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Game Preview: Topiary, or I Think That I Shall Never See a Tile as Lovely as a Tree

W. Eric Martin
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In 2017, Renegade Game Studios assumed the unofficial title of "chief U.S. hobby game importer and repackager" that Rio Grande Games had held for so many years. In addition to releasing original titles such as Ex Libris and Flatline, Renegade announced licensing deals for — and in some cases released — games first released by non-U.S. publishers such as Altiplano, Dokmus, Dragon's Hoard, Honshu, Kepler-3042, Planet Defenders, Raiders of the North Sea, and the topic of this post, Danny Devine's Topiary, which was first released by Italian publisher Fever Games in mid-2017 and has a U.S. street date of January 10, 2018.

Topiary is a simple tile-based game for 2-4 players, one in which you try to create rows of topiary for your spectators to view, preferable in order from small to large so that you can see everything in front of you and thereby score as many points as possible. (Interestingly, another plant-based game from 2017, Photosynthesis, features a similar challenge as you want sunlight to hit all of your trees, so you try to plant and grow them in order to maximize sunlight absorbed while blocking light from opposing trees.)


In Topiary, sunlight is good only for seeing the tiles


Over 5-8 rounds, you place figures on the edges of the playing area, each one occupying a unique position among the tiles due to aggressive social characteristics or even more aggressive body odor, and in most cases you will transform a square of grass into a lawn sculpture. Sometimes you'll see something special because it matches what you've seen before or fits the size-requirement that you want to see in that space, and sometimes you'll have to place something there because that's what the rules demand you do. You took a chance on pulling a good tile from the board, and that chance has left you in a thorny predicament. Them's the breaks, kids!


Peeps


I've now played the game six times on a review copy from Renegade and offer these thoughts, in addition to a more detailed overview of how the game works, why you have multiple bodies, what's missing from the game world, and why you might want to reach for a knife after looking inside Topiary.

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Tue Jan 9, 2018 6:05 pm
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Game Preview: Quadrio, or Connecting Four While Spinning, Too

W. Eric Martin
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I keep coming across different things that remind me of how vast the game industry is, whether something in-house such as BGG hitting a milestone of five million unique visitors within a thirty-day period just over a week ago or something external such as the huge number of titles released at SPIEL or support for board games on Kickstarter.

With all of that going on, it's easy to overlook a new game here or there. Heck, you're probably going to overlook hundreds of new games on purpose as a protective measure to keep yourself sane and your bank account flush. The problem for me, however, is that I do look for those games, and I try to write up as many as I can, then place all the others in the database or encourage others to do so in order to catalog everything possible — but sometimes a game slips through the cracks, even when it was placed in your hands long before it was shown to anyone in public.

Such is the case of Christopher Villard's Quadrio, a simple four-in-a-row game with a funky twist — a playing area that allows pieces to move in it — that Swiss publisher Hurrican had for sale at SPIEL '17 and which I had received an advance review copy of in February 2017, a copy that I played a couple of dozen times before placing it somewhere in my game room and forgetting to write about it, make a video about it, or even just add it to the database. Those errors have finally been corrected thanks to the links above and the video overview below.

I know that I can't catch every game, but when one is placed in my hands and I let it slip away like this, man, that's frustrating! Now I've finally made amends...




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Fri Jan 5, 2018 1:05 pm
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Game Preview: Dragon Castle, or Tiling Your New Home for Fun and Profit

W. Eric Martin
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As Lorenzo Silva explained in his designer diary for Dragon Castle, the game originated when Luca Ricci approached him with the idea of transforming solitaire mahjong into a multiplayer game.

The final result, co-designed with Hjalmar Hach and first released by Horrible Games at SPIEL '17, does just that, with intuitive gameplay that anyone can grasp in a couple of minutes and chunky tiles that one would expect to populate such a game. When you put a title like this or Azul on the table, you can expect questions from passersby — should you be playing in a public space, that is — because the bits themselves inspire curiosity. They have that toy-like quality of HABA games that attracts people to them, and become akin to an interactive sculpture during play. Given the massive number of new games on the market, components like these elevate a game above others aimed at the same market. You need to get eyeballs on your game in one way or another if you want it to sell, and having fancy components in pictures that people will share and share again is one way to do that.

As for the game itself, Silva explained that it took them a while to come to the simplicity present in the final design. The end result is akin to Bruno Cathala's Kingdomino in that you're playing with something familiar yet new. In both games, the players take components from a shared pool to create their own thing. In your first games or if you're a more casual player, you'll mostly be looking at your castle as expands turn by turn; if you get a bit more intense, you'll keep one eye on the shared castle of tiles that you're disassembling in order to plan ahead for the next turn or two. What might be available next? How can you build in three or more colors at once so that this level can be built atop the next, allowing you to build shrines that will stand above everything else, netting you the most points in the end.


One of many possible set-ups to start the game


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Tue Jan 2, 2018 4:16 pm
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Game Preview: Decrypto, or Tricky Clues for the Clueless

W. Eric Martin
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Sometimes a game is more challenging to explain than it is to play. When learning such a game, you hear the explanation and all the words make sense, but you can't understand what you're supposed to do until you're staring at the components and the penny drops, which is a real challenge for publishers since they need to convince people to just throw themselves into the game before they fully comprehend what they're doing. Learning such games from experienced players would be ideal, of course, but that's often not possible.

I incorrectly conveyed the nature of such a game in April 2017 when I first wrote about Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance's Decrypto, which will be released by Le Scorpion Masqué in early 2018, with IELLO distributing the game in France and the U.S. and Asmodee distributing it in Germany.

Adam Kunsemiller, who demos games at Gen Con with the BGG crew, played a non-final version of Decrypto at a convention in early 2017, and he liked the game so much that he mocked up his own copy in order to teach others at BGG.CON 2017. I played the game three times at that show, and now I can right previous wrongs. While I correctly described Decrypto's gameplay, my description was off in one critical area, so let me give it another go now:

Quote:
Players compete in two teams in Decrypto, with each trying to correctly interpret the coded messages presented to them by their teammates while cracking the codes they intercept from the opposing team.

In more detail, each team has their own screen, and in this screen they tuck four cards in pockets numbered 1-4, letting everyone on the same team see the words on these cards while hiding the words from the opposing team. In the first round, each team does the following: One team member takes a code card that shows three of the digits 1-4 in some order, e.g., 4-2-1. They then give a coded message that their teammates must use to guess this code. For example, if my team's four words are "pig", "candy", "tent", and "son", then I might say "Sam-striped-pink" and hope that my teammates can correctly map those words to 4-2-1. If they guess correctly, great; if not, we receive a black mark of failure.

Starting in the second round, a member of each team must again give a clue about their words to match a numbered code. If I get 2-4-3, I might now say, "sucker-prince-stake". The other team then attempts to guess our numbered code. If they're correct, they receive a white mark of success; if not, then my team must guess the number correctly or take a black mark of failure. (Guessing correctly does nothing except avoid failure and give the opposing team information about what our hidden words might be.)

The rounds continue until a team collects either its second white mark (winning the game) or its second black mark (losing the game). Games typically last between 4-7 rounds. If neither team has won after eight rounds, then each team must attempt to guess the other team's words; whichever team guesses more words correctly wins.

My error in the first write-up was that I gave bad clues for the hidden words, specifically "finger" for "son". The clue "finger" won't work for the other three words, so the only correct choice is "son", but that clue works only by exclusion, not inclusion. As Adam commented in my initial write-up, "Our classic example was cluing 'broccoli' to get someone to pick 'chocolate' because it was the only food in the list of four keywords. It doesn't refer to chocolate nearly as much as it refers against the other three choices, which aren't food."

Adam elaborated on this description at BGG.CON, saying that once the game ends and the other team learns what your hidden words are and they look at your clues once again, you want them to nod and go "Oh!", not screw up their nose and go "Enh?" (A video of Adam doing this should be part of the publisher's game presentation.) I was still learning that lesson in our first game, when I gave "unicorn" as a clue for "cycle":


Mock-up components at BGG.CON 2017


Bad choice, Eric! I was thinking of how "unicorn" could lead Adam to imagine "unicycle" (and from there "cycle"), and he correctly guessed the code, but that was a bummer clue in retrospect. Thankfully I did not follow up that clue with "bifrost" and "tripod" as I had originally planned to do, but instead gave legit clues in later rounds.

The appeal of Decrypto is much the same as the appeal of Codenames, the components of which were raided for this mock-up: You are challenged to be clever when giving clues to your teammates. In Codenames, you can simply give a clue that allows your team to guess one of your hidden words, but that strategy isn't likely to win you the game. You need to think of a clue that ties together two or more of your hidden words; you're finding, exploiting, or creating connections between those words, then hoping your teammates can make the same leap that you did.

The clues in Decrypto need to work a bit differently since you're clueing each word on its own. In Codewords, you're linking words by a connection; in Decrypto, you're imagining the hidden word as a hub, with you trying to find multiple spokes off that hub that don't seem related to one another. Your teammates will be staring at the hub, so ideally those spokes will lead them to the correctly numbered hub, while the opposing team is left with a collection of disparate clues that lead them only in circles. I used "inch" as a clue for "grass" since that's how you measure the ideal height for a lawn. ("Inches" would have been better and more accurate.) Later clues for "grass" from me and Adam included "stained", "blunt", and "your ass". Individually those clues all got us to the correct number, while doing nothing for the opposing team.




An interesting element of Decrypto's gameplay is that you don't have to guess the other team's words exactly in order to figure out their code. For "cloak", we gave clues like "hooded" and "undercover"; the other team guessed (to themselves) that our word was "spy" or "secret agent" or something along those lines, and while they weren't correct, I think they always guessed #4 correctly in our code as our clues for "cloak" fell in the same trough as those that would work for "spy". In a later game, our team guessed that one of the opponent's words was "poker" or "Las Vegas"; the actual word was "casino", but that didn't matter since we were in the right ballpark and could associate a clue like "pit" or "blind" with the correct number.

The opposing team doesn't guess in the first round because they'd be swinging blindly. If they did randomly connect, they'd have a huge leg up on the way to victory. We saw something like this happen in the game depicted above, when the opponents guessed our code correctly in round 2, then did so again in round 3. Quickest victory possible! As we realized only after the fact, we goofed by having "heart" and "harp" both be clues for "organ". The opposing team connected them with the word "strings" and locked in on #1 while hitting #4 due to the spatial/mathematical terms and #3 by chance. If we had clued "lung" or "stomach" in round 2 or "trumpet" in round 3, then we might have been fine. Alas, we were not.

I have no idea what the word mix might be like in the published version of Decrypto, so please keep that in mind when reading this overview of the gameplay. As for the presentation of the final components, at SPIEL '17 the game featured fancy 100% authentic spy-like card holders that allow your team to see the hidden word underneath the red nonsense on the card. We'll figure out what the final published game has to offer in early 2018!


Demo game at SPIEL '17; original uncropped image by bwort110
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Mon Nov 20, 2017 6:02 pm
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SPIEL '17 Postview: Meeple Circus, or Piling Up the Points

W. Eric Martin
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[I wrote a decent number of game previews prior to SPIEL '17 — twelve in October 2017 and ten in September — but I played far more games than that, and further previews were thwarted only due to a lack of time. So many things to do ahead of SPIEL! Not content to throw that experience away, I'll run a series of postviews over the next couple of weeks. Sure, some people acquired these games at SPIEL '17, but they'll still be new to most people, so let's have a look! —WEM]

What do obsessive types like to do with their wooden bits when playing a game? Stack them, arrange them, make sculptures of them, create dioramas with them, catapult them into empty glasses — all sorts of activities that distract them from the serious business of playing a game, which perhaps is what inspired designer Cédric Millet to decide to make a game out of such activities.

The resulting publication — Meeple Circus from French publisher Matagot — gives you a juicy hot pile of wooden bits that certain parties will want to obsess over and press their eyeballs against.




As for the game in the box — for there is indeed a game inside — you draft these wooden bits over three rounds and use them to perform "circus acts" to gain applause, a.k.a. points, at the end of each round. Which acts, you might ask? The acts visible at the top of the four decks of act cards, with each deck focusing on a particular type of scoring action, such as one or more acrobats doing something with a ball, or an acrobat interacting with an animal performer (either an elephant or a horse).




At the start of a round, players take turns drafting twice: once from a set of round-specific cards and once from six face-up tiles; the game includes 18 such tiles, and with six available each round, you (and the designer) know that all of the featured items will be available at some point during the game. The round-specific tiles give you a set of objects in the first round, a guest star who scores in a very particular way in the second round, and a performative act in the third round.

You can draft either item first, but you then must draft the other type of item second. You keep all the bits as the game progresses, giving you more and more things to do in your circus ring once it becomes time to perform.


Draft set-up in round one for three players


After drafting your bits, you put on the circus music — yes, really — whether online or through the Meeple Circus app, then build whatever seems best to you in the two minutes that follows, racing against everyone else since the first two players to finish can grab bonus applause.

Once everyone has finished or time has run out, you score points for being quick, for completing the depicted acts, for using your guest star properly, for performing feats in the third round (more details on that below), and for using your acrobats properly. Blue acrobats are beginners, so they need to stand on the ground to score, while yellow regular acrobats must be off the ground and red daredevils score based on how high off the ground they are.

You score after each of the three rounds, then whoever has accumulated the most applause wins.


Performances at the end of round two


I've played [Meeple Circus twice with three players on a demo copy from Matagot, and one group raved, while the other couldn't wait for the show to pack up and leave town.

The challenge with this design is that it's taking what's essentially a solitaire activity and atempting to transform it into a shared experience — yet much of the action remains solitaire. Yes, you're drafting from a shared pool of resources, but in general you can always take something that's going to score in some manner. If you miss out on the horse, you can take a plank; if someone takes the plank, you can use a ball. You might have items that you want to get, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but not getting them doesn't keep you from scoring.


Guest stars available in round two; cards are double-sided with two ways to score


Much of the fun of a building/stacking game like Junk Art, Jenga, or Make 'n' Break comes from watching others do stuff. You want to watch them fail because it means you have a better chance of winning — and when they do pull off some feat that you thought couldn't be done, you have the joy of watching that amazing thing happen in front of you, with you sharing in their joy despite it lowering your odds for victory. They did something cool — neat!

In Meeple Circus, all of the stacking takes place simultaneously, so you start the timer, put your head down, then see what others have done only after you're finished. Sure, sometimes you hear curses, complaints, and crashes during the building round, but if you take your eyes off your own work, you risk disaster yourself.

This tendency toward solitaire building makes the performative feats in round three mostly pointless. These feats might require you to circle the ring with your animals prior to adding them to an act, or do a drumroll on the table with one hand while adding certain pieces to your ring with the other. As you're doing these things, you realize that no one is paying attention to you, so you feel foolish. Why am I bothering? I'll just take the highest-valued feat tile because the details don't matter.

Updated Nov. 10 to add: I'm a dope. As Dustin pointed out in the comments below, the third round is not played simultaneously, but one player at a time, starting with whoever has the fewest points. You do get to put on a show for everyone else. I had read the rulebook at least three times and hadn't noticed that detail, so the paragraph above is based on my incorrect playings of the game. I'll need to give the game another go with the correct ending performance to see how that compares to my previous experience. —end update—


Some of the feats available for drafting in round three


As for the act cards on display, they aren't as interesting as they could be because they're mostly the same throughout the game. Whoever has the fewest points at the end of rounds one and two removes one act of their choice, replacing it with the next one in that same deck — but the acts in each deck mostly use the same components in a slightly different arrangement, and since only one of the four is changed, if you made something and scored in round one, you can likely make it again in rounds two and three to score again. Having new acts each round would force you to figure out new ways to put your bits together, keeping the later rounds from feeling like repetitions of the first.


Four different scoring cards


I get why the game includes this rule for changing act cards. You want to give the player in a last place some ability to affect what scores in order to give them a chance to catch up, but you can replace an act that allows you to score with a plank only with a different act that scores with a plank, so I'm not sure what's gained. (At the same time, you want to keep all of these types of goals available so that people don't feel like they've wasted a draft pick taking something that turns out to be worthless later.)

In the end, the secret to success with Meeple Circus seems like the secret to success for a real circus: Know your audience, and make sure you're delivering what they want. Some folks are happy to build stuff and marvel at what they've built; some are not.


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Fri Nov 10, 2017 8:06 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Battlefold, or Fancy Face Beating with a Twist

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Fold-it, released by designer Yohan Goh and Korean publisher Happy Baobab in 2016, is a representation of a game that we've seen many times before: Here's a pattern; now recreate that pattern before anyone else can. If you do so, you get a reward. Collect enough rewards, and you win the game, which of course is a reward of a different kind.

The innovation of the game came in each player having their own patterned cloth, with players needing to fold that cloth along the depicted crease lines to create the target pattern. Fun! Manipulating the cloth is pleasing in its own way, different from the tedious cloth manipulations required to fold sheets or clothes as the cloth is light and you can fling it any way that you want, including in the face of those who make the pattern faster than you do.

The designer of that game, working with Dave Choi, has now expanded upon the original idea in an ingenious way. You like folding cloths? Well, let's do more of that, but with everyone having a unique cloth this time. What's more, the folding is no longer its own reward, but a tool in a larger challenge, namely the killing of everyone else.


Four-player battleground


This new game —Battlefold, which Happy Baobab will release at SPIEL '17 — puts you in the role of a traditional fantasy character: warrior, elf archer, wizard, or feline assassin (since felines always make ideal killers, as the extinct birds and mice around my house will confess in the afterlife). Everyone starts with the same number of health points and basic actions on their player board: move one space orthogonally, attack with a strength of one.

As in Fold it, each round starts with the revelation of a target pattern, with many of the patterns showing question marks that players can fill in as they wish. As players finish making the target pattern on their individual cloth, they grab one of the available numbered action markers, with one marker less than the number of players. Once all the markers have been grabbed, players then take actions in the order shown on the action markers, with each player being able to take their basic actions — move, attack for one — as well as all of the actions showing on their folded cloth.


Some of the target pattern cards in the game


This is the beauty of the game. No longer as you simply attempting to be the best pattern-making machine; now you can attempt to make patterns that suit your current needs in the game, while yes, still meeting whatever standards have been set for the round.

As I mentioned before, each player has a different pattern and mix of symbols on their cloth, each specialized to match the nature of the characters, who each have their own ways of attacking along with special powers:

• The warrior is up front about things and can attack only those orthogonally adjacent to him — and if he's standing on the same space as someone else, he does two damage instead of one. Piledriver!

• The wizard attacks all those diagonally adjacent at the same time — bzzt! — and if any of the damage is not prevented by shields, then the wizard regains one life point. (When someone has a shield on their cloth, they take a shield token that they can hand in at a later time to reduce by one damage done to them.)


Elf and warrior


• The assassin also needs to be diagonally adjacent to someone to attack them, and while they can attack only one person at a time, they have the unique skill of ignoring traps on their cloth. (Normally, whenever a player has a trap showing on their cloth, they take a point of damage. The threat of this pain often has you wanting to fold those traps underneath other symbols to both avoid damage and do something positive for that action space instead, but this takes time! Time in which someome else can grab an action marker instead of you!)

• The archer can damage someone exactly two spaces away from them, and when that damage takes place the wounded body is pushed back one space. Thus, the archer tries to dance around the borders of the playing area, while the other three characters want to get in close, hit someone, then move away.


Sample treasure cards


When you take actions, you can do them in whatever order you want. A treasure chest gives you a random bonus that you can pocket for use at a later time, whether an extra point of damage, a healing potion, the ability to freeze someone if you damage them, diagonal movement, and more, so naturally you want to grab the treasures first so that you can figure out what best to do on a turn. Whoever is last in turn order has only the basic actions available to them (along with previously acquired treasure), so they often don't have much to think about beyond hoping that they don't get hit too badly before the end of the round.

Take enough damage, and you die. That's not good, of course, since death is kind of a bummer, but dying doesn't spell the end of the game for you. No, you become a ghost in the game. Now you're no longer interested in damaging other players (or perhaps you're simply unable to damage them, what with being a ghost and all), and instead your quest is to return to the land of the living. To do that, you must attack the other players (as before because attacking is all you know), but instead of doing damage to them, you simply regain a soul point for each damage you would have done.



Target acquired, with one solution


This solution to the death issue in what is ostensibly an elimination game is a winner. You're not simply out of the game watching others to see who wins as you still have a shot at winning as well — yet you don't have a good shot because your basic actions consist solely of one move. You can't use heealing potions to gain soul, and you can't acquire treasure items and shields because they slip through your fingers. Thus, if you don't finish your folds in time to collect an action marker, you have zero chance of "damaging" someone and reclaiming any sould bits. You're still in the game, yet you're penalized for having the poor judgment to die ahead of others — a great compromise for a game with this goal.

I've played Battlefold twice on a review copy from Happy Baobab, both with three players, and I got to experience the afterworld once as my self-healing wizard didn't heal himself sufficiently to stay among the living. Not finishing in time to take actions is frustrating, but you have only yourself to blame — and when you do manage to land a few blows (on targets that can't damage you since you're already dead), it feels good.

As for actually winning the game, you need to either be the last player standing in a field of ghosts, or you need to reclaim enough soul to return from the dead; apparently that feat will serve to impress everyone else enough to drop their weapons and fold before you in awe.


"Just remember that death is not the end"
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Mon Oct 23, 2017 8:40 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Destination X, or Where in the World Is Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

W. Eric Martin
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Rarely do you learn about a game and immediately wonder why it doesn't bear the licensing of some well-known IP, but should you bring Destination X to the table, you will undoubtedly share the same thought I did: If this game had a Carmen Sandiego license, it would kill wallets across the U.S. game market.

By chance, Pressman Toy introduced Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Card Game in mid-2017 as a Target-exclusive title, and while that game is a decent deduction design, Destination X — designed by Bård Tuseth and Kristian Amundsen Østby and released by Norwegian publisher Aporta Games — does a far better job of channeling the edutainment experience of Carmen Sandiego and is a more interesting game to boot, at least for most of those playing it.

As with other spy-themed games such as Scotland Yard, in Destination X one player is the spy who is hiding somewhere and the other players are detectives who are trying to find the spy. The game includes 197 destination cards that represent the 193 UN member states and four areas that claim statehood and have some international recognition: Palestine, Taiwan, Kosovo, and The Vatican. The game includes a thick handbook that repeats the information shown on the reverse side of these cards, in addition to other information that isn't listed.




To start a round, the spy lays out six destination cards at random, then chooses one of them to be their secret location. The detectives shuffle a deck of 16 investigative cards, then each take a hand of three. On a turn, the active detective plays an investigative card from hand and draws a new card, then the spy reveals information from the handbook about their destination that relates to the card played. If the detective plays the area card, for example, you give the size of the destination in square meters; if they play the government card, you reveal the nature of that destination's government, typically republic or monarchy; if they play history, you reveal a detail about the destination such as "Former Spanish colony" or "Was part of the Mongol Empire".

After learning this bit of information, the detectives must remove one of the six country cards from play. If they remove the card that matches the spy's location, the spy wins; otherwise the next detective plays a card — perhaps population, language, or GDP per capita — then the spy reveals that detail about their location. At any time, the detectives can guess where they think the spy is, with this guess either winning or losing the round for the detectives.


Seven of the sixteen investigative cards


All of this sounds relatively straightforward and not much more than a trivia game, but the twist comes from the combination of two elements: (1) at the end of a round, whether the spy wins or loses, they lay out six new destination cards, choose a new hiding place, then the next detective in turn order chooses an investigative card to play, and (2) the first side to win three rounds wins the game, yet the detectives have only 16 cards for the entire game. This tiny deck is what puts the screws on the detectives, limiting their ability to pepper the spy for information over and over again until they narrow the choices to a near-certain candidate. Sure, the detectives can play four or five cards in a round before guessing a location, but if they miss one of those guesses, they've put themselves in a hole for the rest of the game.

Destination X rewards detectives for making smart choices. If you look at the destination cards on display – each of which shows the name and flag of the destination, along with a dot on the globe showing where it's located — you can sometimes choose an investigative card that will eliminate one half of the cards in a single go. Sometimes, depending on what the spy chose and what you play, you might have the answer handed to you immediately. In one round, I chose Cuba as my hiding place, and the first investigative card played was "Capital". For this card and a few others, the spy gives only partial answers (e.g., the first letter) because the full answer would give away too much info; even so, my answer of "H" put a flashing beacon on Cuba, and the detectives played only one follow-up card to confirm this choice before selecting it.


Handbook vs. card back, with underlines showing what the spy gives as an answer


Detectives are limited to cards in hand, though, so sometimes they just have to wing it as they won't have any ideal choices, but their need to wing it will also depend on the spy's ability to pick a good hiding place. If five of the destination cards are in Asia and you choose Guatemala to be contrary, then the playing of the Atlantic Ocean investigative card will give you away immediately. You just have to hope the detectives would think it fruitless to play such a card (or the language investigative card, or the history card or the agriculture card — okay, Guatemala is pretty much a terrible choice if you otherwise have five Asian countries in play).

This brings up the odd role in the game, that of the spy. You have to make a good choice at the start of the round, one that will ideally force the detectives to burn at least three cards before having a hint of your location, but you do nothing other than reveal information from the handbook while trying not to reveal other information by staring at the card you chose or letting the detectives see that you're looking at the front of the handbook (because then they'd know the country starts with a letter early in the alphabet) or smiling when a detective says something the reveals they're thinking of the wrong destination. All of your effort in the game is at the start of the round, then you sit and wait and hope the detectives can't detect you.

As I've learned over two games on a review copy, both with three players and both with me as the spy (and different detective teams), listening to the detectives' banter and watching them squirm is enjoyable, but if you're hoping for something more active and Mr. X-y, then you better sit on the other side of the table so that you can be the one asking the questions.

Destination X does contain a few other twists that I haven't experienced yet, partly due to my limited playing time, but mostly due to all of us players not being geography buffs. First, you can simply increase the number of destination cards in play to even the odds against knowledgable detectives. (For young players and, ahem, those who don't know a great deal about different countries, you can give the full answer for the capital or name of the currency instead of only the first letter. Learning might ensue!)




Second, the game includes seven red-starred investigative cards that can replace the starred cards in the normal deck, and these cards provide even less information than normal to the detectives. Instead of simply playing the religion card and getting the religion spit back at you by the spy — in shorthand, mind you, with the spy saying "Christian" instead of "Roman Catholic Christian" — you must instead choose to ask whether Christianity (or Islam or Buddhism) is a major religion in this destination. Instead of asking whether the destination is on the Indian (or Pacific or Atlantic) Coast, you ask simply whether it's on a coast at all. Heck, one of the questions is whether they drive on the left or right side of the road!

Third, the "Mission: Impossible" variant is for those with large tables and encyclopedic knowledge. The players lay out all 197(!) destination cards, then the spy writes down their location. The detective chooses any of the 16 investigative cards and learns the appropriate info, then must eliminate at least ten destination cards from play before playing the next investigative card. If the detective manages the find the right needle in this worldly haystack, they score points equal to the number of unplayed investigative cards, then players can reverse roles to see who does the job better. A true "where in the world" challenge worthy of an absent license!


Where will you hide this time?
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Sun Oct 22, 2017 6:00 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Cuckooo!, or A Blackjack to the Head

W. Eric Martin
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Every day with every play I relearn the folly of thinking that you can play a game once and understand how it works, especially when you make small rule errors that destroy the effect the designer intended to create. Even if you manage to avoid making such errors in the first place, the second play is almost always better than the first simply because you start the game already embedded in the experience.

The latest game to retransmit this lesson is Cuckooo! from József Dorsonczky and Mind Fitness Games, a card game that will debut at SPIEL '17. I've loved Dorsonczky's Six Making and Hack Trick, both two-player-only games that reward heady thinking and outreading your opponent.

Cuckooo! is for 3-5 players, and your goal each round is to come as close to 21 as you can without going over that total — but don't mistake this game for a Blackjack variant as the two games share only that magic number and nothing more. Each round, you'll sum the numbers on one of the two owl cards in front of you, 0-2 sparrow cards that you play from your hand, and possibly a cuckoo tile that you were forced to take from the table. That cuckoo is your nemesis, but if you literally play your cards right, sometimes the cuckoo can turn out to be your savior.

The game uses a unique deck seven-color deck in which one color has sparrow cards numbered 1-8, another 2-8, another 3-8, and so on up to the seventh color with cards 7 and 8. With four players, you strip out the 8s, and with three you also remove the 7s; this ensures that you deal the cards at the start of the round, each player has exactly seven cards, and you know all the sparrow cards in play. You also start with two randomly dealt owl cards, with these going from 7 to 18. A number of cuckoo tiles equal to the number of players are revealed at random, with these tiles being numbered 1-6.

After looking over your hand, you pass three cards of your choice to the player on your right and collect three cards passed to you. What will you want to pass? You'll have no idea until you've played a few rounds, so just roll with it and learn as you go.

Whoever has the highest card in the longest suit places this card in a discard row, then the player to their left takes the first turn, and on your turn you can:

• Discard a sparrow face down in front of you as part of our flock; you can have at most two sparrows in your flock.

• Discard a sparrow card to the discard row as long as it matches the number or color of the most recently discarded card in this row.

• Discard your entire hand, but only if you cannot discard a card into the discard row; place these cards face up by the cuckoo tiles, then add the highest-valued cuckoo tile to your flock.


Components


Once only one player has cards in hand, this player takes one final action, then everyone reveals their hidden sparrows, discards one of their owls, and sums the value of their flock. Why does this matter? Because you then reveal the topmost card of the magpie deck, an eight-card deck in which cards numbered 17-20 appear twice. If you fail to sum higher than the magpie, then you're out of the round and score nothing; sum higher than 21 and you also get the boot. But if you beat the magpie without going over 21, then you get a share of the magpie's loot, which is 5-7 silver coins depending on the number of players. Anyone who hit 21 exactly gets a special gold coin in addition to some (or all) of the loot.

You then reshuffle the sparrow cards and play three more rounds, with each player drafting a new owl before the round begins. After four rounds, anyone who has collected four gold coins — i.e., hit 21 each time — wins the game immediately. If no one has, then you convert gold coins to silver, and whoever has the highest total wins.

Like Dorsonczky's other designs, gameplay in Cuckooo! is easy to understand, but having some idea of what to do is not. You want to pass cards to your right-hand neighbor that might help you discard cards to the central row so that you can avoid taking a cuckoo, or maybe you want to void your hand of a color so that you can't play and can instead grab a cuckoo, or you want to do a little of both to leave yourself options. I've played only twice on a review copy sent by Mind Fitness Games, both times with three players, so I have no idea for sure right now. Your choices will depend on the cards you hold, the owls in front of you, and the cuckoos — in other words, on everything that's present in the game. Take the entirety of the game, evaluate it, then do the right thing. Good luck!


Artwork on the seven suits


One small error on my part nearly destroyed the game. I missed initially that you had to take the highest-valued cuckoo tile when you discarded your hand, so in the first two rounds of our initial game, we were placing down lots of sparrows, then discarding and grabbing the cuckoo tile we wanted, the one that would boost us to 21. Easy-peasy, but also wrong. (I also overlooked the last player rule, giving them the opportunity to play as they wished, which again made things far too easy.)

Once we started playing with the correct rule — a teensy change from what I initially thought was correct — the game improved a hundredfold and all three of us were tense throughout the round. Suddenly you had to balance all of your plays. Which cuckoo will you collect, if you collect one at all? Which owl will you use? Which sparrows in hand might combine with which cuckoos and which owls to get you to the magic total of 21?

Every time you commit a sparrow to your flock, you're boosting your sum on a one-way path, possibly cutting off future discard possibilities since you have only seven cards in hand, which means you're voiding colors and numbers fairly quickly. You want to time the plays so that you can pocket the sparrows you need and grab the cuckoo you want, but you can't discard your hand if you have discardable cards in it, so what did you give the RHO? Which cards have they played, and which do they still have in hand — except they might have played one to their own flock, which means you can't rely on them to play that pink 3 so that you can discard the pink 4 and stay in the round longer to grab the lower-valued cuckoo since you have owls 16 and 18, so now what?!


Optional action tokens


In our second game, which started immediately after the first, we made smarter plays, paying more attention to which numbers are present in each suit so that you can try to finesse your hand exactly as you need, so that you can discard in the central row and try to influence what others do so that you can hit the next play you want to make. Such plans didn't always pan out, but we now knew the game enough to attempt such things, which is a plus.

We also used the optional action tokens in this second game. When you draft an owl, you take a token as well, and these give you options such as picking up cards passed to you before deciding what you'll pass, or swapping two owls (ideally to stick others with high numbers as those seem to give you little leeway), or looking at magpies to see the target number for the next two rounds. These small tweaks don't make a huge difference in the gameplay, which is all about the challenge you face when you stare at those cards and wonder what you're going to do this time...


Your turn — do something
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Fri Oct 20, 2017 7:00 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Origami, or Eric Folds Five Families

W. Eric Martin
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I love card games. I'd be fine with never playing a board game again as long as I had card games available to me. Each time you pick up a hand of cards, it's like opening a present. You have some idea of what might be inside, but the details of the thing are what's important. Which cards do you have in hand this time? What don't you have? What's possible?! The more that you play a card game, the better you get, and as your knowledge of the game increases, you start playing the same hand three times: once when you first look at the cards and imagine what could happen, again when you're actually playing, and a third time when you're assessing how things went and what you might have done instead.

I'm not even close to that level of understanding with Christian Giove's Origami, which dV Giochi will debut at SPIEL '17 in October. I've played three times on a rough preproduction copy from dV Giochi, each time with three players, and I still haven't even seen all the cards in the game.

Origami is for 2-4 players, and the game includes five families of animals with each family being a different color. To set up the game, choose 2-4 families — with that number matching the number of players — shuffle them, then deal each player face-up cards until they have ten or more folds on their visible cards. "Folds" are the currency in the game, and one of the few nods in the game toward the "Origami" name, the other being the origami-like animal images on the cards.




Once everyone takes their cards in hand, you lay out four cards in a face-up market, then start taking turns. On a turn you can:

• Draw cards from the market that sum up to at most four folds. Refill the market to four cards, then add these cards to your hand, discarding at the end of your turn if you have more than eight cards.

• Spend cards from your hand to pay (exactly!) the cost of a single card in your hand. If a card costs 6, for example, you must discard cards that feature exactly six folds. Place this card on one of two collections in front of you, making sure that each collection is no more than one card larger or smaller than the other collection.

• Use the special effect of an animal card on top of one of your collections.

That's it! Rinse and repeat until you've gone through the entire deck twice, shuffling discards as needed to create a new deck, which you will need to do since after the deck runs out a second time, you still complete the current round, then each player takes one final turn, then you count your points on cards played to see who wins, with some cards having special scoring bonuses.


Four savannah animals; the number at the lower-left shows the number of copies in the deck


Gameplay in Origami is simple and straightforward, with most turns presenting you with the best kind of tension in any game: the pull between picking up more cards (i.e., resources) to give you more options in the future vs. playing cards now to put points on the table and possibly give you special powers to use.

With every play, you want to be as efficient as possible. Don't pick up cards with only two or three folds when you're allowed to pick up four. Don't play a card with a scoring bonus if you don't plan to make that bonus worth anything. Don't play a card with an instant effect (which most of them have) if you can't make use of it that turn. The gorilla, a savannah card, lets you pick up all savannah cards on the market when you play it. Should you play it if only one savannah card is available? What if that one card is another gorilla, which gives you four folds in hand (i.e., a free draw action) and the threat of another gorilla action in the future?

Every time you pick up cards, you're putting new cards into the market for the players that follow, something that might affect your choices during play. In one game I managed to play two chicks and pick up a third without yet having a chicken in hand, the chicken being worth 2 extra points per chick you've played. My right-hand opponent couldn't stop drawing cards completely, but he kept taking actions that would reveal several new cards at once, thus giving me greater odds of grabbing a chicken, which I soon did. Bok bok!


On right: Barnyard success, plus a vulture-powered butterfly


A lot of the special actions are conditional. The spider, a lawn card, lets you draw cards from the market that have exactly six folds. If you can't do this, then you must take the boring regular draw action or do something else. The vulture (sky) lets you use the top card on the discard pile to play an origami from your hand, and while free money is nice, sometimes you don't have the cards needed to pay a cost exactly, which leaves you staring at that top card like a $5 bill just out of reach on the other side of the fence.

Each family has their own type of powers and effects, giving Origami a different feel based on the cards in play. The savannah cards are all instant effects, mostly related to drawing cards in some manner. The sea cards give you discounts off the cost of a card or the ability to play a second card immediately (while still paying the cost of it). The lawn cards tend to benefit from other cards of the same family, such as the ant cards that jump from 3 to 5 points if you have at least two of them or the caterpillar that can transform into the far more valuable butterfly. The sky cards interact with other players, the cards they have, and the discard pile. I don't even know what the farm cards do as I haven't played with them yet.

Origami combines the joy of card game randomness with extra variety of play thanks to the five families of cards, of which at most four will be used each time. The only downside is that the graphic design isn't ideal, with a card's cost and fold count being bunched together in the upper left corner and not differentiated enough, with the fold digit being too small for my old eyes. Aside from that, right now Origami is the game I'm most regretful for not having played more times before writing about it, but SPIEL '17 is almost upon us, so I wanted to give a head's up about the game to fellow card game lovers.


Sample critters from the other four families
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Mon Oct 16, 2017 7:33 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: HATSUDEN, or Energizing Found Cities

W. Eric Martin
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I try to avoid reading or watching reviews of games that I want to play. I prefer to approach such a game with a blank slate — beyond whatever info or description inspired me to want to play the game in the first place! — because I want to develop my own opinions about a game instead of seeing it through a frame that someone else has already constructed.

I take this same approach for books and movies, and it's served me well. Seeing both Inception and Interstellar in the theater, for example, while knowing nothing about the movies other than the director (which is what placed the movie on my "must watch" list) was ideal. Watching the trailers for these movies afterward confirmed the rightness of my approach because I would have hated to have been primed with the material included in them.

(I realize that including this preface in a detailed preview of a game might be contradictory, but if you were like me, then you wouldn't be reading this preview anyway!)

Sometimes, though, you can't help seeing comments about a game, and a single line might be all it takes to put that frame in place. With HATSUDEN, for example, a two-player card game from Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka that was released by itten and New Games Order at Tokyo Game Market in May 2017, I saw a couple of people refer to the game as playing like Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities. Boom — frame established!

When I finally got around to reading the rules of the copy I had purchased at TGM, I didn't see the connection. Sure, you're playing cards in five different columns based on the symbols on them, but that seemed like a weak link.

Then I actually played the game, and after completing three games with the same opponent, the connection was clear. What's more, without prompting, after the game my opponent said, "That kind of felt like Lost Cities, didn't it?"

So what's going on in the game to make that link? In the game, you're competing to provide more renewable energy in five types than the opponent is, while also supplying your two cities with exactly as much power as they need. Provide too little, and you're penalized at the end of the game; provide too much, and you'll have to take a power source offline so as not to blow the city's transformers, which might then put you behind the opponent in a particular energy type.


Set up for play, aside from having my cards revealed


To set up, you lay out the five energy cards to indicate where the columns will be, give each player two cities (to show where you'll place your own cards), shuffle the four technology cards, then give each player a random hand of five cards. Cards are numbered 1-4 in the five energy types, and each number appears twice. On a turn, you play one card from hand in one of four ways:

• Place a card face up in an empty space in the column that matches the symbol on the card.
• Upgrade an existing card by playing a card on top of it that has the same symbol, but a higher number.
• Place a card face down in a space as a pylon; this pylon supplies no energy, can never be upgraded, and serves only to fill one of the ten spaces on your side of the playing area.
• Discard a card face up from play.

At the end of your turn, draw a new card to bring your hand to five, whether from the top of the deck or any discarded card of your choice.

In Lost Cities, you don't compete directly with the opponent when laying down cards and attempting to build profitable expeditions. You build yours, and they build theirs, and at the end of the game you both tally your points to see who wins. However, a large part of the tension in the game comes from you not knowing which eight cards the opponent holds. You might have two great cards to start a particular expedition, but what if the high value cards of that color are in the opponent's hands? You could be setting yourself up for failure and left scrambling for enough cards just to cover your sunk costs.

What if the opponent has already started an expedition and you have a single middle-value card of that color? You don't want to discard the card because they'll pick it up and profit from it, yet you might not want to play it either because you're both cutting off the chance to play low-value cards and risking being stranded if they hold the goods. What to do, what to do?


Great minimalist design


This tension is what HATSUDEN shares with Lost Cities. Once you commit cards to both slots in a particular type of energy, your opponent knows what they need to tie or surpass you. Yes, you can upgrade those slots to larger numbers, but by doing so, you're giving up the opportunity to build something else.

What's worse, each time you place a card in a row, you need to sum all the cards in that row. If the value is 12 or higher, then you must convert one or more face-up cards in that row into pylons so as not to overload the city. Did you just lose a majority somewhere else to gain one here? Possibly, but sometimes you are able to flip down a card that you don't need for a majority because the opponent has already committed in that type of energy and you're holding the sole card that they could use to overtake you. In addition, aside from fighting for majorities, you want the power for each city to sum to ten. Sums of 9 and 11 are also valid and don't cost you points at the end of the game (whereas a sum of 8 or under costs you 1 point), but if a city's power does sum to 10 at game's end, then you score 1 point for it.

A point here, a point there — it doesn't sound like much, but you will likely score at most 5 points in the game overall, so every point matters.


Iconic technology cards


Another minor similar to Lost Cities comes from HATSUDEN's technology cards. In Lost Cities, each color has handshake cards that can double, triple, or quadruple the value of an expedition, but they can be played only before any number cards for that expedition have been laid down. In essence, you have to increase your risk before being sure that the effort will pay off (although sometimes you already have the cards you need in hand).

HATSUDEN has four special technology cards, and when you play a 4 of any type of energy, you draw one of the cards at random from the tiny deck and add it to your hand. One card ("Smart") must be played immediately, and it doubles the value of that type of energy at game's end, making it worth 2 points instead of 1. The other cards stay in your hand until you want to play them: One lets you play an energy card face down so that the opponent doesn't know your strength in that type of energy; another lets you have up to 12 energy in a city, giving you more leeway to overpower the opponent in one or two columns; and another lets you downgrade a power plant. This last card is great because sometimes you lock in a type of energy early, then the opponent uses it to bury cards as pylons or otherwise cede it to you — yet because you played high cards in that column, you have less freedom due to the city limits to play cards elsewhere. Downgrading a 4 to a 1 opens up more room for plays elsewhere.

All of these technology cards are good, but to get them, you have to commit to an energy by laying down a 4, which locks out opportunities elsewhere.




The final point of connection between Lost Cities and HATSUDEN is the endgame. In Lost Cities, the game ends when the deck runs out, so you're often in the position of wanting to delay the game to play more of the cards in hand (so you pick up discarded cards instead of drawing from the deck) or you're trying to run out the clock to stuff the opponent and possibly draw cards that they might need.

In HATSUDEN, once a player fills all ten spaces on their side of the board, the opponent gets one more turn, then you score points, with each 10-power city being worth 1 point and the majority in an energy type being worth 1 point (unless something is doubled). That clock in the form of your opponent's board is staring you in the face all game, and you need to keep watching it so that you don't find yourself stuck with good cards that would have helped you, but...whoopsy daisy, you lost, lost in the cities...
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Fri Oct 13, 2017 6:00 pm
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