Santa Maria: A four-sided game review

Santa Maria is a dice drafting, tile-laying and action selection euro game that plays in one to two hours, depending on the number of players (it usually plays two to four, but also has a solo variant).

This is definitely a gamer’s game, despite what the cartoon style box art might suggest. The age suggestion of 12+ seems about right, as poor play here can see you get a pretty savage thrashing in terms of scores.

The game sees each player setting up and expanding their own colony in the new world at the start of the 16th century. You’ll be producing goods and shipping them off for profit, conquering the locals for gold, or increasing your religious influence – all in the name of making your colony happy (happiness points equals victory points). It’s a well trodden path and Santa Maria makes no attempt to pretend the theme is anything more than pasted on, so don’t expect to immerse yourself in some deep history.

While this may not be its first rodeo, Aporta Games is still relatively new to board game publishing – and it shows a little in the component quality here: the dice feel cheap (the colour ran on the blue ones), some of the tokens are small and fiddly, and some of the graphic design looks cheap and poorly thought out (the victory point tokens are particularly annoying, being very small and in strange denominations). But despite these relatively minor niggles the game feels worth its £35 price point.

Teaching

While there’s quite a lot going on in Santa Maria, seasoned gamers will recognise all the mechanisms and be able to quickly get up to speed. There’s no hidden information that will impede you helping players out as you go along.

Player turns are short, involving just a single action choice (although this can trigger multiple small actions), so games move at a satisfying pace. Most of your game is played on your own player board, while the central game board is used to track information (more on which later). Your board consists of a 6×6 grid of spaces for tiles and an area for resources.

On a turn, a player either adds a tile to their board from a limited central supply by spending resources (each double tile has a road and a building, plus one more of either on three-space tile); use a building (using money) or row of buildings (using a dice); or pass out of the round – called years (there are three in the game). So far, so simple.

The bulk of the game is spent activating the buildings – but the real trick is in solving the puzzle of getting the right tiles and – more importantly – putting them in the right places/combinations. Building allow you to variously gather resources (which you have very limited storage space for); ship these goods off for points and bonuses; trade them for similar; or move along one of the two central game board’s advancement tracks: monk and conquistador.

The conquistador track resets after each year and is pretty boring, yet tantalising: you get the occasional wild resource (very handy) and those furthest along it gain nice points at the end of each year. The monk track has more going on and doesn’t reset. It gives access to extra dice plus the chance to grab bonuses (both ongoing and points for end-game) or resources.

But where the game shines is in what you can’t do, rather than in what you can. If you use a dice to activate a row or column you have to leave the dice on the final building it activates – meaning you won’t be able to activate it again for the rest of the year. You can do the same by paying a coin (then two for the next building, three for the next etc) to activate a single building, but that blocks it in the same way a dice does.

So of course what you want to do is make a row or column as juicy as possible before you activate it – but here you’re faced with two problems. You can activate a maximum of six dice in a year – three of your own (blue), and three from the communal set (white). You only start with one blue (the others you earn from the monk track) and the communal pile of white dice are rolled at the start of the year – so if you snooze, you lose. It costs money to change dice faces and that is often in short supply.

Take into consideration that there is a very limited number of tiles available in each round too, which are also first come first served. So from the get-go each year you have dilemma after dilemma: how much do you want to risk missing those dice and tiles in the hunt for that perfect dice activation? There’s an almost Feldian array of ways to score points, with some being way more ignore-able than others. And there is also a reasonable amount of variety in bonus tiles and combinations to keep those ravenous for replayability from moaning too much.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: If you come to Santa Maria in search of theme or originality, you’re going to be sadly disappointed: even more so if you want high quality components and art/design. But if you want AP-inducing and brain-achingly tricky decisions, fill your boots. The constant dilemma of row activation versus row improvement makes the game stand out in the fast-growing dice activation crowd, putting it well ahead of many older titles – especially the rather ponderous Dice City. It has a slight feel of Cuba to it, but I prefer this one as it is slightly less punishing if you make mistakes – and all rounds a little more satisfying to play.
  • The thinker: While the game has a solid design and I can see it becoming popular, it isn’t for me. Personally I don’t think the mix of tactics and strategy is quite right for the more serious gamer, which can leave a bitter taste in the mouth.  While there are several ways to mitigate dice rolls, they often simply aren’t available: either because the right monk abilities aren’t in play, or you can’t efficiently generate cash income. You can spend year one building strong rows and columns you simply can’t activate effectively later due to duff rolls. This annoyed me – but will tactically titillate others!
  • The trasher: While Santa Maria can look like a heads-down euro with no player interaction, this is a very tactical game – but only with more players. While the number of dice available scales with the number of players (so everyone can always get three white dice from the pool in a year), the available building tiles doesn’t – making each year quite the scramble for them. Also, you have the same number of monk bonus spaces available at all player counts – but going in later sees you paying a coin to each other player who already chose it. This isn’t much of an issue two-player, but with four its a big deal – at least earlier in the game. But overall, not really for me (but i’ll play it).
  • The dabbler: While there is a little too much going on here compared to my usual tastes, once you have the rules down you can largely concentrate in one major direction and do pretty well – even win. Some strategies are much simpler than others in their execution but still give big pay-offs, which does make me doubt things a little: but not enough to stop me enjoying myself. I found this puzzle surprisingly enjoyable – despite neither the theme nor look of the game doing much to win me over. And yes, it’s a little slow with four – but it just means more chatting time lol.

Key observations (including solo play)

In terms of harsh comments from other gamers, ‘clumsy’, ‘ugly’ and ‘under developed’ are all criticisms I have some sympathy with: more should have come out to make it a more streamlined experience. There are lots of things to do in the game, but many don’t feel different enough to warrant inclusion.

AP and downtime are also important side notes, especially when adding more players. Even with two you notice the very different length in how long a year takes (year three can easily take longer than the first two combined) – and with four players it can be hard to keep everyone focused, as you’re less worried about what other players are doing by then as well.

Finally, there is the issue of the perception of imbalance, especially on the first-play experience. Things you’d expect to be significant scorers (such as end-game bonus point tiles) barely impact your score, while the innocuous looking conquistador track is almost impossible to ignore. I expect the game is actually well balanced, and feels well tested, but there have simply been some odd decisions made. All these are more small nods to underdevelopment, I guess. But that said Santa Maria still manages to be an engaging and fun experience – just imagine what it could have been!

If you like this kind of euro game, the solo variant is very solid. The mechanics lend themselves well to it in a similar way to Agricola (rather than Caverna): what you lose in competition for tiles you gain back in trying to beat your previous solo scores by using different strategies, with the randomness in tiles and dice rolls throughout making each game feel a little different. It also throws in a few goal-style scenarios to beat, so while I’m not sure it will have huge staying power purely solo it’s engaging enough to make me return to it for further plays.

Conclusion

I’m struggling to come to a conclusion about my feelings for Santa Maria. It really doesn’t look good, doesn’t appeal to me with four and the way the scoring flows feels counter intuitive – but especially with two players, I really enjoy myself.

The mechanisms work well together and are well integrated, if largely unoriginal: and you do get that satisfaction of solving a tricky puzzle each play. And while it does have a Feldian ‘point salad’ feel, it can also have some quite big point swings and a well executed turn can feel wholly satisfying.

For these reasons it will be staying in my collection, at least for a few more plays – and because my better half likes it too (despite being quite new to gaming). So I’d recommend at least trying it if you’re a fan of euro games at all – and definitely if you love dice drafting and/or point salad style games in particular.

* I would like to thank Aporta Games for providing a discounted copy for review.

Little Big Fish: A four-sided game review

Little Big Fish is a two-player abstract board game, suitable for ages eight and up, that plays out in about 20 minutes.

As you may have guessed, you’ll be trying to eat your opponent’s fish. That’s about as far as it goes for theme! That said, the production quality more than makes up for it.

In the box you get four modular board pieces (making a 6×6 grid of squares), 16 thick cardboard tokens and 24 fantastic plastic fish in three different sizes. The art has a really professional cartoon style (it could be straight out of a Disney movie) and the gorgeous fish are real head-turners – especially as they’ve made them orange and pink.

The game is currently a little hard to find in the UK, but you should be able to track it down for around £20 – reasonable value for the high production quality.

Teaching

Little Big Fish follows many traditional traits of classic two-player abstracts such as chess and draughts.

On you turn you move your pieces (in this case you can move one fish one space twice (each counting as a separate move), or two of your fish once each), with the aim of capturing your opponent’s pieces (here, capture five and you win the game – while you also win if you reduce your opponent to having just one piece on the board).

You each start with three small pieces (fish) on the board. Fish can be upgraded to medium and then large fish, with each size being able to eat the same size fish (or smaller) of your opponent. While small fish are the most vulnerable, they are also more manoeuvrable: there are eight spaces on the board containing ship wrecks, which medium and large fish can’t enter – but small fish can go straight through them (and they don’t even count as a space of movement).

There are also four each of ‘birth’, ‘plankton’ and ‘surprise’ squares on the board. Landing on a birth square spawns another small fish for you; plankton grows the fish landing on it (but you can only use each space once), while the surprise square sees you flip over a random token and take its action.

There are four types of token: ‘plankton’ and ‘birth’ act as the spaces described above, ‘whirlwind’ allows you to rotate one of the modular board pieces 90 degrees, while the ‘fisherman’ eats the fish that landed on the ‘surprise’ space – but also eats one of your opponent’s fish if they have one on the same modular board section. There are only eight tokens (two of each), but you reshuffle and use them again if required.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Good aesthetics can go a long way in helping a game gain traction, and Little Big Fish has it in spades. Better still this one has simplicity on its side, making a game you could pretty much teach anyone.
  • The thinker: I’m always wary when a design adds randomness to a game akin to traditional abstracts, but here it adds an interesting dimension. As there are only eight surprise tiles you can weigh your odds on the chances of getting a favourable outcome on any given round, with these odds becoming clearer as more tiles are used. I think two serious tacticians would soon tire of the game, but as an abstract game clearly aimed at the family market it does a good job of introducing some more gamery elements.
  • The trasher: While the theme of Little Big Fish is paper thin it does work well, and the funny fish models add charm – but underneath it’s a pretty vicious game. The fisherman, for example, are a nice twist. If you have a good chance of getting one, and opponent has a lone big fish on a board, a small fish can dash across to a surprise token and have the chance of taking the opponent’s big fish out with a single move. Who doesn’t love a great David and Goliath moment in a game? This is a fun game for its time span – especially thanks to its fast setup time.
  • The dabbler: While the game is indeed super cute and easy to learn, it can actually be very hard for newer games (and tired gamers lol) to see some of the better moves. The simplicity of moving through wrecks, for example, shouldn’t be hard to parse – but I’ve seen lots of players simply miss this play and get eaten up over and again. Sure, this means the game doesn’t stall into an AP nightmare but it can also be pretty frustrating. I’m just not sure that once the cuteness factor has worn off and people are really clear on the rules, that this won’t degrade into a slow hardcore abstract puzzle with little fun left for more casual gamers.

Key observations

While Little Big Fish has gorgeous pieces, I’m flummoxed by the publisher’s choice of colours for the fish. Why would you pick pink and orange for the fish, and make them identically shaped?

I have no idea if this is a colour blindness issue (please let me know), as I don’t personally have that condition – but still struggled to tell them apart in poor light.

Beyond this, my only complaint is that you can quite easily get into a death spiral if you fall behind early on and end up with pretty much no good moves. This isn’t too much of a problem in such a short game – and you often have a Hail Mary available with the fishermen – but it can be pretty frustrating.

Conclusion

Little Big Fish is a really solid two-player abstract with enough little twists to stand out from the crowd – both aesthetically and mechanically. While it probably won’t win over those who don’t like abstracts, it works very well as a thinky filler that packs down nicely into a small box perfect for travelling.

When you add the advantage it is simple to teach – so will appeal to children and parents too, as the great pieces and light theme should easily win them over – then this is a great little package. Personally, of the two-player games I’ve played from Essen so far, I still prefer Adios Calavera; but I’ll also be keeping this one in my collection.

* I would like to thank The Flying Games (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of the game for review.

Hanamikoji: A four-sided game review

Hanamikoji is a small box two-player card game from EmperorS4, designed by Kota Nakayama and with art by Maisherly. A game lasts around 15-30 minutes and while saying 10+ age on the box, I think younger gamers should be just fine as it has a very simple rule set.

While the game is very much an abstract, the theme is or winning favour with a selection of geishas. I’ll talk more on this later, but the more prudish of you shouldn’t run away screaming with your hands over your eyes: the theme is very much graceful, artistic women and the art throughout is both beautiful and tasteful.

The component quality is also top notch: the game has 28 high quality linen finish cards and 15 cardboard tokens. A price tag of close to £20 may seem a little steep for a game with so few components, but the quality is unquestionable and you don’t need a box full of bits to get a whole lot of game.

Teaching

At its heart, Hanamikoji is a very simple area majority card game. The seven geisha cards are laid out in the centre of the table with the 21 item cards shuffled and used during the game (one item card is always dealt out of the round, face down, so you don’t have perfect information – but all the rest will be in play).

Each player will play the same four actions in a round, hoping to win the favour of four of the seven geishas or a total of 11 points (the latter outstrips the former if both players meet one of the victory conditions).

The favour value of each geisha equals the number on their geisha card – which equates to the number of item cards they have in the deck. So you could win the game with just three geishas in your favour, as long as they were the higher scoring ones (the 4 and 5, plus a 2, for example).

On a turn you simply draw one card into your hand and then carry out one of the four actions – but no matter what order you’ll have to do all four, which will see you using all of your dealt cards. The four actions are: discard 2 (they will not be scored); save 1 (it will be added to your side at the end of the round before scoring); make 2 piles of 2 and let your opponent add one to their side – you add the other 2 items to your side; and put 3 single cards from your hand on the table – your opponent puts 1 on their side, you put the remaining 2 on yours.

Once all actions have been taken, and the saved card of each player added to their side, you score. Each geisha has a scoring marker on their card and it is moved to the side who has the most item cards on their side- or if it is a draw, the marker stays on the geisha. A game can be over in a single round, or can last for several (you can put a cap of three rounds on a game, but most games will end within three rounds anyway).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: It sounds like a negative but trust me, it’s a positive: you hardly ever want to play any of your actions in Hanamikoji. A little like classic two-player game Lost Cities it always feels like the other player must be in a better situation than you, but in truth the likelihood is the game is screwing with you both. Games are good when every decision is interesting: here, every decision – even the first one – is agonising. While the microgame bubble has well and truly burst, EmperorS4 has done a great job of finding a good one and packaging it as a small box game.
  • The thinker: There is no doubting this is an extremely clever game design. It is a tight and intelligent abstract game that plays and sets up fast – but ultimately it is an extremely tactical game, where forward planning is a luxury you rarely if ever get to utilise. You will be forced to play 10 cards during a round but only start with knowledge of five of them – not enough to make many informed decisions. You are then drip-fed a little more information each round, but by then may have already made mistakes you can’t come back from. I can see the thrill of this for many players, but as a strategist I found it very frustrating.
  • The trasher: Wow, Hanamikoji is a wild ride! While there are only four actions the order you play them in makes a huge difference: forcing your opponent into making decisions about your cards early can be an advantage, but will leave you forced to discard cards you may need later – but make your move too early and you may need to offer your opponent a bunch of cards you want to keep. Sometimes you get a sweet deal – maybe all three cards of a three-card geisha, meaning you can play the ‘you keep one, I keep two’ action knowing you’ve won her favour. But mostly its backs against the wall panic! It’s just a shame it has such a wussy theme – this is a combat game!
  • The dabbler: This is a beautiful game and very simple to teach, but has some hidden depth too. Forcing both players to make all four actions is clever, as it never feels like you’re being mean – you’re just doing what you have to. And the lovely art makes it look a lot more passive than it is. But despite looking beautiful the theme didn’t come through at all – and while the game is clever, it lacked personality and didn’t create the right vibe for me. We bemoaned our luck, and sat tensely: I’d rather have the fun and laughter of Love Letter.

Key observations

So the geisha theme is clearly the elephant in the room for some players, who can’t simply see Hanamikoji as a beautiful abstract game. Personally I find the bland primary colours and children’s fonts of Qwixx more offensive, but each to their own. Also, if you think a traditional geisha was a prostitute, do some research…

Onto more serious critiques, the small decision space and heavy restrictions are not going to work for everyone. Comparisons to Battle Line seem common, and understandable (two players fighting for majorities in a card game); but I expect most games of battle line will be twice as long and, well, it’s just different. I really like both games but see them as very different challenges. That said, I do wonder how much of Hanamikoji is luck versus skill – where the better player will tend to win Battle Line.

Others also note Hanamikoji is too quick for them, while others question its replayability. Here I think it depends why you want a particular game in your collection: for me, this is a game I will be able to pop on the table to fill a short gap and it will amaze and surprise many gamers with its clever design made with so few components. Will I play it every day? No. But I expect it will get more plays than a lot of games on my shelves, and will elicit more of a reaction than many of its heavier counterparts.

Conclusion

Hanamikoji is a genius piece of game design that everyone should try at least once – even if it does make you pull your hair out. The artist and publisher have made it everything it could be too, and I will certainly look out for other games from Kota Nakayama in future – as well as art from young female talent Maisherly.

I don’t think its cleverness can really be called into question – but whether you’ll like the game is a very different question. Short two-player abstract games with very tight decision spaces certainly aren’t for everyone and this feels as if it is at quite a gaming extreme – but it will be staying on my shelves and I feel thoroughly deserves its current place in the Board Game Geek top 50 family board games.

* I’d like to thank EmperorS4 for providing a discounted copy of the game for review.

Essen 2017 new releases: First impressions, part 1

I’ve had the chance to play half the games I brought back from Essen at least once now, so I thought I’d give you a brief first impression of each of them (I’ll do a follow-up on the others once I’ve played all the rest).

Please remember these are just early thoughts: full reviews of all of the games will be heading your way over the next few months. Also, they especially need to be taken in the context of the player counts used (several were solo plays, for example, which often gives a very different impression to a competitive game).

Santa Maria (two player)
When I lined up this medium weight euro I was hoping for a game akin to Cuba, but more fun; on one play, I’ve got exactly what I’d hoped for.

Your points will come from fulfilling contracts for goods and progressing along a few tracks – and you’ll do it via a dice drafting/action selection mechanism. So far so whatever.

But as you activate rows and columns during a round you’ll limit later options in the round, which makes for some tough decisions – and rewards for clever play. There can also be some fierce competition for actions, dice and position; making it highly interactive, but no in a mindless ‘take that’ way. One play verdict: probable keeper.

Space Race (two plays, solo and four-player)
After a solo run through of this fast engine-building card game I thought, ‘I think I’ve just about got the hang of this’. But after a four-player game in which everyone involved was baffled throughout, I’m still not really any the wiser as of what to do.

It’s the kind of game where everything feels as if it’s familiar, but nothing is actually what you expect. You can never play cars from your hand; you can play them into a place where you don’t think you want them, because you can’t use them – but at the end they’ll score you points. And you’re trying to build your engine despite not usually knowing whether you’ll get the cards you want. It’s just totally unintuitive.

Half of me thinks it will reward repeated plays. The other half can’t quite see it ever being fun enough to warrant the time it will take a group of players to become proficient at it, rather than frustrated and baffled. Two-play verdict: unlikely to make the cut.

Ilos (one play, four players)
This was on my radar as a game to play with my girlfriend, who likes tile-laying and other games with a bit of depth but no massive rules overhead.

On first play, I’m hopefully onto a winner. There’s nothing new or clever here, but the combination of simple mechanisms with some meaty decisions – and a bit of luck – seems to be just about right.

You draw cards, place people/ships, and gather resources – all the while deciding whether to spend some of your hard earned stock to increase its end game vale in a light stock market mechanism.

It all comes together beautifully, is really well produced, and plays in the appropriate amount of time for this sort of thing (about an hour with four). One play verdict: probably keeper, but with slightly suspect replay value.

Noria (one play, solo)
I haven’t mentioned rulebooks yet, but frankly I shouldn’t have to. With thousands of games with of practice behind them, surely game publishers can make half decent instructions? Well, so you’d think.

It took me three runs at the Noria rulebook to actually get it played – so no one was more surprised than me to find a relatively straightforward game hiding in the box. Like Ilos its largely a market manipulation game, but with a clever/original rondel/action selection mechanism which sees you both choosing which extra actions you want, but also how often (and powerfully) they’ll crop up and be available.

The solo mode was OK, but I very much doubt I’ll revisit it. For most the fun here is going to come from the competition with other players, rather than the cleverness of the action wheels/rondels – which begs the question: will all the fiddliness be worth it? And will the AP outweigh the fun? One play verdict: the jury’s out.

Little Big Fish (one play, two player)
I’d kept my eye out for a few smaller footprint two-player games and this one drew my eye at the show.

Our first play didn’t disappoint: fast setup/pack down, super cute pieces, typically simple abstract game rules – but plenty of interesting decisions and a short play time.

It feels like a spatial game in a similar way to Hey, That’s My Fish; in that you have to be thinking at least a few moves ahead. But there’s a bit of randomness (which is optional) and variability that should hopefully keep us coming back for more. Verdict: probable keeper.

Pot de Vin (one play, five players)
I really like a good trick-taking game and was very happy with my pick of last year’s Essen crop, Eternity. I love the art on this one too, and the presentation/rules etc overall are great, but what about the gameplay?

I understand you have to do something a little different to stand out in the very busy trick-taking market, and one of the ideas here appeals and works well: cards you win in tricks give you ‘goods’, essentially, and a few (or loads) of a type will score you points – but if you get stuck in the middle ground, you’ll lose points instead.

Now to pull this off, you’re going to need control: which is unfortunately made impossible by the trump changing after every trick – and you have no idea in advance what to. And yes, after every single hand. This made hand control practically impossible, which we all found very frustrating. Maybe more plays will reveal a way to cope with this, but right now I’m sceptical. One-play verdict: trade pile.

Konja (one play, two players)
The third dice-chucker from Pleasant Company Games feels very familiar if you’ve played Ancient Terrible Things: perhaps too close.

Here it’s distilled into a two-player battle, with similarly great art to its predecessor – but also very similar mechanisms. There’s a small amount of ‘take that’ on offer, which is well implemented, while gameplay feels smooth and polished.

But the question remains: do I need this, when I could just play Ancient Terrible Things two-player? The answer is probably going to come from seeing how much the take that element wins us over – and on whether you can quickly enough differentiate yourself from your opponent (which didn’t happen enough here). One-play verdict: the jury’s out.

Hanamikoji (one play, two players)
This isn’t a new game (it was re-released in its current form at Essen 2016), but is one I’ve only just picked up for review. I’d heard a lot of good things about it, and the artwork and presentation are amazing, so I was keen to give it a try.

First impressions are incredibly strong. The game is very short and simple, but every decision is absolutely agonising. You may only take four actions in the whole game and even the very first one feels absolutely critical to your success: the tension starts to build the minute you look at your initial hand.

But having said all that, these positives for me seemed to be negatives for my better half. She looked equal parts confused and perturbed throughout, and at the end was far from won over. I’m hoping it will win her over after a few more plays, but it’s not looking good! One play verdict: good, but Marmite!

Mini review: Pummeleinhorn – The Cookie Marathon

I won’t be giving a full review of this children’s game from Pegasus Spiele, as it has already been handed on to a more suitable audience – but not before I played it twice.

Apparently quite the children’s personality in Germany, here you’re charged with helping our chubby unicorn hero eat as many cookies as possible – while exercising, of course.

The art is cute, components perfectly adequate, and set up is simple. But while the game comes from design heavyweight Reina Knizia, it’s fair to say he phoned this one in.

On your turn you roll a dice and do what it tells you – so far, so standard for a six-plus years children’s game. However, three sides of the dice mean you have no decision to make at all, while another gives you a reroll – so again, no decision. It’s a shame, as the other two sides see you choosing how far to move (which can be an interesting decision for a young child) or playing a light memory game: more of this on the other dice sides and it could’ve been a much better game.

But it has another fun side too. Wherever you move Chubby you remove a cookie card – so of course you have to say “nom nom!” as you do so. This was funny with both the girlfriend and four adult male friends in a hotel after several adult beverages, so I’m presuming this alone will be enough to keep younger kids engaged for a while. But ultimately, despite being a giggle, it feels terribly half-baked.

Adios Calavera: A four-sided game review

¡Adios Calavera!* is a small box two-player abstract board game being released at the Essen Spieltage in October 2017.

The game has several variants, but the 8+ age range on the box is certainly achievable: while younger children will be able to play the simplest version.

The game is themed around the Mexican harvest celebration, the Day of the Dead, where families and friends celebrate their lost loved ones and help see them off on their spiritual journey. What it comes down to is a race to move your pieces from one side of the board to the other in an experience that could be described as draughts on steroids.

In the box you’ll find a nicely illustrated board, two player references and 16 wooden player pieces (with stickers to put on both sides of each). The components are all of solid quality (the board could be a little thicker) and I really like the artwork. A game takes less than 30 minutes and the price tag is around £20. There are also several mini expansions available to add variety. I’ve reviewed them all in a single post here.

Teaching

Despite having so few pieces there are several ways to play Adios Calavera which actually do compliment each other, rather than being a fudged way to not decide which is the best version.

In its super simplest version (which most players will skip past and ignore), each player has eight identical pieces which they need to move across a roughly 9×9 grid to win: but one player is moving north to south, the other east to west (rather than sitting opposite each other, as is traditional in this kind of game).

Players take it in turns to move any one of their pieces. You can move in any combination of orthogonal directions, with the amount of moves you get being (up to or) equal to the amount of other pieces (from either side) in your row – with your ‘row’ direction being that which your pieces need to move across the board.

You can’t move through, only around, other pieces (yours or your opponent’s) and several spaces (including the centre space) being marked as obstacles. First player to get all their pieces across the board wins (if you complete on the same turn, it’s a draw).

While I’m sure this straight forward version will be enough for some, flipping each piece over reveals their special power: essentially turning them from draughts into chess pieces.

While you can play with all eight powers (each player has an identical set), the standard way to play is by using four of them each – and there are a variety of ways to determine which to use (random; flip two, keep one – my favourite; straight choice etc). Those with powers you don’t use stay as standard pieces for that game.

The eight special powers are all straight forward: move faster, move diagonal, jump pieces, push/pull pieces etc. Some are straightforward, some situational, but all can be super effective if used by a skilled player (trust me, I’ve been beaten by good plays of most of them!). And the same end game rules apply – the first player to get all their pieces across the board wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Adios Calavera’s charming art style drew me in, but once it arrived the simplistic rule set didn’t inspire confidence. however, once we started playing I was immediately intrigued by the tough decisions and depth of game play. Every move needs to consider the impact on both players’ movement capabilities, as well as thoughts of blocking the other player’s path across the board. And the fact you mix up the combos you use each game ensures extra replayability.
  • The thinker: There is an awful lot to be commended here. The limit of four powers per player, and many ways to decide them, will stop this becoming a chess-like game that can be ‘solved’. While of course players playing often will find certain combos that work well together, you will still have to contend with whatever combo you opponent plays – and this already large set of variables is exacerbated by the fact you can set up your eight pieces in any formation you choose across your eight starting spaces.
  • The trasher: My favourite thing about Adios Calavera is how differently each piece works – with some working well as both attacking or defending pieces. Some may see the strong man as simply awesome for pushing your own pieces across the board – but get him in front of your opponent’s pieces and he can push them backwards too. And the magnet is great for shunting your own pieces into better rows – and equally awesome at moving your opponent’s into weaker ones.
  • The dabbler: Pretty to look at, and simple and fast to play? count me in! While the theme could be anything they’ve done a great job of it: the artwork is playful and the characters all have names and nicely thematic descriptions: from ‘Pedro the Unclean’ who’s cheesy smell means your opponent can’t place pieces next to him, to the exuberant Carmen who embraces another piece and whirls them around (essentially swapping places with them). An instant favourite.

Key observations

As this is a rare occasion where I’ve received a pre-release copy and am actually the first I can find that has reviewed it, it’s hard to feed off the criticisms and misgivings of others – which is made harder by the fact I can’t find much at fault with the game. As time passes, I’ll be happy to address any concerns here (or feel free to ask questions as comments below).

But while i’m a big fan of the game I recognise that it is, at heart, a simple and elegant two-player abstract game with no luck involved. As good as I may think it is, if you’re not into this kind of game I doubt there is anything here that will convert you – although the variable setup and powers do at least lessen the impact of one player being far more experienced than the other.

Conclusion

Adios Calavera is the best new abstract board game I’ve played in several years. It has a small footprint and low price tag, while managing to be charming, varied and thinky – and can be played in about 15 minutes with very little setup and pack down. Highly recommended for any gamer and a definite keeper for me, joining a very small set of abstracts that have hung around on my gaming shelves.

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