The Board Game Geek 33 x 3 Challenge 2016 – and what I learnt from 2015

CelestiaThe 33×3 2015 Challenge was simple – play 33 games 3 times each within the calendar year. after four months I was a little ahead of my goal, having played 37 of my total 99 plays.

But by the end of December I had added just nine to that total, failing to get even half my goal. So what went wrong – and why am I trying it again?

I managed to get all three plays of only eight games. Dead of Winter I was reviewing so had to play; Ingenious, Divinare,  Kingdom Builder and Alhambra are shortish family games which are easy to get to the table; Through the Ages and Tzolk’in are more complex but equally popular, while Artus I banged through on a trip to Eastbourne.

At the other end of the scale, eight games didn’t get played at all. These were either heavy on rules overhead/play time so hard to teach/get to the table, or games I didn’t like enough to fight for (20th Century, Industry). In between were a bunch of games that probably would’ve gotten the three plays in different circumstances – or that one was enough for.

So what went wrong?

Two obvious things got in the way of completing this challenge which I’ve covered enough in other posts (the end of a relationship and the influx of review copies of games). But one other factor was important: I hadn’t picked the right games.

Quite a lot of the titles on the list I’d picked because either I hadn’t played them, or I’d played them once or twice. This isn’t sound reasoning to try and get them played three times each – especially when I love loads of games that got played once last year, or not at all. It’s crazy to think I prioritised lesser games over favourites because of a challenge!

Sure it made the challenge harder, but not at an expense I want to repeat. And of course, this is in hindsight – I had no idea what was going to happen to me during 2015, so couldn’t have predicted how much my playing hours – and what I was going to have to play – was going to change.

The 33×3 Challenge 2016

The Bloody InnSo below is my list for 2016. I’ve gone for my current favourites, some games I know my friends love, plus some games I know I’ll be reviewing in the next few months.

To make it a bit of a challenge I have left out very short games, plus games I know I’ll play regularly (so no Ticket to Ride, Love Letter or Race for the Galaxy).

And if I’m honest, I think I’m going to fail again. These are mostly long games and the chances of getting them all played three times is slim – but as long as I play them all at least once this year, I’ll be happy:

  1. Mombasa
  2. New York 1901
  3. My Village
  4. The Prodigal’s Club
  5. Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends
  6. Concordia
  7. Keyflower
  8. Through the Ages
  9. Treasure Hunter
  10. The Bloody Inn
  11. Terra Mystica
  12. Ra
  13. Deus
  14. Downfall of Pompeii
  15. Tzolk’in
  16. Snowdonia
  17. Copycat
  18. Navegador
  19. Bora Bora
  20. Merchant of Venus
  21. Yspahan
  22. Blueprints
  23. CV
  24. Entdecker
  25. Caverna
  26. Africana
  27. Lords of Vegas
  28. Johari
  29. Power Grid
  30. The Boss
  31. Celestia
  32. Codenames
  33. The Dwarves

Care to join me?

Dave Gorman vsIf you want to join the challenge, simply post your own list of games in the comments below and keep me posted! I’ll probably put mine on BGG again too, and link from the old one above.

Or book me in for a game if any of these are your favourites – who knows, maybe I can even come see you in a ‘Dave Gorman vs the Rest of the World’ stylee. I’m certainly hoping to get out and about to a bit more gaming this year.

I’ll probably update this post on occasion with progress reports too you lucky, lucky people.

Books wot I red: Cloud Atlas, Grave Peril & Cognitive Surplus

It was a cold winter’s eve back in November 2014 when the last ‘Books Wot I Red’ post winged its way onto the tinterwebs… and it’s a cold November night a year on now. Much has changed since then, but my reading habits – and pace – haven’t.

In fact I’ve even managed to slow down: four books in a year is pretty pathetic going. Reading is still a luxury I rarely afford myself, with TV, gaming and writing still being my drugs of choice. But the books I have been reading I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

Cloud Atlas David MitchellAfter the easy humour of Dave Gorman I set myself something slightly more challenging: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, after all – news only slightly tempered by its ‘Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year’ award.

I loved the film and I’d heard the book was incredible; but the 500+ pages of tiny font were pretty daunting – but thankfully thoroughly worthwhile. This is a book I’d recommend to anyone with even a fleeting acceptance of sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

While fantastical in places Cloud Atlas is, more than anything else, a celebration of language and storytelling. It effortlessly shifts gears through the ages, glorying in the language of each era as it goes. From Victorian pomp right through to an experimental pidgin English of a dystopian future, it’s quite the writing master class.

My only real complaint was that most sections seemed to drag a little towards the end, labouring a little as the author was clearly having fun writing it. I don’t think we would’ve lost anything of the style or story if it had been 100 pages shorter, but it’s a minor quibble.

Also, I’m glad I read the book after seeing the film as many have moaned about the movie having done so the other way around. I guess many of those people are the type who can’t see these two very different artistic mediums apart and feel one has to be the mirror of the other (get over yourselves – you;re wrong).

Personally I thought the film was great. It looked beautiful and the way they made the actors up through the different ages was really well done. But it does follow a different structure (as it had too, being just a single movie for such a long book), so take that with you going in.

Jim Butcher - Grave PerilAs Cloud Atlas had taken me six months to read it seemed a page turner (well, for me) might be in order, so I turned to book three of The Dresden Files, Grave Peril by Jim Butcher. Two months later and it was done – the last chunk, aptly, being read on holiday.

I spoke about book two of the Dresden Files back in October 2013, so won’t dwell long here – you don’t want to read these out of sequence and I’m not about to start talking about characters/plots as I can’t remember what relates back to who in the old ones.

In short, think classic noire detective stories with added magic. And vampires and werewolves. And the ‘never never’ – and this time holy swords and nightmares. And don’t expect it to be the best written book ever, but don’t let it worry you either – thankfully the rapid-fire story does enough talking to drown out (m)any faults in the prose.

I found out recently that they’d made this series into a TV show, which it was clearly written to be – but it got panned after one season. If anyone saw it I’d love to get opinions on it as I’m truly tempted to grab the DVD.

As for Grave Peril, the best praise I can give it is that I’m fully intending to continue with the series – although I don’t think I can read them as fast as he can write them (he’s up to number 15 now, apparently). But it’s nice to have something to look forward to in a series you know will probably literally outlive you – because it has (I expect) no end game, so there’s no fear of missing any big reveal by my untimely death getting in the way.

Cognitive Surplus by Clay ShirkyAfter two fantastical novels in a row I felt duty bound to read something less fictional – so turned to Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. It has been on my ‘list’ here since the first one back in March 2013, so not before time!

The book can very much be seen as a potted history of how we interact with the internet; and how that has changed the way we interact with ‘media’ in general since the turn of the century.

Where TV, print etc tend to spoon feed us entertainment and knowledge, the internet has made it much easier for us to participate in the creative process ourselves – and many of us that do so do it out of the love of it (see: this blog), rather than having financial gain as the key motivation.

Shirky does a great job of describing some complex theories in layman’s terms – but can’t do it without making it very clear that he is not one of us stupid people. When talking academically he is all about the ‘us’; when talking about the plebs, it’s very much ‘you lot’, which is a shame. But having spent some considerable time with academics over the years, it’s also pretty much par for the course.

But you shouldn’t let that put you off taking a look at. what the internet has really done has shrunk the world; while changing the way many communities work from being largely geographical to more about our own specific interests. It’s fascinating stuff and a book I’d highly recommend, especially as it’s an easy and relatively short read.

What’s next on the list?

I managed to knock numbers two and three off the list this time, both of which had been around for four lists in a row – leaving space for two new entries:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its third time at number 1, having been on five 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 – twice so far.
  3. The Dwarves by Markus Heitz. New entry! Having loved the co-op board game based on this book I feel duty bound to read it. I rarely read fantasy books, as they tend to be dreadfully written – and this is a translation too. The story had better sing…
  4. The Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The latest Bryant & May detective novel. Nuff said.
  5. Paperboy by Christopher Fowler. I wouldn’t normally consider a ‘memoir’, but this is by the author of the Bryant & May novels – my all time favourites. Has to be worth a try – but will I get around to it? On the list twice and counting…

It’s coming! 5 Essen Spiel off-piste newbie tips

Essen 2015 logoWith the number one event on the worldwide board gaming calendar – the Internationale Spieltage Spiel ’15 in Essen – just two months away, I’m already getting stupidly excited.

This year’s event will be the biggest yet, moving up to 63,000 sq m of convention hall space (from 58,000 last year), with a staggering 850+ exhibitors flogging they’re cardy, dicey and boardy wares. This will be my fourth time attending, but each time feels just as good as the previous visits.

But if you’re heading to Essen Spiel for your début gaming Mecca experience, here are a few things that I feel shouldn’t be missed but that may not be immediately obvious to the goggle-eyed and overwhelmed first-timer. I’d also suggest checking out my Essen Guide for travel, hotel and Spiel tips. See you in the mad throng!

  1. Österreichisches Spiele Museum: The Austrian Boardgame Museum is a charity that hosts a collection of more than 25,000 board games. Each year the charity has a stand at Essen with a couple of new games on sale, donated to support the charity and often from highly reputable designers. Recent offerings include the original version of Port Royal (Handler der Karibik) and a Bohnanza variant (Sissi!) from Uwe Rosenberg – plus the games are usually cheap, the money goes to a good cause and they’ll throw a bunch of other promos into your bag if you smile sweetly.
  2. Istra Steakhaus: Germany is well known as a carnivorous nation and my favourite restaurant in the city so far is the traditional meat fest of the Istra Steakhaus. Handily located on Rüttenscheider Straße – the nicer of the roads that connects the Messe to the city centre – I’ve had several meaty meals there over the years and never been anything other than well satisfied with the food and also the beer. Expect a ‘traditional’ German welcome (ie, surly) but hey – it’s all part of the experience and they’re a friendly bunch once you engage them.
  3. Adlung-Spiel: If you’re from outside Germany you may not be aware of this little card game publisher, who always has a tiny booth squirrelled away in a corner of the Messe. Its games are always in a traditional single card deck-sized box, but can vary from drafting and hand management through bidding and bluffing to children’s and dexterity games. Much like an OSM game above, these are great Essen mementoes. Classic titles include Meuterer, Vom Kap bis Kairo and Blink.
  4. Grugapark: Depending on how you arrive at the Messe, it can actually be easy to miss the fact that the north and west sides of the huge conference centre are dwarfed by a huge and lovely country park. Even if you don’t have time for a wander around, or if the weather isn’t playing ball, you can sneak out of Hall 2 on its western edge onto a balcony (mainly wasted on smokers) that has a lovely, peaceful view over the greenery, deer and other tranquil sites – perfect for taking a 10-minute break away from the bedlam inside the main halls.
  5. Toys ‘R’ Us: This one may only apply to us Brits, but wandering into this store (which is just a five minute walk from the central Essen Hbf station) its a sobering indictment of the state of the high street for board gamers in the UK. Where in England its wall-to-wall Barbie, Lego and Frozen, at Toys ‘R’ Us in Germany you’ll also find everything from Arkham Horror and Dominion through to the latest Spiel des Jahres nominees. You may find some classics cheaper than at the Messe – but remember language dependency!

My top 50 board and card games (2015 update)

Here we go again – nine new entries since last year’s début top 50 alongside plenty of ups and downs between top and bottom. I’ve kept the same format, except I’ve wittered on even more, so without further gibber jabber…

My Top 20 board and card games 2015 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. Race for the Galaxy(1) Race for the Galaxy (2007) While my plays of this have dropped dramatically after I stopped attending my old regular midweek group, it still sits comfortably at the top of the tree. You may need to be tied to a chair and forced to play 10 games before you really ‘get’ it, but it is absolutely worth it.
  2. (3) Terra Mystica (2012) I have played some good medium/heavy euros over the past year, but none of them have come close to Terra Mystica. Pasted-on theme aside, this is a masterful mix of strategy and tactics that’s chock full of meaningful decisions from start to finish.
  3. (4) Ticket to Ride (2004) Thanks to its many maps adding just enough variety and rules tweaks to keep things interesting, Ticket to Ride remains my gateway game of choice. Few games can be so easily taught, then played while chatting, but still give you the feeling you’ve been doing something competitive.
  4. (2) Ra (1999) Like Race, my plays of Ra have dropped off since leaving my midweek group and, thanks to not feeling quite so satisfying in plays since, it has dropped a couple of positions. Three-player is its sweet spot for me and I just don’t enjoy it as much with four or five – which is how I’ve played most recently.
  5. (-) NEW Deus (2014) The stand-out game of 2014 for me, by miles. This is in a similar place for me as Race for the Galaxy, being tactical and card driven and playing out in under an hour and having several routes to victory. But it has a much lower barrier to entry, meaning it is easier to get to the table.
  6. (20+) Endeavor (2009) A big jump for Endeavor, which had been a little forgotten in 2013. I’ve had three hugely enjoyable games since and it is firmly back in the rotation, being enjoyed by everyone in my weekend group. It always feels too short, but that in itself adds to the excitement. And it can be really cut-throat.
  7. (6) The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) Gateway game number two – and the only thing holding it back from more plays is the fact it’s limited to four players. The switch in game style half way is genius and works brilliantly, moving from placement to mayhem and murder on one fun little step.
  8. (20+) The Castles of Burgundy (2011) Castles has risen to the position of number one Feld design on the list by dint of being one of Zoe’s favourites. It plays pretty fast for its weight, while two-player it feels very tactical as well as strategic. While a bit of a point salad, importantly it always feels like the best player on the day won.
  9. (8) Copycat (2012) While not the most popular game on this list, I enjoy the way Copycat uses mechanisms I love from other great games and really makes them compliment each other. It plays fast but also thinky, having a great mix of luck, strategy and tactics that I keep wanting to come back to.
  10. (5) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) While Castles and Endeavor have jumped up the table due to working in my regular groups, Tzolk’in has fallen a little for the opposite reason: some simply find it frustrating and it can be very punishing score-wise if you play poorly. But I’m still a big fan, so it’s staying in the top 10.
  11. Deus box(9) Through the Ages (2006) While I still really enjoy my plays of Through the Ages, I find the power of military in the game a little frustrating at times – but not as much as my inability to be any good at it! Still my favourite three-plus hour game, but there is definitely room in my life now for its successor.
  12. (14) Snowdonia (2012) While a few euros tumbled a few places due to tough competition (see below), Snowdonia has held its own thanks to the variety of tracks and its simply ingenious ‘game plays you’ mechanisms. The weather constantly ruins my life, players steal MY actions and I love it every stinking time.
  13. (20) Pizza Box Football (2005) I’ve had two more plays since last year’s top 50 – one an epic, crushing defeat and the other a close defeat after an oh-so-close onside kick failure. Both games were epic in their own way and no matter how stupid this game may be, it never fails to deliver.
  14. (16) Twilight Struggle (2005) I now own my own copy of this classic, but sadly it has only been played once – must try harder. I’m hoping I’ve found a regular playing partner, but h wasn’t 100 per cent convinced after our first play. But as this is a proper cold war card play classic, I’m sure someone else will step in if need be.
  15. (-) NEW Bora Bora (2013) I skipped this on its release as it looked like a day-glo dog’s breakfast, but one play and I was hooked. The dice mechanism is worth the entrance fee alone, but the agonising decisions of which bonuses to give up on as you move forward really makes it shine.
  16. (11) Notre Dame (2007) Despite being relegated from first to third Feld, I still love me some Notre Dame. Card drafting is a mechanism I love in theory but in truth this is the only game I own that really uses it well. And it plays fast, every decision counts, and you’ve never got quite enough to do exactly what you want.
  17. (-) NEW Navegador (2010) I’m not sure quite where Navegador will end up in the long run, but right now it is my favourite Mac Gerdts game. It’s super crunchy and right now I’m enjoying that – but the jury is out on whether it will become too dry or just right. I love that rondel, but it clearly hates me!
  18. (17) Can’t Stop (1980) The 80s are still being represented in the top 20 by this evergreen push-your-luck classic. Zoe thrashed me in our last two games but I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m not sure hat says more about me or the game, but either way I’m still smitten by this daft family game.
  19. (7) Concordia (2013) Gerdts’ momentary meander away from his beloved rondel is still a game I love, but it isn’t drawing me to the table quite as much as it was a year ago. I still enjoy the tricky decisions you are forced into each round, but it may be a little too dry and a little too solitary to keep a place in my top 20.
  20. (13) The Manhattan Project (2012) The great integration of theme  and the clever, edgy worker placement have kept this in the top 20 despite me only getting it to the table once since last year’s top 50. And people like it too – what have I been playing at? A game that may well bounce back up in next year’s list.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Archaeology The Card Game boxAcquire (1963) A steady hold for Acquire, which I still can’t believe is as old as it is and remains the granddaddy of the list. Luck, clever play and speculation all play their part in this light economic gateway game.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) A big two-division jump for this, which didn’t look likely a week or two ago as it hadn’t been played for ages. But a few funny, swingy games have reminded me just how good, light and fun it is.
  • Ingenious (2004) A drop from 12 for Ingenious, largely due to a lack of plays over the year. Still a favourite for sure and one that may head back up the chart if I find others who like to play more regularly.
  • Maori (2009) A one division jump for Maori, whose tile-laying charms continue to entice me despite my regular ineptitude at the game. Simple to teach, tough to master – well, it is for me anyway! The fourth and final Feld on the list.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from 10 for Merchant of Venus, again due to lack of plays. I love it, but not enough to set it up! I can’t help thinking a shiny new version may break that but I can’t justify pulling the trigger…
  • Port Royal (2013) A hold for Port Royal, although it is teetering on a division drop. I still enjoy it but almost feel as if I’m waiting for a slightly better push-your-luck card game to come along. Right now, Archaeology (above) has edged ahead of it.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) A small jump for this free Knizia game as I now tend to enjoy it a little more than Pickomino (below) if Zoe and me decide to go head to over the dice tower. I still mostly lose, but hey – that’s dice.
  • Rosenkönig (1997) A small drop from 15 for this fascinating two-player abstract, but nothing really to worry about. The thrill has gone a little now that I’ve finally found my own copy, but I still get a kick out of it when I get to play.
  • The Boss (2010) The Boss is hanging in there, no problem. I’ve played with several groups over recent months and everyone has been that great blend of initially baffled, then delighted, then crushed once more as they get their head around it.
  • NEW Yspahan (2006) Nine years old, outside the top 250 and I’ve never seen it on the table anywhere else – but it has captured the imagination with everyone I’ve played with so far. A very clever design and I look forward to exploring it more.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) The expansions are definitely keeping Alhambra fresh for me, pushing it up a division by giving a new lease of life to this classic tile buying/laying game. I’m not sure the original on its own would still be in the top 50.
  • Brass (2007) A drop in division for Brass, simply due to lack of plays. My opinion of the game hasn’t changed: its one of the best heavy euro games out there. But the fact I haven’t played it for months has to say something. It may well rebound up.
  • CV (2013) This is another title that’s expansion has helped it up a division, but its charm is still very much in tact either way. The Yahtzee style dice mechanism fits the theme really well, while the cards just pile on the charm.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) The Android app of Kingdom Builder has helped it hold its own, as I haven’t played the ‘real’ version much. I’m still terrible at this clever and quick area scoring game, but love it all the same – even without expansions.
  • Macao (2009) I think Macao has largely dropped a division under the pure weight of Felds and other good euros. My opinion of it hasn’t dropped – its more that games are just slotting in above it in the medium weight category.
  • NEW Manhattan (1994) With three games under my belt now, this is now in my ‘must buy’ category. Fast, nasty, light on rules and deeply table talk inducing, it succeeds despite looking bloody awful and having no theme. A true classic.
  • Manila (2005) Manilla holds its own thanks to no other game I’ve played so perfectly blending the betting and racing genres. Lots of luck, sure, but also lots of interesting decisions to make each round.
  • NEW Oltre Mare (2004) This turned out to be a great acquisition, taking the ideas of Bohnanza and adding more strategy, some nastiness and more real thinking to the mix. Must… stop… thinking… about upgrading my perfectly adequate copy.
  • Pickomino (2005) Another hold, this time for one of Zoe’s favourites. We don’t play as often as we used to, and the chicken gods still hate me, but you can’t beat the look on Zoe’s face as she crushes me again and again. And again.
  • Power Grid (2004) Oddly this has gone up a division despite very few plays over the last year – where Brass has fallen for the same reason. I think they’ve found their level – I was just newer to Brass this time last year and a little jaded on Power Grid.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Ancient Terrible ThingsNEW Ancient Terrible Things (2014) Despite being a year older I’d still reach for CV before ATT, hence its lowly position here. But I do very much enjoy it and look forward to exploring its dice-rolling Cthulhu goodness more throughout the year.
  • Basari (1998) Basari has dropped two divisions largely due to a few lack lustre games, which have seen some of my friends fail to get into it at all. I’m still keen, but everyone needs to be on board to make this negotiation card game truly shine.
  • NEW El Gaucho (2014) Six months ago this clever dice/set collection game may have made the top 20, but multiple plays have become a trickle. Played out? Maybe, but its still in the 50 because I think a break will be enough to reinvigorate it for me.
  • NEW Johari (2014) While I love Johari’s mix of gem collection, action cards and turn order manipulation others have been less enthusiastic. I would rate this game higher if I could find some enthusiasm for it in others when we play!
  • Nefertiti (2008) This unique and clever bidding game has dropped down a division purely due to a lack of really fun plays. The game isn’t at its best with two and, like Basari, I’ve struggled to get it played with the right group of people.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) The game that just beat the drop. While I still very much enjoy a play it rarely rises to the top of the pile now and sometimes plays out very poorly, even with people who enjoy the game. A classic, but for me a slowly fading one.
  • Stone Age (2008) Anther ‘I love it but others fail to share my enthusiasm’ game. I like the random element and big points of this classic worker placement game, but it either baffles or bores most of my gaming pals. A big drop from number 19.
  • Thebes (2007) Another big drop, this time from 18, but for more gamerly reasons. I still enjoy a game of Thebes, but you can’t escape the fact that despite it being thematic there is far too much randomness for it to be a ‘good’ game. But I like it…
  • Tikal (1999) A two division drop for this great area control game, largely because it feels too long – while the ‘mini’ version we tried was too short. I’ll always enjoy it in the right mood, but not often enough for it to stay in my own top 30.
  • Uruk (2008) Another falling from the top 30, Uruk will always be in my collection but is fading a little because of its lack of variety; something that will never be fixed now that the inferior reprint has come along. Still great, but now just occasionally played.

The new entries

As you can probably tell, I didn’t think too much of 2014’s new releases. There was some real nonsense (Imperial Settlers and Madame Ching in particular), a massive pile of ‘OK’ games (Mad King Ludwig, Imperial Assault, Splendor, Star Realms, Istanbul, Mangrovia etc etc), one that flattered to deceive (Dead of Winter) and some that may yet make the grade (Roll for the Galaxy in particular) – but overall, I think it was a ‘meh’ year.

There were still nine new entries into the top 50 this year – but five of them were older games. Bora Bora was 2013, so is hardly old, but the likes of Manhattan, Yspahan, Oltre Mare and Navegador continue to show me there are decades worth of gems out there still waiting to be discovered and that I should never judge an old game by its cover (or nasty pink and pale blue pieces!).

Out of the 50

  • Blueprints box contentsArkham Horror (2005) This was replaced by Dead of Winter earlier in the year – but after a few plays of that I came to the conclusion that Ameritrash games like this simply aren’t for me: too fiddly, too luck dependent, too ripe for a poor experience.
  • Blueprints (2013) A good game for sure, but it very rarely hits the table – making it hard to justify leaving in my top 50. I have no intention of getting rid of it though.
  • Bruges (2013) This burned brightly for a short time, but in the end the level of luck/frustration just outweighed the fun factor for me and it disappeared from my wishlist. I’d play it more, but don’t want to get my own copy.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) Another game I’m glad I own, and will play when the time is right, but that isn’t very often and in truth its just  bunch of rude words on some cards with a borrowed game mechanic. Top fun, but not top 50 material.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This is another game I’ll play any time, and am happy with my £1 charity shop copy, but I need to play with some variants to really find its sweet spot. I like it, but it isn’t in the same league as Pompeii, for example.
  • Hamburgum (2007) Again, still a great game – but Navegador simply replaced it in this top 50 as the Gerdts rondel game of choice. Having more than one on the list felt like overkill, especially with Concordia on here too.
  • Le Havre (2008) I played this at the weekend, enjoyed it again, and even won – but it has fallen from my wishlist. For me the games goes just a little too long to fall in love with – the decision space gets a little too big, it becomes work, and I struggle.
  • Rialto (2013) Having had an enjoyable game of this over the weekend it almost snuck back onto the list, but like Blueprints I just find it a little hard to love. Fun on occasion, and very clever, but not quite a classic.
  • Revolution! (2009) Like Blueprints, a lack of plays has seen this fall below the 50. It’s a very silly, luck riddled game that I enjoy immensely despite its flaws but it needs three to play and just never seems to be the best choice available.

Top 50 potential

Red7Entdecker, Caverna, Age of Empires III, Africana and Lords of Vegas (both now owned), Sentinels of the Multiverse and Amun Re all impressed me after a single play.

They are all games I look forward to exploring more – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Roll for the Galaxy has been fun so far but the jury is definitely out. Maybe its too close to Race to make a big enough impression yet, but it has potential. Red7 I have enjoyed too, and own, but need to play more before deciding just how much I like it. But until next year… I’m out.

Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

Gearing up for my first UK Board Game Expo

UK Games ExpoNext month I’m attending my first UK Games Expo at the Hilton Metropole Hotel in Birmingham (May 29-31).

It’s the UK’s largest annual hobby games convention and is attended by thousands of gamers, as ell as hosting the national championships and tournaments for the biggest games in the business including Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan.

So how come I’ve been to Essen three years in a row, but have never attended UKGE? It’s simply a matter of timing. My better half works in a school, the Expo is in half term, and we’ve usually booked flights to somewhere exotic before I realise they clash. But this year we’re staying local for our holiday, so I can get the best of both worlds.

I’ve been a regular at Essen for three years now, and love it, but the UK Expo is more than just a giant board game shop. There will everything from authors, artists and special guests to seminars and talks on all things gaming – as well as it being the UK’s biggest gaming trade fair.

It’s child friendly, hosting a family zone packed full of kids activities; plus if you get bored of board games there’s everything from live action gaming (The Dark Room), RPGs (more scheduled here than at any other UK event), costume groups – even a UK cinema premier for documentary ‘The Next Great American Game‘ by Doug Morse.

Doug is an occasional visitor to the Cambridge Board Game Design Meetup group and I’m pleased to say a big chunk of us will be in attendance – at least five at last count. And play-testing is another big reason to attend, as there will be plenty of great prototype games to demo from the likes of Matthew Dunstan and Brett Gilbert.

Sadly AEG aren’t in attendance this year, but hopefully Empire Engine will be on sale somewhere! But there are plenty of board game publishers heading to Birmingham: the big boys include Mayfair Games, Czech Games Edition, Asmodee, Queen Games, Ragnar Brothers and Surprised Stare.

As a first time attendee I’m not setting myself an agenda but am really looking forward to it. I’ll be there from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, so if you read the blog at all and are attending please say hi – or preferably buy me a pint. See you in Brum!

Reclaiming Mondays: Board game design and website targets

creativity is intelligenceI recently wrote about going to a four-day week to pursue my ambition of making money out of the things I enjoy doing creatively – or at least helping ends meet enough to get by. This becomes a reality this week: as of April 2015, this chapter begins.

In the past I’ve found listing my goals and challenges here to be a real motivator because even if no one else reads/cares about them, I know they’re here. So what better way to start the project than with some objectives and ideas?

Monetising the website

This may seem a little pie in the sky, but even if I can get a small regular income it could make a difference. And this doesn’t have to be as straightforward as cash in hand:

  • Explore possible sponsorship: As the site is now getting more than 2,000 views a month it would be great to get a relevant banner ad or two up here – maybe a store.
  • AdSense: It also seems sensible to get an unobtrusive Google ad panel on here too, as such clearly targeted traffic has to be worth something.
  • Explore my own domain name/hosting: What can I do in terms of advertising while this is still a free WordPress site? Do I need my own URL to up my game?
  • Review copies: If I can get publishers to send me games, I can review newer titles and get more views – while free games equals competition prizes, sale items etc.
  • Get more into the community: Who else is out there? What can I join, share links with, bounce ideas off? How do I extend my reach while making friends?

Game design

2015 has started slowly on the design front , but I feel I’m starting to get my mojo back. We’ve been sent the contract for game number two (hopefully a 2016 release) which I hope proves Empire Engine wasn’t a fluke, so again it’s time to kick on:

  • UK Games Expo: I need to see if there will be any opportunities to sit down with publishers, or with prototypes, at the event. May have left this too late.
  • Push War!Drobe: I put this in front of a few publishers at Essen 2014 and didn’t get a bite, but I think its good enough to make the grade so I need to go again with it.
  • Take the lead on collaborative projects: I’ve started on games with both Matthew Dunstan and David Thompson in 2014 and need to get back on track with them.
  • Empire Engine 2.0: I have an idea. I have a theme. I have enough to start fiddling with a prototype – so it’s time to get it made and to the table.
  • Football prototype: A good action-based football game is possible, I’m sure of it. It’s time to take my initial thoughts to the next level.
  • Revisit my old ideas: I’ve had ideas that have either gone into notebooks or been dropped after early failures. I know more now, so they’re worth another look.

Right – better get on with it then. As always, any and all feedback is most appreciated.

Through the Ages: A four-sided game review

Through the Ages boxThrough the Ages is a civilisation building card game by Vlaada Chvatil that takes players on an epic ride from antiquity to the present day.

While war plays a large and important part in the game* there is no actual map, or dice – interaction is instead played out through card play.

There are three versions of the game in the rulebook, ranging from simple through to full, but the first two are really just warming you up (in terms of understanding the rules) for the main event. Through the Ages is a serious time investment (four-plus hours, even two-player) but if you’re willing to give it a try you’ll find a hugely rewarding tactical and strategic gem waiting for you.

While it’s not the biggest game box in the world, there’s a ton of game packed into it: there are more than 340 small-sized cards, 300 small wooden counters and cubes, plus boards and reference cards. It will set you back £45+, but I think it’s a fair price both in terms of components and play value. The art is pretty poor, but the card stock is great and the graphic design efficient and simple to understand.

It’s not for the feint of heart, but nor is it a war game – you’ll draft leader, wonder, building, government, technology, military and action cards and manage your resources as you advance your civilisation; all the time trying to score points while keeping your opponents in check by staying close to them in the race for military domination. It’s an impossible balancing act, giving the game a marvellous ebb and flow.

Teaching

TTA allAs mentioned earlier, the game has three versions which slowly introduce different rules and card types as you move forward. This makes it easy to teach experienced gamers, especially as the game concepts are pretty familiar.

Each round (after the first) players may use their political action to play a ‘future event’ for later, triggering a current event which will reward and/or punish players who are doing well/poorly in a particular way – for example the player with the strongest civilisation may get to produce extra goods. They can also use the political action to start an aggression or war, or offer a pact.

Players then use ‘civil’ actions to advance mining, science, farming and religion to increase building materials and technology (allowing building upgrades), population size and happiness (allowing population growth) and military might. Governments give extra actions, while leaders, technologies, ‘action’ cards and wonders give a variety of bonuses.

Civil actions are also used to increase population, lay technology, wonder and leader cards, put your population to work or upgrade them. Military actions – you guessed it – do the same with your military units.

TTA tracksEverything to do with civil and military actions is done openly, so it’s simple to watch and help new players through their turns.

Through the Ages has relatively little hidden information, so its simple for the teacher to explain cards as they come up.

New cards are ‘bought’ (with actions) from a shared conveyor belt-style track, with newly added cards costing more actions (from one to three). Military cards do go straight into your hand blind, but aren’t terribly varied and can be roughly explained before you begin.

Game concepts fit well into the theme, while the central game board lets you keep information on your military strength, science (for advancing technologies) and culture (victory) points. Each player also has a player aid listing all of the actions available in each phase of each round.

Player boards are well set out, and the wording on the cards leads to very few grey areas. The only real problem area is the Territory cards, which tend to contain rather obscure icons which aren’t explained in the rulebook. However there is a good Excel doc available from Board Game Geek which explains them in plain English.

The four sides

TTA eventsThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Through the Ages is the board gaming equivalent of spinning plates; just as you get your science points going, you realise you’re running out of food – but by the time you have that back on track you’re falling behind on military – but getting that up to speed means you have to forgo a materials upgrade. It’s a delicious, epic and challenging balancing act that tells a different story every time.
  • The thinker: Its rare you find a game that has the perfect mix of tactics and strategy, but this is one of them. You’d think it impossible to create a ‘civ’ game without a board, but Vlada has managed it with aplomb. Specialise at your peril, but spread the wealth at your peril too – your long term plans are constantly being altered by both the actions of your competitors and the run of available cards.
  • The trasher: Through the Ages is a bit much for me, but is clearly a great game. I love the future events: you play cards, predicting the later game state and hoping you can be in the right position when they’re triggered. So satisfying when it works, but devastating when your own cards blow up in your face! But overall, the short game doesn’t offer enough military fun and the long game is simply too long for me.
  • The dabbler: no way! No no no. I tried it once – you can’t make me play it again! It has great flavour, carries the theme well, but I am not playing a game that takes longer than the entire games evening on its own!

Key observations

TTA player boardOf well over 3,000 Board Game Geek comments, Through the Ages has 500+ perfect 10 scores – which should be enough to convince you its a great game. Even by half way through the comments, people are still rating it 8. However, it’s certainly not for everyone. Not by a long chalk!

Game length is clearly an issue for many, but another problem is downtime – especially in a four-player game (which I wouldn’t attempt again). I enjoy a two-player game but three is definitely the sweet spot, which adds quite a bit to the play time. One plus side is the fantastic Through the Ages online version. Initially the layout looks troublesome and weak, but it actually plays really smoothly once you get to grips with it.

Another problem is the importance of the military aspect of the game*. Players who aren’t keen on confrontation need not apply, but its not just them: others think the military aspect is either tacked on as a balancing mechanism or is overpowered. It’s true that if someone falls behind on military and is picked on by the other players, it can be impossible for them to recover – particularly punishing in such a long game.

Finally, some describe Through the Ages as nothing more than  a spread sheet rather than a game – a dry, themeless affair that is way too fiddly for its own good. The fiddly criticism is true, and there is a lot of bookkeeping, but this can be done by a player at the end of their turn while the next player gets on with theirs, so it’s not so bad. But again, if you don’t like fiddly bookkeeping games you may want to avoid it.

Conclusion

TTA card trackThrough the Ages is the last game in my all-time top 10 that I’ve tackled for review and I’ve definitely been reluctant to do so.

It feels impossible to do such an epic game justice in 1,500 words – especially when you know many people simply won’t like it.

But if you like civ and/or engine building games – or more specifically ‘engine building and then maintaining aggh god I can’t do everything at once’ games – and are happy to be in for the long haul, this is a must-try.

I definitely lose more games of TtA than I win and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a good player. There’s so much to think about, so much to plan, so many options – and that’s before you’ve even started to think about what your opponents have planned for you. But even in defeat I tend to walk away from the table thoroughly gamed-out and satisfied.

Is downtime an issue? Sure, a bit. Is military overpowered? Probably. Are some combos simply too good to stop? Sometimes. Will this game be staying on my shelves for the foreseeable future, even if I only get to play once or twice a year and I lose every time?

Absolutely.

* There is a ‘peaceful’ variant of the game some people play, but personally I can’t see the point. It’s such a huge part of Through the Ages that to take it out seems ridiculous – if you don’t want any player conflict in your games, I’d highly advise you to look elsewhere.

Essen guide: Travel, hotels and Essen Spiel itself

Essen 2015 logoEvery year tens of thousands of gamers descend on the German city of Essen’s huge ‘Messe’ convention centre for its annual celebration of all things board gaming, the Internationale Spieltage – or Essen Spiel to most English speakers.

As the biggest board game convention in the world* people travel from across the globe to visit it – many for the first time. If you’re one of them, especially if travelling from the UK, hopefully this run-down will give you some useful tips.

Go: Travelling to Essen

Essen trainsBy air: Unfortunately Essen doesn’t have an international airport, so unless you intend to fly in by light aircraft you’re going to be looking at arriving in Essen by train.

Düsseldorf International Airport is a 40-minute train ride from Essen, with regular flights arriving from Europe (including Birmingham and Manchester). Cologne is also less than an hour by train, with Dortmund about two hours from Essen.

By rail: Seeing as you’re going to have to get on a train anyway, another solid option (especially from the UK) is to go via Eurostar. Brussels is just over two hours from London Kings Cross, which has occasional direct trains to Essen and a regular service to Cologne (three to four hours more). I personally use the SNCF site to book tickets.

This is now my chosen mode of transport. While five hours on the train sounds like a lot, you need to remember you don’t have to be at the Eurostar terminal as early and there’s no waiting for luggage as you have it with you – and far fewer luggage restrictions. If you have a few going, you can book a table too – and game all the way!

By road: If you intend to pick up so many games that rail or air won’t cut it, or if you simply like driving, jumping in the car is of course an option. You have to be 18 to drive in Germany and (of course) abide by its road regulations but I’m reliably informed that it is an easy country to drive in.

This also then gives you the option to stay a little further from the Messe itself, as well as the option to drive to in each day (perfect for those who drag a pallet truck, with pallet, around all day). Parking (5,000 spaces) is just five minutes from the halls, costs five euros, and you can stay as long as you like (pay in cash as you exit).

Stay: The city and accommodation

It’s fair to say that while Essen isn’t the most appealing city you’ll visit, it’s very welcoming to the annual invasion of the gaming community.

On the plus side the city centre is compact and the railway station is at its heart. It has a good number of shops and restaurants and an inability to speak German isn’t much of a hurdle.

On the downside, it has very little to offer the tourist – this is not a convention I’d suggest bringing a non-gaming spouse to, unless you stay outside of Essen (see below) or book a very good hotel indeed (and they like staying in).

But again on the plus side, one of the main roads joining the town centre to the Messe, Ruttenscheider, is now a real hub of bars, cafes and restaurants. From the trendy to the Irish to the traditional, there’s a bar along here for everyone.

If you are from the UK and staying in Essen itself, its worth popping into the town’s Toys R Us just to get jealous of the kind of things the average German can expect to find in a normal toy shop!

Near the Messe: If you’re just here for the games, have a good budget and get your booking in VERY early indeed, there are several large hotels in close proximity to the Messe itself. You will be a good 30-minute walk from the town centre, but there is a regular metro service (just four stops on the U11) which will get you there in just a few minutes.

The Atlantic Congress Hotel is practically on the Messe’s doorstep, while several others are within a very short walking distance (less than 10 minutes). I’m yet to try any of these, but will be in the Mercure Plaza this year (20 minute walk to the Messe). I love a walk in the morning, and it also makes me think twice about buying more than I can carry!

You can find an Essen Metro map here.

ippCentral Essen: The most common option is to stay in the town centre and travel to the Messe each day via the Metro (about five minutes once you’re on and moving). You can get on the U11 at the central station (Essen Hbf) and get off at Messe West/Sud Gruga.

Walking is another option, taking just over 30 minutes from the central train station – or up to 45 from some central hotels.

Large chain hotels including Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn are all present near the station offering the typical big hotel experience, alongside many smaller, cheaper options.

I’ve enjoyed stays in both the Movenpick and Ibis – you simply know what to expect. But my one experience with a small budget hotel did not end well and I’ll avoid that option in future. Hotel breakfasts tend to be continental and overpriced. There are many bakeries in the town centre and I personally prefer to grab something on my way in to the halls each day.

Further afield: If you travel to Essen by car, or are on a holiday with non-gaming friends or partners, there are cheaper, more picturesque and more interesting locations to stay if you don’t mind travelling in each day. As mentioned above, Cologne and Dusseldorf are both less than an hour from Essen by rail and have much more to offer in terms of tourism.

Play: Essen Spiel itself

Essen balconyEssen Spiel is unlike any other big board game convention. Its all about retail, which means the vast majority of space is dedicated to taking your money, with small bits set aside to let you demo new releases. Don’t expect talks, competitions etc.

On the plus side, this makes it cheap. It’s only a few euros to get in each day, with a discount available for the whole four days – and additional discounts if you can buy in bulk, so its worth getting a group of you together (even if you make friends outside just to get the tickets). I’ll post prices nearer the time.

There is no – I repeat, NO – open gaming areas for you to play inside the Messe. Luckily the local hotels are very amenable to letting gamers use their often vast breakfast areas for gaming. People scuttle home from the Messe with their purchases, hurriedly read the rules over dinner and are in the hotel bars and restaurants playing a while later – and late into the night.

It’s actually a really nice part of the experience, once you get used to it. People are friendly and it’s usually easy to find a game, and I personally enjoy the idea of going shopping in the daytime and then playing my new purchases in the evening. All the big central Essen hotels are very amenable (I’ve played into the small hours at the Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn), as are the smaller ones I’ve popped into to meet friends.

If you have heard talk of 10+ small halls that are a nightmare to navigate, this is in the past (at least for now). Due to refurbishment of the smaller halls, Essen Spiel currently uses the largest four halls in the Messe which makes it much easier to find your way around.

Wednesday to Sunday: When should you go?

  • Thursday and Friday: These are definitely the best days to go if you can travel over to Germany midweek. The halls are quieter, meaning you’ll have a better chance of sitting down at some demos – as well as picking up those hot titles that sell out in the first day or so (it happens every year).
  • Saturday and Sunday: Saturday is the day to avoid if you’re coming for the whole weekend, as people travel in from across Germany and its absolutely manic throughout the day. Sunday morning also tends to be busy, but it thins out a lot in the later afternoon. However don’t expect too many ‘last minute bargain’ rewards for hanging on until the end, as I’ve seen little evidence of it happening.
  • Wednesday: Since 2011 there has been an Essen Warm Up Day organised by Spiele Gilde. It costs 30 euros but is open 10am to 11pm and includes free food and non-alcoholic drinks all day. It’s a great opportunity to extend your stay and get to play some of the new releases a day before heading into Essen Spiel itself, while being easy to get to in the centre of Essen.
    Wednesday is also Essen press conference and manufacturer set-up day, so you’ll find plenty of gaming types in the city on the Wednesday evening – many toting new gaming swag picked up early from the halls. And even if you don’t want to do much after arriving, it’s worth coming on Wednesday just to be able to get into the Messe first thing on Thursday morning.

The new games

Essen is primarily about new releases, but you’d be amazed at how many companies fail to get enough copies to the show.

Much of this is blamed on production issues and shipping, but its not as if those are surprises in the board game industry. Anyway, the point is if you really want something you’re normally best off pre-ordering it.

Depending on the size of the manufacturer, pre-orders may be handled through a prepaid service via their website – or via names written on the back of a cigarette packet after sending the designer an email and keeping your fingers crossed. Either way, the best way to find out about them is directly via the website of each game you’re interested in – or more conveniently through Board Game Geek.

Each year the site runs an amazingly detailed Essen preview page which lists pretty much every game that’s coming out and any appropriate links. This is the 2014 link to give you an idea of what to expect – I’ll try to remember to come back and update it here when the new one lands (or please remind me nearer the time!).

If you are the type who wants to check out every game before you go, another great website is Essen Geek Mini. This takes the Board Game Geek list and lets you rank how interested you are in each game – and then brilliantly plots all the manufacturers onto printable maps, along with your games listed by rank. Geek heaven!

Language dependency can be an issue, as you’ll often find different versions in German and English, but also perhaps French, Polish and others. The biggest issue can be differences in pricing – German editions at the show are often cheaper, so it can be easy to grab one by mistake thinking you’re getting a bargain. And you might think there are thousands of copies of a game at the show – when there may only be a very small number in the language you need.

Another issues is demos – and how difficult they can be to get. While companies such as Days of Wonder have huge stands demoing a single game, many smaller companies – or those releasing multiple titles – have much less room. You may even find just a single demo table for a game you really want to try (or worse none at all).

While some booths will let you book a demo time, many won’t. In these situations you have the choice of waiting for a spot (a bit boring) or hoping for the best (less boring, almost guaranteed to be unproductive in terms of the demo). Your way of dealing with this is up to you – I just want to let you know so you won’t be (as) annoyed and disappointed!

The old games

Manhattan boxWhile Essen is largely about new titles, you’ll find a good number of secondhand games traders in the halls – as well as large sections dedicated to older discounted titles.

These can be brilliant for those of us outside of Germany who only ever see discounts in online stores, and have never seen a living, breathing secondhand board game shop!

But do be on your guard for the obvious pitfalls – the big two being missing pieces (for secondhand) and language dependency. If you’re thinking about picking up some titles, do your research and see if they’re language independent – and if so, whether the rules are freely available to download and print. If so, you’re golden.

You may find staff on the secondhand stands don’t have great language skills beyond German, while there can be a lot of individual games that are hard to sift through – or behind the counter where you can’t get at them. If there are specific titles/editions you’re after, its well worth printing images of the covers and taking them with you – its the simplest way past any language barriers.

I’ve found these stands most useful for older Spiel de Jahres winners, which get massive print runs in Germany when they win the award and many of which are still very popular today. You’ll find piles of old copies of games such as Elfenland, Manhattan, Tikal and Thurn and Taxis for 10-15 euros – all of which are language independent.

And finally… some other stuff

  • As well as board games, one of the halls is dedicated to other geek culture habits including comics (ithe Comic Action convention is included in your ticket), RPGs, miniature gaming, CCGs and even a bit of costume/LARPing. But these are squeezed into one hall and very much a small part of the overall show.
  • The food selection is far from brilliant, especially if you’re a healthy type. You should be able to find a beer, a sausage (apparently the currywurst is particularly good – I’ll report back this year!) or a pretzel – with varying degrees of cheese attached – all of which are actually excellent. But I’d suggest a good healthy breakfast pre-con and a proper meal on the way home!
  • I’d also suggest you bring cash (very few stands will accept cards and there aren’t many cash machines inside) and bring water – as well as wearing comfortable shoes. The convention space is massive, you’ll be on your feet a lot, and it can get pretty hot inside. Water and good shoes are essentials. On the plus side, Essen has great tap water so you’re quite safe filling up your bottle from the tap rather than spending a fortune on bottled water.

What have I missed?!

I want this guide to be as useful as possible, so please comment below or contact me directly if you have anything you think I should add or update. Cheers! (Thanks to Louise McCully and Christian Gienger for their contributions.)

* There are bigger conventions that include some board and card games, but Essen is comfortably the biggest that concentrates almost entirely on the hobby.

Johari: A four-sided game review

Johari boxJohari is a set collection card game with a jewellery market theme for two to four players, designed by Carlo Lavezzi. I consider it a gateway game suitable for any type of player, which plays out in the advertised running time of an hour.

The game contains 32 large and 120 small cards, 16 plastic gems, a small central board and four player boards and markers – good value for the sub-£20 price tag and packed into a nice compact box.

The instructions are simple and clear while the artwork and graphic design is really nice throughout, although the four player colours are less than inspiring (black, white, brown and grey). Overall, publisher Lookout has done a great job on the production although there will certainly be a bit too much grey on show for some. Nice, but there’s no ‘wow’ factor.

While you’re collecting sets to score points, the real game is in fighting for turn order and the simultaneous action selection. The game is played over 10 turns, with three actions per player in each, and with turn order reassessed after all players have taken an action. There are seven actions in total (one of which just duplicates your previous action). You play three cards each turn, then return to the full seven for the next round.

Teaching

Johari player boardThe key aspect to get across to new players is how turn order affects the actions you choose to take.

A number of gem cards are placed into stores and markets at the start of each round, making the two buy actions desirable, but these actions have the biggest detrimental affect on your turn order position.

This is exacerbated if you use them right away, as you pay full price for the action you use first in each round (the second action has a reduced cost and the third is free). So a ‘purchase’ action played as your first move of a round will cost you 4 gold (or spaces on the turn track) – but if you do it third, it will cost you nothing.

Many gem cards are fakes, making them vulnerable to the inspector – who is triggered against every other player when you make a sale. So if you go big on a buy action and lose several turn order positions, and get some fake gems, another player may make a sale before you can – forcing you to lose a gem.

Alternatively you could play your bribe card first, protecting you against the inspector for the whole turn – but then you’re likely to lose out on the tastiest bargains in the markets. Timing, and assessing what your opponents are likely to do, are both crucial.

Johari noblesPlayers have two way to score gems: as a set of four different colours (scoring one of the gems) or by scoring all their gems of one colour.

You can only do the latter if you have more of the colour than anyone else: you score the difference between the number you sell and the largest amount another player has of the same colour (one other player has to have at least one of the colour, or you can’t score).

There are two other ways to score points. Some gem cards are simply worth 1-3 victory points, while in each turn a ‘noble’ is placed onto the board and will be available for players to hire (with gems). These nobles are worth end game points, while often also offering the player an ongoing ability.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Johari is going to appeal to a particular type of gamer – and I am that gamer. It’s a game about getting into your opponents’ heads while also trying to create the perfect point scoring engine around what they’re throwing at you and I revel in that challenge. While every action choice is important the game simply doesn’t have enough pizazz for some, but I hope it isn’t overlooked by players that like to get their poker face on.
  • The thinker: While I enjoy a good tactical game, for me Johari is a bit of a one-trick pony that starts to overstay its welcome. Even though it’s just an hour long I find myself starting to think I’m rinsing and repeating well before the end, as the game offers very little in the way of narrative arc. While the turn order manipulation is ingenious it feels as if there isn’t quite enough game attached to it to appeal long term; although it’s not a game I’d turn down if others were keen to play it.
  • The trasher: While the theme of Johari mostly makes sense it does feel a bit pasted on – and what is it with gem merchant games at the moment? It’s hardly a fascinating theme and its having to struggle for air against Istanbul and Splendor – not good! But I actually quite like it – reading your opponents is always fun and there’s a real sense of satisfaction if you pull off a plan no one saw coming. Not a go-to game for me, but certainly one I’m happy to have a game of every now and again.
  • The dabbler: I like Johari, as long as people aren’t playing too seriously and trying to work out every point everyone else has and taking ages on their choices! If the game drags, it gets old fast. But it can be quite dastardly and you can have some fun chat around the table, plus there are some cool tense moments when things are zipping along. It has some nice cute art (especially the elephants) and the plastic gems are a nice touch, while its easy to teach new players.

Key observations

Johari in playJohari has fallen way below the radar since its release at Essen 2014, despite having a decent footprint at the show: it only has 20ish players commenting and rating it on Board Game Geek six months after release.

Criticisms centre on game length and the fact the game is ‘all business’ and ‘dry’ – which is true. Johari is stripped to the essentials, which is definitely a problem in terms of it having much of a personality. But is this a problem with the game, or the gamers who have played it? I really feel Johari has failed to find its audience and theme may be an issue here.

Another criticism is that it brings nothing new to the table. This is at least partly true, but I find the way the key mechanisms interact with each other both new and satisfying.

Finally, the game length is criticised although I think this is only really a problem when played with four. With two or three players I feel you can plan more, the game zips along a little quicker and you feel a little more involved: I really enjoy it two-player and I’d certainly suggest trying it with less than four before making a final decision.

Conclusion

Johari artJohari is very much a tactical battle of wits which I enjoy immensely, despite being rubbish at it.

I currently rate it 8 out of 10 and with a little more action, arc or theme it may have even gone higher. But I can’t see it getting an expansion now.

It’s certainly isn’t for everyone, as I hope my review has demonstrated, but if it turns the head of at least a few gamers who like to spend their evening analysing their opponents and making clever, crafty moves for small but important gains then I’ve done my job. It’s a definite keeper for me.

*Apologies for the picture quality – my camera phone just didn’t want to focus on anything today!