The Cousins’ War: A four-sided game review

The Cousins’ War* is a small box two-player only strategy game that takes around 30 minutes to play. It’s listed as 12+ for age range, but a savvy younger gamer could definitely get to grips with it.

Inside you’ll find a lovely main board and 18 cards, all beautifully laid out and drawn by Klemens Franz, plus 27 wooden cubes and three dice.

(NOTE: The game sold through its initial 2017 print run, but the second edition is being released at Essen this month. The new version is the same but bigger and better, so I’ll update here with new images once I’ve got an upgraded copy. Otherwise, everything on the game play etc below stands.)

The game is set during the War of the Roses and at its core is a card driven area control war game. But wait! While war gamers should take interest, those (like me) who aren’t shouldn’t be put off: this is a fast-playing game with a mix of euro and family game mechanisms that is far more welcoming than the tag ‘war game’ might suggest.

Teaching The Cousins’ War

The game is played over one to five rounds, with an early wins being pretty rare – unless you’re the kind of game teacher who likes to instruct by dealing cruel blows (you know who you are).

Players choose a side (York or Lancaster) and take two cubes of their colour (white or red respectively), also placing one in each of the board’s three regions. The 17 game cards are then shuffled and six are dealt to each player. In each round you will play cards for actions, then resolve a battle.

Your goal is to control all three regions of the board at the end of a round, or a majority of areas at the end of five rounds (in either case, you win automatically). If you are tied for regions after five rounds, whoever won the majority of the game’s five battles wins – so there’s no way of having a tie.

Players swap one of their cards with their opponent at the start of the round, then pick one of their cards to be the potential battleground for the round. Only seven of the cards are battlegrounds, so you may not have one at all – in which case you simply ditch the action card (the other 10 cards) you least want. With the battle location set (each has a starting situation of either one cube each, or one for one or other player) the action card playing begins. You’ll take it in turns to play four cards each, either playing a card’s action (if it has one) or using its ‘command points’ (every card has 1-3 of these ‘CPs’).

CPs let you gain troops to your reserve, play them to the current battlefield card, or add/remove cubes from map regions. This last action is risky, needing a dice roll – which tends to be easier the worse you’re doing. Actions on action cards tend to be more powerful but can also be situational, so often need to be saved for the right moment. One you’ve played your actions, it’s time for battle – as long as you both have at least one cube on the battle card, that is (if not, you simply move to battle resolution).

The battle itself is an interesting beast. The active player rolls the three dice in secret and declares their best combo – either a triple, double or single with high numbers being better (so two sixes beats two fives, but two fives beats a single six etc). However, when they declare what they have they can lie through their teeth, much as you can in party dice game Perudo…

Now, the other player has a choice: accept their declaration or call them out. If they call them out, the active player reveals what they had – and if they were telling the truth the doubter loses a cube from the battle. If it was a lie, the active player instead loses a cube – unless they can mitigate the roll. Both players have one action card left from the previous phase and can use the CPs this has to change each dice (per CP) by a pip.

If losing a cube above means only one player is left standing, the battle is over. Otherwise, the non-active player rolls the dice openly and tries to beat the active player’s roll – and they can also use their remaining card to change the roll. The loser loses a cube from the battle – and you rinse-and-repeat this process until one player is left standing in the battle (so anyone who used their last action card in the first battle round is now at a big disadvantage). The victor moves any remaining cubes to the board region the battle was in, and then you check to see if the game is won.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While none of the elements in The Cousins’ War feel original, they do a great job of feeling unusually but cleverly and convincingly connected – exactly what you need to stand out in a very busy marketplace. The silliness of the dice and bluff battles doesn’t feel like it should work here, but it does because of the game’s short length. Similarly the lack of card choices looks too limiting in theory, but the tightness actually helps you quickly get to grips with your possibilities – which is invaluable in a fast-playing filler game. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
  • The thinker: While the battles have a big random element, like all good war games the win is likely to come from elsewhere – and grognards are well used to that. And there is more going on than initially meets the eye: the round you use/discard action cards is important, for example, as they can give a retort action to your opponent – while knowing certain cards are available to your opponent, or not, can be invaluable as the game goes on. Even your choice of battleground can become more interesting as you start to see the depth in the decisions.
  • The trasher: The Cousins’ War is a good, tight scrap which wears its heart on its wargamey sleeve – while throwing in a crazy poker-style battle sequence to throw the grogs out of their comfort zone! One thing of particular interest is the cube limit of 12. In a long, close game its easy to end up with all your cubes deployed – which suddenly makes you think differently and have to make more logistical decisions. This can act as a solid way to even the playing field, as if you get an early cube advantage you need to make it stick before your opponent catches up.
  • The dabbler: This one came as a complete surprise to me: while the artwork is nice, the rulebook is a little dense (the battle resolution rules are incredibly hard to read for something so simple!) and the ‘war’ theme seemed dry and put me off. But once we got playing, and had got through one complete round, I was up to speed and actually enjoyed myself. I’m rubbish at bluffing and giggled my way through battles, but it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference. Would I play it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t choose it – and it certainly hasn’t won me over to the war game side! But who knows, with a lighter theme, it might work…

Key observations

The combat mechanism is going to make or break The Cousins’ War for most players. It is variously loved and loathed by commentators, being described as anything from “thrown together” to “adding tension”, and if you haven’t read enough above to convince you you’ll need to try before you buy. Personally, I think it works well.

As for small box war game alternatives, it really needs to be compared to Iron Curtain and 13 Minutes: two similarly small boxed games with a similar playtime that borrow liberally from the Twilight Struggle school of war game card play.

I found 13 Minutes far the inferior of the three, being overly abstract and with a poorly conceived tacked-on end game: it didn’t make thematic sense and felt under developed. But Iron Curtain is a vast improvement, being full of interesting decisions and genuinely arching gameplay: impressive for such a small and fast-playing design. However, card draw can feel decisive in some games and for that reason – when compared to the dice battles of The Cousins’ War – I’d put the two pretty much on even footing.

Conclusion

Designer David J Mortimer has done a fine job of mashing up some unlikely design mechanic bedfellows to come up with a clever little game. The war game theme and basis will alienate some, while the Perudo-style bluffing element will have the same effect on others, but hey – no game works for everyone. The Cousin’s War knows it sits in its own little niche and is quite happy there, thanks very much – and I for one am glad I gave it a try. Definitely a keeper.

* Thanks to Surprised Stare Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Ominoes – Hieroglyphs: A four-sided game review

Ominoes: Hieroglyphs* is a tile-laying game for two to four players that takes less than an hour to play. The box says ages 10+, but a gamer child as young as eight should easily get to grips with it.

While the game shares the title and artwork from Harman’s previous game Ominoes, this is a very different beast: this is a longer, deeper and more strategic (serious?) game, but still easily falls into the ‘family’ bracket. It is also roughly the same price, at around £25.

The artwork and graphic design are clear and colourful, fitting the Egyptian theme well. The box is actually sensibly sized for a tile-laying game (perhaps the first ever?), fitting the contents snugly inside. In it you’ll find almost 100 cardboard tiles, about the same again in cardboard counters and four small player boards. The tiles are a little disappointing in the quality department, if you’re used to games such as Carcassonne, but they’re perfectly functional and we haven’t had any problems with them.

Teaching Ominoes: Hieroglyphs

I would put the game firmly in the family game category, although fans of light euros and tile-layers should also find something here to enjoy.

Unlike games such as Carcassonne, here you each have a hand of five tiles in hand. These will be visible to all, so there’s a certain amount of checking out what others can do as you start to know the game more.

Each tile is double sided, with the majority showing two of the game’s six symbols (one on each side). In addition there is a number of altar tiles – one in each of the four player colours (which equate to four of the six symbols) and several of each of the two neutral symbols. Each player receives their own temple tile as part of their starting hand, while the others are shuffled in with the other tiles.

On your turn you’ll add a number of your five tiles to the central array of tiles. You can play as many as you like, but they must all have the same symbol face-up (you can flip the tiles over before you play them). You can then play them anywhere as long as they join into the central array orthogonally, with the aim of getting a set of at least four – hopefully making it adjacent to as many temple tiles that have been laid as possible.

You then (hopefully) score: you get a token of the colour you made a group of four of; plus a token of the type of any temple your set was placed next to (again orthogonally).

You can even include a temple as one of your set of four scoring tiles, as it still counts as that colour – in which case it scores both ways (as part of the set, and as a temple). If a temple happens to be another player’s, they also score a token of their colour. The only restriction is you can never have more than three of any type of token at one time.

If you do score a set, next comes the twist: each of the scored tiles flips over onto its other side/symbol (but never temples – once on the board as temples they’re there for the rest of the game). If you plan it well, you will make another set of four – which will score for you again. If that does happen, all the tiles that scored the second time are discarded (as long as they don’t leave other tiles unconnected from the central group) and your turn ends (rather triumphantly – smug grin time).

At any time on your turn, if you have four different tokens, you can build one of the four sections of your pyramid (you could do several on a good turn). Each section then needs a specific coloured token placed on top of it (the four player colours, which can be trickier to get) before you complete the capping piece – and win the game.

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 on the fence with Hieroglyphs. My first few games were very enjoyable, as we lumbered around getting a feel for what was going on – we played with similar joie de vivre as we did with its predecessor (which I love). But once we started to ‘get’ it, the game slowed down as people started to try to play the perfect turn – which meant leaving nothing for your opponents. It then became a case of information overload for me, as what I thought was a light game suddenly morphed into a deeper abstract strategy one.
  • The thinker: While this is an interesting game, it’s too random to sit comfortably in my ‘abstract strategy’ list. If you’re doing well but get starved of a colour of tile it is easy for opponents to block off that colour’s temple (if it has even been placed) so you can’t score it. While it may be good play by your opponents, it’s really you being screwed by luck of the draw with your tiles. Also, there’s the king-making issue many games such as this have: when the player to your right is rubbish, therefore leaving you easy openings. but this is a clever design and I enjoyed my plays that felt ‘fair’: it’s just a little fragile for my tastes.
  • The trasher: I do like a bit of ‘bash the leader’ and games with some ‘wow’ move moments; and Ominoes: Hieroglyphs can have those in spades. It’s easy to be mean, as can block temples off to stop people scoring them – but of course this slows the game down for you too. It’s near the end when it gets tactical, as you look to see what players are falling short of and try to deny them – while also setting up your own big move. And it’s always fun to score big on your turn on other people’s temples – but only when they don’t need, or can’t take, the tokens as they’re already have three of them. Simple pleasures!
  • The dabbler: This is a good game if people don’t take too long on their turns! I guess after loving Ominoes I expected Hieroglyphs to have the same level of thinking (it’s got the same name after all) – and when it does, it’s fun! I think what the game really needs is a timer: use your turn, or lose it! Otherwise it is a simple, bright game that is relatively easy to set up, teach and get played with pretty much anyone. And it’s great to have a more portable tile-layer: look and learn, Carcassonne! I just with is had a little more polish – especially the rulebook, which is hard to follow – and had come with the drawstring bag it’s clearly crying out for.

Key observations/Conclusion

If you enjoy tile-laying games, I would encourage you to give Ominoes: Hieroglyphs a try. It’s light on rules but medium on strategy, meaning you should be able to keep people on differing levels happy – as long as they don’t mind a bit of luck and potentially a bit of leader bashing.

Ultimately the luck of the tile draw is what tends to keep me from most versions of Carcassonne – and I personally feel the same negative push here. So I won’t be keeping Ominoes: Hieroglyphs, despite being won over and having enjoying my plays. That said, a little birdie told me the next game to use flipping tiles is in the pipeline, so I’ll be eager to see if that builds on this promising beginning but arrives at a game that’s more to my personal tastes.

And finally, if you haven’t checked out the original Ominoes you really should. It’s a fast dice placement game using a simplified version of the scoring system and symbols used here; and while luck of the draw (or roll) again features heavily, for me it gets the balance just right – I think due to the shorter playtime, simpler decisions and – well – it’s custom dice and I’m easily pleased…

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

Board game Top 10: Longevity – my all-time most played

I started recording my board game plays on Board Game Geek (yeah yeah…) in October 2008 which, the astute amongst you will notice, was 10 years ago. So what better excuse for a gaming Top 10?

I’ve talked a bit recently about longevity and replayability – and nothing speaks for that more than a list such as this. Sure, these games won’t be for everyone; but if I can get 30+ plays out of them, they certainly have something!

All of these titles remain in my collection, while seven of them were in my last Top 50 games of all time – including four of my top five (second place Terraforming Mars has a mere 20 plays). So yes, I realise I write about these games quite a lot – which is why here I’m concentrating purely on why I think they have longevity (follow the links to my reviews for more details on them).

As always I’d love to hear your own most played games, and why they keep hitting the table for you. And finally, these games are mostly still in print, or at worst easily available secondhand, if you fancy treating yourself.

My Top 10 board games by plays (all time)

If a game had multiple versions (such as Ticket to Ride) I added the plays together to get a single score. I also took a few titles out for reasons that will become obvious when you see the ‘honourable mentions’ below the main list.

  1. Race for the Galaxy
    (268 plays: first play April 2009)
    There’s so much going for this one. It sets up and packs down quickly and plays in well under an hour, and I have a lot of friends who really like it, so it gets asked for. There are hundreds of unique cards so the game is genuinely different every time and it is very much a tactical game: you can’t go in thinking, this time I’ll try that strategy – because if you don’t do what the cards tell you to do, you’re going to fail: perfect for replayability. Finally it’s a genuine race which adds a great tension to each play, which isn’t as common as it should be in games. All these things make it call at me from the shelf on a regular basis.
  2. Ticket to Ride
    (150 plays: December 2009)
    Back when I was more sociable and a proper game pilgrim, hawking my games to friends’ houses to push the hobby, this was always the game of choice. I’m pretty lucky in that I still really enjoy it, while it is very much a 50-50 title with my gaming friends; but my less gamery friends tend to still like it too. It is one of Sarah’s favourites, so has seen a lot of plays at home over the past couple of years too. Again, route-building is another mechanism that pretty much guarantees a different game each time – and again, as with Race, you can’t go in with a strategy: you have to see what the game deals you.
  3. Dominion
    (60 plays: June 2010)
    We played Dominion to death when I first picked it up, as it was one of my first purchases – and I was the main game buyer in our small group. some 39 of the 60 plays were in the last six months of 2010 after I bought it – followed by 11 in 2011. Just 10 plays in the seven years since might not suggest replayability, but this is ore down to by reticence to add any expansions to the base game. There have been loads, some very well regarded, but I don’t see enough enthusiasm for the game in my current groups to invest. But – again – I love the simplicity, the race element, and the variety the random setup brings each game.
  4. Ra
    (57 plays: October 2010)
    Ra taps into the part of my gaming mind that loves to read other players, as I try to work out the relative values of the current offering for each of the players. The bidding is clean and simple, the rules simple and elegant, and the game can swing all over the place – but you’re all riding the same wave, so that’s fine. You can’t ask what a good score is in Ra – it all depends on how the tiles come out. While there aren’t that many different tiles in the bag, round length can vary hugely depending on what come out; while your relative strength changes depending on your own bidding strength. An endlessly fascinating game.
  5. Ingenious
    (54 plays: October 2008)
    This was one of the first two plays I recorded back on my first BGG day – and it is still a firm favourite today. While I have played it with three and four players, I love it as a two-player game – and luckily Sarah has taken to it, ensuring it will thrive a little longer. It is all about reading the game state: you spend the majority of the game accumulating points, but need to spot the point at which play moves into either attack or defence mode – and that’s where the game is won or lost. Random tile draws make every game different and infinitely replayable, while again it is easy to set up and teach. Are you seeing a pattern emerging here?
  6. Carcassonne
    (50 plays: October 2009)
    Like Dominion, Carcassonne saw a lot of plays in my early gaming days but has certainly dropped off since. It does tick the common boxes for replayability: quick to play, teach and setup, alongside a random tile draw that makes each game feel different. However, it has never made my Top 50 and I don’t think it ever will. I guess I’m still waiting for the version of it that really speaks to me, but I always find that either luck plays a little too much of a factor – or if it doesn’t, the experienced player will win every time. That said, I’m always happy to play most versions of it – and I still own Hunters and Gatherers, my favourite version to date.
  7. Archaeology: The Card Game
    (40 plays: December 2010)
    The first of two push-your-luck games in quick succession – and one that also needs your full attention as you assess your opponents’ positions. The rules are very simple and the scoring is basic set collection, but random draws that force all players to discard half their hands keep everyone on their toes – while ‘thief’ cards also keep everyone honest (as it were!). Luck of the draw can screw you, for sure, but the game is quick enough that its acceptable and just adds to the banter. One of my favourite card filler games, with a lovely recent reprint.
  8. Pickomino
    (38 plays: May 2011)
    Zoe’s favourite silly little game, so it doesn’t hit the table as much as it used to, but with the right group this is still a really good laugh. It’s a Yahtzee-style push your luck dice game where you try to get high scores to claim scoring tiles. If you fail, though, you have to put your top tile back – but if you role the exact score for a tile on top of someone else’s stack, you can steal it. This is the third Reiner Knizia design on this list (after Ra and Ingenious), which helps demonstrate that a clever mechanism invoking lots of player interaction and paying attention is what really creates longevity, rather than a gazillion set up options.
  9. Downfall of Pompeii
    (34 plays: February 2011)
    This is a brilliant family game and probably the one on the list I’m most surprised I haven’t played more. There are a few fiddly rules, and it takes a full play to really grasp everything, but once you do it’s a blast. With two players it’s a highly tactical and strategic game, despite the dark comedy that ensues as you throw each other’s citizens into the lava or volcano… Each extra player adds chaos though, so whether you like that or not is going to depend on your group. But the cat-and-mouse elements of first populating and then escaping Pompeii with your lives always works for me.
  10. Codenames
    (31 plays: August 2015)
    The only game to make the list released in the last five years has done so largely because of how much Sarah and me enjoy the two-player version, Codenames Duet. It’s also the only word and/or party game on the list, which sees players laying out a grid of words and then trying to guess groups of them using single word clues. It’s a really clever system that rewards players knowing each other, and versions can go from two right up to 10 or so players. Despite being largely rubbish at it (a ‘three’ is rare in our games lol) we’ll often play several games back-to-back trying to beat the next two-player challenge.

Honourable mentions

  • Unpublished prototype
    (434 plays)
    Actually the clear winner, but obviously not a ‘game’, per se. I dread to think what percentage of them were terrible, whether my games or those of others, but it has been a real privilege to see some of them grow from pieces of paper to fully fledged classics.
  • Empire Engine (57)
    It felt self-aggrandising to include this in the main list, so I popped it down here instead. But in truth, I think it deserves its place: I still enjoy playing it and am very proud of it as a design, despite it not making much of a splash. Plus of a percentage of those ‘unpublished prototype’ plays were Empire Engine ones in disguise…
  • Adios Calavera (23)
    I wanted to include this as it’s by far the most played game of the more recent releases (the only other new-ish release that come close is Terraforming Mars with 20 plays). It has also flown way under the radar (unlike TM!), and it really has become an instant favourite, so I feel compelled to give it a leg-up at every opportunity! Go on, treat yourself. You won’t regret it.

Terraforming Mars – Prelude: expansion review

Terraforming Mars: Prelude* is a small box cards-only expansion for award-winning sci-fi board game Terraforming Mars, released in 2016 (and reviewed by me earlier this year).

Terraforming Mars is a tableau building card game, which also has a central board adding tile placement and a small element of territory building. It also has elements of resource and hand management, as players compete to earn points by completing the steps necessary to make the red planet habitable.

The base game has more than 200 different ‘project’ cards, making every game feel different; while its 17 corporation cards help players initially set out with different strengths. There are multiple paths to victory and a small amount of direct interaction through some of the cards, combining to create a euro game that rally brought its space theme come to life: something of a rarity, which has helped it climb into the Board Game Geek all-time top 10 game list. This is its third official expansion.

What does Prelude bring to the party?

While I’ve said this is a small box expansion, the box is still way bigger than it needed to be. Weighing in at just 47 cards, this could easily have come in a standard sized playing card pack.

These are split into three types: the 35 Prelude cards that give the expansion its name, alongside five corporation cards and seven project cards. Except for one of the corporations, which requires you to be using the Prelude cards to play, the other corporations and project cards can simply be shuffled in with the rest.

At the start of the game, each player is dealt four Prelude cards along with the usual setup (10 project cards and two corporations). You’ll choose two of these to keep and discard the other two. Each card will give you a set of one-off bonuses, with the aim of giving each player a unique head start over their opponents: money, cards, resources and/or production – or even some terraforming points or steps.

The only other addition to the rules is the ‘wild’ tag, introduced to a few cards and acting as any tag you may need. In addition, the ‘Robinson Industries’ corporation has a similar tag but in a production box, allowing you to raise your lowest production by one step as an action.

How much does it change the game?

While Terraforming Mars has proven highly popular, one recurring criticism – even from fans – is that the game has quite a slow start: it takes a good few rounds to build up your engine. But even worse, if you’re not dealt any cheap and timely production cards, you can fall behind the curve and struggle to recover.

The Prelude cards go a small (but welcome) way to mitigating that initial luck of the draw, while significantly speeding up the game. I’ve noticed a good 30 minutes (or a round or two) being shaved off the playing time; and as that’s from the least interesting part of the game I no problem with that.

These are big bonuses: three production steps plus a few free resources on a card is not uncommon, or you may find yourself completing two terraforming steps with a single card (and also, of course, your terraforming rating). While others offer big initial extra cash boons or free cards. There’s a big variety, and the fact there are 35 cards means you’ll be seeing new ones for a long time.

Beyond this, with the exception of one of the corporations, I really like all the other extra cards. The previously mentioned Robinson Industries is interesting, while Valley Trust gives you an extra Prelude card as your first action. The other cards are pretty standard, but hey – this is a game that flies on variation, so new cards that slot right in without hugely rocking the boat are always going to be welcomed by fans.

Is Terraforming Mars: Prelude value for money?

This is a tricky one. In a word, for materials, no. This is retailing at £15-20, which is frankly ludicrous for less than 50 playing cards. And as is usual for Terraforming Mars art, it ranges from average space art to dreadful clip art, so its hard to use that as any justification.

For a similar situation, you only need to look at the expansions for Terraforming Mars’ spiritual successor, Race for the Galaxy. Designer Tom Lehmann said he went to great lengths to add something a little extra to each expansion – be it solo components, the Xeno Invasion or Alien Artefacts boards, or goal tiles. These were to add value for players, where the real cost had been card art. If only that had been done here.

Because the Prelude cards especially are a really strong addition; they take what many players see as a weakness of the original design and fix it beautifully and elegantly. You’re paying to get 30 minutes of your life back from each play, while losing very little of the enjoyment. £20 though? No way. But it’ll sell like hot cakes, because it’s good – even if that doesn’t make it right.

Is Prelude essential?

Again, certainly not – unless the only problem you have with the base game is those often slow early rounds (in fact some will see this as fixing a problem that isn’t actually a problem). If you don’t feel you need the Prelude cards, while the other few cards are nice they’re certainly not worth investing in this for. But the Prelude cards? I personally won’t play without them unless I must.

I know this makes me sound like a hypocrite, especially being in the privileged position of getting games either free or at a discount, but I’m super happy with what they bring to the game. for what they do, in terms of time and early asynchronicity and focus, I can’t see how they could be better. And, while I applaud Tom Lehmann’s commitment to value, how many of us Race fans actually play any of that extra stuff he squeezed into those expansions? Sometimes you have to see value in terms of simple achievement.

Changes to the solo game

Prelude has a solo rules card giving a new goal: reach a terraforming rating of 63 in 14 generations. This nicely changes up the solo game, meaning you’re not forced to do everything at once and can instead specialise to try and get your win in a number of different ways.

In addition, if you want to play with the Prelude cards, you have to do it in just 12 generations. The rules also state that you apply this to the old solo game two, if using the Prelude cards to play a traditional solo game. Finally, the rules card introduces a new standard project for the solo game: spend 16 cash to improve your TR by one. This is also a welcome change, giving players who favour a cash-heavy strategy an extra route to a victory.

… and does it fit in the original Terraforming Mars box?

Very, very easily indeed…

* Thanks to FryxGames (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of Prelude for review.

Con report: Tableltop Gaming Live 2018 (plus KeyForge preview)

I spent last Saturday at London’s wonderful Alexandra Palace courtesy of Tabletop Gaming, London’s first proper board, miniatures and role-playing game convention. I had no expectations going in, but did it meet them…?

I can only speak about the Saturday, but the event seemed pretty poorly attended. That said, there was a steady stream of people and the vendors I spoke to (publisher, distributor and retailer) were pleasantly surprised at the level of footfall: they generally said it was never busy, but those attending were enthusiastic – the demo table were always full as I walked around, which was really encouraging to see.

this was, of course, a first run for the con – and hopefully they will have learned plenty from it (I was unreliably tipped off that they fully intend to run it again next year). Because in a lot of ways the reason the event ran so smoothly was because of the low numbers attending. If it had been heaving, this could have been a very different report – more on which below. And remember – I’m only taking from a board gaming perspective; I have no idea how things went for the minis/RPG guys.

What Tabletop Gaming Live got right

With its place in the calendar less than a month before the world’s most important board game show, Essen Spiel, it was important the show made something of its closeness to so many new releases.

Some of the better planned releases are already hitting the market so were on sale, but there were also demo copies of titles including The River, Coimbra, Kingdomino: Age of Giants Forbidden Sky, KeyForge (more on which below) and many more. As mentioned above, the tables for these were always busy and retailers were doing good business.

The open gaming and tournament areas were really big, which was great to see. I think they’d have coped if there had been five times as many people attending, and it’s nice to see another convention that understands that – more than retail therapy – gamers want to game. There was a good bar which was a bit of an annoying walk away, but served great beer (in plastic beakers, and overpriced, but hey – it’s a convention).

Another important factor is friendliness and once again, Tabletop Gaming Live came up trumps. Everyone I spoke to or asked questions of was friendly, from people selling the tickets to the security teams. All in all it was a smooth, enjoyable day of gaming. It’s just a shame that so many people I spoke to in the hobby, or on the fringes of it, had absolutely no idea it was going on.

…and what can be improved in 2019

While there was lots of open gaming space, the game library was pretty much non-existent: it consisted of a weird couple of tables being run (if that’s the right word) on a trust basis – there were maybe 30 games. London has several board game cafes and I’d be amazed if one of them wouldn’t have been happy to step up to the plate and run this.

There seemed to be loads of people attending with young kids, yet there was very little provision for families. Sure, some of the distributors (especially Coiledspring) had children’s games set up but there wasn’t a dedicated family area – something this kind of convention is crying out for, and that the UK Games Expo in Birmingham has done so well in the past few years. It’s the life blood and future of the hobby, after all.

Also, while it was great to see some new titles, there should’ve been a lot more copies available. And while there were some good publishers there, most had small booths with very little space. Having seen the stall rates – and compared them to UK Games Expo – it was clearly a little bit pricey for an experimental con. Surely you should reward early adopters? I’d have loved to have seem small publishers with enough space to have demo tables up for their games on their booths, but those who weren’t priced out of attending at all had very stripped-back setups.

Finally, they only got away with plopping the seminar area into the main open gaming area because (again) of the low numbers. It’s not as if Ally Pally hasn’t got smaller side rooms (I wandered into several by accident as I was exploring), so I can only presume they’ll utilise one of those in future. And despite the low attendance, at lunchtime the food queues were pretty miserable – I dare to think what they would’ve been like if more people had shown up. So lots to be learned, but that’s as to be expected – and overall it was a very positive experience.

Mini review: KeyForge – Call of the Archons

One of the hot new titles I got to try out was KeyForge, the upcoming release from Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield and publisher Fantasy Flight Games.

While not a kind of game I gravitate towards (two player fantasy battle card games), I was fascinated by the design principals at work here so was eager to find out more.

Essentially you’re in the same rough ballpark as Magic: play creature and various effect cards from your hand to try and defeat your opponent. However, there’s no mana: instead you choose to activate one of your three factions (there are seven in total, but only three in each player’s card deck), then play any card of that type from your hand and/or activate any you already have in front of you.

But more importantly this is not a TCG or a CCG – this is a ‘unique deck game’. The game’s core card set has around 350 different cards across the seven factions, and each deck you buy will have 12 cards from three of those factions for a total of 36 (plus a character card). Some of these may be duplicates, so you may not see 36 unique cards, but the key is that every deck you buy is a unique combination of those cards. Your character card will have a unique name and image, created from a huge combination of elements, which will also be printed on every card in your deck. So, of anything, this is actually anti CCG. Your deck is what it is.

All the cards feel powerful, which is satisfying. Each feels strong in its own way, and you’re constantly being surprised by what you see being played against you.

Sure, this will wear thin after you’ve played versus same deck a few times, but when they retail at £10, it’s still going to be a way smaller investment than a game such as Magic. And it brings things back to player skill rather than who could afford to buy/copy the best deck.

Or does it? Despite fancy algorithms, some decks are simply going to be better suited to beat others. While this novelty will play well with people who enjoy larger gaming groups, tournaments and the like, it may struggle to find traction with those who prefer to play in a small, low spending group or a single friend or partner. And while the cards are many are varied, this is mechanically a very simple combat game: and if we know Garfield, and FFG, that 350-card set won’t stay that small for long.

But this is a fascinating development in game creation. Designers have long been using computer simulations to help test outliers by recreating hundreds or thousands of test games, but this takes things to the next level: algorithms creating reasonably balanced decks from a dizzying array of options. There’s meant to be another on the way more reminiscent of a euro game: some kind of hybrid between Friese’s 504 and a legacy game. Whether this will be an evolutionary step, or a hideous beast best left in a test tube, is anyone’s guess – but I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Kingdomino – Age of Giants: expansion review

Kingdomino: Age of Giants* is the first standard expansion for Kingdomino, which was released in 2016 and reviewed by me in 2017 (you may also want to check out Queendomino – a standalone game that came out last year which is compatible with the original Kingdomino).

As you have probably worked out from its title, the original game was loosely based on the old school dominoes concept: players take tiles made up of two squares, which traditionally have a different number (or here, pictures) on each end. In Kingdomino each player matches these in their own 5×5 grid to form matching areas and score points.

What made the original Kingdomino the 2017 Spiel de Jahres (German Game of the Year) winner is how it blends this simplicity with a clever but accessible scoring system, alongside a simple tactical turn order mechanism. The better the tile you go for each round, the later in turn order you’ll get to choose next time – with the added twist that you won’t know the range of choices you’ll get next turn until the order for the turn has been established.

I feel I need to say something up front: this review is long, rambling, and may seem inconclusive and contradictory. So I’ll say here and now: I like it and I’m keeping it. It’s a troublesome child, for sure, but I love it all the same.

What does Age of Giants bring to the party?

This expansion consists of several constituent parts. The simplest to describe is the set of 17 ‘quest’ tiles. If you’re familiar with the base game, these build on the additional rules ‘The Middle Kingdom’ and ‘Harmony’: instead of these, you randomly draw two tiles each game to see how to get bonus points.

These range from an exact copy The Middle Kingdom (plus a version where your castle needs to be in a corner), through rewarding certain terrain types being in certain places (corners, or adjacent to your castle), to scoring points for discarded tiles or large areas without crowns.

Next is a score pad (hurrah!) and the pieces required to add a fifth player. The score pad is great (incorporating five players, plus spaces to score bonus points), but the fifth player pieces are a sad brown colour and disappointingly the base tile is the same as those in Queen (mosaic), rather than Kingdomino (plain). It’s a small point, and maybe later versions of Kingdomino have changed the original base, but it still irked me.

Next are 12 giant dominoes, and six wooden giant meeples to go with them. These additional tiles add to, rather than replacing, tiles from the base game – so you can’t use the original box to draw tiles from. Instead, they’ve thrown in a tile tower which fits the full set of 60 tiles. More on this thing later…

How much does it change the game?

The quest tiles are an enjoyable addition. You can choose them randomly or pick your favourites – either way, they add a simple extra strategic layer to an already great game. No complaints, but you could write them on paper: they don’t need to be fancy looking tiles.

The score pad is great but is again fluff – we managed perfectly well before with a pen and paper. The fifth player components and tile tower are only usable/required when you play with the giants expansion. So, will you want to?

Six of the tiles are lettered (A-F – the giants), six numbered (49-54 – the footprints). The lettered tiles have no crowns and a picture of a giant on them. When you take one, you add it as usual – and then take a giant meeple. This must be placed on one of your scoring crowns (your choice) – and if it’s still there at the end of the game, it won’t count.

The footprint tiles have three crowns each and (you guessed it), big giant footprints. When you take one of these you again place the tile as normal, but you can also move one of your giants to another player’s kingdom (they choose which crown to cover). If you don’t have a giant, nothing happens.

Is Kingdomino: Age of Giants essential?

If you still enjoy the base game, and tend to have two to four players, absolutely not. You won’t need the fifth player pieces, while the other components make small changes to a game you’re currently happy with. Sit back, enjoy the game, then come back if it starts to feel a little tired.

Conversely, if you like the idea of a fifth player, some extra scoring chances and a little change to the base game – come on down! But be warned: with giants, the game becomes quite a bit more random – and the less players you have, the worse that becomes.

The base game had a handy list of all the tiles, so you knew what would become available: you could grock what was left, what chance you might get to score later etc. Sure, you can make a list of the new tiles and make your own sheet (I bet someone is squirrelled away making one right now to add to Board Game Geek) – but a slight change in the rules spoils that with anything other than five players.

At lower player counts, you use all the dominoes – but you first lay out five, then remove either one of two before players choose which to claim (the middle value tile of the five with two/four players, or the second and fourth with three players). This means you never know what will truly be available in a game unless you have the full five players. I presume this has been done to ensure most of the new giant tiles are active each game, but it makes the game much swingier.

As do the giant tiles themselves. We’ve all taken poor tiles in the hope of getting a good first pick next time – and been faced with junk. Sure it was annoying, but not huge – now it can be huge. In my last two-player game, luck of the draw saw me end up with no giants while Sarah got five. It wasn’t good play by me – it just happened that on turns I had little to no control, there were no giant tiles. I won by 60 points.

That said, it would be easy to house rule that – as in the original three-player game – you instead each choose a tile and the ones not taken are discarded. But if there was a giant tile, the last players/players had to take them. Not very elegant, but at least all the tiles would have been in play.

But you know what? I still like the giants expansion. I won’t play with it every time, but having the game able to go to five is great; the score pad is nice; the quest tiles are cool; and it’s nice to have a more chaotic, take-that version of one of my go-to family games. Sure, it has its faults – bot overall, I’m taken by it. Just know it can be super random, know your audience, and put it in front of the right players.

Is Kingdomino: Age of Giants value for money?

This is hard to call. Right now Amazon has the expansion costing more than the original game, which seems ridiculous. But then the base game is so unbelievably cheap at well under £20 – maybe its that which is under-priced?

Anyway, for around £20 the expansion has enough wood and cardboard in the box to look reasonable value. The same high quality tiles, the same great cartoon artwork; everything looks great. But is it smoke and mirrors? The only thing that needed to be here were the 12 new tiles and the six giant meeples.

And oh, I keep forgetting to mention the ’tile tower’. Ye gods… Quite simply, it doesn’t work. I’ve had four separate people try and use it and all have given up in frustration. The tiles fit too snugly and won’t come out smoothly – which is a crying shame, as it looks beautiful. I’ve read some message boards on the subject and it seems very much luck of the draw – some of them work fine, others are unusable (like mine).

So I’ll be using a drawstring bag, the quest tiles and occasionally the giant tiles/meeples – which again calls into question its overall value. And I’m afraid there isn’t a simple answer. I’ll be keeping the expansion, as I feel it adds to the original in several key ways. But would I be happy with what I’d spent if I’d had to buy it? I can only guess, but I think the answer would be ‘grudgingly’.

… and does it fit in the original Kingdomino box?

This is usually the simple bit! But there seem to be no easy answers with this expansion.

The simple answer is no: the tile tower is bigger than the original Kingdomino box in length. However, if you throw it away (because, perhaps, you were unlucky enough to get a bloody useless one), things become a little more interesting.

One of the nice things about the base game is that everything fits beautifully into the basic plastic insert provided. On the flip side, of course, it means you can’t use the original tile area to draw from as the giants tiles won’t fit in it. However, if you ditch the insert, and the cardboard tile tower, everything does fit into the original box – and you can even draw tiles from it, as they just fit in a single row (in the image, the other tiles are the end game scoring ones). Hurrah!

* Thank you to Coiledspring Games for providing Kingdomino: Age of Giants for review.

In London this weekend? Tabletop Gaming Live, September 29-30

Love it, loath it, or couldn’t give a monkey’s about it, UK Games Expo has been in the unusual position of having things all its own way for several years now.

The June board gaming event in Birmingham has been growing at an unbelievable rate for a decade, yet no one has really stepped in to challenge for its crown. Until now.

That crown, of course, is being the UK’s biggest and best annual board gaming event. I’ve been sceptical about it in recent few years, as it struggled to grow at the same speed as its attendance figures. But this year the organisers really set down a marker, making it the biggest and best Expo yet. And just in time, it seems, as London has finally got off its lazy backside and come up with a contender.

The first Tabletop Together Live will kick off at Alexandra Palace on Friday. The two-day event claims to be ‘the London show for board games, RPGs and miniatures’ and seems to have plenty to get excited about. Its hosted by the glossy gaming magazine of the same name, so already has a built-in audience; while plonking itself in the calendar just a month before Essen Spiel in Germany seems a shrewd move.

New releases and competitions

I’ll steer clear of mini and RPG talk here, as I’m blissfully ignorant on both topics; but it looks like there’s loads going on with them if you like that sort of thing. From a board game perspective though, it looks as if there will be plenty to do too.

The show will host the launch of Forbidden Sky, the third game in designer Matt Leacock’s ‘forbidden’ series. The first two (Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island) are fantastic co-operative family games, distilling ideas from his award-winning design Pandemic. This latest title is already garnering great reviews, so I’ll be looking forward to taking a closer look.

If you like a tournament, both days will see competitions for recent classic Kingdomino (plus the new expansion will be on sale, Age of Giants – review imminent) and endearing favourite King of Tokyo. There will be the first ever ‘intro decks’ event for Game of Thrones: The Card Game (the decks were only released this month); while the show will also host the regional qualifying event for the 2019 UK National Championship for Pandemic.

From shopping to seminars

As for exhibitors, it’s no surprise to see Iello, Z-Man, Fantasy Flight and Blue Orange (the publishers of the above games) on the list.

You’ll also be able to check out the UK’s two biggest games distributors – Coiledspring Games and Esdevium/Asmodee UK – as well as other top publishers including Catan Studios, Czech Games Edition, Days of Wonder, Osprey and Queen – a great list for a first-time con.

Plus, if you need a sit down, there is a full seminar programme in place. There’s a wide range of topics, from using games to raise awareness of mental health to, erm, going mad in the Call of Cthulhu RPG (could be an interesting crossover audience for those two – me included). Other topics include tips on teaching rules (most people I know: take note); making a prototype, and building the tabletop community as the hobby continues to grow.

I’m planning to be there all day on Saturday, so say ‘hi’ if you see me wandering about. Please click the image at the top of this post for a link to the event: tickets start at £10, so hopefully it will be affordable for most people. And if you can’t make it, expect a con report some time the following week.

Schotten Totten (AKA Battle Line): A four-sided game review

Schotten Totten* is a classic small box two-player card game from celebrated designer Reiner Knizia. A game takes around 20 minutes and the age suggestion of 8+ feels about right: the rules themselves are very simple, but the game offers both tactical and strategic depth.

It was released in 1999, had an English edition (Battle Line) in 2000, but has been republished under its original title since 2016. The current version has lovely cartoon artwork and is overall a solid version (66 cards, nine cardboard tiles, and available for less than £15).

This is a traditional card game hybrid, using familiar mechanisms in a clever and original way (pretty much the designer’s MO). Anyone familiar with hand management and set collection games such as rummy, poker or brag will feel immediately at home. If you can manage to immerse yourself in the pasted-on Scottish clansmen theme while you’re at it, then more power to your elbow…

Teaching Schotten Totten

The basic game is the kind of thing you can just as easily teach your granny as a gamer. The ‘tactic variant’ adds a little complexity, but not much – and I’ll cover that at the end. In the basic game, you shuffle the deck of 54 clan cards and deal six to each player (these cards are numbered one to nine in six different colours – that’s it). You then lay the nine ‘stone’ tiles out between the two players, and you’re ready to go.

Your goal is to claim five of these nine stones (or three if they’re adjacent to each other) by playing an unbeatable set of three cards on your side of each of them. Winning sets will be familiar: a running flush is best, followed by three-of-a-kind, a flush, a run, then the highest sum of three cards (handy player aids remind you of the order).

The game also flows extremely simply: you play a card from your hand in front of one of the stones, then you draw a new card – then it is your opponent’s turn. Also, at any time on your turn, you can claim any stone that you’ve won. You continue in this way until one of you declares themselves the winner; which gets us onto one of the cleverer parts of the game.

Often you don’t have to wait for both sides to have three cards in front of a stone before you claim it: as long as you can show your three cards can’t be beaten, you can claim. For example, if you have a three-card running flush in front of a stone and your opponent has a pair, you can claim that stone on your turn: as they have a pair, they can’t equal your running flush – even if they made it three of a kind, they’d lose.

For the tactical variant, the game’s 10 tactic cards are shuffled and put next to the usual draw deck. Players draw an initial hand of seven clan cards rather than six, then when you draw a card you can choose to take either a tactic or clan card. Tactic cards are wrinkles to the standard rules: they could be wild cards or may let you move or discard an already played clan card. The limitation is you can only have played one more tactic card than your opponent, so if you draw too many and your opponent doesn’t play any they just clog up your hand.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Knizia’s genius has always been his ability to find the small details that take a simple game from average to special. It tends to be something in the way his games score, and that is the case with Schotten Totten: having to keep an eye on the chance of your opponent winning three adjacent stones to win is key to your strategic thinking. Just adding that second possible route to victory makes a real difference, while not detracting from the game’s elegance and simplicity.
  • The thinker: A great game, if very random. The tactic cards feel as if they muddy the waters, giving various ‘get out of jail free’ opportunities – but also add choice; and you don’t have to take them – which limits your opponent’s opportunity to exploit them. What I don’t understand is the additional ‘expert’ variant, where you can only claim a stone at the beginning of your turn. rather than being for experts, it feels more like you’re just giving more opportunity for your opponent to scupper your good play with a lucky tactic card.
  • The trasher: As well as having poker hands for scoring, Schotten Totten manages to illicit that same tension across the table that the best betting and bluffing games do. This is heightened by the fact you’ll see way more cards in play than in a poker game, and the game lasts longer, ebbing and flowing. Personally I like the tactic cards as they can really spice things up. They’re powerful enough to make a big impact, but limited enough to make you think twice about drawing too many or making things stupid – but they are swingy.
  • The dabbler: While the artwork is cute and the rules are simple, I found this one a bit dry. I’m quite happy playing a traditional card game like rummy or whist, because there’s always banter and a bunch of people having a laugh. This one is much tenser and more serious, and only for two, so is far less satisfying as a social game – way more ‘chess’ than something more fun, such as even Patchwork, where you can have a bit more banter. If you want to sit around looking moody though, this is the game for you!

Key observations

Schotten Totten has been around for nearly 20 years, so has its fair share of fans and detractors – but it ranks just outside the Board Game Geek top 50 for family games and in the top 500 overall.

It also has an average rating above seven, which is impressive for a small card game – so any criticisms should be seen in this context.

Randomness, in terms of ‘luck of the draw’, is a common complaint. This makes the game too tactical for some, as your lovingly set up set never happens. But while luck is a factor, it can usually be mitigated with good play – waiting for a single card is bad play in any game, surely? That said, it’s true that higher cards are generally better than lower ones here – but that’s a feature of games based on this kind of system, so if you don’t like that it’s your call.

So if we accept there’s a certain level of randomness in the game, the next question is: is there enough ‘fun’ to compensate for it? some argue that, while random, the game is also very dry. Well, it is an abstract card game so sure, it’s dry. But I love the ebb and flow as the cards are laid, and the feeling you get when you simply don’t want to play any of your cards because you’re either waiting for your opponent to jump; or a particular card to show up.

There is a lot to take in and keep abreast of – meaning analysis paralysis is a possibility. This is more of an issue when adding the tactic cards, which make the game less mathy but more swingy. Worse still, some are way better than others: a wild is always super powerful, for example, while a card that lets you move one of your cards to another of your spaces ranges from situational to useless. Criticism of these cards I would agree with – I can’t help thinking there was a much cleverer way they could have been introduced – but at least they’re very much optional. I just ignore them.

Conclusion

Schotten Totten would probably make my Top Five Reiner Knizia designs; and definitely the Top 10. It is simple and elegant, yet clever and deep – just what you expect from his better games.

If you’re someone who ends up playing a lot of two-player games, especially if you’re introducing games to someone who has largely played traditional card games, this is a no-brainer for your collection. It has the added benefits of being cheap and small, making it easy to transport (but don’t be fooled – it’s quite the table hog!). After admiring it for some time, I’m glad to finally have it in my collection.

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

Game design: Variety does not equal replayability

As a semi-active game designer, I’ve play-tested my fair share of games. I’ve also spent a lot of time pitching them to publishers, speaking to other designers and industry decision makers, and had lengthy debates on processes to do with developing games.

A recurring myth/mantra is that replayability, especially in family and euro games, requires a mass of different setup options or unique characteristics; that a game is only worth its salt if you can make the board modular, give the players individual traits and make the game artificially different every time. But conversely ‘the cult of the new’ dictates most gamers play a game a few times then move on.

I’d suggest this extra design time and effort is often a waste of time. While the percentage of published games is increasing exponentially, the amount staying in print is rising at a much slower rate. Designers and developers are flogging themselves to death creating variants which can be set up ‘X’ different ways for games which will likely sell a maximum of 5,000 copies and be played once or twice by each purchaser.

History: We’ve never needed variety

If you look at the games that have stood the test of time, they haven’t needed this kind of variety to make their reputation. Poker, Chess and Go – or modern classics Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne – couldn’t be simpler on setup and components. They rely on simplicity, randomness and interaction rather than powers, variable setups or asymmetry. Even Catan, with variable setup, uses everything in the box. Classic modern war and board games that have been in print for decades are usually similarly unburdened. Most games don’t need it to be successful.

Modern gamers: The cult of the new

When I got into the hobby, the focus for many was on getting good at a game; increasing your skill, trying new strategies and taking pleasure in beating regular opponents. Now many players seem to spend more time reading a rulebook than they subsequently spend playing the game. This makes sense for reviewers (for comparisons – and who often get games free, or cheaply), maybe for designers (for breadth of knowledge) and of course collectors (who have a different hobby), but for your average punter? It’s a strange phenomenon and change of focus.

Expansions: We can already bolster big games

We have a perfectly good system in place to add content to games that need them. People tiring of vanilla Catan, Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne can buy any number of expansions to keep the games fresh – but they waited for them to be popular before spending the extra design and development time. And look at recent SdJ winners that are still selling well: Azul, Kingdomino, Codenames, Hanabi, Qwirkle. None rely on complex setups, asymmetry, player powers etc, but many have seen expansions designed later to extend replayability. This seems perfectly sensible, surely?

Too many games, not enough gaming?

Many modern gamers look ravenously for a regular fix of new: we’ve created a monster. There are so many games, and so many ‘cult of the new’ players, that fresh titles get a tiny release window after which games are traded for an endless supply of other ‘new’ experiences. ‘Legacy’ games were the natural conclusion, but we’re already seeing this is a desperately creaking design idea. Beyond Pandemic and Risk Legacy, others have been tepidly received. And those first two games were, ironically, built on sound ideas with few moving parts; those classic design ideals we discussed earlier.

What’s to blame: Kickstarter, journalists, publishers or gamers?

For me Kickstarter has been, overall, detrimental to the industry. It has created a pre-sale culture rewarding perceived value over actual game play; and a consumer that accepts weight of box while hoping for a good game. Journalists fall over themselves to do paid previews, as its one of very few ways to earn money, while being ‘first’ gets viewers: the quality of coverage is by-the-by. Backers inflate BGG ratings and non-KS releases receive less coverage, giving mediocre games high rankings. Meanwhile traditional publishers, with built-in fail-safes and experience to help make better games, are being gazumped by small companies often flying on the seat of their pants – largely because traditional publishers aren’t being savvy to the new ways of operating.

Conclusions

Designing a game is already a huge challenge – and getting one published even more so. Do we need to artificially extend this process by adding so much variety to every euro and family game when most of them won’t make the cut when they hit retail?

While you may think it adds to its chances, the examples of the many simpler games that make it suggests otherwise: perceived ‘replayability’ options often simply muddy the water and increase production time and costs, while moving the focus of the reviewer/punter away from the game’s core elements. That’s what expansions are for.

I’m of course not saying asymmetry, player powers and variable setup aren’t fantastic tools for any designer and many games rely on them to work at all – from Cosmic Encounter through Marco Polo to Terra Mystica: they’re valuable tools of the trade. What I’m saying is there seems to be an obsession from journalists and publishers – and, following that now, many players – to call for something they really don’t need, or even really use, in the majority of (especially euro) games.

I also want to note Ameritrash and RPG crossovers need this kind of content: the likes of Gloomhaven, Zombicide and Imperial Assault rely on it to exist. But it seems the bleed from these into more traditional titles has reached epidemic proportions. What I’m really asking is, are the many hours of extra development seeing real value? Should we be adding masses of extra content, and price, to games which may only sell a few thousand copies and be played a couple of times per player – when we could instead support these games later, as we’ll do anyway, if they take a hold in the market?

Please consider this a jumble of thoughts, not as me looking for a row or crying for help: if you read anything like that into the language, I promise you’re mistaken. I design as a hobby and love the process, but as a reviewer I now open many games seemingly focused on the wrong elements; confusing the core game experience. I realise I probably haven’t put these thoughts together in the best possible way, but I’d love to hear your opinions on what I think is an interesting topic that merits discussion.

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2018 wishlist

So, with Essen less than two months away I’ve been frantically reading rulebooks and watching preview videos of all the coming games.

There have been more than 600 new releases announced for the show so far, and the fantastic Tabletop Together Tool (using Board Game Geek information) has once again been a brilliant way to check them out – it even has ‘friend’ capabilities now, so you can see all the rubbish your ill-informed buddies are going to buy and scoff at them dismissively (ping me a message to get my code!).

But no, I haven’t read 600 rulebooks: there’s an awful lot of games that get written off before I get that far. The tool has loads of useful filters, which are super useful for narrowing things down.

Delete! Delete!

First, I automatically write-off most expansions (I don’t own most games…) and anything marked as ‘demo only’ (I’m patient – there are plenty of other games and I don’t really do/care about ‘previews’).

Next on the ‘delete’ pile are certain categories I simply know won’t inspire games to make it to the final list Some of them may be excellent, but I have limited space and budget – and I know I’ll be introduced to the best ones down the line. So en masse we say goodbye to: dexterity, children’s, humour, memory, miniatures, party, real-time, trivia and war games.

After categories, it’s mechanisms; so it’s ba-bye to acting, co-operative, partnerships, player elimination, singing (?!) and take-that. Next goes anything that needs more than two players, that last less than 20 minutes, anything for players under eight-years-old, and anything unavailable in English.

Next up is a cursory scroll down the remaining games list to get rid of anything that just looks or sounds terrible. I’m sorry, but Big Pharma and Smartphone Inc may be great, but really…? There are original themes, then there’s shitty themes. Scantily clad nonsense goes too, as do stupid looking ‘dark’ (read ‘teenage boy’) sci-fi or fantasy (not all of it, just the dark and earnest looking stuff).

My Top 6 Essen 2018 new releases (so far)

After all that, I reckon I had a good 100 left to plough through. And yeah, I love it. In truth, there are about 20 games still on my list at this point – and I’m still determined to only bring home five to review (OK – let’s say ‘less than 10’…). From here it will be about emailing publishers, or getting demos at the show. But here’s six ‘most likely to’ (in no particular order) – with links to their Board Game Geek pages (Warning: Board Game Geek is currently updating its servers and is experiencing a lot of downtime this week, so you may want to bookmark this and come back later for looking at the links):

  1. Tales of Glory
    (2-5 players, 45 mins)
    I always need to scratch that euro combo itch with a new game, and this looks the best of the bunch (on paper). The game theme is generic fantasy, but nicely implemented: you’ll be drafting tiles and adding them to your legacy (tableau), to create a history of your deeds. Tableau building, drafting, a bit of point salad – I’m totally in. It has a real puzzley element, as you need to put the tiles together in ways to maximise your opportunities. Plus its bright, colourful, chunky and plays in under an hour. I’ve also got my eye on A Thief’s Fortune, which seems to cover similar ground, but with cards.
  2. The Estates
    (2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I love a good abstract auction/bidding game, but don’t own many. This is a reprint of well-loved but niche and hard to find game Neue Heimat. It looks cutthroat and has the added bonus of a closed economy (there is a set amount of money in the game, which is all held by players), which helps keep things tight and tense. While the game will be different every time due to pulling an initial game setup of tiles from a bag, after that you’re playing with fully open information – so the only randomness comes from the moves of your opponents.
  3. Showtime
    (2-4 players, 30 mins)
    While not being a big fan of aggressive take-that games, I do often like them when they come in shorter, smaller packages. I also like to come home with at least one new small box card game each year and this is looking most likely right now: a nice light theme (going to the cinema), a varied set up and plenty of ways to screw with each other as you try and get your cinema goers into the best seats. It’s basically a great theme that anyone can relate to – you don’t want to be behind the tall guy, in front of the person who puts their feet on the seats, or anywhere near the chatty person or the munchy popcorn guy!
  4. Prehistory
    (2-4 players, 90 mins)
    One of the things I have very mixed rewards at is trying to pick a heavier euro, but again I always try and come home with one. I’ve had little luck picking a winner in the last few years, but this looks very interesting. I always like a prehistoric theme, while mechanically this is worker placement and resource management – two of my favourite things, when done in an interesting way. I’m also tempted by Teotihuacan: City of Gods, which has a bit of a rondel going on and is by one of the Tzolk’in designers; but looks like it could be both a little dry and a bit too similar to the original.
  5. Welcome To…
    (1-100 players, 30 mins)
    This is a ‘roll and write’ game without any rolling. Each player has a sheet and a pen (think Yahtzee), but instead of taking turns to roll dice and choose a result, you instead flip a set of communal cards and each player decides which to choose and use (so you can potentially do the exact same thing as another player). Thematically you’re creating a housing estate (again lol), filling in house numbers and using actions to tick off bonus opportunities: thrilling! But it has been almost universally well received since its summer release and looks like a winner.
  6. Newton and Coimbra
    (1-4 and 2-4, 90 mins)
    While you may thing its bit cheaty naming two, there’s method to my madness: I fully expect to end up with one of these, but definitely not both. I’m again scratching the euro itch, but this time the slightly different ‘pasted on theme classic mechanical euro’ one. Well, we are going to Germany: the place we’ve been picking this type of game up from for two decades. It would be rude not to! Both these games see players taking generic looking things to manipulate generic looking tracks in olden times – but what can I say, I love this stuff. I intend to give both a try and grab the best of the two.

Others on the list include Tsukiji, Fertility, Ceylon, Orbis… I’m going to be busy. And I can’t wait! I’m sure I’ve missed things though – or you may be surprised I picked ‘X’ over ‘Y’ from the list. Please feel free to fill me in on the error of my ways.

Plus 4 things I need at Essen Spiel…

Finally, here’s a few things that made it onto my ‘need’ list. You can personalise the Tabletop Together list in loads of ways, adding notes and printing maps showing where your games will be in the halls. There’s even a new friends list, so you can mock your mates for their terrible taste in new releases.

But the most important part is grading/judging all the games across five categories: ‘ignore’, maybe’, ‘like’, ‘want’ and, of course, ‘need‘. Only a few things have made that hallowed list for me so far, and they’re not the shiny things you’ll find on most Essen lists (Gloomhaven this and Scythe that, blah blah blah):

  • Old stuff: While Essen is largely about the new releases, there’s plenty of older games available too. There’s a thriving secondhand market, for example, while there are always some bargains to be had if you’re patient enough to wade through the bargain bins from both publishers and the larger German retailers. I’ve got several games on my wishlist that are old and German, so finger’s crossed!
  • Adios Calavera: This is one of my Top 50 games, so I’m excited about three mini expansions being released for it at Essen. They’re listed as two ‘character expansions’ (both players can move these pieces, which sounds fun) and a ‘three-player expansion’ (which adds a hexagonal board and slightly edited rules). I love this game, so anything that adds variety is a bonus.
  • Dice Fishing: This one is a gift for a friend who likes games but loves fishing. I was taught it recently by GoPlayListen contributor Chris Fenton (it was at UK Games Expo) and really enjoyed it: fast, silly randomness/push-your-luck but with just enough decisions and the right time frame (about 20-30 mins).
  • Witless Wizards: Well it would be stupid to miss a small self-promotion possibility, right? It’s looking likely my first solo design (after the three co-designs) should make the show, so it’ll my fifth Essen in a row supporting the release of one of my games (if you include the German release of Empire Engine). Exciting!