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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: March 2017

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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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New to Me: February 2017

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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: All Aboard the Orient Express

(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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New to Me October 2016

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I'm on kind of a roll here, with Lacerda games taking the top spot, two months in a row (last month was The Gallerist). Maybe I should try to play Kanban next month and see if I can make it a trifecta!


Vinhos Deluxe Edition

(Image credit: Ianotoole)

Another heavy euro masterpiece.

Vinhos is a heavy economic euro themed around wine production in Portugal. Players operate estates that produce wine of varying quality and kind (red or white). You manage your estates by cultivating vineyards, building wineries and cellars, and hiring farmers, enologists, and experts, all of which contribute to the quality of the wines produced. You establish each of your five estates in a different region of Portugal, each of which has slightly different costs and benefits. Wines can be sold locally for money, exported for immediate and end-game VP, or entered in the periodic wine tasting fair for lots of little bonuses and VP.

The box contains two different versions of the game, the "classic" 2010 version and a streamlined 2016 version. I've only played the latter.

I'd always been a little intimidated by the 2010 edition of Vinhos, which struck me as a rules-heavy beast. So I was very happily surprised by how straightforward Vinhos 2016 was to play. For the most part, the rules are well-integrated into the theme, which makes them easier to learn and remember. And the excellent graphic design of the board provides lots of reminders of the most important rules.

This is a very good game. I am now a Lacerda fanboy. mb


Mare Nostrum: Empires

(Image credit: igknight)

Smooth, clever war/euro hybrid.

There is a lot to like about this elegantly designed, Ancient Mediterranean, dudes on a map, with euro engine building and trading elements. It's a smart, smooth-playing game with great bits and some very clever things going on.

One of the most noteworthy strengths of the design is the turn order system. There are three main phases of each turn: trading, building, move/fight. For each of those activities, there are three tracks showing player accomplishments: the trading track shows each players' total caravans and trading posts; the build track shows cities and temples; the move/fight shows legions, triremes, and fortresses. Whoever has the most in a track is the current "leader" for that track. The leader gets to *choose* player turn order for building and move/combat (the leader's control of trading is a little more complicated and I won't describe it here).

Being able to choose build order and move/fight order is very interesting and potentially quite powerful. It gives you a *lot* of control over how things unfold. This is really cool, and was probably the thing I admired most about the design.

There's also an interesting commodity production, trading, and spending system that rewards diversification. Another clean, interesting, and important system.

The downsides? It's too long for regular play in my group. We clocked in at 3+ hours (with 5 players) and were ready for it to be over well before it was. Also, once you understand what's going on, the game becomes all about making sure nobody wins. So you need to watch everyone's proximity to victory conditions and then collaborate to knock down anyone who gets close. That's pretty common for this genre of game, but it's not my favorite kind of play.

Very good game, but I already sold it on (to one of the other players!).


Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia

(Image credit: saksi)

Partnership TTR (and it works)!

The first expansion box for TTR comes with two maps, each with slightly different rules. I tried the "Team Asia" map. It involves partnership play and I was eager to give that a go. I really like partnership in board games and wish there was more of it.

The players are paired off, and partners sit next to each other. The game comes with wooden card racks, where partners can place common cards so that they each can see them, without showing the other players.

Partners share tickets, some of which go on the common rack and some that remain in hand. This means that partners have incomplete information about their shared goals.

Train cards are handled similarly. Some go to the common rack; others are held in hand. When building a route, a player can play cards from hand or from their partnership rack. This means you might accidentally take a train card that your partner was counting on using to complete a ticket you don't know about.

This all works very cleanly and gives me exactly what I wanted. The partnership elements are a lot of fun and a very nice twist on vanilla TTR.


Reef Encounter

(Image credit: turtleback)

An intricate tile-placement game, with a brain burning kink.

In Reef Encounter players are growing corals of different colors by placing square tiles on orthagonally adjacent spaces on a grid board. The process of placing tiles on the board is intricate and I won't try to explain it here.

A player can take ownership of a coral by placing a shrimp meeple on it. (These are, objectively, the best meeples ever.)

Players can remove a coral that they own from the board, placing the tiles inside an opaque "parrot fish" tower (to hide the number and color of tiles that they've removed in this way). This consumes the shrimp meeple.

Here's the kink: a coral tile can be placed over a tile of an already existing coral, if it is "stronger" than the targeted coral type. (E.g., if black is stronger than green, a black tile can be placed over an already placed green tile.) The relative strength of each reef type, relative to all other reef types, is tracked on a separate board. Tiles that are grown over in this way are taken by the player who caused them to be grown over. These removed tiles are an extremely important resource in the intricate processes that I'm not going to explain.

Kinkier: The relative strengths of the different kinds of corals are changeable. And the changes are driven by player actions. I.e., a player can take an action to flip the relationships between coral types. The mechanism for doing so (which I won't describe) can have sweeping effects, radically altering the game state. Players can also act to lock a strength relationship, making it immune to being flipped by other players.

Kinkiest: Remember that you can remove your corals and feed them to your parrot fish? This is how you get victory points. Each tile eaten in this way is going to get you points at the end of the game. But guess what? The point value of each color of coral tile depends on the relative strengths of the various colors or coral at the end of the game. So all of that manipulation of coral strength was not just about determining which corals can grow over each other. It was also about determining the end game VP value of those coral's tiles.

This is all very deep and interesting. To do well, you can't just grok the current game state; you need to be able to envision all of the possible game states that could be achieved by your or other players, by flipping the relative strengths of corals. And those possible alternate states need to be mapped onto the spatial puzzle that's occurring on the game board.

If you like really heavy brain burners, you'll probably love Reef Encounter. I admired it, but can't see getting it played enough to get good at it (sort of a theme this month).

And the intricacy of the game mechanisms is a pretty significant obstacle to entry. Teaching this is likely to be a heavy lift.


Pax Pamir

(Image credit: moraedin)

Leader bashing in a phone booth.

Pamir is a rethemed reimplementation of Pax Porfiriana. It's set in the "Great game," the British and Russian Empire's proxy war in Central Asia in the 19th Century. It adds a map component to the basic system of Porfiriana, which adds a layer of spatial strategy.

Pamir is a substantial improvement over Porfiriana with respect to rules clarity and graphic design. Designer Cole Wehrle clearly gets the credit for that, having brought a measure of discipline to the otherwise eccentric Sierra Madre Game style (though Ecklund still makes an appearance, having inserted a gratuitous "defense of British imperialism" into the rulebook).

In Pamir you win by having the greatest influence with whichever of three empires (British, Russian, Afghan) has supremacy when one of the four "topple" cards is bought from the card market. The topple cards are semi-randomly seeded into the last part of the deck.

For an empire to have supremacy, it must satisfy two conditions:

(1) Possess at least one of each of the four "modes" of assets: armies, roads, spies, and tribes

(2) Have greater strength under the current "regime's" mode than the other two empires combined.

There is always one "regime" card in play (though they are often replaced), each associated with one of the four modes. An empire's strength is determined by counting the number of wooden bits in play that match the current regime's mode and are controlled by players loyal to the empire.

For example, the current regime is Intelligence War (spy mode). Britain's strength in that mode is calculated by counting all of the spy cubes in play for all of the players who are currently loyal to the British. To be supreme, that total must be higher than the combined total of spies in play for all other empires combined.

Supremacy is hard to achieve and very fragile. As soon as a topple card becomes available to purchase, players will figure out which empire is supreme and (if not aligned with that empire) look for ways to destroy its supremacy. There are many ways to do this:

• Change the regime to a different mode.
• Destroy the wooden bits that contribute to the supreme empire's strength in the current mode.
• Change the loyalty of a player who is contributing necessary spies or tribes to the empire.
• Destroy the empire's armies, roads, spies, or tribes, so that they no longer have at least one of each type.

Doing any of those could well tip a different empire into supremacy; etc.

Pamir was one of the worst rules explanations I've ever given. There's just so much that's interconnected in critical ways.

It's also very hard to grok what's going on in the game. There are several pivot points; flipping any one of them will reconfigure everyone's prospects. And the spatial component constrains your ability to attack armies, roads, and tribes. (There's also a cool quasi-map that spies travel on, which I won't describe here.)

I really admire the design. It's smart and elegant and wonderfully realized.

But it was a bear to teach and play. With the right players and repeated play, I think it would be great fun. But I can't imagine trying to get it to the table again in my regular game group.


Joking Hazard

(Image credit: Asmor)

Cards Against Humanity with cartoon panels.

What I just said. By design, it can be extremely raunchy. Hostile work environment material. Fun if your sense of humor runs that way.


T.I.M.E Stories: A Prophecy of Dragons

(Image credit: eleskanyar)

Admirably designed scenario-based coop.

This is a modular coop adventure game, where different scenario packs are combined with the base system and components to allow you to play radically different types of stories (which I've heard can be really puzzly).

I don't like coops, so I just wasn't the right audience for this. I'm also not a fan of generic fantasy theming, so this chapter wasn't the best one to hook me.

I was very glad to have learned it. It's very polished and well-realized design. Just not for me.


Captain Sonar

(Image credit: flope)

Real-time hidden-movement team game.

The players are divided into two teams, with a MASSIVE privacy screen between them. The teammates each run a different station on a submarine, moving the sub around, scanning, and firing weapons in an attempt to figure out where the opposing sub is and destroy it (before it gets you).

The systems are very clever and the game works well as a game. I think it would be much better with more experience, because there are some blunders you can make if you don't know how to avoid them.

I played the radio operator both times I played, which means that it was my job to track the directional movements of the opposing sub, plot them onto a dry erase transparency, and move that sheet around on the map in an attempt to pinpoint the enemy's location. It was very satisfying to accomplish that and track the enemy as they move around. Ready weapons!

But I also saw a lot of scope for frustration, especially with the real-time game play and limited scope for communication.


Royals

(Image credit: W.Buchanan)

Old school card-driven area majorities game.

It's fine. Good looking. Clean playing. Not really my wheelhouse.


Thief's Market

(Image credit: TheBoardGameRenegade)

Dice drafting to buy cards. Meh.

Roll a big pile of dice. Players take turns choosing some subset of the whole *or* stealing another player's selected dice and returning one to the central pool (rolling it first).

This should have produced some hard choices and fun stabbiness. It didn't.



Humanity Hates Trump

(Image credit: lunchboxLAD)

It sucks!

They phoned this one in. The prompts rarely connected in any logical way with the response cards. Never even slightly funny. (Despite the fact that we were a bunch of liberals, who had been drinking, who wanted it to be good.) My first ever 1 rating.
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Tue Nov 1, 2016 1:24 am
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New to Me: September 2016

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The Gallerist

(Image credit: newrev)

Heavy game masterpiece.

This is an extremely well-designed and beautifully-produced heavy commodities investment game. Players are "gallerists," operating elite art galleries. The "commodities" are the aspiring artists that the players guide toward greatness (while profiting from their work).

At heart it's a worker placement game, with four action spaces (each offering two alternative actions). There's one wrinkle to the traditional worker placement mechanism -- you aren't blocked from moving to a place that's occupied by another player's meeple. Instead, that player is displaced and then rewarded with a bonus "kick-out action."

The action spaces and the actions that they allow are:

Artist's Colony

• Discover an artist (which gives you a small reward and a locked-in entry-level price for the first piece of art that you buy from that artist).

• Buy a work of art from an already discovered artist (which costs money based on the artist's current popularity and then slightly increases the popularity of that artist). You must have room in your gallery to display the new piece.

Sales Office

• Acquire a contract for a specific medium (e.g., sculpture, photography, painting).

• Sell a piece of art from your gallery. This can only be done if you have a contract that matches the medium of the piece you want to sell. The sale gives you money, based on the artist's current popularity and removes the piece from your gallery.

Media Center

• Hire new assistants (which costs money and may net you a minor reward).

• Increase the popularity of an artist (this costs you influence and will earn you a small reward).

International Market

• Acquire an end-game scoring token. This gains you influence and the token, but requires the permanent assignment of an assistant.

• Bid in an end-game auction for a "masterpiece" selected at the beginning of the game. This costs money and the permanent assignment of an assistant. It provides a small reward and the chance to win the end-game auction.

Those are just the main actions. There are several other minor but important subsystems (especially involving assistants and the management of "visitors" in your gallery).

Everything is tightly and smoothly interwoven. You need to be very careful to manage your various resources (money, influence, tickets, visitors, art in gallery, contracts, assistants). If you misstep and bottom out on one or more of these resources (especially money and influence), you will suffer until you can claw your way back into liquidity.

While there's a lot of multi-player solitaire in the design, it's got a healthy measure of player interaction. Think of each artist as a company, and each piece of art produced as a share. Once you own shares in an artist, it's in your interest to push the popularity of that artist up, thereby increasing the price of that artist's work. And once you make that commitment, it's in the interest of other players to ride your coat-tails, buying works from that artist and letting you do all of the work of increasing its value.

The winner is the player with the most money at game end (with lots of different end-game scoring opportunities to boost scores).

If you like heavy and intricate games, you owe it to yourself to try the Gallerist. In that niche, it's extremely satisfying to play, with rich connections between the different resource streams and an interesting degree of shared incentives.

And it's really a beautiful production, with a handsomely understated art style and color palette.

A top 10 game for me.


Concordia Britannia

(Image credit: Oblivion)

An excellent two-player experience for a great game.

I've played and enjoyed the Concordia base game a number of times. It's a great mid-weight euro with a really interesting card-drafting mechanism at its heart.

I finally got a chance to try it two-player, on the Britannia expansion map. I'm happy to say that it worked very well and was a lot of fun.

There are no special rules for this map; it's just smaller and tighter (and played with the bare minimum of Senator cards). The game play is much faster with only two players, and feels a lot more like a race than at higher counts. You're each pushing hard to grab key scoring cards and map positions. You need to keep a close eye on the end-game; it will come sooner than you expect.

We really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to trying it with the extra rules from Salsa (which I haven't tried yet, but they look really fun and interesting).


Barony

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Lightly-themed spatial knife fight.

This is a tight little game, with lots of stand-offs and thrown elbows. You build stuff and try to keep it from being destroyed (while destroying other people's stuff).

The board is a semi-randomly laid out hex map comprised of five different terrain types.

On that map, players place two cities, which can be used to spawn knights.

Knights can move around and destroy things (using a very simple deterministic combat system -- if any player ever has two pieces of wood in a hex, he kills any other player's singletons in that hex -- importantly, this means that you can never move a single piece into a space where an opponent already has two; you'd die instantly!).

Knights can also be converted into villages or strongholds. When this happens, the active player takes a terrain token matching the type of terrain where the new building is placed (each terrain type is worth a different number of terrain points). Terrain points are not victory points, but once a player has at least 15 points worth of terrain tokens, they can be converted into victory points (this requires an action).

If one of your villages is destroyed, the attacker gets to steal one of your terrain tokens (of their choice). Grrr. You'd better watch your back and remember to convert terrain into VP. Strongholds can never be destroyed (they're strong!).

Villages can be converted into cities (which immediately earns you 10 VP and gives you another city you can use to spawn knights).

The kicker is that each player can only do ONE action per turn:

• Spawn 2-3 knights in one city.
• Move two knights one space each.
• Convert any number of knights into villages or strongholds.
• Convert one village into a city.
• Turn in terrain chips for a single 15 VP bump.

Because each of those actions is small, plans will generally take several turns to accomplish, and the other players will likely see what you're up to. This creates a chess-like quality to the game, with moves creating implicit threats that must be countered (either by a defensive move or a counter-threat). With the full boat of four players, there's a lot to think about.

Barony is an interesting spatial game, mostly abstract, with loads of direct confrontational interaction. And the components are satisfyingly chunky.

Recommended, if you like that kind of thing.


Guilds of London

(Image credit: Oblivion)

Solid area majority game, that didn't really grab me with two.

This is a nicely produced mid-weight area majority game. The play area is made up of square tiles that represent the Guilds of London! You place your liverymen onto these tiles, in an attempt to have first or second most when the tile gets scored.

Game play is driven by multi-use cards, which can be used to move liveryman, acquire more liverymen, or perform a special action. Some special actions cost "gold," which you pay by discarding other cards.

The iconography used to describe special actions is pretty opaque at first, and you will need a cheat sheet. Oddly, the player aids provided in the game are incomplete. You will definitely want to print one of the aids from the BGG file section. (This was a weird flaw in the physical production of the game.)

The game play was good, with interesting card play, but I didn't love it. For my taste, there was too much area majority rejiggering. It would probably be better with three or four, but it would still be an awful lot of area majority back and forth.
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Fri Sep 30, 2016 10:41 pm
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Game Mechanics That I Love (Whether I'm Good at Them or Not)

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On a more positive note, here are some things that I almost always really like in a game. Not surprisingly, some of my favorite games combine more than one of these (e.g., Keyflower hits every item on the list.)

Inter-Play Variability

I am always glad when a game has significant variable elements that modify the game's strategic landscape from play to play. I love modular boards (e.g. Food Chain Magnate) and randomized distribution of features (e.g., Hawaii, Voyages of Marco Polo).

Variable start-up is especially satisfying when each game uses a randomized subset of the total pool of available components, so that each game presents a different mix of options and constraints (e.g., Agricola, Pax Porfiriana, Keyflower).

When I play games like this, I really enjoy the initial process of taking in the set-up and thinking about how the new configuration will affect the game. Those will be expensive. These are nearby. There's a choke-point over there. There is no stone!

Besides the fun of that pre-game assessment, variability helps keep a game from getting stale and scripted. I love it.

Worker Placement

I really like how worker placement creates brinksmanship. The knowledge that other players may take the things I need forces me to prioritize and then decide how and where to push my luck. Can I postpone getting food (which I absolutely need) for one more round? or should I lock it down now and forego some other critical need (which may be taken away before I get another go)? It's stressful in a fun way!

Worker placement is a mature enough mechanism now that it has a lot of interesting variations. One of my favorites is when you're able to acquire an exclusive worker placement option, which only you can use (e.g., Russian Railroads and Terra Mystica). This can be so satisfying, when the other players are sweating bullets about when to grab an essential action and I have one in my back pocket.

Alliance of Convenience

I really enjoy it when a game allows more than one player to benefit from an action or resource. This can create really interesting shared incentives and cost-benefit calculations. It also leads to a lot of direct interaction, which can be mutually beneficial, parasitic, or destructive.

Share-based train games (like Chicago Express, American Rails, or 18xx) are a classic example of this. If only one player owns stock in the company, that player will reap huge rewards from increasing its value. If two players are dividing ownership, then they each have an incentive to push it (because they'll both benefit relative to the other players). But if an ownership split is unbalanced, the minority owner gets to be a free-riding leech (which can be a lot of fun for the leech). And if all players get an equal stake in a company, that company is likely dead in the water. Who is going to waste a turn creating equal value for all players? All of that complex interaction emerges organically from the relatively simple mechanism of shared ownership.

I also really enjoy games where players can opportunistically use each others' stuff, especially if that deprives the owner of its use. Often, this involves making some kind of payment to the owner. In different situations, the owner may get shorted or come out ahead. Again, this gives rise to some very satisfying complexity. And it can also feel really thematic. Great examples of this include Age of Industry and Keyflower.

Engine Building

I almost always enjoy engine building in a game, where you can use an action to improve the effectiveness of your future actions. This can produce a snowball effect, where each increase in your engine's power leads to further increases. If you do it right, you can crank out huge amounts of stuff toward the end of the game.

While it's fun to get the end-game payoff from running an amped up mega-engine, I also really like the narrative arc that building the engine creates. At the beginning of a game of Agricola, for example, you're a puny couple of farmers, living in a one-room clay hut crappy little dwelling of some kind, with nothing to your name. Gradually, painfully, you improve your situation. And, if you managed things right, you'll wind up with fields overflowing with crops and livestock, a large family, assistants, tools, and a huge stone house. And you built that, step by step.

Some of my favorite games of this type are Age of Industry, Fields of Arle, Hansa Teutonica, London, and Keyflower. I'm also really looking forward to A Feast for Odin.

Geography

I love it when a game is embedded in a place that needs to be navigated and claimed. This involves a special kind of spatial thinking that I find really satisfying. You need to assess the lay of the land, and think about where you can act, at what cost, and where others are likely to go. Sometimes you're moving pieces around a map, trying to outmaneuver opponents. Sometimes you're building parts of your game engine onto the board itself, with facilities that need to be located and connected. Maybe you need to be near sources of important supplies or markets for your goods. Maybe you need to build your stuff in a pattern of mutual support, or you need to rush toward goals and claim them before others. Landscape features (e.g., rivers, mountains, cities) may need to be taken account, as they slow movement, increase construction costs, or provide benefits. Blocking other players out of locations can be hugely important, creating interesting incentives.

And if you add in direct conflict (destroying or seizing other players' stuff on the board) you introduce a whole new set of considerations. In addition to optimizing the efficiency of your stuff, you now need to worry about its security. Where are your weak points and critical features? What's within reach of opponents' forces? And what can you reach? (My wife generally dislikes that kind of thing. I'm mediocre at it, but enjoy the thinking involved.)

Some of my favorite games that are tied to geography include Terra Mystica, Age of Industry, A Few Acres of Snow, 18xx, and Hansa Teutonica.
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Sat Sep 17, 2016 5:56 pm
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