It’s all gone quiet over there…

This is the longest I’ve gone without posting since I started this blog umptimillion years ago, so I thought I’d better pop in, say hello, say sorry, and explain my tardiness.

Basically, life.

Since being made redundant in February I’ve managed to fins some freelance writing work. The pay is awful, and made worse my the weakness of the pound (I’m being paid in USD), but I’m really enjoying it. The writing is a lot of fun, but is taking up a massive amount of my time – and unsurprisingly, when not writing, I don’t want to be writing. A stark contrast to when I was editing, and missed writing.

I’m writing guides for computer games – and if it paid a living wage I’d be all over it. But for now its at least helping eek out my redundancy money. If you have any interest in MMO Lost Ark or mobile game Dislyte you should go check the site out.

Gaming drought

On the flip side, my chances to play board games have been seriously limited. My last local group largely imploded, as these things do sometimes, and ‘Sarah weekends’ have tended to be busy with other things. My plays count is way down and I can’t see it improving much in the short term.

That said, there are reviews on the way for Origins: First Builders (a euro I’ve enjoyed my first few plays of), the recent Paris: La Cité de la Lumière expansion (again, enjoyed my first play), and Iki (a great rondel-based euro). I’m hoping to review at least two of them, but hopefully all three, during July.

Many of the plays I have had were at UK Games Expo. I worked a couple of shifts on the Surprised Stare stand, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. I didn’t have much time to anything other than demo games for them, but on my one free afternoon I did manage to put names to faces in this post-COVID world at Hachette, Kosmos and Coiledspring Games – three supporters of the blog I very much appreciate.

And finally, you may also see my name attached to the occasional article in Tabletop Gaming Magazine. Again, if I could do that full time I’d love to. But this time it is a lack of opportunities, rather than poor pay. If only there was more of a market for paid board game journos!

So again, sorry for the lack of posts – but I’m not going anywhere. Stay tuned!

UK Games Expo 2022 – June 3-5

Struggling to find time for a post this week, as a nice weekend away in Stamford is being quickly followed by pre UK Games Expo 2022 panic. I’d forgotten it was next weekend, so am now desperately trying to do enough freelance writing to buy food while doing everything else on my to-do list. Oops…

So yeah, I’ve got some work. I’m not sure if it’s going to end up paying enough to pay the bills. But I’m giving it a go for a few months to see how it pans out. I’m writing computer game guides for The Gamer. There’s a commission-style payment system (based on visits) on top of a low per-article payment. So it’s going to take a few months to see if it’ll pay he bills. But fingers crossed, because I’m really enjoying writing again.

I’m also writing a bit for Tabletop Magazine. Only an article here and there, but again it’s lovely getting paid to write again. Hopefully I’ll be along to Tabletop Gaming Live in September. It has sensibly moved to Manchester after a rather lukewarm start in London before covid. Bringing us neatly back to cons.

Working at UK Games Expo 2022

I’ll be demoing for Surprised Stare at UK Games Expo at the weekend. I’m on the stand Friday and Saturday mornings, so why not drop by, say ‘hi’, and play one of their excellent small box mini war games (including March of Progress and Ming Voyages)? Or, if you like solo stuff, the excellent sci-fi card game Lux Aeterna? They’ll also have the evergreen Snowdonia, alongside a sneak peak of the upcoming remake of Kingmaker. I’m only there until Saturday lunchtime though.

If I didn’t have all that going on, I’d be working on my next few reviews: Origins (dice-for-workers euro game), Pacific Rails Inc (trains!) and 303 Squadron (WWII air skirmish). They’re are the only games left on my review shelf now – and I’m determined not to add any more until they’re done. But, Expo…

Hopefully see some of you there!

Get on Board board game: A Four-sided review

The Get on Board board game (or Get on Board: New York & London, to give its full title) is a flip-and-write route-building family game. It’s for 2-5 players aged 10+ and will take you about 30 minutes to play.

Get on Board is a reprint of ‘Let’s Make a Bus Route’, originally released in 2018. Some may prefer the aesthetic of the original in terms of artwork, but both are nicely done. While this updated version adds some tweaks to the rules that address a few issues with the original.

Firstly, it has a two-sided board. One for 2-3, the other for 4-5 players. This has allowed them to tighten things up considerable when you have less players. Secondly, rather than a pen-and-wipe board in the original you now place wooden sticks on the board to mark your routes. Finally, the player sheets have a couple of additional ways to score points by visiting particular places on the maps. But beyond this, the original game is largely intact.

In the box you’ll find the board, 50 double-sided player sheets, 166 wooden pieces and 28 small cards. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for around £20-25 delivered – about standard for a game of this size (think Kosmos 2-player box).

Teaching the Get on Board board game

The basics of Get on Board are just that. On each of the 12 rounds one of 12 cards will be flipped over, which are simply marked 1-12. Each player then looks at their sheet to see how the number corresponds to it. Most sheets are different, but it will always mean you’re initially adding 1-3 pieces to your route – either in a straight line, at a right angle, or your choice. If you finish placing at a traffic light space, you get to place one extra piece.

You decide your start point before turn one and must keep adding to it as a single route throughout the game. You can’t revisit an intersection – and if you put yourself in a situation where you’d have to, you’re eliminated from the game. Every time you lay a piece, you reach an intersection – and at every intersection there’s either a traffic light (extra route piece), passenger or building – both of which you’ll be marking off on your sheet as you pass/land on them. These will score you points in various combinations.

Penalty points

But of course, it isn’t as simple as it seems. Sometimes you don’t want to do the movement you’re meant to – or flat out can’t because of where you start your turn. You can break the rules five times each game, but each time will cost you some points. And if you use all those chances up, then need to break the rules again, you only get to place a single piece. Traffic jams are your enemy too. If you travel along a road others have already used, you mark off a negative space on your sheet for each other player who already used it. While on the 2-3 player map, some roads have jams from the start.

If you make it to the end (I’ve not had anyone fail to yet), you do a variety of maths to find your score. Workers and tourists score during the game, as you drop them at tourist sites and office buildings. You multiply the number of students collected by the number of colleges visited, and get various other points for randomised personal and public bonus cards, plus some old folk (who are probably just staying on the bus to keep warm!).

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 was completely charmed by the original Let’s Make a Bus Route. And once I’d got my head around the small changes in the Get on Board board game, my rating of the game actually went up a notch. I like the component and rules upgrades, but preferred the original Japanese art. And the 2-3 player map makes for a really tight game at those player counts. Where it was a little too open in the original. So with a few caveats (see ‘key observations’ below), this new edition has definitely won me over.
  • The thinker: At the length that it is I can appreciate the game. You can set yourself goals at the start based on the personal and shared objectives. But the way cards come out, and how other players move, can really scupper those plans. So, you often have to think on your feet. However, as the game goes on the options left available to you narrow, which can help in your planning. Not a game I’d choose, but I’ve certainly had a nice time playing it.
  • The trasher: While I didn’t hate the Get on Board board game, there wasn’t much for me here. Sure, you’re getting in each other’s way and there’s a fair amount of cursing your neighbours. And it’s pretty fun – in a cutesy way – for 30 minutes. But it isn’t really something you can plan. The only real direct interaction is getting to the shared objectives first, but this only swings things by a few points.
  • The dabbler: Love it and it looks super cute. It took most of the first game for us to really get it though. Especially some of the extra objectives, where buildings score at different times if they have a star. But once we understood them, they added an extra layer of decision making. I think we’ll appreciate that more as we continue to play. And we will, because it’s ace!

Key observations

I’ve been complimentary about the looks and components in the Get on Board board game. But there are a few niggles. First, you get 32 wooden markers each. If you play a full game, you’ll definitely use 26. But it is very possible, with the traffic light bonuses, to add more than your additional six extras. The rulebook even acknowledges this, suggesting you ‘use a suitable substitute’. Really? Would it have broken the bank to put in a few extra pieces?

Some say the personal objective you start with forces you into a particular strategy. I couldn’t disagree more. It might be worth trying to complete, especially on your first play as you wrestle with the concepts. But it only gives 10 points. And you can pick up way more than that elsewhere with clever route building.

The lack of interaction is fine with me. But it’s not going to be for everyone. Especially as the tight board makes it look like it might be a key factor. Also, especially with three players, you can end up with one player avoiding the other two more by luck than judgement – and so getting less penalties. But it’s a light quick game, so I don’t think that’s much of an issue.

The scoring is convoluted. Especially in your initial plays. And the extra things added in this version make that even worse. But I think they do add a little replayability, which may otherwise have been lacking. So on balance, again for me it’s a positive.

It’s also worth noting this is a tighter, tougher game with three or five players than it is with two or four. Much as with Ticket to Ride (with its extra routes between locations for more players), each side of the board here accommodates two player counts. With an odd number you’ll almost inevitably end up with more congestion. So, if you have players that don’t like games with negatives, bear that in mind.

Conclusion: The Get on Board board game

The Get on Board board game is a definite keeper for me. It has some similarities to the other Saashi-designed flip-and-write in my collection, Remember Our Trip. But is definitely different enough to stand up on its own merits. If I was forced to keep just one? I’d probably stick with Remember Our Trip, because the clever interaction in the scoring works so well. But thankfully I don’t have to choose – so they’ll be happy together on my shelves for the foreseeable future.

  • Thanks to Iello (via Coiledspring Games) for providing a copy for review.
  • Follow this link for 200+ more of my board game reviews.

Best board games 2022: My Top 20 games of all time

To make it clear from the start, this is my best board games 2022 list – not the best games that have been released this year. In fact, none of them were released in 2022. Because part of what makes a game worthy of this list is longevity – even if that is only beyond five plays. These are my absolute favourites of all time, as of May 2022.

The top six picked itself, while the rest of the Top 20 is pretty interchangeable. There were only three new entries to the list compared to last year’s. And all three of those were in last year’s Top 40. The big changes and new entries tend to come in my annual Top 21-40 list (which I published a couple of weeks ago). Links in the game titles go to my full-length reviews on this site. And if any interest you, please start your search at Board Game Prices.

Best board games 2022: Numbers 20-16

20: Maori

(Günter Burkhardt, 2-5 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+, 2009) A beautiful puzzley abstract tile-laying game with simple rules that plays fast. But somehow never gets old. It’s helped by having a clever set of difficulty levels built in, meaning you can really up the challenge. While it also perfectly works-in loads of passive interaction, and a bit of actual interaction too. As well as a push-your-luck element, if you’re feeling risqué.

19: Remember Our Trip

(Daryl Chow & Saashi, 2-4 players, 30 minutes, ages 10+, 2019) My favourite of Saashi’s games – a designer I have a large and growing respect for. It beautifully realises a theme of shared holiday memories. Players try to form patterns (memories of locations) on their board first (by laying tiles) to then place them on a central shared memory board to get bonus points. Everyone has the same board in the same orientation, making it a gentle yet interactive experience. Simple and elegant, abstract yet thematic.

18: Lost Ruins of Arnak

(Min & Elwen, 1-4 players, 90-120 mins, ages 10+, 2020) If a board game made by an AI could actually be good, it would be like this. From one angle, Arnak has been pieced together with clinical precision. The production is first rate. Everything mechanically fits perfectly into place, as you deck-build and worker-place/action-select yourself through five rounds of engine building, resource conversion and point-scoring. But it also oozes theme and personality, as you Indy your way through the wilderness.

17: Fertility

(Cyrille Leroy, 2-4 players, 30-45 mins, ages 8+, 2018) While Kingdomino became the big domino-style hit a few years back, Fertility has emerged as my favourite of the mini-genre. It has a bit more going on, but not too much. Here you’re matching tiles to gain resources, which you then use to accrue points. But the placement is still important, as you try to deny good opportunities while still getting what you need.

16: Ingenious

(Reiner Knizia, 2-4 players, 30-45 mins, ages 8+, 2004) The game that has been in my collection the longest, but it’s here on merit. A wonderfully elegant abstract game you can teach in three minutes. But its clever tipping point half way through, where you must switch from straight point scoring to either protecting your position or recovering, keeps you coming back for more.

Best board games 2022: Numbers 15-11

15: The Downfall of Pompeii

(Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, 2-4 players, 45-60 mins, ages 8+, 2004) Another game with a tipping point, but this time you completely change the mechanics. In the first half, you populate Pompeii via card play. While in the second you bathe it it in lava (with tiles) while trying to get your citizens out – and cutting off those of your opponents. An oddly grizzly yet hilarious theme and one of my absolute favourite family games.

14: Deus

(Sébastien Dujardin, 2-4 players, 60-90 mins, ages 12+, 2014) An excellent tableau-building card game where cards of the same colour trigger when you play another one, giving excellent combo/engine building opportunities. The addition of a modular board adds a solid spatial element, as well as a second way for the game to end, keeping players on their toes.

13: Can’t Stop

(Sid Sackson, 2-4 players, 30 mins, ages 8+, 1980) Maths made fun by the sadly departed but never forgotten Sid Sackson. It’s simplicity itself, as you roll dice to claim numbered columns. Roll four dice, and make two numbers. If one matches one of your columns, you’re OK – but you only have three columns per turn. You keep going until you choose to stop, either letting probability guide you – or not. But miss your numbers and you lose all progress.

12: Concordia

(Mac Gerdts, 2-5 players, 90-120 mins, ages 12+, 2013) For me, still the best example of taking the deck-building mechanism and sliding it into a bigger, more complex board game. Gerdts kept the simple, snappy turn mechanisms he was known for but replaced the rondel with a small deck of cards. It works beautifully, as you expand your territory across a beautiful board while trying to keep the tight economy in check.

11: Bora Bora

(Stefan Feld, 2-4 players, 90-120 mins, ages 12+, 2013) My second favourite game (spoiler alert!) from Feld’s brilliant ‘point salad’ heyday. At first it may look like a mess of mechanisms on a slightly garish board. But for me its the perfect blend of tactics and strategy, with a little bit of luck and interaction delivered via a dice-as-actions mechanism. And personally I think it looks brilliantly vibrant on the table.

Best board games 2022: The Top 10

10: Ra

(Reina Knizia, 2-5 players, 60 mins, ages 10+, 1999) What Knizia does best – takes a mathsy mechanism – this time, bidding – and gives it a clever twist. One of the few bidding games that players who don’t normally like it can fall in love with. As you have just a few bidding chips, making the bidding part snappy. There are various forms of set collection, plus push your luck, in a lovely looking and fast playing gem.

9: Bruxelles 1873

(Etienne Espreman, 2-5 players, 1-2 hours, ages 12+, 2013) A brilliant euro game with a unique art style. All the constituent parts interact beautifully, while there’s very strong passive interaction in practically all the elements – which range from worker placement to constantly shifting area majorities. This creates a surprisingly aggressive tactical experience that also needs a strong strategic mind to play well.

8: Azul

(Michael Kiesling, 2-4 players,45-60 mins, ages 8+, 2017) A quite simply brilliant abstract game. The colourful Bakelite pieces make it beautiful to look at. But don’t let its pretty façade fool you. This is a knife fight in a phone booth, where your best laid plans can crumble before your eyes in a single round. Very simple tile laying, pattern building and scoring made special by a simple yet genius tile claiming mechanism.

7: Kingdom Builder

(Donald X Vaccarino, 2-4 players, 45-60 mins, ages 8+, 2011) The first of two controversial Spiel de Jahres winners in my Top 10. This fast-playing area influence game turns things on their head, forcing you to play on a particular colour of hex on the board each turn. A variety of randomly selected bonuses and ways to score keep it interesting, while a raft of strong expansions take it to the next level.

6: Terra Mystica

(Jens Drögemüller & Helge Ostertag, 2-5 players, 2-3 hours, ages 12+, 2012) Still my favourite ‘heavy’ euro game after a decade of play. Its an action selection game and territory building game, with a passive euro-style area control element. But the asymmetric powers make it sing, as players try to change the land to their preferred type to build – then use their unique abilities to get the edge over their opponents.

Best board games 2022: The Top 5

5: Ticket to Ride

(Alan R Moon, 2-5 players, 1-2 hours, ages 8+, 2004) The gateway game I’ve most successfully used to introduce people to our brilliant hobby. Simple board game route building meets simple card set collection. Tension is built by limited ways to get between locations, as well as knowing you’ll lose points for the (secret) routes you don’t complete. A game you can teach anyone, nicely married to a neutral theme, makes it a real winner.

4: Terraforming Mars

(Jacob Fryxelius, 1-5 players, 2-3 hours, ages 12+, 2016) A brilliantly sprawling card combos sci-fi experience. There are definitely elements of Race for the Galaxy, with its engine building and having to keep a close eye on your opponents to see how and when the game may end. But it turns this into a longer, more involved experience that works as the perfect long experience to compliment the much snappier Race.

3: Thurn and Taxis

(Andreas & Karen Seyfarth, 2-4 players, 60-90 mins, ages 8+, 2006) controversial SdJ winner number two. Although I think it gets more love nowadays, and deservedly so. As with Ticket to Road, you’re set collecting and route building. But here the jeopardy is moved to the card collection element, with failed push-your-luck having potentially game-changing consequences. And there are two routes to end the game, keeping everyone on their toes.

2: Oracle of Delphi

(Stefan Feld, 2-4 players, 90-120 mins, ages 12+, 2016) Not a common choice for a ‘favourite Feld’, but I love Delphi. It has all the multi mechanism mayhem you’d expect. But the point salad is replaced with a race element that’s perfectly executed via its pick-up-and-deliver mechanisms. There’s some super risky push-your-luck if you want it too. And it looks magnificent on the table, while the modular board makes it eminently replayable.

Best board game 2022: Race for the Galaxy

(Thomas Lehmann, 2-4 players, 30-60 mins, ages 12+, 2007) I’m closing in on 300 plays of Race. And that doesn’t include online plays. And I’m nowhere near bored of it. It’s an engine-building card game with the perfect blend of tactics and strategy. Sure, have a plan. But you have to play the cards you’re dealt, as this can genuinely be a race. A brilliant iteration of the Puerto Rico action selection idea, even if the mass (mess?) of icons make it hard to learn.

Playing online

If you’re looking to play anything from my best board games 2022 list, many of them are available to play online, usually for free. Check out the following websites:

  • Board Game Arena: Kingdom Builder, Lost Ruins of Arnak, Race for the Galaxy
  • Boite a Jeux: Bruxelles 1893, Concordia, Deus
  • Yucata: Downfall of Pompeii, Maori, Oracle of Delphi, Terra Mystica, Thurn and Taxis

Terraforming Mars and Ticket to Ride have their own apps on Steam, Apple and Android.

Varuna board game: (Kind of) expansion review

The Varuna board game box

The Varuna board game is also known as Demeter 2. I reviewed the original Demeter here not so long back. And as the rules are incredibly similar, I didn’t want to go over much of the same ground here. Instead, I’ll just talk about the differences and compare the two experiences.

But briefly, this is a small box flip-and-write game that costs just over £25 (check out Board Game Prices to buy online). It takes about 30 minutes to play once you’re used to the rules. And while the box says ages 14+, gamers of around 12 should be fine. Or perhaps slightly younger if they’ve already played Demeter (which is a little simpler).

As each player uses their own sheet and makes choices from the same card pool, numbers are essentially unlimited (the box simply says 1+). But it’s quite a complex game, so I wouldn’t suggest playing with many more than four. If you’ve played the original, you’ll find its the same artist and designer. The component quality is also pretty much identical, which for me is a good thing. But the sheets is just as busy. However at least this time the dinosaurs are very clearly different shapes, making some bonuses easier to identify.

What does Varuna bring to the party?

Setup and play basics are largely the same. You have the same five piles of action cards, plus a bunch of bonus tiles. Each turn one card from each pile is flipped and you choose one to use – first doing its action (could be anything) and then its bonus action (based on colour and how many times you’ve chosen that colour). There are 13 rounds instead of 12, so you discard two cards from each deck before play.

Probably the biggest addition to the game is damage. You’re now in a submarine, studying underwater. So the sub is your lifeline. Some action cards now have damage (up to five) instead of a main action (you still get to do the bonus action). If you take an action wit damage, you avoid it – but obviously do less stuff. And if two or more cards have damage on them, you’re going to have to deal with some of it. On the plus side, you can claim bonuses that give you shields. And you’ll need them. As racking up damage loses you points. And if you take too much, you can even be eliminated from the game.

Card changes in the Varuna board game

The study (yellow), upgrade (purple) and wild (grey) actions work identically to Demeter. However, there are no cards actions that make buildings. Instead, doing this is incorporated into the upgrade action via several new paths you can choose. The biggest departure here though, are the blue and red card actions.

In Varuna, you can’t just mark off any dinosaur you choose. You start the game marking off your submarine’s position next to one of the top three dinosaurs on the sheet. Lines now span between all the dinosaurs, with spaces between lines also holding bonuses. Using blue actions lets you fill in those lines, as you submarine moves around. Both scoring bonuses and opening up other dinosaur types. The red cards are your sonar, working similarly to the old observatory cards. These give bonuses like the old ones, but also open up new dinosaurs without having to make your submarine go to them first.

How much does it change the game?

These alterations make more difference than you might think. Damage can be a big deal in the Varuna board game. It adds a tension that didn’t really exist in the original. While also giving players the opportunity to roll the dice and largely ignore it, in the hope the worst cards are back in the box (two of each stack are removed secretly before play).

The fact you have to open up the different dinosaur types, either with the submarine or sonar, means there’s less initial flexibility. But you can soon open these avenues up if you want to. On the other hand, choosing your upgrades (the old buildings) via standard purple actions means you can choose a strategy early, rather than just hoping the right building comes up.

Interactive objectives

Objectives are also a little different. The old A-D scoring objectives still exist, but are triggered by a player when they achieve them (like the discovered species bonuses, which are unchanged). If you score one, it is similarly flipped over. But now it is harder for other players to score, while giving the same points. Just another reason why you need to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing.

There’s also now a third type of randomised objective. When you trigger a Discovery Token, you can choose any one of the four available – and could gain all four during the game. Each gives a different immediate benefit. But at the end of the game, you’ll multiply your tokens by your different discovered dinosaur types. Again, it’s just another thing to think about.

Comparing the Varuna board game with Demeter: Which to choose?

Demeter feels like the simpler game. And also the more random. Having to wait to see what buildings come up isn’t very satisfying strategically. Where here you have more agency when defining your chosen path. Generally, Varuna feels lie a more controlled experience.

But the addition of damage, and the extra way you can claim objectives before an opponent, mean the Varuna board game has also lost nothing to Demeter in the tactical department. And not only that, the threat of damage adds genuine jeopardy. I’ve not had someone lose their sub yet, but some have come close.

Generally, Varuna feels like Demeter 2.0, rather than Demeter 2. all the tweaks add to what was an already good game. Even small things, such as all the dinosaurs looking properly different, seem to have been taken note of from the first game. It largely feels like a group of small steps forward, rather than a straight alternative. Unless you really loved the luck and simplicity of the original.

I don’t think many gamers will feel the need to own both games. And for me, Varuna is clearly the better game. Your get more control and strategy with very little extra complexity. The slightly lower barrier to entry may make some choose Demeter. But I’ll be keeping Varuna on my shelves for sure. And it may become a Top 40 contender in future.