Kahuna board game: A four-sided review

Kahuna board game box

The Kahuna board game is a two-player only abstract game. It comes in a small box and takes around 30-60 minutes to play. It’s listed for ages 10+, which is probably about right – although It’s potentially 8+ for a gamer kid.

The two-player line of small box games from publisher Kosmos has great pedigree. Games such as Targi, Lost Cities, Jambo, The Rose King and Balloon Cup have really stood the test of time – and Kahuna is no different.

What these games share is a light set of rules. But enough variability and randomness to draw in a wider group of fans than traditional ‘perfect information’ abstracts. Kahuna itself is a re-implementation of 1997 title Arabana-Ikibiti. Two players fight for control of 12 islands, which they take by owning at least half of the bridges connecting to them. In the box you’ll find the playing board, 24 cards, 50 wooden (Catan style) bridges and 20 wooden player control pieces (10 per player). At around £20, it’s solid value for money.

Teaching the Kahuna board game

As alluded to earlier, the rules to the Kahuna board game are simple. On a turn, you’ll either take a card or play some of your cards, then draw a card. You have a hand limit of five, but only ever draw one. So often you’ll just keep taking cards in the hope of playing a big round later; before building up again. When taking a card, you either take blind from the top of the deck or from one of three face-up cards.

The 24-card deck consists of two identical cards for each island on the board. A game lasts three rounds, with a round ending when all cards have been drawn. So a certain level of card counting skill is very helpful. The player winning round one (by controlling most islands) scores one point; and round two, two points. In the final round, the player who controls most islands scores the difference (so eight islands to four scores four points). If tied, the win goes to the player who scored in the final round.

To place a bridge, a player discards a card for one of the two islands the bridge will connect. To remove an opponent’s bridge, a player must play two cards from the relevant islands (either one of each or both of one island). Once a player has at least half the bridges to an island, they place one of their markers on it. And as they do so, they remove any bridges the opponent had to that island. Similarly, if you lose control of an island you remove your control marker. So clever play can lead to an opponent losing several markers at once, as bridges are removed from other islands as you take over connected ones.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The Kahuna board game does what every good abstract should do: makes you think in a different way to other games. Everything about the game feels tight, and big moves can be hugely satisfying. It’s the kind of game that makes you feel clever for pulling off a great combo. But the next minute your mouth is dropping open as you realise what your opponent is doing back to you. And all that with just a small board, 24 cards and a few wooden pieces.
  • The thinker: There are clever strategies available to you in Kahuna. But you need the right cards to pull them off. And there is no way to mitigate against not seeing the cards you need. This can make it a very frustrating game. But at about 10 minutes per round, so 30-ish minutes per play, you can simply play again. And I’m very keen on the clever way the islands/bridges/cards interact and the cascading effect control can have. So overall, this is a game I’m always happy to play.
  • The trasher: The pretty blues and greens of these pacific islands hide a viscous little area control game. Card counting isn’t crucial but can give you a big advantage. There’s nothing like knowing you have a big move planned – and your opponent can do nothing to stop it until the next round. Even then, you draw all the cards each round but don’t necessarily play them all. Cards in your hand at round-end stay there – so you can technically hold some power here too. A great game with hidden depth.
  • The dabbler: I do love the look of these pretty small box games and Kahuna is especially lovely. The cards are nicely done, with the way up to look at them indicated for both players (depending on your side of the board). Plus the island is marked (Ticket to Ride style) on a map on the card itself. One down side is it can be easy to misjudge how many bridges you need to control an island. And forget if all its cards are gone! But the fun level is high enough to cover these small frustrations.

Key observations

Kahuna is a mean, cutthroat game. Build something nice and your opponent is obliged to destroy it. Make something flimsy and risky, and your opponent will take joy in ripping it to shreds. There is no turtling in this game, as you will never be able to build a strong enough base to get enough points to take a victory. As clever as it is, the game will not win over those who simply hate aggressive area control games. But as someone who is not keen on them myself, I’m proof that it will certainly win over some.

And yes, it is an abstract game. Turns are short, there are no dice, and there are no cards with words. There’s no asymmetry, no modules, and no minis. That’s just not for everyone. Yet it can still feel confusing. It’s amazing that, with so few components, it is easy to completely miss things. The board itself doesn’t help in this regard. The islands are all the same art style/colour, just differently shaped. So it’s easy to see why some players just end up seeing white noise and can’t really grock what the hell they’re meant to be doing.

Randomness and card counting

While the cards add randomness, they are also very limiting. If you don’t see what you need – and your opponent just keeps picking up what they want – it can be frustrating. But this tends to balance out and I find, in shorter games, I can take the pain. But others will find this very frustrating. I should also point out that card counting doesn’t need to be a skill you have. If both players agree, you can play one of the variants in the rulebook. Now, any card taken face-up stays face up, so you don’t have to remember what your opponent has taken.

One small negative from me is the latest edition has slightly lower quality pieces than earlier versions. Once player stones were chunky and had a nice print. Now they’re just basic cheap discs. It was similar with the last Rose King printing, where nice wooden discs were replaced with cardboard. It seems strange that, at a time board game component quality is largely rising, Kosmos is cutting corners.

Conclusion: Kahuna board game

Kahuna is a fantastic two-player area control abstract game. The cards add a layer of luck but also variability. And the spatial element makes it an absolute brain burner to play well. I think you need to enjoy the push and pull of a tight one-on-one game to appreciate it. But if you do, you should absolutely make sure not to miss this one. It has been a big hit with both me and my better half and is a definite keeper.

  • I would like to thank Kosmos UK for providing a copy of the game for review.
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Which board game to buy? Comparing two ‘Top 100’ lists

A 'top 10 games' image for my which board games to buy article

When you first start in this hobby, you soon realise the huge range of choice – so which board game to buy? Like many, I first turned to the Board Game Geek Top 100 list. But I lost my faith in those rankings several years ago.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the website. It’s just the game rankings I no longer trust. There are simply too many games high on the list I really didn’t think deserve to be there, where years earlier it did largely ring true. There had been games I didn’t like, sure. But I understood why they were popular. But in recent years that has really started to change, in my opinion, for the worse.

Previously, I’d actively seek out games in the top 100 I hadn’t played. I’d sometimes regret it, but usually because it wasn’t my thing. But largely I found some great games. Many of which are in my collection to this day. But now, it’s rare to find a new gem in the same list. Most games that have arrived in the upper echelons in the past few years feel like flashy looking parodies of better games from the past. Or games which seem to have a high rating purely because there’s a metric ton of stuff in the box.

Why has the BGG top 100 list faltered?

The main reasons I think this has happened are:

  • Ratings creep: In recent years there seems to be a trend of rating games higher, generally. This is noticeable particularly in re-releases of old games, which tend to get quite a big bump in numbers for a new edition. Partly this comes down to these re-releases having shinier components. But should the fact a game looks pretty give it a whole point (or more) bump on a 1-10 scale? Not for me.
  • Kickstarter: Around the same time, the board game Kickstarter boom began. This has seem a lot of unscrupulous tactics used by publishers in manipulating BGG stats. Many games have been pumped up by one-and-done accounts rating games highly. And many of these games have seen massed high ratings before the game has been published. Sometimes by backers hoping to increase interest to unlock stretch goals.
  • New gamers: This same period has also seen a massive rise of new players joining the hobby. Brilliant, yes. But it has also meant thousands of new gamers playing new titles and rating them incredibly highly, when they haven’t got much to rate their experiences against. BGG’s rankings also bias towards games with more rankings – giving an unfair bump to recently released, heavily purchased games.
  • The cult of the new: So many new games, so many new publishers – and such a great resale market. Where game collectors were once a rare and strange breed, it is now far more common for people to buy a game, play it a few times, and move it on. This means people are rating games often on first impressions and moving them on before even considering things such as replay value. And/or, they don’t come back and change their rating later when they tire of the game.
Gloomhaven box image - top of the BGG top 100 list in July 2020, so on many people's 'which board game to buy' list

So, which board game to buy? Alternative lists

In February 2020, friend and fellow board gamer/blogger Martin (qwertymartin on BGG) came up with an alternative way to rank games via BGG’s stats. This list was based on play data from thousands of BGG users to work out game popularity over time. In this way, he hypothesised, you form a list of games many people are actually playing, rather than ones they just whack a high rating on. Surely a better measure of what gamers should check out?

He had two criteria for a game to be included. It had to be published at least five years ago (to demonstrate longevity); and be in the Top 100 games played by unique users in at least five different years. This skewed the results towards the amount of people playing games, rather than total plays. Firstly, because obsessives can radically bugger up this kind of result and secondly, because that is another way the system can be cheated.

Of course, completely removing the hotness from the past five years is daft in terms of players looking for new games. It’s only natural to want to explore games hot off the presses and I do it as much as the next gamer. But I think you need to do a bit of both. And in truth, as most gamers gain experience, their collections start to lean much heavier towards those older classic titles. Because, a lot of the time, they’re simply better games.

BGG’s cult of the new…

I looked at Martin’s list from February, comparing it the standard BGG Top 100 list from July 2020. There are some interesting parallels and differences. If you take out titles from 2016-2020 from the BGG Top 100 you remove 40 games – including a frankly ridiculous seven of the current top 10. Then take out the 15 (?!) 2015 releases, and you’ve accounted for more than half of the ‘best ever’ board games. Imagine looking looking at a ‘best bands of all time’ list and finding seven from the last five years?! You’d think the world had gone mad.

Looking more into the numbers, only three of the BGG top 100 games are from before the year 2000. The mid to late 90s saw an amazing renaissance in board and card games, many of which are best sellers still in print today. Worse, only 15 games on the currently list are from 2000-2009 – and only two of those (Twilight Struggle and Brass) are in the top 20. I doubt you’d find anyone who could justify these numbers in real terms.

…versus qwertymartin’s filler games of old

On the flip side, Martin’s list has its own problems. Half the games would be considered ‘fillers’ – games you can squeeze in at any opportunity to kill a bit of time. These are often picks of convenience, or lowest common denominators. What can we quickly pick off the shelf that no one will really hate? And if they’re not keen, it only lasts 20 minutes. Some of these are truly great games worthy of the list – but there is some rubbish here too.

Maybe 20% of the games on Martin’s list are made since 2010 – and almost all of those are light family games. While I understand the rules for his list, they seem a little too balanced towards older, shorter games. Two of his games were actually outside the current BGG top 1,000 (Saboteur and Bang). While the likes of Roborally, Tikal, Descent, Guillotine and Roll Through the Ages are showing their age. These games have better alternatives now.

Some recent games are clearly instant classics and should be on any list: Azul, Codenames, Terraforming Mars. And in future, they will make his list. If you do want a list of what’s currently being played to death by users, you can find those too with a little bit of BGG Fu (thanks Martin for the link).

But what Martin’s list has that BGG’s doesn’t are the genuinely massive games of our hobby: Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride. The older classics: Can’t Stop, Acquire, Perudo. And the lighter games that really do deserve recognition as much as any minis or euro game: For Sale, 6 Nimmt, No Thanks. As well as party games such as Dixit and Apples to Apples.

The consensus

Believe it or not, despite these huge disparities, a healthy 26 games did make it onto both lists. I think it says a lot that I have played all of these games (all well before doing this post). And I own (or have owned) half of them. There’s only one I’d refuse to play (can you guess?) and a few more I’d probably veto. But this is a genuinely great list of titles if youre trying to decide which board game to buy (links go to my full reviews):

Twilight Struggle board game box - which came top of the combined 'which board game to buy' list
  1. 29 – Twilight Struggle 9-20
  2. 30 – Puerto Rico 25-5
  3. 43 – Agricola 29-14
  4. 43 – Power Grid 36-7
  5. 51 – Castles Burgundy 14-37
  6. 63 – Race for the Galaxy 51-12
  7. 76 – 7 Wonders 50-26
  8. 90 – Terra Mystica 15-75
  9. 93 – Concordia 17-76
  10. 94 – Caylus 61-33
  11. 100 – Tzolk’in 39-61
  12. 101 – El Grande 63-38
  13. 102 – Dominion 87-15
  14. 104 – Pandemic 88-16
  15. 107 – Lords Waterdeep 58-49
  16. 107 – Through the Ages 40-67
  17. 114 – Le Havre 45-69
  18. 117 – Stone Age 100-17
  19. 119 – Battlestar Galactica 73-46
  20. 121 – Robinson Crusoe 47-74
  21. 122 – Tigris and Euphrates 83-39
  22. 124 – Orleans 26-98
  23. 136 – Five Tribes 57-79
  24. 164 – Dominion: Intrigue 70-94
  25. 176 – Patchwork 77-99
  26. 181 – Roll for the Galaxy 81-100

(Ranked by totalling each game’s position on both lists)

Which board game to buy: Conclusion

There are several things that I think skew people’s game rating in unhelpful ways. Some of which I’m also guilty of. If it’s really pretty, really clever, or really ‘deep’ – you’ll see those games go up as few points. While if it’s basic, short and small – down a few points you go. And of course anything that takes risks (politically, mechanically etc) is also likely to see more big negatives from the haters. But equally you can’t just go on plays, as it throws up too many average family filler games. So what to do?

If I had to pick one list to recommend to a new gamer, I’d go with Martin’s list – with one big caveat. There are, of course, loads of great games from the past five years. The problem is finding them. For me the most sensible thing to do is start with the classics, find you and your group’s range, then research further. Look for new games in the same categories, by the same publishers/designers, or played by reviewers/BGG users/bloggers whose tastes you start to respect. That should lead you to a great board game collection.

* Like for more lists to help decide which board game to buy? Check out all my board game Top 10s here – as well as my own Top 40 games of all time 2020.

Skulk Hollow board game: A four-sided review

Skulk Hollow board game box cover

The Skulk Hollow board game is a two-player card-powered grid combat game. It takes 30-60 minutes to play and is suitable for gamers aged eight and up. At the time of writing, it is not available to play online.

The game has a solid level of asymmetry, with a clear ‘good versus evil’ element at its core. One player takes on the unlikely role of the foxen heroes, taking on the equally unlikely bad guy – a large forest guardian. But whatever you make think of the politics, it’s refreshing to see a beautifully created set of components and artwork around a freshly designed setting.

In the box you’ll find five game boards, five player mats, 100 cards, 60 wooden pieces and 25 plastic cubes. Everything fits in its place, the graphic design is clear and the component quality is through the roof. I didn’t care for the art style of the foxes – it’s a bit too Disney. But the art quality is first rate. And the wooden figures – especially the 10 foxen heroes and the four large guardian pieces – are so much better than any skanky plastic minis would’ve been. They’re super cute, while the wooden guardians figures are suitably large and foreboding.

Skulk Hollow board game in play, with guardian Grak

Teaching the Skulk Hollow board game

I don’t tend to talk about setup but think it is worth mentioning here. Each guardian, and the foxen heroes, have they’re own tuck box snugly packed into the game box. That box contains all the cards and wooden pieces the player will need – plus two faction specific rules explanation cards. This makes setup a cinch and means each player has a compact, easy to read list of what their opponent is capable of. It’s beautifully done and makes a genuine difference to play.

The game board is a 3×3 grid so you’ll be getting in each others faces pretty quickly. The job of the foxen player is to defeat the guardian. And, depending on which of the four leaders they choose, they’ll have a different special ability available. The four guardians all work very differently and have a different win condition. But any of them will win by defeating the foxen leader. The guardians feel unique, all be it within a pretty tight system of actions. Similarly, this changes the foxen challenge significantly – but the leader abilities feel pretty minor.

Game play is straightforward. Each player draws a small hand of cards and you take it in turns to use those cards to do actions. Most card have two options, allowing you to move (in limited directions), attack, heal, gain power (get extra actions later), or put pieces on the board. Once done playing actions, you simply refill your hand. The foxen deck has 29 cards, the guardians only have 14. But this reflects the fact the foxen player needs to play (and replace) their troops regularly, as they’re pretty squishy.

Skulk Hollow foxen pieces - cards and wooden meeples

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Skulk Hollow is a beautiful game. It sets its stall out as a light, introductory battle game and proceeds to nail those credentials. Great art, simple iconography, well produced rulebook. There’s even a few extra components thrown in to create a rudimentary handicapping system. The little wooden foxes are so gorgeous my girlfriend even wanted to play it. Unheard of, as ‘battle’ and ‘cards’ are usually turn-offs for her when choosing games. But none of this gets away from the fact this is a game for a parent and their child, not for two grown gamer adults.
  • The thinker: The Disney-fied art was an early warning that proved correct. While well constructed rules-wise, this is very much an entry level experience. The tiny card decks make for a tight game play experience. But they also show the one-dimensional construction of each force. You’ll soon find what’s really driving the game is the order in which you get your cards. Especially for guardians, certain moves and combos are hyper important. Meaning they are few and far between in your deck. So decision making soon gives way to frustration and too many ‘best of bad bunch’ turns.
  • The trasher: I’ve really enjoyed the Skulk Hollow board game. It’s a purely tactical experience, as things move incredibly quickly. But you’re immediately in the action and always moving towards a quick conclusion. The focus is clearly on aggression, so its hard for a player with a cowardly turtling heart to slow things down too much! And the differences between guardians genuinely mean you have four unique challenges in the box. But it is a light game. Yes, it has some mildly complex ideas and you can pull off some very satisfying combos. But the older you are, the less distance you’ll get from it.
  • The dabbler: Wow, what a cute looking game! It’s also easy to learn and play. However, you’re still going to have to like this sort of game. I don’t think it will be an, “Oh, I don’t like that sort of game but I liked this” experience for many people. For example, I like abstract 1-vs-1 games. But this is too fiddly and restrictive to appeal in that respect. While I also like action selection games. But this is too tactical, too back and forth, to appeal on that level. it is what it is: a two-player battle game with cute art. I just wish I could keep the foxes to use in another game…
Guardian board for Apoda

Key observations

The most common Skulk Hollow observation I’ve already covered pretty comprehensibly. After a play of each guardian, it becomes clear there’s not enough here for experienced gamers to keep exploring. Once you know what you need, until you get it the game kind of plays you. However, if you have gamer kids or are new to the hobby and like the idea of a two player battle game – don’t be put off. You could get a lot out if this game. Being well designed for its target audience should never be used as a criticism.

Another issue is the disparity between the guardians. The fact the four foxen heroes are barely different isn’t a big deal, as you have a lot more going on as the foxen player anyway. But the guardian player has a tight deck which can feel a bit of a one-trick pony. So the four options feel more important for replayability. So its a shame that the first, Grak, is pretty much a one-and-done learning character. I found one of the others one-and-done too (tastes may vary) – leaving just two to flip between. But again, millage will increase across the board with players less used to these kinds of mechanisms in games.

Alternatives and customer service

I also feel I should mention an older game, Drako, and it’s 2019 follow up Drako: Knights and Trolls. You can play the original Drako free online at Yucata – and I’d advise you to check it out if you’re looking for this kind of game experience. It has a similar level of asymmetry and tight play area. And again you’re playing cards to do actions for either a small troop of warriors or a single larger creature. The key difference is Drako is simpler in terms of being more a typical abstract. But this lack of extra bells and whistles creates a much more strategic experience. You feel far more in control, as you’re not so dictated to by the card draw. But the draw does still limit your options in interesting ways.

I’d also like to note my rulebook had half the pages repeated/missing. One quick Facebook query, followed by a requested email, and we were away. The new rulebook – plus a replacement card for one misprinted (I had no idea) – arrived just a few days later. Sure, most people wouldn’t have this issue. But good customer service should always be noted. (At no point did I mention this was for a review copy. The game had been provided by Asmodee; the replacements came from Pencil First direct).

Skulk Hollow board game in play, with guardian Tanthos

Conclusion: Skulk Hollow board game

Skulk Hollow is an excellent game for the right audience. The production quality is wonderful and you can feel the love that has gone into creating a fantastic product. I think it is an excellent game for a parent to pick up if they have a child who likes gaming, especially if ‘beating mum/dad’ is a thing – and if they dig an animal/fantasy setting. However, as a gamer, there’s simply not enough here to engage after my initial plays. I’ll be sticking to games such as Drako for a more controlled and strategic experience.

  • I would like to thank Pencil First (via Asmodee) for providing a copy for review.
  • Want to help the blog? Click here to buy your games from Amazon.
  • Follow this link for 150+ more of my board game reviews.
Guardian Apoda, with its action cards

Board game top 10: Dice games

Top 10 dice games advert for MDG, a dice company, including 10% off with promo code goplaylisten

Doing a Top 10 dice games is difficult. For starters, there are loads of great dice games. And second, they fall into two distinct categories. There are your lighter, shorter games in categories such as ‘roll and write’ and ‘Yahtzee style’. And there are the dice-driven euro and family games where dice are essential, but not the main component.My solution? As always, to ramble on as much as possible – and give you two for the price of one.

I’m not going to talk about war games here, as I’m just not knowledgeable enough. You also won’t find two highly regarded Top 100 BGG games – Too Many Bones and Champions of Midguard – because I haven’t played them. And I want to make two honourable mentions: Tumblin’ Dice (dice flicking dexterity game) and Pizza Box Football (sport sim dice fest). both are both brilliant, and in my Top 50 games, but didn’t quite fit in either list below.

Game name links go to my full length reviews. ‘Buy’ links go to Amazon (please support the blog). I know some people don’t like Amazon, but until I get a better offer I have to do what I can to try and recoup a few pennies for the effort I put in. Or check out some of the amazing dice available from MDG (above) – and use code ‘goplaylisten’ a 10% discount.

Top 10 dice games: Lighter games

Box art for Can't Stop, the number one game in this top 10 dice games list

All these games are under an hour and are suitable for players aged eight and up. And they’re all currently available – often on the high street (in half decent stores). Amount of players in brackets.

  1. Can’t Stop (2-4): The simplest and best push-your-luck dice game around. And you’re playing against probabilities: making it an excellent learning tool too. Buy.
  2. Dizzle (1-4): My favourite ‘roll and write’, as it’s easy to teach but has interaction – rare for this style of game. You pick in turn from a pool of dice, letting you hobble your opponents. Buy.
  3. That’s Pretty Clever (1-4): The thinking gamer’s roll and write (along with follow up Twice as Clever). A ‘point salad’ game in a tiny box with pens and paper. Buy.
  4. Pickomino (2-6): Big laughs and lots of luck pushing. It can seem like its all over, but a few great rolls and you’re back in the game. Plus it has worms… Buy.
  5. Decathlon (1-5): Eight mini dice games rolled (ho ho) into one, each representing one of the sports in the Olympics’ toughest challenge. And best of all – it’s free!
  6. Blueprints (2-4): Choose dice to build you tower, paying attention to everyone else to try and grab points for various majorities. Overlooked but excellent. Buy.
  7. Ominoes (2-4): Fast and fun, this cute little game sees you trying to make sets of dice to score points in a tight, ever changing grid. Buy.
  8. King of Tokyo (2-6): A cute little dice battling game where it really is smash or be smashed. Big monsters, big powers, green dice. Buy.
  9. CV (2-4): Roll the right dice combos to grab the cards that will show you the course of your life. And give you more dice and powers and you go.
  10. Perudo (2-6): Just beating Can’t Stop to oldest game – by about 200 years. This classic game of bluff and push your luck is still a party night winner. Buy.

The heavier games

box cover for pioneer days board game, number one in the heavier dice games list

These are my top 10 dice games that have a bit more going on – but still rely on dice to make them tick. Again, those that are available have links at the end to buy. And, weirdly, all are for 2-4 players.

  1. Pioneer Days: One of mine, sure. But my favourite ‘dice for actions’ game, so why not? The real ‘Oregon Trail’ board game. You know the dice you want. But ones you don’t pick can come back to haunt you as disasters… Buy.
  2. Bora Bora: A Feld point salad game where the high rolls give the best actions – but the low ones are much easier to get to use.
  3. Yspahan: A classic German-style euro with simple actions, a bit of player interaction and a sub-hour game length. But also, a bit of colour.
  4. Macao: Feld at his most fiendish, with the best cards needing the toughest dice combos – that you may never see. Fiddly, frustrating, but fun.
  5. Stone Age: Choose to play safe or take big risks in this ‘roll dice for resources’ game. The best gateway worker placement game, period. Buy.
  6. Lords of Vegas: A clever and thematic use of dice makes this game sing. Risky takeovers and crazy gambles can pay off – or leave you out if it. Buy.
  7. Ancient Terrible Things: Beat up crazy Cthulhu creatures with progressively difficult dice combos. Unique art and fast action. Buy.
  8. Castles of Burgundy: Use dice to grab tiles and use them to build your kingdom. Everything scores points – but it’s all about efficiency. Buy.
  9. Seasons: Grab dice to gain resources and control powerful creatures. A nice mix of euro and interactive fantasy game, with a bit of interaction. Buy.
  10. Voyages of Marco Polo: Dice for actions, in a nice tight game where you can never quite do what you want – despite seemingly overpowered abilities. Buy.

Foothills board game: A four-sided review

The Foothills board game is a 60-minute two-player worker placement game. Described as a ‘Snowdonia experience’, it uses the same art style and many of the mechanisms seen in popular euro game Snowdonia. But it is very much its own game.

The suggested age range is 10+, which feels about right. While at heart this is largely a resource conversion game, the decisions you make can really leave you in trouble. And there are a lot of variables you need to consider to play well.

Foothills isn’t an overly thematic game. But as with Snowdonia, it largely makes thematic sense and helps give a flow to the game. Clear the ground, lay track, build stations. And the lovely whimsical art style adds to the atmosphere. In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find 60 cards, 100+ wooden bits, 120-ish cardboard pieces and a cloth bag. The quality is solid throughout, and the iconography is clear and simple to understand. At less than £30, I’d call it solid value for money.

Teaching the Foothills board game

Rather than a board, the play area is a grid of around 25 cards. These are divided into eight lines (each containing 2-7 cards) and you use six lines per game. This adds replayability, as well as variety, to each play. Players have five action cards they put in front of them as a tableau. The fronts of these cards are the same for each player, with each card showing one of the game’s five main actions. But the reverse sides are different for each player, showing alternative weaker versions of those actions – but on different cards. For example, cards with action ‘A’ on the front have a weak version of action ‘D’ on the back.

The standard actions (A-E) will be familiar to Snowdonia players. Collect stone/iron resource cubes from stock; remove rubble cubes from cards (placed during setup); lay track/create stone cubes from rubble cubes; build stations (using various resources); and move your surveyor. There are no wooden track pieces, with that micro step being replaced by simply spending iron cubes and placing one of your track markers on a card cleared of rubble.

Turns are snappy in Foothills, with each player getting just one action per turn. You choose/carry out an action, then flip its card. But if you’re thinking the game sounds more basic than Snowdonia, don’t be fooled. While there is no weather and no trains, the poor old surveyor is being made to work overtime. Every card in each train line has a surveyor spot which becomes available once it has a station built on it. These introduce all kinds of special one-off abilities, adding a variety of effects similar to Snowdonia’s weather cards.

Tough decisions

Many of the toughest decisions come from choosing your action card. Timing is key for grabbing opportunities left by your opponent. But flipping a card can means that action won’t be available until you flip over another. It’s even worse late game, if actions are no longer doable (you must be able to perform the action to use the card). Luckily, some weak-side action cards let you flip over extra cards. But neither player starts with one of those…

Which brings us nicely to extra action cards. Snowdonia players will be pleased to here that, despite your solitary worker, the pub is still open for business. Going here (with the surveyor action) lets you put one of your action cards aside for end-game scoring. There are 10 extra action cards available (two for each slot). So you pick a replacement (for the same slot) and carry on as normal. You can even end up with no card in a slot, if it’s late game and you’d rather grab some points – and the two replacements for that spot have already been taken.

These end game bonuses do what you’d expect: give extra points for the likes of track laid, stations built etc. But most of your points will come during the game for doing the same things as they happen. As well as some lines having completion bonuses to scrap for. And many surveyor spaces having ways to trade resources for points. There are loads more little details. Such as the game – Snowdonia style – moving to its own conclusion if you take too long to do things. But hopefully this will be enough to whet the appetite.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Foothills does what I like a ‘version’ of a game to do. Rather than simplify and dumb down, it takes the core of the original in a different direction with a clever new mechanism. This does feel like a Snowdonia ‘experience’. Because while having played Snowdonia will give you a head start on what’s going on, it feels like a very different game. And this is no dumbing down either. If anything, I find this more of a brain burn. But it doesn’t feel asymmetric – perhaps an opportunity missed.
  • The thinker: I have been surprisingly impressed with this game. As it’s a two-player game, you’d expect it to be tactical. But despite this, the limitations of your actions mean you have to be combining quick decisions with their overall strategic impact on your options. The box says 30 minutes, but if you’re thinking as much as you should I’d put it much closer to an hour. As with any euro game, it’s all about efficiency. And you really need to search around each turn for any little advantage you can find.
  • The trasher: While you do need to pay attention to what your opponent it is doing, this is largely a heads-down euro experience. Yes, you can jump into spaces you know your opponent would like. And look out for opportunities they accidentally leave you. But largely this is about turning stuff into stuff to get points. Clever, but not my thing.
  • The dabbler: I like the look of the game, but frankly the array of options is overwhelming. Also, you can’t just do what you want to do. Because you can leave yourself unable to do the next thing you want to do – without doing something else, or a few other things first lol. It’s also hard to know what’s best. Everything seems to score points, but you don’t really have an obvious goal. Especially as putting action cards aside for end game points doesn’t seem to make much difference. OK, but not for me.

Key observations

Our first play of the Foothills board game was a poor experience. The game went way too long and kind of fizzled out. Why? Because we weren’t doing what we were ‘meant’ to do. As with Snowdonia, the game can end itself (if you pull white cubes from the bag). But this is easy to mitigate against and may never happen. Alternatively, you can build all the track – but neither of you may want to do that.

After the game, I went to the BGG forums. Lots of people were reporting the same problem. One of the designers was saying people were doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Track is a great way to score, rather than putting cards aside. But of course he knows that after play-testing. The problem was assuming we’d know that. As a publisher, you shouldn’t presume anything – and you’d think Surprised Stare and Lookout Games would have enough experience to know that. It’s a shame, as I can see people playing once and walking away.

But even once you know how to speed things up, one/both players need to engineer that. Snowdonia always feels like you’re moving towards a conclusion. Either the game is forcing your hand, or you’re running out of point scoring options. With Foothills there are loads of ways to eke out extra points, so that urgency to finish isn’t there. And its ‘the game will finish it for you’ mechanism is less robust. Various forum posts have ideas for fixing this, including some from the designers. But none seem perfect.

Two-player Snowdonia vs Foothills

Another point is, why not just play Snowdonia? I agree two-player Snowdonia is great. Especially the ability to completely block your opponent out of an action (for that round) with good timing. It scales beautifully from two to five players and is one of my favourite games. But this argument misses the point. Foothills is a very different game. And people wouldn’t be making this comparison if it were set in space or something, as it really does feel unique. They’ve invited the comparison by calling it a Snowdonia experience. But in truth, the games feel miles apart despite the similarities.

And I don’t agree Foothills fails to create the stimulus-response play good two-player games do. I regularly hold off on actions until I know my opponent can’t respond, or line up two actions I think I can get away with back-to-back due to my opponent’s game position. But admittedly this is usually to get minor advantages. A cube here or point there, rather than completely blocking something. However, in a good euro game, the odd efficient point is what wins a tight game. That’s a style of game you either like or don’t, so millage will vary.

Conclusion: The Foothills board game

Despite that awful first play, and the game end rules flaw, both me and my better half have fallen for Foothills. A relatively simple set of actions soon make way for a cunningly complex ‘point salad’ euro game. And there’s more than enough replayability to have kept us interested over repeat plays. But we only stuck with it because we owned it and because I had faith in the designers/publishers. If I’d played it at a cafe, con or club? I’d probably have given it a ‘4’ and walked away. Which is a great shame, because it’s probably closer to an ‘8’ for me now and a definite keeper. A rough diamond? Sure. But a diamond none the less.

  • I would like to thank Lookout Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy for review.
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