Views & Reviews with Ender

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New Review Series Launched

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

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overviews: Board Games

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

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Reviews: Playing Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictorial Reviews of Playing Cards by EndersGame
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Tue Apr 18, 2017 7:23 am
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The Beautiful World of Playing Cards: Introducing some talented designers and their work

Ender Wiggins
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I'm currently on a bit of a kick doing some reviews of specialized decks of playing cards. I happen to love Traditional Card Games, and I also love doing card magic, so it won't come as a surprise that decks of playing cards have a real appeal to me.

But the truth is that everyone needs to own at least one good deck of cards. And by that I mean a traditional deck of 52 cards in the normal suits of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs. After all, there are so many different card games you can play with a standard deck. If you need some ideas, start by checking my GeekList on the subject here.

Now if you are going to own a deck of cards, I figure that you might as well try to get something pretty. Admittedly, the art shouldn't get in the way of the visual clarity of the cards, or interfere with your ability to play the game. But the fact is that there are some amazing decks out there that are perfectly functional to play with, while being stunning to look at the same time. They give you something to admire during moments of down-time, and for many people will enhance the overall playing experience.

It didn't take me long to discover that many beautiful decks of playing cards have been created in recent years. For quite some time already the advances of technology have empowered some very gifted graphic designers with the ability to create some stunning digital artwork on their own PCs. But now they can make their dreams a reality by partnering with online publishing companies, and finally tapping into the marketing engine of the internet. Some of these decks have been created as the result of Kickstarters bringing in over $150,000 in funding! In this article, I want to briefly introduce you to three of the talented individuals who are exploring this new territory with their creativity, and tell you something about their current projects.

Steve Minty (USA): creator of beautiful decks inspired by ancient cultures

Steve Minty is a traditionally educated illustrator and designer, who previously did branding and design for major sport stars and celebrities. He's now given his creativity free reign by doing his own projects, amongst them the design of playing cards. Of all the decks I've looked at personally, Steve's playing cards easily stand out as being among the most beautiful.

He has produced several artistic decks of playing cards, including the popular Muertos series (inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead), the Olympia series (inspired by Greek mythology), and the Anubis and Osiris decks (inspired by ancient Egypt), all available from his personal website steveminty.com. Steve is now working on a deck inspired by Japanese culture called the HANA Luxury Playing Cards, which is currently in the process of being funded on Kickstarter, and is already well over the target.

I love how Steve has worked with different cultures and ideas (and even done some research in the process), and found ways to reflect these insights and observations in the themes, design and artwork of his playing cards. As a result, each deck has its own very distinct flavour, in reflecting either classical Japan, ancient Egypt, mythological Greece, or traditional Mexico. Going back to ancient times also gives you a sense that these playing cards are steeped in a long and rich tradition, and makes you feel a connection with the past.

At the same time, everything about these cards is a truly stunning expression of sheer beauty, from the back designs to the individual artwork on each card. They really do look stunning, especially the Anubis and Osiris decks, these are arguably the most attractive of all the playing cards that I own. Of the three creators in this list, the Steve Minty decks have to take the prize for being the most beautiful, and I just love the way that all the aesthetics come together in a wonderful package.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: The MOST BEAUTIFUL decks of playing cards that I own

Giovanni Meroni (Italy): creator of thoughtful decks filled with symbology

Giovanni Meroni is a freelance designer in Italy, who has created the product brand Thirdway Industries, and has a webshop with his playing cards at thirdwayindustries.com. He's done work for big name companies like Vodafone, Nestle, Schwarzkopf, Gucci, Coca Cola, and Red Bull. But as a freelance designer and art director, he also likes to design decks of playing cards, and that's where he gets my attention and interest!

His success began in 2015, with the creation of his classic and crazy Delirium deck, an intricate and modern deck that has the distinction of being chosen as the official 2015 deck of the United Cardists forum. Subsequently he began creating a number of projects that each consisted of a series of three decks comprising a thematic unit, beginning with the Omnia: The First series and its sequel Omnia: The Golden Age series, which are both inspired by several ancient cultures, and are set in the Omnia Universe that Giovanni has imagined. Next up was his Dedalo series, which is inspired by Greek mythology, and tells the story of the Labyrinth of Crete, Theseus and The Minotaur, including the Labyrinth's builder Dedalo. His most recent project is the SINS playing cards, a series of three decks inspired by the literature and art that explores the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Envy, Pride, Lust, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth), a rich tradition that Giovanni draws on very cleverly and thoughtfully.

When I first stumbled across some of Giovanni's work online, I was just blown away by the classy and elegant appearance of the decks he's created, as well as the way he has drawn on mythology, literature, and art in the creation of his playing cards. I love the style of his artwork, which stands out sharply from the usual fare that is produced by American or even Eurogame artists, and has both a classic and Mediterranean feel, while remaining very playable and usable.

But perhaps what I admire most are the thematic stories behind the artwork. The classic Greek mythology in the Dedalo series of decks strikes an immediate chord with anyone who has an interest in or appreciation of ancient history, and it is very clever how Giovanni has woven the ancient Greek myth into the artwork. But Giovanni has really taken things to the next level by working with the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins in his latest series, the SINS decks. Each of these deadly sins corresponds to a different suit, with the artwork reflective of the concept. The decks create a thematic and artistic unity which is based on a long literary and artistic tradition, and there's a lot of rich symbolism that has been cleverly drawn on, both theologically and artistically. With beautiful and unique artwork that ties in well with a rich theme, steeped in literature and art, these decks are definitely more than just a pretty face, but have real personality and character.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Some stunning new decks of playing cards from Italy

Ben Jones (Australia): creator of innovative decks crawling with Pipmen

Ben Jones lives in Sydney Australia, and runs a small outfit called Elephant Playing Cards. He is currently publishing a special deck of playing cards that he has been creating and developing for almost three years. But he's no one-trick pony, and has already run several successful Kickstarters previously for his Pipmen decks of playing cards. "Pipmen" is a term Ben has coined for the characters on his cards, which he explains like this: Pips + Stickmen = Pipmen. Typical of the decks he designs are "little stickmen figures interacting with the pips to create a unique scene."

As well as several Prism decks, the Pipmen decks that Ben has created are both creative and amusing, and have already proven to be a big hit. But his magnus opus has to be his current Kickstarter project, Pipmen World Playing Cards, which he's publishing along with a Pipmen Collectors Edition deck. Not only is every individual card in the Pipmen World deck a beautiful and clever self-contained picture, but in a truly remarkable way, Ben has designed the artwork so that all the individual cards can be put together to form a larger panoramic image, known as a polyptych. This is truly amazing, and has to be seen to be believed! When the cards are placed alongside one another to form a larger picture, it is very impressive. It is a stunning work of art, that still functions as a regular deck of cards as well.

While I appreciate and admire the earlier Pipmen decks, it is especially the Pipmen World deck that blew me away - I've been fortunate enough to see a prototype copy. First of all, the artwork on the individual cards can be admired and enjoyed, and is sure to create some real talking points. I enjoy studying and appreciating the creative and imaginative artwork on each individual card, and I love how the stickmen interact with the everything. But what really takes this to the next level is how these individual cards combine to make a single larger picture. It definitely has the feel of being a single whole, without ever feeling like a cobbled-together collection of disconnected pieces. It can even be a fun activity to try to complete it as a puzzle. At the same time, the artwork doesn't interfere with the clarity of the cards, because the opposite indices of each card have a very clear statement of what the card is, ensuring that aesthetics doesn't trump playability. Ben has obviously given all this careful thought, so that this deck isn't just going to be resigned into becoming a collector's piece that will gather dust, but can actually be used. It's also being produced with a high quality production that should ensure it proves durable and goes the distance.

I really can't say enough about this amazing deck of cards. Clearly this project is a labour of love for Ben Jones, and I'm very pleased for him that it is finally coming to fruition, and that others can enjoy it. It's a dream come true for him, but it's also a dream come true for anyone who is looking for an amazing deck of cards.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: The best deck of playing cards. EVER!

So go ahead and check out some of these talented designers, take a look at what they are making, and consider supporting them. Hopefully this article has aroused your interest in the amazing decks that are available today, and rekindled a desire to try some games with a traditional cards. So why not grab a deck, and get playing?!

Disclaimer: I was not asked to write this article by any publisher or designer. I put this piece together simply because I think these decks are cool, and these creators deserve some recognition and attention here!

Join the discussion: Which of the above decks of playing cards sounds most interesting to you, and why? Have you ever funded a deck of playing cards on Kickstarter? Do you own any special decks of playing cards?
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Mon Mar 13, 2017 5:31 pm
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The E•G•G series of small box games from Eagle Gryphon Games

Ender Wiggins
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Over the last two years, Eagle Gryphon Games has been publishing a new series of small box fillers called the E•G•G Series. It currently numbers eleven games in total. I gather that a twelfth game will eventually be published to complete the dozen.

The EGG series has proven to be more fun than I was expecting. What I especially like about it is the diversity in the series, which features a range of very different types of games. A diversity of mechanics is represented, including dice throwing, trick-taking, deck-building, set-collection, solitaire, party games, and more. Many are very suitable as fillers. Other positive points include the portability, component quality, as well as the accessibility of most of these games, which will appeal to a wide range of people, including non-gamers.

Here is a GeekList with my overview and comparative take on all the games in the series, including links to my separate reviews for nearly all the titles:

mb The E•G•G Series from Eagle Gryphon Games: collect 'em all?

My current ratings for the games in the series:
Sluff Off, Fleet Wharfside, SiXes
Eggs & Empires, Harald, King's Kilt
Dexikon, Bowling Solitaire, Seven7s
Elevenses For One
(don't own: 12 Days of Christmas)

A big thank you to all those who read any of my reviews over the past year - I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for your support and interest. And my best wishes to everyone for 2017!


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Tue Dec 27, 2016 9:14 am
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The Next Great American Game

Ender Wiggins
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Introducing The Next Great American Game

Let's be honest, most of us can be sometimes be game snobs - I know I can be at times. If someone tries to convince us to play Monopoly, we can be dismissive, sometimes even condescending and arrogant towards the unenlightened and unwashed masses. After all, they're under in the illusion we still live in a dinosaur age and think that there's something good about roll-and-move games. So if someone has made a 1980s style roll-and-move game, and thinks it's going to be The Next Great American Game, we're ready to spit on them, or at least have a few laughs at their expense. We've seen more than a few failed Kickstarters by such individuals, and often considered them entertainment.

But now imagine that you are that person. That's the premise behind Doug Morse's 80 minute film The Next Great American Game (2015), featuring game designer Randall Hoyt. By his own admission, Randall is not really a game designer, but just a creative guy who has designed a game that he's passionate about, and which he is convinced will be the Next Big Thing. In the film, we follow his determined real life quest to get his traffic-jam themed game "Turnpike" published, and accompany him to a series of disappointing meetings with game publishers, as Randall comes to realize he's made a 1980s game that nobody in today's game industry wants to buy. There's disbelief and disappointment as his dreams are shattered - or can his game be changed in a way that it will find a home with a publisher somewhere?

Randall isn't the only one on the path to enlightenment, however; we are. What is it really like to be someone who thinks he can make it in the world of modern game design, but has no clue about the state of the hobby as it is today? How hard is it to crack the world of the publishers, gain their ear, and better yet gain a contract? This film does a marvellous job of putting us in Randall's shoes, and takes a sympathetic look at a man and his mission. In Randall's case, he's also bi-polar, and the complexities of his mental health also feature in the film, helping make him a sympathetic figure that we come to identify with or at least feel compassion for. Rather than laugh at his ill-informed optimism or chuckle at the misfortunes we see inevitably heading his way when he pitches his game in search of a contract at GenCon, the Chicago Toy Fair, or Origins, by the end we'll feel bad for spitting on him, and perhaps have a bit more sympathy for the unenlightened. Putting me on the other side of the gamer fence for a change made me cringe and feel uncomfortable at times, but in a character-building way.

What do I think?

This film has value in a number of respects, not least as the personal story of a man and his battle to overcome adversity in pursuing his dream. It helps that Randall speaks very candidly about his personal struggles to the camera, and his insights are often thought-provoking and insightful, even if at times they are also painful for us to watch, knowing the inevitable rejection that will come. Given Randall's high ideals for his game, we occasionally feel like we're watching a train wreck about happen, especially as he enters the competitive world of game publishing. We're not at all surprised to see his naivety crushed, as publishers make no bones about the fact that they need to meet the needs of the hobby market, and that his game doesn't really make the cut. The strength of the narrative about Randall's personal journey prevents this from becoming a purely documentary style look at the game publishing world. Not only does it help sustain our interest with a story-line, but it also shows us what this world looks like from an outside perspective, one that we typically don't consider or think about. I also found it fascinating to see in action some of the big name publishers that we often read or hear about like Steve Jackson, Dan Yarrington, and others, and as a gamer I really enjoyed those segments of the film.

This film and its extras should be essential viewing for an aspiring game designer looking to crack the market, but will also be of great interest to any gamer wanting to get insight into the larger world of the board game industry. You might enjoy watching this even if you just want to watch a modern real-life story of a bi-polar amateur game designer who slowly comes to realize his dreams are turning to dust, and who pursues his goal despite the odds. As a story, it's a good one. Without giving away too much, I can say that the film doesn't end in the train wreck you might expect, but there is a note of optimism as one of Randall's other game designs does get some success. More importantly, by the closing credits, I felt that Randall wasn't the only one on the path to enlightenment, but I was too; he'd earned my respect and sympathy, and just maybe changed my own way of perceiving others outside the hobby.

Where can you get it?

There are several options for purchasing this film, with a basic level digital download starting at $14.95. While it's not inexpensive, the price does reflect something of the significant costs that Doug Morse incurred in travelling to many locations in order to make this film. Most gamers will want to go for the higher levels, which give access to several hours of insightful interviews with big names in the industry, including Steve Jackson, Alan Moon, Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and more.

View the trailer below, and get the film from the BGG store (DVD) or the official site (digital download).


Join the discussion: To what extent is snobbery an issue in the board game hobby? What are some appropriate ways to deal with `unenlightened' individuals convinced they've discovered America's next great game? And if you've seen the film, what did you think of it?

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Wed Jun 24, 2015 2:32 pm
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An Interview

Ender Wiggins
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The folks from `He says She says' reviews, Ryan and Amanda (Magus & Princess), are doing a series of `He asks She asks' interviews with a number of individuals in the gaming industry, including designers, developers, publishers, and more. As part of that, they asked to interview me about reviewing, gaming, faith, and BGG. If you want to read more of my thoughts on those topics and more, check out the interview which they've posted here:

A He asks, She asks interview: Top BGG reviewer EndersGame

Thanks to Ryan and Amanda for this opportunity, and best wishes to them as they continue their series of reviews and interviews!


Update: Ryan & Amanda have since left BGG, deleting all their contributions, including a number of interviews such as this one. For archival purposes and historical interest, you'll find this interview re-posted in its entirety here:

A He asks, She asks interview: Top BGG reviewer EndersGame
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Wed May 30, 2012 11:23 am
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Spiel des Jahres 2012: Have the awards jumped the shark, and are the winners getting less complex?

Ender Wiggins
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By now most people have seen the official nominees for the 2012 Kennerspiel des Jahres and the 2012 Spiel des Jahres, along with the games that weren't nominated to win but were still recommended by the jury. You've probably also come across the usual circus of discussion that typically follows this announcement, with many folks voicing the usual criticism that the nominations are a joke, out of touch, irrelevant, or ridiculous. I'm not going to join this circus, but I would like to offer a contribution to this discussion, and I'm especially interested in exploring the criticism that the complexity of the winners is decreasing over time.

The Awards in General: How important are they?

First of all, folks somewhat new to gaming may wonder why these awards are even regarded as being a big deal to begin with, and how relevant they are. That's a fair question, given that they are German awards. The question becomes even more pressing considering that it's quite rare that deeper strategy games get nominated. No wonder that each year inevitably we see a repeated discussion about the apparent irrelevancy and idiocy of these awards.

In actual fact, these awards are a big deal, although we should be honest from the outset and simply concede that they very likely are not at all going to be of high relevance to the serious hardcore gamer who wants to see his favourite heavy strategy game from the past year being recognized. Sorry folks, that's just not going to happen at the Spiel des Jahres, because that's just not what they're about! These awards are specifically geared to family style games, and so in general the nominees and winners are games that need to be fairly accessible to the average consumer, and have to be suitable for the mass market - the average German consumer and German mass market that is. We need to recall that the eurogame revolution in the 1990s originated in Germany, and even today that's still where the heart of the gaming industry is to be found. Furthermore there are other awards in Germany that recognize more complex strategy games, the Deutscher Spiel Preis being the most notable one, which typically crowns as winners what we commonly dub as "gamers games", including Agricola (2008), Caylus (2006), and Puerto Rico (2002). In contrast, the Spiel des Jahres is specifically geared toward a slightly different market, at a threshhold not far removed from what we often call "gateway games". With this in mind, it shouldn't at all surprise serious gamers that many of the jury's choices are not challenging enough by the standards of strategy veterans in the gaming hobby.

So why are they important then? Even if they're perhaps not of the greatest relevance to the serious strategy gamer who has advanced well beyond the threshold of gaming, they are certainly relevant to a slightly different market that's looking for something easier to play. In fact, the Spiel des Jahre awards have a huge impact on sales, especially in Germany, but also far beyond its borders. A publisher whose game wins the coveted Spiel des Jahres award has the luxury of including the winning logo on his products, and this credential will inevitable correspond to a huge increase in sales, one source suggesting it can generate sales of up to a half a million copies world wide. From the perspective of the designer and publisher, winning this award is the equivalent of a small coup in the gaming market, and they can count on it continuing to drive significant sales in years to come. This by no means does a disservice to the gaming community; on the contrary, while serious strategy games may seem to get the cold shoulder from the Spiel des Jahres jury, what these awards do accomplish is help introduce many new folks to great games for the first time, and as such they play an important role in expanding the hobby game market.

The Awards This Year: What got nominated?

So what then about the awards this year? In recent times the folks behind the Spiel des Jahres award have taken a slightly different approach, by adding a Kennerspiel des Jahres category in addition to the traditional Spiel des Jahres category, in order to accommodate games that are slightly more complicated and yet worthy of recognition. The first beneficiary of this new award category was 7 Wonders in 2011, which beat out the other two nominees, Strasbourg and Lancaster. Perhaps the first hint of this concept was already evident in 2006 and 2008, when Caylus and Agricola were each awarded a special prize for Best Complex Game.

The nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year are Adam Kałuża's mountain climbing game K2, Andreas Steiger's entry in the Kosmos series Targi, and Inka and Markus Brand's novel take on the worker placement genre Village, which features graveyards to help you deal with the mortality of your meeples and of course earn points. As an aside, it's good to see Kosmos getting back into the limelight, with two of their other games making the recommended list for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category as well.

The nominees for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category in 2012 are Stefan Dorra and Ralf zur Linde's Eselsbrücke, Donald X. Vaccarino's Kingdom Builder, and Rüdiger Dorn's Las Vegas. Kingdom Builder is already quite widely known, and Vaccarino's enormous success with Dominion certainly has done his designer credentials no harm. The other two titles might be somewhat unfamiliar for many gamers, but the designers are all established veterans whose names many of us will recognize.

In addition to these nominees, the jury also have the habit of recommending a number of other titles that weren't nominated but are still worth recognizing. I won't repeat them all here, but suffice it to say that you'll find a complete list here:

Kennerspiel & Spiel des Jahres 2012: All the Nominees and Recommended Games

The Awards Over The Years: Is complexity decreasing?

As happens almost every year, you'll see detractors and critics pan the nominees and recommendations, suggesting biting criticisms ranging from accusations that the jury are out of touch with modern gaming, that the typical family gamer is evidently getting more stupid over the years, that the jury that dispenses the awards is clearly corrupting the definition of a family game, and that the Spiel des Jahres awards have jumped the shark. We've already made a case for the fact that the awards need to be evaluated for what they are: not as a set of Grammys for the greatest and best games in the eyes of geeky hardcore gamers (which, let's face it, is most of us), but to recognize quality games that can be picked up and enjoyed by your typical family with granny and the kids. Oh, and let's not forget that some of the hardcore gamers are going to enjoy them as "lighter" games, "gateway" games, or "fillers" too!

But having said that, is there any truth to the contention that the complexity of the award winners is decreasing over the years? I decided to find out, by using the average BGG weight as a guide. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the average BGG weight is determined by BGG users who vote using a 1-5 scale (Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, Heavy), from which an average is calculated. As a relative scale of comparison, it can be quite useful despite its criteria being somewhat nebulous and hard to define, because for the most part it is the same people who are making comparisons and assigning these values.

Some numbers

James Fehr kindly pointed out that the average BGG weight of this year's crop of Kennerspiel nominees is 2.5, and the Kennerspiel recommended games is 3.0, while the average BGG weight of this year's Spiel des Jahres nominees is 1.7, and the Spiel des Jahres recommended games is 1.6. So how do the numbers for this year's crop compare with earlier years? Well, I looked them up, so you can see for yourself:

2011 1.7 Qwirkle
2010 1.3 Dixit
2009 2.4 Dominion
2008 1.6 Keltis
2007 1.9 Zooloretto
2006 2.3 Thurn and Taxis
2005 1.8 Niagara
2004 1.9 Ticket to Ride
2003 2.1 Alhambra
2002 1.2 Villa Paletti
2001 1.9 Carcassonne
2000 2.9 Torres
1999 2.9 Tikal
1998 2.2 Elfenland
1997 1.7 The Mississippi Queen
1996 3.1 El Grande
1995 2.4 The Settlers of Catan
1994 2.0 Manhattan
1993 1.3 Liar's Dice
1992 2.0 Um Reifenbreite
1991 1.8 Wacky Wacky West
1990 1.9 Hoity Toity
1989 1.7 Café International
1988 1.6 Barbarossa
1987 2.0 Auf Achse
1986 1.5 Heimlich & Co.
1985 2.8 Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
1984 2.2 Dampfross
1983 2.0 Scotland Yard
1982 1.3 Enchanted Forest
1981 2.4 Focus
1980 1.8 Rummikub
1979 2.0 Hare & Tortoise

Note that while perceptions of "weight" may have changed over the years, the figures in the above list are all based on what people from recent years think about the weight of the games mentioned, so these numbers are a fair reflection of current opinion. The 4000+ votes that combine to give the 1995 winner Catan an average BGG weight rating of 2.4 are all from the last decade, and probably the vast majority are from the last number of years when BGG membership has grown significantly. Having 4000+ people suggest that Settlers of Catan's weight is on average between "light medium" and "medium" is a fair indication of what people today think about its complexity.

Admittedly the average BGG weight ratings of newer games is somewhat unreliable, especially if they haven't had many users assign them a weight rating yet. In comparison to Settlers of Catan, last year's Spiel des Jahres winner Qwirkle has an average BGG weight rating of 1.7 that is based on only 300+ votes. This means that these voters think it's between "light" and "light medium", slightly leaning toward the latter, but for the most part these are the same people who contributed to Settlers of Catan's weight rating of 2.4 . So despite the smaller sample size, this result is still based on enough data to give a reasonably good point of comparison, and it's quite safe to conclude that most people think Qwirkle is "lighter" than Settlers of Catan by comparative degree of 1.7 to 2.4.

Some conclusions

So what does this mean when we look at all the numbers going back to 1979? Would earlier winners not stand a chance of being nominated today, and are the awards being dumbed down, as some have suggested? I don't think so. It could be argued that the three heavier-weights on the list, Torres (2.9), Tikal (2.9), and El Grande (3.1), were out of character from previous years rather than the norm. It's clear that since its inception, the vast majority of Spiel des Jahres award winning games had an average BGG weight of 2 or less, with a few notable exceptions being the three just mentioned. Over the last 25 years the only other winners that have an average weight greater than 2 are Catan (2.4), Dominion (2.4), Thurn and Taxis (2.3), the last two of which were both fairly recent winners! In that regard a fairly good argument can be made that the games nominated and recommended for the Spiel des Jahres award this year and in recent years are quite in line with previous years - aside from the three years when the jury opted for more complex titles. If the complainers had been around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they'd have had reason to complain about the lightweights that were recognized at that time too! Could the "problem" of decreasing complexity be less real than we imagine?

As for this year's Kennerspiel nominees and recommended titles (average BGG weight of 2.5 and 3.0 respectively), they nearly all appear more complex than previous winners, if their current numbers are any indication of their complexity. In that respect adding a separate Kennerspiel category seems to be a good move, in order to recognize games that ordinarily might be considered just beyond the kind of complexity that the jury is looking for in winners of the Spiel des Jahres award. At the same time it's still true that the Kennerspiel games are a long way from being hardcore strategy games. And that's fine, and I doubt that the jury would want it any other way, because recognizing complex strategy games is what other awards are for, whereas the Spiel des Jahres awards are still intended to be a family oriented award geared towards the mass market, with the Kennerspiel going to slightly more advanced games that are just a step up above the usual complexity of the winners. I expect we'll see this trend continue in future years, and I see no reason to complain about it, because it only helps make it possible for a greater variety of games to get recognition.

A Proposed Perspective

So what does all this mean for gamers and how we should view these awards? Well, let's try to be fair when we assess the Spiel des Jahres awards, because we don't help anyone by using the announcement of these nominees as a platform for game snobbery. Instead, why not treat them with some respect, recognizing that they're not firstly of all geared towards folks like most of us. Maybe it's the critics who are the idiots, rather than the jury who are very much achieving what they've always tried to do. Perhaps there's a higher road for us to travel, and that's to be grateful for how the Spiel des Jahres awards accomplish exactly what they set out to do, which is to bring great and accessible games to the family market. And let's be honest, even the hardcore strategy gamers among us need something lighter to play once in a while, even if it is with grandma or the guys at work. And maybe, just maybe, when the occasion suits, there's even a Spiel des Jahres winning game that's just right for us.

Join the discussion: Do you think that the complexity of the Spiel des Jahres nominees and winners has changed over the years? And in your opinion, how relevant are these awards for the gaming industry today?
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Thu May 24, 2012 11:43 am
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The Quintessential Train Game For The Typical Modern Gamer: Introducing the family members of a wonderful series

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

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

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

The Appeal

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

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

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

The Base Game

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

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

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

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

The Expansions

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

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

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

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

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

The Card Game

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

1. En Garde (2009)

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

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

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

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

2. 2 de Mayo (2009)

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

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

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

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

3. What's My Word? (2010)

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

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

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

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

4. Mirror, Mirror (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ender Wiggins
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Mr. Carcassonne: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede

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

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

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

Catan-like colonization: Albion (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Juan and its Expansion

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

San Juan expansion

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

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

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

Notre Dame and its Expansion

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

Notre Dame expansion

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

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

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

Join the discussion: What do you think of the Treasure Chest concept, and are there better ways to release mini-expansions like these? Which expansions do you consider to be the best in this box, and do you have any thoughts on the San Juan and Notre Dame expansion cards in particular?
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Thu Apr 5, 2012 2:53 am
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