Empty Nest Gamers

With our children now grown and out of the house, my wife and I have a lot more time to fill. This blog will feature our thoughts on games that we've played recently (with an emphasis on how they've worked for us as two-player games).

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New to Me: June 2017

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IKI

(Image credit: PlayerToTheLeft)

Iki Iki Iki Iki Ptang Zoom-Boing! ... sorry.

Iki is a very solid medium-weight engine-building euro set in 17th Century Japan. Players are merchants in the historic Nihonbashi market in Edo, moving counter-clockwise around the board and visiting the various shops (and individual peddlers/craftsmen who live above the shops).

The board operates as a kind of action selection rondel. After you move your piece, you get to activate the space where you've stop and perform its action. An interesting innovation is that the players collectively modify the rondel over the course of the game, by installing peddler cards in the various spaces. These provide alternative actions that can be performed when stopping in a space.

Two more fun wrinkles:

(1) If you use someone else's peddler, that peddler gradually levels up (and eventually retires), which means that it produce better income for its owner. On retirement, a peddler is removed from the board and no longer needs to be "fed," but it continues to provide income.

(2) At three points in the game, there will be a fire. It starts in a randomly selected corner of the board and burns toward the center. The fire can be put out, if it reaches a peddler whose owner has a sufficiently high firefighting skill. If not, that peddler is removed from the board and the fire continues onward. This means that players need to pay attention to the common good, by increasing their firefighting skill, or risk losing peddlers to fire.

The rest of the mechanics are pretty standard euro fare -- acquiring different resources to build end game VP buildings, choosing peddlers based on trade-offs between cost/VP/bonus power, feeding your peddlers (or they leave), placing peddlers in districts with other peddlers of the same type, for bonus VP.

But it's all very tight, coherent, smooth-playing, and interesting.

The game has a striking aesthetic, with a lot of period art on the board and cards. This makes things a bit busy and the card layout and icons were also a bit hard to use. But those slight functional impairments weren't that big of a deal.

Overall, this is a solid resource management euro with an interesting twist on the rondel mechanic, and lots of thematic flavor.

Recommended.



Century: Spice Road

(Image credit: klark78)

Very smooth, fast-playing light deck-builder.

This is being touted by many as a "Splendor-killer." I can see the point. They both occupy the same niche -- light, fast-playing, engine-builders with a great physical presentation.

There are differences. Splendor used a card tableau to build your engine. Century spice uses deck-building.

I don't know that CS is better than Splendor. But it's new, and a lot of people have probably played Splendor out. So I do expect that CS will be replacing Splendor in a lot of game groups.

One thing I really liked about CS was how fast it plays. Even with four (including one of our group's worst APers), your turn comes back around almost before you're ready for it.

Overall, this is a very slick, enjoyable, good-looking, super-light euro filler. A lot of people are going to dig it.

Recommended, in its niche.



Merkator

(Image credit: fabricefab)

Beige, but in a good way.

If you look up "euro game" on wikipedia, there's probably a picture of Merkator in the article. See also, beige; trading in renaissance Europe; royal ugly dude on box cover.

If you hate that kind of thing, you probably won't like Merkator.

It's a dry, pick-up-and-deliver, order-fulfillment euro with a cliched historical theme and aggressively drab art design.

But the game play is very good (it's designed by Uwe Rosenberg).

I particularly liked the contract system.

When you fulfill a contract, you don't discard it. That means you can fulfill it more than once, which I haven't seen before.

Also, when you fulfill a contract, the only reward is that you get a new contract of the next higher value (values range from 2 to 10). Higher value contracts are more difficult to fulfill but are worth more end-game VP.

Each turn, contracts can be sold for money (based on the contract's value), which can then used to buy end-game VP objective cards and productivity-boosters (which give you more goods of a specified type when you visit a specified city).

In fact, if you have more than 5 contracts at the beginning of a turn, you must sell the excess. This keeps things moving toward the end-game, as you grind your way up to the higher VP contracts and use the money from your older contracts to buy objectives and boosters.

I really liked Merkator, as a heads-down thinky resource management euro. It's very well designed and tight.

Definitely not for everyone. But recommended (if you don't mind beige).



Steam Time

(Image credit: punkin312)

Not beige, by a long shot.

Aesthetically, this is the polar opposite of Merkator. The theme is a cliche of geeky excess -- steam punk time travel! And the game looks like someone ate a party-sized bag of skittles and couldn't keep them down.

But the game play was decent (it's designed by Rudiger Dorn).

The heart of the game is spatially-constrained worker placement.

The game board is built up from several large strips, each with a different mix of action spaces. The strips are placed in "chronological" order, with the strip at the bottom of the board being the "oldest" and each higher strip being "newer" than the ones below it.

That arrangement matters -- after placing your first worker for a round, each subsequent worker must be placed on a strip that is "newer" than your prior placements. This creates interesting action selection pressures, especially as other players are grabbing the spots you'd like to use.

Another innovation: the resources you collect (time crystals!) are placed on your player board, where they boost the power of your actions.

But crystals also have to be spent in order to acquire other important things. This creates a push-pull between the desire to keep your crystals on the board to strengthen your action engine and the need to spend the crystals for other purposes.

Ultimately, the game fell a bit flat for me. A big part of that was slow play. The downtime and duration were much higher than was enjoyable for a game of this relatively light weight. For that reason, I'd recommend playing with less than the full complement, and avoiding the AP-inclined.

It's possible I would like it more with a smaller and brisker group, but I wasn't intrigued enough to return to it.

Already traded it.



Clank!: A Deck-Building Adventure

(Image credit: 221boardgames)

Deep Sea Adventure with deck-building (and dragons!).

I can see why people like it. There's some tension in the push-your-luck element. When one player turns around and leaves, the dragon starts hunting the other players and an end-game clock starts running. Will you make it out in time?!

I did, and won the game (against two experienced players), without really engaging much. So I'm not sure how much control there is.

I guess that isn't the point, and that this is more of an experience game.

For me, the experience was lackluster. Despite the dragon.



Bärenpark

(Image credit: sjonnie)

We hates it.

Lots of people are going to love this. It's cute, quick, smart, well-designed.

But I don't get along with spatial puzzle games (i.e., I suck at them), and so I rarely enjoy playing them. The only exception is Feast for Odin, where the puzzle is just one part in a much grander scheme.

Long story short, I really disliked it. In fact, I sold my copy to a friend the first time that I played it. She really likes it.



Covert NO RATING.

(Image credit: Favre4MVP)

Downtime killed the fun.

This is a medium weight dice-placement order-fulfillment euro, themed around international espionage.

There is a lot that I liked about it.

The graphic design is great. The board, cards, and dice are evocative and really make game play straightforward.

The game play is interesting and, if played quickly, fun.

But I played with four, and the game dragged. There are many things in this game that can trigger AP (e.g., thinking through all of the possibilities on the code breaking puzzle; thinking through all the ways to collect resources to fulfill the missions; thinking through all the ways you can place your dice).

And all of those factors can change before you make your next decision, which means that those who calculate everything will need to re-calculate everything. Multiple times.

After 90 minutes, we called the game early, about 2/3 of the way to the game-end condition.

The experience left me frustrated and down-hearted. I had really wanted to enjoy the game, and expected to. But AP swamped it.

I won't rate this one yet, since I don't think I gave it a fair shake. I'd like to try it again with 2 or 3 (carefully chosen) players.
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Sat Jul 1, 2017 3:06 am
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New to Me: May 2017

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Capital

(Image credit: Filip Miłuński -- Designer!)

Very good light/medium city building tile-layer (with theme!).

Capital is a tile-laying game where players are building (and rebuilding, after WWI and WW2) the city of Warsaw.

The game is played over six rounds. In each round, the players are dealt 4 tiles from a stack of tiles specific to that round. Then the players take four turns of simultaneous play. On a turn, a player keeps one tile and passes the rest to the left or right (depending on the round). The players then either discard their chosen tile (for 3 coins) or place the tile in their district.

To place a tile, you must pay coins equal to its cost. You can either place it adjacent to an existing tile, or on top of one. If you build over a tile, you lose the benefit of the overbuilt tile, but you receive a discount equal to the cost of the tile you're covering (e.g., to build a 5 cost tile over a 2 cost tile costs 3 coins).

You're limited to a 3x4 grid, so eventually you will probably need to do some overbuilding.

At the end of a round, when you've played or discarded all four of your tiles, there is a special phase in which players:

(1) Remove one or two tiles from their districts if it is round 3 (WWI) or round 4 (WWII).

(2) Award the round's milestone tile to the player who best fulfilled its target condition (e.g., most parks in your district). This tile can immediately be placed in that player's district.

(3) Score the tiles in each player's district, for VP and/or coins.

After the sixth round, players get some VP for remaining money (1:5) and the player with the most VP wins.

As in many city-building games, the tiles have different types of districts on them (parks, residential, commercial, civic, industrial, and special). When players score, they get get rewards based on special adjacency rules (e.g., residences next to parks gives VP, residences next to commercial gives money, residences next to industry subtracts VP, etc.)

The "special" tiles and milestone tiles are all Warsaw landmarks, with (mostly) thematic effects and nice little historical blurbs in the rulebook.

The game doesn't break any new ground in terms of design. But everything hangs together extremely well, resulting in a really enjoyable light-medium game. The spatial and money constraints are just tight enough for satisfying play, without being brain burning. With the six stacks of round-specific tiles (which become progressively more expensive and powerful), and the individualized development of your district, there's a nice arc to the game. Game play is brisk, with little downtime (due to the simultaneous play). My wife and I finish in about 30 minutes (quick enough that we played two sessions back-to-back).

The art design is clear, colorful and handsome.

With a two-player game, you use only half the tiles, so there's a fair bit of variability between games. With three or four, the game might get a bit samey with repeated play, since you're seeing the same tiles every game (though not in the same order or availability in the draft).



Coal Baron: The Great Card Game

(Image credit: ulfi)

Card-driven worker placement coal mining!

Each turn, players have a hand of worker cards, with values ranging from 1-5 (with five 1s, two 2s, and one each of 3-5). In a two player game, you omit the fours and fives.

There are a whole slew of worker activation spaces available, including:

• Nine face up piles of cards showing: (1) & (2) "lorry" loads of coal, (3) & (4) train cars, (5) locomotives, (6) contracts, (7) shares, (8) special powers, and (9) objectives.

• Action cards that allow you to: load lorries full of coal into your train cars, complete a contract by removing a complete train with the specified amount of coal, draw four cards off the top of any card deck and keep one card.

On your turn, you place one or more of your worker cards down on an activation space in order to take a card or perform an action.

But there's an important constraint on placement -- and this is the heart of the game -- you must play worker cards with values that total exactly one more than the highest set that has been played for that action in the current round.

For example, if no cards have been played in a location yet, you MUST play a value 1 card to perform that action. If the highest prior placement is a 1, you MUST play one or more cards totaling 2. Etc. No over-paying!

Worker placement continues until all players pass. Players retrieve their worker cards and the next round begins (the game lasts a fixed number of rounds).

End game points are scored for all completed contract cards, matching shares, coal loads printed with VP, and objectives.

For me, the main source of fun of the game (and it was quite a bit of fun) was managing the tightly constrained worker placement system. There's also some dry-geeky-logistics fun involved in sequencing the lorries, so that they flow into train cars that match their icons, and then matching those loads with contracts, contracts with shares, and everything with end game objectives.

The game plays pretty quickly. It looks great (to my taste, which favors gritty industrial themes).

It's a very nice little game, with a good dose of turn angst.



La Granja: No Siesta

(Image credit: hellp)

Dice-drafting, box-checking, worksheet fun.

I really like La Granja, a medium weight resource euro with a dice-production element. No Siesta takes the theme (and aesthetic) from that game and distills it down to a relatively simple and quick-playing dice drafting game.

Each turn, a number of dice are rolled. Players then take turns selecting single dice and marking the good that it shows on their resource boards. This proceeds in rounds until there's only one die left, which everyone gets to use.

Players then use their goods to check boxes on a printed sheet. There are five areas, with differing rules for how boxes are checked and what rewards are received when a discrete chunk of boxes are checked.

That sounds pretty dry (since I haven't bothered to describe the theming of the different areas), and it is. But the game is light and quick, and the rules for how the different goals operate are interesting and clever.

This is a super-filler, with a dice-drafting heart. It's attractive, pleasant to play, and interesting enough to sustain itself.



Ethnos

(Image credit: W. Eric Martin)

Ethnos

I've heard others say that Ethnos takes the card selection/set collection mechanism from Ticket to Ride and combines it with area control. And that's largely correct.

But it adds special powers for each of the game's various fantasy races, which let you break rules in interesting ways. And, there are many more races than you use in a game, so each play will have a different mix of special powers.

The rules are very simple. On your turn, you either draw a card (from a face up display or the top of the deck) or you meld a set of cards to the table.

The cards in the set must be all of one race, or all of one color (which matches a territory on the board). When you meld a set, you choose one card to be the leader of the set. The race of the leader card determines what special power you will activate. The color of the leader card determines
the region where you might be able to place a control token. To do so, the number of cards in your set must exceed the number of tokens you already have in the region.

When you play a set, any other cards in your hand return to the face-up card display. That is the only way to get new cards into the face-up display.

The game is played over three rounds, with each round being triggered by the appearance of the third dragon card (the three dragons are randomly distributed in the bottom half of the deck at the beginning of the round).

At the end of the round, players score points for having majorities in the various regions (with the points for each region varying randomly each game, and progressing over the three rounds). Players may also score points based on the special scoring rules for races included in the game.

That's it.

I mostly liked my first two plays and am interested in trying out different combinations of racial powers.

But I have a niggling concern that the luck of the draw may be too much for me. I can tolerate a big dose luck of in a quick and breezy game. But our four-player game of Ethnos took about 90 minutes to complete. At that length, I could see the degree of luck being frustrating.



Kanban: Automotive Revolution

(Image credit: Vital Lacerda -- Designer!)

Sod off, Sandra!

I won't bother summarizing Kanban in detail. It's a heavy, complex, worker-placement game about working in an automobile factory. I expect you already knew that.

Instead, I'll share my thought on one central aspect of the game -- Sandra.

Sandra is the factory manager. She has two personalities, "nice" and "mean."

Nice Sandra moves from department to department, handing out VP rewards to the player who has the highest level of training in a department, if that player meets the department's production quota. Mean Sandra dishes out VP penalties to the person who is worst trained in a department, if that person fails to meet the production quota. The size of the VP reward or penalty is based on how many "banked work shifts" you've accumulated.

Considering the daunting complexity of the game, my wife and I decided to play our first game in nice mode. We tried slightly different strategies, leading my wife to get an edge in most of the department training tracks. Then she quickly increased her "banked work shifts" to the maximum of 10. This meant she was getting 10 points per turn from Sandra, which is huge. By the time I saw that developing, there was not a lot I could do about it (though I tried, spending most of the remaining game trying to get ahead of her on the training tracks).

That was no fun and the final score was absurdly lop-sided.

We played again the next day and I concentrated on pushing up training and banked time shifts. My wife was less focused on training, leading to the same problem as in the first game. I was soon earning 10 points per turn from Sandra rewards, with my wife unable to break my training advantage before the damage was done. Another blow-out.

In the post-mortem we concluded: (1) the only way to avoid the Nice Sandra landslide would be for both of us to dedicate ourselves to a training arms-race, disregarding all other aspects of the game to ensure that neither of us could get a break-away dominance in Sandra rewards. (2) That would be miserable. (3) I should sell or trade the game.

A few days later I was thinking back on the experience and I realized: we hadn't tried Mean Sandra. I went back and read the rules for how her penalties are meted out. She punishes the lowest trained player in each department, but the VP penalty is capped at (5 - banked shifts). So a player who keeps at least banked shifts will never be penalized by Sandra, no matter where they are on the training tracks.

That seemed like it would completely cure the runaway leader problem, as there would never be any 10 point rewards handed out. And, with careful hoarding of a few banked shifts, the penalties could be mitigated or avoided entirely.

The next weekend, we tried the game again, with Mean Sandra. The play experience was entirely different. We spent the first turn or two grabbing five banked shifts and then we ignored Sandra entirely. This completely opened up the rest of the game. Since there was no training arms race, we only trained when it made sense to train (to get bonuses for certification and for end-game majority VP). With that distortion avoided, we were able to experience all of the other parts of the game. It was much more interesting and enjoyable.

It might be that the problem with Nice Sandra is particularly acute with two players, where the training reward disparities are zero sum. With more players, the huge payouts might be distributed more evenly, reducing the need to hyper-focus on an arms race, to the exclusion of all else.

The bottom line is that I would never play two-player Kanban with Nice Sandra again. The extreme rewards have a distorting effect that can lead to completely unenjoyable blowouts and a narrowed focus that eclipses most of what the game has to offer.

Mean Sandra doesn't cause that problem, but only because it's quite easy to get to a point where you can just ignore her penalties.

If I were to play 2p Kanban again, I think I would play with Indifferent Sandra. No rewards or penalties for meeting her goals. Just make great cars!
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Thu Jun 1, 2017 3:46 am
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New to Me: April 2017

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Yokohama

(Image credit: telos81)

Very nice order-fulfillment engine-builder, with a walk-your-dude-around-the-board action selection system.

Thematically, Yokohama is about the industrialization of Japan, with increasing foreign country influences.

Mechanically, you're (1) collecting resources of different flavors and then spending them to fill foreign export orders, and (2) building your engine (which includes advancing on majority-control VP tracks).

You build your engine in part by acquiring technology cards, which give you special powers. Also, you can place buildings in the board's various locations, to boost your power when acting in those locations (and to get one-time bonuses).

The most novel element of the game is its action system. The board is made up of a number of large location tiles, arranged in a pyramid shape. The tiles are placed randomly, so the board landscape will be different each game.

Each location provides the opportunity to perform a different action (e.g., get money, acquire resources of a particular type, recruit more assistants and buildings from your bank into your hand, acquire orders, acquire technology).

On your turn, you begin by putting assistants on the board (mini-meeples in your color). You can place three if you put each in a different location, or you can put two in the same location.

Then you move your "president" (a much larger meeple) to a new location on the board. You can move any distance, so long as you move through a continuous path of locations that contain your assistants. Once your president arrives in a new location, you perform the action provided by that space. The power of the action is variable, based on the number of pieces you have in the space (i.e., president, assistants, and previously placed buildings). After performing the action, the assistants from that location are removed from the board and go back into your hand.

There is some scope for blocking. If you put an assistant in a space that contains an opponent's president, you must pay that player a coin. Similarly, if your president moves through a space containing an opponent's president, you must again pay that player a coin. And, importantly, your president can never end in a space that contains another president.

This all creates an interesting spatial puzzle with clever trade offs. If you spread your assistants across the board, you'll maximize your president's movement and action selection flexibility. But you need to concentrate assistants in the location the president uses, to boost the effectiveness of your actions.

I've only played with two, and the effect of the blocking was fairly mild. I expect it would be much greater with a higher player count.

I kickstarted the deluxe edition and am really happy with the quality of the components -- loads of wooden bits and really excellent metal coins. The cards and board tiles are very functional, and the overall art style is attractive (if a bit muted).

We really enjoyed it as a two-player, and I appreciate the way that the randomized board set up and limited availability of order/technology cards creates inter-play variability. The move-your-dude-to-select-an-action mechanism reminded me a little of the Colonists (which is a good thing).

Recommended.



Forbidden Stars

(Image credit: R2EQ)

Great looking, long playing, 40K grand strategy wargame.

Forbidden Stars is a descendant of FFG's StarCraft: The Board Game, rethemed in the Warhammer 40k universe. The two games have a lot in common.

Both are grand strategy dudes-on-a-map sci-fi wargames, with a lot of unit differentiation and major asymmetry between player factions.

Both use deck-building as a mechanism for tech development. When you acquire a new technology, you add the corresponding cards into your combat deck. This adds to your overall power, while keeping some unpredictability.

Both have a lot of cool toys in them.

Both games are long. My single two-player game of Forbidden Stars lasted about three hours (and we called it short of actual completion, because we were tired and the result seemed pretty certain).

I can't imagine how long a four-player game of Forbidden Stars would take. I don't intend to find out.

If you like this kind of thing, Forbidden Stars is great. Physical production value is excellent and the rules are tight and interesting.

I just don't have the stamina for it.



Super Motherload

(Image credit: The Innocent)

Deck builder with a board (about mining Mars).

I played this once, with three. It was okay. I'm afraid I don't remember enough about it to say anything interesting.

It has a slightly macabre art style, which I liked.



Micro Robots

(Image credit: Nini la nicoise)

Not for me.

Roll two dice (color and number) to establish the starting point of a robot on a grid board. Roll again to determine the end point. Then everyone simultaneously tries to find a legal route for the robot to traverse to the end point. Each move, the robot must move orthagonally to a space that matches the color or number of its current location.

First to do so, gets a point.

I found it kind of tedious. Cheap and portable though.
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Sun Apr 30, 2017 5:28 pm
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Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

(Image credit: kaszkiet)

Makes Pandemic fun!

My wife and I aren't huge fans of Pandemic (or co-ops in general), but we were willing to give the Legacy version a try.

I'm glad we did. One of the main problems we have with Pandemic is that it gets too samey after a few plays. Legacy solves that in two ways (1) it adds persistent effects, like permanent upgrades, character disabilities, and city unrest, and (2) it introduces new game elements in later plays.

Not only does this keep the game feeling fresh (so far; we've only played through March), but it actually makes me interested to keep playing, so I can see what comes next. There's an advent calendar feeling to opening the little windows and boxes, that's much more engaging than I was expecting.

Game play is solid, even with two, and the implementation of the legacy elements is very well done. I fully expect to keep going through December, which means a lot more repeated play than we usually manage.

Well done.


Anomia

(Image credit: boardgamefreak2009)

Brain hack as party game.

You know that annoying feeling when you can't remember the name of something immediately. It's on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't grasp it? That's called "anomia," and it's been turned into a card game.

You've got a common deck of cards. Most have two things printed on them: a symbol (there are 8) and a category of thing (e.g, breakfast cereal). See above.

On your turn, you draw a card and place it face up in front of you. If you already have cards in front of you, it goes on top of the stack.

If the symbol matches the symbol on anyone else's face up card, you have a show-down with them. The first to say a word that's within the category on the opponent's card wins and takes the opponent's card as a face down "point." So, in my example, if my card's symbol matched another player's face up card symbol, that person would be trying to name a breakfast cereal before I could say something within the category on that person's card.

Here's a fun thing: when the loser's card is removed as a point, it exposes the card below (if any), which may trigger a new showdown. This can cause a cascade as cards are won and removed around the table.

There's also a fun wrinkle with wild cards, which makes everything slightly more volatile and harder to track.

The upshot is that the game produces a degree of mental stress, because you're slightly frantic to think of a thing very fast. That stress often causes your mind to blank, which is the whole point. People shout triumphantly when a mundane word finally pops into their minds (making the people at the next table over wonder why someone just yelled "Cheerios!" at the top of their lungs and then everyone laughed).

This is clever, simple, quick to explain, and a lot of fun. Great cross-over party game to play with non-gamers too. Very good at what it does. Inexpensive too.

And, in honor of my friend Skrebs: "Mighty fist!"


Jump Drive

(Image credit: dotKeller)

Fun, fast little RftG spin-off.

This has a great deal in common with Race for the Galaxy, including theme, art and graphic design, and common mechanical elements (planets v. developments, military conquest of red worlds, scouting, expensive high VP cards that score based on what else is in your tableau).

But it's massively simplified and plays a lot faster. You score everything in your tableau every turn, so there's a cumulative ramp-up that really accelerates toward game end (triggered by any player having 50 or more vp).

A very nice little filler that builds on the RftG theme. Fun in its own right, but it might also make Race more approachable for those intimidated by its complexity.

Again, really good at what it does. Recommended.


Adrenaline

(Image credit: Zhan_shi. Also: "Mighty fist!")

"Early impressions are this is El Grande, where the provinces move around and shoot back at you." -- Doug Adams

What he said.

Thematically, this is a first person shooter. That theme is well-integrated into the design. Everyone is running around, picking up ammo, power-ups, and absurd weapons (each of which has a unique effect) in order to shoot and kill the other players.

How is that like El Grande? The goal of the game is to get VP. You get those by having the most hits against a player when that player finally dies (and is then re-spawned). So each player is like an area influence objective. That moves around and shoots back at you.

The game play is solid and the theming is great. My only negative is that there is a lot of information to absorb about what the different weapons do. The icons on the weapon cards aren't quite up to the task, which means you need to refer to the rule supplement a lot. And, ideally, you should know what every other player's weapons do, so you can avoid getting hit by them. If you were to play a lot, that problem would fade. But introducing it to new players is a bit of a hurdle, which decreases the likelihood that I'll play it a lot.

Very good, but a bit hard to table.
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Fri Mar 31, 2017 4:57 pm
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The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire

(Image credit: League of Gamemakers.)

Surprisingly fun resource-management engine-builder.

This one surprised me. I'd heard almost nothing about it before playing and was very happy with how the game looks and plays.

On your turn you either place a worker on the main board to perform an action or retrieve your workers back to your supply.

When you place a worker on the board, you can occupy a space that already has one or more workers in it, but to do so you need to stack energy tokens under your worker until your worker has more energy than any other worker in the same space. So, e.g., if you want to place a worker in the space that lets you buy or sell oil, but there's already a worker there, you'd need to put at least one energy under your worker.

One of the available actions is to buy a "structure" card, from one of the board's three sectors (government, industry, and commerce). Once you have structures in your tableau, you can use them as secondary action spaces (using either workers or energy tokens to activate them).

There are two important restrictions on the use of structures to perform secondary actions:

(1) You can only use structures that match the sector that you're playing in on the board. E.g., if you placed a worker on an action space in the government sector, you can only use government structures to perform secondary actions.

(2) You can't use a structure that already has workers/energy on its action space. In other words, once you've used a structure card you can't use it again until you've recalled your workers (thereby clearing the structure's action space).

When you recall your workers, you also discard all of your energy. So how do you get more energy? The retrieval action also allows you to roll "power plant" dice. These come in different flavors (wind/solar, hydro/geo, coal, oil, and nuclear). As an action, you can acquire power plant dice for your permanent use. You can also discard oil in order to temporarily add oil dice to your pool. A clever system of icons on the dice give energy, but may also produce pollution.

Pollution needs to be placed onto your environment board. This is bad, because you will periodically receive VP for the number of unpolluted spaces you have.

Fortunately, some actions on the board and structures let you clean up pollution, and some kinds of power plants don't produce any (though they generally produce less energy as well).

Once you understand how everything works, the game really hums along. There are lots of interesting decisions that you'll be making on how to tune your resource engine and keep pollution under control.

I was really pleased with the way that the theme was simply and directly integrated into the game's systems. The structures and event cards all have effects that nicely match what they represent thematically. And the power plant dice provide a nicely thematic trade-off between clean energy sources and the amount of power you can generate.

The graphic design is nice too. The art is bright and distinct, without being too cartoonish. And the iconography is very clear. The resource bits are excellent. The oil barrels and dice have some real heft to them.

I'm really happy I picked this one up. It's a keeper.


First Class

(Image credit: W Eric Martin.)

Brisk, fun, "modular" railroad-themed tableau-building card game.

Each round the players will take turns selecting cards from an array, to add to their tableau. These cards can be used to do things like:

• Add cars to your two trains.

• Upgrade previously added cars (to increase their VP scoring value at the end of each round).

• Move your conductor down your train toward the front car (only those cars that your conductor has reached or passed will score at the end of the round).

• Increase the length of your line of track, by adding a track card to its end.

• Move your train marker forward along the track (as you reach stations along the line, you'll score immediate VP or unlock an end-of-round bonus power).

The game is "modular" because, in addition to using a stack of base cards, you will also mix in two different modules of cards (from five possible modules). Each module of cards has different rules which supplement the core systems of the game. They let you do things like:

• Acquire a contract that will provide benefits when you've met its conditions.

• Add celebrities or luggage to cars to increase their value and accrue VP or money.

• Collect clues to solve a mystery (I haven't tried this one yet).

This should create lots of scope for replayability (and expansion?).

First Class plays very quickly, but it still provides enough of an arc to let you pick one or two main strategies and try to build them up to a win.

Another good game!


Kepler-3042

(Image credit: rascozion.)

A 3X sci-fi game (no fighting) with an interesting action/resource system.

In Kepler, players are building interstellar colony ships and sending them out from Sol to explore and colonize "nearby" systems. Once a system has been colonized, it can be used to produce resources.

Resources (which come in different flavors) are needed to build ships, advance on a tech tree, and terraform planets you've colonized (which increases their VP value and resource generating capacity).

The tech tree provides several ways to improve your efficiency (e.g., converting resources from one type to another, increasing your ship speed, increasing your production rate for energy or anti-matter, increasing your terraforming level -- which is necessary to terraform the more hostile worlds).

The action system is a 3x3 grid, kind of like the action grid in Vinhos. On your turn you'll move your dobber to any other space on the grid and perform the associated action (meaning you can't perform the same action twice). Whenever you perform an action, you also have the option of performing one or two secondary actions, which are associated with the row and column of the space you chose. But to do so, you'll need to take a resource cube and discard it into the void. It will stay there, limiting your total number of available resources, until you use a special action to retrieve it (which are pretty rare).

The move/explore/colonize/terraform systems are solid, but somewhat dry. The most interesting part of the game is the action system and the resource produce/consume/destroy options. Resources are really tight, and you'll need to make hard decisions about when it makes sense to take some out of circulation in order to get bonus actions. Resources spent to perform an action also need to come from a single source, meaning you'll want to tech up to be able to move or convert resources at your remote planets, in order to be able to use them effectively.

I enjoyed my one play. It's a good game, but it didn't blow me away. Solid 7.


Arkham Horror: The Card Game

(Image credit: CristiQ.)

Story-based Lovecraftian adventure LCG.

My wife doesn't like adventure/co-op games, and something like this wouldn't fit well into my regular game group's rotation, so I've played it solo a couple times.

The game system is fun and the sense of narrative that the game provides is pretty engaging. It's lovingly-crafted. ninja

Ordinarily, I have almost no interest in solo gaming. So it's a good sign that I'm debating whether to buy anything beside the base box.

There are a couple of little side quest packs that I might pick up and try, before deciding whether to commit to the main story line.

But I'm kind of doubtful. After playing through the first couple of scenarios, I haven't been motivated enough to set it up and finish the scenarios that comes in the base box.

Good stuff, and I'm glad to have played it. But this is not the kind of thing I'm really excited about.


Order of the Gilded Compass

(Image credit: EllenM.)

Fun little dice-allocation filler.

I used to own Alea Iacta Est. I liked the light dice-allocation game play and the goofy ancient Rome cartoonish art style. But I really had a hard time remembering the icons used on the special scoring cards that you could acquire. That was enough of an annoyance that I traded the game away.

Gilded Compass is a reimplementation of Alea's basic game play, but with much cleaner graphic design. It also adds some modular variability to the game set-up. There are several allocation boards (with differing rules on how to place dice and for what rewards), more than you will use in any given game. So each game you'll choose a subset of the available options before you start. This means that the combination of tactical choices and mechanisms can be different each time.

As a light dice filler, it's pretty good. Not a great game, but decent in its niche.


Kanagawa

(Image credit: henk.rolleman.)

Pretty, light, set collection card game with a unique theme.

You are apprentice painters in 1840 Japan, studying under Master Hokusai.

Each turn, you'll choose cards, which you can either use to add panels to your growing landscape painting or add to your "studio" to improve your painting abilities.

The painting panels have objects on them which you'll use to achieve set-collection VP. You'll also score for your longest contiguous series of panels that share the same seasonal motif.

The cards you add to your studio will give you more colors to paint with, an improved ability to move your paint pots between colors, the ability to hold a card back for a future turn, etc. All of this gives you more flexibility when adding panels to your painting.

The physical production is charming (if a bit fiddly -- the paint pots are tippy and you need to slide cards under each other, which is a bit difficult).

It was pleasant, as a filler card game. The novel theme added to the experience. Again, good but not great.
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Wed Mar 1, 2017 1:42 am
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New to Me: January 2017

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The Colonists

(Image credit: Me! Sorry about the glare. I couldn't find a picture in the gallery that really showed the sprawl of the game.)

Grand scale resource management and development game with a very interesting spatial action selection system.

In some ways, the Colonists is a pretty conventional resource development euro. You perform actions to acquire resources of different types, convert basic resources into more advanced resources, sell resources for VP, acquire "development" cards that provide one-time or ongoing bonuses, build buildings that give you permanent resource production or special abilities, and feed your workers.

But there are two things that separate the game from the rest of that crowded field:

First, the game is long. A full games proceeds through four different eras (each with its own set of tiles and cards). An era takes a couple of hours to play (with two), so a full game would take my wife and I about 8 hours to complete. That's a long time for thinky heads-down euro-optimizing. I can't even imagine trying a full game with more than two, or with slowpokes. I don't have that kind of stamina.

Fortunately, you can choose to play fewer than all four eras. You can also choose which era to start with, giving you an easy opportunity to sample what each era has to offer. The game also has rules for "saving" a game in at the end of an era and returning to it later. We didn't try that, so I don't know how well it would work.


Second, the game's built on a novel action selection mechanism. The board for the game is made up of hexes, each offering a different action (e.g., the forest lets you collect wood). Every turn, each player gets to perform 3 actions. This is done by moving your dobber around on the hex map. You must perform the action for any hex you stop in. If you can't do it, you can't stop there.

This creates a very interesting spatial puzzle, as you need to figure out how to move around to the actions that you need in order to achieve your strategy. The sequencing and timing constraints are excellent!

That puzzle is made even more interesting by three important wrinkles. First, there are a small number of "market" hexes distributed around the map. Rather than walking your dobber from hex to hex, you can always choose to jump to any market. This gives you some welcome flexibility, especially as the map grows. Second, the map grows! At the end of each year, the start player has a small number of hexes to add around the edges of the map. The decision of where to put each hex presents an important strategic choice, as you're literally building the decision space that you and your opponents will navigate. There are lots of opportunities to build the terrain in a way that favors you and screws the others. Ha ha. Finally, you can gradually acquire powers that let you move more efficiently. These include an increased movement range that allows you to move further before stopping (skipping over spaces you don't need or want to activate) and the ability to add additional dobbers to the map, allowing you to have presence in more than one part of the board.

Overall, the game is very good. The mechanical design is solid and clean. The graphic design is clear and attractive. I love the tactical play. My only concern is that some of the strategic choices (especially in the early game) might be a bit scripted. But that may just be group-think or inexperience talking.

The Colonists will not appeal to most gamers, but if you enjoy long, dry, and thinky games, this one's quite good.


Tramways

(Image credit: Oblivion)

Tight, card-driven network builder, with huge variability.

This is a pick-up and deliver train game, built around a card-driven-action deck-building system.

Every turn begins with a painful auction, which determines turn order and lets the players (in turn order) choose from among an available set of cards to add to their hands.

Then the players use their hands of cards to perform a series of actions, in turn order.

Actions must be paid for by discarding cards from your hand that show the necessary action icons. For example, if I want to build three pieces of tramway track, I need to discard cards with three track icons on them. You can use more than one icon from a single card, but each icon used after the first causes you "stress," (which causes VP penalties at game-end).

After the players perform their actions, there's an "administration" phase, when players can discard cards that show administration icons to receive modest benefits. Players refill their hands, do a bit of housekeeping on the board, and it's time for the next turn.

So, what kinds of actions can you perform?

(1) Build track. This connects parcels and buildings. It's worth end game VP and provides the infrastructure you'll need to move passengers. Each time you build track, you need to exhaust one of your two rail workers.

(2) Upgrade track. This provides immediate VP and increases the payment you'll receive when that track is used to move passengers.

(3) Build a building on one of your owned parcels. Importantly, buildings come with a passenger, waiting to be transported.

(4) Upgrade a building. This produces immediate VP.

(5) Move a passenger. This requires that you play a "ticket" icon and an action icon showing the passenger's destination. An available passenger is then moved over any non-repeating series of player track to the specified destination (and is then removed from the board).

Each player whose track is used gets VP and money for that use. If the active player uses her own track, she gets paid by the bank. But if the active player uses another player's track, she must pay that player for the privilege.

If the passenger's destination is a building, the active player gets a benefit associated with the building's type (commercial, residential, industrial, and entertainment). Commercial gives the player a new card or money, but adds one stress. Residential reduces stress by one step. Industry adds a stress but allows you to refresh one of your exhausted rail workers. Entertainment gives you an opportunity to buy VP for money.

The game is short and tight, with a very interesting set of spatial and hand-management constraints that leave you feeling like you're always a little short of where you need to be -- a good kind of frustration.

And I love the modular board. The map is constructed differently each game, out of a combination of 12 different rectangular map tiles (each with two different sides). The impact of this variability is enormous, as the maps can have major differences in the available parcels, existing buildings, and impassable or expensive terrain. My two plays felt and played out very differently.

A very good game.


Railroad Revolution

(Image credit: Malibu_Babe_28)

Solid medium-weight point salad.

My first play of this, with four, was destroyed by slow play. It ran over two hours, with most of that being downtime (there's very little player interaction).

I played it again with only two, and enjoyed it well enough. At that count, downtime was reasonable and it was possible to enjoy the decision making.

Thematically, you're building 19th Century rail connections to cities, expanding West across America. You're also building stations in those cities, and Western Union Telegraph offices (which occupy an abstracted linear space).

The most interesting thing about the game is the worker action system. You start with a few generic workers and one specialist (which come in four different flavors -- which you can acquire as the game progresses). Any worker can perform any action, but the specialists give you unique bonuses, which are different for each action. That gives you a lot to think about. Which action should I perform on my turn, and using which worker?

This is a solid 7. I'd be glad to play it again (but never with slowpokes).


Ticket to Ride: Rails & Sails

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

A beefed up TTR variant.

I like TTR as a light-medium route builder, and have enjoyed playing some of the more complicated variants (and am looking forward to trying the rest).

Rails and Sails takes the basic game engine and adds another layer. There are now ships (and ship cards) which must be used to complete water routes. You need to manage both types of cards and tokens to get your ticket cards completed.

This is a nice extension of the system, but I'm not sure that it's worth the hefty price tag. I would have preferred that it be released as an expansion box, with just the additional required components, rather than as a stand-alone game.


The Oracle of Delphi

(Image credit: Gonzaga)

Dice allocation to race around Mythological Greek islands.

This is a medium-light move around and do a bunch of stuff game, with victory going to the player who gets all the required stuff done the fastest.

The stuff includes two flavors of pick-up-and-delivery, exploration, and fighting monsters!

Before your turn, you roll a number of dice, with each face showing a different colored icon. You place the dice in the matching spaces on a color-wheel on your player board.

When you perform an action you must spend a die showing the proper color. Importantly, you can spend tokens to move the die clockwise around the wheel, changing its color to the one that you need.

There are loads of special power bits and bobs available, which are fun to acquire and use. There's also a Feldian threat management system (players gradually accumulate "injuries" which can cause skipped turns if not addressed).

I thought it was decent, as a light-medium romp that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Be warned, I think there's a high risk of AP players grinding things to a crawl. There are many options available every turn, which can be combined to create a compound set of possible actions. Players who insist on maximizing every turn are likely to kill the fun.


Honshu

(Image credit: msaari)

Pleasant enough.

You're dealt a hand of cards. Each has a unique numeral and a grid of six squares showing different features. In turn order, every player plays a card to the center of the table. Turn order is then reset, based on the numbers played (highest to lowest). In that new order, players choose one of the played cards and add it to their growing map. Cards must be placed so as to overlap one of your previously played cards.

At game end, the features showing score VP based on rules specific to each type of feature.

It plays cleanly and is fairly pleasant. I don't really feel any urge to play it again, but I would if others really wanted to.


Above and Below

(Image credit: Paedra)

Euro mechanisms meets choose-your-own-adventure.

Manage workers and currencies to acquire more workers, currency, buildings that provide bonuses or VP, sets of resources, and ... go adventuring in an underground world.

The first part is pretty standard euro fare. The second part is ... not. It's a paragraph-driven adventuring system, where you draw a card that directs you to a narrative paragraph, which is then read aloud. It usually offers more than one option on how to respond, with varying degrees of difficulty for success. Bringing along extra people (or more-capable adventurers) lets you achieve the more difficult challenges. What's your reward? You won't find out until you try.

I enjoyed my one play well enough (I won, which always helps). But the degree of chance in the adventuring system left me dissatisfied. I won because I lucked out in my adventuring, consistently getting rewards that boosted my score. Others had worse luck. They lost.

I'm glad to have played it, but probably won't play again.


Haspelknecht

(Image credit: William Hunt)

Disappointing.

I really wanted to like this game.

I love mining as a theme, but I've yet to find many mining games that really satisfy me (Tinners' Trail and Magnum Sal are pretty good, and I've got my eye on Coal Baron: The Great Card Game).

I had hoped that Haspelknecht might do it. The game has an interestingly obscure theme (farmers digging up near-surface deposits in the earliest days of coal as a resource), a pretty solid extraction mechanism that includes wastewater management and wooden bracing, and a branching tech tree, that allows players to acquire special powers over the course of the game.

Sounds great! So what went wrong?

The system used to determine what actions you can perform on your turn has a heavy dose of luck in it. On any given turn, you might wind up with good choices or bad, with very little that you can do about it. That was frustrating (in a bad way).

I imagine that fans of the game will argue that the turn order mechanism provides a way to mitigate the luck -- if you don't want to get hosed by a bad draw, grab an early position in turn order.

I see that intention in the design, but it just didn't work for us, at least with two-players. Maybe with more players there would be more room for that kind of maneuvering, and the consequences of being on the short end would be less zero-sum. But I'm not interested enough in playing again to find out.
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Thu Feb 2, 2017 3:33 pm
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New to Me -- Best of 2016

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What an amazing year for excellent new games!

For me, the best new game of the year was A Feast for Odin.


Hail!

A Feast for Odin is the culmination of everything I like about Uwe Rosenberg's big box games: strong and well-integrated theming, a development arc that leaves you with a feeling of having built something, and tons of variety. I also really like how he integrated the Patchwork tile placement mechanism into the engine-building and end-game VP scoring. It's clever, fun, and interesting. I especially enjoy exploring remote islands and then building them up into productive sources of goods, money, and VP.

This is the ultimate rainy afternoon game for my wife and me. And the physical production is top notch, with tons of solid bits and great graphic design. A huge chunk of winning, taking up a remarkable amount of shelf space.

And here are the honorable mentions:

Best Amerithrash epic: Star Wars: Rebellion.

This is the original Star Wars saga in a box. Game play is strongly asymmetrical, with the rebels hiding and trying to build up opposition to the Empire through clandestine operations, and the Empire spreading its greatly superior military and industrial power across the galaxy. Time is on the rebels' side. If they can hold out long enough, the Empire will eventually fall ("The more you tighten your grip Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.") But if the Empire finds the rebel base and destroys it, the last hope for freedom will be extinguished.

Game play is driven by mission cards, which are performed by leaders (which are characters from the films). This creates a strong narrative hook, which really evokes the theme of the game. Great stuff!

And the physical production is over the top. Permanent keeper, on the shelf next to War of the Ring.



Best Medium-Heavy Euros: Great Western Trail, Terraforming Mars, and Lorenzo il Magnifico.

Great Western Trail is a really fun mix of deck-building, worker placement (on a branching path, which players can customize each game to offer different opportunities and obstacles), and engine building (each cattle delivery and train station built lets you place a disk on the main board, which unlocks a power on your player board; you can also buy workers who boost the strength of your main actions). The variability between plays is high, with a different configuration of buildings on the board and a semi-random seeding of hazards, workers, and train stations. Despite the moderate complexity (expect a 30 minute rule teach), game turns are fast and the time flies. Just an all-around great game.

It doesn't hurt that I've won every one of my six plays to date. ninja

Terraforming Mars is a relatively straightforward card-based tableau builder. Each turn players draw cards and can buy any of them into their hands (my wife and I have house-ruled this to minimize luck of the draw; rather than draw four and buy up to four, we draw six and buy up to four). Then players take turns performing actions. These can be the "basic" actions that are available to all players or special actions unlocked by playing cards to your tableau. The game has moderate complexity, with several currencies and global parameters (heat, oxygen, and surface water; which collectively serve as the game's clock). But game play is really pretty simple once you get the hang of things. The fun comes from working your way through the huge deck of unique cards, each of which allows you to do something cool and significant, tailoring your position so that it diverges from those of the other players (e.g., you can plant moss or crash an asteroid into the surface). The variety of cards available creates a massively thematic experience, which is exactly what I wanted from this game. Great stuff!

Lorenzo il Magnifico makes a great use of dice. Each turn they're rolled to set the numbers that will be available for all players to use. This creates randomness between turns, but it falls equally on all players. Players then take turns using the numbers to perform actions, with higher numbers generally producing better results. Actions can be used to acquire cards of various types, which are used to build the player's two different production engines or increase end-game VP scoring of different types. Actions can also be used to trigger production engines, which then crank out the various goodies that you need to pay all of the various costs you'll face. Those include an every-other-turn maintenance fee (paid to the Church). If you can't pay it (or choose not to), you'll acquire an "excommunication" penalty that will dog you for the rest of the game -- and they're quite nasty.

Lorenzo is a beautifully conceived and executed mid-weight euro, bristling with interesting trade-offs and hard choices. The theme is somewhat uninspired, but I don't care. I like Ren-Europe themed games and royal grouchy dudes on game boxes. Love it!

Best Heavy Euro(s): The Gallerist and Vinhos Deluxe Edition.

This year I played my first two Lacerda games (which I kickstarted with all the trimmings): The Gallerist and Vinhos Deluxe Edition. Both are intricate efficiency games, with lots of interlocking parts. And they both have remarkably attractive and clear graphic design, which makes them relatively easy to learn and a pleasure to play. If you like this kind of thing, you'll love these games. They're pretty much flawless.

I fully expect Lisboa to be on this list next year.

Best Light Dice Chucker: Hit Z Road.


This one surprised me. Martin Wallace's lighter games are hit and miss with me (I really like Discworld but The Witches and Via Nebula thoroughly bored me).

But Hit Z Road is hands-down brilliant. The game play is unexpectedly tense (with a brutally fun sunk-cost auction and card-based hazards that ratchet up in difficulty across the arc of the game). The dice chucking combat system is fun -- even when the luck completely burns you, as happens with some frequency. And the physical production is the most inventive and well-realized package I've seen in a long time. It really enhances the feel of playing the game and looks great. Space Cowboys know their craft!

If you can tolerate light games, zombies, and some luck (which can often be mitigated, if you're smart and careful), give this one a try. It's a lot of fun in a small package.
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Sun Jan 1, 2017 4:50 am
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New to Me December 2016

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Great Western Trail

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Great blend of euro mechanisms with a fun theme.

Great Western Trail is a really fun mix of deck-building, worker placement, and engine building.

Each turn, you move your cowboy-meeple some distance up the trail to Kansas City, driving your herd of cattle (your hand of cards), which you'll sell for money and VP when you arrive.

The trail branches at various points, giving you some choice of which way to go. It's made up of hazard spaces (which can be filled up with obstacles, which cost time and money to traverse) and building spaces. Some of those spaces are filled at the beginning of the game, with a randomized seeding of basic buildings (which are open to all players). Later, players can build their own buildings, which they alone can use for their main actions.

All of that means that the geography of the game board will change over the course of the game, as determined by player actions. I love that kind of thing, and it's done really well here. You can really put a stick in the other players' spokes, or build up an area of the board that strongly favors you. It's great fun.

When you eventually get to Kansas City, you sell your cows (cards in hand). There are a number of varieties of cattle, each worth a different value (from 1 to 5). You only get paid once for each variety in your hand, so duplicates are a dead waste. The value of your herd also determines how far along the railroad to San Francisco (yay!) you can move your cattle. The further west you push them, the more VP you'll get at game end. But rail transport eats into the money you earn from your sale (unless you've invested in the rail system to reduce those costs).

Each time you sell cattle in Kansas City, you get to place a disk on the main board, which unlocks a power on your player board (again, a mechanism I really enjoy and it's done well here).

To really get the most out of your sales, you'll need to buy more and better varieties of cattle (using the cattle market building on the trail). You can also purge cattle from your hand (using a power you need to unlock from your player board). Purging increases the likelihood that you'll get higher value cattle and more variety in your draw. There's also a draw/discard power you can use to tune your herd before you reach KC.

There are also subsystems (which I won't describe) that you can use to buy workers and invest in the railroad (including building stations); all of that increases your abilities in important ways.

The semi-random distribution of available workers can hamstring you a bit (you really need a strong hand of cattle, which is hard to achieve if you don't get any extra cowboys). But if you're shorted in one area, you just need to figure out another way to win (again, I think any winning strategy requires you to get more and better cattle; but you should be able to build different victory paths onto that core).

While the game is moderately complicated, the rules mostly make thematic sense (which always helps in teaching, learning, and remembering).

GWT is just a lot of fun to play. It looks great; there's a lot of interesting indirect interaction; and the theme is present enough to create some sense of narrative. I really like this one.


Terraforming Mars

(Image credit: milenaguberinic)

Exactly the huge, geeky, sprawling world-builder I was hoping for.

Terraforming Mars is a relatively straightforward card-based tableau builder.

Each turn players draw cards and can buy any of them into their hands (my wife and I have house-ruled this to minimize luck of the draw; rather than draw four and buy up to four, we draw six and buy up to four).

Then players take turns performing actions. These can be the "basic" actions that are available to all players or special actions unlocked by playing cards to your tableau.

The game has moderate complexity, with several currencies and global parameters (heat, oxygen, and surface water; which collectively serve as the game's clock). But game play is really pretty simple once you get the hang of things.

The fun comes from working your way through the huge deck of unique cards, each of which allows you to do something cool and significant, tailoring your position so that it diverges from those of the other players (e.g., you can plant moss or crash an asteroid into the surface) and better suits your strategy. The cards use some icons, but also include a text that exactly describes what the card does. This makes the game much easier to learn and play.

The variety of cards that are available creates a massively thematic experience, which is exactly what I wanted from this game. Great stuff!

The one downside is the fiddly cubes-on-a-mat used to track resources and income in the six (!) main currencies. If you bump those cubes out of position, you may have a very hard time remembering where they go (which sucks).

I like the game play enough that I took the rare step (for me) of buying an accessory -- the front and back acrylic mat overlays sold by boardgameboost. They're kind of expensive ($10 each), but really lock your cubes down, eliminating the possibility of a disastrous Mars-quake. I only bought two, as I expect TM to mostly be a two-player game for me.


Inis [not yet rated]

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Card-driven dudes-on-a-map with lots of scope for tricksy misdirection.

I've only played Inis with two (twice), so I don't feel like I have a good basis for rating it yet. It plays okay with two, but really feels like it needs a higher count to fully be itself. With two, things were a bit brittle and zero-sum, and there was less scope for surprise.

But from what I've seen, I'm looking forward to trying it at the higher count. Some of the interesting features of the game include:

• A fun card-drafting mechanism that determines what actions each player will be able to take in a turn (as supplemented by action cards that players can acquire by controlling the different territory tiles or telling "epic tales").

• Three different victory conditions, some of which merely require that you be present in certain places, without needing to control them through majorities.

• A requirement that you declare in advance, that it will be possible to win in the next turn (think of saying "check" in Chess). This lets everyone know they need to figure out how to block your victory. If multiple players announce a possible win, the winner will be the player who achieves more of the three victory conditions (with ties going to the "Brenn," i.e., the player who controls the capital territory).

• Once you learn the basic deck of action cards (one of which will always be blindly discarded before drafting), you'll have a good sense of how to navigate through the possible player actions each turn. But the epic tale cards are not known, and can throw a wrench into your expectations.

All of that is wrapped up in a really nice physical package, with nicely sculpted dudes and forts, and attractive card and tile art. The card art is likely to be polarizing, as it's very distinctive. Take a look and you'll see what I mean.

I'll probably include this in a future list, once I've tried it with a full player count.
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Sun Jan 1, 2017 4:44 am
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2016 is Great!

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[Important caveat: I'm only talking about gaming. Aside from gaming, 2016 was shit in many ways (see, e.g., Fascist Hamburglar elected US President).]

But in terms of gaming, 2016 looks to be astonishingly good. Consider the following:

Feast for Odin

For me, this is likely to be a two-player only (or mostly) game, which makes it a really nice upgrade to Fields of Arle (which I like quite a bit). It takes the same general chassis — relatively forgiving worker-placement and engine-building, with serious thematic integration — and adds more: more action options, more kinds of resources and opportunities for resource conversion, and a thoroughly charming Patchwork-based spatial puzzle (which also has some fun thematic and engine-building integration).

Like Arle, it's relaxing to play, with a satisfying narrative arc, and fantastic production values. This is likely the pinnacle of this style of game.

Star Wars: Rebellion

Two-player, asymmetric, counter-insurgency game that brings the original Star Wars trilogy to the table. Action is character-driven, with familiar characters carrying out "missions" that evoke scenes from the films. Rebels are playing cat-and-mouse with the Empire, trying to score propaganda victories and hold out long enough for the galaxy to join the rebellion. The Empire is fanning out, searching for the hidden rebel base, blowing up planets with the death star, capturing and interrogating characters. Etc.

It's a thoroughly evocative experience, with an above-average game system in support. And, again, the production values are amazing. Great art, tons of functional and attractive miniatures, huge attractive board, very functional iconography. This is similar to War of the Ring, in the way that it brings a deeply loved bit of geek culture to the table, in a brilliantly-realized and fun gaming experience.

Lorenzo il Magnifico

This is a really handsome, tight, and fiercely fun medium-heavy euro, built on a clever dice-based action system, with painfully difficult timing decisions. It falls into a similar niche (in terms of weight, feel, and dice-driven actions) as The Voyages of Marco Polo and Grand Austria Hotel, and that's not too surprising, given that all three share a common designer: Simone Luciani (someone to watch!). Lorenzo is also a really great looking game, with solid euro chops.

Vinhos Deluxe Edition

I was always intimidated by the original edition of Vinhos; it seemed overly complex. When I heard that the new edition would include both the original rules and a streamlined version, I backed instantly. And I wasn't disappointed. The 2016 rules offer a very playable medium-heavy euro experience with lots to think about. And I am really digging Ian O'Toole's clean, playable, and good-looking graphic design (same goes for last year's Gallerist). It doesn't hurt that the KS release included a bunch of interesting looking stretch goals. A top-notch efficiency euro with an amazing physical production.

Hit Z Road

This is much lighter than everything else on the list, but in its niche it's brilliant! The core of the game is a hilariously brutal auction mechanism, that creates incentives for players to do self-destructive things (look up "sunk cost fallacy"). That auction feeds into a thematically-grounded (zombie armaggedon) card-driven dice-chucker. The art design is inspired and wonderfully executed (something I've come to expect from Space Cowboys). And the game is FUN.

Great Western Trail

I'll say more about this in my "New to You" entry for December, but I can summarize it very simply: this is an excellent medium-heavy euro, with solid gameplay and a lot of interesting decisions to make. Brilliant fun.



By themselves, those six games (all of which I would rate as an 8 or 9) would make 2016 a stand-out year.

And here are the 2016 games I haven't played yet...

• Terraforming Mars
• The Colonists
• Yokohama
• Inis
• Ponzi Scheme
• Tramways
• Arkham Horror Card Game
• 13 Days
• Oracle of Delphi
• First Class
• Railroad Revolution
• TTR: Rails and Sails
• Star Wars Armada: Corellian Campaign
• Forged in Steel
• Coal Baron Card Game

I mean, come on! If half of those games turn out to be as great as I hope they will, 2016 is going to be one for the record books.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Aside from the ferret-headed, cheeto-faced, shitgibbon.


And just because it's fun:

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Sun Dec 11, 2016 10:01 pm
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New to Me: November 2016

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A Feast for Odin

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

A glorious sandbox, with a rich narrative arc and great production values.

The theme here is appealing and pervasive. You're leading your clan of Vikings toward greatness, gathering simple goods, trading for better goods or manufacturing them, hunting and whaling, raising cattle or sheep, raiding and pillaging, building boats and buildings, and settling new lands.

At the end of every turn, you'll need to hold a feast. This requires you to hold back some food, drink, and silver. If you fall short, you'll pay steep VP penalties. (This is the feed-your-family phase.)

Everything is thematically interwoven in ways that simplify learning and create a coherent sense of narrative. Suppose you want to acquire some high prestige metalwork. You could send out a raiding party (which requires a longboat), forge it yourself (requiring iron), or acquire it through foreign trade (which requires a trading boat and silver). That all makes sense, now how do you get a longboat, trading boat, iron, and silver?

There are a lot of different kinds of goods, of different colors and sizes. The most important use for these goods is to place them on your player board (which is made up of a grid of squares). Think Patchwork. Placement is governed by some tricky and interesting constraints, which I won't describe here. This creates a spatial puzzle that's fun to work through.

You can also use your ships to explore and settle a remote island. This gives you a new smaller player board, with its own unique grid, which presents the same opportunities and demands as your main player board. I found this to be a lot of fun. Something about settling Greenland, or Iceland, or the Faroe Islands, and then building up the wealth of your distant colony was very satisfying. It had a distinctly Viking feel to it.

Aside from the spatial puzzle elements, which are pretty abstract, the theme really comes through. You can outfit longboats and raid; explore; or pursue domestic pursuits like hunting, fishing, crafting, animal husbandry, and filling storehouses. If you go whaling, you'll get whale meat, bone, and oil. If you set snares, you'll get furs. Successful hunting produces game meat. Flax can be used to make linen; linen can be used to make cloaks. Cows produce milk; and sheep wool. Emigration uses up a boat, but reduces how much food you'll need for the feast. It feels like a coherent whole.

And the physical production is top-notch. The game even includes covered counter trays, to keep all of your various good tokens organized by size and color (thank you!).

Game play is fairly loose and relaxed. You won't ever feel stressed about being shut out of a necessary action or being unable to feed your people. This is not misery-Vikings. It's prosperous thriving Vikings, with the only question being how much success you'll achieve (compared to everyone else). And there are a wide range of choices you can make about how to get there.

If you like thematic engine-building, with lots of choices and not much tension, you'll probably love this. It's a great game.


Lorenzo il Magnifico

(Image credit: William Hunt)

A drum-tight euro, with a clever dice-based worker placement system.

Unlike Odin, Lorenzo is an unforgiving resource-tight zero sum competition, with harsh maintenance requirements.

Players are noble families in Renaissance Florence, competing to acquire the highest prestige (VP) by acquiring territory, character, building, and venture cards. (Hey, I like that theme!)

The central driver of the game is a dice-based action system. Each turn (of six), three dice are rolled. Players have family members who match the colors of the three dice (white, orange, black). The value showing on the corresponding die determines the strength of that worker for the turn. For example, if the orange die rolls a four, your orange family member has a strength of four. That strength can be modified by paying "servants" (a type of resource) or with cards that modify strength in different situations.

I really like this use of dice. It introduces unpredictability, but the randomness affects every player in the same way. Naturally, there will be situations where bad rolls will be more of a problem for one player than another, but that is much more muted than the kind of luck differential that could happen if every player rolled their own dice.

The strength of a worker determines: (1) where in a tower the worker can be placed (the four towers provide cards of the various types), (2) the strength of a harvest action (harvest activates all of the territory cards in your tableau, which generally produce money and goods), (3) the strength of a production action (production activates all of your buildings, which tend to convert goods into other goods or VP).

There are some interesting constraints on placing workers, which include significant money or strength penalties for not being the first person to place in a location. I won't describe them in detail (other than to say that they're stressfully fun -- turn order matters!).

Every other turn, you have to appease the Church. If you've reached a certain level on the church track, you can return your marker to zero, take VP for how high you were on the track, and avoid punishment. If you haven't reached the required threshold (or you choose to defy the church), you leave your marker in its current position and place an "excommunication" cube on the penalty tile for the current round. This results in a harsh penalty, which can really hamstring you. (The excommunication penalties are drawn randomly each game, which produces a nice bit of interplay variability.)

So far, I've only played it two-player, and we've really enjoyed it at that count. I expect it would be even tighter with more, with more competition to avoid the various penalties you pay for not being the first to do something.

The graphic design is beautiful. This is a great medium heavy dice euro.


Hit Z Road

(Image credit: W Eric Martin)

Great light card/dice Zombie road trip, with a painfully fun auction and absurdly cool graphic design.

Here is the excellent heart of the game:

Each turn you will draw and place a number of two-card rows equal to the number of players. Ultimately, every player will need to traverse one of those rows. Some rows will be cake-walks; others death traps. So who gets which row?

That's decided by an auction. And what do you use to pay your bid in the auction? Crucially important survival resources.

You absolutely need those resources, especially in the later game, as the difficulty of the routes ramps up. This creates a series of hilariously painful dilemmas, with players needing to balance the importance of route selection turn order and keeping the resources you need to not die.

The underlying card and combat mechanism (which use special dice) are rock-solid, and create the conditions for the painful auctions.

It's all very well-integrated and thematic, with great art on the cards and other components. The graphic design and physical production is charming and really well-executed, as I've come to expect from Space Cowboys.

A really good light-medium thematic dice chucker. It exceeded my expectations.


Codenames: Pictures

(Image credit: Elizabeth1000)

It's Codenames, with pictures!

If you like codenames (and I do), you'll enjoy this.

I liked it a little less than the original Codenames. I think the word play in the original is more interesting and a little more difficult.

If you don't want to buy this, and you have a spare deck of Dixit cards, you can make your own (which we've done, and it worked well).


A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King

(Image credit: wspier)

Light spatial set collection game with nice cartoony GoT artwork.

Lay out the 36 character cards in a 6x6 grid. Take turns moving Varys orthagonally, taking all characters of a chosen house in the direction that he moves. Players score family banners based on how many members they've collected from each house (with ties going to whoever was last to take one). Person who takes the last member of a house from the grid gets a special character with a strong one-off power. When Varys has no more legal moves, person with most banners wins.

The heart of the game is fairly simple look-ahead spatial planning, complicated by the fact that each house has a different number of members.

Very light, reasonably fun, small footprint, nice looking. It's good (though my wife found it too frustrating to enjoy much). Supports 2-4. We only played with two, where it was very zero sum and controllable. With more, it would be more chaotic, with much less opportunity to plan ahead usefully.

Meh.
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Thu Dec 1, 2016 12:24 am
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