Lembitu: A four-sided game review

Lembitu boxLembitu* is a co-operative board game from small Estonia publisher 2D6.EE, by designer Aigar Alaveer.

It was launched at the UK Games Expo 2015 in Birmingham with very little fanfare, but if you like co-ops it may well be worth your attention.

The game plays two-to-four players but like most co-ops it is equally good for solo play. Games shouldn’t take an hour with four and with one/two it’s possible to play in 30 minutes – or, if things go badly wrong, it could be considerably less!

The components are a slightly mixed bag – but mostly top notch. The box and board and beautifully illustrated while the 60 cubes (the bad guys), three custom dice and 20 fortification tokens are industry standard. It’s just a shame the cheap plastic turn marker and player pawns look like they’re our of an old budget copy of ludo… But as the game retails at about £25 it still represents solid value.

In terms of theme, Lembitu represents a tough time in Estonian history – the Livonian Crusade – when the nation was being conquered on all sides by the Danish, the Crusaders and Novgorod (an ancient part of Russia), with only their Leader, Lembitu, standing in the way of them all. That’ll be you then.

In truth, for most of us, the theme is non existent. You can use the three different coloured cubes as you like as each army is essentially the same  – one hit, one kill – while your cheap plastic player pawn has all the personality it deserves (ie, none). This is an abstract co-operative game, unless you’re being taught it by an Estonian history teacher.

Teaching

Lembitu in playAs with any co-op that has no hidden information, as long as one player is fully versed with the rules you can teach as you go.

Game play itself is straightforward and once you get up to speed things rocket along – but unfortunately the rulebook isn’t the greatest and there is also an error on the board itself: pretty inexcusable, especially as it isn’t mentioned in the rulebook/in the box as an addendum (I’ve highlighted all the problems/answers I had in a Lembitu rules FAQ over at Board Game Geek).

Turns are super simple. First, move the turn marker to the next space (nice and clear around the edge of the board) – this will indicate if it’s your turn, an enemy turn or a rebellion, or if you’ve won (by getting back to the start of the track). Winning is simply a case of surviving long enough to get once around the board.

The bad guys move, Defenders of the Realm or The Dwarves style, from the the edge of the board towards your capital along pre-set paths. If they make it, or you run out of defenders (players), you’ve had it. On each bad guy turn, roll the three dice and add attackers (0-2) to the six enemy routes (each dice has two symbols). If the enemy arrive on a space with a player, that player is dead – if they arrive in the capital, game over.

Player turns see each player act, with the amount of actions determined by player number (always a total of 12, so 6 each in a two-player game). An ‘action’ is either move a space, kill one enemy or place an uprising token. That’s it – no dice, no player powers, no items.

You’ll notice the board is in three colours: there are three ‘rebellion’ spaces around the edge of the board, each matching one of these colours. When you hit these spaces, any uprising tokens on towns of the same colour become a fortification – slowing the enemy. In certain strategic positions, these are super useful – but hard to pull off.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I shouldn’t like Lembitu. It is structurally naive, the luck can be unmitigable and at times it feels like a prototype rather than a product. But what can I say? It’s fun. Chaos be damned – it’s so simple to set up and quick to play that if everything goes to hell you can set up and go again. And on the plus side, different player numbers makes for a very different game each time precisely because it hasn’t been balanced to within an inch of its life.
  • The thinker: In one way I like the stripped, abstract nature of Lembitu: it has an elegance that is easy to appreciate. But those dice rolls are just too swingy, especially near the end when the enemy is getting two turns to your one. I need to feel good play will be rewarded more often than not and here I think too many games will be decided by the dice. But I wouldn’t turn down a game if others were keen.
  • The trasher: I found this one to be fun, in a crazy dice fest kind of way. The game moves at a great pace and we actually played back-to-back games after getting thrashed the first time – which is quite rare for our group. That said the abstract nature means I probably wouldn’t miss it if we never played again: it just lacked a bit of personality, despite some fun pics on the board. If only those sea monsters were actually in the game!
  • The dabbler: While I didn’t hate Lembitu, I was quickly shouted out of the picture by more alpha gamers. Beyond the colour of your plastic piece you have no personality, no power, no distinction – it’s even worse than Pandemic in that respect. I ended up being given a quiet bit of the board and just plugged away, doing what I was told. It was fun watching things unfold, but I didn’t really feel part of it and the theme was totally lost on me.

Key observations

Lembitu player actionsLembitu is definitely a game that will irk the pampered modern gamer. With no player powers or hidden information/traitors there is plenty of room for a gobby ‘alpha gamer’ to take control and order everyone around; while a player taking a risk could well be eliminated in the first round and have to sit the rest out.

The latter isn’t much of an issue though, precisely because of the first point: no player powers. You don’t feel invested in your character, but you do feel invested in winning – in solving the puzzle. Moving a particular piece feels like an arbitrary part of proceedings.

In addition the setup dice rolls (showing how far the enemy troops have encroached before play begins) can swing from practically non-existent to outside the city gates – and there is no official way to make a game ‘beginner’ or ‘hard’ difficulty. It’s down to luck. But again this just makes it feel like a different puzzle to solve each time.

But from a design perspective there is a lack of cleverness or subtlety behind the scenes, which will annoy some: it has a microgame ethic, but not a microgame size or price point. But others will appreciated the stripped-back vibe that moves so far back away from the fiddlyness of games such as Dead of Winter and Robinson Crusoe.

And a minor point: I would’ve liked a token to represent the ‘free move’ you get after moving on a road. The extra action makes sense, showing you made more progress by moving on an established route, but when you’re trying to work out your moves it can get a bit much when another slightly different action is thrown into the mix.

Conclusion

Lembitu boardPurists may well mock Lembitu for its naive, retro design – I know there are some players I wouldn’t put this in front of knowing the derision that would follow. But for me it is an absolute keeper.

Friend and fellow game designer David Thompson described it perfectly as a ‘guilty pleasure’: a game that ignores recent conventions and suffers mechanically because of it, but has enough old skool charm to carry it off and be a success regardless.

Bad luck can, and sometimes will, see you lose – while on other days you’ll quite easily coast to victory. If you can’t take that from a game, walk away now. But quite often the game sits on that tightrope edge between victory and defeat – where that risky move could give you the edge or lead you to certain doom.

This is something I’ve heavily criticised in my review of Dead of Winter, so why do I find it OK here? Simple – this is a puzzle that sets up in two minutes and does not have me role-playing or investing in theme: you can set up and play a game of Lembitu in the time it takes to get Dead of Winter out of the box.

Lembitu will be on sale at Essen 2015 and if you like puzzley co-ops I’d recommend checking it out. But if you roll lots of doubles during setup, don’t expect anything other than a hideous spanking…

* I would like to thank designer Aigar Alaveer for providing a copy of the game for review.

The Institute for Magical Arts: A four-sided game review

Institute Magical Arts boxThe Institute for Magical Arts* is an area control card and dice game for two players from Biblios designer Steve Finn. While the box and title suggest a thematic game of magic it is very much abstract in how it plays: I wouldn’t let the theme either sway you toward it or put you off, depending on your outlook.

Playing out in about 30 minutes the game comes with 60 cards, 70 wooden pieces and eight dice, along with instructions and a reference sheet – making it good value for around £20 (everything here is definitely of solid if unremarkable quality).

This is very much a one-on-one game, with the winner being the player with the most points at the end of the round in which someone reaches 20 or more. There are take-that elements that can’t be ignored, with the heart of the game being an area control mechanism (much like that in Smash Up) where you compete to claim cards and then use their powers.

Gamers looking for a reference should very much think of The Institute for Magical Arts in the same breath as small box games such as Jambo/Asante or Targi, rather than a less complex game such as Jaipur or Lost Cities – but if you like the cut-and-thrust of either it’s worth reading on.

Teaching

Institute Magical in playWhile The Institute for Magical Arts has some relatively complex mechanisms at play, the game is easy to teach due to all the information/components being open when you need to discuss them – or at any point someone would need to ask a question.

Game-play very much revolves around the dice, or more accurately what you choose to do with them once they’re rolled each turn. Players have identical hands of six cards: two used to attain ‘power stones’ and four to assign them. Each turn starts with the players rolling their four dice simultaneously and assigning a card (face down) to each one – and yes, there are of course plenty of ways to mitigate the rolls.

Both players then reveal and use their cards simultaneously, taking/assigning stones to cards (in spaces – you guessed it – one to six) in the centre of the table. Most are ‘institute cards’, each of which has two requirements that need to be met to be claimed: a minimum number of stones spent, plus a clear majority it needs to be won by.

This means you may need to have laid at least three stones on the card, but also need to have laid two more there than your opponent – so if you lay three and your opponent two, the card (and stones) stay in play into the next round. In this way a card can have many more stones on it than required if it is hotly contested.

Cards won are added to a players tableau and their points immediately scored (each has a value between 0 and 7). Cards also give their winner an ability – either a once-per-turn or one-off power, all of which bend the rules of the game in fairly standard fashion. There’s a little more going on than that, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the game’s relative simplicity in terms of rules.

The four sides

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

  • Institute Magical cardsThe writer: I like a good bluffing game and The Institute for Magical Arts has the elements it should need to be one. The secret dice assigning leads to a lot of second-guessing, while there are several routes to victory hidden within this very small package. But beneath the potential of bluffing the game is really about logic and once the game is settling down in the middle stages it can become quite predictable. A little chaos would’ve helped for me – but then the game feels as if it knows its audience and that should be seen as a strength.
  • The thinker: Possibly the game’s greatest asset is the potential game of chicken that awaits you as you choose whether to re-roll your dice. As turns are simultaneous, one of you has to decide whether or not to re-roll or stick – leaving your opponent the chance to act afterwards. It’s a highly unusual game state and one I thoroughly approve if, adding to the game’s one-on-one appeal and intensity. Ignore the fantasy sheen – this is a thinker’s game with a small element of luck and a much bigger dose of decision making.
  • The trasher: I really liked The Institute for Magical Arts – in theory. Trust me: you do not feel like you’re casting spells. With the exception of a few nasty ones, most of the card powers are incremental rather than game changing – and as everything is open you can see it all coming a mile off, so even the stronger ones lose their ability to add excitement. The ‘character’ cards sum it up: they have none, beyond unique art and a name – no powers, just a basic set collection score.
  • The dabbler: Sadly I didn’t feel the personality here at all and the game-play was just ‘meh’. There’s very little effort made to pretend the theme isn’t just pasted on – they didn’t even stretch to individual art for all the cards, or any flavour text. I’m not really keen on two-player games at the best of times, unless they’re a bit more raucous. This is more about keeping your poker face on, but after a few turns I’d lost my smile anyway so no problem! It’s like Smash Up without the smash (or the up).

Key observations

Institute Magical player cardsThere’s not much to work with in terms of opinion on The Institute for Magical Arts right now, but in terms of criticism the words seen most often are ‘boring’ and ‘unfun’ – things I think I’ve addressed above.

But as I haven’t been 100% behind the game so far, I think it’s also worth looking at some of the more positive comments – and there are many. Fans describe it as ‘light’ or ‘super light’ (both to play and learn), blending interesting mechanisms to create a unique duelling/area control game.

There’s nothing I can argue with there – except to say that this is very much a Steve ‘Dr’ Finn game. I was fascinated by my first game of Biblios, laboured a little through my second and am not interested in playing it again. This, for me, is a much more interesting game – and Finn fans seem to generally agree. But I still couldn’t get most of my gaming friends excited enough to want to play it more in future.

Conclusion

Institute Magical area controlThe Institute for Magical Arts is a good game: it is well designed, simple to teach, and everything holds together under scrutiny. It has that enforced battling element you’d expect from a two-player-only game and plays varied and fast; cleverly mixing bluff, dice and area control.

But is it fun? If you like thinky abstracts with just a dash of theme – or any of Finn’s other games – it is definitely worth checking out. Others may be advised to try Biblios (which is widely owned and available), as I think they have similar qualities in terms of theme and mechanics (Biblios is a card game where you are forced to ‘gift’ cards to your opponents as well as yourself, trying to amass cards in different currencies while also manipulating the value of those currencies).

Personally, if I’d found anyone who enjoyed playing it with me that I thought I’d play often enough, I’d have kept it. As it is, I’ll be moving it on – and I’m sure there will be plenty of Dr Finn fans happy to snap it up.

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

The Dwarves: A four-sided game review

The Dwarves boxThe Dwarves* is a fantasy themed co-operative board game which plays out in just over an hour. It is listed as two-to-five-player but also works very well solo and plays well across all player counts.

The English version is released later this year – I’ll update the post when it arrives. This review will hopefully whet your appetite!

The game-play is classic co-op, as you’ll find in titles such as Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm. It is very much suited for families as well as gamers who like thematic games.

Each player has a character with individual abilities and decides what to do on their turn, but this is discussed as a group because you’re working towards a common goal. The tension mounts the longer the game goes on, and the group of players will either win or lose together – there are no individual victory conditions.

In the box you’ll find a gorgeous game board, five player boards with matching cute plastic minis, 100-ish wooden cubes (the encroaching enemy horde), 10 dice, 50-ish cardboard tiles (mainly marking the enemy’s taken land) and 80 cards. (Kickstarter backers can expect more of just about everything, including monster meeples, while the ‘Saga Expansion’ looks to include the same ‘more of everything’ for the rest of us).

The Dwarves victoryFirst released in Germany in 2012 under the title Die Zwerge, it is set in the world of the books of the same name by author Markus Heitz. While huge in Germany the books have failed to have quite the same impact elsewhere, often blamed on what are seen by many as pretty poor translations.

This lead to a reluctance on Pegasus Spiel’s part to release the game in English – hence their decision to crowd-fund the game via Kickstarter in May. It smashed its €30,000 goal (passing €118,000) and is estimated to be sent out to backers in December 2015 (board game gods willing) – so hopefully the rest of us will get it around then too.

It is also worth noting the design team behind The Dwarves, Michael Palm and Lukas Zach, were the pair behind celebrated 2013 party game ‘Bang! The Dice Game’.

NOTE: The version you see pictured below has a paste-up board and cards from the original German version. Expect big changes in the ‘proper’ version.

Teaching

One of the beauties of classic co-op games is that they’re very easy to teach and The Dwarves is no different. There is no hidden player information and you’re all on the same side, so in fact helping is beneficial to all!

A player’s turn follows a simple structure: move the hero token (bad stuff), draw new cards (if any were completed on the last player’s turn), then carry out two actions – the turn structure is even printed on the main board.

Taking a hit from the bad guys (boo!)

The Dwarves scenario cardsMoving the hero token will do one of three things: shuffle threat (read: bad) cards into the adventure (read: good) deck, roll dice and add bad guys to the board, or move the council marker in the wrong direction – all of which I’ll discuss below.

The key to winning the game is completing a number of scenario cards before either one of the heroes (that’s you guys) is killed, or you run out of time (marked by the hero token track). Each scenario card has a condition that needs meeting before you can move onto the next and the harder you want the game to be, the more of them you include.

Alongside the scenario card will be three adventure cards. These are non-essential side quests but a handy way to gain items (in the form of cards) and other benefits. When you finish a scenario you also clear out the current adventure cards and replace them – but as the game goes on some will be threat cards (see ‘moving the hero token’ above). You’ll face dire consequences if you didn’t complete them, making for some tricky situations.

The hero token starts on the left side of the hero track, but there is also a doom token at the other end – and like Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, if the two meet the heroes lose the game. The doom token will rarely move early in the game, but f the enemy troops get some traction you may need to start worrying about it.

Most hero track actions involve rolling the recruitment dice, which slowly bring enemy troops onto the board. They come in from four locations that all have paths leading to a central square (Blacksaddle). Once they start arriving here the doom token can start to move at an alarming rate – time to wrap up or face defeat!

While this sounds like an old mechanism it is done well. When five enemy units occupy a hex they burst it, turning the land ‘perished’ (making it a pain to move through) before moving on. A tile is flipped and placed on the hex – its detail showing the main direction of troop movement and which headed to neighbouring tiles instead. Bad luck sees several tiles burst in a row while paths can also meet – speeding the enemy’s path to your door.

Finally there’s the council track. It starts in a neutral position and can be moved right by the players (giving nice advantages), or left by the enemy (predictably giving penalties).

Sticking it to the bad guys (huzzah!)

The Dwarves player boardEach hero has a health level, three stats (attack, crafting and speed) and a special ability. You get two actions on your turn, all revolving around stat-check dice rolls.

While luck is of course a factor, it can be well mitigated. Tests see you rolling a dice for each number you have in a stat, so asking Boindil to complete a 5+ crafting test when he has 1 crafting is a desperate or stupid act – especially if it is Balyndis’ turn next and she gets 3 dice for crafting, plus a re-roll of them all. But it means things are never certain, which again adds tension.

Your actions allow you to move, fight, influence the council or try to complete a scenario or adventure/threat card test. For movement you can move as many spaces as the best dice you roll; for the council, you need to get a certain number to move it one space (there are four each side of the neutral space) – needing a six to move into the best two slots.

The Dwarves equipment cardsFighting is also simple. There are three enemy types, the easiest (orcs) killed with a 4+, trolls a 5+ and elves a 6. Simply go to the space you want to fight in, roll your dice and deal damage accordingly. The risk is that if you manage no hits at all, you take a wound in damage.

All cards – scenario or otherwise – revolve around these same actions. You may need to move from A to B, fight creatures on the card at a certain location, or go somewhere and craft some items. But importantly the theme is felt throughout.

The final twist is in the last scenario card, which is actually three cards you turn one at a time until one equates to the current state of the board (how many enemy troops are on the board, or how many perished land tiles have been laid). This adds a nice element of surprise to the game’s finale.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: One thing that really impressed me were the ways you can change the difficulty level. Adding more scenario cards makes the game harder, but a little longer; while changing the number of enemies that bust a hex from five to four makes it harder and shorter. Doing both simply makes it insane, but it’s great to have more than one way to change things up.
  • The thinker: The Dwarves sang for me as a solo experience. There is something to appeal to the table top miniatures fan here as the lava-like flow of the enemy movement combines with the dice rolling for attacks. And while it has quite a few components only the cards felt fiddly, but certainly not unmanageably so. But for me there is not enough decision making to make it more than a solo game.
  • The trasher: At the right difficulty level, The Dwarves really ramps up the tension. You can choose your own character, letting me grab one of the warriors and get right into the think of it. Battles are fun if simple and by the end you can be rolling seven attack dice if you play your cards right – with a re-roll! But then you’re relying on the crafters to do their thing too, making it a great co-op.
  • The dabbler: As always I was worried about the alpha gamer problem, but it hasn’t really cropped up in our games – but this may be the group, not the game. Whatever happens it will be you rolling the dice though, so no one can stop you doing what you want to do! The theme is great too, while the dice mean you’ve all got something to cheer – or as often commiserate over. Great with the right group.

Key observations

The Dwarves board and bitsThere aren’t many English reviews or comments on the game yet, but those I’ve seen raise some valid points. The biggest are the game lacks decisions while the amount of randomness makes it too much of a luckfest.

Yes, there is a lot of random – which is why I wouldn’t (and didn’t) recommend The Dwarves for groups of more advanced euro gamers. But this shouldn’t worry those who enjoy lighter games, or a dice fest; and especially those with an interest in the fantasy genre. And personally, as a euro gamer myself, I really enjoy it solo.

I think the lack of decisions is covered by the same argument: those getting into the theme or playing with less experienced gamers will play their own game can get a real kick out of it – especially fans of the books. But this is generic fantasy 101, which isn’t going to sway those who are looking for high culture.

One frustrating random situation can occur early on: you get the ‘Gear Up’ scenario card (have three items equipped) and then get a run of adventure cards that don’t reward you with items. But even this can be overcome by raising the council track to the limit (very advantageous anyway) then crafting your own items.

One fair beef with The Dwarves may be on replayability. Despite having three end game scenarios I can see the game getting samey if you played it to death, but after five plays I’m still enjoying myself – especially having now found a challenging game level. I could name many games that failed to get to five plays in our house.

Finally you can find you don’t need to pick up equipment or fight monsters, as you simply work through the scenario cards and do what they tell you. If you’re in this situation, you have the difficulty level wrong: ramp it up and watch the sparks fly.

Conclusion

The Dwarves boardThis is probably my longest review, but as this game hasn’t had many English write-ups yet – and because I’ve really enjoyed it – I thought it was worth the extra time.

While it isn’t the biggest or cleverest game out there, from a design perspective I love the way the enemy moves on the board; while as a simple soul I love rolling dice and crushing orcs: The Dwarves has become my favourite co-op and is a keeper for me.

There are definitely players I won’t be putting this in front of and a lot of people who won’t like it. But when the snobby elves head home, this will regularly be hitting my table.

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review. It was an early paste-up version of the base game using some components from the German version, so please be aware there will be significant changes in the final release.

Adventure Tours (AKA Mai-Star): A four-sided game review

Adventure Tours boxAdventure Tours* is a ‘take-that’ and hand management card game from Seiji Kanai (Love Letter, Brave Rats/R) that is both a little larger and a little longer (40+ minutes) than his rather more illustrious micro games. It takes three to six players.

It was originally released in 2010 under the title Mai-Star in a small box format with a geisha theme, which didn’t sit well with some. While still available in this format, Adventure Tours addresses some problems with the original and has higher production values – while costing about the same (£10-15).

The original had 75 cards, six geisha cards and some score sheets to write on; while the re-released Adventure Tours boasts thick cardboard player mats with some lovely artwork, more than 100 cards (with good if unexceptional art, but good iconography), cardboard victory point chits and some useful player aids – but a much bigger box.

As you may have guessed though, the theme is wholly irrelevant in terms of the rules – this is an abstract card game with some nice, colourful art plastered on top. And this is cutesy artwork too – which very much belies the rather nasty nature of the gameplay.

Teaching

Adventure Tours player boardAs we’ve come to expect from Seiji Kanai, Adventure Tours is a simple game at its heart which relies much on player interaction to make it sing.

It is also very luck based and swingy, but enough so that things should balance out over the game.

Each player is dealt six random cards (from one big shared stack) at the start of play. In the basic game, your player board starts you with three of each of the game’s three ‘resources’ to get you going.

On your turn you will lay one card – either for its resources or as an explorer (for its action and also end-game points). If you lay a card for resources it will allow you to play more powerful explorers later, as cards cost between 1-9 resources to play.

Cards played as resources mean you have to pick up a new card from the stack to replace it, so you’re not reducing your hand – but you are giving yourself more chances to lay better explorers later. When you lay an explorer, you do not draw a new card.

Explorer actions are very much what you’d expect from a ‘take-that’ style game: make player players draw more cards (to stop them going out), or force opponents to discard/hand you explorers or resources. But some also benefit you more simply – letting you lay another card being the most common.

The advanced game sees you use the flip-side of the player boards, each of which has a special ability and different starting conditions – so that powers that seem stronger leave you starting with hardly any resources.

The real trick to Adventure Tours is to balance getting rid of your cards while also scoring enough points to make ending the round by doing so a good idea, or to just stockpile points regardless – neither of which are as easy as they sound! The nice player aid and simple icons mean everyone should be up to speed within round one.

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 rare time when I’m still on the fence despite multiple plays. I enjoy the mood Kanai’s games create and he has worked the same simple magic here – but this is on the cusp of being too long for the game experience it creates. I do enjoy playing, but where the luck of the draw makes me laugh in Love Letter it can have me cursing here, which suggests a slight mismatch in fun and complexity.
  • The thinker: There is really very little for the strategist in Adventure Tours. Games instead become about bashing the ‘supposed’ leader – which is more about those with good chat talking the meeker participants into thinking a particular player is winning. The only real strategy seems to be: don’t be leading after round two, then try to have a big third round very quietly. Not for me.
  • The trasher: I like this one! It’s all about table talk and hitting the right players at the right times, which is much like spinning plates. Both ways to lay cards make you a potential target, but for different reasons – going out or scoring big. You have to be a hawk, pointing out anyone who is edging an advantage – except yourself of course! And yes, I’m echoing the strategist – but from the complete other side of the table.
  • The dabbler: While aggressive games aren’t usually my thing, this one is so nice, bright and colourful that I just got swept along with it. Also the take-that cards never devastate – more hinder – so nothing you can do will put someone out of a round, for example. There is room for clever combos and lots of table talk and laughter, so for me what’s not to like once you get past the fear of being a bit snidey!

Key observations

Adventure Tours cardsIf we ignore complaints by people who were never going to like it in the first place, the most common issues with Adventure Tours are that it’s repetitive and that it drags, even for some who enjoy the game.

But simply shortening the game from three down to two rounds (or even one) will solve this – I don’t see how you really lose anything, and it brings the game much more firmly into the ‘filler’ category that the mechanisms suggest it belongs in anyway.

A bigger and related issue is that too many cards make the game last longer. Giving people more cards, for example, rarely feels ‘fun’. It feels like a necessity, while there’s no guarantee it’s even giving you an advantage – you could be handing them the perfect card. But again, this is something that wouldn’t feel like an issue if the game played shorter.

And without wishing to sound like a broken record, for a game lasting close to an hour if played ‘properly’ (ie, three rounds) there are too few options in turns of card options. Essentially they boil down to pick up cards; add extra or take away cards; defend; have an extra go, or get bonus points. You see these cards a lot – probably too much – but over a round or two instead of three I think this is mitigated.

My final concern is the advanced player powers: it’s too early to say for sure, but some of them seem really overpowered. now in the right group this isn’t a problem, as players will realise this and pick on the players with the best powers accordingly – it can actually add to the fun of the table talk. But in less boisterous groups it may be an issue.

And a quick word on the original, Mai-Star. While I haven’t played it I have seen the cards – particularly the advanced player cards – and there have definitely been adjustments made for balance. Have they worked? No idea! But they’ve certainly tried to address well publicised issues with the original and I certainly didn’t think anything in Adventure tours was ‘game breaking’. My fear is they balanced the game by making it longer.

Conclusion

Adventure Tours aidAdventure Tours isn’t a game I feel I can wholly endorse, but at the same time wit the right group I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

‘Take-that filler game’ is already a niche, so when you put it in a big box (despite nice production) and make it last more than 30 minutes you’re going to scare some people off.

But underneath is a typically simple and fun Kanai game – 12 different cards that interact with each other in interesting ways and get the table laughing and chatting. If you’ve enjoyed his previous titles this is certainly worth a look – although I’d give it the ‘try before you buy’ (where possible) caveat just in case for the reasons discussed above.

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

Sushi Go!: A four-sided game review

Sushi Go boxSushi Go!* is a light-n-fast card drafting and set collection card game originally released in 2013 and reprinted in its current form (in a swanky little tin) in 2015 from Gamewright.

Designed by Phil Walker-Harding it accommodates two to five players easily, takes less than 30 minutes, plays as young as six to eight-years-old and should cost you less than £10.

While the theme has no relevance to game play the cards (there are 108 of them) are super cute and high quality (linen finish), while the tin is nice if you like that sort of thing (I’m a box man myself!).

Teaching

The rulebook is colourful, nicely laid out and simple to follow. If you took out the cringe-worthy ‘jokes’ (which I can only hope are for the younger audience) and extraneous art they’d probably fill a single side of A4 – including several variants (one of which is great for two players).

As for teaching, it couldn’t be much simpler: deal everyone the appropriate amount of cards (dependent on player count), choose one each simultaneously, reveal and place into your tableau, then pass the remaining cards to your left. The only wrinkle is the ‘chopsticks’ card, which allows you to play two cards in your turn instead of one if you pass on the chopsticks card, but otherwise it’s rinse and repeat until you run out of cards.

Once all cards have been laid, you add up the scores. Scoring is again simple, with several standard set collection scoring methods applied across the different sets of cards. The exception are ‘pudding’ cards which are, of course, only scored at the end of your meal – which is three rounds long. No surprises, at the end the highest score wins.

The four sides

Sushi Go two cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While I think there’s a lot of design space still to be explored within the drafting mechanic, Sushi Go! is the perfect ‘bare bones’ usage of the mechanism: clean, fast and simple. It’s a shame about the end-game pudding scoring, as it’s the only thing stopping you finishing when it suits you; the perfect fillers can be put down at the drop of a hat when that extra player arrives, or another game finishes.
  • The thinker: While the chopsticks do add a bit of thought to the game, this is just too simple for me to really enjoy. I’m not averse to a filler game, but I’d prefer them to either test my brain or be super silly and light – for me, this game falls between those into a murky middle ground. I can see younger gamers enjoying it, but it won’t be a keeper for my groups.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed the push your luck elements here – especially with the ‘wasabi’ card which allows you to triple the score of a ‘nigiri’ card if you place one on top of it – potentially nine points, or potentially none if everyone else denies you the good ones, as wasabi is worth nothing on its own. Despite the cutesy images, this can be a nasty little take-that game in terms of denying scoring opportunities.
  • The dabbler: I love the Sushi Go! art, love the simplicity, love love love it! The two-player game doesn’t get much love, but the variant is pretty cool. You have a dummy third hand, which you take it in turns to draw a bonus card from. This throws in much more luck, but can add some really great moments when you take a risk and the perfect card drops into your hand from the third pile. Great fun!

Key observations

Sushi Go rulesFor such a simple card game, it is impressive to see Sushi Go! sitting in the top 500 games at Board Game Geek. Filler games, fairly or unfairly, average lower scores there so for such a light game to get an average above 7 is impressive. But like every game, it still has its detractors.

As this is a card drafting game, there are the inevitable comparisons to 7 Wonders. Sushi Go is often described as 7 Wonders without the depth, or 7 Wonders lite – but on the other hand, many say it ‘fixes’ 7 Wonders by taking out the pretend complexity and shortening the game considerably.

To those who say it lacks depth, may I remind you – its a filler! And to those who say it just copies 7 Wonders, may I remind you that if anything it copies Fairy Tale (from 2004) – a game it is much closer to in play style and which 7 Wonders (from 2010) also largely copied, simply adding a layer of ‘engine’ on top of a perfectly good game. If you think Sushi Go is a little too light for your tastes, Fairy Tale is definitely worth a shot.

Conclusion

Sushi Go cardsAs an exercise in distilling the idea of card drafting into a simple set collection game, Sushi Go! ticks all the boxes. Whether that’s the game for you is of course a very different question, but there really isn’t anything to hate here if you know what you’re getting into.

Personally it has reminded me of how much I enjoyed my plays of Fairy Tale, which really is a game I should add to my collection (its more of the same, but with an extra layer of complexity). But until I get around to picking it up, Sushi Go! will be hanging around on my shelves. If you’re looking for a light family game and have kids in the six to 12 age group, I’d definitely recommend it.

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

One play: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter in playIt’s fair to say I believed the hype about Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter. I was a long-time fan of the company’s podcast and had enjoyed the descriptions and design talks about the game leading up to its launch; so much so that I was happy to pre-order it.

I’d been looking for a replacement for old classic Arkham Horror for a while, and this looked like it would fit the bill: a story driven co-op with a horror theme but the bonuses of being shorter, less fiddly and with a tension-building traitor mechanic – as well as the much lauded ‘crossroads’ mechanism (more on that later). It duly arrived, we duly played it, and it has since been duly traded away. So what went wrong?

Theme and components: Check

Out of the box, Dead of Winter is a triumph. While the churlish could point to thin location and player boards – or even complain about old-school standees (in this day and age!) being included rather than minis – overall the production quality is excellent. The artwork is evocative and high quality, the rulebook solid and the tokens, dice etc up to snuff. I don’t care a jot about minis and the like, so I was more than satisfied.

On the downside it’s a bit of a bear to set up, with a multitude of card decks needing to be shuffled and placed, alongside a plethora of tokens – and that’s before you get to choosing a scenario, setting it up, and then dealing each player their choice of starting characters. This is definitely a game you should play at the owner’s house, giving them time to get it ready before you arrive – but once it’s ready to go, I think it looks pretty cool on the table.

It’s also worth pointing out that players that enjoy this kind of game are prepared for a lengthy setup process. Arkham Horror takes just as long to get ready, while players of games such as Descent or Star Wars: Imperial Assault will see nothing to put them off here. With highly thematic games, it seems to go with the territory.

Can you keep a secret?

So far, so what – it’s just another thematic zombie game with nice bits: but the first semi-USP comes with the secret roll cards. Before the game starts, two secret objective cards per player are shuffled in with a betrayal card and one is dealt to each player.

While Dead of Winter is a two-to-five player game you don’t have a betrayer with two, leaving a 45-ish per cent chance of someone being the betrayer with three-to-five players. There is a betrayer variant that swings this wildly in the other direction, giving you an 80-ish per cent chance. But either way, the lot of any betrayer may not really be in their hands – and sadly the same goes for everyone else.

Because here lies Dead of Winter’s first real flaw: unbalanced objectives. Some of them are just plain easy, while others take a real effort and may not be possible despite your best efforts. The aim of this seems to be to create tension: to force people into situations where others may think they’re showing betrayer tendencies. But unless you are dedicated role-players, it is a very real possibility this tension will fail to emerge – especially as after one play you know those super tough objectives are out there.

Attack of the randoms

While not fatal on their own, you are trying to complete your unbalanced secret objectives while competing with the oldest and lamest of all board game mechanism – the ‘one in x chance’ of something terrible happening. And you thought we’d moved on right?

Some caveats here. First, I love me some random – and second I know Ameritrash games are the beating heart of random. I get that. But there are ways to do random right, or cleverly, or with a bit of imagination. Instead here we seem to have incredibly naivety.

Every time you move to a location, or fight a zombie (unless you have particular equipment cards or special powers), you need to roll a 12-sided dice – on one side of which is a tooth. If you roll this, that character is dead. This in itself isn’t a big deal – you’ve probably got more characters (you start with two each and often pick more up) and if not you just grab a new one out of the box. The bigger problem is ‘morale’.

Morale is the game’s timer – the ticking clock of doom which, if it reaches zero, will mean the players lose. In anything but the easiest scenario this should be causing the tension, which is ramped up by the fact every character death causes a one-point loss in morale. Which brings us to the ‘one play’ which put the nail in Dead of Winter’s coffin for me.

Epic fail

This was my fourth game of Dead of Winter and we had a group with some new and some experienced players (five in all). After the epic set up/rules explanation we embarked on a short scenario to give everyone a taste of what this game had to offer.

As it was a short scenario we started with just six morale. The base was surrounded by zombies so as a first act my tough guy – who had the ability to kill two zombies with one blow – ploughed into the fray. And promptly rolled the dreaded ‘tooth’.

So he’s dead – no biggy. One morale down. But it gets worse: the next player in the compound has a decision to make. They can just die and stop the infection spreading – or roll and take a big risk of survival vs getting bit, and passing it on again. With so little morale to play with they fell on their sword – so we were down to four morale.

Much like the game Battlestar Galactica (which it borrows quite heavily from), Dead of Winter has an objective players can meet each round – or face the consequences. In our case, if we failed to meet it – which needed quite a lot of fuel – we would lose two morale. So with two already gone, it was all hands to the pump (ho ho).

With our safe bet having tried and failed to get fuel from the petrol station (random card picks FTW), someone less likely tried their luck. En route they too rolled the tooth – and took both themselves and the person already at the petrol station with them. We failed to get our petrol, lost two more morale, and it was over. Worst. Walking Dead episode. Ever.

You traitor!

The highlight (and this is clutching at straws) was that we did actually have a traitor – but they didn’t even have enough time to complete their simple objective because two random dice rolls finished us all off before we got going. Otherwise, he’d have won.

And that’s the second big problem with the morale system: the betrayer rarely needs to show their hand before the final turn, because either the players are going to hell in a hand basket anyway – or morale has gotten them close enough that one really destructive final turn is enough for the betrayer to blow the game, without needing to draw any suspicion before it is too late to do anything about it (they can be exiled, in theory).

While this was a laughably short game, in some ways it was the best of the four I played. Two were tedious processions to victory playing the starter scenario with new players where we didn’t have a traitor, while the other was another defeat – again with no traitor – which threatened to ignite into a really fun experience but never truly shone (despite providing some laughs). It’s possibly the most fragile game system I’ve ever experienced.

Still, you might love it 🙂

Does Dead of Winter have the capacity to give players a fantastic thematic game experience packed with intrigue, tough decisions and a tense endgame? Absolutely. But does it equally have the capacity to provide a shallow and worthless one? As you can see, the answer is yes to that too.

I’m not reviewing Dead of Winter in my usual style because I realise a lot of people LOVE this game and I didn’t want to give it my standard treatment, as that format wouldn’t allow me to get things across the way I wanted. I can see I may not be the right audience and if you search t’interwebs you will find many an honest, glowing review of this very popular title. All I wanted to do was share my experience which was, sadly, a lot less positive.

At the time of writing Dead of Winter is in the top 20 games on Board Game Geek and games rarely get up that high by accident. But equally, just because they’re flying high doesn’t mean they’re for everyone.

The promise of better to come: Crossroads cards

I’ve saved the real jewel in Dead of Winter’s crown until last and that’s its one genuine board game innovation – crossroads cards (and I’m not belittling this – many, many games have on innovation at all and one bit per game is above average!).

At the start of each player’s turn, the player next to them draws the top crossroads card from the deck and reads the intro to themselves: this intro tells them in what situation they need to pause the game and read the card out. This could be very open – perhaps if a player leaves the colony to go to an outside location – or very specific – if a particular character is in play and this player controls them.

This restriction is interesting because it means not all cards are read out, so they do add a unique feeling to the game that’s akin to RPGs – that, “Oh god, will opening this door spring a trap” feeling. Each card has an ethical dilemma of some kind on it, either for the group to vote on or for the player to decide themselves. These can be great for adding theme, a laugh or even give you some character insight.

But sadly in Dead of Winter they don’t quite seem to work. You can have games where very few trigger, while many of those that do are no-brainer decisions. But on the plus side Plaid Hat is already working on another ‘crossroads’ game, this time set in space with an Alien style them – which could be awesome. But this time I’ll keep my powder dry and wait for the reviews before pulling the trigger.

* If you’re a fan of this game, good on you. But please don’t pick holes in my story if I have made small rule errors in the retelling. The facts may be a little off as this was a while ago, but believe me this happened: we played the rules right, we lost in a turn and it was crap. 

BraveRats (AKA ‘R’): A four-sided game review

BraveRats boxBraveRats* is another two-player ‘microgame’ from Love Letter designer Seiji Kanai, originally released under the title ‘R’ in 2011 but repackaged and re-themed by Blue Orange in 2014.

Microgames do exactly what they say on the (in this case quite literal) tin – here, for less than £10, you get a short rulebook and 17 cards, making it an incredibly portable little game.

Another common microgame trait is a quick playing time, and BraveRats is no different. Game time is listed as five minutes in the rulebook and that’s pretty accurate, but of course you can simply pick it up and play again – especially as the time to set up the game weighs in at about five seconds.

In terms of theme, well, forget it – this is two nations, each represented by eight cards, going toe-to-toe for the win. Thee is nothing ratty, or indeed bravey, here. But what you do get is a clever little battle of wits which boils down to a fun combination of luck, reading your opponent and weighing up the odds.

Teaching

BraveRats cardsBraveRats is listed as playing from ages 10 and up, but I expect you could go quite a bit lower – and also teach it to grandma (not that she might be too keen on a game supposedly about battling Scottish Highland rat clans…).

To set up, each player takes their set of eight cards (numbered 0-7) into their hand and, erm, that’s it. Both players choose a card, then flip them face up simultaneously – the highest number wins a point, and the first player to four points wins. Got all that?

While in essence this is ‘rock, paper, scissors’ with bells on, the clever bit comes from the card powers. Each player’s deck has the same eight cards, each of which has its own ability. High cards tend to be about winning through strength, lower ones by cunning – so the Prince (7) and General (6) will beat the Wizard (5) and Ambassador (4) – but the Assassin (3) flips the tables on the General, saying lowest card wins; while the Princess (1) simply beats the Prince – and wins you the game.

Each card played is either left face up or face down on the table – face up for winning cards, to show the progression of your points. Draws are also handled simply – if you draw the same number, or a card power means the round is a tie in another way, these cards are set aside and the winner of the next round will claim an extra point. so in this way, if you draw the first three rounds, it comes down to the first player to win a round wins the game (as they’ll also collect those first three drawn points too).

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 BraveRats may initially seem superficial, there’s more tactical space here than immediately meets the eye. The real game is in considering what your opponent has left to play and as your choices whither, power plays start to surface. And also, after a round or so, you may see patterns forming in your opponent’s play that you can take advantage of. Of course there’s still a massive amount of luck involved, but don’t think this isn’t a game that can have it’s, “Mwahhaha, you fell into my trap” moments.
  • The thinker: Unfortunately for me, not enough of the game falls between ‘too random’ or ‘too obvious’ to make it a keeper. The game is a very clever construct, or exercise if you will, in game design – and I would hope it will inform more complex and satisfying games in future. Personally I would much rather reach for ‘Romans Go Home’ from Eric Vogel, which adds just enough to this concept (programmed movement and locations to win) to make it sing in the same ‘light filler’ category.
  • The trasher: Love it! BraveRats is a great way to kill a few minutes if you’re waiting on another game to end, or a few late people to show up. Sure, that may be a small window of gaming opportunities to fill – but when you can buy it for just over a fiver and it will slip into any other game box, why not bring it along to games night? While the rat theme is a little odd, they’re Scottish rats – leaving plenty of room to get your best Highlander impression on too – what’s not to like?
  • The dabbler: This is a fun and sometimes tense little game, simple to pick up and teach, and with pretty nice cutesy/comical artwork. It’s also great for travelling, or going on holiday – and can create those funny moments when you play that one card that turns the game on its head. It does what a filler should do, but the limit of two players is restricting and I’d rather have a game that plays to a bigger crowd. Would I play? Sure! Would I rather play Love Letter? Absolutely.

Key observations

BraveRats contentsThe first concern you run up against here is value – which may seem strange for a sub-£10 game. Some see it as a massive bargain, while others see a very thin game you can print on two sheets of A4 paper.

The tin packaging here seems a strange choice. In a way this adds value (you’re getting a tin!), but by the same token when you open it up it just helps highlight that there’s nothing really in it. To make things worse, this is a game many will want to sleeve as the cards get a lot of use – but to sleeve it, you won’t be able to use the nice velvety insert. Personally I’ve dumped that and thrown Love Letter into the tin with it, which works for me.

But BraveRats’ biggest problem is the general consensus that it simply isn’t as good, or as appealing, as Love Letter. While some may call it ‘two-player Love Letter’, Love Letter is still as much fun as this with two players – and can take up to four, making it so much more versatile. For me though, BraveRats works as an enjoyable companion piece to its more illustrious sibling.

Conclusion

BraveRats card setWhile BraveRats will never shine as brightly as ‘that other Seiji Kanai game’ it is still a fine game design accomplishment.

Kanai’s genius is in distilling a game concept down to the barest of bones while retaining the fun element and for me he has succeeded again here.

As with Love Letter, BraveRats’ usefulness as a gateway game also shouldn’t be overlooked. From a royal court to a clan of chirpy rodents, these little card games are a great way of showing non-gamers that it’s not all about forcing yourself to play Uno with the kids, or playing bridge with your grandparents – there are light little games you can enjoy after the olds and the news have gone to bed too.

For me, every household should stretch to a £10 budget to buy a really clever little card game for the shelves – and if that’s what you have, I’d suggest going to get Love Letter. But if you can stretch that budget to £15, grab yourself a clan of BraveRats too.

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

Tash-Kalar – Arena of Legends: A four-sided game review

Tash-Kalar boxTash-Kalar: Arena of Legends* is an abstract strategy game set in a fantasy themed arena, but it’s much more than a simple fist fight. The box says ’30 minutes’ but I’m yet to have a game take less than hour, and then some – but we’ve never been accused of being a fast-playing group.

(Please note: To date I have only played with two and three players. There are four-player rules – more on this below under ‘Play types’.)

The main thrust of the game is pattern building. The arena is a grid of squares onto which players place pieces, but alone the pieces do very little. They come to life, briefly, when they form a pattern required to play a card from your hand – at which point you unleash that card’s power.

What makes Tash-Kalar stand out is the rules allow for both ‘death match’ and ‘high form’ play, meaning the focus of a game very much changes depending on its goals. While the first mode centres purely on defeating your opponents’ pieces, the other can see you rewarded for simply having your pieces on particular squares in the arena. But whether simply scrapping or going for points, this is a very thinky game.

In terms of components you get a double sided arena board, four player boards, more than 100 cards (most with individual art) and 80 cardboard playing pieces – which I feel makes it very reasonable value for its sub £30 price tag. And if you’re on the fence about reading on, bare in mind it was designed by Vlaada Chvátil – one of the most respected designers working in the hobby games industry right now.

Teaching

IMG_20150516_135853333In the best tradition of abstract games, Tash Kalar is incredibly simple to teach but also satisfyingly tough to master (I’m guessing here!).

On a standard turn you simply get two actions, which will nearly always be placing a piece onto the board or playing a card (so you could place two pieces, play two cards, or do one of each in either order). There is a discard action, but this will rarely be used and is as straightforward as it sounds. Finally, you draw back up to the standard number of cards.

Your pieces come in three levels – common, heroic and legendary. If you place a piece as an action it is always placed as a common: the use of your cards will later allow you to upgrade them. If your pieces create the pattern on one of your cards, you can then play it – which in turn will give you one-off immediate effects that usually let you upgrade or move your pieces, destroy those of others, or take extra actions.

The game’s complexity comes in successfully creating these patterns. It seems a relatively simple task – but those pesky opponents keep killing off your pieces and replacing them with their own. And note there isn’t a ‘move’ action – you only get to move your pieces if a card allows you to. Which means making a pattern in the first place…

What this means in terms of teaching is that the players will have to learn the game as they play, and in my experience so far this is something players absolutely relish. And there is a real sense of achievement if you pull off a great multiple card combo – which will tend to be rewarded with congratulations from your opponents, making it even sweeter. Of course with time this will end, but it shows the sense of wonder players can have early on.

In terms of the rulebook I wasn’t a big fan, as I thought the flavour text got in the way and I missed a few details on my first play. But to make up for that it has a fantastic two-sided summary sheet that literally has all the rules to all forms of the game in an easy to follow format – underlining the fact the game is far from heavy on rules.

Play types

IMG_20150516_135554146I’m adding a one-off extra section here, as Tash-Kalar includes three ways to play the game which may appeal to different players:

  • Deathmatch Duel (2 players): This is the simplest form of the game, where you simply go head to head and score points when you defeat the other player’s pieces. This is certainly a good way to learn the game and still has a high level of tactical play.
  • High Form (2 players): Players score points for completing the requirements of ‘tasks’. There are always three available (shared by all players) and each player can complete one on their turn. These tasks can be to do with destroying another players pieces, but are more often to do with board position.
  • Deathmatch Melee (3 players): Again you score points for destroying your opponents’ pieces – but your final score is based on the least amount of points you’ve taken against different opponents. So if you’ve only scored one point against one opponent and ten against the other two, your final score is only one.

You can play Tash-Kalar with four players – either in teams in ‘Duel’ and ‘High Form’ modes, or in a free-for-all ‘Melee’. Having played Melee with three, playing with four is in no way appealing: in a game where you’re trying to set yourself up for future turns, having three other players taking turns before you – and probably taking out your pieces – sounds like an exercise in frustration and futility.

As for team play, it adds yet another level of complexity in the form of being able to hand over control of your turn to your team mate at any time. This sounds as if it could add a rich extra level of tactical play, but I see it as pretty daunting for an early play and am yet to suggest it to those I’ve played with. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll revisit this review.

The four sides

IMG_20150516_135515854These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I wasn’t drawn to this on release, but how wrong I was. The fantasy veneer may be thin, but Tash-Kalar is a game rich in personality that tells a great story with every play. Games really ebb and flow, helped by ‘flare’ cards that can give players with a poor board position a big boost – at the expense of giving an opponent a point. But it can be totally worth it – and not only for the losing player.
  • The thinker: This is a thinker’s game, with many depths to explore. Yes there is luck of the draw, but players will have a chance to play almost all of their cards in each game and it simply means every turn is rich in thought. There is a possible king-making problem with three (a player can ‘give’ points to opponents when using flares even when out of it, which in some situations could swing a result), while it also ramps up the chaos. But while I prefer it with two, its good enough that I’ll play with three. Constant board changes may put off a purely strategic mind, but war gamers for example will see nothing here they can’t cope with.
  • The trasher: While it looked good, Tash-Kalar wasn’t for me. While it looks like being about combat, with some OK card art, different decks and ‘deathmatches’, the reality is very different. It is very frustrating: you spend more time setting up moves than achieving anything with them. And yes, pulling off a nasty combo and kicking ass is really satisfying – but is it worth the turns it took to set it up, especially as opponents often scupper your plans by accident rather than design? not for me.
  • The dabbler: While this may surprise everyone, I really enjoy this challenge. While patterns can be hard to make its such a buzz when you complete one and then do some cool moves. And I love that the rules actually say you can take back your whole turn if you realise you’ve made a mistake half way through. I’m normally about table chat, but here I love the experience of experiments being rewarded – both by the game and fellow players high-fiving good combo moves.

Key observations

IMG_20150516_135420248I think the most important thing to note is that those players who simply do not like abstract games should not be drawn in by the fantasy theme here – no amount of imagination can make this anything other than a deeply abstracted game.

But Tash-Kalar also has elements you might not be used to as a fan of abstract games: it can play very long and be very chaotic, especially with more than two players. And even with two, you can see any strategic plan blown out of the water by your opponent in a single move. But as a fan I see these as positives, shaking up the genre and most definitely bringing lots of interesting new ideas to the party.

My one big fear is that the promised variety of three different game modes doesn’t really come to fruition as each mode is very dependent on player count. There is only one mode for three players, while the team game really does not appeal. I’m willing to look past this now as I have had a lot of fun with both two and three players, but I am a little concerned about longevity (I shall come back and change my thoughts here if it becomes a problem).

And finally, for an asymmetrical game, putting just three different card decks in the box seems a little tight (there are four sets of cards, but two are identical in everything but colour). It means if you do want a four-player game you cannot have a fully asymmetric experience straight out of the box – although the publisher has addressed this with the game’s first expansion; a new faction which brings with it some interesting new rules, but also something close to a £10 price tag (I’ll review this soon and link it here).

Conclusion

IMG_20150516_135446777Again I’ll preface this conclusion by saying I’m yet to play Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends with the full compliment of four players – but with two or three I can highly recommend it. For me, it’s a keeper.

This game is abstracted, it will make your brain ache and you will want to ignore your cards before its your turn as the whole board may change before then. For some this will be nothing but frustration – but for me, and everyone I’ve played with so far, it has instead been a delicious challenge perfect for those who love a tactical head-to-head – with a rather brittle layer of strategy placed precariously on top.

And more importantly I do feel that each game tells its own story. You can be down and out but a flare may spring you right back into the game; or a decision by an opponent to remove one of your pieces goes your way and they remove a pointless one, meaning you have just the right pieces left to land that nasty legendary pattern you’ve had since the start of the game. With the right tools, it just goes to show you don’t need dice, hundreds of minis and a half-mile of half-arsed fantasy fiction to tell a fascinating story.

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

The Castles of Burgundy: A four-sided game review

Castles of Burgundy boxThe Castles of Burgundy is a dice rolling and tile placement/set collection board game from Stefan Feld originally released in 2011. It plays two to four (fine at all player counts, but great with two) and lasts somewhere between one and two hours.

I’d put off reviewing any more Feld games as I’ve done a few recently, but I couldn’t resist because: 1. this is one of my favourite games; and 2. it’s currently available for less than £20 (April 2015) from various sources (including Board Game Guru) – a proper bargain.

In the box you’ll find 250 small cardboard tiles, a game board and player boards and some dice. Alea tend to make perfectly serviceable yet unremarkable components and this is more of the same: no complaints, and while there’s nothing to write home about I do really like the incidental artwork on the tiles.

While Castles of Burgundy is as fiddly as you’d expect from a game with this many cardboard chits, it’s not actually a complicated game to play – or hard/long to set up and play once you get used to it. There are five rounds, each split into five pairs of turns for each player (so everyone will take 50 actions in a game), with scoring done both during and at the end of the game.

The main thrust is ‘buying’ tiles from a central board then matching them in sets on your own board to score points. Each colour of tile has its own special action, seeing clever play lead to strong combinations that can turn the tide of a game – and opening up a number of different strategies. But as only a small number of tiles are available each turn, and these randomly drawn, there is also a large amount of tactical nous required too.

Castles of Burgundy board and player board

Teaching

In terms of mechanism, Castles of Burgundy is a relatively simple game – as borne out by the 12-page rulebook which is really more like four pages of rules and six pages of tile explanations – a bare minimum of which you’ll need to reference after a play or so.

In each round players roll their two dice and use them to either take tiles from the main board to their depot; send them from their depot to their player board; export goods for points, or take tokens that can be used to manipulate the numbers on the dice rolled.

If a placed tile has a special effect, you do that too. Simple. These tend to be standard gaming ideas: manipulating turn order, giving free actions, multiplying points etc. I think anyone with a few gateway games under their belt will be at home with Castles of Burgundy, but that’s not to say there isn’t something here for more seasoned gamers.

As is so often the case with Feld’s games, the simple mechanisms hide a lot of small yet tricky decisions – in most turns you’ll want to do a lot more things than you have actions, so its all about prioritising. You’re taking tiles from a shared stock, remember, so anything you leave after your turn may not be there by the time it is your turn again. So while the game does not have direct interaction, it is alive with the indirect kind.

The four sides

Castles of Burgundy board close upThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Castles of Burgundy is currently my favourite Stefan Feld design, partly because of its broad appeal – it hasn’t made it into the Board Game Geek Top 10 (or my own) by accident. The theme is innocuous but the game looks good on the table; it fits well with both experienced and gateway gamers, and plays in that sweet ‘one-to-two hours’ slot. And while yes it has dice, meaning there will be luck involved, it does feel like good play wins you the game.
  • The thinker: I do tend to enjoy Stefan Feld’s heavier games, and would usually take the likes of Trajan or AquaSphere over this, but I certainly won’t turn down a game. Despite the randomness the game still packs some heft and much of the random can be mitigated by a canny player.The fact it comes with different player boards adds to the strategic choices too, allowing more advanced players to try different ideas from one game to the next. A solid mid-weight game.
  • The trasher: We’re not really in my territory here, but this is definitely a more palatable Feld game. Once you get past the boring theme/box/components there is some rich tactical play – but only with two. Especially in the timing of getting ahead in turn order and taking the right tiles, you have to watch your opponent like a hawk. And I have to admit I’m a sucker for a game that gradually pushes everyone up to scores around 200 but its still often really close, nip and tuck, all the way.
  • The dabbler: There’s a lot to like about Castles of Burgundy. It has dice! But its not blind luck and while they can kick you when you;re down, you never think they were to blame if you don’t win. It has cute animals! The farming tiles are gorgeous and a bit like Carcassonne, the board looks lovely at the end of the game. While it feels competitive, it never feels nasty – the perfect combo for me. And while people can be wary of it as it looks complex, its bark is much worse than its bite.

Key observations

Castles of Burgundy player boards(I first need to caveat that any criticisms need to be couched by the fact Castles of Burgundy is in the top 10 (voted by users) on the world’s most popular board gaming website.)

It’s fiddly. From setup to scoring (which can be easy to forget) to re-setup after every five rounds, this is very much a game of moving little bits of cardboard around. If this is truly off-putting to you, I’d suggest trying it online first: it is available to play at both Yucata and Boite a Jeux. I expect many will find the game play trumps the fiddliness.

Each extra player removes some strategy (as it takes longer to take your next tile, reducing planning potential), while adding downtime and game length – and very little on the positive side, if anything. This is definitely a better two player game and can feel slow with four, especially as interaction is limited to blocking tiles.

There’s also little here for the theme fan and again, interaction is at a minimum – although I’d argue that a two-player game can feel very tactical (hence my ‘thrasher’ above enjoying their plays). If you really don’t like Feld games, this will not convert you – I suggest you run for the hills. When I read the low score reviews for Feld games, it is always the same people moaning – why on earth do they play them?

I think claims the game has no focus or that the best player doesn’t win are groundless. I simply think these players haven’t given the game a chance, or paid enough attention, or played anyone any good – their prerogative, but I feel its in poor form to criticise the game on this point, as they’re in less than 1% minority of players. Ignore them.

Conclusion

Castles of Burgundy boardWhile I’m not sure I’d celebrate Castles of Burgundy as Stefan Feld’s best design, I think it’s his best two-player game  and one of my favourite two player games by anyone.

Turns are short and snappy, there are interesting/agonising decisions to be made on almost all of your goes, and while the game has some tactical and strategic depth it is accessible to both gateway and experienced gamers alike.

If you’re a couple that is starting to explore games, and have enjoyed the likes of Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, I’d certainly suggest this as a step up the ladder. But if you prefer the interaction of Catan, or the combat of Small Worlds, you may want to look elsewhere.

One play: Time of Soccer

Time of Soccer end gameHaving had a passion for football since my youth, and lost more days to PC football manager sims than I care to admit, I was excited to hear friends extolling the virtues of Time of Soccer – a football management board game.

I have no idea how they came up with the name – its terrible. I can only presume it was some sort of Google translate faux pas from the Spanish designers. But what’s in a name? I have games called Hamburgum, Banjooli Xeet and CV after all. More importantly it looks great – I had absolutely no complaints about the components. however I can’t comment on the rulebook as the game was taught to me (thanks Rocky!), but I didn’t hear great things. Also, apologies if I get any naming terminology wrong.

Putting the ‘euro’ into European football

In the early part of play, it becomes clear that Time of Soccer is very much built on a strategy game engine. Half of the main board is dedicated to a grid system onto which are placed tiles that represent players, agents, sponsorship deals and coaches.

The themeing here is a little odd, as the board is made to look like a city grid that you drive around trying to sign the deals you want before other players can get to them. This works in essence, representing the fight of agents to sign players etc before their rivals, but the roads/city just doesn’t work thematically. However, if you can get past this the routing, budgeting and risk taking mechanism itself works very well.

Players start with initial basic agents and deal makers who can be upgraded. Your agent represents the speed you can move around the board, while your deal maker allows you to try and sign a deal you can’t quite reach with your agent’s moves – but its dependent on a dice roll and even then a success will see you paying over the odds. This adds a nice tension, while giving some genuine options as you build your club.

Building the perfect team

Time of Soccer player boardEach team starts with a very poor journeyman team, so as managers you are all scrambling to sign some stars before the season begins. Players have a varying set of stats alongside possible connections with their team mates which give bonuses if you can connect them up with each other.

For example, in the image above you’ll notice the two central defenders have a blue triangle on their right and left sides respectively, facing towards each other. This represents a bond between them and will give them a bonus, while if you add a coach that works well with players with this symbol you’ll get further bonuses. This is a great way of introducing a very euro-style puzzle element to team building, while keeping on-theme.

In addition you’re trying to sign these players while also balancing the books, which can prove very difficult. It felt as if there was constant financial pressure, adding another classic euro trait to Time of Soccer’s mechanism arsenal (sorry, couldn’t help it).

A long hard season

Another thing Time of Soccer gets right is the season structure. It boils things down to a six-team league (so 10 games, home and away) and an eight-team cup, with the winner of the game overall needing to score points for both of these plus the quality of the team they’ve put together.

During each week you will have a league game and occasionally a cup game: each other week day is dedicated to going around town to either buy something or position yourself for the next round of tiles (better players, coaches, deals etc come out as the game goes on). You can also have friendlies, although these are abstracted out to a small cash gain.

I felt this was just about the right amount of games to make it feel like a ‘proper’ competition but also to make it feel as if the decisions you were making in the team had enough time to have an effect. But wow, this game was long. It says two to three hours but with four (three beginners) we went well over that.

A game of two halves

I was in for the long haul, and that in itself wouldn’t have put me off buying Time of Soccer – but there was a much bigger problem. Unfortunately the hard work achieved in the earlier euro mechanisms was – for me – undone by the matches themselves.

In theory it’s a good system. Your team building gives you both an offensive and a defensive stat, which is used to decide how many chances you will both create and defend against in each match. So if you create five chances but your opponent only defends three, you score two goals. The team at ‘home’ in the game attacks second, giving them a slight advantage as they know how many they need to score to win.

The problem lies in the way chances are determined. It is of course with dice – and it wouldn’t feel right without them – but for me they have injected too much randomness. Teams always roll the same amount of standard six-sided dice, with fives and sixes adding to the amount of chances you have either created or thwarted. For example, if my team is at level two and I roll four successes that would be five chances – but at level eight those four successes would be nine chances.

This sounds OK, until you note that zero successes is always zero chances no matter what your team’s level. While this gives very poor sides a chance to win any game, it feels like a massive misstep – you can’t expect euro gamers (and trust me, this is 80% euro) to be happy to lose a game after four hours of play simply because they rolled no fives or sixes. This isn’t a war game after all – and I think it could quite easily be fixed.

A hollow victory

For full disclosure, my team of all-conquering heroes did the league and cup double and I walked away from Time of Soccer as the victor by a pretty comfortable margin. However, the victory felt hollow. At no point during play did I feel as if I was the superior player, nor that I had the superior team. I simply had more luck on the dice.

And to make things worse, despite each of us taking different routes with how we created our teams, in the end we all had almost the same stats – in fact Rocky, who came second, just had the better team on paper. While we’d taken different routes, in the end we had all ended up in the same place – making the whole dice fest feel even more empty.

what the game lacked here was a meaning to the stats and some personality to the players; it didn’t feel as if one player had a long ball team, another a slick passing unit, another a lot of tough tacklers. It became an ameritrash dice game but lacked the personality to pull it off, while letting down its euro heart at the same time. Our teams were, frankly, boring. I wanted red cards, crap refs, diving – something less mechanical.

But despite all this, I had fun. This was helped by good beer, being by the seaside and playing in good company and if we sit down again soon I’d play again – once at least, and as long as a better football management board game hasn’t come along before then. What promised to be a title contended at the start of the evening slowly lost touch and slipped into mid-table, if entertaining, mediocrity – the Swansea of board gaming, I guess.