Friday feelings: Watching others interact with your work

Creativity has been a big part of my life. From Lego ‘masterpieces’ when I was small, through sad teenage bedroom poetry, to writing and designing now that I’m, well, less small. Every day I wake up and, at some point, feel that urge to create.

I’m lucky I’ve managed to earn a modest living from writing (certainly not from designing lol) and managed to do most of my creating without having to get direct face-to-face public feedback (managers, colleagues and friends don’t count!). While music has also been a big part of my life, for example, I never felt the urge to perform. The idea of being on stage for anything has always terrified me, which has gotten worse with age as anxiety has started to take a hold on my life.

but unfortunately, every now and again, it can’t be avoided. I had the privilege of writing the programme/booklet for the Cambridge Folk Festival for about 10 years (until 2012). It was poorly paid and managed (the editing process, not the festival), but it meant I got free backstage passes to a festival I loved – what’s not to like? But at the festival, I had my first experience of live public feedback – albeit indirectly.

There I was, sitting in a field with a beer on a sunny day with some good friends and good music – perfect. Then I overhear the people sitting next to us saying, “Wow, I’m not going to see that lot – they sound terrible!” Looking around, I see that the guy has come to this conclusion by reading what I’d written about someone in the programme…

I was mortified. The programme was purely promotional: I wasn’t reviewing these artists, but simply saying a mixture of nice things they wanted to hear (from their own biogs) and a few extra nice bits if I like them. Why didn’t they want to see them? He didn’t know I’d written it (or did he…?), but that wasn’t the point. I suddenly started to feel 20,000 pairs of eyes looking at me…

Of course, I now presume they didn’t want to see that particular band because they weren’t up their street. They’d read the instrument/influence list, who they sounded like, who they’d played with etc – and decided nope, not for me. But for that brief moment I was convinced everyone in that field was reading my programme thinking, “God – all these bands are terrible – what idiot wrote this and what are we doing here?”

A similar thing now happens with my board game designs, when I’m lucky enough to have them published. The most memorable example was at Essen 2016, when Queen Games released Armageddon (co-designed with David Thompson). While ultimately the game didn’t do too well, Queen did an amazing job of pushing it at the event. It must’ve been on 30 demo tables, which were filled throughout the weekend. Walking past those tables, or watching them, was so weird. That’s our baby!

What made it worse is Armageddon is a thinky auction-style euro game with tough decisions. We could often look along a long line of tables and see no laughter, no smiles, no back-slapping – just a bunch of surly, miserable looking faces lol. Luckily a lot of those faces were turning into sales, but it was an incredibly anxiety-inducing and awkward experience!

But on the flip side, I’m not worried about reviews. I’ve been reviewing for years – live by the sword, die by the sword. Not everyone is going to like every game, so there’s no point hoping they will: you just have to hope it’s good enough to get more good reviews than bad, and that those who don’t like it at least understand it and are fair. But even if they’re not, brush yourself down and move on.

Creating for the public is a privilege – but the minute you put your creation into the public eye you must be prepared for criticism. You need to understand that it won’t all be fair, or justified, or even coherent. But more than that you have to be prepared to walk away – not to engage. If you can’t do that, keep your creations to yourself and your friends. Everyone can create, but not everyone is ready for public scrutiny.

Board game Top 10: Sarah’s favourite games

Sarah and I recently celebrated two years together – which also happened to be two years since Sarah was introduced to our wonderful hobby (go figure…). So I thought hey, why not see what her favourites are? The fact this happens to be posted in Valentine’s week is purely coincidental!

The big caveat is, of course, these are all games in my collection – so Sarah has a pretty small pool from which to pick. But these are all games she’ll ask to play, has played many times (with the exception of Azul, which was an insta-hit recently), and is a genuine fan of. And yes, they’re all games she’ll often kick my ass at.

She definitely has a few ‘types’. Route-building is a big plus, while if a game is fiddly it better have a big board and lots of stuff to make the fiddliness feel worthwhile. Otherwise its games with very quick decisions but where they’re all important and have clear consequences. And while a bit of luck is fine, a lot is a turn off (she has very little interest in playing a game for a laugh, or to switch off: that’s what EastEnders is for).

Only one was in my own last Top 10, although five more were in my Top 20. They’re not in order, but all 10 picked themselves. I’ve batched them into groups, with a little quote from Sarah for each one – and links, as always, go to full reviews where I’ve done them.

Aggressive abstracts

Sarah definitely loves a game that looks great on the table (and/or is tactile), has short and simple turns, but that mixes skill, strategy and emerging complexity:

  • Adios Calavera: A quick game with simple rules, but I love the different movement styles of the pieces and how you can mix them up each game for a different challenge.
  • Azul: Beautiful tiles, with a simple but interesting way to get them. It may not seem like it at first, but every decision is important – as choices you make now can really come back and bite you later.
  • Ingenious: Quite straightforward rules, but really tricky to play. You start out just trying to match colours to score the most points, but have to keep a close eye on the weakest colours of you and your opponents.
  • Uptown: This version of the game has a lovely style (also known as Blockers) and it offers a good, simple challenge. Really tricky with two as you control two colours – meaning you can cut yourself off!

Route-builders

The other genre she’s warmed most to is route building games. Her initial joy for Ticket to Ride hasn’t subsided, and a few others now sit beside it on her favourites list:

  • Africana: Can be very satisfying to be efficient in a turn (start a route, pick up another card, maybe finish another route with that card etc). But probably the most likely to drop off the list next time.
  • Oracle of Delphi: A bit more complicated, but I understand it. A good test of efficiency with plenty to do, plus an interesting ‘race’ feel that tends to make the end of the game feel more exciting than most. 
  • Ticket to Ride: Very tried and tested. I know exactly what I’m doing (mostly!) and win my fair share of games; but a small mistake can be super costly. The different maps add nice variety, keeping the base game fresh.
  • Thurn and Taxis: Despite being quite a simple game rules-wise, there are several different ways to explore and experiment with to get points – but with just the right amount of randomness to keep it tactical too.

The rest

Sarah has probably played more than half the games in my collection now (she’s a trooper!) and while I definitely now angle new purchases/picks towards the styles above, other games sometimes emerge as favourites too:

  • Kingdomino: The game has lovely artwork and nice tiles, while it’s satisfying to create good scoring areas. I should worry more about others are doing, but I’m too busy enjoying my own little puzzle.
  • Codenames Duet: This is really quite tricky, but it’s nice to stretch my word brain and to play as a team. It’s very different from other games we play and while it’s co-operative you still very much have your own personal challenge.

I’ll be interested to see what has changed on the list by next year, so will try and keep this annual – while I’d also love to have your suggestions for other games you think she might like. Not that I need any more games, but hey!

Friday feelings: My fandom is normal. Yours is weird…

I find it fascinating people can justify certain behaviours in themselves, but can’t understand incredibly similar behaviours in others – even judging them on those actions, despite them being fractions away from their own. 

I hate January in the UK as much as the next person, so one thing I do to get through it is book up as many exciting things as possible for the next few months: I get the festive period out of the way, then start planning the first half of the year like a man possessed. It’s great to have things to look forward to, and when better to do that than in the most miserable, long and cold month of the year? 

Looking at my calendar now, the next six months are a joy to behold: 4 gaming weekends away across the UK, 8 gigs in 6 different towns/cities, plus a trip to Sweden. As much as I love my home and where I live, I love getting away just as much – and if I can tie in music and gaming with that, then more’s the better.

I accept some people will think this is nuts: not everyone has my desire to up-sticks every other weekend to nomad my way around the country and stay in shitty hotels so I can watch my favourite bands, or play games with friends and strangers alike. If you don’t get it, that’s fine. But some people really, really should.

In darkest December I found myself in a Midlands pub on one of the most miserable days of the year, waiting to head to a gig. We ended up sharing some tables with a bunch of Bournemouth football fans. They’d got up stupidly early that morning, put their Christmas jumpers on, and piled up the motorway to watch their team get well beaten 2-0 in freezing sideways drizzle. 

They were an affable, drunken bunch showing an admirable support for their team. I like football, and I get it: I’ve never been one to travel to games, but I understand the mentality – it’s the same I have for music and gaming. At least I thought it was.

I hadn’t gotten up early, or travelled half as far. The band I wanted to see hadn’t played my home town the week before, or in fact in years. The band I was going to see were playing indoors. In the dry. And they were going to perform: barring a surprise of biblical proportions, I was going to witness the result I’d set out that lunchtime hoping for. But it was me trying to explain to them why doing it wasn’t weird. 

They were nice. They didn’t have to let us butt in on their table and when they left an hour or so later, off into the night to get a curry, we said farewell on happy terms. But as they wandered drunkenly away I was thinking, nice chaps – good luck next week. While they were clearly thinking ‘weirdos’. Funny old world.

PS: Hopefully see some of you in Ely, Basildon, Harrogate, Bedford, Cambridge, London, Bristol, Eastbourne, Manchester, Hitchin and Goteborg soon…

Tsukiji: A four-sided game review

Tsukiji* is a simple (yet fiendishly tricky to master) set collection and commodity speculation card game for 2-4 players, that takes less than 30 minutes to play.

It’s a light game, making the 8+ age on the box seem reasonable. But seeing as I’m still trying to get my head around how to play it well, I can’t really be sure – although I’ve never had a head for numbers.

The commodities you’ll be speculating on are fresh fish in a 1930s Tokyo seafood market. While the theme could quite literally have been any other commodity, the game is beautifully presented and has nice quality components and lovely artwork – making it good value if you can find it around the £20-ish mark. In the Kingdomino-sized box you’ll find a price speculation board, ~150 cards, ~50 cardboard chits and five wooden markers.

Teaching Tsukiji

Tsukiji is a little fiddly to play, and the rulebook could be better laid out, but in essence it is a simple game to teach once you’ve gotten a handle on it. Set up is also a little fiddly, as there are different cards needed for different player numbers; making it so that there will always be seven rounds of play. After those seven rounds, the player with the most money wins.

On most turns, each player will end up spending money on some fish cards and adding them to their tableau. The value of these fish types will ebb and flow over the seven rounds, so you’ll be trying to buy cheap lots of fish while also trying to increase the market value of the one’s you’re collecting – the classic commodities conundrum.

At the start of each round, several lots (one more than the number of players) of three fish cards will be randomly dealt to the middle of the table (each fish type has the same number of cards). Each player has a hand of evaluation cards (the basic ones are numbered 1-4 – more on the others later). After seeing the lots, players decide which they want to be of high or low value, and places one of their evaluation cards next to each. These player cards are then simultaneously revealed, with price markers being assigned to each lot depending on the totals revealed.

Each price marker has two properties: a market value change you’ll assign to each fish in a lot on the market board – and a price to afterwards buy that lot. For example, the ‘best’ lot may see +4 added to the market value of each fish in the lot (so if it had two octopus cards, the market value of them would go up by eight) – but if you want to buy that lot, it is going to cost you 12 money. The ‘worst’ lot may add no value to those fish types, or even decrease them – but the lot itself will only cost three money. It is this push-and-pull that is at the heart of the game.

Players start with around 50 money, and a card set cost 3-12 – so buying the ‘best’ lot each round will see you go bankrupt fast (you can choose to buy no cards in a round and collect three money instead). Buying the best lot also makes you start player, which has the obvious advantage of getting first pick of the cards next turn.

At the end of the game, a fish’s value isn’t dependent on how far ahead it is on the market value board: just its position is important. For example, the octopus may be way out in front on 45, with the next best fish (let’s say the shrimp) way back on 20.

This means every octopus card will be worth 10 money, with every shrimp worth seven. But these closing values would be the same if the octopus finished at 30 and the shrimp 29. So, trying to lower the cost of a lot to make it cheap can work, despite meaning fish in that lot will not increase in value.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: For me, Tsukiji adds just the right number of little wrinkles to make the game fun. For example, while most cards are one of the five market fish types there are also tuna, wild and Yakuza cards. Tuna are collected as normal but score triangularly; wild can be added to any set (but don’t affect market values); while a Yakuza will take another fish from a lot as payment – leaving it with only one card. These are all very simple rules but make each round just a little more interesting enough to keep everyone on their toes.
  • The thinker: Ultimately this is a very basic stock manipulation game, with limited control that gets worse the more players you add to the mix. Those looking for clear ways to influence values need look elsewhere, as it won’t be as interactive as you’d like. But as a quick filler game, and a gateway into the genre, this is a solid title. You’ll just need to make sure there is one person who is happy/keen to do all the market price changes each round, as it is fiddly – and also that you can trust them to do it correctly! I’m happier with a drier, cleverer game such as Tulip Bubble – but I’d certainly play again with a fun crowd.
  • The trasher: Sometimes you really want to try and influence the value of a particular lot, especially nearer the end of the game: that’s where the one-shot special evaluation cards come in. As well as your boring cards numbered 1-4, you’ll also start with a 6 and a -1, plus a few others (depending on player count). You’ll want to hold them back for as long as possible, but will those last couple of hands even be worth influencing? I expect if you can card count you’ll be able to work it out – but I’m happier flying by the seat of my pants! A nice game if you like this sort of thing – and I enjoyed it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is very fiddly, I found myself enjoying Tsukiji. The artwork and pieces are really cute, while the game play is simple – value lots, buy a lot, repeat. The first few rounds seem a bit random, as you have no fish so don’t know why you should value one lot higher than another. But this is great for new players, as they can get a feel for how the turns work before the more serious decisions begin. The Yakuza add some jeopardy, and we oohed and aahed when the card lots were being drawn – and after half an hour it’s all over, even with four players. It’s just a shame the cute cat wasn’t used more on the cards!

Key observations

Is Tsukiji a little clunky? Sure. But in a game where prices are being manipulated, that’s always going to be the case. You’re going to have to change the price of five fish a maximum of seven times each over a time span of about half an hour – and deal out a bunch of cards. And work out a few values by adding some cards up. Yes, for some that will be too fiddly – but for the groups I’ve played with, the payoff was worth it.

And no, the game isn’t anything amazingly special: it’s mostly a standard commodity speculation card game. But when you add the nice components, short play time and simplicity this is part of its charm. Not every game needs to innovate or be unique – sometimes, simply rearranging the designer toolbox in a smart way and then giving the game the veneer it deserves is enough. Alongside Modern Art/Masters Gallery, this is the most fun I’ve had with this genre at this play time and complexity level.

Conclusion

When I made my initial Essen 2018 wish list, Tsukiji kept surprising me by hanging in near the top of the list as I continued to whittle it down. I didn’t play it at the show, but by then I trusted what I’d read in the rulebook – and luckily I haven’t been disappointed. It will definitely be staying in my collection and while it probably won’t trouble by Top 50, I can see it being a go-to game to scratch that stock market itch.

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

Friday feelings: Understanding children’s emotions (The Color Monster)

Happiness, sadness, anger, fear and calm. As adults, we understand these emotions – but in the mind of a four-year-old, or even an 11-year-old (especially if they have special needs), these can be confusing or hard to explain; not to mention, in more simple instances, awkward or difficult to talk about. And, frankly, they’re no easy to explain.

And then there’s, you know, having fun. Kids tend to have emotional highs and lows every, what, three to five seconds? This moment’s laughter can easily bring on the next moment’s tears, and that laughter seems instantly forgotten. So imagine how many of these emotions you’re missing, as a parent, when your child is at school, or with friends, or at an after school club or party?

The Color Monster, a children’s book by Anna Llenas, was written to try and tackle this tricky area in an interactive way. It’s the story of a little girl finding the Color Monster, which has its emotions all mixed up – and so she sets out to try and help it through all the confusion. All the monster has to do is identify each feeling (each represented by a colour) and separate them, by understanding how they make it feel.

The book has been very successful, and a game was an obvious extension of the IP. It isn’t much of a game, to be honest – roll-and-move a couple of pieces around a board while trying to win a very simple memory game. But what’s important is how interactive it is, and how they’ve cleverly incorporated co-operative game mechanics into something that actually has people talking with, rather than over, each other.

A player’s turn is simple: roll the die and move a piece (the girl or the monster); and if you land on a space with a colour token on it, you talk about an emotion that matches it. After that, you can make an attempt at the colour matching. The rules suggest you can talk about anything – an event, a memory, an object. But as a parent you can of course narrow that down – this weekend, school etc. The game itself is a very basic framework from which you can gently burrow into your children’s feelings.

But the subtler, equally important side to this is that the parents take turns too. What better way to express your own frustrations or moments of joy that relate to your kids than in a shared space such as this? You’ve just said that X makes you feel angry; well that’s the same way I feel about Y. And post-game, if your children enjoy it, it’s a simple way to move towards a taboo topic. If they seem to be having one of those days you can simply ask, “What colour are you feeling?”

It’s an incredibly clever construct – which just so happens to be couched in a lovely story with beautiful artwork. And whether you look at the books (there are several versions available), the game or both I highly recommend checking it out. After all, you don’t want to make the Color Monster sad, do you…?

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

KeyForge – Call of the Archons: A four-sided game review

KeyForge – Call of the Archons is a ‘unique deck game’ which seems two players battle head-to-head, each with their own deck of cards. It’s stated at 14+, but a 10-year-old gamer should be fine with it.

While a starter set is available (at around £30), you don’t need one – as long as you’re happy to cobble together around 50 tokens (the rules are only available online, so you’re not missing out on those).

Instead, what most players will do is buy an individual pack of cards and play versus their friends. Each player needs their own ‘Archon Deck’, but these cost less than £10 each (which feels reasonable). Each of these decks includes 37 cards and, well, that’s it. They’re perfectly adequate quality, the iconography/text is clear, and each one is chock full of teenage boy fantasy/sci-fi hybrid artwork.

As with Discover: Lands Unknown, every Archon Deck is unique – but this is a very different game, which feels much better suited to the concept. You’ll get a unique set of 36 cards from a pool of 350, which according to the blurb equates to one of more than 104 quadrillion possibilities. The 37th card is your unique character card – giving your deck a name and picture it’ll keep forever. Because, despite being designed by the man behind Magic: The Gathering (Richard Garfield) this is not a deck-building game. Every card in your deck has your character’s name on it, and you’re not supposed to mix and match them (my favourite name out of mine: Lopez the Poetically Adventurous!).

Teaching KeyForge

While KeyForge is very much its own beast, anyone with previous knowledge of card combat games should feel immediately at home. Those coming new to the genre may want to look at the Starter Set, which comes with an additional two basic decks designed specifically to teach the game (these really aren’t very useful for experienced players – although you may want the ‘official’ tokens and counters also included).

I should also note that you won’t find rules in the box – you’ll have to download them. While this seems cheap, this kind of game has pretty much a living rulebook so in a way it make sense. But at the same time, yeah, it’s pretty cheap…

The game’s total pool of 350 cards are split into seven 50-card factions: and each Archon Deck contains 12 cards from each of three of those factions. But these aren’t completely random: an algorithm groups certain cards within each deck that should complement each other, giving each a direction to push in that gives it some personality. Each deck I’ve seen will have some cards repeated (the most I’ve seen is three of a card), often helping you define a strategy to push towards.

While this is a combat game, it is more nuanced than many. It is perfectly plausible to win by turtling (not attacking), for example, if your deck backs that up. Because rather than ‘killing’ your opponent, you will defeat them by essentially filling three bags with magic space rocks (or ’ember’) before they do. The fact these rocks will largely be collected by huge, ravaging, tendrilled and terrifying monsters is purely by-the-by.

Mostly you’ll have a hand of six cards (as this is a ‘cards with words’ game, many of them will break the rules in one way or another – so I’ll stick to the basics). On your turn, you announce one of your deck’s three factions then play (from your hand) or use (from the table) any/all of your cards that match it. Cards come in standard types: creatures; upgrades (which improve an active creature); artefacts (which stay in play and give effects) and actions (one-shot effects which are instant, then immediately discarded).

Creatures can attack your opponent’s creatures, or they can ‘reap’ – meaning they gather ember. Fighting is pleasingly deterministic: you do your damage simultaneously, and creatures that die go to your discard pile. But there are a host of special abilities that make it more interesting; armour, elusive, flank, poison, skirmish, splash – they’re all in the four-page glossary. And of course some creatures will do special things when you play them, when you reap with them – even when they die. You’re going to have to get to know that deck well to really get to grips with all the ins and outs.

But however much you may like a good punch up, ultimately it’s all about the ember. You can get it in other ways (some cards give you one simply by playing them), but reaping tends to be the most common. If you start a turn with six ember on your character card, you can bank it. Do this three times and you’ll win the game. So if you have six creatures of the same faction out, for example, you can harvest a third of a win in a single turn – proving once and for all it pays to be a lover, not a fighter.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: In an asymmetric game where you can’t change your deck, it’s impossible to make all decks – and cards – equal. The way KeyForge tackles this is with ‘chains’ – a penalty that reduces your hand size the more of them you accumulate. Powerful cards will add X chains, but you lose a chain each time you redraw. They can also be used as a handicap system; in friendly play to simply recognise one deck as being stronger, or in competitive play to ‘bid’ to play a particular deck. It’s a simple system but does its job well.
  • The thinker: I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, but I found myself enjoying the challenge of recognising a new deck’s strengths and adapting my play accordingly. Once you’re familiar with a deck, there are still interesting decisions to make as you do have different routes to victory. While you always need ember, assessing your enemy’s deck strengths and game position make for good strategic and tactical conundrums. Do you fight to keep your enemy down; or reap to push towards victory, while letting your enemy build their own strength?
  • The trasher: The internet killed Magic: The Gathering for me. Tournaments became ‘who can copy/buy the latest killer combo deck the quickest, leaving only ‘sealed deck’ for the true gloves-off scrapper. KeyForge manages to take that spirit and run with it, taking away the slow and often painful tourny drafting away and leaving you with what you’re dealt. A lot of players will turn their nose up at that, but for many this is a wonderfully functional levelling of the playing field that still leaves a lot down to chance. Sometimes you’ll get unlucky – but that’s cards.
  • The dabbler: I love the spirit behind this – the fact you all have an individual character is brilliant, even if the art for them is understandably abstract. But as with most ‘cards with words’ games, there’s just too much reading while playing to get me interested. The rules are actually quite simple, but not only are you looking at every one of your cards – you have to be doing the same for your opponent. And if you can’t be bothered to do that (hello! lol) you’re just going to go down every time – and that simply isn’t fun for anyone. Not for me.

Key observations

I’m going to address some key concerns here that I see popping up online – and there are a lot of them. But these need to be couched in the fact that, at time of writing, 3,500-ish of 4,000-ish rating on Board Game Geek were 7 or above (out of 10). The base game is sitting just outside the top 200 already, with a very high average of 7.8. Regardless of how you view the concerns below, a lot of people really like this game.

Replayability is a concern for some: you’re paying £10 for a deck of cards you may think is rubbish. But to truly know a deck, you’re going to have to play it multiple times: it may seem rubbish at first, but there may be combos in there you don’t yet understand – or it may just have come out in a crappy order (which can happen to even the best decks in this kind of game). If its rubbish after five or six plays against multiple opponents, it’s probably rubbish – but how many times do you play a £10 game…? Millage will vary, and whether you want to take a risk like this is your call.

Also, if you play with a set group of like-minded players, there’s nothing to stop you mixing and matching decks – doing a big draft of 10 decks together, making your best deck from five etc. Nothing stopping you at all. No one is going to come and tell you off. It’s your game – make your own rules.

A claim I have more of an issue with is, there are no choices in the game. People argue that, as there are three suits and a hand of only six, you’re simply going to always play your largest suit to cycle your deck. Wow. No wonder you don’t like the game – you’re going to lose, a lot. This may be a valid point in the first few turns (and you can mulligan on the first one), but once you – and your opponent – have cards on the table, it’s a thin argument at best. I’ve seen a single card, played right, decimate my troops.

The randomness of your deck’s quality not being ‘fair’ is going to be down to personal taste. If you can’t handle the fact you may pay £10 and get a deck you never win with, its a fair point – the game probably isn’t for you. But I don’t think anyone goes into this kind of game expecting a level playing field. A great Magic deck will be defeated if drawn poorly, or if you happen to end up playing that one person whose deck seems built to dick yours over – and you can guarantee that Magic deck cost you way more than £10 to put together. I like the type of levelling the playing field these unique decks offer, and I don’t think it’s possible to do that without randomness being an issue.

As for concerns the artwork is ugly – yup, I’m right there with you. It’s bright and horrible and teenage (which I guess is the key target audience – so good call FFG). But on the plus side the iconography is clear and, like with any card game such as this, I simply stop seeing the art after a while. Would I have made roughly 100% different decisions in terms of images used, colour palette etc? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest.

And finally, there are the accusations of this being a cynical cash grab/pay to win game. Pay to win is simply ludicrous – you get a random deck, so in a tournament you can’t say “I want 50 decks”, then go any study them for a week before you play. And if you buy a ton of decks to play versus our friends, you’ll never learn them all – and certain decks will beat certain other ones. I just don’t see the argument.

As for cynical cash grab, how anyone could hold this up against a CCG and claim this is worse is frankly bonkers. The CCG is the ultimate gaming cash grab – this far, far less so. A tournament has a ‘buy a deck’ entry fee – so £10; for which you’ll get an evening’s entertainment. It costs that for a cinema ticket, twice that to go to an average gig, five times that to stand in the rain and watch your team lose. Sure, some vulnerable people may splash loads of money on loads of decks – but this is not at the top of the pile for that kind of issue. Again, sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Conclusion

I haven’t played KeyForge enough to delve deep into the levels of replayability you can hope to expect. But I’ve enjoyed all the games I’ve played to date (which have been with three different decks) and will certainly keep on exploring their potential. Having given up on Magic more than a decade ago and never looked back, I had no interest in CCGs anymore – but this game has rekindled my enjoyment of card combat. Thankfully though, it does it with a very low-cost barrier to entry – and more importantly, from where you can be immediately competitive (with a bit of luck, of course).

* I would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games (via Asmodee UK)  for providing a copy of the game for review.

Friday feelings: Deck-building online, done right (Slay the Spire)

I’ve been playing Slay the Spire – a deck-building card game on Steam – since it was gifted to me (thanks Janne!) before Christmas. I tend to shy away from, or get bored quickly, of online card games – but this has really taken my fancy. As it went into full release this week, I thought I’d give it a plug (and there are plans to release it on Nintendo Switch later in the year, if you’re into such new-fangled gadgetry).

This is a single-player, rogue-like, fantasy-themed deck-builder. You’re an adventurer trying to defeat the residents of an ominous tower, attempting to explore through around 50 locations on your way to facing the big boss. A full run will take about two hours, but don’t expect that on your first few plays – and you can save a run anytime and come back to it later (even if it is a daily map – see below).

Each location will either be a battle (50% or more), random encounter, merchant or camp. Camp lets you rest and regain health or, if you’re doing OK, you can skip that sissy stuff and upgrade one of your cards. The merchant lets you buy/sell cards, alongside picking up potions (one-shot effects) and artefacts (permanent benefits).

One of Slay the Spire’s strengths is its world. You won’t find typical tired fantasy tropes here: both the character/deck classes (there are currently three) and the creatures you face are unique, with an art style leaning strongly towards the strange and surreal – while also being cartoony and fun. Nowhere is this highlighted better than random encounters. These are meetings with weird and wonderful creatures and devices, which can often help but sometimes hinder your progress. Some offer push-your-luck situations, others trade-offs, but they’re always well written and beautifully illustrated.

But without a good deck-building/combat system, all this would be for nought – and Slay the Spire delivers. You usually start with a 15-card deck, drawing 5 cards per turn (discarding any you don’t use). Most cost 0-3 power to use, and you start each turn with 3 (again, losing any you don’t use). Basic cards tend to either give armour for the round, or deal damage – but that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Each of the game’s three character types has a unique trait which shapes its style, but within each there are many more directions in which to try and mould your deck.

These deck-building decisions are often influenced by artefacts you pick up as you go. Perhaps one rewards you for going through your deck a lot (time to start thinning!); or lets you get extra power each round (suddenly those power-hungry cards you were ignoring look more tempting). Add in a plethora of crazy creatures with every kind of special ability you can think of, from special damage types to loads of temporary and long-term effects, and it really does have it all.

But of course, this is a rogue-like game. At the end of your run, win or lose, you start next time with the basics (although on most runs you’ll unlock new artefacts and cards that will now be available next time) – or do you? One of my favourite aspects of the game are daily runs. Every day, a weird random combo of starting effects is put together and everyone can see how they cope with it. Maybe you start with 50 cards, or draft your deck, or have one of each rare card; maybe you lose max 1HP per round, or start with three artefacts, of can’t upgrade cards. It means every day has a unique challenge – and yes, there is a score board to see how you’re doing against your peers.

But I’m going to leave it here, simply because one of the real joys of Slay the Spire is discovering all its strange delights for yourself. The game is less than £20, has ‘overwhelmingly positive’ (96% at time of writing) reviews on Steam, and is comfortably the best casual single-player card game I’ve played on PC.

Board game Top 10: The best push your luck games

Thanks to classics such as Yahtzee (1956!) and Blackjack (1700s) – and since the TV era, game shows – push or press-your-luck is a universally known and understood game mechanism.

Below I’ve listed my favourite push your luck tabletop games. They’re all card and dice games, although the way they use the mechanism does vary considerably. In some it’s the whole game, in others less so; while sometimes you’re relying on the luck of the draw or roll, but elsewhere it’s the other players who have control of your destiny.

Before getting to the list, a lot of games use push-your-luck as either a subtle or small part of the game; the three standing out for me being Downfall of Pompeii, Thebes and The Oracle of Delphi. While most of Thebes is set collecting, push-your-luck often decided it; while in Pompeii, it’s all about choosing a small amount of people to save – or risking trying to get more out. In Delphi, you want to take those monsters out to get great rewards – but it means a dice roll; while if you don’t deal with those wound cards, you can miss a whole turn which can easily cost you the game.

So here’s my list. As always, the links aren’t commercial (I wish lol) – they’re to full reviews of any of these games I’ve done elsewhere on the blog. And please do chime in with any you think I’ve missed in the comments below. As for numbering, this isn’t really an in-order list – there are hundreds of press-your-luck games and I think all of these are worthy of the £10-20 you’ll need to buy most of them. And I’d still play Yahtzee!

My Top 10 press-your-luck board games

10. Codenames
(2015, 2 or 4-8 players)
No matter the version you choose, and there are now myriad (well, seven), you’ll have moments playing Codenames where – as either spymaster or guesser – you’ll decide whether to go for that dodgy clue (or answer) that could make or break your game. Push your luck is relatively common in party and dexterity games, but nowhere is it more obvious than here. And it’s always more delicious when, rather than the roll of a dice or a flip of a card, it’s your team mates that are going to be involved in whether your luck pays off.

9. Ra
(1999, 2-5 players)
While bidding and set collection are key to this classic Reiner Knizia design, it’s the press your luck element that raises it to the next level. On each of your turns you’ll look at the current tiles on offer and decide: should the auction start now, or do I add another tile to the those on offer? And there’s luck here, as a brilliant tile offer can be totally blown by a cursed tile being drawn’. Even better though, are the red Ra tiles: as more start to be drawn in a round, you know the round could end at any moment – but if you stay in, you could grab a bunch of tiles unopposed. Great tension.

8. Biblios
(2007, 2-4 players)
In the first half of this game, the player on turn draws a card per player (plus one) and distributes them as they see fit: the trick being, you don’t see the next card before you’ve distributed the first. So, if you get a middling card, you might think of playing safe and keeping it – knowing something juicier may come along next. Agonising. Unfortunately for me, the second half of the game isn’t quite as fun – which is why (self-interest alert!) took Steve Finn’s mechanism and used it as the main stay of my own design, Witless Wizards. I suggest you check them both out.

7. Welcome to the Dungeon
(2013, 2-4 players)
This quick card game sees players taking turns to make a dungeon tougher to complete or weakening their own chance of completing it – with the last/bravest/stupidest adventurer standing going on to attempt it. You can win by never venturing into a dungeon by being last standing – while those taking a risk need to compete just two dungeons to win the game. But two defeats, and you’re out. The trick: only the player looking at each card knows what they’ve put into the dungeon, so you’ll only know a fraction of what to expect inside.

6. Coloretto
(2003, 2-5 players)
One of the simple joys of gaming is pushing your luck against your opponents’ decisions (if you like that kind of thing) – and it’s usually about greed. This is a great example: a simple card game where you try and maximise points in three colours, while avoiding the other four. On your turn, flip a card and add it to a row (there’s one row per player) – or take a row. Each row has a maximum of three cards, so you can hold out – but of course, other players will try to make any row bad for you. For a similar feel, see any of No thanks!/Incan Gold, Medina (bigger and deeper) and Android: Infiltration (sci-fi).

5. Archaeology: The Card Game
(2007, 2-4 players)
One simple premise elevated this simple set collection card game from being just another take on rummy into my personal Top 50 games. You want to get as many of a card type as possible before you lay them in front of you, as they score more each per card you have – and you can’t add to a set once placed. There’s also no hand limit. However, there are cards in the deck which force you to throw away half of your hand – so the more cards you’re holding, the more risk you’re taking. It also nicely matches the theme, making this one of the best – and accessible – filler card games out there.

4. Can’t Stop
(1980, 2-4 players)
A simple meeting of probability and push-your-luck, this family friendly dice game doubles as a great educational tool. Roll four dice, make two pairs, and score those numbers. You need to complete three number tracks to win, with the 2 and 12 tracks being very short and the 7 track much longer – but once you’ve started three numbers in a turn you have to roll at least one of them or lose all your progress – or stop for the round. If you’re looking for a card game equivalent, check out Port Royal – a great pirate-themed card game that (occasionally, unless you’re me) rewards the brave.

3. King of Tokyo
(2011, 2-6 players)
While Yahtzee is fine, this is one of a host of games that have taken the idea of rolling/re-rolling a bunch of dice and doing something fun with the outcome. Here you’re each a big monster (think Godzilla, King Kong etc) trying to destroy Tokyo – but you want it for yourself. Dice can heal you, attack foes or collect/trigger special powers – while an extra level comes in being the current ‘king’: if you’re in the middle of the board, your attacks hit everyone and you gain points – but equally, everyone else’s attacks hit you. See also Pickomino (kids/light) and Ancient Terrible Things (Cthulhu themed).

2. Formula D
(2008, 2-10 players)
While re-rolling is fun, it’s also tense to have to make a decision (on the amount or size of the dice, for example) and then be stuck with the outcome of a single roll. Formula D does this brilliantly, as players take control of a racing car where each higher gear sees you using a larger, more unpredictable dice for movement. You always have to stop in corners or take damage, so timing those changes is crucial – but if you get behind, you have to take risks. for a much smaller, lighter take on this see Dice Heist; or a version with added bluffing and inter-player intrigue, check out the excellent Celestia.

1. Reina Knizia’s Decathlon (FREE GAME)
(2003, 1-4 players)
Yup, you read that right – you can download the official Decathlon rules free. All you need then is eight normal 6-sided dice and a bit of paper (or print the official score sheet, at the end of the rules). This Yahtzee style game reproduces each even of the decathlon with slightly different dice rules, implementing several of the ideas you’ll find in the other games on this list. It’s a fun family game and hey – you don’t need to take my word for it – no matter how much you’re struggling, your budget should stretch to free!

Friday feelings: How the metagame saved Snakes & Ladders

On Christmas day afternoon I found myself in the company of two young ladies: a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old. One had said they wanted to play some games, so I said sure – what shall we play?

She ran off to their selection of games and came back with Dobble. Solid choice. But after one game (which I lost) she headed back to the shelves for another pick.

This time, she returned with Snakes and Ladders. Less solid. There’s so much wrong with the game, it’s difficult to know where to start: it’s 100% random, there are absolutely no decisions made by the players and it has the potential to, quite literally, go on forever. As the game is 2,000 years old, it can be forgiven – but that doesn’t explain why it is still on everyone’s shelves today. But hey, what do I know? It’s Christmas day, I asked a child what they wanted to play, and this is it – I made my bed, time to lie in it.

The first two games (I kid you not) were relatively short, but I won them both. Another thing about a game such as this is you can’t even throw it – I would’ve loved to lose the second game and perhaps then we’d have called it quits, but no: a third game was demanded. Worse still the 11-year-old had decided she wanted in on the fun, so it was going to be a three-player game.

But why had she asked to play? Basically, because it was clear (from both the noise level and the physical histrionics) how much fun we were having. My first win was played out in relative calm, but as I began to close in on victory number two my young opponent began resorting to all the dirty tactics she could find in her imagination’s playbook. Dice were told off. Prayers were sent heavenward. Dice, seemingly forgiven, were kissed and stroked and coaxed into rolling/not rolling certain numbers. Then, when they largely failed to cooperate, there was much wailing in disbelief.

Game three essentially saw too little girls ganging up on me. Double the histrionics, double the volume. The game went on forever. I lost count of the times someone went down the biggest snake. But eventually the roof was raised with cheers; I had been vanquished. And you know what? I had a really good time playing. And if I was in the same company I would happily play again (although no, I wouldn’t ask for it…).

I guess the point, if we need one, is this: a game does not need to be well designed to create a good gaming experience. This seems obvious, but how do you express that in reviews or ratings? For example, take the Firefly board game. It rates 7.4 on Board Game Geek and is in the top 300 games of all time – despite being, mechanically, an utter shit fest. It lasts a minimum (minimum!) of two hours and is, to all intents and purposes, just as luck-ridden as Snakes and Ladders. The difference is, it looks gorgeous and does a great job of evoking the theatre of the show’s ‘verse.

Snakes and Ladders, on the other hand, averages a 2.8 on Board Game Geek – leaving it a lowly 16,588th in the rankings at time of writing. It barely scrapes into the top 750 children’s games. To be honest, 2.8 is probably a fair rating. But if you asked me which game I most enjoyed playing last time I was asked to play it – and which I’d rather play again – it’s fair to say Firefly wouldn’t get a look in…

Fertility: A four-sided game review

Fertility is a family tile-laying game for two to four players that takes 30-45 minutes to play. Recommended for ages 8+ on the box, it will go a little younger for game savvy kids – but do be aware it has some very small wooden pieces.

Speaking of which, the large game box contains a four-part modular game board (you only use three of them in a two or three-player game, four player boards, around 100 cardboard tiles, 80 wooden resources and a score pad. Both the art and component quality are average, being functional (graphically and artistically) and durable. This has kept the price below £30, which makes it relatively competitive in its field.

Thematically, forget about it: you are a blah blah in ancient blah blah doing blah blah (read: you’re a player flipping cardboard tiles to turn bits of wood into victory points). Well, that’s probably a little harsh – you’re placing tiles on a central board to gain resources that you’ll then place into shops to score points. But hey – the important thing is, Fertility has a few neat little tricks that make for an interesting and engaging game.

Teaching Fertility

Fertility is a super simple game to teach: even my rules averse better half managed to stay awake long enough to pick them up first time. And as there are no hidden player pieces, you can easily talk through turns (and/or give advice) during your first game.

A player’s turn is split into three sections: placing a valley tile onto the main board (mandatory), building a district on their own board (optional) and supplying shops on said board (also optional) – but you’ll find yourself doing most things on most turns. I walk players through the score pad describing each way to gain points, but it’s all fairly obvious – while the points available for majorities are also printed on the player boards for easy reference.

You’ll always have three valley tiles (read: resource dominoes) available to pick from on your turn (play one, then restock from a public choice of three at the end of your go). To place, you simply make sure at least one half of the domino attaches to a same-type piece already on the board – then collect any resources due. There are only four main resources, so you usually have some genuine choices to make – while you can also cover or run parallel to certain spaces to gain extra resources.

If you manage to cordon off a single surrounded space, it becomes a quarry. This either lets you build a monument on the space (those with the majority of these at the end get bonus points) or to take a resource of your choice. This adds a nice extra consideration when deciding placement, particularly with three or four players where the board will fill up quite a lot more.

Once done, you collect your resources (mostly wooden cubes, usually two or three) and decide what to spend them on. The kicker here is that you can’t save any, so anything you don’t use is wasted. Each player board has space for nine districts, with each starting with two of them printed on the board (they’re all very slightly different). You can but one district per round (from a choice of three) which cost 0-2 resources of your choice – with those costing more giving better endgame rewards if filled up.

Any resources you have left can then be placed into these districts, where they’ll stay until the end of the game (but once placed, you can’t move or spend them elsewhere). These tend to give points in various ways (set collection, multipliers giving you points for having lots of a resource on your board, or just straight points), meaning you can set yourself up to concentrate on a particular strategy or be a more opportunistic.

You end your turn by choosing a new domino tile to add to your play area, meaning you’ve always got three to choose from. After every player has placed nine of these tiles, you score up. You don’t lose anything for not completing your districts with resources, but if you spent any resources taking them I guess you can view that as wastage/inefficiency. Highest score wins and, speaking of efficiency, if it’s a tie the player with the least resources on their player board wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Kingdomino proved there’s life in the old domino dog yet – and Fertility is another solid example of what this age-old game mechanism has to offer. While falling short of feeling puzzly, the combination with simple resource management works well; while the restriction of having to always spend your resources as you get them adds a little extra tension to what is otherwise a very family friendly game. It’s just a shame that, while the modular board works and is welcome, it adds to what already feels like a long setup time for a very short game.
  • The thinker: There’s little here for the strategist, which is a shame as the various mechanisms on show slot neatly together in a pleasing fashion. I had a lot of fun the first play, working out how piece A slotted into hole B; but subsequent plays showed no room for further thought. I’m not suggesting it’s a poor game – far from it – and I’d play it again as a filler. But this is a tactical game, where any long-term strategy can easily be thwarted by any number of random factors – basically, you have to stay flexible so there aren’t really differing routes to victory.
  • The trasher: If you’re looking for interaction, steer clear of Fertility. The game makes most things available most of the time by design, and as pretty much anything you do scores there’s not really much room for denial strategies: you’re as likely to harm yourself as hinder your opponent. It all comes down to efficiency. You might occasionally get an anguished cry from an opponent as you take the space they wanted! But you’ll likely cost them a single resource – little to celebrate.
  • The dabbler: I really enjoyed Fertility. It’s very simple to pick up but always offers some interesting choices on your turn – and you don’t have to worry too much about what everyone else is doing. Don’t get excited by the lovely, cartoony box art though: sadly it’s all a bit yellow and brown on the inside. And the tiny wooden pieces, while practical to put on the tiles, are really fiddly – both for kids and those with fat fingers! To be honest, everything inside the (hugely oversized) box could’ve been taken up a notch, but don’t let that put you off – it’s a fun game!

Key observations

Fertility isn’t at its best with two players, which is a massive shame – and feels like a missed opportunity. The game play should work well for two – as with Patchwork, for example – but unfortunately little thought seems to have gone into this. For some reason you use the same board size as with three players, so it feels baggy; while you see too few district tiles to feel confident going for a long-term plan (even more so than usual).

There is a two-player variant which includes using, and discarding, extra valley tiles; but this would only support a denial strategy, which doesn’t feel like what the game is really about. A variant where you can cycle through district tiles instead feels as if it would be more in keeping with the game.

A common observation is the box to component size ratio, which is way off: what you get is a Carcassonne sized game in a Ticket to Ride sized box. As this is clearly aimed at families, it makes it even more bizarre: why not either reduce the size/cost, or beef up the component sizes so children can more easily use them?

And finally, it would’ve been nice to have a round marker of some sort. While tiles running out triggers the end of the game, it isn’t as easy to parse as you might think – and taking an extra district late on when you should probably be using those precious resources elsewhere can make or break a tight game.

Conclusion

Fertility is a very good family game, but personally I’m on the fence about it. I’m keeping it for now, but as I have other short tile/domino games that play better with two and play well with more (Maori and Kingdomino spring immediately to mind) I’m not sure for how long. I’ll have to see whether, over a few more plays, it does enough to earn a permanent place on my shelves. But while the jury is out for my ‘one in, one out’ collection, I’d recommend it for families and fans of the tile laying and domino genres.

* I would like to thank Catch Up Games (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of Fertility for review.