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.

In London this weekend? Tabletop Gaming Live, September 29-30

Love it, loath it, or couldn’t give a monkey’s about it, UK Games Expo has been in the unusual position of having things all its own way for several years now.

The June board gaming event in Birmingham has been growing at an unbelievable rate for a decade, yet no one has really stepped in to challenge for its crown. Until now.

That crown, of course, is being the UK’s biggest and best annual board gaming event. I’ve been sceptical about it in recent few years, as it struggled to grow at the same speed as its attendance figures. But this year the organisers really set down a marker, making it the biggest and best Expo yet. And just in time, it seems, as London has finally got off its lazy backside and come up with a contender.

The first Tabletop Together Live will kick off at Alexandra Palace on Friday. The two-day event claims to be ‘the London show for board games, RPGs and miniatures’ and seems to have plenty to get excited about. Its hosted by the glossy gaming magazine of the same name, so already has a built-in audience; while plonking itself in the calendar just a month before Essen Spiel in Germany seems a shrewd move.

New releases and competitions

I’ll steer clear of mini and RPG talk here, as I’m blissfully ignorant on both topics; but it looks like there’s loads going on with them if you like that sort of thing. From a board game perspective though, it looks as if there will be plenty to do too.

The show will host the launch of Forbidden Sky, the third game in designer Matt Leacock’s ‘forbidden’ series. The first two (Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island) are fantastic co-operative family games, distilling ideas from his award-winning design Pandemic. This latest title is already garnering great reviews, so I’ll be looking forward to taking a closer look.

If you like a tournament, both days will see competitions for recent classic Kingdomino (plus the new expansion will be on sale, Age of Giants – review imminent) and endearing favourite King of Tokyo. There will be the first ever ‘intro decks’ event for Game of Thrones: The Card Game (the decks were only released this month); while the show will also host the regional qualifying event for the 2019 UK National Championship for Pandemic.

From shopping to seminars

As for exhibitors, it’s no surprise to see Iello, Z-Man, Fantasy Flight and Blue Orange (the publishers of the above games) on the list.

You’ll also be able to check out the UK’s two biggest games distributors – Coiledspring Games and Esdevium/Asmodee UK – as well as other top publishers including Catan Studios, Czech Games Edition, Days of Wonder, Osprey and Queen – a great list for a first-time con.

Plus, if you need a sit down, there is a full seminar programme in place. There’s a wide range of topics, from using games to raise awareness of mental health to, erm, going mad in the Call of Cthulhu RPG (could be an interesting crossover audience for those two – me included). Other topics include tips on teaching rules (most people I know: take note); making a prototype, and building the tabletop community as the hobby continues to grow.

I’m planning to be there all day on Saturday, so say ‘hi’ if you see me wandering about. Please click the image at the top of this post for a link to the event: tickets start at £10, so hopefully it will be affordable for most people. And if you can’t make it, expect a con report some time the following week.

Schotten Totten (AKA Battle Line): A four-sided game review

Schotten Totten* is a classic small box two-player card game from celebrated designer Reiner Knizia. A game takes around 20 minutes and the age suggestion of 8+ feels about right: the rules themselves are very simple, but the game offers both tactical and strategic depth.

It was released in 1999, had an English edition (Battle Line) in 2000, but has been republished under its original title since 2016. The current version has lovely cartoon artwork and is overall a solid version (66 cards, nine cardboard tiles, and available for less than £15).

This is a traditional card game hybrid, using familiar mechanisms in a clever and original way (pretty much the designer’s MO). Anyone familiar with hand management and set collection games such as rummy, poker or brag will feel immediately at home. If you can manage to immerse yourself in the pasted-on Scottish clansmen theme while you’re at it, then more power to your elbow…

Teaching Schotten Totten

The basic game is the kind of thing you can just as easily teach your granny as a gamer. The ‘tactic variant’ adds a little complexity, but not much – and I’ll cover that at the end. In the basic game, you shuffle the deck of 54 clan cards and deal six to each player (these cards are numbered one to nine in six different colours – that’s it). You then lay the nine ‘stone’ tiles out between the two players, and you’re ready to go.

Your goal is to claim five of these nine stones (or three if they’re adjacent to each other) by playing an unbeatable set of three cards on your side of each of them. Winning sets will be familiar: a running flush is best, followed by three-of-a-kind, a flush, a run, then the highest sum of three cards (handy player aids remind you of the order).

The game also flows extremely simply: you play a card from your hand in front of one of the stones, then you draw a new card – then it is your opponent’s turn. Also, at any time on your turn, you can claim any stone that you’ve won. You continue in this way until one of you declares themselves the winner; which gets us onto one of the cleverer parts of the game.

Often you don’t have to wait for both sides to have three cards in front of a stone before you claim it: as long as you can show your three cards can’t be beaten, you can claim. For example, if you have a three-card running flush in front of a stone and your opponent has a pair, you can claim that stone on your turn: as they have a pair, they can’t equal your running flush – even if they made it three of a kind, they’d lose.

For the tactical variant, the game’s 10 tactic cards are shuffled and put next to the usual draw deck. Players draw an initial hand of seven clan cards rather than six, then when you draw a card you can choose to take either a tactic or clan card. Tactic cards are wrinkles to the standard rules: they could be wild cards or may let you move or discard an already played clan card. The limitation is you can only have played one more tactic card than your opponent, so if you draw too many and your opponent doesn’t play any they just clog up your hand.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Knizia’s genius has always been his ability to find the small details that take a simple game from average to special. It tends to be something in the way his games score, and that is the case with Schotten Totten: having to keep an eye on the chance of your opponent winning three adjacent stones to win is key to your strategic thinking. Just adding that second possible route to victory makes a real difference, while not detracting from the game’s elegance and simplicity.
  • The thinker: A great game, if very random. The tactic cards feel as if they muddy the waters, giving various ‘get out of jail free’ opportunities – but also add choice; and you don’t have to take them – which limits your opponent’s opportunity to exploit them. What I don’t understand is the additional ‘expert’ variant, where you can only claim a stone at the beginning of your turn. rather than being for experts, it feels more like you’re just giving more opportunity for your opponent to scupper your good play with a lucky tactic card.
  • The trasher: As well as having poker hands for scoring, Schotten Totten manages to illicit that same tension across the table that the best betting and bluffing games do. This is heightened by the fact you’ll see way more cards in play than in a poker game, and the game lasts longer, ebbing and flowing. Personally I like the tactic cards as they can really spice things up. They’re powerful enough to make a big impact, but limited enough to make you think twice about drawing too many or making things stupid – but they are swingy.
  • The dabbler: While the artwork is cute and the rules are simple, I found this one a bit dry. I’m quite happy playing a traditional card game like rummy or whist, because there’s always banter and a bunch of people having a laugh. This one is much tenser and more serious, and only for two, so is far less satisfying as a social game – way more ‘chess’ than something more fun, such as even Patchwork, where you can have a bit more banter. If you want to sit around looking moody though, this is the game for you!

Key observations

Schotten Totten has been around for nearly 20 years, so has its fair share of fans and detractors – but it ranks just outside the Board Game Geek top 50 for family games and in the top 500 overall.

It also has an average rating above seven, which is impressive for a small card game – so any criticisms should be seen in this context.

Randomness, in terms of ‘luck of the draw’, is a common complaint. This makes the game too tactical for some, as your lovingly set up set never happens. But while luck is a factor, it can usually be mitigated with good play – waiting for a single card is bad play in any game, surely? That said, it’s true that higher cards are generally better than lower ones here – but that’s a feature of games based on this kind of system, so if you don’t like that it’s your call.

So if we accept there’s a certain level of randomness in the game, the next question is: is there enough ‘fun’ to compensate for it? some argue that, while random, the game is also very dry. Well, it is an abstract card game so sure, it’s dry. But I love the ebb and flow as the cards are laid, and the feeling you get when you simply don’t want to play any of your cards because you’re either waiting for your opponent to jump; or a particular card to show up.

There is a lot to take in and keep abreast of – meaning analysis paralysis is a possibility. This is more of an issue when adding the tactic cards, which make the game less mathy but more swingy. Worse still, some are way better than others: a wild is always super powerful, for example, while a card that lets you move one of your cards to another of your spaces ranges from situational to useless. Criticism of these cards I would agree with – I can’t help thinking there was a much cleverer way they could have been introduced – but at least they’re very much optional. I just ignore them.

Conclusion

Schotten Totten would probably make my Top Five Reiner Knizia designs; and definitely the Top 10. It is simple and elegant, yet clever and deep – just what you expect from his better games.

If you’re someone who ends up playing a lot of two-player games, especially if you’re introducing games to someone who has largely played traditional card games, this is a no-brainer for your collection. It has the added benefits of being cheap and small, making it easy to transport (but don’t be fooled – it’s quite the table hog!). After admiring it for some time, I’m glad to finally have it in my collection.

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

Game design: Variety does not equal replayability

As a semi-active game designer, I’ve play-tested my fair share of games. I’ve also spent a lot of time pitching them to publishers, speaking to other designers and industry decision makers, and had lengthy debates on processes to do with developing games.

A recurring myth/mantra is that replayability, especially in family and euro games, requires a mass of different setup options or unique characteristics; that a game is only worth its salt if you can make the board modular, give the players individual traits and make the game artificially different every time. But conversely ‘the cult of the new’ dictates most gamers play a game a few times then move on.

I’d suggest this extra design time and effort is often a waste of time. While the percentage of published games is increasing exponentially, the amount staying in print is rising at a much slower rate. Designers and developers are flogging themselves to death creating variants which can be set up ‘X’ different ways for games which will likely sell a maximum of 5,000 copies and be played once or twice by each purchaser.

History: We’ve never needed variety

If you look at the games that have stood the test of time, they haven’t needed this kind of variety to make their reputation. Poker, Chess and Go – or modern classics Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne – couldn’t be simpler on setup and components. They rely on simplicity, randomness and interaction rather than powers, variable setups or asymmetry. Even Catan, with variable setup, uses everything in the box. Classic modern war and board games that have been in print for decades are usually similarly unburdened. Most games don’t need it to be successful.

Modern gamers: The cult of the new

When I got into the hobby, the focus for many was on getting good at a game; increasing your skill, trying new strategies and taking pleasure in beating regular opponents. Now many players seem to spend more time reading a rulebook than they subsequently spend playing the game. This makes sense for reviewers (for comparisons – and who often get games free, or cheaply), maybe for designers (for breadth of knowledge) and of course collectors (who have a different hobby), but for your average punter? It’s a strange phenomenon and change of focus.

Expansions: We can already bolster big games

We have a perfectly good system in place to add content to games that need them. People tiring of vanilla Catan, Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne can buy any number of expansions to keep the games fresh – but they waited for them to be popular before spending the extra design and development time. And look at recent SdJ winners that are still selling well: Azul, Kingdomino, Codenames, Hanabi, Qwirkle. None rely on complex setups, asymmetry, player powers etc, but many have seen expansions designed later to extend replayability. This seems perfectly sensible, surely?

Too many games, not enough gaming?

Many modern gamers look ravenously for a regular fix of new: we’ve created a monster. There are so many games, and so many ‘cult of the new’ players, that fresh titles get a tiny release window after which games are traded for an endless supply of other ‘new’ experiences. ‘Legacy’ games were the natural conclusion, but we’re already seeing this is a desperately creaking design idea. Beyond Pandemic and Risk Legacy, others have been tepidly received. And those first two games were, ironically, built on sound ideas with few moving parts; those classic design ideals we discussed earlier.

What’s to blame: Kickstarter, journalists, publishers or gamers?

For me Kickstarter has been, overall, detrimental to the industry. It has created a pre-sale culture rewarding perceived value over actual game play; and a consumer that accepts weight of box while hoping for a good game. Journalists fall over themselves to do paid previews, as its one of very few ways to earn money, while being ‘first’ gets viewers: the quality of coverage is by-the-by. Backers inflate BGG ratings and non-KS releases receive less coverage, giving mediocre games high rankings. Meanwhile traditional publishers, with built-in fail-safes and experience to help make better games, are being gazumped by small companies often flying on the seat of their pants – largely because traditional publishers aren’t being savvy to the new ways of operating.

Conclusions

Designing a game is already a huge challenge – and getting one published even more so. Do we need to artificially extend this process by adding so much variety to every euro and family game when most of them won’t make the cut when they hit retail?

While you may think it adds to its chances, the examples of the many simpler games that make it suggests otherwise: perceived ‘replayability’ options often simply muddy the water and increase production time and costs, while moving the focus of the reviewer/punter away from the game’s core elements. That’s what expansions are for.

I’m of course not saying asymmetry, player powers and variable setup aren’t fantastic tools for any designer and many games rely on them to work at all – from Cosmic Encounter through Marco Polo to Terra Mystica: they’re valuable tools of the trade. What I’m saying is there seems to be an obsession from journalists and publishers – and, following that now, many players – to call for something they really don’t need, or even really use, in the majority of (especially euro) games.

I also want to note Ameritrash and RPG crossovers need this kind of content: the likes of Gloomhaven, Zombicide and Imperial Assault rely on it to exist. But it seems the bleed from these into more traditional titles has reached epidemic proportions. What I’m really asking is, are the many hours of extra development seeing real value? Should we be adding masses of extra content, and price, to games which may only sell a few thousand copies and be played a couple of times per player – when we could instead support these games later, as we’ll do anyway, if they take a hold in the market?

Please consider this a jumble of thoughts, not as me looking for a row or crying for help: if you read anything like that into the language, I promise you’re mistaken. I design as a hobby and love the process, but as a reviewer I now open many games seemingly focused on the wrong elements; confusing the core game experience. I realise I probably haven’t put these thoughts together in the best possible way, but I’d love to hear your opinions on what I think is an interesting topic that merits discussion.

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2018 wishlist

So, with Essen less than two months away I’ve been frantically reading rulebooks and watching preview videos of all the coming games.

There have been more than 600 new releases announced for the show so far, and the fantastic Tabletop Together Tool (using Board Game Geek information) has once again been a brilliant way to check them out – it even has ‘friend’ capabilities now, so you can see all the rubbish your ill-informed buddies are going to buy and scoff at them dismissively (ping me a message to get my code!).

But no, I haven’t read 600 rulebooks: there’s an awful lot of games that get written off before I get that far. The tool has loads of useful filters, which are super useful for narrowing things down.

Delete! Delete!

First, I automatically write-off most expansions (I don’t own most games…) and anything marked as ‘demo only’ (I’m patient – there are plenty of other games and I don’t really do/care about ‘previews’).

Next on the ‘delete’ pile are certain categories I simply know won’t inspire games to make it to the final list Some of them may be excellent, but I have limited space and budget – and I know I’ll be introduced to the best ones down the line. So en masse we say goodbye to: dexterity, children’s, humour, memory, miniatures, party, real-time, trivia and war games.

After categories, it’s mechanisms; so it’s ba-bye to acting, co-operative, partnerships, player elimination, singing (?!) and take-that. Next goes anything that needs more than two players, that last less than 20 minutes, anything for players under eight-years-old, and anything unavailable in English.

Next up is a cursory scroll down the remaining games list to get rid of anything that just looks or sounds terrible. I’m sorry, but Big Pharma and Smartphone Inc may be great, but really…? There are original themes, then there’s shitty themes. Scantily clad nonsense goes too, as do stupid looking ‘dark’ (read ‘teenage boy’) sci-fi or fantasy (not all of it, just the dark and earnest looking stuff).

My Top 6 Essen 2018 new releases (so far)

After all that, I reckon I had a good 100 left to plough through. And yeah, I love it. In truth, there are about 20 games still on my list at this point – and I’m still determined to only bring home five to review (OK – let’s say ‘less than 10’…). From here it will be about emailing publishers, or getting demos at the show. But here’s six ‘most likely to’ (in no particular order) – with links to their Board Game Geek pages (Warning: Board Game Geek is currently updating its servers and is experiencing a lot of downtime this week, so you may want to bookmark this and come back later for looking at the links):

  1. Tales of Glory
    (2-5 players, 45 mins)
    I always need to scratch that euro combo itch with a new game, and this looks the best of the bunch (on paper). The game theme is generic fantasy, but nicely implemented: you’ll be drafting tiles and adding them to your legacy (tableau), to create a history of your deeds. Tableau building, drafting, a bit of point salad – I’m totally in. It has a real puzzley element, as you need to put the tiles together in ways to maximise your opportunities. Plus its bright, colourful, chunky and plays in under an hour. I’ve also got my eye on A Thief’s Fortune, which seems to cover similar ground, but with cards.
  2. The Estates
    (2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I love a good abstract auction/bidding game, but don’t own many. This is a reprint of well-loved but niche and hard to find game Neue Heimat. It looks cutthroat and has the added bonus of a closed economy (there is a set amount of money in the game, which is all held by players), which helps keep things tight and tense. While the game will be different every time due to pulling an initial game setup of tiles from a bag, after that you’re playing with fully open information – so the only randomness comes from the moves of your opponents.
  3. Showtime
    (2-4 players, 30 mins)
    While not being a big fan of aggressive take-that games, I do often like them when they come in shorter, smaller packages. I also like to come home with at least one new small box card game each year and this is looking most likely right now: a nice light theme (going to the cinema), a varied set up and plenty of ways to screw with each other as you try and get your cinema goers into the best seats. It’s basically a great theme that anyone can relate to – you don’t want to be behind the tall guy, in front of the person who puts their feet on the seats, or anywhere near the chatty person or the munchy popcorn guy!
  4. Prehistory
    (2-4 players, 90 mins)
    One of the things I have very mixed rewards at is trying to pick a heavier euro, but again I always try and come home with one. I’ve had little luck picking a winner in the last few years, but this looks very interesting. I always like a prehistoric theme, while mechanically this is worker placement and resource management – two of my favourite things, when done in an interesting way. I’m also tempted by Teotihuacan: City of Gods, which has a bit of a rondel going on and is by one of the Tzolk’in designers; but looks like it could be both a little dry and a bit too similar to the original.
  5. Welcome To…
    (1-100 players, 30 mins)
    This is a ‘roll and write’ game without any rolling. Each player has a sheet and a pen (think Yahtzee), but instead of taking turns to roll dice and choose a result, you instead flip a set of communal cards and each player decides which to choose and use (so you can potentially do the exact same thing as another player). Thematically you’re creating a housing estate (again lol), filling in house numbers and using actions to tick off bonus opportunities: thrilling! But it has been almost universally well received since its summer release and looks like a winner.
  6. Newton and Coimbra
    (1-4 and 2-4, 90 mins)
    While you may thing its bit cheaty naming two, there’s method to my madness: I fully expect to end up with one of these, but definitely not both. I’m again scratching the euro itch, but this time the slightly different ‘pasted on theme classic mechanical euro’ one. Well, we are going to Germany: the place we’ve been picking this type of game up from for two decades. It would be rude not to! Both these games see players taking generic looking things to manipulate generic looking tracks in olden times – but what can I say, I love this stuff. I intend to give both a try and grab the best of the two.

Others on the list include Tsukiji, Fertility, Ceylon, Orbis… I’m going to be busy. And I can’t wait! I’m sure I’ve missed things though – or you may be surprised I picked ‘X’ over ‘Y’ from the list. Please feel free to fill me in on the error of my ways.

Plus 4 things I need at Essen Spiel…

Finally, here’s a few things that made it onto my ‘need’ list. You can personalise the Tabletop Together list in loads of ways, adding notes and printing maps showing where your games will be in the halls. There’s even a new friends list, so you can mock your mates for their terrible taste in new releases.

But the most important part is grading/judging all the games across five categories: ‘ignore’, maybe’, ‘like’, ‘want’ and, of course, ‘need‘. Only a few things have made that hallowed list for me so far, and they’re not the shiny things you’ll find on most Essen lists (Gloomhaven this and Scythe that, blah blah blah):

  • Old stuff: While Essen is largely about the new releases, there’s plenty of older games available too. There’s a thriving secondhand market, for example, while there are always some bargains to be had if you’re patient enough to wade through the bargain bins from both publishers and the larger German retailers. I’ve got several games on my wishlist that are old and German, so finger’s crossed!
  • Adios Calavera: This is one of my Top 50 games, so I’m excited about three mini expansions being released for it at Essen. They’re listed as two ‘character expansions’ (both players can move these pieces, which sounds fun) and a ‘three-player expansion’ (which adds a hexagonal board and slightly edited rules). I love this game, so anything that adds variety is a bonus.
  • Dice Fishing: This one is a gift for a friend who likes games but loves fishing. I was taught it recently by GoPlayListen contributor Chris Fenton (it was at UK Games Expo) and really enjoyed it: fast, silly randomness/push-your-luck but with just enough decisions and the right time frame (about 20-30 mins).
  • Witless Wizards: Well it would be stupid to miss a small self-promotion possibility, right? It’s looking likely my first solo design (after the three co-designs) should make the show, so it’ll my fifth Essen in a row supporting the release of one of my games (if you include the German release of Empire Engine). Exciting!

Agra: A four-sided game review

Agra* is a heavy euro game for two-to-four players that takes a good two/three hours (or more with a slower and/or larger group) to play. It’s listed as 12+ for age range, but this is pretty generous: you’ll need a bright kid with strong concentration levels to keep up with this one.

The game is gorgeous (art by Michael Menzel) in a traditional euro game way, with its sized box being packed to the gunnels with bits: a huge game board and extra side board, 24 cards, 150+ wooden pieces, 100+ cardboard pieces, four player boards, four cloth bags and one lonely dice. Hard to believe I’m saying it, but in tonnage alone it’s probably worth its £60 price tag.

The theme (which is pasted on in glorious euro fashion) sees you cultivating your little piece of India to meet the desires of rich aristocrats, and ultimately the whims of birthday boy Akbar the Great. What this means in real terms is an awful lot of action selection with which you’ll turn lots of stuff into better stuff to fulfil orders in a solidly euro fashion – but with a hell of a lot of bells and whistles added for good measure. If that sounds like your bag, read on.

Teaching

I’m not going to go deep into the rules of Agra here, as summing up a 28-page rulebook in a few pithy paragraphs would be ridiculous (it is rated 4.33/5 on complexity at board Game Geek). This is just a light overview to give you an idea of the mechanisms on display.

The largest area of the huge game board displays where you can make – then evolve – the four ‘basic’ goods of the game: sandstone, wood, turmeric and cotton.

Each of these can be upgraded through two levels of ‘processed’ goods, right up to being ‘luxury’ goods – but the orders you need to fulfil to gain points may require any combination of these (so one order may require, for example, a sandstone (basic) and clothes (luxury).

Most of the rest of the main board shows the River Ganges, which is lined with notables – while a separate ‘imperial’ board shows Akbar himself, alongside a number of guild tracks. Akbar, the guilds and the notables all have orders to fulfil (needing 1-3 different goods), each of which will reward you with either ongoing bonuses or victory points.

The final section of the main board contains five additional action spaces (each of the 16 goods is an action space too), while each player also has their own board which has a few more action spaces for good measure. It also shows how good you are at collecting each of the basic resources: something that can be manipulated as the game goes on and your priorities change.

A player’s turn sounds simple: you have an optional ‘meditation’ phase (here you do a bonus action, if able), an action phase (where you do, you guessed it, a standard action) and the order phase – where you deliver what you’ve been making – plus there are three types of additional action you can do once each on your turn, at any time, if you are able (by the end of the game you can do a lot of actions in a single turn). That’s it. So far, so standard euro.

What makes the game stand out is how many ways there are to do the same things – and it is working out how to do them most efficiently (and so turning the most points/profit) that will sort the winner from the losers. Once a player has reached the end of a guild influence track, fulfilled all of a guild’s orders, or picked up a notable from the last section of the Ganges, the game is over.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Unfortunately, the scope of Agra thematically doesn’t live up to the level of effort required to do anything. Having lots of ways to do essentially the same thing isn’t much fun, when in fact they’re all leading towards the same end. Rather than being a point salad, this is more a mechanism salad leading to a largely simple scoring system. There are several clever ideas on display, but one of the first (and most repeated) things I’ve been told about game design is that introducing one new concept per game is enough – you don’t want to overload the players with new concepts. That has not been adhered to here and I was left wondering why it hadn’t been more streamlined.
  • The thinker: I really admire what Michael Keller has achieved here: a deeply complex web of actions and sub-actions that still forces players to compete over a shared set of specific rewards. You’re rewarded for engine building (via extra actions for being able to make luxury goods), but also for being astute in terms of the current game state. However, this makes every turn deeply thoughtful – which gets ‘worse’ as the game goes on; with the additional caveat that every player’s turn will again change the board state, so forward planning is of limited benefit. Two hours? No chance. You will need a couple of dedicated heavy gamers with a good afternoon free to get this to the table. But it’s worth it.
  • The trasher: While this isn’t a confrontational game, it is a very tactical as well as strategic one. When a player converts a good to an improved version as their action, there is a window for anyone else with the same good to get a free upgrade too – so predicting your opponents’ moves can be crucial to success. Also, you need to anticipate what they’re trying to achieve: orders have very specific requirements, so if you get gazumped on the way to completing something it can put your plans back in a hugely frustrating way. You can’t just sit back and do your own thing – you have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. But do you care enough to think that hard about it? I know I didn’t.
  • The dabbler: The game is beautiful. The board looks amazing, the raised side board looks great and the oversized pieces really pop on the table. But just, no. I started to lose the will to live in an early rules explanation and haven’t looked back. Definitely, definitely not for me. Pretty simply isn’t enough this time!

Key observations

A big problem Agra has, whether you like the game or not, is style over substance. While beautiful, the main board is a mess of detail – making a game that already has a high level of entry even worse. In addition, some of the wooden pieces are too big, the cardboard ones too small, and the Akbar board an angled accident waiting to happen.

The rulebook doesn’t help either. The layout isn’t conducive to finding the many small details you’ll find yourself having to reference as the game goes on; and many edge cases that could’ve been covered in pictorial examples have been overlooked. Which brings us on to iconography, which is unfortunately not the best. If you weren’t already dipping in and out of the rulebook for rule clarifications, you will be for icon ones.

The mass of choices available right off the bat get in the way of learning the basics, making this is a game purely for heavy gamers. And it feels wilful – almost as if this has been deliberately made to be impossible to access unless you’re part of the ‘heavy club’: it’s like the gaming equivalent of free form jazz. This isn’t a game that tries to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ – if you don’t get AP playing Agra, you’re not doing it right.

But, despite all that, this is a very highly rated game. It appeals to its crowd, pressing the right buttons for a certain type of heavy gamer – so why shouldn’t Agra (and Quined Games) be applauded for that? Every niche needs its champion and with more than 500 8+ rating on Board Game Geek, this game has found its niche and then some.

Conclusion

Agra was a miss for me – and that’s a shame, which feels like an opportunity missed. I’d love to see a lighter version of the game that keeps many if its cleverer elements but gets rid of the wilfully complex. I can’t help thinking there is a glorious one-hour euro hidden in here, where the tactical challenge isn’t so hampered by an overly diffuse set of mechanisms and sub-mechanisms.

But as already mentioned, there is a heavy gamer crowd out there that needs new games – where, on the other hand, does the world really need another one-hour euro game? Hopefully a designer will take a few of the great concepts hidden in here and apply them to something more up my street in future: but until then, I’ll leave this one for my heavier brethren.

* Thanks to Quined Games for providing a reduced-price copy of the game for review.

Board game Top 10: The best board game podcasts

Taking a look back at my original gaming podcasts post, I was surprised at just how much has changed. I considered updating that post again, but decided it would simply be too much work: so instead, here’s a new Top 10.

I realise I have a tendency to turn Top 10s into top fifteens, or twenties (or sometimes more…), but this time I’ve managed to keep it to a solid 10. However, to make sure I continue to break from tradition, this isn’t in order from favourite down: rather, it is a spread of podcasts I think – between them – should appeal to a large range of gamers.

As an ignorant Englishman that only speaks his native tongue, these are all in English. I also find them all well produced and at least reasonably well edited, and none of them are advert heavy. I’ve marked the ones I consider could cause offence (but none are that bad). And as always, I’m sure you’ll have your own recommendations: I’ll list a few obvious exceptions at the end, and there are more I no longer listen to on the links above, but please suggest others I may have missed.

My Top 10 gaming podcasts

General gaming

  • The Dice Tower
    Probably the most popular board game podcast, The Dice Tower now heads its own mini empire of podcasts and video content. Its level of output is second to none, with only the Board Game Geek website beating it in terms of new release coverage. This weekly podcast itself has four hosts on rotation, two male and two female, and each hour-long episode starts with talking about what they’ve recently played before moving onto a topic. Topics are often top 10 lists, but can include everything from live shows from cons to listener questions and topic discussions. Unfortunately one of the four presenters is a good few levels lower than the others in terms of quality, so I find myself skipping some episodes, but its definitely a great place to start your exploration.
  • The Game Pit
    The UK’s leading gaming podcast and part of the Dice Tower Network, The Game Pit hosts Sean and Ronan give a refreshingly British spin to the world of board games. While a little more random in terms of release schedule, with more than 100 episodes under their belts they’re clearly here to stay. The long shows (usually two-plus hours) are purely topic driven, with regular features including Treasure Hunt (listing upcoming games and saying if they think they’ll be traps or treasures); Picking Over the Bones (lots of mini reviews of games) and Battle Reports (convention talk, often from during the con itself). Their family level banter (the guys are cousins) make it stand out, while regular guest spots from everyone from their kids/spouses to gaming friends (including me…) keep things fresh.
  • Cube Love
    Who hasn’t thought about just sitting down with your best mate and shooting the breeze while recording it and putting it out as a podcast? (Just me then?) But you get the feeling that’s what co-hosts Mark and Nathan decided – and I’m glad they did. The show can be random and rambling, and the quality is hit and miss, but overall I love the honesty and the banter – and they’re clearly very experienced gamers. It’s also irregular at best, with roughly one per month landing (if you’re lucky), but it does tend to weight in at two hours per podcast. Episodes are always split into sections, but these are hugely varied – from con reports or long reviews to discussions on anything from a designer to a mechanism to a gamer quirk – or one of them picking on the other about something. (Warning: A little sweary)
  • Board Games to Go
    The original, and for me still the best board game podcast. Hosted by Mark Johnson, it has been going since 2005 and is regularly quoted by many (including The Dice Tower) as being the inspiration behind starting their own shows. The majority of episodes used to be Mark on his own, but more often than not he now has guests helping him out (again, including me…). Mark’s tastes lean more towards family games, but euros do get some coverage. Episodes tend to come in under the hour and are thoughtful conversations or thoughts on topics including award speculation and convention play reports, ranging through to one-off topics on all kinds of things gaming related. For me, it’s the ‘up all night’ quiet time podcast in a see of louder, brasher offerings – and is all the better for it.
  • Mile High Game Guys
    This is another show you can describe as ‘just some friends having a laugh’ – and be warned: it can be quite a while before they remember they’re a gaming podcast and stop talking about sport, or some other random topics. But the banter is fun to listen to and they’re clearly knowledgeable about gaming in general. You can expect two shows each week, with a random/what we’ve been playing show followed later in the week by a more in-depth review or topic. Shows run long (usually two hours-ish) and if I have one criticism the three co-hosts can often repeat each other’s points. But generally it’s an interesting listen from three guys who have differing tastes in games, covering everything from light to heavier board and card games. (Warning: A little sweary)

Heavier gaming

  • Heavy Cardboard
    Host Edward, and previous co-hosts Tony and Amanda, have been building an amazing heavy gamer community since the podcast began in 2014. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, with the hosts always wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but the real focus has always been on heavy, heavy games. If you want to learn about games in the 3+ on the BGG weight scale, this is the place for you. Shows usually cover games on their radar, followed by an in-depth review of a game – but you’ll also find con reports and interviews with notable designers of heavier games. They also do their own heavy game award each year, arrange meet-ups at cons and even have a world map of heavy gamers. This is a proper community (‘The Herd’) and all the better for it.
  • So Very Wrong About Games
    There’s been a gap in the market for a new podcast concentrating on heavier games, and co-hosts Mike and Mark are doing a great job of filling it in. When I say heavy, I don’t mean heavy – for that, see the above entry. But these guys concentrate on games for those who have come through family and gateway games and are looking for the next step up in complexity. The hour-long bi-weekly episodes always include a ‘what we’ve played recently section (of all game weights) followed by a long-ish review and a topic. The reviews tend to lean towards sci-fi/fantasy games with lots of theme but also slightly meatier mechanics, such as Gaia Project or Mage Knight. But the approach is conversational and the guys come across as likeable and knowledgeable.

Comedy panel show gaming…

  • This Game is Broken
    Billed as ‘the comedy board game panel show’, this podcast does exactly what it says on the tin. Every fortnight, four panellists in two teams (and their host) tackle a series of daft challenges and questions based around board games: expect a great mix of genuine gamer knowledge and stupidity, from guessing the retail price of games to ad-libbing escaping from a game, Jumanji style: there’s even the occasional kazoo. Regular panellists include The Brothers Murph, while occasional guests (including Tony Boydell and Christina Aimerito) keep things fresh. No, not every skit is hilarious – but they hit way more often than missing and it’s great to have a board gaming podcast that’s breaking the familiar mould.

Game design podcasts

  • Ludology
    The original and best podcast about board game design, Ludology has been co-presented by Geoff Engelstein since 2011. I still miss original co-host Ryan Sturm, who was a great foil to Geoff for the first 100 episodes; and card game design legend Mike Fitzgerald who stepped in until episode 150. Since then, current co-host Gil Hova and Geoff seem to have moved more away from the science into their own design experiences which feels detrimental to the show’s original concept – but I guess it’s natural, as both now have plenty of games published (although nothing of note. If I hear “When I was designing The Networks blah blah blah” one more time…). That aside, it’s still the best place to genuinely get your game design brain thinking in new and interesting directions.
  • The Game Design Round Table
    A close rival to Ludology’s crown, the only real thing holding the Round Table back from being my favourite design podcast is its mix of computer and tabletop design. This can be fascinating, and many of the lessons learned can be applied to both camps in interesting ways; but it does mean some episodes feel totally irrelevant to me. That said, the great ones really do make you think. Regular co-host Dirk Knemeyer used to have the Gil Hova problem (see Ludology above) but has since become a fantastic pilot of the show; while regular co-hosts David Heron (Star Trek Timelines), Harrison Pink (Blizzard) and Rob Daviau (Hasbro, ‘Legacy’ games) lend some genuine design heft to proceedings.

Big podcast names that didn’t make the list

Rahdo Talks Through is the podcast from hugely popular Rahdo Runs Through presenter, erm, Rahdo. If you like Rahdo then you’ll like this. Personally, I don’t tend to agree with his opinions on games and tend to find he is overly popular about most titles: if you want to reduce the games you might want to find out about in a sea of mediocrity, this is not the podcast for you! That said, he’s clearly a nice guy and if you want a couple of hours of positivity every few weeks it could be for you.

The Secret Cabal Podcast is possibly the second most popular podcast behind The Dice Tower: I can’t stand it. It’s well produced but the depth of knowledge is frighteningly thin and they clearly don’t play each game very often. In truth, I’ve probably just listed the reasons why it’s so popular: a lack of depth in plays and being new-ish to the hobby means you’re going to find a massive audience right now, in a rapidly expanding hobby driven by the ‘cult of the new’ – especially in the US where they’re from.

The D6 Generation used to be on my list, and is still hugely popular, but there was just too much in episode that I didn’t care about. There’s a lot on here about miniatures gaming (such as Warhammer 40k) and RPGs, as well as non-tabletop gaming topics such as film and computer games – and the podcasts tend to go very long (often pushing towards three hours). There just wasn’t room in my listening schedule – but if your gaming tends to cover the whole spectrum, this could well be one for you.

Take the Kingdom: A four-sided game review

Take the Kingdom* is a 2-4 player filler card game that takes about 30 minutes to play. It had a limited self-published release in 2017 but is currently going through a small overhaul to iron out some production issues with the first version.

For me, it feels like it should be pitched squarely at the family market. Children as young as six will be able to grasp the game very quickly, and its length isn’t prohibitive to this age group – in fact, they’ll be able to learn more as they play.

Thematically, you each control a medieval kingdom and are trying to finish the game with the strongest lands, or defeat your opponents before the deck of cards runs out – whichever comes first. Be under no illusions – this is very much a take-that game, with as many attacking cards as there are defensive ones.

The game’s Kickstarter campaign is now live and runs until September 21, with a copy of the game available there for £19. You can also keep an eye on its Board Game Geek page for updates.

Teaching Take the Kingdom

Each player starts with several cards on the table: a fort and several land cards, representing their kingdom. You’ll also have a couple of random cards in hand, drawn from the main deck of cards.

On a turn, a player draws three cards into their hand (hand limit of six) and then plays up to three cards. Cards come in three flavours – defence, attack and action. Defence cards are mainly added to your lands to add strength to them (they’ll have a number from 1 to 5), while attack cards are played on your opponents’ lands to destroy those defences. Action cards do all kinds of things: everything from stealing opponents’ lands to blocking incoming attacks to taking an extra turn.

You have to destroy a land’s defences before you can destroy the land – and once all of a player’s land is gone, you can attack their fort’s defences before you destroy the fort. Once a player loses their fort, they’re out of the game. If the deck of cards runs out while more than one player remains, those left count the points on their remaining defensive cards – highest score wins.

The four sides

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

  • The father: A small box, light game with a sub one-hour play time will always get play time in our household. The game is easy to teach and quick to learn; while playing with two players limits some of the issues when playing a take-that style game with younger children. The theme and art capture the imagination and provide the hook needed to engage younger players. However, the game’s footprint can be surprisingly large; depending on the cards you draw it can expand rapidly.
  • The son (aged 6): This game is really interesting, having recently learned about different types of castles at school. The numbers on the cards are clear and the rules are easy to understand. Having two rounds to only play defence cards means you don’t find yourself immediately under attack. The more complicated elements [fortune and mercy cards] are not too difficult to understand and use in play. However, some of the more text heavy cards are still too much at this point; particularly the action cards which can counteract certain attacks. A wider use of iconography would have made this easier to understand.
  • The thinker: There isn’t much here for the more advanced gamer. Too much of the game is on rails, with there being a fair chance you’ll have no meaningful decisions to make on some of your turns. There’s also too much luck, with some cards simply being better than others: if you happen to draw the couple of +5 cards you’ve got a clear advantage on the other players. And connected to this, once you know the deck, the strategy becomes one-dimensional: save your own big cards and wait for the other big cards and deal with them, or bash whoever got the lucky draws. Not for me.
  • The dabbler: As a light filler game, this works. Everyone is quickly up to speed on the rules and the play is relatively quick, even with the most AP prone players at the table. Uncharacteristically for a take-that style game the attacking was fairly balanced, with people preferring to attack the player in the strongest position as opposed to eliminating players. The end game dragged slightly as players withheld cards on the off chance they could be used to repel attacks or gain last minute points. But a good starter game for an evening or ‘between games’ game.

Key observations

For me, Take the Kingdom is a light family or children’s game. For these games to work they need to be as simple as possible and give their players as much help as they can. This is a simple game, but it can do a little more in the help department.

There is currently an awful lot of text on the cards – almost all of which could be replaced with icons. As an example, “Used against structural defences. Remove all Hills, Walls, Moats and Battlements from a single Land or Fort card.” Half that text could be replaced with one icon. Similarly, every attack card says “cause 1 point of damage to an enemy fort, land or defence”. This is 100% superfluous and will simply put off the many players who don’t like ‘cards with words’ games. Making the cards simple is key to making this game appeal to its core audience.

Another concern when dealing with younger gamers is the way take-that elements work. Take the Kingdom very much allows for players to choose a target and pick on them mercilessly until they are defeated (which they will be). Some people will find this hilarious, some won’t do it all, but you really need to know your fellow players: played meanly, there really is nowhere to hide here, despite the opening few rounds allowing you to build up your defences (if you draw any – but that’s another point entirely…).

My final concern is outlying cards, and luck of the draw. Take the Kingdom’s strength lies in its simplicity, but you need to gauge your audience. An example is the game’s three penalty cards. The player who draws one cannot play a certain type of card that round (action, attack or defence, depending on the penalty). If one player draws all three, they’ll feel unfairly unlucky (and rightly so): and certain people don’t deal with that well. Another game would have said that, when one of these is drawn, it affects all players for that round for fairness. This is not one of those games.

Conclusion

While the designer ensures me gamers have loved Take the Kingdom, that certainly wasn’t the case with my friends – or with me.

While we liked its simplicity and stripped back nature, and everything clicks nicely in design terms, there aren’t many choices – and some cards (all randomly drawn) are too much better than others.

However, having given it to a friend (who helped out with chunks of this review – thanks Chris Fenton and family!) with a largely non-gaming wife and enthusiastic gamer son, it was nice to see it appreciated by a younger and less gamery audience. But even then, the text came back to haunt it. As sis understandable with smaller publishers, it seems the game hasn’t been tested with enough people who are part of the industry.

I’d recommend Take the Kingdom for families setting out on their journey into ‘proper’ games; and that would turn into a strong recommendation if the publisher sorts out the problem of having way too much text on cards that could easily be replaced with icons.

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