Discover – Lands Unknown: A four-sided game review

Discover: Lands Unknown* is a light, story-driven exploration game for 1-4 players. Each box contains five scenarios lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on both the scenario and luck (so you can’t pick one to suit your time constraints).

The recommended age of 12+ feels high, due to the game’s co-operative nature. As long as an adult is in charge it will easily play as young as 8-10 for your average gamer child.

The reason this information is is a bit woolly is because every single copy of the game is unique. Yup, you read that right – every copy has a unique mix of modular board pieces and scenario/event/character cards. So I should point out at this point that this review will include…

Below you’ll see images of my copy, as well as hearing vaguely about certain elements of the game that I feel need discussing. You have been warned – but I don’t think there’s much here in the way of spoilers that would, well, spoil the game for most.

You’ll get a selection of components: 34 modular map pieces making up two boards (you’ll have two of the six available landscape types, and each scenario plays out on one of the two boards); 12 of the game’s 36 character cards, plus four plastic character figures and cardboard character boards/trackers; 200+ more cards; 200+ cardboard chits, and two twelve-sided dice. These are mostly good quality (except the crappy plastic pawns). At around £40, it seems reasonably priced for what you get in the box.

The theme is variously Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Lost, every teen movie of the last decade etc etc, depending on the terrain types and scenarios you get. but one thing is for sure: you and your fellow players will be waking up somewhere unpleasant, with no idea of how you got there – or how to escape.

Teaching Discover: Lands Unknown

This will be an easy teach for anyone who has played any of Fantasy Flight’s small-card story-driven board games (Arkham, Eldritch, Fallout etc), as this is one of those but with stabilisers.

After reading some brief flavour text (one piece for the terrain type and another for the scenario), characters start on the one face-up hex tile of the map and each gets a turn at moving (during the day) before bad things potentially happen at night. Everything you want to do costs a stamina point (move, search, collect a resource, craft an item, trade etc), or more for harder actions (rougher terrain, or completing some story elements) – essentially an action point allowance game.

Tiles are flipped over and revealed as the players explore, at which point they’re populated with face-down cardboard chits. These usually just flip (once scavenged) to reveal a basic resource, although some will reveal a number (as do some locations printed directly into the tiles). Then you go to a card deck and read a short piece of flavour text, and/or receive a special item. Others reveal creatures which often give up a food or pelt if defeated, but can equally wound you in the process.

While the game proffers a lot of variety, in truth it has very few systems with which to fulfil this promise. Resources gathered are generic (‘food’, ‘stone’ etc), while crafted items simply add base game bonuses (fight re-rolls, extra stamina etc). Items found in locations tend to let you read a different card in particular story situations, moving the main story line along a little further each time.

Then at night, another type of card is flipped to see what perils await. You always either consume and/or lose some kind of resource, often move/spawn monsters, and sometimes have to each individually flip yet another type of (bad news) event card. On the plus side, anyone surviving will get at least six stamina to use the next day. You tend to be a little better off if you sleep at a fire, and these are scarce, which is a nice touch. Each terrain type also offers its own slight variation on the rules: on one of ours, for example, staying on roads could be more dangerous in terms of encounters.Your character board/tracker is the most ingenious thing in the game. It has four dials (this is a FF game after all): three to record damage and one showing your stamina. The damage dials each have a heart, water, food, poison and skull symbol. You start with three hearts, but whenever you need to eat or drink and don’t have food or water, or get poisoned or damaged by a creature, you turn one of your dials to the matching symbol. If you ever need to move a dial but all three have already moved away from being a heart, that’s it – you’re dead.

If you later find food, water or medicine you can cure one of that type of damage – but skulls are permanent damage that can’t be cured. As well as creatures doing this permanent damage, the game will occasionally throw you an event that turns one of your other damages into a skull, further hastening your demise. It’s a simple, clever system that does a really good job or raising your dread levels and keeps you constantly on the lookout for more resources (you can normally carry 10 items, but that limit rarely becomes an issue!).

Each scenario card will have a condition that needs to be met before moving to the next card – and each scenario will have (in our game at least) two to four cards per scenario. Players that die lose, players that meet the win condition of the final scenario card win – so one, some or all players can be triumphant in any given scenario. It’s a semi co-operative game, which gives you some freedom – but (in our experience) even then sometimes the scenario cards will force your hand. And yes, early player elimination (a game mechanism much-hated by many modern players) is a real possibility.

Once you have played through the first four scenarios, the fifth goes from being semi co-operative to a fully cutthroat, last-man-standing death match using most of the same rules as above (adding player-versus-player combat, while removing most story elements). This is intended to be the scenario you then repeat for any further plays you wish to have with that particular copy of the game.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Even accepting this as ‘Ameritrash’, surely there’s only a certain amount of luck any player can stomach? And I’m afraid you’ve lost me when the placement of a single tile, or the flip of one card, can add or take away literally 1-2 hours of game time – or eliminate a player with a few hours of play left to go. The game is deliberately brutal, which sets the right mood, but the level of randomness takes away any chance of genuine mitigation: nothing is certain, so you can’t even consider playing conservatively. It quickly becomes a crap-shoot, which doesn’t add up with the game’s play time.
  • The role-player: I was really looking forward to Discover, having enjoyed the storytelling aspect of many Fantasy Flight games. But unfortunately what we got was thin and cliched, with no replay value: there are only five scenarios and these have the same 10 ‘night’ cards, which you soon learn (you’ll probably go through them all at least once on every scenario). Where games such as Eldritch and Fallout sometimes offer story choices (like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game) on the cards, you don’t even get that level of interaction here: at best, you get to read another card without making any choices. It’s such as a shame, as I’d hoped for a step forward from the flawed but thematic Fallout – not a big step backwards.
  • The trasher: Don’t be fooled – this isn’t a semi co-op in the way you might hope. There’s no motivation to go it solo beyond being a dick, as your character or other game mechanisms don’t give you a thematic reason to be. Worse, sometimes the game makes you be selfish by you accidentally finishing a scenario and leaving the other players in the lurch. You don’t choose to do this – it just happens. That is unsatisfying for everyone! As for the PVP in scenario five, it’s OK but doesn’t change the dynamic: search, hope luck is on your side, then fight players using the same basic and heavily luck dependent system in other scenarios. Sadly, it makes for an unsatisfying finale – and it really was our finale with the game.
  • The dabbler: I found Discover: Lands Unknown very easy to learn and play, but it can be hard to stay alive! The game feels as if it forces you to move and gather quickly, which makes it tense but on the down side you can’t relax and do your own thing much – rather than being about survival, it feels like a race to the end because survival here is impossible. I liked the simplicity of the actions and the way the items and damage worked (crafting, making food etc) felt thematic – it’s just a shame the story was a little under-cooked! And unfortunately, while the story changed a bit each scenario, it didn’t feel different – no matter the wording, you just had to rush around and explore as quickly as possible.

Key observations

Fantasy Flight released two games this year with the ‘unique’ tag. The fact Discover is currently averaging a 6 on Board Game Geek, while KeyForge is rating 8, tells the story: this is not the right kind of game for this interesting production idea, due to the current level of technology available (both in terms of production and computation).

KeyForge is a card game, with a low cost entry level and a target audience already primed for buying multiple decks of cards. The adventure game audience is looking for a great story-telling experience out of the box – and unfortunately they’re not getting that here. And this means that, even if you buy multiple copies, you won’t get it either because – whatever the combination you get – the story will be thin at best.

So many things don’t add up. One of the worst is the hugely variable game length of 30-180 minutes, which would be OK if you knew what to expect going in each time – something you get in a normal adventure game. And having several co-operative scenarios leading up to a PVP experience? I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea, but it couldn’t have fallen flatter with my group – and from what I’ve read elsewhere, the majority of other groups who’ve worked through the entire campaign.

But the biggest problem is that the game experience is only going to be slightly different for each group, making the ‘unique’ tag feel a lot like snake oil. Players looking for a light, harsh adventure game experience may well find it here – but it will not be because of the game’s unique nature – and it’s hard to see a scenario in which making this simply a good standard game with a better, more coherent story wouldn’t have been a much better idea to pursue.

Conclusion

For great advancements to take place in any field, someone has to take the first tentative steps – and I applaud Fantasy Flight for having the vision to do so with unique board and card game experiences. But with first steps come falls, and while KeyForge seems to be generally succeeding Discover is having a much harder time.

But despite a pretty universal nose-thumbing from the gaming media, Discover – Lands Unknown is actually finding a decent number of fans. Analysis of its BGG ratings to date see 120 people rating it a 7 (its most common ranking), with 195 going higher than that and 305 going lower. Those aren’t great numbers, but far from damning.

I think it shows that a lot of people were wanting to try this game, due to its unique nature – but that a lot of those early adopters came away disappointing. Me and my group definitely fall into that camp – but at the same time, we all want to play KeyForge and are all looking forward to the possibilities this ‘unique game’ concept can offer in the future. So for me, Discover was a miss – but if you like light adventuring games which are high on pressure and luck but pretty low on plot, this may be the game for you.

* Thanks to Fantasy Flight Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of Discover: Lands Unknown for review.

Orbital: A four-sided game review

Orbital* is a puzzley euro-style city (well, technically space station) building board game for 2-4 players that takes under an hour to play.

The box says ages 8+ and that feels about right, although to compete well you’ll need to keep quite a lot of information in your mind at once in terms of scoring.

The medium sized box contains one main board, eight double-sided (but very thin) player boards, 128 cardboard tiles, 20 coins (read: crappy yellow tiddlywinks) and a handy scoring pad. The art is functional, the graphic design works well. The tile quality is fine and the eight different tile colours stand out well enough. However, their small size means care should’ve been taken in terms of the symbols/art on them: it’s hard to see, meaning those with colour blindness issues could well struggle with the game.

The theme is barely there at all, especially because the art on the tiles is so minuscule (each side of a triangle is just an inch long) your finished ‘orbital’ will look nothing like one. However, that’s where my small criticisms with the game end. Orbital will actually look lovely on the table come the end, even if it will more resemble a piece of abstract art than a page from a teen boy’s sci-fi wet dream. So, if you go in expecting an abstract puzzle game and not a space opera, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Teaching Orbital

Orbital is an easy game to teach, as the small four-page rulebook should testify. The tiles are sorted by size and placed next to the main board, which has spaces for several of each sized tile (they range from a single triangle up to five triangles combined in various shapes). 

Flip over two of the random end game bonus scoring tiles (and explain them). Put a tile in each available space on the main board, give each player a space station board (there are four shapes to choose from) and five coins, and you’re ready to start.

On your turn, you must take a tile and add it to your station. Your first one can be placed anywhere, but after that each following tile must connect (along a long side) to one you’ve already placed. You can always take the single tile in the top left corner of the main board for free; but if you want any of the others, you’re going to have to pay.

You can work both down and across from the top left, putting a coin on each tile you pass – then take the one you want (you don’t put a coin on the space you take a tile from). The way the board is set up means that, as long as you have at least five coins, you can get to any tile on the grid. Later, if you take a tile that has coins on it, you also take those coins. In this way, no new coins ever come into the game – but none leave.

Where you place your tiles can be as important as which ones you take, depending on the scoring methods you’re trying hardest to succeed at.

For example, you’ll score two points per housing tile and as long as you have an equal number of both farms and power plants – and these can be anywhere in your station. But there are points for the largest collection of gardens or houses too, or bonus points for restaurants if they happen to be placed next to farms. 

When one player has filled their board with tiles (or the single tiles run out, which I haven’t seen happen), the game ends immediately. You lose one point for each space left on your board, then count up your points following the 11 scoring conditions printed on the player boards – plus the two random scoring tiles revealed at the start of the game. 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: I’m always amazed when a simply mechanism comes along and blows me away. How has no one thought of doing this before? Orbital’s tile buying mechanism did this for me: the simple fact, yes, tiles are replaced and slide in to fill the gaps – but if you want a bigger tile, it’s always going to cost more. A seemingly small change to an old idea, but which had a really big (and positive) impact on game play. I also love the fact they’ve included the different shapes of station (a bit like they have with Galaxy Trucker), as they make the game just different enough to add a bit of variety without adding any rule complexity. 
  • The thinker: While this is a very simple game in theory, the high number of scoring mechanisms make it a satisfying puzzle to unlock. While the tile art doesn’t really pop, it means the colours are easy to identify across the table – so you can easily keep tags on your opponents. Winning scores tend to be in the 60s or 70s, so the five-point bonuses for largest connected garden and housing can make all the difference – and are all the more satisfying if you can grab them by a single tile. Managing your coin economy is also an interesting challenge – so all in all, this is a very strong title for its weight and length.
  • The trasher: Orbital has no direct confrontation, but you can mess with people! For example, everyone needs recycling tiles or they’ll lose points at the end of the game – so why not take all recycling tiles as they come up? It makes an interesting end game, as people blow their money on high cost recycling tiles – leaving you the pick of the good stuff! It can also be fun to purely play the economy, taking the biggest tiles you can as cheaply as possible and rushing the end game. You may not win, but its hilarious to see it dawn on people the game is ending much quicker than anticipated – and they’ve got loads of minuses coming!
  • The dabbler: While the number of ways you can score points is overwhelming, I really enjoyed this one. The theme doesn’t exist but the game looks lovely and colourful on the table, while its super simple to teach and pick up. Also, you can’t really score on everything – so the key for me is picking a few things and doing them as well as possible. It’s a shame the coins are so cheap – but the first thing we did was upgrade ours to some fancy metal ones, as there’s only 20! 

Key observations

The main complaint I’ve seen about Orbital is it’s difficult to see what other players are doing – which I absolutely cannot fathom. For me, the ease of doing this is one of the game’s strengths. This genuinely baffles me. Maybe on your first play you may want to just get your head around scoring, but really? Sorry, but that’s nonsense.

Another is the fact scoring is “annoying”. I can see this as a point of view, as there are a lot of ways to score. That said, they provide score sheets; all the ways to score are printed right there on your player board; and none of them are complex – there are just a lot of them. But sure, if multiple paths to victory that you have to keep an eye on is going to get on your nerves, this is not the game for you.

What I’ve actually been surprised by is how much people have enjoyed the game, from both ends of the gaming spectrum (new/light and experienced/strategic gamers): quite a difficult thing to pull off.

Conclusion

I love city building games – in theory. I say in theory because I’ve been starting to doubt that (and my sanity) in recent years, as I’ve never actually found one I liked. Suburbia was ugly and clunky; Ludwig improved on it but had the awful pricing mechanism (and a lot of luck of the draw). But now I’m happy.

Orbital has a satisfying building purchase mechanism, an equally satisfying puzzle of piecing them all together, and enough ways to score to make your head hurt a little – but also to let everyone choose their own route, while keeping things competitive. It’s a shame the tiles couldn’t be a little more expressive of the theme, but for me that’s a minor complaint: this is easily one of my games of the year. 

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

Board game Top 10: Family games for everyone this Christmas

With Christmas approaching, loads of families are likely to be forced into games of Monopoly, Cluedo and the like as they wade their way through the festive holidays.

The good news is that, for a small cash outlay and a trip to a shop you wouldn’t usually visit (or the online equivalent), you can pick up some modern family board games that will be way more engaging, loads more fun, and probably a lot shorter than you’d think. So ignore the ads for the usual crap on TV and check out some of these out instead.

The games below are a combination of board games, balancing (dexterity) games and word games which offer a whole lot more than their standard toy shop equivalents. They’re also a similar price, have similar ease of entry (in terms of rules) and really aren’t anything to fear – promise! There are no dungeons, dragons, zombies or spaceships on this list (although they’re might be a monster or two…). The last three German Game of the Year winners are in here, which means they’ll be easily available.

If you don’t have a friendly local game store, I’d suggest visiting the Board Game Prices website if you’re interested in any of these (or if you’re in Cambridge, definitely try downstairs in Heffers book store). Alternatively I’ve previously done Top 10 lists for stocking filler card games and also games for 5-8 year-olds if they’re more likely to be up your alley. Or get in touch with a specific request and I’ll see what I can do.

Games are linked by the title where I’ve reviewed them elsewhere on the site. And, as always, if you have any questions – or your own recommendations – just pop them in the ‘comments’ below.

My Top 10 family games for Christmas

10. Thebes (2007)
2-4 players, 60 minutes

Thebes is a classic family game that adds a few gamer concepts to a simple set collection game. Move around the board collecting cards that will give you more searches when you go on your archaeological expeditions – then push your luck and see what you find.

Once you think you’ve gained enough knowledge of a dig site, you head there to search. This involved taking a number of picks from a bag matching your location – some of which will have treasures, while others will just be blank. Sure, its super luck based but that makes thematic sense and creates a lot of laughs as people draw from the bag – and there are ways to help mitigate against the luck.

9. Kingdomino (2016)
(2-4 players, 30 minutes)

Take the basic concept of dominoes (tiles made up of two squares, one of which you need to match), add a simple drafting system (if you choose a good domino this turn, you’ll have a later pick next turn), and add a puzzle element  (players create a 5×5 grid with their choices, trying to match terrain types to score points) and bingo! You have a classic.

If only it were that easy – but with Kingdomino, that’s what you get. It was the 2017 Spiel des Jahres winner (German family game of the year) and it’s easy to see why: the artwork is beautiful, the dominoes nice thick cardboard, the game play simple but the puzzle challenging. And for less than £20, it’s also a bargain. The age range of 8+ is pretty accurate too, but it still offers a fun challenge for adults – so it should find a place in most households.

8. Can’t Stop (1980)
(2-4 players, 30 minutes)

Everyone loves rolling some dice, right? Here you’re pushing your luck but more importantly you’re playing the odds – and low rolls can be just as good (or bad…) as high ones. Each player tries to get their three cones to the tops of three number tracks (with numbers 2-12). The 2 and 12 tracks are the shortest, but obviously harder to roll than the much longer 7 track…

This fantastic game has been around in one form or another for almost 40 years, but unlike many older games it has really stood the test of time. As well as being a fun game for adults it’s a great learning tool for children for learning about odds and percentages; while the big chunky plastic pieces are also suitable for any occasion and audience. You can add extra people by simply playing teams (just take it in turns on the dice), making it a fun light party game too – and at about 30 minutes, it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. A game every household should have.

7. The Downfall of Pompeii (2004)
(2-4 players, 45 minutes)

If you like the meanness or competitive nature of Monopoly, but not the tedious luck dependent game play and ridiculously long play time, you should take a look at Pompeii. This family board game first sees you populate the doomed city with your pieces – before you all start making a run for it as the lava starts to flow.

And yes, it’s the players who choose where the lava tiles go – so you’ll soon be condemning each other’s citizens to the flames with evil laughter. It’s a simple game with quite a lot of genuine strategy when playing with two – but with four players it just turns into a riot.

A good alternative is classic family game Escape From Atlantis, which dates back to the 80s but currently has a lovely modern edition available as Survive: Escape From Atlantis! It has the same macabre game play as the original, with just a few tweaks: try to get your Atlanteans to the edge of the board as the city sinks into the depths – while your opponents send all manner of huge sea creatures to devour them…

6. Junk Art (2016)
(2-6 players, 30 minutes)

If you liked a bit of Jenga, but found it got old fast, look no further than Junk Art to take things up a notch. It’s basically a box of variously shaped wooden blocks which each player gets the same set of – that you then balance on top of each other.

The important twist, though, is that you’re doing this differently every time. There’s a whole bunch of scoring cards that come with it which keep the game fresh: one game you’ll be trying to get extra points for having the highest stack, while next game you may add a couple of pieces but then have to move clockwise to the next person’s stack – completely changing how you’d play the game.

for a cheaper small-box experience, with less rules and variety but a lot of fun all the same, look out for the lovely Animal Upon Animal: roll a dice, then add the piece it tells you to the growing pile of fun wooden animal pieces. A gorgeous, simple and more portable balancing game that always raises a laugh.

5. Forbidden Island (2010)
(1-4 players, 30-60 minutes)

A genuine innovation in gaming over the past decade has been co-operative games: where the players are helping each other, rather than competing, in an attempt to beat the game.

Probably the purest example that’s a great introduction to the genre is Forbidden Desert – especially as, if you like it, it’s a great introduction to one of the classics of the genre (which is a little more complex): Pandemic.

Each player has a character, and each takes a turn, as you explore an island trying to find hidden artefacts before it sinks into the sea. But on your turn you can discuss the best course of action for yourself, as each player has an individual skill only they possess. You can of course ignore what others suggest and do your own thing – but if you fail, or someone dies, the whole group fails together.

If you prefer the idea of one against many, the classic Scotland Yard still holds its own in today’s market. Here one player is the criminal (using hidden movement) trying to escape from London, while the others are police officers trying to catch them before they escape. Again, this game can lead on to more complex modern equivalents if you find you like the genre (Letters from Whitechapel, Fury of Dracula etc).

4. Codenames (2015)
(4-8 players, 30-60 minutes)

Word game are a Christmas standard and the hobby market has been no slouch updating the genre. Codenames is an excellent example, pitching two teams against each other to match a variety of words under a single one-word clue – while having to avoid other words or face defeat.

The 2016 Spiel de Jahres winner has spawned several different versions since, including one where the words are replaced with pictures and a co-operative version (Duet) for two players.

This year also saw two contenders released to challenge the Codenames team word game crown. Trapwords is a take on Taboo, but where the opposing team makes up the taboo words and you don’t know what they are (it’s a really clever twist). Decrypto adds more of a crossword element, where you’re trying to give clue to your team without being too obvious, as the opposing team can also work out your words over a series of rounds as the clues start to mount up.

Finally, if you like a bit more creativity, Dixit comes with a stack of beautifully drawn but surreal art images. Your job is to say a phrase that describes one from your hand – enough so some people will guess which image you’re talking about, but not exact enough that everyone will (you get a point per correct guess – but if everyone guesses right you get no points). Once you’ve said your phrase, each other person looks at their own cards and puts one into a pile with yours, which is then shuffled. If people choose someone else’s card instead of yours, whoever put that image in gets a point – which keeps everyone involved throughout.

3. Azul (2017)
(2-4 players, 45 mins)

Abstract games have long been family favourites and Azul ticks all the boxes: simple rules, gorgeous on the table and it can be super mean once you get used to it – but it’s short enough that a beating is easier to take, as you can just go again!

Players take it in turns to choose tiles from a central area, trying to make sets on their own score card to complete lines and get points. But you always have to take all of an available colour, so as as tiles are taken big sets begin to appear – and if you have nowhere to put them, you’re going to face negative points. It’s simple but thinky, creating a great atmosphere around the table.

Azul is actually on my own Christmas list this year – as is Patchwork, another abstract game that looks beautiful on the table. This one is only for two players and plays in around 30 minutes. You’re reach trying to fill your own nine-by-nine grid with the gorgeous patch art tiles, but they’re all different shapes (Tetris style) and you can’t always afford the ones you want/need.

2. King of Tokyo (2012)
(2-6 players, 30-60 mins)

Whether it’s kids (about 8+) or adults, if you’ve got a competitive family that likes chucking dice then it doesn’t get much better than this. Each of you is a monster on the rampage, but only one can win – so you take turns chucking dice to defeat your opponents.

The twist is that one of you is in the middle, and while you are you’re earning points. While in the middle you’ll also damage all other players with your attacks – but you can’t heal, and all the other players automatically have to attack you! This push and pull, plus a bunch of fun cards that give each of you unique abilities, can make it an absolute riot. The game certainly isn’t for everyone, but with the right crowd it can be great fun – and the production quality is once again excellent.

1. Ticket to Ride (2004)
(2-5 players, 60 minutes)

This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or reads the blog, but no game has helped me convert non-gamers to the cause as effectively as Ticket to Ride. It combines a simple set collection card mechanic with route building on a large map, making it accessible – but also competitive and quick.

The basic map that comes in the box is just that, but there is a slew of expansion maps available that each add their own clever little rules to the base game. In fact there’s an alternative starter set (Ticket to Ride: Europe) which players may want to get instead, if you’re happy to have a slightly more challenging rule set straight out of the box (it really isn’t that much more complicated).

I should also note here the two other family hobby games that have ruled the roost in terms of sales over the past couple of decades: Carcassonne (a lovely, simple tile-laying game) and Catan (a game of building and trading, where you really need to trade to make it fun). Both have lost a little of their lustre for me over the past few years, but it’s not by accident that these games have introduced millions of new gamers to the hobby. Depending on your crowd, these can both be great picks in the right group.

Crown of Emara: A four-sided game review

Crown of Emara* is a mid-weight action selection euro game for one to four players, that plays out in around an hour (making the 45-75 minutes on the box shockingly accurate). The recommended age (12+) also seems fair, as there’s a lot going on here – and a lot to grok before you get going on your first play.

In the box you’ll find eight modular board pieces (making two boards), four player boards, a nobility board and a score track; plus around 75 cardboard chits, 70+ wooden pieces and almost 100 half-sized cards. Artist Dennis Lohausen does a great job, as always, of bringing the predictable medieval setting to life with a bit of colour and nice graphic design; and the components are all of solid if unremarkable quality. At around £35, I reckon this offers great value in the current climate.

As you’d expect from a German euro game, the theme is very much pasted on – but it does its job well enough. Players vie to be the successor to the king – which they do by, you know, using actions to collect resources before handing them in to get various types of points, as efficiently as possible. Yup, we’ve heard it all a thousand times before (and increasingly, a thousand times per year) – but fear not: this is a good one.

Teaching Crown of Emara

This is one of those euro games where you need to do a lot of explaining right at the beginning – but once you get going, it’s pretty straightforward.

Players will have a lot of options available to them right from the off, and your total number of actions is quite limited: to do well, you won’t want to waste a single one.

Thematically, you’re each aspiring to the throne – but this is far from Game of Thrones territory. It’s a time of peace where the king’s favour will be won by persuading the happy growing populace to like you, while housing all these new citizens at the same time. In old Knizia scoring style, you will have both a housing and popularity marker on the score track – and the weakest of your two at the end of the game will be your final score. So, the key is balancing the two.

A game is played over 18 quick-playing rounds, which will see each player go through their set of nine action cards twice. Each player has the same set of cards, but they’re shuffled and drawn in sets of three (reminiscent of Feld’s Notre Dame, but without the drafting). On their turn, a player will do both the action on the card they play plus a movement action – and any of three bonus actions (once each per turn) that are always available if you have the resources to carry them out.

Five of the card actions simply give you one of the game’s resources; one lets you do another movement action; while the other three let you do another standard game move slightly more efficiently, or from outside its usual area. Bonus actions allow you to variously rise through the ranks of royalty (for easy popularity points), gain a helper in town (for a big variety of immediate and/or ongoing benefits) or gain a helper in the countryside (to help you gain more basic resources).

But where the game’s real puzzle lies is in the movement actions. Each player has a game piece on each of two modular square boards (the town and countryside) which they move around clockwise, rondel style. When you play an action card, you place it into an empty slot on your character board which will then see you move one of those pieces one, two or three spaces.

Wherever you then land you do the associated action – while the position of your character also dictates where you’re allowed to hire help (with your bonus actions). As you have to put one card into each slot, and have to move the set amount of spaces from it, this makes each set of three action cards a tricky balancing act (once you’ve played three, you turn them over and draw your next three cards).

Where countryside actions are very straightforward (basically gaining resources), town actions can be more complex. Most have several actions you can do once each, so it’s usually best to build up to them – but as other players do these actions, they become more expensive throughout the game – meaning holding back is going to cost you. It’s not really interaction, as such, but it does make you distinctly aware of the goals your fellow players are going for as the game progresses. At the end of the game you can trade in any remaining bits and bobs to help pick up your weaker scoring element.

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 Benjamin Schwer is known for children’s games – but Crown of Emara shows he definitely has it in him to design for grown ups too. It’s one of those games where you want to be doing everything all the time, and where you constantly feel you’re one or two resources short of where you want to be – but that’s the kind of challenge I really enjoy. And while the two types of scoring could’ve felt frustrating, the fact most resources can get you either type helps a lot – you just have to be as efficient as possible, no matter what route you decide to go down.
  • The thinker: While the game has engine building elements and you can set out with a particular strategy in mind (even more so once you hire a helper or two), the three-card draw – and having to match them to the movement actions for maximum effect – adds a delicious tactical twist. Some will think the game too short, as it seems to end just as you’re getting going, but for me it gets the mix just right: it’s rare a really thinky euro game packs a bunch of tough decisions into an hour, but that’s exactly what has been achieved here – with the final three turns always being a real brain burner. And it really helps knowing that you’re going to see each of your cards twice – but when…?
  • The trasher: Crown of Emara is far from being a conflict game, but it does have some sneaky elements and I found myself enjoying it with four players (less otherwise). You have to move fast to get bargains in the town, or to claim the people you want to help your cause; and ramping up prices in town once you know what resources people are working on keeps you on your toes. Also going up the royalty track faster gives you more points than those that follow. But this really isn’t a game for people who need ‘proper’ player interaction in their life!
  • The dabbler: I was very worried about this one when we started as their were a lot of initial rules. But I found a simple route to follow (going up the royalty track) and stuck with it as I learned the game – and while I didn’t win, I was in the mix at the end! By then I had the game down, so my next play I could experiment. It can be frustrating if people take the characters you want, but there’s always another way to get what you need. It’s a very colourful game, without being too busy, so it looks nice on the table too. I wouldn’t ask for it, but I’d happily play again.

Key observations

Crown of Emara is a classic German euro game with a very specific audience: resource efficiency lovers who don’t require player interaction to have a good time.

Yes, the theme is paste on and no, not all of the actions make thematic sense but hey – it’s not as if you should be expecting that from the game and I don’t think it pretends to be anything it’s not.

The game also has a number of variants that can change things up, which feel just right for this kind of euro puzzle. You can mix and match the modular board to blend town and country, making for a really screwy and tricky layout; while another official variant is having all nine of your cards in hand to give you more control (you still play through all nine twice, but in the order of your choosing). This is the kind of variability that really adds to a game without adding components and it’s great see how well it has been thought out – essentially adding expert versions you can delve into if you feel the need for a different, even thinkier experience.

Finally, having admonished publisher Pegasus for its poor handing of gender politics in Showtime, it’s only fair to note the nice little touches here – male and female sides for player boards, and male and female meeples on the main boards that aren’t tied to one or the other (only the royalty promotions are single sex). It boggles the mind how they can get it right here, but completely miss the mark on their other Essen 2018 release. Let’s just hope that in future there will be more Emara moments than Showtime ones.

Playing Crown of Emara solo

It should come as no surprise that this ‘multiplayer solitaire’ game has a solo mode. You either try and beat your own previous score in a one-off game, changing difficulty by altering the starting position on the housing score track; or play a campaign.

In either instance you’ll be up against Victoria, the dummy player. All she really does is get move through the royalty tiers (which can cost you a few points) while earning points (and weakening for you) all the scoring opportunities at the main town spaces. Also, don’t get too excited about the ‘campaign’ mode: it’s really just a way to track your progress game-to-game, as you ramp up the difficulty for the next game if you manage to beat Victoria on the score track.

That said, while not exactly groundbreaking, the solo mode works well and the dummy player is very simple and quick to move along – you can get a game done very quickly and it’s a satisfying experience. I enjoyed my solo play and would happily try it again, so if you like this kind of game anyway I’d certainly recommend it.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is ‘event cards’. One is turned over in each game round (so it last for a full three-card action sequence) and they have various effects: it may simply give each player a resource, but it can make a certain board spaces better (or even worse) for those three actions. These can be fairly inconsequential, but they do add a little more variety which I think you especially appreciate in solo play.

Conclusion

When I was planning for Essen this game wasn’t even on my radar, but it has turned out to be one of my biggest hits from the show so far. I’m a sucker for a rondel and both the speed and thoughtfulness on display here really blew me away. While there’s a lot of options, nothing feels tacked on – it all slots together perfectly and while it takes a bit of teaching to get going, the elegance soon shines through. A definite keeper for me and a potential top 50 game for my all-time list.

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

Game design: With 1,000 games released at Essen, is due diligence still possible?

I caught up with Board Game Geek ‘news guy’ Eric Martin at the Essen Spiel press event. Journalists are a cynical bunch, so it was no surprise we took a bit of a sideways look at the current gaming landscape.

The main point I made was that, in a world where getting on for 1,000 hobby board games are being released at a single gaming event, how can designers, reviewers and even publishers to do their due diligence? Is it any surprise the number of average games grows while the number of outstanding ones stays the same, when it is impossible to track what’s being released?

This thought had started to manifest before the event. After going through a list of Essen 2018 releases, I had a slightly shorter wish list than in previous years. Talking to friends I heard a similar story: more games, less of interest. While you can put a bit of this down to a growing cynicism from being long in a hobby, it seemed too common to be just that. So what was it and why?

This is a bit of a stream of consciousness, so please take it as such.

Are the big publishers getting safer?

The majority of games I wanted at Essen were in halls 4 and 5, where the smaller publishers tend to live. I had practically nothing in halls 1 and 3, which is home to the bigger stands.

As I wandered past those bigger publishers, it was noticeable their games were unsurprisingly family oriented, short and pretty, but also largely bereft of originality. Sure, some had clever little tricks (Solenia being a good example, or The River) but they didn’t offer staying power. These were games that would win win you over with their looks, but that you’d be done with within a few months/plays.

You can argue in the current climate this makes sense: put out a pretty game that’s easy to play and teach (to maximise con sales and video reviewer coverage) and that people will enjoy until next Essen, when you can sell them the next game. Music, film, video gaming – even consumer electronics such as phones – already work this way, so why not board games too?

It feels like a ‘big business’ move into an arena that isn’t used to it – and may not be right for it. When you look at the likes of Hasbro, who have been nailing this market for years, the North Star Games approach (make a few games and back them to the hilt over the years) makes sense. So why are likes of Asmodee, Blue Orange, Iello and the rest seemingly going largely against that philosophy? They do have back catalogues, but the number of annual new releases is very, very high.

More customers – but the same sized print runs?

One reason is clearly the new gamer that has been created by the age of the Kickstarter: hype-hunting, cult-of-the-new driven and desperate for ‘value’ – even if they have to pay £100+ to get it. A game isn’t a real game unless it comes with exclusive content only available on pre-order – even if said content is being made up on the fly as the millions of KS dollars role in.

But then we keep being told we have more new gamers than ever before, so surely the minis companies can continue to have their fun while the rest of us go back to having a fantastic annual crop of games we can actually manage – and that are properly developed and then loved (by both publisher and gamer) on release? Games with enough depth to survive more than a handful of plays?

These still happen, of course, but as I stated earlier – the number doesn’t seem to be growing, despite a doubling of actual games being released each year over the last decade (or less). We’ll always get the Azuls and Gaia Projects, but now we have to wade through so many more mediocre games to get to them: and many really good games are being lost in the malaise, ditched to history after a 5,000-copy print run because they weren’t well supported or covered.

So what do we design – and what do we play?

As a reviewer and designer, I’m lucky to play a larger number of new releases – pre and post publication – than most. But with even the Dice Tower’s Tom Vasel admitting that, as a full time reviewer, he can only play a fraction of releases – where does that leave the rest of us in terms of due diligence?

As a designer, I want to see what’s being done: to spot great new mechanisms and designers, as well as seeing the directions publishers are taking in terms of releases (so as to better know who to pitch my designs to). And I’m sure it’s the same for publishers: they need to know the trends, to help them decide what is worth publishing and what isn’t. I’m sure a lot of releases branded as ‘copy cats’ were probably done out of understandable ignorance rather than deliberate shenanigans.

As a journalist, I’m peppered with requests to cover KS games by people who don’t want me to play them: just to cut-and-paste their press releases, or do a paid rules overview. The games I want to play (by proper publishers) I have to hunt down, hassle, buy or borrow and then – even if I review them – it may do the game no good, because it has been completely overlooked by the hype machine. A lot of really good games simply aren’t getting a fair crack of the whip.

And publisher fatigue is definitely starting to show. I know of several publishers who were hardly looking at any new designs at Essen this year, while others were reported to be looking but with no real intention of taking on any new projects. Others have freely admitted to over-extending in terms of releases – meaning they didn’t have the resources to fully back them in the market – while talk of scaling back the number of games is another common topic of conversation.

Is it even a problem?

Top designer Reiner Knizia got by ignoring other designs and just carrying on regardless (or so the story goes). But rumour has it he has lately been playing more games – and his output is improving because of it after a poor run of form (at least by his own high standards).

But generally I think it is a problem. Retailers can’t stock everything and invariably end up with a lot of crap stock no one wants. Customers end up with as many bad games as good and, where once the secondary market thrived, even that is now reeling under the weight of games being ditched. Publishers are in an annual release-test-develop-release cycle that sees them flying by the seat of their pants, while designers are carried along on the same wave. It’s exciting sure, but ultimately unsustainable.

I expect the next few years will continue in the same cycle: uninspiring, short life cycle, family friendly games will continue to dominate the big publisher release schedule while the innovation will come in 1,000-5,000 print run releases from smaller publishers: these niche publishers will, by dint of caring about a smaller part of the market, be at the right end of the due diligence scale but will be in a market reminiscent of a decade ago.

But designers hoping to make a living will be encouraged to make games for the lowest common denominator, knowing that’s what the bigger publishers want: games they can make pretty and tie to a theme, while not over-burdening the new gamers coming into the market with too many surprises.

I also think the big boys will continue to extend their print runs as the hobby grows, but very rarely into the mega seller category – because they’re largely not making games for that reason (as I spoke about recently, variability doesn’t equal replayability – good game design does). It’s going to take a drop in releases, and a tightening of focus, to get the production cycle of the hobby back on track. It’ll mean more due diligence from designers and publishers, but that can only be good for the hobby.

Adios Calavera: All the expansions reviewed

Adios Calavera is a wonderful abstract strategy game released in 2017 which has unfortunately flown largely under the radar – check out my full review for the details.

This year saw three mini expansions released for it. The most significant change was a three-player version of the game (the original only plays two). In addition three new characters were released, which play significantly differently from the original rule set.

The mini expansions don’t merit full length reviews, so I’ve grouping them here. To cover a few things I normally mention: the original game and all expansions are available direct from Mucke Spiele. The base game is just €20, with the three-player expansion at €10 (the mini expansions are €2.50 each – and all the expansions come in zip-lock baggies, so there’s no stressing about throwing away expansion boxes!). I think this offers good value and yes, all the expansions fit neatly into the original box.

Adios Calavera: The Three Player Expansion

This came as a surprise for a game that so obviously made sense two-player, but once I’d seen a picture it made perfect sense: pentagons instead of squares, with the number of pieces reduced to five each.

Other rule changes are scarce: the centre spot is still impassable, but the two areas you can’t land on (but can move through) are removed. The new player gets a full set of pieces, including the Hasta Nunca expansion characters (see below). The only character the third player doesn’t get is the piece that moves diagonally (as there are no movement restrictions on the pentagons).

In terms of the new board, you’re going to need a steady hand: instead of a new board, you get four stickers to place on the back of your original. This makes perfect sense in terms of saving money and space – but if, like me, you’re not much of a modeller, placing these stickers on the back of your old board is a dexterity game too far. As you’ll see from my photos I did a reasonable-ish job (it works, just!), but it was a very tricky operation for a cack-handed twat like me!

In terms of game play, the three-player version works well. The board has handy lines to show how many spaces you can move, also making it clear what you’ll be giving up to your opponents.

You’ll each choose three of your seven characters to play face-up, with two face down. Certain characters seem more powerful with the new board, so it gets you thinking about favourites again if you’re used to the two-player experience (smelly man, for example, is suddenly very annoying near the middle of the board).

Tactically, one big difference is having three less pieces: it’s much easier to leave a piece or two behind and suddenly find them very difficult to move. All the bonus moves from your opponents tend to come in the middle of the board, so a character left on your own start line isn’t going to get any help. But perhaps the bigger difference is the spatial thinking: thinking how you’ll be both helping and hindering two opponents really ratchets up your thought processes.

Overall, I’m really happy with it. The board uses the same gorgeous art style and the new blue pieces pop nicely from the board. It’s great to be able to add an extra player to one of my favourite games, especially as it feels tactically different while having the same feel and rule set – and playing in a similar time (15-30 mins). If you’re a fan of the original, or picking it up, I’d highly recommend adding this to your order – just be prepared for the scary stickering moment!

Adios Calavera: The Resurrected Expansion

Here you’ll get two red pieces and a rule sheet in a little baggie (note: this mini expansion can only be used in two-player games). One is placed in front of each player’s starting pieces during set up, with that player’s side (living or dead) face up.

The piece showing your side can be moved by you on your turn instead of moving one of your usual pieces, and they act as usual in terms of working out how far you can move. The trick is, once moved, you flip it over – onto your opponent’s side (each has a living and a dead side). At this point it become your opponent’s piece, meaning until it is flipped back only they can move it.

Both the resurrected pieces can be moved off the board to be scored – and if you manage this, they’re worth two points each. This means you don’t have to move all your ‘normal’ pieces off the board to win: you’re gunning for eight points, so if your opponent was stupid enough to let you score both the resurrected, you’d only need to get four of your normal pieces off with them to win (they count as one point each).

As an optional variant, I found The Resurrected really interesting. It’s nice to have extra moves (it just speeds things up a little, which is no bad thing), while not having to get all your pieces off the board adds an interesting twist. It’s great if you can manoeuvre yourself into a position where you can get one of them off the board miles in a single move, but of course your opponent will be looking out for that very thing. I won’t use them in every game, but they’re a very strong variant for experienced players.

Adios Calavera: The Cute Neighbour Expansion

This is a single red piece (packaged as above) you can add to any game for a bit of variety (he either starts on the middle space in a three-player game, or a space equidistant between you in a two-player game).

The idea is that he counts as a piece for both sides in terms of movement, and each player can move him – but usually only at the end of their turn (the exception is if you use a piece that can otherwise move any character – such as the strong man, the magnet etc). He can never be moved off the board.

While in theory a nice addition, in real terms it doesn’t work well two-player. Firstly, moving it at the end of your turn becomes annoying: you don’t have to move him so if your opponent doesn’t, you’re not sure if they’ve finished their turn. A small thing, but it gets annoying fast. But worse, especially early game, you end up moving it backwards and forwards from its original spot, so no one gets any benefit. He quickly becomes the annoying neighbour, rather than the cute one (an odd choice of adjective).

While I can see he may become useful with the right pieces, I won’t use him again in a two-player game. However, three-player, he is a slightly more interesting proposition. With only three specialist pieces each, you could try to build a strategy around moving him – while adding a third player automatically removes the dull push-pull that happens in a two-player game. It’s still potentially there with three, and the annoyance of waiting at the end of each turn remains – but I can at least see potential for him to be useful.

Adios Calavera: Hasta Nunca! Expansion

This earlier expansion for the game adds two optional characters each, but this time two per player.

The characters are included as part of the three-player expansion for the third player – so unfortunately, if you don’t own this mini expansion, you’ll have to exclude them as two of you won’t have them as an option.

And that’s a shame, as they’re interesting characters worth picking up. The twist with these is that they each have a potentially very strong ability – but once you’ve used it once, you must flip them over to their boring standard side. One lets you move them, then move another of your pieces the same amount of spaces (awesome to catch up a piece at the back, for example) – while the other gives you double movement for him for every of your opponent’s pieces in their row – harder to use well but it can be a very strong single move.

I like to have these available as options and would suggest throwing them into an order if you were picking up the base game (especially if you’re adding the three-player expansion already). The only downside to them is that, in their wisdom, they gave them different coloured discs. This means it’s tricky to use certain types of character choosing – pick two, choose one, for instance. You can get around this by drawing them from a bag, but this is an annoyance and a strange design oversight – but not game-breaking.

Showtime: A four-sided game review

Showtime* is a family board/card game that plays in about 45 minutes. It’s fine with two to four players but better with three or four, as it relies on interaction to really sing. The box says for years eight plus, which is about right (bright younger gamer children will be able to pick it up easily).

In the box you’ll find a modular game board, 17 cards per player (including one attempting to explain the game’s iconography), plus a few cardboard and wooden tokens. So why the ridiculously large box? It’s a small box game in a euro-sized box, which means it looks better than it might but is also a little overpriced for what’s inside.

But the theme falls squarely in the plus column. The idea is that you’re each trying to seat your cinema goers in the bet seats in the house, for which they’ll score points – but your opponents are trying to do the same, while trying to ensure your cinephiles have a miserable time! This comes across really well, although the artwork is pretty average and there is some pretty dodgy gender politics on display (as well as inclusion issues) – but more on that later.

Teaching Showtime

The game is played over three rounds (films), in each of which every player will place four of their patrons (cards) into seats. The cinema board is modular, four seats per piece, so is built for the number of players – meaning the round is over when all the seats are full.

Each player shuffles their 16 cards at the start of the game, drawing four of them (each player has identical cards, except for their colour). Each time you play a card you immediately draw another one, so you always have a choice of four – and you’ll see all but one of your cards during the game.

Each card has a special ability, plus a genre of film they prefer (although some of the cards simply prefer a second genre, instead of having an ability). A genre of film is randomly picked at the start of each round, so any cards you play that prefer it will score two bonus points. Each seat also has a point value (the better seats are in the middle, nearer the back), but it’s the special abilities that really give the game its appeal.

The theme shines through here. If you’re sat behind the tall guy, you’ll lose points – but you’ll also lose points if the little girl who puts her feet on the seats is sitting behind you, or if you’re in the same row as the boy who keeps needing the toilet. Other cards score bonus points for you: the older man who is hard of hearing will score more points if he’s in the front row, while the chatty teen scores points for girls she’s sitting next to.

Once the cinema is full, you score positive and negative points per seat and, once you’ve done this three times, the person with the most points is 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 Stefan Kloß (joined this time by Anna Oppolzer) made a pretty good impression with his previous design Beasty Bar, and Showtime is in the same ballpark: a clever and smooth take-that card game. The theme works better here, but I found the game less engaging – and it had similar problems for a gamer: the illusion of choice soon fades, as you realise there’s normally a ‘right’ thing to do with the cards you’ve been dealt.
  • The youngsters: We enjoyed it as it was a fun game and we could beat our parents! It is sometimes simple to figure out, as what the characters do make sense and can be funny – but some of the the cards are hard to understand at first. We still sometimes need to be reminded what people do and the icons don’t make enough sense, but we still like putting people on the chairs to see what happens to them so overall we think it’s OK – but not one of our favourites.
  • The trasher: The Essen release of Showtime included a small expansion which offers some extra cards. These are essential for me, as they add more tactical options which you can replace the ‘boring’ cards with (the ones that just have two genres and no powers). This may make it a bit much for younger players, but I’d say they’re essential (maybe after one basic play) for players who want to get in each other’s faces! You also need three or four players, as otherwise the very limited number of seats make several of the more fun powers relatively useless.
  • The dabbler: I quite enjoyed the game, but it wouldn’t be one I’d personally see jumping off the shelves for me. The theme is great and really funny the first time you play, but if you don’t have the mean gene you’re simply not going to do very well. However, it would be a good example of modern gaming to play with non-gamer friends who love the cinema – or with children who like watching films. It’s funny how often children and non-gamers immediately latch onto games where they can be really mean to each other too lol!

Key observations

Coming from a publisher as big, established and well respected as Pegasus, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a bit if due diligence done on Showtime in terms of both sexism and inclusion.

While you could potentially claim a couple of the characters have a slightly non-white look, you’ll find no ‘people of colour’ across all the cards; or even in the crowd outside the cinema on the board. Maybe this is just a sensitive Brit thing, but I don’t think so as a surprising number of people have noticed and then mentioned it.

But even worse, for me, were the gender politics. The pretty, busty blonde who gives male characters points for sitting next to her (and negatives for females); while a male character (that we’ve nicknamed sex pest…) receives bonus points for each female next to, in front of or behind him. What were they thinking? It is also completely heteronormative, but I guess that’s less of a surprise. I was proud of the inclusion we managed with Pioneer Days – and it’s not as if it makes the job of the artist any more difficult. It just needs one person in the process to say, ahem, this really isn’t on. Sure, not everyone will be offended – but it takes no extra effort to avoid these issues.

In terms of game play, one criticism is the fiddly scoring. It’s quite possible, once you all know the game, that the scoring at the end of each round will take longer than the card-play: not great. Each seat can be affected by multiple other seats and abilities, both positively and negatively, so it’s quite easy to miss something. Hopefully you have one player in your group that’s good at this sort of thing – and that you trust!

Finally, in terms of the first play experience, the iconography could’ve been better. Luckily this is largely overcome by the fact the theme works well – and that, after a couple of rounds, the players will have seen and understood how most of the cards work. But it can be particularly annoying for those players who want to win every game (even their first) and who misunderstand a card they’re playing: even if they choose then not to play it, everyone knows they have it in their hand as an option.

Conclusion

Showtime was one of my most anticipated Essen 2018 games, so I have to say it was a bit of a disappointment – but that’s certainly not to say it’s a bad game.

If you’re looking for a family game, especially for friends/family that enjoy the cinema, this has a lot going for it. It’s simple to teach, the theme makes sense and the game play is smooth and quick.

But it won’t be staying in my collection: as a gamer I found it over simplistic and lacking in decisions that had real depth. That said, I’ve passed it onto a family who have already started to enjoy it – and if I happened to be over there and they wanted me to join in, I’d happily sit down and play it with them. It does take that in the right way which helps make Showtime a solid and thematic release, if you can overlook the dodgy politics – it’s just not for me.

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

LoBsterCon XVI: 5 short Essen Spiel one-play game reviews

I’ll write more about LoBsterCon when I’ve got more time (spoiler alert – it was awesome), but as I was writing/thinking about the games I’d played over the weekend elsewhere last night I got my thoughts down here too.

These are all games I had some interest in before I went to Essen Spiel 2018, but that didn’t come home with me. Will they be making it into my collection – or was I right to leave them off my final list? I played each once over the weekend, so take that for what it’s worth: these are first impressions, hence ‘mini’ reviews.

Fool

(4-8 players, 45-60 mins)
Don’t be fooled (ho ho) by the 15 minutes on the box: it will only be that short if you have a player who is terrible, or incredibly unlucky. If you’re used to trick-taking, it’ll likely go a lot longer.  Fool (formerly ‘Foppen’) is more trick making than taking though, as you don’t collect tricks won: your objective is to get rid of all your cards, which you do by by staying in as many rounds as possible – if you have the worst card in a trick, you’re the ‘fool’ and miss the next hand. A typically clever Friedemann Friese design which I’d pick up if I was likely to play this type of game more often.

Decrypto

(4-8 players, 45 mins)
This is being described as a ‘Codenames killer’ by many and I can see why. While I love Codenames Duet, the multiplayer Codenames can be a little fragile: it puts the clue giver under a lot of pressure while having the potential for long downtime. Decrypto partly fixes this, giving shorter time in the hot seat for each player and keeping both teams engaged simultaneously. It’s a clever design which I’d happily play again, but I don’t feel the need to own two games in this genre (I don’t play them enough) and am happy to keep Codenames for now.

Coimbra

(2-4 players, 90-120 minutes)
I only wanted to bring back one dry euro from Essen this time, and I chose Crown of Emara over this – and I think I made the right decision, just (review incoming). Coimbra is a really solid euro design, with pretty standard card play, light engine building and point gathering being supported by an enjoyable and competitive dice auction mechanism. It reminded me a little of Lorenzo in weight and decision making, but I think I enjoyed Lorenzo a little more – but that’s a game very near the top of my wish list, so that’s no criticism. If you like auctiony sub-two-hour euro games, check it out.

Underwater Cities

(1-4 players, 2-4 hours)
This has gone from ‘how did I miss it?’ to ‘top of my want-to-play list’ to ‘dead to me’ in a weekend. Vladimír Suchý designs tend to be clever but too dry for me, but this had been compared to Terraforming Mars so I really wanted to try it. Sadly, it fell well short of my expectations. I suppose the varied cards led to TM comparisons, but they’re lazy comparisons at best: the game play is miles from it. The card play starts out engaging, but the player board (which should feel like a puzzle) adds nothing and things soon started to drag as no arc emerged. We went nearly four hours: it justified about two.

Passing Through Petra

(2-4 players, 60 minutes)
An ugly game, which wouldn’t bother me if I’d enjoyed it – but I really didn’t. For me it got the luck/strategy mix all wrong. If I play a 60 minute euro I want fun/luck/tactics or thinky/strategy: with Petra, I was thinking hard but relying on luck (cards and tiles). Get good cards or combos, you can do well – if not, you won’t. Sure, you’d get better with practice – but it will still be too luck driven. It is also very fiddly, while the ‘clever’ movement grid isn’t – you have to do a bit of everything, so moving in a grid is largely arbitrary (and done much better in Ulm).

So, my wallet is safe! For now… Apart from Petra I did enjoy my plays of the other four games (although maybe only the first two hours of Underwater Cities) and would recommend those to players who think they sound interesting – especially the top three. But I’ll definitely be passing on Petra (I’ll get me coat…).

Oh, and before anyone accuses me of liking/not liking them because I won/lost, let me assure you that is not the case and I can prove it: I didn’t win any of them 😀 And they were all played in good spirit with good people (cheers all).

Airecon 5: Hitting the North on March 8-10, 2019

Last year saw me head to the frozen (quite literally last year!) North to attend my first Airecon in Harrogate. You can read all about my exploits on last year’s post-con Top 10 list, but suffice it to say I had a good enough time that I’ll be returning again next year.

Tickets are already on sale for the event, and you can find out more by either visiting the Airecon website or getting involved over at their Facebook page. A three-day adult ticket costs just £28 (half that for youngsters), while adult day tickets are £12.

Having had a good six months to reflect on this year’s event, what made Airecon so enjoyable for me was that despite being bigger than most board game cons it still had the atmosphere of one of those nice small local ones. It felt warm and friendly, despite there being masses of table space and loads more publishers and retailers than you’d get at a smaller event. And you won’t get a 350-game library (provided by games retailer and main sponsor Travelling Man) at many other events. There might even be some special guests…It also has the advantage of being slap-bang in the middle of a lovely place. There were a few moans about the variety of food on offer last year, but when you have an entire town full of bars and restaurants literally five minutes away that complaint seems a little churlish! If you want uninterrupted gaming to the nth degree, bring provisions: personally I loved the fact I could take a break and easily have loads of great options within easy reach – and exactly the same went for accommodation.

Alongside the gaming space and retail therapy, last year also had a full list of events including competitions, seminars, live shows and a quiz (we was robbed!) – and you can expect the same at Airecon 5. Again, its nice to have the option of distractions even if you don’t use them – and they’re held in a purpose-built space (Harrogate is a real convention centre town). And don’t forget you’re right on the edge of some beautiful countryside if you’re feeling more adventurous.

This is probably starting to sound like an advert, but hey – last year was great and if they manage to supply more of the same in 2019 it may become my favourite con, so what can I say except hopefully I’ll see you there. I wouldn’t go if I didn’t like it!

Gnomopolis: A four-sided game review

Gnomopolis* is a bag-building worker placement and set collection game that plays in less than an hour (or about an hour with four). It plays one-to-four players and is good at all player counts (see the solo section below). The box says 14+, which feels high; but it is quite thinky, so 12+ would probably be about right.

As is often the case post-Essen, the game may be tricky to find – but the price tag of around £50 is reasonable for a game that’s beautifully produced. The artwork (Marcelo Bastos, Luís Brüeh and Patrick Matheus) is gorgeous throughout, while the components are of the highest quality. In the box you’ll find 32 oversized cards, four chunky player boards, four plastic cups (so more a beaker builder than a bag builder…), 82 cute wooden meeples and 44 cardboard tokens.

In terms of feel, the gnome theme is very much pasted on – this could just as easily be any kind of person/creature from any genre. However, it does have a nice feel of creating and then utilising new buildings, alongside a simple yet effective migration mechanic that helps the game whizz along and fits well with the over-arching city building theme. And again, the lovely whimsical artwork and soft palette colour choices do a lot to help reinforce the friendly fantasy setting.

Teaching Gnomopolis

Unfortunately, the rule book isn’t the best. Publisher Conclave is from Brazil, but why spend so much time making the game (and rule book) look fantastic, only to have it so poorly translated? Worse still, there are some pretty big edge cases left unexplained. On the plus side, there is something of a living rule book on the Gnomopolis website.

This is made more of a shame because this should be a straightforward teach. If your group has played a deck building game – or better still a bag-builder – they’ll immediately be in familiar territory; while the worker placement and action selection elements are also relatively straightforward.

A set number of gnomes and victory points (depending on player count) are put into an the ‘old city’ area. The game will end when one of these piles runs out – or when one player builds their sixth building. You’ll need to let people know this will happen much quicker than they might expect, much as in a game such as Race for the Galaxy.

Each player starts the game with six gnomes (meeples) – four villagers (brown) and two youngsters (green). These are placed in your cup and at the end of each turn you’ll draw three at random to use on your next turn (so you can do some forward planning). Used gnomes are either discarded (back to town) or placed in the ‘resting’ area of your player board, depending on the action – so when you have none left to draw from, all those in your resting area are placed in the cup (essentially shuffling your discard pile).

On your player board you’ll find seven standard actions that your gnomes can perform.

Two let you upgrade your gnomes (youngsters to villagers, or villagers to various types of specialist – there are four other gnome colours), two draw extra gnomes to use on your turn, while two others gather resources (robots, which act as ‘wild’ gnomes when building, and straight victory points). Finally, there’s a space that lets you use another player’s action – but more on that later.

You’ll also use gnomes to build buildings chosen from the six face-up options in the centre of the table. Once built, each will make a new action available to you (usually better versions/takes on the ones on your player board) and will attract a few new gnomes to your cause. If you’ve made the most of a particular type of building (they come in four types) you’ll also attract the guild master of that type – who will give you yet another action choice, plus end game points if you keep hold of him (they’ll move on if another player equals the amount of buildings you have of that type).

When one of the victory conditions is met, you’ll complete the round and then score. More than half your points will probably come from housing gnomes: your player board can house nine (six villagers and three youngsters), while each building you’ve made will house two more (usually the specialists). Any gnomes you can’t house will give you negative points – meaning you’ll have to be wary of numbers, and colours, for the whole game – but especially as the game nears its conclusion. This is the real heart of the game and what elevates it above family game to a slightly more advanced level.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Gnomopolis reminds me of a stripped-down version of mine and David Thompson’s game Armageddon: the buildings, the specialist workers, the housing of the gnomes. But this is a much lighter, friendlier game that plays fast and has a real race element to it. Despite the theme being pasted on it tells a nice story and the game arcs nicely, with gnomes migrating from the old city to the new as it grows (spent gnomes go to an area for the new city, not back to the old one). So, Armageddon meets Race? count me in!
  • The thinker: While not a deep or strategic game, it packs a reasonable punch for a game of its length and I found myself enjoying it. Considered abstractly it is an interesting points puzzle and while light on components it does offer several strategies – you can just pound points, try to build quickly and efficiently to rush the game, or maximise your housing for a big end game score. While it probably won’t be a game I’d choose from the shelf, its one I’d be happy to play in future – which I wouldn’t have guessed when it was being set up and taught.
  • The trasher: While a solid design, Gnomopolis couldn’t be less for me – it’s all flowers and rainbows! The only interaction is via the guild masters and while making them change hands near the end can cause a four-point swing that might win you the game, it’s not enough to save the game for me. There’s a good pile of buildings to choose from, but in truth they don’t have a massive amount of variety – so if someone takes one you had your eye on, it’s not the end of the world. So sure, it’s a nice game – but for me, too ‘nice’.
  • The dabbler: This is such a lovely game! While it looks beautiful throughout, I particularly like the armadillo – it looks sweet, but is also super useful. You send it off to the player to your left and you can then do one of their actions. But it doesn’t block it or anything – you just get to do it, and they get a coin (point) from the bank. But the game is harder on the head than it looks! You really have to plan carefully, or else you’ll lose lots of points at the end for those homeless gnomes! I thought it might be a bit too much for me, but after my first game I was hooked and look forward to playing it more.

Solo play

The solo rules in the box – essentially beat your own high score – are pretty nothingy. But if you go to co-designer Igor Knop’s website there’s a really nicely done AI (with two difficulty levels) you can play against.

It’s pretty challenging too, while its very easy to take your pretend opponent’s turns – for me it’s just a shame that there isn’t a version available that could just be a deck of cards you shuffled and turned one over each time. Maybe that will come if we get an expansion.

Key observations

The biggest problem Gnomopolis has is the poorly translated rulebook, while player aids would also have been a handy edition (if you were lucky enough to buy the game at Essen you got player aids on very cool beer mats – but I presume they won’t come in the box if you get it at retail: if they do, let me know and I’ll change this!).

My one issue with the game may end up being replayability – which I realise may sound funny coming from me after some recent posts! The (potential) problem is the almost complete lack of player interaction means each game is only differentiated by the buildings you choose, but these are not different enough to make each play staggeringly different from the last. That said, I’ve played five times now and I’m not feeling fatigued – so hopefully it will continue to be a potential issue and not a real one.

Conclusion

Gnomopolis didn’t quite make my pre-Essen Top 10 list, as it looked a little too simplistic – but one play at the show was enough to convince me otherwise.

Now it has become a definite keeper and I’m looking forward to more plays – and definitely hoping for an expansion. While it doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the hobby it instead moulds some fantastic design ideas into a really solid whole – and Conclave have made it look beautiful and run smoothly. A definite hit.

* Thanks to Conclave for providing a reduced price copy of the game for review.