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.

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…