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.

X Nimmt: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

One play: Codenames – Pictures

codenames-picturesWhen I received Codenames: Pictures* I was faced with something of a (teeny tiny) dilemma – how do I go about reviewing this?

In reality it’s a standalone game in its own right – but mechanically it is almost identical to the original Codenames (reviewed here last October), just with pictures instead of words. Not really full review material unless you love repetition.

The next option was to review it as an expansion, but again it’s problematic. You don’t need the original game, it doesn’t really change anything up (except for the aforementioned) and it wouldn’t fit my format. So here it is: the ‘One Play’ review.

In truth, the One Play format ended up fitting the bill perfectly because – you guessed it – I’ve only played it the once. But as a big fan of the original I think I’m on pretty safe ground giving you the full picture (ho ho) on this almost inevitable variation on a theme. And I promise you right now, I won’t be doing a review of the ‘adult’ word version (although, if you do want to seek it out, it’s called ‘Deep Undercover’ – just don’t tell mum I sent you).

Codenames basics: A quick recap

codenames-pictures-tilesCodenames is a party game that can be (realistically) played with anything from four players to eight or more, with you all being split into two teams (no matter how many players participate).

Each team chooses a spymaster, with each team’s representative sitting together in front of a single card only they can see. In front of this is a grid of other cards that everyone can see – in this case picture cards. The trick is that the card only the spymasters can see tells them whose pictures are whose, which others are innocent bystanders, and which single card is the assassin (if a team guesses this word by accident, its instant defeat).

Taking it in turns, the spymasters then try to think up a one-word clue that their teammates can use to guess multiple of their team’s words correctly – but at the same time not any of the other words on display.

This is where the genius in the game lies. Sure, you can say “music, 2” because you’ve seen images of a record player and some headphones – but don’t rule out some crazy person guessing at a ‘tortoise’ picture because it’s the name of a band they like… Find more on the rules in my original Codenames review (linked above).

So what’s new here?

codenames-pictures-cardsThe most obvious change is, of course, the pictures. They’re black and white, relatively simply drawn, but they do have that slightly bizarre/surreal feel of Dixit cards: you’ll find a dinosaur riding a bike, a bed riding a wave, a dragon attacking a satellite dish…

But these multiple references mean the game has the same depth as the original word version: where before you relied on the multiple meanings of many English words, here you have that extra dimension visually too. The cards are still double sided, clearly marked so you know which way up they go, and printed on high quality linen finish stock.

There has also been a change in the size of the grid of cards you choose from, which is now 5×4 rather than 5×5 – so 20 rather than 25 cards. This means there are less ‘innocent bystanders’ (4, from 7) and one less clue to guess for each team. In one way this feels like a sensible change, as it makes it more tense but also a shorter game length (in theory). In reality, it has had a mixed reaction – but works fine either way.

So why bother with this one?

Codenames: Pictures feels different, while familiar, which can only be a good thing. Some will find it harder, some easier, depending on how you parse words and pictures. But whatever your decision, it’s great to have the choice.

It’s still a great for non-gamers, and this opens up to even more players as not everyone likes a word game – as well as being language independent, making it great for including those not so familiar with English. For game evangelists such as me it’s another weapon for our tabletop gaming arsenal. And even better, both games fit into the same box.

Why stop with what’s in the box?

Because the game’s rules are so simple, there’s no reason you can’t go hog wild and add in your own images. Have Dixit or Mysterium? Throw them in for a few rounds. Got lots of family photos? Make a special version for Christmas play. Or why not print out pics from friends from Facebook? The world’s your codenamey oyster.

Overall then, Codenames: Pictures will not be for everyone but it’s a delightful take on the original idea. It will appeal to both fans of the original concept and those who prefer to interpret images over puzzling over word games, and is sure to bring even more new people to the hobby.

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

Animals on Board: A four-sided game review

animals-on-boardAnimals on Board* is a non-religious yet Noah-themed set collection family game for two-to-four players. It’s listed as lasting 15-30 minutes and being for ages eight and up, which feels about right.

The rather lovely premise is that each player is building their own ark, but Noah has cornered the market on the whole ‘two-by-two’ thing – so you’re picking up the slack. This means you’ll earn points for anything but pairs of animals – so lonely animals or larger herds will serve you well instead.

While this is definitely a family game at the lower age range, there is still something there for the ‘grown ups’. The components are high quality and the artwork is really nicely done, with each set of animals (there are five of each type) having individual art – with baby animals (one point) ranging up to older wrinkly ones (five points).

In the box you’ll find 60 animal tiles (in 12 species), about 25 cardboard tokens and four cardboard arks – which are essentially tile holders for the 10 animals you need to collect. At first glance the box is way too big for the components inside, but you soon forgive them when you realise the arks – which you need to construct – can go back in without you needing to build them each time you play.

Teaching

animals-on-board-setupAs with all great children’s games, you can pretty much learn Animals on Board as you play. Each round is the same, and the mechanisms simple, so once you get going everyone should pick it up quickly.

Once everyone has their ark, each player also takes a starting animal tile (which you place on your ark) and one food crate. Nine to 13 animal tiles (depending on player numbers) are placed face up (with one face down) in the middle of the table – and you’re ready to go.

Players now take it in turns to take one of two actions: split an animal group and take a food crate; or feed some animals and take them into your ark. At the start of a round the animals are in one group – so to split them you simply choose as many as you like and make them into a separate group (of which you choose the makeup). No matter how you split them (so with 13 it could be anything from 7-6 to 12-1), you also take one food crate.

animals-on-board-apesTo take a group of animals, you simply spend a food crate for each one you take – and you must take all animals in the group (so a group of six costs you six food). You add them to your ark – and it also triggers the round’s end.

After one player has taken this action, each other player gets one more turn (on which they can take or split animals) – after which you restock the animals in the middle of the table, with whoever triggered the round end becoming start player for the next one.

This continues until, at the end of a round, one or more players have 10 or more animals on their ark – at which point you score. Scoring is simple: pairs are ignored (as they don’t score); single animals score the number of points printed on them (1-5); while every animal in a ‘herd’ (three of more of the same type) scores five points each. Highest score wins, with ties broken by the player with the most different animal types.

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 don’t usually like a memory element in games, but Animals on Board adds just enough to keep things interesting – especially if you’re an adult playing with children: if this was a game of perfect information, and you had good memory, it could get old fast. What they’ve done is start each player with a tile no one else sees until the end (you get to pick one of three), while one of the tiles in the middle that you’re choosing from is always face down too. This adds just enough secrecy to keep everyone guessing, while not making it a randomfest.
  • The thinker: While every round is the same, there are actually different strategies on offer here. It’s tempting to spend food crates as quickly as possible, as the game does feel like a race in which you don’t want to fall behind – but if you hold back, you can start to wield pretty strong power over the other players – especially psychologically – if you’re sitting on six or seven food crates! Suddenly the splitting of animals becomes a much more pressing decision, even at the start of a round.
  • The trasher: While Animals on Board is definitely going to be a light family game for most players, a group of embittered gamers (hello London on Board regulars!) can certainly bring its own dimension to proceedings! Denial is of course a big part of the game, if you want it to be, so sharing info on what you can remember about what other players have picked up – and getting a bit of banter going – is definitely a mood that you can make emerge from all the cutesy stuff if you’re so inclined.
  • The dabbler: I like this one! The animal tiles are really cute, the arks go together beautifully to add a bit more table presence, and there’s plenty of daft (or serious, if you want) roleplaying to be had, especially if playing with a younger audience. While the game is also very fast to play it’s easy to set up and breakdown, or to set up and play again, so there isn’t problems with downtime. And it couldn’t be easier to learn.

Key observations

animals-on-board-tilesPersonally I have no issues with the game at all, as a family game. However, if you’re looking for a two-player game for a couple of adults I’d probably give this a wide berth.

As an adult game it needs more than two players to really shine, both due to the fact it’s very fast playing with two (it’ll take longer to set up and break down than to play) and also because the more grown up elements tend to come into play more with more players (a bit of banter, trying to remember who has taken what etc).

One criticism I can relate to, if not completely agree with, is the cost/component to gameplay debate. The truth is that Animals on Board is a filler game in fancy clothing that could very easily have been a sub-100 card small box game – and then it would of cost less than £10, rather than double that with all the cardboard components.

But if you think of the audience as being families, and especially the children part of that, kids love games that look great – and there’s no doubt this would have less than half of the curb appeal if it was a small box card game. But whether you think there’s enough here to warrant a closer to £20 price tag is going to be an individual decision.

Accusations of ‘no depth’ are, I guess, fair – but then I don’t think designers Wolfgang Sentker and Ralf zur Linde were going for it: why would they? The important thing is that the ‘I split, you choose’ style decisions do get more interesting the longer the game goes on, so it does have a bit of an arc of its own (ho ho).

Conclusion

I’ve very much enjoyed my plays of Animals on Board and would definitely recommend it to families, or groups that enjoy playing a lot of filler games. It’s fast and fun with just enough extra depth to keep everyone happy.

The theme is fun, the light take on ‘I split you choose’ works well and the components, while probably flashier than they need to be, have been well put together. It works well across player counts and never outstays its welcome.

That said I won’t be keeping my copy, but only because I don’t meet the criteria above – it’s the kind of game that would sit on my shelves largely unplayed and I’d much rather it was out there getting some love. But a big thumb’s up from me nonetheless.

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

Elfenland: A four-sided game review

ElfenlandElfenland* is a classic family board game that won the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year Award) back in 1998. It has recently been reprinted and made available direct from a UK distributor; hence the new review of an old title.

The game is primarily a hand management (cards) and route building (on the board) game, with each player trying to visit all the towns on a large map using the cards and tokens they’re dealt each turn.

The box says ages 10+ but should be fine for your average eight-year-old; while it will take 2-6 players about an hour (I think it plays best with at least three and can run a bit longer with five or six).

In the box you’ll find a large board, 50 cardboard counters and almost 100 cards – all smothered with generic, whimsical fantasy art (plus more than 100 standard wooden pieces). Luckily it’s an abstract game so the slightly naff elves and dwarves don’t get in the way of gameplay! But actually it’s nice to find a German release that doesn’t shy away from fantasy in favour of a European town theme. At around £20 it is a real bargain.

Teaching

Elfenland in playA game of Elfenland is played over four identical turns and you should find players will be on-script once you’ve gone through one of them.

It’s important to get across before you start that it’s possible for someone to win in just three turns by collecting all of their pieces from the board – unlikely, but possible. It’s also important to stress that, if possible, players shouldn’t make routes that leave them with a bunch of disparate towns left to visit late in the game, where possible (although that’s often easier said than done).

The new rulebook looks scary big at first; but only until you realise they’ve managed to cram five languages into it. The English rules only run to eight pages, much of which is setup and pictures. Once setup, each round simply consists of being dealt travel cards; choosing transportation tokens; placing said tokens, then moving along the routes.

Each travel card (you’ll start each round with eight) depicts one of the seven travel forms; each of which can be used to traverse some of the different types of terrain – either efficiently (using one card), inefficiently (using two identical cards) or not at all. But you can also cross any terrain (except water) by using any combination of three cards.

Elfenland cards tilesPlayers now draw a travel token at random (that stays secret only to you), before choosing two more (either from five face-up tokens, or random picks). But which tokens should you choose?

The basics of the game are about working out the best ways to move that best marry up with your travel cards. But the key to success is having the flexibility to take advantage of how others place their tokens too.

This plays out in the main segment of each turn: placing transportation tokens. Each player takes it in turn to place one of their tokens on a travel route of their choice. Once placed, that route is then locked into that transport type for all players in that turn – so if you really need a part of your route to be a specific card type, you better get in fast – or hope someone else does you the favour of playing the right token for you!

Finally, each player moves to as many locations as they can (or want to) by spending their cards to move along ‘tokened’ routes (only water can be traversed without tokens). It doesn’t matter who placed the token, as long as you have legitimate cards to pay the cost – so in a game with lots of players you could move as many as eight spaces (one per card in hand) having played no tokens at all.

The game ends when either a player has visited all 20 locations (at the end of round three) or you’ve played four rounds. If there’s a tie, the player with the most cards in hand wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While Elfenland is a simple game in theory, it actually presents an interesting mashup of strategy and tactics; with the best laid plans oft scuppered by a single token. In your mind you want to plan the perfect route for the few tokens you have – while knowing that to really get across the board and scoring big you’ll need to rely on others to do some of the work for you. You can’t even card count, as all the travel cards are reshuffled at the end of every round.
  • The thinker: This really isn’t a game for those who love grand strategy, as the amount of randomness is unbearable. Take your random cards, grab your random token, probably pick some more random tokens – then wait for other players to ruin any plans you may have managed to cobble together, probably by accident. It’s enough to leave the more ardent planners amongst us reaching for the Valium! But if you’re the kind of player that likes to think on their feet, this is a top choice.
  • The trasher: While there’s no direct catch up mechanism, there’s a nice way to bash the leader: obstacle tokens. Each player only gets one at the start so you can’t go mad – but they add just enough tension to make it a highly worthy addition. You play it on a route with a token, which then means moving along that route will cost anyone doing it one extra card of that type – which can totally change the turn for anyone needing to use it. This wouldn’t normally be my game, but this simple little mechanism adds just enough to make me happy to play Elfenland once in a while.
  • The dabbler: While I enjoy the game, from the simple rules to the old school fantasy artwork, it can be a tough game to love on first play – especially for younger players. It’s quite easy to get things wrong in the first turn and end up feeling totally out of contention with only a quarter of the game gone. You just need to explain to these people that it’s a learning game and that they’ll benefit from using the remaining turns to improve and who knows – if you screwed up that bad in turn one, there’s nothing stopping the same happening to the others!

Key observations

Elfenland boardWhile I personally have no major beefs with Elfenland mechanically, the card graphic design raises some red flags – especially when you consider this is a reprint, so improvements could’ve been made.

It would’ve been very easy to give the travel cards a coloured border to match that of their matching travel token, rather than including the terrain values – which are pointless anyway, as they’re already available on a handy player aid.

Another issues is player count. Elfenland plays identically from two to six in terms of components, but in practice plays out very differently. With two or three you can really be scuppered by being in different areas of the board, making the best part of the game – using each other’s travel tokens – redundant on multiple (or even all) turns as you mope around on your own little journeys.

But with more players you get the opposite problem – where it is very easy for all players to be on 19 or 20 by the end of the game. This can often be alleviated by using the official variant included, which means each player has a secret designated city they’re meant to finish the game in; but this doesn’t help with lower numbers. I’d say that if you intend to play mostly with two or three players, you’d be advised to look elsewhere.

I’ve mentioned luck already, but it’s worth reiterating here: those who hate luck should also look elsewhere, as there is a lot of random chance going on here. Most of it is given to you to then work with strategically, making it more puzzle than anything, but even then you have other players screwing with your plans while they work on their own puzzles – which can feel a little odd for a route-building game.

There can also be king-making issues due to the obstacle tokens (and even accidentally through route tokens – its back to that luck factor again). And finally, don’t buy this one for the theme. Despite being very pretty, it is totally pasted on.

ElfenroadsNOTE: The game is also now available in a more expensive form, Elfenroads, which includes two expansions. These add extra ideas you can bolt on including bidding for tokens, new obstacles, and towns having variable values; as well as an alternative map. I hope to review this at a later date to see if it addresses any of these issues.

Conclusion

Elfenland is an intelligently designed family game that nicely walks that line between simply yet competitive gameplay. It’s a game you can teach to anyone, but importantly there’s also room for a player to improve – while the luck element means games can be closer than you’d think.

There’s a definite educational value here, as younger players can see the spatial elements of route building alongside problem solving as they have to think on their feet. But as with most entry level games, you may find some more seasoned gamers getting sniffy about it (and that’s fair enough).

In this form I’d recommend it – but won’t be keeping it. There are too many similar games in my collection that I like a little more for the amount I play family games of this type (such as Ticket to Ride, Africana and New York 1901). But if I get my hands on the new Elfenroads mentioned above, all bets are off…

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

Tash-Kalar – Everfrost & Nethervoid: expansions review

Tash-Kalar EverfrostTash-Kalar NethervoidTash-Kalar: Arena of Legends* is an abstract strategy game set in a fantasy themed arena (and reviewed in 2015).

It has risen into the Top 500 games on Board Game Geek and is listed just outside the Top 20 abstract games.

The game is played on a grid of squares with players trying to place their pieces in a variety of patterns; that in turn allow the playing of powerful cards that will change the shape of the game. There are variety of game modes, depending on player numbers (two to four), with aims ranging from simply taking your opponents pieces to completing tasks.

Its a fantastic abstract game that stands apart by having both elements of luck (in your individual card draw, the tasks etc) but also each player having their own deck of themed cards to use. There were two sets of identical cards in the box for the purists wanting to be more evenly matched, plus just two more decks: a bit tight, I thought – so it was always crying out for expansions.

What do Everfrost & Nethervoid bring to the party?

Tash frost allThese expansions are available to buy independently, so I’ll briefly talk about each one separately here. Both add nice thematic twists too, despite the abstract nature of the game.

Everfrost can be seen as the simpler of the two, despite it adding an interesting new twist not in the base game. The player using this card deck will find about a third of their cards carry the ‘frozen’ symbol. When you play these cards, instead of discarding it you instead leave it in front of you – as you’ll be able to thaw this ‘frozen’ effect when you need it.

But you can only have one frozen effect in front of you at a time, which can lead to some interesting extra decisions: if it looks as if your current frozen effect may come in handy soon, do you hold off playing another frozen card? But it’s hard not to play your cards immediately as keeping your patterns in place can be fiendishly difficult.

In addition a few of the individual cards throw in some interesting new effects, including Crystal Mirror (allowing you to mimic an opponents pieces – which could be a ‘heroic’); and Deathbringer (which lets you remove an opponent’s piece from the game completely).

Nethervoid can very much be seen as an advanced deck; as while it only adds a single new element to the game it’s a real doozy. Included in the expansion is a single yellow glass stone, which is referred to as ‘the Gateway’.

When you play a Nethervoid card and the Gateway isn’t on the board, the piece you place becomes the Gateway (you simply place the stone on it). It can be destroyed just like any of your other pieces (and will come back next time you play a card), but while in play can have a huge effect on the game – if you play your cards right (sorry…).

All but two of the cards in the Nethervoid deck mention the Gateway; with effects ranging from moving/becoming it, killing enemies adjacent to it, upgrading/using the current Gateway piece and moving your pieces towards to it. Regular players are probably already realising the significance of this: its hard to make any patterns at all, let alone making them line up with one individual piece that can also move around the board…

How much do they change the game?

Tash frost cardsWhile both decks are interesting, as you’ll see above, neither introduce anything to the game beyond this that wasn’t there already. Neither of the new decks affects team play, for example, and no new ways of playing are introduced.

Everfrost does adds a nice tension to the game, especially when playing against it. It’s painful having an effect hanging there, waiting go off in your face, probably when you most expect it too. Its an interesting addition to a game that is usually all about swift, decisive moves you rarely see coming (until you know the decks really well, that is).

But Nethervoid definitely adds a new element of strategy to the game. It’s a neat new twist that isn’t for the feint of heart and can be very hard to play well. But if you don’t like the frustration element of the original game, this ramps it up to 11! And despite being more complex it doesn’t feel imbalanced, even when you get it right.

Are Everfrost & Nethervoid essential?

Tash exp nether allOne of my key observations in my review of Tash-Kalar was a complaint about the lack of different card decks in the box. Four seemed exceedingly tight, especially as two of them were essentially identical.

It didn’t stop me having fun with the base game, and it is a fun challenge to play with the identical decks, but if this is a game you’re hoping to play often I’d say yes, grabbing at least one these will be essential.

However I wouldn’t say you need them straight away – quite the opposite, in fact. Especially with Nethervoid and to a lesser extent Everfrost, these expansion packs add more complex decisions and are more suited to players that have become familiar with the base game. The game can be quite hard to get your head around at first, as its mixes up some original ideas with traditional ones, and these add more advanced rules on top.

Are Everfrost & Nethervoid value for money?

At around £10 each, they may seem a little expensive – but each comes with its own scoreboard, tokens and card deck with all individual pieces of art on each card.

You could of course argue that you don’t really need the tokens, or boards – so why not just do cheap card expansions? My guess to that would be the standard one for expansions: that it’s the card art that costs all the money, so taking the other bits out wouldn’t reduce the cost much anyway.

But if you take them purely on what they add in terms of gameplay, they’re absolutely worth it. Although I wouldn’t want to get into an argument about whether they should have been included in the original game box anyway, with that having a slightly higher price… But hey, business is business and it’s easy to forget that this is the board game’industry’ – not the charity many Kickstarter campaigns would have us believe.

… and does it fit in the original Tash-Kalar box?

Tash exp nether cardsYes, very easily – as long as you’re happy to jettison the packaging, of course. But if you discarded the (rather useless) insert from the original box too, there’s still plenty of space for some more expansions too – and long may they continue.

* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing first the base game then the expansions for review.

Area 51 – Top Secret: A four-sided Kickstarter preview

Area 51Area 51: Top Secret* is a family board game with elements of action selection, set collection, area control and hand management.

The wafer-thin theme says players are building bunkers at the legendary Area 51, in which they’ll be trying to store various alien artefacts. But beyond the board and card art the theme is as real as the aliens themselves.

While I’d class it as a family/gateway game – around the complexity level of a game such as Ticket to Ride or Catan – it has an extra level of deviousness and some memory elements that give it an interesting level of emergent strategy.

I was sent a pre-release copy of the game so will not be including my own photos here (except one), as the finished product will have different components. However, in terms of gameplay, it was essentially the finished article.

The game takes two-to-six players about an hour to play and works well across those numbers – although I’ve not yet played two-player (if this changes I will amend the review accordingly). In the box you’ll find a modular board (setup changes depending on player numbers), around 100 artefact cards and a bunch of pieces representing towers/tower caps, security markers and means of transport (trucks, trains and level markers).

Teaching

Area 51 prototype

NOTE: This is an image of my prototype copy, not the finished game – here the board and cards are paper, and the plastic/wooden components are also prototype. Even the art may change.

As noted above, the basic actions available in Area 51 are very much of the ‘gateway game’ variety and very simple to teach.

On each of your turns you get to choose one of four actions: draw cards, build/improve a tower, move a truck/train, or empty a hangar into the towers.

If you take cards you get three; from the six face up cards or blind from the draw deck. There are four colours of card and these match the colours of the towers and trucks/trains. The cards also range in value between one and four, with the split/amount of cards differing per colour. There’s no hand limit.

If you build a tower you take a coloured tower of your choice and place it in the area of your choice (there will always be three areas, with the size of them varying depending on player count). You pay for it with two cards – one to do the action, which needs to be the same colour as the tower you chose, and any one other (which signifies the level of tower you’re building – they all start as ‘level one’, hence one extra card).

On later turns you can upgrade a tower (you mark them with a cube/tower cap of your player colour) by again playing one card of the tower’s colour, plus one more (any colour) card per level it has become – so to make a level two red tower into a level three, you would pay one red card and any three other cards.

Moving trucks/trains works in the same way. There is a train and truck of each tower colour, all of which start off the board. If you want a vehicle (they’re mechanically identical) to be based in an area, simply pay a face-up card of its colour plus up to eight other cards and place it facing out of the area you choose, pointing towards either of the other areas. The amount of extra cards you pay is denoted by a marker next to the vehicle: if anyone wants to move it later, they’ll have to pay more than you did (so paying the full eight extra cards means that vehicle can never be moved).

Importantly, all the cards you pay to do these actions are placed in the area you build/upgrade your tower or place a vehicle. The card you pay to do the action (matching the tower/vehicle colour) is placed face up – but all the others are placed face down. It’s also important to note here that each area has a number of hangars (two or three) and you can spread your payment between these in an area as you see fit.

Area 51 cardsThe final action is scoring a hangar. Up until now the numbers on the cards have been insignificant – but now they get interesting. The player takes all the cards (face up and down) from any one hangar (not area) and places them face up in front of them – and then works out how best to score them.

This is largely scripted, but can throw up some interesting decisions. Each tower in the area the hangar is in – plus any towers in areas connected by an appropriately coloured vehicle – can take just one artefact of its colour from a hangar when it is scored; as long as the artefact’s level is equal to or lower than the tower (so a level two blue tower can take a level one or two blue artefact, but not a level one red, level three blue etc).

The player scoring chooses which artefacts go where, and in what order; but must place artefacts in towers where possible. Any cards that couldn’t be accommodated then go into the active player’s hand. For example, if there were red towers of level one and four available, and the active player had found both a red level one and level four red artefact in a hangar, they could legitimately place the level one artefact in the level four tower first – meaning there was no room left for the level four red artefact (which would go into their hand). Sneaky. Points are scored by the players owning these towers, so not necessarily the person taking the action, at a simple one point per level of artefact ratio.

When you upgrade a tower you use a security marker, which are limited in each area. When two areas run out of these markers the end game is triggered – with each player getting one more regular turn; and the game then continuing until all the hangars have been scored. Finally, there are end-game bonuses for the biggest towers in each area.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Area 51 is a really clever game design. The mechanisms are simple, yet the decisions can be fiendishly tricky – especially once you start to forget where you’ve put your cards (which happens to me almost immediately). It’s always nice to score a hangar if you know you’ll get at least three cards excess; but can you really be sure you will? Or maybe it’s better to get a vehicle down to divert a possible score there first; but then the hangers in that area will be made more tempting for other players to score… I love these kinds of decisions.
  • The thinker: While this game feels far more tactical than it does strategic, it has clever elements of both. There are elements of area control and you constantly feel at the behest of others; but once you’ve played the game a few times this can become hugely satisfying. However at first it can feel very frustrating – I just hope players give it the few games it deserves to start to see the possibilities. Also, in terms of area control, it’s a shame they didn’t think more about the end-game tower scoring – as in my games to date it has felt largely inconsequential.
  • The trasher: Half of me hated Area 51 – it has totally the wrong theme and consequently suffers from a complete lack of personality. But once you get your head around what’s going on (at least half a game) its tactical nature becomes a real treat. Timing and placement are both crucial, but you’re constantly rethinking your position after the moves of others – which keeps you watching their moves. I didn’t find the decision space too big though, but some did – the game seemed to stop some player’s in their tracks and they really took against it, without really being able to pinpoint why. I think it just presses an interesting collection of buttons.
  • The dabbler: Sadly I wasn’t really won over by this one. It doesn’t look great and the theme totally doesn’t make sense: why on earth would we be running competing bunkers within Area 51? Stupid. And while it may have a clever modular board there is no attempt to add personality through artwork, player customisation, interesting cards, or the like. It should be illegal to make a game with a sci-fi theme where you’re storing crazy looking artefacts – and simply give them a colour and number! Where’s the fun in that? As arid as the Nevada desert!

Key (Kickstarter) observations

Area 51 boardArea 51 is on Kickstarter now (until September 16, 2016) with a backing target of just €6,000 – and from a publisher with a track record of delivering good quality games.

At €35 the base game is well priced, especially if you can collect free from Essen in October – and is still good value with the extra €10-15 shipping to Europe, the US and Canada.

But that is of course dependent on component quality. While the art is fine (if unspectacular), the base pieces we were sent were not fit for purpose and the train/tower pieces were the polar opposite of vibrant. Mechanically though, it’s sound!

My one criticism is that the game lacks a little bit of a personality – and it is frustrating to see that this may be added via stretch goals. The ‘Contraband’, ‘Alien Spaceship’ and ‘Prosperity’ expansions? These sound awesome! No, they’re not 100% necessary and the game will be staying in my collection with or without them – but it would have been great to have a few more things to shout from the rooftops about. But I guess I just have to accept that this is how many game publishers like to use Kickstarter.

Conclusion

For me, Area 51 is a highly enjoyable light-medium euro game with some really clever and devious mechanical twists. It’s packed with interesting decisions and has a fluidity that keeps me glued to the board, while it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But I can’t promise you it will be a hit with your group! I’ve played it with nine different people to date, all of whom I’d thought could like it – and its actually turned out to be quite the Marmite experience (for the uninitiated – they loved it or hated it).

I think two things work against it – both of which I’d say will turn out to be strengths in the long run. First the in-game scoring takes some getting used to and is unintuitive, so can throw people off and frustrate them early on. Secondly and connected is the lack of card knowledge that can leave players feeling they have little control; which goes against the game’s seemingly euro nature. But I feel these are both mostly ‘first play’ problems.

So if you like euro games I would say this is a game you should definitely try out. There are enough familiar elements to lull you into feeling at home, but enough quirks to then immediately knock you off your comfy perch. I just hope enough people back it to open up those stretch goals – and that they consequently add that little bit of extra character the base mechanisms so richly deserve.

* I would like to thank Mucke Spiel for providing a prototype of the game for review.