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My 2011 in Review: Themeless Games

This is the sixth installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. I concede that Themeless Games may sound like a rather unusual name for a category, but be assured that by themeless I mean something quite different than tasteless games! I just didn't want to call this category "Abstract Games" because that is usually a term with a more narrow and stricter definition. So I'm broadening this category beyond traditional abstracts to include dice-rolling games like Yahtzee, Can't Stop and others. While they might not technically classify as abstracts, they are the type of games without a theme that I want to include in this list. One thing that these `themeless' games do have in common is that they also have real potential for success with non-gamers. So let's get to the list!

Can't Stop

Can't Stop isn't entirely new to me because I have played it in years past, but 2011 saw the release of a brand new edition of this old favourite, so I had fun rediscovering it. It's an evergreen press-your-luck dice-rolling filler from master designer Sid Sackson, and one of the most outstanding games of its type, so if you've never played it before, do yourself a favour and check out why it's been so popular.

In Can't Stop, players roll four standard dice, which they'll divide into two pairs. This entitles them to move their markers up the corresponding tracks numbered 2 through 12 (all the possible results for a pair of D6s) on a stop-signed shaped board. If you get your marker to the top first, you can claim that column, and the first player to claim three columns wins the game. But now here's the catch: on your turn you can keep re-rolling in an effort to move your markers further - but if you roll a combination of dice that doesn't let you make a pair of dice that moves upward at least one of the three markers you're using that turn, you lose everything you've gained that turn. Ah, press-your-luck at it's best!

Can't Stop has a fun and addictive quality about it, and despite the fact that you're pushing luck, it's not pure luck because there's enough decision making to make it interesting. It's also quick enough to prevent the luck from being too frustrating. It's easy to teach and learn, and has attractive components, so it all comes together in a package that makes it the kind of game that is suitable for just about everyone. As far as press-your-luck dice games go, this is a tried and true classic from a master designer, that still has the same appeal today as it did when it was first released 30 years ago, and that matches the best of the press-your-luck dice rolling fillers of the modern era. The new edition is excellent, and I love the stop sign board and the traffic cone shaped runners! Highly recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A brand new edition of a classic game that belongs in nearly every collection


Blockers! is a reimplementation of Kory Heath's abstract game Uptown, which was first released in 2007, and has now been reissued in a brand new edition with some minor tweaks to the rules, notably the scoring and win condition.

The 9x9 board looks somewhat like a Sudoku puzzle. Players draw tiles in their colour which have on them either a letter, a number or a picture; which indicates where you may place the piece, i.e. numbers correspond to columns, letters to rows, and pictures to one of the 9 parts of the board. The idea is to place your pieces so that if possible they are adjacent and form as few groups as possible, and this will determine the winner. But there's intense competition, and that's what makes the game so interesting. The Blockers edition has changed the win condition from Uptown as follows: "The new rule is that at the end of the game you count the number of your groups and the number of your captures of the color you captured most, and add these numbers together; the player with the lowest total wins."

The changed rule is a good one, and luck-of-the-draw can further be mitigated by adopting the recommended variant which has all players start with their wild tile available. Blockers! scales well, and perhaps best of all it is very accessible. The abstract nature of the game actually enhances the chances that you'll be able to introduce this successfully to everyone but the most hardened anti-gamer. It's not a brain-burner, but there's enough tactical and strategic thought to make it interesting, and the winner will more often than not be determined by skill rather than luck of the draw, without it ever feeling like the mind-number experience of a pure abstract like Chess or Go.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A family friendly abstract with real potential (new Blockers edition)

Number Please!

Number Please! is a similar concept to 1963's Krypto, and also bears some kinship to a dice game that's proven very successful in educational circles, Math Dice. While its potential for use in the classroom and other learning environments will mean that it's primarily of interest to educators and teachers, there are 7 different math-type games that you can play with the components, so it could also appeal to those who enjoy games with a strong mathy flavour or enjoy the challenge of playing with numbers.

The basic concept is that several dice with numbers on them are rolled, and players then compete to find a valid mathematical formula for them within a time limit. This particular version features chunky and colourful wooden dice with custom values, and comes with two variations of the main `math formula' concept (Three at Once and Mellow Yellow). Rules for four other math games (38 Special, High Roller, Nine Patch, and Five Square) that can be played with the same dice are also included.

Number Please! is definitely a `game' product for math fans, with a target market in education circles, because for most people this wouldn't meet their definition of fun. But as an alternative to some dry theory in high school, it might just help make math more enjoyable, or prove to be a fun solitaire activity to sharpen your mental math skills. Not all the included games are as good as one other, but if you are looking to get some numerical exercise, or just enjoy some recreational mental arithmetic, Number Please might be the ticket!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: It's a mathematical proposition

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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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