Lembitu: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dwarves: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

Taking a hit from the bad guys (boo!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sticking it to the bad guys (huzzah!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Board game design: Three ideas inspired by heist movies

I tend to have ideas for game mechanisms most days – and of course most of them are terrible. Others hang around long enough without being dismissed for me to want to write them down, while still fewer make it from my phone’s note-taker app into my ideas document at home.

These few borderline cases kind of shared a heist theme, so I thought I’d write about them here just in case anyone else can make something useful out of them. Maybe I’ll get round to them, maybe I won’t – or maybe they’re terrible after all. They’re far from fully formed too, but maybe they’ll inspire someone.

batman jokerA co-op with evolving roles

The first idea came to me when watching the Batman movie where The Joker is getting all the people involved in the heist to kill each other off once their particular job is complete – but could equally be applied to any fast moving and dangerous situation. The game would be a co-op (although wouldn’t need to be, I guess) in which every character starts with a roll – in this example it could be the muscle, the safe cracker, explosives expert etc.

As the game goes on, players will need to decide when to change to their other roll – perhaps the getaway car driver, the van driver carrying the lot, the guy causing a road block/distraction, or tampering with traffic lights. Once you switch roll your old character is still in play, but becomes a hindrance – slowing down play and getting in the way.You’ll get a better final score if you get everyone home, but can you succeed while dragging along this dead weight…

Safe-cracker

In my mind this is a very simple mechanism requiring two players that would be used in a role-playing type scenario – say in our co-op heist game above. Both roll the same amount of dice of different colours, lets say three – red, blue and green – but one of them roles them behind a screen. The person playing the safe-cracker has to match their dice, by colour and number, to those rolled behind the screen.

The safe-cracker would’ve been able to spend skill points on raising their skill at the start of the game – with each point letting the second player give them a clue (say, ‘blue higher’). The safe-cracker can opt to change any dice as much as they likes, then asks if they have the right number for each dice. The player with the dice behind the screen will say ‘higher’, ‘lower’ or ‘cracked it’ for each dice – and then the safe-cracker goes again. Each failed attempt will use up time units.

Lie detector

This feels more like a party/werewolf-style game idea, where one (or maybe two) of the players are questioning suspects and trying to get to the truth. The potential felons all have a few parts of the story, which could potentially save their skin – but of course one of them did it (and knows it).

The questioners will have a limited time scale to grill the suspects for information, and will then have to decide who to charge – you could even have people in different rooms. The suspects can give up as much info they like, or lie as much as they like, to try and work out who did it or just frame someone at random. Maybe one of the questioners could have a preferred victim to throw to the wolves – or a prisoner could be under cover…

One play: Dead of Winter

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

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

Theme and components: Check

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

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

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

Can you keep a secret?

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

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

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

Attack of the randoms

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

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

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

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

Epic fail

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

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

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

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

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

You traitor!

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

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

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

Still, you might love it 🙂

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

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

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

The promise of better to come: Crossroads cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play types

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

The Castles of Burgundy: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

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

Castles of Burgundy board and player board

Teaching

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

My top 50 board and card games (2015 update)

Here we go again – nine new entries since last year’s début top 50 alongside plenty of ups and downs between top and bottom. I’ve kept the same format, except I’ve wittered on even more, so without further gibber jabber…

My Top 20 board and card games 2015 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. Race for the Galaxy(1) Race for the Galaxy (2007) While my plays of this have dropped dramatically after I stopped attending my old regular midweek group, it still sits comfortably at the top of the tree. You may need to be tied to a chair and forced to play 10 games before you really ‘get’ it, but it is absolutely worth it.
  2. (3) Terra Mystica (2012) I have played some good medium/heavy euros over the past year, but none of them have come close to Terra Mystica. Pasted-on theme aside, this is a masterful mix of strategy and tactics that’s chock full of meaningful decisions from start to finish.
  3. (4) Ticket to Ride (2004) Thanks to its many maps adding just enough variety and rules tweaks to keep things interesting, Ticket to Ride remains my gateway game of choice. Few games can be so easily taught, then played while chatting, but still give you the feeling you’ve been doing something competitive.
  4. (2) Ra (1999) Like Race, my plays of Ra have dropped off since leaving my midweek group and, thanks to not feeling quite so satisfying in plays since, it has dropped a couple of positions. Three-player is its sweet spot for me and I just don’t enjoy it as much with four or five – which is how I’ve played most recently.
  5. (-) NEW Deus (2014) The stand-out game of 2014 for me, by miles. This is in a similar place for me as Race for the Galaxy, being tactical and card driven and playing out in under an hour and having several routes to victory. But it has a much lower barrier to entry, meaning it is easier to get to the table.
  6. (20+) Endeavor (2009) A big jump for Endeavor, which had been a little forgotten in 2013. I’ve had three hugely enjoyable games since and it is firmly back in the rotation, being enjoyed by everyone in my weekend group. It always feels too short, but that in itself adds to the excitement. And it can be really cut-throat.
  7. (6) The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) Gateway game number two – and the only thing holding it back from more plays is the fact it’s limited to four players. The switch in game style half way is genius and works brilliantly, moving from placement to mayhem and murder on one fun little step.
  8. (20+) The Castles of Burgundy (2011) Castles has risen to the position of number one Feld design on the list by dint of being one of Zoe’s favourites. It plays pretty fast for its weight, while two-player it feels very tactical as well as strategic. While a bit of a point salad, importantly it always feels like the best player on the day won.
  9. (8) Copycat (2012) While not the most popular game on this list, I enjoy the way Copycat uses mechanisms I love from other great games and really makes them compliment each other. It plays fast but also thinky, having a great mix of luck, strategy and tactics that I keep wanting to come back to.
  10. (5) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) While Castles and Endeavor have jumped up the table due to working in my regular groups, Tzolk’in has fallen a little for the opposite reason: some simply find it frustrating and it can be very punishing score-wise if you play poorly. But I’m still a big fan, so it’s staying in the top 10.
  11. Deus box(9) Through the Ages (2006) While I still really enjoy my plays of Through the Ages, I find the power of military in the game a little frustrating at times – but not as much as my inability to be any good at it! Still my favourite three-plus hour game, but there is definitely room in my life now for its successor.
  12. (14) Snowdonia (2012) While a few euros tumbled a few places due to tough competition (see below), Snowdonia has held its own thanks to the variety of tracks and its simply ingenious ‘game plays you’ mechanisms. The weather constantly ruins my life, players steal MY actions and I love it every stinking time.
  13. (20) Pizza Box Football (2005) I’ve had two more plays since last year’s top 50 – one an epic, crushing defeat and the other a close defeat after an oh-so-close onside kick failure. Both games were epic in their own way and no matter how stupid this game may be, it never fails to deliver.
  14. (16) Twilight Struggle (2005) I now own my own copy of this classic, but sadly it has only been played once – must try harder. I’m hoping I’ve found a regular playing partner, but h wasn’t 100 per cent convinced after our first play. But as this is a proper cold war card play classic, I’m sure someone else will step in if need be.
  15. (-) NEW Bora Bora (2013) I skipped this on its release as it looked like a day-glo dog’s breakfast, but one play and I was hooked. The dice mechanism is worth the entrance fee alone, but the agonising decisions of which bonuses to give up on as you move forward really makes it shine.
  16. (11) Notre Dame (2007) Despite being relegated from first to third Feld, I still love me some Notre Dame. Card drafting is a mechanism I love in theory but in truth this is the only game I own that really uses it well. And it plays fast, every decision counts, and you’ve never got quite enough to do exactly what you want.
  17. (-) NEW Navegador (2010) I’m not sure quite where Navegador will end up in the long run, but right now it is my favourite Mac Gerdts game. It’s super crunchy and right now I’m enjoying that – but the jury is out on whether it will become too dry or just right. I love that rondel, but it clearly hates me!
  18. (17) Can’t Stop (1980) The 80s are still being represented in the top 20 by this evergreen push-your-luck classic. Zoe thrashed me in our last two games but I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m not sure hat says more about me or the game, but either way I’m still smitten by this daft family game.
  19. (7) Concordia (2013) Gerdts’ momentary meander away from his beloved rondel is still a game I love, but it isn’t drawing me to the table quite as much as it was a year ago. I still enjoy the tricky decisions you are forced into each round, but it may be a little too dry and a little too solitary to keep a place in my top 20.
  20. (13) The Manhattan Project (2012) The great integration of theme  and the clever, edgy worker placement have kept this in the top 20 despite me only getting it to the table once since last year’s top 50. And people like it too – what have I been playing at? A game that may well bounce back up in next year’s list.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Archaeology The Card Game boxAcquire (1963) A steady hold for Acquire, which I still can’t believe is as old as it is and remains the granddaddy of the list. Luck, clever play and speculation all play their part in this light economic gateway game.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) A big two-division jump for this, which didn’t look likely a week or two ago as it hadn’t been played for ages. But a few funny, swingy games have reminded me just how good, light and fun it is.
  • Ingenious (2004) A drop from 12 for Ingenious, largely due to a lack of plays over the year. Still a favourite for sure and one that may head back up the chart if I find others who like to play more regularly.
  • Maori (2009) A one division jump for Maori, whose tile-laying charms continue to entice me despite my regular ineptitude at the game. Simple to teach, tough to master – well, it is for me anyway! The fourth and final Feld on the list.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from 10 for Merchant of Venus, again due to lack of plays. I love it, but not enough to set it up! I can’t help thinking a shiny new version may break that but I can’t justify pulling the trigger…
  • Port Royal (2013) A hold for Port Royal, although it is teetering on a division drop. I still enjoy it but almost feel as if I’m waiting for a slightly better push-your-luck card game to come along. Right now, Archaeology (above) has edged ahead of it.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) A small jump for this free Knizia game as I now tend to enjoy it a little more than Pickomino (below) if Zoe and me decide to go head to over the dice tower. I still mostly lose, but hey – that’s dice.
  • Rosenkönig (1997) A small drop from 15 for this fascinating two-player abstract, but nothing really to worry about. The thrill has gone a little now that I’ve finally found my own copy, but I still get a kick out of it when I get to play.
  • The Boss (2010) The Boss is hanging in there, no problem. I’ve played with several groups over recent months and everyone has been that great blend of initially baffled, then delighted, then crushed once more as they get their head around it.
  • NEW Yspahan (2006) Nine years old, outside the top 250 and I’ve never seen it on the table anywhere else – but it has captured the imagination with everyone I’ve played with so far. A very clever design and I look forward to exploring it more.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) The expansions are definitely keeping Alhambra fresh for me, pushing it up a division by giving a new lease of life to this classic tile buying/laying game. I’m not sure the original on its own would still be in the top 50.
  • Brass (2007) A drop in division for Brass, simply due to lack of plays. My opinion of the game hasn’t changed: its one of the best heavy euro games out there. But the fact I haven’t played it for months has to say something. It may well rebound up.
  • CV (2013) This is another title that’s expansion has helped it up a division, but its charm is still very much in tact either way. The Yahtzee style dice mechanism fits the theme really well, while the cards just pile on the charm.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) The Android app of Kingdom Builder has helped it hold its own, as I haven’t played the ‘real’ version much. I’m still terrible at this clever and quick area scoring game, but love it all the same – even without expansions.
  • Macao (2009) I think Macao has largely dropped a division under the pure weight of Felds and other good euros. My opinion of it hasn’t dropped – its more that games are just slotting in above it in the medium weight category.
  • NEW Manhattan (1994) With three games under my belt now, this is now in my ‘must buy’ category. Fast, nasty, light on rules and deeply table talk inducing, it succeeds despite looking bloody awful and having no theme. A true classic.
  • Manila (2005) Manilla holds its own thanks to no other game I’ve played so perfectly blending the betting and racing genres. Lots of luck, sure, but also lots of interesting decisions to make each round.
  • NEW Oltre Mare (2004) This turned out to be a great acquisition, taking the ideas of Bohnanza and adding more strategy, some nastiness and more real thinking to the mix. Must… stop… thinking… about upgrading my perfectly adequate copy.
  • Pickomino (2005) Another hold, this time for one of Zoe’s favourites. We don’t play as often as we used to, and the chicken gods still hate me, but you can’t beat the look on Zoe’s face as she crushes me again and again. And again.
  • Power Grid (2004) Oddly this has gone up a division despite very few plays over the last year – where Brass has fallen for the same reason. I think they’ve found their level – I was just newer to Brass this time last year and a little jaded on Power Grid.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Ancient Terrible ThingsNEW Ancient Terrible Things (2014) Despite being a year older I’d still reach for CV before ATT, hence its lowly position here. But I do very much enjoy it and look forward to exploring its dice-rolling Cthulhu goodness more throughout the year.
  • Basari (1998) Basari has dropped two divisions largely due to a few lack lustre games, which have seen some of my friends fail to get into it at all. I’m still keen, but everyone needs to be on board to make this negotiation card game truly shine.
  • NEW El Gaucho (2014) Six months ago this clever dice/set collection game may have made the top 20, but multiple plays have become a trickle. Played out? Maybe, but its still in the 50 because I think a break will be enough to reinvigorate it for me.
  • NEW Johari (2014) While I love Johari’s mix of gem collection, action cards and turn order manipulation others have been less enthusiastic. I would rate this game higher if I could find some enthusiasm for it in others when we play!
  • Nefertiti (2008) This unique and clever bidding game has dropped down a division purely due to a lack of really fun plays. The game isn’t at its best with two and, like Basari, I’ve struggled to get it played with the right group of people.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) The game that just beat the drop. While I still very much enjoy a play it rarely rises to the top of the pile now and sometimes plays out very poorly, even with people who enjoy the game. A classic, but for me a slowly fading one.
  • Stone Age (2008) Anther ‘I love it but others fail to share my enthusiasm’ game. I like the random element and big points of this classic worker placement game, but it either baffles or bores most of my gaming pals. A big drop from number 19.
  • Thebes (2007) Another big drop, this time from 18, but for more gamerly reasons. I still enjoy a game of Thebes, but you can’t escape the fact that despite it being thematic there is far too much randomness for it to be a ‘good’ game. But I like it…
  • Tikal (1999) A two division drop for this great area control game, largely because it feels too long – while the ‘mini’ version we tried was too short. I’ll always enjoy it in the right mood, but not often enough for it to stay in my own top 30.
  • Uruk (2008) Another falling from the top 30, Uruk will always be in my collection but is fading a little because of its lack of variety; something that will never be fixed now that the inferior reprint has come along. Still great, but now just occasionally played.

The new entries

As you can probably tell, I didn’t think too much of 2014’s new releases. There was some real nonsense (Imperial Settlers and Madame Ching in particular), a massive pile of ‘OK’ games (Mad King Ludwig, Imperial Assault, Splendor, Star Realms, Istanbul, Mangrovia etc etc), one that flattered to deceive (Dead of Winter) and some that may yet make the grade (Roll for the Galaxy in particular) – but overall, I think it was a ‘meh’ year.

There were still nine new entries into the top 50 this year – but five of them were older games. Bora Bora was 2013, so is hardly old, but the likes of Manhattan, Yspahan, Oltre Mare and Navegador continue to show me there are decades worth of gems out there still waiting to be discovered and that I should never judge an old game by its cover (or nasty pink and pale blue pieces!).

Out of the 50

  • Blueprints box contentsArkham Horror (2005) This was replaced by Dead of Winter earlier in the year – but after a few plays of that I came to the conclusion that Ameritrash games like this simply aren’t for me: too fiddly, too luck dependent, too ripe for a poor experience.
  • Blueprints (2013) A good game for sure, but it very rarely hits the table – making it hard to justify leaving in my top 50. I have no intention of getting rid of it though.
  • Bruges (2013) This burned brightly for a short time, but in the end the level of luck/frustration just outweighed the fun factor for me and it disappeared from my wishlist. I’d play it more, but don’t want to get my own copy.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) Another game I’m glad I own, and will play when the time is right, but that isn’t very often and in truth its just  bunch of rude words on some cards with a borrowed game mechanic. Top fun, but not top 50 material.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This is another game I’ll play any time, and am happy with my £1 charity shop copy, but I need to play with some variants to really find its sweet spot. I like it, but it isn’t in the same league as Pompeii, for example.
  • Hamburgum (2007) Again, still a great game – but Navegador simply replaced it in this top 50 as the Gerdts rondel game of choice. Having more than one on the list felt like overkill, especially with Concordia on here too.
  • Le Havre (2008) I played this at the weekend, enjoyed it again, and even won – but it has fallen from my wishlist. For me the games goes just a little too long to fall in love with – the decision space gets a little too big, it becomes work, and I struggle.
  • Rialto (2013) Having had an enjoyable game of this over the weekend it almost snuck back onto the list, but like Blueprints I just find it a little hard to love. Fun on occasion, and very clever, but not quite a classic.
  • Revolution! (2009) Like Blueprints, a lack of plays has seen this fall below the 50. It’s a very silly, luck riddled game that I enjoy immensely despite its flaws but it needs three to play and just never seems to be the best choice available.

Top 50 potential

Red7Entdecker, Caverna, Age of Empires III, Africana and Lords of Vegas (both now owned), Sentinels of the Multiverse and Amun Re all impressed me after a single play.

They are all games I look forward to exploring more – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Roll for the Galaxy has been fun so far but the jury is definitely out. Maybe its too close to Race to make a big enough impression yet, but it has potential. Red7 I have enjoyed too, and own, but need to play more before deciding just how much I like it. But until next year… I’m out.

One play: Time of Soccer

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

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

Putting the ‘euro’ into European football

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

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

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

Building the perfect team

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

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

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

A long hard season

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

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

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

A game of two halves

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

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

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

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

A hollow victory

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

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

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

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

Navegador: A four-sided game review

Navegador_Schachtel-Deckel3.inddNavegador is a medium complexity board game for two to five players from designer Mac Gerdts that plays out in around two hours. You should be able to find it for around £30.

Typical of Gerdts’ games, players use a shared rondel mechanism (more on this below) to sail their ships from Lisbon to Nagasaki, buying and selling goods and expanding their business empires in the 15th/16th Century Portuguese colonies.

The game is awash with all the typical ‘euro’ stereotypes: a dour looking man on the cover, a washed-out brown board and a trading in the Age of Discovery theme. But as Navegador is most definitely a euro game, why shouldn’t it wear its credentials on its sleeve?

In fact I think the board itself is evocative of the theme and lovely to look at, while the rest of the game’s components (around 100 small wooden pieces, a few bag-fulls of cardboard money/chits and five sturdy player boards) are above average if not remarkable. And as always with Gerdts’ games, the eight-page rulebook is complimented by both a handy setup/action description reference sheet and a great little booklet full of historical facts about the famous Portuguese figures of the time that are represented in the game.

In terms of game play, Navegador is one part exploring, two parts empire building and three parts buying cheap and selling high. Exploring lets you set up colonies – and subsequently sell their goods. You can also buy shipyards, churches and factories to process these goods, with the player who can most successfully time and manage its investments the most likely to come out of Navegador on top.

Teaching

Navegador rondelNavegador is a pretty easy game to teach, but a tough one for some players to get a handle on – especially if they’re not used to games with a commodities market.

The rulebook is a mere six pages of A4 with more examples and pictures than rules, while the game has no hidden information – making it simple to help players that are struggling.

Gameplay revolves around the board’s ‘rondel’ – a circle split into eight sections, each of which contains one of the game’s seven possible actions (the ‘market’ action appears twice on opposite sides of the rondel).

Players decide which action to take at the start of the game by placing their player piece on the appropriate rondel space. On subsequent turns a player will move their piece up to three spaces clockwise around the rondel, limiting their options dramatically. You can push further round the rondel, but only at the cost of one of your ships – which don’t come cheap. But if another player beats you to that spot, will it hurt even more…?

Navegador rulesMost actions in and of themselves are straightforward: buying ships, privileges (for end game scoring), buildings, workers; sailing or founding colonies: but the market can be the tricky part to teach.

Each colony founded and factory purchased will trade one of the game’s three goods (sugar, gold and spices). When landing on a market action on the rondel a player may deal in each of these goods, but only in one direction – so if they choose to sell sugar from a colony they could not use any sugar factories they own.

Unfortunately the market on the board isn’t as clear as it could be for new players, with factories given a solitary column which has never failed to confuse at least one player if I’m teaching the game. But overall this is a very small barrier to entry and as mentioned earlier, it is easy to help new players with this action as all of their factories and colonies will be in full view of everyone.

The four sides

Navegador player boardThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Gerdts’ games are renowned for their short, snappy yet agonising decisions and Navegador is no different. Despite having just one action per go, especially at higher player counts your best laid plans can be scuppered between turns, forcing you in a completely different direction. And the game is beautifully paced, arcing from an initial land-grab through consolidation to the final race to either end the game or get ahead before someone else does.
  • The thinker: While this isn’t my favourite Gerdts game (I’d go for Imperial 2030) there is a lot to like. To play well you need to be thinking about the long game from your very first move, with the limited end-game scoring tiles up for grabs at very specific moments. But then there are tactics required too, as the play of others can certainly force you to change tack anywhere up to the start of the game’s third and final movement. I’d prefer a little more depth and crunchiness, but enjoy my plays.
  • The trasher: Much like Gerdts’ Concordia, Navegador is a game I’d play at a (big) push but wouldn’t seek another play of. There is some competition for scoring tiles, colonies and cheap factories but its more of a race than having proper interaction and for me it all felt very dry and, well, brown – I’m the kind of player that can see a spreadsheet when others can see a game and I’m not here to work, I’m here to roll dice, get dirty and mess with your head!
  • The dabbler: I found this surprisingly enjoyable and the turns zip along super fast, meaning there is practically no down time. The theme isn’t great but the board is gorgeous, the rules simple and there are lots of ways to get points. You really have to keep an eye on what other people are doing, and we tend to find someone is always moaning about this or that or demanding we stop the perceived leader from getting a cheap colony or building. Just avoiding playing with AP people!

Key observations

Navegador marketCriticisms – and there are plenty – should be taken in context of Navegador being in the top 100 games on Board Game Geek (as of April 2015). The game certainly doesn’t have universal appeal, but as a fan of euro games I could predict these from a mile off.

The majority of detractors say the game is ‘boring’ or ‘dry’; that it’s like filling out a spreadsheet or solving a puzzle – especially as there is no direct interaction. As always there are merits to these arguments and if you have tried and hated Gerdts games such as Concordia and Hamburgum, or generally don’t like euro games with little interaction, it is highly unlikely you will be a fan of Navegador.

A bigger concern is the accusation that the winner will be the player who simply follows the road less travelled; the old adage of ‘do what the other players aren’t doing’. Again there is truth in this, as this is a game with several paths to victory points and if the players let one of their number exploit one of these alone it is likely they will prosper. However, it really is the responsibility of the other players to spot and stop this and personally I don’t see it as a flaw in the design – but some will.

Conclusion

Navegador mapHaving discovered and fallen in love with the rondel games of Mac Gerds through his earlier title Hamburgum, I’ve found Navegador to be a refreshing and fulfilling small step up in complexity and enjoyment.

The rondel works in a similar way in both games, but I find both the end game scoring and (admittedly abstracted) player interaction more enjoyable, while overall the game simply looks a hell of a lot better on the table.

If you enjoy euro games from designers such as Stefan Feld or Ted Alspach, or are looking for a step up in complexity from lighter weight games such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Catan, I’d highly recommend Navegador – with the caveats mentioned above around player interaction. for those seeking a more interactive experience, but are intrigued by the rondel idea, check out other Gerds classics Antike and Imperial 2013 which feature combat/area control and stocks/area control respectively.

Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!