Dice Heist: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

CVlizations: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Game of Trains: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

One play: Vienna

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

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

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

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

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

Cornwall: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Mombasa: A four-sided game review

MombasaMombasa* is a two-to-four player euro game that plays in around two hours (although quite a bit longer if it is a learning game).

Set in colonial era Africa, players trade goods and expand the reach of/acquire shares in four companies to earn money (read: victory points).

But the game doesn’t glory in its colonial theme: it in fact goes out of its way to point out this was a “dark chapter” in human history.

In terms of mechanisms Mombasa is a clever mix of hand management/action selection, area control and stocks/economics. Much as in the game Endeavor, the latter two of these add a larger dose of interaction to the mix than many euro gamers will be used to – so if you prefer a more ‘multi-player solitaire’ experience you may want to look elsewhere.

You can pick it up for around £30, which is about standard for this type of game and for what you get in the box (around 100 small cards, 100 wooden markers, 100 cardboard chits of varying shapes and sizes and the game board/rules). Component quality is good throughout, with linen-finish cards, solid if unspectacular artwork and good graphic design that’s simple to follow. Plus score pads (yay!) and good reference cards.

The box lists ’12 and up’ for the age range and this is a challenging title – but I’d still put it in the medium range, rather than heavy (similar to games such as Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica). This is because while there is an awful lot going on, and you’ll be challenged both strategically and tactically, it doesn’t feel as if the game and decision space increases later in the game – which is where ‘heavy’ games can leave me for dead.

Teaching

Mombasa board area majorityMombasa is not the kind of game you go into lightly. It has a lot of moving parts and all of the game’s myriad options are available to you from the start, so you have to explain the lot before you get going.

On the plus side none of the game’s concepts are difficult, especially to experienced gamers – there’s just a lot of them. And they do make thematic sense, so hang together nicely as a whole. The game’s one real innovation (discussed later) is actually very simple, if incredibly fiendish.

There’s a basic setup for your first play that is clearly walked through in the rulebook, but it’s worth noting there are eight different company tracks (you use four) that mix and match; plus 10 starting tiles (giving starting shares and resources – much as in Tzolk’in) that vary how players start the game: good news for those looking for longevity.

The game is played over seven rounds and in each players get a varying number of actions. In the early rounds you’ll pick three cards from your hand to use to take actions (players can open two extra card slots during the game, for two more potential actions each round). You also receive two or three (depending on player count) bonus markers which are used on action spaces printed on the board (read: worker placement).

Mombasa player boardPlayers choose and then reveal their action cards for each round simultaneously, then take an action each (in clockwise order) until everyone has passed.

Cards come in four types and are of varying quality (those available to ‘buy’ get better as the game goes on), and allow you to buy better cards to add to your hand; move along share tracks or improve the board position of the four companies; or improve one of the two tracks on your personal player board (bookkeeping or diamond).

As for your bonus markers, these can be used to do variations on these themes on a first come, first served ‘worker placement’ basis. Moving further up particular company tracks also opens up extra, more powerful action spaces that only players who have reached them can use. Some also allow you to take the first player marker, or give a bonus action in the next round.

At game-end you’ll score points for cash on hand (a point per pound); how far you’ve got on your own diamond and bookkeeping tracks (potentially 60 points on each), plus your points for progress with each of the four companies (how many shares you own in a company, multiplied by how much it is worth).

This is where the area majority comes into play. There are around 25 spaces on the board for the four companies to occupy, with each company having 15 ‘trading posts’ they can try to get onto the map – so no, 60 posts into 25 spaces doesn’t quite go! It’s possible (though unlikely) to have a company’s shares being worth nothing at the end of the game, so if you go big on shares in one and no one else bothers you are likely to struggle to keep them relevant on the board.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I always enjoy games where money is also victory points – but where you can spend those points on other desirable stuff: it’s just another element of the game I really enjoy. But at its heart Mombasa is a game about timing: in everything from the way you choose your actions, the order you take them in, but also what you leave and plan for later rounds. Thinky, but deliciously so.
  • The thinker: What really makes the game sing is the ‘resting cards’ mechanic – more easily described as multiple discard piles. In the early rounds you place three of your hand cards into slots and at the end of the round they will go into different discard piles equating to those slots. This means you can plan later rounds, as you pick up one of these discard piles once you’ve passed (but before you add that round’s card to it). As you only have seven rounds, you’re unlikely to see most cards more than a few times – so also buying cards (and claiming extra actions with workers) at the right time to bolster big moves is essential. Totally fiendish, and it’s what makes Mombasa stand out from an increasingly bloated euro pack.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed Mombasa. There is a little too much going on, but once you realise you can ignore some of it (like the fiddly book track) things get easier to manage. The key late on is the area control, where turn order becomes really important. You can affect things greatly by planning a big late move for board domination by a company you’ve backed; but it can be equally viable to hoover up extra shares from cards and company tracks, reacting to how you think the board situation will go based on the actions of others. It’s great to find a game where both paths are viable and where both are also fun to play.
  • The dabbler: There’s way too much going on in Mombasa for the casual gamer to really have fun. The theme is quite thin and a long way from something you want to get into anyway, while it takes almost as long to teach as it does to play! That would be OK as the rules are intuitive once you actually get going (you won’t need much of a reminder on later plays), but even with confidence you have to be engaged the whole time – as well as planning forward at least one turn – and probably at least two if you want to do well. Not for the feint of euro game heart!

Key observations

Mombasa board cardsThe most common criticism of Mombasa is that there’s too much going on; that it’s a mishmash of mechanisms that should be more elegant and streamlined.

To this I reply simply: Mombasa is not your sort of game. Move along. This is not a criticism, but a statement on the type of games you like.

It’s a similar thing for those who think it goes on too long. A couple of hours is about right for a game with this much going on, as if it was shorter it wouldn’t feel as if all the various parts did actually do anything worthwhile. So if you want shorter and less fiddly, look elsewhere – Mombasa is not the game you’re looking for.

The bookkeeping track has had particular criticism, and I have some sympathy with this. This way it works is interesting, but it’s very fiddly for what it brings to the game. It also injects some unwelcome randomness, as if you get the right tiles appearing at the right time you end up with an easier ride – while the designers made the weird decision to add some coins to some books at the start of each round for no apparent reason (again benefiting the person who happens to want that book). The only plus is you can definitely ignore bookkeeping altogether and still win the game!

Finally, a vocal minority have taken umbrage with the theme. As mentioned earlier they have gone as far as to talk about how this was a dark time in human history right there on page one of the rulebook. But equally, in what is largely an abstract game, why did the publisher/designer pursue this theme when it could easily have been transported to another corner of history – especially when their apology in the rules shows they knew it would be controversial? Answers on a postcard…

Conclusion

SorCon 16 mombasaI’ve enjoyed Mombasa so much it has already replaced the excellent Endeavor in my collection.

Area majority isn’t a mechanic I usually like, but with both these games there’s enough else going on that it feels like a part, not the whole – and can even largely be ignored by a canny pacifist.

Like any area majority game it does play better with three or four players, but I do still enjoy it with two – even if it does become a little zero-sum. But again there is enough else going on that it feels like a constant challenge; and that the best player will win. This can in fact be a disadvantage to games with three or four, as there is always a chance of king making – either deliberately, or accidentally via poor play. But that’s the nature of the beast – I don’t know of an area majority game where this isn’t a possibility.

If you like medium weight euro games, and in particular area majority and/or action selection games, I’d say this is a must-play: it rates above and 8-out-of-10 average on Board Game Geek right now and for me is one of the best games released in 2015.

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

The Bloody Inn: A four-sided game review

The Bloody InnThe Bloody Inn is a hand management game where each card can be used in a number of different ways.

It has a wonderfully macabre art style and theme, although it won’t be to everyone’s taste: each player is part-owner of an inn where a goodly number of patrons are robbed and murdered – with the player who makes the most profit from this being the winner.

In the small box you’ll find 80 cards, a small board depicting the inn and around 70 chits and tokens – not bad for the £20-ish you’ll pay for it. As mentioned the card art style will be loved by some and not others, but the overall component quality and graphic design is definitely above average (including linen finish cards).

The game length is listed as 45 minutes to an hour, which is about right. There is a shorter version of the game listed in the rules, but I wouldn’t recommend it – you run out of time before you really get a chance to get your engine going, which can lead to a pretty disappointing experience. It is also listed as one-to-four players, but the solo game is a tacked-on ‘beat your last score’ cop-out. However it plays very well between two and four.

Teaching

Anyone who has played the likes of Bruges and San Juan will be on familiar territory here, while others with a basic grasp of action selection and hand/economy management will pick it up fast.

At the start of each round (you play through the deck twice, removing some cards depending on the number of players) you put a certain number of cards (or guests) into rooms at the inn (again dependent on player number). Each player owns one of these rooms and will receive a coin from them – but only if the guest is still there in the morning (the end of the round)…

Bloody Inn main boardEvery card in the game can be used to do any of the common actions and you’ll get two actions each round. Each card has a number value on it (between 0-3) and this cleverly equates to the cost (in cards) of any action you want to do with it.

The ‘bribe a guest’ action lets you pay an amount of cards equal to a guest’s value to put that card into your hand. Luckily there is also a small stack of ‘value 0’ peasant cards that, if available, you can grab two of for a single action. So to bribe a value 2 card from the inn into your hand, you could spend two peasant cards (remember every card is worth 1 in terms of completing these actions).

Alternatively you can spend cards in your hand to kill a guest at the inn (flip them face down in front of you to their coffin side!), build an annex in your play area (handy for both special abilities and for burying corpses under…) or bury one of your murdered corpses and claim their belongings (read cash – which also equates to victory points).

As mentioned earlier, cards are usually ‘spent’ to carry out actions with guests who have a value higher than ‘0’. Guests spent in this way go to the discard pile, while peasants go back to the inn (so you have a semi-regular way to get more hand cards). However each guest card has a colour equating to their profession and if they’re used for that particular job they go back to your hand once used, rather than being discarded (religious cards, for example, aren’t discarded if they’re used to do a burial action).

The game’s actions have a simple, thematic flow and just make sense, while the single currency for all actions makes it simple to catch on to. Guests used as an annex simply help you improve your engine in a variety of ways – from allowing you to spend less cards to do certain actions/do more with an action, to earning extra money from guests or giving end game victory points.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: As with all great action selection games, two actions is never enough in The Bloody Inn – you always want to do more than you can. But at the same time your choices are relatively limited, so there doesn’t tend to be a big ‘analysis paralysis’ problem. And the game has so many clever, simple innovations. Take cards in hand not being discarded if they’re the right type – this sounds great, until you realise you have to pay one money at the end of each round per card in hand as wages – and that isn’t optional. Its conundrum after conundrum. The great player aid also doubles as a starting annex – and I’m a sucker for that kind of ingenuity!
  • The thinker: This is one of the better light euro games I have played, thanks in no small part to the economic side of the game. The way money (read: victory points) works is that you can only have 40 cash on hand at any time – if you want more, you have to spend an action laundering some of this cash into ‘cheques’. You have to do this to amass victory points, but it costs a precious action each time – and when you think a level 3 guest will net you 26 cash when buried you’ll find yourself laundering more often than you’d like.
  • The trasher: While interaction isn’t huge, there can be some real tension. Some guests are police and any alive at the end of a round snoop around – bad news if you have unburied corpses as you pay a fine and lose the body! This creates great scenarios as you work out who cares about law men that round: will they all be gone, or do I need to bury someone right now? Especially as you can bury them in other players’ annex space, whether they like it or not (you just have to give them half the cash). Also end game scoring cards are visible to all and score points for certain types of card in the discard pile – so you want to keep that type of guest out by either hiring them or killing them off!
  • The dabbler: While I enjoyed the style and theme of The Bloody Inn it’s definitely something to consider. The two complement each other well but the theme is in every aspect of game play – from the coffins on the backs of the cards to the bribe, gun and coffin symbols on various cards. But this integration of theme is also one of the games strongest suits, really helping in the teaching of the game and in creating a fun (if dark) comic air around the table talk. You also don’t need to fear that it’s a ‘cards with words’ game – many cards are duplicated and/or do very similar things, so it doesn’t take many games to become very familiar with all the options.

Key observations

Bloody Inn guest cardsThe biggest knock on The Bloody Inn right now is the lack of variety in the cards. While this is good from a learning perspective it would seem to limit the game’s replayability if it’s something you wanted to play often. This isn’t a problem for me as I like to play a large variety of games, but it could prove problematic in a smaller, heavily played collection.

I certainly hope the game gets an expansion, but the fact publisher Pearl Games is yet to produce one for the very popular Deus release (from 2014) doesn’t fill me with optimism. However it has previously backed both Troyes and Ginkopolis with expansions, so fingers crossed.

Another limiting factor is that many of the cards seem to have pretty weak powers once made into an annex, which further limits strategic choice. Here the simplicity of the ‘0-3’ values of the cards becomes a hindrance for the game, as some cards of the same rank are very clearly more useful than others in almost any circumstance. Again, this could be solved easily with an expansion.

Others won’t like the tightness of actions, as two per round really is agonising and it can feel as if the game ends just when you’re starting to get your engine running. That said, many like it for the exact same reason: it’s very much horses for courses in that regard.

Finally it can sometimes feel as if things get going too slowly – each player starting with a level 2 annex ability (perhaps drafted?) could really have helped here, which is something I may experiment with as a house rule.

Conclusion

Bloody Inn player aidI have fallen for the charms of The Bloody Inn, both in theme and mechanics. But while I’m glad to own it and consider it one of my current favourites, I can equally understand those who are critical of it.

The combination of multi-use cards and paying for cards with other cards puts two of my favourite mechanisms in the box, along with action selection (another favourite). I also love the feeling of not being able to do everything I need too (I love that challenge in a game) and the tough economy, so this was always going to be a winner for me.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, this is a very cheap investment for a strong title that (even if you don’t think it has great longevity) will give you at least a solid 10 plays out of the box. But without some support by way of expansions, this could run out of steam faster than it deserves to – and that would be a real shame.

This is because, despite the components and price point, this is very much a euro game first and a card game second. The Bloody Inn relies on the engine building, not the interaction, and games such as these need to provide variety to keep from buried under the annex themselves.

One play: Through the Ages – A New Story of Civilisation

TTA New wide

It says a lot about a game when it spends 10 years in the Board Game Geek top 10 list despite being four hours long and fundamentally flawed – a fact recognised by even its most dedicated supporters. Welcome to the world of Through the Ages.

The version I have previously reviewed (link below**) was the second edition, released in 2007, but the changes from the first edition were largely cosmetic (such as a pretty big upgrade in component quality). But in 2015 Czech Games Edition and designer Vlaada Chvatil decided to revisit the game more thoroughly – with another component upgrade, but also some pretty big changes to the rules.

Having reread my original post, I feel no need to do another full review. Almost everything still stands: it’s still epic, complex and long, but totally rewarding. It still shouldn’t be played with any more than three (unless you’re happy with a hell of a lot downtime), but if you have a liking for ‘heavy’ euro games or civ-style games, it’s at least a must-try.

You can also play online, for free – including the new version – at Boardgaming Online. Not only is this a strong implementation of the game, but the users also deserve kudos for being a large part of the testing group for this new third edition.

Through the Ages: The military problem

TTA New tacticsA pretty common complaint with the older versions, and one I agree with, is military strength was overpowered.

There have several changes that help tone this down a little, with much less reliance on luck of the draw with your military cards.

For example, when defending aggressions you can now discard any military cards (up to your number of military actions) to add to your defence cards. Also you no longer have to rely on drawing the right tactics card if someone else has already put it into play – there is a common area for all tactics cards played, meaning you can adopt a strategy earlier played by an opponent.

In addition, during both wars and aggressions you are no longer allowed to sacrifice units to add to your military strength. Wars can still be devastating if you don’t at least keep close parity with your opponents, but as long as you’re within touching distance you should be able to cling to a lead. Personally I’d still like to see a cap put on the amount of benefit you can get from military cards, but these are all big improvements.

Significant tweaks: Turn sequence and card balance

In older versions of Through the Ages there was a very fiddly turn sequence where it was quite easy to be caught out by ‘corruption’ (the loss of building materials, which could be devastating), especially for less experienced players. The new version has streamlined this beautifully and turns now flow smoothly, giving you your turn to fix any corruption issues as they happen near the end of your go.

Another issue was that many cards were simply better than others and there were a lot of cards experienced players would never even consider playing. Most have been balanced now; either toned down, tweaked up or at least made useful in certain situations. I’m now seeing cards being played that never used to be and it’s great to see whole new strategies becoming viable for experienced and new players alike.

A New Story of Civilisation: Component upgrades

TTA New player boardWhile I wasn’t unduly worried about the art and component quality in the second edition, the new edition blows it out of the water.

The card art is now lovely (rather than passable), the player boards are both functional (including a handy play sequence) and attractive, while the cubes are less small and fiddly.

The rulebook certainly benefits from the simplifications in turn sequence but is undoubtedly better across the board; while all the player boards look great and can be organised in a way that suits your player numbers and table space. And across the board everything is more colourful, but not in a way that detracts from its functionality. There are even some rather pointless stickers to put on the player markers, if you’re so inclined.

Through the Ages: Will we need a fourth edition?

At the time of writing, the third edition of Through the Ages was already up to number 11 in the BGG rankings – just six places behind the original with an average ranking of 9/10 from close to 2,000 votes – a whole point above its predecessor (a big part of the BGG ranking is number of votes – in which the original outstrips it about 10 to 1 for now). I’m sure it won’t be long before it deservedly overtakes it.

The game has been high in my Top 50 games list since it began and I can’t see it ever dropping off that list, despite the fact I’m terrible at it. The one problem I have is simply my own, not the game’s: it’s a little too heavy for me to be any good at because once the mid game comes along I tend to lose touch as the decision space becomes a bit too much for me. The fact I still enjoy it despite almost guaranteed defeat speaks volumes!

TTA New card trackIs the game perfect now? No, I don’t think so – but its close enough that I can’t see Vlaada and CGE returning to it for more big changes. I would still like to see a version of the game where military can be de-scaled a little more, but not completely: where you could ignore it to a large extent because you knew there was a cap on how many points you could be hit by during a war. I think leaving the war cards out is too strong the other way, but a points cap on their effectiveness (at least as an option) would be appreciated.

The online second edition version also includes a second set of cards and I’d love to see something like this released in physical form for the tabletop version. I guess it would be a lot of testing for very little profit if just released as a card expansion, but as this is clearly a game the designer still has a lot of love for I wouldn’t rule it out. A true classic.

* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing a copy of the game for review
** My full review of the previous edition: Through the Ages: A four-sided game review

The King is Dead: A four-sided game review

King is DeadThe King is Dead* is an abstract strategy game for two to four players designed by Peer Sylvester, which essentially reimplements his classic 2007 design ‘King of Siam’.

The game has beautiful style, quality and art throughout, from the bookshelf-style box to the map and cards (although the bog-standard wooden cubes are a let down, largely because of how nice everything else is).

You get 40 plastic finish cards, 63 wooden cubes, 32 cardboard tokens, a board and the rule book. The box is hugely oversized for what you get in it, but the £20 price tag is fair.

Set in Britain at the time of King Arthur, this is an area majority game where players are the power behind the throne. To claim victory you will need to back the winner, influencing the outcome of eight key regional battle fought over the game’s eight turns. It plays in well under an hour and is for two to four players, though feelings vary on the preferred player count (see ‘observations’ below).

Teaching

King is Dead boardThe King is Dead is a very simple game to teach, as every player has the same set of eight action cards available to them for each game. The majority of these cards simply allow you to place or move influence cubes on the board, so it literally takes a few minutes to get up and running.

The board, a map of Britain, is broken up into eight areas – each of which is seeded with a couple of cubes during setup. These represent the competing armies of England, Scotland and Wales, each of which has a set stronghold (Wales, Scotland and London) which is always seeded with their colour. The other areas are seeded randomly.

Each region also has a card. These are shuffled and laid out randomly at the start of the game to show the order in which conflicts in these regions will be resolved. Along with the random army setup, this ensures every game will be a different challenge despite the seemingly small number of moving parts.

The real genius of the game lies in one clever mechanism. Once the board has been seeded with armies, each player takes two random cubes from those remaining: their starting influence. When the eight regions have been decided, you want to have the most total influence of the army that won most battles – and consequently crowns the new king.

This sounds simple enough, as each time time you play one of your action cards you also get to take an influence cube of your choice into your personal stock of influence. However, the cube you take has to come from the board – meaning you are weakening the country you want to back in terms of board position. This works fantastically well and can lead to some agonising, and really clever, extra levels of tactics and strategy.

King is Dead cardsAnother interesting aspect of play is that their are eight rounds to the game and each player has eight action cards – but the two numbers don’t correlate: you’re under no obligation to play one action per round.

You will of course want to play all eight cards, as each will give you a precious influence cube. But a round only ends when all players pass, rather than play an action, and you can find yourself wanting to go all-in to win a territory – but if you go too big too early, how will you influence the late game?

One final thing you need to get across when teaching are the various end game scenarios that may crop up. In a game with three countries vying for just eight areas, and with players only getting a maximum of 10  influence points across those countries, there is plenty of room for draws – and therefore tie-breakers.

For example, if two players draw on influence for the winning country it goes to the next most influential and so in. While if two or three countries tie for the highest number of regions conquered the country which most recently won one will be the winning nation. And that’s before we even mention the possibility of a Saxon Invasion…

The four sides

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

  • King is Dead tokensThe writer: An extra added wrinkle is the possibility of a Saxon invasion. If two or more nations draw an area, none of them take it and you instead put one of four Saxon tokens on the region. If the Saxons win four regions, the game ends immediately. Instead of winning by backing the right country, you instead form the resistance – so win by having the most sets of cubes (so equal numbers of the thee countries here is key). While this sounds interesting, I’m yet to see anyone win with the tactic and can’t help thinking it will only really be possible if two players go for it.
  • The thinker: This is a magnificent game, with a lovely blend of tactics and strategy within its short play time. One of my favourite strategic aspects are ‘partial actions’; where you get to play a card, but due to board position you cannot do the whole action – but do still get to keep a cube. This can be particularly powerful late in the game, when you may be holding a card that will add two influence to a region you do not back – but that country has control of no areas you can legally place next to, meaning you don’t have to put the influence on the board. This kind of subtlety keeps on emerging from the game the more you play it.
  • The trasher: The King is Dead is tight, smart and fast, but I find it very difficult to balance the use of actions through the game. If you’re a tactical player its hard not to get set on a region and become determined to win it – wasting cards in the process. It’s particularly tough if two of you get entrenched in a three-player game, leaving your other opponent with loads more cards than the pair of you; making it much easier to control the board (although in a three-player game the player who has the last action card in-hand can only play it if it can actually win them the game). A good game, but one I find extremely frustrating.
  • The dabbler: Really clever, and beautiful, but too dry and abstracted for me. It’s the kind of game that kills conversation rather than creating it, as everyone sinks deep into thought. That said, it is possible to win by kicking back and seeing what happens for the first half of the game and then going with the flow, never having a single strategic thought! But for me I’d rather put the kettle on, top up the wine or grab another bag of nibbles and wait for something a bit more fun to come along!

Key observations

King is Dead board close upIf you’ve skipped here because you’re familiar with King of Siam and are wondering if there are significant differences, fear not – the games are very close. I feel The King is Dead loses nothing in translation; the publisher worked closely with the original designer on the new map, ensuring the same level of interaction.

Some King of Siam players have expressed concern about the random pick of starting cubes for players (in the original game, you have set followers for each player). I personally like the varied starting setup, but it would be simple to emulate the starting setup of the original game if desired. And lets face it – this version is gorgeous and has generally been very well received – a real win for a publisher just joining the family board game market.

An addition to this release is the ‘Mordred Variant’, intended for seasoned players to add an extra level of difficulty. I’m yet to try it, as I feel the base game is (spoiler alert…) close to perfect – but at the same time, it’s nice to know its there!

In terms of player numbers, the game plays very differently at all counts (two is a straightforward knife fight, three more subtle and with four you play in teams) – and there is divided opinion on which works best. Some will go as far to say they love it at one count and won’t play it at the others, for example. Personally I’m keen on the three-player game, but will play with any number.

Conclusion

The King is Dead manages to pack a huge amount of depth into a small package while being beautifully designed and presented. Personally I think its a mechanical masterpiece and, along with Ingenious and Rosenkonig (being reprinted this year in English as The Rose King – hurrah!), is one of my very favourite abstract games.

However it bares repeating that this is as abstract as abstract games get which – combined with the low scoring count, big brain burning moments and myriad tie-breakers – means it certainly isn’t going to be everyone. On the plus side, if you want to try it out, the original King of Siam is available to play for free online at Yucata.

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

Antarctica: A four-sided game review

AntarcticaAntarctica* is an area control board game with some interesting twists, with the emphasis being on continuous accumulation rather than conflict.

Despite having an A4-sized two-inch deep box full of wood and cardboard the game will only set you back about £20, which is great value.

Inside the box you’ll find a board, rules, around 150 wooden pieces, 40 cardboard markers, plus 60 small-sized cards. The component quality is solid throughout, even if the board  size leaves a little to be desired (see below).

The box lists a play time of 60-90 minutes and I’d say that’s about right, although some of our games have run a little longer. It plays well two to four players but, as in any area majority game, it can feel a little ‘zero sum’ with only two players going for each scoring opportunity.

The ‘future global warming, oh no there goes the ice cap’ theme is  pretty much pasted on. However it makes for some fun looking components, the artwork/iconography is well done and the theme does hold together in terms of gameplay, even if it’s superficial. This could just have easily been orcs or spaceships, so I applaud them for trying something different.

Teaching

Antarctica in playAntarctica has an eight-page rulebook: three of sort out/setup, three rules, one scoring and one appendix. As you’ll surmise from that, this is a game that’s more fiddly than it is complex.

Once you’re set up (different for all player counts so hard to memorise, but it works) you get to the game’s key mechanism: the movement of the sun. The board is split into eight regions: in terms of the theme, the sun moves from area to area and sheds enough warmth to let one ship (read: workers) break out of the ice each time.

Said ship must move to any other area and perform one action: making a building or ship, recruiting or researching. Ships give you more turns while placing ‘buildings’ lets you place scientists (read: area majority markers) – and its these who will score most of your points. There are several research tracks (for researching) and these are also scored by majority at the end of the game – as well as giving you little bonuses when you pass certain points on them. Recruiting lets you get the scientists you need to place buildings.

Antarctica researchIt’s important to stress that if you don’t spread your ships around the eight regions, you won’t get many actions. It can be an advantage to double up in an area, especially early on, but if you do it too much you’ll spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs.

It’s the same if you keep going into busy areas – if you go in third (there is a three ship limit per area), that’s usually three times around the board (20+ actions) before that ship will act again.

This is one of those game mechanisms that can scare players off on their first plays: no one likes doing nothing in a game and Antarctica doesn’t pull any punches – you can easily go 10 actions without doing anything if you’ve planned badly, or with a particular big run of turns in mind. On the plus side you’ll probably then get a rush of actions at once, but by then your opinion of the game may already be damaged.

I’d suggest scoring should be roughly explained before you get going, then thoroughly gone over a couple of rounds in once players are familiar with the basics of play. It’s not complicated, but it seems to be a bit much for some people after you’ve gone through the rules – and it’s just different enough from most games to be easily misunderstood.

Basically, the winner of an area gets a point for everything in it (all scientists, plus all buildings). The second player gets a point per scientist the winner of the area had – that’s it. Third gets a point per scientist the second player had, and so on. This means you can score some nice free points by popping a scientist into a well contested area; while losing out on a big two-way scrap can be a real game changer. A similar system is used to score research tracks, but less so: these two things make up the majority of the scoring.

The four sides

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

  • Antarctica cardsThe writer: There aren’t many cards in Antarctica and you may only get five or six per play; but using them wisely can turn the game in your favour. Each decision is interesting too, with the balance of restocking and building placement – and the choice of going for extra ships (for turns) – constantly changing. Someone else’s move can often force you into a tactical change, keeping you on your toes.
  • The thinker: While it’s a solid game there were some strange decisions made in terms of luck. A scoring method not yet mentioned is building card scoring. Three decks of buildings are available and you can only build the top of a pile. 13 of the 39 cards have an asterisk and the players score these in the same way as a research track – meaning if they’re all built, the person who made most will score 13 points. But they’re random and no harder to build, so just situational. A very odd and seemingly pointless level of complication in an otherwise solid tactical game.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed how the scoring worked in Antarctica. Deciding whether to really go for it, chasing someone up one of the tracks, adds a delicious tension to the game and will decide who wins and loses – a great cut-throat mechanism. But too often I found myself frustrated with the downtime between turns and a few people really suffered from analysis paralysis as it can be hard to plan your moves. That said, the nicely disguised brutality means I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt!
  • The dabbler: This game looks great on the table; the sun – a simple yellow half circle – is a lovely component! I like the theme too; and the way it ties into the fact it’s an area majority game where you’re not killing each other. But ultimately I found I lost interest when it wasn’t my turn and I didn’t find myself getting engrossed at all – and it way nastier than it seems at first, just in a more subtle way! I didn’t care what other people were doing and from about half way I didn’t really care if I won or lost.

Key observations

Antarctica busy1Antarctica busy2Antarctica has been accused of having some pointlessly fiddly components, such as the standees, but I can see why they’ve made this decision and am behind them on this.

The standees are for points, the wooden buildings provide access to resources (needed to build other buildings) and the flat cardboard buildings get stuff stuff (ships, scientists, research). It actually works very well once you’ve got it.

But let’s move on to the real elephant in the room: The big problem is that the board isn’t big enough for everything you need to put on it, no matter the player count.

Sure, each region has a space for each building and each ship – but there is no space to put the scientists. You can easily put them in there, but this just makes it looked cluttered and messy which is a real shame.

There’s also an area for putting available ships and research cubes – and again it’s too small. They could’ve been put to the side of the board with the pool of yet-to-be-claimed scientists. The reason for putting them on the board is they’re another scoring method: you can move one resource you don’t think you’ll need from the ‘green’ to the ‘red’ area of per round: and they’re scored in the same way as the others. I haven’t seen anyone score more than 5 points here – which makes it seem ever more like a waste of space.

Finally, the rulebook is pretty awful – the chosen layout was a terrible idea. However it’s worth fighting through as the game itself is pretty simple once you get going and as a reference sheet, the rules actually work well. It’s just the initial play that’s the problem!

Conclusion

Antarctica sunIn some ways Antarctica is hard to love, while in others I feel it needs to be admired. The sun movement and scoring methods won’t be to everyone’s tastes but they make this a highly original game in the genre, while the theme and presentation only add to this.

But unfortunately the game feels underdeveloped. The building card and resource scoring feel tacked on and unbalanced, adding pointless complication; the rulebook is a mess, and the board is clearly undersized. This was a real surprise, especially after last year’s Argentum Verlag release El Gaucho really hit it out of the park in all of these departments.

I really hope the game finds its audience. If you like a good, competitive area majority game with some neat new ideas you should definitely try Antarctica – because while the game has more than a few niggles, none of them really get in the way of the core of the gameplay.

Personally I don’t think it will be staying in my collection, but Antarctica will always be a game I’m happy to play. And I’ll be keeping the faith with both publisher AV and designer Charles Chevallier as they clearly both have a lot to offer the industry.

* I would like to thank Argentum Verlag for providing a copy of the game for review.