Celestia – A Little Help: expansion review

Celestia* is a remake of the 1999 light family card game Cloud 9, which benefited from a beautiful new art direction when re-released in 2014 (and fully reviewed by me here).

In a nutshell, it is a push-your-luck card game in which players are travellers in a fantastical airship, where they take it in turns to pilot the ship between a series of increasingly tricky to reach floating islands.

Unless you’re the current pilot you always have the opportunity to get off the ship and collect a reward from the current island – but if you take a risk and stay on board, better rewards await at the next island.

But the problem is, you don’t know if your current captain has the right cards in hand to complete the next leg of the trip…

What does Celestia: A Little Help bring to the party?

Celestia: A Little Help essentially adds four mini modules to the game. You can add any number of them to any game you play, adding a bit of flexibility and meaning that if one doesn’t take your fancy (or you think it’s a little advanced for some players) you can just leave it out.

The module that lends its name to the expansion is made up of 14 ‘A Little Help’ cards. These have the usual icons on for the four types of hazard, but also have a hand symbol on them. These cards cannot be used by the captain to beat hazards – but if a captain says he cannot beat a hazard, friendly passengers can pitch one (or more) of these cards in to avert disaster.

There are also eight ‘upgrade’ cards – two in each of the hazard colours. Each of these simply has two symbols of a kind on instead of one, meaning you can beat two dice of the same hazard type with a single card (and as with single equipment cards, you have to play them if you have them – even if thee’s only one dice needing to be beaten and you have no single cards).

Next come two new power cards (two of each): The Bandit and The Mooring Line. Both can be played by any player (so passengers, captains or those who have already jumped ship) and make life harder for those trying to get to the next island – so will generally be played by those who have gotten off earlier.

You play The Bandit before the captain roles the dice – and it makes them have to role an extra one. The Mooring Line is played after the captain reveals a successful hand and means that, instead of moving forward, the airship stays where it is and must try to reach the next island again.

Finally, you’ll find six ‘character cards’ that match the player colours in the base game. As well as giving a male and female side for each colour (a small omission from the original game), these give each player a unique ability they may use once during the game.

These largely give a chance of escaping an imminent crash, while one lets you make a trip easier by rolling two fewer dice than usual – while the only nasty one lets you force someone to stay in the aircraft.

How much does it change the game?

The 14 ‘A Little Help’ cards add an interesting extra element to play when you have them and are a great addition to the game. It can be annoying if you draw quite a lot of them at once if they’re never any use, but generally they’re great tactically.

They also largely redress the difference in the amount of each type of hazard card in the base game: so where there six less black cannon cards than blue compass cards in the original, there are five black little help cards to just two blue ones.

Both The Bandit and Mooring Line power cards do exactly what they should do: elicit moans and groans when played from both the passengers and captain. They’re exactly the kind of card that makes the game better and both work well. It’s a pity that, if you’re near the final island and someone plays The Bandit, you’ll have to re-throw one of the dice again (as they don’t provide an extra one in the expansion); but this is a small niggle.

The ‘upgrade’ cards can make a difference, but are rarely needed: in a game where you’re usually rolling two dice, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll need a double symbol of the same type. That said, they can lead to a cheer if you get by in an unlikely situation and they certainly don’t do any harm – as well as helping to keep the ratio of equipment to power cards about right if you’re throwing in the other expansions.

Unfortunately I think they really missed a trick with the character cards, for several reasons. Firstly, most of the powers are very circumstantial and you may never get to use them – and they’re pretty boring, so we often found players forgot they had them. This is made worse by the fact the purple player’s power – forcing someone to stay on the airship – is super fun, putting the dullness of the other ones into sharp perspective.

I would much rather have seen a positive and a negative effect on each card, letting the player who had it use one or the other before discarding. This would’ve balanced them, as well as making each more likely to be useful.

In addition, it seems an odd (read: terrible) idea to tie these powers to specific colours – why would you do that? I always like to play green – why make me have the same boring power every time? It would have been just as easy to deal these out at the start, or draft them for negative points at the start, which would be far more interesting.

Is Celestia: A Little Help value for money?

Even at less than £10, you may think this is a little steep for 33 cards – but as always, you have to remember that art is the most expensive part of game production and you have a whole host of beautiful new illustrations on display here. And this is a price we’re used to playing for small expansions.

But more importantly for me the ‘upgrade’, ‘helping hand’ and new power cards immediately became a permanent part of my Celestia draw deck – a sure sign that they add fun to the mix. And I’ve seen each of them have a genuine impact during games we’ve played with them. Whether that makes it value for money, of course, is up to you – but I think it does what any expansion worth its salt sets out to do: it makes it a bit more fun without changing the base game you already love.

Is A Little Help essential?

Absolutely not. Nothing here changes the base game enough to convert someone who didn’t like the original, and while the subtle alterations are fun they certainly don’t revolutionise the game.

That said, if this is a game you have played to death and it is starting to hit the table less, I think the ideas in here will do just enough to encourage it off the shelf a little more: so if that sounds like you – or if it gets regular play and more is only going to be a good thing – it is probably worth the investment.

… and does it fit in the original Celestia box?

Yes – just about! I wouldn’t want to try and get too much else in there though. The Celestia insert was never the best, but the extra cards don’t make the card deck too big to fit in one quarter so you’ll have no problems keeping the airship in one piece too.

* Thank you to Blackrock Games for providing a copy of A Little Help for review.

Ulm: A four-sided game review

Ulm* is a family level gateway game (so a step up from Ticket to Ride or Catan) for two to four players that plays in about an hour. It is fun at all player counts and the 10+ age restriction seems about right.

Set in the German city of Ulm in medieval times, it would be easy to dismiss the game as just another themeless euro – but the game and rulebooks do at least do a great job of integrating the city’s rich history into the game’s components.

In terms of gameplay, Ulm is an action selection game with a clever mechanic for choosing those actions. In addition there are elements of area control (but not competitively/aggressively) and set collection and while there is quite a lot of luck involved, there are ways to mitigate it – and the game is short enough that the luck doesn’t feel out of place (but those who want perfect information should definitely look elsewhere).

The artwork and presentation is fantastic throughout, from the mechanically pointless yet aesthetically lovely cardboard cathedral to the board art and iconography. In the box you’ll find the board, almost 150 cardboard pieces, more than 50 wooden bits, 33 cards, a cloth bag and two rulebooks (more on that later) – solid value for your £30 (or less).

Teaching

Ulm’s basic game concepts are simple to explain to even a new gamer, but there are hidden depths that push it up a complexity notch – and these can’t simply be ignored for a simple path to potential victory.

The central mechanism revolves around a three-by-three grid which is always populated with nine action tiles. On their turn, players simply take a new action tile from the bag and push it into the grid, sliding one tile out the other side. Whichever three tiles are left in the row they pushed into (so including the one they drew from the bag) are the three actions they get to take that round.

There are five different actions on these tiles, so you could do anything from one action three times to three different ones. The simplest sees you take a coin, while another lets you move your boat along the river which runs across the bottom of the game board. Your progress along the river will affect end game scoring (giving anywhere from -11 to 11), but has the dual purpose of opening up different areas you can visit on the map.

The seal action costs you two coins, then lets you place a seal (you start with 12) into one of the city quarters you’re adjacent to along the river. These areas give you a variety of stronger extra action the tiles, but of course you’ve had to spend two coins as well as an action to use them – so choose wisely.

Another tile lets you draw or play cards by spending tiles, while the last allows you to pick up the tiles that have been pushed out of the three-by-three grid (allowing you to buy/use those cards). Each card has a choice of either an immediate benefit or end game scoring opportunity, and in most turns you’re only allowed to play one card (hence card actions allowing you to play additional cards instead of drawing, if you’ve built up a surplus).

The complexity arises largely from the resource management required. Both coins and tiles can be scarce, and sometimes simply unavailable, so making sure you have enough of them in hand to do the actions you want to do can be genuinely tricky for any gamer.

Each round a new section is placed into the cathedral – and after 10 of these have been placed the game ends. Players then add their river position points and any end game scoring cards to their score, as well as a few points for resources, and the winner – you guessed it – is the player with the most victory points.

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 easy to pull a tile from the bag you don’t want, but one of the game’s currencies – sparrows – let you change the one you draw from one of five face-up tiles in an area called the docks. This too, of course, can fill with things you don’t need but does usually at least alleviate the issue a little. It’s a clever yet simple way to reduce luck that typifies the thought that’s been put into the game’s design; you need to work to get those sparrows, but the payoff can certainly be worth the effort required.
  • The thinker: I expected the game to be too light for me, but what’s so impressive is how fast you can get to a strategy from a standing start – and how differently things play out each time depending on how the tiles come out of the bag. Additionally, one city quarter (the Oath House), for example, has four of the game’s eight ‘descendant’ tiles placed in it each game. These, if taken, can also shape your strategy – as can the cards you’ll draw throughout the game. These cards can be a more problematic in terms of their randomness – but for such a short and enjoyable game I’m willing to overlook it on this occasion.
  • The trasher: While Ulm isn’t really my kind of game, it’s fast with snappy turns while having a small amount of indirect interaction. Two city quarters allow you to take control of other areas, letting you gain victory points when players use it – so you can speculate on player strategies and profit from them a little. Controlling quarters is also the only way to earn sparrows, as each area of the grid tiles are pushed from corresponds to one of them – and if you control it when a tile is pushed that way, you gain a sparrow. But pushing a tile in from the opposite direction blocks this move, making it more difficult to get them. Small things, but they show an extra element to the game that at least gives a not to player interaction.
  • The dabbler: The game is pretty and the basic rules are simple, but you need to be really switched on to play well – this is not an ‘end of the night’ game! I don’t like the tower tiles (just another thing to think about and they don’t add any fun) and the game could do with some cheat sheets: it’s easy to forget what pays for what and the little help section on the game board gets lost behind the 3D cathedral! I like it, it’s clever, but I really need to be in the right mood and it’s pretty much at my high end in terms of complexity. It’s also low on table talk, as there’s a lot of thinking required and the theme is far from inspiring.

Key observations

Ulm has randomness coming out the wazoo – be it input, output, or something in between. If you can’t handle a game that may give your opponent the perfect card/tile one minute and you a useless one the next, it’s time to walk away.

Not all the luck can be mitigated either. You may take a descendent in turn 2 that gives you a bonus to coin collection and see barely any coin tokens drawn all game – while someone else takes one that aids river movement, only to see a plethora of boat tiles come along whenever they need them. Or you may draw a card that will give you three points, only to see the next player draw one that earns them double that.

But for me the game’s challenging complexities, and short play length, more than make up for this. Resource management is always tricky, decisions can be agonising and there’s a real sense of achievement when you pull off a great set of actions in a big turn.

Elsewhere, sadly publisher Huch decided to go down the rarely wise ‘two rulebook’ path in spectacularly poor fashion. I never know where to look and it drives me mad – which is a real shame, as the rules themselves are comprehensive and easy to follow, when you can find what you’re looking for.

Another bone of contention for me are the tower tiles. In the simple game these tiles are blank and simply count off the 10 game rounds, but you can opt for a more complex version of the game where these tiles each carry an effect (some good, some bad) that will stay in effect for just that round. However, you can also see the one that will be coming next so that you can plan accordingly.

Personally I find this tiles to be an unnecessary step too far in terms of fiddliness. Sure, they add another level of complexity to the decision making but that isn’t always a good thing – especially here, where it’s also adding yet another level of randomness. I’d play with them if someone was desperate to, but I find them a pointless irritation and for me they actually make the game less fun. It has enough without them.

Conclusion

I think Ulm is a fantastic game. The action selection mechanism is clever, simple and original; it packs tonnes of tough choices into a quick game, and it has an acceptable (just) amount of luck for a game of its length.

It’s a definite keeper for me, and it’s great to see a quality publisher such as Huch delving deeper into the strategy game market.

Having played a lot of games in recent times that fell just a little short by being under developed, I feel it’s an area where the big, experienced publishers can really show their expertise and remind consumers why they should be continuing to pick up their games, rather than the mini-laden promise breakers we so often get from their less experienced crowd-funded counterparts. I just hope they’ve learnt their lesson on the rulebook front…

* I would like to thank Huch! & Friends for providing a copy of the game for review.

Snowblind: A four-sided game review

Snowblind* is a push-your-luck dice game with a strong racing element. It will take one to four players less than an hour to play, and does a great job of integrating its rather chilly theme.

The box suggests ages 10+ and that’s probably about right, although you could definitely go a little lower with brighter kids. It’s a pretty simple game, although a stupid move can leave you out for good. But as it’s quite a short game, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue (and they’ll soon learn!).

As with all of Pleasant Company’s games, Snowblind benefits from the artistic touch of Rob van Zyl. I’m a big fan of his style, although I’m aware it’s not to everyone’s tastes. But it does a great job of conveying the bleak theme, which is further backed by the risk management elements of the game play.

The high quality continues with the components. In the medium-sized (about A5) box you’ll find two game boards, about 20 cards, 14 dice, 20 or so cardboard tokens and more than 100 wooden pieces. Everything is high quality, although the dice could’ve done with having a more easily readable font. That said, elsewhere the graphic design is clear.

Teaching

The gameplay in Snowblind is family level fayre: carry out a simple action, then roll a die to see if something unfortunate happens to you: rinse and repeat. But don’t be put off – it’s a lot more fun, and tactical, than this simple mechanism might suggest.

The only hidden information is in the weather cards (more on those later), which affect everyone, so teaching/reminding as you go is definitely an option. There are definitely some good and bad decisions to be made depending on your situation, and it may take a few turns to fully grasp them, so a good teacher should flag up any outrageously stupid moves as/before they happen – you don’t want someone dying on turn one (more on this possibility later).

Play occurs in rounds (5-7 in all), which are broken down into turns, with the start player moving clockwise each round. At the start of your turn, you choose to either take a dice from those available or pass (if you pass, your rounds is over – you can’t come back in).

If you take a dice, you immediately take the appropriate action associated with it. These are simple to explain (with easy to understand icons) and involve a combination of: moving explorers/crates, gaining food/victory points and setting up camps. The aim is to move your captain to the pole, then back to the ship, before the rounds run out – using as little equipment (and losing as few colleagues!) as possible.

What messes this up are the dice. Actions will either see you taking a six or eight-sided dice. After your action, you roll – with a 4+ possibly ending in weather damaging you/your equipment. So, taking six-sided dice is best as you have less chance of disaster – but these actions tend to be weaker, and there are less available.

Once everyone has had a turn, you get to go again – taking one of the remaining dice, or passing. If you take a dice again, you do the action as normal – but the twist is you now have to roll both your new dice and any you’d already collected, and all failures affect the area you just did your last action in. So the more dice you take in a turn, the riskier it gets. Failures first remove a cube (crates and food); if you have none in the area affected, you must then lay down one of your explorers. If there’s no explorers to lay down, you must remove one from the game (they may be some time…). And if that happens to your captain, your expedition is over.

Once everyone has passed, the round is over – but the risk isn’t over yet. You now flip the top weather card – you start with six, which act as the game timer: the ‘pack ice card’ is shuffled into the bottom two cards and if drawn signals there’s just one round to go. But the weather cards also have a number on them – which acts the same way as a die roll, but affects all players. It is applied to the area nearest the poll you have an explorer – so ending your round with your captain in a risky spot can really be deadly.

When the game ends, you’ll get points for all the crates you have on the board, your explorers in the ship, plus a variety of possible bonuses – or you score nothing if your captain perishes out on the ice. Most victory points wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I can’t decide whether Snowblind could win over push-your-luck detractors, but those who love this mechanic should definitely try it. But this really is a push-your-luck game – all but one action will give, at best, a 50/50 chance of taking some kind of damage. If you don’t like luck, you’re not going to be won over – but if you like theme, and can manage short games that may screw you, it’s well worth a look.
  • The thinker: While I wouldn’t say there is zero strategy here, there certainly isn’t much – and as with all good push-your-luck games, you’ll need to change your thinking both on your own rolls of the dice and how your opponents are doing. But for the game length, it makes for a fun opener or closer – especially as set up time is also relatively short.
  • The trasher: It may look as if Snowblind has nothing to offer the more aggressive player, but there’s certainly fun to be had with it – largely in the meta game. More cautious players can soon get behind the curve in terms of progress, which is where you can start to ramp up the table talk. And pushing it with extra dice can be a real laugh: I’d rather crash and burn than be boring – especially in a 30-minute game! If it all goes wrong, I can chat until the next game; no biggy.
  • The dabbler: I really like the art style and while its largely just wooden bits, I really find it evokes the theme well. It’s a shame the equipment you can collect (taking the eight-sided yellow scientist dice) has different little pics in it, but they don’t actually do anything. I guess this is put in to give scope for an expansion, but I wish they had done more with it. That said it’s nice that the ships have real names and each player has a national flag for their crew, as this can encourage a bit of fun role-play from the dafter members of the group!

Key observations

The key point of contention for me is that, like it or not, Snowblind can be a little fragile. If you get easy weather cards and the pack ice comes out as the last weather card, it’s likely you’ll all be home and hosed without too much stress.

Oddly there is no reward for reaching the pole first, and only a two-point bonus for getting home first. This means a slowly-slowly approach can win you the game; odd in a race game. One mitigation against this is that if someone gets completely home early each other player has to roll an additional dice from then on: but that seems scant reward for essentially having nothing to do while you wait for others to complete the game.

On the flip of this, the game has no player interaction – but possibly player elimination: not exactly what you expect to hear in modern board games. In fairness, player elimination is very rare (I’ve seen it once in five games, across all player counts) and while there is no interaction it does feel like a multiplayer game due to the banter on the dice rolls and the short, snappy turns.

I wouldn’t recommend the game for solo play: the randomness falls a bit flat if you have a lack of competition with friends. That said, it was nice to be able to learn the game fully by using this mode – and it plays well with two, three or four. And finally, why isn’t designer Simon McGregor’s name printed on the front of the box? It’s very rare not to see this nowadays, and it must feel like a bit of a slap in the face.

Conclusion

I like Snowblind a lot. Despite clearly being a very abstracted game it really does tell a story and build tension, beautifully tying in the thematic element – but like all good games with theme, this can lead to occasionally disappointing games.

However, I’m much more willing to accept the occasional slightly ‘meh’ game when the whole thing plays out in 20-30 minutes, unlike some of the tedious Ameritrash games (I’m looking at you, Dead of Winter) that take that long to setup and can give a dreadful play experience over an extra couple of hours. A definite keeper for me.

* I’d like to thank Pleasant Company Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Dragonwood: A four-sided children’s game review

This guest review was written by David Thompson, dedicated family man and co-designer of Armageddon.

Dragonwood* is a light family adventure game with a fantasy theme from Gamewright Games, designed by Darren Kisgen.

In the game, players collect a variety of adventurers – warriors, elves, wizards and more – in order to gather magical treasures and capture fantastical creatures.

The game is for 2 – 4 players and plays equally well with any player count. Games take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. Though the box lists this as a game for ages 8+, my five year old loves it (with the occasional probability challenge, more on that below).

While the theme would be considered thin by experienced gamers, my girls gobble it up, carefully poring over the name and art of each creature. The component quality is good, and the art is of very high quality – good value for the sub £20 price tag.

It is also easily portable, so great for holidays and trips. But as the game has just 108 cards and six dice, you may want to decant it into a smaller box when travelling (we can only hope more cards are released for the game later to help fill the box up!).

Teaching

Dragonwood is a very simple game to teach. On your turn you have two choices: take a card or try to ‘capture’ an enhancement (magical item) or creature. Capturing enhancement gives you bonuses later in the game. Capturing creatures earns you victory points.

The game is first and foremost about set collection. There are five different colours of adventurers, each numbered 1 – 12. Through the course of the game, you can use combinations of cards of the same colour to ‘scream’ at an enhancement or creature; cards of the same number to ‘stomp’ an enhancement or creature, and cards in a sequence to ‘strike’ an enhancement or creature. Each enhancement and creature has a different minimum value for their scream, strike, and stomp defences.

During the course of the game, there will always be a landscape of five Dragonwood cards. This landscape includes the enhancement and creature cards that players attempt to capture. Players must declare which card they are trying to capture before any attempt. When you use cards on your turn to try to capture an enhancement or creature, you roll one die per card used.

The dice rolling aspect of the game might be the trickiest part for younger players. Although the dice are six-sided, the faces are not the typical 1-6 distribution. Instead, they use a 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4 range.

This is great for reducing randomness. However, my 5 year old, and even my 7 year old to a lesser extent, occasionally had difficulty with the probabilities for determining how many cards they needed to use (and thus dice to roll) for some capture attempts.

For example, when the Unicorn enhancement comes up (a favourite in my family!), my girls were so eager to attempt a capture attempt that they were willing to make extremely low chance rolls. While this doesn’t break the game, it can slow it down a bit and result in frustration. As long as an adult is nearby to occasionally offer a coaching tip, this isn’t really much of an issue.

One final element of the game is the event cards. Event cards are also in the Dragonwood deck. There are very few of these cards, but when revealed they have an immediate effect on all players. Typically the effect is something like all players drawing new cards or discarding cards in their hand.

When, at the beginning of the game, the deck of Dragonwood cards is shuffled it includes all of the events, enhancements and creatures. But you shuffle the two most powerful creatures – a blue and orange dragon – into the bottom of the deck. When those dragons are captured, the game ends – and the player with the most victory points from captured creatures wins.

The four sides

These are me, my wife, and my two daughters.

  • The dad (serious gamer, prefers Euros and light wargames with the occasional Ameritrash thrown in for good measure): Once kids have learned the core rules of the game (within one play, even for young children), the only obstacle to them being competitive with an adult is their understanding of probabilities, as mentioned above. Once they are comfortable making those basic decisions, children can compete with adults with no problem, especially due to the randomness introduced by the dice. While there isn’t nearly enough skill and strategic options in the game to keep a group of experienced gamers interested, parents will find themselves entertained and engaged throughout.
  • The mum (casual gamer, prefers party games and gateway games with no direct competition): Dragonwood is one of my favourite games in the girls’ collection. This is because I can actually play with the girls competitively without having to teach or coach the game. I like that it’s a quick game; we can usually get a game in within 15 minutes. It’s also stealthily educational, as the girls love reading the card names and abilities as well as counting up the results of their dice rolls and the bonuses from their enhancements.
  • The older daughter (7, more interested in theme, shorter attention span): I love the characters in the game. I especially like some of the enhancements like the Unicorn! My favourite adventurers are the blue and orange coloured girls. Rolling the dice and trying to capture the enhancements is my favourite part of the game.
  • The younger daughter (5, more competitive, better at building strategies): “My favourite part of the game is getting the most points.” (That’s a quote, seriously). I like collecting a lot of cards. I collect as many as I can (the hand limit is 9), capturing enhancements that help me, and then going for the most powerful creatures.

Key Observations

This game provides a great blend of options for tactics due to the set collection nature and the variety of range in enhancement and creature defences.

If there is one minor drawback, it is that I think many kids might tend towards collecting cards of the same colour disproportionately over collecting in a sequence or of the same number, which could lead to some suboptimal attempts to “scream” for capture attempts when other attempt types would be easier. However, this is a very minor point that doesn’t significantly detract from the game or basic strategies.

There are some minor probability challenges with challenge attempts as described above, but these challenges are minor and likely won’t affect players of age 7 or 8 and above. The Dragonwood deck offers enough variety in enhancements, creatures, and events that each game will feel different, with good replay value.

Conclusion

Dragonwood is one of the rare breed of family games that strikes the sweet spot where adults and kids can both genuinely enjoy the game without extensive assistance from an adult.

This is the rare game – along with a few others like Animal Upon Animal and Outfoxed – that our entire family can agree on and happily play.

The girls love the theme of the game, the set collection, the art, and the dice rolling. For parents, there is enough strategy to stay engaged throughout. The key element, though, is that the game design allows parents and children alike to play competitively and enjoy the game together.

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

Crisis: A four-sided game review

Crisis* is a worker placement, engine building and resource management euro game. It has great artwork which does a good job of bringing this dark, dystopian sci-fi world to life.

The box says 1-5 players, but it is certainly at its best with four (more on this later). With four, you can expect a game to last a couple of hours.

Age is listed at 14+, but I’ve seen similarly weighted euro games listed as 12+ or even 10+. You’ll know your own kids, but this game is no more complex than the likes of Tzolk’in or Terra Mystica – in fact a little less so.

That said, it takes up a good amount of table space – especially at higher player counts. But part of this is thanks to the fantastic quality of the components: oversized cards, custom resources and the like abound. In the box you’ll find 165 wooden tokens, 128 cards, 137 cardboard tiles, a double-sided board and a cloth bag. Art is lovely throughout and the graphic design works well, although some criticise the overly dark and graphically busy game board (the less pretty mono side is easier to play on).

Teaching

While there’s a lot in the box, and a few clever mechanisms, at its heart Crisis is a relatively simply engine-building worker placement game.

The board has 14 clearly marked areas to place your workers, each of which is carried out in order once everyone has finished placement (think Caylus). This gives you a simple way to walk through how the game plays, as it will be the same process in each of the game’s seven (potential) rounds.

In the main, earlier worker spaces give you money, resources, employees and companies; while the latter ones let you exchange/sell those money and resources, as well as operating your companies with your employees (you don’t choose a manager to do this action, it just happens; but it’s handy to have it as a set place on the board). Workers you place on the game board are called ‘managers’, differentiating them from employees.

The real driving force of the game are the companies. Resources go in one end and better ones, or money/victory points, come out of the other. The more, and better, your employees the more efficiently this process will run – and the better you can make your companies work together, the richer you’ll become.

But it’s not quite that simple. Like all good sci-fi, Crisis is based on real events – this one being the financial crisis that so devastatingly hit Greece. Many of the issues therein were blamed on greed, especially around a lack of ‘desire’ of companies to pay their taxes – and its that which Crisis successfully emulates.

Getting money is pretty easy – and money buys you companies, resources and foreign employees. But you get the big money by ignoring victory points: sell abroad for cash, or support your country by taking a split of points and cash. Especially early on the money is so tempting. You can just get points later, right?

Not necessarily. Every turn, players are tasked with getting a certain amount of victory points (you can set the difficulty level). If overall you fail to, the economy will start to tank – and if things get too bad, the game ends prematurely. If it does, any loans you had and cash in hand are worthless; while if you all survive the full seven turns you’ll get victory points for remaining money – but you’ll also have to pay off any loans you’ve taken. And a player can only win the game (no matter what turn it ends on) if they were ahead of the required victory point target.

Players should find everything runs really smoothly, while the time-consuming engine-running can be done simultaneously to avoid downtime. Everything is face-up and in view except for some very simple hand cards, so it’s also easy to help talk through any issues that may crop up.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: In theory, Crisis seems to offer you the delicious conundrum of greed versus good – but in reality, it doesn’t play out that way. To win by taking early debt you’re relying on two things: the other players playing ball and keeping the economy afloat, and your cash-grabbing giving you a palpable advantage long term. Unfortunately, in the early game, this is unlikely to make a big difference – the big points come later and your greed won’t guarantee you the platform you need. However, it’s still a really fun engine-building economic game.
  • The thinker: I’m really torn on this one. The worker placement and engine building elements are smooth and well realised, but a little simplistic and random. The economic sides are more interesting, but the selling of goods can also falter on unlucky random draws; while the semi-cooperative element of keeping the economy afloat rarely adds tension – after the first couple of turns, it either floats like a duck or sinks like a truck. Despite the fun to be had, after multiple plays there doesn’t seem enough strategic variety to keep me coming back – it’s more of a tactician’s game.
  • The trasher: Crisis is a game where the player count really makes a difference. With four or five, especially in early rounds, the worker placement is brutal in a really good way. Getting available companies and employees to match up can be a real challenge, making blocking genuinely painful – whether deliberate or not! And throughout there can be some real tension in the market, with a limited amount of places to sell those goods you’ve made – made worse by having limited warehouse space to store them. But with less than four, the tension fades.
  • The dabbler: I like the theme, love the art, and the big cards and custom wooden resources bring the game to life. While the game looks daunting it is pretty easy to follow, and its fun to get your engine up and running. However, after about half way, I found it getting a little repetitive. We seemed to be doing very similar things, just with more companies and employees – and it became hard to parse the information and stopped being as much fun. And, if you get your engine wrong, you can be dead in the water quite early on in a long game.

Key observations

The real elephant in the room, for me, is player numbers. Unlike most worker placement games the board is not affected by player count. So, each round, you’ll have six companies and seven workers to choose from – whether or not you’re playing solo of with five players. You’ll also have the same eight slots of export opportunities available.

This means that with two and three players, you largely get to do what you want. While it isn’t quite as bad with three players, you then face the issue of there essentially being two ways to go with companies – either export, or ones that simply produce victory points on their own. If one of you does one thing, and two the other – well we know how that goes. With four and five it sings, but play time (and table space) rise accordingly.

On which point – bigger is not always better. Playing with four of five players, especially late on, you’ll need a big table – a problem created purely by the oversized cards. They’re lovely to look at and high quality, but I’d take smaller ones any day of the week. But if this isn’t an issue for you, you can revel in a very well produced game.

The game’s unique selling point is the economy track, but it rarely feels as if it adds much to the experience (unless you’re rubbish, or play on hard!). The event cards are an annoyance and add little; and while the game tanking may be interesting politically, it doesn’t really make for a fun game experience if it happens. I feel these more gimmicky aspects take away, rather than add, to a pretty elegant central structure.

Finally, luck of the draw can be a big factor; especially with available employees and the companies that come up. Early you’re buying blind, while there’s no skill in beating a player who can’t operate his companies as well as you because your perfect employees came out of the bag. Export goods are random, but at least you see what’s coming – although this can still really screw you in the last round, if the thing you want to sell is in the ‘future’ economy column, meaning you’re unlikely to be able to sell it.

What these issues point at is a fragility that can be hard for some people to accept in what can be a pretty long game.

Conclusion

I hope this review of Crisis hasn’t come across as negative: it’s a game I’ve enjoyed playing and that will be staying in my collection despite its foibles. However, there’s no avoiding it has a limited audience and issues at certain player counts – as well as falling down a little on its USPs.

As a fun engine-building worker placement game, it has a lot going for it. The game plays smoothly with a good level of interaction, both in worker spaces and in the exporting of goods. But you’ll need to come in knowing that luck of the draw can be a factor, while poor play early on can really leave you floundering and struggling to catch up (although it’s certainly not impossible).

Yes, it can be a little fragile at times – but the other option would have been to take the route Scythe took and put the game much more on rails by smoothing out any and all rough edges. I’d like to think a good player could overcome some poor luck here, and have more fun doing it. Overall, an interesting and ambitious addition to the worker placement genre.

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

The best of 2016, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games

As the New Year begins, I like to take a little look back over what I’ve played in the previous year – and in particular the games I’ve played for the first time (new or otherwise).

My game collection has increased to 175 (up 10 on last year) – (another) new record high, but the slowest rate of increase since I got back into gaming. And with plenty on the ‘for sale’ list and very few titles likely to be incoming until late in the year, maybe it’s reached its peak (yeah right).

Total game plays were again down, this time to 423 (from 450 in 2015 and more than 500 in 2014). This has been down to finding it harder to get games in rather than any drop in enthusiasm – a sad state of affairs! It seems some people prioritise things such as families over gaming; what is the world coming too?

My faith in the Board Game Geek ratings fell to a record low this year too, with some truly average games stinking up the so-called ‘top 50’. Kickstarter fever and personality politics seem to be taking over from genuine ratings (a product of more Americans getting into gaming – coincidence? Discuss).

My 5 favourite new releases of 2016

Much as with 2015, I don’t think 2016 will be looked back on as a classic year for new board games – there doesn’t seem to have been a long list of truly great titles.

But there were some really fantastic releases, alongside some solid games that will stand the test of time without necessarily knocking it out of the park (hopefully Armageddon among them!).

Of the higher profile titles, I haven’t played Mansions of Madness, Mechs vs Minions or the Arkham card game; I’d like to, but not enough to rush out and make a special effort. I was hugely disappointed by Scythe and underwhelmed by Imhotep and The Networks, while Adrenaline didn’t really do it for me either.

There are some notable titles I’ve not yet played that may later trouble my top 50 list, as well as my gaming shelves. I need to play A Feast for Odin, I’m waiting for my copy of Railroad Revolution and Oracle of Delphi is on the review pile, for example. But to date:

  1. Terraforming Mars: Print more already, dammit! The hard card/tableau decisions of Race for the Galaxy, but with direct player interaction that works and a board that adds an extra dimension. It must’ve taken years to get right – but boy, did they.
  2. Lorenzo il Magnifico: This harks back to the classic euros of a decade ago – clean rules, quite a small decision space, a lot of indirect interaction and loads of meaningful decisions. A hundred times better than Grand Austria Hotel.
  3. X Nimmt: 6 Nimmt is one of my favourite filler games, so it was fantastic to see a new version come along that works really well with a lower player count (two to four). It’s all the fun of the original card game, but with a little extra strategy.
  4. Eternity: Strange to see two fillers in my top five, but I’ve been totally won over by this simple yet fiendish trick-taking card game. I think it just came along at the right time for me, and looks gorgeous too – clever, stylish, thinky and fun.
  5. Star Wars: Rebellion: If you’re looking for the first three movies in a box, this is it. Loads of minis, loads of dice rolling, all the characters and situations – but all muddled up in your own story. Truly epic (although much less fun as the imperials).

Very honourable mentions go to Codenames: Pictures (I see it as an expansion, really); Ice Cool (a fantastic flicking party game); Ominoes (super light but super fun family dice game); Fabled Fruit (a light card game where the rules change as you play), and Ulm (a gateway level family board game that may rise in my rankings with more plays).

Best 10 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2016

I played 78 ‘new to me’ titles in 2016 – almost 20 more than in the previous year, despite having less plays in total. 33 were 2016 releases, with a further 24 from 2015 – so only around 20 older games.

I guess the last stat shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m starting to run out of older classics I’m yet to try; while also knowing more about my own tastes, and therefore what to avoid!

And really, 2016 was the year of the review: I managed to post 32 reviews on the blog here during the calendar year – far more than I’ve ever managed before and almost all of them being of new games. So a big thanks needs to go out to all my regular groups who’ve suffered through a lot of rules explanations!

There are still around 10 games sitting on my shelf waiting to be reviewed to – and I’m really starting to moss some of my old favourites. So once these ones are done, expect some reviews of older classics for a while – I’m done with new games for a while…

Owned

  • Mombasa: This 2015 release really cemented designer Alexander Pfister’s place in the A-lister category and I prefer it to his current hot title, Great Western Trail. It’s a deliciously complex blend of worker placement and area control.
  • Thurn & Taxis: The 2006 Spiel de Jahres winner from Andreas and Karen Seyfarth gets quite a bad press from some, but I really enjoy the mix hand management, set collection and route building. A great ‘next step’ game, if a little dry in theme.
  • Game of Trains: This light filler flew a little under the radar, which is a real shame as it is a deceptively thinky card game beneath its simple looking exterior. And the artwork is really fun too – all round, a great game in a small, inexpensive package.
  • New York 1901: Much as with Thurn and Taxis, if you’re looking for a small step up from the likes of Ticket to Ride you can’t do much better than this. Tile placement with an interesting area control twist, and more depth than you might initially think.

Not owned

  • Blood Rage: While many ameritrash games are fun but dumb, this takes some cues from the world of euro games (especially card drafting) and removes many of the usual luck elements to create a brilliant hybrid. So much fun.
  • Eldritch Horror: Sticking with the ameritrash vibe, I’m totally behind this streamlined Arkham horror killer. As soon as a friend introduced me to this, Arkham was out the door – it has all the fun with far less rules headaches and fiddliness.
  • Imperial: I’d wanted to play this classic Gerdts (from 2006) for ages and am glad I finally did. It has the usual rondel and snappy turns, but everything else is turned on its head. Area control, stocks – I was largely lost, but thoroughly enjoyed myself.
  • Doomtown: Reloaded: While I can’t see myself ever getting back into CCGs, this is just fun – pass me a deck and I’ll happily play. The ‘weird west’ setting certainly helps – who doesn’t want to duel spell-wielding cowboys?
  • A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (Second Edition): This game perfectly recreates the feel of the books and the houses all feel different (and on theme), making this a thoroughly enjoyable (and super nasty) experience.
  • In the Year of the Dragon: Playing games such as this, from 2007, reminds you how great elegant euros were back then. And this from Feld – who has since been the problem, not the solution, in that regard! A really thinky hand management game.

I didn’t end up buying anything from last year’s ‘not bought (yet)’ list, although Kemet, Xia and Amun-Re would still be tempting at the right price – and I do still intend to pick up Manhattan and Tumblin’ Dice from 2014’s list! And while I’d love to play the six games above more, I don’t see myself buying any (unless they were bargains, of course).

More in part two…

SEE ALSO: Previous entries for 201220132014 and 2015.

Great Western Trail: A four-sided game review

Great Western Trail* is a medium to heavyweight cowboy-themed euro game where the emphasis is on the cows, rather than gun-toting John Waynes rounding up a posse.

The game will take two to four players the best part of two hours to complete, and it definitely sits in the ‘advanced’ category: the box recommends ages 12+ and you’ll definitely want to play with more experienced euro gamers.

While the theme just about holds together, Great Western Train is definitely a euro game first and a thematic game (a long distant) second. This isn’t a criticism – it just needs to be said: this game is all about the marriage of deck building, hand/resource management, action selection and tile placement and how you manipulate them: you’ll have to work pretty hard to imagine yourself out on the plains while playing this one.

That said, the components certainly help. Andreas Resch has done a great job on the artwork and graphic design, giving us a vibrant set of cards and tiles alongside a gorgeous board that perfectly blends form and function with style. All the components are of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Eggertspiele and Stronghold games: in the box you’ll find more than 100 cards, 200+ cardboard tokens and more than sixty wooden pieces, plus player boards and a score pad. You can find the game for around £40 in the UK right now, which I’d say is reasonable value.

Teaching

Great Western Trail has an awful lot going on and you might want to get the snacks and comfy chairs ready: this is a game that needs a long rules explanation before you get going, as all the options (and there are many) are going to be available to the players in the first couple of turns.

However, experienced euro game players will find they’re in familiar territory. There are no new mechanisms here and the familiar ones you’ll find are largely handled in a traditional manner – its how they all come together that makes the game feel fresh and new. But really, do not try and teach this one to new players unless you want a very slow game.

The thematic essence of the game is that each player is driving their cattle (their personal deck of cattle cards) to Kansas City (across the board), stopping at various locations along the way (where they’ll perform actions on each of their turns) – before heading back out to the range to drive the next herd.

The player boards do a good job of reminding players what they can do, and what they can build towards. The main section of the board is dedicated to storing workers you hire as the game goes on, who in turn will make the related action options more powerful. These are the chaps depicted on the box cover – cowboys, craftsmen and engineers.

The game starts with seven neutral buildings on the board, which act as the game’s action spaces (there tends to be a few actions available on each, but we’ll stick to the key ones here). One lets you hire available guys; one lets you build your own buildings (craftsmen make this more powerful); and one lets you buy more cattle (helped by having more cowboys); and two let you move your own train (which goes further with more engineers).

When you buy a building, you place it onto an empty space. This is now an extra space you can use which may also slow your opponents and even make them pay you for passing them – so placement, as well as type of building, is an interesting decision. Every player has the same set of buildings available to them, which variously help different strategies.

Buying cattle will let you add better cows to your initial personal deck of 14 cow cards. You’ll start the game with a hand of four, with the aim of having as many different breeds of cow in your hand by the time you arrive in Kansas. Cards have a dollar value and a colour (breed), with your initial cards being worth only $1 or $2 in four colours (so a potential sale value of just $7). But five more breeds are available, with values from $3-5. Luckily, many of the action spaces have actions that let you sell cattle along the trail, or gain rosettes that add value, allowing you to draw new cards and get your optimum hand in place.

While your cowboy moves repeatedly across the board, your train will make slow progress around its edge. When you arrive in Kansas you’ll get initial money for your cattle, but will then need to get them to another city – with ‘better’ cities (which demand a higher value herd) giving better bonuses. But these cities are further away, meaning you’ll need to have got your railway further to avoid incurring financial penalties. But an extended train network will also open up the opportunity to open stations, which give lucrative immediate and end game bonuses.

And these are just the main mechanisms: your player board has many smaller actions, all of which can be improved, while you can also increase your hand size, amount of spaces you can move, quality of baked beans for your trip etc (sorry – I expect that will be in the expansion).

Buildings offer even more variety: everywhere you look, a basic premise of the game can be built upon in incremental ways. As I said, there’s an awful lot going on – and when its all over, everything scores points in a Feldy salady fashion.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While Great Western Trail is large in scope, the restrictions on movement shrinks the decision space each turn (at the start to four choices) and actions tend to be snappy. This brings it almost into line with a Mac Gerdts rondel game, helping everyone stay engaged and ticking over. However what it lacks is the elegance of the best Gerdts games: there are twice as many rules, twice as many icons, and god knows how many more ways to score points. But somehow, it hangs together well enough to be make sense.
  • The thinker: The initial play suggests set places for the seven neutral buildings, after which you can place them randomly. Your own set of 10 buildings have an ‘a’ and ‘b’ side, and you choose which to use (as a group) at the start of each game. This helps add variety to each play in a similar way to a deck-builder such as Dominion: survey your options, decide on a strategy, and go for it. You may be scuppered by the way workers come into the game, but otherwise – after half a dozen plays – the real strategist may find themselves running out of enthusiasm.
  • The trasher: In terms of interaction and screwage, Great Western Trail hints at much but delivers less. Clever placement of your buildings can give you a nice little income stream, but the few extra coins are unlikely to swing the game in your favour: it certainly isn’t a strategy in itself. And if it was, oh my – can you imagine the volume of the euro softy whining lol! Another potential screwage area is choosing which worker and hazard tiles to place onto the board each time you reach Kansas (hazards can potentially filter players to your buildings, by making alternative routes more expensive). But so many come out, so often, it rarely has an impact.
  • The dabbler: While the game looks great and I liked the theme, it can be very punishing if you get things wrong early. Most games we’ve played have seen at least one player end up with half the score of the others – not a problem for many groups, but it’s worth mentioning if you have a table-flipper/moody type in your midst! And don’t come in looking for the theme to have any depth: you’ll soon be asking yourself why you can only send one herd to each city, for example – and let’s not start down the route of historically accuracy (cattle drives to Kansas? The cattle going west by train? etc etc).

Key observations

This is a game where EVERYTHING scores you points and where many strategies may lead to victory. Interaction is limited, it’s pretty crunchy, and beyond the deck manipulation it is largely deterministic – if that isn’t your thing, Great Western Trail isn’t here to convert you to the euro cause.

But even for a hardened euro salad fan such as myself, there is sometimes a little too much going on here and a few ‘decisions’ could’ve been safely left on the design room floor. When you arrive at Kansas City, for example, you need to pick three workers/hazards from a set of six. This is fiddly and largely pointless, rarely being much of a choice (you could grab them from a bag).

Also, despite the options, the game can feel repetitive: wander across the board, sell cattle, repeat – and you’ll do this 10+ times each per game. Sure, the building selection ramps up a little and the cattle get more valuable – but largely its rinse and repeat. The game lacks the push-and-pull of Alexander Pfister’s previous design Mombasa and many will see it as lacking in comparison because of this. It feels much like a solitaire puzzle than an interactive euro game.

All the fiddliness and plethora of options makes for many icons, exceptions etc; and while I’d praise the rulebook for first learning the game, it becomes a very poor resource for later looking anything up. Great Western Trail is a game crying out for a simple reference sheet including all the myriad of similar (yet significantly different in practice) icons. Instead I found myself frustratingly flicking back and forth trying to find what I needed – a real impediment to a game which benefits from what should be short, snappy turns.

Conclusion

I’ve ummed and ahhed about my overall thoughts on Great Western Trail over my five or six plays so far, going from loving it to indifference to warming to it again.

There are interesting decisions to be made, both strategic and tactical, but is there real long time appeal? I’m currently enjoying ‘exploring the game space’, but in the same way I did with a few plays of Lewis and Clark or Russian Railroads – games that felt instantly fascinating to me, but which faded once I’d tried the few available strategies available and realised they lacked the competition needed to keep coming back for more.

But almost everyone I’ve played Great Western Trail with has really enjoyed it and I’ve enjoyed it too, so I’ll be keeping the game on my shelves – at least in the short term. And isn’t that the plight of the modern euro? To be played five times, then replaced by the latest new hotness? If so, this is the perfect example of the new breed – but I can feel my heart yearning for those simpler, more interactive and timeless euro classics that may well outlive the current crop of games. Or maybe I’m just getting old…

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review.

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.

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.