Online board game mini reviews: In the Year of the Dragon, Bruxelles 1893, Coloretto, The King’s Guild, GIPF & Carcassonne: H&G

While much of the world is emerging from lock down, in the UK we’re still in the thick of it. Thick being the operative word, when you consider how our government has ‘handled’ the crisis. If a few more cabinet ministers were gamers, they’d have played Pandemic – and understood how badly these things escalate if you don’t get on top of them right from the start.

Sadly, Boris and friends are clearly more your Monopoly and Risk brigade. But I digress. It means I’m still gaming from home and relying on the interwebs for my gaming-with-friends fix.

So again, these mini reviews are based on their online versions at the websites linked below. Although with one exception (which should become obvious below…) I have, or would like, to play them in real life too. The links on each game will take you directly to the sites where you can play the games. If you want to know more about the online board game websites themselves, follow these links to my write-ups instead:

Bruxelles 1893 (2013, 2-5 players, 1-2 hours, ages 12+)

The weight of new board game releases has increased massively over the last decade. And it has meant games such as this slipped past me, despite being on my radar. so thank you corona, for this at least – the chance to tick some really good euro games off my ‘want to try’ list. Bruxelles 1893 is very much one of those. Released with a fair amount of buzz, I just presumed someone I knew would pick it up and champion it. But despite very good reviews (it rates over 7.5 on BGG and is in the top 300 games) it passed me by.

In many ways, you’ve seen it all before. Worker placement, action selection, end game bonuses etc etc. But it adds just enough new and intriguing twists to make it stand out. And they’re all around subtle non-direct player interaction. It’s not Vanuatu nasty, but you really have to think about what everyone else is trying to achieve at all times. The online implementation is very smooth, if a little lacking in explanations. But the rulebook is mercifully short, so you can have it open as a pdf if you need to check anything. Overall, a fantastic euro game that is now on my wish list.

Available free online at Boite a Jeux (Designer: Etienne Espreman)

Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers (2002, 2-5 players, 30-60 mins, 8+)

Just because we’re under lock down, it doesn’t mean the board game evangelism has to stop. In fact what better time to introduce your self-isolating friends to board games than now? Ticket to Ride and Catan are sadly off limits, unless you can convince people to pay for their (excellent) apps. But Carcassonne is available for free. Not only that, but for me Hunters and Gatherers is the best version. Sure, it’s a tiny bit more complicated than the vanilla version. But the small rules wrinkles are well covered in this online implementation.

The classic tile-layer is well suited to online play. It gives you time to weigh up your options, while beginners can see all their options mapped out in front of them. This version moves the game to prehistoric tiles and for me the change of scenery makes it even prettier. The basic concepts are intact with subtle differences – roads are now rivers, cities are forests, farms are now meadows. But a few new rules add spice, such as special one-off bonus tiles and a new kind of scoring marker (fishing huts). And best of all, no cheaty monks!

Available free online at Yucata (Designer: Klaus-Jurgen Wrede)

GIPF (1996, 2 players, 30-60 mins, ages 8+)

If you or a gaming friend are into pure abstract games, Boite a Jeux is the place to be. It is home to six of the well-respected GIPF series of board games, designed by Kris Brum. They’re all perfect information two-player games that play in less than an hour, with the original (GIPF itself) probably being the best known. The online implementations are basic but sound, but these aren’t games that need bells and whistles. Choose a piece, move it, and that’s your turn. The rules are always simple, but the strategy goes far deeper.

Without trying to make it sound crap (because it’s not), GIPF is Connect 4 on steroids. Yes, you take it in turns to push coloured pieces into a grid to try and make a line of four. But you’re pushing pieces in from a choice of 24 edge spaces on the hexagonal board. And you’re usually trying to make a line of four of your pieces, but with your opponent’s pieces attached to the end. All pieces are removed from the board, but you get yours back – while your opponents are removed from the game. There’s much more to it than that, but hopefully that gives you a bit of an idea. If you like abstracts, you really need to try it.

Available free online at Boite a Jeux (Designer: Kris Brum)

In the Year of the Dragon (2007, 2-5 players, 90-120 mins, ages 12+)

As well as games I’d missed, lock down has been great for revisiting games I’ve only played once or twice. I’d had a great play of this classic Feld design years ago. Occasional GPL contributor Chris Fenton flukily found a copy in a charity shop so was also keen to try it. So we got together online (with local gamer friend Jonathan) to give it a go. It’s considered better with more, but was still fun with three players. Unfortunately this online version, while smooth and solid, is very unforgiving – once you click something, that’s that. So there are no takesy backsies. Harsh, but you soon get used to it (and it certainly speeds things along).

The game itself isn’t your typical Stefan Feld design. While loosely a 90-minute euro, this is no heads-down point salad. It’s more a war of attrition, as you do your best to prepare for a series of disasters. Each turn you play a card (from identical set starting hands) and do an action, claiming characters and resources while trying to keep a few people alive to earn you points. There’s a lot of competition and planning and having your backs constantly against the wall builds tension nicely. If you like your euros interactive and attritional, check it out.

Available free online at Board Game Arena (Designer: Stefan Feld)

The King’s Guild (2018, 1-6 players, 60 mins, ages 8+)

Games such as Bruxelles 1893 standout for their interesting takes on familiar mechanisms. In sharp contrast, The King’s Guild stands out not one jot by doing nothing more than rearranging the family euro design toolbox. It had passed me by on release, but is enjoying a ludicrously high rating for what you get. I guess it’s benefiting from the continuing rush of new players into the hobby. People understandably (if largely wrongly) want a ‘new’ game, and this kind of lowest common denominator gateway offering fills that niche. But to me it feels like a cheap knockoff of better designers’ ideas in a bog-standard fantasy package.

Despite playing about a week ago, I’ve already largely forgotten the experience and was bored after about 10 minutes. You have a player board where you add buildings and characters to improve abilities. You take resources and use them to complete recipes, which in turn reward you with points and/or stuff. That’s that. Resources are tight but so is storage capacity, breaking the theme while adding little of interest to proceedings. While some items can be built by two players, but as both get a reward it adds little to nothing to the experience. Pretty and functional, but a real waste of time.

Available free online at Board Game Arena (Designer: Matthew Austin)

Russian Railroads (2013, 1-4 players, 1-2 hours (or 20 mins solo), ages 12+)

Let’s end on a positive note. Russian Railroads is a game I was underwhelmed with on my initial play some years ago. But I’ve had a lot of fun with playing it solo online in the past few weeks. It’s a euro game that has a big fan base, which has helped it enjoy several well-regarded expansions. I feel this was crucial, as the initial game – while mechanically fun – was a little samey after a few plays. The added variety of the expansions really makes it sing. And these expansions are optional to use on this online implementation.

It’s a worker placement game with real competition for spaces and several routes to victory. My initial problem with the game was the fun of the competition for placement wasn’t enough to make up for what felt like a rather linear game. But new content has really helped, adding often subtle yet intriguing changes. The solo mode is pretty basic: a bot draws from a card deck each turn, covering up one of the available action spaces. It’s crude, but it works. Your task? Beat your best score. Again, super unimaginative. But if you enjoy the game, or want to hone your strategies, it’s a great way to fill 20 minutes.

Available free online at Yucata (Designers: Ohley & Orgler)

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