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.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Seth Jaffee

Seth Jaffee is a game designer and Head of Development at TMG. He has design credits on such games as Terra Prime, Eminent Domain (plus expansions), and Isle of Trains, with more on the way, and has had his hands in most of the TMG big box titles.

This is the second 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 went to school for, and have a career in, structural engineering. I’m fortunate right now in that I’m only doing engineering part time, and I’m starting to make some money in the game industry as a designer and as a developer for TMG.

Before I got into game design, I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering, and I found the deck building there to be fairly creative. But that has given way to game design, and I don’t do much else creative anymore… though one might say I’m an armchair graphic designer on occasion 🙂

Outside of game design and engineering, I spend my time playing games, and also playing Ultimate.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
At times I’ve probably found different designers to be my favourite, and I admire different designers for different things. Antoine Bauza is consistently able to crank out quality games, and he’s a great, down to earth guy. I admire how humble he is when by all accounts he’s one of the superstars of our hobby.

Reiner Knizia is the most prolific designer I can think of, and while all of the hundreds of titles he’s done can’t be to my taste, he’s done a number of very good games (such as Amun-Re, Tigris & Euphrates, Lord of the Rings, Ra, etc). I admire his professionalism, his range of styles, and the meticulous, mathematical balance of his games.

Stefan Feld is also prolific, and also hit-and-miss, but has done a number of my favourite games (Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Oracle of Delphi). I admire his creativity in finding and using a central mechanism to drive a game, and the way the different elements of his games often inter-relate or rely on each other so deeply. I’m sure there are others too.

3. What drew you to game design?
When my friends all moved away or quit playing Magic, it left a hole in my life that was once filled with building decks. Looking for some other creative outlet to fill that hole, I stumbled across the Board Game Designers Forum (BGDF.com).

I found that designing a game was a lot like making a deck for Magic… instead of putting certain cards together in an effort to make the deck perform a certain way, I started putting mechanisms together in an effort to make a game perform a certain way. To me this was analogous, and it filled that hole immediately — I’ve been hooked ever since.

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?
I used to think there were Theme-first designers and Mechanics-first designers, but nowadays I think that’s all crap.

Sometimes you start a design with a theme in mind, and other times you start with a particular mechanism, but even in the latter case, you pretty quickly have to find a theme to inform the rest of your design. So unless you’re specifically out to design an abstract game, then even Mechanics-first designers are also pretty much Theme-first designers.

I generally design with myself in mind. I try to make games that I, and people like me, would enjoy. I figure there are a bunch of people like me out there, that like the same stuff, and in the age of the internet it shouldn’t be too hard to find them!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect of game design is watching your creation come to life. In this case I mean watching players play your game and enjoy it. I love it when mechanisms and rules come together the way they’re supposed to and the game starts to really click and feel right.

The two worst aspects are…

  • Prototyping: There are certain humps that you need to get over in order to get a game to the table. Sometimes they’re physical – I’ve had a game stalled because I lacked the ability or know-how to really make a board for it. Other times they’re more mental humps, like trying to put together 100 tiles with info on them, without a good handle on what exactly the info should be…
  • Rules writing: Writing down how to play the game for a prototype isn’t so bad, but trying to write and edit final rules for a game can be very taxing and difficult.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
In general, the hardest type of game to design for me is one for which I’m not really the target audience. I never know when it’s done, or if it’s good. This is something I’d like to improve at.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
First of all, it’s great to get a prototype together as early as possible so you can try the game. I usually advise designers to be mindful of how the final game will look, and to think about layout and graphic design a little bit when making prototype cards and bits. This will not only make the game easier to play in prototype form, but will also help when it comes time to pitch to publishers in the future, if you go that route.

On that note, I highly recommend google image search, clip art, or using any free icons or images you can. The better the visuals you can use in the prototype, the easier it will be to get players to play the game, and the easier it will be for those players to concentrate on playing the game rather than trying to figure out the components.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
My first published game was Terra Prime, which was done by TMG. Before TMG existed though, I pitched the game to Jay Tummelson at a convention. I loved the games he published, and I really thought Terra Prime would fit well in his line. After my pitch, Jay just sort of shrugged and said “Eh, doesn’t excite me.”

I was prepared for a rejection, but somehow that hit me pretty hard. “It doesn’t excite me”? Not at all? Not even a little bit? Nothing?

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
My best moment as a game designer came at BGGcon 2010. My card game Eminent Domain was up on Kickstarter at the time, and this was back before Kickstarter was really a thing in the industry. We had offered Print and Play files for EmDo, and while many people had downloaded them, I was sceptical that many would print and cut 172 cards and try the game.

When I walked into the hotel on Wednesday afternoon, the day before BGGcon officially started, the first thing I saw was a room with 4 tables all paying PnP copies of Eminent Domain, and loving it!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love euro style games; especially ones that highlight efficiency. I also seem to have an affinity for Role Selection, though I am also a fan of Pickup/Deliver and Worker Placement as mechanisms. Some of my favourites include Puerto Rico, Railroad Tycoon, Goa, Brass, Shipyard, Lords of Waterdeep, Glory to Rome, In the Year of the Dragon…

I also like the idea of games that are built on a central mechanism that is itself a game, like Zooloretto is built on Coloretto. I’ve worked on one or two of those myself.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I hope this isn’t a politically incorrect answer, but maybe a little less complaining and less entitlement. I try to follow board games on a lot of different media, but it’s all on the internet, and no matter where you go on the internet there are whiners, complainers, and people who seem to demand a lot from other people when they may not have any reason to do so.

I feel like the landscape would only be improved if people just immersed themselves in the things they liked and ignored the things they didn’t. It seems like a win-win to me.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
At the ripe young age of 40 I got a full hip replacement. I suspect I had a thing called a slipped epiphysis, and all the cartilage in my hip had ground away. It got worse and worse until I was basically limping with every painful step. So I upgraded my insurance, made an appointment, and went in for surgery. I was worried that I’d never be able to run again (or play frisbee), but as it happens, my hip is pretty much 100%! I don’t recommend hip replacements in general, but if you really need one, it’s not all that bad… even if I probably will have to replace it 15 or 20 years down the road.

Also, despite never wanting to own a dog (in fact, I’ve always wanted to NOT own a dog), I recently got a dog. As dogs go, I think I got pretty lucky… Bella is very well behaved and doesn’t bark (thank goodness). But yeah… now I’m a dog owner.

A massive thanks to Seth for supplying such great and detailed answers. To find out more about future releases from TMG, visit the Tasty Minstel Games website.

Con report: LoBsterCon XII, Eastbourne, December 2016

marine-eastbourneDespite the best efforts of freezing winds and the utter incompetence of Southern Rail, around 100 hardy souls managed to make it to Eastbourne for the winter leg of London on Board’s bi-annual board game extravaganza.

Returning to The Cumberland was like warmly hugging an old friend, despite it only being our second time here. It has that creaky, tired charm you tend to find in English seaside resort hotels – all creaking floorboards and wobbly staircases. But it’s friendly and we have the place to ourselves for four solid days of drinking gaming.

I’ve been having a crappy time of late, so it as nice to get away from reality for an extended weekend. But geography can only take you head so far and I found myself playing a lot fewer games than usual, preferring to spend quite a bit of time just relaxing and emptying my mind. The Marine’s Christmas grotto (pictured) certainly helped for an evening out and about, while the nearby Victoria was also lovely. Even the dodgy looking American diner in town served up some pretty great food.

I love our Eastbourne trips the way they are – a big room of gamers playing, drinking and trash talking. So the addition of a bring-and-buy, secret santa and probably some other newfangled ideas for the kids totally passed me by (but were apparently enjoyed by those who got involved). And I’m glad I didn’t get involved, as I was probably hiding away in my room while they were going on anyway.

I did manage to play 17 games (13 different ones) over the four days, including quite a few gems I’d missed from Essen 2016. But as always it was more about the people – catching up with old friends and making new ones. To everyone I gamed with, and/or had a beer/meal with, thank you – and see you next time.

terraforming-marsNew game highlights

  • Terraforming Mars: This was comfortably the game I most regretted not bringing home from Essen – and it turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be. It has the tough decisions and massive card stack of Race for the Galaxy, but without the confusing iconography. It also adds a board, a mild ‘take that’ element that works and about two hours more playtime per game – but it genuinely flew by. This is definitely a game I will be getting my hands on as soon as they manage to get it back in print.
  • Lorenzo il Magnifico: Another I’d had my eye on at Essen, I’d cooled on it after being pretty bored by the design team’s previous release, Grand Austria Hotel. This is also a dice-based action selection euro game, but a great improvement on its predecessor – it halves the game time by largely eliminating the AP downtime. It does this by reducing the game space considerably – there are fewer wordy options, but the decisions are much more meaningful and it still feels as if you’re all traversing different paths. I have some doubts about its longevity, but if I get 5-10 plays out of it that are this much fun it’ll worth the entrance fee.
  • Fabled Fruit: The latest idea from the unique mind of Friedemann Friese, I’d decided against pursuing this at Essen because you can never be sure if his games are more about a concept than actually having any fun. But post-Essen reports had been positive, so I made sure to get a few games in. It proved to be a great little simple card game, where you stayed engaged because the mix of available actions changes a little every few turns. It’s not a crazy change, as in Fluxx, but much more subtle – it keeps you on your toes, but never feels complicated. I won’t be seeking a copy out, as I don’t think my regular groups will car enough, but I look forward to exploring it more when I get the opportunity.
  • Manhattan Project – Energy Empire: The spiritual successor to Manhattan Project polishes the kinks out of the original design, making it a much smoother ride. But in doing so it takes out all the take-that and the end game tension, making it a rather solitary engine building affair with a set number of rounds. I really enjoyed my play and would play again, but was left feeling the perfect version of this game is somewhere between the two – and hopefully still in the making.

Other ‘new to me’ games

  • Oh My Goods – Longsdale in Turmoil: I’ve enjoyed my plays of Oh My Goods and was keen to try the expansion. You can absolutely see what he was trying to do here – but unfortunately it seems he wrote the ideas on the back of a fag packet and they published them by mistake. Much as with Manhattan Project above, a reprint of the original with a lot of this included (after some serious work on it) could be awesome – but this feels wholly unfinished. Each player could’ve won, depending on which interpretation of the rules you decided to throw up in the air.
  • Dale of Merchants: Sometimes you start playing a game and just think, Kickstarter. This is one of those games. There’s nothing wrong with it – there’s just no point in it existing. From the mediocre mechanisms, terrible title and clichéd fantasy animal setting to the mass of options that will never make the game different enough each time to care about, it’s just an over-complicated exercise in draw one, play one with way too much AP-inducing card text. Really, really average – never again.

The Dwarves boxGames I brought and played

  • The Dwarves: Once again Sean and Natalie joined our latest attempt to save the world from trolls, orcs and dark elves – this time joined by Hella and John Mitchell. We played the ‘Book 5: Triumph of the Dwarves’ mini expansion on ‘difficult’ and, after a relatively simple start to the game, I decided to spruce things up with some epicly bad Sean-esque dice rolling. Luckily I redeemed myself (a bit) in the final battle to secure a very narrow win with just a couple of turns to spare. Love it.
  • Armageddon: I explained the rules (poorly) to Hella, Sherine and Teri – and then Teri showed us how to play the game. I was lucky to end up joint third, but more disappointed to find a couple of the end game tiles are problematic balance-wise. Don’t look at me! Also gave everyone a chance to mock me as they wandered past – which was much like I imagine it feels like being in the stocks! Hats off especially to Jacob who mocked me, came back and told me how much he actually enjoyed his one play of it, before walking away – and then thinking better of it, doubling back, and mocking me again.
  • Planet Defenders: I’m still reserving judgement on this one, because it has garnered such mixed reactions – weird for such an innocuous game. It’s a cleverly designed puzzle game where you’re essentially trying to fulfil cube combos to capture robots. But the art is cute, it plays fast and there are some nice little tech cards to differentiate the players. It may be a layer short of holding the imagination of more experienced gamers, but I don’t think that makes it a bad game – more a family or gateway game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. More on it soon.

Other games I’d played before

  • Navegador: In a year dominated by review plays, my three plays of Navegador make it stand out as one of the most popular of my oldies – and this was another fantastic play through. The builders (Karl and me) got going faster than the explorers (Anne and Adam) and we were about 10 points ahead of them by the end – with Karl pipping me by three for the win.
  • Acquire: Another old favourite, this turned out to be my 10th play of the 60s classic – but I didn’t have it my way. A great start was scuppered mid game as my stock of hotel making pairs dried up – leaving me holding a lot of stock in a dead chain and my influence dwindling. But it was great fun, as always. This is a game I very rarely reach for on my own shelves, but am always happy when someone else suggests it – so thanks for doing so Simon!
  • 6 Nimmt!: I entered a LoBsterCon tournament for the first time – and ended up coming third. I really don’t like tournaments, they can really drag, so I’ll probably end up going out on a high. Three went through to the final table from the two starting tables, from which I progressed in second place. Two players fell early in the final and I was in a strong position, until one bad hand left me adrift of the top two. The final hand saw one card I played (I couldn’t have seen it coming) really stitch up Rocky (which is always fun) and ultimately it handed Marcus the trophy. But despite it going very long for what should be a short, fun party game I did really enjoy it.
  • Race for the Galaxy: Can this really only be my sixth play of the year of my favourite game…? Shocker – and it shows what a strange year it has been for me. It was an enjoyable five-player game, despite a couple of newbies struggling their way through making it very slow (never something I really care about). I used the contact specialist to spam out a bunch of military windfall worlds, guaranteeing myself a regular stream of cards to choose from and a steady flow of points. Laying the nine-point grey rebel world sealed a narrow win in the final turn. And what better note to end a con report on, than with a scrappy victory?

Adrenaline: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X Nimmt: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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