The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game: A four-sided review

The box cover for The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game

The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game is a deck-building and dice drafting euro. It’s for 2-4 players and takes about an hour to play, with the 12+ age limit on the box feeling about right. While some describe it as a gateway game, for me it is a little too complex to earn that tag.

While the theme isn’t integral to play, it makes perfect sense and feels well integrated. Your cards largely represent staff and customers – the staff providing beer and the customers money. These two currencies in turn help you get more/better out of those staff and customers, while also improving your own little tavern.

You can’t go wrong with the cartoony fantasy art of Dennis Lohausen and the component quality is also solid. Nice little elements of detail catch your eye throughout, while the iconography is largely easy to follow. But the rather odd idea of using some pretty opaque images as icons on cards took a bit of squinting at. In the box you’ll find, well, a lot. Alongside the basic game you’ll find four mini expansions in the box. This equates to 240 cards, 28 dice, 12 wooden cubes, five boards and more than 150 cardboard tokens/pieces. At less than £30, it offers great value for money.

A player board from The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game

Teaching The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game

I’m going to talk about the vanilla version of the game here, without the included expansions. I’ll mention the various addons below, but they do little to affect the gameplay basics. They more add an extra tactical and strategic choices as you gain experience.

Each player starts with their own tavern board, a few dice and a basic set of cards. Your tavern has nine upgradeable sections. These can be flipped over to their better side using one of the game’s two currencies – money. But you’ll also want to be paying for more staff with that same money. The game’s other currency is beer, which you’ll be using to attract new customers. Who in turn will in turn allow you to make more money. Both staff and customers are represented by cards – which is where the deck-building comes in.

You start the game with a (very familiar) set deck of 10 cards. Seven customers and three staff (one of your staff is a table – but you get the gist). Each player draws cards until all their tables (you start with three printed on your tavern) are full. So each player will start with 3-7 cards. If you’re unlucky, you’ll just have three customers. But you could have all three of your starting staff, plus four customers (one extra, sitting at your extra table).

Dice drafting

Each player now roles four white dice. In addition, you’ll role a dice of your own colour (up to three extras) if you have drawn any ‘waitress’ staff cards that round. You keep your own coloured dice. But with the white dice, you keep one and pass the others clockwise – until everyone has four white dice. Players then simultaneously assign these to spots on their board (but you can change your mind about placements right up until you use the dice).

Dice placed on customers always give money. While most placed on tavern spaces give you beer. There is also a central board one of your tavern spaces lets you advance around, which gives you little bonuses. But largely you’re getting currency. Then, in typical deck-builder fashion, you spend that currency on extra cards. Or, less typically, tavern improvements. These can be very useful, giving permanent staff or letting you save more beer/money for later rounds (allowing you to afford better cards).

After eight rounds, the game ends. The better cards you buy will give the better end game points, with nobles (10 points each) being the most sought after. These have the added bonus of all sharing a table when drawn from your deck. So there isn’t that Dominion-style worry about obtaining end game points too early (quite the opposite). Most points wins.

Guest cards from The Taverns of Tiefenthal board 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: The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game feels like a clumsy finished product. Were they really trying to appeal to a family audience? If so, it feels misjudged. I’d point newer gamers to the clever simplicity of Dominion any day of the week. But the basic game is way too light for gamers. So why make them jump through hoops – and a mess of expansions – to get to the better stuff? Overall, to me, this learning curve feels wholly misjudged. And I’d have accepted that if the final version was amazing. But, for me, it was pretty average.
  • The thinker: The base version is clearly not aimed at me. So, is the most complex version of Taverns satisfying? Sadly no, not really. The first adds another currency (schnapps) you can use to trigger a few new actions. The next a min board to move a token around, akin to the main board of the same ilk. These should both probably be in the base game anyway. The next is good, adding setup options allowing players to start with different cards and bonuses. While the last adds a way to score end game points depending on the kind of customer attracted. A good idea, if you had much control over that. Which you don’t. Overall, its smoke and mirrors. A lot of faff to play what is, underneath, a basic deck-builder.
  • The trasher: Nope, nothing for me here. I had hoped the dice drafting would add a bit of fight, but it fails to deliver. In the early rounds everyone wants the same numbers. Threes and fours are basically useless for everyone Then, once you’ve played a few rounds, you can usually get by with whatever you end up with. And the luck of the draw feels incredibly pronounced here. Especially when you then add the randomness of the dice. Did I have a terrible time playing? Absolutely not. The game is fine. But it isn’t worth all the faff of setup etc. And if you’re looking for an interactive experience, look elsewhere.
  • The dabbler: I like the artwork in The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game. Always nice to see some cute animals thrown in! And the theme works well too, in a euro kind of way. The game is pretty easy to pick up, but there does seem to be a lot going on for not a lot of real payoff. The first few games were fun, as we added in new elements. But they didn’t seem to add much except taking longer to set the game up. And fiddling around trying to find the right bits. I can imagine a new set of gamers opening this box and thinking crikey, what the hell is all this?! And promptly putting it to the bottom of their game pile lol.

Key observations

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ve guessed that my groups had an at best lukewarm experience with The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game. But a look over at the Board Game Geek hive mind tells a different story. It averages over 7.5 from (at time of print) around five thousand ratings. And it sits comfortably in the top 500 of all time list because of it. Fans see it as a game with a lovely art and atmosphere (agreed), giving a deep strategic experience and tonnes of replayability (for me, not so much). There are a few paths to victory (true), medium luck (I’d say higher), and it plays well across all player counts (also true).

On the flip side, the levels of luck come up a lot. Card drafting already has that in spades so adding dice drafting – especially with so little mitigation – feels a step too far for many. You can set up your deck engine, but if you don’t get the right dice you can’t really run it. Where’s the fun in that? It just feels like a mess. How can a simple deck-builder have seven ‘phases’ every round? With modules adding even more faff. And why have drafting when its almost irrelevant? It feels much like multiplayer solitaire regardless.

Replayability and choices are also issues. In terms of deck-building, the real choices come with the low cost cards. Do you buy tables, go for extra dice etc. Or try to keep a lean deck and go for tavern upgrades. The big ticket purchases – such as expensive customers – feel like arbitrary decisions. The added modules do nothing to advance this part of the game. So where Dominion et al rely on you changing out interesting cards for replayability, Taverns just gives you ‘modules’. But those modules don’t add a lot of genuine variety.

Conclusion: The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game

It’s games such as Taverns that have me questioning myself as a reviewer. I know I genuinely still get a thrill from finding genuinely great new games. And they can be anything from a simple family card game to a complex story-driven adventure or euro. But then a hugely popular game such as this has be doubting my credentials. Am I just too gnarled and bitter after years of playing these games? Out of touch with the common modern gamer?

I think it’s a bit of both. Taverns isn’t a bad game. I rated it a five, but it could’ve been a six. Average. (The lower rank is largely for the faff you go through to actually to start playing.) And I agree with many of the points of praise. Where the old me sprouts his ‘get off my lawn’ temper is in ‘replayability’. I guess, in the ol’ days, that meant hammering something for 50+ plays. Now, a replayable game is going to get five plays in the average group.

Did I get five plays out of Taverns? Sure. I don’t regret those hours, or want them back. But I don’t want to play it anymore, as I think I’ve seen everything it’s going to give me. I would, but wouldn’t pick it. There are so many better deck-builders, including the original classic Dominion. And that has genuine replayability coming out the wazoo. This, for me, is not a good example of a replayable game. But perhaps by modern standards it is.

Board game Top 10: Essen 2020 wish list

It’s about that time for my annual Essen 2020 wish list. But it really isn’t the same, is it? Despite enjoying Castle TriCon a few weeks back, the levels of excitement for this event are a long way the norm. Essen may not be glamourous as a city, but it beats my poky office…

I suppose you just have to think positive. Sure, my favourite recurring event of the year has been taken away from me. But I got my hotel money back and a voucher for Eurostar. And there are still hundreds of new board games being released in the run up to Christmas. So here we go again.

Of course for a board game journalist, not getting face-to-face time with publishers is an issue. As I’m not a big-time Charlie (read: YouTuber) I have to work pretty hard sometimes to get a look-in for review copies. Which is made much harder when the publisher is having to ship the games, rather than me collecting them at their booth. So for that reason, I don’t expect to get nearly as many first choices this time out. But finger’s crossed…

As for titles, the law of diminishing returns continues. I got the list down below 100 quite quickly. And from there I got it down to about 25 with little fuss. The lack of ‘live’ playing opportunities – especially with more than two – was a factor. But largely it was, “…and?” when looking at rulebooks. There seemed an even bigger dearth in originality this year. But again, when you’ve played hundreds of games, it’s going to be harder to find the ‘wow’ factor. And I should probably be happy. Those old favourites still need a lot of love!

Essen 2020 wish list – Top 10

I’m going to be very brief here, instead linking to the games on BGG for more info. In almost every case here I’ve simply flipped through the rules or watched a short video – so it’s probably better to let you draw your own conclusions! I’ll just list what drew me in.

  • Alma Mater (Eggertspiele, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours) – Lorenzo-ish looking euro, with decent looking player interaction and lots of tricky decisions. Worker placement, resource management and engine/tableau building.
  • Baron Voodoo (Lucky Duck, 2-4 players, 45 mins) – Gorgeous looking abstract, where you’re jumping over cubes (dice) to capture them. But also to use their special abilities. The basic mechanism looks nice, while the extra actions may elevate to the next level.
  • Beyond the Sun (Rio Grande, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours) – This spread sheet euro looks very cool. Tech trees open up new actions, but these arrive semi-randomly creating a lot of scope for genuine replay variety.
  • Bonfire (Pegasus) – Looks like a typical Feld euro; so what’s not to like? Spend tiles to do actions, gain resources, and (of course) score points. Timing looks crucial, which will hopefully create some light player interaction.
  • Gods Love Dinosaurs (Pandasaurus, 2-5 players, 30-45 mins) – Tile laying game where you expand and score different species. Looks light but thinky enough to draw you in, as you try to balance predators and their prey.
  • Mariposas (AEG, 2-5 players, 60 mins) – The new game from Elizabeth Hargrave, which looks a lot more interesting than Wingspan. The theme this time is butterflies, but what drew me in were some interesting movement and scoring mechanisms.
  • Monasterium (dlp, 2-4 players, 90-120 mins) – A dice-powered action selection euro. An absolute ton of choices and a proper victory point salad. Is going to stand or fall on how interesting the dice placement actually is. But looks like it could be a winner.
  • Remember Our Trip (dlp, 2-4 players, 30 mins) – A typically quirky Japanese theme that impacts the mechanisms. Draft tiles to score areas, which are then transferred to a growing central ‘memory’. Others can then replicate those memories for additional points.
  • Ride the Rails (Capstone, 3-5 players, 45-60 mins) – Super light-on-rules economic route builder. Competitive, fast moving and interactive but in a family level title. Seems a step sideways, rather than up from, the likes of Ticket to Ride
  • Warps Edge (Renegade, 1 player, 30-45 mins) – A direct competitor for CGE’s Under Falling Skies (below), this bag-building solo space battler looks deep enough to hit the target.

The next 10

In many ways these were just as interesting. And who knows? Maybe the real gems will come from here. I usually totally fail what turn out to be my eventual favourites anyway! I doubt this year will be any different…

  • Caretos (Mebo, 2-4 players, 45-60 mins) – Scare and capture people you move on a map.
  • Castles of Tuscany (Alea, 2-4, 45-60 mins) – Yes, it’s another Feld euro…
  • Codex Naturalis (Bombyx, 2-4, 30 mins) – Clever looking hand management game.
  • Curious Cargo (Capstone, 2, 45 mins) – Create pipes, fill trucks, screw opponent.
  • Glow (Bombyx, 2-4 players) – Gorgeous looking dice, set collection and racing game.
  • On the Origin of the Species (Artana, 2-4, 60 mins) – Interesting looking euro.
  • Pan Am (Funko, 2-4, 60 mins) – Routes and stocks with an Acquire-style twist.
  • Red Cathedral (Devir, 1-4, 30-120 mins) – Interactive looking euro game.
  • Rollecate (Gam’inBIZ, 1-4, 15 mins) – Light card/track building/luck pushing game.
  • Royal Visit (IELLO, 2, 30 mins) – Knizia’s ‘manipulate people on a track’ game (reissue).

Honourable mentions

I’m also looking forward to trying Aqualin (two-player abstract), Lost Ruins of Arnak (deck builder), Under Falling Skies (solo space battler) and Anansi (trick-taker). I haven’t included them above, as they’re already on the way. It’s going to be another busy winter…

Targi – The Expansion review

Targi is a two-player-only action selection game, released in 2016 (and reviewed by me earlier this year). It is the top-ranked game in the well-regarded Kosmos two-player range, sitting just outside the Board Game Geek Top 100.

The original game sees players placing their pieces on the outside cards of 5×5 grid. You place three pieces, giving you the (static) actions on the outside cards. But you also get to claim up to two (constantly changing) cards at the grid references made by those pieces.

On one level, it’s a simple tableau building game. You collect resources to claim cards that give you bonuses and end game victory points. But the nip-and-tuck of the placement and all open knowledge see it come alive. Because denial can be as important as getting what you need in a tight resource market. It’s a game I very much like, but after 50-odd plays (many online at Yucata) it did start to lose a little of its shine. There’s nothing like a good expansion to breathe life back into a classic. So, did this do just that?

Targi - the expansion in action, including the Targia meeple

What does Targi – The Expansion bring to the party?

Probably the most significant change is the addition of Sand Dune cards. They’re in a new deck that sits aside from the others, with 1-3 cards turned face up. On your turn you may place a meeple on one of these instead of an edge card. They’re very powerful, but you miss out on the cross-section bonus action you’d have got from normal placement. The actions you get vary from basic (take a few things) to more complex, but don’t add anything too technical to proceedings.

The expansion also introduces a new resource; water. This is a ‘wild’ resource, with a 2-1/3-1 ratio for resources/gold. You can do this transfer at any time, making it a little easier to play those trickier Tribe cards. Also, some of the new Tribe cards (see below) have two options of how to pay. When they do, one of them usually involves using water. Like gold, water is a separate resource with its own rules: you can hold up to 10 without penalty.

Next up is the Targia meeple. She starts on space 16 and moves in the opposite direction to the robber. Unlike the robber, she doesn’t block the space she is on – quite the opposite. Going on her space gives you an extra resource of your choice. Or, you can discard/gamble a resource to flip the top card of the resource deck and take that reward instead. This makes for another interesting decision, as it can turn a ‘meh’ space into a genuine contender.

New Tribe and border cards

You also get a replacement deck of Tribe cards. You’ll recognise some from the original set, but al have a handy symbol denoting when they are useful: immediately, all game or end game. In addition, there’s a new type – indicated by a triangle symbol. these are activated just once, but you choose when (little triangular activation tokens are included). Generally we’ve found that, overall, the cards are a little more interesting. And the simple addition of the symbols makes them much easier to remember and use properly.

Due to all the new mechanisms, 10 new border cars are also included – so you’ll need six of the original ones. The four robber spaces are trickier, needing more specific goods for payment. While Fata Morgana now limits you to moving to an adjacent space. The Tribal Expansion and Noble cards offer a little more freedom. While the ‘take the top resource card’ space is replaced by a ‘take water’ card. But don’t worry, gamblers – you can still get your card-flipping thrills by choosing to place with the Targia meeple (above).

Finally, you’ll find five (mainly water) goods cards to add to the original deck, plus a few extra resource tokens. Presumably to cover the fact you always seem to be a little better off when playing this version (see below). This are just mixed in with the originals. The new cards are all marked with a small symbol, so it’s easy enough to separate them back out if required.

How much does it change the game?

All the Targi – The Expansion review pieces I’ve read come to a similar conclusion. It manages to give with one hand, take with the other, but leave you with so much more. Thanks to water allowing you to exchange goods, and the generous Sand Dune cards, you always feel a bit better off. But the robber spaces are a little tougher and, of course, your opponent is also benefitting from this extra generosity. And taking the things you want! We’ve found the game never goes to the end now. At least one of us always finished our tableau before (or on) the final turn. But importantly it is always tight and always goes close.

One part of this may be the fact we use our Tribe cards better now! The mess of text on the originals isn’t much better here. But the symbols denoting the type of bonus each has is a real game-changer for idiots such as myself. Even near the end of the game, a quick scan of my tableau shows which have powers I need to remember to use! It’s a small thing, but makes a big difference. All the new elements feel as if they’re there to help the players. But they don’t make it ‘easier’. The difficulty level, as it should be in a great two-player game, is governed by the skill of your opponent.

In the base game, you could guarantee turns where you placed for the sake of it. Either it was the only space left, or you didn’t care about your options. That is much rarer now. While you could argue this again shows the game is easier, I’d argue having more interesting choices is better than no/pointless choices. Sure, Sand Dunes feel powerful sometimes. But you lose two actions to gain one benefit. And while water adds flexibility, you need more of it to do the same things. It’s still agonising. And you’ll still be cursing your opponent for blocking your best moves.

The new Sand Dune cards from Targi - The Expansion

Is Targi – The Expansion value for money?

At less than £20, I think so yes. Sure, it costs almost as much as the original game. But you get almost as much in the box: 80 cards, 36 tokens and one lonely meeple. I guess you need to ask yourself a question. Is Targi a game you play often enough to spend £30-40 on in total? That’s an easy choice for me. Personally, I’d rather have a great game than a pointless box of single use plastic.

Is the expansion essential?

I may get some stick for this, but what the hell. Yes. When I sat down to write this Targi – The Expansion review, I was sure the answer would be ‘no’. You don’t play a base game 50 times and suddenly say the expansion is ‘essential’. But for me it is. I genuinely can’t see a time when I won’t use all the expansion pieces in every play.

Of course, some will play the original Targi forever and enjoy it. But this makes every aspect of the game better. Knowing that, why not get it straight away? I only wish I’d picked it up it sooner and enjoyed those earlier plays more. So sure, if you’re on a budget you should probably spend the money on food. Otherwise, if you like the base game, get yee to the shops and pick this up pronto.

… and does it fit in the original Targi box?

It does, beautifully. You don’t even have to throw away the insert. It’s a snug fit, but it all goes in. I put the original tribe cards in a baggy to keep setup simple. I was tempted to just chuck them away, but who knows? Maybe one day I’ll meet someone who’s only interested in playing the original version. But I doubt it…

* Thanks to Kosmos for providing a copy for review.
* If you enjoyed my Targi – The Expansion review check out 150+ more like it over at my reviews page.

Castle TriCon 2020: A virtual step in the right direction

Castle TriCon 2020 was my first virtual con. It was set up jointly by three board game publishers: Czech Games Edition, Horrible Guild and Heidelbar Games. I can only talk about attending on the press day, which was very quiet and calm. Things may have been very different on the days open to the public. But my brief experience has given me more faith in the future of online board game conventions.

Storming the Castle

Getting into the con was a simple process, familiar to anyone that’s gone through an online ticketing system. Sign up with a few basic details, confirm you’re not a robot, then wait for your email with its unique entry code.

Next you had to download a small software package. This felt very much like the start of going into an online game such as an MMO. Run the program, let it do its online updates, then sign in and away you go. And it’s a fitting analogy, as once inside it looked like an online game environment. Admittedly one from the 2000s, but hey. This one used the Unity game engine and was run by Confer-O-Matic.

As you’ll see from the screenshots, you’re soon in a 3D virtual world, running around via your choice of avatar. Circles on the ground highlighted places you go and chat, which was a bit of a free-for-all but worked well with the limited numbers on press day. Then, alongside a few screens for showing video, there were three portals – one for each publisher.

Entering the CGE portal

Once inside the portal, each of CGE’s highlighted games had its own demo area. Stepping onto the area put you straight into the chat channel of that table. While clicking the game table took you to a new browser and opened up a playable hosted demo on Tabletopia. This had obvious issues, particularly players getting their browsers/internet connections to work well enough to play. But teething problems are to be expected.

I zoned into a table for CGE’s upcoming release, Lost Ruins of Arnak. It was nice to be able to sit in on the demo, knowing I didn’t have enough time to play. And the game looked great on Tabletopia, proving a great showcase for this interesting looking blend of deck-building and worker placement. It certainly piqued my interest and I’ll be reviewing it later in 2020.

Also on display were solo sci-fi game Falling Skies (again, expect a review later this year) and Codenames Online. I’d also like to give a shout-out to one of Heidalbar’s new releases at the event, Anansi. I didn’t get a chance to look at it here. But it’s a retheme of 2016’s excellent trick-taker Eternity (click the link for my review). I’m not sure about the re-theme to a West Africa myth, as I loved the original artwork. But any attempt to get this great game to a larger audience deserves a bit of press coverage.

A screenshot of the CGE portal at Castle TriCon 2020

Final thoughts on Castle TriCon 2020

It was a shame I didn’t have time to spend a bit longer at Castle TriCon 2020, but unfortunately it fell on a very busy weekend for me. However, I can see no reason for publishers to make these one-off events. In time, especially larger publishers should be able to set this kind of thing up on a permanent basis, visited via their websites. Make demo slots available and have a member of staff spending an hour a day giving demos.

It would certainly be cheaper than opening your own store! And at a time when cons are being cancelled, players are desperate to try their hand at the new titles. It has to be worth a few hours a week for bigger name publishers such as CGE to turn this virtual con into a permanent feature of their empires.

But as I left Castle TriCon 2020 my thoughts turned to Spiel Digital, now just three weeks away. I’d be more than happy if it was just a massive version of TriCon. But I would think that’s a bit ambitious for 2020. Then, having played games such as World of Warcraft, I know having thousands of players online at once in a persistent world is possible. So who knows what the future may bring…?

Inner Compass board game: A four-sided review

Box art for the Inner Compass board game

The Inner Compass board game is a 2-4 player abstract that lasts around an hour. I presume the suggested age (14+) is to do with avoiding paying for expensive safety testing, because I’d put this at 8-10+. It’s quite a simple family game with no hidden information or complex strategies.

The game’s theme is apparently about finding meaning in your life, but this it totally and completely pasted on. What you actually get is a clever and original but purely abstract set collection game.

The cartoony art style is interesting, but won’t appeal to everyone. Personally, I’m always happy to see something a bit different. The graphic design works well, while component quality is solid. But the colour choices are a real issue. If you have five card colours, why would you make two of them black and very, very, very dark navy? Terrible in bad light especially. In the box you’ll find 10 small boards (four make up the randomly created main board), around 100 cardboard tiles and tokens, 78 wooden pieces and 69 full-size cards.

Teaching the Inner Compass board game

For a simple game the turn structure initially feels inelegant. But once you get the hang of it, the flow actually works very well. The game is also burdened with some stupid names for the simple things you do, making it harder to grock. While I guess it’s an attempt to add some weight to the paper-thin theme, it just gets in the way. But again, once you get past the first few turns, things slot together nicely.

The four board pieces go together to make a 6×6 grid of squares, in five different colours. The colours are unevenly weighted – as is the case through the card deck (which uses the same five colours). Each player has a piece on the board, and the first thing you do on a turn is move that piece. This is usually to an adjacent square, but can be further (hence the inelegance). Then you’ll (normally – see what I mean?) draw a card.

The card drawing is the first clever bit. At setup, you’ll place the draw deck and place a card to each side of it. The card back shows a compass (see what they did there?) – giving you draw piles for each compass point. Depending on which direction you moved your piece, you’ll draw the card from that point. And if that card’s colour matches the square you landed on, you get an extra card.

Imprinting memories (really…?)

Regardless of whether you drew cards, you now have an opportunity to place a cube on the space you finished your movement on. To do so, you discard a number of cards matching the colour of the space (1-3, depending on colour rarity). Each player can have a cube on each space. But you must pay an extra card if one or more players beat you to the spot.

Your cubes start on spaces (on your player board) again matching the colours of the cards. You take a cube from a matching player board space (or any if you’ve run out of that colour) and place it on the main board, immediately earning victory points. The amount of points is governed by a fluctuating track. When a colour is scored, its marker moves to the bottom of said track. So bad timing (or luck) can see a juicy six points become one just before it gets to your turn. But a generous 10-card hand limit gives you the option to bide your time.

Cubes on your board start out in a 5×3 grid. When you remove enough cubes to clear a row or column, you mark a spot on a bonus board. These give end game points for various things. From having lots of your cubes on the same coloured main board spaces; to grouping them in specific ways (together, apart etc). When someone would place their third bonus marker, they receive a small points bonus and the game is over.

Bonus markers for the Inner Compass board 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: Getting ‘free’ cards (matching your landing space to the card in the appropriate compass point) feels like a big deal. Getting two cards per turn is clearly much better than one – even if it’s a random one. But should you grab as many cards as possible; or take a more measured approach to your movement and placement? I’ve seen both approaches – or a middle path – do well, which is testament to the game’s quality.
  • The thinker: There are layers of thought imbedded in the Inner Compass board game. As well as those discussed above, you’ re thinking about where on your player board to remove cubes. Do you want to rush the end game, putting out just nine pieces? Or slow that down to maximise points? But, is it ever really in your power? Certainly not with more players. I will only play with two – but when I do, I like the game despite its random nature.
  • The trasher: Inner compass isn’t my kinds of game. Paying attention to other players’ card draws should really help. But you can’t properly card count because bonus draws come from the top of the deck. Sneaking in to grab six points before another player is satisfying, but rarely in your control – especially with four. So it is way too mellow for me, while the few moments that should feel interactively satisfying rarely feel like you’ve earnt them.
  • The dabbler: I see this as a really nice abstract game experience. But I see other players trying to take it way more seriously! The theme is nonsense and the card art is a bit bland. The best bit is the clotheslines on the player boards – but how that relates to my inner compass I have no idea lol. I didn’t notice much variety from the extra end game bonus tiles, or different initial board setup. But that’s not a problem, because I loved it anyway! It’s just a pleasant experience, with just enough difference to keep me interested.

Key observations

It feels like a bad idea to theme this game so strongly, because anyone coming for the theme will be badly let down. And that may colour their judgement of the game they do find. The game is a nice, chilled experience. Why not flood it with gorgeous abstract imagery and pastel colours, creating something beautiful? An artsy/dreamy theme would work perfectly – like the recent Chakra, or Mandala? And would’ve given a great artist a real chance to shine.

Also on presentation, this doesn’t feel like a £30 big box release. Its abstract nature, and component numbers, make it feel much more like a £20 game (again, like the two games mentioned above). I think the price point will put people off buying. So there goes another opportunity to really find its market. For me, this would fit perfectly into a two-player small box game line from the likes of Lookout or Kosmos. And the black/blue colour clash is ridiculous. An better theme, with patterns as well as colours, would solve the problem.

But I enjoy the game play. There are loads of decisions to make within a small space and it certainly evolves a little after a few plays. And I do love a good spatial puzzle. Obviously I can’t talk of longevity yet. But right now, it’s not a problem. However, I do think it is so much better two-player. I welcome the randomness of the draw deck and the confined board space. As well as the relatively short play time. But the more players you add, the more chaotic – and less satisfying – it gets. I’ll play (but not choose it) with three, but not four.

Conclusion: The Inner Compass board game

I like a good abstract, which is why I reached out about this one. But the rulebook made me a little sceptical. And nothing about this game had me excited when I started to play. But despite that, and the black/navy colour issue, it really won me over as a two-player experience. Both the better half and I have fallen for it and for now it is a keeper. Highly recommended if you like multi-layered abstracts, but only really with two players.

  • I’d like to thank AEG (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of the game for review.
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