Online board game mini reviews: Beyond the Sun, Caravan, City of the Big Shoulders, Happy City & Railroad Ink

Despite plenty of progress with the COVID-19 vaccines, a lot of board gaming is still having to happen online. And luckily, thanks (I expect) to the recent purchase by Asmodee, website Board Game Arena (BGA) is adding new board games by the bucket load. The majority are free to play too, so why not check them out?

All the games below are ones I’ve only played online at BGA, so please take that into consideration when judging my ramblings. If you’ve not used the site before, after a simple signup process you either choose a game and invite friends or join a game with some randoms. There are loads of games and also options for play, such as live (where you may have just a few minutes to make each move) and turn-based (which can be as slack as a single move per few days). The games are also scripted, meaning you can’t cheat or make any rules errors (unlike sites such as Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator).

But all these games are available in ‘real life’ to. So if you take the next step and go for a physical purchase, why not check where to get the best value by clicking through to Board Game Prices? If enough people do so over the next few years, the mahoosive kickbacks I’ll get will probably earn me a Twix. But every little helps.

* All images below are screen grabs from board Game Arena.

Beyond the Sun (2020, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours, ages 12+)

Until a few years back, spreadsheets were just for work. But not any more. I gave a positive review to the rather clever Dawn of Mankind a little while back. Beyond the Sun can be viewed as its much more serious big (box) brother. A longer playing time, more stuff, and a step up in complexity. You’re still using workers to open up higher levels of a technology tree (read: spreadsheet). But here you have the added level of using the technologies you uncover to help you colonise planets for extra benefits (and, of course, victory points).

On the plus side, everything works and comes together nicely. And there’s a surprising amount of passive interaction as you chase to be first to colonise planets and gain extra benefits. But, to coin a phrase, it’s also dry as a witch’s tit. Even during my first game I was struggling to get excited by the play. Everything looks so bland, which certainly doesn’t help. And despite the clear cleverness in the deign, it doesn’t stop there being a relatively small amount of real options. Its much more about doing those things efficiently. So, not for me – but it has been very well received by the ‘serious’ gamer community.

Caravan (2019, 2-4 players, 1 hour, ages 10+)

Near the other end of the scale we have Caravan. This is a family level abstract game with a simple rule set. But once you get going, you start to see the tactical depth on offer is more than initially meets the eye. It’s one of the most Reina Knizia games I’ve played that he didn’t design himself (it’s from Joe Huber). Move camels, transport cubes, score points. Simple. But getting them from A to B isn’t as easy as it sounds. You rarely have enough camels to get a cube to its destination in one move. But once it has started its journey, it becomes vulnerable to thieves (read: the other players).

But don’t be put off if you don’t like interaction. Because once someone steals, they can’t steal again until someone takes from them. As you hand the person you stole from your one thievery token when you take something – a simple system that works brilliantly. Some cubes look worthless early on. But each time the board is restocked, a victory point is placed on those that were ignored. So even the worst options soon change into more tempting ones. If you like route building in your abstract games, Caravan is well worth a look.

City of the Big Shoulders (2019, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours, ages 14+)

Back in the world of heavy euro games we have City of the Big Shoulders. This is an engine building and stock manipulation game , where you choose actions to gain resources and then build/run factories. The goods you produce are then sold off to grow the value of the businesses – unless you decide instead to cram the profits off the top for yourself and tank the company a bit instead. Between rounds you an all buy and sell shares in everyone’s companies, spicing up your decisions significantly. If you like stocks games that run long (a good few hours), then is definitely worth checking out.

I enjoyed my City of the Big Shoulders plays significantly more than those of Beyond the Sun. Sure, it’s boring beige rather than sci-fi spreadsheet looking. But I like running my own little engine and the stock buying/selling made you genuinely think twice about what to do. But sadly the extra hour of play time left me coming to a similar conclusion in the long run. By the end of each game I just felt tired, as if anything it seemed to get less interesting near the end of each play. And it has one of my big board game bugbears: random cards/spaces that do exactly the same thing but have different point/cash values. Who thinks that’s a good idea in a game such as this? A real amateur move in my books.

Happy City (2021, 2-5 players, 30 mins, ages 8+)

And back we flip to family games. Happy City is a cute, colourful and (relatively) simple tableau building game. On a turn you flip over some cards (into a shared market) and then buy one. Buildings variously reward you with income and victory points, or sometimes negatives. While buying enough of different types of building allows you to buy one of the special building on offer (as a bonus action). Once someone has 10 buildings (which doesn’t take long), it’s all over.

Happy City is a nice intro game if you want to teach new players about tableau building, before moving on to more complex games such as Race for the Galaxy. But the options available each turn are very limited and you can be badly hampered by poor luck of the draw. The options of different buildings are also very limited, so we found our interest in the game waned very quickly indeed. But equally it all works and we clearly weren’t the target audience. So as a cute entry level game, especially for kids, I’d comfortable recommend it.

Railroad Ink (2018, 1-12 players on BGA (1-6 in the box), 30 mins, ages 8+)

There’s a certain joy to playing a roll-and-write game online. If you do the wrong thing you haven’t ruined your sheet. While players with an art degree can’t slow everything down while showing off their ‘talents’. Railroad Ink has the added bonus of being one of the best examples of the genre out there, too. The rules are simple. Each round, four dice are rolled. All players choose one of them and copy the symbol rolled onto their sheet. This continues until everyone has filled in about two-thirds of their sheet, with the aim of connecting roads and train tracks across the board.

Railroad Ink is the kind of game I’m always happy to play. You just noodle away doing your own thing and hope the right symbols come up when you need to bring your network together near the end of the game. There are a few extra freebies you can add to your sheet to make things work. But generally there’s a lot of luck – and worse, zero interaction. Which means I’ll always reach towards an alternative (That’s Pretty Clever, Dizzle etc) before choosing this one. And online (and with a train theme) I’d choose the much more interactive Steamrollers (over on Yucata) every time. So for me it’s close, but no cigar.

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