Board game Top 10: My most played games I won’t play again

In a continuing look at longevity and replayability (see links at end of post), I thought it might be interesting to look at games I’d played the most of that, if given the opportunity, I’d actually veto: and look at the reasons why.

I guess, if push came to shove, I probably would play them – if one was the only game available and there was nothing else to do, or of it was the person’s birthday and they were absolutely determined etc – but otherwise I’d be strongly looking for or suggesting something else.

There are of course many other games that didn’t make the list as I simply haven’t played them enough times to get to this point (Firefly, for example, with two plays!) – so these are games I initially at least saw enough in to want to explore more but that, at some point, the gloss really fell off.

And although it should be obvious, this is of course only my opinion. To illustrate that, I’ve included each game’s Board Game Geek rating at the time of writing (and overall position in its table) to show what the general gaming public may think of it. You can make your own mind up about the fact most of them rank higher than the games I’ve designed myself. There’s no accounting for (my) tastes…

Top 10 games I’ve played the most that I won’t play again

Jambo
(15 plays, BGG ranking 527, 7.04)
This largely well-regarded game came highly recommended and, after adding it to my collection, saw a lot of plays for me between 2012 and 2014. Sadly though, as you play more and start to work the game out, it becomes clear that, unless you have equal luck of the draw, the winner will largely be determined by luck. The game has several types of card and a drought of any of them can put you in a hole you simply can’t get out of. It makes the game frustrating and happens too often, for me, to be an acceptable luck element – mainly because there’s no way to mitigate the situation. Which is a shame, as otherwise the game has a lot going for it.

San Juan
(13 plays, BGG 239, 7.28)
I was an experienced Race for the Galaxy player, and had Puerto Rico, before I played San Juan – which I immediately regarded as Race with stabilisers. However, I also saw its potential to introduce players to the concepts in Race – my favourite game. It worked perfectly for this, except that I hated it. How could you make a game with a big deck of cards that had so few options? So many duplicates? Why would anyone play this over Race? The answer, of course, is exactly that: you can work towards a strategy relatively sagely, in the knowledge the cards you need will probably show up. But for me, it was tedious and one-dimensional compared to my precious.

Munchkin
(12 plays, BGG 3630, 5.93)
People can be very sniffy about Munchkin, and while I agree in terms of game play I wouldn’t ridicule Munchkin players. It has acted as a gateway into our fantastic hobby for many RPG and light game fans, so where’s the harm in that? It’s exactly what happened to a few people in our group – we just don’t play it now. On the plus side, it has humorous cards that any fantasy fan will appreciate and is good fun for a few games. However, once you see through the game’s (fairly shallow) conceit the fun quickly runs out – unless you’re a big fan of simple ‘take that’ games.

Ascension
(9 plays, BGG 531, 7.03)
Ascension arrived on the wave of deck-builders that came in the wake of Dominion’s success. Designed by Magic: The Gathering experts, it saw players buy cards from a central deck but quickly specialise in particular factions so as to build a synergy. It was fun to explore for a few plays, but it soon became clear that if the cards you wanted didn’t come into the display at the right time – while they did for another player – it soon became a procession you could do nothing to stop. As with Jambo this happened too often to make the game fun enough to stick, with despite it being relatively short.

Thunderstone
(8 plays, BGG 571, 6.98)
This is the first game on this list that actually gets my hackles up when I think about it. Again coming in the wake of Dominion, this literally ripped the good ideas from Dominion wholesale while adding a piss weak generic fantasy theme on top – plus a couple of equally piss weak ‘level up’ and ‘dungeon’ mechanisms to give the illusion of originality. It was clearly rushed out to ride that Dominion wave, proven by the fact it needed a reprint to make it playable and a second to make it ‘finished’ (although I still found it awful). Just my opinion mind. And… relax.

Mage Knight
(7 plays, BGG 23, 8.11)
Before the outrage begins, yes, this is a good game – it just isn’t for me. When I first read about it I was super excited about it and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it: an intelligent fantasy game based around deck-building and RPG elements that sounded like the tabletop equivalent of the Heroes of Might and Magic computer game series. While to many this is exactly what it turned out to be, but for me it was too long, too strategic and too fiddly – its weight rating of 4.26 out of 5 on BGG says it all (I’m more comfortable around 3 of 5). Its not you Mage Knight, its me.

Combat Commander: Europe
(5 plays, BGG 110, 7.91)
If I recorded computer-based plays in my ‘played’ list on BGG, this entry could equally have been Memoir 44 – another card-based war game that flaunts itself as being euro gamer friendly by its pure popularity, but then falls down by keeping the traits that make traditional war games so loathsome for me – namely the blind luck. Cleverly position your forces, outwit/think your opponent, bait your trap then pow! Roll a bunch of ones and lose anyway. There are brilliant games out there now that manage to simulate combat in clever ways. Yet many people still prefer this kind of thing regardless.

A Fool’s Fortune
(5 plays, BGG 6471, 6.19)
Despite myself, I still think there’s a great game lurking beneath this mess of a production. It’s a rummy style card game with a few too many clever twists on the original idea to make it intuitive – which is made 100 times worse by using terrible flowery language for absolutely everything you do in the game. While I can see they were trying to add theme, all they achieved was to add several extra layers of bewilderment to an already unintuitive game – making it largely incomprehensible. So much potential, but oh my did this game need a loving development hand.

Battlestar Galactica
(3 plays, BGG 65, 7.75)
I seem to be one of the few people who think the TV series was bloody awful (the story seemed OK, but so many bad actors) – but I was happy to give the game a go, and liked the premise of the traitor mechanic (which was relatively new back then!). I will always forgive a first play of a game going long, especially if you’re learning it together, but subsequent plays just dragged on and on, and for me were nowhere near engaging enough in terms of game play and atmosphere to warrant the hours spent on it. I get why it’s popular, but for me it was the gaming equivalent of watching paint dry.

Pot de VinAce of Spies & Space Race: The Card Game
(3 plays each: BGG 7398, 13940 & 2689 respectively)
I’ve crow-barred three into this slot as each had three plays, while each was also a Kickstarter card game I held out high hopes for – but sadly fell well short of the mark. These are all classic examples of being great ideas that have been poorly executed, needing the development of a professional publisher rather than a few mates at the local gaming club. On the surface they look professional, but underneath they’re underdeveloped and fall way short of their potential. But while people keep blindly backing these things unplayed, they’re going to keep coming into production.

See also:

Gaming ‘best of’ 2018, part 2: Top moments and most played games

Outside my regular gaming groups, 2018 was a great year for me getting and out and going to events – as you’ll see below. I went to more cons in the year than before – and better still, there are plenty more I’d like to attend in the future but couldn’t squeeze into my schedule before.

In terms of the games I played, it was a good year for some of my firm favourites that Sarah has taken to – not surprising, as I probably played more with her than anyone else in 2018.

But that meant a lot of shorter, less demanding games – so my favourite medium weight euros sadly didn’t get much of a look in. But with at two games waiting to be reviewed that fit that category (Magnastorm and Prehistory), hopefully I can look forward to some more taxing gaming in the next couple of months. Anyway, strap in folks – it’s going to be a long post…

My 5 best gaming experiences of 2018

  • Cologne: I love exploring charity and junk shops, poking around in musty corners hoping to find a gem – so you can imagine how much of a kid in a sweet shop I felt in secondhand game store Spielbrett in Cologne. The hobby simply isn’t big enough to support such a store in the UK, but here were literally thousands of games in precarious piles in a store that seemed to go on for ever.
  • Eastbourne: I managed to make both the May and November LoBsterCon events this year and thoroughly enjoyed both. I ended up helping with quite a lot of the set up in May as some of the organisers had real life getting in the way – and I subsequently stepped up to be on the organising team by November. Didn’t stop me drinking too much though – I just got a nicer room! Happy days.
  • Essen: It was another great year at the world’s finest (and biggest) board game convention in Germany. I spent quite a long time on the Drawlabs booth this year, as Witless Wizards was released, but the rest I largely spent wandering aimlessly around – which is what I like to do most at the con. I only had a few meetings, so it was largely a relaxed experience – perhaps my favourite yet.
  • Airecon: While Essen and Eastbourne still sit proudly at the top of my gaming events tree, Airecon has flown straight into third place on that list and become an instant must-go event. In the middle of beautiful Harrogate, it was friendly, well organised, spacious and well lit; with great food and beer – so all your bases are well covered. Add some great friends and gaming, and it’s close to perfect.
  • Other weekends away: This one’s a bit of a cop out, but I think it’s important to note just how many chances there are now to get away for gaming weekends – all of which were great fun: SorCon, ColCon, Tabletop Gaming Live, UKGE – plus a fun night away for my mate Keef’s 50th. And that’s not to mention so many other’s I’m yet to visit, such as MidCon and HandyCon. Maybe this year…

My top individual plays of 2018

January: A bunch of gaming friends always go away for New Year and this time they ended up near-ish to me, in Wisbech. I managed to get over there for a fun day of gaming, the highlight of which was my introduction to Junk Art. I came in third of five, but had so much fun – it was great to find a fun dexterity game that also had some properly gamery mechanics added to the scoring.

February: A tough month to call, which included SorCon and a trip to see Sean & Natalie in The Game Pit. A never-ending game of Fallout with Sean, a great mass game of PitchCar at SorCon (thanks Sheepy), and teaching Stone Age to Sarah in a board game cafe in Naples all stand out; but the level of smack talk and giggles teaching Downfall of Pompeii to Sean and Natalie just takes the prize.

March: Another busy month featuring AireCon and a visit from Karl & Ann. Lots of euro action including great plays of Pioneer Days, Yokohama and Concordia, but the standout was my hilarious introduction to Mini Rails. Ben taught it to Sean, Ronan, Ozzy and myself – and we preceded to end up with a total of two points between us (1,1,0,0,0). The game is probably broken but it was so much mean fun, who cares?

April: ColCon saw more good euro action with Caverna and Deus standing out, but my game of the month was teaching The Rose King to Sarah. It’s a real favourite of mine and I’ve played it a lot, so underestimated how easy it is to pick up – and really let my guard down, trying some obvious moves and getting found out, big time – 237-131. I really should know by now not to underestimate here!

May: I lost my voice through illness at the first LoBsterCon of the year, but still managed some fun plays including a silly game of drunk Eldritch Horror (“Magic!”). But the winner had to be my first (and potentially last) game of the truly epic War of the Ring. I really enjoyed it, I’m glad I played it, but boy – you thought the films and the books were long! This was about the same. But a truly memorable con game.

June: A lovely month, including a nice walking weekend with Sarah at Rutland Water and a visit from my Swedish friend Janne – which gave us the chance to play one of my old three-plus player favourites Manilla. I can’t remember if Sarah or Janne won but I was dead, dead last – but was laughing throughout. That weekend also saw my only play of Terra Mystica all year – must do better!

July: Just 20 plays, and all in St Ives. I really enjoyed teaching games of Race for the Galaxy and The Manhattan Project with Chris, but the standout was a nip-and-tuck game of Entdecker with Sarah that she just won 8-6. She took a risk on the ‘?’ tiles at every opportunity while I shied away from them, and they worked out for her more times than not. Sure, the game is a little wonky and dated but I still really enjoy it.

August: Another exclusively St Ives plays month – I pretty much hibernate in the summer! Another visit from Karl & Ann saw fun games of Puerto Rico and Yokohama, amongst others, while I enjoyed a close two-player game of Acquire with Chris – but the highlight was Sarah’s first win at Oracle of Delphi – a game which has become one of my favourite Feld games due to its subtle yet vital player interaction.

September: I enjoyed first plays of KeyForge and Race to New Found Land at Tabletop Live, and great games of Uptown and Delphi at Keef’s 50th birthday do, while it was fun exploring Terraforming Mars: Prelude with various groups – but the highlight was a fantastically tense play of Basari: The Card Game with Chris and Jonathan. It’s amazing what a simply simultaneous card flip can do to the atmosphere of a game.

October: As usual it was all about Essen, with several new contenders enjoyed including Gnomopolis, 5 Colors, Trapwords and The Great City of Rome. I really enjoyed some teaching games of Witless wizards too, but the highlight was a four-player first play of Orbital with Nathan, Terry and Adam. I was a distant third, but it was great to see it be such an instant hit (Nathan and Terry bought it the next day).

November: My biggest month for plays of the year, with 55 (including 18 at LoBsterCon). Small card games Fool and Modern Art were surprise highlights, but a truly epic drunk Eldritch Horror was the obvious winner. After many hours of play we engineered a situation where, if all seven of us completed our tasks, we could win the game in the final round. The first five of us did it – only for Ronan to blow it all with us so close to the win. We found out afterwards we’d have lost anyway but hey – it was still an epic attempt.

December: The year ended with a nice walking trip in the New Forest (including tight fun games of Red7 and Uptown) after a Christmas Day giggle with Snakes and Ladders (it’s amazing how kids can make even the worst game a good giggle). I also greatly enjoyed learning Fertility, Kupferkessel Co and Balloon Cup with Sarah, but the highlight was exploring KeyForge properly with Chris. I’m not sure how long the novelty will last, but for now its great fun exploring this clever little game.

My most played games in 2018

The fact my unpublished prototypes plays was only at 24 for the year tells its own story. Otherwise it was:

  1. Adios Calavera (19 plays)
  2. Codenames Duet (15)
  3. Ticket to Ride (15)
  4. Race for the Galaxy (8)
  5. 5 Colors & Thurn & Taxis (7)

The first three on the list would comfortably slot into Sarah’s Top 10 games (that will be a blog post soon!), as would Thurn & Taxis. Race is my favourite – although I’m yet to try and inflict it on Sarah! Thankfully I know plenty of other people who love it. I really enjoy 5 Colors, but I can’t see it hanging around on this list next year.

I didn’t include Witless Wizards (15) and Pioneer Days (8) – but of course you should go and buy them immediately! While it has been unbearably frustrating seeing Witless Wizards face the same distribution nightmares Pioneer Days had last year, it has at least been nice to see the latter creep ever closer to the top 1,500 games on Board Game Geek. But we’re left wondering ‘what if’ in terms of its botched release. Hence my lack of game design enthusiasm this year.

Just below these were five games on six plays. Maori and Terraforming Mars are Sarah/me favourites respectively, while Gnomopolis and Kingdomino were both review copies and hits. Discover: Lands Unknown needed six plays to do an honest and complete review, but it has now gone on to a hopefully happier home.

Outside of review copies (I make sure to play every board and card game I review at least 4-5 times) there were five plays each for Yokohama (one of my favourite euros for years) Patchwork (a game we’ve both enjoyed) and Uptown (another Top 10 contender for Sarah) – and four plays each for Africana, Azul, Ingenious and Oracle of Delphi. All last year’s Top 5 had at least five plays this year.

How is 2019 shaping up?

I’m excited for the launch of Europe Divided, another game I’ve worked on with my good friend David Thompson. It is very much his baby, him being an expert on the post-Cold War goings on in Eastern Europe, but I’m proud of what I managed to offer in terms of helping polish the euro-style mechanisms that make this card-driven war game tick. It’s being published by Phalanx, who have been great to work with – expect a designer diary here soon.

Otherwise, I’m hoping for more of the same: good gaming friends locally, some great trips to cons around the UK and beyond, as well as some weekends with gamer friends anywhere I can find them. Fancy a game night? You know where to find me…

For more of this nonsense check out Part 1 – which includes links to previous years.

Gaming ‘best of’ 2018, part 1: Best new games & gaming stats

And so ends my 10th full year back into hobby games: nearly 4,000 plays of around 750 different games; more than 350 blog posts here, including almost 150 full length reviews; and four published games I’ve designed or co-designed (with another to come in 2019). It’s been quite the ride – but did 2018 stand out?

2018 felt like a solid if unremarkable year in gaming. No original 2018 releases have made it into the BGG Top 100 yet, with the biggest of the bunch (including KeyForge and Decrypto – see below) currently around the 250 mark. It felt a bit like a watershed year, with the industry holding its breath to see what happens next – rather than trying to make it happen. Hopefully 2019 will see the big players taking some risks, and more importantly taking their time, to release a smaller number of hopefully outstanding titles.

Due largely to circumstances outside my control, my formerly regular Sunday group was largely non-existent again this year due to understandable work and relationship commitments – but it’s looking like things should improve in 2019. Luckily I’ve managed to game with Sarah quite a lot at weekends, while local friends Chris and Jonathan have ably helped me play review games midweek (thanks all!).

This has meant a real lack of four-player gaming, which I’ve only really managed at cons – but luckily I managed to get to quite a few during the year (more on those later). Review commitments meant it was another year leaning more towards new games, but Sarah kept me honest with her picks of her favourites so there was a good smattering of old favourites too. If only I could retire, I’d have time for both!

My 10 favourite games that were new (or new to me) in 2018

I had a lot of fun times playing new-to-me games this year, but without many of them joining (or threatening to join) my collection.

That said, games on my review shelf I’m yet to get to include The Estates, Prehistory and Magnastorm – all games I’m really excited to try and that I have high hopes for – while my first play of light tile-layer Fertility was fun (review coming soon).

But it made this Top 10 pretty easy to create, especially as I had easy opportunities to include both my honourable mentions on the list. They’re in no particular order, except that the first five I own and the rest I don’t – but I may well do one day.

  • Orbital (2018): I liked the look of this light civ builder, but didn’t think it would have such a positive impact. Everyone I’ve played it with has really enjoyed it, I think largely due to the fact the mechanisms get out of the way and let you build as effectively – and competitively – as possible: ye the buying mechanism is really robust and just original enough to stand out.
  • Yokohama (2016): I was introduced to this fantastic Japanese worker placement euro game by friends Keef and Claire. It has sadly flown largely under the radar despite a US release by Tasty Minstrel (I guess a similar fate to our own Pioneer Days), but is well worth checking out if you like a really thinky, chunky euro with a movement system akin to Istanbul – but with added complexity.
  • Crown of Emara (2018): Another Essen 2018 release, this one is a classic one-hour German euro game: cards with actions, an action selection rondel and a small amount of resource management. But what makes it stand out is how much thought it packs into just 18 quick actions, while there’s a high level of replayability despite a relatively small number of components.
  • Gnomopolis (2018): The third and final Essen 2018 release review game that has made it onto my shelves so far. It’s a puzzley bag-builder but plays super-fast, giving the game a real race feel. There’s very little player interaction, but you can build a little engine fast and there’s a surprising amount of different strategies to get your head around. A real surprise hit for me.
  • Kupferkessel Co (2001): I discovered this after a bit of research into designer Günter Burkhardt, who designed Maori and Ulm (two Sarah favourites). This is a two-player game with a similar grid mechanism to Maori, which sounded great – and I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I found it second hand in Germany, where I also picked up Balloon Cup (2003) – another sub 30-minute two-player game which has gone down even better with Sarah.
  • Junk Art (2016): I do like a good balancing game and this is the best one I’ve played to date. The big box is full of quality wooden pieces, while a pile of simple rules cards make every game different. If I played this kind of game more often Junk Art would definitely be in my collection; but it will make it in regardless if I see it at a bargain price.
  • Pitch Car (1995): Hard to believe I only played this old classic flicking/racing game for the first time this year, but it didn’t disappoint. With a big group it’s hilarious fun, especially in a con setting: flicking games are a great leveller anyway, while the mayhem of having so many cars on the track at once just ramps up the silly fun of it all. I now need this and Tumblin’ Dice in my collection!
  • Fallout (2017): While this has all the problems you expect to find with a Fantasy Flight game (do they really play-test these things outside of three or four employees?), it has enough Fallout flavour to keep fans of the computer game’s world – and Ameritrash games – happy for hours. I wouldn’t buy it but hope to play it some more in the future (here’s looking at you, Sean!).
  • Decrypto (2018): I do also like a good word game, and we seem to have been treated to several in the last couple of years. While Decrypto doesn’t quite fire Codenames for me, it’s great for 4-6 players and is less stressful for the clue giver. Similarly Trapwords (2018) is a lot of fun and, while basically a slightly more gamery version of Taboo, is different (and better) enough to be worthy of attention.
  • Mini Rails (2017): While innocuous looking, 45-minute 3-5-player train game is actually a super mean stock market/route building game of ever shifting alliances. I went in with no expectations and was laughing throughout, as we all pretty much ended on zero points as we gleefully stabbed each other in the back. If I played four-plus player games more often, this would be a definite purchase.

Looking back at last year’s list, it was only really Pulsar 2849 that quickly fell off a cliff for me (and out of my collection). I haven’t picked up, or played, Climbers or Mansions of Madness – but would still like to; while Oracle of Delphi, Azul (now owned) and Adios Calavera have all become favourites.

Game play and collection stats

I’ve reduced my collection to 158 games (from 175 this time last year), which I expect to stabilise at more like 150 once I’ve gone through the last of my Essen review copies. I’m very much working a one in, one out policy now and intend to keep it that way.

I only have three unplayed games on my ‘shelf of hope’ (a phrase brilliantly coined by the Cubelove podcast: why should it be a shelf of shame? Let’s stay positive about these untried games people!): Exit: Forgotten Island, Shafausa and Mythos Tales. Hopefully they’ll all hit the table in 2019. Off the list since last year was De Vulgari Eloquentia (one play, looking forward to more) – and less positively Roundhouse and London Markets, both of which were decidedly average and are now in pastures new.

My total of games played for 2018 was 404 – up slightly from 386 in 2017. It’s nice to be back above 400 plays for the year, but it still felt like a low total: especially with the amount of extra games I’ve got in from playing with Sarah. Again, I hope to up the numbers some more in 2019.

Unfortunately the fantastic BGG Extended Stats website (from the awesome Friendless) is undergoing a big overhaul, so I can’t geek out on quite as many stats as I usually do. But I can say I’ve played more than 170 different games in this calendar year – my highest ever. Also unfortunately, I’ve played quite a lot of forgettable crap in the name of research, but on the plus side I have played more than half the games in my collection this year too – another high.

I’ll be back soon with Part 2, which will include my best gaming events and individual plays of 2018, as well as my list of most-played games and a look forward to 2019 – but until then, Happy New Year!

SEE ALSO: Entries for 2012201320142015, 2016 and 2017.

Orbis: A four-sided game review

Orbis* is a light euro-style tile-laying game for two to four players that takes 45-75 minutes (longer with more players) and is listed for ages 10+ (which feels about right).

I put it at around the top of family to gateway game complexity, as the rule set is relatively simple but you need a bit of gaming nous to see how it all clicks together. It has a lightly pasted-on world building theme, as each player draws landscape tiles to create their own pyramid of floating islands.

The game comes with 75 cardboard tiles, 100 wooden cubes and around 30 cardboard tokens. The artwork has a nice family, cartoony feel and the graphic design is clear and consistent – although there look to be some potential colour blindness issues with the tiles themselves. Nothing really stands out in terms of quality, but there’s no real complaints; making the UK price tag of around £20 very good value. But is it a game you’ll want to own?

Teaching Orbis

In Orbis, each player takes 15 turns – and on each they will take a tile, eventually building a pyramid with a five-tile base. One of these will be a god tile (more on these later), with the rest being regions; but it’s all about taking tiles that combo well with each other to score points.

Taking a region tile follows five simple steps – the first of which is generating worshippers (read: cubes). Regions come in five colours and there are always nine to choose from, in a 3×3 grid. When you’ve chosen a tile to take, simply add a cube to each orthogonal region in the colour of the region you’re taking – making them more desirable to other players. Next, collect any worshippers on the tile you’re taking.

Some tiles cost worshippers to take – if so, now’s the time to pay (if you’ve just collected worshippers of the right colour from the tile itself, you can use them immediately). Otherwise, your new worshippers join your collection (you can have a maximum of 10 at the end of your turn). Now, you finally get to add the tile to your pyramid.

Any tile can go on the bottom row, but as you start to build higher a tile can only go on top of two other tiles if it matches the colour of one of those below. Sometimes you may not be able – or want – to do so. In this situation you still take your pick of tiles, distribute and take worshippers as usual, but you don’t pay any tile cost. Instead, you flip the tile over to its ‘wilderness’ side and it becomes a wild tile, while also giving you a negative point. This can still be a good move though – but more on that later.

Finally, if you didn’t flip the tile, you get any benefit the tile gives – as long as you meet the benefit’s conditions. It could be as simple as grabbing a few worshippers. But each of the five region colours has a different way of scoring end-game points, relying either on discarding workers (sometimes from the central board, sometimes from your stock), tile placement position, or total number of a specific tile type at game end. Sometimes, if you don’t meet that scoring requirement as you place the tile, you lose the chance.

You’ll do the above 14 times each – with the other pick being a god tile. At the beginning of the game, a number of these (player count, plus one) are randomly chosen from the 10 in the box and placed at the side of the table. On any of your turns, you can take one of these gods instead of a region – and at the end of the game it will be placed atop your pyramid, much lie an angel on the Christmas tree. Most of these will score you end game points dependent on certain strategies – but some will give an immediate effect, or stop you from facing negative points.

After 15 rounds, simply add up your points – and highest score 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: Orbis doesn’t bring anything new to the party, but it flaunts what it does bring with aplomb. The rules are simple, it plays fast and is easy to follow, but there are several strategies available. Even when to take a god tile is an interesting decision: do you go early, setting up your strategy but leaving others open to scupper you – or go late, but potentially being left with the best of some bad options? However, I found it a little too precise: scores tend to be close not due to matching player skill, but more because anything you do – good or bad – is going to score you a very similar number of points. It’s a fast game, so I feel swingier (and/or more punishing) scoring would’ve ramped things up nicely.
  • The thinker: As with other family games, such as Ticket to Ride, this feels very group dependent. It has a nice (if ultimately shallow) puzzle to solve, but if playing with aggressive players you may see your best options being taken purely by spite. I expect, as there is no solo variant, this was very much part of what the designer and publisher liked about the game – but as a lover of the long game, knowing you can have any and all rugs pulled from beneath you isn’t a feeling I’m looking for in this kind of game. Which is a shame, as the different coloured regions play surprisingly differently in a game that has such a small footprint.
  • The trasher: It took me a few games to realise the power of wilderness tiles, but once I did the Orbis enjoyment factor quadrupled (although it didn’t start very high!). If you see a tile someone really wants, you can always take it from them – and while it gives you a minus point it also acts as a wild tile for you – meaning anything can go on top of it, and it can count for all kinds of scoring opportunities. This is particularly strong with two players, as otherwise you’re relying on other players to chip in with your evil plans! Also, with more, I felt the extra players did really add anything expect time. But at two, and maybe three, I like it!
  • The dabbler: What a lovely looking game – and so simple! While the theme doesn’t really come through at all (meeples instead of cubes would’ve helped) it looks fab on the table and is very easy to learn. You need to learn fast that you can’t go with all colours, but then it’s also nice to have the wilderness tiles available as a ‘get out of jail almost free’ card when you screw up! As there’s no hidden information you can also help younger players and new gamers as you go, while even if you have a bad game you know it’ll be done in 30 minutes and you can just go again. All round, a fun family game.

Key observations

Once again, as with Raids a week or so back, I find myself linking to my recent post on replayability in games. Initial exploration of the game’s scoring opportunities was fun, but you use the same region tiles every game and they come out in a partly prescribed order – suggesting a fragility in the game and leading to a lack of replayability for gamers. Also as with Raids, the fact you initially don’t not what tiles are in the game can lead to misconceptions on planning a strategy – and so an unsatisfactory first game experience too. For example, you may go blue, white and red – only to find there are only one red and one white tile that work with a blue strategy.

But when you know the tiles, the way some regions score is fragile long-term too – even taking in the fact you first draw all the set 1 tiles, then 2s, then 3s. Especially with two players, the fact tiles are unique means you know they’re coming – but them not coming out at the ‘right’ time can lose you the game. It feels as if, for a gamer, Orbis sits uncomfortably between the tactical joy of dealing with the hand you’re dealt – and the strategic one, at the other end of the scale, of knowing what’s on the way.

More worryingly, seeing as the game has issues for gamers anyway, is the lack of innovation. I understand publishers wanting a stable of family games to sell to a growing market, but is it enough to rearrange the design toolbox when there are 1,000 games being released each year? I don’t want to sound as if I’m picking on this one title because I’m not – it’s a solid, average game I expect I’d have loved if new to the hobby – see also Splendor, Century Spice Road etc etc. But it’s the cumulative effect of these releases that may break the camel’s back.

Conclusion

Orbis is, in theory, right up my street. It’s a well designed game that has tough limited choices, a strong abstract puzzle theme, nice presentation, short play time, plus some strong passive player interaction if you want it. I’d recommend it over the hugely popular Splendor and miles over of the awful Century series.

So why did it fall totally flat for me? It took a while, but after my fourth or fifth play it hit me: its mutton dressed as lamb. Orbis is, in essence, a small box filler card game. Everything could be boiled down to cards and cubes which, while the game is good value for money, would’ve reduced both the box size and price point considerably. But beyond that, it feels and plays like a smaller game – which for me makes it an unsatisfying game when playing with all these fancy, chunky, pointless pieces.

I realise this is a strange criticism that some will think ridiculous, especially in today’s climate where many gamers seem to think bling first and game play second – moaning about a game being too well produced when it still only costs about £20! But what can I tell you? It’s how it makes me feel. I know I’ll be in the minority and I still recommend the game to you if it sounds like your sort of thing – it’s a solid if unspectacular release. But in terms of my collection, I’ll be taking a pass.

* I would like to thank Space Cowboys (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of the game for review.

A festive ‘thank you’, plus some New Year’s gaming resolutions

There’s nothing like spoiling a new year before it even begins by setting yourself unrealistic expectations – so here goes!

First though, I’d like to thank y’all for reading this blog and wish you a fantastic (or at least tolerable, if that’s all you can muster) festive period.

By the end of the month I’ll be up near 40,000 visits for the year for the third year in a row, which feels fantastic. It’s nice to know a few of you still care about words in a world full of YouTube numpties – sorry, ‘influencers’ – and a social landscape fuelled largely by soundbites. Cheers 🙂

Five gaming New Year’s resolutions

  1. Keep my collection at 150
    I’ve managed to cut back to what many will still see as a ridiculous amount of board games, but when you have friends who could comfortably add a zero to that figure I’m not doing too bad. I’ll talk about this more in my end of year roundup, but suffice it to say I want to keep the collection around this number: it’s manageable on a single wall and I get most things played. Getting it to this point has been relatively easy, but that’s going to get trickier now – the chaff has largely gone, so there are going to be some tough decisions ahead. Speaking of which…
  2. Clear my current review pile by March
    I’ve got nine games I brought home from Essen that I’m yet to review. I want these played five teams each and reviewed by the end of March, which is doable. So in the next few months expect reviews of: Orbis, Color Monster, KeyForge, Estates, Fertility, Prehistory, Tsukiji, 1906 San Francisco and Magnastorm. Orbis and Color Monster should be the next two, but I’m yet to play any of the others. Finger’s crossed they will all be classics vying for a permanent berth on my shelves. However, they’ll be competing for playtime with me also…
  3. Clearing the ‘shelf of shame’
    I have 10 games on my shelves that I haven’t played in 2017 and, now, 2018 – a couple of which go even further back – while the copy of Shafausa I picked up mega cheap this year is punched but unplayed. Two of the 10 need three or more players (Nefertiti and Eternity), which I find tricky, but the rest I have no excuses for: Artus, Brass, Lords of Vegas, Lost Valley, Mombasa, Pizza Box Football, Twilight Struggle and Uruk. They’re all games I really like too, so they need table time. But to make matters worse, I fully intend to also…
  4. Have a design ready for pitching at Essen
    I’ve had a germ of an idea with Brett Gilbert for over a year. I’ve dived in on an intriguing idea of another Cambridge Design Group regular, Federico. And I’ve just started chatting to Matt Dunstan about the bare-bones idea for a new euro collaboration. On top of that, I’ve got four of five irons in the fire for solo designs that I simply (ha!) need to make initial prototypes for. It’s much easier to give people the advice ‘just get it to the table’ than it is to actually do it. Especially, of course, when you’ve promised to…
  5. Give Sarah every second game choice
    This is actually already kind of sort of in operation, and she is the patientist of missuses in the whole world. But especially of late, with Essen release review pressure, it’s probably been more like every third choice. Or occasionally fourth… but it’s not deliberate, I swear. As we’re essentially just playing my games, it’s not as if I’m not going to like her choices – and it’s good that she’s picking out ones she wants to get good at and is regularly beating me at a lot of them. But keeping her favourites is also making it hard to…

[Repeat number 1. Loop to fade. See you in 2019…]

Raids: A four-sided game review

Raids* is a family board game for 2-4 players, taking 30-60 minutes. While listed for ages 10+ it will comfortably go younger (the consensus seems to be 8+ would be fine): I can only imagine this was done due to component issues (small coins etc), not complexity.

Speaking of components, publisher Iello has done its usual fine job. In the box you’ll find a nicely illustrated main board and four player boards, 70 cardboard tiles, 44 wooden pieces and 20 metal coins – and it all fits beautifully into the dedicated box insert.

Raiding Vikings may not seem the most obvious family game theme, but there’s nothing here you’ll need to cover small children’s eyes from. While the game sees you sailing around collecting items, the fighting and pillaging is reduced to some light bidding, racing and collection mechanisms. That said, the art does a good job of evoking a Viking adventure and most of what you do makes at least vaguely thematic sense. You should be able to pick it up for around £30, which feels like solid value.

Teaching

While generally a pretty simple teach, Raids has a few niggly little rules that may throw some people (you’ll probably need to keep reminding people of them, or do some regular game admin yourself) – and anyone who needs to be competitive straight off the bat is going to need all the rules explained right from the start – especially for scoring (more casual groups can explain things as they happen).

In short, players go on journeys (on their long ships) around the board, stopping at points along the way to either collect items/points, fight monsters, or improve their ship. Once this has happened four times, the player with the most points wins. In euro game style, points can be immediate or accumulated for end round/game bonuses – but in family game style, this is all done with the minimum of fuss and complexity. Players start with a ship board ready for 10 Vikings (you’ll start with 1-3 cute Viking meeples, depending on turn order) and a nice wooden long ship token on the start space. 

The game is oft described as a competitive Tokaido, which is semi-useful: the board has a set route players must follow, and whoever is at the back of it takes the next turn (so you could equally reference older games such as Thebes or Egizia). But with Raids, the key difference is when you finish at your new space you don’t do the action immediately – you instead wait until you next get to move from the back before you take it.

Mechanically there are two types of space: those you can’t stop at, but where things automatically happen when you pass; and those you can either choose to stop at or move past without consequence.

Passing spaces either give you freebies (points or Vikings – sometimes benefiting those who get there first) or a monster to tackle. You can pass a monster by leaving a meeple behind to keep it occupied; meaning later players also have to deal with it – or you can spend as many Vikings as its victory point value (3-6) to defeat it – removing it from the board and putting it in your score pile.

Stopping spaces will give you a tile when you leave – as long as when you do, there’s no one left behind you. The reason being, just because you’ve stopped at a space to pillage it doesn’t mean you’ll get to. If another player comes up to the space from behind you and decides they fancy landing there, you have to duke it out. This is a very simple system: they ‘spend’ a Viking to move you on, but in turn you can spend two to hold your ground – at which point they can spend three more to push their claim, then you could spend four to defend again – and so on. The winner takes the space, the loser moves to another (and could equally push someone from another space further on). 

Once you’re the last player on the board’s track, you take the tile on your space before deciding where to move to next. Many of these tiles will upgrade your ship (give you bonus Vikings at the end of each run, help you fight monsters, or give end game scoring bonuses) but can also, for example, be goods you can sell at other spaces later for points. These ship tiles can force you into interesting tactical decisions, as while they take up spaces on your player board they may offer less ‘shields’ (Viking spaces) than you currently have – giving you less room for crew (and so fighting power).

Each round has a random scoring tile you hand out points for once all ships have made it home (perhaps most creatures defeated, or most goods collected etc). You then clear the board of any remaining tiles and put out the ones for the next round (you use all the games tiles, and they all have set rounds to be in – except the end game scoring tiles, which are chosen randomly from a small stack each 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: This is a clever family design from designers Matt Dunstan and Brett Gilbert, but more experienced gamers will soon start to ask questions. Once you start looking beyond the solid basics, the core becomes fragile – especially with two players. You soon learn the make-up of each set of tiles, for example, so know certain strategies have a clear arc – making certain plans only good near the start, for example – while if you know you’re winning (with two) you can easily rush the final round. There’s a two-player variant that tries to address this, but it’s just fiddly (like most two-player variants). So good for families, OK at best for gamers.
  • The kids: We love it! Its fun being raiders and the little wooden Vikings are awesome. But it was hard to remember you could only take the tile at the start of your go, not at the end – and frustrating when tiles you wanted got taken away because you were the last player at the back. But it’s a fun game and we want to play it more. But why are the pigs and sheep so big?! They’re bigger than the Vikings on the boat 😀
  • The trasher: This can be a mean game in a good way! Raids has a good mix for me – strategic thinking at the start of the rounds, but tactics take over once you start moving and reacting to the ever-changing situation. Having lots of Vikings is always good, but any fight (with a player or monster) immediately makes you vulnerable, so while you can be aggressive you also need to pick your battles. Personally, I’d have liked to see a dice thrown in to make the creature battles a little more random and riskier, as overall the game feels a bit too mathsy for my liking: I like my combat to have a bit of jeopardy! But still a fun game. 
  • The dabbler: This one worked really well with the family. It fits neatly in the box, then looks great on the table – and the rules are largely simple to understand. The theme works well, and it’s fun throwing your Vikings back in the pile while you fight creatures or other players. And while there are lots of ways to score points, they’re all simple to understand – the game distils lots of ideas from more complicated games and makes them accessible, which also makes this a solid gateway title as well as one for gamer families – especially if the theme appeals. 

Key observations

The only observation I can make for families is it’s a shame some parts of the game are a little unintuitive. Younger players especially will want their reward straight away, not at the start of their next go – especially if someone can kick them out before they get it: I can see some table-flipping from some kids here! And tiles being removed (if it’s your go to move, but there are tiles between you and the next player) is hard to remember – especially as this doesn’t happen on the first turn of each round. But these shouldn’t stop most families enjoying the experience.

Gamers, however, will soon start to see the cracks. Set tiles are always used, and always in the same round, so you can soon grock all the available strategies: and there are less than it first appears. There are only two monsters in the final round, for example – so why aim to fight then? I can see why certain tiles needed to be in certain rounds, but setting them all in stone has reduced this to a five-and-out game for your average gamer. But for families, especially if their kids are doing Vikings at school, this could be a real winner – and at a very reasonable price, even a short number of plays offers value (especially with the current strong resale market).

Conclusion

Raids is a really good family game. But as a gamer, while it’s mechanically sound and good fun for a few plays it won’t be staying in my collection. As I’ve talked about elsewhere on the blog, short-term interest games seem an actual strategy for some publishers – and for gamers, I’d put this in that category. I like to either explore a game over a lot of plays and keep finding new things; or have silly random fun and laughter: meaning this one isn’t for me (although I’d happily play again).

I guess I just wanted a little more. It feels as if concessions have been made to keep gamers happy, such as reducing the random elements to a minimum (there are even an exact number of coins in the box as required for every game). Everything just feels a little too precise – which actually fails to meet long-term gamer needs as much as fragility would have done, while reducing the amount of potential family fun in the process. So overall really solid, but for me it didn’t quite meet its full potential.

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

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.