Queendomino: A four-sided game review

Queendomino is a family board game for two-to-four players that takes around 30-40 minutes to play.

It is essentially a slightly more complex version of Kingdomino, sharing the faux-medieval theme and dominoes-inspired set collection game play – but with a few twists that raise it to being more like ages 10+.

The artwork is also very similar to its award-winning predecessor, whilst again you’ll get 48 tiles, four little cardboard castles and eight wooden kings. But this time they’re joined by 32 town tiles and a town board you buy them from; a bunch of cardboard coins; wooden towers (15) and knights (22); a handy colour score pad, plus cute wooden queen and dragon pieces.

The box is quite a bit bigger than the original, but the overall production quality throughout is again very high – making it very good value for the price tag, which is around £20. In fact, it makes a mockery of many other games in its price bracket.

Teaching Queendomino

The basic rules of Queendomino are identical to those in Kingdomino (including basic scoring and number of rounds), so I won’t go into depth on them here (please click on the link above to my review of that game if you need to).

Essentially you still do the same basic phases: add your new domino to your kingdom, then choose a new domino by placing your queen on it. What’s new are three optional phases in between them: use knights, construct a building and bribe the dragon (done in that order).

Knights can be placed on the tile you just added (so you can use two on your turn if you have them, one on each side of your new tile) and earn money – one coin per square in its area. Money is used to construct a building (one per turn, built on the only new terrain type, towns), which then give various benefits. Finally, if you don’t currently have the queen in your territory, you may bribe the dragon to remove a building from those currently available (there are six to choose from).

Town spaces appear on 20 of the 96 squares that make up the 48 dominoes in Queendomino; but they’re basically dead tiles until you build on them. Many buildings give you points or new ways to score points (including crowns, as with basic tiles); others give you bonuses when you use your knights to get taxes; plus, some also give you knights and/or towers.

The first player to claim a tower also takes the queen into their kingdom – but don’t get used to her being around. As soon as another player has an equal (or higher) number of towers, the queen will move to their kingdom. The queen gives you a one-coin discount when constructing buildings and counts as an extra crown in your largest area if you have her at the end of the game. On the downside, you can’t bribe the dragon.

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 addition of the 20 town tile spaces reduces your chance to create large scoring areas, but many buildings let you score for having lots of small areas in a colour, rather than big ones. This reverse scoring adds an interesting extra tactical level that was needed and works well. However, it means towns can’t be ignored: it’s not as if you can choose a completely different way to try and win the game. However, as a gateway game, it now comes with a few light euro game elements that will be a good way to take your non-gamer friends to the next level.
  • The thinker: I’m still happy to play Kingdomino as a light filler, as it has surprisingly interesting decisions in a short time span. But the extra play time, setup time and fiddliness introduced with Queendomino seem to muddy the waters rather than expand them clearly. More isn’t always a good thing and for every new potentially strategic element here another random one seems to have been added that balances it out, meaning it doesn’t feel any more controllable. I had high hopes, but surprisingly I think I still prefer the original.
  • The trasher: The dragon adds a nice tactical element to the interactive part of this series, but can only be utilised by one player once per turn – so is better with less players (otherwise you may rarely get to use it). Its similar for scrapping over most towers, or most knights – if a couple of you go for it, it’s likely to simply benefit the other players as you’re watering down your own benefits and clearing undesirable tiles for your opponents. That said, the core element of choosing turn order still works well and its fun to put both games together to make bigger grids.
  • The dabbler: I still love Kingdomino and was looking forward to this – especially after seeing the cute new pieces (some of the things the sheep are getting up to on the new tiles is hilarious). But unfortunately I was disappointed: the game just seems to add complexity for complexity’s sake without adding any extra fun. You definitely wouldn’t want to play with younger children – especially as the little wooden knights are ridiculously small (and, frankly, the wooden towers are too big – you can barely see what is on other players’ tiles if they have one on – and if its two or three, forget it!). The addition of score sheets was very welcome though.

Key observations

It may seem as if I’ve given Queendomino a rough ride, so I feel the need to point out here that in the wider community the jury is definitely out on which game is ‘better’ – in fact, at the time of writing, both games ranked a very impressive 7.4 on Board Game Geek.

Those who love it appreciate the extra play time, see it as having deeper planning than the original, while adding the elements they thought were lacking. Those who don’t (like me), amusingly, simply say the opposite: the extra play time feels unnecessary, while the extra bits are over-complicated and weaken the game’s fantastic core. Is it deeper – or overblown? I’m afraid that’s simply a matter of opinion.

The ability to combine Queendomino with the original is great if you like both games and has been very well conceived. I do enjoy making a 7×7 grid (rather than 5×5) when playing the original two-player and having both games means you can do this all the way up to four players. Also, this waters down the town tiles sufficiently to make them have a little less impact, bringing the original scoring methods more to the fore.

When combining both games, in fact, quite a lot of things seem better balanced. When playing just Queendomino, the town tiles seem to have been given a bit too much weight in terms of the numbering – but this makes sense when playing the bigger game: town tiles are rarer, so feel more desirable. Unfortunately though, if playing two-player, this combining of the games is only an option if you go for a player-created variant that makes 10×10 grids – quite the undertaking!

Conclusion

I was happy to see Kingdomino win the Spiel de Jahres award and over a year on from my review of the game I’m still very much enjoying it. I looked forward to Queendomino and was still excited about it as I was getting it out of the box.

But I won’t be keeping it in my collection. I am definitely in the “it’s over-complicated” camp and, with its extended setup and play time, I have many family weight light euro games I’d rather reach for (both my recently reviewed Thurn and Taxis and Maori spring to mind).

But this shouldn’t be seen as me giving Queendomino a ‘bad’ review. It’s high average ratings and scores of fans are genuine, while the production quality is high. The game is well designed and also works/flows beautifully; it simply isn’t for me. If you love the original, I suggest you try this one out – and if you thought the original was simply too light, again, this is worth a look. Just be aware of its Marmite nature going in.

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

Thurn and Taxis: A four-sided game review

Thurn and Taxis is a family board game for two to four players aged 10 and up, that takes around an hour to play. It cleverly combines hand management and route building, seeing it win the coveted Spiel de Jahres (German Game of the Year) Award in 2006.

This is very typical of games coming out of Germany at the time and thus often divides opinion: the game’s ‘theme’, which is very thinly pasted on, covers the establishment of German postal routes across Bavaria and beyond in the 17th Century – not one to get the heart racing!

The brown of the box continues inside, with many of the components sporting ‘the beige, with more beige’ colour scheme derided by some (particularly in the US); but if you can see past the colour scheme, the artwork and graphic design and clear and simple. In the box you’ll find a beautiful (if very beige) board, 86 small (Ticket to Ride sized) cards, 80 small wooden post offices, 20 cardboard chits and four cardboard player aids. You can still easily find the game for around £30 new (or £20 second hand), which is cheap by today’s standards.

Teaching

Thurn and Taxis is in the same family as Ticket to Ride, Catan and Carcassonne: classic German games you can pretty much teach anyone, as they have familiar and simple rules – but that also enough depth to hold the attention of more experienced gamers.

The board has 22 locations and each player starts with 20 post offices they will try and place on them (so you can’t complete them all). You’ll lose a point for each unplaced office at the end of the game, while each city falls into a region – and completing these regions will score you some bonus points (decreasing for players completing them after the first). There’s an additional bonus for placing in all the different coloured regions.

Each location has three identical city cards (so a 66-card deck). Six of these are visible at any time (think Ticket to Ride), or you can draw blind from the top of the stack. What really makes the game sing is the order in which a turn is structured: draw a card; play a card to your tableau to continue your route, then choose whether to complete your current route (by using all the cards in your tableau).

All the cities are linked to at least one other (up to seven) by roads. Any card you play into your tableau (after the first) must continue the route you start in either one direction or the other – but you can only add to the two ends. This means that, if you didn’t have a card in hand at the start of your turn you can add – and if you get unlucky with your card draws – you may have to discard your route and start again.

You can only lay a route once you have three cards in your tableau, but waiting longer gives you point bonuses (a seven-city route is very lucrative). When you turn in your route you can place an office in any towns you don’t yet have one, but you can only place either in one colour (so ,for example, four grey cities), or only of each colour (so a grey, a blue, a red etc). Regardless of the amount of cities you place, all the cards in your tableau are discarded and you’ll start a fresh route next turn.

When you complete your first three-card route, you receive a bonus carriage (worth two points). If you later complete a four-card route, it will be replaced with a three-point bonus and so on – right up to a 10 point bonus for completing a seven-city route (having also done a five and a six – you can’t skip these bonus levels). If someone claims their 10-point bonus, this also ends the game (as does someone placing all of their offices), so you have two routes to victory. Finish the round, most points 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: While many disagree, this is one of my favourite Spiel de Jahres winners (just behind Ticket to Ride). It’s a very simple game to teach, can be played by players of all abilities, and has enough luck in it to turn up some surprise results. But at the same time, an experienced player will begin to find more strategic and tactical depth that should, in the long run, give them an advantage over time. Despite being well over 10 years old now the game is still in print too – not something some of the other previous winners can claim. For me, that is for one simple reason: it has easily stood the test of time.
  • The thinker: While Thurn and Taxis ha a lot of luck in terms of the random draws, with a deck of just 66 cars it is quite easy for a player with good memory to follow certain cities and to know the chances of what you need coming out soon. You can also play safer by playing slower, but this of course opens you up to defeat by more reckless (and of course lucky!) players. The two ways to win can also make for interesting pacing, as a player rushing to victory via completing the bonus carriages can devastate those playing the long game – but not every time, as the slow player can collect some large bonuses too. A very good tactical game.
  • The trasher: Each turn you can use one of four officials as a bonus action: take two cards instead of one; play two cards into your tableau instead of one; refresh the six visible city cards, or get a bonus carriage even if you’re up to two cards short of the amount you need (when you complete it at the end of the turn). This makes every round really tactical, while also giving you a better chance of flying by the seat of your pants if you want to push your luck to get that exact card you need. But you can also clear the decks if there’s a card there you’re pretty sure the next player is going to need!
  • The dabbler: I wasn’t wowed by the beige and typically German box cover of Thurn and Taxis, but at least the lady on the front is smiling: a fair reflection of what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable, if themeless and bland looking family game. You have to wonder a how a re-themed version in space, or a board that pops a little and some nice plastic pieces (a la Ticket to Ride) may liven things up a bit – but really, who cares? It’s a simple teach, easy set up and plays fast – yet every turn you have genuine decisions to make. Against the odds on first viewing, this is now right up there on my list of favourite games.

Key observations

Even Thurn and Taxis detractors don’t claim it is a bad design, but you see phrases such as ‘puzzle’, ‘optimising’, ‘themeless’, ‘abstract’ and ‘low/no interaction’ in the same sentences as those branding it ‘boring’. As I often say to this kind of criticism, you’re not judging the game, you’re judging your tastes.

No, it isn’t for everyone – only family gamers who like a thoughtful euro element need apply. And I do feel, more than any other game, it suffers for its similarities (and closeness of release) to the behemoth that is Ticket to Ride. Interestingly people almost equally describe it as both TtR+ and TtR Lite, which probably just proves that while the games share similar basic components they are actually very different beasts. Generally though, I would definitely suggest trying the other: but I find the experience they bring very different. They share a similar level of luck and planning, but TtR is much more combative and obviously interactive.

Speaking of luck, while Thurn and Taxis definitely has it, an experienced player who reads the deck will tell you that there’s much less luck here than in Ticket to Ride. I’ve had games of Ticket to Ride where I know I’ve lost due to a colour simply not coming my way, or because of accidental blocking; where in Thurn and Taxis it will be because I’ve taken a risk and it hasn’t paid off – or someone else has simply played better than me. Again, this is either going to appeal to your or not.

Finally, despite it having some seriously harsh detractors giving the game more than the average very low scores at Board Game Geek, the game is still ranked well inside the Top 100 family games and inside the top 350 games overall.

Conclusion

Thurn and Taxis could well be the most euro-ey euro of them all, while also being the more euro and worse looking cousin of one of the most celebrated games in the hobby (Ticket to Ride): neither of which enamour it to many modern gamers. But for thoughtful family and light euro gamers this is a genuine classic you should definitely try.

While I have quite deliberately not played it to death (once per month feels about right for the base game), this has become one of favourite family games. But it also has two expansions which add a little extra to the mix, so if it does become a favourite there are options to add a little variety too. Highly recommended.

Ancient Terrible Things: Madness of McGuffin – MEM review

Welcome to my first ‘mini expansion mini review’ for this little £10 dice and card expansion for the excellent Cthulhu-meets-Yahtzee push your luck game Ancient Terrible Things.

Even as a fan of the game (which is in my Top 50 games), I found the original re-rolling mechanism a little frustrating. Most of the time you could only reroll individual dice (by spending tough-to-get tokens), rather than being able to ‘lock’ dice and reroll the rest – so if you already had a totally crap roll it cost a lot of tokens to try and make it a better.

Recognising the problem, they did release a downloadable ‘version 2.5’ rule update that changed this to allow you to spend tokens to reroll or lock dice, but it’s fair to say a lot of owners of the original game would never have seen it.

In the company’s recent release, Konja (which uses the same ‘dice quest’ dice system), the designers added two extra dice and some cards that dialled-up the reroll system a step further. These white dice are used to activate cards that let you either reroll or lock – but if you don’t need to use them, there’s a 50-50 chance per dice (three sides are blank) you’ll have rolled a symbol which will let you instead take much-needed bonus tokens. It’s a small change, but it works really well.

What Madness of McGuffin does (you guessed it…) is introduce this system to Ancient Terrible Things.

Each player starts with two extra cards that represent these two re-roll options: the lock option card doesn’t ‘exhaust’, so could be used twice in a round (with both white dice) – while the standard reroll card does.

Another nice twist is that the reroll card can alternatively, at any time, be ‘sold’ to give you two cash. Money is often hard to come by in the game (especially using scenario two), and some of the loot is super tempting, so this gives you the option of giving up a nice reroll ability to grab that swag item you’ve always dreamt of owning.

Eight cards for £10 would be a bit of rip off. But don’t worry – you also get a complete new set of 16 dice for the game, including the two new white dice and three purple ones (used with the Lost Charter expansion). Unfortunately these dice are a little smaller than the awesome ones in the original game, but frankly the little skull pips totally make up for that in terms of theme – and despite being a little smaller they’re still high quality.

Conclusion

If you’re a fan of Ancient Terrible Things, I think this is worth picking up. It certainly makes the reroll situation more interesting, while adding a little extra theme for those who want it. I think my only lingering problem with the game now is the swag cards, which seem so much fun but are generally hard to get. I think I’ might draft some $1 items at the start of the game, and perhaps allow players to trade in unwanted items for half their value when shopping at the store. Maybe I should go try that out…

The Ancient Terrible Things: Madness of McGuffin mini expansion is available direct from publisher Pleasant Company Games, which has a lot of great little add-ons for its games over at its online store. Thank you to them for providing a copy for review.

Konja: A four-sided game review

Konja* is a two-player only dice and card game from the same design/art team (Simon McGregor and Rob Van Zyl) that brought us Ancient Terrible Things and Snowblind. A game lasts 30-60 minutes and while the age on the box says 8+, that may be a little low (I’d probably guess 10+ unless they’re a full-on gamer child).

Players are duelling wizards; a popular theme, but as usual with Pleasant Company Games the art style makes it stand out from the rest. Also like the aforementioned games, this is a dice-chucking push-your-luck game with cards throwing in special abilities and one-off powers along the way.

In the box you’ll find 11 custom dice, 40 cards, five wooden idols, five thick cardboard tiles that make up the play area, and about 100 cardboard chits in various shapes and sizes. All the components are of the usual high standard: fair value at around £20-30. There’s also a handy card effects cheat sheet separate from the rulebook.

Teaching

Konja is a straight race to 21 points. Between the two players are five god tiles (inspired by African mythology, which makes a nice change), one of which the active player uses on their turn.

Once all five have been used, they’re reset and the players go through them again (and again, until the game ends). These powers grant a special one-off ability to the player choosing it, then another ability that both players benefit from.

Next the active player rolls five dice (plus any extras they may have accrued), using various cards/tokens to change or reroll the results until they’re happy – or out of options. Their opponent then gets a chance to mess with them by rolling a dice that can cancel one of these results. Finally, the active player ‘spends’ their roll on various benefits: end game points, tokens to help in future rolls, or both.

The meat of the decision making comes in what you spend your tokens on. Magic tokens help you cast spells (instant discarded effects that can do everything from steal from your opponent to make your rolls better); while money can buy/upgrade victory point tokens, or buy new and improved ancestors (each player starts with three of these, which may be activated for various dice rolling effects). Finally, power tokens are used to power (der) the ancestors.

When one player’s end game points hits 21 or more, the round is completed and the player with the most points is 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: What makes this series of games stand out, Konja included, is the wealth of mitigation on hand for those pesky dice. This also has a nice blend of visible (ancestors) and hidden (spell cards), so you never quite know what your opponent may do. I think I’d mix it up even more, giving each player a replacement choice in round one for one of their starting ancestors. But, with all that in mind, it was a shame the player who won most times simply hoarded money for buying points, rather than buying ‘fun’ stuff like ancestors.
  • The thinker: While there are many interesting ways to mitigate your dice rolls, Konja still felt much like an exercise in futility. You can add as many bells, whistles, twists and turns as you like, but if one player rolls ‘well’ and the other badly – guess who is going to win? Sure, I’m not the target audience here and I certainly didn’t have a bad time playing – the game is short enough that the high level of luck is acceptable. But there doesn’t seem to be a viable, more strategic option available here. For me the best dice games have a ‘roll and hope’ model that may win you the game, plus a slow and steady one with less outliers.
  • The trasher: I’d really looked forward to Konja, as the thought of a straight push-your-luck dice battle always excites me – but I was a bit disappointed. There’s hardly any real interaction between players and it certainly doesn’t feel like the advertised ‘dice duel’. Sure, there are some spell cards that liven things up but beyond that – how is ‘roll dice, mitigate bad roll, repeat’ a duel?! A duel should be action packed! This game is ponderous, with a player’s turn feeling long and convoluted even after repeat plays. Not for me.
  • The dabbler: As always, I loved the artwork and effort put into the components. The little skulls on the dice are adorable, which sounds weird – you’ll have to check them out. We really didn’t like the red ‘screw you’ dice power, which lets you mess with the other player’s results. Luckily there is a variant included where, instead of removing a dice from the other player, the red dice is used to upgrade one of your own dice if you roll something better with it. We found this also sped the game up a little, rather than slowing it down and frustrating us. Played like this, I found plenty to love in the world of Konja.

Key observations

For a game that revolves around a one-on-one dice chucking mechanism, Konja is actually a slow and thoughtful game. This thematic break can be hard to overcome and feels like a misstep for some players. This is not King of Tokyo.

While the god abilities is a good mechanic, the five choices are so specialised that they rarely feel like choices. Normally one choice is the obvious one, no matter what style of play you choose – at least one tends to be pointless, for example, or one may clearly favour your opponent. It also feels like a very mechanical step that breaks game flow for what is often a very small payoff.

Some have said that the card powers are unbalanced, but I can’t say this is really something I noticed – and even if it is a bit of an issue, the game is short enough that it is unlikely to be much of an issue. spell cards are one-and-done, while players start with identical ancestors: those you buy later will only be used a few times each, so are unlikely to have a massive impact – especially when you’re rolling a load of dice, which are pretty random themselves…

Conclusion

When a design team decides to keep revisiting the same mechanism, as a punter you hope they’ll continue to refine – or adapt – to create a set of games that fans of the original will love. Mac Gerdts and Uwe Rosenberg are the obvious proponents of this design ideology, and who can argue (sensibly) with their results?

Pleasant Company are doing it with this ‘dice quest’ game system and while I loved the first two offerings (reviews linked above), for me Konja feels like a small misstep. But hey – you can’t win them all, right? And I’m sure some players will prefer this to the others – if you like puzzley, gorgeous push-your-luck dice games you should definitely seek it and give it a try, especially if you haven’t played anything in this series. But why wasn’t I sold on it?

For me, a great two-player experience means getting inside the head of your opponent. This can be done in the simplest to most complex games: I love anything from The Rose King to Race for the Galaxy two-player. I want to be worrying about what the other player will do next but here I didn’t feel that. Take other Yahtzee-style games, such as Heck Meck or Decathlon. These aren’t ‘two player’ games, but when played with two you need to think about what the other player is up to: can I steal their tile, do I need to go for it on this event etc. Konja feels too restrained, despite all the mitigation. I just didn’t feel as if there were any truly satisfying ‘Hail Mary’ moments.

I know the guys have another game in the works with the same dice mechanism. Titled ‘Grim Heroes’ and slated for a 2019 release, it takes this dice system into the co-op fantasy realm – where I have high expectations for it working wonderfully.

* I would like to thank Pleasant Company Games for providing the game for review.

Transatlantic: A four-sided game review

Transatlantic* is an economic card-driven euro game from designer Mac Gerdts. It plays two-to-four players and takes one to two hours (once you know the game), taking longer at higher player counts.

There’s quite a lot going on here, so the age suggested (12+) feels about right. But if your kids are younger and have player other Gerdts games, they’ll be equally at home playing this one.

Transatlantic sees players taking the roles of shipping companies in the age of steam, taking a historic journey from the earliest commercial steam ships (mid 1800s) through to the early 20th Century (yup, The Titanic is in here). You’ll buy modern ships and watch older ones become obsolete, but hopefully long after you’ve made a solid profit from them. The theme is fine, and there’s the usual PD Verlag history document in the box, but it’s as dry as it sounds.

The components are a mixed bag, which I’d have to conclude fall a little short of what we now call average. The main and player boards are dull if functional; the card stock fine but with some odd graphic design – and poor colour – choices; the paper money is thick and nicely designed, but it’s paper money; and the cardboard chits and wooden pieces are fine but uninspiring. Overall it doesn’t look great on the table but is perfectly serviceable; although using largely dark shades for the cards was a big misstep.

Teaching

If teaching to players used to playing previous Mac Gerdts games Concordia and Navegador, this will be a breeze. But even if not, Transatlantic has an easy to follow and well written rulebook – including a separate sheet for setup.

While setup is a little fiddly it does skip through what would be a boring couple of opening rounds, while setting all the players up competing in the various oceans of the world. This is a game with an underlying economic element built around area control, so forcing everyone to place their first two ships into different areas gets things off on the right foot.

After this you’ll be taking typically Gerdts short, snappy turns – as with Concordia, you’ll play a card and do its action: that’s it. One of your cards (you each start with the same hand of eight cards) allows you to pick up all your played cards back into your hand, so you can do those actions again.

When you do this you also get to take a new card from a public display, so as the game goes on reach player’s hand of cards start to deviate from the rest (you probably get slightly less extra cars than in Concordia, but there are several that feel more specialised and unique than in his previous release).

Standard actions see you buying and then deploying new ships; filling those ships with coal; or using the coal on ships to earn profit by transporting goods or passengers. You’ll also be buying trade houses, coal bunkers and business markers – which then help you score victory points as the game progresses. Trade houses encourage you to use your ships in the sea you place them; while the rest of the markers will increase the value of ships you have of a certain colour.

Whenever someone buys ships, one that hasn’t been bought goes into the ‘docks’; meaning ships of this colour will be worth one extra victory point later. This means ships in a colour no one is buying become more valuable – but of course there are less of them around. You can try to specialise or diversify, but as usual in Gerdts games the name of the game is efficiency: the player who best uses their tactical situations to feed their long term strategy is likely to come out on top.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: As a big Gerdts fan, and a lover of Concordia, I’d looked forward to Transatlantic with growing enthusiasm – especially after it was delayed a year to make sure it was just right. I also like how he takes a mechanism (such as the rondel) and runs with it for several games. Concordia kept just enough of his usual style but was an interesting take on deck-building – so another instalment was welcome. I even quite like the theme. It was easy to learn too, and despite some fiddliness easy to teach. But sadly, despite the pedigree, there just wasn’t a spark.
  • The thinker: This game is way more tactical even than Concordia, especially at higher player counts. Ships rocket past in the buying market and money margins are so tight (especially early on) you’re left with little to no control over what to buy. I’m sure that with practice this feeling may dissipate, but after several plays it still felt more random and fluctuating than i feel comfortable with. And while this is offset by the short-ish playing time, I’d rather player a game with more control that plays longer. Unfortunately, a disappointment.
  • The trasher: With a dull theme and look, I was surprised to find anything at all I liked in Transatlantic – but it definitely has some interesting interactions. Shipping decisions are often predicated by which ships have coal at what times, as sometimes you can ship a whole region – so timing can be crucial. Control of areas is also interactive, as you can’t beat pushing players’ ships out of areas they’ve spent money building trade houses in. And then there’s the Blue Riband – the only free victory point generator, but you can only get it by putting out the fastest ship into the North Atlantic.
  • The dabbler: I was quite surprised that I liked Concordia, but I really couldn’t warm to this one. It looks pretty ugly and without a main boar to move around it simply isn’t spatially appealing. I was moving things around and playing cards, but so many of the actions felt as if they were just variations on a theme. I certainly didn’t hate the game, and everything worked, but I never really felt engaged. And for me it wasn’t the theme – I like something a little different and it’s nice seeing the old style painting of all those classic ships. I just couldn’t really get into it.

Key observations

The more critical words players kept coming back to while playing Transatlantic were ‘abstract’ and ‘dry’ – which is odd, as several of my group (including me) really like dry, abstract games!

During play the games seems fiddly, but I think this is exacerbated by its repetitive nature: you’re son dong the same things over and over, in the same fiddly way, but the payoff doesn’t seem to improve with time. Sure, you’re getting more money per transaction and maybe a slightly better action from a new card – but these things don’t feel different.

While I didn’t have any issues with the rule book, it seems a lot of others did. Sure, its a bit of a dog’s breakfast in terms of layout – but personally I didn’t find it slowed me down. That said, it doesn’t flow well and I had the advantage of being familiar with Concordia – which works in a similar way. So do be aware mileage in this department may vary.

Finally, colour blindness issues with the cards really need a mention. One ship colour is white – but unfortunately the others are black, darkish blue, dark green and a deep maroon red. No, I have no idea what they were thinking – and to make it worse, there is no symbology to tell them apart (they all have the same shape flag on them with no pattern). This is pretty unforgettable in modern gaming, and it does feel a little as if some of the older, traditional German publishers are getting left behind.

Conclusion

I don’t own every Mac Gerdts/PD Verlag game, but have played and enjoyed all the ones I’ve come across – including this one. But Transatlantic is the first I’ve owned that won’t be staying in my collection. Perhaps if it had come along before Concordia, the card play would’ve been enough to keep me playing – but this very much feels like a backward step from that, rather than a forward one.

If you’re a Gerdts fan, like economic games, or if the theme appeals, I’d recommend seeking it out for a play. It is a solid design and mechanically there’s nothing wrong with it at all. But in comparison to his other recent titles, I found it a little lack lustre in terms of a hook, a spark, or a reason to keep coming back. Transatlantic is a solid 6.5, but I just didn’t find anything to love.

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

Terraforming Mars: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching Terraforming Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Solo play

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Exploriana: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching

Prototype image

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

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

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

Prototype image

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

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

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

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

The four sides

Prototype image

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

The Dwarves – New Heroes: expansion review

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

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

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

What does New Heroes bring to the party?

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

An expansion dwarf (left) next to an original

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

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

How much does it change the game?

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

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

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

Is New Heroes value for money?

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

Is the New Heroes expansion essential?

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

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

… and does it fit in the original Dwarves box?

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

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

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.

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.