Board game Top 10: Sarah’s favourite games

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

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

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

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

Aggressive abstracts

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

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

Route-builders

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

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

The rest

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

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

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

Friday feelings: My fandom is normal. Yours is weird…

I find it fascinating people can justify certain behaviours in themselves, but can’t understand incredibly similar behaviours in others – even judging them on those actions, despite them being fractions away from their own. 

I hate January in the UK as much as the next person, so one thing I do to get through it is book up as many exciting things as possible for the next few months: I get the festive period out of the way, then start planning the first half of the year like a man possessed. It’s great to have things to look forward to, and when better to do that than in the most miserable, long and cold month of the year? 

Looking at my calendar now, the next six months are a joy to behold: 4 gaming weekends away across the UK, 8 gigs in 6 different towns/cities, plus a trip to Sweden. As much as I love my home and where I live, I love getting away just as much – and if I can tie in music and gaming with that, then more’s the better.

I accept some people will think this is nuts: not everyone has my desire to up-sticks every other weekend to nomad my way around the country and stay in shitty hotels so I can watch my favourite bands, or play games with friends and strangers alike. If you don’t get it, that’s fine. But some people really, really should.

In darkest December I found myself in a Midlands pub on one of the most miserable days of the year, waiting to head to a gig. We ended up sharing some tables with a bunch of Bournemouth football fans. They’d got up stupidly early that morning, put their Christmas jumpers on, and piled up the motorway to watch their team get well beaten 2-0 in freezing sideways drizzle. 

They were an affable, drunken bunch showing an admirable support for their team. I like football, and I get it: I’ve never been one to travel to games, but I understand the mentality – it’s the same I have for music and gaming. At least I thought it was.

I hadn’t gotten up early, or travelled half as far. The band I wanted to see hadn’t played my home town the week before, or in fact in years. The band I was going to see were playing indoors. In the dry. And they were going to perform: barring a surprise of biblical proportions, I was going to witness the result I’d set out that lunchtime hoping for. But it was me trying to explain to them why doing it wasn’t weird. 

They were nice. They didn’t have to let us butt in on their table and when they left an hour or so later, off into the night to get a curry, we said farewell on happy terms. But as they wandered drunkenly away I was thinking, nice chaps – good luck next week. While they were clearly thinking ‘weirdos’. Funny old world.

PS: Hopefully see some of you in Ely, Basildon, Harrogate, Bedford, Cambridge, London, Bristol, Eastbourne, Manchester, Hitchin and Goteborg soon…

Tsukiji: A four-sided game review

Tsukiji* is a simple (yet fiendishly tricky to master) set collection and commodity speculation card game for 2-4 players, that takes less than 30 minutes to play.

It’s a light game, making the 8+ age on the box seem reasonable. But seeing as I’m still trying to get my head around how to play it well, I can’t really be sure – although I’ve never had a head for numbers.

The commodities you’ll be speculating on are fresh fish in a 1930s Tokyo seafood market. While the theme could quite literally have been any other commodity, the game is beautifully presented and has nice quality components and lovely artwork – making it good value if you can find it around the £20-ish mark. In the Kingdomino-sized box you’ll find a price speculation board, ~150 cards, ~50 cardboard chits and five wooden markers.

Teaching Tsukiji

Tsukiji is a little fiddly to play, and the rulebook could be better laid out, but in essence it is a simple game to teach once you’ve gotten a handle on it. Set up is also a little fiddly, as there are different cards needed for different player numbers; making it so that there will always be seven rounds of play. After those seven rounds, the player with the most money wins.

On most turns, each player will end up spending money on some fish cards and adding them to their tableau. The value of these fish types will ebb and flow over the seven rounds, so you’ll be trying to buy cheap lots of fish while also trying to increase the market value of the one’s you’re collecting – the classic commodities conundrum.

At the start of each round, several lots (one more than the number of players) of three fish cards will be randomly dealt to the middle of the table (each fish type has the same number of cards). Each player has a hand of evaluation cards (the basic ones are numbered 1-4 – more on the others later). After seeing the lots, players decide which they want to be of high or low value, and places one of their evaluation cards next to each. These player cards are then simultaneously revealed, with price markers being assigned to each lot depending on the totals revealed.

Each price marker has two properties: a market value change you’ll assign to each fish in a lot on the market board – and a price to afterwards buy that lot. For example, the ‘best’ lot may see +4 added to the market value of each fish in the lot (so if it had two octopus cards, the market value of them would go up by eight) – but if you want to buy that lot, it is going to cost you 12 money. The ‘worst’ lot may add no value to those fish types, or even decrease them – but the lot itself will only cost three money. It is this push-and-pull that is at the heart of the game.

Players start with around 50 money, and a card set cost 3-12 – so buying the ‘best’ lot each round will see you go bankrupt fast (you can choose to buy no cards in a round and collect three money instead). Buying the best lot also makes you start player, which has the obvious advantage of getting first pick of the cards next turn.

At the end of the game, a fish’s value isn’t dependent on how far ahead it is on the market value board: just its position is important. For example, the octopus may be way out in front on 45, with the next best fish (let’s say the shrimp) way back on 20.

This means every octopus card will be worth 10 money, with every shrimp worth seven. But these closing values would be the same if the octopus finished at 30 and the shrimp 29. So, trying to lower the cost of a lot to make it cheap can work, despite meaning fish in that lot will not increase in value.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: For me, Tsukiji adds just the right number of little wrinkles to make the game fun. For example, while most cards are one of the five market fish types there are also tuna, wild and Yakuza cards. Tuna are collected as normal but score triangularly; wild can be added to any set (but don’t affect market values); while a Yakuza will take another fish from a lot as payment – leaving it with only one card. These are all very simple rules but make each round just a little more interesting enough to keep everyone on their toes.
  • The thinker: Ultimately this is a very basic stock manipulation game, with limited control that gets worse the more players you add to the mix. Those looking for clear ways to influence values need look elsewhere, as it won’t be as interactive as you’d like. But as a quick filler game, and a gateway into the genre, this is a solid title. You’ll just need to make sure there is one person who is happy/keen to do all the market price changes each round, as it is fiddly – and also that you can trust them to do it correctly! I’m happier with a drier, cleverer game such as Tulip Bubble – but I’d certainly play again with a fun crowd.
  • The trasher: Sometimes you really want to try and influence the value of a particular lot, especially nearer the end of the game: that’s where the one-shot special evaluation cards come in. As well as your boring cards numbered 1-4, you’ll also start with a 6 and a -1, plus a few others (depending on player count). You’ll want to hold them back for as long as possible, but will those last couple of hands even be worth influencing? I expect if you can card count you’ll be able to work it out – but I’m happier flying by the seat of my pants! A nice game if you like this sort of thing – and I enjoyed it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is very fiddly, I found myself enjoying Tsukiji. The artwork and pieces are really cute, while the game play is simple – value lots, buy a lot, repeat. The first few rounds seem a bit random, as you have no fish so don’t know why you should value one lot higher than another. But this is great for new players, as they can get a feel for how the turns work before the more serious decisions begin. The Yakuza add some jeopardy, and we oohed and aahed when the card lots were being drawn – and after half an hour it’s all over, even with four players. It’s just a shame the cute cat wasn’t used more on the cards!

Key observations

Is Tsukiji a little clunky? Sure. But in a game where prices are being manipulated, that’s always going to be the case. You’re going to have to change the price of five fish a maximum of seven times each over a time span of about half an hour – and deal out a bunch of cards. And work out a few values by adding some cards up. Yes, for some that will be too fiddly – but for the groups I’ve played with, the payoff was worth it.

And no, the game isn’t anything amazingly special: it’s mostly a standard commodity speculation card game. But when you add the nice components, short play time and simplicity this is part of its charm. Not every game needs to innovate or be unique – sometimes, simply rearranging the designer toolbox in a smart way and then giving the game the veneer it deserves is enough. Alongside Modern Art/Masters Gallery, this is the most fun I’ve had with this genre at this play time and complexity level.

Conclusion

When I made my initial Essen 2018 wish list, Tsukiji kept surprising me by hanging in near the top of the list as I continued to whittle it down. I didn’t play it at the show, but by then I trusted what I’d read in the rulebook – and luckily I haven’t been disappointed. It will definitely be staying in my collection and while it probably won’t trouble by Top 50, I can see it being a go-to game to scratch that stock market itch.

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

Friday feelings: Understanding children’s emotions (The Color Monster)

Happiness, sadness, anger, fear and calm. As adults, we understand these emotions – but in the mind of a four-year-old, or even an 11-year-old (especially if they have special needs), these can be confusing or hard to explain; not to mention, in more simple instances, awkward or difficult to talk about. And, frankly, they’re no easy to explain.

And then there’s, you know, having fun. Kids tend to have emotional highs and lows every, what, three to five seconds? This moment’s laughter can easily bring on the next moment’s tears, and that laughter seems instantly forgotten. So imagine how many of these emotions you’re missing, as a parent, when your child is at school, or with friends, or at an after school club or party?

The Color Monster, a children’s book by Anna Llenas, was written to try and tackle this tricky area in an interactive way. It’s the story of a little girl finding the Color Monster, which has its emotions all mixed up – and so she sets out to try and help it through all the confusion. All the monster has to do is identify each feeling (each represented by a colour) and separate them, by understanding how they make it feel.

The book has been very successful, and a game was an obvious extension of the IP. It isn’t much of a game, to be honest – roll-and-move a couple of pieces around a board while trying to win a very simple memory game. But what’s important is how interactive it is, and how they’ve cleverly incorporated co-operative game mechanics into something that actually has people talking with, rather than over, each other.

A player’s turn is simple: roll the die and move a piece (the girl or the monster); and if you land on a space with a colour token on it, you talk about an emotion that matches it. After that, you can make an attempt at the colour matching. The rules suggest you can talk about anything – an event, a memory, an object. But as a parent you can of course narrow that down – this weekend, school etc. The game itself is a very basic framework from which you can gently burrow into your children’s feelings.

But the subtler, equally important side to this is that the parents take turns too. What better way to express your own frustrations or moments of joy that relate to your kids than in a shared space such as this? You’ve just said that X makes you feel angry; well that’s the same way I feel about Y. And post-game, if your children enjoy it, it’s a simple way to move towards a taboo topic. If they seem to be having one of those days you can simply ask, “What colour are you feeling?”

It’s an incredibly clever construct – which just so happens to be couched in a lovely story with beautiful artwork. And whether you look at the books (there are several versions available), the game or both I highly recommend checking it out. After all, you don’t want to make the Color Monster sad, do you…?

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

KeyForge – Call of the Archons: A four-sided game review

KeyForge – Call of the Archons is a ‘unique deck game’ which seems two players battle head-to-head, each with their own deck of cards. It’s stated at 14+, but a 10-year-old gamer should be fine with it.

While a starter set is available (at around £30), you don’t need one – as long as you’re happy to cobble together around 50 tokens (the rules are only available online, so you’re not missing out on those).

Instead, what most players will do is buy an individual pack of cards and play versus their friends. Each player needs their own ‘Archon Deck’, but these cost less than £10 each (which feels reasonable). Each of these decks includes 37 cards and, well, that’s it. They’re perfectly adequate quality, the iconography/text is clear, and each one is chock full of teenage boy fantasy/sci-fi hybrid artwork.

As with Discover: Lands Unknown, every Archon Deck is unique – but this is a very different game, which feels much better suited to the concept. You’ll get a unique set of 36 cards from a pool of 350, which according to the blurb equates to one of more than 104 quadrillion possibilities. The 37th card is your unique character card – giving your deck a name and picture it’ll keep forever. Because, despite being designed by the man behind Magic: The Gathering (Richard Garfield) this is not a deck-building game. Every card in your deck has your character’s name on it, and you’re not supposed to mix and match them (my favourite name out of mine: Lopez the Poetically Adventurous!).

Teaching KeyForge

While KeyForge is very much its own beast, anyone with previous knowledge of card combat games should feel immediately at home. Those coming new to the genre may want to look at the Starter Set, which comes with an additional two basic decks designed specifically to teach the game (these really aren’t very useful for experienced players – although you may want the ‘official’ tokens and counters also included).

I should also note that you won’t find rules in the box – you’ll have to download them. While this seems cheap, this kind of game has pretty much a living rulebook so in a way it make sense. But at the same time, yeah, it’s pretty cheap…

The game’s total pool of 350 cards are split into seven 50-card factions: and each Archon Deck contains 12 cards from each of three of those factions. But these aren’t completely random: an algorithm groups certain cards within each deck that should complement each other, giving each a direction to push in that gives it some personality. Each deck I’ve seen will have some cards repeated (the most I’ve seen is three of a card), often helping you define a strategy to push towards.

While this is a combat game, it is more nuanced than many. It is perfectly plausible to win by turtling (not attacking), for example, if your deck backs that up. Because rather than ‘killing’ your opponent, you will defeat them by essentially filling three bags with magic space rocks (or ’ember’) before they do. The fact these rocks will largely be collected by huge, ravaging, tendrilled and terrifying monsters is purely by-the-by.

Mostly you’ll have a hand of six cards (as this is a ‘cards with words’ game, many of them will break the rules in one way or another – so I’ll stick to the basics). On your turn, you announce one of your deck’s three factions then play (from your hand) or use (from the table) any/all of your cards that match it. Cards come in standard types: creatures; upgrades (which improve an active creature); artefacts (which stay in play and give effects) and actions (one-shot effects which are instant, then immediately discarded).

Creatures can attack your opponent’s creatures, or they can ‘reap’ – meaning they gather ember. Fighting is pleasingly deterministic: you do your damage simultaneously, and creatures that die go to your discard pile. But there are a host of special abilities that make it more interesting; armour, elusive, flank, poison, skirmish, splash – they’re all in the four-page glossary. And of course some creatures will do special things when you play them, when you reap with them – even when they die. You’re going to have to get to know that deck well to really get to grips with all the ins and outs.

But however much you may like a good punch up, ultimately it’s all about the ember. You can get it in other ways (some cards give you one simply by playing them), but reaping tends to be the most common. If you start a turn with six ember on your character card, you can bank it. Do this three times and you’ll win the game. So if you have six creatures of the same faction out, for example, you can harvest a third of a win in a single turn – proving once and for all it pays to be a lover, not a fighter.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: In an asymmetric game where you can’t change your deck, it’s impossible to make all decks – and cards – equal. The way KeyForge tackles this is with ‘chains’ – a penalty that reduces your hand size the more of them you accumulate. Powerful cards will add X chains, but you lose a chain each time you redraw. They can also be used as a handicap system; in friendly play to simply recognise one deck as being stronger, or in competitive play to ‘bid’ to play a particular deck. It’s a simple system but does its job well.
  • The thinker: I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, but I found myself enjoying the challenge of recognising a new deck’s strengths and adapting my play accordingly. Once you’re familiar with a deck, there are still interesting decisions to make as you do have different routes to victory. While you always need ember, assessing your enemy’s deck strengths and game position make for good strategic and tactical conundrums. Do you fight to keep your enemy down; or reap to push towards victory, while letting your enemy build their own strength?
  • The trasher: The internet killed Magic: The Gathering for me. Tournaments became ‘who can copy/buy the latest killer combo deck the quickest, leaving only ‘sealed deck’ for the true gloves-off scrapper. KeyForge manages to take that spirit and run with it, taking away the slow and often painful tourny drafting away and leaving you with what you’re dealt. A lot of players will turn their nose up at that, but for many this is a wonderfully functional levelling of the playing field that still leaves a lot down to chance. Sometimes you’ll get unlucky – but that’s cards.
  • The dabbler: I love the spirit behind this – the fact you all have an individual character is brilliant, even if the art for them is understandably abstract. But as with most ‘cards with words’ games, there’s just too much reading while playing to get me interested. The rules are actually quite simple, but not only are you looking at every one of your cards – you have to be doing the same for your opponent. And if you can’t be bothered to do that (hello! lol) you’re just going to go down every time – and that simply isn’t fun for anyone. Not for me.

Key observations

I’m going to address some key concerns here that I see popping up online – and there are a lot of them. But these need to be couched in the fact that, at time of writing, 3,500-ish of 4,000-ish rating on Board Game Geek were 7 or above (out of 10). The base game is sitting just outside the top 200 already, with a very high average of 7.8. Regardless of how you view the concerns below, a lot of people really like this game.

Replayability is a concern for some: you’re paying £10 for a deck of cards you may think is rubbish. But to truly know a deck, you’re going to have to play it multiple times: it may seem rubbish at first, but there may be combos in there you don’t yet understand – or it may just have come out in a crappy order (which can happen to even the best decks in this kind of game). If its rubbish after five or six plays against multiple opponents, it’s probably rubbish – but how many times do you play a £10 game…? Millage will vary, and whether you want to take a risk like this is your call.

Also, if you play with a set group of like-minded players, there’s nothing to stop you mixing and matching decks – doing a big draft of 10 decks together, making your best deck from five etc. Nothing stopping you at all. No one is going to come and tell you off. It’s your game – make your own rules.

A claim I have more of an issue with is, there are no choices in the game. People argue that, as there are three suits and a hand of only six, you’re simply going to always play your largest suit to cycle your deck. Wow. No wonder you don’t like the game – you’re going to lose, a lot. This may be a valid point in the first few turns (and you can mulligan on the first one), but once you – and your opponent – have cards on the table, it’s a thin argument at best. I’ve seen a single card, played right, decimate my troops.

The randomness of your deck’s quality not being ‘fair’ is going to be down to personal taste. If you can’t handle the fact you may pay £10 and get a deck you never win with, its a fair point – the game probably isn’t for you. But I don’t think anyone goes into this kind of game expecting a level playing field. A great Magic deck will be defeated if drawn poorly, or if you happen to end up playing that one person whose deck seems built to dick yours over – and you can guarantee that Magic deck cost you way more than £10 to put together. I like the type of levelling the playing field these unique decks offer, and I don’t think it’s possible to do that without randomness being an issue.

As for concerns the artwork is ugly – yup, I’m right there with you. It’s bright and horrible and teenage (which I guess is the key target audience – so good call FFG). But on the plus side the iconography is clear and, like with any card game such as this, I simply stop seeing the art after a while. Would I have made roughly 100% different decisions in terms of images used, colour palette etc? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest.

And finally, there are the accusations of this being a cynical cash grab/pay to win game. Pay to win is simply ludicrous – you get a random deck, so in a tournament you can’t say “I want 50 decks”, then go any study them for a week before you play. And if you buy a ton of decks to play versus our friends, you’ll never learn them all – and certain decks will beat certain other ones. I just don’t see the argument.

As for cynical cash grab, how anyone could hold this up against a CCG and claim this is worse is frankly bonkers. The CCG is the ultimate gaming cash grab – this far, far less so. A tournament has a ‘buy a deck’ entry fee – so £10; for which you’ll get an evening’s entertainment. It costs that for a cinema ticket, twice that to go to an average gig, five times that to stand in the rain and watch your team lose. Sure, some vulnerable people may splash loads of money on loads of decks – but this is not at the top of the pile for that kind of issue. Again, sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Conclusion

I haven’t played KeyForge enough to delve deep into the levels of replayability you can hope to expect. But I’ve enjoyed all the games I’ve played to date (which have been with three different decks) and will certainly keep on exploring their potential. Having given up on Magic more than a decade ago and never looked back, I had no interest in CCGs anymore – but this game has rekindled my enjoyment of card combat. Thankfully though, it does it with a very low-cost barrier to entry – and more importantly, from where you can be immediately competitive (with a bit of luck, of course).

* I would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games (via Asmodee UK)  for providing a copy of the game for review.