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Game Preview: Star Trek: Five-Year Mission, or Sometimes You Don't Make It Past Three Years

W. Eric Martin
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One of the advantages (for me) of the Origins Game Fair and Gen Con taking place so close to one another is that coverage of one convention can serve as a preview for the other, as in this write-up of Star Trek: Five-Year Mission, a co-operative design from David E. Whitcher and Mayfair Games that was shown in prototype form at Origins and will be available for purchase at Gen Con. Here's the short summary of the game:

Quote:
Star Trek: Five-Year Mission is a cooperative dice game for 3-7 players who take the roles of crew members of either the USS Enterprise (from the original Star Trek series) or the USS Enterprise-D (from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

In these roles, players try to cooperatively solve a series of blue, yellow and red alerts before failing five such alerts, or getting the Enterprise destroyed. Crew members have different abilities, and these abilities can help the team solve alerts — which is how players score points in the game. Both the crew and the alert encounters differ depending on the era in which the game takes place. Whichever crew you're a part of, can you score twelve points before encountering failure or destruction?

I'll confess right off that I'm not a Trek fan, having seen only a few of the original shows way back in my tween years, but while walking Origins I had a chance to join a game about to start, so I did. Duty called! Since folks were playing with the Next Generation crew, I chose to play Wesley as his special power amused me:



All images in this post feature non-final artwork and graphic design


Star Trek: Five-Year Mission includes eight double-sided character cards, and each player takes one at the start of play. Identical roles are paired together, so Picard and Kirk are back-to-back, as are Spock and Riker, etc. Only one captain per mission! (I don't know whether you can mix-and-match characters from the original series and Next Gen, but Mayfair can't police what you do at home, so have at it.)





Ideally I'll state all the details of play correctly, but I know from long experience that con demos can deviate from the published game experience. With that caveat out of the way:

Dice come in three colors, and each player starts with five dice. Players take turns in clockwise order, and to start a turn you reveal an alert card for that round. In general, blue alerts are easiest to solve, then yellow alerts, with red alerts being the most difficult — but also the most likely to be worth points when you solve them. When the game starts, you can reveal an alert color of your choice, but sometimes revealing a blue alert will force you to reveal a yellow one (as in the "Beam Up" blue alert in the image below), or a yellow one will force you to reveal a red. If you have more than three alerts in a color, then the bottommost alert counts as an automatic failure.



Ignore the card sleeves; the color of the alert is shown in the color of the card title


Once you reveal the alert, you refill your supply to five dice (unless you have dice locked due to injuries), then roll those dice up to three times, after which you can attempt to resolve alerts. If a die on a card is colored, then the die must be that color; if the die is white, any color die can be used. When you place a die, it must either exactly match the number shown or (if an arrow is present on the icon) be higher or lower than the number depicted.

Some cards have a dark border around some or all of the dice shown on that alert, as with "Fire Torpedoes!" and "Romulan Warbird" in the image below. In this case, you must place all of the dice within this border on the same turn. (Someone has started to resolve "Fire Torpedoes!", but they either didn't have a pair of 2s or chose to place those dice elsewhere.) Dice remain on an alert card until it's resolved or failed.




Some alert cards have special effects that take place when they come into play or when they're resolved or failed. "Tribbles", for example, cause one damage to the Enterprise when it's revealed, and as the Enterprise takes damage, you're restricted in the colors of alerts that you can reveal. Take a couple of points, and you can no longer choose to reveal blue alerts; take more, and you can now reveal only red alerts, which seems like a quick slide toward doom. You can spend dice to resolve damage to the Enterprise, but the more damaged the ship, the higher the number you need to resolve that damage.

Alert cards sometimes have effects that mess with the co-operative nature of the game. "Alien Contest" has you place a timer on the card, and when the sand in the timer runs out, you've automatically failed that alert. Zoom! Time to start rushing your turns, which means you'll possibly get sloppy and overlook possible plays or special powers (as some resolved alerts grant you a one-time power that you can hold in reserve). Another alert might break the Enterprise's com link, which in game terms means that you can no longer speak to one another for as long as that alert remains in play. No more supersized dice-swapping for Wesley...





I thought that we were doing well during our game, making progress toward the twelve VP victory condition at a fair clip and putting our special powers into play in sensible ways, but then we started bogging down and blowing one alert after another. Halfway through the game I completely forgot about the ability to fix damage to the Enterprise, and I think that others did, too. You're trying to see everything at once, but it's a lot to take in, which is probably where the floor of three players comes in on the player count. Yes, you could play this on your own with any number of character cards in front of you, rotating through those cards with each turn, but that would definitely lessen the "we're all in this together, team" feeling that this design has tried to create.

In conclusion, "Shut up, Wesley!"

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Wed Jun 17, 2015 11:08 pm
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Game Preview: Epic, or Fantasy Gaming with Impact

W. Eric Martin
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If you play Magic: The Gathering, you'd probably give anything to be able to cast a first-turn 10/15 flying dragon with protection that pumps all of your other dragons in play. In Epic, you can do that:




My short description of Epic — a forthcoming design from Star Realms creators Robert Dougherty, Darwin Kastle and White Wizard Games — is all of the broken cards from MTG with almost none of the mana restrictions.

Let's break that description down a bit: Cards in Epic — at least the base game of Epic, which I've played seven times now on a prototype review copy that I can't post images of since WWG is still unveiling cards one by one on its Kickstarter project — consist solely of champions (i.e., creatures) and events (spells). Cards come in four factions (colors), with each faction having a central characteristic: yellow is good, blue sage, green wild, and red evil.

Each card has a casting cost of either zero or one, and at the start of each turn, each player receives one coin that can be spent that turn. That's it! The elaborate mana system from Magic, something that makes that game what it is, that allows players to scale up from small effects to large, has been pancaked to a far simpler two-level system: On your turn, cast all of the 0-cost cards that you want along with a single 1-cost card; on your opponent's turn, cast all of the allowable 0-cost cards that you want along with a single allowable 1-cost card, but only at three specific points during that opponent's turn.




Nearly everything in Epic can be viewed in terms of Magic, and if you've played Magic, then you're already most of the way toward understanding and playing this game. At the start of a turn, each player receives a single coin to spend or lose. The active player can play cards, attack, or use the powers of cards in play in whatever order they want. The player can attack multiple times during their turn, attacking with single champions each time, with multiple champions individually, with multiple champions grouped together (thereby possibly taking down a large blocker should the opponent block), etc. You can attack, play a card, attack again, use a power, attack still again, and so on. (Like Magic, champions can't attack or tap the turn they are played.) Everything is more free form than Magic with the main limitation being that single coin that you can spend each turn.

On defense, you can play cards only (1) after the active player has declared attackers then (optionally) played cards, (2) after you've declared blockers (or not) and the active player has (optionally) played cards, and (3) at the end of the active player's turn, after which the active player can decide to play more cards or use powers or attack, if desired.

When you block, you flip the blocking champion 180º to show that it's blocked for the turn.




Many of the champion powers and keywords in Epic have corresponding Magic terms, and you'll find yourself slipping into them easily: Airborne = Flying; Blitz = Haste, with such champions being able to attack and use powers the turn they come into play; Ambush = Flash, with such champions being playable during the active player's turn; Prepare = Untap; Tribute = a comes-into-play ability; Breakthrough = Trample; and so on.

Some champion keywords are unique to Epic, or at least common enough to require a keyword. The Forcemage Apprentice above, for example, has an Ally Ability, which is represented by the colored circle; whenever you play a 1-cost sage card, you can untap this card. Other ally abilities include dealing damage to a target or returning a card from your discard pile to your hand. Other such keywords:

-----• When you Banish something, you place it on the bottom of its owner's deck.
-----• When you Break something, you place it in that owner's discard pile.
-----• To Recall a card, you pay one coin, then move that card from the discard pile to your hand.
-----Loyalty is a comes-into-play ability like Tribute, but it works only if you reveal the indicated number of cards from your hand of the same faction as the card you just played.
-----• To Recycle, you banish two cards from your discard pile, then draw a card.

Wait a minute — doesn't recycling sound like total upside? Replenish my deck and draw a card? Well, things are a tiny bit different in Epic in that you have two possible victory conditions. To win, you can either (1) reduce your opponent from thirty to zero health or (2) try to draw a card from an empty deck. Yes, in Epic you win the game if you run out your deck; you're rewarded for efficiently playing all of your stuff and keeping it dead instead of recycling it.




Another key difference in Epic from Magic is that you can't immediately react to anything that the other player does. You have no instants, no counterspells to stop a person from doing something. If you aim a "Flame Strike" at a champion that has eight or less defense, then it's broken; if you aim it at my face, then I've been flame struck. You can't tap a champion in response to use it before it dies; it just dies.

The Epic base game comes with 120 cards, with thirty different cards in each faction. I don't have the complete rules, but what I've gathered from talking with Dougherty and those demoing the game at the 2015 Origins Game Fair is that you can play with those cards in multiple ways. You can pit all the cards of one faction against another, with those factions supposedly being balanced. You can each take thirty random cards, then shuffle and play, which is what I've been doing. You can draft cards in some manner not yet specified, although I imagine that you can concoct whatever method you like given that you can also just deal each player thirty cards at random!

If you want to compete with constructed decks, then you can have up to three copies of a card in that deck, which means three copies of the game covers you in all circumstances (including their Epic cube format, whatever that might be), although you certainly don't need three copies in order to play.

As I mentioned above, I've played seven times, and the games have been all over the place in terms of speed and back-and-forth interaction, with one victory by decking when I was paying more attention with trying to push through damage instead of getting cards into my opponent's deck. Sometimes that dragon gets in for a few hits, and sometimes it's removed from play before it can even bat its wings. Epic feels like old-school Magic from back when I had no idea what I was doing and shuffled all of my cards — yes, even my Black Lotus — together into a giant 120-card deck and was surprised by whatever came off the top. Part of that, of course, is that I didn't look through the Epic cards before playing; I just shuffled, dealt thirty cards to each of us, then started. You look at what you draw and think, "Can this card really do that?!" — then your opponent drops an 18/18 trampling wurm into play, and you realize that you're holding the perfect solution in hand...
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Fri Jun 12, 2015 3:52 pm
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Game Preview: Tides of Time, or Plucking Points from Shifting Waters

W. Eric Martin
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This post serves as both coverage of the 2015 Origins Game Fair and a preview of Gen Con 2015. Double duty!

At Origins, Chevee Dodd was showing off three titles from Portal Games that will debut at Gen Con 2015: Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot (previewed here), Imperial Settlers: Atlanteans (which I'll talk about another time), and Tides of Time.

This latter game from Kristian Čurla is a marvel in minimalist design, creating tons of tension from only eighteen cards in a game that lasts no more than twenty minutes. In short, Tides of Time is a two-player-only card-drafting game that lasts three rounds, with each player trying to assemble in each round combinations of cards that work together to net them more points than the opponent.

You start with five cards, then draft, reveal and pass the remaining cards. After scoring at the end of each of the first two rounds, you remove one card in your tableau from the game and set another aside to be part of your permanent hand, then you draw two new cards and draft again. After three rounds, the player with the most points wins.

To see this game in action, or discover some of the cards included, watch this video:

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Fri Jun 12, 2015 4:57 am
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Game Preview: Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot

W. Eric Martin
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At the 2015 Origins Game Fair, I tried a number of games that debuted at the show or will be released in the near future, including Ignacy Trzewiczek's Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot, which will debut from Portal Games at Gen Con 2015.

In the game, players control a small fleet of ships, and because they're pirates — friendly cartoon pirates, mind you — they're going to sail the seas sinking ships and stealing loot. Players choose one of the scenarios in the box, and each scenario contains a number of quests, with each quest being comprised of one or more adventures. After you complete all of the adventures in a quest, you sail to Tortuga to spend your loot for ship upgrades, new sailors, or gold (also known as victory points).

Adventures are divided into easy, hard and crazy, and for each adventure you reveal a card from the appropriate deck to see what you're facing. In general, easy and hard adventures challenge you to take out various merchant and naval ships (which are represented by dice, just as your ships are), while crazy adventures are mini dice games that you play directly against opponents. For the easy and hard adventures, you see what you face, then decide how many of your ship dice to send against these targets. The active player drops all of the dice into a box, then players take turns moving or firing cannons before finally resolving battles in order based on which ships are closest to one another.

Thus, you have the luck of the die rolls affecting everything in two ways — which numbers or symbols land on top and where everything lands in the box — with you trying to mitigate that luck by using sails to move strong ships into better position or weak ships to safety, by using cannon to take out targets before a closer ship can beat you to it, and by grabbing sailors and specialized upgrades to let you do things that no one else can do.

For more on the gameplay in Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot, and a view of the components — with the dice and artwork being final and everything else being prototype quality — here's an overview video of Chevee Dodd at Origins 2015:

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Wed Jun 10, 2015 3:45 pm
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Game 411: Broom Service

W. Eric Martin
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Broom Service is already on the radar of many gamers since (1) it's the newest big box release from alea, Ravensburger's brand for more involved games, (2) it's a new version of Andreas Pelikan's well-received (but out of print and ridiculously expensive in English) Witch's Brew, and (3) it's been nominated for the 2015 Kennerspiel des Jahres award, which suggests that the game has some staying power given that the SdJ jurors tend to play titles to death to ensure good experiences with a wide range of gamers. (Witch's Brew was nominated for Spiel des Jahres in 2008, but lost to Keltis.)

All that said, what's Broom Service? In this game for 2-5 players, you collect potions, then deliver them across the land with your two witches to towers that advertise their desires with color-coded roofs. Each time you deliver a potion, you earn victory points (VPs) and possibly a magic wand or two. While traveling the land, you might use these wands to dispel clouds that shroud particular regions and prevent players from delivering to them. After seven rounds, the game ends, everyone scores bonus points for the clouds they've dispelled and resources they still hold, then the player with the most VPs wins.

The heart of Broom Service is a transplant from Witch's Brew: a set of role cards for each player. Each role card features a cowardly action — something minor that you do immediately when you play the card — and a brave action — something major that you get to do only if someone else doesn't turn out to be braver than you. This risk/reward dynamic is at play throughout the game, and it's a big part of what gives the game its juice: Do you take something now to ensure you don't get hosed? Or do you risk that hosing in order to do something grander and increase your chances of winning? That tension is in place nearly every turn.




So how do you play those cards? At the start of each round, each player secretly chooses four of the ten role cards. These cards let you:

Gather potions and magic wands, with the potion gatherers coming in three colors to match the potions
Move and deliver potions, with four witch cards to correspond to the four types of landscapes and with you being forced to move in order to deliver
Deliver potions without moving, with two druids that are each able to deliver to two types of landscapes
Dispel clouds, with only one fairy able to do that and with you being unable to move into regions covered with clouds

Once you've chosen, the round's start player begins the first turn by laying down a role card of their choice and announcing whether they're brave or cowardly. Each player in clockwise order must play the role card if they have it, likewise announcing whether they're brave or cowardly. If you're cowardly, you take that tiny action, then get out of the way. If you're brave, you wait to see whether anyone who follows you is also brave; if they are, you get nothing for your bravery other than bitter regret as only the final brave player on a turn gets to take that brave action. (If you don't have that role card, you simply pass.)

Once this brave player has acted, the brave player lays down a different role card to start the next turn; if everyone was a coward, then the previous start player starts the next turn. This rotating start player carries over from Witch's Brew, and it's one of the other key elements of gameplay. You want to go last in a turn because you can be brave and not have that big action taken away; you want to go first because you can choose which role is played. That pull between wanting to go first and last is strong, especially since the success of certain actions might depend on when they take place in the round. After all, you can't deliver what's not in hand and you might not be able to move to the forest until you've moved to the prairie first.

Turns continue until everyone has played all of their cards.




Despite sharing the same heart, everything else in Broom Service differs from Witch's Brew. In that earlier game, the action was all in the cards. You collected ingredients, then claimed potion cards, or cast spells, or stole ingredients or money from other players. In this revamped game with co-designer credit for Alexander Pfister, you still have that constant interaction due to the cards, but now you're also competing to deliver to this tower or dispell that cloud before anyone else. You can (sometimes) use the position of opponents on the game board to make guesses as to which cards they'll choose. The design feels more expansive because there's more to consider in each round while also upping the ways in which you can bump heads with opponents — and because of that interaction, that elevation of the contest from the table itself to the players sitting there, I can understand why some favor Broom Service over Elysium for Kennerspiel.

Aside from those basics, Broom Service has other tweaks over Witch's Brew, with the biggest one being the addition of "bewitched" role cards. In games with fewer than five players, you take a set of unused role cards and reveal 1-3 cards at the start of each round prior to players choosing their roles. (With two players, you reveal three cards; with 3p, two cards; and with 4p, one card.) Any player can still choose to use these bewitched cards in the round, but as soon as you lay that card on the table, you lose 3 VP, whether or not you actually take that action. So far I've played twice on a press copy with two players both times, and that VP hit is a nice twist that girdles your choices, while still allowing you to spill over that constraint if you desire.

Having an option to play with two is one of the other changes from Witch's Brew as that game supported only 3-5 players. A smaller change is that the lead player each turn can choose to be cowardly instead being forced into bravery.




Still another change is that Witch's Brew had spell cards, with a new spell being available each round and the use of that spell being tied to a role card. In Broom Service, ten event cards are included, and one new event is revealed at the start of each round, with events rewarding or punishing players for where their witches are located at the end of the round; allowing players to take VPs instead of the cowardly action on their card; forcing the first player each turn to be brave (as in the original game); allowing players to choose the number of role cards (1-5) they take that turn, with a VP bonus or penalty based on what you choose; or having other minor effects that give you that little something extra to consider on top of everything else.

The final big change from Witch's Brew is the inclusion of four mini-expansions in Broom Service, with two of those expansions being tied to the reverse side of the game board. Yes, it's double-sided, thereby allowing an entry level side for newcomers and family gamers for whom the role-choosing and potion delivery will be challenging enough and an advanced side for those who want to pile on the options and variety. In short, these expansions are:

Storm clouds that provide bonus VPs or additional actions when you dispel them
Mountain tiles and amulets, with each tile providing a special one-shot action to those who visit it, along with an amulet that provides additional endgame VPs depending on how many you collect
Forest tiles that provide to whoever first claims them a one-shot bonus, such as additional role card at the start of a round or the ability to take a brave action even when you're being a coward
Hill tiles that transform particular hill regions into portals that instantly teleport you to one of two stone circles on the board, with you choosing where you go; this side of the game board has regions cut off from everything else thanks to rivers that you can't cross, so teleportation is your only means of reaching them, with one of the islands not allowing a return trip!




I've used only the first two expansions in one of my games on the basic game board, and they nudge the complication factor up a tad over the basic game. You can use them separately if you like, but once you head to the advanced side of the game board, you must use all of the landscape tiles, with the clouds still being optional. (For each type of landscape tile, you always return two to the box, thereby allowing the publisher to tout some huge number of possible combinations of arrangements. The clouds are treated similarly.)

Many people have pined for Witch's Brew to return to print, but that's because they speak English. German copies were available at closeout prices for years after that game's release in 2008, and in fact they're still available through Amazon.de and probably through other retail outlets as well. Thankfully you now have another option, one that delivers the experience of the original game wrapped in a larger cape and with multiple styles of pointy hat for additional game wardrobe customization.
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Wed Jun 3, 2015 4:44 pm
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Game 411: Why First?

W. Eric Martin
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When I posted a pic of Simon Havard's Why First? from Pegasus Spiele in March 2015, designer and local-to-me-gamer Matt Wolfe responded, "OK, I need to play that. Had a similar idea for a design." Thus, this overview's for you, Matt!

Why First? has a simple concept: Each round, players (sort of) race on a track and whoever comes in second in that race scores points. After five races, whoever has the secondmost points wins.

This concept drives everything in the game. You want to move ahead of the pack in order to score points, but you need to ensure that exactly one other person moves more. (In the event of a tie for second, all tied players score points.) You want to score in order to win, but you need exactly one other person to score more. How are you going to make that happen?



What's with the lack of indexing on all four corners? Boo!


At the start of each round, each player receives a hand of five cards from a deck that contains cards numbered -4 to -1 and +1 to +5, with 20 of the 32 cards being in the ±1 and ±2 range. Everyone chooses one card from their hand, then you have a countdown (3...2...1...Go!), and everyone slams their card down in front of whoever they want, including themselves. Players then reveal all the cards in front of themselves, sum those values, and move their pawn forward or backward the appropriate number of spaces. Players do this four times, then their fifth card in hand applies only to their own pawn.

You then see whoever scores for the round, record those points, reset the cards and pawns on the game board, then do it again for four more rounds to see who wins.




Let's return to my question from earlier: "How are you going to make that happen?" Well, you might not. In case you couldn't tell from the description above, Why First? is a romp and not a game of skillful card management. You have no idea who might play which cards or who they'll play them in front of. Player position can change quickly, leaving you sorry that you played what and where you did even though it made perfect sense at the time.

Funny thing, though, is that I think this style of cardplay is perfect for the family audience Pegasus has in mind. Why First? first appeared in 2012 from Portuguese publisher Runadrake, and while the deck composition, point-scoring and goal was the same, players only played their card in front of themselves, then in order of highest absolute value to lowest (with ties broken by small index numbers), each player would apply their card to the pawn of their choice. While more gamey than the free-for-all method in the Pegasus version, it also sounds slow and far less interesting as you'd have to watch what everyone else does and I can imagine certain players who would attempt to calculate every permutation of which pawns could move where and why Emma would likely want to move the blue one back because she thinks Paul will be moving the white one forward in anticipation of Xavier moving the red one zzzzzzzzzz. (Pegasus includes this rule as a tactical variant.)

I've played three times on a press copy from Pegasus (with AEG planning to release this version of the game in the U.S. in Sept. 2015), once each with two, four and six players. The two-player game uses an imaginary third player who has only four cards each round and plays only on himself, and it works far better than I expected it would, with you having the greatest control of any player count since so few players are on the track to begin with!

The fun thing about the gameplay each round, as well as the method for determining a winner, is that Pegasus' Why First? isn't really a race game at all because everything is relative to everything else. Is it good to be on the 5 on the track after the first set of cards have been played? Maybe! Is it good to score 5 points in the first round? Maybe! You don't know because it depends on what everyone else is doing.

As an example, my son Traver had played in the four-player game, and he requested Why First? at a later game night when we had six. Manny scored 5 points in the first round, tying everyone else for the win, then I scored 7 in the second round, putting Manny in the lead and transforming my goal into getting Manny some more points while he wanted to stay where he was and everyone else wanted to get on the board. After the fourth round, Traver had 6 points and was primed to win as long as he didn't score; I needed to push him ahead of me, while everyone else wanted to score exactly enough points to tie him with 6. (Well, if Traver scored -1 or fewer points, Manny would win, but I've seen negative points in only one race of 15 so far.) Everyone was still in the game in that final round, hope sticking around until the end, the window of opportunity squeezing ever smaller with each card played until in the end only one player remained on top — well, second from top, but victorious all the same.



Traver drew awards for himself after winning
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Tue Jun 2, 2015 10:15 am
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Game 411: Katteni Shiyagare

W. Eric Martin
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Many games from Japanese publishers are minimalist designs, featuring only a dozen or so cards or other components with the gameplay involving a single game mechanism. One great example of this school of design that debuted at the May 2015 Tokyo Game Market is Katteni Shiyagare from Saien, a publisher consisting of four individuals who release many sexy games.




Katteni Shiyagare — which translates roughly as "do whatever the hell you want" — is a cooperative deduction game for two players consisting of ten double-sided wooden blocks; each block has images of different colors on opposing sides, and overall each of the five colored images appears four times, paired once with each other color.




To set up a game, line up the tiles next to one another and shuffle them without looking at them, turning some of them 180º in order to randomize how the colors are arranged, then turn all ten blocks 90º and arrange them so that each player can see opposite sides of the blocks.




What you're trying to do is create a pyramid with the ten blocks — four blocks on the bottom layer, three on the layer above it, etc. — while following the one rule of construction: You can place a block on top of two blocks only if the color showing on that block matches the color of the one of the blocks below it.

To start play, one player stands a block on end.




The other player then either pushes the block toward you (thereby revealing the other side and burying the side that only you have seen) or pulls the block toward himself (thereby revealing the side you've seen and concealing the color on their side). You then set that block aside to start the bottom layer of the pyramid.

You continue to take turns in this manner, with the other player now standing a block on end and you deciding which way to knock it over and how to place it on the pyramid. After two turns, you might have something that looks like this:




What's your next move? Which block do you stand up, and why? You know that the other side of the green block shows the black guns; does this affect your decision?

What about after two more turns? What now?




If you ever drop a block and that block can't be placed on the pyramid, you lose. Otherwise, you'll complete the pyramid and win.

I've played Katteni Shiyagare four times on a review copy, and I think it's brilliantly minimalist. You can try to track all the information being revealed and which options still exist on the remaining blocks, but either you or your fellow player are in the dark about one side of each tile placed on the pyramid, which means you're left puzzling out why the other player is turning that particular block on its end. Does she think that I see the color that we need to add to the pyramid? Does she want me to pull toward myself because she wants the color she sees revealed? Sometimes you guess or puzzle things out correctly, and sometimes you don't. (Well, I haven't won yet in any of my games, but I can imagine winning sometimes late at night when I'm lying in bed and thinking about games. Sweet victory will someday be mine...)

If you run through how such a pyramid can be constructed, you'll realize that you need to do a few particular things in order to complete the pyramid, but I'll leave those details as an exercise for the reader.

As difficult as Katteni Shiyagare is, you can up the challenge with an expansion pack that adds a sixth color to the game, with the five blocks having that sixth color on one side and the original five colors on the other. Now you need to build a pyramid five levels high — good luck with that!

In addition to the original Katteni Shiyagare game, you can also use the blocks to play a memory game, a game apparently created by Saien on the spur of the moment a few days prior to TGM. To play, throw the tiles onto the table so that one face is hidden. On a turn, flip two tiles over to their reverse sides. If you reveal two tiles that show the same color, remove one of those tiles from play to represent a point for yourself, then take another turn; if the tiles don't match, leave them where they are and let the next player take a turn. Once no more tiles can be claimed (or players repeat a game state since you don't want to set up anyone else), then the game ends and whoever has the most blocks wins.

What else can be played with these blocks? Who's going to think up the next sexy game?


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Fri May 29, 2015 11:26 pm
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Game 411: Elysium

W. Eric Martin
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Space Cowboys' Elysium, designed by Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan, hits the general U.S. market today, May 28, 2015, and while I've already previewed the game once in November 2014 after playing the prototype — and by chance I had scheduled designer and developer diaries about the game ahead of its nomination for Kennerspiel des Jahres — I've now played a few more times on a preview copy from Asmodee and thought I'd write a bit more.

In general, Elysium is a set collection game, with players drafting fifteen cards over the course of five rounds, then trying to assemble those cards into legends (sets of cards organized by rank or family) before the game ends. More flavorfully, players compete to claim and use characters and objects from Greek mythology into legends, with these characters and objects being grouped into eight families: Zeus, Hermes, Apollo, Ares, Athena, Hades, Hephaestus and Poseidon.

In slightly more detail, each round starts with players having columns in four colors, and they're presented with cards and order tiles, with each of these items having a cost in one or two colors. Players take turns drafting three cards and one order tile, in whatever order they like, but to claim something they need to have the required column colors in front of them. After each item they claim, they must set aside any one color out of play, thereby reducing their options on future turns.




What provides the juice in the game, aside from the competition, is the special powers on the cards: cards affiliated with Zeus grant you ways to score points during the game; those with Hades help you bring more cards into the afterlife, the Elysian Fields where legends are worth VPs at game's end; Hephaestus helps you earn money, which you need to bring cards to the afterlife; Poseidon attacks the opponents' holdings; and so on. Some cards provide an immediate benefit, some a one-shot power, some a power you can use every turn, and so on — but you can use these powers only so long as the cards are still in your active area and haven't been transferred to the afterlife (although Hermes' cards sometimes let you evade this restriction).

You're making and breaking card combinations over the course of the game, and with only five of the eight families in play each game, the nature of the gameplay differs depending on which cards are in the mix:

• Without Hades, transferring cards to the afterlife is much more dependent on the order tile (which determines turn order for the next round, in addition to giving you some amount of money, VPs, and allowable transfers)
• Without Athena, you can't rely on abilities shared by opponents
• Without Hephaestus, you'll have a harder time collecting money
• With Ares, you'll also be fighting for a majority of prestige points, in addition to everything else you're doing
• With Apollo, you can see some of the cards coming in the subsequent round and possibly even use those cards during the current round



Hyperspecialization in two families in a two-player game


Everything changes depending on which families are in play as well as what comes out each round. Since you put out 3N+1 cards each round (with N = number of players), with fewer players you see fewer cards, and thus you have to learn to make do with what's available to you. For this and a few other reasons, Elysium reminds me of a streamlined Seasons. You develop a plan based on what's initially available to you, then you keep modifying that plan based on what comes available each round. Sometimes a player gets lucky by being the first player in a round and having first crack at something super beneficial to whatever their plan is, but that's life. If you think that's a real issue in Elysium, then you can go out of your way to claim the first player tile each round, but that's probably not a great idea since you're then ceding first shot at the cards to everyone else. As in most games, you can't have everything, so you make do the best you can.

Why Elysium feels more streamlined than Seasons is that players don't have to muck about with resources, worrying about getting that one fire token so that you can cast this spell, which you definitely want to cast before this other spell, which you want to make sure is in play before the end of the year, and so on. No, you have only the four columns available to you, and as players spend their columns, you track who can acquire which things and make guesses as to what they might want to acquire, balancing all of this against what might be best for you.

What's more, since you must transfer cards to your Elysian Fields over the course of the game — well, you don't have to, but you can't transfer everything in the final round, so if you want a shot at winning, you had best transfer things there bit by bit in order to compile decent legends by game's end — you're not overwhelmed by choices from the cards in front of you. You see something fruitful, squeeze it for a few turns to bathe in its rich juices, then move it on to make room for something else. (This description might also apply to those of us who play games a few times, then move on to something else. It's a coincidence, I swear!)

This whittling away at your holdings might be why most of my Elysium games have finished in under an hour while games of Seasons typically stretch to two hours. This difference could be part of why Elysium got the nod for Kennerspiel, with the design packing lots of decisions in a tighter timeframe. The gorgeous art on the cover and cards is a nice plus, too.


Hermes and Apollo facilitate more combos thanks to power reuse and look ahead to future cards
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Thu May 28, 2015 10:27 pm
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Game 411: Rights

W. Eric Martin
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Japanese publisher Oink Games has produced many titles with tiny footprints, with some of those titles being picked up by other publishers (Kobayakawa and Dungeon of Mandom) and some being available solely through Oink.

The newest title from Oink and designer Jun Sasaki, who has designed or co-designed most releases from Oink, is Rights, which debuted at the Tokyo Game Market in May 2015. Rights is reminiscent of Parade or Reibach & Co., card games in which players build collections of cards in the hope of scoring points (or not scoring points — it's all the same when you flip a scoring system on its head).


Super tiny cards to fit in the box with the 46 point tokens


The deck in Rights consists of 45 cards numbered 5-10, with five 5s, six 6s, etc. Each number corresponds to a particular pattern. Each player starts with a hand of three cards and tokens worth 10 points. On a turn, you draw a card, then you either:

• Play a card in front of you to add it to your holdings, or
• Pass a card face-up to your left-hand neighbor.

In the former case, the player to your left takes the next turn. In the latter case, this neighbor either keeps the card (adding it to their collection and taking the next turn) or places 1 point on it and passes the card left. The player who receives this card now has the same options as before.

Why would you want to pass a card or not keep something handed to you? Because it's poison, of course, point poison. The game ends when a player has 7-10 cards on the table — and since players can pass cards during the game, not everyone will have the same number of cards (since you lose your turn if you choose to pay and pass). As someone nears the game-ending threshold, you sometimes wonder whether to pass something as that could trigger the end of the game.


Endgame holdings and all the points I won!


Once the game ends, players add the three cards in their hand to their holdings, then you determine who has the rights to each pattern/number. for each number, you see whether one player has more of that number than each other player; if so, then each other player must pay 2 points for each such card to whoever holds the rights to this pattern. (You might not have guessed, but you're all fashion designers fighting for monopolistic rights to particular patterns. Yes, in this game you can own the rights to stripes and force others to pay you to stripe something on their own.) If two or more players tie for the ownership of a pattern, then no one pays anything for this pattern since the rights to it are clearly in dispute. After all of the payouts, whoever has the most points wins.

I've played Rights six times on a copy I purchased at TGM, thrice with five players and thrice with four, and in some ways the game feels 20% too short. You want a few more turns to dump the cards that have suddenly become poison because someone else has stacked up several on their own turf. You want more turns to lay out cards of your own to fight for majorities. You want more time!

But that's the nature of most good games, starting small with one holding, then two; feeling out who might be going into which patterns; fighting the tide of time and opposing forces who don't know enough to leave you alone. Adding more turns might just move the goalposts without adding more to the story arc of the game, to the quick rise and fall of your hopes as you wonder whether an investment will pay out once everyone drops their secret holdings onto the table. After all, we played six times in one sitting — "just one more time" we all said, eager to try our luck once again...


Stack o' Oinks


(In the U.S. and Canada, you can call 411 to help you find a person or business, so 411 is sometimes used as a shorthand for information. In "Game 411" posts, I present an overview of a newly released or obscure game to you, the BGG News reader. —WEM)
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Wed May 27, 2015 2:00 am
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Game 411: TimeBomb

W. Eric Martin
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While visiting Tokyo Game Market in early May 2015, I managed to do something that I almost never do at conventions: Play a game that was sold at that convention. Typically at cons I speak with designers and publishers about what they're releasing in the future, possibly playing prototypes so that I can talk about these upcoming games immediately or whenever they're officially announced, but this time I played a released, new-to-me game bought at the con. Even comets pass by every few decades, right?

My guide at TGM, Ken Shoda, had only a few titles on his "must get" list, with one of them being the 2014 release TimeBomb from designer 佐藤 雄介 (Yusuke Sato) and publisher 新ボードゲーム党 (New Board Game Party). Ken's description started with "It's a hidden role party game..." and I almost stopped him right there as those types of games are typically not my bag due to me being a terrible bluffer who can neither keep a straight face nor read people, but Ken is a huge Reiner Knizia fan, as am I, and with him buying five copies of the game — three for himself and two for a friend — I thought I'd trust his judgment and buy one for myself. What's the worst that could happen? (Well, the worst would be our plane crashing on the way home because I acquired too many games at TGM, with the weight of TimeBomb being the straw that broke the 747's back, but more realistically, I would waste whatever this game cost and I can live with that.)

I visited a game group in Tokyo the day following TGM, and Ken taught me the game then, with us playing twice with five players. In TimeBomb, each player is either a terrorist or a member of the SWAT team, and you want to set off a bomb or prevent that bomb from being set off depending on who you are.


All of the cards in TimeBomb


To set up, you take as many "Success" cards as the number of players, the single "Boom!!" card, and as many "Safe" cards as needed for the deck to equal five times the number of players, e.g., thirty cards total with six players. Each player takes a secret role card at random, with four SWAT cards being in the mix for six players and three SWAT cards for four or five players. After looking at your role card, look at the five cards you were dealt, then shuffle them and lay them out in a line with the backs being face up. Choose a start player at random.

The start player takes the nippers and "cuts" one of the cards in front of another player. This player reveals the card, then uses the nippers to cut someone else's card. This continues until 4-6 cards have been cut, with this number equaling the number of players. You then take all of the face-down cards, shuffle them, then deal four cards to each player, with players once again looking at their cards, then shuffling them and placing them in a face-down row.

This process continues for at most four rounds. If all of the "Success" cards are revealed before the end of the fourth round, the game ends and the SWAT team wins. If this doesn't happen — or if the "Boom!!" card is revealed at any time — the game ends and the terrorists win.


Ken Shoda (r) is probably lying about something; he lied a lot that day


In case it's not obvious, TimeBomb could be completely dry with people just passing the nippers card back and forth until one side wins or loses, but Ken and the two designers from Saien in the image above (whose name cards I can't find at the moment — sorry!) had played previously, and they started making claims and accusations immediately: "I have only one Success. What about you?" "I have no Success cards, so don't cut any of my cards as you're wasting your time." "You're lying! That's what you always say!" And so forth.

I goofed in the usual way that I do with such bluffing games by volunteering too much information too soon. My best tactic is always to keep my mouth shut so that I don't lie and give myself away, but I didn't do this and was pegged as a terrorist fairly quickly. I never correctly identified my fellow terrorist, but he managed to get someone to keep cutting his cards in the third round and the wire on the bomb was snipped. Boom! Victory for us!

In our second game, I was SWAT and we cruised along decently picking up Success cards until I suddenly found myself holding the nippers and completely unsure of what to do or who was what. Honestly, I'm terrible at these games! Through sheer luck I chose the terrorist who was holding the final Success card (and also the bomb) and cut our way to victory. An accidental win is still a win!



(In the U.S. and Canada, you can call 411 to help you find a person or business, so 411 is sometimes used as a shorthand for information. In "Game 411" posts, I present an overview of a newly released or obscure game to you, the BGG News reader. —WEM)
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Fri May 15, 2015 11:15 pm
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