Con report: Cologne & Essen Spiel 2018

Luckily this year Essen Spiel coincided with the school half-term in the UK (and will again next year) – so Sarah and me took the opportunity to spend a lovely long weekend in Cologne.

Afterwards I went on to Spiel 2018 and she headed home to be a responsible adult (them’s the breaks). And while we didn’t do much gaming in Cologne, we did find one of the best board game stores in all the land – for more on this, skip to the bottom of this post. Suffice it to say that each trip to Essen from now on is going to have to coincide with a Cologne pit stop…

My Essen Spiel 2018

As always, I had a brilliant if exhausting time in Essen. I only had publisher meetings on Friday, dedicating the rest of my time to simply looking, playing and picking up review copies of games – as well as socialising and catching up with as many people as possible.

I also spent chunks of time on both Saturday and Sunday on the Drawlab booth, talking about and signing copies of Witless Wizards: so if you were one of those that bought a copy, and particularly if we had a chat, thank you so much – it was great fun meeting and chatting to you all. The game did well and pretty much sold through the copies they had with them, which is all I could have hoped for – and all the guys (and gals) working on the booth did a brilliant job of explaining and selling the game – thank you all (again).

In terms of organisation, this was the best Essen Spiel I’ve been to (this was my seventh). While numbers rose once more (more than 190,000 came through the doors over the four days) it rarely felt ridiculously crowded. The one exception was the Galleria, which has become an unfortunate bottleneck. I understand why they fill it with kids’ stuff, but they really need a new solution for next year so this area can simply be used a smooth funnel between halls.

With the addition of a new entrance via Hall 6, it also meant there wasn’t really a hall where games went to die. Some smaller publishers in Hall 6 may dispute this, as it was mainly dedicated to everything from weird beer to cuddly toys, but overall it felt as if there was more of a flow between halls.

Games and gaming at Spiel: Hits and misses

I felt, in terms of new releases, it was an average year. The games generating buzz were often those which had limited copies, rather than the ones people were looking forward to most. I don’t think people wanted Newton more than Coimbra, for example – it’s just there were less copies of Newton available.

It’s a shame poor management by publishers still generates more buzz for a title than it actually being a good game (not to say Newton isn’t one). People – it will be in the shops soon, and it’s not as if there weren’t another 1,000+ other new games to choose from…

In terms of innovation, you don’t expect to be saying Fantasy Flight stole the show – but they did. Both KeyForge and Discover have been troubling the top of the Board Game Geek Hotness list for months and were very highly discussed, played and coveted at Essen Spiel. I’m hoping to get hold of copies of both, but the idea of every box containing unique content – but with a shared rule set – is fascinating. Even if it isn’t perfect this time around, the idea computer algorithms are starting to make their own games (in a way) is a fascinating one.

But beyond Fantasy Flight, the output from the larger publishers – for me at least – was largely disappointing: it felt more mass market and largely bereft of imagination. Titles such as The River (Days of Wonder), Azul: Stained Glass (Next Move), Solenia (Pearl) and Blue Lagoon (Blue Orange) felt derivative and unoriginal (if fine to play), which suggests to me the larger publishers are – probably quite rightly, in a business sense – targeting the ever-growing number of players new to the hobby.

My hunt for interesting mechanisms and ideas kept leading me out to halls four and five – and the great majority of games I brought home were from smaller publishers (see my list of incoming reviews here). But again, this isn’t a criticism of the big boys – more an acknowledgement that, as the market continues to grow, the priorities for the larger publishers will change in terms of what they’re aiming at this new, uninitiated public. The fact masses of new gamers seem to think Century: Spice Road is a ‘game’ (to me it’s a mechanism at best) suggests I’m part of the past, not the future!

Outside the halls: Essen itself

Finally, a few words on Essen the place, as I’ve been mean about it in the past. My first few visits to the city (2012, 2013) were a real struggle in terms of finding anywhere nice to eat or drink, but things have certainly come on in the past couple of years.

Fritzpatricks (pictured) still serves a great pint of Guinness and is the go-to place to meet up, while the Istra Steakhaus is still my favourite place to get a plate of meat and a lovely cold German beer on tap. But they’ve been joined by an ever-growing list of solid eateries on Rüttenscheider Straße and also Alfredstraße. Special mentions this year to the burgers and craft beers at Kohle*Craft*Werk and the hot dogs at Pan’s BeBop.

And finally, a hotel bombshell… After seven years in seven different establishments, I have finally booked the same place two years in a row for 2019! Congratulations, Boutique 019. You may not be in the best location, and you may not have a bar, but the fact you have a nice breakfast included, good free Wi-Fi, comfy bed and good shower makes up for that. And better still, you have single rooms at under £100 per night – pretty much gold dust in Essen during Spiel.

Cologne: Second-hand board game paradise

Being the world’s most mature board game market, Germany has a thriving second-hand game trade that stretches back into the nineties and beyond. It means you can find some amazing bargains alongside reasonably priced games that are super hard to find (and/or expensive) elsewhere.

While we largely did the tourist stuff in Cologne she did humour me for a morning in what many describe as the best second-hand board game store in all of Germany, Spielbrett. Owner Nadine Pick was great company and I could’ve spent all day in the shop.

The place really needs to be seen to be believed (check out the video snippet of one of the rooms below). An unassuming entrance leads to a series of small but jam-packed rooms full of games new and old, both in German and English, covering the history of the hobby. And I mean full – we’re talking floor to ceiling here, and some of the ceilings are pretty high. The actual collection stretches beyond 10,000 titles, with perhaps a third of that on display – but everything is catalogued, while you can enquire and even order much of it online (via Board Game Geek).

Via Spielbrett and the second-hand traders at Spiel, I managed to pick up the following:

  • Kupferkessel Co: (2001) A two-player game from Maori designer Günter Burkhardt that uses the same ‘move around the outside of a tile grid’ mechanism. I’ve been on the look out for it for ages, and this copy was still sealed. It was a SdJ ‘recommended’ back in 2002, but never got an English language release.
  • Balloon Cup: (2003) This whimsical looking yet mean two-player game has been on my radar since playing it on Yucata – but I couldn’t bring myself to get the horrible Rio Grande reprint (as Piñata). I instead picked up the original German version, in perfect condition, for a cheaper price.
  • Manhattan: (1994) Another classic (surprisingly aggressive area control) with a reprint that is no more appealing than the original; surprising in this case, as the original wasn’t exactly stellar in the looks department. Found the original German version for way under the price of a ‘new’ copy, again in great condition.
  • Thurn and Taxis: Power and Glory & All Roads Lead to Rome: (2007/8) The original Thurn and Taxis is an enduring favourite, so I kept a lookout for its two expansions. I found both second-hand for less than 20 euros each, so snapped them up. Now to get all this new nonsense played so I can get to the old stuff!

Overall, it was another brilliant trip to Germany. I just need to remember to book a few days off afterwards next year to recover…

5 Colors: A four-sided game review

5 Colors* is an abstract small box card game for two to five players, taking around 15 minutes to play. It was available at Essen 2018 but sold out relatively quickly, as Japon Brand’s games are want to do. But I’d be amazed if this wasn’t quickly picked up by a larger western publisher for wider release.

In the box you’ll find 100 cards and a rulebook. The cards are good quality linen finish stock, and while there’s a subtle colour name on each card, why not give each colour its own pattern to help the visually impaired? Surely this should be standard by now.

There’s no attempt at theme, which I always find refreshing in a release that’s clearly a take on traditional card games: it’s definitely a game you can play in the pub without fear of being ridiculed by the locals, or that you could teach the grandparents. It is listed as for ages seven-plus, which seems about right – if your kids can play rummy and the like, they’ll be fine with this. It was just 12 euros at Essen, which was a real bargain. Hopefully any reprint will be in the same ballpark, price wise.

Teaching

I’m somehow going to manage to drag this out to hundreds of words, but seriously – this is a five-minute teach. Most points wins, with the game ending once you’ve gone through the deck (you remove a few cards depending on player count).

Each player is dealt five cards, and you draw back up to five each time you lay cards (except in the final round, when you play all but your last card). Each round sees the players play four cards each. The round is then scored and its cards discarded, before the next round begins.

First, two cards are chosen by each player and placed face down (you can draw back up to five immediately). Once all players have chosen, the cards are revealed simultaneously. Players repeat this process but with a single card (choosing face down, then revealing simultaneously) – and then again – so that each player now has four cards in front of them, face up. Then, whichever colour has the most cards scores: but any cards of that colour in your score pile, and discard the rest. Simple.

But of course, it wouldn’t be much of a game if that was that; so here’s the clever yet simple wrinkle. Depending on player count, if there are a certain amount of a colour it is discarded. But also, if two or more colours have the equal highest number of cards, they’re discarded too. For example, in a four-player game, let’s say we end up with 7 blue, 4 green, 4 yellow and 1 orange. In a four-player game, seven of a colour bursts – so blues are discarded. Green and yellow now tie for most, so they’re also discarded – meaning whomever was lucky enough to have the orange adds it to their score pile.

There are 20 cards of each colour in the deck, numbered between one and six – with the vast majority being ones, twos or threes. Your eventual score will be the numbers on the cards, so those few high numbered cards are very powerful – but don’t underestimate the ones. The ‘many ones’ rule states that if there are a certain amount of them in a hand (again varying by player count – for example eight in a four-player game) all other rules are ignored and instead only ones score.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: 5 Colors is the kind of simple, elegant card game design it’s hard to believe hasn’t been done before. It plays super fast and is simple to teach, putting it in that perfect filler category. It definitely plays better with more players, where you start to get the feeling of little alliances forming on hands (especially if you’re trying to score ones). It works with two, but I’d probably pick something else.
  • The thinker: There’s little to no depth here, as there’s no control or long-term strategy at all. In fairness, ‘long term’ is a hard stick to use on a 15-minute game but you know what I mean – you’re trying to rely on others to do the right thing, but they may not be able to even if they want to depending on the card draw. That said, getting this much out of such simple rules is an impressive achievement.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed 5 Colors because it sets up and plays super-fast, but still lets you get into the other players’ heads! Saving up and scoring ones is a fun side line, especially if someone throws a valuable six into the mix and you take it down with your weakest cards lol. It’s just a shame the hand size is so small, as sometimes you simply have no cards that will affect play.
  • The dabbler: I enjoyed this! The game is very light-hearted and sometimes it doesn’t matter what you lay, but it’s still fun to play – I love the ‘greed is bad’ mentality lol. The only real downside is that it’s a pain to remember the ‘burst’ and ‘ones’ number, depending on player count – why no little crib card in the box? Also, the cards are a bit bland. They’re OK, but with Japan producing some really beautiful artwork for its games they could really have made this pop.

Conclusion

5 Colors won’t be for everyone; there’s plenty of luck of the draw here and I don’t think a better player is going to win most of the time. But this is a really solid little filler game that would be worthy of most collections – and will definitely be staying in mine.

Importantly it is the kind of filler game that encourages engagement; players will talk about hands, collectively count to see if things bust, and loudly bemoan their luck – making it a great pub game, or one to start the evening on the right foot.

Unfortunately Japon Brand games can be notoriously hard to come by, but this has been somewhat eased in recent years as the publisher has become recognised as a serious spotter of some high quality games. Hopefully 5 Colors will see European and US distribution, as it is clearly one of its best efforts of 2018.

* I’d like to thank Japon Brand for providing a copy of the game for review. Arigatou!

Essen Spiel 2018: Reviews incoming!

So the four days of gaming madness that is Essen Spiel are over for another year: 1,200 new games were released, 190,000 people crammed into the halls and I had what feels like about five hours sleep – while eating my own weight in meat and drinking a few too many beers.

A full report on my trip is in the works, but for now I’m simply going to list the games I picked up over the weekend to review over the next couple of months. Do bookmark this page if you’re interested, as I’ll link to the reviews from here as I post them on the site (and over at BGG).

Overall, it seemed like a pretty average Spiel (average = great fun). There were plenty of interesting games, but while the number of new games keeps going up it simply seems to be adding to the mediocrity rather than increasing the level of greats, or innovative titles. I still lay the blame for this firmly at the door of Kickstarter: anyone can push their derivative game out the door with the greatest of ease, muddying the waters for everyone and making the gems even harder to find.

But I digress. I hope to have all these reviews done before the end of the year, but I’ve said that before… And thanks to all the publishers who either gave me a big discount or gave their games for free – I couldn’t do this without your support.

  • 1906 San Fransisco: City building via a card-based action selection mechanism, but in a super small box.
  • 5 Colors: Great little majorities card game from Japon Brand.
  • Adios Calavera expansions: A three-player board, plus two more expansions, to add to the brilliant base game.
  • Color Monster: A children’s game encouraging your kids to talk about their emotions.
  • Crown of Emara: A fantastic one-hour euro with Knizia-esque scoring. A pretty solitaire experience, but a juicy enough efficiency puzzle to keep me occupied.
  • Estates: Prettier reprint of the celebrated and super mean auction/area control game Neue Heimat.
  • Fertility: Tile placement set collection/resource management game. Pretty much family level, but looks interesting enough to appeal to gamers too.
  • Gnomopolis: Worker placement/bag building and set collection. Cute pieces and simple rules, but something about it just spoke to me.
  • Orbital: Space station builder with a super tight economy. On one play, I think this is finally the Suburbia-style game that doesn’t have any rules I hate.
  • Prehistory: My heavy euro for Spiel 2018. Mechanisms listed as area control, modular board, set collection, tile placement and worker placement. Blimey.
  • Showtime: Light but mean card game with a great theme. First play was fun, despite poor iconography and even worse politics…
  • Tsukiji: The latest entrant in my search for a small, light and short commodities speculation game that really works for me.

There will be quite a few more (Including Discover: Lands UnknownOrbisRaids and Magnastorm) arriving by mail in the coming months too, so expect plenty of post-Essen goodness!

Close – but no cigar

These are the games that didn’t make it – and why:

  • Tales of Glory & Welcome To…: These were high on my list of games to review, but neither publisher was willing to give me a discount in return for a review. This is not a complaint – its their prerogative. Its just that I have very limited luggage space/funds and there are a lot of good games, so I’d rather just get something else. Hopefully I’ll get to play these later and if I like them I’ll pick them up.
  • Underwater Cities: I have no idea how I missed this in my research, as it sounds right up my street and I heard good things about it during the weekend. This is the game I most want to play of those that I saw, and I’ve got a spoken appointment to play it in a few weeks’ time, so finger’s crossed. You can’t have enough card-driven tableau/engine builders.
  • Hardback: I’m almost certain I’ll like this, and Sarah may like it too, but there’s something about word games – they just don’t do it for me without a play. I tried to get near it almost every day but the booth was always busy (great news for them) – and somehow the people on the booth just didn’t look very approachable. I’m sure it was me, and not them, but again I’ll look to get a play of it soon.
  • Newton & Coimbra: I didn’t really want to come home with more than one super dry 90-minute euro, but ended up overlooking both my original picks for this category and instead opted for Crown of Emara. I expect to still play these two and again, if they really do it for me, I may pick them up. But I’ve been saying that about Lorenzo since its release and still haven’t bought it, despite really liking it.
  • Expancity: On the last day I had four games I’d been told I could get 50% off for review, but only really enough room for one of them. I liked the look of this a lot, but already had Estates and Orbital in my suitcase (both of which had a bit of this about them) – so instead I opted for Gnomopolis as my last pick. Hopefully I made the right decision…

Trans Europa: A four-sided game review

Trans Europa* is a family board game first released in 2005; but which is almost identical to its predecessor TransAmerica/Iron Road, first released in 2001.

The 2018 re-release from Rio Grande Games uses a similar map to the classic 2005 release, but changes the colour of many of the cities to help accommodate a new mechanism, ferries – but more on this idea later.

In the box you’ll find the game board, around 100 wooden matchsticks, four cute little wooden trains, four starter markers and 36 cards. Overall this is a hard reissue to love, ‘bits’ wise. In an age of ever improving components this is a trip back to, politely, simpler times. The wooden bits are fine, while the board art copies the original (bland, but functional). The cards are nice, having a Tintin cartoon quality, but the box art – well, see for yourself. Maybe someone won a school competition? Overall, it feels just about reasonably priced online at just over £25 (but not at its £35 RRP).

This simple 30-minutes-ish train game really is super low on rules, weighing in lighter than Ticket to Ride. But don’t let that fool you: there are some interesting decisions to be made. This is definitely in the abstract zone though, with the theme not coming across at all. But as this is a route-building game, it certainly serves its purpose in teaching terms, as you build your networks from city to city.

Teaching Trans Europa

The basics are simple to teach, with a game taking place over a variable amount of identical 10 minutes-ish rounds (usually three to five). By the end of the first round, everyone should have the rules down – so if you play with hyper competitive people, you can always play a dummy round then start for real.

At the start of a round, each player randomly receives one card from each of the board’s five coloured regions: these are the stations they’ll need their network to reach to end the round. Next, each player places their start marker on any space on the board – then away we go.

On their turn, each player must lay at least one piece of track that extends their network. You can lay up to two pieces on your turn, so could lay two pieces of track on single line spaces – or one piece of track if it was a double-line space (these represent trickier to build lines over mountains or rivers). What this new edition of the game adds to the original are ferries: green wavy lines over larger areas of water.

Ferries takes the idea of the very popular 2007 ‘Vexation’ expansion and, well, complicates it. All the usual track you lay is black (more on this in a minute), but each player also gets three pieces of track in their own colour. When you build a ferry, it needs two pieces of track (not one) – but you can only build half of it per turn (you could still place another piece of track, but it would have to be elsewhere on your network). However, you can build your ferry with your own coloured track – which, if both pieces end up being your own, means other players can’t use it.

And herein lies the simple beauty of the game. As each player builds their network, eventually they’ll join up – at which point, all the connected players have one big network. The trick is to get other players to do all your hard work for you, while you do as little as possible to help them, before joining it all up. Which isn’t as simple as it sounds, as you don’t know where people are going…

When one player announces their network reaches all their cities, you play out the current player’s turn and then score. Everyone starts with 13 points. Anyone who has completed scores zero, while each other player loses one point per piece of track they were short of completing their own network (so one per normal section, two per mountain/ferry). When one player reaches 0 points they lose, and the game ends – with the person on the highest score winning.

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’ve always enjoyed route-building games and they don’t come much simpler, and clever, than Trans Europa. The original game was an elegant and interesting multiplayer puzzle, but I’m not 100% sure about the ‘improvements’ here. There’s nothing stopping you ignoring the wiggly ferry lines on the board and just treating them as normal routes – meaning you can use the coloured track with the original Vexation rules if you like (or ignore them completely for the basic/original game experience). But I don’t know yet if the changing of the map’s station colours will make it a fair game if you do that.
  • The thinker: While I won’t turn down a game of it, this has always felt a little long for what it is – and repeat plays can become tedious quickly. Experienced/good players will soon work out set strategies for use in each of the game’s situations (depending on your card mix), after which it plays out with much similarity each time, despite the seemingly large array of board options. An alarming amount of weight is placed on your initial placement decision, after which things tend to play out in a rather plodding manner. But rounds are short, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it is a clever design that deserves respect.
  • The trasher: While games tend to appeal to me the fewer players they have (the less of you there are, the more I can concentrate on the whites of your eyes!), Trans Europa is a game that works poorly at lower player counts. It’s OK with three, but much better at four or five, where you can really see the game evolving and try to choose your allies – and those parts of the network you want to avoid. And it doesn’t seem to play much longer with more players either, which is a great bonus for a super filler game that can accommodate up to six players.
  • The dabbler: As a big fan of Ticket to Ride, I was happy to give this one a go – but was sceptical when the (rather uninspiring) bits came of the box. But I was wrong – it was fantastic! Unfortunately, it’s not very good with two people, but with a table full it is great fun. You get a different dynamic depending on the group too: I’ve seen serious poker faces some weeks, then others laughing and chatting while we play the next. The board is really bland, but I guess it needs to be – you need clear lines and to be able to find everything on the map easily. But the Ticket to Ride boards would’ve been a good example to work from, surely?

Key observations

I’ll only going to talk about version specific observations here; the first of which has to be the ferries. While I can see what they’ve tried to do, it just feels clunky and rushed. The Vexation expansion was elegant, adding a bit of bitchiness to an already great game. Sadly, the ferries don’t do the same for me.

A big problem is having to place two sticks to complete a ferry route – while you only place one on a double black route. It means there are three different ways to do what should be a very simple turn, but is instead now confusing and counter intuitive. I’ve already house-ruled this, so you place two black sticks on a double route (to keep the rules simple) – but doing this can definitely lead to running out of track at higher player counts. What were they thinking?

Secondly, you can only use the coloured track on the ferry routes. While this can make for interesting decisions in some rounds, you very rarely have to build more than one ferry – so even if you double-down on a route there’s still no jeopardy in terms of, ‘where shall I use my precious coloured sticks?’ (which was made even more delicious my Tom Lehman’s variant). Again, I’m going to try and house rule this to allow people to use them wherever they like as in the original Vexation rules and see what happens.

Despite having a board that would fold into the original roughly eight-inch box, this version comes in a roughly 10-inch box. Everything floats around in there in an embarrassing fashion, which is only exacerbated by the ugly box art. All of this points to an embarrassing lack of love and attention being paid to this edition, which is far less than this classic board game deserves.

What makes the whole thing strange is the imminent release of Trans Europa (yup, the same game) from German publisher Ravensburger. It doesn’t seem to include Vexation at all (I guess you can add it, DIY style, very cheaply though) – but includes both the Europa and Amerika maps; comes in a ‘proper’ big box (not sure why, but at least it looks like it fits neatly); and has much nicer new art on both the board and box cover. It also looks to add a new twist via a deck of cards (one is drawn each round to add a unique extra rule for the round); but this is listed as a variant, so the game can easily be played like the original (unlike the Rio Grande version).

I presume Ravensburger only has rights to produce the game in certain territories, but I’m sure I’ll find out at Essen this week. I’ll keep you posted…

Conclusion

Trans Europa is a brilliant gateway game: short, light and fun, while the quick play time/multiple rounds are fair cover for the amount of luck the game has. A version of it should be in any game evangelist’s collection, as you can teach it to anyone and it accommodates that slightly awkward five to six-player range when you want something a little bigger than a simple card game.

I was thrilled to see a new edition arriving, and while I have some reservations about the ferries (and will always give the shonky box an awkward sideways stare), the pros  outweigh the cons: if you want a simple train game that weighs in with less complexity than Ticket to Ride, look no further. However, if you’re looking for a new shiny version you may want to take a close look at the Ravensburger edition before you part with any cash – unless the ferry idea particularly appeals to you. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on a copy of that when it drops, to be able to do a direct comparison.

* Thanks to Rio Grande Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy for review.

The Cousins’ War: A four-sided game review

First Edition cover

The Cousins’ War* is a small box two-player only strategy game that takes around 30 minutes to play.

It’s listed as 12+ for age range, but a savvy younger gamer could definitely get to grips with it.

Inside you’ll find a lovely main board and 17 cards (or 23 in the Second Edition – more on this later), all beautifully laid out and drawn by Klemens Franz, plus 27 wooden cubes and three dice (or six in the reprint, so that you each have your own dice – not necessary, but a nice addition).

The game is set during the War of the Roses and at its core is a card driven area control war game. But wait! While war gamers should take interest, those (like me) who aren’t shouldn’t be put off: this is a fast-playing game with a mix of euro and family game mechanisms that is far more welcoming than the tag ‘war game’ might suggest.

Teaching The Cousins’ War

Second Edition components, next to First Edition board on right to show scale

The game is played over one to five rounds, with an early wins being pretty rare – unless you’re the kind of game teacher who likes to instruct by dealing cruel blows (you know who you are).

Players choose a side (York or Lancaster) and take two cubes of their colour (white or red respectively), also placing one in each of the board’s three regions. The 17 game cards are then shuffled and six are dealt to each player. In each round you will play cards for actions, then resolve a battle.

Your goal is to control all three regions of the board at the end of a round, or a majority of areas at the end of five rounds (in either case, you win automatically). If you are tied for regions after five rounds, whoever won the majority of the game’s five battles wins – so there’s no way of having a tie.

Players swap one of their cards with their opponent at the start of the round, then pick one of their cards to be the potential battleground for the round. Only seven of the cards are battlegrounds, so you may not have one at all – in which case you simply ditch the action card (the other 10 cards) you least want. With the battle location set (each has a starting situation of either one cube each, or one for one or other player) the action card playing begins. You’ll take it in turns to play four cards each, either playing a card’s action (if it has one) or using its ‘command points’ (every card has 1-3 of these ‘CPs’).

CPs let you gain troops to your reserve, play them to the current battlefield card, or add/remove cubes from map regions. This last action is risky, needing a dice roll – which tends to be easier the worse you’re doing. Actions on action cards tend to be more powerful but can also be situational, so often need to be saved for the right moment. One you’ve played your actions, it’s time for battle – as long as you both have at least one cube on the battle card, that is (if not, you simply move to battle resolution).

Second Edition components, with First Edition battle card on right to show scale

The battle itself is an interesting beast. The active player rolls the three dice in secret and declares their best combo – either a triple, double or single with high numbers being better (so two sixes beats two fives, but two fives beats a single six etc). However, when they declare what they have they can lie through their teeth, much as you can in party dice game Perudo…

Now, the other player has a choice: accept their declaration or call them out. If they call them out, the active player reveals what they had – and if they were telling the truth the doubter loses a cube from the battle. If it was a lie, the active player instead loses a cube – unless they can mitigate the roll. Both players have one action card left from the previous phase and can use the CPs this has to change each dice (per CP) by a pip.

If losing a cube above means only one player is left standing, the battle is over. Otherwise, the non-active player rolls the dice openly and tries to beat the active player’s roll – and they can also use their remaining card to change the roll. The loser loses a cube from the battle – and you rinse-and-repeat this process until one player is left standing in the battle (so anyone who used their last action card in the first battle round is now at a big disadvantage). The victor moves any remaining cubes to the board region the battle was in, and then you check to see if the game is won.

In the Second Edition you’ll also find a six-card variant in the box, entitled Time of Change. One of these cards is turned face up on each round and effects the game for just that round, adding a little extra variety for those who want it.

The four sides

First Edition cards

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

  • The writer: While none of the elements in The Cousins’ War feel original, they do a great job of feeling unusually but cleverly and convincingly connected – exactly what you need to stand out in a very busy marketplace. The silliness of the dice and bluff battles doesn’t feel like it should work here, but it does because of the game’s short length. Similarly the lack of card choices looks too limiting in theory, but the tightness actually helps you quickly get to grips with your possibilities – which is invaluable in a fast-playing filler game. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
  • The thinker: While the battles have a big random element, like all good war games the win is likely to come from elsewhere – and grognards are well used to that. And there is more going on than initially meets the eye: the round you use/discard action cards is important, for example, as they can give a retort action to your opponent – while knowing certain cards are available to your opponent, or not, can be invaluable as the game goes on. Even your choice of battleground can become more interesting as you start to see the depth in the decisions.
  • The trasher: The Cousins’ War is a good, tight scrap which wears its heart on its wargamey sleeve – while throwing in a crazy poker-style battle sequence to throw the grogs out of their comfort zone! One thing of particular interest is the cube limit of 12. In a long, close game its easy to end up with all your cubes deployed – which suddenly makes you think differently and have to make more logistical decisions. This can act as a solid way to even the playing field, as if you get an early cube advantage you need to make it stick before your opponent catches up.
  • The dabbler: This one came as a complete surprise to me: while the artwork is nice, the rulebook is a little dense (the battle resolution rules are incredibly hard to read for something so simple!) and the ‘war’ theme seemed dry and put me off. But once we got playing, and had got through one complete round, I was up to speed and actually enjoyed myself. I’m rubbish at bluffing and giggled my way through battles, but it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference. Would I play it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t choose it – and it certainly hasn’t won me over to the war game side! But who knows, with a lighter theme, it might work…

Key observations

First Edition cards

The combat mechanism is going to make or break The Cousins’ War for most players. It is variously loved and loathed by commentators, being described as anything from “thrown together” to “adding tension”, and if you haven’t read enough above to convince you you’ll need to try before you buy. Personally, I think it works well.

As for small box war game alternatives, it really needs to be compared to Iron Curtain and 13 Minutes: two similarly small boxed games with a similar playtime that borrow liberally from the Twilight Struggle school of war game card play.

I found 13 Minutes far the inferior of the three, being overly abstract and with a poorly conceived tacked-on end game: it didn’t make thematic sense and felt under developed. But Iron Curtain is a vast improvement, being full of interesting decisions and genuinely arching gameplay: impressive for such a small and fast-playing design. However, card draw can feel decisive in some games and for that reason – when compared to the dice battles of The Cousins’ War – I’d put the two pretty much on even footing.

Conclusion

Second Edition only ‘Time of Change’ variant cards

Designer David J Mortimer has done a fine job of mashing up some unlikely design mechanic bedfellows to come up with a clever little game. The war game theme and basis will alienate some, while the Perudo-style bluffing element will have the same effect on others, but hey – no game works for everyone.

The Cousin’s War knows it sits in its own little niche and is quite happy there, thanks very much – and I for one am glad I gave it a try. Definitely a keeper.

* Thanks to Surprised Stare Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Ominoes – Hieroglyphs: A four-sided game review

Ominoes: Hieroglyphs* is a tile-laying game for two to four players that takes less than an hour to play. The box says ages 10+, but a gamer child as young as eight should easily get to grips with it.

While the game shares the title and artwork from Harman’s previous game Ominoes, this is a very different beast: this is a longer, deeper and more strategic (serious?) game, but still easily falls into the ‘family’ bracket. It is also roughly the same price, at around £25.

The artwork and graphic design are clear and colourful, fitting the Egyptian theme well. The box is actually sensibly sized for a tile-laying game (perhaps the first ever?), fitting the contents snugly inside. In it you’ll find almost 100 cardboard tiles, about the same again in cardboard counters and four small player boards. The tiles are a little disappointing in the quality department, if you’re used to games such as Carcassonne, but they’re perfectly functional and we haven’t had any problems with them.

Teaching Ominoes: Hieroglyphs

I would put the game firmly in the family game category, although fans of light euros and tile-layers should also find something here to enjoy.

Unlike games such as Carcassonne, here you each have a hand of five tiles in hand. These will be visible to all, so there’s a certain amount of checking out what others can do as you start to know the game more.

Each tile is double sided, with the majority showing two of the game’s six symbols (one on each side). In addition there is a number of altar tiles – one in each of the four player colours (which equate to four of the six symbols) and several of each of the two neutral symbols. Each player receives their own temple tile as part of their starting hand, while the others are shuffled in with the other tiles.

On your turn you’ll add a number of your five tiles to the central array of tiles. You can play as many as you like, but they must all have the same symbol face-up (you can flip the tiles over before you play them). You can then play them anywhere as long as they join into the central array orthogonally, with the aim of getting a set of at least four – hopefully making it adjacent to as many temple tiles that have been laid as possible.

You then (hopefully) score: you get a token of the colour you made a group of four of; plus a token of the type of any temple your set was placed next to (again orthogonally).

You can even include a temple as one of your set of four scoring tiles, as it still counts as that colour – in which case it scores both ways (as part of the set, and as a temple). If a temple happens to be another player’s, they also score a token of their colour. The only restriction is you can never have more than three of any type of token at one time.

If you do score a set, next comes the twist: each of the scored tiles flips over onto its other side/symbol (but never temples – once on the board as temples they’re there for the rest of the game). If you plan it well, you will make another set of four – which will score for you again. If that does happen, all the tiles that scored the second time are discarded (as long as they don’t leave other tiles unconnected from the central group) and your turn ends (rather triumphantly – smug grin time).

At any time on your turn, if you have four different tokens, you can build one of the four sections of your pyramid (you could do several on a good turn). Each section then needs a specific coloured token placed on top of it (the four player colours, which can be trickier to get) before you complete the capping piece – and win 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: I’m on the fence with Hieroglyphs. My first few games were very enjoyable, as we lumbered around getting a feel for what was going on – we played with similar joie de vivre as we did with its predecessor (which I love). But once we started to ‘get’ it, the game slowed down as people started to try to play the perfect turn – which meant leaving nothing for your opponents. It then became a case of information overload for me, as what I thought was a light game suddenly morphed into a deeper abstract strategy one.
  • The thinker: While this is an interesting game, it’s too random to sit comfortably in my ‘abstract strategy’ list. If you’re doing well but get starved of a colour of tile it is easy for opponents to block off that colour’s temple (if it has even been placed) so you can’t score it. While it may be good play by your opponents, it’s really you being screwed by luck of the draw with your tiles. Also, there’s the king-making issue many games such as this have: when the player to your right is rubbish, therefore leaving you easy openings. but this is a clever design and I enjoyed my plays that felt ‘fair’: it’s just a little fragile for my tastes.
  • The trasher: I do like a bit of ‘bash the leader’ and games with some ‘wow’ move moments; and Ominoes: Hieroglyphs can have those in spades. It’s easy to be mean, as can block temples off to stop people scoring them – but of course this slows the game down for you too. It’s near the end when it gets tactical, as you look to see what players are falling short of and try to deny them – while also setting up your own big move. And it’s always fun to score big on your turn on other people’s temples – but only when they don’t need, or can’t take, the tokens as they’re already have three of them. Simple pleasures!
  • The dabbler: This is a good game if people don’t take too long on their turns! I guess after loving Ominoes I expected Hieroglyphs to have the same level of thinking (it’s got the same name after all) – and when it does, it’s fun! I think what the game really needs is a timer: use your turn, or lose it! Otherwise it is a simple, bright game that is relatively easy to set up, teach and get played with pretty much anyone. And it’s great to have a more portable tile-layer: look and learn, Carcassonne! I just with is had a little more polish – especially the rulebook, which is hard to follow – and had come with the drawstring bag it’s clearly crying out for.

Key observations/Conclusion

If you enjoy tile-laying games, I would encourage you to give Ominoes: Hieroglyphs a try. It’s light on rules but medium on strategy, meaning you should be able to keep people on differing levels happy – as long as they don’t mind a bit of luck and potentially a bit of leader bashing.

Ultimately the luck of the tile draw is what tends to keep me from most versions of Carcassonne – and I personally feel the same negative push here. So I won’t be keeping Ominoes: Hieroglyphs, despite being won over and having enjoying my plays. That said, a little birdie told me the next game to use flipping tiles is in the pipeline, so I’ll be eager to see if that builds on this promising beginning but arrives at a game that’s more to my personal tastes.

And finally, if you haven’t checked out the original Ominoes you really should. It’s a fast dice placement game using a simplified version of the scoring system and symbols used here; and while luck of the draw (or roll) again features heavily, for me it gets the balance just right – I think due to the shorter playtime, simpler decisions and – well – it’s custom dice and I’m easily pleased…

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

Board game Top 10: Longevity – my all-time most played

I started recording my board game plays on Board Game Geek (yeah yeah…) in October 2008 which, the astute amongst you will notice, was 10 years ago. So what better excuse for a gaming Top 10?

I’ve talked a bit recently about longevity and replayability – and nothing speaks for that more than a list such as this. Sure, these games won’t be for everyone; but if I can get 30+ plays out of them, they certainly have something!

All of these titles remain in my collection, while seven of them were in my last Top 50 games of all time – including four of my top five (second place Terraforming Mars has a mere 20 plays). So yes, I realise I write about these games quite a lot – which is why here I’m concentrating purely on why I think they have longevity (follow the links to my reviews for more details on them).

As always I’d love to hear your own most played games, and why they keep hitting the table for you. And finally, these games are mostly still in print, or at worst easily available secondhand, if you fancy treating yourself.

My Top 10 board games by plays (all time)

If a game had multiple versions (such as Ticket to Ride) I added the plays together to get a single score. I also took a few titles out for reasons that will become obvious when you see the ‘honourable mentions’ below the main list.

  1. Race for the Galaxy
    (268 plays: first play April 2009)
    There’s so much going for this one. It sets up and packs down quickly and plays in well under an hour, and I have a lot of friends who really like it, so it gets asked for. There are hundreds of unique cards so the game is genuinely different every time and it is very much a tactical game: you can’t go in thinking, this time I’ll try that strategy – because if you don’t do what the cards tell you to do, you’re going to fail: perfect for replayability. Finally it’s a genuine race which adds a great tension to each play, which isn’t as common as it should be in games. All these things make it call at me from the shelf on a regular basis.
  2. Ticket to Ride
    (150 plays: December 2009)
    Back when I was more sociable and a proper game pilgrim, hawking my games to friends’ houses to push the hobby, this was always the game of choice. I’m pretty lucky in that I still really enjoy it, while it is very much a 50-50 title with my gaming friends; but my less gamery friends tend to still like it too. It is one of Sarah’s favourites, so has seen a lot of plays at home over the past couple of years too. Again, route-building is another mechanism that pretty much guarantees a different game each time – and again, as with Race, you can’t go in with a strategy: you have to see what the game deals you.
  3. Dominion
    (60 plays: June 2010)
    We played Dominion to death when I first picked it up, as it was one of my first purchases – and I was the main game buyer in our small group. some 39 of the 60 plays were in the last six months of 2010 after I bought it – followed by 11 in 2011. Just 10 plays in the seven years since might not suggest replayability, but this is ore down to by reticence to add any expansions to the base game. There have been loads, some very well regarded, but I don’t see enough enthusiasm for the game in my current groups to invest. But – again – I love the simplicity, the race element, and the variety the random setup brings each game.
  4. Ra
    (57 plays: October 2010)
    Ra taps into the part of my gaming mind that loves to read other players, as I try to work out the relative values of the current offering for each of the players. The bidding is clean and simple, the rules simple and elegant, and the game can swing all over the place – but you’re all riding the same wave, so that’s fine. You can’t ask what a good score is in Ra – it all depends on how the tiles come out. While there aren’t that many different tiles in the bag, round length can vary hugely depending on what come out; while your relative strength changes depending on your own bidding strength. An endlessly fascinating game.
  5. Ingenious
    (54 plays: October 2008)
    This was one of the first two plays I recorded back on my first BGG day – and it is still a firm favourite today. While I have played it with three and four players, I love it as a two-player game – and luckily Sarah has taken to it, ensuring it will thrive a little longer. It is all about reading the game state: you spend the majority of the game accumulating points, but need to spot the point at which play moves into either attack or defence mode – and that’s where the game is won or lost. Random tile draws make every game different and infinitely replayable, while again it is easy to set up and teach. Are you seeing a pattern emerging here?
  6. Carcassonne
    (50 plays: October 2009)
    Like Dominion, Carcassonne saw a lot of plays in my early gaming days but has certainly dropped off since. It does tick the common boxes for replayability: quick to play, teach and setup, alongside a random tile draw that makes each game feel different. However, it has never made my Top 50 and I don’t think it ever will. I guess I’m still waiting for the version of it that really speaks to me, but I always find that either luck plays a little too much of a factor – or if it doesn’t, the experienced player will win every time. That said, I’m always happy to play most versions of it – and I still own Hunters and Gatherers, my favourite version to date.
  7. Archaeology: The Card Game
    (40 plays: December 2010)
    The first of two push-your-luck games in quick succession – and one that also needs your full attention as you assess your opponents’ positions. The rules are very simple and the scoring is basic set collection, but random draws that force all players to discard half their hands keep everyone on their toes – while ‘thief’ cards also keep everyone honest (as it were!). Luck of the draw can screw you, for sure, but the game is quick enough that its acceptable and just adds to the banter. One of my favourite card filler games, with a lovely recent reprint.
  8. Pickomino
    (38 plays: May 2011)
    Zoe’s favourite silly little game, so it doesn’t hit the table as much as it used to, but with the right group this is still a really good laugh. It’s a Yahtzee-style push your luck dice game where you try to get high scores to claim scoring tiles. If you fail, though, you have to put your top tile back – but if you role the exact score for a tile on top of someone else’s stack, you can steal it. This is the third Reiner Knizia design on this list (after Ra and Ingenious), which helps demonstrate that a clever mechanism invoking lots of player interaction and paying attention is what really creates longevity, rather than a gazillion set up options.
  9. Downfall of Pompeii
    (34 plays: February 2011)
    This is a brilliant family game and probably the one on the list I’m most surprised I haven’t played more. There are a few fiddly rules, and it takes a full play to really grasp everything, but once you do it’s a blast. With two players it’s a highly tactical and strategic game, despite the dark comedy that ensues as you throw each other’s citizens into the lava or volcano… Each extra player adds chaos though, so whether you like that or not is going to depend on your group. But the cat-and-mouse elements of first populating and then escaping Pompeii with your lives always works for me.
  10. Codenames
    (31 plays: August 2015)
    The only game to make the list released in the last five years has done so largely because of how much Sarah and me enjoy the two-player version, Codenames Duet. It’s also the only word and/or party game on the list, which sees players laying out a grid of words and then trying to guess groups of them using single word clues. It’s a really clever system that rewards players knowing each other, and versions can go from two right up to 10 or so players. Despite being largely rubbish at it (a ‘three’ is rare in our games lol) we’ll often play several games back-to-back trying to beat the next two-player challenge.

Honourable mentions

  • Unpublished prototype
    (434 plays)
    Actually the clear winner, but obviously not a ‘game’, per se. I dread to think what percentage of them were terrible, whether my games or those of others, but it has been a real privilege to see some of them grow from pieces of paper to fully fledged classics.
  • Empire Engine (57)
    It felt self-aggrandising to include this in the main list, so I popped it down here instead. But in truth, I think it deserves its place: I still enjoy playing it and am very proud of it as a design, despite it not making much of a splash. Plus of a percentage of those ‘unpublished prototype’ plays were Empire Engine ones in disguise…
  • Adios Calavera (23)
    I wanted to include this as it’s by far the most played game of the more recent releases (the only other new-ish release that come close is Terraforming Mars with 20 plays). It has also flown way under the radar (unlike TM!), and it really has become an instant favourite, so I feel compelled to give it a leg-up at every opportunity! Go on, treat yourself. You won’t regret it.

Terraforming Mars – Prelude: expansion review

Terraforming Mars: Prelude* is a small box cards-only expansion for award-winning sci-fi board game Terraforming Mars, released in 2016 (and reviewed by me earlier this year).

Terraforming Mars is a tableau building card game, which also has a central board adding tile placement and a small element of territory building. It also has elements of resource and hand management, as players compete to earn points by completing the steps necessary to make the red planet habitable.

The base game has more than 200 different ‘project’ cards, making every game feel different; while its 17 corporation cards help players initially set out with different strengths. There are multiple paths to victory and a small amount of direct interaction through some of the cards, combining to create a euro game that rally brought its space theme come to life: something of a rarity, which has helped it climb into the Board Game Geek all-time top 10 game list. This is its third official expansion.

What does Prelude bring to the party?

While I’ve said this is a small box expansion, the box is still way bigger than it needed to be. Weighing in at just 47 cards, this could easily have come in a standard sized playing card pack.

These are split into three types: the 35 Prelude cards that give the expansion its name, alongside five corporation cards and seven project cards. Except for one of the corporations, which requires you to be using the Prelude cards to play, the other corporations and project cards can simply be shuffled in with the rest.

At the start of the game, each player is dealt four Prelude cards along with the usual setup (10 project cards and two corporations). You’ll choose two of these to keep and discard the other two. Each card will give you a set of one-off bonuses, with the aim of giving each player a unique head start over their opponents: money, cards, resources and/or production – or even some terraforming points or steps.

The only other addition to the rules is the ‘wild’ tag, introduced to a few cards and acting as any tag you may need. In addition, the ‘Robinson Industries’ corporation has a similar tag but in a production box, allowing you to raise your lowest production by one step as an action.

How much does it change the game?

While Terraforming Mars has proven highly popular, one recurring criticism – even from fans – is that the game has quite a slow start: it takes a good few rounds to build up your engine. But even worse, if you’re not dealt any cheap and timely production cards, you can fall behind the curve and struggle to recover.

The Prelude cards go a small (but welcome) way to mitigating that initial luck of the draw, while significantly speeding up the game. I’ve noticed a good 30 minutes (or a round or two) being shaved off the playing time; and as that’s from the least interesting part of the game I no problem with that.

These are big bonuses: three production steps plus a few free resources on a card is not uncommon, or you may find yourself completing two terraforming steps with a single card (and also, of course, your terraforming rating). While others offer big initial extra cash boons or free cards. There’s a big variety, and the fact there are 35 cards means you’ll be seeing new ones for a long time.

Beyond this, with the exception of one of the corporations, I really like all the other extra cards. The previously mentioned Robinson Industries is interesting, while Valley Trust gives you an extra Prelude card as your first action. The other cards are pretty standard, but hey – this is a game that flies on variation, so new cards that slot right in without hugely rocking the boat are always going to be welcomed by fans.

Is Terraforming Mars: Prelude value for money?

This is a tricky one. In a word, for materials, no. This is retailing at £15-20, which is frankly ludicrous for less than 50 playing cards. And as is usual for Terraforming Mars art, it ranges from average space art to dreadful clip art, so its hard to use that as any justification.

For a similar situation, you only need to look at the expansions for Terraforming Mars’ spiritual successor, Race for the Galaxy. Designer Tom Lehmann said he went to great lengths to add something a little extra to each expansion – be it solo components, the Xeno Invasion or Alien Artefacts boards, or goal tiles. These were to add value for players, where the real cost had been card art. If only that had been done here.

Because the Prelude cards especially are a really strong addition; they take what many players see as a weakness of the original design and fix it beautifully and elegantly. You’re paying to get 30 minutes of your life back from each play, while losing very little of the enjoyment. £20 though? No way. But it’ll sell like hot cakes, because it’s good – even if that doesn’t make it right.

Is Prelude essential?

Again, certainly not – unless the only problem you have with the base game is those often slow early rounds (in fact some will see this as fixing a problem that isn’t actually a problem). If you don’t feel you need the Prelude cards, while the other few cards are nice they’re certainly not worth investing in this for. But the Prelude cards? I personally won’t play without them unless I must.

I know this makes me sound like a hypocrite, especially being in the privileged position of getting games either free or at a discount, but I’m super happy with what they bring to the game. for what they do, in terms of time and early asynchronicity and focus, I can’t see how they could be better. And, while I applaud Tom Lehmann’s commitment to value, how many of us Race fans actually play any of that extra stuff he squeezed into those expansions? Sometimes you have to see value in terms of simple achievement.

Changes to the solo game

Prelude has a solo rules card giving a new goal: reach a terraforming rating of 63 in 14 generations. This nicely changes up the solo game, meaning you’re not forced to do everything at once and can instead specialise to try and get your win in a number of different ways.

In addition, if you want to play with the Prelude cards, you have to do it in just 12 generations. The rules also state that you apply this to the old solo game two, if using the Prelude cards to play a traditional solo game. Finally, the rules card introduces a new standard project for the solo game: spend 16 cash to improve your TR by one. This is also a welcome change, giving players who favour a cash-heavy strategy an extra route to a victory.

… and does it fit in the original Terraforming Mars box?

Very, very easily indeed…

* Thanks to FryxGames (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of Prelude for review.

Con report: Tableltop Gaming Live 2018 (plus KeyForge preview)

I spent last Saturday at London’s wonderful Alexandra Palace courtesy of Tabletop Gaming, London’s first proper board, miniatures and role-playing game convention. I had no expectations going in, but did it meet them…?

I can only speak about the Saturday, but the event seemed pretty poorly attended. That said, there was a steady stream of people and the vendors I spoke to (publisher, distributor and retailer) were pleasantly surprised at the level of footfall: they generally said it was never busy, but those attending were enthusiastic – the demo table were always full as I walked around, which was really encouraging to see.

this was, of course, a first run for the con – and hopefully they will have learned plenty from it (I was unreliably tipped off that they fully intend to run it again next year). Because in a lot of ways the reason the event ran so smoothly was because of the low numbers attending. If it had been heaving, this could have been a very different report – more on which below. And remember – I’m only taking from a board gaming perspective; I have no idea how things went for the minis/RPG guys.

What Tabletop Gaming Live got right

With its place in the calendar less than a month before the world’s most important board game show, Essen Spiel, it was important the show made something of its closeness to so many new releases.

Some of the better planned releases are already hitting the market so were on sale, but there were also demo copies of titles including The River, Coimbra, Kingdomino: Age of Giants Forbidden Sky, KeyForge (more on which below) and many more. As mentioned above, the tables for these were always busy and retailers were doing good business.

The open gaming and tournament areas were really big, which was great to see. I think they’d have coped if there had been five times as many people attending, and it’s nice to see another convention that understands that – more than retail therapy – gamers want to game. There was a good bar which was a bit of an annoying walk away, but served great beer (in plastic beakers, and overpriced, but hey – it’s a convention).

Another important factor is friendliness and once again, Tabletop Gaming Live came up trumps. Everyone I spoke to or asked questions of was friendly, from people selling the tickets to the security teams. All in all it was a smooth, enjoyable day of gaming. It’s just a shame that so many people I spoke to in the hobby, or on the fringes of it, had absolutely no idea it was going on.

…and what can be improved in 2019

While there was lots of open gaming space, the game library was pretty much non-existent: it consisted of a weird couple of tables being run (if that’s the right word) on a trust basis – there were maybe 30 games. London has several board game cafes and I’d be amazed if one of them wouldn’t have been happy to step up to the plate and run this.

There seemed to be loads of people attending with young kids, yet there was very little provision for families. Sure, some of the distributors (especially Coiledspring) had children’s games set up but there wasn’t a dedicated family area – something this kind of convention is crying out for, and that the UK Games Expo in Birmingham has done so well in the past few years. It’s the life blood and future of the hobby, after all.

Also, while it was great to see some new titles, there should’ve been a lot more copies available. And while there were some good publishers there, most had small booths with very little space. Having seen the stall rates – and compared them to UK Games Expo – it was clearly a little bit pricey for an experimental con. Surely you should reward early adopters? I’d have loved to have seem small publishers with enough space to have demo tables up for their games on their booths, but those who weren’t priced out of attending at all had very stripped-back setups.

Finally, they only got away with plopping the seminar area into the main open gaming area because (again) of the low numbers. It’s not as if Ally Pally hasn’t got smaller side rooms (I wandered into several by accident as I was exploring), so I can only presume they’ll utilise one of those in future. And despite the low attendance, at lunchtime the food queues were pretty miserable – I dare to think what they would’ve been like if more people had shown up. So lots to be learned, but that’s as to be expected – and overall it was a very positive experience.

Mini review: KeyForge – Call of the Archons

One of the hot new titles I got to try out was KeyForge, the upcoming release from Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield and publisher Fantasy Flight Games.

While not a kind of game I gravitate towards (two player fantasy battle card games), I was fascinated by the design principals at work here so was eager to find out more.

Essentially you’re in the same rough ballpark as Magic: play creature and various effect cards from your hand to try and defeat your opponent. However, there’s no mana: instead you choose to activate one of your three factions (there are seven in total, but only three in each player’s card deck), then play any card of that type from your hand and/or activate any you already have in front of you.

But more importantly this is not a TCG or a CCG – this is a ‘unique deck game’. The game’s core card set has around 350 different cards across the seven factions, and each deck you buy will have 12 cards from three of those factions for a total of 36 (plus a character card). Some of these may be duplicates, so you may not see 36 unique cards, but the key is that every deck you buy is a unique combination of those cards. Your character card will have a unique name and image, created from a huge combination of elements, which will also be printed on every card in your deck. So, of anything, this is actually anti CCG. Your deck is what it is.

All the cards feel powerful, which is satisfying. Each feels strong in its own way, and you’re constantly being surprised by what you see being played against you.

Sure, this will wear thin after you’ve played versus same deck a few times, but when they retail at £10, it’s still going to be a way smaller investment than a game such as Magic. And it brings things back to player skill rather than who could afford to buy/copy the best deck.

Or does it? Despite fancy algorithms, some decks are simply going to be better suited to beat others. While this novelty will play well with people who enjoy larger gaming groups, tournaments and the like, it may struggle to find traction with those who prefer to play in a small, low spending group or a single friend or partner. And while the cards are many are varied, this is mechanically a very simple combat game: and if we know Garfield, and FFG, that 350-card set won’t stay that small for long.

But this is a fascinating development in game creation. Designers have long been using computer simulations to help test outliers by recreating hundreds or thousands of test games, but this takes things to the next level: algorithms creating reasonably balanced decks from a dizzying array of options. There’s meant to be another on the way more reminiscent of a euro game: some kind of hybrid between Friese’s 504 and a legacy game. Whether this will be an evolutionary step, or a hideous beast best left in a test tube, is anyone’s guess – but I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Kingdomino – Age of Giants: expansion review

Kingdomino: Age of Giants* is the first standard expansion for Kingdomino, which was released in 2016 and reviewed by me in 2017 (you may also want to check out Queendomino – a standalone game that came out last year which is compatible with the original Kingdomino).

As you have probably worked out from its title, the original game was loosely based on the old school dominoes concept: players take tiles made up of two squares, which traditionally have a different number (or here, pictures) on each end. In Kingdomino each player matches these in their own 5×5 grid to form matching areas and score points.

What made the original Kingdomino the 2017 Spiel de Jahres (German Game of the Year) winner is how it blends this simplicity with a clever but accessible scoring system, alongside a simple tactical turn order mechanism. The better the tile you go for each round, the later in turn order you’ll get to choose next time – with the added twist that you won’t know the range of choices you’ll get next turn until the order for the turn has been established.

I feel I need to say something up front: this review is long, rambling, and may seem inconclusive and contradictory. So I’ll say here and now: I like it and I’m keeping it. It’s a troublesome child, for sure, but I love it all the same.

What does Age of Giants bring to the party?

This expansion consists of several constituent parts. The simplest to describe is the set of 17 ‘quest’ tiles. If you’re familiar with the base game, these build on the additional rules ‘The Middle Kingdom’ and ‘Harmony’: instead of these, you randomly draw two tiles each game to see how to get bonus points.

These range from an exact copy The Middle Kingdom (plus a version where your castle needs to be in a corner), through rewarding certain terrain types being in certain places (corners, or adjacent to your castle), to scoring points for discarded tiles or large areas without crowns.

Next is a score pad (hurrah!) and the pieces required to add a fifth player. The score pad is great (incorporating five players, plus spaces to score bonus points), but the fifth player pieces are a sad brown colour and disappointingly the base tile is the same as those in Queen (mosaic), rather than Kingdomino (plain). It’s a small point, and maybe later versions of Kingdomino have changed the original base, but it still irked me.

Next are 12 giant dominoes, and six wooden giant meeples to go with them. These additional tiles add to, rather than replacing, tiles from the base game – so you can’t use the original box to draw tiles from. Instead, they’ve thrown in a tile tower which fits the full set of 60 tiles. More on this thing later…

How much does it change the game?

The quest tiles are an enjoyable addition. You can choose them randomly or pick your favourites – either way, they add a simple extra strategic layer to an already great game. No complaints, but you could write them on paper: they don’t need to be fancy looking tiles.

The score pad is great but is again fluff – we managed perfectly well before with a pen and paper. The fifth player components and tile tower are only usable/required when you play with the giants expansion. So, will you want to?

Six of the tiles are lettered (A-F – the giants), six numbered (49-54 – the footprints). The lettered tiles have no crowns and a picture of a giant on them. When you take one, you add it as usual – and then take a giant meeple. This must be placed on one of your scoring crowns (your choice) – and if it’s still there at the end of the game, it won’t count.

The footprint tiles have three crowns each and (you guessed it), big giant footprints. When you take one of these you again place the tile as normal, but you can also move one of your giants to another player’s kingdom (they choose which crown to cover). If you don’t have a giant, nothing happens.

Is Kingdomino: Age of Giants essential?

If you still enjoy the base game, and tend to have two to four players, absolutely not. You won’t need the fifth player pieces, while the other components make small changes to a game you’re currently happy with. Sit back, enjoy the game, then come back if it starts to feel a little tired.

Conversely, if you like the idea of a fifth player, some extra scoring chances and a little change to the base game – come on down! But be warned: with giants, the game becomes quite a bit more random – and the less players you have, the worse that becomes.

The base game had a handy list of all the tiles, so you knew what would become available: you could grock what was left, what chance you might get to score later etc. Sure, you can make a list of the new tiles and make your own sheet (I bet someone is squirrelled away making one right now to add to Board Game Geek) – but a slight change in the rules spoils that with anything other than five players.

At lower player counts, you use all the dominoes – but you first lay out five, then remove either one of two before players choose which to claim (the middle value tile of the five with two/four players, or the second and fourth with three players). This means you never know what will truly be available in a game unless you have the full five players. I presume this has been done to ensure most of the new giant tiles are active each game, but it makes the game much swingier.

As do the giant tiles themselves. We’ve all taken poor tiles in the hope of getting a good first pick next time – and been faced with junk. Sure it was annoying, but not huge – now it can be huge. In my last two-player game, luck of the draw saw me end up with no giants while Sarah got five. It wasn’t good play by me – it just happened that on turns I had little to no control, there were no giant tiles. I won by 60 points.

That said, it would be easy to house rule that – as in the original three-player game – you instead each choose a tile and the ones not taken are discarded. But if there was a giant tile, the last players/players had to take them. Not very elegant, but at least all the tiles would have been in play.

But you know what? I still like the giants expansion. I won’t play with it every time, but having the game able to go to five is great; the score pad is nice; the quest tiles are cool; and it’s nice to have a more chaotic, take-that version of one of my go-to family games. Sure, it has its faults – bot overall, I’m taken by it. Just know it can be super random, know your audience, and put it in front of the right players.

Is Kingdomino: Age of Giants value for money?

This is hard to call. Right now Amazon has the expansion costing more than the original game, which seems ridiculous. But then the base game is so unbelievably cheap at well under £20 – maybe its that which is under-priced?

Anyway, for around £20 the expansion has enough wood and cardboard in the box to look reasonable value. The same high quality tiles, the same great cartoon artwork; everything looks great. But is it smoke and mirrors? The only thing that needed to be here were the 12 new tiles and the six giant meeples.

And oh, I keep forgetting to mention the ’tile tower’. Ye gods… Quite simply, it doesn’t work. I’ve had four separate people try and use it and all have given up in frustration. The tiles fit too snugly and won’t come out smoothly – which is a crying shame, as it looks beautiful. I’ve read some message boards on the subject and it seems very much luck of the draw – some of them work fine, others are unusable (like mine).

So I’ll be using a drawstring bag, the quest tiles and occasionally the giant tiles/meeples – which again calls into question its overall value. And I’m afraid there isn’t a simple answer. I’ll be keeping the expansion, as I feel it adds to the original in several key ways. But would I be happy with what I’d spent if I’d had to buy it? I can only guess, but I think the answer would be ‘grudgingly’.

… and does it fit in the original Kingdomino box?

This is usually the simple bit! But there seem to be no easy answers with this expansion.

The simple answer is no: the tile tower is bigger than the original Kingdomino box in length. However, if you throw it away (because, perhaps, you were unlucky enough to get a bloody useless one), things become a little more interesting.

One of the nice things about the base game is that everything fits beautifully into the basic plastic insert provided. On the flip side, of course, it means you can’t use the original tile area to draw from as the giants tiles won’t fit in it. However, if you ditch the insert, and the cardboard tile tower, everything does fit into the original box – and you can even draw tiles from it, as they just fit in a single row (in the image, the other tiles are the end game scoring ones). Hurrah!

* Thank you to Coiledspring Games for providing Kingdomino: Age of Giants for review.