Friday feelings: Negative reviews (and why I don’t write them)

After a week off from these posts (sorry, SorCon fail) I’m returning to a topic started in my last Friday Feelings: that I’m not worried about negative reviews. To recap, in my view you simply have to accept them as part of the public creative process.

But other than sticking the boot in with the occasional mean comment about a game (the Firefly game being a total write off, for example) I personally rarely do full length negative reviews. So, why?

The most obvious reason is ‘so many games, so little time’. I like to play a game at least 4-5 times before I do a long review. So, if after two plays I’m playing it right and decided it’s terrible, why go on? I have limited time to play games and I’m having to drag others in to play them. My life is too short, and my friends’ patience only so long. Even if I have to pay postage to send it back, I’d rather do that than force people to play a stinker.

Quality versus taste

On occasion I’ll review a game I don’t really like, but that’s different than it not being any good. That’s the main reason I introduced the ‘four sides‘ review format and why I talk about ‘key observations’: so I can talk about differing opinions (so the negative stuff comes here). The number of reviewers who can’t tell the difference between actual quality and their own personal taste is incredible – but I guess that’s what happens when most blogs, videos and podcasts now have no real editorial overseeing.

On a more cynical point, I’m averse to breathing life into bad games by giving them airtime. It’s a ridiculously busy marketplace. While warning people off a poor game has merit, with thousands being released each year it seems more sensible to euthanize them with silence. I review about 50 games each year. Doing a few bad ones simply equates to not bigging-up a few great ones. Why would I do that?

You bought what?

And in the end, I’m writing because I love writing – and getting some free and cheap games is awesome. Any reviewer who thinks they influence more than a handful of purchasing decisions is kidding themselves – just look at the host of top-sellers that get roundly slammed by reviewers. It’s the same in the music and film – no matter what reviewers say, the public go with their hearts.

Any why shouldn’t they? My voice is just one of many. The right one, perhaps, but still…

SorCon highlights: A board game Top 10

I’ve just got back from SorCon in Basildon (well a Holiday Inn on the edge of Basildon, which helps). Knowing my retention span for such events, I thought I’d get it down for posterity as soon as possible.

One of its delights is it doesn’t change much. This was SorCon 12 and apart from a small extra area or two it has barely changed since my first visit four years ago.

While I love the consistency it does make it hard to blog about year on year (check out old SorCon posts for that). So, I’m just going to cover my top 10 plays of the weekend. Thanks to Sarah, Keef and Clare for being competitors/teachers in most of the games – a pleasure, as always!

I enjoyed 15 games over two days, two of them twice – so just three titles missed the list below. The Estates sadly went down like a lead balloon (full review next week); as did Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (an average euro with a regrettable theme). I’m also leaving off Ticket to Ride (would’ve been 8th) as I think it gets enough press from me and everyone else! But in truth I didn’t hate anything I played over the weekend. I put them in order mixing how fun the play was and my general feelings for the game.

10. Space Base (2-5 players, 2018, AEG)

This light and simple game takes the basics of Machi Koro and makes something slightly less rubbish. In space. While you can mitigate the luck of the dice to a degree, you’re still a slave to them. So if one player has a great run of luck, especially near the start, they’re going to win. AEG missed several tricks which would balance the early game without adding many rules (having starting tiles with oft rolled numbers, for example. The difference between starting with a free 7 or a free 12 is massive). I’d expect more from a large publisher. And it felt too long with five players.

9. Sagrada (1-4 players, 2017, Floodgate)

Don’t believe the weird hype levels around this one. Firstly, it is nothing like Azul. This is a pleasant enough dice drafting puzzle game with little to no interaction. But there is a strong element of luck. You get a dice colour you will score on per pip, so if no high numbers are rolled in your colour you can probably forget winning. This rather negates the cleverer elements of scoring and choosing a hard or easy scoring card. But I had a pleasant time playing two games (winning one) and would play again.

8. Orbital (2-4 players, 2018, DMZ)

Still one of my favourites from Essen 2018, but it can be too dry for some. I think putting a space theme on a wholly abstract game can be detrimental as people expect theme from a space game. Otherwise, it’s great. Some majority scoring means you need to pay attention to what others are doing and can hate draft a tiny bit. The economy is incredibly tight and while the placement scoring rules can feel overwhelming, it rewards repeat plays. Which was proved by this being one of my wins of the weekend!

7. PitchCar (2-8 players, 1995, Ferti)

Putting a disk-flicking game on a Scalextric-style race track was simply inspired. Last year this was a SorCon highlight, but this time we played a little too late in the day. People were frazzled so it didn’t have quite the same atmosphere. But it was still great fun – plus I managed to win from fourth on the grid. We’re lucky a friend (hi Sheepy!) has several of the expansions (jumps, chicanes etc) but I’m sure it would be fun in any form. Still behind Tumblin’ Dice on my dexterity game wishlist, but only just.

6. Heaven and Ale (2-4 players, 2017, Eggertspiele)

I played this at Essen 2017, slightly regretted not buying it, then haven’t seen it since. Playing again reminded me what a good euro it is. Under two hours, a bit of of push-your-luck, interesting decisions and clever scoring. Plus, you have to keep an eye on what other’s want, bringing an element of largely passive but significant interaction. I don’t feel the need to own it, but I hope to play it more often at this kind of event.

5. Uptown (2-5 players, 2007, Funagain)

This is one of Sarah’s favourites. It’s an incredibly simple rule set but feels very different from other abstract games I own. And this edition (the game is better known as Blockers) has gorgeous production. It is very interactive, as you try to group your tiles into as few groups as possible while following strict placement rules. We play a lot two-player at home, which is very different, so it is always nice to play with more. I came in third, but Sarah managed to win this four-player game.

4. Azul (2-4 players, 2017, Plan B)

From here down was pretty much joint first place. I enjoy all my plays of Azul, comfortably still the best game of the last two years for me. This one was particularly good as it was tight throughout, with about 10 points between us at the end, and I won on 63. The game is gorgeous, tactile, simple to teach but thinky to play. It’s quick with lots of interesting decisions and some interaction. It falls into a small category of games I think everyone should play and I’m glad to finally own it. A true classic.

3. Tales of Glory (2-5 players, 2018, Ankama)

This was near the top of my Essen 2018 wishlist. The publisher didn’t want to give me a discount (fair enough), so I waited to try before deciding to buy. And now I will, because I loved it (Thanks John for teaching). While abstract, the fantasy art does tell a story and the puzzly elements of the game play are right up my street. It plays fast and there are loads of routes to victory. Choosing tiles is simple but doesn’t always go your way – although no tile is really bad and you can battle for turn order. Two plays, both great.

2. The Oracle of Delphi (2-4 players, 2016, Pegasus)

I think this is now my favourite Stefan Feld design, because the theme/look and race elements are so compelling. It’s a two-hour euro game which takes a bit of learning, but the mechanisms are a simple as they are plentiful. Sure, the game has some luck than can screw you which puts some players off. But I can tolerate it here as it fits the theme and the rest is good enough for me to get past it. Even when I get shafted, I still enjoy my plays. I just need to avoid situational ship tiles, as they screw me every time.

1. Thurn and Taxis (2-4 players, 2006, Hans im Gluck)

At SorCon we added the ‘Offices of Honour’ expansion, which is the perfect addition. It adds a small extra decision space while not spoiling anything of the original design. I came last, faffing around without much of a plan, but still thoroughly enjoyed myself. But there were just five points between first and last. This game is a perfect storm for Sarah and my tastes: euro/German enough for me, while mechanically falling into Sarah’s sweet spot: simple to learn, hard to master – plus competitive route building.

The most important outcome from SorCon was only Tales of Glory hit my wishlist, while I sold two games. This means my ‘owned’ list is still going in the right direction size-wise, so all’s right with the world. Until AireCon in a few weeks…

Magnastorm: A four-sided game review

Magnastorm* is a thinky euro game for two to four players that takes 1-2 hours to play. It’s certainly at the heavier end of board gaming, despite its mechanisms being relatively straightforward, so I think the recommended age range of 12+ is about right.

This game is a real table hog: a four-player game leaves very little room for manoeuvre on my 5×3-foot table. If you like boards, you’ll be in cardboard heaven. Alongside the main board you’ll find four player boards, an action board, a research board and three more cardboard panels; alongside a cloth bag, around 150 cards, 30 cardboard chits, more than 200 wooden pieces and almost 50 plastic ones. The game will cost you in the £40-50 region, but in fairness it does weigh well over two kilograms…

There’s a theme there, for those who want one: you get a whole page of it in the rulebook. Each player is a different federation from earth that’s exploring/studying a new-found planet by deploying research stations to its surface (why they look like turtles remains a mystery). Unfortunately the weather isn’t the brightest, so your scientists are racing to stay ahead of the planet’s storms to build and use these stations. But in truth, this is a euro game pure and simple: take actions, move up tracks, complete objectives, earn points. However, it uses some interesting mechanisms to get it done.

Teaching Magnastorm

This is a relatively easy game to teach, in theory. There are usually four rounds, each made of of lots of short turns. The mechanisms are straightforward: use workers to get resources, then use them to move around the board and claim territory – and use those areas to gain points. So far so standard euro. The clever bit is how you choose workers.

Workers come in two types – a few in each player colour (you start with one each on the action board) plus 12/15 neutral workers (depending on player count). These workers are split between a number of commanders and you can choose any neutral worker (or one of your own colour) to do either a gather or move/claim territory action.

However, you can also choose to pay (read: spend one cube of their colour each) any remaining workers under a commander to claim that commander for yourself. They’ll score you immediate victory points, as well as giving you an ability while you control them. So, choosing which commander to take a worker from is also an interesting decision as you don’t want to leave them easily available to the other players.

If you take a worker to gain resources or move/claim territory, you place them on the next round’s action board (which is an exact copy of the one you take them from – so at the end of the round you simply switch boards and go again).

Again, placing in a column will mean they’re below a particular commander next round – but these spots can also give you immediate bonuses; while different rows see you either gain more resources, or pay less to move. Again, more decisions.

When you move and claim territory, guess what – it’s simple to do, but involves more tricky decisions. The colour of the space you claim will match one of several science tracks – each of which also has a commander: at the end of each round, whoever is the highest on each track claims the commander for the next round (again gaining points).

Additionally the main board is split into six zones, only three of which are active each round. Here you’re also looking for zone majority to score points; as well as knowing you’ll gain bonus resources at the end of each round for active areas you’ve claimed.

But the big points come from the four objectives (randomly drawn at the start of each game). There are two kinds: research (which push you back down science tracks) or recalling your labs from the board. Everyone can do each objective, but those in earliest get more points. But completing them loses board position (so potentially resources and majority points) and/or science levels (losing you commanders – and losing them loses points). So yeah, you guessed it – more tricksy decisions.

The game ends after four rounds – unless one of the players triggers it early by reaching a particular score. This can also add tension, as you may be holding out on doing something to get end of round points, resources and commanders; but if the point score is reached mid-round that end-of-round admin won’t happen. Decisions decisions…

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While Magnastorm won’t appeal to everyone, a lot of thought has gone into the final product. For example, forward movement around the board can be key. If you fall behind you can catch up by using a transmitter placed further around the board – but you pay whoever built it, and they score points for building it. Also, after a few plays, you may find one player in your group has won more than others; so they’ve included ‘artefact cards’ to level the playing field: you take one according to your position in each game, creating a handicap system that gives better starting positions to those who keep finish poorly.
  • The thinker: There is a lot of tactical play here, but I think you’ll only win by focusing on a strategy – you can’t just bimble along and hope for the best. You’re targeting around 25 points to win, with each of the four objectives weighing in at 4-5 points for the first player to hit them – so you need to focus on a couple and do them as quickly as possible. But on top of that you need to focus on a couple of commanders and try and move as fast as possible for those easy transmitter points. It’s a delicious mix, but you’ll have to accept other players are going to mess with your plans – so it may not be the game for you.
  • The trasher: While definitely a heavier euro game, which I’d normally avoid, Magnastorm is highly tactical rather than strategic. Especially with more players, everything can change between turns: a commander may become too cheap to resist, a transmitter may open up new movement options, or a board space you wanted may be taken. Also, cube management is crucial. Having cubes in other player’s colours is useful for buying off commanders (you pay a cube per worker, based on their colour) – but your own cubes are used for most other things: and again, what you may need can change from action to action.
  • The dabbler: this definitely isn’t for me. There’s way too much going on and while it doesn’t play that long, if you start poorly you can know you’re out of it quickly. I couldn’t even just do my own thing and not worry about the score, as things can change very quickly: you can’t get a commander combo you like and see it tick over, because it’s hard to keep them for more than a round. First I got frustrated, then bored, then I just switched off. Casual gamers need not apply!

Key observations

We’ve found Magnastorm can be a little anticlimactic: if a player gets ahead the last round can be a bit of a procession. I know this is a bit more common in heavier euro games and many players will accept that, but additionally this can cause issues if you intend to use the artefact cards. If you’re not going to win, why not finish as poorly as possible to get a better artefact card (meaning you’ll start with better gear next play)? Sure, that’s gaming the system – but unfortunately the system invites it.

A few people have complained about a runaway leader problem, and while I haven’t seen this in my plays it does often feel that the player hangs in there – if not by much. so while it may look like a runaway leader issue, it is more than likely simply better play – you can just see it clearer due to having all the scoring happen in-game rather than end-game. While claiming areas and competing for commanders creates interaction it isn’t the kind of game where you can really work together to pull a player back – it’s more about taking chances to advance your own position. If a player ends up doing things out of sync, or concentrating on things others aren’t doing, they can get ahead.

I think some players will also be put off by the strange disconnect between the game having relatively simple rules but being very thinky to play. This can leave you discombobulated at first, but I’ve found it more rewarding with more plays – and there’s enough variety in the box (several different commanders, for example) to keep the game interesting. But I can see a single play putting some players off.

Conclusion

Make no mistakes: Magnastorm is a medium to heavyweight euro game, despite a small decision space and simple mechanisms. While it won’t be for everyone, it has been slickly produced and well tested. But expect every action to bring difficult decisions, while your tactics will be called into question after every one. So while I won’t be reaching for the game that often, for now it will be staying in my collection and I look forward to more head-scratchingly tactical contests.

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

Friday feelings: Watching others interact with your work

Creativity has been a big part of my life. From Lego ‘masterpieces’ when I was small, through sad teenage bedroom poetry, to writing and designing now that I’m, well, less small. Every day I wake up and, at some point, feel that urge to create.

I’m lucky I’ve managed to earn a modest living from writing (certainly not from designing lol) and managed to do most of my creating without having to get direct face-to-face public feedback (managers, colleagues and friends don’t count!). While music has also been a big part of my life, for example, I never felt the urge to perform. The idea of being on stage for anything has always terrified me, which has gotten worse with age as anxiety has started to take a hold on my life.

but unfortunately, every now and again, it can’t be avoided. I had the privilege of writing the programme/booklet for the Cambridge Folk Festival for about 10 years (until 2012). It was poorly paid and managed (the editing process, not the festival), but it meant I got free backstage passes to a festival I loved – what’s not to like? But at the festival, I had my first experience of live public feedback – albeit indirectly.

There I was, sitting in a field with a beer on a sunny day with some good friends and good music – perfect. Then I overhear the people sitting next to us saying, “Wow, I’m not going to see that lot – they sound terrible!” Looking around, I see that the guy has come to this conclusion by reading what I’d written about someone in the programme…

I was mortified. The programme was purely promotional: I wasn’t reviewing these artists, but simply saying a mixture of nice things they wanted to hear (from their own biogs) and a few extra nice bits if I like them. Why didn’t they want to see them? He didn’t know I’d written it (or did he…?), but that wasn’t the point. I suddenly started to feel 20,000 pairs of eyes looking at me…

Of course, I now presume they didn’t want to see that particular band because they weren’t up their street. They’d read the instrument/influence list, who they sounded like, who they’d played with etc – and decided nope, not for me. But for that brief moment I was convinced everyone in that field was reading my programme thinking, “God – all these bands are terrible – what idiot wrote this and what are we doing here?”

A similar thing now happens with my board game designs, when I’m lucky enough to have them published. The most memorable example was at Essen 2016, when Queen Games released Armageddon (co-designed with David Thompson). While ultimately the game didn’t do too well, Queen did an amazing job of pushing it at the event. It must’ve been on 30 demo tables, which were filled throughout the weekend. Walking past those tables, or watching them, was so weird. That’s our baby!

What made it worse is Armageddon is a thinky auction-style euro game with tough decisions. We could often look along a long line of tables and see no laughter, no smiles, no back-slapping – just a bunch of surly, miserable looking faces lol. Luckily a lot of those faces were turning into sales, but it was an incredibly anxiety-inducing and awkward experience!

But on the flip side, I’m not worried about reviews. I’ve been reviewing for years – live by the sword, die by the sword. Not everyone is going to like every game, so there’s no point hoping they will: you just have to hope it’s good enough to get more good reviews than bad, and that those who don’t like it at least understand it and are fair. But even if they’re not, brush yourself down and move on.

Creating for the public is a privilege – but the minute you put your creation into the public eye you must be prepared for criticism. You need to understand that it won’t all be fair, or justified, or even coherent. But more than that you have to be prepared to walk away – not to engage. If you can’t do that, keep your creations to yourself and your friends. Everyone can create, but not everyone is ready for public scrutiny.

Board game Top 10: Sarah’s favourite games

Sarah and I recently celebrated two years together – which also happened to be two years since Sarah was introduced to our wonderful hobby (go figure…). So I thought hey, why not see what her favourites are? The fact this happens to be posted in Valentine’s week is purely coincidental!

The big caveat is, of course, these are all games in my collection – so Sarah has a pretty small pool from which to pick. But these are all games she’ll ask to play, has played many times (with the exception of Azul, which was an insta-hit recently), and is a genuine fan of. And yes, they’re all games she’ll often kick my ass at.

She definitely has a few ‘types’. Route-building is a big plus, while if a game is fiddly it better have a big board and lots of stuff to make the fiddliness feel worthwhile. Otherwise its games with very quick decisions but where they’re all important and have clear consequences. And while a bit of luck is fine, a lot is a turn off (she has very little interest in playing a game for a laugh, or to switch off: that’s what EastEnders is for).

Only one was in my own last Top 10, although five more were in my Top 20. They’re not in order, but all 10 picked themselves. I’ve batched them into groups, with a little quote from Sarah for each one – and links, as always, go to full reviews where I’ve done them.

Aggressive abstracts

Sarah definitely loves a game that looks great on the table (and/or is tactile), has short and simple turns, but that mixes skill, strategy and emerging complexity:

  • Adios Calavera: A quick game with simple rules, but I love the different movement styles of the pieces and how you can mix them up each game for a different challenge.
  • Azul: Beautiful tiles, with a simple but interesting way to get them. It may not seem like it at first, but every decision is important – as choices you make now can really come back and bite you later.
  • Ingenious: Quite straightforward rules, but really tricky to play. You start out just trying to match colours to score the most points, but have to keep a close eye on the weakest colours of you and your opponents.
  • Uptown: This version of the game has a lovely style (also known as Blockers) and it offers a good, simple challenge. Really tricky with two as you control two colours – meaning you can cut yourself off!

Route-builders

The other genre she’s warmed most to is route building games. Her initial joy for Ticket to Ride hasn’t subsided, and a few others now sit beside it on her favourites list:

  • Africana: Can be very satisfying to be efficient in a turn (start a route, pick up another card, maybe finish another route with that card etc). But probably the most likely to drop off the list next time.
  • Oracle of Delphi: A bit more complicated, but I understand it. A good test of efficiency with plenty to do, plus an interesting ‘race’ feel that tends to make the end of the game feel more exciting than most. 
  • Ticket to Ride: Very tried and tested. I know exactly what I’m doing (mostly!) and win my fair share of games; but a small mistake can be super costly. The different maps add nice variety, keeping the base game fresh.
  • Thurn and Taxis: Despite being quite a simple game rules-wise, there are several different ways to explore and experiment with to get points – but with just the right amount of randomness to keep it tactical too.

The rest

Sarah has probably played more than half the games in my collection now (she’s a trooper!) and while I definitely now angle new purchases/picks towards the styles above, other games sometimes emerge as favourites too:

  • Kingdomino: The game has lovely artwork and nice tiles, while it’s satisfying to create good scoring areas. I should worry more about others are doing, but I’m too busy enjoying my own little puzzle.
  • Codenames Duet: This is really quite tricky, but it’s nice to stretch my word brain and to play as a team. It’s very different from other games we play and while it’s co-operative you still very much have your own personal challenge.

I’ll be interested to see what has changed on the list by next year, so will try and keep this annual – while I’d also love to have your suggestions for other games you think she might like. Not that I need any more games, but hey!