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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X Nimmt: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Board game Top 10: Christmas stocking fillers for anyone

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

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

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

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

My Top 10 stocking filler games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essen Spiel 2016 aftermath: Reviews incoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-Essen reviews incoming

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

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

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

Expansions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kickstarter preview: Steal This Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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