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Ten Compelling Curiosities from Art of Play

The Art of Play

To the ears of a gamer like me, Art of Play sounds much like paradise. It's the online home, brand, and retail outlet of twins Dan and Dave Buck, and is self-described as follows: "A curated collection of the world's finest curiosities featuring playing cards, games and puzzles. Their mission statement best sums up what they're all about: "We travel the world in search of objects designed to dazzle the eyes and fascinate the mind. From luxurious playing cards to ingenious puzzles and stimulating amusements— each beautiful item in our collection holds a whisper of mystery, brimming with potential for surprise and delight."

Doesn't that sound like a paradise of sorts? For sure, and that's why they promise this: "Epiphanies await the curious mind. We embrace a spirit of wonder to inspire joy and foster a community of playful sophistication."

At the Art of Play website you can expect to find four main products that will help you develop your art of play:
Playing Cards: Stunning collections of art featuring the world's absolute finest playing cards.
Puzzles: Clever conundrums with brilliant solutions cloaked in elegance.
Amusements: Stimulating diversions to inspire creativity, curiosity, and joy.
Games: Luxurious versions of classic tabletop contests and bar-room recreations.

Dan and Dave Buck

So who is behind this online paradise? The answer is Dan and Dave Buck, who are twins who first made a name for themselves as magicians. They subsequently branched out into the world of cardistry, and are widely regarded as the leading pioneers in this relatively new and rapidly growing art-form. Cardistry, or card flourishing, can best be described as juggling with playing cards, and the Buck twins are two of the biggest names in the business. They enjoy a huge respect for their innovation and impact in shaping this trendy new way of using playing cards, having played a major role in the growth and development of this young discipline, which is increasing in popularity worldwide at an incredible rate, and they have been and continue to be a massive influence in cardistry circles around the world.

But Dan and Dave's expertise with and interest in the world of playing cards goes beyond playing with cards themselves, because it also led to the establishment of Art of Play as their own brand and online retail outlet. Here's how they recount their own history: "Founded in 2013 by twin brothers Dan and Dave Buck after becoming wildly successful producers of designer playing cards. Their interest in cards began at an early age when they practiced card tricks, and pioneered the art of cardistry. With a background in sleight of hand, magic and illusion, Art of Play's expansion into puzzles and games was a natural leap forward. Today, Art of Play curates a collection of curiosities from around the globe. From the finest playing cards in the world, innovative puzzles and games, and magical amusements for the home, we collaborate with artists to create remarkable products unlike anything else."

Since 2013 they have been selling a range of high quality playing cards that includes hundreds of different decks. But besides carrying a large inventory of luxury playing cards, the Buck twins have also been contributing to the custom playing card industry themselves by producing decks under their own Art of Play label. Over the last few years alone, they have been producing well over a dozen different decks of custom playing cards on an annual basis, with many wonderful and popular designs. If you're looking for a quality deck of playing cards, or something classy and sophisticated for your poker night, Art of Play has you covered with their one-stop-shop that contains all these treasures and more.

Games and Puzzles

But Art of Play is about much more than just playing cards, because they also carry unique games and puzzles, and that will sound like music to the ears of most readers. I've covered some of their beautiful decks of custom playing cards in other articles, but in this particular review I want to take a look at some of the puzzles and other amusements from their carefully curated collection.

Let me warn you in advance: expect some gushing enthusiasm. That won't shock regular readers of my reviews, because you'll already know that I'm naturally a pretty enthusiastic person, and I tend only to review things that I can be very positive about. I'm not going to waste my time with something that I think is merely mediocre, and let me assure you that I don't feel in the least luke-warm about the curiosities from Art of Play, but rather I'm red hot with enthusiasm about them.

Like me, you're probably glad to make a discovery like this at this time of the year, with the holiday season coming up in just a couple of months time. After all, this is when we're starting to think about the kinds of gifts to buy our friends and family, and to write wish lists of our own to help them out. And what can be a better gift than a unique item from a carefully curated collection of games and puzzles of the finest quality like this?

So welcome to Paradise, and welcome to Art of Play. Here we won't just find some of the very best playing cards in the world, but other games and puzzles that are among the very best and finest that you'll find anywhere.


Mechanical puzzles typically consist of mechanically interlinked pieces, and the challenge is usually about disassembling and reassembling them, or perhaps some other related activity. They have a long history, and Art of Play carries some of the finest and best, like the superb examples showcased below.

NEWS Pocket Puzzle

Art of Play sources their puzzles, amusements, and toys from around the world, and the NEWS Pocket Puzzle comes from Japan. It has been designed by legendary creator Nob Yashigahara, for Japanese toy company Hanayama, best known for their series of cast zinc disassembly puzzles.

The packaging introduces us to the challenge, which sounds easy enough: "Can you take it apart? Now try and put it back together." It may sound rather straight-forward, but the back of the box in which this comes also gives us a hint to the level of difficulty. These Hanayama cast puzzles have six different levels available, from 1 (Easy) to 6 (Very Difficult), and this is a Level 6! Art of Play also offers us this warning: "Be forewarned, this is one of the most challenging mechanical puzzles in our collection and this compass does not come with directions. Solving it will take patience and creativity."

The puzzle comes packaged in a nicely presented box, and is a solid brass compass (hence the name NEWS, which is an acronym of the directions North, East, West, and South). It feels chunky, and also looks very classy and sophisticated. The aim is relatively simple and easy to explain: separate the two interlocked pieces, and then put them together again. Solving it, however, is another matter. It doesn't require a complicated algorithm or memorizing a series of moves; rather, you need to think outside the box, and then suddenly you'll have it. So either you'll make no progress at all and get totally frustrated, or you'll suddenly have a flash of inspiration, and within five seconds have both pieces separate.

No solution is provided with this product, although the box does give an email address you can write to if you do get stuck. I'm glad they don't make life too easy for us to take short cuts, however, because it's no fun to cheat - especially if you've solved it and others in your household haven't! Our family didn't find it too impossible, and most of us were able to figure out the solution eventually - but it is devious and clever. In fact, of all the Art of Play puzzles we've tried, this was one of our favourites, even though it is one of the cheaper products in their line-up.

The NEWS Pocket Puzzle is one of our top recommendations: it's relatively inexpensive, looks very simple and in the end does have an easy solution, and yet some people will it fiendishly difficult, so it's the ideal challenge for everyone. It is also beautifully made and gives the immediate impression of being a high quality product. And the good news is that if you enjoyed this, you can check out the rest of the Hanayama range of puzzles that Art of Play has available!

Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle

From the relatively inexpensive NEWS Pocket Puzzle, next we check out one of the more pricey puzzles that Art of Play has available, which is the Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle.

This has the immediate feel of quality, packaged in a thick cube-shaped box, that has a real heft to it: it weighs one pound! What is it exactly? Call it what you like, and use it how you want - as a desk object, a paperweight, or a true distraction. One thing we can all agree on is that it is interlocking puzzle made of brass, and is very solid. Did I mention yet that it is solid? It totally looks it, and totally feels it! So besides solving the puzzle, you can totally use it for the previously mentioned alternate purposes; it really is perfect as a desk paperweight, and it invites curious souls to pick it up and explore it.

The Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle was created for Craighill, a company that produces unique and useful objects for your person and home. Their design studio is in New York, and this particular puzzle has been milled on a lathe by a skilled machinist. It consists of six brass bars, which have been carefully created with different notches in them. What this means is that there is only one way they can be interlocked together to create a single shape, and so the challenge is first to disassemble it, and then reassemble it.

This is a fine example of what is traditionally called a burr puzzle, which is an interlocking puzzle that consists of notched sticks combined to create a single three-dimensional unit, which in this case is a symmetrical "jack" shape. It's quite challenging to remove the pieces, and perhaps even more so to reassemble it, since everything needs to be held together just right.

This puzzle does not come cheap, but it looks terrific on a desk or shelf, and is an ideal gift for that person who has almost everything!

Domino Puzzle Maze

The Domino Puzzle Maze is a game of Dominoes - kind of. But this is Art of Play remember, and they won't be putting anything bland or average into their collection of treasures!

Sure enough, although we do get 28 wooden domino tiles with the usual domino spots on one side, what we find on the reverse is something quite different and intriguing. On the back of each tile is what seems to be an abstract pattern, with different rectangular shapes in two colours. But wait ... could those be pathways? Yes indeed, and now we've discovered the second puzzle hidden in this box: the challenge is to puzzle the pieces together, making a complete maze. Actually this proved to be one of the hardest challenges of the lot - fortunately a solution is provided, and we found it almost essential to at least get a tip about what the entrance and exit tiles of the maze were.

Of course once the maze-building puzzle is complete, the next challenge immediately awaits us: can we solve the maze? Clever! No wonder the Domino Puzzle Maze is billed as being "three games in one" with the aim of enjoying "all three nested layers of this deceptively minimalist gaming set."

The Domino Puzzle Maze comes packaged in a very classy wooden box with a clear plexi-glass cover, so that we can admire the domino tiles inside. These have a very clean and modern design, and were part of the reason that they caught Dan and Dave's eye when they first saw this in Europe. Maurizio Capannesi, the creator, hails from Italy, and the Buck twins were able to make a special arrangement with him to make an exclusive production run of this finely crafted domino set so that it could be brought to audiences in North America and around the world through Art of Play.

While you certainly could use this for your every-day games of dominoes, this beautiful product is best enjoyed by the causal gamer and puzzle enthusiast who wants to stretch themselves beyond the traditional game, and is happy to play around with the extra secrets inside this box. It's certainly an ideal and unique gift for the toy collector or discerning gamer that appreciates fine craftsmanship and ingenuity, and is looking for something out of the ordinary.

Matchbox Puzzles

The Matchbox Puzzles are among my favourite Art of Play products, given the sheer variety these contain, and the many hours of amusement they hold inside.

There are 15 different mini-puzzles altogether, and they are packaged together in sets of three. You can purchase just one set of three, or save 20% by buying all five sets of three together, and have the complete set. I'm glad we have the entire set, because it was well worthwhile.

Each matchbox features a delightful retro graphic design that looks like a vintage matchbox. No expense has been spared to dress these with style and with love, and great attention has even been given to the detail of the boxes themselves. As an added bonus, each box has some riddles written on it, so you'll be challenged by much more than what you find inside the box.

Inside each box, which is opened just the way you'd open a traditional matchbox, is a unique miniature puzzle. There's quite a variety of styles, and also in levels of difficulty - you'll find that you can solve some quite quickly, but others may leave you baffled for an hour or more! The range includes disentanglement puzzles with ropes and knots, wooden pieces that need to be compiled into a single image or pyramid, impossibly connected metal shapes that need to be cleverly pulled apart, and small burr puzzles where the aim is to disassemble and reassemble the pieces.

Considering the amount of fun to be had, these Matchbox Puzzles are very good value, because the cost per unit is quite low. They are quite small - they are miniature puzzles after all - but are still big on fun, and would also make great gifts, either individually or as a set.

Red Goose Puzzle

The Red Goose Puzzle is a clever disentanglement puzzle, where the aim is to help the goose escape the noose. This puzzle is quite a classic, and has been around for a while. But this version is easily one of the nicest productions of it you'll find anywhere, with attractive laser-cut wood and a quality cord.

The puzzle is made up of rectangular shaped alder wood, which has been laser engraved to depict a goose with a twisted and knotted neck. Four holes have been strategically placed in the wood, and through these holes is a black nylon cord, twisted through the holes and around itself. Attached to the end of the cord is a red wooden bead, which is larger than the size of the holes.

The aim? Get the cord off the wood and help free the goose! To do this, you'll have to employ some lateral thinking, combined with some trial-and-error. When you pull parts of the cord through the holes, you can start pushing other things through or around - but that's for you to figure out!

How difficult is it? Fortunately it's not too impossible. It does require some thinking and fiddling to be able to solve, although some are able to solve it fairly quickly, while others will get frustrated that it proved harder than they thought. It really is a neat little puzzle that has just the right amount of complexity, and most people should be able to solve it within 10-15 minutes or so.

This is a great little puzzle that is small enough to easily fit in your pocket, so you can take it with you and challenge your friends and family to solve it. Alternatively, you can leave it sitting on your coffee table as a curiosity or conversation piece, and for visitors to try. Considering that it sells at a reasonable price, the Red Goose Puzzle is a very attractive and well-made puzzle that looks elegant and nice, offering a good challenge without being too difficult, and is a great and unique gift idea as well.


The items in this category aren't strictly puzzles as such, in the sense that there is nothing really to solve, and everything works more or less automatically. But when people see them, they will be completely amazed and find it hard to believe their eyes. They can even give these amusements a try for themselves, and they'll be able to perform the visual miracles just as easily as you.

Magical Origami Cloth

I first saw the Magical Origami Cloth in an episode of The Carbonaro Effect (video clip link), a hidden camera magic TV show, where it is presented as part of a trick about a fake "Instant Origami Spray", that can magically turn a tissue into a folded paper crane.

There is no such thing as an instant origami spray, of course, but the magical origami cloth is definitely real, and it's quite mind-blowing to see in action! As you might have guessed, this curiosity comes from Japan.

It's a special microfiber cloth that comes pre-folded and packaged flat in a plastic bag, and you can also store it that way. What you need to do is stretch out the entire cloth flat - which you can do under the cover of cleaning your glasses or phone if you want to present it as real magic. Then you simply bounce the cloth from hand to hand, and it will magically transform into a bird shape, just like a folded paper crane.

Don't ask me how it works - but it does, and it is truly amazing to see! It folds quite rapidly, and while it will occasionally get a little stuck on some of the folds where there are sharp points, this is easily corrected with a quick little tweak using your fingers while bouncing the cloth. There's genuinely no skill or sleight of hand involved - it's all in the magic of the cloth, which somehow has a memory of its folds, and returns automatically back to the shape of a paper crane.

The instructions that come with it call it Peti peto and describe it as follows: "Peti peto is a pocket sized cleaning cloth made of polyester material for the purpose of removing dust off glass lens, LCD screens and precision instruments. By using the characteristics of the polyester material, it provides shape-memory for the Origami-like cloth which was produced so that it will reform to its previous origami shape, even after tt's opened and used. Peti peto refers to the Latin word of "Peti" or small and "Peto" or animal. We are sure that this neatly folded cloth cleaner will become as familiar to you as your pet and that you would always feel like bringing it along when you travel to various places."

This is truly a magical item that would make a great gift, and certainly will inspire wonder and amazement for everyone who sees it. You can even let your family and friends try it for themselves, and they'll be even more impressed when they see the magic happen in their own hands!


The Toroflux arrives in a rather non-descript looking package: a black cloth draw-string bag. It has the feel of something metal inside, and yet is completely flat - but what can it be? The packaging itself gives some clue: "The original Toroflux: Interactive, Tactile, Decorative, Fun!" The reverse side has instructions on how to use it.

So let's pull it out of the bag and show you what you get. The ad copy describes it as follows: "This mesmerizing metal flow toy can be manipulated in beautiful and surprising ways." Created by flowtoys, a Californian company that produces quality flow arts and juggling props, the Toroflux is a stack of 5" metal rings.

But all is not what it seems - you simply need to give these flat metal rings a tap, or jiggle them in the right way, and they pop open almost magically into a "three dimensional kinetic sculpture"!

Now the fun really begins! You can do all kinds of things with this Toroflux. The simplest move is to stick your arm through it, and with the help of gravity let it crawl and spin down your arm, and from one arm to another. You can even make it roll down a broomstick, extension cord, or a rope, to create what the ad copy describes as "the illusion of a metal soap bubble".

I prefer another description from the creators, where they describe it as a kinetic spring toy much like a 4th dimensional slinky. Remember those springs that would crawl down stairs and off chairs? This is like that, but with an extra dimension, and once you start playing with it, it's hard to put down! But when you are ready to give it a rest, you just pack it flat and put it back into the bag for convenient and safe storage.

The Toroflux is created from stainless steel, and consists of a single metal band that is perfectly shaped for its intended purpose, so it does need careful looking after, so that you don't bend or damage the individual rings. Thankfully the cloth bag provided with it goes a long way to keep it portable and safe. This is another great eye-catching "toy" that seems too amazing to be true, and anyone who loves the old slinky springs will find this a real hit.

Pop-Up Penguin

Unlike the two previous items, the Pop-Up Penguin isn't something that you can use right out of the package, because you need to assemble it yourself. In fact, that's part of the point and the challenge. Once you've built it though, your cheerful adelie penguin can do something magical: "When you drop it on a table, it transforms itself into a penguin!" Yes really - one moment it's a completely flat package of thin card, but when it hits the table it springs up into a well designed 3D penguin that is 6.5″ x 6″ x 4.5″ in size!

The Pop-Up Penguin can best be described as superb piece of "paper engineering", and is part of a series of products called Kamikara. The package describes it as follows: "KAMIKARA is an action paper craft kit series designed by Japanese paper engineer Haruki Nakamura. Each kit is intuitively designed and easy to build with minimal use of tools. Enjoy the next generation of paper crafts!"

What you get is a flat package the size of a large envelope, which comes with an instruction sheet, two rubber bands, and three specially prepared pieces of thin card. You need to pop out various pieces from the paper sheets, and then fold and insert various flaps together. It's recommended for ages 12 and up, which sounds about right, because it is somewhat of a fiddly exercise of precision, and it took us around about 30 minutes to put together.

But the instructions are super clear, and everything is very well designed and pre-folded, so if you follow the instructions you really can't go wrong. You can check out an online instruction video from the Japanese creators on Youtube (link) - start at 13:55 to see the Penguin Bomb in action. A better video of how the assembled penguin works can be found under the "Video" tab on the Art of Play product page. It really is ingenious, and has been incredibly well designed, because once it's put together it works very well indeed, and is a small miracle of clever engineering.

Half the fun of the Pop-Up Penguin is building it, which is an exercise in patience and precision. But once it's been assembled, the fun doesn't stop, because you can leave it lying around as a flat package, and surprise people with a moment of magic by dropping it onto a table, and seeing it pop up to life. It's great for people who like putting things together, or like the idea of what it can do once it's been assembled. We have a major penguin fan in our family, so this was always going to be a huge hit!

Lessmore Bowls

Now it's time to take a look at an optical illusion that isn't just a treat for the eyes, but has a practical use at the same time. Introducing the Lessmore Bowls, which is a set of two ceramic bowls that have a surprising secret.

These come in a lovely presentation with an elegant white cardboard box touched with silver foil, and boasting: "An incredible optical illusion that also holds your snacks. Serve up something more or less impossible!" Inside we find two dishwasher/microwave-safe porcelain bowls with a white gloss finish, ideal for holding your favourite snacks.

The two bowls are identical - or are they? Wait a minute, if you place them alongside each other, one definitely seems longer than the other. But when we switch them around, now the other one is the one that seems the longer of the two! As the ad copy on the box says: "these unique ceramic bowls appear to grow and shrink before your eyes."

This is a classic example of the Jastrow Illusion, a famous optical illusion that is also known under different names such as the Boomerang Illusion, and perhaps most commonly recognized from something most of us have probably seen in real life - two identical sized toy railway tracks placed alongside each other where the lower one appears surprisingly larger, as shown in this animated image.

The back of the box sums it up well: "This set of porcelain bowls is a magical way to serve our favorite foods or add a decorative touch of wonder to any tabletop. A unique three-dimensional optical illusion perfect for anyone with an appetite for curiosity." The Lessmore Bowls are typical of what Art of Play is about, something magical and unique, and yet something that can find a useful place in your home, or the home of a loved one.

Mystery Top

I've always been fascinated by spinning tops, and as a kid I used to take apart old clocks to pull out the metal cogs, which were often perfect for spinning. The inner child never leaves, so I knew right from the start that I was going to love the Mystery Top.

I'm sure that I'm not the only one with such a fascination - as the ad copy says, "The gravity-defying ballet of spinning tops has fascinated curious minds since ancient times. "

But because this is the carefully curated collection from Art of Play, even a traditional toy like a spinning top isn't exactly traditional. Designed by craftsman Takeichi Sasahara, these have have been sourced from Japan, where they have been turned by hand from indigenous woods on the island of Hokkaido.

They are called Mystery Tops because there are ten different varieties/shapes of tops, and you don't know in advance which one you will get. Even the box impresses, with a textured and embossed thick paper stock with a vintage style graphic design, which just underlines that this is a quality hand-made product. After opening the box, the surprise is not yet over, because the top is packaged inside a small white cloth drawstring bag. No detail has been spared in bringing us something that is completely unique and special.

The ten different types of mystery tops shown on the Art of Play website reflect different artistic traditions and styles. I have two of the ten different ones, and I particularly like the tops which have a loose band of wood around them. This wood band hasn't been glued together, nor can it be removed, because it has been carved from a single piece of wood along with the rest of the top, in an apparently impossible manner.

These tops are a great talking point, an exquisite and unique hand-covered treasure, and they are also fun to play with, and are sure to offer amusement and joy to young and old alike!

More Curiosities?

Art of Play also has a wide range of other high quality puzzles, amusements, and games, which should especially appeal to people who enjoy games and brainteasers.

You can browse their site to see the large selection that they have on offer - here's a composite image showing just a few of the curiosities that they have available.


What do I think?

So are the puzzles from Art of Play something for you? I imagine that my reviews above and the accompanying pictures already speak volumes, because I make no secret of my appreciation for and amazement at the remarkable puzzles that Art of Play has on offer.

Variety: Not only do they have an amazing variety of very impressive decks of playing cards, many of which are of their own creation, but the amusements and puzzles that they carry are truly of the highest calibre, both in terms of craftsmanship, innovation, and all round quality. There's a very wide range of very different products available, so there is definitely something for everyone - you just need to look!

Exclusivity: Many of the products you'll find here you won't find anywhere else. They have sometimes been sourced from exotic locations and faraway countries. You certainly won't be able to pick them up at Walmart or Target.

Quality: The craftsmanship of these puzzles and amusements is outstanding. The metal puzzles are extremely solid and durable, while those with wooden pieces fit together snugly and are well constructed. Even the packaging has small details like embossing and texture that adds to a sense of luxury and quality. It's obvious that the Buck twins have high standards, and only the very best items make it into their catalogue.

Creativity: I find myself blown away by the creativity of some of these items, as well as the quality. Besides the ones I've tried personally, there are countless other curiosities, just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. What you'll find here is not something that for the most part you've seen before, but expect to find things you've never seen before, never considered, and never imagined. Creative puzzles like these really can kindle that sense of childlike wonder and amazement.

Luxury: Even the lower end products listed in the Art of Play catalogue are luxurious. Words like elegance and classy often come to mind, and that's because their product line really does fit this description well. Clearly Dan and Dave don't settle for second best, but only want to carry the most outstanding and high quality products. Now obviously this comes as a cost, and these things don't come cheap, because if you are going to get luxury, it won't be at dollar store prices. But the "discerning buyer" is almost certain to find something to his liking here.


So is Art of Play something you need to check out? If you are in the market for something creative, unique, unusual, memorable, and difficult to find or to duplicate, it's hard to think of a better place to look. Whether you're hunting for that one-of-a-kind high-end deck of playing cards for your own enjoyment or as a gift for another gamer, or if you're searching for that unique something to give to that person who has everything and is hard to please, Art of Play has something that will suit.

But even if you're not a prospective buyer, you'll enjoy just browsing through their image galleries, exploring some of the amazing products they have available, and checking out some of the pictures that showcase their remarkable range. What I've shown you in this review is only scratching the surface of what they have available at Art of Play, and it only reflects the the items that I own myself and have first-hand experience with - there are countless more things that are equally as impressive!

Whether your interest is in playing card games, or puzzles, or just enjoying amusing curiosities, you're almost certain to find some treasures in Art of Play's growing collection. For anyone who enjoys quality playing cards, puzzles, amusements, or games, this site is definitely a paradise that I highly recommend you check out!

Want to learn more? Check out Art of Play:
Official website: Playing Cards, Puzzles, Amusements, Games
Social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest

Direct links for items featured in this review:
Perplexing Puzzles: NEWS Pocket Puzzle, Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle, Domino Puzzle Maze, Matchbox Puzzles, Red Goose Puzzle
Amazing Amusements: Magical Origami Cloth, Toroflux, Pop-Up Penguin, Lessmore Bowls, Mystery Top

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Mon Nov 12, 2018 12:18 pm
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New Review Series Launched

Over the last number of years, I've posted more than 300 reviews of boardgames. The most popular of these are my comprehensive pictorial overviews, and most readers will already be aware that there is a subscription list you can use to be notified of new game reviews:

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overviews: Board Games

In the past month or so, I have launched a new series of pictorial reviews, this time on playing cards. You'll find a separate subscription list which includes all the reviews I've published so far here:

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Reviews: Playing Cards

There are several reasons for the launch of this separate review series:

1. A growing industry of quality custom decks. To begin with, in the past number of years, some amazing and artistic decks of custom playing cards have been created, and great new projects are emerging all the time. A number of things accounts for this exciting development. Firstly, talented designers now have the ability to create stunning artwork and creative decks of cards on their home computers. More importantly, they now have the resources to turn their digital dreams into reality by partnering with online publishing companies, and by tapping into the marketing engine of the internet, especially the crowd-funding potential offered by Kickstarter. As a result, the world of custom playing cards is growing rapidly, and there are some outstanding, beautiful, creative, and unique decks that have been created, just waiting for you to discover them.

2. My own personal interest in playing cards. Personally I have had a very long-standing interest in playing cards:
a) I have always loved and still traditional card games. You can see my annotated list of my own favourite card games here.
b) One of my other hobbies, which also dates back to my childhood, and continues to be something I still enjoy today, is doing card magic.
c) Some of my family members are keen enthusiasts of cardistry (which you can learn about in my review here).
Given these multiple interests, it's not surprising that I often find myself with a deck of playing cards in my hand, and have a real interest in playing cards.

3. Board gamers' natural interest in playing cards. Most board gamers will also be naturally interested in playing cards, simply because of the variety of games that can be played with them. Every gamer worth his salt needs to own at least one good deck of traditional playing cards, and owes it to themselves to explore some of the tried and true classics like Cribbage, Hearts, Spades, and Oh Hell. These and many other evergreen favourites have stood the test of time, and still are fun to play today. With board gamers thus having a natural interest in playing cards, there's definitely a place on BoardGameGeek for sharing information about some of the great custom decks now available. If you are going to play a traditional card game with a deck of playing cards, you might as well play with something stylish, classy, unique, or beautiful.

4. A separate list from my game reviews. Finally, I figured it makes sense to post a separate subscription list of my playing card reviews, for people who are interested specifically in these. This makes them easier to find, and helps me bring them together in a dedicated list that is separate from my game reviews.

I'm not planning to stop my regular game reviews. In fact, I posted a new game review again just recently, and there are more on the way very soon! But it seems to me that there is somewhat of a void on BoardGameGeek about some of the great custom decks of playing cards that are available today. This new review series aims to fill that void by sharing information about some of the great projects and decks of playing cards that are out there.

So if you're interested, please check out the new series of reviews (there's already almost a dozen reviews), and subscribe to this list to be notified when a new review of playing cards is posted:

Pictorial Reviews of Playing Cards by EndersGame
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Tue Apr 18, 2017 7:23 am
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The Quintessential Train Game For The Typical Modern Gamer: Introducing the family members of a wonderful series

So you're looking for a train game that's a step up from Ticket to Ride, without being too hardcore or complicated? Look no further: Railways of the World is your game. It is one of the best games I've ever played, and one of my all-time favourite medium-weight games.

Don't make the mistake of thinking (as I first did after seeing photos of a massive board and incredible components) that this is just for middle-aged men who drive trains for a living and play with miniature railroads as a hobby, or that this is just for hardcore gamers who like complicated and heavy games, and that this game is not for you. Despite the glamorous and epic appearances, this is just another medium-weight game - only way better than most. The typical eurogamer will find much to love about Railways of the World, not least that it is more thematic than many eurogames, and comes with gorgeous over-produced components, and offers substance beyond typical gateway games without taking on the complexity of heavy gamer's games.

So if you're beyond gateway games, then you really owe it to yourself to consider making this one of your next steps into the world of gaming! In this article, I'll briefly introduce you to the base game and the expansions and spin-offs.

The Appeal

First of all, Railways of the World has an impressive pedigree, being the offspring of a Martin Wallace system that has proved most successful in Age of Steam, an ever-popular gamer's game from 2002. It was simplified for a wider audience as Railroad Tycoon in 2005, and as a result of some minor improvements was further refined as Railways of the World in 2009, receiving the benefit of further improvements in a 2010 reprint. Railroad Tycoon proved to be a big and popular hit, and still enjoys a very respectable ranking of #50 on BGG today, while Railways of the World is already firmly entrenched in the BGG Top 100, and already enjoys a significantly higher average rating than its predecessor.

The basic concept of the game is that players are railway executives, who borrow money to finance the building of their personal network of train tracks across a sprawling map, which they use to deliver goods to various cities, and thus increase their income and earn points. In the process, there are all kinds of short term and long term objectives, as well as steady interaction and competition to keep things interesting.

Most importantly, Railways of the World is more friendly and accessible than the tougher experience offered by the original Age of Steam. Its strength lies in the theme, which is closely connected with the pick-up-and-deliver mechanic, and the economic system that is at the heart of the game. When combined with lavishly produced pieces, colourful components, and a game that is playable by the average gamer and can be completed in 2-3 hours, the Railways of the World system has generated some serious staying power and appeal.

The Base Game

It all began in 2005 with Railroad Tycoon. In 2002, after the involvement of developer John Bohrer, Martin Wallace put out Age of Steam, an immensely successful train game that offers a tense and tight experience for hardcore gamers. Eagle Games' Glenn Drover simplified and streamlined the mechanics and game-play of Age of Steam, and attractive over-produced components were added. The result was a game more appealing to less hardcore gamers and more accessible to a wider audience. In Wallace’s words: “What I attempted to do is strip Age of Steam down to a more basic, faster moving version. The emphasis is firmly on track building. The auctions and special actions have gone, shares are easier - you get to take them out as you need them. It is designed for a wider audience than the original Age of Steam was.

But even better things were yet to come! With the Railroad Tycoon name no longer available due to licensing issues, in 2009 Eagle Games reimplemented the popular title under a new name: Railways of the World, with the benefit of some tweaks and minor improvements that effectively rendered the original Railroad Tycoon obsolete. A reprint of the game appeared at the end of 2010, featuring a number of further cosmetic improvements and small additions to the components.

Railways of the World contains two expansion maps, one for the Eastern US (ideal for 4-6 players), and one for Mexico (ideal for 2-3 players) - this latter map also made available independently as Railways of Mexico for Railroad Tycoon owners. Further expansion maps available separately usually only include a map and cards, so you will need the components of the base Railways of the World game to play them.

Want to learn more? See my pictorial review:
mb The quintessential train game for the average modern gamer

The Expansions

As far as expansions go, the Europe and England maps are ideal maps that retain the overall feel of the original game, but are more suitable for playing with just 3-4 players. The Railways of Europe map provides a tougher and tenser game due to the sparse layout of cities and high track building costs that come with building through mountains. The Railways of England and Wales map (recently reimplemented as Railways of Great Britain) has more cities which also are located closer together, and is thus more forgiving. It also has the advantage of coming with optional rules for a share system which takes the game in quite a different direction, although this advanced form of the game has received mixed reviews.

Railways of the Western U.S. offers a similar experience to the Eastern US map, by providing an alternate map ideal for a similar number of players. But perhaps best of all, it opens up possibilities for transcontinental play with both maps, with the help of a future expansion. The Western US expansion also includes rotor cities (which enable cities to demand two types of goods), and fuel depots (which offer new possibilities for delivering goods over longer distances) which can optionally be used on other maps in the series. Forthcoming later this year in all likelihood is an expansion that allows the Eastern and Western maps of the US to be combined for a giant board featuring cross-continental play.

For a quite different take on the game system, try the Railways Through Time expansion, which adds the new dimension of time travel. While the basics of gameplay are unchanged, players can deliver goods to eight different eras, each of which is represented by its own map (The Stone Age, Egypt, Ancient Greece, The Medieval Era, The Napoleonic Era, The Old West, Industrial Age, and The Future). The amount of maps used varies according to the number of players, making it fully scalable, and the result is an experience that's familiar yet fun.

The most recent addition is Railways of the World: Event Deck, which adds random events (good and bad) to the game each turn, giving new short term objectives and challenges to consider.

Want to learn more? See my pictorial reviews:
mb My favourite train game gets a fantastic upgrade (Europe)
mb A 2-for-1 deal that includes a completely new train game from Martin Wallace (England)
mb The second coming of Railways of England & Wales (Great Britain)
mb First impressions as the Railways of the World series heads West (Western US)
mb Hopping on board the Mexican train (Mexico)
mb Railways of the World successfully enters the Fourth Dimension by adding time travel (Railways Through Time)
mb Adding spice to my favourite train game! (Event Deck)

The Card Game

Railways of the World: The Card Game takes the game into a whole other direction again, by adding some Railways of the World mechanics to a Ticket to Ride style of game, and turning it into a card game, so this is a good option if you want a lighter and more casual game. It essentially takes the set-collection mechanic familiar from Ticket to Ride, and gives it a new twist by adding pickup-and-deliver elements from Railways of the World series, resulting in a fun filler that still offers some substance. An expansion of about 50 cards, Railways of the World: The Card Game Expansion, adds some extra possibilities like barons, switches, tunnels, along with the option of playing with five players, and using a draw variant to reduce luck of the draw.

Want to learn more? See my pictorial reviews:
mb This is what Ticket To Ride The Card Game should have been (card game)
mb Travelling further on a Ticket-to-Ride-type train game (expansion)


I love the theme, the components, the game-play, the depth, the interaction, the sense of building, the length, the replayability, the expansions, and the fun - it's obvious that there's a lot going for this great game! So if you find Age of Steam too tough, or Ticket to Ride too simple, as most gamers will, then Railways of the World is for you, and can rightly be considered the ultimate and the quintessential train game for the typical modern gamer! With the benefit of multiple expansions that are now available, it's an outstanding and ideal medium-weight train game.

For a more complete overview of the entire series, with more extensive commentary on each of the expansions and titles, see my list:

mb The Railways of the World Series: Introducing the family members of the ideal medium-weight train game

Join the discussion: If you've played Railroad Tycoon or Railways of the World, what is it that you enjoyed about the game, and made it stand out from other games? Which of the expansions has the most appeal to you (whether you've played them or not), and why?
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Mon May 21, 2012 12:02 pm
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Great Two Player Games: Introducing a series from Gryphon Games

There's always going to be a good market for solid two player games. While many of us might enjoy the opportunity to be part of a regular gaming group, not everyone is able to game with a larger group, or at least not as often as we'd like! On the other hand, many of us find ourselves living with a spouse or perhaps a room mate - the ideal situation for pulling out a game that's playable just with two. Such two player games, if they're good, have the potential to get some real mileage!

Over the last few years Gryphon Games have slowly been adding to a series that they've dubbed the Gryphon Two-Player Games series. It currently consists of four titles, all of which are designed to be played exclusively with two players exactly. Some of these are reprints of classics, others which appeared for the first time as part of this series. Here's the complete list so far, which I'll introduce in a little more detail so as to whet your appetite.

1. En Garde (2009)

This game has been around since 1993, and is one of Knizia's better card game fillers. The basic design of this game also lies at the core of David Sirlin's 2011 game, Flash Duel: Second Edition, which has enjoyed considerable independent success over the last year. En Garde as originally conceived by Knizia, is a game about the sport of fencing, and in 2009 it appeared in this great new edition from Gryphon Games that helps give it even more sparkle than the original edition.

The impressive game-play is unlike any other two-player game I've played, in the tug-of-war style battle it offers. Players each place their swordsman - represented by a lovely metal miniature - on the mounted gameboard. Players draw cards from a common deck of cards which contains cards numbered 1 through 5, and play a single card to move their swordsman forwards or backwards. Moving forward the exact distance between you and your opponent is considered an attack which your opponent must parry, otherwise he takes a hit. Players will move back and forth, jostling for position in an attempt to strike the winning blow - an activity which only takes a few minutes.

I don't often see myself praising a Knizia game for theme, but I'm doing it here. Additionally, En Garde is easy to learn, quick to play, and fun. Really, Knizia got almost everything perfect! With the great components of the Gryphon Games edition, I'm very pleased to have this in my collection. If you're looking for a light and clever game with a novel theme and strong bluffing element, you won't be disappointed.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: The Fighting Little Knizia with the Big Theme

2. 2 de Mayo (2009)

Spanish designer Daniel Val's 2 de Mayo first made an appearance in 2008. To some extent it's a game that defies categorization: Is it a war game? Is it an abstract game? Perhaps it can best be described as a clever asymmetrical cat-and-mouse game for two players, that is soaked with historical theme, full of tension, has simple rules, lovely artwork, and plays quickly (under 30 minutes). I was immediately impressed when I first had opportunity to play and review it shortly after its original release. At the end of 2009 the game was reprinted in an improved edition as part of the Gryphon Games two-player series.

The game-play is themed around the events in Madrid on 2nd of May, 1808, when Spanish civilians rebelled against the occupying French forces. One player plays the French while the other plays the Spanish, and military units on the board are represented by blue and red cubes respectively. Players simultaneously and secretly write orders to determine the movement of their units on a given turn. The Spanish have less units, and have to evade the French to win the game, while the French have the tough task of trying to capture the rebellious Spaniards.

Gamers who enjoy 2 de Mayo will be pleased with the improved components of the new edition, since virtually all the changes are upgrades. Particularly the English titles and more prominent English text on the Event cards are a great improvement. Overall it's a great game, and seeing it appear as part of this Gryphon Games series in a quality edition can only be good for this great little two-player game!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Scotland Yard for two players and with a twist?
Other resources: new edition overview and a illustrated sample game

3. What's My Word? (2010)

If you are among those who enjoy logic or deduction games, and don't mind playing around with words, you'll likely find a very satisfying game in this box. There's good reason that in 2010 What's My Word? was deemed worthy of a reprint after first appearing almost 40 years previous, all the way back in 1972!

The game-play is highly reminiscent of classic Mastermind, except that players are trying to guess words. But the real strength about Joli Quentin Kansil's design is the scoring system he has implemented in this game. Player's guess words in turns, with the size and location of their guesses being limited by the location of letters on the score sheet that comes with the game. Points are awarded for correct letters in the right position (1000 points) or correct letters in an wrong position (250 points), and from the total score for each guess players must carefully deduce the right letters, their position, and eventually the secret word.

The clever scoring elements that have been added to the traditional Mastermind mechanic help turn this into a deductive word game that really works well. Gryphon Games have done well to release the game not just with a simple score pad, but in an attractive folder that makes for a very pleasing and classy looking package. It's a very good two player game, if you're the target market.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A classy and clever Mastermind-style deduction game with words

4. Mirror, Mirror (2011)

Considering that this 2011 game originated with the designer being given a bunch of small round mirrors, a bag of wooden balls, a paint tray, and the challenge of a year to turn those into a game, Jacob Davenport has done an outstanding job of creating an enjoyable two-player game.

The objective of Mirror, Mirror is to move pieces (some of the moves are like chess) on the board, and try to capture your opponent's piece that is carrying a red letter - somewhat similar to the idea of capturing the "Flag" in Stratego. The characters all have `letters' on the reverse side, so they're hidden from view, and only one is red. But you can move your pieces - which have these awesome mirrors on them - into a position behind enemy lines so that you can spy on his pieces and see what colour letters they are carrying.

It's best described as playing a speedy and fun Stratego but with mirrors. Some of the mechanics certainly are more reminiscent of Stratego than Chess, but it's on a smaller playing field, and in much quicker game time. Add in a small element of deduction, a dash of tactics with regard to moving and positioning your pieces, a light-hearted and fun theme, colourful and quality components, and that's Mirror, Mirror! While being an abstract game at its core, it doesn't feel at all like an abstract, and is very fun to play and deduce. It also plays very quickly (15-20 minutes), so it doesn't get bogged down with analysis paralysis. Altogether these elements make Mirror Mirror stand out head and shoulders above your average chess-like abstract as a very clever and a novel two-player game worthy of attention.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Imagine playing Stratego with mirrors!

All four games in the series so far have been excellent. They also meet different needs and have appeal for different reasons. En Garde will appeal to fans of bluffing games, What's My Word will appeal to fans of word games and logic, 2 de Mayo will appeal to fans of cat-and-mouse style wargames, while Mirror, Mirror will appeal to fans of family style abstracts. I look forward to seeing what will come next in this series!

Join the discussion: What are some of your other favourite two player games? Have you played any of these titles, and if so, what did you think? If you haven't played any of them, which of these four looks the most appealing to you and why?
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Wed May 16, 2012 4:49 pm
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The Settlers of Albion: Carcassonne's designer does Catan-like colonization

Mr. Carcassonne: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede

Klaus-Jürgen Wrede became a household name in the world of modern gaming courtesy of the phenomenal success of his game Carcassonne. Not all the expansion offspring spawned by this mega-hit have quite matched the high standard of their parent, but their sheer variety and large numbers have helped cement and prove the reputation of the original game as a modern boardgaming classic.

But can you think of any other games that Mr Wrede has produced outside of the Carcassonne series? Experienced gamers might come up with the titles of The Downfall of Pompeii (currently ranked #245), and perhaps Mesopotamia (currently ranked #889). But the reality is that Wrede isn't widely known for his designs outside of his specialty in the tile-laying of medieval French cities.

Yet he has produced a number of interesting titles, one of them being Albion, which is the subject of my latest review. I'm somewhat surprised that this game hasn't attracted more attention, given that it's by the designer of Carcassonne, and yet to date here on BGG it has not even received 100 comments! This article serves as a short introduction to the game; consult my pictorial review for the whole nine yards.

Catan-like colonization: Albion (2009)

Albion first appeared at Essen 2009, and at first glance seems to be like so many other euro games - it takes about 60-90 minutes to play, is suitable for 2-4 players ages 12 and up, and features the usual box-load of tokens and player pawns. But there are several things that set it apart, because unlike many euro games there's not the sniff of a cube or the sniff of a victory point. In fact, it's a colonization type of game, where the aim is to be the first player to complete the building of three complete settlements on a map of Albion, the name used to denote England before the Roman invasion.

The theme is quite a good one, and features players serving as envoys of the Roman emperor, in a race to conquer the land, collect resources, develop buildings, and most importantly produce the best settlements. To accomplish this, you'll compete with other players to use resources like wood, fish, stone, and gold (beautifully denoted with tokens shaped to represent these respective items) to construct various buildings on the map. You'll need to move your settlers and soldiers carefully around the various regions on the board, building resource plants (to produce more resources), fortifications (to help with your movement), ramparts (to help with your defence), in the quest to be the first to complete all four stages of three different settlements. In doing so, you'll have to beware of the native Picts, who will at times prove hostile to your building efforts. There's no trading, but from the description just given you'd almost think it sounds like "The Settlers of Albion", and Wrede's take on the classic gateway Catan!

The game has been the subject of some criticism on account of concerns about its replayability, theme, and interaction. More often than not these tend to be overstated, although there is some substance to the concern that the game could become scripted as players figure out the optimal way of ordering their developments from game to game, something which isn't helped by the fact that there are only minimal random elements which would normally help keep a game fresh. Yet it's not entirely fair to state that the game isn't replayable, because there's a significant amount of subtle interaction that keeps each game from being the same. Players will need to compete fiercely to be the most advanced builder in a region to get the benefit of tribute payments from their opponents, and how this competition plays out will change things up from game to game.

While a potential lack of replayability might be the game's biggest weakness, it also has a lot of strengths. In many respects Albion meets the classic criteria to serve as a gateway game: it's got enough theme to make it interesting, a relatively straight-forward rule-set, decent components, and a good amount of decision making, all packed into a 60-90 minute time-frame. It's not an outstanding game, and perhaps that's why we haven't heard more about it - the reality is that it suffers the misfortune of appearing in a very crowded market that already has many superlative games all begging for attention, so its cries to be played can quickly become drowned out by louder voices. But it does have enough elements to make it feel somewhat different from most euros in a competitive field.

As long as you're aware that it has a potentially shorter shelf life than other games, Albion still worth bringing to the table for a number of plays, especially if you like games that are about colonizing or building up your own miniature civilization composed of different buildings by using resources and settlers wisely. If you can pick it up cheaply, you might want to consider taking a look at this somewhat unnoticed game from Mr Carcassonne. Albion is never going to match the height of success achieved by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's Carcassonne, because it doesn't really have enough legs to compete with the very best. But it's still good enough to offer both gamers and non-gamers more than just a couple of sessions of enjoyment. And let's be honest, isn't that more than what some of the more outlandish Carcassonne expansions deserve?

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A colonization type game from the guy who designed Carcassonne

Join the discussion: Have you tried any of Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's games outside of Carcassonne? Is he just a one-shot wonder as a designer?
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Wed May 2, 2012 4:52 pm
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The Alea Treasure Chest: Expansions to make your favourite games even more awesome

In 2009, Alea released a Treasure Chest containing expansions for several games. Ystari offered something similar the same year with the Ystari Box. The Treasure Chest was issued to mark Alea's 10th anniversary, and this medium sized box appropriately contained ten expansions for half a dozen of Alea's games, namely Puerto Rico, San Juan, Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Witch's Brew, and Louis XIV. Rio Grande's English edition of the Treasure Chest went one better by including two mini expansions for The Princes of Florence as well.

I'm not a huge fan of the model of bundling together mini-expansions in this way, because most gamers will find that they only own a few of the games. In most cases this means that you're buying a product that includes items of little use to you personally. I suppose that in some cases this might entice completists to buy the base game, and publishers won't be complaining about that! The real disadvantage of this concept is that these mini-expansions are not readily available separately. Admittedly, because they're typically very small, it's hard to think of a better way to market them in a way that avoids the publisher making a loss on the whole project.

Fortunately, some of these mini-expansions are absolutely terrific, and despite their small size they really enhance the base game, and are well worth the effort it takes to acquire them. Plenty of gamers have bought the entire Treasure Chest in order to get just a couple of these expansions, and found the result more than worthwhile. If you're fortunate, you might find someone selling off the expansion that you need; on the other hand if you do buy the entire Treasure Chest yourself you can always offload some of the other expansions for GeekGold, cash, or in trades. So which ones are worth getting? In this article I'd like to introduce you to what many consider to be the best two expansions in the box, namely the expansions for San Juan and for Notre Dame - follow the links below to my reviews for more detailed descriptions and reflections about each of these.

San Juan and its Expansion

San Juan first appeared in 2004, and remains an outstanding, tried and true card game even by today's standards. Some eight years after its initial release, it continues to hold up well even in the midst of an increasingly crowded and strong field of card games. Its initial positive reception was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that it was standing on the shoulders of the euro giant Puerto Rico. As a card game based on the BGG #1 at the time, there was never going to be any doubt that there was a ready market willing to lap up a card game version of what was arguably the most popular strategy game of the day. Of course, San Juan had to live up to the hype, and it did. Even though it's a much lighter game than Puerto Rico, the role selection mechanic made a smooth transition to a card game, and using cards as currency, goods, and as buildings proved to be a streamlined system that worked well. Sacrificing some of depth of its much-loved big brother came with the advantage of quick game-play, especially with two players, and it's no surprise that even today San Juan occupies the #9 position in the BGG chart of the top-ranked games from 2004.

San Juan expansion

The case for its excellence is only enhanced by the addition of the expansion cards from the Alea Treasure Chest. It's generally agreed that this is the best expansion in the box, and many gamers have reported buying the Treasure Chest simply for the San Juan expansion cards alone, and yet felt that their money was well spent. It includes two mini-expansions: new Events and new Buildings. These can be used separately or together, because both simply involve adding new cards to the deck. Whenever they are drawn, the six Events (Governor visit, General Amnesty, Free Build, Debt Relief, Earthquake, and Taxes) are added to the roles from which players can choose, and have one-time effects such as enabling an already used role to be used again, or giving all players a free build. But the real treasure here are the ten new Buildings (Office, Guard Room, Caritas, Park, Customs Office, Bank, Harbor, Goldsmith, Residence, and Cathedral), which offer new abilities and opportunities, giving players more options and possible strategies to explore.

While the Events are somewhat hit or miss, the new Buildings are a terrific addition to the game, giving you additional things to think about, and opening up new strategies. The Residence and Cathedral are particularly welcome, because these are 6-cost and 7-cost buildings that provide alternative ways of collecting big points at the game end. Having a larger pool of buildings enhances the already strong case for the game's replayability, and if anything has made the game even more balanced. As such, the new Buildings don't at all have the feeling of "more of the same", but give a very real sense that there's new territory to explore within the game landscape, and so they make the game feel fresh. San Juan has always been a strong performer in our home, and the replay value and freshness offered by including the expansion cards has only served to ensure that it will continue to be played many times in years to come. A must have for any San Juan fan!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Why I love San Juan. And why I love it even more with the new expansion cards!

Notre Dame and its Expansion

Notre Dame is and remains an outstanding euro, and several years after graduating off the production line as part of the class of 2007, has to be considered one of the highest achievers of the light-medium games from that year, by typifying some of the best that the genre can offer. It doesn't quite have the depth of classics like Puerto Rico or Caylus, but compensates for this by being more accessible, and serves well as a somewhat lighter and quicker game that is both intuitive and elegant. Yet it's not to be underestimated or considered as a game of luck - far from it, because Notre Dame offers tense and interesting decisions that require you to manage risk and manipulate a very tight economy, and carefully construct long range plans for your point-scoring objectives. There's just the right balance between tactical choices and strategic options, and the card drafting keeps the game interactive without being overly confrontational, while the finite number of possibilities keep the game from bogging down with analysis paralysis.

Notre Dame expansion

It's not too heavy, and yet there's also not a sense that so much strategic fat has been trimmed from the design that the end result is muddied by excessive randomness or that game-play becomes a mere shuffling of cardboard and wood with no real flavour, as is the case with some euros we've seen over the years. In many respects I suppose it is an exercise in efficiency, as many euros are, but the random draw of the cards forces you to plan different paths each game, the draft mechanic adds elements of fun and indirect interaction, and the risk management associated with the rats adds tension, all of which prevent it from being categorized with the mundane or blase. In the final analysis, this is no ordinary cube-pushing euro, and while it doesn't pretend to compete with the heavier games in the genre and won't please everyone's tastes, it remains one of the more shining examples of how good a lighter and medium weight euro really can be.

There are those who have developed a strategic `system' in how they play the game, much of which revolves around maximizing the nine grey person cards, and the game can start to feel somewhat stale once you adopt such a system. The good news is that the small expansion of nine additional grey person cards from the Treasure Chest gives the game a complete makeover, without changing the core mechanics or feel. The new cards for Round A are the Manager, Scholar, and Nurse, for Round B the Spy, Gypsies, and Coachman, and for Round C the Host, Guard, and Advisor. These can be mixed with the original person cards, from which a random selection is drawn, thus forcing players to find new strategies in each game, because the usual and somewhat scripted paths to victory points won't always be available. As such, these new grey person cards are an absolute must have for any serious fan of Notre Dame. Notre Dame has always been well received at our game table, but the remarkable replayability created by these expansion cards only makes it better. It's amazing what swapping in and mixing nine different cards can do! The size of this mini-expansion may only be small, but its impact on the game is quite dramatic, without really changing the core of the game-play that Notre Dame players have come to love. Highly recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Why I love Notre Dame. And why I love it even more with the new cards!

Join the discussion: What do you think of the Treasure Chest concept, and are there better ways to release mini-expansions like these? Which expansions do you consider to be the best in this box, and do you have any thoughts on the San Juan and Notre Dame expansion cards in particular?
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Thu Apr 5, 2012 2:53 am
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On The Value Of Dexterity Games: Featuring two new dexterity games that should be on your radar

The Value of Dexterity Games

I've always had a love for dexterity games. The beauty of dexterity games is that they work in almost any setting, whether at a party with a large group, or in the intimate setting of a home with just two players. They're typically easy to learn, entertaining to watch and play, give opportunity for developing a real degree of skill, can be played quickly, and have an appeal that encompasses both gamers and non-gamers alike. That's a pretty impressive resume! In terms of reach and value, it's hard to improve on the mileage you can get from a good quality dexterity game.

Some of my favourite dexterity games include the tried and proven greats like Crokinole, PitchCar, and Tumblin-Dice. In addition to these I've also enjoyed lesser known dexterity games like Elk Fest, Flicochet, and Sjoelen. While games like these are often made of wood and tend to cost considerably more than your average board game, they are still excellent value, and arguable even better value than your average board game. My Crokinole board is easily the most expensive game I've ever purchased. But considering the many, many hours it's been played, it's also easily the cheapest game when measured by the low cost per minute played. So over the long term, despite their higher price tags, dexterity games are fantastic value.

With that being said, I'd like to introduce two new runners in the dexterity field, both of which we've been enjoying immensely over the last couple of weeks. First up is Click Clack Lumberjack, a new release that's been very popular in Korea, and now is making its way to the wider market with the help of MayDay Games. Players use an actual axe to try to knock bark off a plastic tree - terrific fun, and ideal for parties as well as for a whole range of settings! Second is Caveman Curling, an excellent dexterity game that uses Crokinole style flicking but with a curling theme. Unlike Crokinole, judging your distance is more important, and the board has just the right traction to enable considerable accuracy. It has wonderful components and gameplay, and has the big advantage of being portable. Let's tell you some more about both of these great new dexterity games.

Click Clack Lumberjack

What other games can you think of come with a usable axe as the most important game component? In other words, where the central game mechanic is about physically swinging an axe and taking down tree parts? It sounds so ridiculous that you'd think I'm making this up, but there it is, sitting in front me, real as can be: Click Clack Lumberjack. Don't laugh too quickly - it really does reward skill, and has the potential to generate raucous laughter in the right setting!

The game consists of a plastic pieces piled on top of each other to make a tree. Each core has four "bark" pieces attached to it, and on their turn each player gets to swing the hit the tree twice with the axe. Bark that's removed will score 1 point each, while if you knock off the central core pieces you lose 5 points.

Dexterity games nearly always work well in any context, and there's few that can match the fun and hilarity of this one. The concept of wielding an axe to knock bark off a tree may sound ridiculous, but it's the kind of thing that needs to be seen and played to be appreciated. A game can be done and over with in under 10 minutes, which makes Toc Toc Woodman ideal for almost any occasion. The theme also makes sense in that you are actually chopping down parts of a tree, so it's easy to explain. If people are watching they'll quickly catch on to what's happening and want to join in, although even being a spectator can be incredibly entertaining. This is the kind of game that has the immediate novelty and wow factor that will draw people in, and its accessible and addictive qualities make it perfect for almost any setting.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Dexterity done right - what other game lets you swing a usable axe?

Caveman Curling

Caveman Curling is a caveman-themed spin on curling, the sport where they throw rocks on ice, and run ahead sweeping like crazy with brooms. It's a dexterity game that employs Crokinole style flicking of disks, but with a curling type rink for all the action to happen, and adds in some great artwork and a few twists.

Players take turns flicking their disks along the icy lake trying to get the closest to the "fire" at the end of the board. The playing board is made out of a special material that contains just the right amount of traction to enable remarkably accurate shots, and where you need to judge the distance carefully. After each shot, you can use a "special item" on the rock you've just flicked. A hammer can adjust its distance (in the absence of brooms), and a totem can protect it so that you can re-throw it later in the round if the totem happens to come off. Point scoring at the game end is just like in curling or bocce - you score one point for each of your disks closest to the center than the nearest of your opponent.

This game was previously released under the name Kairn, and limited copies of a new edition called Caveman Curling appeared at Essen 2011. It is now getting a wider release with the help of a Kickstarter campaign (check this link to see the Kickstarter project, which is now going into its closing stages). I was fortunate enough to play an advance production sample of the game, and was very impressed. It compares very favourably with Crokinole, and although it's still sheer skill, it has a slightly lighter feel in view of the theme, components, and the ability to use special items. Judging the distance is much more important here than it is in Crokinole, so the end result is that both games require a different approach, with Caveman Curling more likely to work in a family setting. Portability is also a huge plus, because while you can't lug your Crokinole board around easily, that's easily accomplished with the small box that contains Caveman Curling. A very fun game, highly recommended, and different enough from Crokinole to make it a unique challenge of its own.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Do you like Crokinole? You'll love this!

Join the discussion: What do you enjoy most about dexterity games? What are some of your favourites, and why? Which of the above two games looks appealing to you?
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Thu Dec 29, 2011 2:32 pm
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My 2011 in Review: Old Favourites

This is the final installment of a series of articles, in which I've been taking a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year.

A balanced approach to gaming means that one doesn't only play what's new and shiny, because sometimes we need to get back to some of the old favourites. I'm constantly playing older games that I've enjoyed for years, and from time to time I've taken an extra close look at an old favourite to feature it in a review. This past year was no exception, and that's why I'm concluding this series with an Old Favourites category. In this final article I'll highlight some of the classic euros that I keep coming back to, like Puerto Rico, Notre Dame, and Railways of the World. What was your most enjoyed game of the old favourites you played this year?

Puerto Rico (2002)

Puerto Rico has enjoyed a long reign of dominance for several years at the top of the BGG rankings. And even though it tussled with Agricola for the number one spot for some time, and has since been passed by the current #1 Twilight Struggle, it still enjoys a strong following, and can rightly be considered a quintessential and highly influential euro that offers much enjoyment and replayability for modern gamers. Since it appeared almost ten years ago, Puerto Rico has earned a well deserved reputation as a quintessential pioneer among eurogames, and is still considered an essential staple of many gaming collections today.

With the game on the verge of celebrating its tenth anniversary, and still enjoying strong popularity despite heavy competition from newer crops of games, I figured that this year was a good time to consider how Puerto Rico holds up as a two-player game, by playtesting and analyzing some of the most popular ways to enjoy it with just two players. When it was first released, Puerto Rico wasn't even considered a two-player game, but was marketed as suitable for 3-5 players. But given the enthusiasm with which the game was received, it wasn't too long before people were clamouring to find ways to make it playable for two players. An official variant was released by the publisher, and has been well received, and over time other customized variants have also appeared. The official variant works quite well, but many people favour what I call the "Craftsman Angst" variant, in which there are 7 roles in play and the Governor chooses 3 and the opponent chooses 2 - this prevents players getting back to back roles as a result of the "Governor Effect" and increases tension.

There is one respect in which Puerto Rico is showing its age. After all, it's been around since 2002 (a pre-publication version was at Essen 2001), so it first appeared almost a decade ago. For the most part it has stood the test of time, and its gameplay holds up well even when measured by the standards of the latest and newest crops of games - many of which are indebted to it and influenced by it. But if there is an aspect that could be improved, it's that the components could do with a visual makeover, particularly the building tiles. The plain text-only purple buildings are starting to look somewhat vintage and austere, and are just not up to snuff when compared with the artistic production values witnessed in the components of most newer euro games today. Fortunately there are ways to get versions with illustrated buildings, either using the print-and-play edition that features Franz Vohwinkel's beautiful artwork from San Juan, or the newly released deluxe edition to celebrate the game's 10th anniversary. This is a classic game that will continue to be popular in years to come.

More about two players? See my article: mb Ender's Overview: An analysis of Puerto Rico as a two-player game, and a comparison of the most popular variants
More about components? See my article: mb Ender's Overview: An edition of Puerto Rico with illustrated buildings - isn't it about time?

Notre Dame (2007)

Notre Dame is and remains an outstanding euro, and several years after graduating off the production line as part of the class of 2007, has to be considered one of the highest achievers of the light-medium games from that year, by typifying some of the best that the genre can offer. It doesn't quite have the depth of classics like Puerto Rico or Caylus, but compensates for this by being more accessible, and serves well as a somewhat lighter and quicker game that is both intuitive and elegant. Yet it's not to be underestimated or considered as a game of luck - far from it, because Notre Dame offers tense and interesting decisions that require you to manage risk and manipulate a very tight economy, and carefully construct long range plans for your point-scoring objectives. There's just the right balance between tactical choices and strategic options, and the card drafting keeps the game interactive without being overly confrontational, while the finite number of possibilities keep the game from bogging down with analysis paralysis.

It's not too heavy, and yet there's also not a sense that so much strategic fat has been trimmed from the design that the end result is muddied by excessive randomness or that game-play becomes a mere shuffling of cardboard and wood with no real flavour, as is the case with some euros we've seen over the years. In many respects I suppose it is an exercise in efficiency, as many euros are, but the random draw of the cards forces you to plan different paths each game, the draft mechanic adds elements of fun and indirect interaction, and the risk management associated with the rats adds tension, all of which prevent it from being categorized with the mundane or blase. In the final analysis, this is no ordinary cube-pushing euro, and while it doesn't pretend to compete with the heavier games in the genre and won't please everyone's tastes, it remains one of the more shining examples of how good a lighter and medium weight euro really can be.

There are those who have developed a strategic `system' in how they play the game, much of which revolves around maximizing the grey person cards. The good news is that a small expansion of nine additional grey person cards gives the game a complete makeover, without changing the core mechanics or feel. For any serious fan of Notre Dame, these new grey person cards are an absolute must have, and I highly, highly recommend them. Notre Dame has always performed strongly in our house, and the replay value and freshness offered by these expansion cards only makes it better. It's amazing what swapping in and mixing nine different cards can do!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Why I love Notre Dame. And why I love it even more with the new cards!

Twilight Struggle (2005)

There's a lot of good things that can be said about the current #1 ranked game, Twilight Struggle. With a broad appeal that has potential to please eurogamers and wargamers alike, it's not entirely surprising that it's at the top of the BGG pile. I picked up the Deluxe edition from GMT around this time of the year two years ago, and earlier this year proved to be a good time to get it to the table, at a time when a family member was studying the Cold War as part of a history course. I've also been able to explore online play using ACTS and VASSAL with a good friend, and currently have a game in progress. I've not reviewed it yet myself, but I can recommend Roger's excellent review referenced below.

For those who aren't familiar with this modern classic, Twilight Struggle sees two players compete against each other as the US and USSR, in a bid for world domination and influence during the Cold War era. The game is primarily driven by cards which feature key historical events that are true to the time period and reflect various elements of the tense political and military international cat-and-mouse game. Like global chess performed on the world's biggest stage, this subtle conflict ebbed and flowed in favour of both the Americans and Soviets alike during different stages, and the game captures this nicely. The cards feature events as well as action points that can be used by players to increase their influence in various countries, thus trying to control and dominate specific geopolitical regions, or to perform other actions such as military coups or advance in the space race. When played, scoring cards for these various regions are the main way that the victory points needed to win the game are earned.

The genius and tension of the game lies in the fact that when you play cards that feature events benefiting your opponent, these events will trigger even though you choose to use the card for action points, whereas an event card favourable to yourself requires you to choose between triggering the event or using the action points. This creates an enormous amount of tension, mirroring some of the feelings of this historical period. A complete game often features many micro-battles in particular regions, because when an area seems to become important to your opponent, you can rarely choose to ignore it, and simply by virtue of your opponent's interest it also becomes important to you. I particularly appreciate the historical flavour of the game, and the attention to detail. It has to be admitted that the game isn't for the faint of heart, and even though the rules are not super complex, it's definitely possible for experienced players to become good at the game by knowing the cards and making strategic choices that pay off later in the game. Ideally it also requires being able to set aside a block of three hours or so to complete a single game in one sitting. But if you can find that time and an opponent willing to take on the challenge with you, few gaming experiences can equal a tense game of Twilight Struggle with an evenly matched opponent.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb Roger's Overview: Deluxe Twilight Struggle

Railways of the World (2005) and Railways of the World (2009)

If you're looking for a train game that's a step up from Ticket to Ride, without being too hardcore or complicated, then look no further, because Railways of the World is your game. It is one of the best games I've ever played, and one of my all-time favourite medium-weight games. Don't make the mistake of thinking (as I first did after seeing photos of a massive board and incredible components) that this is just for middle-aged men who drive trains for a living and play with miniature railroads as a hobby, or that this is just for hardcore gamers who like complicated and heavy games, and thus conclude that this game is not for you. Despite the glamorous and epic appearances, this is just another medium-weight game - only way better than most. So if you're beyond gateway games, then you really owe it to yourself to consider making this one of your next steps into the world of gaming!

Railways of the World almost certainly represents the medium-weight railroad game at its best, being at the end of the process and evolutionary curve of development that began already before Age of Steam (2002). Age of Steam was an immensely successful train game that offers a tense and tight experience for hardcore gamers. In 2005 the mechanics and gameplay were simplified and streamlined and attractive over-produced components were added to create the even more popular Railways of the World, which was reimplemented in 2009 as Railways of the World due to licensing issues with the Railroad Tycoon name. At the end of 2010 a reprint of Railways of the World appeared, featuring a number of further cosmetic improvements and small additions to the components. This is the edition to get if you can, because it comes with a map and cards needed for playing on two maps, Mexico (deal for 2-4 players) and the Eastern US (ideal for 4-6 players).

The basic concept of the game is that players are railway executives, who borrow money to finance the building of their personal network of train tracks across a sprawling map, which they use to deliver goods to various cities, and thus increase their income and earn points. In the process, there are all kinds of short term and long term objectives, as well as steady interaction and competition to keep things interesting. It's not as unforgiving as some other games in the genre, and outstanding components combined with delicious, meaty and thematic gameplay without being make this a real medium-weight winner.

More about the game? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: The quintessential train game for the typical modern gamer
More about the reprint? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: So you're wondering about the reprint of Railways of the World

Railways of the World has spawned a large number of expansion maps, and 2011 saw the release of several great new additions to the series. Railways Through Time adds the interesting twist of time travel. Players can deliver goods between different eras on eight different boards (The Stone Age, Egypt, Ancient Greece, The Medieval Era, The Napoleonic Era, The Old West, Industrial Age, and The Future), using a selection of maps depending on the number of players. This retains enough of the original to be enjoyable, while adding enough new elements to make it a fun and different experience. The artwork on the new boards is easily the best yet in the series.

Also new for 2011 is the Railways of the World: Event Deck. This is a small expansion that can be used with the base game or with any of the other expansion maps. It consists of a deck of 50 cards, which introduce different random events to the game. Some of these are short-term objectives which will help you, but occasionally there are disasters which will hurt you - just like in real life. Fortunately in most cases you get a turn warning about the next event, so you can plan accordingly. There's nothing game-changing here, but consider it to be extra spice for fans looking to add something new to the game.

More about the time travel? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Railways of the World adds time travel to enter the fourth dimension
More about the Event Deck? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Adding spice to my favourite train game!

Join the discussion: What is the best game among the old favourites that you've returned to and played in the past year? And if you have played any of above mentioned games, what did you think of them?

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Wed Dec 21, 2011 11:25 am
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My 2011 in Review: Family Games

This is the second-last installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. The featured category this time round is Family Games, and there are some terrific ones here! I wouldn't be able to pick between Eruption, Pastiche, or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, which for me were the best three of the new family games I had opportunity to learn over the last year, but games like Pergamon and Finca are not far behind! Of the family games you learned this year, what was your favourite?


Eruption is a wonderful 2011 release from Stratus Games that really hits the mark for the family game context.

In this fantastic tile-laying game for 2-6 players, players are trying to protect their villages from lava flow by building walls, placing lava tiles, and performing action cards. One of the highlights is the `burn-meter' mechanic which measures village temperature to determine the winner. The hotter your village, the bigger the trouble you're in! Can you place lava tiles so that the heat starts to pressure your neighbour more than you? And will your walls hold up against the flow? There's some dice-rolling, but it's well done and only helps enhance the game for what it is.

This game targets the family market, and succeeds admirably. The theme is fantastic, and there's a real sense of tension as you watch the temperature in your village begin to climb. The volcano theme is one that has been explored before (e.g. in games like The Downfall of Pompeii and the classic Fireball Island), but it’s certainly not an old and tired theme that we’ve seen too often, and Eruption does bring something new to the table in how it executes it. There's some take-that elements, but surprisingly it doesn't feel overly nasty, and this is helped by the fact that there's some wonderful catch-up mechanisms built into the game's design that help players who are behind and keep scores quite even. Great looking and quality components help round out a complete package. One of the the best family games to emerge in the past year, and families with older children will love it.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Does Any One Else Smell Burnt Toast?


Pastiche is a relatively new release designed by Sean D. MacDonald. It's a wonderfully themed gateway style game for 2-4 players about mixing colours to re-create famous paintings. It's gorgeously produced with stunning components, and is an outstanding family game that has proven very accessible, by offering relatively straight forward game-play without sacrificing a high fun factor or meaningful decisions. The game has an intriguing mix of various mechanics, among them being: tile placement, set collection, trading, and hand management.

The basic concept is that players must place hex tiles which feature dabs of colours, and depending on how these hexes are placed adjacent to existing hexes, new colours will be created. Through careful hex placement and trading, players must try to acquire the colours needed to complete commissions for famous paintings. Each of these `commission cards' is a quality and thick tile featuring a well-known artistic work, beautifully reproduced. It looks fantastic, and the mechanics mesh quite well with the theme.

Pastiche is intended to be family friendly, and it has the right mix of ingredients to be a successful gateway game. It has already been chosen as a 2011 Mensa Select winner, and I can see it being nominated for other industry awards, especially after the release of a new-and-improved international edition that's scheduled to appear shortly.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A work of art in every respect, and the ideal family or gateway game

Flash Point: Fire Rescue

Cooperative games have been the rage over the last few years, and with Flash Point: Fire Rescue, designer Kevin Lanzing has come up with a theme that is ideal for this type of game. Players must work together as firefighters to rescue victims from a housefire, before too many victims are lost or the house collapses.

Placed randomly on the board will be three "Points of Interest", and although there are a couple of blank `false alarm' tokens to keep things interesting, the majority of these will be the 10 victims of which the firefighting team must safely bring 7 out of the house to win. There's some obvious parallels with Pandemic, such as the action point system that allows players to perform numerous actions on their turn, e.g. movement, extinguishing smoke or fire, and even chopping down walls. But instead of using cards to randomize the spread of disease, dice are rolled to determine the spread of fire, resulting in less of a puzzle feel and arguably more tension and theme. If you're not careful, an explosion can happen which can create havoc in all directions.

Flash Point is is proving to be a fantastic cooperative game, with a rich theme and tense-game play - ideal elements for families. The rulebook comes with a set of "Family" rules, but there are also advanced rules for experienced players which add firefighters with unique abilities, and give a higher role to the use of emergency vehicles (fire truck and ambulance), so you can ratchet up the level of difficulty should you wish more complex rules. Overall this is an outstanding product, and although hardcore gamers might perhaps find it to be somewhat lighter in feel to Pandemic, families are just going to love the theme and game-play.

Want to know more? See a pictorial report: mb A Tale of One Family and Three House Fires (a pictorial report of three games with the Family rules)


A finca is Spanish term referring to a piece of rural/agricultural land typically with an cottage or similar building, often used as a holiday home. In the game Finca, this theme brings players to the island of Mallorca, where they're growing and delivering fruit.

The primary mechanic of the game is a rondel, represented in the game by a thematic windmill, on which players will place their farmers to collect fruit. By advancing your farmers on the rondel, there's opportunity to maximize your production of oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, grapes, and olives, and to collect the donkey tokens which you'll need to deliver your fruit to the Mallorcan fincas. In so doing there are also ways to get bonus points by making deliveries of different sizes, and getting majorities with fruits in certain locations, so careful tactical play will be rewarded.

Finca was a Spiel des Jahres Nominee 2009 and has been nominated for and won several other awards, and it's not hard to see why. The light farming theme is very accessible, and the simple pick-up-and-deliver mechanism integrated with a rondel is easy to grasp and yet gives opportunities for clever play, despite some luck. Arguably best with 2 or 3 players, it's a highly elegant and easy to learn game, with lovely components, giving it strong potential as a popular gateway game.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb Is your donkey in my orchard again? (A pictorial review)


Stefan Dorra has the enviable reputation of having designed one of the greatest and arguably most popular fillers of the modern era, For Sale. In his 2011 release Pergamon, he teams up with the designer of Finca, Ralf zur Linde, to bring us into the world of archaeologists and ancient artifacts. In this 2-4 player game, you take on the role of a nineteenth century archaeologist excavating the site of the Greek city of Pergamon.

The game board consists of several main areas, which correspond to the different elements of game-play. First you'll place your archaeologist figure on the research funds track to determine how much funding you might receive and also indicate which galleries in which you can conduct your excavations. The goal of the game is to first amass the research funds necessary to excavate artifacts from the excavation site in Pergamon, then collect and piece them together as part of a collection, and finally to exhibit these finds at the Museum in order to attract the most visitors (which serve as victory points in this game). The more impressive the exhibits you put on, the more people will come to see them, and the more points you will earn. To accomplish this, you'll try to maximize the research funds you earn, so that you can dig up fragments of vases, jugs, masks, and bracelets from deeper layers, and thus piece together older and more precious artifacts that compromise a more valuable collection.

There's a lot to like about Pergamon, including the well produced components, the engaging theme, and the straight forward gameplay. The complexity is probably on par with the family friendly Finca, and the result is a very pleasing and accessible game that's rich in theme despite being a real euro. The theme especially meshes well with the mechanics, and the notions of digging for artifacts, piecing them together and displaying them in a museum to draw crowds all works very intuitively and smoothly. All in all, this is a well designed light-medium euro with terrific components. I dig it!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Yes we dig it! - the new and richly themed archaeology game from the designer of For Sale


Can you survive the Black Death? Rattus is a quick-playing strongly tactical and interactive light euro that first appeared in early 2010, and has seen a number of expansions already in the short time afterwards. It's very suitable for families, easy to learn, and fun to play, with an interesting theme, and good components.

In the game you are transported back in time to 1347, the year that the Black Death struck Western Europe with a vengeance. Players place cubes of their colour - representing their population - on a map of Europe. Each turn you place cubes and move the plague marker into a region, and which indicates the Plague striking, thus forcing cubes to be removed depending on the symbols on the `rat tokens' that are turned up. The idea is to have the most cubes on the board by the game end. But wait - we're not done yet, because there's also opportunity to take character cards which give you special abilities, although along with their rewards comes a greater risk of being hit by the plague.

The game-play features a real battle for survival, so there's real tension as you try to manipulate events to ensure that your population survives. It's quickly changing and highly tactical, and often comes down to a tight contest that relies a lot on the other players to keep the apparent leaders in check. While the base game works well enough, it is generally agreed that it has some limited replayability for gamers without an expansion. Meet Rattus: Pied Piper, which most gamers would consider it essential if you want to extend the life of the original game. Taken together, the base game and the expansion are a wonderful and immensely replayable family package. It's not going to be for everyone, but if you are the target market and are looking for a quick-playing and interactive euro that's easy to learn and fun to play, has an interesting theme and good components, Rattus is certainly a good choice.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A plague on all your houses, and a blight upon gamers everywhere
And the expansion? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: An absolutely essential expansion that extends the life of the original dramatically

Join the discussion: What is the best family game that you learned in the past year? And if you have played any of above mentioned games, what did you think of them?

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Tue Dec 20, 2011 10:21 am
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My 2011 in Review: Unique Games

This is the eighth installment of a series of 10 articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. I'm calling this category Unique Games, because they're somewhat hard to classify. Several of them could arguably fit in the forthcoming Family Games category (which is up next, so watch for it to appear early next week!). But I already have seven terrific games that made the cut for that category so instead I opted to make a new category of Unique Games. These games aren't necessarily innovative as such, but there is something about each of them that makes them stand out from the average family game, and belong in a league of their own. Have you learned any games this year that you'd classify as unique?

Travel Blog

There are times when modern gamers can start to feel a little jaded about themes in modern games. Another Mediterranean game about trading or shipping? Using a tired well worn theme is a sure way for a game designer to cause some eurogamers roll their eyes. Trust Vlaada Chvatil to rescue us from the tyranny of overused themes, and come up with something genuinely fresh. Meet his 2010 release Travel Blog, which has the privilege of having one of the most unique and original themes you'll ever see in a board game: writing a blog!

The game has players travelling the world, and earning money for writing a travel blog. Now that's 21st century stuff indeed! Travel Blog comes with two maps, one of the USA and one of Europe. Over the course of 7 rounds which correspond to the four seasons of the year, players must try to be the first to visit new and exciting places that they can write about on their blogs (and thus make money), while minimizing their travel costs (and thus save money). He who has the most money at the end wins. The mechanics of how this works are just as unique as the theme itself. With the map hidden from view, cards representing places on the map are revealed, and players must quickly place tokens to decide where they'll travel to. There's a reward for being first to place your pieces, because writers who are the first to get their story on their travel blog are obviously going to get the most interest. But you don't want to choose too rashly, otherwise you could find yourself travelling all over the map and spending too much money.

The end result is something that feels genuinely original, both in terms of the theme, and how the mechanics work and mesh with this theme. It also plays quickly, is accessible and attractive, and is somewhat educational while being fun at the same time. Travel Blog has a very unique feel, so there's little risk of this duplicating anything else in your current collection. If you want a game that could surprise you, and are willing to be challenged by a completely different game experience, this is your game.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Tired of old, well-worn themes? Vlaada Chvátil brings us something genuinely new!

Soccer Tactics World

Soccer Tactics World is one of the most fun soccer games that you'll find in the world of games today, and it deserves to be on this list for how strong the theme is, and how closely it feels like a game of real soccer. It first appeared on the scene around the time of the FIFA World Cup of Soccer in 2006, and has recently been released in a new and improved international edition.

Just like in soccer, you move your 11 players around the field, you pass, kick and capture the ball, and you shoot for goal. The gameplay is primarily driven by dice rolling, so there's definitely an element of luck involved, yet you don't have the feeling that the game is simply a luck fest decided by randomness, because you're the one deciding which player to move and where to, as well as deciding where to move the ball. The positional aspects of the game are key, and over time you'll learn ways to arrange your team on the field in order to set yourself up for creating chances and putting yourself into a scoring position - just like in real life! The result is that Soccer Tactics has the ebb and flow of an actual soccer game.

As such, this is a game with a huge appeal for soccer fans, because it's very well themed and intuitive to learn. If you're a fan of games but can't stand soccer, this is probably not a game for you. But if you're a fan of soccer, you're almost certain to love this game - whether you're a gamer or not! As long as you don't mind some dice rolling, and are looking for a game that is fun and thematic, Soccer Tactics does a great job of filling a niche in gaming that most sports fans can't get enough of! The only thing closer to the feel of soccer would be a dexterity game, or the beautiful game itself on a real field. Without the real thing, this is the next best option, and it's still a beautiful game. Very fun and good for families, and highly recommended for soccer fans!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A Fun Game about the Beautiful Game - and perfect timing for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup!

Pizza Theory

I was hooked on this game from the moment that I saw that Pizza Theory came in a pizza style box! It also comes with the distinction of having won the 2011 Ion Award for Best Strategy Game at SaltCON earlier this year.

In this family game for 3 players, you're putting toppings of your colour (red, white or green) on a pizza. The aim is to establish majorities in your colour when the pizza is "sliced", which happens with each player simultaneously selects a different line to slice. Each slice is then resolved separately, and the player with the most toppings in a slice gets to replace his opponents' toppings in that slice with his own. You win if you can successfully take advantage of these elements of majority area control and simultaneous selection to successfully get all 16 of your toppings on the pizza.

The components are pizza-tastic and very attractive. The gameplay can feel somewhat chaotic, because often it's all about trying to outguess what your opponents will do, but strictly speaking there are no random elements whatsoever. Just like pizza, it's not the kind of gaming food that will become your main diet or that you'll be playing for days on end. But that's fine becuase it delivers quicker than a pizza delivery driver, and games only last about 10 minutes. The rules are very straightforward, and when combined with attractive components, engaging and quick gameplay, this is an ideal game that's just right for a family menu. Pizza Theory is the kind of quick game that's like a good take-out meal - perhaps not healthy in large doses, but a tasty and zesty snack that's certainly desireable from time to time, and offers a very unique flavour!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Takeout food for gamers and families - I was hooked from the moment I saw it came in a pizza box!

My Little Pony Hide & Seek


Easily the game of the year. Just last month My Little Pony Hide & Seek became BGG's #5 ranked game and #1 strategy game (albeit briefly) for good reason. It's more than just educational, because its immersive theme and remarkable balance have been demonstrated to improve thinking in other games. In some cases it has even cured analysis paralysis, and been associated with significant weight loss - read my full review for all the details.

My life as a gamer has felt more complete ever since I discovered this pony game earlier this year. Not only does it develop one's ability to memorize, it also trains concentration, broadens vocabulary, and aids speech fluency - skills which are incredibly useful when playing any game really. During particularly intense moments of analysis paralysis in other games, images of the ponies in My Little Pony Hide & Seek flash through my mind - and in this highly enlightened state I'm able to make clearer and quicker decisions under pressure. I heartily recommend this game for this powerful therapeutic effect alone.

There are few games that I can recommend as highly as this one. It became an instant 10 for me and many others. As was famously said: "Ask not what this game can do for you. Ask what you can do for this game!" If you're not convinced or want to know more about the back-story, check the official guide and the Drakkenstrike-style video trailer.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's (non)Comprehensive (non)Pictorial Overview: The new #1 - Why. This. Is. The. Best. Game. Ever.

Join the discussion: What is the best new unique game that you learned in the past year? And if you have played any of above mentioned games, what did you think of them?

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Fri Dec 16, 2011 8:30 am
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