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Ender Wiggins
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Introducing Travel Blog



There are times when modern gamers can start to feel a little jaded about themes in modern games. Using a tired well worn theme is a sure way for a game designer to cause some eurogamers roll their eyes. Another medieval trading game? Another Mediterranean game about shipping? Just what we wanted... not! Admittedly some people can't get enough of these themes, but from time to time it is stimulating to see something genuinely fresh.

Trust Vlaada Chvatil to rescue us from the tyranny of overused themes. Over the years he's emerged as a very versatile designer, producing the likes of heavy civilization games such as Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, Mafia themed bluffing fillers like Sneaks & Snitches, and even fluffy and silly party games like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose.

With 2010's Travel Blog, he's certainly come up with something quite new again, both in terms of the mechanics and the theme. Consider this promotional blurb, which gives you an idea what the game is about:

Some people love to travel. Others love to read about traveling. Project Boundless is an internet magazine designed to bring those people together.
As a travelblogger for Project Boundless, your job is visit new places and write about them. To cover your costs, you receive a modest stipend – modest because the Project is still in the experimental stages, relying on government grants and tourist industry donations.
Much of your stipend will be spent on travel, but whatever you can save is yours to keep. As a travelblogger, you won‘t get rich, but maybe if you save enough, you can finally go on the Trip of your Dreams.


A game about travelling the world, and about earning money for writing a blog? Now that's 21st century stuff indeed! And you know what, it actually works! And sadly this novel little game doesn't even have a decent video review yet, and has largely flown under the radar for a lot of people! So let me show you what the game looks like, tell you a bit about how it works, and you can come to your own conclusions about whether Travel Blog could be something to add to your own collection.

COMPONENTS

Game box

Published by Czech Games Edition and also by Z-Man Games, Travel Blog comes in a modest sized square box.


Box cover

The back of the box features some of the components that are included, and introduces the core idea of the game as follows:

Travel Blog is a swift and thrilling game about traveling. Your task is to pick states or countries most suitable for your trip and do it faster than your opponents. How many borders do you cross on your trip from France to Russia? Is it more or less than from Norway to Turkey? Detailed knowledge of the map is an advantage, but can be easily beaten by good intuition and fast decision making.
The interesting facts about 100 countries and states are here just as a bonus. This is not a trivia game - Travel Blog keeps being fun even if you get pretty familar with the maps. And you can bet you will, after a few games
.


Box back

Having played the game several times, I can vouch for that summary being pretty much on the money!

Component list

So what do you get inside the box?

• 1 Game board
• 2 maps (Europe & USA)
• 100 state cards (50 for Europe & 50 for USA)
• 6 traveler cards
• 12 traveler tokens
• 90 paper euro bills
• 4 glass markers
• facts sheet
• rulebook


Everything inside the box

Maps

The game comes with two maps, one for Europe, the other for USA. This means that there are two ways to play the game, since you can play with either map. The key information on the maps are the identification of countries, and the borders between them, all of which are labelled clearly, so the maps are quite functional, despite consisting only of a single folded sheet (larger than typical Letter-sized), and being unmounted.


Paper maps for Europe and USA

Although these maps are at the heart of the game play, they are not the main feature of the game. The aim is to travel from country to country, crossing as least borders as possible, but this gameplay is driven by cards and traveler tokens. So in practice, the map remains hidden during the decision-making part of the game, and is only revealed when checking traveling costs.

State Cards

So how do you decide where you're travelling to? That's decided in part by a random draw of "State" cards - and there's two decks, one for Europe (blue-backed), and one for the USA (red-backed).


Deck of cards for Europe (blue) and USA (red)

Each card features the name of a different country or state, and some appropriate artwork depicting some well-known feature from that location.


Sample cards for Europe

They're attractive and very nicely done.


Sample cards for USA

Game Board

The main game board is made of thick cardboard, and effectively functions as a player mat used by all the players. Each round, cards will be drawn randomly and placed on the rectangular spaces on this board, and players will use their traveler tokens along the edges to indicate the places that they choose to visit.


The game board

Traveler Cards and Tokens

Each player will get two Traveler Tokens in their chosen colour, and as mentioned above, they will place them on the game board to indicate the places they will visit.


Traveler tokens in 6 player colours

Matching the traveler tokens is a Traveler Card, which is effectively a double-sided player aid. Like the Traveler Tokens, they're made of thick card, and are visually attractive and appealing, not least because of the humorous artwork depicting your traveler!


Traveler Cards in 6 player colours

One side shows what happens during each of the seven rounds in the game, while the other side (pictured below) shows the costs of crossing boundaries or having adjacent locations.


Reverse side of one of the Traveler Cards

Euros

The money in the game is real money, only in miniature size! Even folks who normally prefer games without paper money might be able to live with this, because if ever there was a game that does need paper money it's this one! It's cute, thematic, and looks very much like the real thing.


Miniature euros in four values

The good news is that you will only be using your money about half a dozen times, so the logistics of handling the money in this game can hardly be considered a liability. Using look-alike cash does enhance the theme because the aim of the game is to end up with the most money, after deducting travel costs from the stipend you receive. If there is a drawback, it's that you also need to use euros when travelling the US map, but I suppose we can even explain away that apparent inconsistency by saying that the headquarters of our internet blog are located in Europe, and are paying us in euros!

Glass markers

Four small glass markers are provided to help you mark the countries that you are travelling between when calculating the optimal route. They may seem somewhat superfluous, but in actual fact they can prove quite handy!


The four glass beads for marking countries on the map

Facts sheet

A double-sized sheet offers information about each country or state in the game.


Facts sheet for Europe

The Facts sheets are entirely unnecessary for gameplay, but make a fine addition to the game, and help enhance its educational qualities. They're actually quite fun to read, because they include some humorous facts about American states. For example, did you know that donkeys may not be kept in bathtubs in Georgia? The game does have some educational elements, and this is a good way to include some bonus material.


Beware, it is illegal to get a fish drunk in Ohio! (detail from the Fact sheet for USA)

Rulebook

The 12 page glossy rulebook is very clear, and there are some excellent visual examples, as well as hints explaining how the theme connects with the gameplay. There are even elements of warm humor, like this: "If everyone else has already chosen a space, the polite thing to do is to hurry up and pick one for yourself. Your fellow travelbloggers are probably eager to begin their journeys." What else can you expect from the designer who had a part in the humour of rulebooks like Dungeon Lords!


Rulebook cover

I also liked the fact that the rulebook is broken up in different sections, explaining rounds 1 & 2, then 3 & 4, then 5 & 6, and finally round 7. The idea is that you can read and introduce the rules for each set of rounds at those points, rather than needing to explain everything at the start of the game. This makes the game very easy to teach and learn.


Sample page-spread from the rules

You can download the rules from the publisher here

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

Each player gets a traveler card and two tokens in their chosen colour, and a modest stipend of 100 euros to cover their initial travel costs.


Starting items for one player

First pick which map you're using, and place it along with the gameboard in the middle of the table, as well as the matching cards and money.


Complete set-up for a five player game

Flow of Play

The game consists of seven rounds, which correspond to four seasons: Winter (Rounds 1 & 2), Spring (Rounds 3 & 4), Summer (Rounds 5 & 6), and Autumn (Round 7). The stakes increase and your travel becomes progressively more hectic from season to season, with the finale being the opportunity to get a world trip as a reward for your work. This gives the game a pleasing trajectory and also ensures that it becomes more challenging as it progresses. Once you're familiar with the game, you'll find that the player aids are a handy reference to the progress of the game over 7 rounds.


Player aid showing all 7 rounds

Winter: Rounds 1 & 2

Assignments: As happens throughout the game, the map is turned face-down whenever new possible destinations are assigned. From the deck of cards corresponding to the map, the dealer deals 7 random place cards around the game-board, followed by an 8th one in the middle, which is the location everyone is starting from.


Departing from Netherlands, what is the best place to go?

Choose destinations: So which places are you going to travel to? Remember, as a blogger you get a stipend, so you want to minimize your travel costs, because you get to keep any leftover cash that you don't need to spend on travelling! Players simultaneously put their token one one of the seven cards around the edge of the gameboard. You can't change your mind once it's placed, and if someone else has already chosen a particular location, yours goes above theirs in a stack. You can choose the 40 space if you don't want any of the seven assignments, although then you must give back 40 euros of your stipend if you do choose this instead of going traveling.

Scoring: The aim is to save money - so you want to cross as few borders as possible. But you also want to write interesting articles, and neighbouring countries are not going to have the same impact for readers! So after everyone has chosen their spaces, you turn the map face-up, and see how many borders you cross - you pay 10 euros for each border you needed to cross to get to your chosen destination, and a penalty of 30 euros if it's adjacent to the starting location (which represents the fact that you won't get as many blog readers for writing about the country next door!). If your token was on top of other players, you pay 10 euros for each token below yours - after all in the real world of internet blogging, you have to be the first to write about a location, and your blog is going to have less readers if someone else has already beaten you to the punch by writing on the same subject material! Theme, theme, theme!


Travelling from Bulgaria to Switzerland crosses 4 borders, costing 40 euros

Next round: Now another round follows the first, and proceeds in an identical fashion.

Spring: Rounds 3 & 4

Before round 3 all players get a stipend of 200 euros to cover their costs for the next two rounds. The game works in the same way as previously, but with one difference: now players must choose two countries/states to travel to from the starting location! Once again, each border crossed costs you 10 euros, and choosing two adjacent countries/states comes with a 30 euro penalty. Spring time means more travel, so more places to visit, higher travelling costs, and more to think about!


Three adjacent locations - that's a penalty of 90 euros!

Summer: Rounds 5 & 6

All players receive a stipend of 300 euros before round 5, to cover the costs of their summer travel, which is the peak season for travel! Now you're visiting even more locations, because as with the previous round you need to choose two countries to visit. But for rounds 5 and 6, two cards are turned face up in the middle of the board, and represent a starting country/state and an ending country/state. So that means that from your starting location you'll need to journey to three other places, trying to minimize the amount of borders crossed (10 euros each), and as always avoiding adjacent countries/states (30 euro penalty).


Where will you visit when travelling from Kansas to Illinois?


Yellow visits New Mexico and Mississippi, at a cost of 80 euros for crossing 8 borders

Autumn: Round 7

The final round sees players getting the opportunity to take a holiday themselves, as reward for their blogging efforts. You don't get a stipend at the start of this season, but instead your employer is paying you for a world trip. Nice! Gameplay works the same as the previous two rounds (i.e. two cards are face-up in the center of the board as your starting and ending locations, and players need to choose two locations from the seven around the board as their places to visit in between), but instead of paying travel costs, you keep the money that would be incurred for this trip (other players get to decide what the shortest route is, to prevent you from crossing 50 borders to travel to the state next door under your boss's tab!). So with this round, you earn 10 euros for each border crossed, and earn 30 euros for each pair of adjacent countries/states. Being slow off the mark still comes at a cost, because you still have to pay 10 euros for each token below yours.


Detail from a final round

End of Game

This season brings your year of travel and adventures to a close, and at this point the player with the most money in hand is the winner! In the first few rounds you're trying to minimize your travel, while avoiding adjacent locations, while in the final round you're trying to do the opposite: finding places that are far apart, although adjacent locations will also bring you bonus income. Can you end up with the most cash while travelling the world and living the life of a famous travel blogger?


A winning score of 280 euros at the end of a game

Variant

The game can handle up to six players, but there is an included variant to make 2-3 player games more challenging. Part of the fun is trying to beat other players to the locations they want to visit, and thus having them incur a 10 euro penalty, and the challenging variant recommends that each player play two colours. There are some special rules about how to handle certain situations that might arise with this, but effectively it's the same game, only double the choices.

CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

It's original! I hardly dare say it. But yes really, the theme here does feel fresh and original! After all, how many other games can you think of that are about writing a blog? Let alone about earning money from a travel blog? And it works too! For the most part the theme does mesh well with the mechanics, aside from a small details (for example, thematically one might ask why you have a new starting location each round rather than starting where you ended up previously, but obviously this needs to be the case to keep the mechanics fair for each player). Overall, the theme does feel genuinely new, convincing, and successful. This is also true of the game-play, it has a very unique feel, so there's little risk of this duplicating anything else in your current collection!

It's quick! One of the big things going for Travel Blog is how quickly it plays. My wife and I whipped off a quick game with two of our older children in less than 30 minutes, including set-up and clean-up. This length feels just right for the kind of game it is, and prevents it from beginning to drag. The fact that players are under a certain amount of time pressure (due to the additional cost of being second or third to a location) is a great mechanic that keeps the gameplay moving and prevents it from bogging down with analysis paralysis. For a half hour block of time, it sustains just enough interest and excitement to keep it interesting and fun from start to finish.

It's educational! First let me echo the game's own self-proclaimed sentiment that it is not a trivia game. So Travel Blog is not like some kind of spelling bee for smart kids, only in the different field of geography. Knowing geography can help, but it's not an essential requirement to play by any means. But you will learn geography while playing, for sure! My knowledge of where the US states are located is quite miserable, but I'm definitely picking up things very quickly after a few plays of this game with the US map! What's more, the included Facts sheets - while redundant for gameplay - are actually interesting to look at. Several times we came across a country or state that we knew absolutely nothing about, and on those cases the kids were asking to have the Facts sheet read, because they wanted to know more. If a game can make kids (and grown-ups) hungry for knowledge, and make them learn something in the process, surely it has to be doing something right!

It's fun! Being educational is usually associated with being dry and boring, but that's not the case here. I suggested a quick game of Travel Blog to my teenagers to round off an evening, and they wanted to play! "Yes, can we please play Travel Blog!" They really said that, I'm not making it up! They'd had so much fun playing it the first time around, and were only too happy to play it again the very next day, and expressed considerable enthusiasm at doing so. (And not just because it might mean they'd get to go to bed later than normal!) The real time competitiveness, and light-hearted feel all help with this. Sometimes people's split-second choices cause laughs around the table, especially when the map is revealed and you discover the implications of choices that turned out to be foolish, or cases when you placed a token but then moments later realized was a very bad choice - but no take backs remember! All of this means that the game isn't intended to be played too seriously, but almost has a party-type feel. Who would have thought geography could actually be this fun?

It's finnicky. If the game does have a downside, it's that a big part of the game involves calculating the optimal routes and counting borders. This isn't inherently a bad thing - because it's part of the learning and the fun. And fortunately it happens after the map is revealed, otherwise the game would degenerate into an endless pit of potential analysis paralysis. But nonetheless perhaps having slightly larger maps would make this whole process easier, not least because some countries in Europe are awfully small! The game designer can't help that, mind you, because he didn't get any say in deciding the size of international boundaries! But having a larger map might help with this, although I concede it would come at the questionable cost of more table space. Watching as other player calculated their routes and costs did sometimes involve some fiddliness and down-time, and while personally I wouldn't consider it excessive, especially given that the whole game is done and over with in half an hour, I can see that some people out there might find it a bit frustrating.

It's replayable! The game does have a certain novelty factor which means that your first play are going to be especially enjoyable. But as you get better at the game and get more familiar with the geography, you can really start to challenge yourself. Needing to make decisions quickly also helps prevent the game becoming stale quickly.

It's accessible! One of Vlaada Chvatil's strengths as a designer is that he's not afraid to break away from gaming cliches. That applies to the theme and the mechanics of this game, and the accessibility also benefits from it. Travel Blog isn't really a game that's geared specifically towards gamers or non-gamers, but caters equally to both, and in fact will successfully level the playing field for both. So it's a real plus that you can bring anyone to the table with this game, and while not everyone is going to like it, its success will be more about personal taste than about whether you're a niche gamer or a non-gamer. It should especially prove successful in family contexts, although it's certainly not limited to that either.

It's attractive! The artwork is great, particularly the stereotypical travellers, the illustrations on the country/state cards, and the mini-euros. These aesthetics all come together nicely in doing a good job to enhance the gameplay.



What do others think?

The criticism

Not everyone is going to enjoy Travel Blog, and especially if you're expecting a heavy game from Vlaada, you need to first majorly adjust your expectations before trying this, because it needs to be evaluated as a much lighter game. The real-time speed geography and educational aspects are simply going to turn some people off no matter how well they're packaged, so you'll need to consider whether or not you're in the target group. So if the idea of anything remotely involving geography knowledge or educational isn't your thing, then this might not be for you. Then again, many folks who aren't good at geography did still enjoy this a lot, because quick-thinking plays just as much of a role as the geography. Some other niggles for some people included the thought that the scoring was a bit fiddly, especially in contrast to the `speed' part of the game. But for the most part the critics didn't point out any serious identifiable flaws in the game, just the fact that it does have a select audience.

The praise

So what about some of the positive things that are being said about the game? Not a lot has appeared on BGG about the game so far, despite it being out for almost a year now, perhaps this is accounted for by the fact that it's somewhat of an out-of-the-ordinary type of game, despite the pedigree of the designer. But certainly there are many who are ready to sing its praises, as these sample comments illustrate:

"Clever geography game, where the speed of the simultaneous selection needed mitigates against the trvial pursuit-edness otherwise possible. Light-hearted fun." - Gary Jackson
"A quick playing geography game that actually manages to be pretty fun." - Ryan M.
"I would not have expected that a "geography game" could be that different from those already on the market." - Stephan Valkyser
"Geography is my weak spot. But I had fun when playing this game and I also learned something. As an educational game it's 10." - Marcin Krupiński
"Good, fun, light, network/route finding game from the always unpredictable Vlaada Chvátil. Try to find the shortest route between different countries while avoiding neighbouring countries - blindly and under time pressure." - Soren Vejrum
"Great game with educational aspects. Super for kids (and adults) learning geography." - Rod McLain
"Fun. Fast paced, amusing, surprisingly challenging, and just downright fun to play. A big hit with us! Who would have though a game about geography would be this fun?" - Brian Modreski
"A new and fresh take on geography games, which instantly appealed to me. Die-hard fans of Vlaada's "bigger" and "deeper" games will surely be disappointed." - Michael Kröhnert
"Good fun, good for kids and adults to learn the topography of Europe and the USA." - M.J.E. Hendriks
"Fun and light, maybe a good gateway game." - Chad Weaver
"Another nice party game from Vlaada. Fast, fun and simple." - Dimitris Vasiadis
"Excellent, excellent game. I love map stuff and this one shows me how little I know about geography, yet it's fun to try to puzzle through the rounds and come up with routes not completely ridiculous." - Randy Cox




Recommendation

So is Travel Blog a game for you? It's certainly worth considering, if only because of the freshness it offers, both on the level of theme and gameplay. In fact I can't think of any other game in my collection quite like it! But at the same time, it has to be conceded that Travel Blog isn't going to appeal to every group, especially to hardcore gamers looking for their latest euro fix and don't mind enduring well-worn and tired themes to get it. So if this game doesn't live up to your expectations, it will have more to do with your personal taste and dislike for geography than any inherent or objective weaknesses of the game. For myself, I'm happy to own it, given the unique experience it offers. It has strong potential to please both gamers and non-gamers alike, and give them a level playing field, which I consider a real asset. So if you're looking for something that can be played in under 30 minutes, has a novel theme, competitive gameplay, and educational elements, definitely check out Vlaada Chvátil's Travel Blog!



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M.J.E. Hendriks
Netherlands
Arnhem
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Great review for a very cool, very fun family game.
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Jeff Kayati
United States
Worthington
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Anyone that I taught this game to had a good time playing. It really is just fun. A great game to either open a gaming session to break the ice or end one with lots of laughter.

Recommended not just as an educational game, but as a fun filler game.
 
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Matt Crawford
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Isn't this the same theme as the "10 Days in ..." series? Nothing against the game, I'm just not seeing how the theme is so revolutionary.
 
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David Witzany
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gatchaman wrote:
Isn't this the same theme as the "10 Days in ..." series? Nothing against the game, I'm just not seeing how the theme is so revolutionary.

The "10 Days in..." games have more in common with Rack-O, where your one concern is to make all of your moves contiguous (allowing for extensions due to cars, planes, etc.). There are few chances in "10 Days..." to go to the same place as anyone else, and there's no mechanic at all involving money.

I'm curious to know, though, how the simultaneous play works. Does the race simply go to the swiftest, with everyone else left getting their fingers mashed and paying the fastest-handed? Do you usually come up with a backup plan in case several people beat you to your first-choice country? Seems like younger players could be at a disadvantage solely from this aspect of the game.
 
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Ender Wiggins
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fuldhim wrote:
gatchaman wrote:
Isn't this the same theme as the "10 Days in ..." series? Nothing against the game, I'm just not seeing how the theme is so revolutionary.

The "10 Days in..." games have more in common with Rack-O, where your one concern is to make all of your moves contiguous (allowing for extensions due to cars, planes, etc.). There are few chances in "10 Days..." to go to the same place as anyone else, and there's no mechanic at all involving money.

I concur, it's very different from the 10 Days in... series. Not only are the mechanics very different, but even the theme, despite both being about traveling. In Travel Blog you are a paid blogger, and much of the game's mechanics revolve around the careful use of money, and earning money through judicious choices of places to visit and write about. This theme is closely married to some of the game's mechanics (e.g. the penalty of 30 euros for writing about a neighbouring country). In that respect the theme of earning money from blogging isn't just pasted on, but has a close connection to the mechanics, and that's what makes the game stand out.

fuldhim wrote:
I'm curious to know, though, how the simultaneous play works. Does the race simply go to the swiftest, with everyone else left getting their fingers mashed and paying the fastest-handed? Do you usually come up with a backup plan in case several people beat you to your first-choice country? Seems like younger players could be at a disadvantage solely from this aspect of the game.

In practice I haven't seen that younger players are at a real disadvantage, although I haven't played it with children under the age of 10. The starting country is revealed last, and from that moment on everyone needs to make a quick decision about where to visit - usually this phase only lasts about 30 seconds. We haven't seen fingers mashed, and because the map is face down, decisions aren't at all obvious, so you often need to go by gut instincts - later reflection may show that you made a silly choice on occasion, but that's all part of the game and part of the fun. And if another player beats you to your country of choice, that's no problem, you just put your token on top of theirs and take the 10 euro penalty (slightly less income for being second to write about that country) - that's usually a much better choice than going for some country that may be on the other side of the continent!

So in practice, the real-time simultaneous selection works just fine, at least in my experience. It also helps generate a light atmosphere which is appropriate for the game. It's not about calculating the perfect and optimal route - the clock is ticking, the assignments are up on the board, and you have to choose quickly, and sometimes you may choose badly. All part of the fun really. And as for the pre-teens and teens who are learning geography in school - they might even be at an advantage anyway!
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