The number of new games being released each year is absurd, and my urge to try as many of them as possible is even more absurd. I tried 77 new and new-to-me games in the second half of 2009 and am here to report on my findings. The following is a brief discussion of each game organized alphabetically within the month in which I tried them. These are meant to be a cross between mini-reviews and tangential commentary on topics that these games bring to mind. This is a follow-up to my previous column on Q1 & Q2. My hope is that these blurbs spur your interest in a game or two, regardless of whether or not its one I personally enjoyed. My goal is to provide at least a kernel of information on each game to pique your interest so that you further investigate and try out a few new-to-you games, or if you're looking to prune your wishlist then perhaps I can be of some assistance in that regard. As far as how this crop of games turned out overall, I have to agree with Larry Levy when he says in his article on The Two Faces of Essen that the new games of 2009 have been unusually split between very good and very bad, with far fewer middling games than usual. I'm sure reasonable people will differ over which side of the spectrum many of the new releases belong on, but below you'll find my thoughts on the matter.
Age of Steam: China - Yet another solid Age of Steam expansion map by the Steam Brothers. This is a map with painfully expensive buildings costs and with lots of difficult terrain, tricky placement of the color of cities, and a special rule requiring payment for each city to which you link. It all adds up to an extra harrowing and brain-burning experience. I don't recommend it for those new to Age of Steam and it's not one of my all-time favorite expansion maps (Japan, Soul Train, Scandinavia), but it's certainly interesting and worth trying out.
Automobile - Multiply seventeen by one hundred and twenty five. Now do thirteen times seventy. Was that fun? If so, then buy and play Automobile, otherwise stay far away. This is a clever math problem, but I can't fathom anyone actually enjoying it. It purely revolves around doing such calculations. I'm very surprised to see this getting picked up for a wider release. I enjoy many Martin Wallace games, but this doesn't really seem like a game to me.
Clippers - Harry Wu must have played this 2002 Alan Moon game (with a unicorn and Bigfoot I presume) before designing Chicago Express as they feel remarkably similar. Both feature communal ownership of companies laying track as you strive to find something to do that benefits yourself more than others, and even the late-game emergence of a new, small, and potentially valuable company. Both very solid games, with fairly significant overlap.
Das Motorsportspiel - I'm open to trying just about any game from any genre, but in the past few years have begun to realize that two genres tend to bore me, those being racing games and deduction games. This racing game attempts to alleviate the boredom of rolling dice to move around a track by mandating quick turns with no counting out or take-backs, and it succeeds to some extent. Yet I'd still rather be playing just about any other type of game than a racing game, whether it's cars or horses or boats or what have you. For racing fans, of which there must be many given the proliferation of this genre, this is a potential golden oldie worth checking out.
Descent: The Road to Legend (and Tomb of Ice and Altar of Despair) - What fun! Takes an already fun experience and stretches it out over many gaming sessions. I've played four sessions of Road to Legend so far and am really enjoying it. I like how relatively weak the characters start out and watching them grow slowly stronger, and also seeing as the overlord becomes more powerful over time by upgrading his abilities and monsters. Fantasy Flight sure knows how to make a great expansion!
Elfengold - What a disappointment! I'd been trying to track down a copy of Elfengold to play for years before finally finding a copy to try out, and it did not live up to my hopes. I enjoy Elfenland reasonably well as a light-hearted gateway game and obvious precursor to Ticket to Ride. I had thought that adding in Elfengold to return the game to the designer's original intent before it was simplified for purposes of winning the Spiel des Jahres (obviously the right decision in hindsight) would improve the experience. But despite my general predilection for complex games, it turns out I actually prefer Elfenland without the extra complexity and length added by Elfengold. Perhaps I was just too used to the quickness and simplicity of the streamlined standard Elfenland, or perhaps I had built up my expectations for Elfengold too high after tracking it's intractably high prices on the second hand market for years, but whatever the reason, in the end I'll stick with the base game; and so ends this quest for the expansion that held the promise of returning the game to its original form.
Mu & Lots More - Absolutely fantastic conglomeration of four card games by four different designers in one box. I've actually only tried threeof the four so far (those being Was Sticht, Njet, and Mu) but they are all really, really good trick-taking games (particularly Was Sticht and Njet). I enjoy Tichu to some extent, but I think both Was Sticht and Njet are even better. They're both very clever twists on the trick-taking genre! Was Sticht involves players drafting their hands through a sort of reverse trick-taking exercise. Njet involves players voting on trump, starting player, the number of cards to pass, and the value of the tricks in that round by process of elimination. I love both games and can't wait to try the last one in the box. I highly recommend this game to anyone who remotely enjoys card games.
War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age - Another good Fantasy Flight expansion in the same month. Not quite as good as Descent: The Road to Legend, but not a distant second by any means. I've only played War of the Ring four times so far, and with Battles of the Third Age twice, but I'm now thinking about picking up a copy so I can try to get it to the table more often. I enjoyed War of the Ring somewhat the first couple times I played it, but it definitely grew on me more with later plays, and with an opponent who knew the game really well and could facilitate the game running smoothly and quickly. I really liked the additional siege rules and siege towers in Battles of the Third Age as they seem like something that obviously fits seamlessly into the base game. Since I played as Sauron, I found the addition of the Ents very annoying, but they're nevertheless a great and interesting addition, giving the players yet another factor to consider in this overwhelmingly epic recreation of an alternate narrative for the Tolkien universe.
Winner's Circle - A potential party game that's a bit too plodding to really be a successful party game. I feel like a good party game needs to move quickly and be lively, while this one is too slow paced and has too much downtime to be a top tier party game. Perhaps the conclusion should be that it's not a party game, but it's a game of gambling on horse racing, so I have a hard time seeing it as anything else, and thus I've crossed it off my wishlist after trying it.
Atlantic Star - This is such a great gateway game - up there right with Carcassonne, Settlers, and Ticket to Ride - that it's a real shame that it's out of print. I was able to order a copy from Germany and have it shipped over relatively inexpensively so it's not impossible to track down by any means, but hard enough that you can't exactly recommend it to new members of the hobby. I really enjoy the simplicity of this game combined with the interesting decisions players have over what card to buy, what route to go for and when, and how much to take in loans when borrowing against your own potential victory points. The mechanism for borrowing money is ingenious and really ups the tension here.
Bombay -Ystari's first take on the pick-up-and-deliver genre, and also their first take on the family game field. They've done blind bidding, worker placement, area majority, and auction games, with varying levels of success, but this is both their simplest game yet and their first foray into the world of pick-up-and-deliver. Surprisingly it was reasonably enjoyable, better than many other Ystari titles, but not as good as the few that have been worth purchasing. It was a fairly simple game of wandering around the board with your elephant piece, picking up wooden cubes of various colors, and bringing them to the designated place to sell for a variable amount. There's a decent amount of interaction since players can not only try to beat others to the punch in getting and delivering cubes, but also since players can set up tollbooths along the way that collect when opponents pass through. As long as everyone keeps it moving at a good pace this game works and seems to accomplish what it set out to do, so it's just up to you whether a simple pick-up-and-deliver game is something that interests you.
HeroScape Marvel - As I mentioned in the previous installment for Q1 & Q2, I finally tried HeroScape in June 2009, and found it to be very fun. I had the opportunity to play HeroScape again in August, and this time with the Marvel characters, among many other expansions (e.g., Swarm of the Marro, Utgar's Rage, Orm's Return, Jandar's Oath, Fields of Valor, Thora's Vengeance, Raknar's Vision, and Ticalla Jungle). I think that the Marvel expansion ruins HeroScape. It introduces characters that are far too powerful. They live for too long and make most other units completely irrelevant non-factors. It took an enjoyable, chaotic, amusing game and threw a massive wrench into the works. I'm sure I'm not the right audience since I'm not particularly a Marvel fan and don't know all of the Marvel characters. I'm also sure that some people who are huge fans of Marvel may find this expansion enjoyable. However, for those of you who are somewhat familiar with Marvel, but not overly so, and who enjoy the original version of HeroScape, I recommend being wary of the Marvel expansion and the imbalance it brings to a finely tuned and well-crafted game.
Straw - A very light and quick card game brought to you by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), who may be better known for recently publishing The Adventurers, Thunderstone, Infinite City, and Tomb. You're dealt a random hand of cards depicting items of varying weights (like a flying carpet or Aladdin's lamp), and you take turns adding a card to the camel's back, trying not to be the one who pushes the total weight over 50 (i.e., don't be the one who plays the straw that breaks the camel's back). There are some other cards that reverse the order of play, subtract weight, copy a previous item, and other such things. It's fairly random, but quick enough to not unbearably wear out its welcome. Not my first choice of card game filler though, since it comes in behind all of the following: For Sale, Fairy Tale, Bull in a China Shop, Scripts & Scribes, No Thanks, and Coloretto.
None (taking a two-week vacation to Japan and also moving from NYC to DC prevented me from trying any new or new-to-me games in September, but that was just the calm before the storm of new games in October and November)
Container - What an odd game! It's a standard theme of players producing and shipping goods on boats, but the quirk is that you can't just ship the goods that you produce. You need other players to voluntarily choose to purchase and process the goods first, and then you can't ship the goods that you've purchased and processed. So the entire game is extremely interactive as it revolves around passing these goods back-and-forth as you essentially work together to get them from production to shipping. What I liked about Container is that it allowed players to specialize, really and truly specialize. Unlike many games that give the appearance of allowing specialization, while rewarding and encouraging a broad approach (e.g., Agricola, Endeavor), Container not only permitted but also didn't attempt to dissuade players from specializing in a particular facet of the supply chain, whether that be producing, processing, or shipping goods. What I didn't like about Container is that it seemed like a very fragile system that could cease to function relatively easily if the players didn't play "correctly" to make it work. It seems as if the game could easily break if the players don't essentially work together to keep the system running smoothly. It's definitely a game I would need to play a few more times to better grasp how it all fits together.
Dixit - Gorgeous card game, of which there seem to be more and more of late (such as Krakow 1325 AD and Day & Night). Interestingly, all three are first-time designers and small publishers, who all clearly put a lot of energy into the art on the cards in their respective games. Dixit is not only beautiful, but also a clever party game. It's not entirely original, feeling like a mix of many previous party games (such as Apples to Apples, Balderdash, and Cluzzle), but it's original enough to be worth playing and purchasing in my opinion. I've played the game eight times so far and with a wide variety of different groups and it's gone over well every time. There's something about the illustrations combined with the simple yet challenging gameplay that gives this one a remarkably wide appeal.
Endeavor - Much has already been written about this first published design of Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray, and whatever else anyone thinks of this game, it would be hard to argue with the fact that this is a very impressive first published design for any designer. It's a fairly complex German-style board game with a number of interlocking systems that take elements from many popular earlier designs (such as Puerto Rico and Goa) and repurposes them into a new package that works. The mechanics all work very well together which in and of itself is very impressive. It's also not a game that I can really adequately judge after just two plays and I need to play a few more times, but after those two games I'm not sure it's a game for me. My issue with the game, which I previously discussed in my Essen 2009: GeekBuzz Meets Fairplay article, is that it is yet another in a long line of games that give players the opportunity to specialize, but discourage and effectively prevent such specialization by rewarding a generalist approach that does a bit of everything. Like Agricola, Endeavor is a game that allows you to score points in a variety of categories and determines the ultimate result by adding up your points in each of these possible categories. However, you can't really specialize and pick a unique path to follow as you attempt to get as many points as possible because the way in which the technology advancement works seems to prevent such specialization. I tend to prefer games where I can actually take the game up on its offer of specialization (such as Age of Empires 3 and Container), rather than being corralled into the same generic approach as everyone else.
En Garde - An old Knizia game from 1993 that I'd been meaning to try for many years now, but had never had the opportunity until recently. It's a clever game of playing numbered cards, just like we've come to expect from Knizia. Like Lost Cities, En Garde combines a dose of hand management, probability estimates, and reading your opponent's mind. It's quick and simple, yet provides some agonizing decisions that you'll inevitably regret. While I believe it's hard to track down a copy these days, it seems like an obvious choice for couples who enjoy Lost Cities and Knizia's design style in general.
Ghost Stories: Chuck No-Rice - I love Ghost Stories, a lot. It's the best pure cooperative game on the market hands down. That's not a genre for everyone certainly, but for those who enjoy cooperative puzzles, look no further than Ghost Stories. As with any promo item for a board game (such as the Spielbox mini-expansions), this promo item doesn't actually add much to the game, but for fans of the game, it's an amusing and fun addition. I've even had Chuck No-Rice decide the results of the game by being the last incarnation of Wu-Feng surviving, standing between the Taoists and victory, see this photo of the end game situation. So it's not an irrelevant addition to the game by any means, just not a necessary one that you need to spend many hours and/or dollars hunting down.
Last Train to Wensleydale - A return to greatness for Martin Wallace! I'm a huge fan of some of his older designs such as Liberte, Age of Steam, and Byzantium, but have been disappointed with many of his more recent designs such as Automobile, Steel Driver, Brass, and After the Flood. Last Train to Wensleydale is fantastic because it's a train-themed game that feels very different from most other train-themed games. It's a game that focuses almost exclusively on its strong suit, which is short-term tactical decisions while managing five different currencies, all of which can be used for multiple different purposes. The game is not without its downsides, including an ugly board (which is putting mildly), a fiddly setup, an anticlimactic final turn, and a potentially overpowered area of the board, but despite all of that, this is a game that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing six times so far and that I look forward to exploring many more times. I've taught the game to a variety of different people and have seen reactions across the spectrum. As a result, I don't think it's a game for everyone as it's somewhat quirky and kind of an odd ball game, but if you're looking for something a bit different and enjoy some of Wallace's quirky designs then check out Wensleydale.
Maori - The first of a handful of terrible games that I tried for the first time in October all thanks to my new game group in DC since I recently moved from NYC. I have a penchant for tile-laying games. I often enjoy the sense of accomplishment as you build something out of nothing by slowly laying tiles to construct a world from scratch. In Maori, you get to lay tiles onto your board to form islands worth a varying number of points. It sounds like something I'd like, but it's not. Not at all. The way in which you acquire tiles seems clever in theory, but is actually random and frustrating in practice. Then once you've gotten your tile, there's very little flexibility or actual choice in deciding where and how to place it. Essentially it's a boring experience that adds little new to the genre, and what it does add is not a welcome addition.
Pack & Stack - This was a variation on Ubongo with a three dimensional element. Just like Ubongo, players try to arrange pieces to fit into a small space laid out on their board. It's a spatial puzzle that uses the same part of your brain as Ubongo. Unlike Ubongo, Pack & Stack gives each individual player a different random assortment of pieces by rolling dice, and unlike Ubongo, the speed part of Pack & Stack involves picking which board you want, and the actual arranging of pieces is done at your leisure. Despite my feeling that Pack & Stack is inferior to Ubongo, it was nevertheless a fun game in the moment and one I wouldn't turn down playing in the future if someone else suggested it as it was at least quick and entertaining.
Pandemic: On the Brink - A great expansion for a game that really needed one. I love both Pandemic and Ghost Stories (and Red November for that matter). I prefer Ghost Stories of the three personally (as it was my game of the year for 2008), but I still lean towards Pandemic with non-gamers because it's a great simpler cooperative game that has worked well with family and non-gamer friends in my experience. This fall I bought the expansions for both - Pandemic: On the Brink and Ghost Stories: White Moon. Since I enjoy Ghost Stories more I was naturally more excited about the Ghost Stories expansion. To my surprise, and as a reversal of my feelings on the base games, it turns out I actually prefer Pandemic: On the Brink over Ghost Stories: White Moon. In hindsight, it seems like the natural outcome. I think the Pandemic expansion fits in better with the base game and adds some welcome complexity to a fairly simple game that can get old after 20 plays or so. I think the Ghost Stories expansion is a bit more cumbersome and unnecessary as it adds a number of extra mechanics to a game that is already loaded with mechanics and hasn't shown any signs of getting old or feeling stale after 38 plays. I still like both games and both expansions, but I realize now that Pandemic needed an expansion more than Ghost Stories and the Pandemic expansion fits in more seamlessly with the base game.
Peloponnes - This is not a "civ lite" game and anyone who goes in expecting a "civ lite" game is likely to be disappointed (which could lead to a reenactment of the Great Tempus Debacle of 2006). This is an auction game with a civilization-theme. I'm told it uses "Evo-style bidding," but having only played Evo once a million years ago (with actual dinosaurs), I don't know how accurate that is. I do know that it uses bidding, and a lot of it, and it focuses all of your important decision-making on the bidding, on using your money wisely, on evaluating what you need most, and what your opponents might need, so you can figure out what to bid on and just as crucial, how much to bid. The trick in this game is that the amount you bid is locked in, so if you get outbid, all you can do is change your bid to another tile up for auction, not change your bid to raise the amount for that tile or any other tile. It's a somewhat interesting auction game with a Tigris-style scoring system of only counting the lower of points on buildings or population, but the civilization theme seems more likely to hurt this game's reception than to help it, as is so often the case.
Poison - This was just terrible, no good, and very bad. The worst of the bad bunch from October, beating out Maori and Ra: The Dice Game for the dishonor. I'd been wanting to try Poison for some time now as I'm a fan of many filler card games and a fan of various Knizia designs. Put the two together, and it turns out you get the worst of both worlds. One round of Poison consisted of being dealt a random hand of cards that entirely determined the outcome of that round as you simply played the obvious card on each turn to avoid taking negative points. One game of Poison consists of many completely unrelated rounds that do not build on each other or relate to each other in any way, as Knizia is wont to do. Adding rounds for the sake of length is a weak and half-hearted way to turn an idea into a full-length game. Poison was just utterly miserable.
Ra: The Dice Game - Let's get the last of the trifecta of bad new-to-me games in October out of the way now, thankfully due to the way the alphabet works out here. Ra is absolutely fantastic. It's in my personal Top 20 games of all-time and is my Game of the Year for 1999. But I like Tigris & Euphrates a lot too and that doesn't mean I need a card or dice game version of it. The same goes for Samurai, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride, Caylus, and Alhambra. So you can see that my dislike of Ra: The Dice Game is not objective in any way, shape, or form, but obviously stems from a deep-rooted prejudice against all such abominations. I want to play board games, not the stripped down, streamlined, neutered versions of those board games. I completely appreciate the fact that designers and publishers want to make money off of known entities with expansions and spin-offs, rather than risking an investment in an unknown entity, just as we see with sequels and spin-offs in movies, books, and television. That's a perfectly rational approach for the designers and publishers to take, but it doesn't mean I have to like the products that result. That being said, I went in to the game of Ra: The Dice Game with as open a mind as I could muster. However, the game faced an uphill battle from the start given my dislike of earlier German-style dice game efforts, such as To Court the King and Airships, both of which had me feeling bored and helpless. Now those two duds no longer have to stand at the top of the heap as they've been dethroned by the newest dice game abomination. Combining the wonderfully eccentric scoring system of Ra with a dice game that attempts to simplify and streamline is nonsensical. You end up with a game that takes just as long as Ra to play, but still manages to inject mundane dice rolling and strip out engaging auctions. You end up with a game that really should not and would not exist in a world where games were designed to be played rather than simply purchased.
Ricochet Robots - Speaking of my preference for things that are actually board games, Ricochet Robots is just a puzzle masquerading as a board game. It reminds me a lot of Set and Jungle Smart (also known as Crazy Circus), in that all three games pit players against each other as they try to be the first to solve a puzzle presented to everyone simultaneously. The first thing that can tip you off that these aren't really board games as we generally understand them is the fact that players can come and go as they please during the game and it won't have any detrimental impact on the game. If someone wants to leave in the middle, no worries. If someone shows up and wants to start playing, no problem. That makes for a great joint puzzle solving activity, but doesn't really make for a board game as I understand them. The second tip off is that you can play for any length of time you feel like. You can play for 10 minutes or 10 hours, whatever you please. I appreciate designers who finely calibrate the length of their games to the depth of those games, so the games don't end prematurely or overstay their welcome. Karl-Heinz Schmiel seems to be a master of this often neglected, yet very significant skill. He has given us the four-hour Die Macher, the 90-120 minute Extrablatt, the 45-60 minute Was Sticht, and the thirty minute A La Carte, all of which fit their timeframe beautifully. It's a fine line that games have to walk as you can easily feel as if they end prematurely (e.g., Cuba) or overstay their welcome (e.g., Marvel Heroes). Ricochet Robots eschews the entire dilemma. As a result, like Werewolf, it's a group activity that your group may or may not enjoy partaking in.
Steam - Much to my surprise, everyone seems to have a strong preference between Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon, and now Steam. I don't understand it. I've played all three and they're all great games. Actually, to be more accurate, they're all a great game (singular, not plural), with slight variations. These three games are so much more similar than anyone else ever seems to admit. They have a few small differences, but the essence of each game is the same. Some map expansions for Age of Steam change the game far more than either Railroad Tycoon or Steam change the game. To anyone outside the hobby or new to the hobby, the differences between these games (besides the obvious component differences) would be so minuscule as to seem ridiculous that anyone could have a strong preference; it's only from within the hobby that the differences can seem magnified and enormous. I really liked some of the rules tweaks in Steam, and prefer some things in Age of Steam, but they're just variants on the same game in my mind. For instance, I liked the way role selection worked in Steam, but the allocation of deliveries to victory points or income was not an interesting decision as I'd hoped. In the end, I think most people will just prefer whichever game of these three that they tried first, so those who started with Age of Steam will prefer it, but those who started with Steam will likely prefer that one. I started with Age of Steam years ago and have played it 35 times now, so I find myself preferring Age of Steam. If someone only has Railroad Tycoon or only has Steam, I'll gladly play those instead. I thoroughly enjoy expansion maps for Age of Steam, and these two sequels just feel like additional expansion maps with a few rules tweaks like most expansion maps have.
Treehouse - An abstract game where you roll a die to determine your move. I bet you can already guess my reaction. Given my general distaste for dice games and pure abstracts, this one was a dud in my book, unsurprising in hindsight. Going in I thought I might like it because I liked the components and it looked short and clever. Turns out it felt like an abstract with dice, and on top of that, it replicated the frustration of Phoenix, where you're trying to get your pieces to match another set of pieces, which can change during the game, making for a frustrating moving target. I promptly traded one set away to someone who can hopefully give the game a better home, and so I only have one set left to dispose of.
A La Carte - I mistakenly thought that this was a new Karl-Heinz Schmiel game in my previous Boardgame News column, but as someone thankfully pointed out, this is actually a reprint of a game that's 20 years old. Albeit a reprint with definitely improved components, from the looks of the photographs of the older version. I'm really glad I had the opportunity to try A La Carte at BGG.CON in Dallas because it turns out that Schmiel really can design games across the spectrum, from heavyweights like Die Macher, to middle-weights like Extrablatt, and now to light-weights like A La Carte, which is a very fun and very silly filler. It's got a dash of dexterity and pinch of decision-making, which combine to make a fantastic recipe. It's good enough to even merit importing from Germany assuming it doesn't eventually get a U.S. release.
Aladdin's Dragons Card Game [Disclosure: I received a copy of this game as a gift from the designer Richard Breese] - I've already written a bit about Keydom and its offspring Aladdin's Dragons, but now the offspring have had offspring in the form of the Aladdin's Dragons Card Game. I know I'm on the record as generally opposed to the very idea of card game versions of board games (such as the Tigris & Euphrates Card Game, Caylus Magna Carta, Settlers of Catan Card Game, San Juan, and Cardcassonne), but this may be the exception that proves the rule. I have actually enjoyed my two plays of the Aladdin's Dragons Card Game thus far and am looking forward to trying it again. I now think that the results of card game conversions inherently depend on the underlying essence of the original game. In most cases that essence is lost in the translation and the card game ends up being a neutered version of its inspiration. Settlers is a negotiation and trading game, so the card game rips the heart out of the game. Caylus revolves around the tension between short-term tactical gains and the long-term benefits of the favor track; Caylus Magna Carta discards the favor track and consequently discards any chance at being worthwhile. Tigris & Euphrates and Carcassonne are tile-laying games, so removing the tiles is just downright illogical. Aladdin's Dragons, on the other hand, is a blind bidding game. It turns out blind bidding is not only suited to the card game format, but maybe even better suited than to the board game format. I think the Aladdin's Dragons Card Game may be even better than the likes of Ys or Aladdin's Dragons because it speeds up a game and mechanic that suffers when it drags, and needs to move at a good pace to keep everyone engaged. This is a case where the card game version looks to actually be improving upon the heart of the game, rather than removing it.
Alcazar - Wolfgang Kramer is my favorite designer, so it pains me to say that I absolutely and utterly despised Alcazar. This is the much anticipated remake of Kramer's old classic Big Boss. However, in streamlining the game for the reprint, the designer and/or publisher streamlined the game right out of there. Based on my one play of this at BGG.CON I don't even consider this a game in any sense of the word as far as I understand it. I realize there is some disagreement over the interpretation and application of the rules (see Larry Levy's recent column and the comments as an example), so my thoughts on Alcazar can only apply to the version we played at the convention. But I did get confirmation from various other people and groups who played the game completely independently that they had the same issues that we did and were similarly perplexed and disappointed with the "game." The disjunction between the gameplay and the scoring system effectively breaks the game. You build castles (think companies as in Acquire), grow those castles, add little units called nobles into the castles, and merge the castles. That's all well and good, but it turns out in the end that your score is based on the height of your nobles (think Torres). Alright, fine, then I'll just focus on raising my nobles up as high as possible. What's that, there's a "tower card" that lets me do just that? I think I'll buy one, thank you very much. Now I'll use it, then buy another one. That was a fun three turns. Now I'll buy another one, and another, and another, and use them; nine turns down, are we done yet? The fact that the width of your castle is irrelevant to scoring combined with the fact that mergers don't harm smaller castles make the tower cards completely overpowered and make the game completely boring. You can easily earn money when you're lucky and the right number card comes up, and you can easily place nobles in your own small castle with no fear of needing to think about any form of interaction with the other players. There's a box, a board, instructions, and pieces, but they forgot to include the game.
Alea Iacta Est - I'm not usually a fan of "dice games" (such as To Court the King and Airships), but am often a fan of games that use dice well (such as Queen's Gambit, Descent, Galaxy Trucker, Byzantium, and Ghost Stories). It's a distinction over which reasonable minds will inevitably differ, but a stark one in my mind. I had thought that games where dice were the focus and that revolved around the dice as ends themselves rather than a means were fatally flawed by definition. It turns out I was wrong. Alea Iacta Est was the first game I tried at BGG.CON '09 and was the first dice game that I enjoyed. It's the latest Alea medium-box game by Allers and Eisenstein (of Aber Bitte Mit Sahne and Peloponnes/Zack & Pack fame, respectively), and destined to sit alongside Louis XIV on my shelf, venerable company indeed. I really liked the theme, artwork, and components of the game, and I found the game simply fun and entertaining. The game flowed nicely with every player having their own dice to work with, and presented players with reasonably tense decisions while still moving at a good pace.
Alice in Wonderland Parade - The isle of Japan is apparently overflowing with wacky card games. Every year it seems Dale Yu regales us with the bountiful harvest of crazy Japanese card games that he buys at Essen in the hopes that one might resemble Fairy Tale, Satoshi Nakamura's gold standard of Japanese games. I wonder if Japon Brand or Grimpeur will ever run out of amusingly odd card games to publish each year, or if they'll ever give us another game that measures up to the bar set by Fairy Tale. This time it was Christian Leonhard who introduced me to a new wacky Japanese card game, and this time it was actually pretty good, in contrast to the many disappointments (I'm looking at you Gra Gra Company). Alice in Wonderland Parade was very light and fairly silly, but had a few decisions to be made at least, and depending on the way in which you interpret the "end of game" rules there might even be some tension in there as well. Similarly to Knizia's Poison, you're trying to avoid taking cards from a face-up pool generally, unless you can be the player with the most cards in a given color. Unlike Knizia's Poison, your play each turn isn't completely obvious, so you can't simply turn off your brain and daydream. I gather Parade is one of the rare Japanese games that is getting a U.S. release, so you'll hopefully be able to see it for yourself soon enough. I've also got a copy of Nakamura's Masquerade on the way, which I'm looking forward to trying out and reporting back on.
At the Gates of Loyang - Loyang was one of the big games getting a lot of buzz in the weeks leading up to Essen, and rightfully so as it's the follow-up release to Agricola and Le Havre (although designed prior to either according to Uwe). However, the game did surprisingly poorly on the GeekBuzz ranking at Essen and again at BGG.CON. Before having had a chance to try Loyang I wondered whether the low ratings were due to response bias (i.e., those predisposed to like Loyang were buying it sight unseen and therefore not playing/rating it, while undecided people were playing and rating it). After having had a chance to try Loyang, I think its low ratings are instead likely due to the disappointment that many fans of the first two installments in the "Harvest Trilogy" felt in seeing how much Loyang diverged from its brethren and how it felt like a step backwards from Uwe's games released over the past couple years. I need to try Loyang again with fewer players, but I didn't feel as if the game worked at all with 4 players. It's likely a two-player game at heart; a dry, procedural, mathematical two-player game (with significant randomness of the two-pack card draw thrown in to majorly disrupt your precise planning), but the designer and/or publisher tried to stretch the game to include up to 4 players. To combat the inevitable downtime and boredom that results from this distortion, the game instructs you to have two players acting simultaneously at any given time, although the pairings will shift from turn to turn. This idea sounds all well and good until you discover that there is an intriguing card draft at the beginning of each round, including some "helper cards" that can disrupt an opponent for your personal gain. Since the four-player game requires the simultaneous-play rules to move at a reasonable pace, you are limited to only playing cards that affect one other member of the opposite pairing. This does not work. You only get to keep two cards per draft, which are generally resources and customer cards to whom you sell your resources for money, with which you buy victory points. A few of the cards are these "helper cards" that can steal resources, customers, and assorted other things from opponents, but sadly it's not opponents, rather opponent. Without knowing how the pairings will work out each turn, you can have no idea whatsoever whether these cards you're drafting will be useful or completely useless. That being said, even with fewer players, I just can't see this measuring up to the competition created by Uwe himself. In Agricola you get to build a farm, try out card combinations, and vie with opponents for limited actions/resources. In Le Havre you get to amass a mountain of resources and buildings giving you a massive playground in which to convert and sell your resources while trying to extort visitation fees from opponents and not take out too many loans in the process. In Loyang you "get to" slowly and painfully creep your way up the score track by pinching every penny as you play through a rather solitaire experience of manipulating your small number of available cards each turn, and ultimately get to end up tied with most of your opponents and seemingly likely decide the game by a tiebreaker. Take your pick.
BasketBoss - Like Peloponnes discussed above, BasketBoss is an auction game masquerading as something else, this time as a sports game. As a huge fan of Corné van Moorsel's StreetSoccer, my interest was piqued by a new sports game by the same designer (despite the disappointment of Powerboats last year). Upon trying out BasektBoss, I realized just how little I knew about the game going in when I was surprised to find myself face to face with an auction game. The rules and turn summary are actually fairly hilarious if you're expecting a sports simulation of any kind. Phase 1 of each turn is called "Draft Players," which is all well and good, alright you're setting up your team, but then Phase 2 is "Win Trophies" and Phase 3 is "Earn Income." A word of warning for those who come after me: A basketball game this clearly is not. This is a game about bidding on players with various stats so that your team strength exceeds that of your opponents and you win trophies worth victory points. It may actually be a good auction game, but as with any auction game, I need to try it a few more times to get a good feel for it. Auction games are the type of game where its easy to learn the rules, but hard to learn the strategy and valuation of goods. I had to play Ra and Modern Art a number of times before being able to say with any degree of certainty that I greatly prefer the former over the latter, and thus BasketBoss is another auction game with an almost irrelevant theme that needs to be played more to test out the tension of the bidding and how sound the game's economy really is. That being said, the game's theme may serve a useful purpose for introducing non-gamer basketball fans to a German-style auction board game.
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose - A filler from one of the hottest designers in recent years Vlaada Chvatil. The Czech designer who brought us heavyweights like Through the Ages tries his hand at a silly party game and it turns out he is fallible after all. After churning out superb hit after hit over the past few years, it's surprising to see this misstep. The concept of Bunny Bunny Moose Moose sounds intriguing in theory, but fails in practice. Basically it's a game where one player slowly flips up cards that award or deduct points for various configurations of hands on top of the players' heads (forms of bunny ears and moose antlers), and eventually a card flips up that ends the round, and everyone scores points based on how well they match the cards. It sounds amusing and actually is amusing, but the fun dies during these periodic scoring intervals. First, players have to calculate each score by adding, subtracting, and multiplying based on the application of six cards to their hand configuration. This is tedious and drains the silly fun from the room. Second, players very frequently ends up with the exact same configuration, so after all that trouble, you've got the same result and no differentiation. Amusing fillers can be great fun when they work, but despite the potential this idea showed, this one didn't work. I'm sure this is just an aberration and Chvatil will be back to pumping out great Galaxy Trucker-caliber games in no time.
Campaign Manager 2008 - This was the very last game that I tried at BGG.CON '09 before hopping on the airport shuttle to head home. The library had been packed up and the halls were remarkably empty, but thankfully Matthew Monin had purchased a copy of Campaign Manager at the Z-Man booth and offered to teach the game to me. It was a great way to wrap up the convention. I've been thinking back on the game ever since, thinking about things I could have done differently and things I'd like to try in my next game, which is a very good sign. I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of my pre-order copy, which is another good sign. Having only played the game once, I don't know the system or the cards well enough to be certain how I'll feel after 10 more plays, but I get the sense this will be an excellent addition to my list of Super Fillers for 2, potentially even joining the elite ranks of Hansa and Through the Desert. I say I don't know for certain how I'll feel because you really don't see much of the game in a single play. At the beginning of the game players select 15 cards out of 45 possibilities to make up their deck for the game, and then you play the game itself by cycling through those 15 cards repeatedly (although perhaps the "game itself" is more the selection process upfront than the resolution process). So you don't see the majority of the cards in one game or the majority of the possible strategies because ideally you've selected cards that work together to form a cohesive strategy. There are a lot of other possible approaches that I'd like to try out, and hopefully further play will show me tension between the various approaches that makes the decision-making enjoyably agonizing and challenging.
Castle Panic - I went to BGG.CON with a list of over 100 games that I wanted to try, knowing that I'd never get to most of them. On the plane ride down to Dallas I was watching a new Board Games with Scott episode about Castle Panic, a game I'd never heard of previously, and that video alone convinced me to get out a pen and write Castle Panic into the extra small margins of my "games to try" list. Unlike most of the games on that list, I actually did get to try Castle Panic thankfully. I played with James, Lisa, and Brian, and I had a great time. I've been on the fence about whether to buy the game ever since. It's a cooperative game, and the fact that I already own and enjoy Ghost Stories, Pandemic, and Red November cuts both ways - on the one hand I might not need another cooperative game, but on the other hand I clearly like and enjoy cooperative games (and play them a lot given my 93 combined plays of the aforementioned three games). Castle Panic is simpler though, much simpler. It's actually so straightforward in terms of its gameplay that I think it only truly shines because of its competitive element. The players are theoretically working together to kill monsters that are slowly marching towards and destroying their walls and towers. However, like Krakow 1325 AD and Peter Hawes' upcoming War of the Roses, there is an undercurrent (or rip tide depending on who you're playing with) of selfish subterfuge. The player who individually kills the most monsters is named the "Master Slayer" (said best in a grandiose Scott Nicholson voice). I suppose it's up to the group how they want to interpret the "Master Slayer" appellation, but I personally think the game would thrive best by considering that person the sole winner. It injects into an otherwise overly simplistic game a wonderful element of tension and interaction. The players can't quite trust each other to always work for the good of the team rather than the good of themselves and thus won't take the optimal path to group victory by freely trading cards, but rather may horde them. You walk a dangerously fine line though because too much selfishness will cause everyone to lose and then nobody gets to be the "Master Slayer."
Chikara - Richard Breese, designer of the fantastic Reef Encounter, was kind enough to teach Verkisto and I how to play Chikara. This is an old abstract game from 1989 that is marked as owned by only 4 people on BoardGameGeek. Larry Levy actually already said just about everything that needs to be said about this game in his Two Faces of Essen column, so I won't bother to explain it here, but will just mention that I agree that it was a lot of fun and I'm glad Richard brought it over from England to teach in Dallas. It felt more accessible than most of the Project GIPF games, while seeming to retain sufficient depth to be worth exploring.
Colonia - Colonia was hilariously miserable. Somehow a great designer and a great publisher teamed up to create a game that is so dry and procedural as to be drier than the ten driest Knizia games rolled into one. I was begging the other players to abort the game prematurely, but there was one stubborn holdout who steadfastly refused. The conversion of tan resource barrels into gray resource chits into purple resource slips of paper into purple resource cards just makes me sad. The game consists of 6 disconnected rounds to artificially add length and substance to this procedural exercise. Over and over the players walk through the conversion of resource barrels into resource chits into resource slips of paper into resource cards. The players feel no connection whatsoever to the game and no real involvement in the endlessly churning gears of the mechanics. I can't possibly care about the conveyor belt of resource conversion, and not caring making for a very boring experience. This is a game that could have worked just as well with 3 or 4 rounds instead of 6, and just as well with 2 or 3 conversion steps, but instead the game piles in as much as possible, overloading the game well beyond anything that the framework can bear. There is more information overload in this game than I could have thought possible, but just enough randomness in terms of what resources are actually available along the conveyor belt and what victory points are waiting for you once you reach the end of the chain that planning is a lost cause. You're just a hapless cog in the game's machine. I feel as if I just have to say here that I love Dirk Henn's Wallenstein and really enjoy his Atlantic Star, and I'm a big fan of many Queen games, such as Aton, Chicago Express, and Roma. But that just makes it harder for me to fathom how a game like Colonia came to be.
Day & Night - Like many others, this game didn't hit my radar until its surprise win of the International Gamers Award as the best two-player game of 2009. I was very surprised to see this small Dutch game topple the mighty Conflict of Heroes, although that looks to have more to do with the intriguing voting procedures of the IGA committee (see this BGN article for the details). I quickly went to the homepage for Day & Night, which is very nicely done by the way, and read through the rules for the game. I was surprised to see that it looked to be an almost purely abstract game, albeit with a nice thematic veneer and beautiful artwork on the cards. I had a chance to try the game with Simon Hunt at BGG.CON and was disappointed. I had been considering ordering the game after reading the rules, but playing the game made up my mind on that front. I'd be happy to try it again to confirm or revise my first impressions, but I was put off by how limited the choices seemed to be on any given turn. You only ever have a few cards in your hand and while there are different ways to use the cards, there appeared to be a fairly clear way to use them in any given instance. It also felt a bit too much like tug-of-war with your opponent often undoing what you just did, and flipping the same tiles back-and-forth repeatedly can get old. There's an excellent review of Day & Night on BoardGameGeek, which nicely explains why I'm wrong and this game is actually excellent, so check that out for an opposing point of view. In the end, I suppose I was just hoping for something a bit more compelling given the gorgeous cards, the IGA award, and the potentially neat ideas of the game (particularly the allocation of "12 hours" per turn for day and night). In a year with a few remarkably bad games, this one wasn't bad by any means, just not compelling.
Draco Mundis - The game's cute theme of dragon hunting in the jungle unfortunately isn't enough to save Draco Mundis from suffering the inevitable fate of overly relying on player elimination and memory as principal mechanics - boredom and frustration. I'm very surprised to see Asmodee publishing this. I find myself agreeing with Tom Vasel when he calls it a "chaotic Stratego with no real goals, and little fun."
Dungeon Lords - I want to like this game so much. I keep playing it again and again in the hope that I'll see the light. I'm up to 7 plays now (at every possible player count) and I'm ready to throw in the towel and give up. I really enjoy and highly respect a lot of Vlaada's games (particularly Galaxy Trucker, Through the Ages, and Prophecy), and I was really looking forward to Dungeon Lords, but its time to swallow the bitter pill of disappointment and move on. Dungeon Lords is a game that is too cumbersome for its own good. It is caught in the no man's land between Galaxy Trucker and Through the Ages, both excellent games in very different ways. I get bogged down in Dungeon Lords and can't enjoy the game. I enjoy the fast and loose gameplay of Galaxy Trucker, as well as the slow and thoughtful gameplay of Through the Ages, but Dungeon Lords feels as if it wants to have the fun of Galaxy Trucker along with the complexity of Through the Ages, and it's a mismatch, at least for my brain. Vlaada says that it's a game that works well for his group of friends, and I very much believe him. The chaos of the simultaneous action selection in Dungeon Lords might work well for a group that played it together a lot, but for someone looking for an occasional game with different groups of people, it's very unpredictable and frustrating (with severe penalties for incorrectly predicting your opponents' plans). I had initially hoped that the cumbersome nature of the game and the maintenance throughout the various phases would work more smoothly after playing the game many times, but after 7 plays I find myself still waiting. It's not the complexity that puts me off, since I love games like Die Macher and Antiquity, but rather the complexity combined with the randomness, theme, components, and feeling of the game. It just feels like a mismatch that I can't quite get past, and can't seem to find the game very fun. The game is constantly tripping over itself and pulling you in different directions with its seemingly conflicting goals and methods of achieving those goals. All that being said, I know when I'm having fun playing a board game, and this one just isn't fun.
Factory Fun - In contrast, Factory Fun has "fun" right there in the title, so it must be fun. As a huge fan of Galaxy Trucker, I've been eager to try the game's inspiration for a while now (according to a podcast I listened to a while back, Vlaada designed Galaxy Trucker after trying Factory Fun and wanting to give the game a second half where you take the thing you've built for a test drive). Knowing it would be difficult to track down a copy, I happily jumped at the opportunity to try the game out at BGG.CON. While I still solidly prefer Galaxy Trucker, I enjoyed seeing its roots. Both games have the players grabbing at tiles to add to their individual boards to connect in to their previous tiles for the purposes of building a unified machine. That in and of itself is entertaining, but rather than just have the players take their constructions apart to put back in the box afterward, I appreciate that Galaxy Trucker adds in the second half of the game where the game itself mercilessly takes apart your construction with asteroids and space pirates. Watching your beautiful ship fall apart in Galaxy Trucker is the icing on the cake that turns a good game into a great one.
Ghost Stories: White Moon (including Village People & B-Rice Lee) - I think I already pretty much covered this one above in the Pandemic: On the Brink entry. Ghost Stories is my favorite game from 2008, but playing the expansion (four times so far now) made me realize that it doesn't really need or benefit from an expansion. Pandemic needed an expansion and On the Brink is a gem that fits seamlessly into Pandemic. Ghost Stories is still going strong and already had enough decision-making and variability packed in to keep me coming back for more. I'll also mention here that while I was very impressed with the Guardhouse expansion as far as mini-expansions go, unfortunately neither Village People nor B-Rice Lee live up to that standard, as they fall more in the vein of traditional mini-expansions (i.e., generally pointless novelty items that don't benefit the game whatsoever).
Hansa Teutonica - I was completely wrong about this game. In my GeekBuzz Meets Fairplay column, I dismissed Hansa Teutonica out of hand as appearing to be a dry and bland game. The rules and components are underwhelming, but it turns out the game itself is surprisingly good. I have played 9 times now (at all player counts from 2 to 5) and Hansa Teutonica is solidly my surprise hit of BGG.CON (just as Planet Steam was my surprise hit of BGG.CON in 2008). It's an addictive game. I find myself always wanting to play again so I can try a different strategy or try to refine the same strategy to get it to work. You have so much control over the way the game plays out from beginning to end that you feel as if you should be able to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. And yet there are so many different ways to score points that it's easy to get distracted by a short-term opportunity, at the expense of your long-term objectives. The game has a very nice flow to it as the turns move quickly, with each player only adding a few grains of sand to the eventual beach of the game on any given turn. The most remarkable thing about Hansa Teutonica is how much interaction there. It's a German-style game with lots of wooden cubes and an overused theme, but multi-player solitaire this is not. It's an in your face, almost viciously contentious battle for control of the various trade routes and city guilds across the board. Nonetheless, the game's displacement mechanism is reminiscent yet superior to that of Endeavor, as it doesn't punish the defender for getting in the way, but rather rewards them and punishes the attacker, while somehow still retaining a significant incentive to attack. I'd also be remiss not to mention the fantastic use of a technology tree in this game, which provides a delicious tension between developing each skill a little bit for flexibility and control over your board position, versus developing fewer skills more fully for bonus points. All that being said, this game is bound to disappoint many because expectations are being raised too high in the time it will take for a widespread reprint to become available. I, and many others at BGG.CON, were pleasantly surprised by Hansa Teutonica because there were no expectations. Now that the game is being talked up by so many people, I don't think it will impress people in the same way that I found myself impressed and caught off guard. Hopefully people can enjoy it for what it is and not set the bar too high in the intervening months, but knowing how much I tend to anticipate unavailable games and how often they disappoint, and having seen the impact of delays on countless prior releases, I have significant trepidation over how well Hansa Teutonica will be received by the wider market.
Havana - Continuing the fine 2009 tradition of branding unrelated games after their predecessors to suggest a relationship that doesn't actually exist. Friedemann made the savvy move of branding Factory Manager as a member of the Power Grid line despite its being an otherwise distinct entity, and now Eggertspiele has done the same thing by branding Havana as a successor to Cuba (which particularly makes sense in a year when Cuba is getting an expansion). What doesn't make sense is why Cuba would get an expansion or why branding something with the Cuba imprimatur would be worthwhile given that Cuba is a perfectly mediocre game. Nonetheless, Reinhard Staupe's (designer of the fantastically amusing Der Plumpsack, reprinted in the U.S. by Playroom as Sherlock) newest hand/resource management game has joined the family alongside Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler's 2007 creation (best known for The Pillars of the Earth). Havana is a game of playing role cards to gather resources and spend those resources to purchase buildings worth victory points. The only thing it offers in an attempt to stand out is a clever turn order mechanism by which the combined numbers on your role cards for a given turn determine the turn order (which significantly impacts the resources available when your turn comes around). I found the game fairly mundane and unmemorable, but inoffensive and fast for what it's worth. In a year when many games have impressed me with their high quality or shockingly poor quality, Havana stood out for its mediocrity (and for that I suppose it belongs in the Cuba family).
Imperial 2030 - Absolutely fantastic! I can unreservedly say after my first 3 plays that Mac Gerdts has created a very worthy follow-up to his 2006 Game of the Year (as per my personal selections). It's a risky proposition attempting to design a successor to a game as well-received as Imperial, given the high standard to which its bound to be held, but Imperial 2030 not only meets that lofty bar, but possibly exceeds its parent. As a disclaimer, if you were not a fan of Imperial, then it's unlikely that Imperial 2030 addresses your qualms. However, if you did enjoy Imperial or admired it with some reservations even, then Imperial 2030 is well worth checking out. You should watch this video demo by Gerdts at Essen to get an explanation straight from the horse's mouth. I'll summarize the high points for you here. First, Imperial 2030 is a new map, and who doesn't love new maps? They're such a great way to get a new experience without having to learn a whole new set of rules (see, e.g., Age of Steam). In particular, the new map reduces the size of home nations so as to include more neutral territories and more water, giving you more territory to fight over and making naval convoys more significant. Second (and perhaps most importantly), Imperial 2030 revises the rules for advancing extra spaces around the Rondel so that it no longer costs a flat 2 million per space, but rather costs 1 plus the nation's power multiplier. This provides for a scaling cost that is lower at the beginning of the game (making it more feasible to do so early on) and higher at the end of the game for the high scoring nations (making it more expensive to skip from Taxation to Investor and back to Taxation in two turns). Those are the principal advantages, but you've also got the introduction of the Suez Canal and Panama Canal, along with a new 30 million bond that allows country control to shift later in the game. There's truly a plethora of things in Imperial 2030 that make it potentially even superior to its progenitor, and hopefully I'll have the chance to play both many more times.
Inkognito - My feelings on Inkognito need to be understood in the context of my inability to appreciate or even understand others' appreciation for such revered deduction games as Black Vienna, Code 777, and Sleuth. I clearly lack that part of my brain that can enjoy or fathom the possibility of enjoyment of a deduction game. So it should come as no surprise that Inkognito joins the ranks of Black Vienna, Code 777, and Sleuth as yet another board game that simply wasn't for me. I tried it primarily because of one particular amazing component in the game, but also because it has the novel twist of pairing the players up into teams without telling you who is your teammate and making you figure it out for yourself. It sounded like a novel concept and looked enticing too, but in practice it proved to be as rote and mechanical as all of its brethren. It might be that all deduction games remind me of the logic games section of the LSAT entrance exam for law school, or it might be that they seem to simply be a record-keeping exercise, but regardless, I realize I should probably give up on the genre at some point and leave it to those who can appreciate its hidden depths.
Kingsburg - One of the games that belonged in my Attia Family Tree article, but which I hadn't had the opportunity to try beforehand (fortunately the BoardGameGeek community helped fill in the gaps and wrote an explanation of why Kingsburg belonged in the conversation, which I included in my follow-up Grandfather of Worker Placement article. Now, a little over a year later, I've finally tried Kingsburg and confirmed its placement in the family tree. Of all the twists on worker placement that each game has brought to the table, I have to say that Kingsburg's is certainly one of the most innovative. Substituting dice for each player's workers is not somewhere I could honestly have predicted the family going, but hindsight is 20/20, so after the fact it seems like a natural innovation (a contradiction I suppose). Unlike Caylus with its growing expanse of potential locations to place your workers, Kingsburg presents you at the outset with 18 locations numbered 1 through 18. You roll three dice and take turns assigning them to the locations that match the sum of the die or dice assigned to that location. Thus, reaching the coveted 18 location requires a roll of three sixes (or the necessary dice modification tools procured through other game locations). That's essentially where the innovation stops though because like just about every worker placement game, the locations give players some combination of wood, stone, gold, and other such resources, which players convert into buildings worth victory points and special abilities. It's certainly a clever game and one I'd happily play again, but something ethereal kept it from quite reaching the threshold of purchasing the game. It's always hard to pin down exactly what makes a game worthy of being added to your collection versus being relegated to only playing someone else's copy, but whatever spark is necessary was missing for me despite all of the game's tangibly good qualities.
Macao - This is the kind of game that I particularly feel incapable of evaluating after a single play. However, I do know I want to play it again, which is a good sign. I tried Macao at BGG.CON (thanks to Dale Yu and his teaching prowess), and have been looking forward to an opportunity to give it another shot ever since. The one thing I do think for certain is that, while Macao is very different from Feld's two preceding Alea titles - Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon - it nonetheless feels very similar. Fans of Notre Dame and/or In the Year of the Dragon are certainly more likely to feel right at home with Macao. On its face Macao appears to be a kinder, gentler game than either of those, but underlying that I believe is a nasty engine that ruthlessly hands out negative points to unwary gamers. The game has prompted many to trot back out the phrase that was used incessantly upon the release of Yspahan a few years back - "it uses dice, but in an interesting/unique/clever way." Macao has the group collectively roll a handful of multi-colored dice, and then everyone individually selects which three dice they'd like to use. You then get action points in the color of the die equal to its face value, but don't receive them until X turns later where X equals the face value of the die. This is a very straightforward in practice because if you choose the red die showing a 2 then you get 2 red action points 2 turns from now, but if you choose the blue die showing a 5 then you get 5 blue action points 5 turns from now. You need these actions points to build buildings (different color action points build different types of buildings) that give you victory points and money (used for purchasing victory points of course). You can also use action points to advance on the turn order track (analogous to the Year of the Dragon turn order track), or to purchase chits representing various goods, or to sail your ship throughout Europe to deliver those chits for victory points. Did you catch that? You sail your ship throughout Europe. It doesn't make any sense. It didn't hit me until a fellow player pointed it out, but once she did I couldn't stop thinking about it. Just look at that board. You sail around to cities like Marseilles, Amsterdam, and Hamburg, and the space between them is all water. Is this some post-apocalyptic Europe where the entire continent has been flooded except for a few select cities? I smell a re-theme! Regardless, as you've probably gathered from the general description above, the theme is irrelevant because this is a game about the cleverness of the interlocking mechanics, in the classic Feld mold. The reason I say up front that I need to play more to properly evaluate Macao is that I can't say after one game how frustrating the die rolls will be and how much they'll ruin your best laid plans. I don't mind dice in Descent, Queen's Gambit, or War of the Ring, but in an Alea game about collecting action points to convert into victory points, dice playing too large a role feels very incongruous. It looked upon first blush as if there were potentially enough decisions in Macao to mitigate the dice, which I hope to confirm through subsequent plays.
Mr. Jack in New York - Like Imperial 2030 above, Mr. Jack in New York is another fantastic follow-up that will by vying for my Game of the Year for 2009 (unless I decide to exclude both from contention given the fact that they're sequels, which I may end up doing). As with my warning for Imperial 2030, Mr. Jack in New York is a fantastic stand-alone game that meets or exceeds the high bar set by its predecessor, but it doesn't change enough to make it something that you're likely to enjoy if you didn't enjoy the original Mr. Jack. Having played the original Mr. Jack 49 times, I can say I'm a big fan of this Cathala-Maublanc team effort (not to mention the fantastic artwork of Pierre Lechevalier). Fortunately I've had the chance now to play the sequel 5 times and am fairly certain its a very worthy successor. It's clear that Cathala and Maublanc have learned a lot about the game system in the intervening 3 years since Mr. Jack was released, and have tweaked that system just enough to create a stand-alone game worth owning. Mr. Jack in New York offers a new board and 8 new characters with all new special abilities (although many will be reminiscent of the special abilities in the original game). The most striking thing about the new board and gameplay is that it is much more open. There are less buildings and gaslights obstructing your path at the outset because you build them over the course of the game with the new characters' special abilities. The game is much more dynamic than the original. Where Mr. Jack feels static, Mr. Jack in New York feels fluid. I don't have enough experience with the latter to say for certain that its an improvement, but I get that sense from my initial plays and I trust that the designers have learned more about the game system since its release (and particularly given their work on the excellent Mr. Jack Extension). As with Imperial 2030, this is not a game for people who didn't enjoy the original (unless you simply had small nit-picks), but for fans of the original, this is proving to be a very good year for sequels.
Power Grid: Factory Manager - This game is like math class, but worse. Make sure to bring your calculator, and let me know if you see anything new after the first few plays, which I find highly unlikely. As a friend of mine put it, Factory Manager is "one of the most literal spreadsheet games and dry as a bone; each turn you bid for turn order, buy some tiles and adjust some numbers; best adjusters wins." That's remarkably accurate: best adjuster wins. You literally just take turns selecting tiles to add to your factory which adjust your output, and make money each turn based on that output. I was obviously wary of Factory Manager given my distaste for Power Grid, but since everyone said they were very different (and they are in fact very different), I thought it was definitely worth trying. I am glad I tried it because it did make Colonia and At the Gates of Loyang seem worthwhile by comparison (although not Alcazar, which still takes the cake). Factory Manager was simply the most boring and dry new game I tried in 2009. It's a math problem without the slightest of board game veneer, so if you're eager to face off against your opponents in a battle of calculations then go right ahead; I'll just be over here getting a root canal instead.
Ramses Pyramid - Ramses Pyramid was just embarrassing. You have Knizia and you have the promise/potential of legos, and you manage to make an utterly banal roll & move game with a meaningless memory element, rules as written that completely don't work, and random screwage that makes you start over as you reach end; that's pitiful. Considering how many great children's games are out there (Giro Galoppo, Gulo Gulo, Chateau Roquefort, Igloo Pop, all come to mind), this is just garbage.
R-Eco - Thankfully Z-Man goes through the trouble of picking out which Japanese card games to bring over to the U.S. so we don't have to sift through the countless offerings to find the hidden gems. R-Eco is just one such instance that Z-Man brought over a while back, but which I finally had the chance to try this year, and while it didn't measure up to Fairy Tale in my mind, it was a worthy game in its own right. Designed by Susumu Kawasaki, whose 2006 design Traders of Carthage is another Japanese game that I'd like to try out sometime, this is a card game classically in the mold of other Japon Brand or Grimpeur titles. If those are generally your cup of tea, or even if you're looking for something along the same lines as Coloretto, No Thanks, or Bull in a China Shop, then this one is worth checking out.
Saturn - Theta has a knack for publishing hard-to-find and expensive dexterity games that look incredible, but are underwhelming when you actually play them. Fire is a classic example of this trend, and Saturn is another exemplary data point. The components of both games are gorgeous. They look so good that they could double as a piece of sculpture in your living room. But if anyone asked what it was and ended up wanting to try playing it, then you'd inevitably tarnish their image of the piece. There are some truly inspired dexterity games out there (e.g., Crokinole, Weykick, Piratenbillard, Zopp, Bamboleo), which make games like Saturn seem particularly lame by comparison.
Shipyard - Those Czechs sure know how to make board games! I'm a fan of Rondels (e.g., Imperial) and this has 5 of them! The more the merrier. You have so many balls in the air to keep track of during this game, but it still manages to move at a decent pace (because of the Rondels). It's a game that is complex and long on one level, but remarkably simple on another level. As in any Rondel game, each turn is a simple matter of selecting one out of a few possible spaces and then executing a fairly simple action. It's only the sum of your many turns that weave an intricate tapestry of moves and alternative possible paths. There are so many roads not taken in a game like this that you can easily ponder what you could have done differently for a long time after the game is packed up and back on the shelf.
Strada Romana - I don't understand how a game like this could get published given all of the potential designers out there vying for the limited number of spots available for new releases each year. It's completely insipid. Players take turns moving chariots through a bottleneck in the midst of a Roman traffic jam. You can "bet" on which chariot you think will finish the "race," and you can take wooden cubes in various colors to create sets and earn gold. You can use the gold to do "special" chariot moves, such as a sideways move... exciting! Your score is principally determined by multiplying the number of different color cubes you have by the number of cubes you have in the color that you have the most of. None of the players felt any connection whatsoever to what they were doing or engaged by the game in any way. It's an uninspired design that sadly had the table laughing at it rather than with it.
Telephone Pictionary - This, on the other hand, had the table raucously laughing with the game. It's simple yet ingenious concept. Each participant writes a sentence at the top of a piece of paper and passes it to the left. Then each player draws a picture attempting to depict the sentence, and folds the sheet of paper such that only the drawing is visible, and passes to the left again. Now each player writes a sentence explaining/interpreting what is in the drawing, folds the paper so only this second sentence is visible, and passes to the left. This continues until everyone gets back the sheet of paper they started with. Then you unfold all of the sheets and read them aloud and look through them together. Much hilarity ensues. I can't believe I'd never played this game before, but it takes the idea of Telephone to a whole new and improved level. This is a party game that I can definitely recommend.
Thunderstone - Chris Farrell named Thunderstone his 2009 Game of the Year, which surprised me because Chris is the person who taught me Thunderstone at BGG.CON and I didn't get the impression that he, or anyone at the table for that matter, thought it was Game of the Year material at the time. Personally, I thought it was okay. I definitely liked Thunderstone more than Dominion, but that's not saying much for me. I liked how it had more of a theme than Dominion, and I liked how VP cards also gave you experience points to upgrade your fighter cards. I also appreciated the tension between attacking a monster to gain VPs and XP versus buying a card to add to your deck, whereas Dominion often lacks that tension (since Provinces are a given). All that being said, I don't really enjoy Dominion very much, so saying that I think Thunderstone is an improved version of Dominion isn't much of a compliment coming from me. I also thought a downside of Thunderstone was the card layout/design, which was unnecessarily confusing. However, the biggest downside of Thunderstone is that it doesn't use a stacked A, B, C shuffle (as in Tikal, Lowenherz, Robber Knights, etc.) for the monsters. So you can have really tough monsters early and really easy ones late, which is silly because everyone is upgrading the strength of their cards/attacks during the game, so you can whip through the monsters late and be stuck early, and a stacked/sorted shuffle seems like an easy/obvious fix. I'd be happy to play Thunderstone again, but am not dying to. Giving it Game of the Year seems a bit ridiculous though given how over-the-top derivative it is. Even if it is an improvement, it's an incremental improvement that simply further justifies throwing out your copy of Dominion, and standing on the shoulders of midgets doesn't qualify you for any awards in my books.
Tobago - Refreshingly unique and original, plus fantastic components and family friendly. The treasure distribution rules in particular were very neat. When I first heard about Tobago it was described to me as a deduction game that has the potential to win the Spiel des Jarhes, which made me very disinterested because I neither like deduction games nor SdJ contenders generally. Fortunately I gave Tobago a try and discovered that it's certainly not a deduction game whatsoever, and while it may be an SdJ contender, it's actually clever and fun (which may disqualify it from SdJ contention). Tobago is a game where you take turns playing cards to narrow down where various treasures can be located on an island (e.g., within two spaces of a palm tree or not in a forest) or moving your vehicle around to pick up a treasure or amulet (used for getting an extra turn or avoiding the effects of a cursed treasure). It's a joint effort in a way to narrow down the location of the various treasures, but there's no deduction in the game because you're not determining a pre-existing location, but rather creating the location yourselves by playing cards that further circumscribe the possible locations. Once the treasure is ultimately picked up, you deal out a number of treasure cards (ranging in value from 2 to 6) equal to the number cards used to determine the treasure's location, plus two. Each player gets to look at a number of cards equal to their contribution to determining the treasure's location (plus 1 for the person who picked up the treasure), and then all treasure cards are shuffled (including 1 card that no one got to look at). Treasure cards are flipped over one at a time and offered to the latest contributor first, moving up the chain. Each player can take one treasure card per contribution, and given your limited secret information, you have some idea what the value of the possible treasure cards will be. You may have also seen a "curse" card, which terminates treasure distribution when revealed, so you'll want to take whatever is available and run for the hills if you know a curse is coming. It's a push-your-luck system that somewhat rewards greater and later contributions, but has enough of a random element to keep it light and family friendly. The beauty of the game definitely contributes to the experience in no small way, but the mechanics alone are also worth admiring.
Turandot - Turandot is a blind bidding card game, but it's not just straight blind bidding; it's blind bidding where every player randomly needs a certain thing up for auction, and sometimes you randomly needed something that no one else wanted (yay you!) and sometimes you randomly needed something that others also wanted (boo sad!), and your results depended entirely on whether the things you needed were also needed by others and not on your own decisions. I actually did very well in the game because I happened to need the cards that no one else needed, but my undeserved success made me not a fan of the game. Since it was so quick, I'd be willing to try it a second time to confirm or disprove my opinion, but the first outing was just bad. What I mean about randomly needing a certain thing in Turandot is that each player needs cards with certain symbols on them, whether it's male/female, a bat, a jester cap, whatever. The game dictates what symbols you need on the cards you're trying to collect, and then cards are dealt out, and everyone bids on the card they want, and everyone gets one card. If you happen to need symbols that no one else needs then you easily get what you need, whereas if you happen to need symbols that others need then you don't. Since the game told me what symbols I needed and told me what cards/symbols were available, I felt there wasn't really anything left for me to do in the game but effectively sit and watch.
1989: Dawn of Freedom - I enjoyed this print-and-play sequel to Twilight Struggle, designed by Ted Torgerson (who also designed the amusing Sharks and Jets, a West Side story retheming of Advanced Squad Leader). This is a card-driven game with many similarities to Twilight Struggle, but with a new board and a new set of cards, along with a handful of new mechanics. It is unsurprisingly set in 1989 and simulates the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. As the game description explains, the game "covers events from the election of Solidarity in Poland through the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Berlin Wall." I think it's well worth checking out, especially for fans of Twilight Struggle, and I think the game has plenty of differences from Twilight Struggle to make it worthwhile as a separate entity in its own right. The game integrates a Hannibal-style combat mechanism for resolving scoring cards, which is a particularly intriguing twist. I am looking forward to playing it again and further exploring the many detailed cards that Ted devised for this obvious labor of love.
2 de Mayo - I almost chose 2 de Mayo from the prize table at BGG.CON 2008, but went with Duel of Ages 1 & 2 instead. Ever since then I'd been wanting to try 2 de Mayo to see what I was missing and thankfully in December I finally had that opportunity. I played it twice back-to-back, switching sides in between, because it's an asymmetric game of combat between the French and the Spanish. The two sides play very differently, which is always something I appreciate in a game (e.g., Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Mr. Jack), particularly when the two sides are reasonably balanced. It's a quick game played on a tight board where players secretly and simultaneously write down their orders (a la Diplomacy) and then reveal and resolve. The movement and combat are luckless affairs except for the cards that each player is drawing from his or her individualized deck that provide special powers. I wasn't wholeheartedly won over by the game, but I did enjoy my two plays of it and would be more than happy to play it again. It felt surprisingly abstract despite the fairly clear integration of theme into the different movement rules for the two sides and the different deck of cards for each side. However, it had many virtues, not least of which were its speed, asymmetry, and streamlined nature, so it's worth investigating for anyone searching for another Super Filler for 2.
Agricola: Farmers of the Moor - I was pleasantly surprised by the Through the Seasons mini-expansion for Agricola, which I thought nicely added an extra layer of long-term planning to a game where short-term opportunities are often very tempting. I'm not a huge fan of Agricola, but I enjoy the occasional three-player game with the drafting variant. Farmers of the Moor is the kind of expansion that adds more stuff to a game seemingly just for the sake of adding more stuff. It adds horses, new major improvements, forests, and fuel, but none of the additions feel integrated into the base game or necessary by any means. As I discuss in my article on the merits of the Mr. Jack Extension, expansions fail for me when they simply increase the volume of a game without any purpose or direction, and just for the sake of cramming more stuff into the game. Expansions succeed when they integrate seamlessly into the base game and/or feel necessary (e.g., Pandemic: On the Brink, Mr. Jack Extension, Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals, certain Age of Steam maps). Agricola is a fine game, but the last thing it needs is more animals, cards, or tiles to supplement its already teeming masses.
Apples to Apples Kids - It's like Apples to Apples, but with less interesting cards. I suppose the cards are more kid-friendly, but they're also more mundane and boring. I'm not particularly an Apples to Apples fan though, generally preferring Marcel-André Casasola Merkle's Attribute or the new Dixit for that sort of game.
Ave Caesar - Yet another racing game that can join the ranks of TurfMaster, Formula De, Powerboats, Snow Tails, and Mississippi Queen as games that others apparently enjoy, but for some reason don't click for me. I think I'll stop trying racing and deduction games, or at least stop writing about them, so you can stop reading about them (which I'm sure you'll appreciate), because those seem to be the two genres that I simply don't "get" for whatever reason. Like other racing games, Ave Caesar consisted of playing numbered cards to move around in a circle to see who can move around the fastest. It had some narrow passages that provided for some amusing nastiness, but in the end was just another boring racing game. If I absolutely have to play a racing game then I'll opt for Jamaica or Um Reifenbreite because at least the former has combat and the latter has a team system that differs from the standard first-past-the-post method, but generally I'll take any other type of game instead, except probably a deduction game.
Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus Expansion - Paranoia at its finest just got a mixed bag pick-and-choose expansion toolkit. I'm not entirely won over by this approach to expansions that seems to be growing in popularity lately, which is releasing an expansion that has many parts that game players need to mix-and-match and agree on which pieces to use and which pieces not to use for each game. I think I tend to prefer a more clear cut and cohesive expansion, but c'est la vie. The Pegasus expansion comes with a lot of different pieces that can be added together or separately to the base game, including new character cards, a new allied spaceship board, new revealed cylon leaders, new skill cards, new cylon locations, and a new ending condition (set on the world of New Caprica). That's a lot of new pieces and mechanics to choose between. I've only tried Pegasus once, so feel far from qualified to weigh in on its merits or lack thereof. From what I've seen though it follows in the fine Fantasy Flight tradition of expansions, which is to say that it's a solid addition to the game, although doesn't seem necessary to actually "fix" anything (unlike A Game of Thrones or Twilight Imperium). In the end, Battlestar Galactica is really a game about playing your fellow players rather than the game itself, so the board and the cards seems almost superfluous to me. I generally prefer it to Werewolf because there is a game underlying your banter and accusations (except for when it drags on for too long), but the specifics of that game and the various expansion components are not what's memorable or important about the experience if you're playing it with the right crowd.
Cordoba - A remarkably simple card game by Knizia, even simpler than Lost Cities if you can imagine. You simply take turns playing your numbered cards to numbered locations tiles and after a few minutes allocate the location tiles to whoever put the highest sum of cards there. Your score is the sum of all the location tiles you've collected. There are a couple small twists, such as the fact that your cards are secret until your opponent plays to the same location, and you can't play to the same location that your opponent just played to, but other than that you pretty much know all of the rules now. Despite its overwhelming simplicity and the high degree of luck, it did manage to hold my interest for all of the 10 minutes that it took to play. The artwork was also very nice and the components were well made. If you're in the market for an exceedingly quick and straightforward card game then this one is worth considering.
Fresh Fish - I've been wanting to try this older Friedemann Friese game for a while now and finally got the chance, but after learning the rules and playing the game, I'm still not sure I understand it, and am definitely sure I couldn't play the game without someone there to help walk me through it. Basically it's a blind bidding auction game combined with a tile placement game where you're trying to bid on tiles so you can add them to the board and build them as close as possible to their matching tile. It would be simple enough if proximity weren't determined by a byzantine road network system (as opposed to actual distance) wherein the roads are not built by the players, but rather by the game, and only when absolutely necessary to keep the road network linked together throughout the board. Every time a tile is placed you need to check to see whether any roads are necessary to avoid splitting the road network up into multiple pieces. It sounds fairly simple, but in practice I found it surprisingly hard to predict when and where roads would be placed. I'm sure this would get easier with experience, but then all you'd be left with is a blind bidding tile placement game that doesn't seem to have much going for it.
Jambo - I'm a huge fan of much of Rudiger Dorn's work, particularly Louis XIV, Goa, Arkadia, and Traders of Geoa, but Jambo didn't live up to the high bar that Dorn has set for himself in my mind. It's one of the most widely lauded members of the Kosmos two-player series, but I'll still opt for Odin's Ravens, Lords of the Rings: The Confrontation, or Ubongo: Das Duell from that series. Jambo constantly felt like a process of taking two steps forward and one step back (or maybe three steps back), and thus overstayed its welcome. You're trying to make a set amount of money faster than your opponent, but true to the age old adage, you've got to spend money to make money, and in Jambo you've got to spend a lot of money to make money. You're buying cards that allow you to buy goods and then you're buying more cards so you can ultimately sell those goods, in the hopes that you've turned a bit of a profit in the process, but it's an incremental process that feels more painstaking than pleasurable.
Members Only - A Knizia game that feels different from his other games and isn't just a card game or dice game version of something he's already done? Shocking! This older Knizia game from 1996 has actually stood up remarkably well to the test of time. I tried it for the first time recently and we actually opted to play it twice back-to-back because everyone enjoyed it so much. It felt a bit like Liar's Dice in that players are dealt a hand of cards depicting various goods (e.g., newspapers, umbrellas), and then players gamble on how many of those goods they think are held by all of the players combined. After each bid you have to reveal a couple cards from your hand, so the picture of what is out there slowly becomes clearer. The more risky your bid, the bigger the payoff. It's a very nicely designed system, and makes me nostalgic for the Knizia of yore who designed clever stand-alone games with neat mechanics that just worked well and were fun to explore. Members Only feels like a classic Knizia game from the days when he was giving us great games like Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates, and Ra; I only wish I'd discovered it earlier. It's a shame that this game isn't more widely known and appreciated. The long-delayed Mayfair reprint (renamed Glenn's Gallery) may some day rectify that if it ever sees the light of day.
Pingu Party - Pingu Party is a 15-minute Knizia card game from 2008 that was only published in Germany. Fantasy Flight republished the idea in the U.S. but not only renamed the game Penguin, but also changed the components from cards to plastic penguins. You'd think this would make the game well-received, but the game was actually much lambasted because the revised components turned a simple card game into a frustrating dexterity game because they weren't manufactured well. A game that was about creating a pyramid of colored cards in order to be the first to empty your hand became a game about building a pyramid of colored plastic pieces that had a knack for toppling over. Either way, I'm not seeing what makes the original Pingu Party so special and can't understand why it's a hit among my game group. The market for filler card games is so crowded that, despite my love of penguins, I can't understand what makes this one stand out and worth playing. Perhaps I need to give it another shot, but unlike Cordoba and Members Only discussed above, this Knizia game didn't strike me as something I wanted to play again.
PowerMage 54 [Disclosure: Review copy from publisher] - PowerMage 54 is a card game designed and illustrated by Corey Kliewer. PowerMage 54 (because there are 54 cards in the deck I presume) is a game for 2-6 players who use their hand of cards to battle it out as superheroes (known as "PowerMages" in the game). Each player starts with 100 health and you're eliminated when you've lost all of your health (a la Magic: The Gathering); last man standing wins. The deck is a standard deck of cards, but with the suits adapted so that Clubs are Defense, Spades are Attack, Hearts are Health, and Diamonds are Thump (which are multiplier and special ability cards that modify the others). The face cards in all suits are PowerMages, each with its own special ability written on the card. For a more detailed description of the gameplay check out the nicely written review by Matt Drake on BoardGameGeek. However, contrary to what Matt has to say, I actually thought the artwork was one of the notable pluses of the game. As soon as I opened the game up, I was struck by how much attention to detail was paid to the artwork. Each card is unique and has a name/drawing that reflects its value. Thus, a low value Health card is a cold compress or aspirin, a medium Health card is neck brace or bionic heart, and a high value Health card is molecular reconstruction. Similarly, Attack cards range from things like shotguns all the way up to things like tomahawk missiles; and Defense cards from a trash can lid, to a kevlar helmet, to a missile defense shield. The artwork has a great evocative comic-book style. None of this is strictly necessary to the game, but adds a nice flavor that helps create the mood of the game. The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward. Each player starts with a random hand of 5 cards, and on your turn you draw a card and then either play an attack, a health card, use a text card's special ability, or pass, then discard down to 5 cards. The crux of the game after my two plays so far seems to be the Thump suit, which provides a multiplier to an attack, defense, or health card equal to its face value. So instead of playing an attack card worth 8 to do 8 damage, it's much more efficient and effective to pair high value attack cards with high value Thump multipliers, so using a 7 Thump card with your 8 Attack cards means doing 56 damage, which is more than half of your opponent's starting health in a single turn. You can do the same thing with Health cards, and easily double your own health in a single play. In my last game I did this and actually ended the game with 189 health, almost twice what I started with. The way in which the game attempts to regulate this is that you need to have and reveal a face card PowerMage to be able to play a Thump multiplier. This means that you need to not be using up your face cards for their textual special abilities. It's an interesting system, but the potential downsides seem to be the arithmetic that slows down the game a bit, and the potential for the game to last anywhere from 2 minutes to 30 minutes roughly. It could be over before you know it with a single large attack or last for a long time with large Health increases. I also had a few turns where I couldn't do anything due to a hand of Defense cards and just had to keep drawing and discarding, which was a bit frustrating. All that being said, PowerMage does a nice job integrating the theme and mechanics. It's the kind of light, quick, and amusing card game that you should have a pretty good idea of whether you'll enjoy it based on the descriptions and reviews available, so if they make it sound appealing then I recommend checking it out. For fans of other humorous card games like Munchkin or Fluxx, PowerMage 54 is definitely worth a close look. And for fans of German-style filler card games like Coloretto and No Thanks, PowerMage 54 may be a sillier way to occupy your time between games of Caylus and Princes of Florence. I particularly appreciate the fact that every card is unique and has great comic artwork to make the card play entertaining, especially when you block a ballistic missile with a well-multiplied pepper spray.
Robber Knights - Queen was extremely generous at BGG.CON 2009 where they gave every attendee a copy of Aton, Robber Knights, or Roma, plus they ran Chicago Express and Alhambra contests with great prize giveaways. I was lucky enough to get copies of Robber Knights and Chicago Express, although fitting them into my luggage was quite a challenge. I've had both Aton and Roma for some time and enjoy both a lot. They're two of the best 20-30 minute two-player games I have, but I was skeptical of Robber Knights because I hadn't heard anything about this 2005 release. I've played it three times now and it turns out that it's an overlooked and underrated game. It's another 20-30 minute two-player game, but this one is by Rudiger Dorn and uses his signature "breadcrumbs" mechanic, which you may be familiar with from Traders of Genoa, Louis XIV, or Goa. That is, players drop a number of discs (representing knights) onto the board and then proceed to "walk" the knights across the board to claim towns, villages, and castles, always leaving at least one behind where they walk. It's an interesting game because it combines the Dorn "breadcrumbs" mechanic with a fairly standard tile-laying game, which is a very different context for this mechanic than the other Dorn games mentioned above. I appreciated that the game rules include a common Carcassonne variant of holding two tiles and thus having a choice of which to play. It's a light and quick game, but a solid entry in the pantheon of light and quick two-player games.
Sequence - A board game using a standard deck of cards that is ultimately a variant on Bingo. You're attempting to get 5 in a row on a board depicting all of the cards in a standard deck, so you choose and play a card from your hand each turn and place one of your colored markers on that spot. First to get 5 in a row wins. The improvement over Bingo I suppose is that you get to choose from a few possibilities where you'd like to put your marker each turn rather than having it dictated to you, but the downside is that it's still Bingo at its heart.
Small World: Cursed, Grand Dames, Leaders expansions - Small World is a game that has grown on me over time. I thought it was okay after the first game, then a bit better after the second game, and I believe it was after the third game that I decided to purchase a copy. This decision to finally purchase the game coincided with the announcement of the contest to design expansion races and special powers. I had been impressed with the results of just such a contest for the Mr. Jack Extension, so I had high hopes for Days of Wonder's attempt to emulate that approach to designing an expansion. I've since played Small World eight times and these expansions three times so far, and I'm continuing to enjoy the base game and also am happy with the expansions. I think the contest entrants and judges have done a nice job of designing and selecting races and special powers that fit smoothly into the base game. In one game I got the impression that the Gypsies were very powerful, but it could have just been the board situation, so I'll withhold judgment on that for now. I particularly like the Cursed "special power," which turns the concept on its head and instead adds nothing to the race, and makes players pay three victory points to skip that race when selecting a new one. I think most fans of Small World will be pleased with these mini-expansions, and now we have to look forward to the next expansion Tales & Legends of Small World to see what Laurent Verrier has in store for us and for the world of Small World. According to Days of Wonder: "This unique design was so impressive that we’re publishing it in 2010 as a separate expansion." That sounds very promising indeed!
TOP 7 FOR Q3 & Q4
Since I played 77 new and new-to-me games during Q3 and Q4 of 2009, I decided to pick my Top 7 games from that period, which are as follows:
It was such a great 6 months of gaming that I really can't limit myself to recognizing just 7 great games though, so I'll highlight here that the next 7 would be: Dixit, Descent: The Road to Legend, Campaign Manager, Pandemic: On the Brink, A La Carte, Aladdin's Dragons Card Game, and Macao. That makes for a fantastic fourteen new and new-to-me games tried for the first time in the second half of 2009! I've also thankfully had the opportunity to try some of these a good number of times already, which has helped cement their position as newfound favorites, such as 9 plays of Mu & Lots More, 7 plays of Wensleydale, 8 games of Dixit, 5 games of Mr. Jack in New York, 4 sessions of Road to Legend, and 13 plays of On the Brink.
It looks like Q3 & Q4 offered a lot more great games than Q1 & Q2, since I could easily narrow the new-found favorites to a Top 5 list from the first half of the year, but needed 14 spots to make room for my favorites from the second half of the year. It also looks like more complex and heavy games made the grade this time around, while the earlier list was dominated by games that took 30 minutes or less to play (i.e., Scripts & Scribes, Wings of War, Roma, Igloo Pop). I enjoy games of all shapes and sizes, but it's always nice to find some nice, new, long games, such as Imperial 2030, Wensleydale, and Shipyard.
I've managed to get the list of notable Essen 2009 releases that I still need to try down to a manageable ten games: God's Playground, Greed Incorporated, Carson City, Assyria, Opera, The BoardGameGeek Game, Middle-Earth Quest, Power Struggle, Stronghold, and Vasco de Gama. Hopefully I can try out most of these stragglers by the time Nurnberg rolls around and the next wave of new releases begins to head our way, otherwise I might fall off the back of this treadmill that seems to keep speeding up each year.
(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)