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.

The Sanctuary: A four-sided game review

The Sanctuary: Endangered Species* is a worker placement euro style game aimed at more experienced gamers (the 10+ on the box would be fine for children who regularly play post-gateway games).

The 30-60 minutes listed on the box is though, in my experience, far less accurate. Even with two the game will probably go at least an hour, while with more you could easily be looking at two-plus.

While at its heart this is a cube-pushing euro game, the original theme (setting up your own animal sanctuary) does enough to make it stand out from the competition; but don’t expect to ‘feel’ the theme – unless you can work with ‘blue animal picture on cardboard chit eats blue wooden cubes’. That said, it has certainly helped everyone I’ve played with get engaged with the game when we’ve sat down at the table.

In terms of components, it’s a mixed bag. There’s certainly nothing game-breaking here, but they made some pretty strange choices. Some of the cardboard chits are only printed on one side, for example – despite others on the same punch board being double sided. And some of the flat cardboard pieces are as small as 8x10mm – the smallest (and least practical) I’ve seen in a long time. However, overall it gets a pass.

The artwork is OK throughout (the box cover is stunning) and the graphic design, once you get the hang of it, is surprisingly effective. It pretty much has its own language, but once you get it everything falls into place really well. All in all, it’s worth the 40 euro price tag – a relative big-box bargain in the current gaming climate (however, see ‘key observations’ below).

Teaching

Much of The Sanctuary euro gamers will be well familiar with, so it’s worth starting with the basics before moving onto the more original ideas: each round you take it in turns to place your two workers, who will in turn give you actions.

At the end of the game, players earn victory points for their collection of animals (and how happy they are); land they reclaim; resources they accumulate, and storehouse improvements (end game scoring bonuses or special abilities). And yes, you guessed it – all those things are done by taking simple actions with those workers.

Instead of a board, the actions are on five different coloured card types. These are prepared as 10, 16 or 20-card stacks at the start of the game (to ensure a relatively even spread), depending on player count, and a line of these cards is shuffled and laid out in a line at the start of each round (there will be five or six rounds, depending on player count). It’s a bit fiddly at setup, but has the desired effect.

Each card has a primary and secondary action. You do the primary action of the cards you place your workers on – but also the secondary actions of any cards your workers can ‘see’. This is all other cards, in both directions, until you come across one that has a fence printed on, or another worker on it (there is even a special ability that lets you wrap this sight around from one end of the card line to the other).

The player who lays a worker first also places last (Catan style), which evens out over the game, but your choice is always interesting: do you go for a very specific action you really need, or pop yourself into space in the hope of getting lots of sub optimal actions? You’re never allowed to be fully boxed in, so will always have the potential for at least two actions per worker – but some secondary sections are blank, while others may be of no use to you.

Each player can have up to four types of animal in their sanctuary, and making them happy is key: end game points are happiness multiplied by quantity (the latter of which is capped at six per animal type). And there’s an action for everything: take animal, raise happiness, gain resources, discard them to take more animals etc.

Will you concentrate on one animal type, spread the love, or go off piste and concentrate more on resources and habitat? You can clear land, increase its value, then flood or forest it. But whatever you do, don’t let your opponents easily get the actions they most need.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: A nice extra quirk of The Sanctuary are threat tokens. You pick one of these up when you do a particularly strong main action, so they’re totally avoidable – but if you take them, you’ll lose points at the end of the game for each you have (and they can quickly mount up). It’s a nice extra mechanism for those who like a gamble, or who feel they can out-point the negatives with these stronger options. It’s a small level of extra complication to the rules that some publishers would remove for the sake of simplification, but that actually adds a very interesting extra level of decision making.
  • The thinker: If you’re playing with thoughtful players, believe me, this one can go long – but it is at least a largely satisfying experience. While I have no problem with tactical blocking, there can be a bit of an issue in luck of the draw after about half way; once you’ve decided on a strategy, but the cards simply don’t fall your way – you can certainly feel a lack of control. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game was as long as advertised, but for those inclined to think through their decisions this can become frustrating. But it is fun, as long as you understand that this is at the tactical end of the worker placement game scale.
  • The trasher: I always like a game that adds a different feel to player interactivity, and The Sanctuary does just that. Your worker placement has to take other players into consideration as you need to think about where other players will place their workers – and that doesn’t mean thinking negatively against others. You may like he look of a spot, but if someone else really wants the spot next to it then you’re going to have limited actions too. It can really make things drag, especially as you can’t plan ahead, but it’s pretty delicious so is fine with me!
  • The dabbler: While the theme is pretty much pasted on, it’s still done really well. Each player will take four coloured discs to represent the animal types they bring into their sanctuary, but each is double sided and has two unique endangered species depicted on it. Each is named in the rulebook, so you can do a bit of research if you like, and it means players that want to can choose the animals they want in their sanctuary. It would’ve been even better if there had been a PD Verlag-style extra booklet with animal info, but it’s a strong nod to theme nonetheless – it would’ve been easy to have four generic animals repeated.

Key observations

While I thought The Sanctuary just about got away with it in terms of components, it is one of the game’s biggest issues in terms of player comment. While I do understand these misgivings, I’m surprised at complaints of the €40 price tag.

In reality, it seems distribution is the problem: the real issue is the total price paid when you include shipping it out of Poland. Hopefully the game will get a distribution deal with someone in the states, at the very least. It certainly deserves it on gameplay.

Another issue is comparing it to the ‘average’ new release – which, to me, are largely a total waste of plastic destined for landfill and the slow death of our planet. I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather pay under £50 for a less flashy version but really good game than three times as much for a metric tonne of plastic crap I grew out of at 15 hiding yet another average generic fantasy/sci-fi game.

Onto genuine issues, the chaotic/random nature of the worker placement – while original – certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. As already mentioned, this is very much a tactical euro. A related issue is the threat token to ranger action ratio. In a two or three-player game there will only be one ranger card in the whole game – and it is the only guaranteed way to get rid of threat tokens. It is very easy to use the ranger once you get one, so if you get pushed out of the option it pretty much closes a route to you completely – which seems like a design oversight.

But possibly the biggest problem is how dominant the ‘single animal’ strategy feels: only take one animal type and put all your efforts into maxing out its victory points. Stopping this relies on others stopping it, but even then I’ve seen a player doing this win each game we’ve played so far. It doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for The Sanctuary yet, but if – with experience – I still can’t make another strategy win after some more plays, I’ll revisit this review and mark it down some.

Conclusion

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve seen a trend in recent years for games that initially seem deep but, once you’ve played them a few times, show themselves to be little more than having several roads to victory without enough interaction to make them interesting over multiple plays.

From my experience so far, The Sanctuary bucks this trend. While many of the mechanisms can be palmed off as ‘standard euro’, the worker placement element is a real breathe of fresh air – and one great mechanism is all a game needs to stand out.

While the amount you need to think about most decisions can really induce the dreaded AP – especially as you can’t really make a choice until it is your turn – it’s precisely this that makes it outstanding. No, it won’t be for everyone. But if you love pitting your wits against like-minded thinky opponents and don’t care if a game goes a little long to make that happen, I can’t recommend The Sanctuary highly enough.

* I would like to thank Cube Factory of Ideas for providing a copy for review.

Pulsar 2849: A four-sided game review

Pulsar 2849* is a dice-drafting euro game (for more experienced gamers, probably aged around 12+) that will take two to four people one to two hours to play (more players equals longer game).

As you’ve probably guessed from the title and the cover, this is a sci-fi themed game; but beyond the look, and despite nice components, this is very much a dry euro rather than a thematic space romp.

On the subject of components, expect the usual high quality we’ve come to expect from Czech Games Edition (CGE): a large circular board with a bunch of smaller cardboard boards that place around it; 100+ cardboard chits and tokens, 50+ plastic tokens and cubes, plus 10 dice. The iconography is clear throughout, while the art style is on theme without ever being spectacular. On the table (and you’ll need a pretty decent sized table), the game looks solid if unspectacular – despite the relative novelty of the round board.

And on the subject of theme, for what it’s worth, the general idea is you’re playing rival corporations creating mega-structures in space to harvest (and then transmit) power over vast distances. But you’d have to be pretty spectacularly drawn by theme to feel like a spaceman while playing this one.

Teaching

Pulsar 2849 can seem daunting when you run through the rules, as there’s a lot to remember – but in truth all the things you can do are simple and you’ll find experienced players will soon pick them up: but you do have to go through them all before you get going.

But also tell players their first game will probably be a learning game; it has quite a few moving, overlapping parts and most players will spend the first game finding how certain actions complement each other – despite it only taking a turn or two to get to grips with the basics.

The game is played over eight rounds, with each player taking either two or three actions in each (so 16-24 actions in the game). A set of standard six-sided dice are rolled each round, with each player choosing two (first one in turn order, second in reverse order, as in Catan) – before each player caries out actions with their dice. There will always be at least one more dice than required, so even if you get the last pick you’ll usually have a choice.

There are seven actions you can choose to do with your dice – the most basic (and rarely used) being to take a dice modifier token. Another is to move your ship a number of spaces equal to a dice you took, preferably ending your move on a pulsar or star system. Landing on a system will give you a bonus of some kind, while you can claim a pulsar you finish on.

The third action is to take a gyrodyne: the rotor system you’ll use to generate power (read: points) from a pulsar. It’s a free action to place this on one of your claimed pulsars – but it does cost a dice action to ‘flip’ this gyrodyne token to make it operational (so that it starts generating your points each round).

The other three available dice actions let you claim either a ‘transmitter’, ‘technology’ or ‘HQ project’. These are all ways to get bonuses – from points to tokens to actions – in a typically euro point salad kind of way. They all work slightly differently, but if you’ve played a few euro games there’s nothing new under the sun here.

What is ingenious is the way in which the dice numbers are balanced. Most actions are better with higher dice – you can move further, take a better transmitter, set a better gyrodyne spinning etc. But to take better dice, you have to pay what can be a significant penalty. After the dice are rolled each round their median is marked. Taking a dice higher/lower than the median mark sees you move up/down the turn order or engineering track (which gives handy tokens that get points or extra actions).

But returning to the point salad: pretty much everything you do will score you points – either immediate, ongoing or end game. After the eight rounds, you’ll add them all up and see who the winner is.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While I’ve really enjoyed my plays, I’ve noticed a big disparity in scores in specialising versus being a jack-of-all-trades: going strong on flying (taking a lot of planets), concentrating on gyrodynes or getting lots of transmitters can all score well. But if two players choose the same thing, they’re unlikely to win, as they cannibalise each other’s scores – especially problematic in a four-player game. It will be interesting to see if others identify this as a problem.
  • The thinker: While in many ways a standard euro, the bonus dice add an interesting challenge. The difference between 16 and 24 actions is of course potentially huge, so trying to grab one each round is a pleasant distraction. But of course, sometimes two actions combined won’t be as good as a really strong single action. It can also be hugely beneficial to set up turns where picking low dice becomes just as good as getting higher ones; another good mark for a game which rewards forward planning while having enough luck to appease those who need the thrill of the random to keep them interested.
  • The trasher: For a game allegedly about competing space corporations, it has little to no interaction – unless taking the same route as another player (which is likely to screw you both anyway). Despite the dice (obviously), uncovering star systems to reveal their bonuses, and the random order in which the limited number of transmitters are revealed, there’s actually little here for the tactician. While I’ll happy play the game (it’s fun enough for a couple of hours), I don’t see this one hanging around long term – unless an expansion (which there is plenty of room for) comes along and adds a little more personality.
  • The dabbler: While I like the round board in theory, and it looks super cool, in practice it’s a bit of a pain. It’s a massive table hog, especially if you use the (not really) optional player boards – and no matter what you do at set up it feels like a bit of a mess, while taking longer than it would with a standard board. I can see why they did it, and it feels unique, but that stops being a good thing fast! But it didn’t stop me enjoying the game! I was surprised that how simple it was to play after the rules load left me yawning – and sticking largely to one thing makes it easier to get a strong foothold, while seeing how the other bits work via the other players (and taking occasional advantage when you can).

Key observations

I’ve been meaning to finish a blog about the myth (false news?) of replayability for some time and Pulsar 2849 is a good example of my issue with it in modern gaming.

Despite adding a lot of cardboard to the box to make each game ‘different’, nothing really changes.

Bonus tiles may make certain strategies slightly more effective game to game, while you may also be led slightly by the tech trees available to you, but overall it’s not enough to make today’s gyrodyne strategy feel different to tomorrow’s.

While I’m personally a fan of ‘point salad’ games with pasted on themes (it is essentially an abstract game), if you’re not this isn’t going to change your mind – especially as this is also largely multiplayer solitaire. There are lots of ways to score very similar amounts of points each round and the game couldn’t be more about efficiency if it tried. This can also cause AP, so especially with four you may experience quite a bit of unwanted downtime (then again you could always, you know, talk to each other).

This won’t come as a surprise to people who have played and enjoyed designer Vladimir Suchy’s other games (Last Will, Prodigal’s Club, 20th Century) and if you have you’ll been on firm ground here: his designs make Feld’s look like laughing clown’s in comparison. Not a criticism, just an observation. But any potential purchaser needs to know they’re getting dry, if extremely well designed, fayre here.

But the game is averaging well over 7.5 for a reason. It does feel like a sum of its parts and while there are a lot of options to choose from it can feel very satisfying to pull off a strong, cascading combo to grab big points and an all-important bonus action. And, for the two hours you’ll spend with it, you will (if you do OK) feel as if you’ve created a satisfying little engine before then end of the game that comes to life in the final few turns – while looking and feeling very different to those of your opponents.

Conclusion

After my first few plays of Pulsar 2849, I thought I’d found a new favourite. But much as I found with games such as Great Western Trail and Railroad Revolution, later plays fell off pretty quickly.

Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy the game and may keep it in my collection. But without an expansion adding some genuine replayability, I don’t think it will still be on my shelves long. I know it’s me, not the game: this will find a happy home in many collections. But I still see more replayability in mechanisms and opponents than in adding piles of extra components – which is why people are still playing the likes of Puerto Rico, Tigris and Brass after all these years.

So overall, I’ll say this is a very good game – even a great one if you like Feld and Suchy (I think it’s his best to date). But it is indicative of this particular time in gaming; and I’d be surprised if many are still talking about it down the road.

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

Unter Spannung (AKA: 7 Ate 9): A four sided game review

This guest review was written by Chris Fenton; lapsed blogger, father of two young boys, and a teacher who has spent years successfully integrating modern hobby board and card games into the classroom environment.

Unter Spannung* is the 2016 reprint of 7 Ate 9: a light family/children’s card game of addition and subtraction. This new version is from Amigo Spiel, designed by Maureen Hiron and with art from Christine Hoffmeyer.

The aim is to be the first player to have played all your cards and this is done through a simple method of addition or subtraction. The game is for 2-4 players and plays well with all player counts. Games generally last the 15 minutes the box claims, but can increase depending on the age and mathematical ability of the players. The box lists the game as for ages 8+ and while I would say this is pretty accurate it could be played with younger players depending on their ability.

This is a simple maths game with little to no theme, beyond the new title (‘under voltage’ in English) and art based on electricity. The cards are clear and easy to read, ensuring players can quickly and easily ascertain what they need to do to be able to legally play their next card. The cards are of a high quality and durable and with the game currently available online for less than £10 this is great value. As with other Amigo Spiel titles in this line the game fits nicely into a pocket, making it brilliantly portable.

Teaching

Unter Spannung is a relatively simple game to teach, as you either play a card or draw a card; but it does have one or two elements that could confuse a new player.

The aim of the game is to be the first to get rid of all of your cards. There are 73 cards numbered between one and 10, with each numbered card coming in three colours (green, yellow and red). In the centre of each card is a +/- value, determined by the colour of the card (green +/-1, yellow +/-2, and red +/-3). This central value determines what cards can be played next.

At the start of the game the cards are dealt equally between the players as draw piles, with the final card being placed faced up in the centre of the table. This is the start of the discard pile and it determines which cards can be played next. For example, if a yellow (+/-2) number 5 card is played then the next card played must either be a 3 or a 7. Players then draw a hand of four cards from their draw pile and are ready to begin.

It is possible for players to play cards which add or subtract for a total above 10 or below zero. In the case of going beyond 10, players simply subtract the 10 (so a total of 12 would become 2, meaning a card of that value may be played). If the total goes below zero you instead add 10 to the value, so a total value of -2 would become 8.

This is a simultaneous play game; so as soon as the game begins players may start placing legal cards from their hand onto the discard pile. Players may only play one card at a time and must announce the new value as they place the card.

If a player cannot place a card from their hand they can draw from the deck that was dealt to them at the start of the game. There is no hand limit, allowing players to continue drawing until it is possible for them to place a card.

Play continues until one player has played all their cards. It is possible, near the end of the game, for a situation to arise in which no cards can be played despite players having all their cards in hand. In this situation, players put their hands face down in front of them and the bottom card from the discard pile is moved to the top. Play then resumes as normal.

The four sides

These are me, my pupils, the teacher and my eldest son.

  • The dad (avid gamer who secretly prefers euros to thematic games, but don’t tell anyone!): Unter Spannung is a good fit for our family games collection. It is a perfect balance of light, fun and portable with high-end tool for teaching and the improvement of mental maths skills. It fits perfectly with my eldest’s current learning at school and even some of the targets he has been set by his teachers. However the simultaneous aspect of gameplay means it just isn’t accessible currently in this format (eldest is only 5 and while the maths is not beyond him the pace required to be able to play simultaneously is). Instead we modified a few aspects and it has become a tool for the support and practice of skills currently taught in school. We moved to turn taking, which allows time to process and make decisions on which card to be played next. As both familiarity with the game and mathematical ability grow this game will find its correct place in the format it was meant to be played.
  • The pupil (an amalgam of my pupils, aged 9 to 11): This game is great fun. I enjoy the fast pace and the competitive nature. I need to pay attention at all times which is great, as I can get bored waiting for my turn in other games. I find it tricky to work out what I’m allowed to play when the total goes below zero. Sometimes when the maths is trickier I get stuck and it feels like I miss lots of turns. I enjoy the game with people who are the same ability as me at maths, but not when I play against someone who is really good.
  • The teacher (primary school teacher to engage and educate pupils via board gaming): A perfect light card game, durably made, which actively encourages both mental maths skills and rapid recall of known addition and subtraction facts. This can work right across the classroom for almost all my pupils. If I had enough copies I would consider using this for a warm-up activity before a maths lesson or even as an early morning activity at the start of the school day. I would need to think carefully about grouping my class for this however as I know one or two will either be over-whelmed or just won’t engage if they are in a game with a more able counterpart. I might consider adapting the “below zero” rule to help the game flow more easily.
  • The eldest son (aged 5, interested in “daddy games”, competitive, but with a short attention span): I like doing adding and taking away, we do lots of this in school with numbers up to 10 and all the numbers inside 10. I like this game because I get to practice my adding and taking away but sometimes I’m not in the mood and I can find this tricky and that makes me grumpy. I can’t play when everyone is going at the same time it is too confusing and the number in the middle changes too quickly. I also find it very difficult to tell some of the cards apart, especially the 6 and 9. I’m starting to recognise that different colours tell me how much I need to add or takeaway without checking the middle of the card.

Key Observations

The fact Unter Spannung is a simultaneous game with minimal options means the pace of play is high and the action can get frantic.

However those who are even slightly self-conscious about, or have a perceived weakness of, their mathematical ability are going to feel intimidated by the game (I can speak from experience here having played this with a teacher who holds a degree in mathematics and is a leading teacher in the subject). The high pace that can come about may also leave a player feeling isolated and unable to play, particularly in four-player games.

Some gamers may also feel the rules for above or below 10 are clunky and can slow down the pace of the game. While I don’t feel this is a huge issue for the beyond 10, if anything it made sense in this situation. I do feel that the beyond zero rules could be better and that by adapting these the game would not suffer from some of the slowdown issues that many have complained about and which confused many of the younger gamers I played this with.

Conclusion

Unter Spannung is an educational game but unlike many games that fall into that category it doesn’t use that as its main selling point. Instead, as part of the Amigo Spiel small box range, gamers know that they are going to get a lighter card game that is entertaining.

Our household is not yet ready for the game as it was intended to be played but that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be played. I’m looking forward to the day, in a few years time, when I get to say, “Okay, but today we aren’t going to take turns!”

My biggest issue, and the issue that certainly is most talked about in relation to Unter Spannung or 7 Ate 9, is what to do when passing below zero? While I understand why the designer settled on ‘add 10’, you move well away from the issue of continuing to go below zero; the concept can be very hard to grasp for those who have had little to no experience of negative numbers and, let’s be honest, the lower end of the age rating is certainly the target audience.

So overall this fun and sometimes frantic game is more likely to find itself being used as a learning tool within a classroom than being played as a filler game during a games night. That isn’t a bad thing however, as one pupil pointed put after a game in class, “I didn’t know doing maths could be so much fun”.

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

Ilos: A four-sided game review

Ilôs* is a card playing and tile-laying game pitched around the family/gateway level. You can play with two to five players, with games lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the number of players. The age suggestion of 10+ is about right, but gaming regulars of 8+ should easily cope with the mechanisms on display here.

While set in the imaginary land of Ilôs, it has a ‘trading in the Mediterranean’ feel – but before you run screaming, look at that smiling man on the cover! This nice cartoon art style runs throughout the fantastic components and, while largely themeless, the game has plenty of character.

In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find 90 cards, 75 wooden player pieces, 20 cardboard tiles, more than 160 cardboard chits and 5 player screens and boards. All these components are of a very high quality, with just the exchange rate chart and its tokens being a little flimsy; but these are hardly touched during the game. The game doesn’t seem to be currently available direct into the UK, but a US release is planned for 2018 (which will see it arrive here, hopefully in the £30-40 price bracket).

Teaching

The rules for Ilos are just six pages long and include plenty of examples. What the game does brilliantly is take several common euro game ideas, distil them to a pure form, then put them together to create a unique experience.

The game is driven by a card system which is akin to San Juan or Race for the Galaxy (where playing one card means you generally have to discard other cards to do so), but with the card pile limited to just six different cards.

These cards allow you to move (place or move ships); establish settlements (plantations, gold mines or buildings – which all generally earn you goods each turn), search ruins or affect the value of goods on the market.

Until the tile stack runs out (there are four tiles in play per player), a move action allows you to also place a tile (Carcassonne style). All tiles have islands and sea on them, and you place one of your five ships on the new tile. Alternatively you can move an existing ship you have (or place a new one) onto any existing tile. You will either place on a shore (allowing you to then establish settlements on that island) or on a pirating space (meaning all other players establishing settlements on islands on that tile have to pay more cards to do so).

You will need to have one or two ships on a shore to start a settlement, with the type of card played and number of extra cards needed (including those pesky pirates) often limiting your options. Most tiles have a number of spots for your pioneers, but each space can only hold one – so it’s first come, first served. Each pioneer placed will then give you one income of the commodity you settle on (ebony, spice, pigment, or gold). Alternatively you can sometimes build a fort (which protects you from pirates) or trading post (which copies a production spot already occupied on that island). Raiding ruins just gives a one-time three gold bonus, but this can be powerful as gold has the potential to be twice as valuable as every other commodity.

Finally, the market card action is what really drives the game. Instead of costing extra cards to play, this action costs you one good of the type you want to inflate the price of.

The trick, of course, is that once you up the price of a good everyone else will want to hoover up any available spaces that make it. But conversely there are only eight price rise markers in the game, and once they’re gone the market is set – so you can’t leave it too long to make your move.

On a turn a player can make any number of actions, as long as they have the cards to do so. There is no hand limit, so you could potentially save up for a massive turn – the only caveat being that if the draw deck runs out the current player draws any extra cards they need from the player with the most cards. The number of cards drawn each turn is three, plus one per ship you have on the board and one per fort built – so thee is extra incentive to get those ships out early.

The game ends when one player has placed all 10 of their pioneers onto spaces on the islands. Players then simply multiply the amount of each good they have by its market value to determine the winner.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Designer Frédéric Guérard has done a great job of combining simple mechanisms into a new game that comes together beautifully, while using a fictional location has avoided potential thematic banana skins around the topic of colonisation. While the game is best at 3-4 players it is still fun at both two and five, making it one of the very best family/gateway games of those arriving at Essen 2017. It’s a shame that, right now, it is almost impossible to find in the UK.
  • The thinker: While Ilos isn’t the deepest game out there, and you can occasionally be let down by the luck of the draw, if played with a ‘super filler’ attitude it works very well indeed. The very limited opportunities to increase values in the market is a key dilemma throughout, changing each play; while the game sets up and plays quickly (you can get it played in 30 minutes with an experienced group). And due to its familiarity it is a very easy teach to experienced gamers. But no, this is not a very strategic game – much more a short tactical one.
  • The trasher: While this isn’t a strong game in terms of player interaction, the piracy spaces actually make a significant impact. Especially early on you’ll find yourself scrabbling to do two or three actions in a round – so having to pay a few extra cards is painful. This makes it a pretty good attacking move (especially with less players), but also defensively – it’s much less likely for ships to land on the same island as you if you’re pirating its seas! The market is also fun to watch: it costs you to up a value, which in turn makes it hard to stay ahead of the curve. All in all, I like this one more than I thought I would.
  • The dabbler: As well as looking gorgeous and appealing to families in the process, Ilos is deceptively simply despite having quite the component list. It actually shares quite a few touch points with games such as Ticket to ride: it plays two to five players in around an hour, while you can wait until your go to make your decisions as the landscape can change quite a lot once around the table – so you can socialise a bit while you wait! Even later, when you’re drawing 8-10 cards, the decision space doesn’t grow: in fact it shrinks once the market closes and some of the spaces on the tiles run out, leading to a quick final land grab.

Key observations

Ilos feels very different with two players, especially compared to four or five. The real difference is that you only use eight of the 20 tiles, which can give big disparities in what commodities become available. This may annoy those who like to plan a more predictable strategy.

While I enjoy the fact the game blends familiar mechanisms to make something new, some players will simply look at it as ‘nothing new’ – which is a fair argument. Nothing here will surprise the regular gamer and descriptions such as ‘middle of the road’ can’t really be argued with – I have seen it described as ‘flat’ and ‘unexciting’. But my argument would be that, seen as a super filler, I see it as a lot better than those descriptions. But no – this is not a game that will be the mainstay of many gamer group evenings.

Conclusion

Going into Essen I had high hopes for Ilos and it has largely met those expectations. The game is light, fast, simple to set up and explain; but the market and randomness of the tiles and cards add just enough to keep it interesting.

I’ve had no complaints from anyone I’ve played it with, across all levels of experience, and in fact several people have been very much taken by it. Personally I’d rather reach for this than, say, Carcassonne (I’m not saying it’s a better game) – and because of that it will definitely be staying in my collection.

* I would like to thank La Boite de Jeu (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of the game for review.