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.

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2016 new releases

Essen 2016 logoWith the convention just a few weeks away, I’ve finished trawling through most of the upcoming board game releases planned for Essen Spiel 2016. So below you’ll find what I think will be the pick of the bunch.

I’ve kept expansions off of the list, but there are some interesting ones on the way: new bits for Deus (Egypt), Celestia (A Little Help), New York 1901 (Goons) and Ancient Terrible Things (The Lost Charter) will all be going in my bag for sure. As for the games below, I’ll be packing as many into my suitcase as possible!

I also want to give high praise to the website Spiel Together, created by Peter H Møller, which has made going through this year’s crop of new releases an absolute breeze. If you’re at all interested in seeing the list of games coming out at Essen (it has more than 600 of them listed, and counting) I’d highly recommend it, while if you’re going to the show I’d say it is an invaluable asset.

My Top 10 Essen anticipation list

armageddon-cover10. Armageddon
3-4 players, 60-90 mins

I hope you can forgive me for being a little self-serving, but my second published game (this time co-designed with David Thompson) should be available from Queen Games this year. It’s set in a post-apocalypse world, but the focus is on rebuilding civilisation. Each turn players use workers to ‘bid’ in three areas – finding survivors to grow your town, fixing up buildings and using the buildings you’ve already restored (to get VPs or fight off marauders). It’s competitive, not co-op, and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved – and from what I’ve seen of the artwork so far it’s going to look amazing too. And the last I checked, there were no zombies – but don’t hold me to that…

Crisis9. Kickstarter corner: Crisis, The Dwarves (English Edition) & Area 51: Top Secret

It’s rare that I talk about Kickstarter games before release (if at all) but these are all from publishers I trust and were games that really piqued my interest. I’ve talked about all of these new titles elsewhere on the site (links above) so didn’t want to give them an entry each, but did want to flag them up as games I’m really looking forward to getting finished copies of at the show. Crisis (1-5 players, 120 mins) is a sci-fi-themed worker placement game with a clever financial crash mechanism; The Dwarves (1-5 players, 60-90 mins) is a fun fantasy co-op game based on the Markus Heitz novels; while Area 51 (2-6 players, 60 mins) is a set collection and area control (ish) family board game. For more information on any of these, please read the full reviews linked above.

fabled-fruit8. Fabled Fruit
2-5 players, 20-30 mins

I try not to let lighter, smaller games get onto this list as they’re the games I fit in when I have gaps in my schedule and they’re also the least likely to hit the table with my current game groups – but this one looked too interesting to pass over. Anything designed by Friedemann Friese always catches my eye, as he’s both an innovator and a prankster, and it seems like he’s at it again here. This starts out as a simple set collection card game, but as you play more games the system and rules themselves change – but you can reset it whenever you feel like it. He’s calling it a ‘fable’ game, and it seems to be positioned somewhere between the flawed ‘Flux’ system and the equally flawed ‘legacy’ system. Friese is one of the few who would go looking for somewhere between the two – and one of even fewer who could nail it – so fingers crossed.

ave-roma7. Ave Roma
2-5 players, 45-120 mins

Strangely there weren’t many worker placement games really grabbing me from this year’s offerings (which is hopefully good news for Armageddon!). In fact after scouring lots of rule books I think Ave Roma looks like the pick of the bunch, despite the designer and publisher having little pedigree. I love the ideas of a big round central board, variable commodity values for each of the players, and numbered workers having different strengths depending on where you play them. I have pretty high hopes for this one, so it will be high on my demo list.

risky-adventure6. Risky Adventure
2-4 players, 45 mins

I’m a sucker for a good press-your-luck dice game, and the most promising one for me on this year’s Essen release list is Risky Adventure from Queen (no, I’m not biased!). In a nice twist, you gamble first on the actions you want to do (each needing different dice combos), then roll your dice – so the riskier the actions are that you pick the less chance there is of getting to do them. There are lots of types of reward (including extra dice faces to complete tricky actions, set collection for victory points etc) and overall it looks like it will have that little bit extra to make it stand out as a fun family game.

papa-paolo5. Papà Paolo
2-4 players, 30-75 mins

I love the theme here (pizza delivery) and the game promises to be a mix of worker placement, bidding, engine building and city building. Sold! The designer promises a game with low downtime, interaction as well as individual play, multiple ways to win but a simple scoring system. While none of the mechanisms on show look particularly ground-breaking, but it’s interesting that the placement of your worker on the 4×4 grid governs the actions you can take, what you can build and how much money you may gain – as well as possibly impeding your opponents. I’m yet to find a city building game I’ve really fallen in love with despite the fact it’s a theme I really like, so I’m hoping Papà Paolo will break this duck. I mean come on, it has purple scooter meeples – what can possibly go wrong?

oracle-of-delphi4. The Oracle of Delphi
2-4 players, 70-100 mins

The last few Stefan Feld releases didn’t really float my boat, largely due to being some of the ugliest games I’ve seen in a while – but The Oracle of Delphi has definitely refuelled my man crush for the king of the point salad game. And as an added bonus, it has a refreshing clean graphical look! It is (of course) an action selection game with a fun Greek gods theme that looks a little less pasted on than usual. But rather than his typical (of late) point-scoring frenzy it looks as if the goal here is to be the first to complete a number of challenges. It has a nice modular board for added replay value and the typical Feld tropes of choosing your own path to victory seem to be in place via the way you upgrade your ship and use the special actions of the gods. Hopefully this one sees him right back on form.

adrenaline3. Adrenaline
3-5 players, 30-60 mins

As one of the world’s worst first person shooter (FPS) computer game players, the idea of exacting revenge on my friends in board game form is extremely appealing – and if anyone can pull it off, publisher CGE can. The game looks great (sci-fi themed), the mechanisms sound like they’ll do the job and the victory point system fits the bill (you get points from the players you wipe out – and then they get to come back again for their revenge), so I’m super excited about this one – and I already know this one will be coming home with me, so expect a review before end of the year.

great-western-trail2. Great Western Trail
2-4 players, 75-150 mins

Eggertspiele has a good track record for medium weight euro games, while designer Alexander Pfister is on a hot streak right now, so I have high hopes for this one. It’s a western themed tile placement and hand management game with an interesting looking movement mechanism. The tile placement seems to have a bit of Caylus about it (which I love), while the movement feels almost like a take on the rondel (which I also love). Loads of actions to take and ways to improve your character, loads of ways to get victory points, loads of interesting strategic decisions to make. This one looks totally up my alley and will almost certainly be making the trip back with me.

terraforming-mars1. Terraforming Mars
1-5 players, 90-120 mins

If you want to get to number one on this list, the easiest way to do it is to get one of the biggest board game reviewers out there to describe your game as “Race for the Galaxy on a board”. The theme (the clue is in the title…) is appealing and pretty original, it looks gorgeous, it is backed by solid publishers and managers to tick the card drafting, hand management, variable player powers and tile placement boxes too. The ‘Race’ analogy comes from seeing/playing loads of cards to build your own points engine, while keeping a careful eye on the growing environment (oxygen, ocean and temperature levels), as combined they will trigger the game end. It can’t be as good as it sounds.

The ‘best of the rest’ that missed the list

in-the-name-of-odinThere are so many cool looking games coming – which is hardly surprising, with 1,200 being released in one weekend!

In the Name of Odin will be the family set collection/hand management game I’ll head to first, as it looks very cool indeed – but I do have my doubts about some of the mechanisms so need a quick play.

A surprising number of sci-fi games caught my eye this year. Both Solarius Mission and Kepler 3042 are also looking good for scratching the space exploration itch, while Planet Defenders and Chromosome keep the sci-fi theme but look to have more of a ‘race for victory’ feel; either stopping invading robots or escaping a research facility.

My ‘number 11’ was probably Barcelona: The Rose of Fire. I’m a sucker for the city and this tile-laying game looks to explore its history, which immediately peeked my interest. I’m rarely keen on area control, but this looks to have an interesting push and pull to it (as construction can lead to strikes and riots) so I’ll definitely be finding out more.

Arctic adventure game Snowblind (from Pleasant Games Company) was just behind Risky Adventure in the press-your-luck category and I’ll certainly be looking for a demo – especially after enjoying Ancient Terrible Things a lot from the same company. Great art and, if ATT is anything to go by, great components too.

Economic farming game Rhodes has me far more interested than I would usually be in this kind of thing, so I’ll be following my instincts and checking that out too. While Lorenzo the Magnificent (from Cranio Creations) ticks lots of my favourite mechanism boxes (card drafting, variable player powers, worker placement) and will also be a definite demo.

Expect reviews of lots of these new titles in the coming months. And if I’ve missed some you’re really looking forward to, let me know in the comments below.

Board game Top 10: The best young children’s games (5-8 years)

kids-gamesAnyone that knows me will be well aware that gaming (or anything else, for that matter) with children isn’t really my thing – but as several people requested it for a Top 10, who am I to argue?

Luckily for me I have bunch of lovely friends who have either worked or parented their way through the joys of childhood and survived with gaming tales to tell: thanks (in no particular order) to Anita, Ronan, Chris, Csilla, Tony, Alan, Nik, Paul and Peter for their invaluable insight into the topic.

There are actually closer to 30 games in the list, as I’ve given alternatives as often as possible. The list is most likely to be useful to non-gamers, so this way if you find something that works well hopefully there will be something very similar you can go to next. Think of them as categories – and as such they’re in no particular order.

When it comes to ability, age range is a tough one to call. Put simply, you know your own kids: hopefully these brief descriptions will be enough for you to decide on a case-by-case basis whether you want to explore each in more depth. And it’s worth remembering you can ‘house rule’ most games down a level or two if you find them a little overwhelming for the littler ones – or yourself! Then you can introduce the more complex rules later.

And finally – try to play them without the kids the first time, if possible. It will be a much better experience if you know the rules before you begin, even if you don’t let that on to them. Nothing pops the bubble of a board/card experience quite like spending an hour with your head in a rulebook while the kids lose interest!

My Top 10 (ish) children’s games (five to eight year-olds)

forbidden islandForbidden Island
(£15-20)

The idea of co-operative board games is a relatively new one and has proved incredibly popular. The idea is all players work together to beat the game, with you succeeding or failing as a team. Forbidden Island is a very simple game in essence, and while it’s probably at the high end of this age scale the fact it has no hidden information means you can easily help each other. If this goes well, the same designer did a follow-up called Forbidden Desert – a nice take on the same idea that’s different enough to move on to if this works for you. While if you want more complex in the same system, the incredibly popular Pandemic takes the system to the next level.

karnickelKarnickel
(£10-15)

This is a fast, light, bunny-themed roll-and-move dice game – but instead of one numbered dice you roll seven coloured dice, choose a colour, and move as many spaces as you rolled of that colour. There are elements of push-your-luck too (you don’t want to get scared off by the train), making it a nice introductory level game that will give the kids genuine decisions to make. The Enchanted Tower is another interesting take on traditional role-and-move games, this time adding an element of bluff and hidden information (and it’s gorgeous).

rhino-heroSuper Rhino/Rhino Hero
(£10)

Something that can be a great leveller between children and parents is a good dexterity game. Whether you’re balancing cards and trying to make skyscrapers (and not knock them all down with your rather heavy rhino) in Super Rhino (AKA Rhino Hero); balancing cute wooden animals on top of each other in Animal Upon Animal, or using your magic wand to manoeuvre your potion ingredients into the cauldron in Magician’s Kitchen, these games are almost guaranteed to make you laugh. And they’re beautifully put together too, even if some of the themes are a little, shall we say, leftfield…

looping-louisLooping Louie
(£10-20)

Sticking with dexterity games, let’s move from steady hands to getting your co-ordination right – another area where the kids may surprise their unsuspecting parents. Looping Louis has been around since the early nineties but is still great value: can you protect your chickens from the crazy flying antics of Louis? It’s all in the timing as you try to bounce his little battery-powered plane over your chickens and onto those of the other players. And if they’re Star Wars fans, check out the recent Looping Chewie (I kid you not). I also have to recommend Crazy Coconuts, where you fling coconuts into cups with your little plastic monkey…

Dixit_boxDixit
(£20-25)

If you want to fire your children’s imaginations, there are some great tools out there to help. One is Dixit – a game where you look at some cards with beautiful artwork and think of a word/phrase/sentence that describes one of them – then hope other player’s (but not all of them!) will think the same as you. Alternatively there are Rory’s Story Cubes (roll the dice and use the symbols on them to make up a story – with various sets, covering themes from to Batman) and Apples to Apples (a silly game where one person reads out a ‘description’ card – and then the other players choose a ‘thing’ card from their hand that best matches it – the sillier and funnier the better).

dobbleDobble/Spot It
(£10)

Back in the land of dexterity (last time, promise) we have Dobble – a popular little card game where the skill is in matching symbols on cards as quickly as possible – a loud and raucous game of snatching/slapping cards onto the table. Another slightly more dangerous option is Dancing Eggs, which comes in a one-dozen egg box and has you trying to grab as many of the wickedly bouncing little buggers as possible. And I also need to mention In a Bind – a hilarious game which is kind of like the classic twister, but with a deck of cards instead of a play mat…

king-of-tokyoKing of Tokyo
(£20-25)

Push your luck, with dice in particular, is a classic game mechanism and there are some great games available. While Yahtzee is OK, King of Tokyo takes it to the next level with battling monsters – or you could go for roasting worms on the barbecue with the classic Pickomino. But Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop is probably the daddy of them all – a lesson in probability that’s so much fun.

my-first-carcassonneCarcassonne
(£20-30)

Building routes and patterns is brilliant, taking the classic jigsaw idea and making proper games out of it. Carcassonne is probably the most famous game of its type and My First Carcassonne is recommended for 4-10 year-olds. There are some other great examples too, including the likes of Tsuro and Indigo that are more simply (but fiendishly) about building routes on an evolving abstract board; as well as Totemo (building coloured totem poles through clever colour matching) and Blokus (gain as much territory as you can on a grid with your Tetris-style pieces).

walk-the-plankWalk the Plank
(£20)

Another important life lesson can be learned from a good take-that game (allegedly). Here you choose three cards to play then reveal them one by one – but you can guarantee no one will be where you wanted them to be after the first one! It’s all about pushing the other players overboard, but things never seem to work out how you wanted them too. Get Bit is another fun take-that simultaneous card selection game (this time seeing robots trying to swim from sharks…); while another favourite of mine is (Cockroach) Kakerlaken Poker Royal – a great take-that bluffing game that will prove to you (if any were needed) just how easy it is for your children to lie to you!

animals-on-boardAnimals on Board
(£15-20)

Last up are a couple of games that can introduce (as well as new gamers) to other popular game mechanisms. Animals on Board is a great introduction to ‘I split, you choose’, where players either take a group of animals for their ark (trying to get anything but pairs – because Noah has clearly cornered that market); or split a current group and grab some food, making it smaller/easier to grab for their opponents (you need one food for each animal taken – hence having to take food sometimes). Another great option is Sushi Go! – a fun introduction to the ‘drafting’ card game mechanism, where you take one card from a hand and then pass the rest, hoping to end up with a great combination of cards to play.

NOTE: At time of posting (September 2016) all of these games were available and in print from either Board Game Guru and/or Amazon. And quite a few of them are available from Coiledspring Games too – a long-time supporter of this blog.

Elfenland: A four-sided game review

ElfenlandElfenland* is a classic family board game that won the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year Award) back in 1998. It has recently been reprinted and made available direct from a UK distributor; hence the new review of an old title.

The game is primarily a hand management (cards) and route building (on the board) game, with each player trying to visit all the towns on a large map using the cards and tokens they’re dealt each turn.

The box says ages 10+ but should be fine for your average eight-year-old; while it will take 2-6 players about an hour (I think it plays best with at least three and can run a bit longer with five or six).

In the box you’ll find a large board, 50 cardboard counters and almost 100 cards – all smothered with generic, whimsical fantasy art (plus more than 100 standard wooden pieces). Luckily it’s an abstract game so the slightly naff elves and dwarves don’t get in the way of gameplay! But actually it’s nice to find a German release that doesn’t shy away from fantasy in favour of a European town theme. At around £20 it is a real bargain.

Teaching

Elfenland in playA game of Elfenland is played over four identical turns and you should find players will be on-script once you’ve gone through one of them.

It’s important to get across before you start that it’s possible for someone to win in just three turns by collecting all of their pieces from the board – unlikely, but possible. It’s also important to stress that, if possible, players shouldn’t make routes that leave them with a bunch of disparate towns left to visit late in the game, where possible (although that’s often easier said than done).

The new rulebook looks scary big at first; but only until you realise they’ve managed to cram five languages into it. The English rules only run to eight pages, much of which is setup and pictures. Once setup, each round simply consists of being dealt travel cards; choosing transportation tokens; placing said tokens, then moving along the routes.

Each travel card (you’ll start each round with eight) depicts one of the seven travel forms; each of which can be used to traverse some of the different types of terrain – either efficiently (using one card), inefficiently (using two identical cards) or not at all. But you can also cross any terrain (except water) by using any combination of three cards.

Elfenland cards tilesPlayers now draw a travel token at random (that stays secret only to you), before choosing two more (either from five face-up tokens, or random picks). But which tokens should you choose?

The basics of the game are about working out the best ways to move that best marry up with your travel cards. But the key to success is having the flexibility to take advantage of how others place their tokens too.

This plays out in the main segment of each turn: placing transportation tokens. Each player takes it in turn to place one of their tokens on a travel route of their choice. Once placed, that route is then locked into that transport type for all players in that turn – so if you really need a part of your route to be a specific card type, you better get in fast – or hope someone else does you the favour of playing the right token for you!

Finally, each player moves to as many locations as they can (or want to) by spending their cards to move along ‘tokened’ routes (only water can be traversed without tokens). It doesn’t matter who placed the token, as long as you have legitimate cards to pay the cost – so in a game with lots of players you could move as many as eight spaces (one per card in hand) having played no tokens at all.

The game ends when either a player has visited all 20 locations (at the end of round three) or you’ve played four rounds. If there’s a tie, the player with the most cards in hand wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While Elfenland is a simple game in theory, it actually presents an interesting mashup of strategy and tactics; with the best laid plans oft scuppered by a single token. In your mind you want to plan the perfect route for the few tokens you have – while knowing that to really get across the board and scoring big you’ll need to rely on others to do some of the work for you. You can’t even card count, as all the travel cards are reshuffled at the end of every round.
  • The thinker: This really isn’t a game for those who love grand strategy, as the amount of randomness is unbearable. Take your random cards, grab your random token, probably pick some more random tokens – then wait for other players to ruin any plans you may have managed to cobble together, probably by accident. It’s enough to leave the more ardent planners amongst us reaching for the Valium! But if you’re the kind of player that likes to think on their feet, this is a top choice.
  • The trasher: While there’s no direct catch up mechanism, there’s a nice way to bash the leader: obstacle tokens. Each player only gets one at the start so you can’t go mad – but they add just enough tension to make it a highly worthy addition. You play it on a route with a token, which then means moving along that route will cost anyone doing it one extra card of that type – which can totally change the turn for anyone needing to use it. This wouldn’t normally be my game, but this simple little mechanism adds just enough to make me happy to play Elfenland once in a while.
  • The dabbler: While I enjoy the game, from the simple rules to the old school fantasy artwork, it can be a tough game to love on first play – especially for younger players. It’s quite easy to get things wrong in the first turn and end up feeling totally out of contention with only a quarter of the game gone. You just need to explain to these people that it’s a learning game and that they’ll benefit from using the remaining turns to improve and who knows – if you screwed up that bad in turn one, there’s nothing stopping the same happening to the others!

Key observations

Elfenland boardWhile I personally have no major beefs with Elfenland mechanically, the card graphic design raises some red flags – especially when you consider this is a reprint, so improvements could’ve been made.

It would’ve been very easy to give the travel cards a coloured border to match that of their matching travel token, rather than including the terrain values – which are pointless anyway, as they’re already available on a handy player aid.

Another issues is player count. Elfenland plays identically from two to six in terms of components, but in practice plays out very differently. With two or three you can really be scuppered by being in different areas of the board, making the best part of the game – using each other’s travel tokens – redundant on multiple (or even all) turns as you mope around on your own little journeys.

But with more players you get the opposite problem – where it is very easy for all players to be on 19 or 20 by the end of the game. This can often be alleviated by using the official variant included, which means each player has a secret designated city they’re meant to finish the game in; but this doesn’t help with lower numbers. I’d say that if you intend to play mostly with two or three players, you’d be advised to look elsewhere.

I’ve mentioned luck already, but it’s worth reiterating here: those who hate luck should also look elsewhere, as there is a lot of random chance going on here. Most of it is given to you to then work with strategically, making it more puzzle than anything, but even then you have other players screwing with your plans while they work on their own puzzles – which can feel a little odd for a route-building game.

There can also be king-making issues due to the obstacle tokens (and even accidentally through route tokens – its back to that luck factor again). And finally, don’t buy this one for the theme. Despite being very pretty, it is totally pasted on.

ElfenroadsNOTE: The game is also now available in a more expensive form, Elfenroads, which includes two expansions. These add extra ideas you can bolt on including bidding for tokens, new obstacles, and towns having variable values; as well as an alternative map. I hope to review this at a later date to see if it addresses any of these issues.

Conclusion

Elfenland is an intelligently designed family game that nicely walks that line between simply yet competitive gameplay. It’s a game you can teach to anyone, but importantly there’s also room for a player to improve – while the luck element means games can be closer than you’d think.

There’s a definite educational value here, as younger players can see the spatial elements of route building alongside problem solving as they have to think on their feet. But as with most entry level games, you may find some more seasoned gamers getting sniffy about it (and that’s fair enough).

In this form I’d recommend it – but won’t be keeping it. There are too many similar games in my collection that I like a little more for the amount I play family games of this type (such as Ticket to Ride, Africana and New York 1901). But if I get my hands on the new Elfenroads mentioned above, all bets are off…

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

Tash-Kalar – Everfrost & Nethervoid: expansions review

Tash-Kalar EverfrostTash-Kalar NethervoidTash-Kalar: Arena of Legends* is an abstract strategy game set in a fantasy themed arena (and reviewed in 2015).

It has risen into the Top 500 games on Board Game Geek and is listed just outside the Top 20 abstract games.

The game is played on a grid of squares with players trying to place their pieces in a variety of patterns; that in turn allow the playing of powerful cards that will change the shape of the game. There are variety of game modes, depending on player numbers (two to four), with aims ranging from simply taking your opponents pieces to completing tasks.

Its a fantastic abstract game that stands apart by having both elements of luck (in your individual card draw, the tasks etc) but also each player having their own deck of themed cards to use. There were two sets of identical cards in the box for the purists wanting to be more evenly matched, plus just two more decks: a bit tight, I thought – so it was always crying out for expansions.

What do Everfrost & Nethervoid bring to the party?

Tash frost allThese expansions are available to buy independently, so I’ll briefly talk about each one separately here. Both add nice thematic twists too, despite the abstract nature of the game.

Everfrost can be seen as the simpler of the two, despite it adding an interesting new twist not in the base game. The player using this card deck will find about a third of their cards carry the ‘frozen’ symbol. When you play these cards, instead of discarding it you instead leave it in front of you – as you’ll be able to thaw this ‘frozen’ effect when you need it.

But you can only have one frozen effect in front of you at a time, which can lead to some interesting extra decisions: if it looks as if your current frozen effect may come in handy soon, do you hold off playing another frozen card? But it’s hard not to play your cards immediately as keeping your patterns in place can be fiendishly difficult.

In addition a few of the individual cards throw in some interesting new effects, including Crystal Mirror (allowing you to mimic an opponents pieces – which could be a ‘heroic’); and Deathbringer (which lets you remove an opponent’s piece from the game completely).

Nethervoid can very much be seen as an advanced deck; as while it only adds a single new element to the game it’s a real doozy. Included in the expansion is a single yellow glass stone, which is referred to as ‘the Gateway’.

When you play a Nethervoid card and the Gateway isn’t on the board, the piece you place becomes the Gateway (you simply place the stone on it). It can be destroyed just like any of your other pieces (and will come back next time you play a card), but while in play can have a huge effect on the game – if you play your cards right (sorry…).

All but two of the cards in the Nethervoid deck mention the Gateway; with effects ranging from moving/becoming it, killing enemies adjacent to it, upgrading/using the current Gateway piece and moving your pieces towards to it. Regular players are probably already realising the significance of this: its hard to make any patterns at all, let alone making them line up with one individual piece that can also move around the board…

How much do they change the game?

Tash frost cardsWhile both decks are interesting, as you’ll see above, neither introduce anything to the game beyond this that wasn’t there already. Neither of the new decks affects team play, for example, and no new ways of playing are introduced.

Everfrost does adds a nice tension to the game, especially when playing against it. It’s painful having an effect hanging there, waiting go off in your face, probably when you most expect it too. Its an interesting addition to a game that is usually all about swift, decisive moves you rarely see coming (until you know the decks really well, that is).

But Nethervoid definitely adds a new element of strategy to the game. It’s a neat new twist that isn’t for the feint of heart and can be very hard to play well. But if you don’t like the frustration element of the original game, this ramps it up to 11! And despite being more complex it doesn’t feel imbalanced, even when you get it right.

Are Everfrost & Nethervoid essential?

Tash exp nether allOne of my key observations in my review of Tash-Kalar was a complaint about the lack of different card decks in the box. Four seemed exceedingly tight, especially as two of them were essentially identical.

It didn’t stop me having fun with the base game, and it is a fun challenge to play with the identical decks, but if this is a game you’re hoping to play often I’d say yes, grabbing at least one these will be essential.

However I wouldn’t say you need them straight away – quite the opposite, in fact. Especially with Nethervoid and to a lesser extent Everfrost, these expansion packs add more complex decisions and are more suited to players that have become familiar with the base game. The game can be quite hard to get your head around at first, as its mixes up some original ideas with traditional ones, and these add more advanced rules on top.

Are Everfrost & Nethervoid value for money?

At around £10 each, they may seem a little expensive – but each comes with its own scoreboard, tokens and card deck with all individual pieces of art on each card.

You could of course argue that you don’t really need the tokens, or boards – so why not just do cheap card expansions? My guess to that would be the standard one for expansions: that it’s the card art that costs all the money, so taking the other bits out wouldn’t reduce the cost much anyway.

But if you take them purely on what they add in terms of gameplay, they’re absolutely worth it. Although I wouldn’t want to get into an argument about whether they should have been included in the original game box anyway, with that having a slightly higher price… But hey, business is business and it’s easy to forget that this is the board game’industry’ – not the charity many Kickstarter campaigns would have us believe.

… and does it fit in the original Tash-Kalar box?

Tash exp nether cardsYes, very easily – as long as you’re happy to jettison the packaging, of course. But if you discarded the (rather useless) insert from the original box too, there’s still plenty of space for some more expansions too – and long may they continue.

* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing first the base game then the expansions for review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

Area 51 prototype

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key (Kickstarter) observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Con report: The Cast are Dice (TCAD) 2016

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

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

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

Location location location

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available board and card games

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

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

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

Gaming highlights: Old favourites

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

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

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

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

Gaming highlights: New favourites

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

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

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

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

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

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

TCAD: Will I be back in 2017?

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

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

Pocket Imperium: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Essen Spiel 2016: The build-up begins

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing three hats (again) – or maybe four…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The preparation begins…

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

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

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

Dice Heist: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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