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To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, please contact BGG News editor W. Eric Martin via email – wericmartin AT gmail.com

Archive for W. Eric Martin

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Game Preview: Dark Tales, or Refabling Old Stories in New Boxes

W. Eric Martin
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Fairy tales provide an enduring source of inspiration for creators the world over, with books, movies, television shows, and (of course) games using familiar characters and situations to provide people an easy, familiar entry point into their world. Reiner Knizia, for example, created the Scary Tales series in which characters like Snow White and Pinocchio battle one another with cards and dice, while in Winter Tales players use images on their cards for starter points in tales they tell about how Wonderland's Alice, the Tin Man, and others try to overthrow Snow White (her again!) and the other Winter soldiers.

Pierluca Zizzi offers his take on the fairy-tale-to-game transformation with Dark Tales from Italian publisher dV Giochi. Dark Tales is mostly a card game, but the heart of the game is a set of items commonly found in fairy tales: swords, armor, magic wands, and gold coins. These items are represented by tokens, and at the start of the game you draw one of three setting cards to determine how these items can be used during the game and what their effects will be; a separate setting card drawn from a different group of three determines which items will be worth victory points — and how many of them — at the end of the game.

You start with a hand of three cards, and on a turn you draw a card, optionally use an item for its effect, then play one card. Cards — which range from Dark Lords, Dragons and Wizards to Gypsies, Witches and Princesses — might be placed in front of you to provide an ongoing power, placed in a common area to all players, or discarded as their effect is carried out, possibly affecting males or females, villains or places depending on the card in question. When someone has no cards in hand at the start of his turn, the game ends and players tally their points.

And when fairy tales become the subject matter for games, you can be sure that Snow White will make an appearance, which is precisely the case here with Dark Tales: Snow White, an expansion pack that debuts at the same time as the base game at Spiel 2014.

This expansion adds new items specific to Snow's story — a comb, a poisoned apple, burning shoes and laced bodices — along with 24 cards and two new setting cards. The cards can be shuffled with the base deck, which will extend the game time, or you can remove ten cards from the deck prior to playing in order to keep the playing time roughly the same while boosting the Whiteness of the game, so to speak.

Given the wealth of fairy tales in existence, I'm sure that Zizzi and dV Giochi have several more expansion packs ready for the retelling (and retailing) should this game prove as resonant as the stories themselves.
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Sun Oct 12, 2014 8:05 pm
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Game Preview: League of Hackers, or Sorry, No Angelina Jolie Here

W. Eric Martin
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My experience with computer hacking is pretty much limited to me being sent a new bank card every six months because my account number might have been compromised in this or that security breach. That said, I am of course aware of hacking as a thing and have seen countless entirely realistic situations in movies in which people sit down in front of unfamiliar computers and disgorge exactly the right data that they need to discover or they network into some big business' mainframe by rejiggering the framistan, which then allows them to adjust the thermostats in corporate headquarters to an uncomfortably warm temperature.

With all of that mind, I gave Desnet Amane's League of Hackers from his own Moaideas Game Design a try to see whether it could live up to such accurate depictions of computerized nefariousness:

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Sun Oct 12, 2014 1:33 am
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Game Preview: Illegal, or Pit of Depravity

W. Eric Martin
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Not every game is for every player, whether due to the playing time required or the complexity of the rules or a certain opponent's loathing of blind bidding or a game designer's determination to hit every hot-topic button possible in one little card game, as is the case with Christophe Boelinger's Illegal, a party game released by his company Ludically in France in September 2014 and debuting on the world stage at Spiel 2014.

Illegal is for 5-9 players, with one player in the position of game manager (GM) and everyone else taking the role of both dealer and buyer of eyebrow-raising, possibly illegal material such as guns, alcohol, stolen data or call girls. Before the game begins, the GM sets up as many player packs as the number of players in the game; each player receives a dealer card, five resource cards representing what that dealer offers, one resource card of another illegal substance, and a buyer card matching neither the dealer nor either substance. The GM also prepares paired suspect cards, with each pair matching the dealer/buyer combination in the player packs. Finally, the GM prepares four resource packs that contain one copy of each resource in the game.

Gameplay is akin to the classic goods-trading game Pit in that once everyone has received their player pack, they have three minutes to pair off and swap resource cards with one another. All trades should be done in secret — but with the cards revealed before agreeing to the trade — so that only those two players know what they've traded. After all, if you're dealing in something shady, you probably don't want others to know about it.


After three minutes, the GM calls everyone back to the table, lays out all of the cards in a resource pack, then lets everyone grab one card that they want. Following this resource injection, the players trade for another three minutes.

Following the fourth resource booster and the fifth trading session, the GM calls everyone back to endure the tribunal, a period of judgment in which everyone tries to call out everyone else for what they've done while getting off the hook themselves. The GM reveals one of the dealer/buyer suspect pairs prepared earlier, then everyone yells about who they think represents this pair. After one minute, the GM calls a vote with everyone pointing at their suspect; whoever has collected the most accusing fingers acquires the suspect cards, and in the event of a tie, they're removed from the game.

Once all of the suspects have been handed out, players tally their scores, receiving one point for each incorrect suspect card they hold and each resource card in hand that matches their buyer, then losing five points for each suspect card in front of them that does match their identity. Whoever has the most points wins. For a more loosely scripted game — say, for when you're at a bar mitzvah or bridal shower and have other things occupying your attention — you can allow for more time to trade and have the GM walk around the room handing out resources at random; for those who are keen readers of guilty looks, you can increase the challenge by having each suspect card evaluated individually instead of in pairs.

Boelinger, best known for Dungeon Twister and Archipelago, notes that he's still looking for a U.S. distributor for Illegal as the subject matter has proven somewhat more combustible than his usual work, a statement that does not surprise me in the slightest, so if you're in the distribution business and want to have strangers yell at you for abetting the corruption of society, feel free to get in touch with him. He's ready to deal if you're ready to buy...

Alcohol and gun dealers at front; data, cars and a powder-hungry rock star at back
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Fri Oct 10, 2014 4:11 am
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Game Preview: Ketch Up/Absacker, or Then Tomatoes Are Seven

W. Eric Martin
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Everything old is new again, the saying goes, and while we as gamers might first think of Android: Netrunner or Fire & Axe as living examples of this saying — games that have returned from Neverland to find a place in our homes once more — dozens of lower-profile game designs are phoenixed onto the marketplace each year to serve an important role that we often overlook: games for normal people — that is, games for people who are gamers but not gamer gamers, if you know what I mean; games that consist of a single page of rules and that a family or group of friends will come back to day after day after day when they're looking for something to play after dinner or while waiting for the subway.

Leo Colovini and Dario de Toffoli's card game Ketch Up fills that role, and that game has been reborn in late 2014 as Absacker from AMIGO, a title that few will rush to acquire during Spiel 2014 but one that will likely outsell all of the titles that are being rushed for. We often overlook such designs in our quest for the new, but they're all around us and an important part of the game industry for publishers, designers and, yes, even players.

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Thu Oct 9, 2014 7:37 pm
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Game Preview: Six MaKING, or One if by Pawn and Two if by Rook

W. Eric Martin
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Each year my most challenging game is a solitaire design titled "Include all of the new games that will appear at Spiel in my convention preview", and it's a game that I lose over and over again. I know, for example, that even with 562 listings on the Spiel 2014 Preview (as of 8:54 a.m. EDT on 8 Oct. 2014 with more to be added later today) I'm going to miss some unknown number of games that will be available at the show. To wax Rumsfeldian for a moment, I have the known unknowns — such as Heidelberger Spieleverlag and Piatnik, which never answer my email for reasons unbeknownst to me — and the unknown unknowns, publishers that I don't even know will be there or can't find out anything about in the week-long period between when the hall maps are released and when the show opens. (That period is now, by the way, and I'm doing what I can to fill in the gaps.)

All of which is to say that Romanian publisher Mind Fitness Games was one of my misses for Spiel 2013, with the publisher having three games on hand and me not knowing about any of them. I didn't even spot them while walking the Messe halls for five days! So sad.

In any case, at some point I found out that MFG would be at Spiel 2014, and the publisher offered to send me József Dorsonczky's Six MaKING for a partial look at what I missed, and with this video we're now somewhat caught up with what I missed at Spiel 2013 on the verge of missing who knows what else at Spiel 2014. It's like grabbing at leaves in a tornado...

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Wed Oct 8, 2014 2:10 pm
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Game Preview: The Staufer Dynasty, or Taking a Lesson from Henry VI

W. Eric Martin
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I previewed Andreas Steding's The Staufer Dynasty — debuting at Spiel 2014 in German from Hans im Glück and in English from Z-Man Games — in late September 2014 on BGG News in a small amount of detail, but my head was somewhat off at the time in that I remembered few details of the design and I didn't even catch incorrect details in the short description that had been submitted with the game listing in the BGG database. (To start with, The Staufer Dynasty is not an auction game.) Thankfully I've now been shoveling the fish in at a prodigious rate and the intercranial bits are once again dashing to and fro like a well-oiled engine.

To start, players are nobles in the 12th century, accompanying Henry VI on his tour of the areas of Europe brought under control by the Staufer family, an area that included much of modern day Germany, went south to Sicily, and stretched across the Baltic Sea. Henry VI apparently liked to travel around the region to put himself into a stronger position of power and make his status known. (Wikipedia covers his travels in the late 12th century in detail. He really got around!) Henry VI's habits have rubbed off on you, so you're eager to improve your own lot in the land by placing envoys and nobles in positions of power in the six regions represented in this game.

To set up the game, which allows for 2-5 players, you lay out the six regions around the action board, drop point tiles at random on each region, lay out the supply table, drop chests (which have special actions) face up under each space on the supply table and each office seat in each region, lay out the privilege cards, stop for a drink and a bite to eat, give everyone four envoys and one noble to supply their court, shove all the other pieces in a shared province, arrange family members on the action board (with players initially taking actions sort of clockwise, counter-clockwise, counter-clockwise), giving everyone secret job cards, taking a nip of chocolate to build up your energy once again, setting out the five rows of scoring tiles (each comprised of three parts), and finally dropping King Henry VI in the one region not placed among the scoring tiles, paying attention the entire time to make sure that you've using the proper sides of things based on the number of players you have. Then you pack it all up and congratulate one another on an excellent layout job.


No, then you actually play the game, which lasts five rounds with each player having three actions per round. Players take action in order from top to bottom with their family members, and on a turn you either take a supply action (moving to one side of the action board) or a move/deploy action (moving to the other side).

For a supply action, you pick one of the spaces on the supply table (as shown at the bottom of the image above), move the indicated number of envoys and nobles from the province to your court, then claim any chests underneath that space. The treasure chests come in different colors, with each color having a different function in the game, just as you'd expect from a game with good graphic design: the brown treasure chests score points based on how many you collect, the orange ones provide immediate points or figures, the blue ones provide a one-shot bonus, and the purple ones let you collect one of the privilege cards on display. The privilege cards often modify other actions or give you a bonus for doing a particular thing, and you can use different sets of privilege cards to give the game a different feel.

For a move/deploy action, you decide which office seat you want to occupy in a particular region. If this seat isn't in the region where the king is located — that is, where you are accompanying the king while he's buffing his credentials with the locals — you need to spend one envoy as you move clockwise away from the king, placing each envoy in the top part of those regions, until you reach the region that you want to occupy. You then pay the cost of the office seat, placing one figure — possibly a noble if the seat demands it — in that seat and all the other figures in clockwise order, one per region. When you occupy a seat, you claim the chest underneath it, with these chests functioning just like the ones I described earlier.

As you might gather, you'll be sprinkling envoys across the land like Johann Appleseed, using them to spread word of your fabulousness, then forgetting about them until you need them later, which you inevitably will.


After everyone has finished their actions, you score for the round — but you score only in the region indicated in the current row of scoring tiles (Aachen, Nijmegen, Palermo, etc.) and the region that best meets the condition laid out in a separate part of the current row of scoring tiles (fewest chests, most occupants, where the king is located, etc.) If these two regions turn out to be the same one, you score that region only once. Players score points for having the most office seats in a region (or the second- or thirdmost most office seats) based on the point tile placed in the region at the start of the game. Each region also has a printed bonus that players receive, such as bonus chests or additional envoys.

To end the round, you remove all of the office occupants of the region that scored — having scored for you and receiving nothing in return, they apparently have no qualms about moving on to other employ — add new chests under each office seat in those scoring regions and each space on the supply table (doubling up on chests if any remain from earlier turns), then sweep the king clockwise 1-3 regions so that he can survey a new part of his domain. As the king moves, he returns all of the envoys that he encounters in the regions that he enters to their owners.

Players then start a new round, with the family members who moved to the supply track taking their actions first, followed by all the family members who previously moved/deployed. Thus, your action choices in one round affect when you can do things in the next.

After five rounds, players score for their treasure chests as well as for how well they completed their secret job cards. Are you dominant in the region you were assigned? How well have you placed figures into the available office seats? In the end, whoever has the most points wins.

As I mentioned in that earlier write-up, I've played the prototype of The Staufer Dynasty once, and while much of the game was as I describe it now, some things have changed, such as the possibility for scoring to occur in two regions instead of one, which puts more of the board into play each round instead of allowing people to quietly focus on their secret job cards. I don't recall the region boards, the action board, etc. being double-sided to account for differing player counts, but why would I? I wasn't the one setting up the game. Seems like a nice touch to ensure competition no matter how many opponents you face, and kudos for a modern Eurogame that allows for 2-5 players. So many titles seem to max out at four players these days!

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Wed Oct 8, 2014 6:00 am
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Game Preview: El Gaucho, or Beers, Steers and Questionable Choices by Your Peers

W. Eric Martin
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The more that I talk about games on video, the more that I question the ability of people to review games following a single playing — a difficulty that's frequently in mind these days as I prepare to head to the Spiel game convention in Essen, Germany, a convention where hundreds of new games will be presented to families and eager gamers and where thousands of rash opinions will be born based on misunderstandings, translation complications, and late-night gaming/drinking by exhausted players who should really be in bed. I know because I've been there, playing game X one year and feeling it was a snoozefest when in fact I was the one who was literally snoozing between turns.

Even in the best of conditions — fully rested, with plenty of time to read and re-read rules — it's easy to miss one line in the rules that changes the essence of the game (as happened in my first playing of the game featured below). It's even easier to play like a clueless newbie because that's what you are: someone new to the game who doesn't know how best to play it, even when the rulebook provides a hand at the back to shove you in a certain direction.

On my second playing of El Gaucho, which debuts from Arve D. Fühler and Argentum Verlag in October 2014 at the Spiel convention mentioned above, I still felt like I was playing only two-thirds of the game as I wasn't using the action spaces much and instead taking the more obvious cattle-claiming actions most of the time. Only in retrospect did I realize that I was missing details about cattle evaluation and why you might or might not want to do certain things in the game. Getting the proper feel for a game and understanding it enough to review it — as opposed to merely forming an opinion about it — takes time, and all too often we've already roped that dogie and are headed back to the pampa to find the next catch...

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Tue Oct 7, 2014 2:13 pm
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Game Preview: RoboRama, or Chinese Checkerbots Roll Toward Self-Destruction

W. Eric Martin
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The short description of RoboRama from designers Kirps, Pierson and Zuidhof and publisher PLAYTHISONE might bring another RoboR**** game to mind:

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In RoboRama the goal is simple: Race against the other players by constantly picking the right combination of action cards and routes for your robots in order to cross the arena. Or — if that isn't thrilling enough — add the ChaosBot, which can be controlled by everyone. Finish first with your four robots on the opposite side of the arena and you win! Of course this is easier said than done. After all, you are not the only one trying to win, making it pretty crowded in the arena.

Yes, players in both RoboRama and RoboRally move robots across a grid to reach a goal, but aside from that commonality the games have almost nothing in common. So where did the title come from? PLAYTHISONE's Patrick Zuidhof told me that he came up with the name "RoboRama" because the robots made him think of the animated series Futurama and Bender the Robot, "so I glued the words together. After Franz Vohwinkel made the logo, though, I realized that there would be some emotion because of the name."

In general, RoboRama comes across like an engineer's take on Chinese Checkers or Halma with players trying to move their team of robots diagonally from one corner of the board to another, but with your robots sharing movement from a pool of action cards in front of you. The trick, however, is that those action cards don't replenish themselves automatically, but become available for use once again only through your movement on the game board and the use of a special chip card.


More specifically, each player has action cards that show 1-5 gears (with gears equalling movement points) and one chip. A player's robots start on the four squares of the opposite corner, and each turn you must choose one of your available cards and use it. If you choose a gear card, you move one of your robots in a straight line exactly as many spaces as the number of gears on the card — jumping robots of the same color as a single movement, if needed — then you slide the card up into your inactive row.

The space you land on will show 1-5 gears, a question mark, or a chip. When you land on a gear space, if possible you slide that action card from your inactive row to your active row (although you can't do so if you used that card to reach that space). When you land on a question mark, you can slide a gear card of your choice from inactive to active status. When you land on a chip, you can reclaim your inactive chip card — and you use a chip card on your turn (instead of a gear card) to reclaim a gear card that matches the gear space where one of your robots stands.

If you can't use one of your action cards on your turn, you're out of the game and your robots purged from the board. Boom!

The advance game starts with the action cards being flipped to their reverse side, with each card having a special action on it, such as the 1 gear allowing for a single diagonal movement and the 3 gear allowing for an "L" move. During the game, you can use each special action only once, flipping the card over to its blank side in addition to making it inactive when you use it.

For additional complications, you can choose to play with the ChaosBot, which despite the name doesn't move randomly on the board but is instead partially controlled by each player. At the start of the game, each player receives 3-6 ChaosBot cards and on a turn when you don't use the special action on a card, you can choose to play a ChaosBot card in addition to your regular action. The ChaosBot moves, jumps, pushes other robots around, or shoots robots with a laser to make them inactive for one turn.

Whatever the rules, though, your goal remains the same: Get all four of your robots home before anyone else. If everyone else just happens to be knocked out of the game before you get there, well, then you've won just the same...

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Tue Oct 7, 2014 6:00 am
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Game Preview: Kobayakawa, or Artsy Bluffing Made Simple

W. Eric Martin
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I'm nearing the end of game previews for titles that will debut at or be (somewhat more widely) available at Spiel 2014, and I realize that yes, I've been focusing a lot on games from Japanese designers and publishers, but by golly I spent an astronomical amount on several shipments of such games earlier in 2014 and with those games now making their way to a larger stage, I'm going to do something with them — namely these videos that I've been publishing!

Jun Sasaki's Kobayakawa from the incredibly stylish publisher Oink Games is a bluffing game stripped of anything extraneous to gameplay — well, other than the fancy metal coins, which are extraneous in their luxeness but necessary for keeping score. At Spiel 2014, French publishers Superlude Éditions and IELLO are releasing new versions of the game in English and French, but the play's the same no matter the tongue you speak, so here we go:

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Sun Oct 5, 2014 12:26 pm
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Game Preview: Edo Yashiki, or Flimsy Cardboard Palaces for All

W. Eric Martin
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In July 2014, designer Hisashi Hayashi announced that he had left his former job to work on game design on a full-time basis. He credited Trains' recognition by the Origins Award as Best Board Game for encouraging him to move in this direction, but other designs from him have also made the jump from self-publication through his own company OKAZU Brand to new editions in larger markets, including String Railway and Sail to India.

Edo Yashiki is another one of his small self-published titles, with the game coming in a baggie and everything boiled down to a deck of cards and a few tokens. The gist of the game is that you're trying to build an awesome place to live by adding cards to the structure one at a time and making something decent out of the process instead of the hodgepodge you'd get if you tried to do such a thing in real life. Such is the beauty of games as you can get away with magical thinking along these lines...

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Fri Oct 3, 2014 3:20 pm
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