minutes to find a quiet spot in the business lounge he began to unpack a prototype on the table in front of us. Matt and I exchanged puzzled looks. This was not our prototype (ours was back on the stand on the other side of the Hall). Awkward.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Hopefully the best is yet to come, but attending the 2015 Spiel des Jahres ceremony in Berlin after Elysium was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres ain’t bad, is it?

Matt and I had a whole heap of fun, met lots of lovely people, ate a few lovely meals and were generally very well looked after. Elysium didn’t win, but to date only 18 games have ever even been nominated for the Kennerspiel; Elysium is a permanent part of that history.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I have come recently to the realisation that I never want to play games that are – or think they are – smarter than I am. Suffice it to say this elegantly rules out a vast swathe of the modern board game catalogue. What’s left? Although I don’t play it nearly as often as I used to, I have always loved Carcassonne as a two-player game. Examples of newer games that I have enjoyed are Codenames, which deserves every bit of its effortless soar-away success, and Deep Sea Adventure, a game which carries its fiendish cleverness very lightly indeed.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
This is another serious question, so I must resist the impulse to be flippant. But I think it’s looking pretty good, isn’t it? Thriving, inclusive and growing its reach. Speaking entirely selfishly, I’d love to see more UK-based publishers and an ever-greater awareness on the UK High Street of modern games in all their many colours. But I’m not sure there’s a problem to be solved here, and even if there were you can’t impose popularity or mandate what form popularity will take. It has to come – and I think it is! – from the ground up, from people rediscovering games and gaming as a rewarding, social and essential pastime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I feel a connection to Question 3 – or at least to its ungiven answer. Some creators don’t shut up about themselves, but isn’t it more sincere to let what you make speak for you? Isn’t that why you are driven to make it? Artists, photographers, playwrights, game designers… makers of all kinds stand out of view. If I wanted you to notice me, I’d wear a bow tie.

The best of 2016, part 2: My top board gaming experiences

My 5 best gaming experiences of 2016

With a few small exceptions, 2016 felt like a year of consolidation and keeping the wheels turning while my life started to settle into some kind of new normal. Overall plays were down, as old patterns fell apart and new ones failed to find a solid footing (I blame Thatcher). But there was still a lot of great gaming to be had:

  • SorConThis was the first ‘gaming in a hotel’ style con I’d been to outside of LoBsterCon, and I only knew two people who were going – but it turned out to be a lovely weekend of gaming in Essex. I played with lots of lovely folk, played lots of great games, and look forward to attending again next month. And all this despite getting the worst hammering of my gaming life in my first (and probably last) play of Food Chain Magnate.
  • Essen: The release of Armageddon at the show was thoroughly nerve-wracking, and overall the fair was even more exhausting than usual – but I had a brilliant time. From catching up with old friends/publishers and making/meeting new ones, to gaming and drinking into the small hours, it was a total blast. I didn’t manage to get any games signed this time, but there are still some irons in the fire… and I grabbed a record haul of games to review.
  • Eastbourne: This year’s two trips to the seaside for gaming goodness were notable for being held in a new hotel. I’d liked the old one, but (breakfast sausages aside) the experience in the new one beat it hand’s down. We took it over completely, so you knew that everywhere you looked you’d find fellow gamers. As usual I spent as much time socialising as I did gaming, but that’s just testament to what a nice bunch the LoB crowd is. I’m missing the next one, but will back in November for sure!
  • Games at work: I managed to convince my boss to give me a board game budget for work, and picked up about eight games with it from Board Game Guru. We’ve only had a couple of after work sessions so far but have had really fun games of Can’t Stop, Cash n Guns, Love Letter and more. Hopefully I can make it a more regular event in 2017, as well as introducing some slightly more complex games for those who want to step things up a little.

My top individual game plays of 2016

My favourite gaming moments, month by month:

  • January: While this was a far from vintage month, I had some very enjoyable plays of two review titles – New York 1901 and Zombie Tower 3D. Top play will have to go to our first play of Zombie Tower, as it was such an unknown that looked as if it might be totally awful. In fact it turned out to be a clever gimmick that really worked, making for a tense co-op experience with no chance of an alpha player problem.
  • February: Playing Ticket to Ride: Team Asia with my non-gamer friends Nik, Kath and Megan was great fun, with the boys just pipping the girls. But the gaming highlight was a game of Deus with Keef and Claire at SorCon that saw all of us all finish within two points of each other. Claire won it – as she did in a super close game of Concordia the next morning, pipping me by six or seven points.
  • March: I really enjoyed a super close two-player game of Snowdonia with Karl. A long run of sunny weather near the end totally changed the game, as it is want to do, meaning Karl managed to finish a track-laying bonus card that had looked almost impossible a few turns earlier, taking it 154-143. And also a mention for my first play of In the Year of the Dragon – a fantastic old school euro that, if I was adding games to my collection right now, I’d probably be on the hunt for.
  • April: Our biannual trip to Eastbourne saw some debut plays of some great new games – most notably Blood Rage and Star Wars: Rebellion (both of which I managed to win). Blood Rage was particularly pleasing, as I managed to win b y turtling in the most attack-minded game I’ve played in ages. But it was also a month of enjoying great games of old favourites, including Bora Bora, Divinare, Blueprints, Thebes and Yspahan – five games that don’t hit the table nearly often enough.
  • May: The end of Eastbourne saw standout fun plays of both Imperial and Eldritch Horror, but they were pipped by two trips to Rocky’s house in Brixton for fun games of both A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (also with Austin, Obie and Paul) and Doomtown: Reloaded (with Rocky and Austin). There’s something special about playing a really nasty game in completely the right spirit, where the smack talk is almost drowned out by the laughter. Good times.   
  • June: In what was, criminally, my only play of Terra Mystica in the year, I had a rare good game and won by about 15 points. I blew six magic in turn one on a double-spade move to stop getting blocked in: seemed desperate at the time, but probably won me the game as my second settlement was on its own. I traded in 32 cash for 16 points in the final round too, after giving up on largest area but nailing two 1sts and two 2nds in the temples.
  • July: A lazy summer Sunday, as part of a lovely weekend, which included a super close game of Mangrovia that I lost by a single point. But I really didn’t care. 
  • August: It’s always nice when you introduce one of your favourite games to four new players, who all really end up enjoying it. So it was with the last game I played at The Cast are Dice convention up in Stoke. I taught Notre Dame to Keef, Claire, Becks and Fin and – as usual with euro games – Claire took the win. But only just! Becks and Fin kept passing their VP cards to her, leaving her with nine cubes in that section in the last round!
  • September: Fun games of both Deus and Ticket to Ride: Team Asia featured highly again, while a game of Navegador with Morph and Swedish friend Janne ranked highly. But none could top a ding-dong game of Can’t Stop with Janne. I went 2-0 up and just needed two 7s to win. Janne came from about two 7s all the way up in one go to snag them – meaning suddenly he just needed one 6 and one 11 to win. So on my next go I came from three 6s all the way to the top to win the game. Epic.
  • OctoberWhile the obvious answer would be playing the production copy of Armageddon for the first time, I’m actually going to go for a play of Acquire with Rikki Tahta (of Coup fame) and Mark Chessher in London the night before we all made our own ways to Essen. They’re fun guys to play with, the Essen buzz was already in the air, and it was simply a good time with a great game and company.
  • November: I managed just 24 plays in the month (my lowest of the year), with the highlight probably being our second work games night. At the first won, we’d won one game each – except for poor Simon. He’d had quite a ribbing about it since, so arrived for this ready to play – and ended up winning all three games of the night. Love Letter and Celestia were both fun, but Cash ‘n’ Guns was probably the highlight – despite me being blown out of contention (quite literally) very early on.
  • December: My first play of Terraforming Mars has to be the winner here, for pure gaming joy (followed by my first play of Lorenzo il Magnifico). It’s a wonderful game that I can’t wait to explore more (when they get around to reprinting it…), despite making a terrible hash of it and finishing in last place. But introducing Sarah to some games was also a highlight (Ticket to Ride and Can’t Stop), as it may just pave the way for a rather interesting and more positive 2017…

My most played games in 2016

Prototype plays (91) made up around a quarter of my total plays for the year once more. Alongside these I clocked a total of 160 different published games in 2016, 81 of which I only played once (in a grand total of 423 plays). The most played were:

  • 16 – Empire Engine (52 all-time plays)
  • 11 – Ticket to Ride (116 all-time plays, all maps)
  • 8 – Can’t Stop (24 all-time plays)
  • 7 – Race for the Galaxy (256 all-time plays)
  • 7 – Game of Trains & Love Letter (7 & 24)

Race for the Galaxy only just hung in the top 5 this time – but it doesn’t mean I don’t still love it. My review schedule and lack of a regular midweek group still hamper plays of it, but it has already hit the table in 2017 (as has Ticket to Ride). I’ve always got Empire Engine on me, and always seem to be meeting new people, so I’m sure it will continue to get plays as well (I don’t think I’ll be taking Armageddon everywhere – it weighs a ton!).

But as always, a few classics fell through the cracks. Caylus and Brass both sit unplayed since 2014, while favourites not hitting the table in 2016 included Ingenious, Lost Valley, The Little Prince, Manhattan Project (although I did play Energy Empire) and El Gaucho (since rectified!).

And so, to 2017…

Overall, 2016 was a reasonably gaming year both in plays, experiences and releases – with some big highlights slightly overshadowed by my own largely downbeat mood.

But I’m entering 2017 with renewed optimism and there are plenty of gaming highlights in prospect too.

David and me will be at Nuremberg Toy Fair for the first time, hoping to combine some publisher meetings with some fun nights out in the city (which I’ve never visited) with a friend I’ve previously met on trips to Essen (hi Peter!).

SorCon, UK Games Expo, Essen and Eastbourne promise to make February, May, October and November awesome once again, while a tourist/gaming trip to Granada also promises to be a lot of fun in March (we’ll get to go to the real life Alhambra). Plus I have a new ‘friend’ to introduce to the wonderful world of gaming.

I very much hope that Pioneer Days (another co-design with Matthew Dunstan) will be released at some point in 2017, while I’ll still be trying to sell some designs to publishers while working on more new ones. So many ideas, so little time…

Crisis: A four-sided game review

Crisis* is a worker placement, engine building and resource management euro game. It has great artwork which does a good job of bringing this dark, dystopian sci-fi world to life.

The box says 1-5 players, but it is certainly at its best with four (more on this later). With four, you can expect a game to last a couple of hours.

Age is listed at 14+, but I’ve seen similarly weighted euro games listed as 12+ or even 10+. You’ll know your own kids, but this game is no more complex than the likes of Tzolk’in or Terra Mystica – in fact a little less so.

That said, it takes up a good amount of table space – especially at higher player counts. But part of this is thanks to the fantastic quality of the components: oversized cards, custom resources and the like abound. In the box you’ll find 165 wooden tokens, 128 cards, 137 cardboard tiles, a double-sided board and a cloth bag. Art is lovely throughout and the graphic design works well, although some criticise the overly dark and graphically busy game board (the less pretty mono side is easier to play on).

Teaching

While there’s a lot in the box, and a few clever mechanisms, at its heart Crisis is a relatively simply engine-building worker placement game.

The board has 14 clearly marked areas to place your workers, each of which is carried out in order once everyone has finished placement (think Caylus). This gives you a simple way to walk through how the game plays, as it will be the same process in each of the game’s seven (potential) rounds.

In the main, earlier worker spaces give you money, resources, employees and companies; while the latter ones let you exchange/sell those money and resources, as well as operating your companies with your employees (you don’t choose a manager to do this action, it just happens; but it’s handy to have it as a set place on the board). Workers you place on the game board are called ‘managers’, differentiating them from employees.

The real driving force of the game are the companies. Resources go in one end and better ones, or money/victory points, come out of the other. The more, and better, your employees the more efficiently this process will run – and the better you can make your companies work together, the richer you’ll become.

But it’s not quite that simple. Like all good sci-fi, Crisis is based on real events – this one being the financial crisis that so devastatingly hit Greece. Many of the issues therein were blamed on greed, especially around a lack of ‘desire’ of companies to pay their taxes – and its that which Crisis successfully emulates.

Getting money is pretty easy – and money buys you companies, resources and foreign employees. But you get the big money by ignoring victory points: sell abroad for cash, or support your country by taking a split of points and cash. Especially early on the money is so tempting. You can just get points later, right?

Not necessarily. Every turn, players are tasked with getting a certain amount of victory points (you can set the difficulty level). If overall you fail to, the economy will start to tank – and if things get too bad, the game ends prematurely. If it does, any loans you had and cash in hand are worthless; while if you all survive the full seven turns you’ll get victory points for remaining money – but you’ll also have to pay off any loans you’ve taken. And a player can only win the game (no matter what turn it ends on) if they were ahead of the required victory point target.

Players should find everything runs really smoothly, while the time-consuming engine-running can be done simultaneously to avoid downtime. Everything is face-up and in view except for some very simple hand cards, so it’s also easy to help talk through any issues that may crop up.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: In theory, Crisis seems to offer you the delicious conundrum of greed versus good – but in reality, it doesn’t play out that way. To win by taking early debt you’re relying on two things: the other players playing ball and keeping the economy afloat, and your cash-grabbing giving you a palpable advantage long term. Unfortunately, in the early game, this is unlikely to make a big difference – the big points come later and your greed won’t guarantee you the platform you need. However, it’s still a really fun engine-building economic game.
  • The thinker: I’m really torn on this one. The worker placement and engine building elements are smooth and well realised, but a little simplistic and random. The economic sides are more interesting, but the selling of goods can also falter on unlucky random draws; while the semi-cooperative element of keeping the economy afloat rarely adds tension – after the first couple of turns, it either floats like a duck or sinks like a truck. Despite the fun to be had, after multiple plays there doesn’t seem enough strategic variety to keep me coming back – it’s more of a tactician’s game.
  • The trasher: Crisis is a game where the player count really makes a difference. With four or five, especially in early rounds, the worker placement is brutal in a really good way. Getting available companies and employees to match up can be a real challenge, making blocking genuinely painful – whether deliberate or not! And throughout there can be some real tension in the market, with a limited amount of places to sell those goods you’ve made – made worse by having limited warehouse space to store them. But with less than four, the tension fades.
  • The dabbler: I like the theme, love the art, and the big cards and custom wooden resources bring the game to life. While the game looks daunting it is pretty easy to follow, and its fun to get your engine up and running. However, after about half way, I found it getting a little repetitive. We seemed to be doing very similar things, just with more companies and employees – and it became hard to parse the information and stopped being as much fun. And, if you get your engine wrong, you can be dead in the water quite early on in a long game.

Key observations

The real elephant in the room, for me, is player numbers. Unlike most worker placement games the board is not affected by player count. So, each round, you’ll have six companies and seven workers to choose from – whether or not you’re playing solo of with five players. You’ll also have the same eight slots of export opportunities available.

This means that with two and three players, you largely get to do what you want. While it isn’t quite as bad with three players, you then face the issue of there essentially being two ways to go with companies – either export, or ones that simply produce victory points on their own. If one of you does one thing, and two the other – well we know how that goes. With four and five it sings, but play time (and table space) rise accordingly.

On which point – bigger is not always better. Playing with four of five players, especially late on, you’ll need a big table – a problem created purely by the oversized cards. They’re lovely to look at and high quality, but I’d take smaller ones any day of the week. But if this isn’t an issue for you, you can revel in a very well produced game.

The game’s unique selling point is the economy track, but it rarely feels as if it adds much to the experience (unless you’re rubbish, or play on hard!). The event cards are an annoyance and add little; and while the game tanking may be interesting politically, it doesn’t really make for a fun game experience if it happens. I feel these more gimmicky aspects take away, rather than add, to a pretty elegant central structure.

Finally, luck of the draw can be a big factor; especially with available employees and the companies that come up. Early you’re buying blind, while there’s no skill in beating a player who can’t operate his companies as well as you because your perfect employees came out of the bag. Export goods are random, but at least you see what’s coming – although this can still really screw you in the last round, if the thing you want to sell is in the ‘future’ economy column, meaning you’re unlikely to be able to sell it.

What these issues point at is a fragility that can be hard for some people to accept in what can be a pretty long game.

Conclusion

I hope this review of Crisis hasn’t come across as negative: it’s a game I’ve enjoyed playing and that will be staying in my collection despite its foibles. However, there’s no avoiding it has a limited audience and issues at certain player counts – as well as falling down a little on its USPs.

As a fun engine-building worker placement game, it has a lot going for it. The game plays smoothly with a good level of interaction, both in worker spaces and in the exporting of goods. But you’ll need to come in knowing that luck of the draw can be a factor, while poor play early on can really leave you floundering and struggling to catch up (although it’s certainly not impossible).

Yes, it can be a little fragile at times – but the other option would have been to take the route Scythe took and put the game much more on rails by smoothing out any and all rough edges. I’d like to think a good player could overcome some poor luck here, and have more fun doing it. Overall, an interesting and ambitious addition to the worker placement genre.

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

The best of 2016, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games

As the New Year begins, I like to take a little look back over what I’ve played in the previous year – and in particular the games I’ve played for the first time (new or otherwise).

My game collection has increased to 175 (up 10 on last year) – (another) new record high, but the slowest rate of increase since I got back into gaming. And with plenty on the ‘for sale’ list and very few titles likely to be incoming until late in the year, maybe it’s reached its peak (yeah right).

Total game plays were again down, this time to 423 (from 450 in 2015 and more than 500 in 2014). This has been down to finding it harder to get games in rather than any drop in enthusiasm – a sad state of affairs! It seems some people prioritise things such as families over gaming; what is the world coming too?

My faith in the Board Game Geek ratings fell to a record low this year too, with some truly average games stinking up the so-called ‘top 50’. Kickstarter fever and personality politics seem to be taking over from genuine ratings (a product of more Americans getting into gaming – coincidence? Discuss).

My 5 favourite new releases of 2016

Much as with 2015, I don’t think 2016 will be looked back on as a classic year for new board games – there doesn’t seem to have been a long list of truly great titles.

But there were some really fantastic releases, alongside some solid games that will stand the test of time without necessarily knocking it out of the park (hopefully Armageddon among them!).

Of the higher profile titles, I haven’t played Mansions of Madness, Mechs vs Minions or the Arkham card game; I’d like to, but not enough to rush out and make a special effort. I was hugely disappointed by Scythe and underwhelmed by Imhotep and The Networks, while Adrenaline didn’t really do it for me either.

There are some notable titles I’ve not yet played that may later trouble my top 50 list, as well as my gaming shelves. I need to play A Feast for Odin, I’m waiting for my copy of Railroad Revolution and Oracle of Delphi is on the review pile, for example. But to date:

  1. Terraforming Mars: Print more already, dammit! The hard card/tableau decisions of Race for the Galaxy, but with direct player interaction that works and a board that adds an extra dimension. It must’ve taken years to get right – but boy, did they.
  2. Lorenzo il Magnifico: This harks back to the classic euros of a decade ago – clean rules, quite a small decision space, a lot of indirect interaction and loads of meaningful decisions. A hundred times better than Grand Austria Hotel.
  3. X Nimmt: 6 Nimmt is one of my favourite filler games, so it was fantastic to see a new version come along that works really well with a lower player count (two to four). It’s all the fun of the original card game, but with a little extra strategy.
  4. Eternity: Strange to see two fillers in my top five, but I’ve been totally won over by this simple yet fiendish trick-taking card game. I think it just came along at the right time for me, and looks gorgeous too – clever, stylish, thinky and fun.
  5. Star Wars: Rebellion: If you’re looking for the first three movies in a box, this is it. Loads of minis, loads of dice rolling, all the characters and situations – but all muddled up in your own story. Truly epic (although much less fun as the imperials).

Very honourable mentions go to Codenames: Pictures (I see it as an expansion, really); Ice Cool (a fantastic flicking party game); Ominoes (super light but super fun family dice game); Fabled Fruit (a light card game where the rules change as you play), and Ulm (a gateway level family board game that may rise in my rankings with more plays).

Best 10 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2016

I played 78 ‘new to me’ titles in 2016 – almost 20 more than in the previous year, despite having less plays in total. 33 were 2016 releases, with a further 24 from 2015 – so only around 20 older games.

I guess the last stat shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m starting to run out of older classics I’m yet to try; while also knowing more about my own tastes, and therefore what to avoid!

And really, 2016 was the year of the review: I managed to post 32 reviews on the blog here during the calendar year – far more than I’ve ever managed before and almost all of them being of new games. So a big thanks needs to go out to all my regular groups who’ve suffered through a lot of rules explanations!

There are still around 10 games sitting on my shelf waiting to be reviewed to – and I’m really starting to moss some of my old favourites. So once these ones are done, expect some reviews of older classics for a while – I’m done with new games for a while…

Owned

  • Mombasa: This 2015 release really cemented designer Alexander Pfister’s place in the A-lister category and I prefer it to his current hot title, Great Western Trail. It’s a deliciously complex blend of worker placement and area control.
  • Thurn & Taxis: The 2006 Spiel de Jahres winner from Andreas and Karen Seyfarth gets quite a bad press from some, but I really enjoy the mix hand management, set collection and route building. A great ‘next step’ game, if a little dry in theme.
  • Game of Trains: This light filler flew a little under the radar, which is a real shame as it is a deceptively thinky card game beneath its simple looking exterior. And the artwork is really fun too – all round, a great game in a small, inexpensive package.
  • New York 1901: Much as with Thurn and Taxis, if you’re looking for a small step up from the likes of Ticket to Ride you can’t do much better than this. Tile placement with an interesting area control twist, and more depth than you might initially think.

Not owned

  • Blood Rage: While many ameritrash games are fun but dumb, this takes some cues from the world of euro games (especially card drafting) and removes many of the usual luck elements to create a brilliant hybrid. So much fun.
  • Eldritch Horror: Sticking with the ameritrash vibe, I’m totally behind this streamlined Arkham horror killer. As soon as a friend introduced me to this, Arkham was out the door – it has all the fun with far less rules headaches and fiddliness.
  • Imperial: I’d wanted to play this classic Gerdts (from 2006) for ages and am glad I finally did. It has the usual rondel and snappy turns, but everything else is turned on its head. Area control, stocks – I was largely lost, but thoroughly enjoyed myself.
  • Doomtown: Reloaded: While I can’t see myself ever getting back into CCGs, this is just fun – pass me a deck and I’ll happily play. The ‘weird west’ setting certainly helps – who doesn’t want to duel spell-wielding cowboys?
  • A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (Second Edition): This game perfectly recreates the feel of the books and the houses all feel different (and on theme), making this a thoroughly enjoyable (and super nasty) experience.
  • In the Year of the Dragon: Playing games such as this, from 2007, reminds you how great elegant euros were back then. And this from Feld – who has since been the problem, not the solution, in that regard! A really thinky hand management game.

I didn’t end up buying anything from last year’s ‘not bought (yet)’ list, although Kemet, Xia and Amun-Re would still be tempting at the right price – and I do still intend to pick up Manhattan and Tumblin’ Dice from 2014’s list! And while I’d love to play the six games above more, I don’t see myself buying any (unless they were bargains, of course).

More in part two…

SEE ALSO: Previous entries for 201220132014 and 2015.

Great Western Trail: A four-sided game review

Great Western Trail* is a medium to heavyweight cowboy-themed euro game where the emphasis is on the cows, rather than gun-toting John Waynes rounding up a posse.

The game will take two to four players the best part of two hours to complete, and it definitely sits in the ‘advanced’ category: the box recommends ages 12+ and you’ll definitely want to play with more experienced euro gamers.

While the theme just about holds together, Great Western Train is definitely a euro game first and a thematic game (a long distant) second. This isn’t a criticism – it just needs to be said: this game is all about the marriage of deck building, hand/resource management, action selection and tile placement and how you manipulate them: you’ll have to work pretty hard to imagine yourself out on the plains while playing this one.

That said, the components certainly help. Andreas Resch has done a great job on the artwork and graphic design, giving us a vibrant set of cards and tiles alongside a gorgeous board that perfectly blends form and function with style. All the components are of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Eggertspiele and Stronghold games: in the box you’ll find more than 100 cards, 200+ cardboard tokens and more than sixty wooden pieces, plus player boards and a score pad. You can find the game for around £40 in the UK right now, which I’d say is reasonable value.

Teaching

Great Western Trail has an awful lot going on and you might want to get the snacks and comfy chairs ready: this is a game that needs a long rules explanation before you get going, as all the options (and there are many) are going to be available to the players in the first couple of turns.

However, experienced euro game players will find they’re in familiar territory. There are no new mechanisms here and the familiar ones you’ll find are largely handled in a traditional manner – its how they all come together that makes the game feel fresh and new. But really, do not try and teach this one to new players unless you want a very slow game.

The thematic essence of the game is that each player is driving their cattle (their personal deck of cattle cards) to Kansas City (across the board), stopping at various locations along the way (where they’ll perform actions on each of their turns) – before heading back out to the range to drive the next herd.

The player boards do a good job of reminding players what they can do, and what they can build towards. The main section of the board is dedicated to storing workers you hire as the game goes on, who in turn will make the related action options more powerful. These are the chaps depicted on the box cover – cowboys, craftsmen and engineers.

The game starts with seven neutral buildings on the board, which act as the game’s action spaces (there tends to be a few actions available on each, but we’ll stick to the key ones here). One lets you hire available guys; one lets you build your own buildings (craftsmen make this more powerful); and one lets you buy more cattle (helped by having more cowboys); and two let you move your own train (which goes further with more engineers).

When you buy a building, you place it onto an empty space. This is now an extra space you can use which may also slow your opponents and even make them pay you for passing them – so placement, as well as type of building, is an interesting decision. Every player has the same set of buildings available to them, which variously help different strategies.

Buying cattle will let you add better cows to your initial personal deck of 14 cow cards. You’ll start the game with a hand of four, with the aim of having as many different breeds of cow in your hand by the time you arrive in Kansas. Cards have a dollar value and a colour (breed), with your initial cards being worth only $1 or $2 in four colours (so a potential sale value of just $7). But five more breeds are available, with values from $3-5. Luckily, many of the action spaces have actions that let you sell cattle along the trail, or gain rosettes that add value, allowing you to draw new cards and get your optimum hand in place.

While your cowboy moves repeatedly across the board, your train will make slow progress around its edge. When you arrive in Kansas you’ll get initial money for your cattle, but will then need to get them to another city – with ‘better’ cities (which demand a higher value herd) giving better bonuses. But these cities are further away, meaning you’ll need to have got your railway further to avoid incurring financial penalties. But an extended train network will also open up the opportunity to open stations, which give lucrative immediate and end game bonuses.

And these are just the main mechanisms: your player board has many smaller actions, all of which can be improved, while you can also increase your hand size, amount of spaces you can move, quality of baked beans for your trip etc (sorry – I expect that will be in the expansion).

Buildings offer even more variety: everywhere you look, a basic premise of the game can be built upon in incremental ways. As I said, there’s an awful lot going on – and when its all over, everything scores points in a Feldy salady fashion.

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 Great Western Trail is large in scope, the restrictions on movement shrinks the decision space each turn (at the start to four choices) and actions tend to be snappy. This brings it almost into line with a Mac Gerdts rondel game, helping everyone stay engaged and ticking over. However what it lacks is the elegance of the best Gerdts games: there are twice as many rules, twice as many icons, and god knows how many more ways to score points. But somehow, it hangs together well enough to be make sense.
  • The thinker: The initial play suggests set places for the seven neutral buildings, after which you can place them randomly. Your own set of 10 buildings have an ‘a’ and ‘b’ side, and you choose which to use (as a group) at the start of each game. This helps add variety to each play in a similar way to a deck-builder such as Dominion: survey your options, decide on a strategy, and go for it. You may be scuppered by the way workers come into the game, but otherwise – after half a dozen plays – the real strategist may find themselves running out of enthusiasm.
  • The trasher: In terms of interaction and screwage, Great Western Trail hints at much but delivers less. Clever placement of your buildings can give you a nice little income stream, but the few extra coins are unlikely to swing the game in your favour: it certainly isn’t a strategy in itself. And if it was, oh my – can you imagine the volume of the euro softy whining lol! Another potential screwage area is choosing which worker and hazard tiles to place onto the board each time you reach Kansas (hazards can potentially filter players to your buildings, by making alternative routes more expensive). But so many come out, so often, it rarely has an impact.
  • The dabbler: While the game looks great and I liked the theme, it can be very punishing if you get things wrong early. Most games we’ve played have seen at least one player end up with half the score of the others – not a problem for many groups, but it’s worth mentioning if you have a table-flipper/moody type in your midst! And don’t come in looking for the theme to have any depth: you’ll soon be asking yourself why you can only send one herd to each city, for example – and let’s not start down the route of historically accuracy (cattle drives to Kansas? The cattle going west by train? etc etc).

Key observations

This is a game where EVERYTHING scores you points and where many strategies may lead to victory. Interaction is limited, it’s pretty crunchy, and beyond the deck manipulation it is largely deterministic – if that isn’t your thing, Great Western Trail isn’t here to convert you to the euro cause.

But even for a hardened euro salad fan such as myself, there is sometimes a little too much going on here and a few ‘decisions’ could’ve been safely left on the design room floor. When you arrive at Kansas City, for example, you need to pick three workers/hazards from a set of six. This is fiddly and largely pointless, rarely being much of a choice (you could grab them from a bag).

Also, despite the options, the game can feel repetitive: wander across the board, sell cattle, repeat – and you’ll do this 10+ times each per game. Sure, the building selection ramps up a little and the cattle get more valuable – but largely its rinse and repeat. The game lacks the push-and-pull of Alexander Pfister’s previous design Mombasa and many will see it as lacking in comparison because of this. It feels much like a solitaire puzzle than an interactive euro game.

All the fiddliness and plethora of options makes for many icons, exceptions etc; and while I’d praise the rulebook for first learning the game, it becomes a very poor resource for later looking anything up. Great Western Trail is a game crying out for a simple reference sheet including all the myriad of similar (yet significantly different in practice) icons. Instead I found myself frustratingly flicking back and forth trying to find what I needed – a real impediment to a game which benefits from what should be short, snappy turns.

Conclusion

I’ve ummed and ahhed about my overall thoughts on Great Western Trail over my five or six plays so far, going from loving it to indifference to warming to it again.

There are interesting decisions to be made, both strategic and tactical, but is there real long time appeal? I’m currently enjoying ‘exploring the game space’, but in the same way I did with a few plays of Lewis and Clark or Russian Railroads – games that felt instantly fascinating to me, but which faded once I’d tried the few available strategies available and realised they lacked the competition needed to keep coming back for more.

But almost everyone I’ve played Great Western Trail with has really enjoyed it and I’ve enjoyed it too, so I’ll be keeping the game on my shelves – at least in the short term. And isn’t that the plight of the modern euro? To be played five times, then replaced by the latest new hotness? If so, this is the perfect example of the new breed – but I can feel my heart yearning for those simpler, more interactive and timeless euro classics that may well outlive the current crop of games. Or maybe I’m just getting old…

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

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Tony Boydell

Tony Boydell is a board game designer and developer, and part of the publishing team at Surprised Stare Games. He is best known for designing the hugely popular worker placement game Snowdonia, alongside the likes Guilds of London and Ivor the Engine.

This is the third in a series of Q&As 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.


1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
I am a Business Analyst who emerged, butterfly-like from a Unix/RDBMS administrator pupa and tend to work on small, but successful, Governmental IT projectzzzzzzzzz. Other than boring mortgage-feeding office work, I used to draw cartoons and cartoon strips a lot – which is now subsumed in to the game design process – and wrote short stories for my children when they were young…which most of them aren’t any more.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
It’s no secret that I am mostly in love with Carl Chudyk for the twin gifts of Glory to Rome and Innovation which, for me, epitomise big ideas and ambition in efficient, lean packages; they’re just combo-bonkers and I love him for it.

I have to admit that Alexander Pfister has leapt right in to the Top 2 thanks to one of the most prodigious 18 month periods in gaming EVER (am I right?): two Kennerspiel des Jahres, a shelf-load of fat IGA and DSP trophies and – with Great Western Trail – surely even more to come? He, and co-KdJ hogger Andreas Pelikan, are also two of the nicest people you could ever wish to have lunch with – it makes you SICK, doesn’t it? I should also name-drop Ignacy Trzewiczek because he is brilliant, hilarious and unashamedly self-confident.

3. What drew you to game design?
I’d always scribbled notes on school books and did a lot of RPG-ing in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until I was lured in to Magic: The Gathering (1997) by some workmates on an IT project (!) that I met Alan Paull (City of Sorcery, Siege, Confucius) at a pub in Cheltenham. In between drafting and trading Unlimited cards, we talked about old favourites like Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords and Diplomacy; knowing that Alan had ‘designed stuff’ got me to thinking about turning my cartoon strip ‘The Black Overcoat’ (a spy) into a board game and within about six months I’d also knocked up a design about clearing the world of pollution (eventually re-engineered as Ivor the Engine) and the bare bones of what would become Coppertwaddle. That was quite a fecund couple of years for someone who sort-of-drifted in to the hobby!

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?
It’s been mostly mechanisms but, very early on, a theme is essential to keep momentum going (for me, at least); I’ll get a little stuck unless I can, for example, make sense of ‘draft cards from a central line’ (Fzzzt! has robots rolling off a conveyor belt) or the ‘draw X cards and assign each one to a specific purpose’ (Lux Aeterna, my 2001: A Space Odyssey solo game, forces you to pick how bad two out of three actions will be each round).

I’m currently noodling about with a set of miscellaneously-shaped pieces (the same set for each player) and have come up with a “tech tree” to link them; however, it’s flopping about like a landed sea bass at the moment because I haven’t attached a theme to bring it properly to life. Pure theme can sometimes kick the process off; for example, the Ivor the Engine stories suggested that it should be ‘pick up and deliver’ and Snowdonia would obviously need to be ‘worker placement’, but these are rare successes amid a shed full of many, MANY more failed ‘theme first’ prototypes!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
Generally, I love all the aspects of the design process. I have noticed a significant reduction in actual local playtesting time, though; while I was working in London (2005-2012), I got a LOT of different types of player involved with Snowdonia and Guilds, for example, because we were gaming three nights a week; now I’m reduced to just the one (Friday) night and can intrude on ‘real games’ only occasionally – that slows the whole process down.

Building prototypes can also be a bit irksome; I like multi-function cards and the mental turmoil they generate. I also like lots of them and I want them to look fantastic for playtesting; preparing these can be a Sisyphean endeavour! It’s my own fault, I know: Guilds of London had 120 such cards, Lux Aeterna has 100 or so (as does my air race prototype): that’s a lot of cutting, sleeving, calluses and blisters!

Perhaps the worst aspect is when a design is obviously going nowhere and has to be ‘shelved’; they’re never permanently written-off, though, as something is always salvageable BUT going from that excited enthusiasm of the first rush to the tummy-aching disappointment of a dead-end is a blow.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
All of them are of equal hardness; whether a filler or something meatier, they have their own challenges and constraints.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
This is an oddly-contradictory one: “If you have lots of cards with effects and icons, make sure you have plain text explanations to assist the testers” – this worked a treat for Snowdonia and is an essential part of the final product. Believe it or not, Guilds of London cards all had brief ‘this is what I do’ help text right up to final layout design. Generally, though, I’d say don’t introduce a design to playtesters unless it looks pretty damned good – otherwise you’ll spend the first hour listening to moans about ‘lack of clarity’ and suggestions on how to lay everything out better rather than playing the actual bloody game!

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
It was a mixed experience: I was playing my home-made & painted prototype of Totemo (a three-dimensional stacking game using the artist’s colour wheel as a central mechanic) in the Hotel Ibis in Essen (2008); it was the night before Day 1 (Thursday) and a random punter popped over and asked if he could join in. We played and he was VERY enthusiastic at the end – so much so that he immediately called his friend who worked for a big German games publisher! Gushing with praise, he booked me a meeting for the following morning (the first meeting of the show for that company)!

I delivered a positive demo and left my only copy with them for follow-on evaluation: three months later it came back with a short letter that said “It’s not for us because we don’t see a unique selling point.” – that was it! No further hints or tips? No ‘things we DID like’? From such high hopes to bland dismissal; a few years later Qwirkle won Spiel des Jahres… I can’t help thinking MY blocky, colourful game could’ve gotten there first!

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
At the risk of sending readers away to another website, it’s Ivor the Engine by a country mile (see the Designer Diary on BoardGameGeek!). Getting Snowdonia co-published with my favourite game publisher, Lookout Games, is a VERY close second but how can one compete with a childhood dream?

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love worker placement games (Agricola, Le Havre, Pillars of the Earth, Snowdonia, Lords of Waterdeep) and I love games with multi-function cards (Glory to Rome, Royal Goods et al). Auctions also tickle my fancy, if done right, which is why Princes of Florence is so beloved – mind you, that’s ALSO the dynamic of the group that plays it the most (me, Boffo, Smudge, Jobbers and A.N.Other).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I don’t know, to be honest. I love what the UK Games Expo is doing – with the help of organisations like Imagination Gaming – to promote more family involvement: the more people we can bring in to the hobby, the more it will grow and the better it will be for everyone. The UK has forgotten how great board games are: Trivial Pursuit and a million franchised Monopoly editions in the 1980s have erased the memory of the rich selection that was there before. It’s a crime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
One of my favourite albums of all-time is “Guilty” by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb.

Eternity: A four-sided game review

Eternity* is a trick-taking card game for three to five players (there is a two-player variant – see below). The artwork is beautiful throughout, cleverly using just a few images in various levels of close-up to brilliant effect – and it has enough originality to stand out from the crowd.

The box lists the game as being suitable for ages 10+ and as lasting around 30 minutes. The time is pretty accurate, although 20-40 is more likely depending on player count.

The age also seems about right, because although this is light on rules I can see the subtlety in scoring being lost on some younger players – and it could become frustrating.

The small game box contains 42 cards, 3 trump tiles, 18 tree tokens and a score pad – and should set you back a little over £10. It’s tricky to find in the UK at the moment (December 2016) but can be easily imported for less than £20.

Teaching

As with all the best trick-takers, Eternity takes the traditional trick-taking concept and makes a couple of subtle twists to make itself unique.

The key to success here is to create ‘harmony’ – which means matching the amount of tricks you win with the amount of tree tokens you collect in a round (a game last three rounds).

In each round the players will be dealt 8 or 10 cards (depending on player count), which equates to the number of tricks played in each. Cards are numbered 1-14 in three suits; and there are two spare cards in each round that indicate what will be the starting trump suit for the round – which is where things start to get interesting.

Before play the three trump tiles are laid out, left to right, in a random order. This shows the trump strength of each suit in case of a tie. The two spare cards are placed in this area – so if two of the same colour are leftover, that suit is trumps. If two different colours were left, the stronger suit becomes trump.

The start player in a trick (usually the player who won the previous one) must lay a card, but the next player has a choice: lay a card to the trick, or ‘pledge’ a card (see below). Laying a card follows typical trick-taking rules: you must follow suit if you can, otherwise you can trump the card played or discard a card of another suit. Best card wins the trick.

If you pledge, put the card to one side until the end of the trick. Then you look at the number of tree symbols on the card pledged (either 0, 1 or 2) and take that many tree tokens. Finally you add the pledged card to the trumps area, potentially changing the trump suit for the next trick.

Once all tricks in a round are completed, players score. It’s vital not to have more trees than you have tricks won, because if you do you score 0 for the round. Otherwise you score one point per tree token (tricks without trees do not score), with a bonus for creating harmony: the same number of trees and tricks. The bonus is 2/4/7 points in rounds 1/2/3; so with winning five trick equating to a good round, you soon see how important scoring for harmony is (and how going low on tricks doesn’t guarantee a poor round).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: It’s hard to make trick-taking games stand out in a crowded market, but Eternity’s art does the job well – and once you start playing, the subtle twists draw you in. Its clever that the high numbered cards (that are likely to win tricks) are the same ones you need to use to get the most trees, meaning that simply counting your high numbers doesn’t equate to how many tricks you’re likely to win – as you’ll probably want to use some to create harmony and get your bonus.
  • The thinker: Many trick-taking games have you predicting how many tricks you want to win before each round starts, where here it’s often a moving target – an interesting strategic and tactical conundrum. And the way trumps works really mixes it up, as some rounds it won’t change at all – whereas in others it can be in almost constant flux. Better still for the strategic thinker, all the cards are in play at all times – even in a three player game, where some are left out but the unused cards are on display for all to see (and grock). A very interesting and fun game.
  • The trasher: While Eternity may not seem overly aggressive, I lie the constantly shifting goalposts that keep everyone engaged and on their toes throughout each round. your first few games (or rounds for experienced players) will be tricky as you get your head around the subtleties, but once you start thinking about everyone’s hands rather than just your own things really get interesting. The only down side is having just three suits, meaning you seem to have less opportunities to ditch cards rather than follow suit – but for the interesting elements it adds to deciding trumps I think it’s worth it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is very pretty, and very clever, you really need a group of trick-taking fans to make it sing. I don’t think there is much here to hold the interest of those who don’t really dig traditional card games and despite the reward growing each round for completing harmony – which keeps people in the game throughout – it can still become frustrating if you don’t get the hang of it. It can also be quite a heads-down affair, as there’s a lot to think about in what initially looks like a very simple game. That said, I really liked it! You just need to pick the right crowd.

Key observations

I guess one issue that will always arise with small card games is: Do you get enough for your money? I guess the answer is – what are you looking for in terms of value?

The graphic design and artwork are top rate, while the component quality is reasonably high too. Everything fits snugly in the little box, and you even get a pencil packed in to use on the score pad. It’s a high quality product.

Equally, the game has a lot of replay value and plays beautifully. It will set you back a little more than Wizard, for example; but then that’s just a glorified Contract Whist (I’d rather play Whist than wizard, and that plays with a standard deck of cards): Eternity has a lot more originality packed in, which I think scores highly in its favour.

However, not everyone is going to like the changing trump mechanism: if you like the Wizard-style planning, this may not be for you. And as mentioned earlier, at its heart Eternity is a trick-taker with a few bells and whistles. If you don’t like trick-taking games, I would be very surprised if this converted you. But it could certainly turn the heads of ‘traditional’ players you may be trying to convert to the wider gaming world.

Finally, the game has a surprisingly good two-player variant. Players play two cards each per hand, while a dummy hand slowly reveals the cards not in-game each turn, keeping a bit of extra tension going in terms of learning which cards are not in play. It’s fast and quick, but works very well.

Conclusion

I love a good trick-taking game – and Eternity is one of the more interesting ones I’ve played in recent years. While simple to teach, it has that extra level of complexity it needs to stand above some of its competitors.

But equally it doesn’t overdo it in terms of extra components, meaning you’ve got a better chance of selling it to non- and traditional card players. And while the artwork is highly stylised, it’s mystical and pretty enough to appeal to almost everyone – rather than going down a naff fantasy route, or a more boring/pointless overly plain direction.

For me, this is more enjoyable and crossover friendly than Diamonds (another great recent trick-taker), while being more interesting and innovative than Wizard. I’d list it as a must-have for trick-taking fans and a should-try for anyone who is a vague fan of the genre – and it will definitely be staying in my collection for a long while.

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

Planet Defenders: A four-sided game review

Planet Defenders* is a set collection, resource management and order fulfilment gateway game from Taiwanese publisher EmperorS4. While it has a cute sci-fi theme it is pretty much an abstract game for two to four players that plays out in less than an hour.

While the box says 10+, younger players with an aptitude for mathsy problem solving will be right at home with the game. The box is medium-sized (think large hardback novel) and should set you back less than £30 when easily available (hopefully it will get better distribution in the west in 2017).

In the box you’ll find the nine modular board pieces, the three planet defenders (cardboard standees), 60+ plastic cubes, 50+ cards, four small player boards, three planet defender control boards and one lonely dice. The pieces are all high quality and the artwork and graphic design is exemplary throughout – this does not look like a game from a new publisher.

Teaching

As mentioned above, I’d class Planet Defenders as a gateway game – and as such, it is suitably simple to understand and explain.

The board is made up of nine different tiles (placed randomly), with our three intrepid planet defenders starting on the central space (the only one that is always the same tile).

Instead of having one planet defender each, all the players share control of these robots. On a turn you can make two moves with them, getting the benefit of the planet you move a robot to (which is always battery or energy cubes). However, you are limited in who you can move: the three robot control boards have a robot on each side and a number (one or two) – being the number of spaces you’ll have to move.

These only flip over at the end of each player turn, and each can only be used once per turn, so you’re quite heavily restricted – but with such a small board, it doesn’t feel bad. For example, you may have the ‘Yellow 1’, ‘Yellow 2’ and ‘Red 1’ face up at the start of your turn. So whatever you do, you won’t be moving the blue defender this round – but could possibly move the yellow robot twice (or the yellow and the red).

Once you’ve moved you get to do an ‘extra action’ – which is where you can spend the cubes you’ve been collecting.

Next to the N, E, S and W planets will be a pile of robots that need to be captured by the defenders. One thing you can do is collect the top one (which will be face up) by paying the cubes indicated – as long as you moved a robot to an adjacent space on your turn. These give a small cube reward in return, as well as end game victory points (most of your points come from these guys).

Alternatively you can buy a technology card. The more of these you collect he more end game points they’ll be worth, but they’re more important for making other aspects of the game easier. Variously they’ll give you discounts on catching robots, let you trade cubes for other types, give bonuses for landing on certain planets, or let you move robots further.

Depending on player number, the four robot stacks will contain either four or five robots: once two of these stacks are empty, the game is over – simply count up your points to see who won (with leftover energy cube acting as a tiebreaker).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: This is a purely tactical problem solving game that works very much as a puzzle. You’re restricted to a maximum of five energy cubes in your player area, meaning you can’t just hoard what you need to catch any old robot (battery cubes are largely used to move, but are unlimited) – you need to get what you need, grab the card you want, then choose a new target. The trick is getting enough tech cards to streamline your plans – while leaving enough time to grab enough robots to win.
  • The thinker: This is an enjoyable (if slightly forgettable) puzzle game. There is a variant included that allows you an ‘extra’ extra action each turn, while allowing you to mix your moves and actions at will. While adding more possibilities to make the perfect turn, what it really does is pile on the opportunities for analysis paralysis. Unless you all want the game to last a lot longer (something I don’t think the depth deserves), I’d stick to the simpler version – and it’s not often you’ll hear me say that.
  • The trasher: With more than two players, Planet Defenders is an exercise in tedium – you’ll spend most of each game waiting for your turn, knowing you can’t plan until it gets to your go. However, on your turn you have some interesting choices to make including ways you can restrict the next player; hence why it’s much better with just two players. Two defenders can’t occupy a single space, so if you know your opponent wants to go to a particular space you can usually leave a robot on it – and then not allow it to be moved next go. Very satisfying when you can pull it off!
  • The dabbler: Both the lovely cartoon artwork and gameplay simplicity drew me into this one and I never really mind a bit of downtime – especially when you can joke about what the various robots may have been doing for jobs! The Robocop one and builder are pretty obvious, but there’s also a floating garden, a vending machine and what looks like a carwash! The whole story is as if Studio Ghibli did a take on Bladerunner – and it works beautifully, despite being pretty abstract.

Key observations

My main takeaway was how well the flipping mechanism worked when choosing which defender to move – I expect to see this a lot more in games in future (including mine!).

But it really is best served as a gateway game. I’ve played with more experienced gamers and with the exception of two-player it comes across as pretty forgettable for many. But if you have kids or non-gaming friends who like a bit of sci-fi or manga, I think Planet Defenders will be really well received by them.

This isn’t a criticism of the game at all – you just have to pick your audience. But I’ll certainly defend it as a two-player filler for any gamer who is happy playing puzzly abstract titles: there is a lot of hidden depth here and when you take the downtime away it can be a really enjoyable head-to-head challenge.

Some say the game is a bit samey – a criticism you can often level at order fulfilment games. But I don’t really buy it here, as the choices you make in the buying of the technology cards help shape your strategy and these will come out differently each time (as will the modular board). Is it a ‘play back to back games’ game? No. But with five plays under my belt I’m definitely still reaching for it.

One issue is availability (December 2016). I’ve linked to EmperorS4 below, but it seems the Taiwanese firm hasn’t managed to get the game into any western distribution channels as yet. That said, both this and the company’s other Essen 2016 release Round House have been getting positive buzz – so finger’s crossed. There are a few copies floating around on Board Game Geek, at least.

Conclusion

I’ve been thoroughly charmed by Planet Defenders. From the artwork to the simplicity to the playtime to the components, it ticks every box.

It’s definitely best with two (or more if you don’t mind chatting between your moves) and falls firmly into the gateway and abstract camps, but those aren’t reasons to knock it.

I really hope EmperorS4 can get wider distribution for its titles and I look forward to playing more of its titles in future: definitely a company to keep your eyes on.

* I would like to thank EmperorS4 Technology for providing a copy of the game for review.