The Cardboard Hoard

Thoughts on the ability of bits of cardboard (and dice, meeples, etc.) to transform a tabletop into a near infinite number of unique gaming experiences -- from high seas pirate battles, to high noon showdowns, to superhero struggles -- and how, at their best, the mechanics of those games enhance their themes, creating a blend of Euro mechanics and Ameritrash theme to herald a bold new generation of hybrid modern games.

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Double Six Dominoes; or the Awesome and Magical Potential of Games

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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With the Punchboard Media website shutting down in the next month or so, I wanted to take the opportunity to cross-post a few of the more personal blogs I’d only posted to that site to my blog here on BGG for the sake of posterity. This piece was originally from August 2, 2021.
From gallery of ericbinnyc

Here's a brief story I want to share about a recent experience spending a night playing Double Six Dominoes.

First, a bit of background. A few weeks ago, my wife told me I had to take my daughter to her friend's birthday party that Friday evening. If you're a parent and you're reading this, the thought of this may trigger nightmares of spending a weekend evening at a Chuck E. Cheese, Dave and Buster's, or some other similar venue, which while designed to be fun for our children, are nothing short of torture gauntlets that parents must endure and survive. I was instantly flooded with relief, however, when my wife mentioned the birthday party would be a small gathering at the parents' house. This meant a relaxing night of eating, drinking, and making small talk in the comfort of someone's home, rather than a noisy, crowded arcade.

That Friday, when we arrived, the birthday party was in full swing. I watched my daughter rush off to the company of the other tweens, and contentedly sat in the corner eating homemade empanadas. I wasn’t going out of my way to be anti-social, I'm just not especially outgoing, and there was a bit of a language barrier. Most of the adults at the party were members of the birthday girl's family — her father’s side is Dominican and her mother’s is El Salvadoran — and both sides predominantly speak Spanish. Sadly, beyond asking where to find a bathroom, or ordering a beer, my knowledge of Spanish is, how do you say, muy poquito.

The girl's parents, who I am friendly with, were busy hosting, so I didn't want to be a bother to them by forcing them to entertain me in any way. But I suspect the father noticed my best attempts to blend in with their wallpaper, and suggested I play dominoes with the family, as they had brought out their special domino table. While my wife and I had played dominoes with the girl's parents casually on previous playdates, I was a bit intimidated to sit down with the extended family members to play with them, especially as I could tell how seriously they took the game. But I didn't want to be rude and refuse, and as they say, 'When in Rome...'

I was paired with the birthday girl's grandmother — they play dominoes as a partner's game — against the great-grandfather and an uncle. The initial looks the grandmother gave me were dubious, as I assume she thought they would have to teach me the basics of how to play. However, once I showed a basic knowledge of the rules, she warmed up to me. When we began winning, she started high fiving me, and mocking our opponents — believe me when I tell you I didn't need to fully comprehend the Spanish language to understand this.

While Dominoes is not a complex game, there is more strategy than it may appear initially. In the game I was playing, it became immediately apparent that every player knew exactly which dominoes were played and remained at any given point, and how to use that knowledge to force their opponents to skip, or to lock the board altogether when they felt it was advantageous. Fortunately for me, I have a decent head for numbers, and that night I had a shark for a partner and what I suspect was more than a healthy dose of beginner’s luck.

Over the course of the evening, we won four games in a row, each game being a best three out of five hands. Because we kept winning, we kept our seats at the table as new players would challenge us. Eventually, we did lose, but not before I earned the respect of my feisty partner and our opponents, and the camaraderie of everyone that was enjoying the summer evening, drinking wine, listening to Latin music, and playing a game that clearly had a deeper cultural meaning to them than I can hope to convey here, or fully comprehend myself.

I mentioned the winning, not to brag, but because part of the magic of the evening is that I played all evening, which was made possible because we kept winning. And the evening we shared, from my perspective of being welcomed into their family through their pastime, was truly magical, and transcended spoken language. That, for me — not whether a board game has any particular mechanisms, evocative art, incredible production value, or any number of awards or accolades — is what can make this hobby special. Sometimes all it takes is an unexpected experience like this, on an evening I didn’t expect to be playing any games at all, to remind me of the awesome and magical potential of games.
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Fri Mar 11, 2022 9:29 pm
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The Love Language of Games; or Dreams of My Father

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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With the Punchboard Media website shutting down in the next month or so, I wanted to take the opportunity to cross-post a few of the more personal blogs I’d only posted to that site to my blog here on BGG for the sake of posterity. This piece was originally from June 21, 2020.
From gallery of ericbinnyc

It's 1987, and my dad is walking six-year-old me to school. "You're in a dark room, crouching on a stone floor," he says, "And you see beady eyes looking at you from a distance, but it's too dim to make out what exactly it is that is looking at you." I think about it, but only briefly. "I take my torch and throw it in that direction," I reply. He details my torch skittering across the mossy stones and revealing a glimpse of a group of rats fleeing from the torchlight. I'm too young to know exactly what Dungeons & Dragons is, but I know my dad plays it with my mom and their friends, and that dad is a cleric when they play. This interactive demonstration is my dad’s way of explaining it to me when I ask him about it. I enjoy the imaginative exercise as we walk, him effortlessly carrying my backpack. More than that, I enjoy impressing my dad — the pride radiating on his face — when he thinks the decisions I make are smart.

It’s 1991, and my dad is getting ready to have his friends over for a big game of Risk that he supposes could easily last the entire day, depending on how well fortified Australia is at the end of the game. He wraps one set of the wooden pieces up in tin foil, because Uncle Rob is colorblind, and this will let him easily differentiate his pieces on the map. I’m distracting myself by playing with a set of black mushroom cloud tokens I found in the box. They didn’t come with the game, my dad explains, but by adding them in, you can play Nuclear Risk, which adds some new rules that make the game even more fun than the original.

It's 1996 and I'm in a bar with my dad playing Four-Way Chess. I'm fifteen, but nobody minds. To the owner and his staff, having an underage kid in the bar is less strange than having a club playing an oddball chess variant show up every Wednesday. The bar doesn't complain, because despite playing chess, the club members all drink more than their fair share — not me, although I do drink plenty of soda. The dozen or so members of the club adopt me in their own way, and before long they’ve forgotten I’m not just one of the guys. I hold my own on the four-way board, but I’m impulsive at times and often lack patience, because of my youth. My dad is the most patient and methodical player in the entire club, and his win rate reflects it. This, as a competitive teenager, infuriates me.

It's 2008 and we're at a family reunion in Lake George. We're all a bit bored, as the weather isn’t cooperating outside and the cabin doesn’t have a television. My Dad says he knows a fun game we can play, all he needs is a piece of paper and a few pens. He proceeds to teach us Celebrities, the do-it-yourself party game that inspired Monikers. We all fill out bits of paper with celebrity names. Chaos ensues due to the pop culture knowledge gap spanning three generations. My dad expresses disbelief that nobody in the room younger than him is familiar with Betty Grable.

It's 2016 and I'm on a family vacation. I'm outlining my next What Did You Play This Week podcast segment, and my dad looks over my shoulder and asks me what my bullet point "input randomness vs. output randomness" means. I explain the concepts to him using Poker and Risk as my examples, and I can see how proud he is to be learning something, regardless how trivial, from me.

It's 2019, just after Christmas, and I'm teaching my dad Wavelength. He always loves learning new party games, because he's an extrovert that loves bringing people together. It’s his turn to judge, and the category has something to do with differing degrees of colorful. His clue is "Elton John." We take a guess, grading Elton John as a fairly colorful fellow. He reveals the dial at the absolute extreme — Elton John is the absolute most colorful thing he can imagine. We don’t score any points, but get a good laugh. “Why didn’t you say a rainbow?,” he gets asked. This will be the last game I ever play with him, but I don't know that at the time.

It's February 4, 2020, and I get a phone call from my godfather. My dad died that morning of a sudden, massive heart attack. I go into shock, vacillating between uncontrollable bouts of crying and being absolutely numb. My wife drives us the entire twelve hours to my parents' house, and we begin the many rituals that are supposed to bring us all comfort and closure. I find neither.

It's now. June 21, 2020 — Father's Day. My first without my dad, a man whose influence is woven through every aspect of my life. It's been almost six months since he abruptly departed. It's not gotten easier, despite many promises to the contrary. I hope it will, someday. Today I reflect on the man I miss more than I can put into words, and I revisit all the memories of him I'm fortunate enough to have.

In almost all of those memories are games of some sort or another. Board games, card games, role-playing games. Beyond that, campfire riddles, billiards, lawn games, puzzles, escape rooms, Sudoku, sports. Everything gamified.

Games were central to our relationship, to how we communicated with each other. In a way, games were our love language. His death hasn’t made me want to stop playing games, although my enthusiasm has diminished somewhat. When I play, I try to remember how they bring people together. How they form bonds. How they bring people joy. When I play, I remember him and I smile. I try to let them bring me joy. I also pass on his legacy — his love of discovery and growth through play — to my own two children, who are, respectively, a first-level fighter and thief.
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Fri Mar 11, 2022 9:12 pm
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The Persistence of Memory

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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Microbadge: Silver ReviewerMicrobadge: Golden Board Game CollectorMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: I completed the 2015 challenge to play 10 games 10 times eachMicrobadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level III - Are we geeks because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are geeks?
With the Punchboard Media website shutting down in the next month or so, I wanted to take the opportunity to cross-post a few of the more personal blogs I’d only posted to that site to my blog here on BGG for the sake of posterity. This piece was originally from October 29, 2019.
From gallery of ericbinnyc

I’ve always been nerdy, or geeky, or whatever it is you want to call it — my favorite description is probably “indoor kid,” from when David Hyde Pierce’s character in Wet Hot American Summer asked a camper, “Excuse me. Could you tell me where I could find the, uh... How do I put this? The, uh, sci-fi, nerdy, indoor kids?”

Regardless, I can’t take full credit for it, as I’m very much a product of my childhood environment -- and not just from my parents. I’ve previously written about the influence my uncle had on me, but I saw something that recently that made me reminisce about one of my aunts, and exactly how cool and ahead of her time she was.

I have a distinct memory of my Aunt Eileen babysitting me one night in the late ‘80s, when I was only eight or nine years old. She had brought a space-themed board game over to my house, and told me we could play it later that night. I vaguely remember the board being set up on the table, with illustrations of planets and concentric rings in the space between them. We never did get to play it that night — I suspect either she realized it was far too complex to teach me, or she had planned to play it with my uncle after she’d put me to bed — but I’ve been inexplicably fascinated by it ever since.

I have been passively looking to find that game for years. It’s become a bit of a grail game for me, and I’m not sure exactly why. I know, rationally, there is no way the game can live up to the nostalgic magic it promised the boy I was then. I know this. On top of that, It’s been an impossible challenge to find with so little concrete information at my disposal.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Recently, I was reading Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design, and a section of the book described an old sci-fi wargame titled Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century, from D&D publisher TSR. Something about it made me check it out on BoardGameGeek. When I saw the game board, I was 90% certain I’d finally found it, the game from my childhood. I called my aunt the next day, asking if she happened to remember owning that Buck Rogers game. Now, If this was a fictional story, she would have said yes, she owned it, added that she still had it, and how funny it was that I’d ask about it. But this is the real world, with many years having passed, and the best I got was that as it was sold by the company that made D&D, there was a good chance she had owned it, but she doesn’t remember specifically.

Used copies of Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century are easy enough to hunt down online, and the game is well-rated enough that I am still cautiously optimistic about the play experience. And that is good enough for me to satiate this decades-long hunt — it has to be, as I’ll never get complete certainty.

While my aunt’s memory of whatever game she’d brought over decades ago may have faded, her memories of playing Dungeons & Dragons with my parents and their friends — while I was in a playpen in the next room — was as sharp as ever. She clearly remembered her many sessions playing “Neelie Nolnod the Magic User,” using gridded plexiglass and grease pencils to mark the layouts of the dungeons they traversed with pewter figures. And yes, she said “Magic User,” which I originally thought meant she couldn’t remember if she played a wizard or a sorcerer, but is actually because she played the original version, which only had three classes, one of which was Magic User.

I shouldn’t be surprised in the least bit she played the original Dungeons & Dragons, as my Aunt Eileen was always a trendsetter with anything geeky. She was also an early technology adopter, who was into computer gaming back in the day. I remember being amazed when she showed me Myst when it first came out — the graphics were mind-blowing for the time — and I have fond memories of playing it for hours on her computer while all the adults sat around her dining room table drinking coffee, playing cards, and chatting.
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I wish my Aunt Eileen could be young again, during this modern “Age of the Geek.” As a lifelong women’s rights advocate, I think she’d love to see firsthand the strides that tabletop games have made — and continue to make — in inclusivity and diversity, and to see that more women are having an easier time getting into the hobby, and are starting to be recognized by the industry for their contributions to it. Of course, there is still much farther to go. But I know that women like her, by persisting in being who she is in a time when women were anything but welcome, has helped shift the cultural norms to where we are now, making it easier for younger women, like my daughter, to be passionate and open about who they are and what they are interested in.
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Fri Mar 11, 2022 8:58 pm
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Life and Death

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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Microbadge: Silver ReviewerMicrobadge: Golden Board Game CollectorMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: I completed the 2015 challenge to play 10 games 10 times eachMicrobadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level III - Are we geeks because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are geeks?
With the Punchboard Media website shutting down in the next month or so, I wanted to take the opportunity to cross-post a few of the more personal blogs I’d only posted to that site to my blog here on BGG for the sake of posterity. This piece was originally from July 6, 2018.
From gallery of ericbinnyc

The Friday of Origins, while walking back to the Columbus Convention Center from lunch at the North Market, I called my mother, who was watching my kids back home. She confirmed the kids were doing well, and delighted in telling me how much she was spoiling them — her favorite pastime as their grandmother.

Then she relayed to me some of the details about my uncle’s funeral. He had passed away the weekend before the convention started, and his services were held on Wednesday and Thursday, while I was in Ohio attending Origins. I’d already paid my respects to my aunt before I left, but missed the services due to the prohibitive cost of switching flights, and my sincere belief that my uncle would rather me enjoy myself at a game convention than attend his funeral — a belief that my parents and aunt confirmed.

The convention, up until the phone call, had been a welcome distraction from my grief. But hearing the details of the services — all of which boiled down to just how well he was loved — made it real, even through a phone from hundreds of miles away, and I broke down crying. While what my mother told me over the phone was a confirmation of a life well lived, it was also a stark reminder of a life gone too soon. My uncle was only in his early sixties, and the sickness — aggressive pancreatic cancer — had taken him far too quickly, despite a valiant fight and treatment at one of the best cancer centers in the country.

My emotional outburst happened in the hallway right in front of the Unpub room. To my relief, Marti, Sarah, and Scott of Open Seat Gaming all happened to be sitting near the entrance to the Unpub room and comforted me — literally held me — while I cried. I was, and will always be, more grateful than I can put into words for their support at that moment. I truly believe that the friendships we make in this hobby, though they often primarily exist online and over great distances, are as real, as genuine, and as meaningful as any we make in our lives.

My uncle was a very big influence on me playing games of all sorts. He introduced me to many of the classics, including Stratego and Battle Masters. I played Risk with him, my other uncles, and my father when I was growing up. When my parents would play Pinochle with my aunt and uncle, I would jump in for hands when someone needed to get up from the table. They didn’t play couples, but guys vs. girls, and he always told me he loved when I subbed in for my father, as my dad is a lousy Pinochle player that overbids every hand. When I was in High School, I played tournament Four-Way Chess for a few years, and one year he was my partner. He had an exceptional mind, and often made bold, unexpected moves. In recent years, I even taught him some modern games, like Jamaica and King of Tokyo. He got a kick out of both of them. Throughout my life, I’ve played countless hands of Poker with him over many nights around a card table. He was a shrewd card player, but it will give me no solace knowing he will no longer be able to win the money from my poker jar. He played, and lived, with great panache. I’ll miss him fiercely, and the world will be a duller place without him. However, I’ll always have these memories, and through these, I do believe in a way he will live on with me.

The reason I am writing this, beyond the catharsis of getting it out of my head, is as a reminder not to take the people you love for granted. Time is finite. Spend as much of it as you can with those you love while you can. Enjoy their company to the fullest. Because someday, you won’t be able to any longer, and all you’ll have are memories. Make a lot of good memories, because no matter how many there are, they’ll never be enough.
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Fri Mar 11, 2022 8:50 pm
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Thoughts on LOTS: Filled In

Eric Buscemi
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New York
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From gallery of ericbinnyc

Back in 2019, I wrote up my impressions on LOTS: A Competitive Tower Building Game. Now, two years later, with LOTS: Filled In seeking funding on Kickstarter, I thought I’d add my thoughts on the follow-up roll-and-write version. But first I have the same caveats as I did in my original LOTS post:

I'm structuring this preview of LOTS: Filled In as an initial impression, not because I'm unfamiliar with the game, but because I'm too familiar with it to give it a full review with any objectivity. Not only was I a playtester at every stage of the game’s design, but also helped edit the rulebook. One of the game’s designers, Zach Connelly, is a close friend of mine, and the other, Rose Connelly, is my cousin. (Yes, I introduced them.)

I’m hoping my delineation of this as an impression, with my intrinsic biases, from a review, which strives for objective and critical appraisal, is clear. I am biased from working on this game, but I helped work on this game because I believe in it, and believe it deserves to be published. On to my thoughts.
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Components:

Unsurprisingly, this roll-and-write trades in the original game’s polyomino blocks for score sheets and pencils. There are five different scoresheets, which slightly alter the shapes of the towers and the order of the tool scoring bonuses need to be collected, which adds some variance in what players need to accomplish to successfully complete their towers. The game includes a regular pencil for each player to mark their sheets, as well as a set of colored pencils, to mark the various colored polyominoes that will be filling their towers. Also, where the original game included one custom die for selecting blocks, this roll-and-write comes with a set of nine custom dice that are used for “draft-crafting” your polyomino selections. There are also crew cards that serve as one-time use bonuses, similar to how the original LOTS used them.
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Game Play:

The game is played over a series of rounds until a player either completes their tower or cannot make a legal placement.

Each round begins with players “draft-crafting” their blocks. The dice are rolled (the total number of dice is the number of players plus one), and players draft one die in clockwise order, and then draft a second die in counter-clockwise order starting with the last player (fantasy sports fans will recognize this as a snake draft). Once each player has two dice, they decide how to combine them, using one for the shape and one for the color. For example, if a player drafted a green square die and a yellow line die, they could craft either a yellow square or a green line. The wild “?” die fact can only be used as a wild shape, not as a wild color.

Once players have decided which block they are crafting, they simultaneously fill it into the towers on their scoresheets, from bottom to top, in a manner reminiscent of Tetris. Players are instantly awarded points for finishing rows — with a bonus for being the first to finish any row — as well as for using certain colors on the Tools spaces. They will also have the option, up to five times a game, to play a single purple block from the Crane that can help fill in any gaps they’ve left, although players are penalized points at the end of the game for each purple block used from the Crane during the game.

At the end of the game, players also are awarded points for whichever player has the largest contiguous areas of each color. The players add up their scores from completing levels and any bonuses for completing them first, their Tools areas, and the area color majorities, then subtract any Crane penalties, and the player with the highest overall score wins.
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Initial Impressions:

First and foremost, I have to do a quick comparison, as this is a roll-and-write adaptation of LOTS: A Competitive Tower Building Game. It comes in a smaller box than the original, making it more portable. It also takes less room on the table and there is nothing to worry about getting knocked over. LOTS: Filled In maintains three key aspects of the original — the family-friendly experience, being a quick lightweight game; the core of polyomino manipulation, as both games feature the same tetromino shapes to build with; and the bright and colorful look and feel of the game, which was preserved by bringing back the same artist and by using the colored pencils on the scoresheets. The three aspects that weren’t transferred were the three-dimensional gameplay, which just isn’t something you can replicate in a pencil game; the dexterity element, which I never felt was a key in the original game anyway; and the solo mode, which wasn’t feasible in LOTS: Filled In given the nature of the scoring system.

However, while there is no solo play in LOTS: Filled In, a remote play option was added to the rulebook, given how popular roll-and-writes have been to play online over Zoom/Twitch and other video conferencing services. And the best part about that is only one player needs to own a copy of the game to play remotely with friends, as the player sheets are available to be printed out here.

Comparisons to the first LOTS game aside, there is a lot to like in the gameplay of LOTS: Filled In. It is colorful and leaves you feeling accomplished in having built something you can tangibly see at the end of the game. Its polyomino placement puzzle is evocative of Tetris, but without any real-time stress. The draft-crafting mechanism in LOTS: Filled In is a very clever use of the custom dice, and creates a nice amount of tension in each round's draft.

The mostly simultaneous gameplay means there is very little downtime, other than the draft, which as I just mentioned, is tense enough to keep everyone at the table’s attention. Finally, the game is very intuitive, making it easy to teach — just a few key concepts, like the draft and the scoring details — and the game doesn’t overstay its welcome at the table, but can easily be reset for another game after the first.

LOTS: Filled In is seeking funding on Kickstarter right now through August 16. You can check out the campaign here.
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Mon Aug 9, 2021 7:00 pm
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Quick Hits - Copenhagen, Copenhagen: Roll & Write, Bloomtown, Shaky Manor

Eric Buscemi
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From gallery of ericbinnyc

Welcome to Quick Hits, a short-form column where I discuss multiple games I've recently played, giving brief thoughts on each game - from the game's components, theme, and gameplay, to particularly notable experiences during a game, along with any other remarkable aspects that come to mind.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed I keep hearing this same fresh crop of designers’ names over and over whenever hot new titles are released — names like Wolfgang Warsch, Jonny Pac Cantin, and a Danish duo named Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen — alongside the old guard of Knizia, Feld, Rosenberg, Kramer, Kiesling, and the like. When I thought about what games I should write about for my next Quick Hits post, I realized that recently, and quite unintentionally, I had played four games from Asger and Daniel, and thought it might make sense to jot down my thoughts on each of them.

Copenhagen, designed by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published by Queen Games

There are a lot of board games with polyominos in them. Of all of the ones I’ve played, which is quite a few, Copenhagen is the one that comes the closest to translating Tetris, the classic video game of falling tetrominos, to the realm of cardboard. Not in theme, of course — the Russian onion domes are replaced by the colorful houses along the canal of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn harbour — but Tetris was never about it’s theme, and neither is this. Mechanically is where you can see strong similarities. The crux is simply optimizing your polyomino placement to create complete lines, which scores points and rewards you bonuses. Those bonus tiles help to accelerate the game’s overall arc, and the fact the win condition is a race to twelve points adds a nice bit of tension to later rounds. I find Copenhagen to be a real winner for a lighter, casual polyomino puzzle. And because Copenhagen’s card-drawing aspect shares some similarities with Ticket to Ride, it will feel immediately familiar to a lot of people, making it easy to bring out as a family or light-weight gateway game.

Copenhagen: Roll & Write, designed by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published by Queen Games

While this is yet more anecdotal evidence that every popular board game seems to be getting a roll-and-write adaptation, Copenhagen: Roll & Write does lend itself nicely to the pencil game format. While the game is still a race to twelve points that is accomplished by filling rows and columns of your grid — thematically the facade of a building — gone are the colorful cardboard polyominoes and their accompanying placement bonuses, replaced by grey pencil lead and a new bonus system that will feel similar to anyone that’s played the highly regarded roll-and-write game Ganz schön clever, or either of its sequels. Overall, Copenhagen: Roll & Write is a nice enough take on Copenhagen's core mechanisms that loses a lot of the original game's colorful visual appeal. As with most roll-and-write adaptations, I prefer the original, but am occasionally willing to mix it up either for the sake of variety, or because of this version’s smaller, more portable nature.

Bloom Town, designed by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published by Sidekick Games

Ahead of this game’s release, I was equal parts excited and put off. Excited because it was the first game that Asger and Daniel were publishing under their Sidekick Games brand, and put off because it would be released as a Walmart exclusive — but my uncharitable opinions of the corporate megastore are a different post for another day. I was looking forward to playing the game because I love city building and tile laying, which are both central to Bloom Town’s gameplay. Unfortunately, after playing, I felt the core of the game was a bit too simplistic for my tastes, while I simultaneously found the scoring to be a bit too complex, and with too many scoring triggers leading to too much bookkeeping for such a light game. While it was easy to learn and played fast, I feel there are other games that do similar things more successfully than this one does (e.g. Tiny Towns, Sprawlopolis). I wouldn’t say no to a game of this at someone’s request, but I wouldn’t seek out another game, as evidenced that my copy of Bloom Town did not remain in my collection long.

Shaky Manor, designed by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published by Blue Orange

Here we have a dexterity game that isn’t about stacking, removing, or flicking objects, which is kind of a rarity. The concept of the game — shifting objects to be in certain places by tilting the container they are in — is familiar to most of us from those cheap, plastic maze party favors that have tiny marbles that need to be maneuvered around. But unlike those disposable trinkets, Shaky Manor is a high quality production. It’s not just tiny marbles you’ll be tilting around — the game comes with meeples, cubes, eyeballs, snakes, and spiders to manipulate — and there’s enough components for four players to play at once. I like that there are two different ways to play. The first way is great for playing with kids or teaching the game, as it’s simpler. It has the added benefit of making the game harder in the future for the winner of each round, which helps keep the less dexterous in the game. The second way is the full kitchen sink experience, with all the bits thrown in, and harder goals to end each round. It’s a fun, frenetic experience that is great for a laugh, and I recommend giving it a go if you can find it. The best part, is that if you can find a copy of it, you can give the game a try while it’s still shrink-wrapped in the box, thanks to a clever cellophane window in the packaging. However, the game admittedly doesn’t have a ton of staying power, which is how I feel about a lot of the dexterity games I’ve bought to play with my kids (e.g. Ice Cool, Rhino Hero: Super Battle, Maze Racers, Slide Quest, and Boom, Bang, Gold).
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Tue Jul 27, 2021 5:28 pm
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Quick Hits - The Red Cathedral, Nouvelle-France, Undaunted: Normandy

Eric Buscemi
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New York
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From gallery of ericbinnyc

Welcome to Quick Hits, a short-form column where I discuss multiple games I've recently played, giving brief thoughts on each game - from the game's components, theme, and gameplay, to particularly notable experiences during a game, along with any other remarkable aspects that come to mind.

The Red Cathedral, designed by Isra C. and Shei S., published by Devir Games

I have a deep appreciation for when a game plays bigger than its box size, and I am hard pressed to think of a better example of that than with this particular game. You may assume — based on the marketing standards within the industry — that inside The Red Cathedral’s 7 inch by 9 inch box is a lighter game, probably hovering around 2.0 on BGG’s weight scale. However, what is actually stuffed inside are a ton of components that completely fill the box, and comprise a solid, mid-weight Euro game with some very interesting mechanisms. While I’m not sure any individual mechanism is a true novelty, the game artfully combines a dice placement rondel, area majority scoring, interesting bonus options, and a clever scoring track that utilizes two types of points into a smooth-playing game that doesn’t overstay its welcome at the table. It also features an interesting theme, where players are building St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. Overall, this game packs quite a punch.

Nouvelle-France, designed by Jacques-Dominique Landry, published by Jackbro

Speaking of box sizes and the expectations that accompany them, let’s discuss Nouvelle-France, which comes in a box about the size of three Ticket to Ride boxes stacked atop one another. In my mind, a box of this size is a promise — it tells you that its contents cannot be contained in a box of mere standard proportions, it is simply too epic in size and scope for those constraints. The similarly oversized Star Wars: Imperial Assault delivers on this promise. And to take up this much space on one’s shelf, any game of this size must deliver. Nouvelle-France does not. It is a basic polyomino spatial puzzle that attempts to make up in chrome what it lacks in substantial gameplay. It features six large sets of foam snow drifts that function as reminders of what levels have already scored. Even more egregious is the four inch tall Louis XIV statue that serves no gameplay function whatsoever. It does have dozens of nice wooden blocks that are fundamental to the game. But the setup, including laying out all of those blocks, is time and table consuming, and all for a mediocre 45 minute game. One that cost $75 on Kickstarter. If you are looking for something that delivers the kind of experience that Nouvelle-France seems to want to deliver — at the fraction of the cost and box size — play Imhotep instead.

Undaunted: Normandy, designed by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, published by Osprey Games

I’ve always enjoyed deck-building games, especially when the deck-building is one aspect of a larger game — such as Clank’s addition of a shared main board to explore, or Taverns of Tiefenthal’s integration of deck-building with dice drafting. Undaunted takes a fundamentally solid deck-builder and weaves it into a fantastic World War II skirmish game complete with asymmetrical starting positions and an entire book of scenarios based on historical events. The design shares some core DNA with the two co-designer’s bag-building game War Chest, although that one is more deterministic and abstract, and this one utilizes multi-use cards in a very interesting way. Artist Roland MacDonald helps to sell the theme with his stylistic buy not cartoonish artwork, and Osprey puts it all together with clear graphic design and iconography, quality components, and a functional box insert. Beyond being an excellent quick-playing skirmish game for two players, which has a set of twelve scenarios to play through, Undaunted has also shown itself to be a system that can be expanded, with Undaunted: North Africa already out, and Undaunted: Reinforcements on the way later this year, with the latter including a solo mode by David Turczi. I look forward to seeing what they can do with this system — and especially to getting to play with the tanks in the North Africa set.
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Thu Apr 15, 2021 8:00 pm
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Initial Thoughts on Night Market

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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From gallery of ericbinnyc

I tend to enjoy the designs that Talon Strikes publishes, but I’ll admit I’m hard pressed to explain their marketing. They consistently publish interesting designs with clever gameplay mechanisms, but regarding weight and theme, they tend to be all over the map. From the lighter-weight Scouting game Camp Pinetop, to the mid-weight Cold War spy game Shadow Network, to the heavier Norse fantasy game Winterborne, the only commonality is the quality of the mechanical designs. That changed recently with the introduction of their market series, which share similarities in both weight and theme, while continuing to highlight the company’s eye for interesting design. I would say this game series marks an improvement in their marketing through marketing market games. Okay, that’s enough of that, I’ll stop now.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
The first game in Talon Strikes’ market series, Public Market, was designed by Flatout Games’ Molly Johnson, Robert Melvin, and Shawn Stankewich. In it, players collect and store fish, then sell that fish at the market to fulfill orders. It features a combination of cleverly integrated mechanisms — bidding for turn order, polyomino tile placement, contract fulfillment — that fits the location of Seattle’s Pike Place Market well.

Night Market, designed by Adam Zwain, is the second game in Talon Strikes’ market series, and is centered on Taiwan’s night markets, which are street markets that operate in urban and suburban areas in Taiwan between sunset and sunrise. The designer, who at one point lived in Taiwan, said this about his goal in designing the game:

Quote:
When I moved to Taiwan in 2010, it did not take long to fall in love with night markets—the vibrant colors, the bustling alleyways, and of course, the food. I quickly realized that the night market was a microcosm of Taiwanese culture. So, like many travelers, I made a point to visit the major night market in each city I visited to sample the regional dish that made each market “famous.” What I did not realize until after a few years of living in Taiwan is that night markets are ubiquitous. Every neighborhood has one. You could walk through a seemingly quiet alleyway and stumble across an absolute gem of a night market that features the city’s best beef noodles. This is what I wanted to capture in the design of this game: that the food of any small night market can easily compete with that of the major ones.
I also want to highlight here, as they note on the Kickstarter page, that Talon Strikes hired three cultural consultants to aid them in developing the game with an eye towards cultural accuracy and sensitivity.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Components:

While I played a prototype version of the game, the components I played with were very close to production ready, with nearly finalized art and design. As is tradition for Talon Strikes, they have packed the box to the brim with content, and will also have multiple expansions that will allow solo play and additional variety and more challenging gameplay options. I’m not going to give a detailed list of all the components — which include a main board, player boards, over a hundred tiles and another hundred tokens, a deck of cards, and some wooden bits — but I will note that the art helps sell the game’s theme without getting in the way of the graphic design. While there is a lot going on in the game, the graphic design is intuitive and clear, which helps keep it from getting overwhelming.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Game Play and Initial Impressions:

Normally I separate these two sections out, but a) my thoughts on Night Market are so interwoven with its different mechanisms, this seems like the more logical way to tackle it, and b) this game is a solid medium-weight game, and I’m not going to attempt a detailed explanation of how to play it in a text preview (I will, however, recommend checking out Meeple University’s playthrough for a more in-depth look at how it plays). With that said, here are my thoughts.

Night Market is one of the more clever and unique takes on worker placement I've seen, as players are not only fighting over spots on the city board for goods and lantern actions, but also jockeying for specific placement patterns to achieve additional bonus goods.

Another aspect of the worker placement I found interesting was that getting an extra worker in Night Market — hiring a chef — wasn’t an action that immediately needed to be prioritized. The other lantern actions — building stalls, attracting customers — were also so important to the game that all of them felt like viable strategies, depending on your starting situation. This may not immediately sound that interesting, but it contrasts with many other worker placement games where getting extra workers as soon as possible is the clear alpha strategy.

Of course, the worker placement aspect is only found in the day phase of the game, as the other phase, the night phase, is conducted solely on the player boards. The player boards, representing the player’s night market stalls, are a challenging spatial puzzle requiring balancing goods, stalls, customers, and specific location requirements for each. While I completely understood the concepts during my first play, I suspect mastering them will require many more attempts.

As a whole, the gameplay — played over four seasons — has a satisfying arc to it. In the first season, the player boards are barren, and it seems difficult enough to satisfy a single customer’s order. By the fourth and final season, the player boards will be bustling with stalls serving signature dishes, and teeming with repeat customers. Win or lose, it is satisfying to grow a market throughout the game, and watch as it begins to generate income and trigger bonuses.

Overall, the combination of the worker placement puzzle on the communal city board, the spatial planning required on each player's market board, and the recipe fulfilment demands of the customer cards make for a heady experience that players will want to come back to again and again.

Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of Night Market from the publisher.
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Mon Mar 29, 2021 8:00 pm
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Initial Thoughts on Three Sisters

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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From gallery of ericbinnyc

Now, for something totally different, I’m going to begin this preview with a tangent on farming techniques I’ve cobbled together from a not-in-any-way-exhaustive skimming of Wikipedia. I promise I’ll keep it brief, and that the game is much more fun than this agricultural lesson.

Three Sisters is an ancient farming method that was employed by Native Americans as far back as 800 AD. The method is named for the three main crops — winter squash, maize, and climbing beans — which were grown using a technique known as companion planting, where each of the three benefits from the presence of the others. The maize provides poles for the beans to climb on, the beans provide nitrogen for the soil, and the squash cover the ground and prevent the establishment of weeds.

This new roll-and-write game from the minds of designers Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle centers around farming the modern equivalent of these Three Sisters crops — pumpkins, corn, and beans — for which the game is named.

This isn’t the designers’ first foray into roll-and-write games, as they published Fleet: The Dice Game* with Eagle-Gryphon Games back in 2018. However, it is their first go at self publishing, as this is the inaugural title from their Motor City Gameworks brand.

* I am still mad they did not name that game Fleet: Dicey Waters, although I suppose they made up for it with the Fleet: The Dice Game — Dicey Waters Expansion.

Components:

I received a preview copy of the game, with final artwork but containing some prototype components that I’m told are generally representative of what the final product will be. The game comes in a fairly standard size rectangular roll-and-write box, with some lovely pastoral artwork from Beth Sobel. Inside there are a few tokens, six six-sided dice, a game board that will track the rounds and be used for the dice rondel, and double-sided player sheets — which is nice, especially as each player needs two sheets to play one game. The rules are clear and straightforward, which is what I’ve come to expect from Dustin Schwartz, the project’s rules editor. Pencils are not provided, but this isn’t a big deal as any writing implement will do — the game doesn’t need players to write in different colors, or use dry-erase markers, or anything like that. In fact, there is no erasing at all, so I use a pen when I play. I find the permanence of a pen keeps me from second guessing my moves, but I digress.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Game Play:

Three Sisters’ gameplay blends a dice selection rondel with your typical roll-and-write scoresheet marking. The twist with the dice selection is two-fold. First, every turn the farmer pawn will move around the rondel, and seed the dice from a different starting point. Second, the dice you select will give you two actions — one based on the action space it was chosen from, and one corresponding to the pips on the die taken. For example, a 5-die taken from the Shed Time space allows you to plant or water in Zone Five, and fill an empty box in the Shed area of your score sheet.

The dice drafting isn’t the only clever bit about the gameplay, though. Each player’s score sheets are filled with a farm, a flower garden, an apiary, a fruit orchard, a shed, and an area for goods and compost. Different elements from each are interconnected and create interesting combo potential. Everything scores points — final scores can hit three digits — but it is tricky to maximize your scoring in the allotted eight rounds. Marking off one area gives you a bonus to another, which gives you some free goods, which gives you an extra action, etc. It creates some big, exciting turns, although it can also create some analysis paralysis and be a lot to remember. In fact, one of the score sheets has a journal area where you can jot down things so you don’t forget to take any bonuses during any particularly long combo chains.

While the game is heavier than most roll-and-writes in terms of decision space, it plays in about 15 minutes per player, making it quite reasonable. The biggest difference I noticed in player count is that in lower player counts, you have more control over what dice you can draft (as everyone gets to use the lowest remaining die as their second dice action each round), and in higher player counts, there is less control, but more available options earlier in the draft (as the number of dice used scales up with the player count).

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Initial Impressions:

It feels like Ben and Matt used Fleet: The Dice Game as a way to gauge if there was enough audience interest in a more complex style of roll-and-write game that required additional bookkeeping in order to facilitate more interesting combos and rewards. At that time, with most roll-and-write entries skewing much lighter, it was a risky proposition. But when the reception to Fleet: The Dice Game exceeded all expectations — it is the seventh highest ranked roll-and-write on BoardGameGeek, in an extremely crowded field — they doubled down, creating a roll-and-write with more scoring paths, more combos, and double the sheets for each player to track their progress. This is not your parents’ roll-and-write. it’s the next gauntlet being thrown down by the designers that already broke the roll-and-write mold the last time they created one.

While Three Sisters may not have the broader appeal of some other roll-and-write games, it satisfies a need for board gamers that find the decision space in most of the available roll-and-write options lacking. For that crowd, this game is a must have.

Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of Three Sisters from co-designer Matt Riddle as a thank you for donating to a charity auction he ran last year.
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Mon Mar 15, 2021 7:00 pm
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Initial Thoughts on Block and Key

Eric Buscemi
United States
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From gallery of ericbinnyc

I had the fortune to play Block and Key, the latest offering from Inside Up Games and designer David Van Drunen, since before it even had that name. At PAX Unplugged 2019, I playtested a colorful, three-dimensional game that Inside Up frontman Conor McGoey was excited about showing off, and had this to say about it at that time:

From gallery of ericbinnyc
My final game of the night was Der Standpunkt Skulptur, a crazy prototype that is being developed by Conor McGoey for Inside Up Games. The game played four people, all of us sitting around a double-tier cube board and placing polyomino shapes of different colors to complete patterns from our individual perspective. It was similar in that respect to the Inka and Markus Brand game La Boca, although a strictly competitive, turn-based version. It definitely had the table presence to draw a crowd, and my opinion of it was positively colored by the fact that I won.

Of course, that prototype was reworked and developed into Block and Key, a game that is still the same abstracted block placement game, but now thematically about a group of archaeological adventurers unlocking the secrets of an ancient temple — with the help of Edu Valls’ wonderfully stylistic box art.

Components:

From gallery of ericbinnyc
I’ve been noticing a recent trend in games — including Block and Key, Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers, and Holi: Festival of Colors — having tiered game play spaces, and I’m absolutely loving it. Multi-tiered three-dimensional boards create such outstanding table presence.

With Block and Key, the board is no gimmick, as it is critical to be able to easily see exactly how the blocks are lined up from your perspective, and the raised surface brings them right to your eye level.

Of course, it’s also important that this three-dimensional board is sturdy, which I am happy to report is the case. It is constructed using the top and bottom box lids, along with four double thick cardboard pillars, which create a sturdy play area with plenty of room to reach into the first level to collect blocks and cards, and a stable surface on the second level to play the blocks.

Beyond the box, the components inside include three decks of key cards, which feature three difficulty levels of patterns the players must match to score points, and four enigma cards, which give players a hidden objective which allows players to score additional points. Finally, there are forty clay blocks — ten different shapes in four colors — that players will be collecting and placing throughout the game, and an embroidered bag to randomly select the blocks to put in play.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Game Play:

Players each start with three blocks, four key cards, and an enigma card. The key cards are worth points if the player can match the illustration on the card to the layout of the blocks from their perspective, while the enigma cards will tell players which of the four colors will score them additional bonus points at the end of the game.

The game structure is simple and straightforward — take one action and then check to see if you scored a card — but as with any good puzzle, that doesn’t make it easy. Each turn, players either excavate a row or column of blocks from the first level of the board, or they position a block from their supply onto the second level of the board. There are a few minor placement rules — blocks can’t be placed so they leave an unsupported ledge, and blocks must be taller than any existing blocks they are placed orthogonally adjacent to, otherwise they can be placed diagonally adjacent instead.

The board will organically grow and evolve as the game progresses, and other players’ placements will add new elements from every players’ perspective. While players are free to use any blocks they can see from their perspective to complete a key card, they must also use the block they are currently placing. The game ends when a player completes a certain number of key cards — seven in a four-player game, more as the player count scales down.

There is also a solo mode that will add blocks to the board using an automa built into the key cards iconography, which can benefit or hinder a player in the same way opponents’ placements can.

From gallery of ericbinnyc
Initial Impressions:

I recently wrote a preview for Canosa, and talked about the definition of the term ‘abstract’ in board games. Looking at Block and Key is an excellent illustration in the variance of the term — as both games are listed as abstract strategy games on BoardGameGeek. While Canosa is a strictly two-player game with perfect information and no random elements, Block and Key plays 1-4, has hidden information, and multiple random elements. And while they are listed as abstract, both games have some veneer of theme.

What makes Block and Key still considered an abstract game is its singular focus on the spatial puzzle of placing the oddly shaped blocks in the most beneficial way to score your key cards, while preserving as many of your enigma color as possible. While some people may prefer two-player perfect information abstracts, I see games like this being more broadly appealing, especially given the game’s one to four person player count. And while I am not sure I would break this out at three, I know it works well at both one and four players. At one, it becomes a challenging high-score chase puzzle that can be aided with a little luck from the “Ancients” automa. But four players is what the game is meant for. The game is more fun the more the board evolves and changes, and the single action turns mean there is still barely any down time at all.

With its combination of three-dimensional table presence, colorful art and design, quick and easy to learn gameplay, and a challenging and fun spatial puzzle, I think Block and Key is another winner for Inside Up Games.

Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of Block and Key from the publisher.
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Tue Mar 9, 2021 5:46 pm
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