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.