Dragonwood: A four-sided children’s game review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key Observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 5 favourite new releases of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owned

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

Not owned

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

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

More in part two…

SEE ALSO: Previous entries for 201220132014 and 2015.

Great Western Trail: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Eternity: A four-sided game review

Eternity* is a trick-taking card game for three to five players (there is a two-player variant – see below). The artwork is beautiful throughout, cleverly using just a few images in various levels of close-up to brilliant effect – and it has enough originality to stand out from the crowd.

The box lists the game as being suitable for ages 10+ and as lasting around 30 minutes. The time is pretty accurate, although 20-40 is more likely depending on player count.

The age also seems about right, because although this is light on rules I can see the subtlety in scoring being lost on some younger players – and it could become frustrating.

The small game box contains 42 cards, 3 trump tiles, 18 tree tokens and a score pad – and should set you back a little over £10. It’s tricky to find in the UK at the moment (December 2016) but can be easily imported for less than £20.

Teaching

As with all the best trick-takers, Eternity takes the traditional trick-taking concept and makes a couple of subtle twists to make itself unique.

The key to success here is to create ‘harmony’ – which means matching the amount of tricks you win with the amount of tree tokens you collect in a round (a game last three rounds).

In each round the players will be dealt 8 or 10 cards (depending on player count), which equates to the number of tricks played in each. Cards are numbered 1-14 in three suits; and there are two spare cards in each round that indicate what will be the starting trump suit for the round – which is where things start to get interesting.

Before play the three trump tiles are laid out, left to right, in a random order. This shows the trump strength of each suit in case of a tie. The two spare cards are placed in this area – so if two of the same colour are leftover, that suit is trumps. If two different colours were left, the stronger suit becomes trump.

The start player in a trick (usually the player who won the previous one) must lay a card, but the next player has a choice: lay a card to the trick, or ‘pledge’ a card (see below). Laying a card follows typical trick-taking rules: you must follow suit if you can, otherwise you can trump the card played or discard a card of another suit. Best card wins the trick.

If you pledge, put the card to one side until the end of the trick. Then you look at the number of tree symbols on the card pledged (either 0, 1 or 2) and take that many tree tokens. Finally you add the pledged card to the trumps area, potentially changing the trump suit for the next trick.

Once all tricks in a round are completed, players score. It’s vital not to have more trees than you have tricks won, because if you do you score 0 for the round. Otherwise you score one point per tree token (tricks without trees do not score), with a bonus for creating harmony: the same number of trees and tricks. The bonus is 2/4/7 points in rounds 1/2/3; so with winning five trick equating to a good round, you soon see how important scoring for harmony is (and how going low on tricks doesn’t guarantee a poor round).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: It’s hard to make trick-taking games stand out in a crowded market, but Eternity’s art does the job well – and once you start playing, the subtle twists draw you in. Its clever that the high numbered cards (that are likely to win tricks) are the same ones you need to use to get the most trees, meaning that simply counting your high numbers doesn’t equate to how many tricks you’re likely to win – as you’ll probably want to use some to create harmony and get your bonus.
  • The thinker: Many trick-taking games have you predicting how many tricks you want to win before each round starts, where here it’s often a moving target – an interesting strategic and tactical conundrum. And the way trumps works really mixes it up, as some rounds it won’t change at all – whereas in others it can be in almost constant flux. Better still for the strategic thinker, all the cards are in play at all times – even in a three player game, where some are left out but the unused cards are on display for all to see (and grock). A very interesting and fun game.
  • The trasher: While Eternity may not seem overly aggressive, I lie the constantly shifting goalposts that keep everyone engaged and on their toes throughout each round. your first few games (or rounds for experienced players) will be tricky as you get your head around the subtleties, but once you start thinking about everyone’s hands rather than just your own things really get interesting. The only down side is having just three suits, meaning you seem to have less opportunities to ditch cards rather than follow suit – but for the interesting elements it adds to deciding trumps I think it’s worth it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is very pretty, and very clever, you really need a group of trick-taking fans to make it sing. I don’t think there is much here to hold the interest of those who don’t really dig traditional card games and despite the reward growing each round for completing harmony – which keeps people in the game throughout – it can still become frustrating if you don’t get the hang of it. It can also be quite a heads-down affair, as there’s a lot to think about in what initially looks like a very simple game. That said, I really liked it! You just need to pick the right crowd.

Key observations

I guess one issue that will always arise with small card games is: Do you get enough for your money? I guess the answer is – what are you looking for in terms of value?

The graphic design and artwork are top rate, while the component quality is reasonably high too. Everything fits snugly in the little box, and you even get a pencil packed in to use on the score pad. It’s a high quality product.

Equally, the game has a lot of replay value and plays beautifully. It will set you back a little more than Wizard, for example; but then that’s just a glorified Contract Whist (I’d rather play Whist than wizard, and that plays with a standard deck of cards): Eternity has a lot more originality packed in, which I think scores highly in its favour.

However, not everyone is going to like the changing trump mechanism: if you like the Wizard-style planning, this may not be for you. And as mentioned earlier, at its heart Eternity is a trick-taker with a few bells and whistles. If you don’t like trick-taking games, I would be very surprised if this converted you. But it could certainly turn the heads of ‘traditional’ players you may be trying to convert to the wider gaming world.

Finally, the game has a surprisingly good two-player variant. Players play two cards each per hand, while a dummy hand slowly reveals the cards not in-game each turn, keeping a bit of extra tension going in terms of learning which cards are not in play. It’s fast and quick, but works very well.

Conclusion

I love a good trick-taking game – and Eternity is one of the more interesting ones I’ve played in recent years. While simple to teach, it has that extra level of complexity it needs to stand above some of its competitors.

But equally it doesn’t overdo it in terms of extra components, meaning you’ve got a better chance of selling it to non- and traditional card players. And while the artwork is highly stylised, it’s mystical and pretty enough to appeal to almost everyone – rather than going down a naff fantasy route, or a more boring/pointless overly plain direction.

For me, this is more enjoyable and crossover friendly than Diamonds (another great recent trick-taker), while being more interesting and innovative than Wizard. I’d list it as a must-have for trick-taking fans and a should-try for anyone who is a vague fan of the genre – and it will definitely be staying in my collection for a long while.

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

Planet Defenders: A four-sided game review

Planet Defenders* is a set collection, resource management and order fulfilment gateway game from Taiwanese publisher EmperorS4. While it has a cute sci-fi theme it is pretty much an abstract game for two to four players that plays out in less than an hour.

While the box says 10+, younger players with an aptitude for mathsy problem solving will be right at home with the game. The box is medium-sized (think large hardback novel) and should set you back less than £30 when easily available (hopefully it will get better distribution in the west in 2017).

In the box you’ll find the nine modular board pieces, the three planet defenders (cardboard standees), 60+ plastic cubes, 50+ cards, four small player boards, three planet defender control boards and one lonely dice. The pieces are all high quality and the artwork and graphic design is exemplary throughout – this does not look like a game from a new publisher.

Teaching

As mentioned above, I’d class Planet Defenders as a gateway game – and as such, it is suitably simple to understand and explain.

The board is made up of nine different tiles (placed randomly), with our three intrepid planet defenders starting on the central space (the only one that is always the same tile).

Instead of having one planet defender each, all the players share control of these robots. On a turn you can make two moves with them, getting the benefit of the planet you move a robot to (which is always battery or energy cubes). However, you are limited in who you can move: the three robot control boards have a robot on each side and a number (one or two) – being the number of spaces you’ll have to move.

These only flip over at the end of each player turn, and each can only be used once per turn, so you’re quite heavily restricted – but with such a small board, it doesn’t feel bad. For example, you may have the ‘Yellow 1’, ‘Yellow 2’ and ‘Red 1’ face up at the start of your turn. So whatever you do, you won’t be moving the blue defender this round – but could possibly move the yellow robot twice (or the yellow and the red).

Once you’ve moved you get to do an ‘extra action’ – which is where you can spend the cubes you’ve been collecting.

Next to the N, E, S and W planets will be a pile of robots that need to be captured by the defenders. One thing you can do is collect the top one (which will be face up) by paying the cubes indicated – as long as you moved a robot to an adjacent space on your turn. These give a small cube reward in return, as well as end game victory points (most of your points come from these guys).

Alternatively you can buy a technology card. The more of these you collect he more end game points they’ll be worth, but they’re more important for making other aspects of the game easier. Variously they’ll give you discounts on catching robots, let you trade cubes for other types, give bonuses for landing on certain planets, or let you move robots further.

Depending on player number, the four robot stacks will contain either four or five robots: once two of these stacks are empty, the game is over – simply count up your points to see who won (with leftover energy cube acting as a tiebreaker).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: This is a purely tactical problem solving game that works very much as a puzzle. You’re restricted to a maximum of five energy cubes in your player area, meaning you can’t just hoard what you need to catch any old robot (battery cubes are largely used to move, but are unlimited) – you need to get what you need, grab the card you want, then choose a new target. The trick is getting enough tech cards to streamline your plans – while leaving enough time to grab enough robots to win.
  • The thinker: This is an enjoyable (if slightly forgettable) puzzle game. There is a variant included that allows you an ‘extra’ extra action each turn, while allowing you to mix your moves and actions at will. While adding more possibilities to make the perfect turn, what it really does is pile on the opportunities for analysis paralysis. Unless you all want the game to last a lot longer (something I don’t think the depth deserves), I’d stick to the simpler version – and it’s not often you’ll hear me say that.
  • The trasher: With more than two players, Planet Defenders is an exercise in tedium – you’ll spend most of each game waiting for your turn, knowing you can’t plan until it gets to your go. However, on your turn you have some interesting choices to make including ways you can restrict the next player; hence why it’s much better with just two players. Two defenders can’t occupy a single space, so if you know your opponent wants to go to a particular space you can usually leave a robot on it – and then not allow it to be moved next go. Very satisfying when you can pull it off!
  • The dabbler: Both the lovely cartoon artwork and gameplay simplicity drew me into this one and I never really mind a bit of downtime – especially when you can joke about what the various robots may have been doing for jobs! The Robocop one and builder are pretty obvious, but there’s also a floating garden, a vending machine and what looks like a carwash! The whole story is as if Studio Ghibli did a take on Bladerunner – and it works beautifully, despite being pretty abstract.

Key observations

My main takeaway was how well the flipping mechanism worked when choosing which defender to move – I expect to see this a lot more in games in future (including mine!).

But it really is best served as a gateway game. I’ve played with more experienced gamers and with the exception of two-player it comes across as pretty forgettable for many. But if you have kids or non-gaming friends who like a bit of sci-fi or manga, I think Planet Defenders will be really well received by them.

This isn’t a criticism of the game at all – you just have to pick your audience. But I’ll certainly defend it as a two-player filler for any gamer who is happy playing puzzly abstract titles: there is a lot of hidden depth here and when you take the downtime away it can be a really enjoyable head-to-head challenge.

Some say the game is a bit samey – a criticism you can often level at order fulfilment games. But I don’t really buy it here, as the choices you make in the buying of the technology cards help shape your strategy and these will come out differently each time (as will the modular board). Is it a ‘play back to back games’ game? No. But with five plays under my belt I’m definitely still reaching for it.

One issue is availability (December 2016). I’ve linked to EmperorS4 below, but it seems the Taiwanese firm hasn’t managed to get the game into any western distribution channels as yet. That said, both this and the company’s other Essen 2016 release Round House have been getting positive buzz – so finger’s crossed. There are a few copies floating around on Board Game Geek, at least.

Conclusion

I’ve been thoroughly charmed by Planet Defenders. From the artwork to the simplicity to the playtime to the components, it ticks every box.

It’s definitely best with two (or more if you don’t mind chatting between your moves) and falls firmly into the gateway and abstract camps, but those aren’t reasons to knock it.

I really hope EmperorS4 can get wider distribution for its titles and I look forward to playing more of its titles in future: definitely a company to keep your eyes on.

* I would like to thank EmperorS4 Technology for providing a copy of the game for review.

X Nimmt: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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.

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.