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Tacky Christian Games: Where the theme gets in the way of the game

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I'm a Christian. So I'm going to like any game with a Christian theme, right? Wrong.

(Disclaimer: This article is primarily going to be of interest to Christians, and I know that there are many of you here on the site who are interested in the kinds of questions raised by it. You're welcome to participate in this particular discussion if you're not a Christian, but I'd respectfully request that we keep closely on topic, because this is not the place to initiate RSP debates, but only to discuss the particular issue of evaluating Christian themed games from a Christian perspective. So please ensure that the discussion remains positive and respectful.)

The problem with many Christian games

Most of us are well aware that there’s an unfortunate and all too frequent reality that applies to many games which have a Biblical or Christian theme, and that's mediocre game-play. In other words, despite a thick coat of Christian paint, you can't hide the fact that there's a very poor gaming engine underneath. While such games might prove appealing from a pedagogical standpoint, they are frequently so substandard in terms of gameplay that they prove too painful to be worth playing. Apparently some publishers seem to think that Christians will love anything that's overtly Christian in flavour, independent of whether it's actually a good product when judged purely on its merits as a game, and it seems that there's more than enough consumers willing to take a punt on such a product too. Granted, most of the folks who frequent boardgamegeek.com aren't going to be fooled that easily, because what we look for in a game is a solid gaming experience, and we're well aware that while the theme might enhance the nurturing of such an experience, a good theme alone does not a good game make. But aside from Christian remakes of Catan (The Settlers of Canaan) and Carcassonne (The Ark of the Covenant), how many Biblically themed games that are actually outstanding games in their own right can you think of? I think I've made my point.

A second problem that afflicts many Biblically themed games is that in an effort to provide a theme that's going to be attractive to people who take the Bible seriously, the well-intended game goes overboard in handling the theme to the point that it trivializes the divine revelation of the Bible. Any attempt to incorporate Christian themes does come with many pitfalls, because there is always the potential to mishandle Biblical truth or deal with it inappropriately. An example of this is the Redemption CGG, which in my estimation suffers this fate. While Redemption CCG's effort to bring Biblical characters and events to life on playing cards is in itself laudable, this has the very real potential to trivialize the Bible, and in some instance even to create theological problems (see my review where I make a case for this, and also a further article in which shortcomings in the graphic design are identified). In some instances the theme even has the potential to break down, or worse, to become disrespectful, a problem that can be compounded by the artwork. As a result, sometimes the "Bible edition" of a popular game doesn't end up adding anything positive to the original game, but sadly only serves to make it worse.

The solution for Christian games

General principles

So what's the solution? Well to begin with, to have any enduring value, a Christian game should first and foremost be a good game. In other words, before we start talking about the paint, let's make sure that the engine is a good one. Let's not compromise quality just because we like the paint colour.

Secondly, if a game is going to have a Biblical theme, it should handle it carefully and respectfully. Anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God will surely agree that its content is weighty, and this leaves little room for cheesy ways in handling serious truths, or for trivializing divine instruction. It's not impossible, but it sure takes a lot of wisdom to do it right.

A case example

An excellent and recent example of a game that does get this right is the new worker placement game from Philip duBarry and Minion Games, Kingdom of Solomon. It's themed around - surprise, surprise - King Solomon and his kingdom in ancient Israel. Players are governors during Solomon's reign, responsible for overseeing some of his building and expansion efforts, by collecting resources and constructing buildings, including the beautiful Solomonic temple. This is a theme that will feel like an exciting novelty to most of us, because it's a radical departure from the standard fare we've come to see, where some themes seem beaten to death at this point - go talk to Tom Vasel if you want examples. All this makes Kingdom of Solomon stand out by virtue of its theme, not just among worker placement games in particular, but among euros in general, and this historical flavour rightly gives it immediate appeal especially to Jews and Christians.

But while the theme is one solidly rooted in Biblical history, and skillfully woven into the game-play, the game doesn’t make the mistake of becoming tacky, preachy or trying to convey a religious message by means of cheesy mechanics, or at the cost of excellence in the game design. For me personally, my Christian convictions will naturally enhance my appreciation for this particular theme and this particular game, but it needs to be recognized that Kingdom of Solomon is first and foremost a good game, strong enough to stand on its own merits and compete with the rest as a game. Let's face it, being a Christian doesn't mean I'm going to like other hobbies just because you give them a Christian coat of paint. Similarly, I like the gaming hobby because I like games, so if you expect me to enjoy a Christian themed game, it needs to be a good game first of all. Fortunately, Kingdom of Solomon really is, in view of the particularly interesting ways it works with the worker placement mechanic. The good news is that while the theme does bring aspects of the Biblical narrative to life in a respectful way, it doesn't at all compromise quality of game-play.

All this means that Kingdom of Solomon is a fully independent and well designed worker placement game that has the maturity and quality to stand on its own two legs, without needing to rely on the theme as a supporting crutch. Granted, it just happens to have a solid Biblical theme, although it's not one that is so over the top that it will send those who are unfamiliar with the Bible running and screaming. But it sure is refreshing to discover a Biblically themed game that is a satisfying, medium weight euro, and that can go the distance on its merits as a game. A game of this sort has real potential to get some mileage in the Christian market, and in my opinion deserves to make its mark there, but the good news is that its appeal should stretch well beyond that. For this accomplishment the efforts of designer Philip duBarry are ones that Christian gamers like myself should applaud, support and encourage. I've just posted a review of Kingdom of Solomon, and I highly recommend you check this game out:

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Successfully bringing the excellence of Caylus-style worker placement to Bible times

A deeper solution for Christian gamers

But there is another solution for Christian gamers on a quest for good games, one which is independent of finding a good game with a solid Biblical theme, although efforts to produce such games are certainly welcome and deserve to be applauded. And that's to come to the realization that for the most part the elements that make gaming a positive activity for Christian families and groups usually have little to do with the theme. Certainly there might be games that have to be excluded from play by virtue of their objectionable theme or artwork alone. Similarly there might be games that particularly commend themselves for play by virtue of a particularly positive theme - as was the case with Kingdom of Solomon. But for the most part a Christian approach to games is about the spirit in which it is played, the lessons that are learned from it, and the place that it has in one's life - and that includes demanding high standards from the game-play as well.

Perhaps this could be considered a "redeemed" approach to boardgames, when they are played to God's glory and for our neighbour's good, and when they are enjoyed as a gift from God, and none of this especially demands having a Christian theme. This approach gives room for coming to a positive assessment of and enjoyment of boardgames that more importantly meet the criteria of being quality products on the level of design and components as well, and not merely theme. For me and my family, this redemption of boardgames will be more successful when playing something tried and true like Catan than a game that's overtly Christian but where the gameplay disappoints.

Fortunately this means that Christians have many options when it comes to selecting good games. There are many wholesome games to choose from that don't necessarily have a Christian theme, but give families the opportunity to have an enjoyable gaming session together, and offer good quality gameplay. Sure, Christian gamers will like a good Christian game. But in the end what we really like is a good game - any good game - that we can play as Christians. Now please excuse me, I'm off to go play another game of Kingdom of Solomon, followed by a rousing game of London.


Join the discussion: What's your take on Christian themed games, and what has been your experience with them? Can you think of other examples of Biblically themed games that also pass the test of being quality game designs in their own right?
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Fri Feb 17, 2012 11:37 am
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On The Value Of Dexterity Games: Featuring two new dexterity games that should be on your radar

Ender Wiggins
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The Value of Dexterity Games

I've always had a love for dexterity games. The beauty of dexterity games is that they work in almost any setting, whether at a party with a large group, or in the intimate setting of a home with just two players. They're typically easy to learn, entertaining to watch and play, give opportunity for developing a real degree of skill, can be played quickly, and have an appeal that encompasses both gamers and non-gamers alike. That's a pretty impressive resume! In terms of reach and value, it's hard to improve on the mileage you can get from a good quality dexterity game.

Some of my favourite dexterity games include the tried and proven greats like Crokinole, PitchCar, and Tumblin-Dice. In addition to these I've also enjoyed lesser known dexterity games like Elk Fest, Flicochet, and Sjoelen. While games like these are often made of wood and tend to cost considerably more than your average board game, they are still excellent value, and arguable even better value than your average board game. My Crokinole board is easily the most expensive game I've ever purchased. But considering the many, many hours it's been played, it's also easily the cheapest game when measured by the low cost per minute played. So over the long term, despite their higher price tags, dexterity games are fantastic value.

With that being said, I'd like to introduce two new runners in the dexterity field, both of which we've been enjoying immensely over the last couple of weeks. First up is Click Clack Lumberjack, a new release that's been very popular in Korea, and now is making its way to the wider market with the help of MayDay Games. Players use an actual axe to try to knock bark off a plastic tree - terrific fun, and ideal for parties as well as for a whole range of settings! Second is Caveman Curling, an excellent dexterity game that uses Crokinole style flicking but with a curling theme. Unlike Crokinole, judging your distance is more important, and the board has just the right traction to enable considerable accuracy. It has wonderful components and gameplay, and has the big advantage of being portable. Let's tell you some more about both of these great new dexterity games.


Click Clack Lumberjack



What other games can you think of come with a usable axe as the most important game component? In other words, where the central game mechanic is about physically swinging an axe and taking down tree parts? It sounds so ridiculous that you'd think I'm making this up, but there it is, sitting in front me, real as can be: Click Clack Lumberjack. Don't laugh too quickly - it really does reward skill, and has the potential to generate raucous laughter in the right setting!

The game consists of a plastic pieces piled on top of each other to make a tree. Each core has four "bark" pieces attached to it, and on their turn each player gets to swing the hit the tree twice with the axe. Bark that's removed will score 1 point each, while if you knock off the central core pieces you lose 5 points.

Dexterity games nearly always work well in any context, and there's few that can match the fun and hilarity of this one. The concept of wielding an axe to knock bark off a tree may sound ridiculous, but it's the kind of thing that needs to be seen and played to be appreciated. A game can be done and over with in under 10 minutes, which makes Toc Toc Woodman ideal for almost any occasion. The theme also makes sense in that you are actually chopping down parts of a tree, so it's easy to explain. If people are watching they'll quickly catch on to what's happening and want to join in, although even being a spectator can be incredibly entertaining. This is the kind of game that has the immediate novelty and wow factor that will draw people in, and its accessible and addictive qualities make it perfect for almost any setting.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Dexterity done right - what other game lets you swing a usable axe?


Caveman Curling



Caveman Curling is a caveman-themed spin on curling, the sport where they throw rocks on ice, and run ahead sweeping like crazy with brooms. It's a dexterity game that employs Crokinole style flicking of disks, but with a curling type rink for all the action to happen, and adds in some great artwork and a few twists.

Players take turns flicking their disks along the icy lake trying to get the closest to the "fire" at the end of the board. The playing board is made out of a special material that contains just the right amount of traction to enable remarkably accurate shots, and where you need to judge the distance carefully. After each shot, you can use a "special item" on the rock you've just flicked. A hammer can adjust its distance (in the absence of brooms), and a totem can protect it so that you can re-throw it later in the round if the totem happens to come off. Point scoring at the game end is just like in curling or bocce - you score one point for each of your disks closest to the center than the nearest of your opponent.

This game was previously released under the name Kairn, and limited copies of a new edition called Caveman Curling appeared at Essen 2011. It is now getting a wider release with the help of a Kickstarter campaign (check this link to see the Kickstarter project, which is now going into its closing stages). I was fortunate enough to play an advance production sample of the game, and was very impressed. It compares very favourably with Crokinole, and although it's still sheer skill, it has a slightly lighter feel in view of the theme, components, and the ability to use special items. Judging the distance is much more important here than it is in Crokinole, so the end result is that both games require a different approach, with Caveman Curling more likely to work in a family setting. Portability is also a huge plus, because while you can't lug your Crokinole board around easily, that's easily accomplished with the small box that contains Caveman Curling. A very fun game, highly recommended, and different enough from Crokinole to make it a unique challenge of its own.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Do you like Crokinole? You'll love this!




Join the discussion: What do you enjoy most about dexterity games? What are some of your favourites, and why? Which of the above two games looks appealing to you?
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Thu Dec 29, 2011 2:32 pm
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Ender's 2011: An Overview of 50 Great New Games That You Should Know About

Ender Wiggins
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2011 has been a great year for gaming.

I was fortunate enough to play around 50 different new games over the last year, many of which were newer releases. To round off the year, I've compiled and posted my complete overview of the new games I was able to play in a geeklist, along with ratings and a brief synopsis of each game. Check this list for discussion on the individual games:

mb Ender's 2011: An Overview of 50 Great New Games That You Should Know About

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 2012!

-Ender





 
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Wed Dec 28, 2011 4:37 pm
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My 2011 in Review: Old Favourites

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This is the final installment of a series of articles, in which I've been taking a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year.

A balanced approach to gaming means that one doesn't only play what's new and shiny, because sometimes we need to get back to some of the old favourites. I'm constantly playing older games that I've enjoyed for years, and from time to time I've taken an extra close look at an old favourite to feature it in a review. This past year was no exception, and that's why I'm concluding this series with an Old Favourites category. In this final article I'll highlight some of the classic euros that I keep coming back to, like Puerto Rico, Notre Dame, and Railways of the World. What was your most enjoyed game of the old favourites you played this year?

Puerto Rico (2002)



Puerto Rico has enjoyed a long reign of dominance for several years at the top of the BGG rankings. And even though it tussled with Agricola for the number one spot for some time, and has since been passed by the current #1 Twilight Struggle, it still enjoys a strong following, and can rightly be considered a quintessential and highly influential euro that offers much enjoyment and replayability for modern gamers. Since it appeared almost ten years ago, Puerto Rico has earned a well deserved reputation as a quintessential pioneer among eurogames, and is still considered an essential staple of many gaming collections today.

With the game on the verge of celebrating its tenth anniversary, and still enjoying strong popularity despite heavy competition from newer crops of games, I figured that this year was a good time to consider how Puerto Rico holds up as a two-player game, by playtesting and analyzing some of the most popular ways to enjoy it with just two players. When it was first released, Puerto Rico wasn't even considered a two-player game, but was marketed as suitable for 3-5 players. But given the enthusiasm with which the game was received, it wasn't too long before people were clamouring to find ways to make it playable for two players. An official variant was released by the publisher, and has been well received, and over time other customized variants have also appeared. The official variant works quite well, but many people favour what I call the "Craftsman Angst" variant, in which there are 7 roles in play and the Governor chooses 3 and the opponent chooses 2 - this prevents players getting back to back roles as a result of the "Governor Effect" and increases tension.

There is one respect in which Puerto Rico is showing its age. After all, it's been around since 2002 (a pre-publication version was at Essen 2001), so it first appeared almost a decade ago. For the most part it has stood the test of time, and its gameplay holds up well even when measured by the standards of the latest and newest crops of games - many of which are indebted to it and influenced by it. But if there is an aspect that could be improved, it's that the components could do with a visual makeover, particularly the building tiles. The plain text-only purple buildings are starting to look somewhat vintage and austere, and are just not up to snuff when compared with the artistic production values witnessed in the components of most newer euro games today. Fortunately there are ways to get versions with illustrated buildings, either using the print-and-play edition that features Franz Vohwinkel's beautiful artwork from San Juan, or the newly released deluxe edition to celebrate the game's 10th anniversary. This is a classic game that will continue to be popular in years to come.

More about two players? See my article: mb Ender's Overview: An analysis of Puerto Rico as a two-player game, and a comparison of the most popular variants
More about components? See my article: mb Ender's Overview: An edition of Puerto Rico with illustrated buildings - isn't it about time?


Notre Dame (2007)



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.

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 grey person cards. The good news is that a small expansion of nine additional grey person cards gives the game a complete makeover, without changing the core mechanics or feel. For any serious fan of Notre Dame, these new grey person cards are an absolute must have, and I highly, highly recommend them. Notre Dame has always performed strongly in our house, and the replay value and freshness offered by these expansion cards only makes it better. It's amazing what swapping in and mixing nine different cards can do!

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!


Twilight Struggle (2005)



There's a lot of good things that can be said about the current #1 ranked game, Twilight Struggle. With a broad appeal that has potential to please eurogamers and wargamers alike, it's not entirely surprising that it's at the top of the BGG pile. I picked up the Deluxe edition from GMT around this time of the year two years ago, and earlier this year proved to be a good time to get it to the table, at a time when a family member was studying the Cold War as part of a history course. I've also been able to explore online play using ACTS and VASSAL with a good friend, and currently have a game in progress. I've not reviewed it yet myself, but I can recommend Roger's excellent review referenced below.

For those who aren't familiar with this modern classic, Twilight Struggle sees two players compete against each other as the US and USSR, in a bid for world domination and influence during the Cold War era. The game is primarily driven by cards which feature key historical events that are true to the time period and reflect various elements of the tense political and military international cat-and-mouse game. Like global chess performed on the world's biggest stage, this subtle conflict ebbed and flowed in favour of both the Americans and Soviets alike during different stages, and the game captures this nicely. The cards feature events as well as action points that can be used by players to increase their influence in various countries, thus trying to control and dominate specific geopolitical regions, or to perform other actions such as military coups or advance in the space race. When played, scoring cards for these various regions are the main way that the victory points needed to win the game are earned.

The genius and tension of the game lies in the fact that when you play cards that feature events benefiting your opponent, these events will trigger even though you choose to use the card for action points, whereas an event card favourable to yourself requires you to choose between triggering the event or using the action points. This creates an enormous amount of tension, mirroring some of the feelings of this historical period. A complete game often features many micro-battles in particular regions, because when an area seems to become important to your opponent, you can rarely choose to ignore it, and simply by virtue of your opponent's interest it also becomes important to you. I particularly appreciate the historical flavour of the game, and the attention to detail. It has to be admitted that the game isn't for the faint of heart, and even though the rules are not super complex, it's definitely possible for experienced players to become good at the game by knowing the cards and making strategic choices that pay off later in the game. Ideally it also requires being able to set aside a block of three hours or so to complete a single game in one sitting. But if you can find that time and an opponent willing to take on the challenge with you, few gaming experiences can equal a tense game of Twilight Struggle with an evenly matched opponent.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb Roger's Overview: Deluxe Twilight Struggle


Railways of the World (2005) and Railways of the World (2009)



If you're looking for a train game that's a step up from Ticket to Ride, without being too hardcore or complicated, then look no further, because 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 thus conclude 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. 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!

Railways of the World almost certainly represents the medium-weight railroad game at its best, being at the end of the process and evolutionary curve of development that began already before Age of Steam (2002). Age of Steam was an immensely successful train game that offers a tense and tight experience for hardcore gamers. In 2005 the mechanics and gameplay were simplified and streamlined and attractive over-produced components were added to create the even more popular Railways of the World, which was reimplemented in 2009 as Railways of the World due to licensing issues with the Railroad Tycoon name. At the end of 2010 a reprint of Railways of the World appeared, featuring a number of further cosmetic improvements and small additions to the components. This is the edition to get if you can, because it comes with a map and cards needed for playing on two maps, Mexico (deal for 2-4 players) and the Eastern US (ideal for 4-6 players).

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. It's not as unforgiving as some other games in the genre, and outstanding components combined with delicious, meaty and thematic gameplay without being make this a real medium-weight winner.

More about the game? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: The quintessential train game for the typical modern gamer
More about the reprint? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: So you're wondering about the reprint of Railways of the World



Railways of the World has spawned a large number of expansion maps, and 2011 saw the release of several great new additions to the series. Railways Through Time adds the interesting twist of time travel. Players can deliver goods between different eras on eight different boards (The Stone Age, Egypt, Ancient Greece, The Medieval Era, The Napoleonic Era, The Old West, Industrial Age, and The Future), using a selection of maps depending on the number of players. This retains enough of the original to be enjoyable, while adding enough new elements to make it a fun and different experience. The artwork on the new boards is easily the best yet in the series.

Also new for 2011 is the Railways of the World: Event Deck. This is a small expansion that can be used with the base game or with any of the other expansion maps. It consists of a deck of 50 cards, which introduce different random events to the game. Some of these are short-term objectives which will help you, but occasionally there are disasters which will hurt you - just like in real life. Fortunately in most cases you get a turn warning about the next event, so you can plan accordingly. There's nothing game-changing here, but consider it to be extra spice for fans looking to add something new to the game.

More about the time travel? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Railways of the World adds time travel to enter the fourth dimension
More about the Event Deck? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Adding spice to my favourite train game!


Join the discussion: What is the best game among the old favourites that you've returned to and played in the past year? And if you have played any of above mentioned games, what did you think of them?

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Wed Dec 21, 2011 11:25 am
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My 2011 in Review: Family Games

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This is the second-last installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. The featured category this time round is Family Games, and there are some terrific ones here! I wouldn't be able to pick between Eruption, Pastiche, or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, which for me were the best three of the new family games I had opportunity to learn over the last year, but games like Pergamon and Finca are not far behind! Of the family games you learned this year, what was your favourite?

Eruption



Eruption is a wonderful 2011 release from Stratus Games that really hits the mark for the family game context.

In this fantastic tile-laying game for 2-6 players, players are trying to protect their villages from lava flow by building walls, placing lava tiles, and performing action cards. One of the highlights is the `burn-meter' mechanic which measures village temperature to determine the winner. The hotter your village, the bigger the trouble you're in! Can you place lava tiles so that the heat starts to pressure your neighbour more than you? And will your walls hold up against the flow? There's some dice-rolling, but it's well done and only helps enhance the game for what it is.

This game targets the family market, and succeeds admirably. The theme is fantastic, and there's a real sense of tension as you watch the temperature in your village begin to climb. The volcano theme is one that has been explored before (e.g. in games like The Downfall of Pompeii and the classic Fireball Island), but it’s certainly not an old and tired theme that we’ve seen too often, and Eruption does bring something new to the table in how it executes it. There's some take-that elements, but surprisingly it doesn't feel overly nasty, and this is helped by the fact that there's some wonderful catch-up mechanisms built into the game's design that help players who are behind and keep scores quite even. Great looking and quality components help round out a complete package. One of the the best family games to emerge in the past year, and families with older children will love it.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Does Any One Else Smell Burnt Toast?


Pastiche



Pastiche is a relatively new release designed by Sean D. MacDonald. It's a wonderfully themed gateway style game for 2-4 players about mixing colours to re-create famous paintings. It's gorgeously produced with stunning components, and is an outstanding family game that has proven very accessible, by offering relatively straight forward game-play without sacrificing a high fun factor or meaningful decisions. The game has an intriguing mix of various mechanics, among them being: tile placement, set collection, trading, and hand management.

The basic concept is that players must place hex tiles which feature dabs of colours, and depending on how these hexes are placed adjacent to existing hexes, new colours will be created. Through careful hex placement and trading, players must try to acquire the colours needed to complete commissions for famous paintings. Each of these `commission cards' is a quality and thick tile featuring a well-known artistic work, beautifully reproduced. It looks fantastic, and the mechanics mesh quite well with the theme.

Pastiche is intended to be family friendly, and it has the right mix of ingredients to be a successful gateway game. It has already been chosen as a 2011 Mensa Select winner, and I can see it being nominated for other industry awards, especially after the release of a new-and-improved international edition that's scheduled to appear shortly.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A work of art in every respect, and the ideal family or gateway game


Flash Point: Fire Rescue



Cooperative games have been the rage over the last few years, and with Flash Point: Fire Rescue, designer Kevin Lanzing has come up with a theme that is ideal for this type of game. Players must work together as firefighters to rescue victims from a housefire, before too many victims are lost or the house collapses.

Placed randomly on the board will be three "Points of Interest", and although there are a couple of blank `false alarm' tokens to keep things interesting, the majority of these will be the 10 victims of which the firefighting team must safely bring 7 out of the house to win. There's some obvious parallels with Pandemic, such as the action point system that allows players to perform numerous actions on their turn, e.g. movement, extinguishing smoke or fire, and even chopping down walls. But instead of using cards to randomize the spread of disease, dice are rolled to determine the spread of fire, resulting in less of a puzzle feel and arguably more tension and theme. If you're not careful, an explosion can happen which can create havoc in all directions.

Flash Point is is proving to be a fantastic cooperative game, with a rich theme and tense-game play - ideal elements for families. The rulebook comes with a set of "Family" rules, but there are also advanced rules for experienced players which add firefighters with unique abilities, and give a higher role to the use of emergency vehicles (fire truck and ambulance), so you can ratchet up the level of difficulty should you wish more complex rules. Overall this is an outstanding product, and although hardcore gamers might perhaps find it to be somewhat lighter in feel to Pandemic, families are just going to love the theme and game-play.

Want to know more? See a pictorial report: mb A Tale of One Family and Three House Fires (a pictorial report of three games with the Family rules)


Finca



A finca is Spanish term referring to a piece of rural/agricultural land typically with an cottage or similar building, often used as a holiday home. In the game Finca, this theme brings players to the island of Mallorca, where they're growing and delivering fruit.

The primary mechanic of the game is a rondel, represented in the game by a thematic windmill, on which players will place their farmers to collect fruit. By advancing your farmers on the rondel, there's opportunity to maximize your production of oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, grapes, and olives, and to collect the donkey tokens which you'll need to deliver your fruit to the Mallorcan fincas. In so doing there are also ways to get bonus points by making deliveries of different sizes, and getting majorities with fruits in certain locations, so careful tactical play will be rewarded.

Finca was a Spiel des Jahres Nominee 2009 and has been nominated for and won several other awards, and it's not hard to see why. The light farming theme is very accessible, and the simple pick-up-and-deliver mechanism integrated with a rondel is easy to grasp and yet gives opportunities for clever play, despite some luck. Arguably best with 2 or 3 players, it's a highly elegant and easy to learn game, with lovely components, giving it strong potential as a popular gateway game.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb Is your donkey in my orchard again? (A pictorial review)


Pergamon



Stefan Dorra has the enviable reputation of having designed one of the greatest and arguably most popular fillers of the modern era, For Sale. In his 2011 release Pergamon, he teams up with the designer of Finca, Ralf zur Linde, to bring us into the world of archaeologists and ancient artifacts. In this 2-4 player game, you take on the role of a nineteenth century archaeologist excavating the site of the Greek city of Pergamon.

The game board consists of several main areas, which correspond to the different elements of game-play. First you'll place your archaeologist figure on the research funds track to determine how much funding you might receive and also indicate which galleries in which you can conduct your excavations. The goal of the game is to first amass the research funds necessary to excavate artifacts from the excavation site in Pergamon, then collect and piece them together as part of a collection, and finally to exhibit these finds at the Museum in order to attract the most visitors (which serve as victory points in this game). The more impressive the exhibits you put on, the more people will come to see them, and the more points you will earn. To accomplish this, you'll try to maximize the research funds you earn, so that you can dig up fragments of vases, jugs, masks, and bracelets from deeper layers, and thus piece together older and more precious artifacts that compromise a more valuable collection.

There's a lot to like about Pergamon, including the well produced components, the engaging theme, and the straight forward gameplay. The complexity is probably on par with the family friendly Finca, and the result is a very pleasing and accessible game that's rich in theme despite being a real euro. The theme especially meshes well with the mechanics, and the notions of digging for artifacts, piecing them together and displaying them in a museum to draw crowds all works very intuitively and smoothly. All in all, this is a well designed light-medium euro with terrific components. I dig it!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Yes we dig it! - the new and richly themed archaeology game from the designer of For Sale


Rattus



Can you survive the Black Death? Rattus is a quick-playing strongly tactical and interactive light euro that first appeared in early 2010, and has seen a number of expansions already in the short time afterwards. It's very suitable for families, easy to learn, and fun to play, with an interesting theme, and good components.

In the game you are transported back in time to 1347, the year that the Black Death struck Western Europe with a vengeance. Players place cubes of their colour - representing their population - on a map of Europe. Each turn you place cubes and move the plague marker into a region, and which indicates the Plague striking, thus forcing cubes to be removed depending on the symbols on the `rat tokens' that are turned up. The idea is to have the most cubes on the board by the game end. But wait - we're not done yet, because there's also opportunity to take character cards which give you special abilities, although along with their rewards comes a greater risk of being hit by the plague.

The game-play features a real battle for survival, so there's real tension as you try to manipulate events to ensure that your population survives. It's quickly changing and highly tactical, and often comes down to a tight contest that relies a lot on the other players to keep the apparent leaders in check. While the base game works well enough, it is generally agreed that it has some limited replayability for gamers without an expansion. Meet Rattus: Pied Piper, which most gamers would consider it essential if you want to extend the life of the original game. Taken together, the base game and the expansion are a wonderful and immensely replayable family package. It's not going to be for everyone, but if you are the target market and are looking for a quick-playing and interactive euro that's easy to learn and fun to play, has an interesting theme and good components, Rattus is certainly a good choice.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A plague on all your houses, and a blight upon gamers everywhere
And the expansion? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: An absolutely essential expansion that extends the life of the original dramatically


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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Tue Dec 20, 2011 10:21 am
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My 2011 in Review: Unique Games

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This is the eighth installment of a series of 10 articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. I'm calling this category Unique Games, because they're somewhat hard to classify. Several of them could arguably fit in the forthcoming Family Games category (which is up next, so watch for it to appear early next week!). But I already have seven terrific games that made the cut for that category so instead I opted to make a new category of Unique Games. These games aren't necessarily innovative as such, but there is something about each of them that makes them stand out from the average family game, and belong in a league of their own. Have you learned any games this year that you'd classify as unique?

Travel Blog



There are times when modern gamers can start to feel a little jaded about themes in modern games. Another Mediterranean game about trading or shipping? Using a tired well worn theme is a sure way for a game designer to cause some eurogamers roll their eyes. Trust Vlaada Chvatil to rescue us from the tyranny of overused themes, and come up with something genuinely fresh. Meet his 2010 release Travel Blog, which has the privilege of having one of the most unique and original themes you'll ever see in a board game: writing a blog!

The game has players travelling the world, and earning money for writing a travel blog. Now that's 21st century stuff indeed! Travel Blog comes with two maps, one of the USA and one of Europe. Over the course of 7 rounds which correspond to the four seasons of the year, players must try to be the first to visit new and exciting places that they can write about on their blogs (and thus make money), while minimizing their travel costs (and thus save money). He who has the most money at the end wins. The mechanics of how this works are just as unique as the theme itself. With the map hidden from view, cards representing places on the map are revealed, and players must quickly place tokens to decide where they'll travel to. There's a reward for being first to place your pieces, because writers who are the first to get their story on their travel blog are obviously going to get the most interest. But you don't want to choose too rashly, otherwise you could find yourself travelling all over the map and spending too much money.

The end result is something that feels genuinely original, both in terms of the theme, and how the mechanics work and mesh with this theme. It also plays quickly, is accessible and attractive, and is somewhat educational while being fun at the same time. Travel Blog has a very unique feel, so there's little risk of this duplicating anything else in your current collection. If you want a game that could surprise you, and are willing to be challenged by a completely different game experience, this is your game.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Tired of old, well-worn themes? Vlaada Chvátil brings us something genuinely new!


Soccer Tactics World



Soccer Tactics World is one of the most fun soccer games that you'll find in the world of games today, and it deserves to be on this list for how strong the theme is, and how closely it feels like a game of real soccer. It first appeared on the scene around the time of the FIFA World Cup of Soccer in 2006, and has recently been released in a new and improved international edition.

Just like in soccer, you move your 11 players around the field, you pass, kick and capture the ball, and you shoot for goal. The gameplay is primarily driven by dice rolling, so there's definitely an element of luck involved, yet you don't have the feeling that the game is simply a luck fest decided by randomness, because you're the one deciding which player to move and where to, as well as deciding where to move the ball. The positional aspects of the game are key, and over time you'll learn ways to arrange your team on the field in order to set yourself up for creating chances and putting yourself into a scoring position - just like in real life! The result is that Soccer Tactics has the ebb and flow of an actual soccer game.

As such, this is a game with a huge appeal for soccer fans, because it's very well themed and intuitive to learn. If you're a fan of games but can't stand soccer, this is probably not a game for you. But if you're a fan of soccer, you're almost certain to love this game - whether you're a gamer or not! As long as you don't mind some dice rolling, and are looking for a game that is fun and thematic, Soccer Tactics does a great job of filling a niche in gaming that most sports fans can't get enough of! The only thing closer to the feel of soccer would be a dexterity game, or the beautiful game itself on a real field. Without the real thing, this is the next best option, and it's still a beautiful game. Very fun and good for families, and highly recommended for soccer fans!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A Fun Game about the Beautiful Game - and perfect timing for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup!


Pizza Theory



I was hooked on this game from the moment that I saw that Pizza Theory came in a pizza style box! It also comes with the distinction of having won the 2011 Ion Award for Best Strategy Game at SaltCON earlier this year.

In this family game for 3 players, you're putting toppings of your colour (red, white or green) on a pizza. The aim is to establish majorities in your colour when the pizza is "sliced", which happens with each player simultaneously selects a different line to slice. Each slice is then resolved separately, and the player with the most toppings in a slice gets to replace his opponents' toppings in that slice with his own. You win if you can successfully take advantage of these elements of majority area control and simultaneous selection to successfully get all 16 of your toppings on the pizza.

The components are pizza-tastic and very attractive. The gameplay can feel somewhat chaotic, because often it's all about trying to outguess what your opponents will do, but strictly speaking there are no random elements whatsoever. Just like pizza, it's not the kind of gaming food that will become your main diet or that you'll be playing for days on end. But that's fine becuase it delivers quicker than a pizza delivery driver, and games only last about 10 minutes. The rules are very straightforward, and when combined with attractive components, engaging and quick gameplay, this is an ideal game that's just right for a family menu. Pizza Theory is the kind of quick game that's like a good take-out meal - perhaps not healthy in large doses, but a tasty and zesty snack that's certainly desireable from time to time, and offers a very unique flavour!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Takeout food for gamers and families - I was hooked from the moment I saw it came in a pizza box!


My Little Pony Hide & Seek

 


Easily the game of the year. Just last month My Little Pony Hide & Seek became BGG's #5 ranked game and #1 strategy game (albeit briefly) for good reason. It's more than just educational, because its immersive theme and remarkable balance have been demonstrated to improve thinking in other games. In some cases it has even cured analysis paralysis, and been associated with significant weight loss - read my full review for all the details.

My life as a gamer has felt more complete ever since I discovered this pony game earlier this year. Not only does it develop one's ability to memorize, it also trains concentration, broadens vocabulary, and aids speech fluency - skills which are incredibly useful when playing any game really. During particularly intense moments of analysis paralysis in other games, images of the ponies in My Little Pony Hide & Seek flash through my mind - and in this highly enlightened state I'm able to make clearer and quicker decisions under pressure. I heartily recommend this game for this powerful therapeutic effect alone.

There are few games that I can recommend as highly as this one. It became an instant 10 for me and many others. As was famously said: "Ask not what this game can do for you. Ask what you can do for this game!" If you're not convinced or want to know more about the back-story, check the official guide and the Drakkenstrike-style video trailer.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's (non)Comprehensive (non)Pictorial Overview: The new #1 - Why. This. Is. The. Best. Game. Ever.


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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Fri Dec 16, 2011 8:30 am
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My 2011 in Review: Card Games

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This is the seventh installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. Card Games are one of my favourite genres.

Of all the new games I was introduced to in the past year, I'd have to give the Card Game of the Year award to Biblios as the pick of the bunch. But don't go away just yet, because some outstanding titles emerged over the last 12 months which also deserve to be highlighted, and you'll find several of them in this list! Of the card games you learned this year, what was your favourite?

Biblios



Biblios has to be the card game that Reiner Knizia wanted to make - it's that good. But unfortunately for him designer Steve Finn beat him to it! Originally published as "Scripts & Scribes", this game was one of those cult hits that became a kind of underground phenomenon among those who could get their hands on it. Described by some as For Sale type filler on steroids, it uses familiar mechanisms in interesting ways to create a fun experience with surprising depth in the short time it takes to play. It all comes together in a very successful and deservingly popular package, and the good news is that in the past year Scripts & Scribes was elevated from its humble VHS case status, and joined the world of real games under the name Biblios. With the help of publisher Iello, Pinocchio has become a real boy at last, making this great little card game widely available with new artwork and quality components, and fortunately not changing a thing about the great gameplay.

At its core it is a set collection game, but it begins with a drafting phase where players create an auction deck and give cards to their opponents. Ten follows an auction phase as players compete for the cards in the auction deck, trying to establish point-scoring majorities in the five different suits. Oh and did we mention that there are ways to manipulate the points each category is worth by changing the dice totals corresponding to each set type?

Biblios gets just about everything just right: mechanics, rules, length, interaction, scalability, luck, strategy, tension, fun factor and surprise factor. It's all very well balanced, and will thus appeal to a broad range of people. It also combines a variety of mechanics in a delightful and satisfying way. Admittedly the theme is pasted on, because really all that matters are the numbers and suits, so it could be set collection for anything. In that respect Biblios reminds me a great deal of the best of master designer Reiner Knizia - cards with numbers, pasted on theme, but rich and rewarding game-play that makes me come back again and again. In fact, few would have questioned it had Knizia's name been on the box, because it's that sort of game, and right up there with some of Knizia's best fillers and auction games. Outstanding for its class, and very highly recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: The super filler that Reiner Knizia wishes he had designed


Haggis



Designed by Sean Ross, Haggis is the second entry in Indie Board & Card's marvellous Postcard Box Games series. It is not a trick-taking game in the conventional sense, but is part of the climbing game family, along with the immensely popular Tichu, which can rightly be considered an esteemed parent of Haggis. Unlike Tichu, which excels as a partnership game for four players, Haggis is designed for 2-3 players, and is widely regarded as doing a superb job of bringing Tichu-like play to a table with less players.

The object of the game is to try to be the first to empty your hand of cards, thus earning points for the cards left in your opponent's hand. In the course of play, you capture the specific scoring cards in the tricks you win. But to really ramp up the fun factor and the excitement, the points that you acquire in this fashion can be further supplemented by betting that you will be the first player to divest yourself of all of your cards. The `betting' at the start of each round just increases the stakes and adds to the tension. Tricks require playing combinations of cards like sets and sequences - concepts that will be somewhat familiar from games like Rummy. But in Haggis each player also starts with three wild cards, and not only can these help you make sets and sequences, but they can also be played together as `Bombs' - essentially big trumps that beat all other combinations of cards, and virtually guarantee you the trick. Bombs help you retain the lead, but come at the cost of giving up the cards from that trick to your opponent. In most cases retaining the lead is worth this cost, because it can help you ensure that you go out first, and so make your bet or stop your opponent making his.

If you are already familiar with climbing games or are an ardent Tichu fan that's looking for something to play with just 2 or 3 players, then you most definitely want to check out Haggis. If you enjoy traditional type card games, you should also give this a close look, because it could well become a modern classic. There are quality components with attractive artwork, and the gameplay itself is tense and exciting, and leaves a lot of room for skill. Haggis has proven to be a real hit with most people it's introduced to, and if you like the gameplay of traditional type card games, you'll probably find yourself just loving this.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Introducing a Tichu-inspired Haggis You Won’t Want to Hurl!


Barons



With Barons we get more card-game goodness from the same company that brought us Glory to Rome. I wouldn't quite call it a "new" Glory to Rome, even though it's from the same publisher, because it's lighter in feel, and the mechanics are quite different from both games. But cards still have multiple uses, and when played as buildings they will give you ongoing abilities and benefits. And it's definitely still a strategy card game, which is why the publisher is marketing it as part of their "Extreme Strategy" rather than their "Family" series.

The basic concept is that players are building up their personal barony by playing lands (which allow you to draw new cards by taxation) and buildings (which have special abilities), and there's interaction with other baronies by using knights. Cards are used as lands/buildings/actions/knights, but are also used as `money' (by discarding) in order to `pay' for the cards that are put into play.

There are four different coloured decks that are shared by the players, and each deck has unique cards with its own feel. There are certainly different strategies to explore by building around certain cards or colours. Barons also has the advantage of scaling well as a two-player game, and plays quite quickly - so you can play a couple of games back-to-back. I've played it many times, and find that many of the nuances only become apparent after multiple plays - I believe it's been somewhat unfairly the recipient of criticism from those who have judged it too harshly after just one or two plays, without taking the time to explore it more fully. So bear in mind: 1. don't expect it to be like Glory to Rome (it's lighter, and different); 2. don't judge it too quickly after just one or two plays (there's more strategy and tactics going on than meets the eye!)

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Introducing Glory to Rome's younger brother - and easily one of the best strategy card games of 2011!


Wildlife Safari



Wildlife Safari is a rethemed version of the simple and elegant Knizia classic Loco, with the addition of some wonderful animal miniatures.

A small deck of cards contains six cards (numbered 0-5) in five suits corresponding to the animal miniatures, of which there are five of each: rhinos, leopards, lions, zebras, elephants. The cards are dealt out to all the players, and in turns each player plays a card and takes an animal. You keep playing cards until one animal has all six of its cards played, at which point the game stops and the last card played for each animal represents how many points those animals are worth.

If you are looking for a first rate family game that can serve double-duty as a quick, light, social filler than Botswana should be on your radar. In terms of fun, ease of learning, replayability and simple good value, you would be hard pressed to go wrong with a game of this sort. It is very accessible, has a good fun factor, plays quickly, and has gorgeous components. Featuring a very elegant design, despite some luck of the draw it also enables you to make clever and tense choices, especially in the closing stages of a game. Attractive and high quality components round out an excellent all-round package that's good value.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Lions and Leopards and Elephants... Oh my, what a great new edition of this classic filler!


Potion-Making: Practice



Potion-Making: Practice is another game from our gaming friends in Russia. After enjoying much success and winning all kinds of awards in that country, it's made the jump to the wider gaming world with the help of an English edition released at Essen 2011.

The core of the game is about collecting and combining elements to make different potions, and then combining potions that you and other players have made to make even more powerful and higher point scoring potions. The cards in the game represent both the raw elements and the formulas for higher level potions, so you'll need to make careful choices about managing your cards.

I'm told that this game has made a huge splash in Russia, and has been considered the top game there over the last five years - and I can see why. In the more crowded market of games outside its native country, Potion Making Practice got a lot of competition from other quality card games, but it holds its own well and has an addictive quality about it. It would classify as a solid filler, but it does its job well, and there's enough interaction and decision making to make the game enjoyable without it becoming nasty or entirely cerebral or for that matter entirely luck driven. This game has proven to be very popular in our family, and has seen a lot of play over the last few months, being enjoyed by both young and old alike.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb "What are the three most crucial ingredients in a Forgetfulness Potion?" - A game where you can make your own magic Potions using beautiful ingredients


White Elephant



In White Elephant you excel in bad gift-giving. You have three not exactly highly loved people on your shopping list (e.g. The Crazy Neighbour, Mother in Law, Great Uncle Irwin), and so you haul out some `junk' out of your garage or attic, then attempt to exchange what you have with other players for better stuff, trying to be the player who is the best gift giver.

The main mechanic of the game is borrowed from the popular holiday party game "White Elephant Gift Exchange", also known as Dirty Santa, Yankee Swap, Chinese Gift Exchange, or Parcel Pass. Everyone chooses a Gift card and places it face down in the middle of the table. The starting player then chooses a gift from the middle and "opens" it by placing it face up in front of him. Then the next person in clockwise turn order may either choose an unopened gift, or steal an opened gift from another player. This continues until everyone has a gift, and then the process is repeated with new cards. At the end of the game the winner is the player with the highest valued cards for the three recipients on their gift list.

White Elephant is definitely a very light and fluffy card game that best excels with a casual group of players, especially non-gamers, and really thrives with groups of 5 through 7 players. It can be explained in little more than 60 seconds, and is highly interactive and fun for the 10-15 minutes it takes to play. But the real strength is the theme. I've always liked the White Elephant concept and it works really well in this game, because the game essentially is the traditional gift exchange, but simply played with cards and points. There's also fun to be had in having some laughs about the silly gifts themselves, because the cards feature items that are completely kitschy, gaudy, tacky, and cheesy. A fun little filler that's ideal for introducing to your family and friends.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Why bad gift-giving can make a good gift these holidays


Musketeers



Musketeers has been around for a while, but has just had a major component upgrade with the benefit of a new release that's a special felt-lined tin box edition. It's not a meaty filler by any means, but has real potential for those who enjoy elements of bluffing and simultaneous selection, and are looking for something light and quick.

In the game, players must simultaneously choose a Musketeer card from their hand, in an effort to work together with the other players to defeat the Guard card that has been revealed. If the combined total is sufficient, the player who contributed the highest card gets a reward (Gem cards), while if the combined total is insufficient, the player who contributed the lowest card suffers a penalty (Prison cards).

It's a clever use of numbers that reminds me of the best of Knizia in its simplicity and genius - even though it's not a Knizia design. The simultaneous selection and bluffing elements are a real highlight, but the real genius of the game is the fascinating mechanic where you're working together but at the same time working against each other. This semi-cooperative element is thematic and truly fitting for the Musketeer's motto: "One for all, and all for one!" Luck of the draw does play a role, and the game is best enjoyed with 3 and preferably with 4, but it is super quick, light and fun, and yet has enough substance to make it something worth coming back to for another quick fix.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: All for one and one for all - a semi-cooperative musketeering filler that's a fast and fun surprise!


Adventure of D



It's a rather unassuming box, and is the home-grown creation of a designer in Indonesia. But don't underestimate small things, because Adventure of D is a fantasy adventure card game for 1-4 players that proves very rewarding, especially when played solitaire!

The Adventure of D is part of a series of games that are part of designer Jack Darwid's `The D-Universe’. In this particular game, a `board' is created by the variable set-up of 12 cards in a 4x3 grid, each corresponding to locations like Woods of Mana, Village of Dawn, and Tower of Death. The aim is to move around the map and complete a series of challenges in order to build up your character (and there are several to choose from, each with their own abilities) in three areas (strength, intelligence, and agility). Eventually you will reach the point where you're ready to risk entering the Tower of Death in a game-winning attempt of heroism to defeat the evil wizard Elzoof. The beauty of this game is that cards have multiple uses. The designer has come up with an original concept that he calls "The Power Card system" as a way of making the game move forward. In other words: no dice - but yet some random events and scope for player decisions.

While the production quality of the game might leave something to be desired, the artwork is charming especially for a somewhat homegrown job, and more importantly the Power Card system underlying the gameplay is very solid indeed, and really helps create a genuine fantasy adventure experience. The game does feel somewhat like a puzzle after a while, and perhaps that's why it's best enjoyed as a solitaire experience. But if you are looking for a lighter and fun fantasy adventure game that is both quick to play and eminently portable, then this might just be the game for you. A clever little game that deserves more attention than it has received until now, and a pleasant surprise from a somewhat unassuming package!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Because any fantasy adventure game that features Aldie and Derk as game characters has to be good!


Heroes of Graxia



Heroes of Graxia is another deck-building game that certainly owes a great deal to Dominion for much of its mechanics, but offers a very fresh approach to the genre by incorporating significant elements from games like Magic the Gathering, most notably the notion of player-vs-player combat. In contrast to the 25 different kingdom cards amongst the 500 cards of Dominion, the 240 cards of Heroes of Graxia feature more than 50 uniquely different characters, equipment, spells and monsters, and they're also packaged in a much more compact and portable box.

Heroes of Graxia clearly owes an enormous debt to Dominion in game-play, e.g. the basic concept of building up a deck; spending money from cards in hand to buy face-up cards and put them into your discard pile; discarding your complete hand and drawing five new cards at the end of your turn. But while the core of the game is something familiar and proven, from there it forges its own path in a new direction. First of all, cards can be used either for their gold value, or for their special ability as a unit, equipment or spell - so you'll rarely feel thwarted by the luck of the draw. But the biggest change is the addition of player-vs-player combat. Once you put characters into play from your hand, they remain in play, so that you can build up an army with units, improve them with equipment, and then use this well equipped legion in combat against monsters and other players.

It's a brilliant concept that's interactive and innovative, and has a lot to offer, and the artwork is quite stunning and attractive. Unfortunately the game itself is not entirely without flaws, and you will find some concerns about excessive math in calculating legion strength, and mixed feelings about how effectively the player-vs-player combat works. But there's some interesting and good ideas here, and we've had enormous fun with it in the dozen or more times we've played it, particularly with older boys and teens. There have been reports that the publisher is further polishing their product with improved rules and plans to add a sequel, and I am hoping that the game will only keep on getting better from here.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A Dominion-style deck-building game with MtG-style player-vs-player combat


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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Wed Dec 14, 2011 3:58 pm
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My 2011 in Review: Themeless Games

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

Can't Stop



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

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

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

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


Blockers!



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

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

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

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


Number Please!



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

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

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

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


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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Tue Dec 13, 2011 2:18 pm
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My 2011 in Review: Party Games

Ender Wiggins
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This is the fifth installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. Party Games isn't a category that is the first preference for most gamers, but I'm sure nearly all of us find ourselves in a party context with non-gamers at some point, so then we may as well try to make sure that if we are going to play a party game it's a good one. Fortunately for us, there are some fantastic ones out there, as is evident from the great choices highlighted on this list.

Are there more? I'm sure there are, because I certainly haven't played all the party games that have emerged in the last year or two, so if there are candidates that are at least as good as the ones on the list, let's hear about them!


Crappy Birthday



Crappy Birthday is a very simple but incredibly fun new party game released in late 2011, and features cards picturing all kinds of wild and crazy gifts (e.g. a year's supply of used soap, a 150-pound hamburger, or a monster truck weekend). Everyone chooses a card from their hand and gives it to the player whose turn it is as a birthday gift. He then chooses which one he thinks is the `crappiest' or `worst' to receive, and the giver of that particular gift earns a point. First to three points wins!

The key mechanic is familiar from Apples to Apples, and the theme/concept is familiar from GiftTRAP, but the whole idea works really well here, and is so simple you could introduce it to a group in less than 30 seconds and be playing right out of the box. The crazy gifts are sometimes more cool than crappy, and will generate good discussion and laughs. I strongly recommend the publisher's official variant, which has players choose a crappy and a cool gift on their turn - this makes it even more entertaining!

The simple rules and cool gifts combine well for a highly interactive and social game experience. The only down side is that the gifts are most fun the first time you see them, so the game can lose some of its initial charm after several plays with the same group. But it wouldn't be fair to criticize the game for that, because it's intended to be used much like a disposable camera or a bottle of wine: take it to a party, give it as a gift and enjoy it there and then. For its price point it's still good value, and we've thoroughly enjoyed playing it multiple times in different groups already. Recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A not-so-crappy birthday!


The Resistance



The Resistance is a social deduction game designed by Don Eskridge, in the style of the ever-popular Werewolf. I was first introduced to it at the end of last year, and it's been a source of entertainment on many occasions ever since throughout the past twelve months.

In the game, players assume the role of either a Resistance freedom fighter, or a spy for a repressive government that is trying to thwart the efforts of the Resistance rebels. The fun part is that these roles are assigned secretly. Players must then together vote on which of them goes on a mission, which will either pass or fail - the outcome depends on the secret votes cast by those who go on the mission. But this is where the heart of the game kicks in: players will use discussion, deception and intuition in an attempt to identify the members of the opposing force and ensure victory for their team.

It comes in a small pocket-sized box and consists largely of cards, but if ever there was potential to pack an incredible social game experience in a small box, this is it! This social party game may prove to become one of the most popular and one of the best. It's very similar in feel to the well-known Mafia or Werewolf - but arguably better, because there's no player elimination. There's also room for more deduction, because players have more data to work with, based on how players vote and the outcome of various missions. It also handles smaller groups, from as few as five or six players. If you enjoy social games with hidden roles and are a fan of Werewolf in particular, The Resistance is essential!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Potential winner of the next Golden Geek Award for Best Party Game


Say Anything Family Edition



Since its release in 2008, the award-winning Say Anything has proved to be a big party game hit from North Star Games. This successful game has now made the transition to the family crowd with the new 2011 release, Say Anything Family Edition.

In the game, players write answers to a question asked by another player, and score points by trying to guess which of the answers they think he'll pick. Think: Apples to Apples meets Balderdash meets Wits & Wagers. Questions are ones like these: "What would be the weirdest thing to collect?" "What's the most important quality a person can have?" Now comes the fun part: Write down an answer that the person whose turn it is might pick as the best one. When everyone has written their answers, you can guess which one you think he'll pick from the available choices. This bidding/guessing mechanic keeps everyone in the game, and is what makes the game fun for gamers and non-gamers alike, because you can earn points even if you didn't come up with the best answer yourself.

Say Anything Family has more kid-centric questions (which work fine for adults in a group too) than the original game, and also introduces family-friendly meeples on the reverse of the answer boards. One down side is that it only caters up to 6 players instead of 8, but overall the successful formula that made Say Anything fun is retained. It's a flexible, very interactive, highly social, and very fun game, and makes an ideal choice for families and groups with children.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A brand new party game for families from the guy who brought us Wits & Wagers


Wits & Wagers



I know I'm quite late to the party, since Wits & Wagers came out already in 2005. But I only got to play it for the first time in the past year, and I've quickly jumped on the bandwagon with many other enthusiastic fans! Arguably the biggest success yet for publisher North Star Games, this game put a whole new spin on the trivia genre by not making the trivia element play a lead role. How does it work? After all teams have submitted their answer to a particular trivia question, you may bid on an answer that another player/team guessed. This is a great concept, because it means that you stand a chance of earning points even if you don't much idea about the real answer. Is Aunt Joan a history buff? Then let's see what her answer was to this question about the date of this battle, because she's the one most likely to get it right.

Skill and knowledge is still rewarded, but the questions have been designed with just the right level of difficulty to keep the playing field more level, and inject an element of tension and excitement that is not present in most trivia games. Being able to bid chips can increase the risk as well as the rewards, so there's room for both high risk and low risk players to have a great time - and perhaps eek out a win! This bidding/betting mechanic that really makes the game shine, and gives it a game-show feel. As a result, Wits & Wagers rises beyond the mundane that we have come to expect from a trivia game.

It's also ideal for large groups, because players can team up. The essence of gameplay is so easy to explain, making it ideal for getting new players on board and helping them enjoy themselves from the get-go. It's quick to play (under 30 minutes), and perhaps best of all, it's buckets full of fun! "Fun" isn't usually the adjective of choice that most people associate with trivia, but it certainly is true of Wits & Wagers! For a version more suited to families, consider Wits & Wagers Family.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: The Most Award Winning Party Game in History - not just a trivia game, but a game show in a box!


Reverse Charades



I've always enjoyed games where teams of players try to guess words that one team member is acting out, such as Charades and Guesstures. But now along comes a party game that turns this idea somewhat on its head. Instead of one person acting and the rest of the team guessing, the entire team acts and one person guesses! That's the simple but successful concept behind Reverse Charades. Bryce and Scott Porter came up with the idea during a holiday weekend in 2008, and it proved to be such a big hit that they decided to bring it to the masses by getting it published. Reverse Charades is also available in a family edition (Reverse Charades Junior Edition), and has been released for iOS and as an Android app.

And Reverse Charades really works, because this small twist to the classic game somehow successfully turns a good game into an even better one! It's funnier than traditional Charades, because it's much more entertaining to have an entire group acting out something like "changing a diaper" or "mouse-trap" than just one person! It's also more user-friendly, because it doesn't put one person on the spot to do all the acting, which means that even those who are more self-conscious will find it easier to join in the fun.

It's true that the success of games like this often depend a lot on the group you're with. But the simple rule change to regular Charades is a good one, and in my estimation helps make it an enormous amount of fun, and perhaps more importantly it also makes it more likely to succeed even with less extrovert personalities. Recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: An award-winning party game - why have just one person look silly, when it can be the whole group?


Why Did the Chicken...?



You've probably all heard the cliched "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke. It's an old classic that has spawned all kinds of imitations, and if you like that kind of humor, Why Did the Chicken...? is for you.

The basic concept is that cards with random nouns will determine an unusual riddle, e.g. "What do a turkey and an electric guitar have in common?" or "Why is a marshmallow better than a barber?" Players are then given time to come up with witty answers, which are then voted on. Think Balderdash - but with a good sense of humour added.

This is not going to work with everyone, but we love it, and when played with the right people, it can be a real blast! You need some creativity plus a good dash of humour, perhaps even to the point of zaniness, but if you can find a group like that, Why Did the Chicken...? is going to bring out their very best. If you and your friends or family find this kind of wacky humor appealing, then you definitely need to consider whether this is the kind of party game that might be for you.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: What happens when you cross Balderdash with Apples-to-Apples, and actually make it funny?


Bunny Bunny Moose Moose



It's hard to take a game seriously if it has a title like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose. This zany party game from versatile designer Vlaada Chvatil is indeed full of silliness, and if ever you wondered whether the guy who designed the civilization heavy-weight Through the Ages had a lighter side to his personality, this game sure proves it.

Basically the concept is that a changing set of cards is on the table, which earn points when players match the pictures on the cards with actions like making antlers or rabbit ears, or poking out their tongue. Yes it's that crazy, and can make for some incredibly hilarious scenes. One player reads a poem and turns over cards as he does so, forcing other players to adapt their chosen hand signals in an effort to earn as many points as possible. When he stops, you score points according to how many matches you have.

There's certainly room for clever play, and the person who can think quickly and adjust their actions accordingly is going to have the best chance of winning. The real challenge with Bunny Bunny Moose Moose is the entry point needed to understand the rules and enjoy it, although fortunately there are ways to simplify the game for new players by eliminating certain cards or adjusting some rules. There’s no doubt that Bunny Bunny Moose Moose is a fun game, and you only have to look at title of the game, the artwork on the components, and the diagrams in the rulebook to see that! Watching others play the game can be particularly hilarious.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Rabbit-eeples, moose-eeples, and more silliness for smart people!


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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Sun Dec 11, 2011 2:00 pm
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My 2011 in Review: Children's Games

Ender Wiggins
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This is the fourth installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. I play a lot of games with both younger and older children, and the Family Games category which is still coming up will feature some of my best new games of the past year! The Children's Games category here covers games more suited to youngsters around 6 and up.

Race games nearly always work well for children, and it's a common theme in both Worm Up! and North Pole. Knizia brings us more penguins with his very cute Pinguin-Party, which is perhaps our favourite game of the lot. Leaving the sub-zero temperatures preferred by penguins behind, we increase the heat and round things off with Hot Potato, one of two 2011 releases from CGF that appear in this list.

Pinguin-Party



Don't all kids love penguins? Certainly we do, and in Pinguin-Party we get simple penguin charm combined with the usual Knizia cleverness - but without any math!

Essentially a card game, all players are dealt an equal number of penguin cards, which feature colourful penguins in five different types. Players take turns placing them into a common pyramid shape, with a restriction that you can only place a penguin on top of a matching card. The aim is to get rid of all your cards if you can, and you lose points for each card that you're stuck with when you can't place anymore.

It's simple enough for young kids to grasp, and yet fun and clever enough for adults to enjoy playing too - skillful placement can be rewarded! Wonderful artwork too. The game actually picked up a Spiel des Jahres Recommendation in 2008, so we're not the only ones who like this game a lot.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb Review of a masterpiece in 10 bullets


Hot Potato



From cold we go to hot. Hot Potato is a very light card game that was released in 2011 by Cambridge Games Factory. One of its strengths is that it can handle as many as 9 players and still be fun.

The theme is exactly as one might expect: you're passing "hot potato" cards around the table. If you are passed a hot potato, you'll need Action cards to pass it left or right - because as everyone knows, if you're caught holding the hot potato you get a "burn"! You can also add Seasonings which increase the burns and do other crazy stuff. Some expansion cards are also included which add new twists.

It's a simple concept, and the theme translates remarkably well to the gameplay. Overall this is a fantastic kid-friendly theme that's very original, plays quickly and easily, and works well!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Hey quick, pass it on, it's another hot card game from Cambridge Games Factory!


Worm Up!



Worm Up! is a very cute and endearing race game for children and adults, in which players are racing their worms in a quest to be the fastest to the finish line. It's been around for a while, but the past year saw it being released in a brand new edition with some new components.

The main mechanic is simultaneous selection, as everyone simultaneously selects and reveals a number on their die. If you're the only player to pick that number, you get to move your worm forward the matching number of segments; but if you chose the same number as another player, you don't get to move at all that round. This bidding mechanic results in groans and grins alike, and also there's some real fun to be had in trying to cut off other players while making your own dash for the finish.

The game plays quickly, is easy to learn, and great for people of all ages - especially kids, who just love the idea of racing worms. Recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Get Ready! Get Set! Wiggle!


North Pole



More penguins? That's okay, we're long not sick of them yet, and these ones are particularly cute. In North Pole, players are penguins from the South Pole. While on vacation, these adventurous penguins decide to amuse themselves with a race from Base Camp to the North Pole, with the first to make it there and back being the winner.

The game uses cards for two purposes - first of all to denote the landscape on which the game is played, but also for a set collection mechanic which determines penguin movement. The basic flow of play is that players take turns to play cards from their hand in order to move, and then at the end of their turn they draw two new cards. Different kinds of movement include Waddle, Snow Shoe, Sled, and Dog Sled, which are distinguished by different combinations of cards and their relationship to the location card your penguin is moving to. You can also use Blizzards to cause havoc on your opponents' plans, or Repair the Ice to fix holes in the ice.

North Pole features charming artwork and solid gameplay that will especially amuse children. Yet there are enough decisions about which cards to collect and play that the adults can enjoy it too. As such, it's ideally suited as a family game that is more than just a matter of luck-of-the-draw, and the race theme really helps add appeal. This is a 2011 release with lots of charm.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Of course the family loves it - you get to race penguins!


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

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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Fri Dec 9, 2011 3:04 pm
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