Queendomino: A four-sided game review

Queendomino is a family board game for two-to-four players that takes around 30-40 minutes to play.

It is essentially a slightly more complex version of Kingdomino, sharing the faux-medieval theme and dominoes-inspired set collection game play – but with a few twists that raise it to being more like ages 10+.

The artwork is also very similar to its award-winning predecessor, whilst again you’ll get 48 tiles, four little cardboard castles and eight wooden kings. But this time they’re joined by 32 town tiles and a town board you buy them from; a bunch of cardboard coins; wooden towers (15) and knights (22); a handy colour score pad, plus cute wooden queen and dragon pieces.

The box is quite a bit bigger than the original, but the overall production quality throughout is again very high – making it very good value for the price tag, which is around £20. In fact, it makes a mockery of many other games in its price bracket.

Teaching Queendomino

The basic rules of Queendomino are identical to those in Kingdomino (including basic scoring and number of rounds), so I won’t go into depth on them here (please click on the link above to my review of that game if you need to).

Essentially you still do the same basic phases: add your new domino to your kingdom, then choose a new domino by placing your queen on it. What’s new are three optional phases in between them: use knights, construct a building and bribe the dragon (done in that order).

Knights can be placed on the tile you just added (so you can use two on your turn if you have them, one on each side of your new tile) and earn money – one coin per square in its area. Money is used to construct a building (one per turn, built on the only new terrain type, towns), which then give various benefits. Finally, if you don’t currently have the queen in your territory, you may bribe the dragon to remove a building from those currently available (there are six to choose from).

Town spaces appear on 20 of the 96 squares that make up the 48 dominoes in Queendomino; but they’re basically dead tiles until you build on them. Many buildings give you points or new ways to score points (including crowns, as with basic tiles); others give you bonuses when you use your knights to get taxes; plus, some also give you knights and/or towers.

The first player to claim a tower also takes the queen into their kingdom – but don’t get used to her being around. As soon as another player has an equal (or higher) number of towers, the queen will move to their kingdom. The queen gives you a one-coin discount when constructing buildings and counts as an extra crown in your largest area if you have her at the end of the game. On the downside, you can’t bribe the dragon.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The addition of the 20 town tile spaces reduces your chance to create large scoring areas, but many buildings let you score for having lots of small areas in a colour, rather than big ones. This reverse scoring adds an interesting extra tactical level that was needed and works well. However, it means towns can’t be ignored: it’s not as if you can choose a completely different way to try and win the game. However, as a gateway game, it now comes with a few light euro game elements that will be a good way to take your non-gamer friends to the next level.
  • The thinker: I’m still happy to play Kingdomino as a light filler, as it has surprisingly interesting decisions in a short time span. But the extra play time, setup time and fiddliness introduced with Queendomino seem to muddy the waters rather than expand them clearly. More isn’t always a good thing and for every new potentially strategic element here another random one seems to have been added that balances it out, meaning it doesn’t feel any more controllable. I had high hopes, but surprisingly I think I still prefer the original.
  • The trasher: The dragon adds a nice tactical element to the interactive part of this series, but can only be utilised by one player once per turn – so is better with less players (otherwise you may rarely get to use it). Its similar for scrapping over most towers, or most knights – if a couple of you go for it, it’s likely to simply benefit the other players as you’re watering down your own benefits and clearing undesirable tiles for your opponents. That said, the core element of choosing turn order still works well and its fun to put both games together to make bigger grids.
  • The dabbler: I still love Kingdomino and was looking forward to this – especially after seeing the cute new pieces (some of the things the sheep are getting up to on the new tiles is hilarious). But unfortunately I was disappointed: the game just seems to add complexity for complexity’s sake without adding any extra fun. You definitely wouldn’t want to play with younger children – especially as the little wooden knights are ridiculously small (and, frankly, the wooden towers are too big – you can barely see what is on other players’ tiles if they have one on – and if its two or three, forget it!). The addition of score sheets was very welcome though.

Key observations

It may seem as if I’ve given Queendomino a rough ride, so I feel the need to point out here that in the wider community the jury is definitely out on which game is ‘better’ – in fact, at the time of writing, both games ranked a very impressive 7.4 on Board Game Geek.

Those who love it appreciate the extra play time, see it as having deeper planning than the original, while adding the elements they thought were lacking. Those who don’t (like me), amusingly, simply say the opposite: the extra play time feels unnecessary, while the extra bits are over-complicated and weaken the game’s fantastic core. Is it deeper – or overblown? I’m afraid that’s simply a matter of opinion.

The ability to combine Queendomino with the original is great if you like both games and has been very well conceived. I do enjoy making a 7×7 grid (rather than 5×5) when playing the original two-player and having both games means you can do this all the way up to four players. Also, this waters down the town tiles sufficiently to make them have a little less impact, bringing the original scoring methods more to the fore.

When combining both games, in fact, quite a lot of things seem better balanced. When playing just Queendomino, the town tiles seem to have been given a bit too much weight in terms of the numbering – but this makes sense when playing the bigger game: town tiles are rarer, so feel more desirable. Unfortunately though, if playing two-player, this combining of the games is only an option if you go for a player-created variant that makes 10×10 grids – quite the undertaking!

Conclusion

I was happy to see Kingdomino win the Spiel de Jahres award and over a year on from my review of the game I’m still very much enjoying it. I looked forward to Queendomino and was still excited about it as I was getting it out of the box.

But I won’t be keeping it in my collection. I am definitely in the “it’s over-complicated” camp and, with its extended setup and play time, I have many family weight light euro games I’d rather reach for (both my recently reviewed Thurn and Taxis and Maori spring to mind).

But this shouldn’t be seen as me giving Queendomino a ‘bad’ review. It’s high average ratings and scores of fans are genuine, while the production quality is high. The game is well designed and also works/flows beautifully; it simply isn’t for me. If you love the original, I suggest you try this one out – and if you thought the original was simply too light, again, this is worth a look. Just be aware of its Marmite nature going in.

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

Caverna: A four-sided game review

Caverna: The Cave Farmers, to give its slightly pointless full name, is a one-to-seven player worker placement euro game. Game length very much changes due to player count, but tends to work out at around 30 minutes per player. I’d tend to agree with the 12+ age range too, as the game’s choices mushroom as the game goes on.

The game was released in 2013 and is still easily available for around £55. This may sound quite expensive, but you get a mass of wood and cardboard in the box: 16 game boards, 30 cards, 60+ plastic pieces, 300+ wooden pieces and 400+ cardboard pieces. Yes, really.

Caverna is very much the spiritual successor to designer Uwe Rosenberg’s award-winning classic Agricola, and I’ll talk about the comparisons later. In terms of theme though, Caverna is still a farming game but adds a slight fantasy theme. You’ll be building a cave rather than a house, while also mining in caves alongside raising cattle and planting crops – all in the name of victory points.

Teaching Caverna

Anyone who has played Agricola will find learning Caverna a breeze, as it has the same turn flow and structure. A game is usually played over 12 rounds, with each player starting with two workers (or ‘dwarves’, theme fans) and being able to increase that to a maximum of five before the end of the game (each worker you have gets to do an action each round).

There a number of worker placement spaces available on the central boards (varying due to player count) and each space can be occupied by a single worker, including a space that lets you become start player. Each round a new worker placement space is revealed, opening up stronger actions as the game moves towards its conclusion.

Each player has their own board, depicting a mountain ready to be dug into to create caves and a forest ready to be flattened to graze cattle or plant crops. Cave spaces can be turned into dwellings (to house more workers), rooms (giving various benefits) or mines (giving resources). Everything from gathering/trading resources; furnishing rooms or clearing areas; planting crops; gaining animals or extra workers, and going on expeditions is achieved by using your workers.

On a round, the start player places one of their workers on an available space and does the associated action. The player to their left then does the same with one of their workers, continuing clockwise until all workers have been used (if a player has more workers than everyone else, they may end up placing several workers in a row at the end of the round). Once this is completed, the round is over: all players retrieve their workers from the board, the next worker space is revealed, and the next round begins.

Between rounds, the main board will tell you whether there will be a harvest. If there is, all players get to gain food and additional animals if they have crops planted or pairs of particular animals. Certain buildings will also give you bonus resources each round. But it’s not all good news, because those workers need to eat. Harvests also mean you need to feed your workers, so you need to ensure you’ve left aside enough money/food/resources to keep them happy – or pay a hefty victory point consequence.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The addition of adventuring spaces in Caverna is a clever one. When you send a dwarf adventuring, they can gather a certain number of resources (one to three) depending on the action space used – and these are chosen from a list that is adventuring level dependent. Each time you adventure with the same dwarf they improve by a level, giving them better options to choose from next time – so ultimately letting you bypass popular worker spaces by adventuring instead.
  • The thinker: Personally I’ll happily play Caverna, but prefer Agricola. Caverna is a more tactical game, allowing you to easily switch paths turn-by-turn with many ways to achieve your goals. In Agricola you live and die by those early decisions to keep certain cards, also allowing a certain level of mystery as players slowly play more powerful cards into their tableau as the game goes on. I find this much more satisfying, but this is still a very enjoyable if more chaotic game.
  • The trasher: I really didn’t click with Agricola: there was too much going on all at once, the theme was boring (farming? Yay!) and I’d often feel like I’d lost 10 minutes into a three hour game. Here the theme is slightly better, the adventuring is fun, it feels generally less punishing and also more cohesive somehow. There’s not much interaction, but taking spots at the right times can make a big difference. Overall still not really for me, but I’ll play it on occasion.
  • The dabbler: While I didn’t struggle as much with this as I did with Agricola, there’s still too much going on for me. I actually think the game looks nice, especially with the wooden animals and individual building art, but there’s just so much to remember and take into consideration. It’s a pleasant enough experience, but it’s the kind of game I’m pretty sure I’ll never win – so wouldn’t choose it.

Key observations

While rather ambitiously listed as a one-to-seven player game, for me it is a two-to-four player game – potentially raising to five if you’re all happy to play a game with quite a lot of downtime that will probably last at least three hours. I’ll talk about the solo game below, but with more the game just becomes unpleasantly and pointlessly long.

The game does play in a very similar way to Agricola, and I think only Rosenberg’s biggest fans will find the need to own both games. That said, I do think it is different enough to merit its existence and I don’t feel, as some do, that this was the designer ‘phoning in’ a new version to make extra cash. I’ll talk about which is my preference below, but I don’t feel the need to have both (despite both being great games).

Criticisms of the game being overwhelming are a fair warning to the feint of euro heart, and only the hardier of gamers should apply. Yes there’s an awful lot going on here, but I still find Rosenberg’s ‘Le Havre’ a more taxing game (the decision space by the end of that baffles me). But I don’t buy it as being bloated or convoluted: quite the opposite, in fact. The things you do make sense and the game runs long enough to get any of the various strategies going in a satisfying way.

Is the game multi-player solitaire? I suppose that depends on how you interpret what really constitutes the game here.

While it’s fair to say you can’t mess with other people’s player boards, that’s only half the battle: the real interaction is in gaining, or denying, particular worker spaces at the right moments to perfectly execute your strategy. I know I have lost games because someone has spotted what I needed to do, jumped in before me quite deliberately, and beaten me long term. That for me is not a solitaire game.

And I suppose I should address the people who played it and didn’t like it who didn’t do their homework (sigh). Yes, it’s a resource gathering game where you turn some things into other things to get points. Thing is, giving it 1 out of 10 for being exactly what it sets out to be is childish. Caverna is a great example of this genre – so it’s your fault for playing a game in a genre you don’t like, not the game’s.

Caverna: Solo play

Sadly I can’t recommend Caverna as a solo experience – but it might work for you. Here, I think Agricola is king because of the random card set up at the start. Each time you play Agricola solo you have a unique set of cards to try and combine to get a great score. This makes each game different and its own challenge.

In Caverna, all the rooms are available to build in every game, taking that random element away. Some players I’m sure will be able to work out a way of doing this to limit themselves in some way, or just try to get the best score without using certain types of building etc. But having to fudge things in like this isn’t at all appealing to me.

Caverna vs Agricola: My opinion

I just wanted to tough on what I see as the key differences between the two games. Each of these I see as Caverna pluses over Agricola, but for other players this is very much the other way around – so don’t take my opinion as gospel!

In Agricola, you start the game with a number of cards you can later play that give your player tableau a unique feel. This front-loads a lot of difficult decisions and can make it feel like you’ve lost before you’ve even begun if you get a poor blend of cards – while often forcing you down a particular path for that game.

Caverna takes the functions of these card and puts them on buildings that are available for all players to buy. This means you can choose to add them as they begin to support your strategy, spreading the decision space further through the game – while also allowing competition for them to add a little more player interaction and tension.

‘Feeding your people’ is a common bugbear for Agricola haters, and with some good reason. While there are a couple of ways to do it, getting a food engine going early in Agricola is pretty much essential. While Caverna also has the need to feed, it is far less punishing in both what you can feed them (dwarves clearly have stronger stomachs than those puny humans) and how easy it is to gather resources. Feeding still feels like a burden, in a good way, but there’s a far wider range of ways to get it done.

Finally, the biggest addition in Caverna is adventuring. While just an alternative way to gather resources, it adds a very different path to victory while also creating some extra challenges in terms of your worker placement (your adventurers are marked and have to be placed last – leaving other players the chance to take the good adventuring spots before you do). It’s a small addition in terms of rules and game space, but adds some genuinely interesting decisions to an already thinky game.

Conclusion

While I can’t go into a game lightly, meaning I don’t end up playing it that often, I always thoroughly enjoy my plays if Caverna. It sits alongside Through the Ages and Terra Mystica as my favourite heavier euro games and I can’t ever see it leaving my collection.

Every game feels like a fun, puzzley challenge and while the decision space opens up a little each round in literal terms, it never feels as if it gets out of hand. For me, it is a true classic of euro games from one of modern gaming’s finest designers.

Board game Top 10: The best set collection games

Set collection is a classic and one of the most commonly utilised game mechanisms.  Thousands of games use in one version or another, from classic card (Rummy, Poker) and dice (Yahtzee, Poker Dice) games through to complex euro games.

Their origin dates back to Mahjong in the 18th or 19th Century. By the end of the 19th Century it had translated to card games, arriving in the west as Rummy; and growing and morphing incredibly since then.

As games have become more complex, so have their designers’ usage of set collection. Where once it was the core of games, now it often sits alongside other mechanisms as a means to facilitate a more complex structure. But however it is utilised, you can guarantee hundreds of new games will incorporate it every year.

I could’ve done a simple Top 10 below, but I didn’t think that would do such a venerable mechanism justice. So instead I’ve broken things down into four sections (card, family, euro and ‘other’ games), before doing my actual Top 10 taken from all those below. Yeah, I do like to go on a bit… but hopefully this will be more useful to different types of gamers (such as those just coming into the hobby).

(Note: Any links in the text are to in-depth game reviews elsewhere on this site)

My Top 5 set collection card games

Here’s five cheap and accessible simple card games (in no particular order) that are a great first step for someone who enjoys a simple set collection game. They’re all easy on theme and light on rules, so should be suitable for just about anyone.

  • Red7
    (2014, 2-4 player, 5-30 mins)
    An incredibly clever little game that messes with your brain for he first few plays, but once you ‘get’ it becomes addictive. The idea is to be winning by the end of your turn – and if you’re not, you’re out. You do this by playing one or two cards from your hand in front of you, either to obtain the current win condition or to change the condition so you are winning (or both). Each card has a number and a colour, with the colour dictating the win condition. A hand can take five minutes, so play as long as you like.
  • Battle Line (AKA Schotten Totten)
    (2000, 2 players, 30 mins)
    This classic Reina Knizia design sees two players pitched against each other, competing to win the majority of nine battles (five total, or three adjacent). Players play cards to these ‘battles’ and win them with a slight variation on brag hands (largely runs and sets) – but you can win a battle early if you can prove your opponent can’t possibly win it (as any card they’d need has already been played). This, plus some interesting action cards, elevate it beyond the typical luck/gambling games such as poker, without making it complex to learn.
  • Coloretto
    (2003, 2-5 players, 30 mins)
    This simple game has a great drafting mechanic: add a card to a row (one row per player) or take a row – so take a single card, or risk waiting for up to three. The twist: you only score in three of the seven colours, so the longer you wait the more chance your opponents have to make card sets useless to you. You can teach it in five minutes and there’s lots of luck, but it has been in print for 15 years for good reason.
  • Lost Cities
    (1999, 2 players, 30 minutes)
    This is another two-player only Knizia classic, but it plays incredibly differently to Battle Line (above). Here you’re trying to score points in 1-5 colours (your choice), but you can only lay cards of each colour in sequential order – starting with bonus cards that will multiply that score. The twist is you each colour you decide to start begins at -20 points, so you need to score at least 21 to get anything (numbers are just 1-10) – and those bonuses double your negatives if you screw up. Both players usually end up feeling the game hates them – but in a good way, honest!
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4 players, 30 mins)
    Archaeology brings a big dose of push-your-luck to the set collection card game, thanks to a clever hand management element. The basics are simple: collect sets of cards and lay them in front of you for points. However, the more of a set you get the more it is worth, so you want to keep cards in your hand – but there is the constant threat of ‘storm’ cards that force all players to discard half of their hand cards. There’s also ‘thief’ cards to add more interaction (without overdoing it), while the 2016 reprint (The New Expedition) added a little more card variety.

My Top 5 set collection family games

For many (particularly in the US and UK), family board games have been limited to Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo for decades. Thankfully, since the 1990s, there has been a growing number of games that have fixed the issues these dated titles have: here are five of the best ones that include set collection.

  • Ticket to Ride
    (2004, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I’m sure regular visitors to this site are sick of me talking-up Ticket to Ride, but the fact it has sold millions of copies and is still beloved of thousands of ‘serious’ gamers tells you all you need to know: this is a modern classic and a brilliant gateway into the wider world of modern gaming. The set collection couldn’t be simpler: getting sets of coloured (not numbered) cards to be able to lay your trains on routes on the board. But you’re doing so to complete route cards in your hand your opponents can’t see – and there are limited routes to claim to get from city to city.
  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-6 players, 60 minutes)
    Here you’ll find two types of set collection. First, you need to collect sets of four types of currency with which to buy building tiles to create your Alhambra (palace). But these buildings are also coloured; and having the largest set of a colour earns you points. Add to this a fascinating puzzle of how you put your palace tiles together and you have a cleverly thinky game which is at the same time accessible, as all of the elements are in their own way simple to grasp.
  • Ra
    (1999, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
    Knizia’s third game on the list (he does love a twist on a classic mechanism), Ra is largely an auction game in terms of in-play mechanisms – but the scoring is all about set collection. Players jostle and bid for tiles to add to their tableau throughout the game, most of which score in sets either during or at the end of the game. Everything works simply, making it simple to learn, but it’s the interaction between players and in particular knowing when to call ‘ra’ (to start an auction) that really makes the game sing.
  • Azul
    (2017, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
    In case you were thinking I’d been in a deep sleep since the early 2000s, here’s a properly ‘new’ title that has managed to find a fantastic original take on the concept of set collection. Players take it in turns to take a particular colour of tile from one of the sets available, placing the other coloured tiles from that set into the middle of the table (making a leftovers set, which you can also take from). The tiles you take must be added to your player board on one of five lines (which have 1-5 spaces in them), and each line can only contain a single colour. This can lead to massive nastiness as options diminish, but it’s an awful lot of fun.
  • Blueprints
    (2013, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
    This one flew a little under the radar, but has been a big hit with most people I’ve played with. Players take it in turns to draft dice which they put behind their screen to build up their blueprint. You can follow the pattern on this blueprint to gain points, or ignore it and go your own way – instead focusing on anything from taking lots of one colour (or number) of dice, a run of numbers, or clever ways to stack them on your blueprint to score extra points. The fun comes in trying to guess the motives of your opponents and scupper them, while also trying to fulfil your own plans: and laughing together as you all fail miserably to do either.

My Top 5 set collection euro games

This was difficult to narrow down to five, so if you’re looking in this category and want more suggestions try Castles of Burgundy (a fiddly tile-laying Feld design where everything scores points), Endeavor (sail the seas, collect tokens, control areas) and El Gaucho (collect cows to score points, with a simple gateway euro twist).

  • Terraforming Mars
    (2016, 1-5 players, 120-180 mins)
    This sprawling euro game blends almost every mechanism you can think of, but collecting cards in sets that synergise – and sets of resources to spend to terraform the planet – are two of the keys to success. This has been one of the real breakout hits of recent years and for good reason: a massive stack of unique cards make each game feel different as you each build your own tableau/engine, but the simple core of collecting drives the experience and makes the basics very easy to learn.
  • Thurn and Taxis
    (2006, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
    This could just as easily have been popped into the family section, but I feel it has a little more going on than the likes of Ticket to Ride – although it is very much powered by a simple set collection concept. You draw town cards to build routes across the map; but must add a card to your route every turn before deciding whether to lay that route on the board, adding both a push-your-luck and tactical scoring element to decisions. The game is criticised by numpties for being a bit beige, but those with the basic intelligence to see past this will find a clever and engaging game that’s way more than the sum of its parts.
  • Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
    (2012, 2-4 players, 120 mins)
    While most obviously a worker placement game, the winner will most likely be the player who most successfully collects sets of resources with which to buy scoring and bonus tiles. But the worker placement element really makes the game stand out, as the game’s turning worker cogs make it both visually and mechanically unique. And it should be noted this is a punishing game of minimal gains that is not for the weak of heart!
  • Saint Petersburg
    (2004, 2-4 players, 60 minutes)
    This classic euro game enjoyed a timely revival with a 10th anniversary second edition in 2014, but seems to have sunk without a trace once again – but needs to make it onto this list (it is still readily available second-hand and can be played online at sites such as Yucata.de). Players collect sets of nobles, craftsmen and aristocrats to gain either money (to buy more cards), points or both; and it is mastering how to walk the tightrope between balancing the two that makes the game sing. Again, some are put off by the oldy-worly artwork that is, admittedly, dry as a witch’s tit: but trust me, the gameplay comfortably overcomes it.
  • Finca
    (2009, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
    Unfortunately Finca shares many traits with Saint Petersburgh: a classic and well-loved German euro game from publisher Hans Im Gluck that fell out of print. However, a successful 2018 Kickstarter should see it back in the shops (at least for a while) later this year (and again, you can play it on Yucata if you want to give it a go). What makes the game stand out is its central rondel that each player’s pieces move around in a mancala-type fashion. But you’re doing this to collect sets of fruit which are in turn used to deliver sets for victory points. I’ve only played online, but am looking forward to it being back in print.

Other great set collection games

I had several other games I didn’t want to leave out, so here they are…

  • Forbidden Desert/Forbidden Island/ Pandemic
    (2008-2013, 2-4 players, 30-60 mins)
    I’m not mad keen on co-operative games, where players win collectively rather than individually, but they’re hugely popular – and set collection is often a key part of the mechanics. Easily the most popular series (and for good reason) are these three games from designer Matt Leacock – with Pandemic having seen its own slew of newer versions. But across them all, the premise is the same: collect sets of cards to stop disasters happening, while at the same time holding back the triggers which will set off those disasters. Forbidden Island is probably the easiest starting point, with children as young as eight usually able to take part.
  • Onirim
    (2010, 1 player, 30 mins)
    Another area I rarely talk about is solo gaming – another rich area for set collection games. Onirim is a great example, being a small box fast playing card game that pits a single player against the game (there is a co-op two-player version, but I wouldn’t bother). You need to collect and play three cards of the same type in a row to obtain door cards, but you’re constantly coming up against nightmares that force you to burn cards from the deck, reducing your chance of success. The game has a unique and strangely compelling art style and universe and has become one of the most popular solo games on the market. (Note: Both Terraforming Mars (above) and Ex Libris (below) have good solo variants.)
  • Sushi Go!
    (2013, 2-5 players, 15-30 mins)
    to make it three in a row, another area I’m a bit crap on is children’s games – but Sushi go has been a huge hit in both the family and children’s games markets. Its card drafting taken to its most basic level, as you draft cards to make sets that score points in various ways. It’s super simple and a great way to teach kids or new gamers the various ways more complex games reward you with points, while playing fast – and the super cute artwork is a big help too.
  • Monopoly Deal
    (2008, 2-5 players, 15-30 minutes)
    It’s hard to believe I’m listing a Monopoly game here, but here it is. I like this because it distils what made Monopoly a potentially great game (set collection, luck, plus loads of take that and screwage) while reducing it into a game that takes a fraction of the time – and is set up with the simple shuffle of the card deck. It is also easily available and less than £10, so it can be a great way to help your non-gamer friends save themselves from playing its dreadful big brother. Trust me, they’ll thank you and who knows – maybe they’ll come back to you for some recommendations for other games…
  • Ex Libris
    (2017, 1-4 players, 60 mins)
    I’ve only played this one once, so didn’t feel it had enough to muscle onto one of the earlier lists – but its little original twists made it impossible to leave out. From the beautifully realised fantasy library theme to the gorgeous artwork, it’s a joy to look at. But the gameplay is clever too: you’re collecting sets of books to score points, but the cards you’re adding to your shelves have several books on each (so you may be getting colours you don’t want too) – but worse, you have to order them alphabetically by book title. This puzzley element really makes it shine, while a small worker placement/special powers element also ensures replayability – but it always remains simple to teach.

My actual Top 10 set collection games…

I may order these differently in a different list, but here I’m putting the most stock into their set collection elements and how much they make the game greater than its other parts.

  1. Thurn and Taxis: The combination of route building and set collection in real terms is magnificent, while the game is the perfect length (an hour) and has multiple routes to victory in what is a very tight package.
  2. Archaeology – The Card Game: This would be a rather ‘meh’ set collection game if you took out those sandstorms, but the tension they add transform it into a brilliant push-your-luck card game in a small box.
  3. Azul: This may be new game hotness speaking, but my few plays of this to date have shown a depth of both strategy and tactics that re rare in any game – and especially a set collection abstract one. Mean and clever, but simple and elegant.
  4. Alhambra: This sits higher than it might on the list by mixing two types of set collection in one game, each of which could make its own game. The currency collection is ingenious; and the tile laying and scoring equally so.
  5. Coloretto: Everything here is about the set collection – and this simple core makes the choice of whether to take cards or add one to a set all the more delicious. There’s no distractions here, just tough decisions in a simple rule set.
  6. Finca: Mancalas and rondels make any game better in my eyes, so to combine the two is to play directly into my heart. There’s enough to think about there, so a good game designer leaves the rest simple – and set collection ticks that box.
  7. Ticket to Ride: The king of family games, the king of gateway games, and a great set collection game – but not the best. Here it’s a very simple means to a brilliant end for a game that hinges on blocking and secret route building.
  8. Ra: Much as with Ticket to Ride, the real game here is the wonderful auction system and its push-your-luck elements – wit the set collection being the best way to tie those together with an effective scoring system.
  9. Monopoly Deal: Every time I play – win or lose – this makes me laugh. Sure, it’s more likely to be luck than good play that decides the outcome. But in a short filler you can teach anyone, play and pack up all in 30 minutes, who cares?
  10. Blueprints: Dice drafting is a great mechanism, hidden tableaus create great table dynamics, and multiple ways to score the sets you’re creating add extra intrigue. Packaged and themed differently, this could’ve been a huge hit.

Cardboard time machine: My 2008 in life and board games

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2008, I started to get back into gaming. So what better reason to start an annual post looking back over my years in the hobby?

I’d loved the usual stuff in my youth (cards, Cluedo etc), had a nerdy phase in my teens (D&D, Warhammer 40K, Blood Bowl), then dabbled with the Magic and Wyvern TCGs in the mid 90s – but 2008 was definitely the real turning point.

The year turned out to be a crazy one. I was working for a small magazine publisher in Farringdon while starting to have discussions about moving in with my then girlfriend of two years. We decided on Watford and the planning began. We had music in common (we were mad keen gig goers), but what else did we have in common? I was creative, she was a numbers person. Our TV habits differed. What were we going to do with all this new ‘us’ time?

Two of her most prized possessions were lovely old wooden versions of Mancala and Nine Men’s Morris. We’d played both a few times (she thrashed me), but they hadn’t quite scratched my gaming itch – but it did mean we both liked games, in theory. Maybe there were some other games out there that were abstract, so she’d like them, but a bit more modern so that I might better get into them too…

My game plays in 2008

I didn’t discover Board Game Geek until around October time, while I introduced my two new purchases to our new home in November. I certainly wasn’t an expert in BGG Fu at that stage, but I did log my plays.

In the last couple of months of the year we managed a very healthy 10 plays of Ingenious (2004) and four of Blokus Duo (2005). They were high street games at the time (I got them both in John Lewis) and they wen’t down really well.

Maybe it’s because they were the first games that got me back into the hobby, or maybe they’re simply great games (the latter mainly, I think), but both are still in my collection and have easily stood the test of time. My current girlfriend also loves both games, while Blokus Duo has become a favourite for one of her daughters too. Blokus is a less regular choice for me (I have 28 total plays over the 10 years), but Ingenious is still a favourite (53 plays and counting).

My hindsight Top 10 Games of 2008

Unbeknownst to me at the time, 2008 shaped up to be a pretty good year in board gaming for new releases: five BGG Top 100 games amongst a slew of still popular titles. But my top 10 would be:

  1. Dominion: The original and still best deck-builder.
  2. Dixit: Unique imagination and word game with beautiful art.
  3. Nefertiti: Clever tactical push-your-luck dice game.
  4. Stone Age: A great euro game for new players in the hobby.
  5. Pandemic: The classic and clever co-operative game.
  6. Uruk: Fantastic civ-building card game in a small box.
  7. Metropolys: A clever and thinky abstract game.
  8. The Climbers: A great competitive puzzle using gorgeous wooden pieces.
  9. Fauna: A general knowledge game done right.
  10. Crossboule: A fun outdoor dexterity game played with hacky sacks.

Honourable mentions go to thoroughly enjoyable racing game Formula D, and the quick, fun, take-that card game Monopoly Deal. Of this list though, only Dominion, Dixit, Nefertiti and Uruk are in my collection (along with Monopoly Deal). Stone Age and Pandemic were once but played themselves out, while the rest I’d always be happy to play but they’ve never entered my collection.

The year’s end

Much like Blokus and Ingenious, I’m happy to say that girlfriend is still a treasured old friend and we still regularly stay in touch. But December 2008 was when all the crazy happened. Much like a classic blues song I lost my girl, my house and my job (through redundancy) all at once – but a new chapter of my life started just a few weeks later in a different city, with a new job and (not too long afterwards) a new young lady friend. See you in 2009…

Maori: A four-sided game review

Maori is a tile-laying family game which can be lazily grouped with its more famous cousin Carcassonne – but in truth Günter Burkhardt’s design is quite a different beast. A game only takes about 45 minutes and it works well at all of its player counts, from 2-5 players.

Released in 2009 the game is (at time of writing) currently out of print, but easily available – usually reasonably priced at below £30 – on the secondhand market. It’s a relatively light game in terms of rules, suitable for ages 8+, but a host of variants (included in the rules) create a more challenging experience for hardened players.

While you shouldn’t expect a thematic experience (this is very much an abstract game, in a similar way to Carcassonne, but set in Polynesia) you can expect lovely art from Harald Lieske and Michael Menzel that make the game look great on the table (it has 97 quality cardboard tiles, five double-sided player boards and 36 wooden pieces).

Teaching Maori

In a basic game of Maori, each player has a board with 16 spaces for tiles. Once one player has filled their board, the round ends and the game is scored.

In the centre of the table is a 4×4 grid of face up, randomly drawn tiles. A boat piece is placed on the edge of the grid next to one of tiles.

On a player’s turn they move the boat a number of spaces and then (usually) take a tile, placing it on their player board. The maximum amount of spaces you can move is dictated by the number of ships on your board (you start with two), but this number can be boosted by spending shells (you start with five). You take the tile you finish next to – or you can also spend shells to take a tile further into the grid from your position.

The tile you take needs to match exactly when you place it on your board; and unlike a game such as Carcassonne, most of the more useful tiles (that will give you points or shells) need to be placed the right way up (any shells are taken immediately). In the latter stages of the game you may come unstuck, being unable to use the tiles you can get to. In this case you still have to move the boat, but can do a less efficient action such as placing a tile in your reserve for later use, or ditch one already on your board.

At the end of the game, any unfinished islands on your board are removed – and you then lose one point per empty space on your board. Completed islands score one point per tree on them, or two per tree if they also include a hut. Completed leis (the flower circles) score 10 points (these are the only things in the game that don’t need to match up when placing tiles), while there are bonus points for the players who have the most shells left and the most boats on their tiles.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Maori was part of a golden era for lighter euro games, but sadly for many newer gamers it and many others have been lost in time. There’s real design elegance here, and loads of interesting choices, in a game that lasts well under an hour. Simple to teach, easy to pick up and good to look at, but with layers of hidden depth to challenge even the smartest gamer. A true classic that, for me, blows Carcassonne out of the water by being tighter and more interesting.
  • The thinker: I soon tired of the base game, but that is just the beginning of what Maori has to offer. Each player can optionally take another ship, this time used on their player board. After they place their first tile this ship is put on it, and subsequent tiles laid must be in a square adjacent to it. There are two options: the player can move the ship as they choose at the end of their turn, or for a harder option they have to place it on the tile just taken. Both offer a much stiffer challenge, while really opening up opportunities for other players to leave you in bad positions for tile selection. The player boards are also double-sided, with a more challenging larger board on the reverse.
  • The trasher: While Maori may look like an innocent euro, much like Carcassonne there are some key ways to screw with your opponents. Especially with two players you can try to control the board, limiting your opponent’s ability to get the pieces they need – or starving them of shells and ships. There are also several volcano tiles, which you can’t use shells to take tiles beyond. If these come out (you can of course make sure you have them in the initial set up, if you want to) they add an extra wrinkle, and tactical element, in terms of the main tile grid.
  • The dabbler: While I prefer the simplest version of the game (the others fry my brain!), I do love the look, simplicity and length of Maori: the colours are so vibrant. I tend to play it quite friendly, not worrying too much about what the next player is going to pick up. Especially with four players, it feels hard to really plan ahead as the boat will have moved so far before your next go – but if the player to your right is mean, you can have a really rough time playing this one! As always, you just need to play with the right people.

Key observations

With a Board Game Geek rating of 6.6 and a ranking of 1,665 (at the time of writing), it’s clear not everyone is as excited about Maori as I am – but I think it’s fair to say average scores have become more generous in recent years (so older games, ranked earlier, suffer).

Some have listed luck as being a problem with the game, some even saying it is worse than Carcassonne in this respect. I can only imagine the majority of these opinions were made after a single play, as a good player will beat a poor one in almost every game of Maori – that’s not luck. As in all good games, here you very much make your own. Sure, sometimes you’ll have a bad game and someone else a lucky one, but this is a 30 minute tile-layer. Surely that’s par for the course?

Some also bemoan the limited variety in tiles, and the lack of flexibility in what you can do with them. While I guess this is a valid complaint from those who like a million options, it is missing the beauty here: the constraints are all part of what is a clever puzzle of a game. You only want so much to think about – it’s not an engine-builder.

Finally, there are several complaints about a poor set of tiles in the 4×4 grid leading to boring decisions and, consequently, a poor experience. I can honestly say I haven’t seen this happen often, and when it does it tends to be a phase of the game – not for the whole thing. And while yes, it can be frustrating, it’s just a different problem to deal with: I’d be surprised if, over several games, many saw this as a deal-breaker – and it’s sad if, on a one-ff play, this had put some people off playing it further.

Conclusion

I first learnt to play Maori back in 2011 and have been enjoying the game (both on the table and online at Yucata) ever since. I always find it a solid hit with more casual gamers, while several of my most gamery friends also list in their favourites lists.

It proved to be one of the first games my partner Sarah fell for, giving it a new lease of life on our table last year, but it has been on my Top 5 games lists since I started them in 2014: so I figured I should get around to giving it the love it deserves. It’s one of those simple, smart games I can never see myself getting rid of and that I’m always happy to play if requested – while often turning to it for newer gamers as well.

Books wot I red: How to be an Alien, Rivers of London & Dark Cargo

Welcome to one of my rare book review posts. Once again (rather pitifully) I have just about managed to read three books in a year, but I wanted to write a few things about them as they’re all good reads.

In 2016 I became friends with Anita, writer of the Books and Soul blog and a Hungarian trying to start a more permanent future in the UK. While we’ve lost contact a little in recent times, I remembered her recommendation of How to be an Alien by George Mikes (which I’d enjoyed reading a few pages of) – and was recently given it for my birthday.

This is a very short read (less than 100 pages with a lot of illustrations) but it’s a wonderfully humorous historical document of how a Hungarian found the British when he moved to England in. It was first published in 1946, but the comparisons to the modern day are frighteningly accurate and relevant.

You know you’re on solid ground in the preface: “Some years ago, I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me – to my great surprise – whether I would marry her. “No,” I replied, “I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.” She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, and retorted: “I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.””

You’ll find out all about tea, the weather, the art of understatement and of course the joys of compromise: “Bargaining is a repulsive habit; compromise is one of the highest human virtues – the difference between the two being that the first is practised on the Continent, the latter in Great Britain.” I’m not sure how many of these stereotypes this book started, if any, but it is a wonderful exploration of the British ‘condition’.

After four weeks at No.1 on the ‘What’s next on the list?’ hit parade (see below), I finally got to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. It was big on my radar as it ticked so many of my top book boxes: a slightly comedic police drama, set in the present day, based in London and with a bit of an other-wordly twist.

I very much enjoyed the premise here: a London bobby who thinks he’s normal, but that can see ghosts – which sees him enlisted as the police’s first apprentice wizard in years. Yup, magic is returning to London and it’s up to our hero, PC Peter Grant, to step up and put a stop to it.

Much like the first of the Bryant and May novels, ‘Rivers of London’ has the problem many first-in-series books has: trying to balance the story with giving you a solid backstory and introducing you to both long-term and short-term characters. Aaronovitch just about gets away with it, with the yarn ripping along at a fair old pace. That said, the characters themselves seemed a little predictable and cliched, while the ‘set piece to set piece’ flow jarred with me a little more than I’d expect for what is a very solid and standard way of storytelling.

That said, I’ll definitely look out for the next book in the series (‘Moon Over Soho’) as I read enough good stuff here to make me want to give the series at least one more chance to become a favourite. Having read a lot of books in this vein (police, London, mystical), I think it’s simply becoming harder to impress me and stand out.

Not content with knocking off my number one read, I followed that with reading the novel that had been in second spot: Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. I should preface this by saying Andy is a mate, but if I hadn’t enjoyed it I simply wouldn’t have written about it here. The novel is self-published through Amazon and available both in paperback and Kindle form.

I’m not sure if mystical pirate fantasy is a big genre, but that’s what we have here: a 17th Century pirate crew gets in above their heads with a powerful Caribbean spirit who makes it his business to take revenge on them for capturing him.

If you like historical nautical novels there’s an admirable level of detail here, which draws deeply from the rich history of the region. But (unsurprisingly) it was the mysticism and voodoo elements that really drew me in. It’s something I know nothing about, but found fascinating – but it never bogs the story down. Behind the ships and sorcery there’s a fast evolving plot with all the twists and turns you’ll need from an action adventure story.

Much as in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, Rice has no problem dispensing with leading characters when you least expect it – so don’t get too attached! But its certainly not a problem, as life was short and brutal in piracy’s golden age. My only complaint was the prose were a little overwrought for my taste, but that’s a ‘me’ thing – and I have no experience of reading historical nautical novels. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it if it sounds like your kind of thing – or if you fancy something a bit out of the ordinary: a great yarn with some genuinely original ideas.

What’s next on the list?

Having knocked off numbers one and two of the list this time around, I can see the new number one disappearing off the list fast too, but what will be joining it? Very possibly a few of this lot – and even more possibly a whole bunch of Fowler’s Bryant & May books (as I’m falling behind!). It’s embarrassing he is writing them faster than I read them…

  1. London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler. New entry! Bryant and May are back for another instalment – so of course go straight into the number one ‘must read’ spot. It’ll be interesting to see where they can go after the somewhat doom-laden conclusion of the last book – but as three more books have already followed this one, something must be happening! Time to catch up…
  2. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Second time on the list. Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  3. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Second time on the list. A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.
  4. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Second time on the list. Having recently been reading about the Cold War, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  5. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. New entry! Hard to believe I’ve never actually read this, despite it sitting on my shelves for years – and me having done a degree covering sociology! While I understand what Marxism and communism are, it’s time I read the true source material.

Con report: UK Games Expo 2018

This year I was at UK Games Expo for two hours, from 2pm on Sunday until it closed; and then all evening and the following morning, catching up with designers and publishers.

I’ll start by telling you why I was only at UKGE for two hours – and then I’ll tell you (spoiler alert) why I intend to be there a lot longer next year.

Month by month since the last Expo I slowly lost interest in going. As I mentioned in last year’s Con Report I’d been hugely unimpressed with the Hilton Metropole, where a large chunk of the convention happened. I’d also consistently looked at hotels near the NEC and all were ridiculously expensive, while options to travel by public transport in and out are really poor if you want to stay late into the evening (as trains stop early and taxis are extortionate).

To make things worse, on several occasions during last year’s event I had been unable to find a table to play games on – one of the fundamental reasons to go in the first place. Add to this ridiculous pricing and rude staff in the hotel (the Expo staff, by contrast, were great) and it just didn’t add up.

The final straw was, in a question to organisers about any possible solutions to the seating problems, I received a short (frankly rude) reply telling me UKGE had more open gaming than either Essen (irrelevant, as it isn’t an open gaming event) or SorCon (which has around a 10th of the attendance, so in essence had way more gaming space ‘per gamer’ – the important number). Well fuck them then, I thought. I won’t go.

So why did you turn up then, smart arse?

As Expo 2018 neared, it started to become apparent I had other reasons to be there.

After being told Pioneer Days wouldn’t be there, a late deal was struck to get it on demo table all weekend on a retailer’s stand. I was then told my most recent design, Witless Wizards, would be there to demo ahead of its late June Kickstarter campaign (until June 28 – all support appreciated!) – and that a meeting on a co-design with David Thompson, Europe Divided, was also scheduled. Oh my…

While all this was brilliant, I now had a ticket for Camden Rocks in London on the Saturday – and it wasn’t as if the hotel problems had gone away. But a quick Google showed that – surprise surprise – hotels for the Sunday night (after Expo had finished) were less than half the price of the night before. How do they make their money…? Anyway, a Sunday/Monday trip was born.

Which was great in theory. Unfortunately, getting trains across country (between East Anglia and the Midlands) just isn’t the done thing on a Sunday morning. If you want to travel before about midday you instead have to go via London – for twice (literally) the price. The earliest I was going to arrive was 1.15 – but with the inevitable delays that turned into 2pm. But hey, better late than never right?

My (brief) UK Games Expo 2018

What became immediately apparent was the area used inside the NEC had massively grown, while also being more practically laid out. This also meant less time had to be spent in the Hilton, so double bonus. I know people who didn’t go to the Hilton at all.

There had been a big jump in tier one publishers the previous year and while this didn’t seem to have gone up much, if at all, you could tell some of them were taking it more seriously. The main hall really felt like a proper, large, professional gaming con – it wouldn’t have been out of place at Essen.

While food and drink were a little expensive in the halls, that’s to be expected – and it wasn’t extortionate. Plus you could bring your own, so it’s your fault if you didn’t prepare (Unlike the Hilton, where you weren’t meant to bring your own stuff). Also, the likes of a Wetherspoons, a Subway (ick) and some other food places were a short walk away.

But most importantly for me, the open gaming areas were big enough. It’s the first year when the organisers seem to have looked two years ahead rather than one and not only made enough space, but had extra to spare too. I don’t know if this was due to a smaller rise in numbers this year, or deliberate planning, but the key was I didn’t hear a single complaint about not finding somewhere to game, even at its busiest.

Looking forward to UKGE 2019

Where previously views have been mixed, I couldn’t find anyone complaining about the show this year – which is quite remarkable, as I know some pretty miserable, sour individuals!

Open and family gaming areas were praised, as were staff, while the layout also met with approval. It looks as if next year they’ll be able to start planning from solid ground, rather than in the past always trying to play catch-up.

Personally, my saddest issue is not with the con itself but with UK gamers (sorry everyone!): as more of a euro gamer, you definitely get the feeling walking around that the majority of interest was in miniature games and CCGs. I guess its par for the course for us to go down the same route as the Americans, but I was hoping for once we might show our euro side (I blame Brexit. And Thatcher). But the event has definitely won me back over.

Hotels are still a problem, of course: I can’t see myself staying the full weekend unless I win the lottery. But we’ll see. One thing’s for sure though – I’ll see you at Expo next year.

Thurn and Taxis: A four-sided game review

Thurn and Taxis is a family board game for two to four players aged 10 and up, that takes around an hour to play. It cleverly combines hand management and route building, seeing it win the coveted Spiel de Jahres (German Game of the Year) Award in 2006.

This is very typical of games coming out of Germany at the time and thus often divides opinion: the game’s ‘theme’, which is very thinly pasted on, covers the establishment of German postal routes across Bavaria and beyond in the 17th Century – not one to get the heart racing!

The brown of the box continues inside, with many of the components sporting ‘the beige, with more beige’ colour scheme derided by some (particularly in the US); but if you can see past the colour scheme, the artwork and graphic design and clear and simple. In the box you’ll find a beautiful (if very beige) board, 86 small (Ticket to Ride sized) cards, 80 small wooden post offices, 20 cardboard chits and four cardboard player aids. You can still easily find the game for around £30 new (or £20 second hand), which is cheap by today’s standards.

Teaching

Thurn and Taxis is in the same family as Ticket to Ride, Catan and Carcassonne: classic German games you can pretty much teach anyone, as they have familiar and simple rules – but that also enough depth to hold the attention of more experienced gamers.

The board has 22 locations and each player starts with 20 post offices they will try and place on them (so you can’t complete them all). You’ll lose a point for each unplaced office at the end of the game, while each city falls into a region – and completing these regions will score you some bonus points (decreasing for players completing them after the first). There’s an additional bonus for placing in all the different coloured regions.

Each location has three identical city cards (so a 66-card deck). Six of these are visible at any time (think Ticket to Ride), or you can draw blind from the top of the stack. What really makes the game sing is the order in which a turn is structured: draw a card; play a card to your tableau to continue your route, then choose whether to complete your current route (by using all the cards in your tableau).

All the cities are linked to at least one other (up to seven) by roads. Any card you play into your tableau (after the first) must continue the route you start in either one direction or the other – but you can only add to the two ends. This means that, if you didn’t have a card in hand at the start of your turn you can add – and if you get unlucky with your card draws – you may have to discard your route and start again.

You can only lay a route once you have three cards in your tableau, but waiting longer gives you point bonuses (a seven-city route is very lucrative). When you turn in your route you can place an office in any towns you don’t yet have one, but you can only place either in one colour (so ,for example, four grey cities), or only of each colour (so a grey, a blue, a red etc). Regardless of the amount of cities you place, all the cards in your tableau are discarded and you’ll start a fresh route next turn.

When you complete your first three-card route, you receive a bonus carriage (worth two points). If you later complete a four-card route, it will be replaced with a three-point bonus and so on – right up to a 10 point bonus for completing a seven-city route (having also done a five and a six – you can’t skip these bonus levels). If someone claims their 10-point bonus, this also ends the game (as does someone placing all of their offices), so you have two routes to victory. Finish the round, most points wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While many disagree, this is one of my favourite Spiel de Jahres winners (just behind Ticket to Ride). It’s a very simple game to teach, can be played by players of all abilities, and has enough luck in it to turn up some surprise results. But at the same time, an experienced player will begin to find more strategic and tactical depth that should, in the long run, give them an advantage over time. Despite being well over 10 years old now the game is still in print too – not something some of the other previous winners can claim. For me, that is for one simple reason: it has easily stood the test of time.
  • The thinker: While Thurn and Taxis ha a lot of luck in terms of the random draws, with a deck of just 66 cars it is quite easy for a player with good memory to follow certain cities and to know the chances of what you need coming out soon. You can also play safer by playing slower, but this of course opens you up to defeat by more reckless (and of course lucky!) players. The two ways to win can also make for interesting pacing, as a player rushing to victory via completing the bonus carriages can devastate those playing the long game – but not every time, as the slow player can collect some large bonuses too. A very good tactical game.
  • The trasher: Each turn you can use one of four officials as a bonus action: take two cards instead of one; play two cards into your tableau instead of one; refresh the six visible city cards, or get a bonus carriage even if you’re up to two cards short of the amount you need (when you complete it at the end of the turn). This makes every round really tactical, while also giving you a better chance of flying by the seat of your pants if you want to push your luck to get that exact card you need. But you can also clear the decks if there’s a card there you’re pretty sure the next player is going to need!
  • The dabbler: I wasn’t wowed by the beige and typically German box cover of Thurn and Taxis, but at least the lady on the front is smiling: a fair reflection of what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable, if themeless and bland looking family game. You have to wonder a how a re-themed version in space, or a board that pops a little and some nice plastic pieces (a la Ticket to Ride) may liven things up a bit – but really, who cares? It’s a simple teach, easy set up and plays fast – yet every turn you have genuine decisions to make. Against the odds on first viewing, this is now right up there on my list of favourite games.

Key observations

Even Thurn and Taxis detractors don’t claim it is a bad design, but you see phrases such as ‘puzzle’, ‘optimising’, ‘themeless’, ‘abstract’ and ‘low/no interaction’ in the same sentences as those branding it ‘boring’. As I often say to this kind of criticism, you’re not judging the game, you’re judging your tastes.

No, it isn’t for everyone – only family gamers who like a thoughtful euro element need apply. And I do feel, more than any other game, it suffers for its similarities (and closeness of release) to the behemoth that is Ticket to Ride. Interestingly people almost equally describe it as both TtR+ and TtR Lite, which probably just proves that while the games share similar basic components they are actually very different beasts. Generally though, I would definitely suggest trying the other: but I find the experience they bring very different. They share a similar level of luck and planning, but TtR is much more combative and obviously interactive.

Speaking of luck, while Thurn and Taxis definitely has it, an experienced player who reads the deck will tell you that there’s much less luck here than in Ticket to Ride. I’ve had games of Ticket to Ride where I know I’ve lost due to a colour simply not coming my way, or because of accidental blocking; where in Thurn and Taxis it will be because I’ve taken a risk and it hasn’t paid off – or someone else has simply played better than me. Again, this is either going to appeal to your or not.

Finally, despite it having some seriously harsh detractors giving the game more than the average very low scores at Board Game Geek, the game is still ranked well inside the Top 100 family games and inside the top 350 games overall.

Conclusion

Thurn and Taxis could well be the most euro-ey euro of them all, while also being the more euro and worse looking cousin of one of the most celebrated games in the hobby (Ticket to Ride): neither of which enamour it to many modern gamers. But for thoughtful family and light euro gamers this is a genuine classic you should definitely try.

While I have quite deliberately not played it to death (once per month feels about right for the base game), this has become one of favourite family games. But it also has two expansions which add a little extra to the mix, so if it does become a favourite there are options to add a little variety too. Highly recommended.

A board game designing diary: Witless Wizards

I’ve always enjoyed the ‘I split, you choose’ board game mechanism: one player divides a group of items into smaller sets, but the other players then get to choose one of these sets first.

Its a fabulous and underused concept most famously employed in classic San Marco and more simply in New York Slice (formerly Piece ‘o Cake) – with games such as Coloretto, Isle of Sky, Castles of Man King Ludwig and Biblios using a take on the system in their mechanics.

Of these, I found Biblios most fascinating. One player takes as many cards as there are players (plus one) and allocates one to each player. They give one card to each player and one is put on an auction pile for later – but what makes the decision delicious is that you only see one card at a time, so have to allocate them as they come out – adding a big ‘push your luck’ element to the game (another mechanism I really like).

But while I enjoyed my first few plays of Biblios, this is only about half the game – and I didn’t find the other half very compelling. This drafting is followed by an auction phase which just doesn’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great and well respected game, but the overall package just wasn’t for me. So, as you do when you’re a budding game designer, I set out to try and make something that was.

The first draft (ho ho)

I made the first (absolutely beautiful) cards for the game in December 2013, with the intention of making a very small two-player micro game (hey – they were cool at the time!).

The basic mechanical ideas for the game were already in place and haven’t changed since: player 1 draws a card and either assigns it to themselves or their opponent. The next card will go to the other player – but on either pick the player could spend energy (generated by some cards at the end of each round) to draw one extra card, giving them more of a choice.

After drafting, the drafter would attack their opponent: wounds vs defence, plus a (1-3) dice roll. This would go back and forth, until one player had lost all of their 25 health – and the game was over. A simple use of the excellent Biblios mechanism in a smaller, faster, nastier and sillier little battle game.

For first testing I created a 14-card deck: it was to be a 16-card game for Brett Gilbert’s Good Little Games website, with the other two cards being scoring/health card. There were eight weapons and six armours. Each player could have one of each, and could never refuse a card drafted – any new card discarded the old one. Weapon strength ranged from 2-8, armour 1-6, to ensure players would always be going downhill health-wise – although energy could also be spent to heal at the end of your turn.

I dubbed the game War!Drobe (a title which, pretty unbelievably, would be taken by another game in the following years). The theme was simple: two wizards powering an automaton each, which they were manipulating through time and space into odd fighting machines. Half the cards were medieval, the other half sci-fi.

The first hurdles

Having damage and defence on every card was quickly dropped, as it was a pain to add up each time while offering nothing of real worth to the game. At the same time, two card slots and just 14 cards made for very little replayability – and every time I played, I was thinking of (and being given by opponents) great ideas for new cards.

I made the decision to go to three slots: one weapon, one armour, and one ‘enhancement’ – an idea I’d toyed with as an extra list of things you could do on your turn with energy, but which had proved unwieldy in practice. As cards though, it really helped to add loads of cool special powers.

I also abandoned the idea of this being a pure micro game: there were way too many fun ideas to play with, and ideas for extra sets of cards. But what about a micro game that came in two-set decks? The first could be Medieval and Sci-Fi, but you could also buy Ninjas and Buckaneers, or Crusaders and Magicians.

I moved to eight-card decks, each of which had three weapons, three armours and two enhancements – and each of which had mechanisms I tried to fit to theme (magicians gained and used more energy, sci-fi items did big damage, crusaders healed well etc).

Testing testing testing…

Other mechanical issues included game duration, deck size and card balance. Health dropped to 20 (or a 12-point short game) to stop it overstaying its welcome, while I settled on a three-deck (so 24-card) standard game, or two-deck tactical game where you’d have a much better idea of what was coming.

I also moved away from any thoughts of a micro game as the general gaming population quickly fell out of love with the format (as sales of Empire Engine will sadly testify!). This freed me up to add ‘concentration cubes’ (to replace an energy track), a custom dice for damage and player sheets to keep your cards on.

Card balance was an interesting one. In theory it didn’t matter at all, as it was a shared deck of cards. But many small issues developed in terms of decks clashing with each other in annoying ways. Some deck combinations would lead to way too many concentration cubes, or too few; some would see very slow damage, others ridiculously fast wins. It took a lot of combo plays to ensure they all fell into an acceptable (but still very random and fun) range of results over any given game.

The final big change to the system was to do with healing. It was slowing the game down a little to much and adding an extra decision point to every round that felt unnecessary in many situations. I solved this by making healing a last-gasp desperate act you could only call upon if you had five health or less left at the end of your turn. Having this as a late game decision added a bit of an extra arc to the game too.

The publisher problem

I took the game to Essen in 2015 to show it to publishers. While several found the concept intriguing and enjoyed their play, it soon became clear that the bigger publishers really weren’t looking for a two-player game – while its look wasn’t going to help win anyone over.

The look was perfectly playable, but it didn’t help convey the playful feel of the game. This hadn’t been an issue with other games I’d demoed as they were more ‘euro’, so especially the German publishers were used to seeing that kind of prototype. This time, though, I needed to up my game.

First, I went away and made rules for first a three and then a four-player variant. It was surprisingly easy to up the number of players – a good lesson for anyone who gets stuck in a rut of their idea of their game. Taking on other ideas while occasionally taking a big step back from your game can be hugely useful.

I thought about better ways to present the game, and came up with the idea of locking the cards together to make a picture of the automaton. I didn’t make the whole game into cards in this way, instead doing some example cards to show a publisher how it might look finished.

I hoped this would fire the imagination, without me having to spend an awful lot of time and energy, or money, creating a bunch of art that would probably never be used. I settled on making it of the actual wizard instead, simplifying the theme a little too.

I found some artwork online which luckily depicted a wizard, a ninja and a viking in exactly the same style – three of the themes I’d chosen for card decks. I feel they got the idea across image-wise, without me having to do too much extra. A talented graphic design friend at work (thanks Simos!) helped me with the layout and I was ready for round two of facing publishers, this time at UK Games Expo in 2016. (Sorry, I would have linked to these great images, but I can’t re-find them on Google :/).

War!Drobe finds a home – as Witless Wizards

Unfortunately UKGE wasn’t the best place to meet publishers. While many good companies had stands there, their decision makers were very rarely in attendance (with so notable exceptions). However, a really productive meeting with LudiCreations saw head honcho Iraklis suggest I contact his friends at Drawlabs.

We met up at Essen 2016 and the deal was done. After a frustrating 2017 (for both of us) when progress stalled due to reasons beyond our control, Drawlabs really got into top gear this year. Asterman Studio were brought on to do the art and have done a magnificent job.

Drawlabs also made some changes to the rules, simplifying a few things but largely keeping the original game intact. They also changed the theme slightly, for the better I think, while we worked together to add a lot of humour to the card titles. A close to finished version of the game was demoed at UK Games Expo 2018 and it hit Kickstarter a couple of weeks later: a five-year process that was so worth the wait.

And so the Kickstarter campaign begins…

If you’d like to back the game to help it become a reality, or just find out more, head over to the Witless Wizards Kickstarter campaign before June 28. Pledges start from just £14 for the game, which you’ll get later in the year.

You’ll find loads more artwork there, as well as a link to a rough copy of the rulebook – plus a link to a playable version of the game on Tabletopia. I’m finding the Kickstarter process incredibly stressful, at a time of my life when I’m incredibly stressed anyway, but it is at least a weirdly welcome distraction. But if it sees my first solo design become a reality, it will have been worth it.

So that’s that: how a design concept introduced by the excellent Steve Finn was adapted from a serious hand management auction game into a humorous take-that fighting fantasy game. Any questions, please ask away in the comments below.

My first solo design, Witless Wizards – now live on Kickstarter!

I’ve been designing games for a few years now, which has been a great experience, especially as all the games I’ve had published to date have been collaborations with friends. But this time, I’d really appreciate your help!

The other thing my previous games had in common is the publishers haven’t used Kickstarter to help fund the projects. For those who don’t know, Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform where the public get to be part of the production process by paying for a copy in advance, backing the success of the game up front as individual investors.

You can guess the rest: yes, my first ‘all me’ designed game (terrifying enough) is also now my first crowdfunded game on Kickstarter. Gulp. And you can back it now!

The game is called Witless Wizards. It’s a light, humorous family card game for two to four players that only takes 10-20 minutes to play. It’s a battle game, where each of you plays a wizard trying to defeat the others in a competition. And it’s only about £20.

You draw cards and play them either on yourself or your opponents: the twist is, if you put the first card on yourself an opponent will get the next one (or vice versa) – but you won’t know what that will be until after you decide. There’s more strategy than that, but hopefully you get the rough idea. And there are multiple card sets used as the wizards travel through time to get an advantage – from sci-fi to crusaders to ninjas to pirates…

Anyway, I’d be pumped if any of you backed the Kickstarter and helped the game become a reality. Even if you don’t want, or can’t afford, to back it – I’d also be pumped if you could share the link. Anything like that will also be a big help. And if you have any questions at all that aren’t answered on the Witless Wizards Kickstarter page, please ask away. Cheers!