Board game Top 10: Two-player games

While there are thousands of board and card games that work well with two players, there’s often something a little bit special about games that specifically designed for two players to go head to head.

Below you’ll find my favourites, with a skew towards games for all: I’d be confident of teaching all but two these to pretty much anyone. Better still, almost all of them should cost you less than about £20.

Games are linked by the title where I’ve reviewed them elsewhere on the site – and pretty much all of them are easily found in stores and online. And, as always, if you have any questions or want more info – or have your own recommendations – just pop them in the ‘comments’ below.

(Gamers: I’ve avoided expandable card games completely, as well as miniatures games – and have only included one war game. I think the majority of people that might come looking for a post such as this will be relatively new to the hobby and be looking for the kind of game I’ve included here; but hopefully you’ll find something new to check out.)

The best two-player board and card games

10. Battle Line/Schotten Totten (1999)
20 minutes

Battle Line, from the master of abstract game design Reina Knizia, is a fantastic card game that’s been in print for almost 20 years. Essentially an area control game, the idea is to win either five of the nine areas – or three adjacent areas (picture nine flags across the centre of the table between the two players, with you each playing cards to your side of those flags).

Players take it in turns to play and then draw a card: either a numbered card (1-10 in six colours), or tactics card (they add complexity, but you can leave them out). To win a flag you need to have a three-card combo in front of it that beats your opponent – decided by a simple poker-style scoring system (runs, straights and flushes). You can even claim a flag early if you can prove – due to what has been played elsewhere – that your opponent can’t possibly beat it.

9. Blokus Duo/
Blokus To Go
 (2005)
15 minutes

This is a travel version of the popular board game Blokus from Mattel, with a smaller board and starting positions designed specifically for two players. It has many of the classic two-player abstract tropes: each player has an identical set of pieces, taking it in turns to place one, making it a totally even playing field – and you start with all pieces available, so there are no elements of luck involved. The game’s rules are simple enough for a six-year-old to grasp, but there’s plenty of tactical depth there for seasoned gamers too.

See also: Hive (a hugely popular Chess-like abstract game) and Little Big Fish (a draughts-style game with added bells and whistles, including a modular board and some board spaces that set off random effects).

8. Twilight Struggle (2005)
120-180 minutes

I’ve deliberately steered clear of war games on this list, as they’re an entire genre to themselves – but no game has done more to straddle the divide between war and board games than Twilight Struggle. The number one game on Board Game Geek for several years (and still number four at the time of writing), the game emulates the battle for political influence across the globe between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War. It’s a card-driven game, with each card depicting an actual historic event – and each allowing players to manipulate the influence its superpower has over a country or countries. It’s a truly epic experience, and takes some plays to get your head around, but is well worth the effort.

See also: Wir Sind das Volk! (a similar style game set in the aftermath of World War II, with East and West Germany in a battle to make its citizens the happiest). 

7. Lost Cities (1999)
30 minutes

The second Reina Knizia abstract on the list, Lost Cities shares several traits with Battle Line above: players face off on opposite sides placing cards either side of (this time five) central areas. This time there are five colours with numbers 1-10 in each, plus several extra cards in each colour that can multiply your score in it. The trick is you must play these multipliers before you play any number cards of the colour (so it’s often a gamble) – and you can only ever play a higher number of a colour than you’ve already played. You won’t score positively in a colour unless your cards add up to at least 20 – and negatives also multiply. You have a play a card every round – either discarded or to your area – and both players tend to end up feeling the game has got something against them. It’s very clever indeed, but incredibly simple in terms of rules.

6. Caverna: Cave vs Cave (2017)
30 minutes

While a bit more of a gamer’s game, Caverna: Cave vs Cave does a great job of simplifying and distilling designer Uwe Rosenberg’s classic euro game Caverna into a small box experience. Players collect resources (six types) by taking actions, with the aim of using them to furnish their caves with new rooms – that will in turn either score them points or make their gathering and other actions more efficient. Despite a relatively small amount of components there’s plenty of variety and denial can be an important part of play, so it isn’t just a ‘do your own thing’ game.

See also: Rosenberg has given the same treatment to two of his other euro games. Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small is the most popular, distilling Agricola down to animal collection; but Le Havre: Inland Port is a clever but ultimately uninspiring resource management game owing little to its predecessor. 

5. Hanamikoji (2013)
15 minutes

This clever and quick little card game has just 28 cards and 15 cardboard tokens – but packs a lot of game into a very small package. Much as in Lost Cities above, both players will find themselves making agonising decisions – but here it feels as if every one, even the first, is like this each round.

On each round you’ll both play the exact same four actions, but the order in which you do them and how they affect the cards in play is always changing. Again you’re trying to win control in the majority of seven areas in which you can play cards, but some hidden information spices things up – along with the fact you know all but one card is placed in every round (but you won’t know the missing card). A game can be over in as little as five minutes, a single round, but it always feels like you’ve strained your brain in the process.

4. Targi (2012)
60 minutes

While a little longer and slightly more complex than most games on this list, I still feel confident I could teach Targi to most non-gamers. It involves laying cards in a 5×5 grid before players take it in turns to claim a column or row (until they’ve claimed three different ones each). You place your three pieces on edge cards, but also claim the two central spots where your rows/column intersect (for a possible five spaces each). These cards then give you resources, or let you spend resources to buy cards that then go in front of you and give you either an ongoing or immediate bonus – as well as end game points. It clever combines set collection, worker placement and tableau building while adding that crucial competitive two-player edge to create a really great game.

3. The Rose King/
Rosenkonig
 (1992)
30 minutes

I started playing this one on Yucata back in 2011 and got my own copy in 2013; and it has been in my Top 50 games since I started writing one in 2014 – not bad for a 25 year-old abstract game. Played on a 9×9 grid, players take it in turns to either play or draw a card – placing a stone in their colour on the board if they play a card. Each player has a maximum of five cards, but they’re left face up on the table at all times – so while the draw is random, all information is open. Each card allows you to move a specific number of spaces (1-3) in a specific direction, but you can’t land on your own pieces – and only have four times may you land on your opponents piece, flipping it to our colour.  Points are gained for large connected areas of your colour and despite its simplicity it plays out in a really unique way.

2. Adios Calavera (2017)
20 minutes

I seem to have been talking about this game a lot since its release, with little to no success in raising its profile, but hey – I think there’s a little life in this flogged horse yet! What is, in essence, a simple rush across a 9×9 grid for your eight playing pieces is made unique by one of your going north-south and the other east-west. The amount a piece can move is dictated by how many pieces there are in its row – but of course, one player’s tow is the other’s column – so you need to think about the strength of movement you’re giving your opponent as well as yourself. Add in eight different special powers for the pieces, and several variants of how many to use them, and you also have huge replayability. It also looks great – so what are you waiting for?!

1. Patchwork (2014)
20 minutes

It was a close thing between my top three, and to be honest I think they’re all about even in terms of quality; but it is the proven crossover appeal of Patchwork that has put it to the top of my list.

Just outside the Top 50 on Board Game Geek, it has been a massive hit with gamers – but the gorgeous patchwork artwork on the cardboard pieces makes it a real head turner – and a game that’s very easy to get non-gamers to take a look at; especially spouses. Unfortunately, outside mainline Europe, board gaming is still seen as nerdy and blokey in many places – so it is always great to see a game taking a punt on an unusual and female dominated theme and making it work. Better still, it’s a brilliantly mean spatial puzzle of a game with a small rules overhead but loads of depth.

Honourable mentions

There are a couple of two-player games that used to be firm favourites, but have since left my collection. Jaipur  is a fun little game I’d happily recommend to new gamers, and that is hugely popular – but personally I got a little tired of it over time, as it seemed the game came down to luck in more plays than I was happy with. It was similar with Jambo, which was enjoyable until being blown out of the water for me when Targi came along.

I also feel I’ll get told off by someone if I don’t at least mention 7 Wonders Duel: a massive hit that is in the Top 10 games of all time on Board Game Geek at the time of writing. The scoring mechanisms have a strong resemblance to its sister game 7 Wonders, as you use cards to claim other cards as you strive for end game points – but the mechanism of the game underwhelmed me and it felt as if a lot of games ended up being a little ‘on rails’, out of your control. But other opinions are obviously available – it has been a huge and popular seller.

Con report: ColCon 2018, near Colchester

Having just gotten back from the first running of the UK’s newest board game convention, ColCon, what better time to give it a bit of a write up; especially as it looks like it will become a regular fixture on the gaming con calendar.

My biggest takeaway was that, despite being very small (they didn’t have that long to promote it, from conception to event), it got all the most important thing right. So if you’re looking to plan your own convention – or wondering whether to come along to this one next year – hopefully this will stear you in the right direction.

I’d never heard of Marks Tey, a small village outside of Colchester – but the important thing is that its easy to get to either by train (the station is a 10-minute walk from the hotel and less than an hour to London) or car (its right on the A12). We rocked up Friday afternoon and checked straight in.

The venue

The Marks Tey Hotel is a Best Western, putting it firmly in the ‘better than a Travelodge’ category. And the organisers had worked out a price deal on a room that was a genuine bargain (£65 a double for two people, including brekkie).

I’ve been to cons before where the deal is no better than promos you’d find on hotel comparison sites – while the larger cons pretty much leave you to fend for yourself, with local prices rising as the event gains traction over the years. The place was a little tired, but the bed was comfy: sold.

Apart from the large (air conditioned when needed) room we were playing in, the hotel had loads of other areas (large and small) to expand into if we needed them – plus two bars, a restaurant, bar food. The food was pretty good too; standard hotel prices, but filling and tasty – as was the full buffet breakfast.

There’s even a spa on site (steam room, sauna etc), plus a 15m pool and gym; even a tennis court. Did I use any of them? Of course not – I was too busy losing at games in a darkened room. But it’s nice to have the option – especially if you have a partner, children etc who want a little more to do.

The con

Like most smaller conventions, ColCon had a very friendly vibe. You got a name badge as you came in and there was a small but interesting game library on hand – although most people brought huge bags full of their own favourites with them.

It was great to see a dedicated designer playtest area set up, with several playtest demos set up all weekend – as well as an upcoming Kickstarter title SSO (a narrative sci-fi game) you could try out. There were also a couple of small tournaments you could sign up for (Codenames and Terraforming Mars), but you got the feeling you’d have been welcome to try something yourself if you were so inclined.

Alongside the games library (probably about 50 titles) there was retailer Xtreme Trades on hand, as well as a ‘bring and buy’ area for anyone trying to sell some of their unloved games. There were the obligatory ‘looking for players’ signs to pop on the table if you were – you guessed it – looking for more players; and you could get food brought to your table from a reduced-price menu. For £25 for the weekend (Friday to Sunday) you certainly couldn’t complain.

Other important things: As well as Guinness on tap (a proper tap – not one of those shaky can thingies), the organisers had arranged for five (!) different real ales to be delivered from the local Colchester Brewery. Unfortunately one of them wasn’t their magnificent Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Porter, but there was another nice porter amongst them (until it ran out early on Saturday – can’t think why…).

The games

As usual I seemed to spend as much timer faffing, drinking, talking and eating as I did playing games, but that suits me fine. I did manage 10 plays (despite no early starts or late nights – getting old!), with the only game I had to learn from scratch being a prototype.

I played four medium weight euros with old friends Keef and Clare: Yokohama, Deus, Transatlantic and Caverna. I started brilliantly in Caverna, but as always started to fade as the decision tree grew beyond my tiny mind – but managed to hang on for a share of the win. I also put in a decent display in Yokohama, coming a close-ish second, but I need to master the game’s arc. Again, I felt like I was motoring only to fizzle out toward the end.

This was our first play of Deus with the Egypt expansion – and perhaps stupidly we used all the new cards at once. This led to an awful lot of reading between turns, and not really having a clue what synergies might be on offer, but the consensus was that while really changing the game’s feel it kept all the things we liked about the original intact: a big win. Transatlantic was a little less well received, but more of that in my next four-sided review (next week).

Sarah joined us on and off through the weekend, which gave us the perfect opportunity to rest our addled brains with three lighter favourites: Ticket to Ride, Africana and Thurn and Taxis.

It was a first play of the Legendary Asia map for Keef and Clare, but it didn’t stop them coming first and second. It was the same in Africana – mainly because it is such a different game with four than with two. By the time Sarah and I had adapted our play, we were already dead and buried! At least I won Thurn and Taxis…

The prototype I got to play was The Seven Dwarves: a Kingsburg-style dice placement game. As the dice roll/placement system is currently identical to Kingsburg, it may be one publishers turn their noses up at: but the goals have a simpler set collection/recipe completion feel, making it a faster but equally satisfying experience. It needs some work but showed potential. Finally, Sarah and me had a couple of games of the cruelly overlooked Adios Calavera: now our go-to two-player game.

The end

I had a really nice time at ColCon. Staff and gamers were friendly, the facilities were excellent and prices reasonable: what more could you ask for? I expect the organisers will be a little disappointed with the attendance on the Friday and Sunday, but there must have been 50-100 there on Saturday – a sure sign of what is possible in future. I’m certainly hopefully of attending again next year. As long as there’s more porter…

As well as the link to its website above, you can also stay up to date with future events by following ColCon on Facebook.

Terraforming Mars: A four-sided game review

Terraforming Mars is a tableau-building, engine building card and board game for one to five players. While a solo game can be done in an hour, more will mean two to three hours (so if you want to play with five people, you’re in for the long haul).

The 12+ age rating is justified, as there is a lot of symbology and writing on the cards and it has a long play time – but the mechanisms are pretty straightforward (no more than medium gamer complexity).

And yes, the theme is in the title. Each player will be managing a corporation hoping to make its name by most successfully completing terraforming projects on Mars. I think the theme comes through well, as designer Jacob Fryxelius has clearly gone the whole nine in making the cards make thematic sense – and has managed to do so without a dice or a plastic miniature in sight.

The component quality is open to debate. The board is clear and functional, the 400 plastic cubes and 80 cardboard tiles perfectly serviceable, and the player boards super thin but functional (for the majority of players). But the 230+ cards leave a little to be desired in quality, and the art is a strange mishmash of drawings and photographs. Personally I find this strangely endearing, but I understand it’s a problem for some so you may want to take a close look at an opened copy if that sounds like you.

Teaching Terraforming Mars

For a group of new players the game can be daunting, but once up and running it’s surprisingly fluid and simple. You only need one experienced player to make things run super smoothly, and even if you don’t have that luxury a group of gamers will easily be up and running by the middle of their first game.

Between you, players will be collectively (but competitively) increasing the temperature (creating heat), oxygen level (largely through placing vegetation tiles) and sea level (ocean tiles) to make the planet habitable. Each time you increase one of these you’ll improve your ‘terraforming rating’ – which is a good thing, as it equates to both your income each turn and also the starting base of your endgame score. Once all three have been raised sufficiently, the game will end.

The majority of actions you’ll take in the game will be via playing cards from your hand. Each turn players will be dealt four new cards, which they then decide if they wish to hang on to: each will cost you three money to keep, with the rest simply discarded. As this is done simultaneously, it’s not really a chore. Players then play cards (or take other actions) in turn until everyone has passed, which triggers the next round.

Cards give you an immediate benefit, an ongoing one, or both. Many give you ways to increase your ability to create plants or heat (raising your terraforming rating), while others help raise your income (opening up the ability to play better cards, as well as having more flexibility in playing basic actions).

All the important actions can be done simply by paying for them, but this is always less efficient than card play – it just means you can do it when you like, if you can afford it. But the game has many subplots running alongside the main goal.

There are cards that give end game victory points, awards for finishing certain goals first, plus awards for being the best at certain things at the end of the game. While many of the better cards need certain conditions to be met before they can be played: you may need to have played a certain amount of cards with a specific symbol into your tableau, or need the game to have reached (or not passed) a certain point to be valid – for example, the temperature may need to have reached a certain level.

While the game has a variable end time, all paths lead to Rome: most things you do are pushing the game towards its conclusion, so games tend to last a similar amount of turns and ramp-up significantly, and satisfyingly, as the game reaches its climax. But multiple paths to victory and different starting corporation powers for each player means every game feels significantly different.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The three paths needing to be completed in Terraforming Mars make each game a very different tactical battle. You only want to spend enough to make hay until a path maxes out, as every penny spent could be used elsewhere. Another nice tactical element is the simple addition of being allowed to play one action, or two, on each of your turns. This can equal extra considerations in several situations, such as trying to stay in a round to see what opportunities – or taking a double turn to secure some a bonus.
  • The thinker: While this is clearly a well-designed game deserving of praise, it’s not going to appeal to all strategic players. The 200+ unique cards and multiple strategies mean luck of the draw can very much damage your chances: not idea in a game that can last several hours. Some have turned to drafting to get around this, but for me it is not an adequate solution. It merely moves the luck, rather than solving the issue, while bringing in a player’s seating position as an additional issue (sitting left of a hate drafter, or a player keeping the best cards for them), will make a big difference). I certainly wouldn’t play with more than three players.
  • The trasher: Terraforming Mars is a winner for me despite its length. Interaction is limited to a little board placement and a few minor ‘take that’ cards, but I love having to deal with the random draw. Other great elements include trying to eke out any possible advantage to win an award at the end of the game, to beating your opponents to a bonus through a smart double action. I also like the fact your engine can be evolving radically right up until the final turn, allowing a smart (and lucky) player to really play the table and roll with the punches.
  • The dabbler: When I first look at the massive deck in this game I was tempted to run to the hills – so many different ‘cards with words’! But after a few turns things start to make sense and the theme just works. The symbology is simple after a while and if a card looked a bit much I simply discarded it lol. While all the cards may be different, they’re essentially different ways to do the same core set of things – most of which work in a straightforward way: when you get enough of A, you can do B. Sure, pretty much everything could’ve been prettier (except the ‘Pets’ card!) but in a complex game I’ll take function over form this time.

Solo play

Not that I have a load of experience with them, but Terraforming Mars has quickly become my favourite solo board game experience. The game plays in exactly the same way as usual, meaning you don’t have to deal with ham-fisted solo mechanisms – while the massive unique card deck and multiple starting corporations are already enough to make every game unique.

The big challenge the solo game offers is trying to get all three of the paths completed in a very limited amount of turns. At first this seems impossible, but the speed at which you can get things done really ramps up as the game goes on – making for a great narrative arc. Also the fact you have to do everything makes a nice change of pace from the competitive game, where you’re jockeying with your opponents and able to ignore certain parts of the game.

Key observations

While Terraforming Mars has proven hugely popular since its release, it certainly isn’t for everyone. And two (often linked) problems more often than not rise to the surface. First is the luck inherent in the random card draws – second is game length.

For some, the card choices are obvious each round – if you have any good choices at all. I would argue this tends to balance out over a game, as you’re seeing a lot of cards, but sure: some players are going to come out of this process better than others.

When you combine this with the game’s length, especially at higher player counts, it’s no surprise more strategic players get frustrated fast. Downtime can feel interminable with five players, even for a fan such as me; especially as very little your opponents do on a turn is likely to change your plans. You’re just waiting for your next turn. This doesn’t seem to be an issue in my groups, as one negates the other: easy decisions means fast turns, while the slow bit (deciding what to keep) is done simultaneously. But I can see this being a nightmare with new, slow, AP prone players.

While I had no big problems with the rulebook, it has been flagged up as problematic for some players. When you combine that with some component issues, it’s easy to understand why some also grit their teeth at the game’s relatively high price point. Again, I have some sympathy with this – and if you’re in any doubt, try the game before you buy where possible. Personally, there’s nothing in the box component wise that really bothered me – and its high replay value means I’m happy with my purchase.

Conclusion

A point I’ve read several times is, instead of playing this why not just play Race for the Galaxy four times instead? But for me, the two games really complement each other.

I love Race, and it’s still my favourite game, but Terraforming Mars is high in my top 10 game list. It scratches a similar itch, but it’s more than just ‘Race with a board’. You not only get to build an engine, but you also get to use it and really see it purr – where in Race the game ends just when things start to get interesting. It’s nice to have this as a slower alternative.

I wouldn’t defend or recommend the game to a strategist, as it is unlikely to appeal (unless they’re an absolute Mars nut). Nor will I defend the price point, although I understand the high initial cost of having to pay for all the art (as amateurish as much of it may look). And I’d really rather not play it with four or five players. But on my own or with a couple of friends, this is currently one of my favourite gaming experiences – and that is with my plays already well into double figures (and a couple of expansions available to me if the sheen starts to come off).

A board game designing diary: Pioneer Days

Some game designs come together easy – while others certainly do not. For every back-of-a-cigarette-packet mechanism that just goes from theory to ironing out the details, there are many, many more that are years in the making.

Rather fittingly, I guess, Pioneer Days – a game about the long, hard struggle of winning out against adversity – falls into the latter category.

Fact junkies: Add 200 years to the dates for a more accurate reading… (and much love to co-designer Matt Dunstan, who also wrote the original draft of this diary).

December 1813

We first set out, from Australia and England, on a journey quite unlike the one that would shape out fate: to design a game about dwarves brewing beer. But as with so many grand designs, our plans were dashed on the rocks and the expedition was a failure. Over complexity, and ideas that didn’t quite hang together, saw us walk away from yet another promising adventure.

But those initial dreams did bear some fruit: a crumb of an idea in which dice were rolled but, no matter whether they were 6s or 1s, you’d have an advantage of one kind or another. Here, we had individuals rolling their own three dice then using them to draft cards, each representing a worker dwarf: low rolls would get the first choices of cards, but higher rolls would use the cards they drafted more effectively. I still hold some hope for the idea, but at the time it had too many issues. Hate drafting was rife on low numbers, choices limited on high ones, and all round it was unsatisfying.

March 1814

Undeterred by our earlier failure, we set out with a new destination in mind. America! Matt had a plan: three cards per player will still be drafted with their dice (lowest first), but the cards will have a number of profession symbols (traveller, miner, farmer etc) on them.

The dice now only give a one-time bonus to the players, with the highest collection of each profession giving that player a bonus for the round; meaning the drafting was also about long-term strategy with the professions, rather than just short term tactical play.

Actions saw players move caravans across the plains; mine the hills; build in new territories; fight off hostiles, and of course feed their hardy pioneers. But something still wasn’t right. While we were now firmly on dry land and resolved to discover a new destiny, the dice mechanism still didn’t sit well with us. Low rollers were still denying others of the actions they want and the compensation for the high numbers wasn’t strong enough. Are we simply doomed to repeat our earlier failures?

May 1814

A breakthrough! Dysentery and terrible weather had laid us low, but the skies cleared and we could clearly make out the way ahead. Rather than different coloured dice for each player, the dice colours will represent disasters that may befall all our pioneers – and will be rolled from a bag each round. Players will draw one more dice than there are players, and draft one each – with the one leftover moving that disaster one step closer to befalling those brave souls. Colours represent illness (medicine required!), raids (there goes your money!), heat (your cattle will suffer) and terrain (say b-bye to your wagons – which were holding all your stuff!) – with the dreaded black dice seeing all four disasters moving ever closer.

The game has five turns, with each player taking five dice each turn, for a total of 25 actions in the game. Each can be used either for money (where high is better – and can be spent on wagons, specialist workers etc); or for an action (with better actions tied to lower numbers). And as an added twist, your final set of five collected dice will create a Yahtzee/poker style ‘hand’ which will give bonuses at the end of the round. We feel confident in our new-found mechanism – but will it just be another false dawn?

August 1814

We spent the previous few months on the trail with a more singular purpose and it finally bore fruit! The answer wasn’t poker, it was people! While we fine-tuned the mechanical side of the game we realised what it really needed was the personalities that made the original idea so compelling – the people (now pioneers) themselves.

These hardy folk have added a whole host of interesting abilities into the mix, adding more interaction between players and making the base actions far more varied and complex. But as well as adding colour, these pioneers have brought two levels of mechanical progression that have sealed the game’s structure.

The poker idea has gone. Instead, your pioneers offer a third (neutral, in terms of number rolled) option when choosing what to do with a dice: each number now has a person randomly drawn next to it each round, who you can add to your wagon train with that roll. And better still they each have a way of scoring end game points, helping you choose a particular path to follow. If you can keep them alive to the end of the trail…

January 1815

An investor! Our very own Oregon Trail seems to have ended, in fact, in Utah – via Essen, Germany. Back in October we met with a character named Seth Jaffee who represented a company called Tasty Minstrel Games: a publisher we trusted to do the right thing by us and our game, then called Frontiers. He took the game away to show it to his partners – and low and behold, we have ourselves a deal! The game we gave them back then was rough around the edges, but mechanically sound – and we’ve spend the last few months going back and forth with them smoothing the edges.

The difference between publishers is astonishing. Sometimes you can hand a game over and out it pops into the shops a year later with nary a detail changed; while with others you can be all but cut out of the development process. But if we thought we’d be able to hang out spurs up and relax this time, we were in for a shock! We’re consulting every step of the way, with not a week going by without discussions of a particular pioneer’s ability, or the relative strength of a particular action. It’s a long process, but worth every second – because each week, you know the game is getting better.

June 1815

While the trail is long and winding, and we often feel the end is in sight only to find another fork in the path, we continue to persevere. I was worried we may be taking too many rough edges away: this is the Wild West, after all.

But in hindsight I can see the wisdom behind Seth removing some of the more trouble-making townsfolk. Who knows, maybe they can return one day? Elsewhere, wagons now take damage rather than being destroyed by storms – meaning you won’t lose as many valuable resources!

As fun as some of them were, some ‘take that’ elements are just a little too crass for this style of euro game: especially when the key focus should really be on the disaster track. You should be worrying if bandits will take your gold if you let a disaster happen, rather than another player sniping it from you. If I’ve learned one thing from all the game design blogs I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listen to, it’s this: find where the game is. For us it is on the disaster board, and the tension that it brings – that shouldn’t be upstaged.

December 1816

The end of the trail cannot be far away now! Many months of further small iterations have seen us create themed decks of townsfolk, while working on individual player board abilities. The game is now called Pioneer Days, and artist Sergi Marcet has been brought on board to bring the game to life. He’s done an amazing job, even bringing some of our family members and play-testers to life on some of the townsfolk cards. You may even recognise a few of our fellow Cambridge, UK-based designers.

The different decks of townsfolk really help make each game feel different, as you can mix and match; some add a bit of randomness, others interactivity etc. The varied player board characters encourage different types of play style. You get two to choose from at the start of the game, but each also has a standard pioneer on the back (always a solid choice), so you can still opt for a balanced game if that’s what floats your boat.

October 2017

A limited supply of copies arrived at Essen Speil via aeroplane. Opening the first copy to find a beautiful game – but no dice – was a little terrifying! Especially as we opening the next, and the next to find the same thing… But a few phone calls later and we knew (prayed) they’d arrive the next day. They did – and the limited copies soon sold out, leaving us waiting on the rest to arrive by boat – perhaps even in time for Christmas?

***********

But once again, in a fitting nod to those hardy pioneers of old, transportation of the game across the seas hit rough waters. But despite what clearly must have been a succession of black-dice-level disasters, we never lost hope – and in Spring of 2018 Pioneer Days finally completed its troubled journey to the USA. We hope you like it!

Exploriana: A four-sided game review

Exploriana is a push-your-luck and set collection gateway level game for two to five players (I’d say three to five – see below) that usually plays out in around an hour.

The box states 10+ for the age range and that feels about right. While the game has very familiar mechanisms for gamers, there is quite a lot going on throughout.

The game is not yet published, but can be backed on Kickstarter now from £30 (which I think is great value). If you want to be kept up to date on its progress, and the Kickstarter launch, you can sign up for updates on the official Exploriana website.

While not a particularly thematic game, the central tenets of exploration and discovery, risk and reward, do shine though in the gameplay. As intrepid 19th Century explorers the players will be heading off to South America, Africa and the Far East to unearth ancient civilisations and exotic animals (gather cards for victory points): anyone familiar with games such as Archaeology and Thebes will find themselves in familiar territory.

The version I received was pre-production, as it is due on Kickstarter soon. But I hope they keep the gorgeous card art, which has a unique and compelling style. I also presume the component list won’t change much: central board (plus five player sheets), around 80 cards, 40 or so counters and some currency (I had cardboard coins). I have no idea about pricing options, but this is a medium sized game (the prototype was in a Carcassonne-sized box, which I see no reason to change).

Teaching

Prototype image

Exploriana is a super simple game to teach gamers, as everything you do feels completely familiar. And it works through three very distinct (yet simple) phases, so with less experienced players you can easily walk through one round of these to familiarise everyone, then rewind and start playing properly.

The game is played over several rounds (the amount varies on player count and potentially end-game conditions), each of which plays out in the same way: item auction, worker placement, exploration. The auction lets you gain equipment (for one-shot benefits and to bolster end-game scoring); worker placement sees you choosing which of the three areas you want to explore; then exploration sees you pushing your luck (or not) to collect cards from those areas – either for victory points, money (auction funds) or renown (for turn order and some end game scoring).

The auction couldn’t be much simpler, or much quicker. In turn order, players choose one of the available pieces of equipment (2-4 are made available each round) and put it up for auction by making a one-time bid for it. Each other player (in clockwise order) then either drops out or raises the bid until you’ve been around the table – and the winner takes the item. This clearly puts the opening bidder at a disadvantage (unless they have the most money), but of course they can choose an item they don’t want to be in better position later for the ones they do. Unlike a game such as Power Grid, there’s no limit to the number of auctions you can win – so going heavily for cash (over victory points) in early explorations to get lots of items is a legitimate strategy.

Prototype image

Each player has two workers (or thematically, explorers). The board has three areas depicting the three continents you can explore. Each area has space for 3-4 explorers (again, dependent on player count) which are placed, one each at a time, in turn order.

This is a very quick phase, but not without its interesting decisions. Being first into an area is only going to be good if what you want is already on show, or if the path forward is looking fairly risk free (see below) – while following a player who is taking a different path to victory than you could be equally beneficial.

Exploring is done from the top worker on the board to the bottom. There will always be at least two cards in an area when your explorer starts his turn, although there could be up to four. The active explorer has four choices: flip over a new card (if there is less than five on view), hire a helper (once per explorer), use a piece of their equipment, or stop exploring and cash out. If you cash out, you get your choice of one prize (normally one card) from that area – unless you have managed to turn over five cards in the area, which allows you two picks. Double the prize is clearly a strong incentive to keep pushing; but fail and you’ll get nothing.

So how do you fail? Each card in the exploration deck has a good chance of having one of three symbols on it, representing a disaster that may befall your intrepid explorers. If the flipped cards in your area ever have either one of each symbol, or three of the same ones, its curtains for you (you do get some coin back for your trouble). The three areas have increasingly higher chances of including those symbols on their cards, but – you guessed it – also have more valuable rewards. The rewards themselves are your bog-standard selection of set collection style scoring systems, while some give immediate boosts to your renown or cash pile. If a deck of cards for an area runs out, the game ends prematurely. Either way, the player with the most victory points will be the winner.

The four sides

Prototype image

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

  • The writer: In an age where a ridiculous number of games are released each year, it’s hard to get behind an elegant game which brings nothing new to the table. That said, there’s always a place for games that put existing mechanisms together in a satisfying way – and Exploriana does just that. The auction and worker placement are both satisfyingly interactive without any ‘take that’ or blind luck spoiling them; while the push your luck is just that – but with a bit of mitigation available to smooth the edges.
  • The thinker: There’s little here for the serious strategist, but the game doesn’t pretend otherwise. If a player simply flips cards and gets lucky, taking two prizes per turn but with no investment in mitigation, they’re likely to come out on top. But the game plays quickly and does exactly what it says on the tin, so no complaints from me. You can go for money and try to get items that help mitigate the luck – but frankly I’d rather just play something else.
  • The trasher: I rather enjoyed Exploriana. It’s fun trying to out-think your opponents in the auction, trying to work out what they’re holding their money back for; while good placement of your workers can make a real difference. And even if you think you’re losing, there’s nothing to stop you just going for it! There are different paths to victory to: go for money early to invest in items, stick straight for points, get turn order, or mix it up. All have their merits, making for a wealth of tactical decisions.
  • The dabbler: This game is right in my wheelhouse. The exploring theme works well with the push-your-luck idea, while the auction and card-flipping lend themselves perfectly to a bit of table talk. The different character sheets also add a little theme, while the card art is gorgeous (at least in the version we played). Add in the short-ish play time, simple set up and straightforward rules and you have yourself a winning formula for more casual gamers. And you get loot! Who doesn’t like loot?

Key observations

Weirdly, when I play Archaeology: The Card Game, I don’t feel the weight of our colonial past on my shoulders – but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a small but constant niggle here. It wouldn’t stop me playing, but I can see it putting some people off. The fact you’re so clearly taking treasures from places you shouldn’t reminds me of the Bugle Podcast gag: The British Museum is the biggest open crime scene on the planet.

As with so many 2-5 player games, that player count stretches reality a little – and this time, as in so many auction games, it’s the two-player version that suffers. It employs a clumsy mechanism in the worker placement phase that does its level best to imitate more player’s playing, but frankly – if you specifically want a two-player game, there are loads of good ones out there. Move along, nothing to see here.

Replayability is also a potential concern. I’ve enjoyed my five plays to date and am certainly not bored by any stretch, but I’d have liked a bit of variety squeezed into the box. This is very much a matter of opinion, as there’s a lot to be said for exact information in a bidding/push-your-luck game. But I’d have liked something: more items, perhaps another continent deck, individual player powers – take your pick.

Conclusion

I don’t often take games that are offered to me that are ‘coming soon on Kickstarter’, but with a long enough lead time to get a good number of plays in – and on reading the rules – I gave this one a punt. And I’m glad I did.

You can’t escape the fact Exploriana is purely a rearranging of the game design toolkit. Basic bidding, basic placement, and the ‘two picks for five cards’ push your luck element from Port Royal – job done. But you’d have to be pretty cynical not to be able to see past that when there’s a really solid execution underneath, as there is here.

I’ve had to pass this copy on to another reviewer, but when it (hopefully) comes out the other side of its Kickstarter adventure I plan on adding a copy to my collection of gateway games.

* I would like to thank Counters Out for providing a copy of the game for review.

Board game Top 10: AireCon highlights

This is a bit different from my usual top 10s, but seemed a good way to talk about what was a fabulous weekend away in Harrogate. So expect an eclectic mix below including everything from prototypes to people to pork pies…

It was my first visit to AireCon and only its second year in its new venue. But with dates already announced for next year (March 8-10, 2019) and a big bump in attendance numbers this year (which more than doubled to more than 1,500 unique attendees) it feels as if it’s here to stay. And I feel as if it is now one of the first things I’ll be adding to my 2019 calendar.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s…

My top 10 AireCon highlights

Monumental: Now on Kickstarter, designer Matthew Dunstan had a copy of his latest prototype with him. It’s a card-driven civ building euro that plays fast (60-90 mins), but you get a satisfying feel of progression throughout. You start with a couple of unique powers but through deck-building soon diversify more – and a clever system of activating a row and column from a 3×3 card grid offers strong replayability. The modular map has you bumping heads too, giving that proper civ feel.

Harrogate: As towns go, they don’t come much nicer. Despite being way oop north it’s an easy destination to reach by train – and once you’ve arrived, it’s very compact and pleasant to wander around. It’s got a lovely, oldie-worldy feel that reminds me of Edinburgh; lots of solid grey Victorian (that’s a guess) buildings and they’ve done well to keep the old town looking great. As it’s a big conference and tourist town, there’s also loads of variety in terms of hotels, bars and restaurants – including plenty of independent places. And better still, the prices are largely reasonable too. And better still, it’s only about a 20 minute walk to get out into the beautiful local countryside.

Yokohama: Despite years of practice, I’m still rubbish at picking out the best euro games from the huge annual list of Essen releases. This is another case in point: a game that passed me by in 2016 that, after two plays this year, I have totally fallen in love with. It has a similar modular board and route building mechanism to Istanbul, but there’s so much more complexity here. The theme and components add little, but the efficiency puzzle (as others players get in your way) is delicious. Add lots of ways to score, plus plenty of items to add variety, and you have a real winner for point salad fans such as myself.

Fine dining (beer, pie etc): Conventions of any kind can be a nightmare when it comes to the food and drink on offer, often leading to low quality and small portion sizes for a high price tag. AireCon fell down a little on variety, but what it did have was lovely. Both the small pork pie stand and craft beer stall had really nice offerings, while the pizza van also served up great pizza. Beyond a coffee/snacks stand there was only a typical burger van for variety – and anyone with food allergies was poorly catered for. But from a purely selfish (and unhealthy) perspective, the beer, pizza and pork pies were magic!

Mini Rails: One of the real arts of board game design is cutting through the excess nonsense to distil a game down to its pure essence – while retaining enough game to keep it fun. Admittedly this is after only one play, but Mini Rails seems to have nailed that concept. Buy stocks, build track, screw over the competition: this is a classic train stocks game in a small package that plays in under an hour, for three to five players. Mean, thinky and fun.

(Oh what an) atmosphere: What makes a good con atmosphere? Friends and/or friendly, happy people – check. Welcoming but unobtrusive staff/vendors who all actually seem to be enjoying themselves – check. Loads of space, for both walking around and gaming, meaning you never worry about finding somewhere to set up a game or having to push through crowds – check. Even at peak times on Saturday, there were always free tables in several areas, which makes such a difference. There was also an area set aside for quite gaming, one for RPGs, ones with a view of the outside world etc. All this was hugely conducive to having a stress-free weekend.

Pioneer Days: Despite 150 air-freighted copies of our latest release making it to Essen last year, Matt and me were yet to play hadn’t played the finished version together. But with the shipment having just arrived in the US this was a timely opportunity for us to have a game – and who better to teach it to than special con guest Mr ‘Watch It Played’ himself, Rodney Smith? Luckily he really enjoyed it (fingers crossed for a video in the not too distant future) and it was a good close game, with all within 10 points of each other. In a store new you soon folks…

The unexpected: While you make grand plans to play all kinds of games at a con, you invariably end up playing a bunch of things you didn’t expect to. Often they’re horrible dross that should be burned – but even the worst of my experiences here were OK. The best were Aquasphere (a Stefan Feld I’d been put off of by the gaudy artwork, is a solid puzzley euro); Nyet! (a trick-taking game with an interesting twist) and Dice Throne (the Yahtzee mechanic used to good effect in a fantasy combat game). All three games, while I won’t be seeking out for my collection, I’d be more than happy to play again.

Orleans: I don’t have much of a list of game I’m desperate to play, but Orleans was on that list: a game I’d earmarked to grab at Essen 2014 but that hadn’t quite made the cut – and that I’d tried and failed to play ever since. Having recently been a little underwhelmed by its successor Altiplano I had lowered my expectations – but as it turned out, I far preferred this bag-builder to its more recent companion. The fun is in the puzzle of trying to work out what your opponents are trying to do so you don’t get beaten to the punch, while creating a strong but lean selection of tiles (as in any deck-builder – the bag is purely a gimmick). It also looks good and plays smooth.

Zizzi: You know the stars are aligned when you’re wandering around feeling a bit hungry, spot an above average chain restaurant on the horizon, wander in – and they’ve  essentially creating the pizza you’d always wanted despite never having heard of it before. Pulled pork, fine – but crackling too? And sweet chilli jelly? Oh my…

AireCon misses

Of course it wasn’t all hearts and flowers – and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put at least a bit of a negative spin on proceedings. But I actually struggled to find bad things to say about my weekend.

The hotel I stayed in (The Crown) had a good breakfast and friendly staff, but it was really noisy and the pillows were crap – but nothing some ear plugs and my own pillow wouldn’t fix! There was also a gaming pub quiz on the first night which was kind of fun, but totally shambolic with several really stupid (and not in a good way) rounds. A good idea but poorly executed – and hopefully it’ll work next time.

And yes, those really were the low lights. As I wandered out of the convention centre late on Sunday afternoon, relieved to have booked an extra night so as not to have to leave early, I was powered by the warm glow of gaming goodness. Maybe in the morning I’d also have enough time for one last walk out into the Yorkshire countryside? Either way, a weekend well spent. See you next year!

Board gaming and anxiety: My pros and cons of cons

So this may surprise people, as anxiety isn’t something I’ve talked about openly before. I’d think most of my friends and acquaintances see me as an affable gobshite who tends to relish social situations as part of a never-ending crusade against growing up. But while some of that may be true, it just goes to show – there is often a bit more going on behind the curtain.

I chose to write about board game conventions because they have been a big part of my social life over the past few years. I’m at my second of the year this weekend (AireCon), and the fourth in as many months. But I find them a mess of contradictions in terms of anxiety issues, so I thought I’d give a bit of a breakdown of my experiences – including the goods and bads that work for me (I know this may be totally different for others).

I’d love to hear your comments and experiences too – and I plan to write some more posts (including a more general ‘why gaming is good for me’ one) on the topic, so all feedback/ideas etc welcome. That said, pressing ‘publish’ on this is proving ridiculously difficult, so we’ll see how that goes…

Staying on and off site

One of the beauties of a con such as LoBsterCon or SorCon is the fact you have a hotel room in the same building as the gaming area – and what takes LoBsterCon to the next level in the last couple of years is the fact everyone staying in the hotel is at the con (so no awkward “what are those weirdos doing” looks from other patrons).

The big plus for me is having somewhere close to escape to that’s totally your space – as well as knowing that if you forget anything etc, it’s just a few floors up in the lift. For this reason I often book an extra night after the con, because otherwise – once I’ve checked out – I can start to feel a bit trapped and edgy. If I don’t stay that extra night, chances are I’ll leave soon after check-out and miss a day of gaming. I also like to arrive an evening early where possible, to get settled in and to be mentally ready for day one.

But of course, this locale bonus also relies on the hotel being somewhere you want to stay. Taking UK Games Expo as an example, the benefits listed above were largely negated at the Hilton last year: ridiculous room prices, even worse bar prices and a steady stream of rude and incompetent staff negated pretty much all the pluses (good breakfast though, in fairness).

‘Gamers needed’ flags

This may seem like a pretty minor issue, but these things are an absolute godsend: they should be made con-pulsory (ho ho) as far as I’m concerned. For the uninitiated, these are little flags you can put on your table as you’re setting up a game to indicate that you’re looking for more players to join you.

Firstly, this is great when you look around a room (especially a larger one) to try and find a game. Just because someone is setting up doesn’t mean they’re looking for players, so it avoids potentially awkward situations and pointless, stilted conversations. Plus, it saves people having to walk around the room trying to find players – which again can lead to some super awkward conversations.

But the unexpected extra bonus for me is people don’t (well, less often at least) see an empty chair and decide to come and impose themselves on you. I really don’t care if the game goes to five players: I’ve sat down with two good friends I rarely see to play it while we have a nice chat and a catch up – I’m sure you’re a nice person, but adding you would totally change the dynamic, so no thank you.

100 people good, 1,000 people bad

This may sound odd, but I very much feel that – despite 100 people being a lot – I gravitate more towards smaller cons. Walking into a room with 100 people isn’t daunting for me: it’s not as if we’re going to have a Slaughtered Lamb moment where everyone stops talking and looks at me. But at the same time, you immediately take in a bunch of faces you know you’re likely to be seeing regularly over the next few days.

I like that sense of belonging that comes from a smaller, more recognisable group: it’s probably why I never have a problem walking into my local pub even though I have nothing in common with many of the people that drink there – but when I’m having a bad day, I can fail to turn up to a gig by a band I love because I can’t face walking into a venue full of thousands of probably like-minded strangers.

I’ve failed to book a hotel for UK Games Expo so far and I think (along with the price etc problems mentioned above) this is a big part of why. I don’t really want to go, despite the fact I do want to go. It’s too big for me, too impersonal, too shambolic (you can struggle to even find a table to play on at times in recent years) – but at the same time too enclosing and too in-your-face (especially in the vendor area).

 

So… why the hell do you like Essen?

Essen Spiel is unique. Over 100,000 gamers uncomfortably packed into a bunch of convention centre halls which have zero open gaming space – meaning everything there is geared towards selling you product. On top of that, unless you’re royalty you’re looking at a 15-60 minute walk – or a packed public transport cattle experience – to and from your hotel. Everything I hate, right?

Wrong. Unlike every horrible sales pitch infested expo you may have attended before, you rarely find any hard sell here (unless you find yourself in the most outlying hall where terrible games go to die). In fact, if you see a stall worker that isn’t occupied they’re more likely to try and avoid your eye than get it – they’re probably taking a quick five-second breather from the retail carnage.

Add this attitude to the virtual sea of seemingly millions of excited gamers and what I find myself experiencing is strange kind of peace: I’m with my people, immersed in the best my hobby has to offer, but absolutely no one is paying any attention to me. I can just bimble around people watching, game watching, researching, without a care in the world. Everything I want to see is there, but the level of interaction is in my control – something I find increasingly important nowadays.

Later, when you get back to your hotel, you’ll probably find 90+% of the residents are fellow gamers – and the hotel (which are all well used to Essen Spiel by now) will have a small con-sized gaming area full of those familiar faces I spoke about before: people you’ll be in the same space with on the evenings for the week. Weirdly, somehow, that all makes sense. What can I say? That’s just me.

The Dwarves – New Heroes: expansion review

The Dwarves is a fantasy co-op board game based on the Markus Heitz novel series of the same name, released in German in 2012 and English in 2016 (reviewed by me in 2015).

I’m a big fan of the base game, which does a great job of injecting the theme of the books through a storytelling narrative built around completing quests to advance the game. Better still it has an ingenious method of introducing enemy troops to the board that really ramps up during play, often resulting in a thrilling finale.

The small Combined Might expansion did a great job of mixing up the quest system by adding around 30 cards which really ramped-up the game’s replayability. This time, as you may have guessed from the games title, the idea was to up the number of playable characters from the base game’s original six.

What does New Heroes bring to the party?

The Dwarves: New Heroes expansion does exactly what it says on the tin – you’ll get six new character sheets with associated minis (doubling the six in the base game), plus a deck of spell cards (the only new rule) for one of them, Andokai. The other non-dwarves are the favourite travelling companions from the first book – Furgas, Rodario and Narmora – alongside Queen Xamtys II and the ‘true’ Tungdil.

An expansion dwarf (left) next to an original

Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the plastic miniatures are not at the same scale as those in the original game. How on earth do you make that mistake? Especially when the UK reprinting of the base game was made around the same time this expansion was released?

Personally, minis don’t bother me at all and in no way help my immersion – I’d be happy if they were wooden figures (and even wooden cubes, hehe). But I can see this being a really big issue for anyone who cares about that kind of thing. And even though it doesn’t affect my enjoyment, it is undeniably incredibly sloppy.

How much does it change the game?

The biggest change to the game is Andokai’s spell book. As an alternate action she can draw a spell into her hand (she can up to five of the nine available) and play it later – and the casting does not take an action. The spells feel a little like items, which is good as with experience you tend to use items less and less.

Quests for them tend to be a distraction from what is increasingly, with higher difficulty, a tight race against time and the randomness of the items means you can do a lot of work to get something you may never use. Spells are easy to get and are invariably useful (reroles, move characters, discard threat cards etc).

Furgas helps you gain extra equipment; Xamtys moves the council token forward when completing an adventure; while the True Tungdil gives bonuses to other dwarves in his space – all excellent choices in a game with more players. Rodario is a great all rounder, adding a +1 to any die when he tries to complete tests, while Narmora can move through spaces containing enemies and also kills an extra enemy on a roll of six in battle – both great all-round skills, but particularly suited to games where you have fewer players.

Is New Heroes value for money?

At around £15 you’re not getting an awful lot of physical content in the box. The card stock is the same quality as that in the original game: thin but sturdy cardboard for the character sheets and OK card stock for the spell cards. The minis are nothing to write home about it terms of quality either, especially combined with the size issue mentioned above. But in terms of general expansion costs across the industry, this is about par.

Is the New Heroes expansion essential?

If you are a fan of the Dwarves novels (particularly the first one) and have missed not being able to play the roll of some of your favourite characters, you’ll want to pick this up: all the new characters start in the right places and have powers that suit them, which is great.

Alternatively if you’re more into the game than the books, much as with the Combined Might expansion, your need to own this one is going to come down to how much replayability you want. The spell book adds a genuine extra dimension to play and characters such as Narmora and True Tungdil add genuine new strategies, so it certainly adds to the base game.

… and does it fit in the original Dwarves box?

As already mentioned, there’s hardly anything here in terms of physical components so yes, it will very easily fit into the base game box.

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the expansion for review.

Essen 2017 releases: First impressions, part 2 (and ‘Dig’ mini review)

I’ve now played all but two of the games I brought home from Essen in October (getting there!), as well as several other popular titles I missed out on at the time, so below you’ll find a round-up of first impressions of a bunch of them.

Again, these are just early thoughts: full reviews of several of the Essen releases are already available and linked here, including Pulsar 2849 and The Sanctuary, while any marked with a * will be getting the full review treatment here soon. The brackets show how many players I’ve played it with to date.

Transatlantic* (two-player)
Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a Mac Gerdts fanboy, so any new release with his name on is going to get me excited (as this one is).

It was delayed from the previous Essen, while having the same deck-building elements as Concordia – one of my favourite games: all together making this one of my most anticipated titles of Essen 2017.

My initial feeling, though, is a little lukewarm. Mechanically it works well, but the theme couldn’t be any drier. And while the deck-building element feels slightly improved upon, after one play I prefer the rest of the game Concordia has to offer. That said, Transatlantic is shorter and I certainly have room in my life for another game with these mechanics. So for now, the jury is out but I’m thinking it will grow on me with more plays.

Claim (two-player only)
I was taught this one by Sean (from The Game Pit) and enjoyed our play – but not enough to seek it out for further exploration. It’s a two-player only trick-taking game with a pasted on fantasy theme, split into two very distinct halves.

In the first half of the game you’re building an army of cards you’ll then use to battle in part two in a similar way to a game such as For Sale. However, unlike For Sale, poor luck/play in the first half will see you lose the second to a competent player. Overall, it seems like there’s just a little too much luck to make it stand out – and too many games will be decided too early.

As The Game Pit’s Natalie said too, this being only for two is hardly a revolution in trick-taking games – it’s not as if Cribbage hasn’t been around for 400 years or so: just another bit of revisionist gaming history that seems rife right now. And frankly, I’d probably rather play crib, but wouldn’t turn this one down.

Mystery of the Temples* (two-player)
I have two two-player games of this under my belt now, but have a nasty feeling it will go the same way Planet Defenders by the same publisher did: I’ll really enjoy it, but those I play it with will largely be left underwhelmed.

As with Planet Defenders, this is a beautifully crafted abstract game with some really clever mechanisms and a strong puzzle at its core. However, it has the same Achilles heel: it doesn’t seem to have that spark of magic this kind of game needs to take it to players’ hearts.

I’m going to stick with it for a while though, and hopefully it will improve with more players. The game’s board acts as a two-lane rondel where you’re collecting and delivering resources to fulfil contracts for points and to gain little bonuses that will make delivery easier as you move on. It’s a neat and well-designed system, but it has left both my opponents cold so far – maybe partly because the ‘puzzle’ of the player board (where you have to store your items in a particular order to be able to deliver them) is probably a little too easy to navigate.

Column of Fire (three-player)
I hadn’t heard anything about this release, which is a surprise as it’s from a great publisher (Kosmos) and designer (Michael Rieneck)  – and follows in the Ken Follet-inspired game series that includes the fab game The Pillars of the Earth.

Sadly though, I wish this one had passed me by. There are some interesting core ideas here, of shifting loyalties and engine building, but it feels woefully under developed and way too luck dependent: both cards and dice can see you have a dreadful experience, which isn’t really right for a game that can last well over an hour and feels as if it should be strategic. It’s a real mess.

What’s worse is it has beautiful artwork from Michael Menzel, as its predecessors did; but in this case the artwork totally gets in the way of the play experience: there’s no point in having a pretty board if it totally gets in the way of game play. Maybe Menzel is too big a name now, that publishers just presume it must be OK if he has done it? It feels that way, as Agra (another 2017 title with his artwork) has similar problems.

Azul (two, three, four-player)
Without a shadow of doubt, this is my game of 2017 from the ones I’ve played so far – and I really don’t see it being overtaken.

It’s a simple abstract game you can teach anyone: take some tiles, place them on your board, and once they’ve all been taken in a round you score some points. Simple.

Yet it has a second level of play you soon discover: you can really screw people over (including yourself!) by what you leave behind. Plus it is absolutely gorgeous, plays fast and scales really well between two and four players. I’ll definitely be buying this one and I’d think it is an absolute shoe in for the Spiel de Jahres award for 2018.

Bunny Kingdom (two-player)
Another Game Pit teach, this time from Natalie. I rather enjoyed this one and it has had a lot of good buzz since Essen. It looks good on the table (who doesn’t love a plastic bunny mini?), is relatively simple to learn and has a nice drafting system where the relative simplicity of the cards seems well matched to the level the game is aimed at.

For a gateway level game it lasts about the right amount of time (an hour-ish) and has a low-ish level of potential screwage, even though it is basically an area majority game. You can block people out of where they want to go, but only by denying them the cards they need: it doesn’t have combat, as such; just denial through drafting.

But that of course brings its own issue: if you get screwed over by luck of the draw, you’re simply not going to win. But isn’t that always the way in more family level games? And as mentioned, once you’re up to speed, the game doesn’t last long enough (with two or three) to make that feel like it’s really a massive problem (unless that kind of luck really isn’t your sort of thing).

Altiplano (three-player)
I was sad to miss out on this one at Essen, so it was great to get it played at the fabulous SorCon over the weekend – a great little February board game convention on the outskirts of Basildon I’d highly recommend. I should also premise this by saying I still haven’t played Orleans, the first of the so-called ‘bag building’ games.

I enjoyed Altiplano quite a bit. It has a pretty standard ‘get stuff to make other stuff and turn it into points’ euro game premise, but the bag building element works well to create a restrictive puzzle each round: you draw a certain amount of tiles each round to use for your actions.

What stopped me loving it was the movement system, which felt like a mechanism and restriction too far for me; pushing the weight of the game a little beyond my comfort zone. I’d realise what I want to do, then see I couldn’t move to those places – which also felt a bit stupid in terms of theme. I’d happily play it some more though – and will redouble my efforts to get its predecessor played, as it generally seems more popular.

Mini review: Dig

I won’t be giving Dig a full review, as it’s not a game I want to spend any more time on – either playing or thinking too much about. But that’s not to say its not a fun game! It just isn’t really for me and i’m sure I’m not its target audience.

Dig is a very light card game with a pleasingly retro fantasy-themed pixel art style. The rulebook is awful, but once you work out how to play it’s a fun little push-your-luck game with a little bit of take-that thrown in.

If you want one of those “noooooo!” game experiences as you flip cards with little to know control, this one could well be for you – and the fantasy theme works well. It has a few gamery elements, such as special characters you can pick up to change things up a little, while you can mitigate the luck a little – but not really enough for me to enjoy it. This is very much a beer and pretzels experience, which unfortunately can also run a little long if you all have rotten luck.

But, returning to the rulebook – there really is no excuse for this level of incompetence. I’d love to blame it on Kickstarter, but having tried to fight though rulebooks for published games recently such as Noria and Agra it is clearly an industry problem with some very deep roots. But Dig’s really is appalling. There are hugely important rules that are somehow in the book as tips or examples, while some things you’re simply going to have to use your imagination with and all agree to move on.

So, with some house ruling, this is a light fantasy-themed game that should well appeal to the Munchkin crowd (and, unlike some, I don’t see that as an insult – it’s just a different arm of the hobby). It’s not big and it’s not clever, and a good run of luck can be totally unstoppable, but we certainly had some fun and laughs playing it despite its flaws. I just hope it finds its audience – and a second printing of the rulebook!

Noria: A four-sided game review

Noria* is an innovative action selection rondel (or “wheel building”) game from Spiel de Jahres fellowship designer Sophia Wagner. It’s definitely a gamer’s game, with an age range suggestion of 12+.

It will take one to four players one to two hours to play, with more players adding to the time; but it’s a pretty thinky game, so slower players could well see this running longer.

The game has some beautiful sci-fi artwork from two of board game design’s heavyweights, Klemens Franz and Michael Menzel. But don’t expect any actual theme in the game: in reality this is very much an abstract euro game. For example, while the boards and cardboard pieces look amazing there is no flavour text or names on anything outside of the rulebook.

In the box you’ll find a central playing board, 4 player action wheels, 44 wooden pieces and around 300 cardboard chits. You’ll pay around £50 fora copy, which is about average for a big box game in the current climate – which seems reasonable for what you’ll get here.

Teaching

Unfortunately I have to start by saying that this is one of the worst rulebooks I’ve had to plough through in a long time. It took me three or four attempts to wade through it; but once I had, I found a game that’s actually relatively simple to teach. How they got the rulebook so badly wrong is a mystery to me.

Much of the experience is very much a nuts and bolts resource management/economic game. You take actions via your rondel (see below) to journey to locations and buy ships or factories; gather resources needed to make these goods (the more ships you have, the more you will be able to collect); or invest the goods/resources you’ve collected to turn them into victory points on one of four victory point tracks.

Then, at the end of your turn, you can influence the value of a victory point track by increasing – or limiting the increase potential – of these same victory point tracks. At the end of the game, each track’s value will simply be a multiplication of how many good you’ve delivered to it multiplied by the level of influence it has been raised to. So far, so every economic game ever.

How you efficiently get the cubes (sorry, resources) you need – the engine building – is the interesting bit. Each player has their own three-tiered rondel. The top tier has two spaces for actions, the middle four and the bottom six. You start the game with five of the spaces filled (one top, two middle, two bottom) and each round you will turn each level one space clockwise. On each turn, only half (six) of these actions are available to you and you can only use three of them (one from each level).

This is where you build your engine. Three of the rondel actions allow you to variously gain extra action discs to add to your rondel; make an action doubly efficient (by flipping a disc over); or gain bonus actions.

And don’t worry – there’s also a mechanism in place to move your discs around later when you realise you’ve screwed up. It’s a neat system: actions on the two-space top tier will be available one round, not the next, and so on – while those on the outer tier will be available three turns on a row – but then unavailable for the next three.

This continues for 14-16 rounds (depending on the player count), after which you count up player points on the six scoring areas to decide the winner. Alongside the four score tracks associated with resources are one which scores bonus points for specialising (extra points for your highest track) of diversifying (bonus points for your lowest track). And that’s that.

Solo play

If you like a thinky puzzle, and like the sound of the game, Norias’ solo game is well worth a look. The rules weren’t in the original release but the few extra components you need are, and the official rules are on a simple two-page download. It’s quite a fiddly setup and a very hard way to learn the game from scratch, but once you get going it does a good job of giving you a bot opponent – and better still, one that tonnes of permutations if you fiddle about with its rondel.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The key for me when really enjoying an engine building game is the process of seeing that engine work – and unfortunately I just didn’t get that from Noria. Making it is an interesting puzzle, but what it does is uninspiring: no matter what colour of goods you make, they all work in exactly the same way. Instead the game relies on working the economic engine to succeed in being a good game – making me ask the crucial design question, where is the game? For me, it should be more in the rondels than in the bog standard economic game; but it feels more like the other way around.
  • The thinker: This game really takes the rondel idea, so loved by Gerdts fans, to the next level in terms of strategy. The tiers flow like planets around a sun, coming in and out of the light, making for some fascinating decisions. Bonus discs add an extra level of complexity, allowing you to take fewer but more powerful actions later. All in all it makes for a hugely enjoyable and complex economic game for those looking to challenge themselves to make the most efficient engine – while constantly battling your opponents for the upper hand in terms of how you’ll score.
  • The trasher: As in any economic game, the interaction in Noria comes from manipulating the score tracks to your own ends. However, because your engine feels so slow to get going you’re largely talking about small gains over a long period rather than quick tactical swings. The real work goes on with your own engine, but at least this scoring mechanism means you can’t play multiplayer solitaire – you have to pay attention to what others are working towards (both as allies or enemies) if you hope to succeed.
  • The dabbler: While I understand this is a very cleverly designed game, for me it flatters to deceive at every turn and gets too many things wrong. While the board and rondels are beautiful many of the rest of the components are bland with washed out colours, while the theme – what theme? Someone has clearly designed a world in their mind, but forgotten to bring it to life in the game itself. giving resources stupid names such as ‘mycelium’ is practically forcing players to call them ‘greens’ – while the cities, ships and warehouse products could’ve been brought to life by naming them instead, and adding a little flavour text.

Key observations

I won’t harp on about it, but Noria’s rulebook is truly horrific. What makes the crime so heinous is that in reality this is a fairly easy game to teach, with the real complexity coming out as you play. This is a much quicker teach than many euro games, but has twice the rulebook.

The rondel has also been described as overwrought, over designed and in need of streamlining. I think most of these complaints come from the fact that, no matter how you set it up, it’s doing the same quite standard functions: basic actions that don’t warrant quite so much thought. Everyone loves a tricky decision, but the payoff needs to be more than it is here: no matter where I place my choices of production action discs, they’re only ever going to be letting me take one or two resources. For some it just doesn’t seem worth the bother.

But the most repeated negative comments I’ve seen centre on the stock market mechanic. Some simply write it off as uninteresting or generic, while others point to more serious issues around gameplay. With three or four players, if the majority of players go for a resource you don’t and block you out you can be on a hiding to nothing (king-making, two vs one scenarios etc). This is standard economic game tactics – but when you’re building a complex rondel engine to get those resources over several hours of gameplay, it is a much more serious problem in terms of pay off.

Conclusion

Noria was comfortably one of my most anticipated games going into Essen 2017, but of the eight of my top 10 I’ve now tried it is the most disappointing. It has gone straight onto my trade pile and while I wouldn’t turn down a game somewhere if people were very keen, I certainly won’t be seeking to play it again. I got the very same market scoring kick from Ilos – a much shorter and tactically satisfying game – while I have better engine-building and/or rondel goodness on my shelves already.

But Noria has certainly found an audience (currently a very respectable 6.8 rating on Board Game Geek) and there is undoubted merit in the rondel system – even if I don’t think it has found the right game here. If you like to build an engine (and in a unique way), convert things into other things, and have a solid level of interaction through a market mechanic, you should definitely give this game a chance – you may well find yourself a new favourite.

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