Pocket Imperium: A four-sided game review

Pocket ImperiumPocket Imperium* is a sci-fi-themed abstract area control game using programmed, simultaneous action selection to plan and carry out your moves.

It’s a microgame that attempts to pack the idea of a 4X game (expand, explore, exterminate, exploit) into a tiny package – and does so with aplomb.

It was originally released on Brett Gilbert’s fantastic Good Little Games website and if you want to try it out it’s still downloadable there in its basic form – but the boxed copy adds plenty to the original.

Pocket Imperium plays in under an hour and says two-to-four players on the box; but I’d say anyone looking specifically for a two-player game should look elsewhere (more on that later).

In the small box are seven cardboard tiles and 50 tokens; 50 wooden ships, and 14 linen finish cards. You can find it for about £20, which is solid value for what’s in the box – all the components are of a high standard and are well designed.

Teaching

Pocket Imperium in play2Pocket Imperium is, on one level, a very straightforward game – but it can take people a few rounds to get to grips with some of the specifics.

During the game players will vie for control of ‘systems’ (which I’ll call planets) and ‘sectors’ (which I’ll call hexes); by each round placing new ships (expanding), moving them (exploring) and attacking with them (exterminating). At the end of the round they will score points (exploit); and they do this for six or eight rounds, depending on player count.

Each player has 12 ships (destroyed ships return to your stock and can be used again) and three cards that represent the three available actions. The ships and actions are identical for each player – hence the game’s abstract nature, despite the theme. At the start of each round all players simultaneously decide in which order they’ll do their three actions, placing the cards face down in front of them.

The order matters in terms of tactics (you may bolster your forces before moving or attacking; or perhaps you’re at full strength, so want to attack first to have ships to reintroduce later in the round); but also in terms of how powerful the actions will be. Once all players have chosen their action order, everyone turns over their first card at once.

Pocket Imperium cardsIf you’re the only player to choose an action in a position, you do it three times – but just twice if two of you pick it, and only once if three pick it in the same slot. This adds a nice bluff and reading element to the game, as sometimes it may be obvious what particular opponents should do while you may have less obvious options.

Once each player has completed their first card you reveal your second cards and complete those; and then the last cards are completed (all actions are optional, in full or in part).

The ‘exploit’ part of the round sees each player choose a different one of the hexes to score (this is compulsory). Players score points for any planets they control on that hex – but other players will also score ones they control on the same hex. This means you often have to give points to other players, making your decision a little trickier than it could be. Then whoever controls the largest planet chooses a second (unscored) hex to score.

Finally, at the end of each round every space can only sustain a certain amount of ships: any extras on a space are lost, which stops you building lots of ships on a single space.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I was a fan of the original print and play version of Pocket Imperium, but this is a definite improvement in all departments. The great old three-player original is largely intact and plays the same way, but moving from cards to hexes allows for different layouts; while some different planet setups on the reverse of the hexes also add to the replayability possibilities.
  • The thinker: This is an impressive abstract strategy game in a small package, with even the random element that some may be wary of having a tactical element. It’s important to emphasise how important initial placement can be. You get to place two ships on each of two planets before play begins and depending on how the hexes are randomly laid, there can be some real advantages to be had. But as in all area control games its up to the players to real back in the leaders and not let someone grab a clear lead; which can be a great leveller versus more skilled players.
  • The trasher: While I like a good area control game, I’m on the fence about this one. While you do get a good ebb and flow as powers rise and fall, the euro-style components make it a bit of a personality vacuum. On the flip of that I like the simplicity of the combat, with ships simply neutralising/obliterating each other in a fight. But I’d have loved to have seen some individual player powers, or scenarios, rather than just the different map set ups that – while looking like they add variety – don’t do anything to change the core elements of the game.
  • The dabbler: This isn’t my kind of game at all, but it’s not as bad as some and is quite short! One plus point is the fact the points you score are kept face-down. This gives an opportunity for the talkers in your group to persuade the others of how their plight is doomed – even if they may actually be right in contention. It’s also nice that the ships of different colours are also different shapes; but there is no attempt within the rules to give the game any added personality. This may be a ‘pocket’ parody of big brother Twilight Imperium, but don’t expect to get into character.

Key observations

Pocket Imperium componentsPlayer count is a definite issue here. While Pocket Imperium is great with three I’ve found it very zero-sum with two and I wish they hadn’t put that number on the box at all.

The game is fine with four, but strangely they’ve added two rounds – presumably so that each player goes first twice. The problem is it makes the game drag on too long for what it is, while six rounds feels about right with three. We’ve started playing just four rounds in a four-player game and for us this works just fine: there’s enough ebb and flow in this shorter variant of the game to make you feel you’ve got your money’s worth.

I also have a small issue with some of the choices in wording – a common bugbear with rulebooks. Using phrases such as ‘sector’ and ‘system’ just confuses people – and what’s the point when so little else has been done to add theme elsewhere? All it does is serve to make explaining the game a little more difficult.

Replayability is a common issue that comes up in reviews and comments from others, but taken as a quick filler you play occasionally this won’t be an issue – although I can see why people see it as more than a filler if trying to play the full-length four-player game. But no, this is not a game you should be picking up if you want to play it every week! But then how many games really are?

Conclusion

Pocket Imperium in play1Pocket Imperium is an impressive microgame. But despite the nice artwork and pasted on theme, this is very much an abstract game in a small package.

If you like abstract games that have a random element, as well as area control, it is definitely worth taking a long look at. Games tend to be very close and once you’re familiar with the rules it should only take about 30 minutes for three players – and both setup and pack-down are quick and easy. There are even a couple of small expansions available.

I would never play it with two players (I’d suggest taking a look at The Rose King) and would only play our shortened version with four. But it’s great to have another really good microgame on the market (you might also want to check out – self-promotion alert – Empire Engine). Overall then, an impressive achievement.

* I would like to thank designer David J Mortimer for providing a copy for review.

Dice Heist: A four-sided game review

dice heistDice Heist* is a light set collection card and dice game. It has an interesting push-your-luck element, but is a family level filler game that anyone can enjoy (some suggest kids as young as six could play).

The game comes with 15 dice and 56 cards, packed neatly into a small box (about the size of two packs of cards – the same as AEG’s Sail to India).

The card quality is fine, the dice are small (but do the job) and the cartoony artwork ranges from great to average, keeping the price of the game down to around £15 this side of the pond – or less than $20 in the US (which seems about right – unfortunately UK prices for board and card games suck right now).

The box actually says 14 and up as an age range, but I think this purely comes down to not wanting to spend money on the extra testing needed to certify games for younger age groups. The only real issue I could see are the dice being a choking hazard!

Teaching

Dice Heist in playThe rules to Dice Heist couldn’t be much simpler: your goal is to have the most points once all the cards in the deck have been claimed.

On each turn (you simply go clockwise) you first reveal the top card from the deck and add it to the appropriate museum (each card has a flag); if the card has a ‘plus’ symbol you add a second card (and so on).

Next you either try to rob a museum, or add a sidekick (extra dice) to your team. Each player is a thief represented by a black dice; if you take a sidekick you simply add a white dice from stock to your pool of dice – and your turn is over.

If you try to rob a museum you choose which one, then decide how many dice you’ll be using. You always go yourself, but can take as many sidekicks as you want with you on the heist. Each of the four museums has a number on it (from two to five); and to successfully pull off the heist, one of the dice you roll will need to beat that number.

The kicker is that, if the heist is successful, all the participating sidekicks go back to stock – so the trick is working out how many you should take to give yourself the best odds of succeeding. If you fail your heist your sidekicks hang around, waiting for a payday – but of course you have essentially wasted a turn.

The various treasures score in three different ways: cards with a purple pot (or two) are worth one or two points (and are kept face down to stop people working out exact scores); those with a coloured triangle are scored triangularly by colour (one is worth one point, two is three points (one plus two), four is 10 points etc); and the works of art have values – the player with the highest total art value scores eight points, the one with lowest loses four.

The four sides

Dice Heist art cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Dice Heist sets up in two minutes, can be explained in three and takes about 20 minutes to play – giving you the entire experience in less than half an hour. Its light and breezy, has stand-up dice rolls/laughs, but is so obviously luck/fun driven that there’s no room for misunderstandings: this is a palate cleanser, game night starter or pub game and does exactly what it says on the tin.
  • The thinker: What’s to think about? No matter how much I debate what to do I’m still playing the odds, meaning it’s essentially a crapshoot. The right thing to do to beat The Louvre when I only have two dice is to take another dice – but that doesn’t stop the next guy flinging his one dice and luckily getting a six before my next turn. If this kind of thing annoys you, or you find it pointless, there’s very little for you here.
  • The trasher: As a filler I enjoy Dice Heist quite a bit. Especially in the second half of the game there’s a bit more tactics to it, as you can start to assess who is collecting what in terms of scoring. Getting those eight bonus points for art can be a big swing – but equally stopping someone getting their fifth triangle of the same colour stops them getting five points – meaning a trip to a less appealing looking museum may actually be more advantageous than its two cards might suggest.
  • The dabbler: Love it! Some of the art is funny, while the simple rules and fast play time keep everyone involved and laughing throughout. It doesn’t take much imagination to start giving the dice some personality and bringing a bit of roleplay to proceedings, with talk quickly turning to weakening the security for the next player or laughing as someone rolls a couple of ones while trying to take on an easy task. This will always be in my bag for family game nights now, as well as for sessions with non-gamers and as a filler for everything else.

Key observations

Dice Heist gallery cardsIf you don’t like dealing with the luck of the dice, Dice Heist is simply not going to be for you. It’s super light – but claims to be nothing more.

My only slight issue with the game is that the four countries chosen for the museums all happen to have the same colours in their flags.

This can make it hard to quickly place cards in the right stacks, which is annoying in a game that otherwise plays very smoothly. But when that is the worst of your worries, you know you’re playing a very solid game.

Conclusion

Dice Heist pot cardsI like Dice Heist a lot. It’s a simple and quick tactical push-your-luck game that has a small element of strategy thrown in during later rounds – but that is so quick and breezy you really don’t have time to worry.

And it has had a surprisingly high hit rate with my gamer friends, despite some of them not usually taking kindly towards such light fayre.

I can only surmise that your average player, however much they may prefer a deep strategic puzzle, can still appreciate a game that does what it sets out to do so well – and I feel that’s what they’ve managed to achieve with Dice Heist: a simple take on familiar mechanisms, but with a neat twist and just enough thematic connection to create the right atmosphere.

* I would like to thank co-designer Trevor Benjamin for providing a copy of the game for review. For full disclosure, I was a playtester on the game and the designers are both friends in the Cambridge design group (but hopefully you can trust I’m being honest!). 

The Rose King (AKA Rosenkönig): A four-sided game review

Rose KingThe Rose King (previously available in German as Rosenkönig) is a two-player-only abstract strategy game that plays in around 30 minutes.

In the small box (8x8x2-inch) you’ll find the game board, 52 rose tokens (wooden in the old versions, cardboard in the new English one), 32 cards and a wooden crown token.

The board is a well-drawn old-style map of northern England, where the War of the Roses was played out between royal rivals from Lancaster and York in the 15th Century – but in game terms it is just a nine-by-nine grid of squares. The card art is nice, if just functional rather than elaborate, but does the job perfectly.

You can find the game for less than £20 and (spoiler alert) there is more than enough game in the box for that price. However, since the original (with wooden pieces) was about the same price, I’m surprised they didn’t lower the cost of this significantly. Why not go the whole hog, make the board thin card, and sell two versions – the ‘deluxe’ original and a super-cheap cardboard one for under a tenner to try and grab some more fans?

Teaching

Rose King boardAs with all classic abstract strategy games, the rules of The Rose King are very simple – the skill comes from the tactical decisions you make; or often in what you fail to see that then bites you in the ass.

The crown piece starts the game in the middle square of the board. Each player starts with four one-shot ‘hero cards’ in their colour; and is dealt five face-up cards from the shared ‘power card’ deck. A player may never draw a card if they have five power cards.

Taking it in turns, players choose to either play or draw a power card (simply draw the top one from the deck). Each power card displays a direction (N, NE, E etc) and a number between one and three; and the cards of both players are face-up throughout the game.

When playing a power card, you place it in the discard pile and move the crown token from its current location by the card’s exact amount and direction (eg, three spaces NE). You may only play the card if it is legal: the final position of the crown token must be within the board’s boundaries and the spot it is moving to must be empty. If this is the case, place a rose token of your colour in the square and place the crown on top of it.

The exception is if you play a hero card. These are played along with a power card and allow you to move the crown to a space occupied by your opponent’s rose – and flip their rose to your side (you can never move the crown to a space you already occupy). But remember you only have four hero cards and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Play continues in this way until either all of the rose tokens have been placed on the board; or until neither play can play or draw a card. Players then score their rose tokens, with larger orthogonal clusters scoring significantly more points; it is the number of spaces squared, so a cluster of 3 will score just 9 – but a cluster of nine would score 81.

The four sides

Rose King in playThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I can’t believe how many interesting decisions, and swings, The Rose King packs into such a simple and short playing game experience. When to use your hero cards is key: when you have none left and your opponent does you are extremely vulnerable – but if you have the opportunity to take a lot of points, it’s hard (and possibly a mistake) to resist. Without them the game would be average; with them, for me it’s a classic.
  • The thinker: Fans of games such as Go and Chess may baulk at the random elements on show here, but I would urge them to give it a try. While it lacks the purity of strategy those games thrive on the tactical challenges the game throws up have their own charm. A good player should always beat a novice, but it won’t take an intelligent gamer long to get up to speed – and then you’ll be in for some close games. And there isn’t always an optimal move, leaving genuine choices rather than a simple right or wrong move.
  • The trasher: While I’d prefer more theme, The Rose King is a brutal game and probably the most fun I’ve had with a two-player abstract. The game is purely tactical, while not giving you too many decisions to parse at once, so it zips along nicely but can throw you some real curve balls. You can think you’re in a really strong position, then your opponent draws the perfect card for themselves and suddenly you’re on the defensive. And there are so many time you want to use those hero cards to swing the tide, but they’re like hen’s teeth!
  • The dabbler: This game isn’t really for me. It’s OK, and clever, but because there is no theme – and no mystery (every playing piece is visible) – the stand-up moments just aren’t there. Sure, there are those ‘oh no’ moments when you realise you haven’t seen what’s about to happen to you – and it feels great when you spot those and your opponent doesn’t, letting you score a big area. But at the end it tends to feel like you’ve lost my making mistakes, which doesn’t make me feel too great! I prefer a game with shocks and moments where players feel they’ve made a great play, rather than waiting for the mistakes of others.

Key observations

The Rose King is often criticised for its random elements, and lack of control – and so for the lack of strategic planning. All true – this is largely a tactical game, but I don’t think it’s any weaker for that. I guess some may get the wrong impression by its look, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it pretends to be anything it isn’t.

Speaking of its look, the complete lack of theme has some bemoaning the fact they tried to paste one on at all – while others complain it is very dry, perhaps because they expected a War of the Roses game to have more than pictures of knights on cards, a map and some tokens with roses on. These are points of view I understand, but I don’t see them as really slights against the game; so yes, it is a little dry – but good dry.

Tactically, you can argue hero cards are a little too important – as the player who runs out of them first does tend to lose. So holding them back is the play – but if you hold on too long you can end up not being able to use them, so it isn’t quite that straightforward. And finally some complain games can be a blow-out, with a big scoring area blowing the other player out of the water.

To these points I’d say two things. First, I don’t think this is a game people should overplay – it’s not an every day or back-to-back plays kind of game for most people. As for blow outs, you need to remember this is a 30-minute experience – we’re not talking one player starting to get hosed then having to be beaten down for a few hours.

Conclusion

Rose King back boxAlongside Ingenious and Can’t Stop, The Rose King has been one of my favourite abstract games since I picked it up back in 2012 – but I’d been playing it for years before online at Yucata.de (as ‘War of the Roses’ – a great place to try it out).

I love that you can teach it in five minutes and play it in 30, making it a great lunch break experience – especially to introduce to Chess or Go playing colleagues as an introduction to our great hobby.

I’m a little disappointed with the inferior cardboard components in the most recent English edition, but I wouldn’t let that stop me recommending this fantastic game to anyone who loves a bit of an abstract tactical challenge with a sprinkling of luck thrown in.

* You may have noticed the lack of my usual ‘class A’ photos (ahem). This is because the version I own is the German original which has different components (but exactly the same rules), so I’ve used the Kosmos promo images here instead. 

CVlizations: A four-sided game review

CVlizationsCVlizations* is a two-to-five player action selection family card game, that plays in about an hour.

The art and name owe much to game publisher Granna’s previous release CV, but the game itself is a very different animal (although it will also set you back around £20).

There is also a thematic resemblance, but here you’re showing the history of your civilisation rather than your personal career development.

In the hugely oversized box (it’s the same as the equally oversized CV box) you’ll find a small game board, around 100 cards and 100 or so wooden and cardboard tokens – again closely mimicking CV (it even has the same insert, although there’s no pencil and score pad). The component quality is high throughout and artist Piotr Socha’s illustrations are once again fantastic. But here the CV comparisons stop.

Teaching

CVliz in playThe basic concepts of CVlizations are very simple and easily explained to any group. And while players play their cards face down each turn everyone has the same cards, and are playing for open rewards, so it’s easy to repeat rules as you go.

The game is played over nine turns, split into three ‘ages’ of three. In each turn players will play two cards, so over the course of the game you’ll play a total of 18 actions. At the end of the game, the player with the most (surprise surprise) victory points (happiness) is the winner.

Each player starts the game with an identical set of eight cards. Each turn they choose two of these to play and then discard, meaning six of their eight cards are played in each era. At the end of an era you get those six cards back (then rinse and repeat).

Each card lets you do a different (fairly standard) action: three let you take one of the three types of resource (food, wood, stone); three let you trade, take or steal resources; while one gives straight VPs. The last lets you double up whichever action you chose with your other card in that turn. The actions are done in order, with each action having a number on the card (so for example taking a log is a number two – no sniggering at the back!)

CVliz actionsThe trick is players play one action face up and the other face down – and the amount of people that play each determines how well it work for each player that chose it. Most work OK with one, best with two, and either poorly or not at all with three or more players choosing it at once – so there is lots of second-guessing going on.

Finally in each round, players have the opportunity to buy ‘ideas’. There are four available per round, each costing a varying number of resources and giving either victory points, a special ability or both. Abilities are standard fayre: giving bonus victory points for doing certain actions; discounts on later ideas; and generally bending the rules a little.

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’m really not keen on games with a large memory element, and CVlizations falls into this category if you’re actually trying to win. You’re desperately trying to remember who has played what so you know the chances of doing something well that round – but I guess that’s me, not the fault of the game. We did try playing with face-up discards, but that just makes the dreaded ‘analysis paralysis’ monster rear its ugly head. It’s a game you probably need to play more lightly – but at the same time, it doesn’t really feel like that sort of game.
  • The thinker: This is not really a game for thinkers, although at first I thought it might be. A clever player can fairly predict the kind of actions others should take, but that only gets you so far – and unfortunately there isn’t enough difference in the amounts taken to make the decisions that meaningful anyway (even if you could accurately predict them). And unless you’re start player that turn, who knows what might be available to buy anyway? An exercise in frustration, unfortunately.
  • The trasher: CVlizations has the potential to be a real screw-your-neighbour type game, but instead they’ve decided to keep it family friendly. Even when the steal action lets you take more than one item from opponents you have to take it from different ones – annoying if you have a clear leader. both the actions and idea cards lack a little in imagination too, bending rules a little rather than a lot: they could have made it much more swingy and fun, or put in some alternative cards for those who wanted a less friendly match.
  • The dabbler: I enjoyed this one quite a lot. It is fairly easy to pick up, fast playing and it looks great, the funny illustrations really adding to the experience. You can’t plan much so you chat while you play, and there’s enough randomness to know that over-thinking your moves is a waste of time – it’s more fun to just go with the flow and see what happens. But I don’t enjoy it as much as CV, because it doesn’t quite pull off the narrative arc as well. At the end of CV I can really see the life my character had – I don’t look at my ideas here and see how my civilisation evolved.

Key observations

CVliz leftFirst and foremost, gamers that don’t like randomness need not apply! Especially at higher player numbers it’s a real crap shoot.

You never really know what resources you’ll end up with, which is kind of OK, but then unless you’re first player you don’t really know what will be available to buy either – making planning pretty impossible.

What ends up happening is everyone tries to get a good spread of goods to give themselves the best opportunity to get something/anything useful – which is where the next problem rears its head: what promises to be a bit of an engine builder usually turns into ‘buy what I can afford and hope the best’.

The problem is that each card is going to be worth at least one point, and you’re only going to get the chance to buy nine at best. Missing out feels like a lost opportunity, while holding out for something better next round could just as easily turn out to be an exercise in futility. All the while your neighbour is watching their accident engine fall perfectly into place…

CVlizations seems best at three players and OK at four – but not great at two or five. With two you have the dreaded ‘dummy player’ – or a tedious ‘advanced’ version that sees both players also playing dummy hands; while at five it has downtime issues – and some of the idea cards start to swing a long way to either being super useful or super useless, as the chance of three players choosing the same action increases.

Conclusion

CVliz cardWhile my review of CVlizations probably doesn’t come across as very positive, I think it’s largely because I’m not the target audience.

I saw a lot of families playing and enjoying this at UK Games Expo and it has a Board Game Geek rating well over 6.5, which is pretty strong for a lighter weight family game.

But this kind of gateway level game is usually right in my wheel house. I’m always happy to play the likes of Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and the rest, but something about this one just doesn’t sit right. For me it doesn’t get the mix of randomness and skill quite right – while it also fails to capitalise on the theme, where CV really nailed it.

But don’t get me wrong: this is a solid game with great art and components. Unfortunately it just isn’t for me, as I’ve seen too many examples of poor luck meaning a player simply isn’t able to compete – not a big deal for many at this price point and game length, but it just sticks in my craw a little too much to stick with it.

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

Ice Cool: A four-sided game review

ice coolIce Cool* is a flicking dexterity game for two to four players, although the more people that play the better it is.

The game plays out in about 30 minutes, but it’s the kind of game you can dip in and out of and play for as long as you like – it’s a party game.

Age-wise it’s listed as six and up but I can guarantee you’ll find people of all ages that will never be able to play this game (hi Candice! Hi Nat!) – but otherwise the age range seems about right. The game sold out at the UK Games Expo but is being reprinted in time for visitors of GenCon to grab a copy in the US in August. It cost £25 in the UK, which is a great price for the amount of stupid fun you get in the box.

I remember once laughing at a job ad in a newspaper looking for a ‘cardboard technologist’, but if this is what they do for a living then they’re awesome. As you’ll see in the pics below the game box has four more boxes inside that together make up a two-foot square play area. You’ll also find a bunch of wooden fish tokens, a deck of small cards and four weighted Subbuteo-style plastic penguins…

Teaching

Ice Cool boxesThe theme goes a long way in helping to describe the rules of Ice Cool. Each player is a penguin, at school, just before lunch break.

Each round you’ll either be playing a naughty penguin trying to sneakily grab some fish before the others – or the hall monitor trying to catch them first.

The ‘school’ has five rooms connected by seven doors – three of which doors have fish tokens above them (one per player on each doorway). The naughty kids (or ‘runners’) are trying to slide their way through each of these doors to collect their three fish and end the round – while the monitor (or ‘catcher’) is trying to catch them all before they do (to also end the round). Each player will get to be the catcher once (or twice in a two-player game), after which the game ends.

Ice Cool red penguinThe game begins with the catcher placing his penguin in the room opposite where the runners start. The runners then take turns first, each getting one flick before the catcher starts to come after them; after which you continue in turn order until the round ends.

Scoring is a simple affair and very easy to explain, although as with most party games it’s much more about the laughter of playing than caring about who wins in the end.

But what really makes this game stand out is the penguins themselves. The weight in their base and the shape of their heads makes two types of trick shot possible: swerves (flick the base on one side and at the right pace to make it veer that way) and jumps (by flicking the penguin’s head). This makes some amazing plays possible – if highly unlikely – and gives big dexterity game fans something to master.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: what I like most is how Ice Cool mixes dexterity with some real tactical decision making. Much like in a real kids game of tag you need to think about who to target as the catcher, or who to avoid (for the same reason) as a runner – and what the safest route is to hit your goals. But one great, or totally lucky, shot can change everything.
  • The thinker: One nice touch is the scoring cards. They range from one point to three, nut the one-point cards have a secondary function: if you collect two you can use them to take an extra go – but you’ll still score the points at the end. This is a nice way to mitigate the luck of the points draw and is another example of the intelligent thinking put behind what, on the surface, looks like a simple party game. Is it a thinker’s game? No. Is it fun? Absolutely.
  • The trasher: Nothing quite beats a dexterity game that is pure take-that in nature, and Ice Cool is just that. But while it’s fun swatting noobs, I really want to get good at this with a group that does the same. It’s interesting that the penguins are actually a little too tall to go through the doorways upright, meaning they only go all the way under doorways is at a slight angle. But especially as the catcher, getting caught in doors is usually a strong tactical position. Each room has a red line drawn about an inch in, so if you’re close to a wall you can move to this line to get a better flick. If you’re in a doorway, you can choose which line to move to – letting you cover two rooms from the one position. Just another tactical thing to think about.
  • The dabbler: The artwork throughout the game is absolutely gorgeous. The classrooms are beautifully realised and really ad to the experience, while the penguins themselves are delightfully dumpy and cute. The action is fun and frenetic, and the sliding penguin theme makes sense as well as being cute: the floors of the rooms are even made to look like ice rinks. But strangely he theme just didn’t work for me; it’s a really kiddy theme for a game which is much more aimed at a wide range of age groups. But it takes nothing away from the game – it just adds a lot less than I’d expected it too.

Key observations

Ice Cool blue penguinSome people simply aren’t any good at dexterity games, or flicking games in particular, and Ice Cool gives nowhere for those people to hide.

In most dexterity games you can set your own goal: beat your previous score, try to get to a particular point, grab a particular scoring marker etc. But here it is all versus all and the only way for the game to move forward is in ‘every man for himself’ fashion. This means that a bad flicker is going to get miserable fast as they fail and fail to get any score cards.

I also fear that, with the rules as they are, the game will have limited replayability for even its biggest fans. A difference in ability shows itself fast so whoever owns the game will soon find it tough to find opponents who are a challenge.

It would’ve been nice if designer Brian Gomez had come up with an alternative, non-confrontational way of playing the game – maybe a race scenario or similar. Sure, you could make one up yourself; but when so much thought has gone into the rest of the game it’s a shame a little more didn’t go into some alternative ways of using the fantastic components on offer here.

Conclusion

Ice Cool green penguinIce Cool is way more fun than it has any right to be. It doesn’t take long for those good at dexterity games to start to get a hang of the various flicking techniques, but you’ll find even the best players having terrible turns.

The attention to detail – from the artwork to component design – is top notch, while the rulebook is beautifully done and covers all eventualities. So as long as you accept that some players are going to really take against it, I highly recommend the game to any groups that love a clever little dexterity game – especially if they also like a take-that element to their games.

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

One play: CRISIS

Crisis(NOTE: Crisis successfully funded on Kickstarter on August 31. It will be released in October 2016)

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to sit down with an almost retail ready prototype of a game you’re looking forward to and have it explained by the publisher. So when LudiCreations invited me to a test play of CRISIS at the UK Games Expo I jumped at the chance.

Crisis (Sorry, I can’t stick with the all-caps) is a sci-fi-themed worker placement and engine building game set in a dystopian future. But if I tell you the game’s two designers are employees of the Greek government and that the game’s most unique feature is its crumbling economy and (probable) financial crash, I’m sure you can guess the true source of its inspiration.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to conclude our play, as some of the players had to leave before the end, but I saw enough to know this is a game I’m desperately wanting to play more so I can give it a proper review before its release (hint hint!). And enough to give you a brief rundown of why I’m keen to see more.

Worker placement…

Crisis at ExpoTaking up to five players and running two to three hours, this is a solid medium weight euro. The actions themselves won’t surprise too many people, borrowing from standard worker placement tropes, but the integration of theme, lovely art and components, plus a unique scoring/financial disaster track make it an intriguing prospect overall.

The majority of actions see you claiming companies; grabbing workers and resources to make the companies work; and then selling off the resources you’ve manufactured (hence the engine building element of the game). And of course you can also manipulate turn order, grab some cash via loans, grab easy victory points etc.

This works by placing workers individually in turn order and most spaces only have room for one worker, forcing you into tricky decisions: do I take the company I want, only to find I have no worker to man it? Or take a worker who may stand idle as the company I wanted has been snatched away?

…with some neat twists…

Crisis boardIn each of the seven rounds in Crisis the players face a victory point challenge, which rises as the game goes on. If the majority of players beat it the economy will stay sound; but if the aggregate is a miss, the economy starts to crash.

For example, in a three player game, if the first round victory point target was seven and the players finished the round on 4 (-3), 7 and 9 (+2) points respectively, the economic state would fall by one point.

At the start of each round the players draw a hindrance card, which can totally negate certain worker placement spots or reduce the potency of others (amongst other effects). As the economy falters, from green to amber to red, these will get more devastating. And yes, you guessed it – players failing to hit their victory point targets is what causes this.

This twist is made all the more delicious in how you both buy and sell with your workers. Various spaces allow you to claim a mix of victory points and/or cash; so you can deliberately ignore the economy (victory points) by being selfish and greedy. What you’re betting on is that the short-term cash influx will give you a big enough competitive edge to win big later – but you do so at the expense of your nation (and, of course, fellow players).

…and a cunning end-game condition

Crisis CompanyWhat we unfortunately didn’t get to see was how this affects the end game. The game should last seven turns – but it’s very easy to totally tank the economy before then and end the game early. But this doesn’t necessarily stop someone winning.

A player can win the game despite the economy collapsing, as long as they’re ahead of the required victory point curve when it all goes to tits. And how the economy is at the end of the game also affects loans and cash on hand: if the economy crashes, you get no victory points from leftover cash – but you also don’t have to play off your loans. If you keep the economy afloat to the end, the opposite is true on both counts.

And I haven’t really touched on the companies in detail. Once bought your workers can operate them to make resources, but companies can be operated by multiple workers to produce more goods and sometimes even victory points. It’s pretty easy to grab a company in most rounds, and possibly a couple of workers, so you can really get some combos going if you plan your moves well.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Watch this space for more details when I manage to get my hands on a review copy…

Ominoes: A four-sided game review

OminoesOminoes* is a light dice placement game for two to four players that takes about 20-30 minutes to play.

I prefer it with four, as the more table talk you get the better, but it’s still fun with two or three and game length is close to the same regardless.

This is a very light game, listed for ages six and up, and I’m confident you could teach it to absolutely anyone – gamer or not.

Ominoes has very little in the way of components: 26 custom dice, four score markers and a board. The version I’ve been playing is a hybrid ‘deluxe edition’ and ‘press copy’, so I’m not sure exactly what a finished product looks like. But the custom dice are nice and the board (which is oddly mouse mat material) is perfectly functional and clear (although art on the scoreboard is a little weak).

All that’s currently available to buy is the Deluxe Edition, which is retailing for £25 and comes in a smart silver tin. RRP for the standard version (available in October) is undecided, but will probably be around £20. Either is a reasonable price for a bunch of custom dice – and I think good value for the amount of family fun you get in the box.

Teaching

Ominoes boardGames don’t get much easier to teach than Ominoes. On your turn you will roll a dice; (probably) manipulate a dice already on the board; then add the dice you rolled to the board (and possibly score points).

The dice (which are all identical) have six different symbols: one in each of the four player colours, plus two wild sides that have different powers.

If you roll a player colour, you move a dice of that colour three spaces on the board (there are no diagonals in the game – for moving or scoring); then place the dice you rolled anywhere on the board. If there wasn’t a dice of that colour on the board already, you simply skip the movement phase. The wilds are also simple: a Ra lets you move any one dice, before placing it; the Serpent lets you reroll any one dice on the board (returning it to its original spot) before placing the Serpent.

If, after placing, you have a group of four of your colour (including any wilds) you immediately remove all those dice from the board and score a point per dice removed (usually four, but five or more is also possible). Play continues clockwise until someone meets a certain score (dependent on player count).

Ominoes has a very clever way of dealing with less than four players. Colours not chosen by any player still play out in exactly the same way – but can be scored by any player. On first reading this in the rules I thought, no way – it can’t work out that simply and play well. But amazingly it does.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: With so many board games out there – and at a time when hundreds of dice games have been flooding onto the market – it’s hard to believe something this simple hasn’t been done before. But that’s the hallmark of great design: making things as simple as possible while keeping the essence of what makes a great gaming experience. Ominoes does just that.
  • The thinker: There’s not much here for the thinkers amongst us, as the size of the board means there’s usually a right decision in where to place your dice. But luck dictates that no matter what you do, you can still get screwed over. I’ve seen incredibly intelligent gamers come out of a four-player game of Ominoes with zero points and a bemused look on their face. But the look on the 10-year-old’s face that just beat them is probably worth it – especially after a 20-minute gaming experience.
  • The trasher: It’s hard for me not to like a game where every move is either benefiting you, or trying to screw over your opponents! But what makes this stand out is that you are so often forced to help your opponents as you roll there colour – or when you roll a wild but know you can’t score from it that turn; meaning you have to leave it on the board for everyone else. This is often agonising, but it’s also what makes Ominoes work – and for me that makes it a great little fun filler game.
  • The dabbler: This game is bright, colourful, simple and accessible – but best of all it creates an almost immediate atmosphere around the table (as long as you’re playing with the right group of course!). The game is super swingy and it only takes a couple of rounds around the table before people are taking on their rolls as villains, the put-upon, the mega unlucky etc. But when a game is over and you go again, that can all change as the luck of the dice reverses those roles. I think a good player will win more often than a bad one, but not often enough that the game can’t be equally enjoyed by kids and new gamers.

Key observations

Ominoes board closeThere’s a lot of luck in Ominoes – which should hardly come as a surprise when all you do on a turn is roll one dice, with no way of mitigating the result! Whether this is acceptable to you is purely a matter of taste.

Importantly for me there are decisions to make; there are right and wrong choices and mistakes can lead to your opponents taking advantage. No, this is not really a strategic game – but there’s plenty of tactical fun to be had. For something more strategic, I’d suggest the recently re-released The Rose King (formerly Rosenkonig) from Kosmos.

And yes, of course, the theme is totally pasted on – this is 100% an abstract game. But the symbols and colours are vibrant and fun, the board does its job and the Egyptian motif is well used throughout. For the target audience (families and non-gamers, or those looking for a fun filler) the colourful nature of Ominoes works a treat.

I should also mention the mouse mat game board. While it’s totally functional, it also feels kinda cheap. I think this is just a snobby thing – I like a proper board! And with all those custom dice, saving cost is a wise idea. I just don’t know if it’s an idea your average gamer will get behind and it would be a shame if people were put off of the game due to a production decision – especially when it’s off-theme (I want my Ominoes board carved into a piece of sandstone!). Any opinions are welcomed below.

Conclusion

I really like Ominoes. It’s not big, but it is clever. In two of my games a player has scored zero points, which has been hilarious – including in my last three-player game when that player was me! It was just as much fun being hosed as it was when I was in contention.

I also love that the game is still genuinely fun with any of the player counts – while still taking about the same amount of time. This is a rare feat to pull off and I think the game will slide into a lot of gamers’ convention or game night bags because of it – plus the fact that it packs down to almost nothing. A resounding thumbs up from me.

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

Game of Trains: A four-sided game review

Game of TrainsGame of Trains* is a small box card game from Latvian publisher Brain Games. The box says it’s for ages eight-plus and lasts around 20 minutes, which is about right – although 30 minutes is more likely with more players.

The game accommodates two to four players and works well at all player counts, with no changes to the rules. The game is suitable for gamers and non-gamers alike, although to play well you need to very aware of what’s going on with other players’ cards – so there’s more brain work with more players.

The train theme is totally pasted on: this is a purely abstract card game that could just as easily been a boring deck of cards numbered 1-84 (along with the action symbols). But the artwork on the cards is fantastic and really brings a discovery aspect to the first few games you play; and later games with new players. The cards are very high quality (linen finish) and the rules very simple to follow.

The game retails for £10 or a little less, which is pretty much the standard price for double-deck sized card games – so no complaints there either.

Teaching

Game of Trains actionsThe rules of Game of Trains are very simple and really can be explained in five minutes. Better still there is no hand of cards – everything is face up on the table – so players can ask questions at any time without fearing they’re giving something away.

Each player is initially dealt seven random cards which they lay in row in front of them in descending order. The winner of the game will be the first player to have manipulated these cards – by replacing them and using actions – into ascending order.

On their turn, a player chooses one of two options: draw a card or use an available action. If you ‘draw’ you take the top card from the shared face-down card stack and replace any one of your cards with the drawn one. The card you replace is then place face-up in the central area and can be used by another player for its associated action – unless it is the same as an action card already available, in which case both cards are discarded.

To use a card for its action you simply take it from the centre, do the action, then place the card on the discard pile. There are eight different actions on the cards but this isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds and the iconography is very simple: four of the actions (with arrows) let you rearrange cards in your own line; while the other four (crossed out cards or locks) force all players, including yourself, to discard a card from a certain position in your line – or prevent that from happening to a particular card.

As mentioned above, play continues clockwise around the table in this way until one player has reversed their line – at which point they immediately win the game.

The four sides

Game of Trains artThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: German publishers take note: this is a fantastic example of card art and iconography drawing players into a game – before the clever mechanisms start to do their work on the perception of the game. This extra bit of personality gets players on-board straight away so that once the game really clicks, they’re hooked. And better still they remember the game because of it – it has both gameplay and personality, which has led to it being requested for replays several times already.
  • The thinker: What at first seems a rather trivial card-shifting exercise takes on a different hue once you start to consider action discarding – which for me sets Game of Trains apart as a very intelligent filler. As the game moves on you start to notice which particular actions will really help your opponents, giving your decisions an extra dimension: you may use an action just to stop another player profiting more, or not discard a card you really want to so as not to give them the action on it – or discard a card deliberately to clear an action from the central space as a duplicate. These emergent strategies make this fun game into a great one for its length.
  • The trasher: Alongside the great art, this game can really get some table talk going and is full of jerk move potential. Forcing all players to discard a card is brutal and can happen a lot on the early game, leaving you to think the game will go on forever as you keep dicking each other over and laughing at the cards you redraw. But the game really does last 20-30 minutes and always seems to be super close between a couple of often all of the players, leading to some exciting conclusions. There’s nothing like having a card stuck between a 44 and a 47 – and drawing the 46 for a fluky win! Sure it’s random, but the game is so short you just go again – and you must’ve played well to get you within one card of winning.
  • The dabbler: The low barrier to entry in this game is a real plus point, along with the art, and it’s a fun game I enjoyed playing. However, I would give one note of caution. Near the end of the game you’ll find several players are likely to need one particular action to get them the win – so if you’re not paying attention to the whole table (especially in bad light, or with four players) its possible for one bad action card lay to give another player the game. Especially with a mix of younger, sensitive players and perhaps more win-hungry and boisterous ones, this could lead to some bad feeling and an awkward, unsatisfying end to the game.

Key observations

Game of Trains in playWhen talking about this kind of game the phrase ‘luck of the draw’ inevitably rear its head for some. In defence of Game of Trains I’ve only seen one of my games so far (I’ve played six to date, across all player counts) end with a lucky draw – and that felt like a fun ending.

Yes, luck of the draw is a factor – I’m not suggesting this is a game of pure skill. But as with all the great filler card games people say are all luck (6 Nimmt! is a great example), you’ll start to notice that good players will win (or place highly) more often than they would in a totally random card game. It really is deeper than it looks.

That said, it isn’t deep… It’s an interesting game which can throw up some interesting decisions, but if you’re looking for a small box strategy game this definitely isn’t it. Think traditional family card game and you’re on the right track – so it certainly isn’t for everyone.

The ‘take that’ cards that force everyone to discard can be seen as very negative and will put some people off: if this sounds like it will really annoy you, Game of Trains is probably worth a pass. But I would reiterate that even though this is negative play the game does advance without it – and more plays will see you deal with this in other ways. For example, only three of your seven spaces are vulnerable – so if you get a great card you can place it in the spot next to where you want it in a safe spot and move it later.

Conclusion

Game of Trains in play closeI really was pleasantly surprised by Game of Trains. The art drew me in, the simple gameplay made me think “excellent, another good, clever little gateway game” – then the emergent play took it to a slightly higher level.

People often talk about playing back-to-back games of this kind of shorter game but in my experience that doesn’t actually happen – especially when you have a lot of games to choose from. But with this is has already happened twice, which is a very positive sign.

What’s a shame is seeing comments by players saying they’ve given it one go and not seen anything in it – a shame, as I think you need a few plays, or a play with a more experienced player, to start to see the game’s hidden depths. Sure, you still might not like it and I’m not suggesting it’s the new Go – but at least they’d have seen the whole game. I hope this review will at least encourage a few people to give it a second chance – and convince anyone who like traditional card games to check it out.

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

One play: Vienna

Vienna cardsWe rolled in the cold air
Freezing breath on an action chain
Rolling then waiting
A man on a card in a light blue frame
So mystic and soulful
A choice reaching out it’s an extra die
It stays with you until

The scoring is done only you and I
It means nothing to me
This means nothing to me
Oh, Vienna

Vienna boardThe roadway is weaving
Haunting notes of a burg called Kings
The VPs are mounting
Alone out in front but the daylight brings
A cool empty feeling
The warmth of a hand on a cold grey board
It fades to the distance

The themeing is dumb but the game’s OK
It means nothing to me
This means nothing to me
Oh, Vienna

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

Cornwall: A four-sided game review

CornwallCornwall* is a tile-laying family game very much in the Carcassonne vein, but with a few interesting twists on the old classic.

It can take two to four players and a game lasts about 30 minutes. It’s probably best with three, as it’s a little predictable with two and you don’t get many turns four-player – but its fine across the board and play length is unaffected.

In the box you’ll find 37 strangely shaped tiles, 32 wooden player pieces, a wholly inadequate scoreboard (more on which later), a sadly one dimensional cardboard pub, 40 cardboard coins, some handy reference cards and the rules.

Component and art quality is solid throughout, without really impressing. Despite being called Cornwall, no effort has been made to differentiate it – it could just as easily have been called Devon or erm, Carcassonne. The tile art is OK it is a little bland, but does look pretty cool once the map starts to spread. The game nicely fits into a Carcassonne-sized box and can be picked up for £20, so is good value.

Teaching

Anyone with experience of tile-laying game such as Carcassonne will be on familiar ground with Cornwall. Each player takes the seven meeple of their chosen colour, while all the game’s tiles are shuffled and placed face down. Player’s then take it in turns to flip one tile and build out from the start tile by matching terrain – and then choosing whether or not to place meeples on the tile they’ve just placed. Much as you might in, erm, Carcassonne.

Cornwall tilesOK, so I’m taking the Michael a bit – luckily, here the rules start to deviate enough from [insert classic tile laying game name here] to allow Cornwall to stand on its own two feet.

Each tile is like a triangular domino with a combination of two or three of the game’s five scenery types. When you lay the tile you have to match at least one terrain type (if you can’t, you can take another tile – but I haven’t seen this happen). If you can manage to match two (or very rarely three) types you’ll earn one (or two) coins respectively.

Once placed you can put between 0 and 3 of your ‘playing pieces’ (this is what the game calls them – more great use of theme there…) onto the three spaces on the tile (up to one in each space). The first is free, but if you want to place more each will cost you a coin. However, if you’re placing them into a connected area which already has pieces in it, you have to play an additional coin per piece (no matter who’s they are). These come in three shapes: you get one 3, two 2s and four 1-point pieces, which all cost the same to place.

Eleven of the 36 tiles also have a cottage on them. When these are added to an area it is immediately scored – as are any areas that can no longer be expanded as they’ve been hemmed in (as with fields in Carcassonne, there are ‘swamps’ that score at the end). The final wrinkle is that when your playing pieces are removed from an area after scoring they’re placed in the pub: it will cost you a coin to bribe them all back to be placed again.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Coins are absolutely key to doing well at Cornwall. Both muscling in on key areas and being able to get your guys out of the pub when needed are vital; as is how many pieces to commit to ensure you can react to any situation (as it is in that other game we won’t mention). The designers have clearly decided to concentrate on the economic/area control aspect above all others and it serves it well, although I’m sure many other gamers will disagree.
  • The thinker: I wasn’t really taken by this one, as I found there weren’t enough real choices to make. There were rarely big decisions in where to place your tile (it probably has one terrain type too many for the amount of tiles you play), meaning you’re only really deciding when to place a meeple – and what size it should be. With the tight economy this could have been interesting but, but luck plays a massive part. Crappy tiles are far more important an issue when you’re placing as few as nine tiles in a whole game – you lay twice as many in Carcassonne, for example.
  • The trasher: As this is a game about majorities, why are playing a game called Cornwall where we, and I quote, “claim for themselves the fascinating landscape”?! On the box you’ll find a guy with a backpack and another with a shovel – I mean, really? No guns, no swords, no spaceships or orcs or ANYTHING? Schmidt Spiel has previous, of course, and is very much in the family game market. But this and Vienna (review coming soon) are plumbing new depths in pasted on nonsense. The game is fun too, which makes it a real shame as I don’t think it will find its audience.
  • The dabbler: I think this makes for a good gateway game, as it’s even simpler than Carcassonne and the choices don’t escalate. Cottages restrict scope as to where you can build because once out you can’t expand those scored areas; so while the board is constantly expanding, you’re never overwhelmed by placement choices. The theme was OK for me and the tiles and pieces colourful – it will appeal to a family audience. And at 30 minutes it isn’t going to overstay its welcome, so even if people don’t get into it you’re not going to unduly annoy anyone!

Key observations

Cornwall one tileThe elephant in the room is, of course, Carcassonne (had I mentioned the two games have some similarities…?).

While imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery, if you’re going to invoke a game through its mechanics it is at least then advisable to look/theme differently.

From the box size to the meeple colours, the green landscape tiles to the pasted on ‘random location’ theme – even the scoreboard is the same shape and design (which is made more maddening because it doesn’t work – see below). Even if you like how it turned out, you can’t deny it shows a staggering lack of imagination on the part of the publishers.

The interesting shape of the tiles is not enough to make this game stand out. I think that if they’d made it about almost anything else, and graphically altered it accordingly, they would have gotten away with the similarities in game play. But as it is, despite liking Cornwall, I find it impossible to defend against this kind of criticism – and that’s a shame.

And so, finally, to the scoreboard. It only goes up to 40 points, but you could score 200+ points in a game – and there are no components included to show how many times you’ve been around it. This makes the whole ‘copying Carcassonne’ thing even more of a joke, as they’ve managed to copy the awful windy road nature of the Carc scoreboard but only go to 40 (not the more sensible 50) and fail to make it work, at all. Laughable.

Conclusion

Cornwall meeplesDespite everything I’ve enjoyed my plays of Cornwall, but it has left me with a dilemma: which should I keep, Carcassonne or Cornwall?

I don’t see any reason to keep both as I don’t play this type of game often enough and already have a few interesting alternatives (in particular Maori, Entdecker and Ingenious).

As a gateway game both are going to work very well, with Cornwall probably being a bit shorter and simpler to teach. But Carcassonne has the historical credibility, the expandability and is a little easier on the eye – and probably has more depth over time. For now I can’t decide, so they’ll both be staying until I can get a few more plays of both.

I’ve enjoyed Cornwall more than recent tile-laying alternatives such as Cacao, Citrus and Gardens – each of which I found pretty boring. The tight economy and focus on one key element make it a tight, strong game. So if you’re looking for a tile-laying game that’s more about area majority and a tight economy, that plays and teaches fast, I’d suggest giving Cornwall a play or two. Just don’t expect to be sucked into the Cornish countryside when you start to play.

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