Jonathan SchindlerUnited States
Here's what I played in November:
10 Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition x6 (54 all-time)
10 The Quacks of Quedlinburg (25 all-time)
10 Winner's Circle (17 all-time)
9 Cross Clues x4 (40 all-time)
9 Fantasy Realms x5 (30 all-time)
9 Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters (28 all-time)
9 Jaipur (13 all-time)
9 KLASK x3 (83 all-time)
9 New Frontiers (10 all-time)
9 So Clover! x4 (20 all-time)
9 The Crew: Mission Deep Sea x7 NEW!
8 Animal Upon Animal (96 all-time)
8 Azul (20 all-time)
8 Cascadia x6 NEW!
8 Cat Lady (6 all-time)
8 Conspiracy: Abyss Universe x2 (3 all-time)
8 Family Inc. x5 (9 all-time)
8 Half Truth NEW!
8 Llamaland (3 all-time)
8 Marrakech x4 (5 all-time)
8 Marshmallow Test x2 NEW!
8 Picture Perfect x2 NEW!
8 Rhino Hero (100 all-time)
8 Santa Monica x2 NEW!
8 Super Mega Lucky Box (8 all-time)
8 Tumblin-Dice x2 (7 all-time)
7 7 Wonders: Architects x3 NEW!
7 Awkward Guests x7 NEW!
7 Diamant x3 (36 all-time)
7 ICECOOL x3 (23 all-time)
7 Space Alert x2 (5 all-time)
November, for me, is usually spent orbiting Thanksgiving. Because my family is spread across the US, and because the weather is often unpredictable around Christmas and New Year, my extended family usually gets together over Thanksgiving to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Christmas. This means we shop for Christmas presents early, and it also means we are rushing to get everything done in November, so December is usually a little quieter (what a relief).
Much of my family gets together for close to a week, but my wife, kids, and I drive up on Thanksgiving Day to spend the weekend together. These gatherings are wonderful, but they are also exhausting, as most of my family are extraverts, while my wife and I and two-thirds of our kids are intraverts. It's just a lot of togetherness. I was thrilled to be there. I am thrilled to be home.
We lost my mom last Thanksgiving and my aunt last April, so this one was a little tough. Most of the time, there was enough noise and activity with seven kids running around that we didn't have time or space to dwell on how much we missed them. But when we stopped to sing Christmas carols in the light of the Christmas tree (a Schindler-family tradition), it was much harder to mask our loss. There were several voices missing from the choir, and it was especially easy to miss my mom and aunt as they were often the ones singing harmony. I haven't cried much over the past year, but I couldn't keep the tears in as we sang their favorite songs. I've always known that music stirs emotions (any Hallmark movie or commercial will teach you that), but here it was auditory memories captured in music that did the trick.
Aside from the traditional carol sing and Thanksgiving turkey dinner, my family celebrated by playing a lot of games. This year I brought a bag of games for the kids that they could set up and play whenever they wanted. Some were old favorites (like Leo); others were ones that they hadn't played much before (Super Mega Lucky Box and Marrakech). The big hits with the kids this time around were Incan Gold and Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters, both of which were in nigh constant use over the several days I was there.
I also put together our second annual Tumblin' Dice tournament. I wasn't sure what the reaction would be (no one seemed to be expecting it), but Tumblin' Dice brings out people's energy. There was lots of cheering when dice did what they were supposed to and moaning when dice were their unpredictable selves. I kept last year's teams (each team is an adult paired with a child), and it was fun to see everyone getting into it. There was talk after the tournament of my sister using her Cricut to make team shirts for next year, so we'll see what happens. (My wife and son, the "Silly Monsters," walked away with the W this year.)
You'll see below a lot of the games the adults played this year, as several of them were new to me. I got to play Azul and Quacks of Quedlingburg (what a great year for the Spiel des Jahres award 2018 was), and Family Inc. was very popular. I brought both So Clover! and Cross Clues, which were great fun, especially our final two games of Cross Clues, which, in typical fashion, devolved into ridiculous clues and unintelligible laughter.
Besides time with family, November saw a return to lots of games I hadn't played in a while.
One highlight this month is that I got to play Winner's Circle with my lunch games group. Winner's Circle is a perennial favorite, but lately there have been few enough of us in the office and available on Fridays that we just haven't played it. But early in the month, five of us were there, and we sat down to Winner's Circle. It was its usual charming self, offering lots of bluff, cheering, and schadenfreude. Despite judicious betting on Regret (who took first!), I didn't clinch the win, but this was still a great return to some form of normalcy, if only for a lunch hour.
I also got to play Space Alert (my friend's copy, and now that I've played again, I'm glad I didn't try to get my own) and Jaipur, which I introduced to a friend when only two of us showed up for game night. That game still slaps.
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving (if you celebrate).
Here's the new stuff I played in November:
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea: I loved the first Crew game (and my family loved it even more), so I was eager to try this one, and I gave my aunt a copy for hosting us over Thanksgiving. Mission Deep Sea uses the same basic structure as The Crew (cooperative, captain, tasks, missions, trick-taking rules), but now, rather than the tasks involving specific cards every time, the task deck includes a lot of varied things tied to a point value based on number of players (so a task that is easier for three players and harder for five players is marked as such). We played the first seven missions, most of which just increase the points you need to accomplish when tasks are drawn. The tasks include weird things, like "win the 5 of yellow and the 6 of pink" or "win any 5 with any 7." I was a bit skeptical of this at first--it seemed like it might push complexity beyond what my family was interested in--but we soon realized, hey, this is still The Crew, and it's still awesome. Jury's out whether I like this better than the original Crew, but I'm eager to play more to find out.
Cascadia: I was sent this game by my secret Santa. Cascadia is the latest in a group of drafting games where you take stuff from the middle to accomplish your own puzzle goals in your own area. Cascadia is a tile-laying game in two senses: you take terrain tiles to extend your habitat, but you also claim wildlife tokens to place on your terrain to match the pattern cards and score points. But there are two twists to the formula. First, each terrain token can only accept a certain kind of wildlife. And second, and most compelling, players have to draft in packets of one tile and one wildlife token, and they often don't go together in the ways you want. I've only played Cascadia solitaire so far (it's a pretty solitairish game anyway), but I found the puzzle interesting, and I think it will be even better with other players. Thanks, Santa! I might not have tried this one otherwise, but I'm really enjoying it (and my rating may go up).
Half Truth: My college roommate bought this for me for my birthday. Half Truth is a trivia betting game made by Richard Garfield and Ken Jennings (the winningest Jeopardy champion). Basically, each card has six answers--three are true, three are false. The more answers you guess, the more points you get, but if you guess any of them incorrectly, you don't get any points. This is the game in a nutshell, but there are lots of clever rules that might push you to be bolder with guesses or more timid. I thought the questions were well chosen here, as even the cards where I thought I knew the answers were tough for me to guess. (There was a card about punctuation marks that I got wrong!) This is in the same vein as Wits & Wagers, but different enough that I'm not sure you have to choose between them.
Marshmallow Test: I've wanted to try Knizia's trick-taker Voodoo Prince for a while, but I was waiting for a more palatable package, so I was thrilled when Gamewright released Marshmallow Test, apparently a "designer's original" repackage. I've had this one for a while, but finding trick-taking fans is, well, tricky. I saw my opportunity over Thanksgiving. Marshmallow Test is a trick-taking game where once you take a certain number of tricks, you score and are out of the rest of the round. The twist here is that when you go out, you score 1 point for each trick that the other players have taken. As you can see, the first person to go out in a round will score the fewest points, and the last will score the most. But there's a twist: the very last person in the round gets nothing at all (but gets to name trump the next round). Marshmallow Test required different thinking than many trick-takers I've played, but what was most surprising about it is how animated we were while playing it. I usually think of trick-takers as strategic affairs, where there's a lot of silent calculation. Here, there was a very strong element of risk and push your luck (we played with four, so there are some cards randomly removed) which made each play exciting. It was fast and super enjoyable. I hope I get to play it again soon.
Picture Perfect: I picked this up to play with my family at Thanksgiving. In Picture Perfect, players are photographers at a party trying to create the perfect picture at the end of the party. So the game is hobnobbing with the guests and trying to discover their preferences so that your picture matches as many preferences as possible. Picture Perfect is essentially a tile-laying game with a twist: the tiles are 3D, and each tile has its own wants for where it wants to be and who it wants to be next to. These tiles can block other tiles from view, which makes the placement feel different from other tile-laying games. This twist, combined with the fun, instantly recognizable theme and the good visuals, make for a super fun game that, while it could have been solitary, has a lot of heads-up moments, particularly as players exchange information about what the guests want. The fact that the game encourages players to snap a photo of the game to aid in scoring helps players to remember the game. I really like this one, although we played with the basic rules, which I think will get stale after a few plays. I'm excited to try this with the auction variant once players know what they're doing. Oh, and here's my game-winning photograph:
Santa Monica: My sisters bought me this for my birthday last month, and I was able to play twice in November. Santa Monica is a drafting and tableau-building game where you're trying to build up a bustling beachfront with activities that locals, tourists, and VIPs can enjoy. There are a few unique ideas here, but what really elevates this one is the visuals, and more than the visuals, the true sense of place. You're building a tableau that takes on a unique character--a unique vibe--and a place that real people might come and visit. There's no narrative arc to the game, but your beach seems to be telling a story by what you've included in your tableau. I really like this one, although it's a little rough around the edges, which made these first two plays a little rocky. I hope that these rough patches are smoothed out as we play more, but I liked the initial sips of this one.
7 Wonders Architects: I bought 7 Wonders Architects because it looked like a good family adaptation of the game. I'm particularly interested in games that can accommodate a large group of people (especially my kids and nieces and nephew), and this game seemed to tick all the boxes of what I wanted. There's no hidden information so it's easy to help others on their turns, and it can fit everyone into a single game. On paper, this is great. In practice, well... I've played 7 Wonders Architects three times now, twice in mixed groups of kids and adults, and once with just adults. I found the game kind of boring with just adults--there are some interesting decisions, but it seemed like more often than not we were just drawing blindly from the deck to try to get what we needed to end the game. The first game I played with kids was pretty nice--there were three adults and two kids, and this was a good ratio. Turns were snappy, and it seemed like there was enough there to keep us all occupied. My third game was with two adults and five kids, and boy howdy, did this drag. I suppose it's not the game's fault that it took so long, but I was definitely missing the simultaneous play in a group this big. So 7WA is decent with a small, mixed group of kids and adults, but I don't feel like it's any better than, say, Marrakech (or some other game with appealing components) with that same group, and I would much rather play a different game with a group that large. So while 7WA isn't bad, I don't think I'll be keeping it around, especially not at its box size.
Awkward Guests: I like deduction games, so I've been eyeing Awkward Guests for years, and I finally decided to give it a try, seeing that it can play up to eight. Awkward Guests is your typical murder mystery board game, but with more deduction and a clever point system for trading information. I played several times solitaire and once with three players. I liked the three-player version, although I think it would be better with more (I felt like I was constantly getting similar information). The solitaire version of this was kind of neat, but frustrating--by the end of each game, it felt like I was blindly flailing for a solution rather than arriving at it by full deduction. (And, truthfully, even with three players, it was a bit of a leap.) I would play this more with other people, but the off-putting art and sepia tones aren't doing it any favors in that department. So...this is a decent game, but not one I'm likely to keep playing.
None this month.
I wrote one review in November, for Family Inc.
What did you play in November?
Intermittent thoughts on games and gaming
- [+] Dice rolls
Right at the buzzer for November, I thought I'd review the game that my family played most over our Thanksgiving holiday, Family Inc.
Reiner Knizia has designed hundreds of games, and each year sees so many of his releases that it's easy to lose track of some, especially when (as is the case today) they were not released in English and are only available via import during a global pandemic.
But don't let that stop you from checking out Family Inc., a pure push-your-luck game that ranks with the greats.
Family Inc. is ostensibly about a mafia family splitting the loot at their annual reunion, but you needn't focus too much on that. That provides the window dressing, but the game itself is in the chips.
Family Inc. comes with 135 cardboard poker chips, sixteen each of values 1 through 5, and eleven each of values 6 through 10, and these form a face-down mound in the center of the table. The objective is simple: be the first to score 100 points.
Each turn follows a basic structure. First, you score any chips that are in front of you and return them to the box. Then, you draw chips one at a time until you quit or bust. You bust whenever you draw a chip with a value that matches one you've already drawn. If you quit, you not only keep the chips you've drawn, but you also steal chips from the other players that match the values of the chips in front of you.
If this sounds like Cheeky Monkey, another Knizian push-your-luck game, the reason is that...well, this is a lot like Cheeky Monkey. In Cheeky Monkey, there are eight values of chips, you steal chips from other players, and you bust when you draw two chips of the same type. But Knizia has taken this basic framework and tweaked it in interesting ways.
First, in Family Inc., all values in front of a player are up for grabs until they score, meaning your gains aren't necessarily your gains. In Cheeky Monkey, chips are stacked on top of each other, and only the top is available for stealing (a la Pickomino). Here, it's entirely possible to have all your chips stolen before your next turn comes around. This makes Family Inc. more volatile, but also more exciting.
Second, because you score each turn in Family Inc., you don't have to worry about holding on to your gains until the end of the game. There's no majority scoring. You just have to hope no one draws the chips you have before your next turn.
And, third, the big change here is that the drawing player doesn't steal immediately; they only steal if they choose to quit, meaning that someone drawing a chip that matches you only matters if they choose to quit drawing. This adds a lot of drama to the game because the player may steal even more, or not at all.
And the fourth change--which is a huge one that I haven't mentioned until now--is the diamonds. Family Inc. includes a small stash of diamonds. If your luck is terrible and you bust within your first three draws, you get a consolation diamond. One or two diamonds are meaningless. But if you get three? That's 50 points, halfway to the goal.
These changes may not seem like much, but they add up to a fascinating roller coaster of a push-your-luck game that, as I said before, rivals the greats.
Push-your-luck games succeed insofar as they create real tension between gambling and stopping. Players should be offered a real opportunity to better their position if they keep going, balanced by a real sense of loss if they bust. I think Family Inc. succeeds here.
The decision to draw chips is motivated by several factors. First, you want to draw high-value chips so you can race toward 100 points. But second, you want to draw chips that your opponents have so you can both take their points away and score more points yourself. And third, you want to draw more chips because the more values you have in front of you, the greater the likelihood that you'll have something to score when your turn comes back to you. But fourth, there are only ten possible values and there are more low-value chips in the pile, meaning you're more likely to draw these and more likely to bust on them. So if you draw low-value chips, you both want to draw again because you want more points and don't want to draw again because you're more likely to bust. This is great tension.
But truly, it is the stealing that makes the game. At first, it may seem unfair and brutal to have points stolen...until you realize that points are only stolen if they're scored. The turn must be passed all around the table before chips are safe, meaning that as long as someone draws a value, those chips are still in play and up for grabs.
Let me give an example. In one recent five-player game I played, I drew a 9 with some other chips and quit. I was pretty excited about my 9--that's almost 10% of the way toward victory!--until someone stole it. Then someone else stole it, and I stole it back. By this time, the 9s were worth 36 points instead of just 9. We passed the 9s around all game until ten of the eleven 9s were in a juicy stack, just waiting to be scored. Because chips are discarded from the game face-down, we couldn't recall if someone had already scored the eleventh 9, so the last turns were a mad scramble to try to take the 9s from me, who eventually scored them for the win.
But do you see how this changes the gambling tension? You're not just going after another 9 points anymore. You're going after 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90 points. So even though you might be pressing your luck farther than you're comfortable with, the possibility of all those points in one draw is too great to be timid.
Yet balancing this is the safety net of the diamonds. You get something if you bust early, and nothing if you bust late. Diamonds may seem like a lame catch-up mechanism, but I've seen games where the winner won by collecting diamonds exclusively and games where diamonds pushed a player over the edge, and also games where a diamond plan never came to fruition. Sometimes players are hoping to bust just to get their third diamond. But if diamonds are a compensation, they are also a warning. "Don't venture beyond my protection," they seem to say, "or you'll get what you deserve." Busting on the fourth chip is a frequent (and hilarious) occurrence.
Family Inc. is incredibly simple, but like most of Knizia's games, there's more here than meets the eye. Yet for all the sound probabilities that make up the game, they feel hidden. Family Inc. is a game played from the gut as you search for the chip that you just know is the one you've been looking for, as you decide (heedless of sound judgment) to go searching for one more chip in the pile in the hopes of stealing someone's juicy points.
I think Family Inc. is great, but as usual, there are a few caveats. First, the game is only available by importing it, and the rulebook is not in English. Thankfully, the rules are simple (I learned them from watching this video, and I corroborated the teaching there by translating the rulebook), but this is a big barrier.
Another barrier is the size of the game box. You'll note in my pictures that my box has been sawn off, mostly because the game was around the size of two Codenames boxes stacked on top of each other. I was able to shave nearly two inches off the height of the box, and this makes it much easier to transport and store. (And I'm planning to keep it, so resale isn't a concern.)
Gamewise, there are also a few niggles. First, you may not like push-your-luck games, and that's all there is here; nothing more. It's about as pure as they come. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there's a lot of computation that takes place in this game. It's basic multiplication-table stuff, but there's a good deal of it for a simple game like this, and the scoreboard doesn't make it easy to add scores (as only the 5s are marked and the scoreboard snakes). And third, there's a lot of stuff changing hands in Family Inc. This is something my kids are learning to be okay with, but it is occasionally a struggle. None of these are deal breakers, but it does mean that Cheeky Monkey is probably better suited toward families and younger children than Family Inc. (Although standing in contrast to this advice, I passed my copy of Cheeky Monkey on after playing this, and as long as you can handle the computation, Family Inc. can work well with young players too.)
The components are very nice. The wooden discs are high quality, and the cardboard chips are too. Yes, of course, I wish these were plastic chips like Splendor...but I also wouldn't want to pay for plastic chips sight unseen, so I applaud the publisher for keeping this one affordable. The diamonds that came with the game are fine, but I replaced them with some bigger ones I had on hand (which you can see in the photos). The scoreboard is annoying--I don't like that only the 5s are marked, and the snaking does make adding tricky--but it's still functional.
I had already cut the box before this review, but I put two Codenames-sized boxes there to give you a picture of how huge the box was that this came in.
I've played Family Inc. nine times with three through six players, with children and adults, and it scales pretty well. I was surprised at how fun it was at both of these poles, given that push-your-luck games are usually fun with more, but I thought the stealing would make this one too tough with higher counts. Yet the stealing actually keeps the game competitive, since the game ends as soon as one player scores one hundred points. There's more stealing at the higher player counts, and that means more points are scored when they're scored. (We did run out of chips in our six-player game, an eventuality the rulebook doesn't anticipate. We scored all the chips on the table and the player with the highest score won.) I think four or five is probably the sweet spot for me, although I wouldn't turn it down at any count save maybe two.
Family Inc. is another instance of Reiner Knizia's tendency toward iteration. The rules are so simple as to seem discovered rather than designed, which, as I always say, means this is very well designed indeed. I think this is a top-tier push-your-luck game, and it's one I hope sees wider distribution. Regardless, it's one my family likes to play.
- [+] Dice rolls
Here's what I played in October:
10 Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition x7 (48 all-time)
9 5-Minute Mystery x2 (23 all-time)
9 Cross Clues x3 (36 all-time)
9 Fantasy Realms x5 (25 all-time)
9 KLASK x4 (80 all-time)
9 Lost Ruins of Arnak (15 all-time)
9 Nova Luna x2 (27 all-time)
9 Qwinto x3 (31 all-time)
9 So Clover! (16 all-time)
9 The Isle of Cats (11 all-time)
9 Warsaw: City of Ruins (15 all-time)
8.5 Llamaland x2 NEW!
8 Almadi (2 all-time)
8 Animal Upon Animal x2 (95 all-time)
8 Art Decko x2 NEW!
8 Conspiracy: Abyss Universe NEW!
8 Encore! x2 (13 all-time)
8 Guess Club (3 all-time)
8 Heckmeck Junior (11 all-time)
8 Rhino Hero (99 all-time)
8 Splendor (29 all-time)
8 Super Mega Lucky Box x7 NEW!
8 Welcome To... x2 (8 all-time)
7 Colt Super Express NEW!
7 Diamant (33 all-time)
7 Get Bit! x2 (21 all-time)
7 ICECOOL (20 all-time)
7 Marrakech NEW!
7 Spot it! (99 all-time)
6 Fort NEW!
N/A Pencil Nose! NEW!
The fall weather has finally set in here in Chicagoland, and for that I am grateful. When I first moved to the area almost fifteen years ago, I was a little shocked that fall was a one-week season here. Where I grew up, the leaves gradually changed colors and gently drifted to the ground one at a time, a process that took a good month and a half to two months. My first fall here, the leaves changed overnight, were down in a couple days, and the pleasant 50-degree days were swiftly overtaken by winter's chill.
Thankfully, while this fall got off to a slow start, we're getting the full spectrum of colors, the temperatures are steady, and it is beautiful.
If you can't tell, fall is my favorite season. I think there's enough extremism in the world without either summer or winter encroaching on fall. Fall reminds us that sometimes the in-between times, the transition times, are full of their own special beauty, and it's best when we give them their own space and time. And also, autumn treats are the best treats.
October was full of the usual fall activities. My birthday is in mid-October (for which I wrote my annual top games birthday list), and we celebrated with my traditional birthday dessert: my grandma's old-fashioned cream pie recipe. (It's basically cream and sugar in a pie crust, but it's incredible.) I also made the trek back to my alma mater to encourage the students in the English program that there are (some) jobs for English majors that don't involve teaching. We attended a bonfire, so the kids got their s'more fix, and then they requested I make a s'more ice cream, which I think is one of the best I've made yet. (It helped, too, that I got a very thin waffle maker for my birthday, which I've been using to make cone bowls. The kids have loved testing these, even when they're not perfect.)
And then the trick-or-treating, which happened yesterday. My kids dressed as video game characters: Mario, Luigi, and Pikachu. There were fewer Rube Goldberg contraptions to deliver candy, many more bowls set outside, but it was also nice to see lots of people out again, participating in a common activity. I tried to coach my kids on the two essential Halloween phrases ("Trick-or-treat!" and "Thank you!"), but most of the time they only remembered one. I was grateful that my neighbors dropped their habit of passing out full-size candy bars. (They were probably cowed by the lack of foot traffic on our street yet again, even on a Sunday.) With my kids' regulated candy consumption, the amount they got should carry them into the new year.
Oh yes, and October was also full of games. As Gen Con/Origins/Essen releases finally made their way to game stores, I received some items I preordered and was able to play several (which you'll see below). I was also able to try a couple of old games in new ways in October. User pacemaker67 recommended a Lost Cities-ish solitaire variant for Fantasy Realms on my top games list, which I tried (and worked great). It keeps the fun combo building and maintains the delicious "you have to play/discard something" tension from the multiplayer game. On the other side of the solo/multiplayer coin, I played Warsaw: City of Ruins with other players for the first time (I had only played solitaire before), and I loved it. It's an excellent tile-laying drafting game, and other players certainly added something to the experience. I'm eager to play more.
I'm expecting November will be packed with games, both because a few preorders I'm expecting should be released and because my extended family will get together over Thanksgiving to celebrate Christmas. So expect November's report to be longer.
Here's the new stuff I played in October:
Llamaland: I'm a sucker for polyomino games, and Barenpark is one of my favorites in the genre. When I saw the adorable look of Llamaland and the 3D stacking, I knew this was one I wanted to try. I've only played a simplified version with my kids so far (we played without the objective cards), but I really like this one. On your turn, you take the top piece from one of the stacks of pentomino pieces and either extend your estate out or build it up. When you build up, you get stuff for all the icons you covered (as in Barenpark), and when you have four of the same kind of resource, you get to feed a llama. Once you feed a lama, however, you have to put a llama meeple on your board, which represents a space you can't build over anymore. There's more to the game than this--some light engine building with villager cards and, obviously, the objectives--but I like how the game can easily be tailored to different groups, and it's still fun on its most basic level. The 3D element is also very visually appealing (and aided by the super thick cardboard.) There are lots of polyomino games, but this one is fresh and interesting, and I can't wait to play more (with both kids and adults). (Usually games I rate 8.5 are included in the "good" section, but it's my list, and I do what I want to.)
Art Decko: I worked on the rulebook for this one, once upon a time (#disclaimer), and was curious how it would work as a game. I was excited to see this added to Board Game Arena, so I tried it with my game group. Art Decko is a deck-building/market-manipulation stocks game. Players are buying and exhibiting art, trying to collect the highest-value collection of paintings. Art Decko is pretty opaque at first: what should I buy? What should I do? But as the game goes on and you get a sense for what will happen in the market, the game opens up. What I really liked about this is that I think this is one of the most interactive deck-builders I've played. (Dune: Imperium is probably more interactive, but it's also less of a deck-builder.) You are constantly trying to evaluate the good cards to buy, and you want to raise the value of the suits you're strong in without helping your opponents too much. You can get a big boost in value by exhibiting paintings, but once you do that, the painting is out of your deck and won't score normally. And only certain scoring objectives score at the end of the game, so you're trying to get the objectives you're strong in to be the ones that will score. My group isn't fond of either deck-building or stock manipulation, so this was more of a reach for them, but they still enjoyed it. I'm not sure I'll purchase a copy (for the reason that my main group isn't super keen), but I'd like to explore it more, even if just on Board Game Arena.
Conspiracy (Abyss Universe: I've come to really enjoy Abyss, but I think I enjoy it the most in my group, and I'm unlikely to get my family to play it (the dark, fishy artwork will be a nonstarter for them). So I was curious about the shorter, simpler Abyss card game. We played this on BGA, and afterward, my group all sheepishly said, "I like this better than Abyss." I wouldn't say I join them in this opinion, but I can definitely see where they're coming from. It's 80% of Abyss in 20% of the time, which makes it a much less fraught proposition when it comes out. And the 80% it retains are my favorite parts (essentially, the choice of taking the card you can see or drawing from the deck, knowing that by doing so you're improving options for your opponents). Anyway, I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I might track down a physical copy of this as I think it's an interesting and quick card game.
Super Mega Lucky Box: This was the subject of this month's review, and the second new Phil Walker-Harding title this month (after Llamaland). Super Mega Lucky Box is, as I said in my review, Bingo for the Ganz Schoen Clever crowd. With each flip of the card, you get to mark an X on one of your cards, and when you complete a row or column, you get a bonus, which can help you complete another row or column for another bonus, and another bonus, and so on. It's simple enough that my five- and seven-year-old kids can play (and my friend's five- and seven-year-olds), but it's interesting enough that my game group liked it. (When I didn't bring it two meetings in a row, it was missed and requested for our next get-together.) I think this is great, especially for mixed groups of kids and adults, but even among just adults, this is still enjoyable.
Colt Super Express: I didn't like Colt Express very much. I thought it focused too much on the parts I didn't like (the loot) and not enough on the shootin' and schemin', and it went on too long. Colt Super Express feels like it was made to address all my concerns. Basically, it is all cards, and players program three actions per round, with the goal of knocking other bandits off the train (and not being knocked off themselves). We played with three players, which I'm sure is not the game's ideal count, and it was surprisingly enjoyable. There were genuine laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of hilarious surprises (as when I rode my horse to the front of the train and promptly walked off). My rating on this one could rise, but this works very well as a short, chaotic filler. I plan to take this one to my family Christmas. I think the kids will get a kick out of this especially.
Marrakech: I've been curious about this one for a while, so I convinced my group to play it on Board Game Arena. Marrakech is kind of like an abstract version of Monopoly. Basically, there's a common piece that moves around the board according to a die roll, and when it lands on a rug, the mover has to pay the player whose rug they landed on. Then the active player places one of their rugs around the moving piece. I was terrible at this (I'd like to blame this at least partly on bad rolls and partly on the fact that my group was conspiring to keep me from winning), but this was a lot of fun. There were big groans or cheers when something went wrong or right, and despite the simple rules and the luck, it wasn't mindless. It seemed to fill that wonderful "Butterfly" niche on BGA: a short, interactive closer for the night. I enjoyed this, but I'm especially excited to try this with kids. (I just ordered a copy in the marketplace, so I'll get a chance to try it with them soon.)
Fort: Fort has gotten a lot of love recently, and after reading the rules, this seemed interesting. Fort, at least in some ways, seems like Glory to Rome: The Deck-building game. And while that will likely attract people for whom Glory to Rome is an unattainable grail game, for me, I was left thinking that I would much rather play Fort's ancestor. I found Fort interesting from a design standpoint but a little boring to play, as there were lots of restrictions and the combos I was able to pull off just didn't seem that interesting. My group liked this even less than I did, so it's not one we're likely to explore (even though I imagine this would get better with more plays). I just can't see a reason trying to like this one more when Glory to Rome is also an option to play.
Pencil Nose: I visited my college roommate this month, and his kids really wanted to play this. Pencil nose is...just what it sounds like. It's Pictionary, only you draw on a see-through surface with a dry erase marker strapped to your nose. It was kind of funny to see the kids enjoying this, and it wasn't unfun, but the marker kept falling out of the nose holster, and this seems like the kind of one-trick-pony gimmick that would get old fast. Still, if someone really wanted to play, I would oblige, and probably enjoy it.
I wrote one review in October, for Super Mega Lucky Box. I also posted my top 37 games of all time.
What did you play in October?
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For my October review, I decided to write about a game my family has been playing and enjoying this month, Super Mega Lucky Box.
Years ago the hobby gaming world was abuzz with excitement for a game that took Bingo and made it into a strategy game. Rise of Augustus was even nominated for the Spiel des Jahres award. But for me? I found I'd rather just play Bingo.*
I found that Rise of Augustus sucked the air out of an activity that is meant to be exciting. No, Bingo is not a decision-rich activity, but there's still a spark in Bingo, that we're all playing until someone wins, and that someone might be you.
For me, Super Mega Lucky Box by Phil Walker-Harding is the kind of game I'd hoped Rise of Augustus would be: it harnesses the natural excitement of Bingo, gives players opportunities to make decisions, and pays off tremendously in how much fun it is, especially in mixed groups of children and adults.
Super Mega Lucky Box is Bingo for the Ganz Schön Clever crowd. Players have between three and six cards in front of them at any time, each with a 3x3 matrix of numbers on it, and on a turn, a number card is flipped over from the deck, and each player crosses off one instance of that number on one of their cards. This is very simple and almost instantly understandable to both kids and adults. (Even my five-year-old has played Bingo in school.)
So far, so simple. But Super Mega Lucky Box tweaks the formula just slightly to amp up the excitement throughout.
First, each time a player completes a row or column on one of their cards, they get an instant reward. These rewards can include crossing off another number on one of their cards, circling stars on their score card for points, or collecting lightning bolt or moon tokens. But the rewards only stop when the player does, and it's possible for one reward to cascade into another and into another and so on, which makes it feel almost as if you've won that lawn chair or cooler at your company's Bingo game when you can pull off a combo on your turn.
But if that's all Super Mega Lucky Box had to offer, it might be exciting, but it's still pretty beholden to luck. So, second, players can use lightning bolts to alter the value for themselves of the card just flipped. Is that a 7 but you need a 5? Just pay two lightning. Need a 1 but a 9 was flipped? For just one lightning, the value you need can be yours! With the values wrapping around, no number is more than four lightning bolts away. Players start the game with four lightning, but they have to be careful in managing this resouce: if they spend all their lightning, they're at the mercy of luck entirely, so it's better to make do if at all possible.
Third, while in Bingo the number drawn is entirely random, in Super Mega Lucky Box there's some knowledge of what could come up. Each round, eighteen cards are shuffled together (two of each number 1-9), and nine are used for the round. While there can be some repetition (two 1s, for example), you know there will never be three. This makes lightning bolts important (you want to be able to make your own luck), but it also keeps the game from devolving into a memory exercise that advantages older players. Each player is constantly on the edge of their seat, hoping their number comes up.
And also, fourth, there's another way to mitigate luck. At the start of the game, each player receives five cards from which they will choose three to mark. Then, at the start of each new round, players receive three and keep one. So while there isn't much control around which numbers show up, players can ensure they keep a spread of numbers and bonuses that will help them toward victory.
Players score points for completing their cards (more points the earlier you do this), for marking several stars in a single round, and for collecting moons, which are similar to Sushi Go's puddings: most moons earns a player 6 points, while fewest loses them 6 points. Players also score consolation points for not completing their cards for each number they crossed off. And that's it! Most points wins.
Super Mega Lucky Box is lucky: it's in the title, and there's no getting around it. There are ways to mitigate the luck, and they're not nothing, but players don't have much knowledge of what's coming. It's more a game of hedging your bets and harnessing bonuses. Sometimes your bets won't pay out, and sometimes luck won't go your way. But even though this is a game that leans heavily into luck, it is just plain fun to play.
One of the main reasons for this is the constant positive reinforcement players receive from bonuses activating. Each time you complete a row or column, you get something that will help you along, whether this is an extra box to cross off, more lightning bolts to help you mitigate luck, or additional ways to score. It feels good to feel like you're making progress, and it feels even better when you can trigger two, three, or four bonuses in a single turn.
Beyond the positive reinforcement is the excitement this game manages to bring to the table. Again, as I mentioned before, the best Bingo experiences are in a room full of players because everyone's mind is on the same activity, and everyone is hoping--on the edge of their seat--for their number to come up. There are only nine possible numbers to hope for in Super Mega Lucky Box, and players can change numbers as needed with lightning bolts, so they have their hopes come true more often than in Bingo, yet that feeling of always wanting something keeps players invested.
One thing I love about Phil Walker-Harding's designs is the way he makes it easy for kids to participate. Yes, it's true, kids won't always make the wisest, most efficient choices, but there is something to be said for child participation in games that are fun for adults, too. In Sushi Go (versus the more adult 7 Wonders), kids can choose whichever cards they want, based on whichever criteria they value, without worrying about prerequisites or future planning. Does this mean their scores will be great? No. But they can play. Super Mega Lucky Box is the same. The activity is simple enough that children can participate with minimal coaching or supervision, and even if they don't win, they still feel good about what they've accomplished.
Part of the excitement here (over something like, say, Rise of Augustus) is the look and components of the game. I didn't think it was a big deal that players can draw on the cards of the game with dry erase markers, but my five-year-old is positively jubilant in raising this point (which he does often). There's something transgressive to kids who are usually told (for the hundredth time...) not to write on everything that, in this instance, they can make their marks right on the cards. While the game is essentially abstract, the lightning bolts and moons are well chosen as symbols, and the little tokens players claim look and feel good. The "schoolhouse rock" vibe to the game's art direction makes it feel approachable, and the rules of the game don't complicate this notion.
I find the scoring in Super Mega Lucky Box more dynamic than in Sushi Go, which for me is a point in its favor. I like Sushi Go, but it seems like no matter what I do, each card scores between 2 and 4 points, with very little variance. In Super Mega Lucky Box, there's more room for divergent scores, which I find to be rewarding (although can potentially lead to more sour grapes, depending on the audience). The reason for this is there are greater rewards for risks that pay off. If you circle one star in a round, you score 1 point. If you manage to circle two stars, you score 4 points. But if you can circle three in a single round? That's 9 points! But if you miss it by a turn--say, your third star you circle in the first flip of the next round--you're down 4 points on the gamble. Similarly, as in the arms race in many similar games, collecting moons is great...if you have the most. But if you miss it by one or (worse) have the fewest even if you were trying to collect them, it can have a dismal effect on your score. Again, for the type of game this is, I like the risky options because it heightens excitement.
There is also a natural catch-up mechanism in the game: the more cards you complete sooner in the game, the fewer options you have when cards are flipped--meaning, if you complete your cards sooner, you will be more likely to need to hit numbers exactly to do anything on your turn (because you'll have fewer hits from the cards). Completing cards early is usually worth it anyway, but depending on the bonuses you're going for, you might try to play with your timing some.
I like Super Mega Lucky Box a lot. I've played the game 7 times with one, three, and four players in several different groups, among just adults and with multiple mixed groups of kids and adults, and it has gone over well each time. I suspect that the game will scale well with more players (I probably wouldn't play with just two, and the solitaire game is just okay), to the point that I've considered buying multiple copies for something the whole family can play together at Christmas. Played among adults, Super Mega Lucky Box is unlikely to be the centerpiece of a game night, but it makes a decent opener or closer as it's fast, simple to teach, and exciting (if not to be taken too seriously). It's good for adults; it's excellent for families, especially if you're trying to cater to several different ages at once.
The insert holds everything in place. (Also, I'll add that these are very high quality dry erase markers with fine tips. Kudos to Gamewright for their sourcing.)
Super Mega Lucky Box succeeds in translating the excitement of Bingo into a game that just about anyone (with the right mind-set) can enjoy, even without the promise of fabulous prizes. The game is constantly making players feel good through achieving bonuses, and players can feel clever in choosing their cards and mitigating their luck, yet it's also simple enough for even young school-age children to grasp. This is the kind of game that you hope unsuspecting new gamers will stumble upon in Target or elsewhere, as it's simple to grasp but tremendously fun to play. This is currently a family favorite, and I expect this will be a hit at our holiday celebrations with extended family this year.
* I played Rise of Augustus before I had children, so I admit that I may have been wrong about this one. I'd need to play again in a mixed group to see.
- [+] Dice rolls
18 Oct 2021
Today I posted a Geeklist of my top 37 games...at 37.
As I explain at the list, two years ago I moved my annual top games list to October to coincide with my birthday. And since 100 games feels like too many and 10 feels like too few, I add a new spot to the list for each year of life.
Feel free to interact there with my choices. Both agreement and dissent are encouraged.
- [+] Dice rolls
Here's what I played in September:
10 Innovation (43 all-time)
10 Terraforming Mars x2 (139 all-time)
10 Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition x7 (41 all-time)
9 Boomerang: Australia (19 all-time)
9 Cubitos x2 (5 all-time)
9 It's a Wonderful World (45 all-time)
9 Lost Ruins of Arnak (14 all-time)
9 Luxor (9 all-time)
9 Nova Luna x6 (25 all-time)
9 Regicide x2 (13 all-time)
9 So Clover! x15 NEW!
9 Warsaw: City of Ruins x4 (14 all-time)
8 Agricola (Revised Edition) (8 all-time)
8 Almadi NEW!
8 Animal Upon Animal x2 (93 all-time)
8 Butterfly x2 (25 all-time)
8 Clans of Caledonia x2 (7 all-time)
8 Encore! (11 all-time)
8 Family Inc. x4 NEW!
8 Scarabya x15 NEW!
7.5 Anchors Aweigh! x2 NEW!
7 Draftosaurus (20 all-time)
7 First Orchard x2 (106 all-time)
7 Pokémon Trading Card Game x3 NEW!
7 Spot it! x2 (98 all-time)
6 Hansa Teutonica (5 all-time)
5 Kung Fu NEW!
Late in August, my company's president sent out an e-mail that he was giving us all the Friday before Labor Day off. This was incredible news...except that it didn't really come early enough that we could plan for it. My kids still had school, and my wife still had work. So a coworker suggested having a game day. This was an excellent plan.
Even with such short notice, only a few of us could make it, and we had rotating availability. We started at 9:30 in the morning with Lost Ruins of Arnak (my first time playing multiplayer in-person), which did not disappoint. We followed up with Hansa Teutonica, which...well, always disappoints. (Heretical, perhaps, but I think I'm done trying to like this one.) We played Agricola and set up an aborted game of Trajan, which we gave up because another person unexpectedly showed up. We then wished we had given up on Kung Fu. But the star of the show this day was two filler games: So Clover! and Family Inc. (both of which I record my thoughts on below). In fact, So Clover was my most-played game of September (and this in spite of the fact that it requires other people to play).
Setting up a game day is not as easy as it used to be. While I was setting Agricola up to play with my friend (he had never tried it), I was recounting how, once upon a time (this feels almost like a fairy tale...), when a blizzard hit Chicagoland, my wife's grad school classes and my work both called off because of the snow. We lived in an apartment at the time, so we didn't even have to shovel the snow. We had nowhere to be and nothing pressing to do, so we ended up playing nine games of Agricola in a single day. (I think around 4:30 in the afternoon, I strolled outside to brush the snow off our car since our parking lot had been plowed by that time.) So care-free.
Fast-forward to this game day, and even though we all had the day off work, we had other obligations to fulfill. One guy had to pick up his kids after school; the host's son's preschool called off for the day, so he was popping in and out of our games. (He sat next to me during Hansa Teutonica and made it clear that he wasn't cheering for me to win. Obviously, that's why I lost.) Another guy couldn't come at all because he and his wife were sorting his kids' school clothes. I had to leave to pick up my family's customary Friday pizza.
Putting together a game day, even in this strange pocket of time we all unexpectedly had off, should have been simple, but things are never that simple anymore. It made me grateful that game nights or days happen at all, if only fleetingly.
Beyond this, there's not too much that happened in September. Someone chose a book for book club that made The Midnight Library (about which I complained last month) seem like Shakespeare. (Incidentally, our next book club selection is Hamnet.) And I did read a couple of excellent books: A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders and Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri.
It's convention season, and despite whispers from my wiser angels, I've preordered some games (held up, as usual, by our world's current logistics nightmare). Maybe I'll write about them next month if they arrive in time.
Here's the new stuff I played in September:
So Clover!: So Clover! is a cooperative word association game where the spatial placement of words matters. At the start of the game, each player gets a clover board with four random cards placed on the board's notches. Then, on each leaf of their clover, players write a one-word clue that will (hopefully) get the other players to put the correct word card in that spot. Once this is done, one at a time, players remove the cards, shuffle an extra one in with their four, and reveal their clues. The other players then try to put the word cards back in the right spots. This may seem like a simple task, and indeed, some boards are easier than others, I'm sure. But forming connections between words like "dog" and "soup" is not as easy as it seems. (I gave the clue "Lassie" based on Lassie's famous Campbell's commercial, but alas! my teammates didn't get this.) The spatial consideration of where to place the word cards is what makes this one so fascinating: each card has four words, one on each side, and you have to place the four cards so that the words line up in the right way. "Is this connection strong enough to merit the big stretch here?" "If I had those two words together, what would I put?" This has consistently led to lots of laughs and fun, from the cleverness of the clues and the way they're put together. (One player came up with the clue "proctologist" for "sticky" and "doctor" and "ursaphilia" for "bear" and "fever.") The game itself is clever and fun; the discussion and creativity and laughter that arise from the task (along with the positive, cooperative vibe) make this a big winner (although, while it's less pressure than Codenames, there can still be pressure for those who don't like to be put on the spot). Is it better than Just One? Not sure, but I'm also not sure it needs to be. It's fun in its own right. (It also has very simple scaling. Want more of a challenge? Add extra cards. We tried this with experienced players, and both cluegivers and guessers had to up their game.)
Almadi: After seeing the Dice Tower review and being intrigued, I was pleased to see this was on Board Game Arena to try. Almadi is a tile-laying game that at first seems very restrictive: on your turn, you draft a tile from the main board, but you have to place this tile in the same row in your personal player area. You get to activate the tile you placed, but only if arrows point at symbols. The game is 18 turns, and you score for how your tiles are situated and various other things. You also can't rotate tiles. While these seem like huge restraints at first, these allow the game to open up in interesting ways. (There would be far too many options otherwise.) It's satisfying to build your tiles in front of you, and it's especially satisfying when you can use your genies to fly tiles to different spots around your board for even more combos. The BGA implementation was pretty solitary (it was hard to view other players' areas), but I think the in-person game will have more interaction. In any case, I hope this one makes it to the States. It's thinky but also approachable. (Note: we played the base game, not the advanced one. I'm eager to try that after this initial taste.)
Family Inc.: Family Inc. is a press-your-luck game from Reiner Knizia that is reminiscent of Cheeky Monkey. On a turn, the active player draws chips (valued 1-10) from the center of the table until the player either quits or busts. Players bust if they draw two chips of the same value. When a player quits, they claim all chips of matching values from other players' holdings. Players score any held chips at the start of their turn, and the first person to 100 points wins. One other rule: if a player busts in the first three drawn chips on their turn, they receive a diamond as compensation. If a player gets three diamonds, they can turn them in for 50 points. Family Inc. is super simple, but it is a pretty outstanding push-your-luck game. There can be lots of changes of fortune as chips change hands and as the players who keep busting catch up with diamonds, and it's a game with a lot of schadenfreude and outbursts. The typical Knizia rule applies: what seems like such a simple concept on paper turns into huge fun around the table. What I liked most about this is that it speaks to conservative and risky players. You want to draw more chips to hopefully collect more points from other players. But you also don't want to bust if you don't at least get a diamond out of the deal. It's funny, too, as players who collect diamonds might cheer for themselves to bust just to put themselves back in the game. I really like this one.
Scarabya: Scarabya is a polyomino tile-laying game that is largely multiplayer solitaire and abstract. Basically, players are placing pentominos on their exploration board trying to make scarabs more valuable. The chief twist, however, is that rather than trying to cover things up on your board, you are trying to hem in scarab spaces so that they score. Scarabs are worth 1 point x the number of spaces in the closed-off area, but a closed-off area can't be more than four spaces large. The first time I played this, I was a little shocked at how much this twist forced me to rethink my typical polyomino thinking. I've played this exclusively solo (although I threw out the solo variant in the book and have played this just as a "beat your top score" game), but it's a pretty compelling puzzle. The components are pretty trashy, though (warped boards that don't fit back in the frames very well, thin pieces, look that hinders play), so I'm not surprised this one didn't take off. The components inhibit the game they're trying to facilitate.
Anchors Aweigh!: I would be shocked if Anchors Aweigh! was not designed to be Galaxy Trucker Jr. Anchors Aweigh! is Galaxy Trucker stripped of its spatial puzzle and mountains of rules. The game is played in two rounds, and a round is played in two phases. First, a number of sailing cards are laid out, and players see what kind of stuff they might need. They grab tiles simultaneously and load them onto their ship. Then, the cards are shuffled, and each card is resolved one by one. Resolving a card usually means exchanging tiles on your ship for lucrative goods or coins. Most cards don't have a penalty, but if you go up against pirates and lose, you have to pay something. Once all the cards are dealt with, players cash in every 10 coins they've earned for unlosable treasure chests and go again (but these treasure chests take up space on your ship). Most coins wins. While I would choose Galaxy Trucker almost 100% of the time if I were playing with adults, Anchors Aweigh! is very easy to teach and works well with kids. It's a great mixed group game, in a way that I don't think Galaxy Trucker is. My kids really enjoyed this one, and I enjoyed playing with them too.
Pokemon Trading Card Game: We borrowed Pokemon Shield from my brother-in-law, and my seven-year-old daughter has really enjoyed it, so I decided to see if she might like the card game since some other kids from her school play. I had played this many moons ago when my best friend in high school convinced me to play. We dipped our toes in lots--and I mean lots--of other CCGs, but I was still surprised when he introduced this one, as this seemed pretty simple next to some of the other stuff we played. The Pokemon TCG is a beginner CCG, which is kind of perfect for kids (if not for high schoolers). I had no idea where to dip my toe in, so I got us the Battle Academy set, which comes with three preconstructed decks, a game board with spaces and reminders on it, and a tutorial guide that walks you through the first several turns of play. This was perfect for this age range. The game itself is fine--it's a gentler CCG than most--but what I'm most impressed with is how it is a good vehicle to teach my daughter about strategy in a game she thinks is fun. This wouldn't be my choice with only adults, but it's fun to play with my daughter. (I also tried it with my five-year-old son, at his insistence. He's not quite ready.)
Kung Fu: Kung Fu is a drafting and dice allocation game. Each player gets ten cards, and then over the course of (at most) three rounds, players attack each other, trying to lower their opponents' hit points to 0 and be the last fighter standing. One caveat: for our first game, we didn't use drafting, since we weren't sure the relative merits of different cards and I thought frequently consulting the included (and, realizing after the fact, unhelpful) glossary would slow the game down more than it was worth. So I'll admit that this is probably better with drafting, but we did not enjoy our play enough to give it another go. The rulebook, to begin with, is difficult to parse, with gaps in information that made this more difficult to play than it should have been. There weren't as many opportunities for dice manipulation as I'd hoped, and actions seemed obvious. This would almost certainly get better with more plays (less futilely looking up cases in the rulebook would improve this considerably), but based on our one play, I'm not eager to bring this one out again.
I wrote one review in September, for Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition.
What did you play in September?
- [+] Dice rolls
With the delta variant and the school year starting, there has been a return to solo games in my life, so this month I thought I'd review one I've been enjoying lately (with and without other players), Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition.
Once upon a time, I wrote a review of Terraforming Mars, and I described my relationship with that game in this way:Quote:You’ve probably experienced it at some point. A friend of yours has a boyfriend or girlfriend that…you just don’t understand the relationship. The girlfriend is nice enough, but it seems she and your friend fight all the time, and you can’t understand why they’re together in the first place, but you find it even harder to believe that after breaking up again and again, they keep finding themselves back together.... My relationship with Terraforming Mars is kind of like that.My conclusion in the review was that, while I really like the solitaire play of Terraforming Mars, I just didn't care for it with other players at the table. It was a frustrating experience, yet I still kind of wanted to play it more with other players.
Well, since writing that review, I have played it more with other players, and I still don't like the multiplayer game much. It was slow, given to some unevenness unless you drafted (which slowed the game down even more), and (in my estimation) was mostly multiplayer solitaire--that is, until you were occasionally, unexpectedly bashed in the back with the take-that hammer. I recognize why people love it, but for my taste, I needed it to be shorter, snappier, and to remove the occasional take that broadsides for me to do the same. In a word, I needed it to be Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition.
Ares Expedition is, according to the box, "the Terraforming Mars card game," but that tagline can be misleading. Usually in hobby circles, "the card game" is shorthand for "shorter, simpler skeleton of the larger game," and I suppose that in some way fits here. Ares Expedition is a shorter, simpler version of the larger game. It's just that, in this case, it feels less like a stripping back to the bone and more like Terraforming Mars on a weight-loss plan.
Ares Expedition, like its ancestor, is full of cards, and these cards offer production opportunities, unique actions, and ongoing abilities. It's just that many of the parts that I found boring are now either abstracted away (the tile play) or streamlined (the slow turns) by the new action-selection structure.
In Ares Expedition, as in the larger game, players are corporations from Earth tasked with, well, terraforming Mars. (The title is a little on the nose.) Each corporation has a special ability--some way that they are specifically trying to shape Mars to their advantage--and while the game ends once the three global terraforming parameters, to which all players contribute, are achieved, the winner is the player with the most points, gained, yes, by contributing to the global terraforming project but also by organizing their own projects in their own niche.
The meat of the game is the deck of project cards, which has 208 unique cards divided into three colors: green development cards (which enhance your production of money [sorry, I can't bring myself to say "megacredits" with a straight face], heat, and plants as well as your stores of titanium and steel), red event cards (sweeping one-off occurrences that can cause big changes to the face of Mars--for a price), and blue active cards, which provide ongoing abilities or actions you can perform. Your goal as a corporation is to skillfully play these cards to build your brand on the Red Planet.
While Terraforming Mars followed the "players perform actions until everyone passes" mold, the round structure in Ares Expedition is...well, mostly cribbed from Race for the Galaxy. Players secretly and simultaneously choose one phase that will activate for all players, but the choosing player gets a bonus. One phase lets you get new cards, two phases let you play cards, one phase produces resources, and one phase lets you trade those resources in for points. Only chosen phases activate in a round, and they activate in order.
I've read several comments comparing this game to Race for the Galaxy, and when you've got this round structure, that makes sense. You're kind of inviting it. But while the structure is (one might say eerily) similar, the feel of a round in Ares Expedition is quite different. And the main thing that separates it is that, while in Race for the Galaxy cards are multiuse--both the things you build and the currency you need to pay for them--here, resources and cards are separate. While you can always discard cards for money, most of the time you'll probably be spending a discrete resource from your player board rather than just discarding cards. Race is a phenomenal hand management game; Ares Expedition is a phenomenal resource management game of juggling multiple currencies and always feeling like you're more strapped than you want to be. While Race is, well, a race, Ares Expedition is more of a slow burn. The common accusation against Race is that the game is over before you've really gotten to use your engine. I think few people would make that accusation of Ares Expedition. You build your engine, and then you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor as it runs again and again.
So the overall feeling is different from Race for the Galaxy, but the action phase in Ares Expedition also sets it apart. Players can play blue action cards to their tableau, and these only take effect during the action phase. Actions usually cost something to trigger an ability, but they usually involve resource conversions or back-door ways to complete the terraforming objective, as well as additional ways to score points. Players can also use the "standard projects" only in the action phase, which allow players to convert heat into raised temperatures, plants into raised oxygen, or money into either (as well as placing oceans on the board). Early in the game, the action phase is often left unchosen. But as the game ramps up, the action phase becomes crucial, and choosing this phase can be an especial boon: the choosing player gets to activate one of their action cards twice. The action phase is mostly what moves Ares Expedition toward its endgame as players complete the global terraforming project.
The simultaneous actions of Ares Expedition, as well as the abstracted board play and removal of take-that elements, do tend to make Ares Expedition more solitary than its predecessor. There are few common point sources that players squabble over and few common things at all. There are two main sources of interaction in Ares Expedition: the global parameters, which end the game for everyone once they are triggered, and the phase selection. While each corporation in Ares Expedition can more or less do their own thing, they have to do so with one eye on the game's clock. If another player is rushing the global parameters, or rushing particular global parameters, you might not have enough time to pursue your strategy. (Once a global parameter reaches its threshold, players no longer score points for raising it. The governments of the world only care about the bare minimum for habitability, not comfort!) So you have to adjust what you're doing based on when the game is likely to end.
The phase selection is where most of the tension is felt, however. Each round, players choose just one phase to activate for all players. You know that each player can't choose the same phase twice in a row (an innovation on Race's system), which gives some insight into what other players might choose, and the other players' tableaus and resources can give you more information. The timing of phases in Ares Expedition feels even more crucial than in Race (getting resources for cards comes after the card-playing phases here), and it's so satisfying when you can accurately guess what's going to happen.
Each player receives a personal player board, which tracks their production as well as stores their resources. (These dual-layer boards are in the Kickstarter edition.)
I mentioned the resource-management puzzle earlier, but I want to return to it, because that is the reason I love this game so much. Players have to balance producing money, heat, and plants, but there are other options for them to pursue their goals. Some action cards let you trade one resource for another. Some cards give you kickbacks or discounts if you perform certain actions. Sometimes you'll want to produce the resources to let you terraform Mars more organically, and other times you'll be rich enough to pay someone else to do it for you. Investing in steel and titanium doesn't do anything for your plans directly, but it can make certain cards much cheaper for you to play.
What makes these resource management decisions compelling is the trade offs. Action cards and cards that give you ongoing abilities are often expensive--is it worth it to play them early to get their effects for longer? Or should you build up your production, trusting that the small accumulation of resources over time will help you more? Is it better to keep your cards to build (they're all so tempting!)? Or is it better to discard them for the small boost you need to play another card sooner? These are the types of decisions I love, because while every card is situationally great, it's up to players to decide which cards should be played--and not only which cards should be played, but when? Are you better off waiting for another opportunity, when you have more money available, or should you stretch early to capitalize on someone else choosing the phase now? Every turn is full of delicious decisions like this.
While there are other ways to score points, the game channels players toward the terraforming project, which both earns points and increases revenue during the production phase. Terraforming early means there are more opportunities available and more money during the game, but it can also prevent you from playing more cards. Again, trade-offs.
At the start of the game, each player will receive two corporations to choose from. Corporations guide the strategy you might take through the game.
Ares Expedition is also interesting because of the tag system. Every card you play has zero to three "tags" on the card, circles that indicate what category the card falls into. Some cards offer discounts depending on what tags you've played; others give you more production capabilities based on your tags. While the focus of the game is engine building and resource management, tags offer a sort of set-collection minigame that can send players fishing for cards and trying to put together interesting combos. And that's what the game is all about: finding a combination between your corporation and the cards you play that best allows you to exploit the game's structure for points.
Of course, in a deck as large as Ares Expedition's, you're not guaranteed to see the cards you need, and as in Terraforming Mars, luck of the draw is a big factor here. This is mitigated somewhat because 1) each card can be sold at anytime for 3 credits, 2) the research action lets you more effectively fish for cards than in Terraforming Mars, and 3) while expensive, players can produce cards during the production phase, so there are more and more varied opportunities to draw. This isn't likely to satisfy those who prefer low-luck games.
But I think Ares Expedition's luck is half the point. There is an air of expectation and excitement whenever you approach a draw deck of over two hundred cards, each unique, and pick something at random. Grab bags are fun, even if sometimes you just get stationery instead of the toys or candy you had hoped for (not speaking form experience or anything...). And the main fun of Ares Expedition is spinning whatever you find into gold, or, to switch metaphors, bolting another doohickey onto your Rube Goldberg contraption, hoping that you can churn out more points than your fellow players. There is strategy in the game, but much of the fun is building your engine out of the parts you find at hand.
I like Ares Expedition quite a bit. Compared to Terraforming Mars, it's quicker, it's simpler (without being simplistic), and it retains my favorite parts of the game while adding new hand management wrinkles. I do think it's a pretty solitary affair--perhaps more than Terraforming Mars (although that's up for debate)--and it's slower than other solitary engine builders like Race for the Galaxy or Wingspan. There's more text on the cards and more variation in abilities, which can slow down your early games even further. I do find it more rewarding than Wingspan and Race for the Galaxy (in the sense I feel like I've accomplished more), and the marriage of science theme to Euroy engine builder works for me. But this still won't be for everyone.
The components of my Kickstarter copy are very nice. I like the dual-layer boards, and the lidded trays make setup for this game a breeze. I found the cards hard to riffle shuffle (they're very thick), so I ended up sleeving them. Truth is, there's no great way to shuffle a 200+ card deck, but I manage it with sleeved mash shuffling. The art in Ares Expedition is a marked improvement over Terraforming Mars, but I'm surprised at how little this matters or affects the game in any way. I'm seldom looking at the art, but rather am trying to find a way to make cards work with my strategy. I like the pearlescent cubes quite a bit.
The components are mostly good, but I don't use the board that came with the game. It's not well suited to the task.
I will say that the central game board is a huge misstep in what is otherwise a nice package. The terraforming track spaces are too small to hold multiple cubes, and there is no reason (save a nod to the theme) to lay out the ocean tiles face-down and flip each one on the board, potentially jostling the other components. I played on this board a few times (with great frustration) and then printed and laminated a board available on BGG, which has vastly improved my experience of the game. I also never flip the phase tiles included in the game, but to each their own.
I've played Ares Expedition north of forty times now, mostly solo, and I still enjoy each experience. There is quite a bit of variance from game to game, which keeps it fresh--you never know exactly what cards you will get and how you'll have to put them together. (It feels a little like an old CCG draft in that respect.) As a solo game, I prefer this to Terraforming Mars simply because it's faster without sacrificing much of the core that I like, and the difficulty is scaleable. (I find the standard difficulty a tough challenge.) I could usually finish a solo game of Terraforming Mars in around 50 minutes with the physical copy. I can fit two games of Ares Expedition into a lunch hour.
Ares Expedition is, for me, the ideal incarnation of the Terraforming Mars formula. The take-that is gone, the gameplay is streamlined, and I still get the delicious resource-management puzzle and cool sciencey theme. While I do play Terraforming Mars occasionally (always solo and via the app), Ares Expedition is the game I would rather play when others are at the table. And if I'm alone, it's hard to beat for a challenging and quick solo puzzle that still feels substantial. Ares Expedition is the Bringer of War I can finally bring home.
- [+] Dice rolls
Here's what I played in August:
10 A Feast for Odin (9 all-time)
10 Mage Knight Board Game (12 all-time)
10 Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition x12 (34 all-time)
9 Just One x3 (59 all-time)
9 Regicide x11 NEW!
9 Roll for the Galaxy x2 (41 all-time)
9 The Castles of Burgundy (9 all-time)
9 The Isle of Cats x4 (10 all-time)
8.5 Cubitos x3 NEW!
8 5-Minute Marvel x6 (67 all-time)
8 Animal Upon Animal (91 all-time)
8 Cat Lady x3 (5 all-time)
8 Celestia (10 all-time)
8 Rhino Hero (98 all-time)
7 Diamant (32 all-time)
6 Halli Galli NEW!
August was a transition month for us, and a pretty hectic time in my household. My wife started her new job as a coordinator for a college department, and one of her big tasks is to plan the logistics for new student orientation. So August is her busiest month, and it was pretty busy for me, too.
The new school year also started for us in mid-August, and for the first time, all three of my children are now in full-day school. They're in person as well, but I'm trying to hold on to this loosely, as I know the situation is precarious. But this feels like a game changer.
At the very end of July, we started attending a new church that meets on Saturday nights, which has meant, also for the first time, that I've had my Sunday mornings entirely free. I decided in August to use Sunday mornings as a time to go disc golfing. Before my kids were born, I used to go disc golfing often. We ended up moving just down the road from the courses where I used to play, but I hadn't been for almost a decade. It has been refreshing to play again. I was never very good, but I still enjoy it. And it's nice to get out of my noisy house for a bit and enjoy my walk-with-a-purpose. I try to reserve Sunday as a day of rest (as much as possible with three young children), and this has been a nice way to do that. I've also made coffee roasting part of my Sunday ritual again, which pays nice dividends throughout the week.
One of my main hobbies outside of board games is books, and I've run a book club out of my house since September 2012. (For our first meeting, everyone ended up being sick, so we canceled that meeting. An inauspicious start, but we've kept going.) The book club started with my wife, several coworkers, and me, and even though some of these coworkers have moved on to other jobs (and even other states), we still meet once a month to discuss a book.
Here's a confession: I don't like a lot of the books we read for book club. The choice for each book rotates, and my taste differs from that of several (most?) members of the group. (For one thing, I tend to favor old books, while most of the group favors modern ones.) But each month, I read the book--not because I know I'm going to like it, but because I am eager for the discussion. In August, my group read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I did not care for this book for a number of reasons. But this was one of the best discussions we've had. We stayed on topic for roughly two hours, which doesn't always happen even for what I would consider a good book.
Why am I talking about this? For one, to recommend this practice to you. I think reading in community is great. It has a way of broadening your perspective in a way that arguing on the internet does not. (For one thing, you recognize that the person you're disagreeing with is a fellow human and deserves respect. They're not a meme or the latest avatar for That Group You Disagree With.) Our discussions can become heated--we're an opinionated bunch--but we've been meeting together for years in spite of this. I cherish these discussions.
This latest book club meeting also echoed something I've written about before in this monthly review: the right company is more important than the "right" game to play. I'd rather play a light card or dice game with people whose company I enjoy than Glory to Rome with people whose company I don't enjoy. This is a helpful realization, as during Covidtide, I haven't had my favorite games available to me and have had to rely on what is available on Board Game Arena and elsewhere. But it also takes some of the pressure off maximizing a game night. Any time spent in the company of people you enjoy is time well spent.
I'm curious: is there an activity you participate in more for the discussion/time spent with friends than because of the activity itself?
Now on to the games. While I had gotten away from solitaire games in the last few months, circumstances this month saw their return. After an eight-month hiatus, I returned to Mage Knight, and...I remembered almost nothing of how the game is played. I sat down with heaps of components sprawled across my table, and like Gandalf in Moria, I found myself saying, "I have no memory of this place." Mage Knight is a game I would typically say I enjoy in spite of its ridiculous complexity, but this play was a slog. So now I'm faced with a dilemma: either relearn how to play (and hope it sticks) or give up on it altogether. I already have sunk costs here from the game and its accessories, but my gut from that play is telling me it's time to move on. We'll see what happens.
I also returned to A Feast for Odin, which was not quite such a head-scratcher, and Isle of Cats, which was delightful. I got to play this for the first time with other people, and I enjoyed the experience quite a bit (despite being bested by a single point). The considerations involved with other players make this more than just an interesting player-board puzzle. There were also a few truly new games I played (described below).
Here's the new stuff I played in August:
Regicide: Haven't we seen everything that can be done with a standard deck of cards? Well, no, if Regicide is any indication. Regicide is a cooperative hand management game in which players are tasked with overthrowing a corrupt oligarchy. At the start of the game, the "boss" deck is shuffled, with the four jacks on top, then the four queens, then the four kings. Players receive cards, and on their turn, players have to fight the current boss and then suffer damage. Card values (A-10) both do damage to the boss and block damage from the boss. If a player ever takes damage they can't block, players lose the game. Aiding players is that every suit has a special power (but each of the boss cards is immune to the powers of their own suit). I've only played solitaire so far, but the challenge is tough. You have to balance playing your best cards for attack with discarding your best cards to block more damage, and the suit powers add a compelling wrinkle to the game. Games of Regicide are quick and exciting, and the scoring app handles a lot of the upkeep for you. (I made a version for Playingcards.io, if you want to try it. Or, you know, you can use your own deck of playing cards.)
Cubitos: Cubitos is a push-your-luck pool building and racing game. You start the game with a bunch of terrible dice (seven of your nine starting dice only "hit" on one side), and each round, you roll your dice. You can keep rolling as long as you get hits, but if you don't get any hits (after you've already gotten three), you bust. You buy new dice with special powers and use movement to advance your cube on the racetrack, lather, rinse, repeat, until someone crosses the finish line. My main worry about this game was that there are eight--eight!--different dice with special powers available at the start of the game, and it can be overwhelming to internalize the different abilities. (In Quacks, the powers enter gradually.) I've only played with my game group so far, but I needn't have been worried about internalizing the game--it's pretty straightforward, and it is fun to roll a huge fistful of dice every turn. My first game, I wasn't sure about pushing--it didn't seem worth it most of the time. But there are definitely powers that encourage pushing, which I think is where the fun of the game is. I don't like this as well as Quacks, but I do like it and intend to keep it. And if they release an expansion increasing the player count, I am there. (For both this and Quacks, I think the more, the merrier.)
None this month.
Fruit Punch (Halli Galli): Earlier this month, our children's babysitter brought this game to play with them, and when I got home from work, they kept talking about how great it was. I saw it was pretty cheap and picked up a copy since they liked it so much. And then I realized why they like it so much. Fruit Punch/Halli Galli is a speed game. Each player flips over cards one at a time, and as soon as there are exactly five fruits of a type showing, the first person to ring the bell/bop the banana gets all the cards. Players are slowly eliminated; the person with the most cards wins. Why do my kids love the game? Because of the infernal banana. They hit the banana when they think they see a match; they hit it in between rounds; they hit it all the time. So while the game might be interesting in a different context, this one is going back on the shelf for a while, as it's less of a game and more of an excuse to be rowdy and make lots of noise (something my youngest didn't need any help with).
I wrote one review in August, for Luxor.
What did you play in August?
- [+] Dice rolls
I was able to play Luxor again in person recently, and I really enjoyed it, so I thought I'd write my review this month about it, especially because I gave it short shrift when it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2018. Mea culpa.
When Luxor was first released, I didn't pay much attention. When Luxor was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2018 (alongside the fabulous Azul and The Mind), I still didn't pay it much attention because by then I was certain the other two games were better choices for the award. Despite reviewing all the other nominees for both the Spiel and Kennerspiel awards that year, I still passed Luxor by, citing its hefty price tag, frequent Amazon sales, and that I would probably sell it on anyway.
Friends, I was wrong.
Pandemics will do strange things to a person, as we've all seen, and will often force us to change our behavior. When my game group adjusted to meeting online, and at Board Game Arena in particular, we played what was there. And what was there was Luxor. And Luxor, as I've come to find out, is a very good game.
Luxor set up for four players. And yes, this is a staged photo, taken on my small side desk in my office. Luxor is a bit of a table hog, and there's no way four players could play in this scenario. Enjoy the illusion.
The idea of Luxor is that players are adventurers recovering artifacts from an archaeological dig. The central mechanism of Luxor is kind of like roll-and-move, but without the roll: each turn, players will play a card from their hand, which determines how many spaces one of their adventurers can move. That sounds fairly straightforward, and it is--it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, a family gaming award, after all.
But the twist, aside from each player having multiple adventurers to move, is that players have a hand of five cards, the order of those cards is fixed, and players can only play the card at either end of their hand. Ah! Now we're getting to the Spiel des Jahres-nominated special sauce.
The rulebook. True to family-game form, the rules are simple, and the rulebook includes lots of helpful diagrams.
The (rightful) complaint about roll-and-move games is that there is often little player agency. In a game of Monopoly, you're hoping to claim the properties you need while avoiding the high-rent ones that your opponents hold. But it doesn't matter how many times you've landed on Boardwalk before; there is no guarantee it won't happen again, such are the vagaries of dice.
But Luxor mitigates this in two ways. First, players have multiple pawns to move (as in Wolfgang Kramer's Hugo, das Schlossgespenst/Midngight Party, also available on Board Game Arena). And second, while players are fixed in the cards they can play, similar to the random roll of a die, they also have the benefit of foresight, seeing the cards that will eventually make it down the conveyor to the ends of their hands. Players can plan ahead. And this makes all the difference.
Each turn in Luxor follows a simple structure: play a card from either end of your hand and move your adventurer; draw a new card and slide it into the middle of your hand. Again, simple rules make for a game that can be played with children. But there are a lot of clever twists in Luxor.
For one, Luxor is a bit of a race: the end-game condition is when two pawns have entered the burial chamber at the end of the game's track. Players finish the round so everyone gets equal turns, but then the game is over. So it seems like the key to victory is rushing to the finish line. And sometimes it is: players score points for where each adventurer ends up when the game is over, and these pawns are worth more points the farther along the track they are.
The burial chamber. Getting in requires a key, but it can be worth a whopping 18 points if you can pull it off.
But there are also other avenues of scoring, and players may be tempted to take the scenic route--or at least a more leisurely stroll--through the dig site to collect more stuff.
Most of the spaces on the Luxor board are treasure tiles. Treasure tiles are worth immediate points when claimed, but players will also get end-game points for collecting sets of different tiles. So players will want to grab these. But grabbing them is not as simple as landing on them most of the time. Treasure tiles require between one and three of a player's own adventurers on the tile to claim them. Remember when I said it's a good thing that players can plan ahead in Luxor?
This is the most interesting part of the game, and also one of the chief points of interaction between the players. While I can't take something that someone else has already claimed, I can try to beat them to claiming a treasure they're standing on. Players are trying to maneuver their pawns into position to claim the right tiles at the right time, ideally plundering the goods that their opponents want. And you'll find yourself saying, in your best A-team impression, "I love it when a plan comes together." It's so satisfying to look at your hand of five cards that you can under no circumstances adjust and plan several moves into the future to nab that relic you need. And the tension of someone else potentially beating you to it makes it that much sweeter when you can coordinate it properly.
So the game ends when two pawns reach the end of the track, and it rewards players for making it farther, but it also pulls players to move slowly to collect more booty. There are a few other clever mechanisms in the game that enhance this simple dilemma.
First, players have the opportunity to unlock new adventurers as they travel along the path. This means that players can still race to the end while scooping up treasures they may have missed early on. Since new adventurers start at the beginning of the track, players can try both strategies at once--sending one adventurer ahead to the end and leaving one behind to go slow. Or they can try varied approaches that balance these two goals.
The board shifts as treasure tiles are claimed, sometimes revealing temple tiles. By looking at the walls around the board, players can clearly see where these temples will come into play.
And this leads to the second clever mechanism: the board subtly shifts as players play. At the start of my first game, I thought it was ridiculous that new adventurers enter the game so late. Why do I want someone at the start when all of my other pawns are near the end by this point? But the topography of the board changes. Most treasure tiles, once claimed, are removed from the board, and nothing replaces them. Empty spaces are skipped when determining how many spaces to move, so your late-arriving adventurers will move faster than the ones you had at the start of the game.
And also, temple tiles add new wrinkles when they join the board. I said that most treasure tiles, when claimed, leave an empty space behind, but if a treasure tile is claimed from a temple space, a random temple tile (keyed to the location on the board) enters play, and a new space--with new possibilities--appears. These possibilities can be quite tasty. You might claim wild treasure tiles to help you complete end-game sets. Or maybe you'll get scarab tokens, which are worth 1 to 4 hidden points for final scoring. Maybe you'll get access to the Horus cards, or maybe you'll discover a secret passage that will move you farther, faster. So even though treasure tiles disappear with fewer options available, these temple tiles still leave juicy opportunities for late-in-the-game adventurers to claim.
Players can clearly see how players are doing with most of the scoring conditions. Scarabs offer secret points that will be revealed at the end of the game.
I should mention here that the board's changes mean that new strategies will be required each game. Some games you might hit the scarab lever again and again for free points; others you might use secret passages to jump ahead quickly. Some games you might go for lots of sets, if wild treasure tiles are readily available. In addition to the temple tiles appearing randomly, the treasure tiles will be laid out in a different order every game, and the Osiris tiles (which move players forward to land on a different tile) also vary from game to game. The Horus spaces on the board are the only things that are fixed.
And now it's time to talk about Horus cards. Scattered across the board are several Horus spaces. These spaces grant players access to keys (which they'll need to enter the final burial chamber), but instead of a key, you can take a Horus card if you want. Horus cards alter the rules of the game somewhat by giving you much more interesting abilities. The vanilla cards that you get when you refill your hand at the end of a turn usually have a number of spaces to move, and that's it. Some let you move one space forward or backward; some let you roll the die and move a random number of spaces, but these cards are all fairly standard and predictable.
The Horus cards shake the settled formula and make the game much more dynamic, making treasure steals possible and big plays that much more satisfying. There are flexible cards that let you move 1-3 spaces, or even 1-5. There are cards that let you move every adventurer you have one or two spaces, making it possible to sneakily claim a treasure before an opponent in one move. There are cards that let you move a number of spaces and claim a tile with one less adventurer, again, very handy for underhanded treasure stealing. When you take a Horus card, it takes the place of the card you would get at the end of the turn, but it adds more subtle machinations to the game.
But here's the really clever thing: at the start of the game, the only way to get Horus cards is by claiming them from the Horus spaces. But as the game progresses, used Horus cards are discarded to the common discard pile, which means that by the end of the game, you can get Horus cards just by drawing at the end of your turn. While taking a Horus card might forecast to the other players what you're planning to do in 3-5 turns, getting one from the draw pile interjects some added excitement to the game. While you can plan ahead, you can't accurately predict the other players' plans, which keeps the game tense and helps players to be invested even when it isn't their turn.
Osiris and Horus tiles always appear in the same spaces. The Osiris spaces vary from game to game; the Horus tiles are fixed.
So, while I initially wrote Luxor off as a childish roll-and-move game, after playing it eight times, I'm confident that it's more interesting than I and many of the early reviewers gave it credit for. While I think Azul is the rightful winner of 2018's Spiel des Jahres award and my heart is with The Mind, Luxor was an excellent nominee.
That being said, I know some players won't love what's on offer here. It's possible, through no fault of a player's, to be dealt a bad hand, or the wrong cards to get what you want to accomplish done. My response to this would be that players are largely in charge of making their own luck, which is its own challenge and its own reward, but points are awarded based on what players accomplish, and not all players will have access to the same opportunities based on random factors. There may be turns where one option isn't readily recognized as better or worse than any other option, and you have to be prepared for that. Read: this is a family game. Also worth noting is that while the rules are very simple to understand once you have played a few rounds, they can be initially a little overwhelming to young players. I still think this works for younger players, but I'm learning how to teach it well to them. Thankfully, some of the overhead (refilling temple tiles, etc.) can be handled by the adults at the table, and you don't have to explain all the Horus cards at once.
After playing the game a few times on Board Game Arena, I bought a physical copy, and the production of the game is lovely. True to Queen Games form, the box is humongous for what comes inside, but also true to Queen Games form, the quality of the physical materials is very good. The cardboard tiles are thick (and there are a lot of them), the wooden components are well chosen, and the iconography is incredibly clear. There are aids and visual cues to remind players what scores when. The art is well done without getting in the way. This is an expensive game, and while I like it, I would have been scared off at MSRP ($60). If you wait for a decent discount, I think you'll be pleased.
Luxor was a surprise to me, because while the rules are very simple, the game is not simplistic. The simple rules offer interesting choices, and the simple card restriction is an interesting twist to a genre that has the tendency to become stale. There are good hand management decisions, fun interactions, and opportunities for clever play, all in the wrappings of a game that is welcoming and inviting to young and old players alike. Luxor may not have won the Spiel des Jahres, but it deserves to be considered in the company of other great family games.
- [+] Dice rolls
Here's what I played in July:
10 Glory to Rome (59 all-time)
10 Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King (22 all-time)
10 Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition x21 (22 all-time)
10 The Quacks of Quedlinburg (24 all-time)
9 Alhambra (14 all-time)
9 Cartographers (88 all-time)
9 Felicity: The Cat in the Sack x3 (10 all-time)
9 Just One x2 (56 all-time)
9 KLASK x34 (76 all-time)
8.5 Abyss (5 all-time)
8.5 Luxor x2 (8 all-time)
8 Animal Upon Animal x2 (90 all-time)
8 Azul (19 all-time)
8 Canvas x2 (4 all-time)
8 Cat Lady x2 NEW!
8 Coloretto (18 all-time)
8 Dune: Imperium (4 all-time)
8 Ethnos NEW!
8 Guess Club x2 NEW!
8 Heckmeck Junior x2 (10 all-time)
8 Impact: Battle of Elements x10 (38 all-time)
8 Leo x2 (8 all-time)
8 Rhino Hero x2 (97 all-time)
8 Sushi Go! x2 (18 all-time)
8 Wingspan (2 all-time)
8 Wits & Wagers: It's Vegas, Baby! x2 NEW!
7 Draftosaurus (19 all-time)
7 Dutch Blitz x3 (6 all-time)
7 Rush M.D. NEW!
7 Spot it! x2 (96 all-time)
7 Super Cats (14 all-time)
7 Telestrations: 12 Player Party Pack x3 NEW!
6 Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar x2 NEW!
3 UNO (64 all-time)
The main thing that happened in July--the thing toward which my family was pulled inexorably all year--was our family vacation in downstate Illinois. My extended family--including my immediate family, my aunt, my three siblings, and their families--stayed together in an Airbnb farmhouse. Fifteen people under one roof. It was epic. It was great. It was exhausting. It was also an ample chance to play games.
It has been several years since my family has held a Dutch Blitz tournament, but my niece has been practicing up and was eager to take on her elders in competition for the Dutch Blitz crown. (Yes, we have a literal crown made out of used Dutch Blitz cards and elastic.) It was a double-elimination tournament, and she made it to the final match, but I was able to cinch up the victory, either for the first time or the second time, depending on who you ask.* Dutch Blitz is a game my family has played many (many, many, many) times over the years, and it's one of our "family games." It has fallen out of favor in recent years as we've moved toward hobby games, but it was fun to bring it back.
Other than Dutch Blitz, most of the games I played at the farm were children's or party games, as my wife and I were often, like it or not, the de facto childcare providers. This gave me a chance to finally play Cat Lady (which I liked) and reassess LAMA Dice (which I didn't). I was able to try out my mocked-up copy of Guess Club too. We also played a lot of Klask, the subject of this month's review. It was a hit and stood up to lots of abuse. And, surprise of surprises, I still love it.
Getting a lot of people together in one spot is kind of great, but for someone who appreciates German efficiency and is a solid I on the Meyers-Briggs, it's also a little fraught. On the one hand, there are lots of people here that I don't get to see often! I need to maximize every second! On the other hand, that's super draining! Most of the adults in my family are extroverts, and they don't really understand this dynamic. For them, it's all about wringing every moment for every possible memory potential. Between that and being surrounded by seven kids, it was a draining week.
But in that week, we also "hiked" in the Shawnee National Forest, which allowed us to visit the Garden of the Gods for views like this:
I put "hiked" in quotation marks because...well, my family members are not outdoorsy people (which calls into question the whole farm vacation in the first place, where bugs were prevalent and an outdoor movie early in the week almost doomed the whole enterprise). Fourteen of us began the half-mile hike, and only seven of us completed it. But doing so gave my wife and me a taste for more. Later in the month we visited a localish state park that had been recommended to us over the years, and it, too, was gorgeous:
For game nights, July was a month of new and old favorites. The big game that left an impression (aside from Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition) was Dune: Imperium. I played this earlier this year solo, but I was able to play with four...and what a difference a full table of players makes. Our game ran long (around 3 hours with another player's rules explanation), but it was rich and enjoyable. I'm usually not a fan of games with a lot of conflict, but the conflict here makes sense and doesn't feel nasty (although it certainly can turn that way). I really enjoyed it.
Beyond that, there's not too much to report for July. My wife starts her new job in earnest in August, and we are very aware of school's impending return (with, currently planned, [masked and distanced] full in-person schooldays, thank goodness), so we tried to live it up where we could.
I hope you had a chance to get some rest and relaxation in July.
* There was some doubt as to the legitimacy of my last tournament victory; this one is definitely legit, as all members of the family were present.
Here's the new stuff I played in July:
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition: After regretting backing this on Kickstarter and considering selling it unplayed, then opening it gingerly to preserve its resale value, I decided to give this a try. And I'm very glad I did. Ares Expedition takes what I love about Terraforming Mars (the wide-open engine building and resource management, adding hand management) and strips the things I don't like (the boring board play, the take-that cards, some of the added rules and complexity), making a game that's well suited to me. I still am a little annoyed that the action selection system is taken from Race for the Galaxy almost wholesale without formal credit, with very little changed, but it works here. My original review of Terraforming Mars was ambivalent; I'm less tempered about Ares Expedition, especialy when I can complete two solo games in a lunch hour. Very pleased with this. (I also got to play with three, and with teaching and one player brand-new to any form of TM, it took a reasonable 90m for a first game. Seems like it really will be faster multiplayer than TM.)
Cat Lady: I bought this when it was on sale on Amazon a long time ago as I like quick drafting games, and Cat Lady has an interesting twist: you draft from a 3x3 grid of cards, and each turn you claim a whole row or column. Not all cards will necessarily be good for you, so it has the feel of a "packets" game like Medici or Coloretto, which I always find fascinating. I was only able to play this with children, but I enjoyed this a lot. There's more to it than meets the eye (more than Sushi Go, for example) but not so much that my daughter and nieces were unable to play it. I like this one and look forward to playing it more.
Ethnos: I picked this up in a Miniature Market fire sale on a whim as I remembered it getting good reviews when it came out. Ethnos is "themed" rummy with a twist: once you meld a set, you forfeit all the cards in your hand for the other players to pick over. There's more to the game than that--the sets have different powers when you play them--but that core consideration of collecting cards to make bigger sets while also potentially opening more opportunities to your opponents is what makes this fun. Our first game lasted way longer than advertised--90m with four players!--and I'm not sure what happened, exactly. Still, I enjoyed this, and if I can get this down to the box's 30-45 minutes, I expect this to be a winner. (I've also been working on a Mario Bros. retheme, so keep an eye out for pictures as soon as I stop my laziness and just finish it already.)
Guess Club: After Zee Garcia's glowing review, I tried to find a copy of this game, to no avail. So I made my own by laminating some blank playing cards, making a quick homebrew board, and confiscating my Scattergories cards. Guess Club is a weird hybrid of party game and gambling game (perhaps not so weird, as Wits & Wagers is next). A game is three rounds, and each round, one player chooses a category (either made up or from one of the cards). Each player writes six items that fit that category on their six dry erase cards. On a turn, a player can either play a card (which wins the pot if anyone matches them) or wager on how many cards will be matched by the end of the round. The rules here were a little opaque, especially as none of us had played before, but we quickly got into the spirit. What made the game work was the mismatches. One category my sister chose, for example, was "musicals." One by one, as we went around the table, each of us was confident someone had matched what we wrote...only to walk away empty handed. It's fun to realize that there are more answers than you had considered, and even things that seem like a slam dunk aren't necessarily in the other players' top six. I enjoyed this and hope to bring it out again soon.
Wits & Wagers: It's Vegas, Baby: I've had Wits & Wagers for years, but it never seemed to get a great reaction, so I wasn't too upset when a loan to a friend became a more permanent "not asking for it back." But I saw this new edition on sale on Prime Day, and I thought it might be fun to try with my family over Zoom. But before Zoom, I played it at the farm. Wits & Wagers is a trivia game where you don't really have to know anything. Every question asks for a numeric answer to a question nobody really knows ("How many Pringles in a Pringles can?" etc.), everybody guesses, and then players bet on whose guess is closest without going over. I don't know if the Vegas format is just a better showing for this game or if I finally found the right crowd, but we had a great time playing this. The questions were well chosen, and the answers (both the ones we wrote and the ones on the card) were legitimately surprising. I think I'll keep this version around for Zoom play, but also for play in real life. I enjoyed this a lot and am thinking about picking up the family questions to play with my kids.
Rush M.D.: A friend of mine loves Kitchen Rush, so of course, he had to back Rush M.D. He's been sitting on this a while because of the pandemic, so he brought this to the first game night he was able to make it to. Rush M.D. is just like Kitchen Rush...only more. More bits, more setup, more rules, more zaniness. And I feel about this the same way I felt about Kitchen Rush: there are a lot of rules and a lot of setup for what amounts to a quick and silly game. I'm not opposed to this categorically--Galaxy Trucker, for instance, fits this description--but the decisions and payoff don't seem quite worth it here. Still, it was fun, and I'm willing to play it again, but only if my friend gets some containers to aid with setup.
Telestrations: I had played a homebrew copy of Telestrations once upon a time (the hosts called it "Caveman Telephone" and we used paper and pencil), but never the official game. I bought this because I thought it would be easier to teach to especially the young members of my extended family on my vacation, and I was right. Telestrations is basically the game of Telephone drawn out. So each person writes down a clue, sketches a drawing, and then passes it to the next person, who only looks at the drawing, writes out what they think the clue is, passes it, and the next person draws, and so on. It's not a "game," per se, but it is a hilarious activity. At least, it can be. I found the cards for the boxed version pretty uneven. Telestrations lives and dies by miscommunication, and there were several clues that made it all the way around the table without any trouble. That's a pretty boring activity. So...I like the build quality of the dry erase flip books (although half my markers were DOA), but next time I don't think I'll use the cards. And at that point, why not just stick to Caveman Telephone?
Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-kar: I almost Kickstarted this, but I decided to wait, and I'm glad I did. I picked this up at Target recently (I read they had the Restoration Games edition) because my sister owned this when we were younger, and I thought it'd be fun to revisit with her. (After the first game, I deemed that it wasn't worth the extra space in our van.) Fireball Island is a game of running around the island and shooting fireball marbles out of a statue. Yes, this is a dream for children. My five-year-old was literally hopping up and down while playing, and his seven-year-old sister had a hard time remaining in her chair. Even my board-game-averse nine-year-old kept coming over to see what the hubbub was about. So Fireball Island is a success for children in that you get to shoot fireball marbles often, and the other trappings of the game force you to move around so you'll get hit more frequently. For my taste, while the toy factor is high here, the payoff for adults just isn't there. There's a long setup/takedown for what amounts to an okay game, and it's the kind of game that has enough rules and enough setup that my kids won't (at this juncture) be able to play on their own. But I think my kids are getting the same enjoyment I got out of my sister's copy when I was their age, and that's not nothing. I had intended to sell this after the first tepid play (the box is enormous), but I think my kids want to keep this around, so it stays...for now.
I wrote one review in July, for Klask. I also wrote about how perfection in board game production is an illusion.
What did you play in July?
- [+] Dice rolls