Noria: A four-sided game review

Noria* is an innovative action selection rondel (or “wheel building”) game from Spiel de Jahres fellowship designer Sophia Wagner. It’s definitely a gamer’s game, with an age range suggestion of 12+.

It will take one to four players one to two hours to play, with more players adding to the time; but it’s a pretty thinky game, so slower players could well see this running longer.

The game has some beautiful sci-fi artwork from two of board game design’s heavyweights, Klemens Franz and Michael Menzel. But don’t expect any actual theme in the game: in reality this is very much an abstract euro game. For example, while the boards and cardboard pieces look amazing there is no flavour text or names on anything outside of the rulebook.

In the box you’ll find a central playing board, 4 player action wheels, 44 wooden pieces and around 300 cardboard chits. You’ll pay around £50 fora copy, which is about average for a big box game in the current climate – which seems reasonable for what you’ll get here.

Teaching

Unfortunately I have to start by saying that this is one of the worst rulebooks I’ve had to plough through in a long time. It took me three or four attempts to wade through it; but once I had, I found a game that’s actually relatively simple to teach. How they got the rulebook so badly wrong is a mystery to me.

Much of the experience is very much a nuts and bolts resource management/economic game. You take actions via your rondel (see below) to journey to locations and buy ships or factories; gather resources needed to make these goods (the more ships you have, the more you will be able to collect); or invest the goods/resources you’ve collected to turn them into victory points on one of four victory point tracks.

Then, at the end of your turn, you can influence the value of a victory point track by increasing – or limiting the increase potential – of these same victory point tracks. At the end of the game, each track’s value will simply be a multiplication of how many good you’ve delivered to it multiplied by the level of influence it has been raised to. So far, so every economic game ever.

How you efficiently get the cubes (sorry, resources) you need – the engine building – is the interesting bit. Each player has their own three-tiered rondel. The top tier has two spaces for actions, the middle four and the bottom six. You start the game with five of the spaces filled (one top, two middle, two bottom) and each round you will turn each level one space clockwise. On each turn, only half (six) of these actions are available to you and you can only use three of them (one from each level).

This is where you build your engine. Three of the rondel actions allow you to variously gain extra action discs to add to your rondel; make an action doubly efficient (by flipping a disc over); or gain bonus actions.

And don’t worry – there’s also a mechanism in place to move your discs around later when you realise you’ve screwed up. It’s a neat system: actions on the two-space top tier will be available one round, not the next, and so on – while those on the outer tier will be available three turns on a row – but then unavailable for the next three.

This continues for 14-16 rounds (depending on the player count), after which you count up player points on the six scoring areas to decide the winner. Alongside the four score tracks associated with resources are one which scores bonus points for specialising (extra points for your highest track) of diversifying (bonus points for your lowest track). And that’s that.

Solo play

If you like a thinky puzzle, and like the sound of the game, Norias’ solo game is well worth a look. The rules weren’t in the original release but the few extra components you need are, and the official rules are on a simple two-page download. It’s quite a fiddly setup and a very hard way to learn the game from scratch, but once you get going it does a good job of giving you a bot opponent – and better still, one that tonnes of permutations if you fiddle about with its rondel.

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 key for me when really enjoying an engine building game is the process of seeing that engine work – and unfortunately I just didn’t get that from Noria. Making it is an interesting puzzle, but what it does is uninspiring: no matter what colour of goods you make, they all work in exactly the same way. Instead the game relies on working the economic engine to succeed in being a good game – making me ask the crucial design question, where is the game? For me, it should be more in the rondels than in the bog standard economic game; but it feels more like the other way around.
  • The thinker: This game really takes the rondel idea, so loved by Gerdts fans, to the next level in terms of strategy. The tiers flow like planets around a sun, coming in and out of the light, making for some fascinating decisions. Bonus discs add an extra level of complexity, allowing you to take fewer but more powerful actions later. All in all it makes for a hugely enjoyable and complex economic game for those looking to challenge themselves to make the most efficient engine – while constantly battling your opponents for the upper hand in terms of how you’ll score.
  • The trasher: As in any economic game, the interaction in Noria comes from manipulating the score tracks to your own ends. However, because your engine feels so slow to get going you’re largely talking about small gains over a long period rather than quick tactical swings. The real work goes on with your own engine, but at least this scoring mechanism means you can’t play multiplayer solitaire – you have to pay attention to what others are working towards (both as allies or enemies) if you hope to succeed.
  • The dabbler: While I understand this is a very cleverly designed game, for me it flatters to deceive at every turn and gets too many things wrong. While the board and rondels are beautiful many of the rest of the components are bland with washed out colours, while the theme – what theme? Someone has clearly designed a world in their mind, but forgotten to bring it to life in the game itself. giving resources stupid names such as ‘mycelium’ is practically forcing players to call them ‘greens’ – while the cities, ships and warehouse products could’ve been brought to life by naming them instead, and adding a little flavour text.

Key observations

I won’t harp on about it, but Noria’s rulebook is truly horrific. What makes the crime so heinous is that in reality this is a fairly easy game to teach, with the real complexity coming out as you play. This is a much quicker teach than many euro games, but has twice the rulebook.

The rondel has also been described as overwrought, over designed and in need of streamlining. I think most of these complaints come from the fact that, no matter how you set it up, it’s doing the same quite standard functions: basic actions that don’t warrant quite so much thought. Everyone loves a tricky decision, but the payoff needs to be more than it is here: no matter where I place my choices of production action discs, they’re only ever going to be letting me take one or two resources. For some it just doesn’t seem worth the bother.

But the most repeated negative comments I’ve seen centre on the stock market mechanic. Some simply write it off as uninteresting or generic, while others point to more serious issues around gameplay. With three or four players, if the majority of players go for a resource you don’t and block you out you can be on a hiding to nothing (king-making, two vs one scenarios etc). This is standard economic game tactics – but when you’re building a complex rondel engine to get those resources over several hours of gameplay, it is a much more serious problem in terms of pay off.

Conclusion

Noria was comfortably one of my most anticipated games going into Essen 2017, but of the eight of my top 10 I’ve now tried it is the most disappointing. It has gone straight onto my trade pile and while I wouldn’t turn down a game somewhere if people were very keen, I certainly won’t be seeking to play it again. I got the very same market scoring kick from Ilos – a much shorter and tactically satisfying game – while I have better engine-building and/or rondel goodness on my shelves already.

But Noria has certainly found an audience (currently a very respectable 6.8 rating on Board Game Geek) and there is undoubted merit in the rondel system – even if I don’t think it has found the right game here. If you like to build an engine (and in a unique way), convert things into other things, and have a solid level of interaction through a market mechanic, you should definitely give this game a chance – you may well find yourself a new favourite.

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

The Sanctuary: A four-sided game review

The Sanctuary: Endangered Species* is a worker placement euro style game aimed at more experienced gamers (the 10+ on the box would be fine for children who regularly play post-gateway games).

The 30-60 minutes listed on the box is though, in my experience, far less accurate. Even with two the game will probably go at least an hour, while with more you could easily be looking at two-plus.

While at its heart this is a cube-pushing euro game, the original theme (setting up your own animal sanctuary) does enough to make it stand out from the competition; but don’t expect to ‘feel’ the theme – unless you can work with ‘blue animal picture on cardboard chit eats blue wooden cubes’. That said, it has certainly helped everyone I’ve played with get engaged with the game when we’ve sat down at the table.

In terms of components, it’s a mixed bag. There’s certainly nothing game-breaking here, but they made some pretty strange choices. Some of the cardboard chits are only printed on one side, for example – despite others on the same punch board being double sided. And some of the flat cardboard pieces are as small as 8x10mm – the smallest (and least practical) I’ve seen in a long time. However, overall it gets a pass.

The artwork is OK throughout (the box cover is stunning) and the graphic design, once you get the hang of it, is surprisingly effective. It pretty much has its own language, but once you get it everything falls into place really well. All in all, it’s worth the 40 euro price tag – a relative big-box bargain in the current gaming climate (however, see ‘key observations’ below).

Teaching

Much of The Sanctuary euro gamers will be well familiar with, so it’s worth starting with the basics before moving onto the more original ideas: each round you take it in turns to place your two workers, who will in turn give you actions.

At the end of the game, players earn victory points for their collection of animals (and how happy they are); land they reclaim; resources they accumulate, and storehouse improvements (end game scoring bonuses or special abilities). And yes, you guessed it – all those things are done by taking simple actions with those workers.

Instead of a board, the actions are on five different coloured card types. These are prepared as 10, 16 or 20-card stacks at the start of the game (to ensure a relatively even spread), depending on player count, and a line of these cards is shuffled and laid out in a line at the start of each round (there will be five or six rounds, depending on player count). It’s a bit fiddly at setup, but has the desired effect.

Each card has a primary and secondary action. You do the primary action of the cards you place your workers on – but also the secondary actions of any cards your workers can ‘see’. This is all other cards, in both directions, until you come across one that has a fence printed on, or another worker on it (there is even a special ability that lets you wrap this sight around from one end of the card line to the other).

The player who lays a worker first also places last (Catan style), which evens out over the game, but your choice is always interesting: do you go for a very specific action you really need, or pop yourself into space in the hope of getting lots of sub optimal actions? You’re never allowed to be fully boxed in, so will always have the potential for at least two actions per worker – but some secondary sections are blank, while others may be of no use to you.

Each player can have up to four types of animal in their sanctuary, and making them happy is key: end game points are happiness multiplied by quantity (the latter of which is capped at six per animal type). And there’s an action for everything: take animal, raise happiness, gain resources, discard them to take more animals etc.

Will you concentrate on one animal type, spread the love, or go off piste and concentrate more on resources and habitat? You can clear land, increase its value, then flood or forest it. But whatever you do, don’t let your opponents easily get the actions they most need.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: A nice extra quirk of The Sanctuary are threat tokens. You pick one of these up when you do a particularly strong main action, so they’re totally avoidable – but if you take them, you’ll lose points at the end of the game for each you have (and they can quickly mount up). It’s a nice extra mechanism for those who like a gamble, or who feel they can out-point the negatives with these stronger options. It’s a small level of extra complication to the rules that some publishers would remove for the sake of simplification, but that actually adds a very interesting extra level of decision making.
  • The thinker: If you’re playing with thoughtful players, believe me, this one can go long – but it is at least a largely satisfying experience. While I have no problem with tactical blocking, there can be a bit of an issue in luck of the draw after about half way; once you’ve decided on a strategy, but the cards simply don’t fall your way – you can certainly feel a lack of control. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game was as long as advertised, but for those inclined to think through their decisions this can become frustrating. But it is fun, as long as you understand that this is at the tactical end of the worker placement game scale.
  • The trasher: I always like a game that adds a different feel to player interactivity, and The Sanctuary does just that. Your worker placement has to take other players into consideration as you need to think about where other players will place their workers – and that doesn’t mean thinking negatively against others. You may like he look of a spot, but if someone else really wants the spot next to it then you’re going to have limited actions too. It can really make things drag, especially as you can’t plan ahead, but it’s pretty delicious so is fine with me!
  • The dabbler: While the theme is pretty much pasted on, it’s still done really well. Each player will take four coloured discs to represent the animal types they bring into their sanctuary, but each is double sided and has two unique endangered species depicted on it. Each is named in the rulebook, so you can do a bit of research if you like, and it means players that want to can choose the animals they want in their sanctuary. It would’ve been even better if there had been a PD Verlag-style extra booklet with animal info, but it’s a strong nod to theme nonetheless – it would’ve been easy to have four generic animals repeated.

Key observations

While I thought The Sanctuary just about got away with it in terms of components, it is one of the game’s biggest issues in terms of player comment. While I do understand these misgivings, I’m surprised at complaints of the €40 price tag.

In reality, it seems distribution is the problem: the real issue is the total price paid when you include shipping it out of Poland. Hopefully the game will get a distribution deal with someone in the states, at the very least. It certainly deserves it on gameplay.

Another issue is comparing it to the ‘average’ new release – which, to me, are largely a total waste of plastic destined for landfill and the slow death of our planet. I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather pay under £50 for a less flashy version but really good game than three times as much for a metric tonne of plastic crap I grew out of at 15 hiding yet another average generic fantasy/sci-fi game.

Onto genuine issues, the chaotic/random nature of the worker placement – while original – certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. As already mentioned, this is very much a tactical euro. A related issue is the threat token to ranger action ratio. In a two or three-player game there will only be one ranger card in the whole game – and it is the only guaranteed way to get rid of threat tokens. It is very easy to use the ranger once you get one, so if you get pushed out of the option it pretty much closes a route to you completely – which seems like a design oversight.

But possibly the biggest problem is how dominant the ‘single animal’ strategy feels: only take one animal type and put all your efforts into maxing out its victory points. Stopping this relies on others stopping it, but even then I’ve seen a player doing this win each game we’ve played so far. It doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for The Sanctuary yet, but if – with experience – I still can’t make another strategy win after some more plays, I’ll revisit this review and mark it down some.

Conclusion

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve seen a trend in recent years for games that initially seem deep but, once you’ve played them a few times, show themselves to be little more than having several roads to victory without enough interaction to make them interesting over multiple plays.

From my experience so far, The Sanctuary bucks this trend. While many of the mechanisms can be palmed off as ‘standard euro’, the worker placement element is a real breathe of fresh air – and one great mechanism is all a game needs to stand out.

While the amount you need to think about most decisions can really induce the dreaded AP – especially as you can’t really make a choice until it is your turn – it’s precisely this that makes it outstanding. No, it won’t be for everyone. But if you love pitting your wits against like-minded thinky opponents and don’t care if a game goes a little long to make that happen, I can’t recommend The Sanctuary highly enough.

* I would like to thank Cube Factory of Ideas for providing a copy for review.

Pulsar 2849: A four-sided game review

Pulsar 2849* is a dice-drafting euro game (for more experienced gamers, probably aged around 12+) that will take two to four people one to two hours to play (more players equals longer game).

As you’ve probably guessed from the title and the cover, this is a sci-fi themed game; but beyond the look, and despite nice components, this is very much a dry euro rather than a thematic space romp.

On the subject of components, expect the usual high quality we’ve come to expect from Czech Games Edition (CGE): a large circular board with a bunch of smaller cardboard boards that place around it; 100+ cardboard chits and tokens, 50+ plastic tokens and cubes, plus 10 dice. The iconography is clear throughout, while the art style is on theme without ever being spectacular. On the table (and you’ll need a pretty decent sized table), the game looks solid if unspectacular – despite the relative novelty of the round board.

And on the subject of theme, for what it’s worth, the general idea is you’re playing rival corporations creating mega-structures in space to harvest (and then transmit) power over vast distances. But you’d have to be pretty spectacularly drawn by theme to feel like a spaceman while playing this one.

Teaching

Pulsar 2849 can seem daunting when you run through the rules, as there’s a lot to remember – but in truth all the things you can do are simple and you’ll find experienced players will soon pick them up: but you do have to go through them all before you get going.

But also tell players their first game will probably be a learning game; it has quite a few moving, overlapping parts and most players will spend the first game finding how certain actions complement each other – despite it only taking a turn or two to get to grips with the basics.

The game is played over eight rounds, with each player taking either two or three actions in each (so 16-24 actions in the game). A set of standard six-sided dice are rolled each round, with each player choosing two (first one in turn order, second in reverse order, as in Catan) – before each player caries out actions with their dice. There will always be at least one more dice than required, so even if you get the last pick you’ll usually have a choice.

There are seven actions you can choose to do with your dice – the most basic (and rarely used) being to take a dice modifier token. Another is to move your ship a number of spaces equal to a dice you took, preferably ending your move on a pulsar or star system. Landing on a system will give you a bonus of some kind, while you can claim a pulsar you finish on.

The third action is to take a gyrodyne: the rotor system you’ll use to generate power (read: points) from a pulsar. It’s a free action to place this on one of your claimed pulsars – but it does cost a dice action to ‘flip’ this gyrodyne token to make it operational (so that it starts generating your points each round).

The other three available dice actions let you claim either a ‘transmitter’, ‘technology’ or ‘HQ project’. These are all ways to get bonuses – from points to tokens to actions – in a typically euro point salad kind of way. They all work slightly differently, but if you’ve played a few euro games there’s nothing new under the sun here.

What is ingenious is the way in which the dice numbers are balanced. Most actions are better with higher dice – you can move further, take a better transmitter, set a better gyrodyne spinning etc. But to take better dice, you have to pay what can be a significant penalty. After the dice are rolled each round their median is marked. Taking a dice higher/lower than the median mark sees you move up/down the turn order or engineering track (which gives handy tokens that get points or extra actions).

But returning to the point salad: pretty much everything you do will score you points – either immediate, ongoing or end game. After the eight rounds, you’ll add them all up and see who the winner is.

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 I’ve really enjoyed my plays, I’ve noticed a big disparity in scores in specialising versus being a jack-of-all-trades: going strong on flying (taking a lot of planets), concentrating on gyrodynes or getting lots of transmitters can all score well. But if two players choose the same thing, they’re unlikely to win, as they cannibalise each other’s scores – especially problematic in a four-player game. It will be interesting to see if others identify this as a problem.
  • The thinker: While in many ways a standard euro, the bonus dice add an interesting challenge. The difference between 16 and 24 actions is of course potentially huge, so trying to grab one each round is a pleasant distraction. But of course, sometimes two actions combined won’t be as good as a really strong single action. It can also be hugely beneficial to set up turns where picking low dice becomes just as good as getting higher ones; another good mark for a game which rewards forward planning while having enough luck to appease those who need the thrill of the random to keep them interested.
  • The trasher: For a game allegedly about competing space corporations, it has little to no interaction – unless taking the same route as another player (which is likely to screw you both anyway). Despite the dice (obviously), uncovering star systems to reveal their bonuses, and the random order in which the limited number of transmitters are revealed, there’s actually little here for the tactician. While I’ll happy play the game (it’s fun enough for a couple of hours), I don’t see this one hanging around long term – unless an expansion (which there is plenty of room for) comes along and adds a little more personality.
  • The dabbler: While I like the round board in theory, and it looks super cool, in practice it’s a bit of a pain. It’s a massive table hog, especially if you use the (not really) optional player boards – and no matter what you do at set up it feels like a bit of a mess, while taking longer than it would with a standard board. I can see why they did it, and it feels unique, but that stops being a good thing fast! But it didn’t stop me enjoying the game! I was surprised that how simple it was to play after the rules load left me yawning – and sticking largely to one thing makes it easier to get a strong foothold, while seeing how the other bits work via the other players (and taking occasional advantage when you can).

Key observations

I’ve been meaning to finish a blog about the myth (false news?) of replayability for some time and Pulsar 2849 is a good example of my issue with it in modern gaming.

Despite adding a lot of cardboard to the box to make each game ‘different’, nothing really changes.

Bonus tiles may make certain strategies slightly more effective game to game, while you may also be led slightly by the tech trees available to you, but overall it’s not enough to make today’s gyrodyne strategy feel different to tomorrow’s.

While I’m personally a fan of ‘point salad’ games with pasted on themes (it is essentially an abstract game), if you’re not this isn’t going to change your mind – especially as this is also largely multiplayer solitaire. There are lots of ways to score very similar amounts of points each round and the game couldn’t be more about efficiency if it tried. This can also cause AP, so especially with four you may experience quite a bit of unwanted downtime (then again you could always, you know, talk to each other).

This won’t come as a surprise to people who have played and enjoyed designer Vladimir Suchy’s other games (Last Will, Prodigal’s Club, 20th Century) and if you have you’ll been on firm ground here: his designs make Feld’s look like laughing clown’s in comparison. Not a criticism, just an observation. But any potential purchaser needs to know they’re getting dry, if extremely well designed, fayre here.

But the game is averaging well over 7.5 for a reason. It does feel like a sum of its parts and while there are a lot of options to choose from it can feel very satisfying to pull off a strong, cascading combo to grab big points and an all-important bonus action. And, for the two hours you’ll spend with it, you will (if you do OK) feel as if you’ve created a satisfying little engine before then end of the game that comes to life in the final few turns – while looking and feeling very different to those of your opponents.

Conclusion

After my first few plays of Pulsar 2849, I thought I’d found a new favourite. But much as I found with games such as Great Western Trail and Railroad Revolution, later plays fell off pretty quickly.

Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy the game and may keep it in my collection. But without an expansion adding some genuine replayability, I don’t think it will still be on my shelves long. I know it’s me, not the game: this will find a happy home in many collections. But I still see more replayability in mechanisms and opponents than in adding piles of extra components – which is why people are still playing the likes of Puerto Rico, Tigris and Brass after all these years.

So overall, I’ll say this is a very good game – even a great one if you like Feld and Suchy (I think it’s his best to date). But it is indicative of this particular time in gaming; and I’d be surprised if many are still talking about it down the road.

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

AireCon 2018: A rising star in the north

In the last decade, Birmingham’s UK Games Expo has cemented its place as the UK’s largest board game convention. It is now a genuine mark on the global gaming convention map, with the cream of publishers (as well as the biggest tournaments) in attendance.

But with this success have come the inevitable problems of growth. Reasonably priced hotels near the NEC were snapped up a year in advance, leaving ridiculously priced options or a commute as the only options – not great when the trains into the city stop running early and cabs cost a fortune. And both of the last two years have seen times when the open gaming space was full. So despite its clear success (I’ll certainly be attending again this year), it shows there is room in the market for more such events.

With the Midlands well catered for, up has stepped Tabletop Gaming Live (London in September) in the South, and AireCon (Harrogate in March) in the North – with AireCon being sponsored by UK Games Expo itself (amongst others).

So why AireCon?

While this will officially be the fifth AireCon, it became an annual event last year when it moved to its current home in the Harrogate Convention Centre.

It describes itself as a “friendly and inclusive analog gaming festival” and has secured sponsorship from one of the worlds most respected games publishers, Czech Games Edition (CGE). Better still, there will be a 350-game library courtesy of FLG Travelling Man, which has stores in Leeds, York, Newcastle and Manchester.

There’s plenty to recommend AireCon. Firstly its in Harrogate, which is lovely (in stark comparison to London and Birmingham…). Second, it’s in a great modern venue and is currently a small but perfectly formed version of Expo (they’re expecting 1,000 unique visitors over the weekend) – plenty of open gaming space, plus a bit of retail therapy to demo and buy new games (there are more than 25 exhibitors confirmed, including Asmodee and the Ragnar Brothers).

The organisers provide a fun, relaxed environment and welcome all (respectful and not smelly) gamers from across the various strands of the hobby. Alongside the kind of tabletop games I talk about here, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to try RPGs – as well as gaming industry panels, quizzes, a play-test area for unpublished games, contests, a family area and giant versions of some of your favourite games. Plus there’s the Super Board team competition – with a 1st prize including tickets and flights to Essen 2018!

See you there?

AireCon is smack-bang in the middle of the town and easily accessible by road or rail. It’s spread over three days (March 9-11) and tickets are just £25 (£12 kids) for the weekend, or £10 (£5 kids) for a day if you just want to test the water.

Those of us travelling from around the rest of the planet have plenty of nice hotels and B&Bs to choose from (it’s a pretty big tourist town), and I’m really looking forward to it. You can find all the nitty gritty details in their official FAQ here.

If you like reading about games listening to gaming podcasts or watching gaming videos there will be plenty of us in attendance to have a chinwag with: I’ll be travelling up with The Game Pit boys, while the chaps from Gaming Rules, Polyhedron Collider, No Pun Included, Toucan Play That Game and Watch it Played will also be in attendance – plus loads more I’m sure. Hopefully more UK designers will be in attendance too: I know several who are hoping to pop along – not that anyone wants to speak to us when they can speak to a video blogger! Welcome to the future… 🙂

Unter Spannung (AKA: 7 Ate 9): A four sided game review

This guest review was written by Chris Fenton; lapsed blogger, father of two young boys, and a teacher who has spent years successfully integrating modern hobby board and card games into the classroom environment.

Unter Spannung* is the 2016 reprint of 7 Ate 9: a light family/children’s card game of addition and subtraction. This new version is from Amigo Spiel, designed by Maureen Hiron and with art from Christine Hoffmeyer.

The aim is to be the first player to have played all your cards and this is done through a simple method of addition or subtraction. The game is for 2-4 players and plays well with all player counts. Games generally last the 15 minutes the box claims, but can increase depending on the age and mathematical ability of the players. The box lists the game as for ages 8+ and while I would say this is pretty accurate it could be played with younger players depending on their ability.

This is a simple maths game with little to no theme, beyond the new title (‘under voltage’ in English) and art based on electricity. The cards are clear and easy to read, ensuring players can quickly and easily ascertain what they need to do to be able to legally play their next card. The cards are of a high quality and durable and with the game currently available online for less than £10 this is great value. As with other Amigo Spiel titles in this line the game fits nicely into a pocket, making it brilliantly portable.

Teaching

Unter Spannung is a relatively simple game to teach, as you either play a card or draw a card; but it does have one or two elements that could confuse a new player.

The aim of the game is to be the first to get rid of all of your cards. There are 73 cards numbered between one and 10, with each numbered card coming in three colours (green, yellow and red). In the centre of each card is a +/- value, determined by the colour of the card (green +/-1, yellow +/-2, and red +/-3). This central value determines what cards can be played next.

At the start of the game the cards are dealt equally between the players as draw piles, with the final card being placed faced up in the centre of the table. This is the start of the discard pile and it determines which cards can be played next. For example, if a yellow (+/-2) number 5 card is played then the next card played must either be a 3 or a 7. Players then draw a hand of four cards from their draw pile and are ready to begin.

It is possible for players to play cards which add or subtract for a total above 10 or below zero. In the case of going beyond 10, players simply subtract the 10 (so a total of 12 would become 2, meaning a card of that value may be played). If the total goes below zero you instead add 10 to the value, so a total value of -2 would become 8.

This is a simultaneous play game; so as soon as the game begins players may start placing legal cards from their hand onto the discard pile. Players may only play one card at a time and must announce the new value as they place the card.

If a player cannot place a card from their hand they can draw from the deck that was dealt to them at the start of the game. There is no hand limit, allowing players to continue drawing until it is possible for them to place a card.

Play continues until one player has played all their cards. It is possible, near the end of the game, for a situation to arise in which no cards can be played despite players having all their cards in hand. In this situation, players put their hands face down in front of them and the bottom card from the discard pile is moved to the top. Play then resumes as normal.

The four sides

These are me, my pupils, the teacher and my eldest son.

  • The dad (avid gamer who secretly prefers euros to thematic games, but don’t tell anyone!): Unter Spannung is a good fit for our family games collection. It is a perfect balance of light, fun and portable with high-end tool for teaching and the improvement of mental maths skills. It fits perfectly with my eldest’s current learning at school and even some of the targets he has been set by his teachers. However the simultaneous aspect of gameplay means it just isn’t accessible currently in this format (eldest is only 5 and while the maths is not beyond him the pace required to be able to play simultaneously is). Instead we modified a few aspects and it has become a tool for the support and practice of skills currently taught in school. We moved to turn taking, which allows time to process and make decisions on which card to be played next. As both familiarity with the game and mathematical ability grow this game will find its correct place in the format it was meant to be played.
  • The pupil (an amalgam of my pupils, aged 9 to 11): This game is great fun. I enjoy the fast pace and the competitive nature. I need to pay attention at all times which is great, as I can get bored waiting for my turn in other games. I find it tricky to work out what I’m allowed to play when the total goes below zero. Sometimes when the maths is trickier I get stuck and it feels like I miss lots of turns. I enjoy the game with people who are the same ability as me at maths, but not when I play against someone who is really good.
  • The teacher (primary school teacher to engage and educate pupils via board gaming): A perfect light card game, durably made, which actively encourages both mental maths skills and rapid recall of known addition and subtraction facts. This can work right across the classroom for almost all my pupils. If I had enough copies I would consider using this for a warm-up activity before a maths lesson or even as an early morning activity at the start of the school day. I would need to think carefully about grouping my class for this however as I know one or two will either be over-whelmed or just won’t engage if they are in a game with a more able counterpart. I might consider adapting the “below zero” rule to help the game flow more easily.
  • The eldest son (aged 5, interested in “daddy games”, competitive, but with a short attention span): I like doing adding and taking away, we do lots of this in school with numbers up to 10 and all the numbers inside 10. I like this game because I get to practice my adding and taking away but sometimes I’m not in the mood and I can find this tricky and that makes me grumpy. I can’t play when everyone is going at the same time it is too confusing and the number in the middle changes too quickly. I also find it very difficult to tell some of the cards apart, especially the 6 and 9. I’m starting to recognise that different colours tell me how much I need to add or takeaway without checking the middle of the card.

Key Observations

The fact Unter Spannung is a simultaneous game with minimal options means the pace of play is high and the action can get frantic.

However those who are even slightly self-conscious about, or have a perceived weakness of, their mathematical ability are going to feel intimidated by the game (I can speak from experience here having played this with a teacher who holds a degree in mathematics and is a leading teacher in the subject). The high pace that can come about may also leave a player feeling isolated and unable to play, particularly in four-player games.

Some gamers may also feel the rules for above or below 10 are clunky and can slow down the pace of the game. While I don’t feel this is a huge issue for the beyond 10, if anything it made sense in this situation. I do feel that the beyond zero rules could be better and that by adapting these the game would not suffer from some of the slowdown issues that many have complained about and which confused many of the younger gamers I played this with.

Conclusion

Unter Spannung is an educational game but unlike many games that fall into that category it doesn’t use that as its main selling point. Instead, as part of the Amigo Spiel small box range, gamers know that they are going to get a lighter card game that is entertaining.

Our household is not yet ready for the game as it was intended to be played but that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be played. I’m looking forward to the day, in a few years time, when I get to say, “Okay, but today we aren’t going to take turns!”

My biggest issue, and the issue that certainly is most talked about in relation to Unter Spannung or 7 Ate 9, is what to do when passing below zero? While I understand why the designer settled on ‘add 10’, you move well away from the issue of continuing to go below zero; the concept can be very hard to grasp for those who have had little to no experience of negative numbers and, let’s be honest, the lower end of the age rating is certainly the target audience.

So overall this fun and sometimes frantic game is more likely to find itself being used as a learning tool within a classroom than being played as a filler game during a games night. That isn’t a bad thing however, as one pupil pointed put after a game in class, “I didn’t know doing maths could be so much fun”.

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

The best of 2017, part 2: Best gaming experiences & most played games

2017 again felt like a year of consolidation, but certainly had some major highlights. But I missed out on far more gaming opportunities than I’d like due to ill health of various types, which I hope to rectify this year by being more proactive (and healthy!).

My 5 best gaming experiences of 2017

  • NurembergThis is a totally different gaming experience than Essen on every level. The city is lovely and fun to explore, while the show is quiet, easy to navigate and free of the dreaded public – and there are no games on sale to tempt you! We also had some very productive meetings in a much more relaxed atmosphere than Essen, so all round a great trip.
  • Gaming with friends: This really can’t be underestimated. Whether it was getting away for a night or weekend to visit friends, or just having friends over or popping to see someone local, this is the real life blood of the hobby no matter who you are. And thanks to everyone who puts up with me forcing new games on them all year that I have to review – I couldn’t do it without you!
  • Essen: Crazy, cramped, overblown and overwhelming: Essen was, once again, all of this and more – and as always I loved every minute of it. Pioneer Days had a low key presence, but it was great to chat with some of the TMG guys in person that I hadn’t met – as well as some people who came and bought the game. I brought too much home, of course, but that’s what Essen is all about.
  • Eastbourne: Sadly I only managed to make it on one of the two Eastbourne trips this year but it was, as ever, a big highlight. The November one always throws up loads of chances to play all the latest hot games from Essen and this was no exception – but I also made some new friends, sold some old games and caught up with a few people I don’t see nearly enough. Good times.
  • Gaming with Sarah: Finally, my year started with a new partner who had little gaming experience but a willingness to give it a go – and boy, did she dive in feet first! I recorded us having 150 individual game plays together in the year, including her braving a day at both SorCon and Eastbourne – more than I could possibly have hoped for. I can only hope we consolidate this in the coming months.

My top individual game plays of 2017

  • January: Sitting in Hutt’n, a Franconian tavern in Nuremberg, playing X Nimmt! with my regular co-design partner in crime David Thompson before attending our first day at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. Attending Essen is always brilliant, but this was our first Nuremberg – a new experience, and what better way to start than with great beer and one of my favourite recent small card games? A great start to a top few days.
  • February: It’s always nice to get taught a game you need to review – expertly done this time by Phil at SorCon. Along with old friends Keef and Claire we played my first game of Oracle of Delphi, which immediately shot into my top 10 games. The race element means games tend to be super close and this was no exception, with Claire just pipping me on the second tie-breaker.
  • March: A fantastic week of site-seeing and gaming in Granada ended with a visit to the city’s new gaming venue, with our host and one of its organiser’s Alex. Despite playing some favourites such as Thurn and Taxi, Alhambra and Kingdomino, the highlights were two four-player games of Tumblin’ Dice and a hilarious thrashing of Karl at Carrom, in which almost anyone else on the planet would have beaten me, so bad were we both!
  • April: Most plays in April were with Sarah, including great plays of Oracle of Delphi and some abstract favourites including Ingenious, Kingdom Builder and Blokus Duo. But the lasting memory is of a game of Love Letter in The Phoenix pub in York during a lovely weekend away. It was meant to be best of five but she got a princess-baron draw at 2-2 for a cheaty feeling win. I demanded best of seven, drew level, then Sarah drew baron-baron – and this time I had the princess. As it was an equally cheaty win, I conceded the original 3-2 defeat!
  • May: The month was probably topped by a sadly rare yet fun play of Caverna on a visit to see my friend Matt in Bedford, alongside a very narrow defeat at Forbidden Desert with Ann, Karl and Sarah at my place when they popped up for a visit. Matt had bought Caverna years earlier on his one trip to Essen but had never played it, so it was fun to teach and get it played after all this time. While we all enjoyed our trip to the desert (it was Ann and Karl’s first play of it), despite a little bad luck preventing us from getting over the line.
  • June: The start of the month was dominated by UK Games Expo, at which i spent much of my time demoing three new LudiCreations titles to journalists. The best of those was the fantastic small box card game Iunu and the most fun play was probably with Sean and Ronan from The Game Pit podcast – the two of whom duly thrashed me into last place (but I was promoting the game, so it was my job – all deliberate, I swear…). It meant I couldn’t really review the game, but I can comfortably say it was one of my favourite new titles of the year.
  • July: The month my copy of Terraforming Mars finally arrived – leading to eight plays of the game in a week, five of which were solo. I haven’t played the game much as i’d like to have since due to other commitments but it’s the first time a game has come along that has genuinely threatened by number one game spot since Race for the Galaxy took the crown all those years ago. The highlight was probably my fifth solo play, which was my first solo win (with Inventrix on 69 points). It amazed me how different each solo game was – and is now making me want to go and set it up rather than keep writing this…
  • August: While the actual highlight of the month was a long weekend away in Ghent, the gaming highlight was oddly a heavy defeat. Sarah is taking a shine to tile and route building games, so Maori seemed a strong contender – and a real favourite for me anyway. I won our first play but she requested it the following weekend – and schooled me 34-23. What’s great was her requesting a game she’d really liked that was one of my favourites, but also the fact she’d already totally grocked it and handed out a solid beating!
  • September: A great month for gaming that included a lovely visit to Sean and Natalie (of Game Pit ‘fame’). We had some really great plays including Vikings, Amerigo, Bora Bora and Mansions of Madness – but they were slightly surpassed by a game of Aqua Romana at Tom’s house warming games day in London. Tom taught myself, Jee and Paul this mean little game and I immediately (more by luck than judgement) started to block Tom off all over the place. I think he ran out of swear words by the end and to top it all, despite his superior knowledge of the game, I just managed to pip him to the victory.
  • October: The night before heading to Essen I popped into London on Board for the evening, which was largely notable for playing Century: Spice Road – one of the most boring and definitely the most over-hyped game of the year. It is a boring mechanic boiled down to its most basic form – what on earth do people see in it? The actual gaming highlights happened in hotels in Germany: a toss up between Heaven and Ale with Tom in The Holiday Inn and The Climbers with some of the lovely Danish contingent in Hotel Motel One.
  • November: This was largely a month of Essen releases played both at home and at Eastbourne (at LoBstercon). There were of course loads of highlights but its hard to beat our traditional drunken game of Eldritch Horror (once again with The Game Pit crew) – although my debut plays of Azul, Pulsar 2849 and Ex Libris came close. What made the Eldritch Horror game stand out was the ease of victory. Normally we get totally destroyed, but this was the complete opposite. I swear at one point we flipped a card and got sent on a spa trip or something – it was bizarre and i’m not totally convinced I didn’t dream the whole thing…
  • December: I managed two trips to see Karl and Ann in London as well as NYE away with Sarah in the New Forest, all of which were punctuated with some brilliant games. But my favourite play was at home, introducing Sarah to another one of my favourites – Macao. I thought it could go either way but luckily she enjoyed it, and better still it was a super close game that I just managed to win 80-77. That’s nothing to be proud of, as it was my 20th play and Sarah’s first! But games are always better when they go to the wire and I really couldn’t call this one as we went into final scoring. Like so many games, I just wish I could play it more often. Can I retire yet, please?

My most played games in 2016

Prototype plays (53) was way down on previous years, showing what a poor year I had in terms of design time (all my own fault). I played a total of 160 different published games in 2017, 16 of which I played five times or more. The most played were:

With the exception of Ticket to Ride, it’s all change since 2016. Missing from last year’s list are Race for the Galaxy (5 plays), Empire Engine and Can’t Stop (both with 4 plays), Game of Trains (2) and Love Letter (1). It’s the first year since doing this that Race has dropped out of the top slots but all these games could easily pop back into reckoning next year (I had three plays of Race in the first week of this year!): they’re still all favourites.

Other older games with a good number of plays included Africana, Thurn and Taxis and Maori (5 plays each), plus Carcassonne: Hunters and Gathers and Handler der Karibik – largely due to Sarah taking a shine to them. Let’s see how many of those are still high on her list this time next year.

I got Caylus and The Little Prince played this year, leaving just Brass, Lost Valley and Manilla on the unplayed since 2014 list (for shame!). None of them are ‘Sarah and me’ games, so I’ll have to look elsewhere to get my fix of those in 2018! Speaking of which…

How is 2018 shaping up?

In terms of game design, I’m sad to say I still feel largely downbeat. I’m finding it very hard to motivate myself to design, while several projects I’d thought were finished look as if they’ll need a lot more work in 2018.

It’s great that i have three games signed to publishers that may see the light of day this year, but all of them may need more development time. On the plus side Pioneer Days should finally hit the stores this month or next, and I’m very proud of the finished product.

My lack of design work last year means a trip to Nuremberg would be pointless; I don’t really have anything new to sell. David and me have two other games with a number of publishers, so are still waiting to hear if anything might happen with those. And hopefully by Essen (or maybe even UK Games Expo) later this year I’ll have some new projects to show off – if I can find some motivation!

SorCon and Eastbourne will once again be my con highlights in terms of just sitting around and gaming, while I’m also looking at heading to AireCon (more about that soon) – and possibly HanyCon later in the year. But several things this year have reminded me just how lucky I am to have my health and good people around me, so a fun year with a healthy dose of gaming will be more than enough to keep me happy.

Check here for part 1, which also has links to these posts from previous years

Ilos: A four-sided game review

Ilôs* is a card playing and tile-laying game pitched around the family/gateway level. You can play with two to five players, with games lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the number of players. The age suggestion of 10+ is about right, but gaming regulars of 8+ should easily cope with the mechanisms on display here.

While set in the imaginary land of Ilôs, it has a ‘trading in the Mediterranean’ feel – but before you run screaming, look at that smiling man on the cover! This nice cartoon art style runs throughout the fantastic components and, while largely themeless, the game has plenty of character.

In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find 90 cards, 75 wooden player pieces, 20 cardboard tiles, more than 160 cardboard chits and 5 player screens and boards. All these components are of a very high quality, with just the exchange rate chart and its tokens being a little flimsy; but these are hardly touched during the game. The game doesn’t seem to be currently available direct into the UK, but a US release is planned for 2018 (which will see it arrive here, hopefully in the £30-40 price bracket).

Teaching

The rules for Ilos are just six pages long and include plenty of examples. What the game does brilliantly is take several common euro game ideas, distil them to a pure form, then put them together to create a unique experience.

The game is driven by a card system which is akin to San Juan or Race for the Galaxy (where playing one card means you generally have to discard other cards to do so), but with the card pile limited to just six different cards.

These cards allow you to move (place or move ships); establish settlements (plantations, gold mines or buildings – which all generally earn you goods each turn), search ruins or affect the value of goods on the market.

Until the tile stack runs out (there are four tiles in play per player), a move action allows you to also place a tile (Carcassonne style). All tiles have islands and sea on them, and you place one of your five ships on the new tile. Alternatively you can move an existing ship you have (or place a new one) onto any existing tile. You will either place on a shore (allowing you to then establish settlements on that island) or on a pirating space (meaning all other players establishing settlements on islands on that tile have to pay more cards to do so).

You will need to have one or two ships on a shore to start a settlement, with the type of card played and number of extra cards needed (including those pesky pirates) often limiting your options. Most tiles have a number of spots for your pioneers, but each space can only hold one – so it’s first come, first served. Each pioneer placed will then give you one income of the commodity you settle on (ebony, spice, pigment, or gold). Alternatively you can sometimes build a fort (which protects you from pirates) or trading post (which copies a production spot already occupied on that island). Raiding ruins just gives a one-time three gold bonus, but this can be powerful as gold has the potential to be twice as valuable as every other commodity.

Finally, the market card action is what really drives the game. Instead of costing extra cards to play, this action costs you one good of the type you want to inflate the price of.

The trick, of course, is that once you up the price of a good everyone else will want to hoover up any available spaces that make it. But conversely there are only eight price rise markers in the game, and once they’re gone the market is set – so you can’t leave it too long to make your move.

On a turn a player can make any number of actions, as long as they have the cards to do so. There is no hand limit, so you could potentially save up for a massive turn – the only caveat being that if the draw deck runs out the current player draws any extra cards they need from the player with the most cards. The number of cards drawn each turn is three, plus one per ship you have on the board and one per fort built – so thee is extra incentive to get those ships out early.

The game ends when one player has placed all 10 of their pioneers onto spaces on the islands. Players then simply multiply the amount of each good they have by its market value to determine the winner.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Designer Frédéric Guérard has done a great job of combining simple mechanisms into a new game that comes together beautifully, while using a fictional location has avoided potential thematic banana skins around the topic of colonisation. While the game is best at 3-4 players it is still fun at both two and five, making it one of the very best family/gateway games of those arriving at Essen 2017. It’s a shame that, right now, it is almost impossible to find in the UK.
  • The thinker: While Ilos isn’t the deepest game out there, and you can occasionally be let down by the luck of the draw, if played with a ‘super filler’ attitude it works very well indeed. The very limited opportunities to increase values in the market is a key dilemma throughout, changing each play; while the game sets up and plays quickly (you can get it played in 30 minutes with an experienced group). And due to its familiarity it is a very easy teach to experienced gamers. But no, this is not a very strategic game – much more a short tactical one.
  • The trasher: While this isn’t a strong game in terms of player interaction, the piracy spaces actually make a significant impact. Especially early on you’ll find yourself scrabbling to do two or three actions in a round – so having to pay a few extra cards is painful. This makes it a pretty good attacking move (especially with less players), but also defensively – it’s much less likely for ships to land on the same island as you if you’re pirating its seas! The market is also fun to watch: it costs you to up a value, which in turn makes it hard to stay ahead of the curve. All in all, I like this one more than I thought I would.
  • The dabbler: As well as looking gorgeous and appealing to families in the process, Ilos is deceptively simply despite having quite the component list. It actually shares quite a few touch points with games such as Ticket to ride: it plays two to five players in around an hour, while you can wait until your go to make your decisions as the landscape can change quite a lot once around the table – so you can socialise a bit while you wait! Even later, when you’re drawing 8-10 cards, the decision space doesn’t grow: in fact it shrinks once the market closes and some of the spaces on the tiles run out, leading to a quick final land grab.

Key observations

Ilos feels very different with two players, especially compared to four or five. The real difference is that you only use eight of the 20 tiles, which can give big disparities in what commodities become available. This may annoy those who like to plan a more predictable strategy.

While I enjoy the fact the game blends familiar mechanisms to make something new, some players will simply look at it as ‘nothing new’ – which is a fair argument. Nothing here will surprise the regular gamer and descriptions such as ‘middle of the road’ can’t really be argued with – I have seen it described as ‘flat’ and ‘unexciting’. But my argument would be that, seen as a super filler, I see it as a lot better than those descriptions. But no – this is not a game that will be the mainstay of many gamer group evenings.

Conclusion

Going into Essen I had high hopes for Ilos and it has largely met those expectations. The game is light, fast, simple to set up and explain; but the market and randomness of the tiles and cards add just enough to keep it interesting.

I’ve had no complaints from anyone I’ve played it with, across all levels of experience, and in fact several people have been very much taken by it. Personally I’d rather reach for this than, say, Carcassonne (I’m not saying it’s a better game) – and because of that it will definitely be staying in my collection.

* I would like to thank La Boite de Jeu (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of the game for review.

The best of 2017, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games

Below you’ll find the best of both new and new-to-me games, either owned or not, that I’ve had the pleasure of playing in the past year.

Below that are the kind of stats only proper game nerds will understand: amount of plays for the year, different games played etc. What can I say? Don’t judge – you’ll either understand or you won’t!

Overall I think 2017 was a better year for the kind of games I like best (middle weight euros and interesting two-player games) than the previous two – but so far I haven’t found a particular stand out title as good as Terraforming Mars or Codenames.

I’ve really enjoyed my gaming this year. It’s been fun bringing someone new into the hobby (hi Sarah!), while feeling able to connect to their family (in an abstract way) by recommending games for their children too. I’ve been to some great gaming events (see part 2) while still enjoying playing with my regular groups.

My 10 favourite games that were new (or new to me) in 2017

Outside of new releases I didn’t play many ‘new to me’ older games – and most I did play were either average or disappointing. I’ve still got quite a few classics to tick off my unplayed list, but generally I’ve done enough research to know its unlikely too many games will now come out of the history books to surprise me.

In no particular order:

  • The Sanctuary: Despite a few little missteps (understandable from a small publisher), I’ve really enjoyed my plays. The animal sanctuary theme is largely pasted on, but nicely implemented and original; while the mechanisms are mostly familiar – but with one great twist. Its worker placement, but the available actions change every turn – a lot – making it as tactical as it is strategic. It may be a little too long with four, but with two or three it has been a 2017 highlight.
  • Pulsar 2849: Using dice for actions was a definite euro theme this year and this is my pick of the bunch so far (just beating out Santa Maria – but of course I’d also highly recommend Pioneer Days!). It’s a point salad euro in pasted-on space but, like The Sanctuary, it has just enough – and in the right play time – to make it stand out in a large crowd. You nearly always want to take high-numbered dice, but they come with a potential penalty; while again there is just the right mix of tactics and strategy for my tastes. Publisher CGE does it again.
  • Codenames Duet: Codenames was pretty much the perfect party game for me (despite taking a little while to get going at the start), but the two-player variant was weak at best. Codenames Duet takes all the fun of the original word game and makes a couple of little tweaks that are just enough to make it into a brilliant two-player co-operative game. Yup – CGE does it again (again).
  • Adios Calavera: Sticking with two-player games, I’m still loving this little two-player abstract game that is part race game, part draughts game. It has a great twist on some simple traditional board game mechanisms and packs a whole bunch of game into a small box – then throws charming theme/artwork on top to compete the package. I really hope a bigger publisher picks up this one from Mucke Spiel to give it the level of mass circulation it deserves.
  • Azul (not owned): If you’re looking for an abstract game for more players (up to four) that plays fast but packs in a lot of tough (and often nasty) decisions, look no further than Azul. A contender for many ‘game of the year’ lists I’ve seen already, it’s easy to see why: simple rules but depth of gameplay, gorgeous components, and good across different player counts. And you can really screw over your neighbour. What’s not to like?
  • Oracle of Delphi: This one should have been on this list as a new release for 2016, but I’d put off playing it until this year. I’d been a little disappointed in the last few Stefan Feld games I’d played, but for me this was right back on form. While it still had a ‘point salad’ feel, with loads of similar yet slightly different things you had to do, these typical Feld traits were built into a kind of race game. It’s a great mould to put a puzzley euro game into and it worked terrifically well and becoming the highest new entry in my 2017 top 50 game list. While the ‘appeasing Greek gods’ theme is pretty thin I did like it, as well as the art style and components.
  • Kingdomino: This was a 2016 title that passed me by on its original release, but a slew of award nominations put it on my radar – and what a great lightweight family game it is too. Bringing old game ideas into the modern gaming age is a tried and tested formula and dominoes was die a makeover – and here it is done expertly by Bruno Cathala (and publisher Blue Orange). A super simple yet clever auction/bidding mechanic sits nicely on top of a basic placement puzzle and scoring system anyone can understand – while this year’s follow-up Queendomino looks to have added an extra layer for those wanting a bit more game.
  • The Climbers (not owned): While looking brilliant, for some reason I’ve never been drawn to this abstract blocks game. But it got a re-release at Essen this year and I happened to be with a fun group who wanted to play it so thought I may as well join in – and I’m glad I did. The chunky wooden blocks and pieces certainly draw the eye, but it’s the gameplay that keeps players coming back for more; putting the game just outside the top 50 abstracts on BGG. It’s simply pleasing on so many levels and one I’d suggest any gamer give a try.
  • Mansions of Madness – 2nd Edition (not owned): I was a big fan of RPGs in my youth and this takes all the best bits of those games while leaving most of the fiddly stuff out. Well, rather it has an app that does all the ‘games master’ work for you. You make the game board up with real pieces, move real figures and roll real dice – but the app gives you the outcomes, the story and the atmosphere – but most importantly the suspense. It means you can have genuine hidden info and no way to cheat by looking at what the outcome of an action might be. A brilliant board game RPG which shows exactly what board game app accessories are capable of.
  • Ilos: I’d had high hopes for this one and they’ve largely been realised. It has card-based action selection, a simple market engine, plus tile laying. Despite playing super fast (under an hour) there are tough decisions, player interaction, and a good mix of tactics and strategy – plus it all looks gorgeous. In a strong year for family games this one has still managed to stand out for me, and I’m looking forward to a lot more plays of it with a lot more groups in the coming year.

Expect reviews of The Sanctuary, Pulsar 2849 and Ilos soon, while I’m yet to play either Transatlantic or Agra which are both on my review shelves; and both possible game-of-the-year contenders for me. I’ll also be seeking out the likes of Lisboa, Wendake and Near & Far to get played as they all look like my kind of thing. Of the ‘not owned’ games above, Azul is the most likely to find its way into my collection.

Other ‘fascinating’ game play and collection stats

My collection has remained stable at 175 – and with a similar number of games on the ‘for sale’ pile as last year. I’m comfortable with the size of my collection and still have no problem selling games that simply aren’t getting played, so I can’t see this changing much.

There are a few older titles on my shelves that I also haven’t gotten to yet, to my shame. The most notable are De Vulgari Eloquntia (traded for), Shafausa (bargain bin buy), Round House (for review) and London Markets (a freebie from Queen) – all games I’ve got high expectations for.

Total plays were down for the third year running, this time to 386 (my first time below 400 plays in a year since 349 in 2011). This was down to a small but significant drop in plays with regular groups for various reasons – replaced with more regular plays with new partner Sarah.

The two are less related than you might think though and I hope my plays with other groups will rise back up to normal levels again in 2018 (Sarah and me tend to play on weekends, which only affects one group).

There were so many of my favourites that I didn’t get to play in 2017: Concordia, Twilight Struggle, Brass, Merchant of Venus and Copycat to name but a few. More than 50 games sit on my shelf unplayed for the year. I actually keep a list of unplayed games from 2015 – and there are still four games on that one! There’s a nice, simple New Year’s resolution waiting to happen…

Despite having around 50 less plays on the year, I actually played games on almost the same amount of different days (around 160); showing sessions were shorter rather than less regular. This feels a pretty accurate reflection on what has been a very busy year in so many ways. My ‘new to me’ games remained pretty stable at 78, just a couple down on 2016 – while the amount of different games played also remained pretty static (around 160). This was largely due to having taught Sarah a lot of games this year, while not having the usual repeat playing of some of my usual favourites.

More in part two…

SEE ALSO: Previous entries for 2012201320142015 and 2016.

Santa Maria: A four-sided game review

Santa Maria is a dice drafting, tile-laying and action selection euro game that plays in one to two hours, depending on the number of players (it usually plays two to four, but also has a solo variant).

This is definitely a gamer’s game, despite what the cartoon style box art might suggest. The age suggestion of 12+ seems about right, as poor play here can see you get a pretty savage thrashing in terms of scores.

The game sees each player setting up and expanding their own colony in the new world at the start of the 16th century. You’ll be producing goods and shipping them off for profit, conquering the locals for gold, or increasing your religious influence – all in the name of making your colony happy (happiness points equals victory points). It’s a well trodden path and Santa Maria makes no attempt to pretend the theme is anything more than pasted on, so don’t expect to immerse yourself in some deep history.

While this may not be its first rodeo, Aporta Games is still relatively new to board game publishing – and it shows a little in the component quality here: the dice feel cheap (the colour ran on the blue ones), some of the tokens are small and fiddly, and some of the graphic design looks cheap and poorly thought out (the victory point tokens are particularly annoying, being very small and in strange denominations). But despite these relatively minor niggles the game feels worth its £35 price point.

Teaching

While there’s quite a lot going on in Santa Maria, seasoned gamers will recognise all the mechanisms and be able to quickly get up to speed. There’s no hidden information that will impede you helping players out as you go along.

Player turns are short, involving just a single action choice (although this can trigger multiple small actions), so games move at a satisfying pace. Most of your game is played on your own player board, while the central game board is used to track information (more on which later). Your board consists of a 6×6 grid of spaces for tiles and an area for resources.

On a turn, a player either adds a tile to their board from a limited central supply by spending resources (each double tile has a road and a building, plus one more of either on three-space tile); use a building (using money) or row of buildings (using a dice); or pass out of the round – called years (there are three in the game). So far, so simple.

The bulk of the game is spent activating the buildings – but the real trick is in solving the puzzle of getting the right tiles and – more importantly – putting them in the right places/combinations. Building allow you to variously gather resources (which you have very limited storage space for); ship these goods off for points and bonuses; trade them for similar; or move along one of the two central game board’s advancement tracks: monk and conquistador.

The conquistador track resets after each year and is pretty boring, yet tantalising: you get the occasional wild resource (very handy) and those furthest along it gain nice points at the end of each year. The monk track has more going on and doesn’t reset. It gives access to extra dice plus the chance to grab bonuses (both ongoing and points for end-game) or resources.

But where the game shines is in what you can’t do, rather than in what you can. If you use a dice to activate a row or column you have to leave the dice on the final building it activates – meaning you won’t be able to activate it again for the rest of the year. You can do the same by paying a coin (then two for the next building, three for the next etc) to activate a single building, but that blocks it in the same way a dice does.

So of course what you want to do is make a row or column as juicy as possible before you activate it – but here you’re faced with two problems. You can activate a maximum of six dice in a year – three of your own (blue), and three from the communal set (white). You only start with one blue (the others you earn from the monk track) and the communal pile of white dice are rolled at the start of the year – so if you snooze, you lose. It costs money to change dice faces and that is often in short supply.

Take into consideration that there is a very limited number of tiles available in each round too, which are also first come first served. So from the get-go each year you have dilemma after dilemma: how much do you want to risk missing those dice and tiles in the hunt for that perfect dice activation? There’s an almost Feldian array of ways to score points, with some being way more ignore-able than others. And there is also a reasonable amount of variety in bonus tiles and combinations to keep those ravenous for replayability from moaning too much.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: If you come to Santa Maria in search of theme or originality, you’re going to be sadly disappointed: even more so if you want high quality components and art/design. But if you want AP-inducing and brain-achingly tricky decisions, fill your boots. The constant dilemma of row activation versus row improvement makes the game stand out in the fast-growing dice activation crowd, putting it well ahead of many older titles – especially the rather ponderous Dice City. It has a slight feel of Cuba to it, but I prefer this one as it is slightly less punishing if you make mistakes – and all rounds a little more satisfying to play.
  • The thinker: While the game has a solid design and I can see it becoming popular, it isn’t for me. Personally I don’t think the mix of tactics and strategy is quite right for the more serious gamer, which can leave a bitter taste in the mouth.  While there are several ways to mitigate dice rolls, they often simply aren’t available: either because the right monk abilities aren’t in play, or you can’t efficiently generate cash income. You can spend year one building strong rows and columns you simply can’t activate effectively later due to duff rolls. This annoyed me – but will tactically titillate others!
  • The trasher: While Santa Maria can look like a heads-down euro with no player interaction, this is a very tactical game – but only with more players. While the number of dice available scales with the number of players (so everyone can always get three white dice from the pool in a year), the available building tiles doesn’t – making each year quite the scramble for them. Also, you have the same number of monk bonus spaces available at all player counts – but going in later sees you paying a coin to each other player who already chose it. This isn’t much of an issue two-player, but with four its a big deal – at least earlier in the game. But overall, not really for me (but i’ll play it).
  • The dabbler: While there is a little too much going on here compared to my usual tastes, once you have the rules down you can largely concentrate in one major direction and do pretty well – even win. Some strategies are much simpler than others in their execution but still give big pay-offs, which does make me doubt things a little: but not enough to stop me enjoying myself. I found this puzzle surprisingly enjoyable – despite neither the theme nor look of the game doing much to win me over. And yes, it’s a little slow with four – but it just means more chatting time lol.

Key observations (including solo play)

In terms of harsh comments from other gamers, ‘clumsy’, ‘ugly’ and ‘under developed’ are all criticisms I have some sympathy with: more should have come out to make it a more streamlined experience. There are lots of things to do in the game, but many don’t feel different enough to warrant inclusion.

AP and downtime are also important side notes, especially when adding more players. Even with two you notice the very different length in how long a year takes (year three can easily take longer than the first two combined) – and with four players it can be hard to keep everyone focused, as you’re less worried about what other players are doing by then as well.

Finally, there is the issue of the perception of imbalance, especially on the first-play experience. Things you’d expect to be significant scorers (such as end-game bonus point tiles) barely impact your score, while the innocuous looking conquistador track is almost impossible to ignore. I expect the game is actually well balanced, and feels well tested, but there have simply been some odd decisions made. All these are more small nods to underdevelopment, I guess. But that said Santa Maria still manages to be an engaging and fun experience – just imagine what it could have been!

If you like this kind of euro game, the solo variant is very solid. The mechanics lend themselves well to it in a similar way to Agricola (rather than Caverna): what you lose in competition for tiles you gain back in trying to beat your previous solo scores by using different strategies, with the randomness in tiles and dice rolls throughout making each game feel a little different. It also throws in a few goal-style scenarios to beat, so while I’m not sure it will have huge staying power purely solo it’s engaging enough to make me return to it for further plays.

Conclusion

I’m struggling to come to a conclusion about my feelings for Santa Maria. It really doesn’t look good, doesn’t appeal to me with four and the way the scoring flows feels counter intuitive – but especially with two players, I really enjoy myself.

The mechanisms work well together and are well integrated, if largely unoriginal: and you do get that satisfaction of solving a tricky puzzle each play. And while it does have a Feldian ‘point salad’ feel, it can also have some quite big point swings and a well executed turn can feel wholly satisfying.

For these reasons it will be staying in my collection, at least for a few more plays – and because my better half likes it too (despite being quite new to gaming). So I’d recommend at least trying it if you’re a fan of euro games at all – and definitely if you love dice drafting and/or point salad style games in particular.

* I would like to thank Aporta Games for providing a discounted copy for review.

Little Big Fish: A four-sided game review

Little Big Fish is a two-player abstract board game, suitable for ages eight and up, that plays out in about 20 minutes.

As you may have guessed, you’ll be trying to eat your opponent’s fish. That’s about as far as it goes for theme! That said, the production quality more than makes up for it.

In the box you get four modular board pieces (making a 6×6 grid of squares), 16 thick cardboard tokens and 24 fantastic plastic fish in three different sizes. The art has a really professional cartoon style (it could be straight out of a Disney movie) and the gorgeous fish are real head-turners – especially as they’ve made them orange and pink.

The game is currently a little hard to find in the UK, but you should be able to track it down for around £20 – reasonable value for the high production quality.

Teaching

Little Big Fish follows many traditional traits of classic two-player abstracts such as chess and draughts.

On you turn you move your pieces (in this case you can move one fish one space twice (each counting as a separate move), or two of your fish once each), with the aim of capturing your opponent’s pieces (here, capture five and you win the game – while you also win if you reduce your opponent to having just one piece on the board).

You each start with three small pieces (fish) on the board. Fish can be upgraded to medium and then large fish, with each size being able to eat the same size fish (or smaller) of your opponent. While small fish are the most vulnerable, they are also more manoeuvrable: there are eight spaces on the board containing ship wrecks, which medium and large fish can’t enter – but small fish can go straight through them (and they don’t even count as a space of movement).

There are also four each of ‘birth’, ‘plankton’ and ‘surprise’ squares on the board. Landing on a birth square spawns another small fish for you; plankton grows the fish landing on it (but you can only use each space once), while the surprise square sees you flip over a random token and take its action.

There are four types of token: ‘plankton’ and ‘birth’ act as the spaces described above, ‘whirlwind’ allows you to rotate one of the modular board pieces 90 degrees, while the ‘fisherman’ eats the fish that landed on the ‘surprise’ space – but also eats one of your opponent’s fish if they have one on the same modular board section. There are only eight tokens (two of each), but you reshuffle and use them again if required.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Good aesthetics can go a long way in helping a game gain traction, and Little Big Fish has it in spades. Better still this one has simplicity on its side, making a game you could pretty much teach anyone.
  • The thinker: I’m always wary when a design adds randomness to a game akin to traditional abstracts, but here it adds an interesting dimension. As there are only eight surprise tiles you can weigh your odds on the chances of getting a favourable outcome on any given round, with these odds becoming clearer as more tiles are used. I think two serious tacticians would soon tire of the game, but as an abstract game clearly aimed at the family market it does a good job of introducing some more gamery elements.
  • The trasher: While the theme of Little Big Fish is paper thin it does work well, and the funny fish models add charm – but underneath it’s a pretty vicious game. The fisherman, for example, are a nice twist. If you have a good chance of getting one, and opponent has a lone big fish on a board, a small fish can dash across to a surprise token and have the chance of taking the opponent’s big fish out with a single move. Who doesn’t love a great David and Goliath moment in a game? This is a fun game for its time span – especially thanks to its fast setup time.
  • The dabbler: While the game is indeed super cute and easy to learn, it can actually be very hard for newer games (and tired gamers lol) to see some of the better moves. The simplicity of moving through wrecks, for example, shouldn’t be hard to parse – but I’ve seen lots of players simply miss this play and get eaten up over and again. Sure, this means the game doesn’t stall into an AP nightmare but it can also be pretty frustrating. I’m just not sure that once the cuteness factor has worn off and people are really clear on the rules, that this won’t degrade into a slow hardcore abstract puzzle with little fun left for more casual gamers.

Key observations

While Little Big Fish has gorgeous pieces, I’m flummoxed by the publisher’s choice of colours for the fish. Why would you pick pink and orange for the fish, and make them identically shaped?

I have no idea if this is a colour blindness issue (please let me know), as I don’t personally have that condition – but still struggled to tell them apart in poor light.

Beyond this, my only complaint is that you can quite easily get into a death spiral if you fall behind early on and end up with pretty much no good moves. This isn’t too much of a problem in such a short game – and you often have a Hail Mary available with the fishermen – but it can be pretty frustrating.

Conclusion

Little Big Fish is a really solid two-player abstract with enough little twists to stand out from the crowd – both aesthetically and mechanically. While it probably won’t win over those who don’t like abstracts, it works very well as a thinky filler that packs down nicely into a small box perfect for travelling.

When you add the advantage it is simple to teach – so will appeal to children and parents too, as the great pieces and light theme should easily win them over – then this is a great little package. Personally, of the two-player games I’ve played from Essen so far, I still prefer Adios Calavera; but I’ll also be keeping this one in my collection.

* I would like to thank The Flying Games (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of the game for review.