Marine Worlds expansion for Ark Nova from designer Mathias Wigge, on a review copy provided by Capstone Games. As someone who enjoys Ark Nova, but is not necessarily gaga for it, I was really curious to see how it felt to play with the Marine Worlds expansion and if it would push me closer to being gaga for Ark Nova. If you're not already familiar with Ark Nova, you can check out Eric's first impressions post and video from April 2022 to get a feel for this popular zoo-building game that debuted in October 2021 from publisher Feuerland Spiele.
Ark Nova: Marine Worlds adds sea animals and new aquarium special enclosures for you to add sea animals to your zoo. There are new zoo cards for the new sea animals, as well as new sponsors, and new conservation projects. The new cards are great for adding more variety to Ark Nova, especially considering how much of the gameplay is centered around the cards.
All sea animals have a wave icon on them, which has no effect when playing the card, but whenever you replenish the card display and add a card with the wave icon on it, you'll discard the bottom card of the display and replenish again. I really love this addition because Ark Nova has so many cards and you're often looking for a particular type of animal, so it's nice to have a way to cycle through the cards in the display more frequently.
About half of the sea animals in this expansion have a coral icon on them indicating they are reef dwellers, which introduces a fun, new mechanism to the game when you have reef dweller sea animals in your zoo. Whenever you play a reef dweller card, you trigger the effects of all reef dwellers in your zoo, including the one you just played. These are nice special abilities you can build up in your tableau. However, if you're not planning to collect multiple reef dwellers, you'll miss out on the satisfying feeling of triggering a bunch of them.
Aside from introducing sea animals and aquariums, the Marine Worlds expansion adds 4 alternate versions of each action card. To incorporate the new alternate action cards, each player gets 3 of the new cards at random, which are then drafted – keep 1 and pass 1, etc. From your 3 drafted action cards, you'll choose 2 different types of action cards to keep, swapping out the corresponding original version of each. Each of the alternate action cards have small bonuses, which gives each player a slightly asymmetrical set of action cards to play with. I found this to be a very nice change, and I love the variety of having 4 alternate versions of each of the 5 action card types.
Marine Worlds also comes with a new association board to accommodate new universities. When you perform an Association action to gain a partner university, there's a new generic university tile that allows you to gain one of the new animal-specific universities (associated with a particular type of animal), if you don't already have one. This adds a research icon and an animal icon to your zoo, and allows you to immediately gain a card from the deck that matches the corresponding university's animal type. I found this to be very helpful because it's another way to get more animal icons you need in your zoo.
There are new bonus tiles, new final scoring cards, and new base conservation project cards that add even more variety to Ark Nova. In addition, there are 38 replacement cards; some cards needed updated iconography to incorporate sea animals, and some card effects were changed as well. I didn't notice any major impacts from these changes, but I definitely appreciate the variety.
Another bonus in the Marine Worlds expansion is the cute, upgraded components for the 3 main tracks and animal-shaped player tokens to use on the left edge of your zoo map instead of cubes.
Marine Worlds adds cool, new elements to Ark Nova that I found enjoyable. It's one of those expansions that feels smooth to integrate with the base game, since the new elements are interesting and add more variety without adding a lot of bloat. While it's not something you must have to enjoy the game, I don't think I would ever play Ark Nova without it, and I certainly don't think it adds much complexity-wise where new players couldn't jump right in with the expansion. If you are already a fan of Ark Nova, this expansion is a no-brainer. If you're not an Ark Nova fan, don't expect this expansion to sway you much, but maybe the few new twists are just what you're looking for. Either way, the additions are great, and the game still plays similar to the base game, just with a tad more variety and nice component upgrades.
Frosted Games (Watergate), 1 More Time Games (Riftforce), and Deep Print Games (Beer & Bread). If you enjoyed any or all of the aforementioned games, you should definitely check out Match of the Century from Paolo Mori, which is a SPIEL '23 release from Deep Print Games and Capstone Games.
Paolo Mori (Ethnos, Libertalia, Dogs of War) needs no introduction, and clearly knows his way around designing excellent, tense, two-player games, which I discovered by playing, loving, and sweating through Blitzkrieg!: World War Two in 20 Minutes and Caesar!: Seize Rome in 20 Minutes!, from PSC Games. Thus, I was very excited to get my hands on an advance copy of Match of the Century, which Clay Ross let me borrow to play with Eric during Gen Con, and then kindly sent me a copy ahead of SPIEL '23.
Match of the Century is a two-player, unique card-driven game where one player assumes the role of Bobby Fischer and the other player plays as Boris Spassky, recreating the final match of the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik. Each player has their own asymmetrical decks, and you alternate playing cards to simulate multiple short and tense chess games until one player reaches 6 points, winning the title and becoming a chess legend.
In Match of the Century, as in a real chess match, you play a series of games. To avoid confusion, I'll refer to the chess "games" as "rounds" within a game of Match of the Century. Each round comprises up to four exchanges, where you and your opponent play exactly one card each. As a result of an exchange, you usually gain or lose advantage relative to your opponent, and this is tracked on the left side of the game board as you resolve each exchange. If the advantage marker is on your side at the end of the round, you score a point. Otherwise, if it's on your opponent's side, they score a point. If it's on the neutral space indicating a draw, you both score a point.
Each player has their own unique deck of 16 cards, and each card represents 2 of 32 chess pieces. The cards are separated into two parts: one part shows a white chess piece and the other part shows a black chess piece. Each side of each card has a strength and an effect. When you're playing Match of the Century, you take turns playing as white and as black. In the first round, Spassky plays with the white pieces so that player will have the white queen as a reminder, and Fischer plays with the black pieces. It's helpful to flip your cards in your hand so they're all showing the color pieces you'll be playing for the current round.
Players sit on the side of the table such that the Fischer player is facing the blue side of the game board, and the Spassky player is on the red side. Each player has a mental endurance track on their side of the board to represent changes in their focus and fatigue throughout the match. Throughout the game, when you gain or lose mental endurance, you'll adjust your mental endurance track accordingly. Your mental endurance level is mostly important because it indicates your hand limit. The more cards you can hold, the more flexibility you have when it comes to exchanges. Depending on your mental endurance level, you also may gain some pawns to strengthen the cards you play for exchanges, and it also may affect where the advantage marker starts at the beginning of a round. In any case, it's important to keep your mental endurance in a good position relative to your opponent's as you play Match of the Century. It's also beneficial to avoid some of the punishing disadvantages of low mental endurance. This is a great thematic mechanism in a game about a major chess competition.
Each round, you play up to a max of four exchanges. Starting with the player who has the initiative, each player plays one card onto to any open exchange space, with a piece of their current chess color pointing to the center. In addition to playing a card, you may immediately strengthen its piece by adding up to 2 pawns from your personal reserve to the 2 pawn spaces above the card. You gain these pawns from either the mental endurance track, or from card effects. After the player with the initiative plays a card, their opponent must play a card on their side of the same exchange section, and they may also optionally add up to 2 pawns from their personal supply to strengthen their piece.
The exchanges are the meat and potatoes of the game. There are so many rich decisions that come from the hand management in Match of the Century. You have so many things to consider when you're playing a card into an exchange whether you're playing a card first or second. If you have the initiative and you're playing a card first, you have to not only decide which card you want to play, but also which exchange section you want to play into. You are also factoring in how your opponent may respond, and when it makes sense to add pawns to strengthen your card. Plus, you also need to consider what's on the opposite part of the card because it may be a card you want to save for next round when you're playing the other color. When you win an exchange, you're going to start the next one and sometimes that can put you in a vulnerable position.
As the player playing the second card, you have so many decisions as well. Is it important for you to win this particular exchange? Do you want to play a stronger piece, or perhaps a weaker piece then add some pawns to win this exchange? Does it make sense to tie and make it a draw? Or do you want to intentionally lose so you can trigger a powerful ability on your card? Again, lots of awesome decisions to consider and lends itself to tense, thinky gameplay...just like chess!
Again, if whoever wins a round scores a point, and if players tie, they both score a point. As soon as a player's king (score tracker) reaches the center space on the match track (6 points), that player wins the entire match and the game ends.
If you are a fan of games with simple rules, tough choices, and tense gameplay, Match of the Century might be right up your alley. I really dig it for those reasons, but also because it's thematic and unique. The component quality is great and it can be played in less than an hour, which is great. It's also super cool that Match of the Century includes a 23-page historical context booklet, which is awesome to have for a game based on a real historical event.
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Archive for Game Previews
26 Sep 2023
- [+] Dice rolls
Games Played at Gen Con 2023 IV: SpellBook, Zero to 100, Nertz, Cartagena, and Borderlands: Mister Torgue's Arena of Badassery
28 Aug 2023
• SpellBook is a Phil Walker-Harding design that feels like a cousin to Marc André's Splendor, which might not be a surprise given that both games were developed and published by Space Cowboys.
Each player has, wait for it, a book of spells in front of them at the start of play. The game includes multiple spells of the same color, and you can use specific sets of cards or mix things up. Each player starts with two random materia — tokens that come in the seven colors of the spells with one of three symbols on them: circle, triangle, or square — and five materia are placed on a central altar.
On a turn, you take a morning action, a midday action, and an evening action. Initially the only morning action is to either draw two materia from the bag or choose one materia from the altar, storing those in your pool, which is limited to nine materia. And similarly at midday, you start with only one action: Place a materia from your pool on the lowest space on your familiar. (You score points at game's end equal to the lowest uncovered space.)
In the evening you again have only one action, but the evening is where the magic happens, so to speak. You can spend three, four, or five materia of a color to learn a spell. The more materia you spend, the more points you score from that spell at game's end and the more spells you have available to you.
The red and purple spells give you additional options in the morning. You can still draw two random materia or a specific one from the altar, but if you have the lowest level red spell, you can instead discard a circle materia from your pool to draw four random materia from the bag. If you have the second level red spell, you can discard a triangle for the same effect, or you can choose the lower level spell instead, discarding a circle. As you might expect, the highest level red lets you discard a square for four materia or take any of the two lower spells.Starting set of spells for your first game
The green and black spells give you additional midday actions; the white and blue give evening actions; and the yellow spells have an instant or permanent effect or improve your endgame scoring.
Once you learn a spell, it's stuck at that level — except for a white spell that lets you boost a learned spell — so you have the standard game tension of acting now or waiting for something better later. You're sometimes getting materia at random, trying to make the best of whatever ends up in your lap and dumping loser colors onto your familiar, but you can also pick from the altar to go for a specific goal. (One materia is added to the altar at the end of each turn, and once ten materia are on it, the altar clears and resets to five random materia from the bag, which both delights and frustrates players.)
Once someone has learned all seven spells or has filled their familiar, you finish the round, then tally points.
Zero to 100 is a trivia game from Antonin Boccara and Scorpion Masqué in which having an approximate idea of an answer can be just as good as knowing the exact answer.
To start, divide up into two or three teams. Each team takes six question cards without looking at the backs; the back side of each card has a numerical answer from 0 to 100 for the question on the front. Place the 50 card in the middle of the table.
On a turn, each team chooses one of their question cards that they think has an answer that's close to the number on display, which is 50 on the first turn. Once everyone has decided, teams flip their answer over. Whoever is farthest away from the answer places their number in the center of the table — creating the target for next round — and draws a replacement question card from the deck; each other team discards their question card, moving them closer to victory.
Each team has three special cards that they can use once during the game. One card adds or subtracts 50 from your answer, another adds or subtracts 20, and the third is a "spot on" card that you can play with a guess; if your guess is closest to the target and within five of that number, you discard an additional question card from your hand.
Whichever team first has only one question card in hand wins.
I played Zero to 100 twice with three teams at Gen Con 2023, then again on a review copy with two teams at home. As with many trivia games, you end up with a mix of questions you think you know and questions that are a mystery...but not necessarily a complete mystery because you can make inferences based on the subject matter.
In the image above, for example, you might not know the recorded age of the oldest person to become a father, but 83 seems like a not unreasonable target, so better to play this card now than when the number is lower. The same is true for the card at right, although precise knowledge of either answer would be ideal since you could then "spot on" and ditch a card about which you know nothing.
Cartagena: Escape Diaries is the newest edition of Leo Colovini's Cartagena, which debuted in 2000, and publisher Pretzel Games expects to have it for sale at SPIEL '23 ahead of a Q4 2023 retail release.
The basic game remains as good as ever: Each player has six pirates that they must move to the boat at the end of the path. This path is made from modular tiles that each feature six symbols in some order. You start with some cards in hand, with each card showing one of these six symbols.
On a turn, you can take up to three actions. For each action you either (1) discard a card from your hand, then move a pirate of your choice along the path to the next visible symbol matching what's on the card or (2) move one of your pirates backward on the path to a space with one or two pirates on it (and skipping those with three pirates), then drawing one or two cards accordingly.
Thus, to get fuel to move your pirates forward, you must move backward. The challenge is to move backward as little as possible, while moving forward in great leaps, ideally by playing several of the same symbol cards on a turn and leapfrogging far down the path. As you can see in my hand above, I am preparing to do that, ideally once someone else lands on a captain's hat first so that I can mooch on their work. Mooching is a huge part of this design, as is backing up onto just the right spaces, both to draw cards and to keep a symbol occupied so that you can leapfrog it later.
I played with Candice Harris, who had never played before, and Isabelle from Pretzel Games, and I promised — in a manner more in-your-face than I normally am — that I would kick both their asses, then I proceeded to do just that. I've played Cartagena dozens of times in person and hundreds of times online, and you can definitely get better at the game despite the randomness of the card draw — or the non-randomness when you play with a card market of face-up cards and see what everyone picks up.
Cartagena: Escape Diaries features additional play variants, such as one in which you place a captain hat on one of your pirates and use the powers of this leader, but in all likelihood I'll never touch them as I prefer my Colovini neat.
Bicycle booth that was selling a new version of the public domain game Nertz, a game I had not previously encountered.
The short description of Nertz is "speed solitaire". In the game, each player has their own 52-card deck with a back of different color than all the others. Shuffle the deck, deal a "nertz" stack of 13 cards, deal four cards face up as the first cards in your columns, then flip up the top card of your stack to start play.
At the same time, everyone flips through the remaining cards in their deck, three cards at a time as in Klondike solitaire, placing cards in columns when possible (7 on an 8, queen on a king, alternating red and black cards), and most importantly placing aces in the center of play, then play 2s on aces, 3s on 2s, etc. When you reach the end of your deck, pick it up and do it again.
The round ends when someone has emptied their nertz stack, at which point everyone scores 1 point for each card played into the center and -2 points for each card remaining in their nertz stack. Play multiple rounds until someone reaches a pre-determined point threshold.
Dutch Blitz was published after Nertz was already being played, and Ligretto was published after Dutch Blitz, and they're all basically the same thing.
I played one round with the demo person, thanked them for their time, then kept walking. That's what current Eric does. Young Eric would have played against his brother constantly every single day — just as we did with Skip-Bo and other games, roping the parents in sometimes but mostly playing on our own.
I made an effort to sign up for multiple game demos in order to have more concrete experiences to write about in this space, something more than "Here's a picture followed by one sentence", and one of the games I signed up for was Borderlands: Mister Torgue's Arena of Badassery, a design from John Cadice, John Kovaleski, and Monster Fight Club.
Dan Arndt, who writes for Polygon, had also signed up for the demo, and just as we were getting started, two other people came up and said, Hey, can we jump in? We both said of course, then the demo person opened with, "I assume all of you are familiar with Borderlands?" The other three people said, "Yes", and I said, "No", then the demo person carried on as if he hadn't heard me, talking about how we're set up with an easy level, and your characters are in front of you along with starting weapons, and the dice come in three flavors, and you're going to draw from the gear deck, and weapons specify ideal and okay ranges, and on and on.Confusion overload
And I realized that I had no idea what the demo person was talking about, as in I couldn't comprehend how any of this fit together or what you were supposed to do in the game, whereas the other three were like, Oh, yeah, that's rad and I'm glad I got [character name] and other things that demonstrated their full-on understanding and enthusiasm.
The demo person had the player to my left start, and he dove in with clear plans for what to do, where to move, and who to shoot. The next two players did the same. Then my turn came up, and I froze.
Then said, "I have no idea what to do."
And thankfully the demo person said, No problem, let's have you move here, then you're going to... He carried on in my stead, which had to happen as all four characters are used in the game no matter how many players are at the table. Then he ended the demo, saying, And you'd carry on from here, with these creatures spawning and these explosive rabbits being a key pick-up, etc. Everyone else said, That was great! and took off. I did the same, but much slower, still baffled as to what I experienced and why I was so lost.
Then I looked up info about the game and discovered that Borderlands: Mister Torgue's Arena of Badassery is based on the Borderlands video game series and not on, as I had assumed, the 1982 Borderlands board game from Eon by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka.
Apparently I need a "This tabletop game is based on a video game" warning sticker on such releases in the future as I have no background in video games and cannot speak that lingo. Now, where'd I leave my newspaper? I'd like to have some reading material to accompany my sarsaparilla and tomato aspic, then maybe we can get in a game of Skip-Bo before my afternoon nap.
- [+] Dice rolls
19 Aug 2023
• At Gen Con 2023, I played a mixture of new releases and upcoming SPIEL '23 releases, trying to balance talking about what's out now between what's coming in the (near) future. Catch Up Games, for example, showed me its SPIEL '23 release Faraway, a combo-ish drafting and hand management game for 2-5 players from Johannes Goupy and Corentin Lebrat that will be packaged in four boxes, although the contents of each box are identical.
The game consists of a scorepad and two decks of cards. Cards in the larger square deck are numbered 1-65, with one of four colors on the bottom half, and with some cards having resources at top and some having a scoring condition at bottom and some having both. Cards numbered 21-40 are night cards, while the others are day cards. The smaller rectangular deck has unnumbered cards with the bottom half being in one of five colors and with each card having a resource or scoring condition.
Faraway lasts eight rounds, each of which play out the same way: Choose one of the three cards in your hand, then reveal your choice at the same time as other players, adding your card to the end of your tableau. Whoever played the lowest card drafts one of the available cards from the table, then the next lowest drafts a card, etc.
From the second round on, if the card you play has a higher number than your rightmost card, you draw a card from the smaller deck and place it above your tableau. If you have maps in your tableau, you draw one additional smaller card for each map, then choose one of these cards to put into play, discarding the rest.The first game was a stinker
Once you've played eight rounds, you tally your score — but cards score from right to left, counting only themselves, cards to their right, and cards in your upper tableau, and they score only if you meet the condition on the card!
With the rightmost card above, for example, I needed to have three masks in order to score 3 points for yellow or green card "seen" to that point, but I hadn't seen three masks, so I scored nothing for that card. I scored 4 from the green card with no condition, but I whiffed on the yellow card to its left, then scored 10 from the blue card for having seen a set of all four colors. (If I had seen two sets, I would have scored 20 points.)
Thus, in your first game of Faraway, you will probably do terrible, just as I did. (If you do well, don't tell me about it!) Cards with low numbers tend to have more resources, and you want to play them to the right of your tableau so that you'll have those resources for the scoring cards to their left — but scoring cards have higher numbers, and if you play a low card after a high one, you don't get the bonus small card, and you want those small cards because they will often fuel your scoring cards, in addition to scoring on their own.Much better!
I played two games of Faraway with Catch Up's Matthieu Bonin, and I scored way higher in the second game, thanks to (1) knowing what I was doing and (2) drafting my starting hand.
When you know the game, you start by drawing five cards and keeping three of them, which lets you craft an opening. I had 44 and 49 in my starting hand, and both of them required a stone and mask to score (with 49 needing a second stone), and 49 was blue, so it would score for 44. By chance, I picked up 46 in the draft as Matthieu had played a higher card, then I got 48 as well, so I drew lots of small cards, with maps giving me the opportunity to take resources that I would need — and thanks to those resources, I could make better choices of which large cards to play.
In your first game, however, drafting makes no sense because you don't know how the rest of the game will play out, so get your terrible learning game out of the way, then draft!
Paolo Mori's Match of the Century, which Deep Print Games developed and which Pegasus Spiele and Capstone Games will release in German and English.
This two-player game has you re-enact the final match of the 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Each player represents one of these individuals and has a custom deck of 16 cards that reflect their playing style. At the start of each round, you draw cards to your hand limit and collect pawns based on your "mental endurance" level.
Spassky starts with the white queen, which indicates the first player in the round, and since Spassky plays white, Fischer plays black. Why this matters is that you can play cards from your hand only of your current color; each card can be played as white or black, but they have a special power only when played for one of the colors. The two cards at right in my hand below are more powerful when played as white instead of black.
The lead player places a card in an unoccupied lane of their choice, then adds 0-2 pawns to this lane; the strength of the played card increases by 1 for each such pawn. The opposing player plays a card, then they compare strengths. If they tie, nothing happens and the opponent plays first into an unoccupied lane. If one player has a higher strength, the loser of that lane carries out the effect on their card (if any), then the winner gains advantage points equal to the value of the lane (1-4).
When all four lanes are filled or the player who is ahead in advantage can't be caught, the round ends, and the player with the overall advantage moves their king one space toward victory. If the players are tied, each player advances their king. The white queen changes hands, then player begin a new round.Candice, trying to intimidate me
Before starting that round and filling their hand, however, players can dump cards in the hope of drawing something more useful. Unfortunately, each time you shuffle your discards to form a new deck, and each time you win the 4-advantage lane, your mental endurance decreases by one. As your mental endurance drops, your hand size might shrink, you might receive fewer pawns at the start of a round, and you might start at a deficit on the advantage track.
Card effects will let you gain mental endurance or force your opponent to lose it, ideally giving you more options and a better start to the round while constricting them.
Whoever moves their king to the center of the match track first wins, with Spassky winning in the event of a tie since he was the reigning champion at the time.
CDSK is a trivia game being released in English by Canadian publisher Randolph, which in 2020 released this Vincent Burger design in French under the name TTMC: Tu te mets combien?, which seems to mean something like "How much do you want to take on?"
That name would be an odd one on U.S. shelves, so the publisher went with CDSK...which is not necessarily less odd, but the idea is that you will answer questions in four categories: Curious, Delightful, Seasoned, and Knowledge.
You can play individually or in teams, and your goal is to be the first to reach the end of the path, then answer a question. On a turn, someone else will pull a card with ten questions on it from the category matching your location (C,D,S,K), then read you the top line, which is always "On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you know..." whatever the topic is, such as World War 1, the British Empire, 1990s Boy Bands, and so on. You then choose the difficulty level that you want to answer, the other person reads the question, and if you answer correctly, you move forward a number of spaces equal to the difficulty of the question.
Instead of being on C,D,S,K, you might be on a category space, and if so, someone else will read the category card, which will be a challenge like "In 30 seconds, name seven U.S. states that have stars in their flags" or "Which of these Oreo brands actually existed?" You move forward one space for each correct answer.
If you reach the end of the track, someone else will read a "Hurry Up and Win" question. Get this correct, and you win the game; if not, you'll get another shot next turn.
As with many trivia games, you sometimes get a lucky category and can give a high number to jump ahead; one of my teammates aced the Oreo question on their own, for example, scoring us 10 points. Sometimes you get a category that no one knows anything about, but even then you can probably get the 2-3 level correct because the question level is so basic. (Level 1 questions tend to be jokes that you couldn't possibly get wrong unless you're trying to do so.)
I played CDSK 1.5 times at Gen Con 2023, with the half game coming from me passing a table with people I know and them roping me in. CDSK works like Codewords in that it's a low-stakes game that people can join or leave as necessary, assuming that you're playing in teams.
The hidden "press your luck" element is a nice feature of the design. When you answer correctly, you wonder, should we have gone one level higher? Maybe two? Where is the tipping point for the end of your knowledge? And this element adds excitement to the endgame as other teams can take chances to try to catch the leader. "Go for 10!" was heard at the table many times in our games...
a chain of gaming pubs in Quebec, so it's no surprise that its games are aimed at a mainstream audience. During a meeting, director of the Randolph studio Joël Gagnon told me that Romi Rami, a 2-4 player game from Antoine Lefebvre, is an attempt to release a new rummy game accessible to card players of all types, with a bit extra for gamers who are optimizing their play.
Romi Rami uses a deck of cards that are numbered 1-5 in four suits. Each player has a hand of three cards, and the public market is filled with six face-up number cards and four face-up contract cards. Throw the four trophy tokens in the air to determine the endgame bonuses.
On a turn, pick up cards from the market; all cards must share either a number or a suit, and you can pick up at most three cards. Then if you can fulfill a contract by discarding the proper cards, you can choose to do so, claiming that contract. At the end of your turn, refill the market. When a player has claimed a certain number of contracts, which varies by player count, complete the round, then tally everyone's points, with the trophies going to the single player who best meets the condition thanks to the contracts that they claimed, e.g., collect the most hearts, the most five-card combos, etc.
Contracts are basic things like a full house (as seen on the right above), three pair (next to the full house), a run of three cards and five-of-a-kind, and a pair of 1s and four-of-a-kind.
You need to be flexible in what you're collecting because (1) you can't always claim a contract with the cards you picked up that turn and (2) others will swipe the contracts you wanted to claim. The maximum hand size is ten cards, so you can't just collect cards forever a là Ticket to Ride, but ideally you have options and a favorable market that lets you pick up many cards at once. (Try not to leave a favorable market for others, of course.)
- [+] Dice rolls
16 Aug 2023
Days of Wonder demoed Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West, letting attendees play through the first game to give them a taste of what's inside the box.
I got the chance to do this, and (since I had scheduled this meeting ahead of time) my play partners were designers Alan R. Moon, Matt Leacock, and Rob Daviau, who talked about the origin of the game, their interaction with one another, how this design compares to other legacy games, how repeatable this game is, and more while we played that first game.
If you want to go into this game cold and know nothing about it, read no further and don't watch this video. If you want a sampling of how TTRL:LotW differs from other Ticket to Ride games, skip to what I've posted below this video or give it a watch:
This video is 35 minutes long, and we stop play many times to talk about something. The gameplay along might have been 15-20 minutes. While editing, I noticed that we probably gave Rob extra turns because we continually forgot whose turn it was and assumed it was his. Maybe this assumption is wrong, but I'll blame that negligence for his victory!
I'll summarize what's new in this design based on what I encountered in game #1:
• The train deck includes newspaper cards, and a newspaper is drawn or flipped into the market, you replace that card with a train card, then read the top card of the event deck. What happens? I'll leave that to your imagination, or you can watch to discover what happens, then imagine what else might be added to that event deck later.
• You don't score points when placing trains. Instead you earn money based on the number of trains you have at game's end (fewer is better), for completing tickets, and for claiming routes in your color. The game is for 2-5 players, and each player has a train color that matches one of the track colors, thereby giving you an incentive to take certain cards and build in certain locations.
• Some cities are designated "large cities", and whenever you claim a route that connects to one or two large cities, you draw a card from the top of the train card deck. Build lots of tiny routes, and you'll keep replenishing your hand at the same time.
• You start the first game with only 20 trains, and by game #12 you will have 56 trains.
• Tickets have color coding in the five player colors on their right edge, and one ticket in my possession included instructions about what to do when that ticket is retired.
• Lewisburg, West Virginia is kind of a big deal.
- [+] Dice rolls
10 Aug 2023
a video about my five most anticipated games. During the event, I played three of these five games, so I thought I'd talk about whether those choices panned out. (I bought the other two games — Pollen and Tiger & Dragon — without trying them.)
• My top pick for the show was Forest Shuffle, the second title from Kosch, who debuted in 2022 with FYFE. Publisher Lookout Games does solid development, and I adored 2019's Mandala (write-up here), and from reading the rules I knew that Forest Shuffle was a card-based game that involved combos and special powers, so everything looked promising.
While in a meeting in the Asmodee business lounge, I happened to mention that I was looking forward to Forest Shuffle, and Alexis, a non-Lookout representative, overheard me and said, "Oh? Do you want to learn? I'd be happy to teach you." Turns out that Alexis had already played 30+ times, and he was willing to give up his lunch break just to play it again.
Each player in Forest Shuffle builds their own forest from cards, populating it with plants and wildlife to score as many points as possible. Players alternate taking turns until the third winter card is drawn from the bottom third of the deck, at which point the game ends immediately.Midgame shot
Each turn, you take one of two actions:
— Draw two cards, with each card coming from the deck or the clearing. (You can hold at most ten cards in hand.)
— Play a card from your hand, then check the clearing.
When you play a card, you must pay the cost by discarding cards from your hand into the clearing. If the clearing contains at least ten cards at the end of your turn, remove all cards in the clearing from the game.
Each card has a comes-into-play ability or an ongoing ability or an endgame scoring ability or some combination of the three.
Tree cards, of which there are eight types, stand on their own. They're trees, after all!
The other cards are divided either horizontally or vertically, and each half of the card features different forest dwellers. When you play one of these cards, you pay for the half you want, then tuck the card under a tree, keeping that half visible. Each tree can have at most four cards tucked under it — one from each direction — unless a card tells you otherwise.Winter has come
Every non-tree card is both an opportunity and a stumbling block. What do you want to collect? How does a deer interact with a butterfly, if at all? Does a mushroom combo well with birds? You can't do everything, especially since you must pay for cards by discarding other cards. You might be able to pick up these discarded cards on a later turn, but if an opponent knows what you need, they can pick them up, then use them for payment when the clearing is nearing a clearing.
Experience with the cards will obviously make a huge difference in how well you do. Alexis created a herd of deer, then played wolves and other predators that score from deer whereas I had no idea how cards might combo. He discarded bats and other cards that would have earned me many points just ahead of a clearing sweep, and he twice played cards that scored all of the cards in the clearing, tossing them in his cave for 1 point per card. He consistently achieved one-time effects by paying for cards with the matching card type, effects that allowed him to draw more cards, play another deer immediately, or take another turn.
In short, Alexis knew what he was doing and he could also monitor and thwart what I was doing, whereas I was treading water and making somewhat random plays. No surprise then that Alexis doubled my score. (I appreciate when a demo person crushes me in a somewhat random-seeming game as that is evidence the randomness can be tamed and guided.)
Forest Shuffle triggered my Innovation sensors — that being my #1 game of all time — because I was constantly blessed with combo possibilities and the opportunity for smart plays, at least I think I was, but felt like I was squandering it all. I still recall feeling overwhelmed like that in my early games of Innovation, whereas now I'm playing that game based on the cards that might come my way or what I think my opponent is planning, and I'm a decent player.
I have hope for that with Forest Shuffle and bought the game immediately afterwards, Asmodee having five hundred copies on hand to seed the market ahead of the game's retail debut in October 2023. With luck, I'll have a better handle on how to play the game by then.
Ensemble from designers Luigi Ferrini and Daniele Ursini debuted in Italy in 2021 from publisher Ergo Ludo Editions, but it's only now reaching the U.S. courtesy of Ares Games.
Ensemble landed on my anticipated list as it's a co-operative game with limited communication, and I'm often a fan of designs that require you to speak to one another via game components.
The challenge of the game is that you're given a target image, and each player secretly chooses which image in a display most matches that target image. You each lay down a number card, then reveal them at the same time. If everyone played the same number, hooray! Discard the target image, move the guessed image out of the array as it will be the new target image, then add two new image cards to the display. Thus, if you succeed, next round you will have more images from which to guess.The black marker tells you how many images to lay out (Image: Benoit Mialet)
If you don't all guess the same number, you flip over a heart token, discard the target image, make the image that was guessed the most the new target image, and
don't put out any new cards. Now you have better odds of guessing the same image — and you'll never have fewer than two images on display — butput out a new card from the deck to refill the empty spot. Once you've all guessed correctly and added a card to the display, you'll always have at least that many images from which to guess on future turns. The hearts, however, do not stay quite that level, and if you run out of hearts, you lose the game. (Update, Sept. 2, 2023: We played incorrectly at Gen Con 2023, and I've now updated the description to match the rules.)
When you all guess an image correctly, you regain a lost heart, so the game has lots of back and forth as you swing from success to failure repeatedly. With more than four players in the game, you have more leeway with mistakes; if all but one player guess the same image when only one heart remains, the round is still a success and you add another card to the display, but you don't recover a heart. (With seven players, the seventh heart that you would lose allows for a success when two people don't match the group. The game accommodates up to ten players.)
If you succeed when you have nine cards in the display, you win the game. We played Ensemble three times in the BGG Hot Games Room with five, six, and seven players, and I think we never had more than six cards on the display. Tough game!Losers
Winning is often secondary in these types of designs, though — or rather each success is a victory on its own, and you feel pumped from that connection with others.
Then you fail, and you're like, "No! How could you have chosen that image?!" — and they're doing the same to you. Ha ha, people are different. Who knew?
One key element to this design is that the most guessed image becomes the new target. Sometimes you'll have an obvious match, say, a sword sticking in a base and someone pulling a knife out of a purse. You get that correct, no surprise, but now the target image is someone pulling a knife out of a purse...and suddenly different aspects of that image pop: the hand, the purse, the vase in the background, the flowers in the vase, the oval frame around the image, the gray background. What's important in that image shifts, and ideally you all shift the same way, but that's probably not going to happen.
(Disclosure: Ares Games had sold out of Ensemble by the time I visited its booth, but when I passed by later, they offered a review copy that had apparently been on display somewhere.)
Kelp is the debut design from Carl Robinson and the second title from publisher Wonderbow Games, which debuted in 2023 with Hunters of the Lost Creatures. (Kelp is being crowdfunded in 2023 for release in 2024.)
Kelp caught my eye as a two-player asymmetric game akin to ye olde Fox and Geese, that is, a game in which you have the hunter versus the hunted. In Kelp, one player is a common octopus and the other is a pyjama shark. If the shark eats the octopus, it wins, but if the octopus can evade the shark long enough, the shark dies of hunger, then the octopus
eats the sharkwins.
To set up, the octopus player places their nine starting blocks facing them, then places the shark in one of the four dens at the corner of the 3x3 grid.
In terms of game design, the octopus playing a deck-building game, the shark a dice bag-building game. The octopus starts with the "Fast Learning" card in hand along with three random cards from its starting deck. On a turn, the octopus takes two actions from these options:
— Refill your hand to four cards.
— Play a card, which often involves revealing blocks as a cost.
— Discard a card to hide a block.
When you play one of the "Learning" cards, you add a new card to your deck or a new block to your board. The additional blocks let you set more shark traps, pay for cards more efficiently (as you can reveal the two-shell block to pay a cost of 2 instead of revealing two one-shell blocks), or add octopus food to your board along with a related card; this food gives the octopus player an alternate victory condition: Eat all four pieces of food, and you then have the strength to
eat the sharkescape immediately.
On its turn, the shark draw three dice from its bag, then rolls them. The bag starts with seven blue dice, two yellow ones, and one red one. The shark must move two spaces (as a shark can never stand still) on the indicated paths that circle the blocks, and by placing a blue die on a line, the shark "rides the current" one additional space. By placing a yellow die of sufficient value next to a block that's adjacent to the shark, the shark reveals that block. Placing a red die of sufficient value next to a block, whether hidden or revealed, allows the shark to chomp that block.
The shark doesn't want to chomp randomly because if it bites a shell, it loses the red die, placing it in its "hunger row" that has room for seven dice. More importantly, it's lost the lone red die and cannot chomp again...or can it?
Dice can also be placed on powers (from left to right), with the first three such dice giving you a re-roll ability for one die, and each subsequent power getting better. (Dice are returned to the bag after acquiring a power.) You can also use the dice to acquire new dice and one-time abilities as shown on the four cards on the shark's side of the game board. Each card has a cost on it, and the three dice you set aside to buy a card must sum to at least this cost, with a player being able to buy more than one card at a time. When you buy a card, you place one of the used dice in your hunger track, then return the other dice to your bag, along with the new dice.Two games of Kelp in the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con 2023
I played one game with Wonderbow co-founder Sönke Schmidt, and he proved to be a very adept shark — a shark shark, if you will — hunting me down and eating me while he had only three or four dice on his hunger track, with two unused effect cards still in reserve.
Playing the octopus seems tough as nearly every card requires you to reveal at least one block to play it, but I think I worried too much about revealing. After all, as long as I had three blocks that were never revealed, the octopus would be among those three, with the trap being another one of those blocks. (Kelp has a memory aspect for both players, with the shark needing to remember what they've seen and the octopus needing to remember what they've revealed so that they can reveal the same blocks again later.)
Additionally, I bought only one card and removed only one, which probably kept my deck at a lower power than it could have had.
The biggest problem was Schmidt, though, as he found me quickly and I darted away poorly, not giving him too much trouble in finding me again. Kelp also has a last-chance mechanism for the octopus. When you're bitten, both you and the shark secretly choose and reveal one of three cards. If you both reveal the same cards, the shark finishes eating you; if you choose different cards, then you
eat the sharkuse the power on the card you chose, remove that card from both players' decks, then continue the game. If you're bitten again, the shark now has a 50% chance of finishing you off.
After the first bite, Schmidt and I selected the same cards, so that was that. Move after move, it seemed like he could see through my newbie ways and predict exactly how he should counter my action. Maybe I'll have better luck the next time I'm under the sea...
- [+] Dice rolls
07 Aug 2023
bummer of a post, I thought I'd cover a few of the games I played at the show, starting with the SPIEL '23 release Quicksand from Hjalmar Hach, Lorenzo Silva, and Horrible Guild.
Quicksand is the fifth game with this name in the BGG database, but only the second to include sand moving quickly. The gist of the game is similar to 2022's Kites from Kevin Hamano and Floodgate Games: Keep sand timers from running out until you win the game. (Should you want more info on that earlier game, I covered Kites in July 2022.)
Co-designer Hach told me that he had started working on this design in 2018, then set it aside because it wasn't quite coming together, then figured out what he wanted to do with it...only to later have one of his playtesters point out the announcement of Kites. Thankfully, while the games have the same core idea, they implement that idea differently. Here's how Quicksand works:Quote:To set up, choose one of the 20+ scenarios, then lay out the gear tiles in the specified path and place the appropriate sand timers — which have different amounts of sand in them — on the first gears of the path. (The path might have obstacles on it based on the particular scenario.) Gears feature both a color (orange, yellow, gray) and a shape (square, circle, crescent). Each player starts with a hand of three cards, with a card showing one of the three colors, one of the three shapes, or a sand timer.We played and won twice, first with three timers, then with a slightly longer path and four timers. We needed to recover only one timer in those games, and Hach pointed out that two-player games tend to be the easiest because you can more easily communicate and plan who will play what. With each additional player, you have less control as turns move around the table.Hjalmar Hach at Gen Con 2023 with a non-final version of the game
Once the game starts, players play a card in turn to try to advance the sand timers and keep them from running out, refilling their hand after they play. When you play a color or shape card, you flip all of the sand timers currently on this color/shape, advancing them one space on the path if that next space is empty. When you play a sand timer card, you flip any one timer, advancing it, if possible. (If no timers are on gears matching the played card, nothing happens.)
If a sand timer runs out, flip it and place it next to the gear on which it was previously located. If someone plays a sand timer card, they can recover this timer by flipping and placing it back onto the gear — but only if that tile is empty. If a set-aside timer runs out again, players lose the game.
Once a timer reaches the last open space on the path, played cards matching that gear's color/shape will flip it — and if it runs out, you lose the game with no chance of recovery. If the sand timers fill the final gear tiles on the path without this happening, you win!Mock-up sand timers that ran out while I prepared to take this pic
When playing the solo game, you must play all three cards in hand before drawing three new cards. This keeps you from holding the ideal card for a turn down the road or a sand timer card to save you from disaster.
The spatial element of the path differentiates Quicksand from Kites as you need to keep the front of the line moving in order to progress, while also staying aware of how much time remains in each timer. Flipping all of the timers on a color or shape feels powerful and is generally a good thing, but not if you had just flipped one of them because you'll have little time to flip it once again.
Hachette Boardgames had expected only to demo Nautilus Island from Johannes Goupy, Théo Rivière, and Funnyfox at Gen Con 2023, but the game showed up in time for sales anyway.
The game has you scrounging through a wrecked submarine on a deserted island, trying to find stuff that can help you repair the submarine and leave before anyone else, with "collect the most points" being shorthand for that action. To set up, lay out 4-6 columns of card piles (depending on the player count), with each column featuring 1-3 piles, some of which are face up and some of which are not.
On a turn, starting with whoever is closest to the tail of the submarine, i.e., the column with the fewest cards, you place your figure next to an unoccupied column on the opposite side of the board. Next, either you take the top card of each pile into your hand or you play cards of the same color from your hand, with the maximum number of cards you can play equalling the number of card piles in that column.Matthieu Bonin of Catch Up Games pauses dramatically
When you play cards, you take from the board the bonus token randomly assigned to that color, if it's still available. These tokens are worth points or give you a variable number of points depending on how well you meet the condition on it.
After playing cards, you can lock that color by placing a porthole token on it, with the porthole coming from the stack (2-5) matching the number of cards you currently have in that color. The highest-valued porthole tokens are on the top of each stack, so you want to lock colors earlier than opponents — but once you lock a color, you can never play it again. If you don't lock a color at that time, you must play cards of that color in the future to lock it.
When four of the five bonus tokens have been claimed, refill these bonus token spaces.
When someone draws the final cards from a column, complete the round, then play one additional round, then tally your points from bonus tokens, porthole tokens, and the yellow cards in your hand.
To summarize, you're trying to mesh all of these conflicting desires to end up the most points:
— Getting more cards vs. getting the right cards (by going earlier in turn order next time)
— Playing cards quickly to claim a bonus token vs. waiting in order to play more cards at once
— Claiming a porthole token vs. expanding a color group to claim a more valuable token (since a group can have up to five cards, but you can play at most three cards on a turn)
In short, Nautilus Island has a classic family-game flow, with each action being simple and with players getting in one another's way constantly by claiming cards, bonuses, and porthole tokens. Good stuff!
Fantasy Flight Games ran dozens, if not hundreds, of demos for Star Wars: Unlimited, a TCG that will debut some time in 2024.
The vagueness of the release date was a continuing theme in answers given by Jim Cartwright, FFG's product strategy director, to my many questions, most likely because FFG needs to drip out info for at least the next five months to keep word about the game in the ears of potential players.
I played a demo game with Cartwright and can run you through the basics: Each player has a deck of cards as well as a leader and a base. (The rules (PDF) mention that the two-player starter contains decks that feature Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.) Each leader is double-sided, with the starting side having an ability and with an "epic action" on the other side that you unlock by having the specified number of resources in play.
From a starting hand of six cards, place two face down as resources; these cards are now out of play. Taking turns, players carry out a single action, which can be:
— Exhausting (i.e., turning sideways) resources to play a card.
— Using the ability of a card in play.
— Attacking with a unit.
— Taking the initiative token, after which you must pass each turn.
Cards consist of units, events, and upgrades. Units are divided into two types — ground and space — and each type stays separated. Upgrades are placed on units and modify them, and events are one-time actions. Players keep taking turns until they both pass in a row, after which players draw two cards, optionally place a card face down as a resource, and "ready" all of their exhausted cards, after which the player with the initiative token takes the first turn.
Your goal is to deal 30 damage to the opponent's base. When you attack with a unit, you can have it target any opposing unit of the same type (with each of the units dealing damage to the other) or the opponent's base, which just takes the damage. If damage on a unit equals or surpasses its HP, that unit is discarded.
If your deck runs out of cards, as mine almost did, each time you would draw a card, your base takes 3 damage.
Instead of using the starter decks, you can build your own. Each leader features two of six aspects in the game (heroism/villainy/vigilance/aggression/command/cunning) and each base features one aspect. You can use any cards in the deck that you want — with a minimum of fifty cards and no more than three of any non-unique card — but if a card features an aspect not matched by the leader and base, then you must pay two additional resources to put it into play. Similarly, if a card has two command, and you have only one, then you must pay extra.
Gameplay was relatively straightforward, with lots of back and forth as our units obliterated one another. Luke and Vader both used their "epic action", then were defeated, after which they returned to their original state.FFG's mantra for Star Wars: Unlimited
Cartwright, who was involved with the early design of Star Wars: Unlimited, says the intent was to make the design work for the casual player, someone who had never previously played a TCG, and that feels like the experience delivered in the cards I saw. Ever more so than Disney Lorcana, Star Wars: Unlimited is more approachable as the effects (at least in the starter decks) are short and relatively intuitive. You might not play well, but you should have little trouble playing.
The initial promise of Star Wars: Unlimited is that it will feature "iconic heroes, villains, ships, and settings from all facets of the legendary Star Wars franchise, including movies, TV series, comics, video games, and everything in between".
Cartwright was mum about anything specific that people might see in the future — a future that includes three sets released each year — instead suggesting that you might think of Star Wars: Unlimited as a highlight reel for Star Wars as a whole. You're not recreating specific scenes within a movie, but will instead (eventually) have access to all the characters, vehicles, items, and locations that you would expect to see. Cartwright mentioned, for example, that on one of his games someone equipped C-3PO with Luke's lightsaber, then wreaked havoc on the dark forces.
Cartwright also mentioned that Star Wars: Unlimited is a game for two or more players, but he declined to explain how games with more than two players would work. He also declined to tell me how to leave the demo area, and I'm still stuck there now, writing this report and hoping someone will unlock the convention center doors and let me out.
- [+] Dice rolls
The Game: Extreme, both times with my wife, Linda.
You might be familiar with this game since it debuted in 2016, or perhaps you know its predecessor — The Game, a game by Steffen Benndorf and NSV that was nominated for Spiel des Jahres in 2015, losing to Colt Express.
The Game has a simple concept: Play cards numbered 2-99 on four discard piles, with two of the piles counting up and two down, with players required to play at least two cards each turn. You can "jump" backwards in a pile by covering a card with one exactly 10 lower (or higher, depending on whether you're on an ascending or descending pile). If you can't play at least two cards on a turn, you lose. Play all of the cards, and you win.I have so many images like this on my phone...
Linda and I played The Game a lot...then The Game: Extreme was released, and we've been back to the original only when introducing the design to someone. I've now played The Game: Extreme more than two hundred times, almost exclusively as a two-player game with Linda, although we've had a few games with more people.
The Game: Extreme, which was co-designed by Benndorf and Reinhard Staupe, uses the same basic rules as The Game, but with the cards bearing seven different effects or commands:
• You must end your turn immediately, even if you want to play more cards.
• You must play exactly three cards, even if you don't want to.
• You must cover a specific card, or lose the game at the end of your turn.
• You can't jump.
• You can't communicate at all, whereas normally you're restricted only from giving numbers that you hold.
• You draw only one card at turn's end instead of refilling your hand.
• You must play all cards on the same pile during a turn.Two instant death cards and other bad stuff
This last effect is a tricky one. On a turn, you can play on multiple piles until you play this card, then any cards you play after this card must be all on the same pile. If you cover this card on your turn, you can then play on other piles.
We play to win, but we mostly stick to the communication rules in order to stay within the spirit of the game. I might say, "Can I play here?", and she'll respond, "Only if it's small." Did we cheat? Is that too specific? What qualifies as "small", a card that's less than three higher or lower? Five? Seven? Even after two hundred plays, we don't have an exact code down, so we can communicate without revealing specific numbers — except when we slam a hand on a pile and say, "DON'T PLAY HERE!" That's pretty clear.
Even so, sometimes you have to override the other player's desires because you know what you hold and they don't.Perfect for travel — but only if we're super-duper quiet...
I wrote about The Game line in 2018, but that was mostly a meditation on mortality and why I value playing games with others. Now I've played The Game: Extreme another 140+ times since that essay, and I still find it enjoyable. It's a game I almost always have on me whenever we go anywhere just in case we have 10-15 minutes to spare.
In this video, I go into more detail about the specific card effects as well as why I find this game so captivating:
- [+] Dice rolls
08 Jun 2023
Game announcements are so plentiful that I find it hard to focus on what I've seen and played before new games fill my every view — although sometimes the two experiences, the new game and me playing something, coincide, as with...
• Lacuna is a two-player game from designer Mark Gerrits and publisher CMYK that will be released on July 6, 2023, with a pre-order being available from the publisher, and it falls into the rare category of a perfect information, two-player abstract strategy game that could find itself a mainstream success, depending on marketing and availability, of course — but I'm getting ahead of myself.
To set up the game, lay out the cloth mat, then sprinkle the 49 wooden tokens — seven each in seven colors — from the storage tube onto the mat like salt on mashed potatoes. (The tube has a plastic top with a small opening to ensure that the tokens don't come out all at once.)
Your goal in Lacuna is to win four colors; to win a color, you need to collect at least four tokens of that color. The first player collects a wooden token of their choice from the mat, then takes the first turn. On a turn, place of your metal pawns anywhere on the line between two tokens of the same color, then collect those two tokens. This line must be unobstructed by other tokens or player pawns.Ken Shoda uses the included ruler to check for legal placement
Players keep taking turns until they've placed all six of their pawns. At that point the first player has collected 13 tokens and the second player 12, so no one could have won the game, although someone might have won a color or two.
For each remaining token on the board, you award it to the player whose pawn is closest to it. Here's an overhead view of a game at that point:
For the most part, you can easily tell who has claimed which tokens. The light blue in the upper left goes to the gold player, for example, while the light blue at the far left goes to silver. When you're not sure, use the included ruler to determine which pawn is closest to a token. After all the tokens have been claimed, one of the players will have won four colors and therefore won the game.
Lacuna is beautifully simple in its design, and the publisher has matched that beauty in its presentation of the game. The cloth mat, the heavy metal pawns, the wooden tokens with their unique shapes and patterns, the salt shaker storage container — all of it is satisfying to hold, touch, and use, and that satisfaction helps mask the difficulty of playing well, which is why I think people who don't normally enjoy perfect information, abstract strategy games would still find it pleasing to play.
Every turn is two-fold. When you place a pawn, you claim two tokens, which helps move you toward victory, and you call dibs on other tokens around you, but those tokens can be snatched away by an opponent's placement. When you look at the image below, you'll see all sorts of possibilities for what you can claim now, but what might you get later?
One rules clarification: If you place a pawn between two pairs of tokens simultaneously, you claim only one pair, so you can't place between two purple and two deep blue on the left and claim both pairs at once — but you can place at that intersection anyway, claim one of the pairs, and block the opponent from claiming the other pair.
That said, this layout has a rich cluster of blue and purple, so you can't block everything. In fact, silver pretty much has a lock on a blue token on the right, so silver might want to place on the line between the two blue on the left because then they're pretty much locking in the blue on the far left, which will win them blue.Placing on the larger spot possibly blocks anyone from linking that far left blue to other blues
However, they've then used two pawns to win one color, which is probably not a winning strategy. What else are those two pawns going to be able to claim? Will they participate in other ways? That's not clear because both of you have more pawns to place — and the image two above shows that those dark blue tokens have been claimed before the final distribution.
The gameplay is beautifully clear, and you're pulled in multiple directions thanks to the web of possibilities. The clearest conflict: Should you use two pawns to claim four tokens of the same color and remove all doubt of who won it, or do you use only one pawn, claim two, and somehow fence off two more beyond a doubt? Is that a sure thing? Not necessarily because as tokens are removed, other tokens become targets when previously they were blocked from being claimed.
I've played Lacuna three times, twice on a review copy and once with James Nathan, who is a scout for CMYK and who was playing the game at BGG.CON 2022, and I'm entranced. Intriguingly, the victory condition — four or more tokens of four or more colors — is also a victory condition in Tintas, a wonderful game that I covered in 2016, but Tintas bears the traditional austere look of an abstract strategy game while Lacuna looks lighter and more joyous...despite requiring exactly as much thought as Tintas!
Inside Job from Tanner Simmons and KOSMOS.
In this 3-5 player trick-taking game, each player gets a secret role card, with all but one player being an agent and that one player being the insider, who is trying to thwart the agents from completing missions. Each player gets a hand of cards from a standard 52-card deck.
At the beginning of a trick, the starting player looks at two mission cards, discards one face down, then reveals the other. Each mission shows a trump color for that trick along with a task to be completed, e.g., all cards played must be between 7 and 13, or the second card played must win the trick. The starting player leads a card from their hand that other players must follow, if possible — except for the insider, who can play what they like. If the mission succeeds because players did what was written on the card, then you place the mission in a "success" pile; otherwise, discard it. Whoever played the highest card wins an "intel token", which looks like a briefcase, then starts the next round by drawing two mission cards.
If the agents succeed at a certain number of missions, which varies by player count, they win immediately, and if the insider ever collects enough intel tokens, they win immediately — and if both happen simultaneously, the insider wins. If neither side wins by the final trick, everyone votes for who they think the insider is, winning only if the insider has more fingers pointing at them than anyone else has.
We played twice...but not really since some of the rules were not taught:
— We just flipped missions from the top of the deck, so the starting player had no say in the course of the round beyond their choice of lead card.
— We talked about our cards in hand, saying things like "Don't lead green", when you're not supposed to talk about cards in hand, only cards already played.
— We didn't wager intel tokens, a move in which you can place a previously won intel token on a played card to make it part of the trump suit; whoever wins this trick collects all wagered intel tokens, in addition to winning one for the trick itself.
So I don't know what to think at this point. I hope to play again, worrying a bit that the initial mission choice might take longer than I like, but it can't possibly slow the game down as much as the between trick activity in American Psycho: A Killer Game.
The Number is from Hisashi Hayashi and Repos Production, this being a licensed version of Hayashi's self-published Suzie-Q.
Each turn, each player secretly writes a three-digit number on their board, then they reveal their boards and arrange them from low to high. If any digit in the highest number is included in a lower number, that player's board is removed and they score 0 points for this turn. Keep evaluating boards until you have a highest board with no digits repeated by others. Each player still in the round scores points equal to the value of the first digit in their number, and the player with the highest number receives a bonus — then they cross out all the digits in their number on their scoring board and can't use these digits again for the rest of the round.
After five turns, with everyone doubling the value of their winning highest digit in the fifth turn, you tally your points — which includes 1 point for each crossed-off digit — then start a new round with all digits being available for everyone. After two rounds of five turns, whoever has the highest combined score wins.I forgot to take a picture during play...
The Number is weird in that you have an obvious opening move of 999. If no one else writes a 9, you score 9 points and the round bonus, then only one digit is off limits for you in the remainder of the round. If someone else writes a 9 in their number, they bump you out, but now they likely can't use 9 again while you still can...so will anyone else write a 9 since it prevents them from writing 999 at some point?
Thus, you're all guessing who might write what when, with the open knowledge of which digits people can't write. If two people write the same number, they score or are eliminated together...but if we both have 9s open late in the round, I might write 799 in the hope of eliminating you and being the high number, and you might in turn write 777 to take me out. I need more plays to even know what I think about this game...
Dual Gauge from Amabel Holland of Hollandspiele and set up the Honshu side of the Dual Gauge: Honshu & Wisconsin Maps expansion.
Dual Gauge is somewhat 18xx-light, with players initially holding an auction for a share in each rail company in the game, then playing in alternating operating rounds and stock rounds until the game ends, something that triggers due to running out of trains, track, spaces for stations on the map, shares available for purchase, or other things specific to a map.After one operating round
The title refers to the dual types of track available for purchase: narrow and standard. Narrow track is cheaper to build, but you can run a train on it from only one station to the next, whereas a train on standard track can travel to two stations on a line.
Whoever holds the most shares in a company controls the actions of that company: laying track, placing stations, buying trains, running routes, then either paying out the earnings for that round or withholding that money in the company's treasury. Your long-term goal is to end up with the most money, which is earned by (1) owning shares in companies that increase in value and (2) collecting payouts.At game's end
It was the first play for at least two of the four of us, so possibly we played stupidly, but in the middle of the game it felt like many of us were spinning our wheels, running the same routes each turn and not advancing our company's network in meaningful ways. If you don't build track, then the company must withhold money earned on routes and its stock price falls based on the number of shares issued or converted into stations, so we often built track to nowhere because we couldn't see what to do productively. I suppose at times you want to tank a company's share price, but we couldn't see why.
Bottom line: Dual Gauge seems like the type of game where playing once is akin to not playing at all. Only at game's end can you assess where and when people made smart choices and whether you should have made other moves, then you apply all of that info to your next playing. If you don't play again, then you're left only with the feeling that you played horribly.
SHŌBU, a 2019 release from designers Jamie Sajdak and Manolis Vranas and publisher Smirk & Laughter Games. Ken loves abstract strategy games and seemed unconvinced by the look of the game, but caved and bought it.
Here's the starting position:Image: Doctor Meeple
A turn consists of two steps: passive, then active. First, move a stone of your color on one of the boards close to you. Move in a straight line orthogonally or diagonally as far as you want, stopping at the edge of the board or another piece.
Second, move a stone of your color on either board of the color opposite of which you first moved on, duplicating the move you made initially, e.g., if you moved forward two spaces on the dark board, you must move forward two spaces on either light board. In this action, you can push one stone of the opponent's, ideally pushing them off the board. If you can't make this active move, then go back and make a different passive move.
If you push all of the opponent's stones from one board, you win.
Ken and I played twice, with the starting player winning both times, which made Ken worry about a starting player advantage, then we played twice more, with each of us starting one of the games, and I beat Ken both times. Theory — rejected!
SHŌBU sort of feels like four games in one thanks to the multiple boards, but everything is linked in complicated ways. In the image above, the white stone on the upper left board is pretty much useless. As a passive move, Ken can move it toward him 1-3 spaces or diagonally or horizontally one space, with none of those moves allowing the white stone in the lower right — a stone I am about to push off the board for the win — to move to safety.
But to give that stone on the dark board more freedom of movement, Ken would have to first move a stone on the light board close to him, and his options there are also limited.
How we got to that position took a long time, and it's hard to reconstruct exactly how things went wrong. In a way, you can think of the boards closest to you as programming boards. You want to keep your options on those boards as open as possible, which is why the opponent wants to attack you there — except that sometimes removing a stone is a good thing since it gives you more room in which to move.
In any case, I made a good call, and Ken will take it back to Japan to introduce it to others at his abstract game club.
• While in Dallas for BGG.Spring, I got to visit Common Ground Games, which has an impressive selection of new games for sale, not to mention dice and other geeky stuff, along with tables for events.
Common Ground Games has a giant preschool-style stack of Frosthaven by the front door, perhaps as a lure for thieves who think that they can grab a copy and scoot out the door as they will instead be dragged to the floor by its weight, their fingers pinned under the box, giving the employees plenty of time to call the police.
It also has a $250 giant squishable frog that I passed on buying with regret, not because I want a giant squishable frog, but because I robbed my wife of the joy of telling everyone in her family that I spent $250 on a giant squishable frog. She would have liked that.
Every so often I do something completely out of character, sometimes without really knowing why and sometimes intentionally. Whenever she learns of such things and acts shocked, I get to say, "You don't know the real me!" Married life...
The BGG media team also visited Velvet Taco, where I stared hypnotically at a painting of Marie Antoinette. Seriously, I couldn't not look at this painting. (Here's more work from artist Laura Shull.)
• I'll close with words of thanks to Ken Shoda. To start, Ken offered to pick up games for me at Tokyo Game Market in late 2019 that I would pay him for the next time I saw him, probably at Game Market the following May.
But Ken held on to those games, then held on to even more games when he was clearing out stock of various nestorgames titles in April 2021 when Game Market first re-opened.
Ken stuffed all of those games in his bag and delivered them to me at BGG.Spring, where I met him with a big stack of bills.
Beyond that, Ken's taste in games line up perfectly with mine: card games of all sorts, perfect information abstract strategy games, and pretty much anything from Reiner Knizia. In short: cards, combinatorics, and Knizia.
We've played many games together over the years, and however much I think I know about games, Ken's knowledge of Knizia titles is encyclopedic. What's more, he recalls particular games in a way that I often now struggle to do. While looking around the charity flea market, Ken picked up a copy of Reiner Knizia's game Motto and told me I should get it: "Don't you remember? We played it several times at a temple on one of your trips to Japan, and you told me you don't have it."
The game didn't look familiar to me, so I looked it up on BGG to find a 5.5 rating on a title from Polish publisher Granna that never made a splash on the market and that likely disappeared on clearance shortly therefter.
And I also found that I had played it three times in May 2016. Then I looked at the pictures on my phone, and there we were, playing Motto at the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.
How could I not buy this game?
Many thanks once again, Ken, for the wonderful time playing games with you at BGG.Spring, and ideally we'll see one another again at SPIEL '23!Ken is also a math guy, like me
- [+] Dice rolls
05 Jun 2023
my first report from BGG.Spring 2023 with several games that I did enjoy, starting with Perfect Numbers, a card game from Lars Jansen and Jolly Dutch Productions that I've heard no one talk about since its release at SPIEL '22, where my friend Ken Shoda talked it up.
By chance, Ken was at BGG.Spring, and Perfect Numbers was one of four card games that he had brought with him from Japan, so apparently he thought highly of it! We played once with three players, then again with two, and I can understand why he likes it so much.
The deck consists of cards numbered 2-7 in five colors, along with one joker of each value and special action cards. Start a round by dealing a row of three cards, two rows of two cards, and a row of one card. The first player drafts a row, then everyone else does in turn, with players getting more than one row in a game with two or three players...something you don't necessarily want!
When you take cards, if you get cards of a color you already have, you must add them to your existing rows, starting with the low numbers first. If the number you add matches the number of cards in your personal row — the perfect number! — you may score that row, with each card being worth 1 point. If the number is larger than the number of cards, you just add; if it's smaller, you must discard cards from that row equal to the number, so placing a green 3 on my pile above would force me to discard everything but the green 2.
If you get a color you don't have, you can start a row with it, but you can have at most four rows. If all your rows are occupied, you can ditch a color to start a new row or give away that new color to another player who already has this color — and if you would place the perfect number on their row, you score those points instead of them! Similarly, if you place a low number, they have to discard cards, but you score them!
So Perfect Numbers is a "take that", set-collection card game in which you have to consider (almost) every choice you make to determine whether an opponent can hurt you later with the card you leave behind, especially in the two-player game when you each take two rows. We discarded way more cards in our 2p game!
I'm glossing over a few elements above, such as you scoring additional cards from the deck if your perfect number is 5-7, which gives you an incentive not to score a perfect number of 2-4. Ideally you can count cards to know what's not left in the deck, but I don't think that's essential.
ReCURRRing, a shedding card game from Saien that I covered in writing and in video in 2017. ReCURRRing is, to a degree, SCOUT three years prior to SCOUT, and it's a shame that ReCURRRing has never been licensed outside of Japan.
The game lasts three rounds, and your goal is to score the most points. The deck is modified based on player count (3-5), with the five-player game having one 1, two 2s, etc. up to nine 9s and either ten or fifteen Rs, with R being higher than a 9.
Deal the deck, then whoever has the 1 starts by leading any single card. The next player can pass and exit the round, or play a single better card — with lower values being better — or any pair; if they beat the initial play, they take that card into their hand...and that's where things get tricky.My starting hand
If the lead player plays a 6 and you're next, do you want that 6? If you play a 5 to beat the 6, but you have no 6s, then you've worsened your hand (exchanging a better card for a worse one), but you're still in the round. If you do have 6s, then you now have a larger group of 6s...which is not always a good thing because you can overplay someone by at most one card. If I need to beat a pair of 4s, I can play a pair of 2s or 3s or any three-of-a-kind, whether Rs or better, but I can't play four 6s. I would have to break up the 6s, stranding one of them.
And if you pass, then you're out of the round and can't change your hand, whereas other players might be overplaying and molding their hand into larger groups.
Cards exit the game only after all players but one have passed. The person who played those cards places them face up on the table before them, then leads any single card to start the new round. When someone empties their hand, they place the cards they beat face down in front of themselves, and if their cards hold, they place those cards in front of themselves; otherwise, the player who last plays scores their cards.
At round's end, every card in front of you is worth 1 point, except for Rs, which are worth 0 points — unless you were the first to empty your hand, in which case Rs are also worth 1 point each.A great third round, landing me in second place
Like SCOUT and to some degree Abluxxen, ReCURRRing is all about crafting your hand into something better than what you started, ideally earning points through smart plays. If possible, you want to track who is picking up which cards so that you know who can play over you and when to strike with a large set since you (sort of) worsen your hand with every play that doesn't hold. The Rs are numerous, but they're worthless unless you go out first, so their power is somewhat balanced, although a large R set can let you grab a slightly less large non-R set, which you can perhaps score later.
You can tell from the wear on the box how much Ken loves ReCURRRing. Perhaps some day it will be widely available outside of Japan for others to discover...
Robotrick, a three-player-only trick-taking game from designer Domi (ドミッチ) and publisher The Game Gallery Works.
Every trick-taking game needs a twist, and Robotrick's twist is two-fold: A robot is the fourth player in the game. It sits between two players, is dealt a face-up hand of twelve cards just like the people, and plays cards according to a randomly dealt directive, such as these:Four of the ten directives
The robot leads the first trick, so if it were controlled by the directive in the upper left, it would play its highest card, with ties being broken in favor of the short suit, with card color being the second tie-breaker: A > B > C > D. If on a later trick you lead blue, the robot will follow with its lowest blue; lacking blue, it will play its lowest card from its longest suit.
The second twist comes from the scoring. If the robot wins the trick, each player keeps their card face down as negative points, with cards being worth 1-15 points. (The deck is a standard four-color deck from 1-13. One card is revealed as trump, and three cards remain hidden out of play.) If you win a trick, you keep the robot's card as positive points — except that any card you win after the third is flipped face down as negative points.Starting hand, and the robot has five red, which is trump...oh, boy
So you want to win tricks, but not too much, and you don't want opponents to win tricks, but if they're not and you're not, then the robot is, which will hurt you.
I did horribly, playing the wrong card (which I found out only later), winning the wrong tricks, and messing up in thinking about what the robot will play next, although since the robot has to follow suit, sometimes you're thinking that the robot will lead X, but by the time it does lead, its rules now force it to play Y. After only one game's experience, I'm still clueless about how to play well, even when it comes to passing two cards before the round starts, as demonstrated in the image below:After the pass I have the four highest trump and six total; I'm going to eat so many cards!
Anyway, I'm glad to have played, and Ken gave me the copy to take home, so I'll get to try again on two new unsuspecting players.
Bag of Chips, a game from Mathieu Aubert, Théo Rivière, and Mixlore, I knew it was an ideal choice: small, card-based, and not available in Japan. (Whoops, that last detail was incorrect. See image at right.)
Each round in Bag of Chips, you start with a hand of six cards, draw five colored chips from the bag, discard two cards, draw four more chips, discard another card, draw three chips, then allocate your cards, with two of them scoring you positive points if their condition is met and the third scoring you negative points. To end the round, draw a chip, then draw one last chip, then see what you score. The two highest scorers win tokens, and whoever first collects four tokens wins the game.
The game has a great press-your-luck element, with you weighing the odds of which cards might score based on the chips revealed — 14 total out of 25 in the bag — while knowing that one of those cards could count against you. Maybe you have the card that's worth 180 points if six onion chips are drawn. With early onions, you'll probably want to hold it — but you might also want to hold it if no onions come out since it wouldn't cost you any points as a negative card if the condition isn't met.
I covered Bag of Chips in detail in 2021, and the game remains a winner.BGG admin Stephen Cordell, who works on the library and convention previews, and Ken
- [+] Dice rolls
In that spirit, I thought I'd talk about my hit of the show for BGG.Spring 2023, which ran May 26-29. That game is Mind Up!, a card game from Maxime Rambourg and Catch Up Games that I played eight times on a review copy with all player counts from three to six. I wrote about Mind Up! in February 2023, noting that it has "a simple premise and lots of interactivity", while adding "Sounds like a recipe for what I want to see on the table!" — and that expectation was resoundingly met.
For reference, let's look at a six-player game that's one turn into a round:
To win, you want points. Over the course of a round, you collect seven cards. My first collected card above is pink; if I get more pink, those cards will go in the same pile, and if I collect a new color, it gets placed in the next column over. At the end of a round, each card is worth points based on where it's placed — in this case, 3-4-1-5-2 points per card — with bonuses and minuses affecting the sum.
On a turn, you all play a card from your hand simultaneously, then you arrange those cards in order from low to high underneath the cards already on the table, then you collect the card above the card you played. The played cards become the targets for the next turn. After six turns, you place the last card in your hand into your collection. Score those cards, then pick them up because those seven cards form your hand for the next round! After three rounds, whoever has the most points wins.
Everything about this design clicks for me:
• You can explain the game in a couple of minutes.
• You interact with others directly by competing for items in a common pool.
• You generally know what others want — if they have green on the 5 card, they want more green! — giving everyone clarity about other players' goals...which informs your own decision.
• You feel the impact of having more or fewer players at the table, so player count is meaningful rather than merely being an indication of how many components are in the box.Playing with three gives you more control, but fewer card options
• Your action matters twice, determining which card you collect now while creating a target for next time, whether one to avoid or pursue.
• You start in a fog that disperses over the course of play; no new cards enter the game, so while initially you know only that the deck contains cards numbered 1-60, after the first round you've seen all the cards, you know which colors are plentiful and which are short, and (in theory) you know all the numbers in play. (**Correction below)
• You don't really know all the numbers unless your memory is far better than mine, so you're forced to act from intuition rather than calculating the perfect move.
• You are repeatedly surprised, both positively (which makes you feel good about your choice for that turn — "I'm smart!") and negatively (which you shake off because the "luck" of who played what just didn't fall your way — "Maybe next time!").
• You build toward that final card play, ideally ending on a high note. (Again, "I'm smart!")
• You shuffle the scoring cards each round — for example, this round they're 5-4-2-1-3, then they're 1-5-2-3-4, then 3-1-2-4-5 — which affects how you play your hand and heightens the lottery feel of the game.
• You end at just the right time, late enough that you get to use knowledge learned during play, but not so long that you feel like you're repeating yourself.
6 nimmt!, Wolfgang Kramer's classic card game from 1994 in which players each play a card from their hand simultaneously on a turn, after which the cards are lined up, with players hoping that their card doesn't land in the wrong spot.
What was interesting is that some players said they liked 6 nimmt! and enjoyed Mind Up! just as much, if not more, and some players said they hated 6 nimmt!, but enjoyed Mind Up! despite the similarities. I think those latter feelings come from two elements. First, in 6 nimmt!, scoring is all negative. The best you can hope for on a turn is playing a card and having nothing happen to you. It's a game of avoidance and (ideally) schadenfreude, whereas in Mind Up! you collect a card each turn that (almost always) adds to your score. Sure, you might have wanted the blue for 5 points, but you got an orange for 3 points that bears a +1 bonus, so that's almost as good.My best round of the show: 39 points
Second, the cards cycle in Mind Up!, giving you additional reasons for deciding what to play when. Perhaps only two purple cards are present in a three-player game, and you have one in hand that you can play now, then likely collect next time to fill your 1 slot. That increases the chances of the other cards you collect landing in more valuable spots. Of course that plan might not work, but you can still make such plans, especially if you can also track some of the numbers in players' hands. I could recall the three or four lowest and highest cards so that helped a bit in terms of assessing whether I might get sniped or when it was safe to play a particular card to grab something on the end of the row.
I mentioned a lottery earlier, and Mind Up! very much feels like you're gambling. You play the odds that your card will end up in the position you want, akin to playing a slot machine and hoping for three cherries. Sometimes you play the 21 in a six-player game, and it is unexpectedly the highest card played — which creates a nice "How did that happen?!" moment — and sometimes you hit perfectly, prompting a clenched fist "Yes!" before you grab your treasure.Three-way tie, which Michelle won by having the largest score in the final round
Scores in a round have ranged from a low of 18 to a high of 41, but they're often relatively close, giving you the feeling that one big score in the final round can still propel you to victory.
I was slightly misleading earlier when I said everything about this design clicks for me. I've yet to play with the optional objective cards. The game includes 14 such cards, and you can lay out a new one at random each round or leave out multiple ones for the entire game. I understand that variability is a selling point for publishers, but so far I feel like I'm getting all the variability I need from the base game and don't want to add unneeded distractions.
Here's a sampling of the objective cards from the English rulebook:You don't use objective cards bearing the same letter
Note that despite the existence of an English rulebook from the publisher, currently only a French edition exists, having been released by Catch Up Games in mid-May 2023. Many titles from this publisher have been licensed for release elsewhere in the world, so perhaps it will show up in different editions down the road.
I brought only a few games with me to play at BGG.Spring 2023 — after all, we have a library on site with several thousand games that attendees can borrow — and I'm grateful that Mind Up! was one of them as I got to share it with many people and (I hope) helped them have a good time.•••
Additionally, he pointed out something I missed in the slim rulebook: "Players are actually supposed to draw a new card at the beginning of round 2 and 3. It hampers the players who could really count all cards, though I feel it doesn't negate your point that you do have a clear idea of which colors are numerous or not in play. I totally see how the variant of not drawing a card is interesting to give a bit more control."
Inadvertently, for Mind Up! I have replicated a variant for 6 nimmt! in which you use only cards numbered from 1 to 10x+4, with x being the number of players. This gives you complete information about the cards in the game, allowing you to track everything that's been played if that's your jam.
I'm fine with surprises and playing the odds, so as much as I already like the game, playing with all of the rules will probably be better, both for the spice that comes from swiping a card that an opponent didn't think could be swiped and for potentially higher scores in each round, giving players more hope for a comeback and greater odds of reaching the end of the line in a 3-1-2-4-5 layout.
- [+] Dice rolls