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SPIEL '22 Preview: Sea Salt & Paper, and Look at the Stars

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Sea Salt & Paper
To follow up my preview of Splendor Duel, I'll now detail the other Bruno Cathala co-design that captivated me at Gen Con 2022: Sea Salt & Paper, co-designed with Théo Rivière and due out from French publisher Bombyx at SPIEL '22.

Sea Salt & Paper is a pure card game that might seem overwhelming at first glance and will likely take more time than it should to explain given the multiple card types in the deck.

To get started, let's examine my holdings at the end of a round:

Board Game: Sea Salt & Paper

Note the ColorADD player aid in the upper right, which indicates the number of cards of each color in the deck. (Bombyx's Yann Droumaguet told me that the company intends to use the ColorADD symbols as much as possible in the future to make its games more accessible.) Card types can come in a range of colors, and the colors matter for two purposes that I'll explain in a bit.

In the top row you see four pairs of cards: ships, crabs, fish, and the swimmer/shark duo. When you collect one of these pairs in your hand, you can play it in your holding area for 1 point and the special power of that pair, which from left to right are:

• Taking another turn.
• Picking the card of your choice from one of the two discard piles.
• Drawing a card from the deck.
• Stealing a random card from an opponent.

The four cards in the bottom row were in my hand until the end of the round. A mermaid is worth 1 point per card in your collection that's a color of your choice; if you have multiple mermaids, you must choose different colors. I chose yellow and dark blue, so that's worth 7 points on top of the 4 points for my pairs. (The other two cards are worthless, but if they had been yellow or dark blue, the mermaids would have counted them.) If you manage to collect all four mermaids in your hand, you win the game instantly!

Now let's consider a pic from a different round:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Other cards score points as sets, so I have 3 points of octopuses in hand and 0 points of shells. Alternatively you could collect penguins or sailors. Each card has a number at the lower-right indicating how many cards of that type are in the deck. Finally, some cards score points based on other card types: the lone lighthouse is worth 1 point per ship in your collection; the school 1 point per fish; the colony 2 points per penguin; and the captain 3 points per sailor.

Okay, with that background out of the way, how do you play the game? Shuffle the deck, then deal one card into each of the two discard piles. On a turn, take the top card of a discard pile into your hand or draw two cards from the deck, keep one, and discard the other. If you have a pair, you can choose to play it.

When you have at least 7 points — whether in hand, on the table, or in a combination of both places — you can choose to end the round immediately, at which point everyone reveals their hand and scores for all their stuff. Alternatively, if you have at least 7 points and think you have more than anyone else, you can reveal how many points you have and call "Last round", after which everyone else gets a final turn. If no one manages to have more points than you, then you score those points as well as a bonus for the color most present in your collection, whereas everyone else scores only for the color most present in their collection. If someone does top you, however, then you score only for your best color, while they scores their points and a bonus.

Play multiple rounds until someone hits the 40/35/30 point threshold depending upon whether you have two, three, or four players.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
"I always feel like somebody's watching me..."

Droumaguet ran me through an overview of the game, which seemed overloaded with too many card types and choices, then we played a sample round...then another and another and another and everything flowed smoothly and I stopped only because I had another appointment.

Yes, the game might have a lot going on, but that's okay because you're building up a hand only one card at a time. Not everything will show up in a round, so the value of any particular card is relative only to what you have and what's been discarded, which means you need to be flexible to piece together points.

The action of a turn is simple and takes only a few seconds, yet it generates all the uncertainty that good card games do: Are you making the right choice? Are you giving the opponent something they want? Are you covering the right pile, or leaving exposed something they want? Every little choice shapes the flow of the round, and the effect of those choices builds over time. With more players, more cards would be buried in the discard piles between turns, giving additional information of what's out of play.

The gamble available to you regarding the end of a round is a great touch. How confident are you? What does the opponent have on the table, and how many cards do they have in hand? Have you been tracking what they picked up? What's the most they could have? If you gamble correctly, you can get a huge leg up in the score since you add on a bonus, while others get only a bonus, swinging a round that might have ended 8-7 in your favor to something like 11-3.

Sea Salt & Paper doesn't feel innovative in terms of scoring choices or gameplay, yet the game was incredibly compelling, combining the double mystery of the card draw with the satisfying bump from a pair power and the thrill that comes from holding valuable cards that will snakebite the opponent should they call last round. The final package will be on the scale of an Oink Games release, perfect for every purse, backpack, overnight bag, and airplane tray on the way home from SPIEL '22.

•••

While at Gen Con 2022, I also tried Bombyx' other SPIEL '22 release, a flip-and-write game for 2-8 players from Romain Caterdjian titled Look at the Stars.

Each player gets a board with a couple of constellation-style images on it, a few ringed planets, and a grid of stars (dots), giving everyone a slightly different view of the night sky. (Imagine we're at different points on the meridian.) In each round, six cards are revealed, with a card showing a pattern of two lines or (rarely) a shooting star. When you see lines, you can choose to draw them on your board in that same arrangement or rotated, connecting two stars each time you draw a line. When you connect three or more lines, you have created a constellation, and ideally you'll make six constellations from size 3 to 8.

For a shooting star, you can draw a diagonal line 1-3 segments long that doesn't touch anything else on the board. Nothing else can be drawn later that touches this shooting star.

Board Game: Look at the Stars

After the first round, you can no longer draw on the bottom two rows of your board. Imagine that the sun is starting to rise, making it harder to see stars at that level. After the second round, you can't draw in the bottom four rows, and after three rounds the game ends, and you score for the following:

• For a constellation of size 3-8, score 3-8 points, with no points scored for a second constellation of the same size.
• Score 1 point for each constellation that is orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to a planet.
• Score 1 point for each segment in a shooting star.
• Score the listed points each time you have created the shape revealed on a bonus card.

Bing, bang, boom — that's it! The game includes more than 18 cards, so you won't know which line patterns are being used in any particular game. As you can see from Yann's board on the right, constellation lines can cross, and you can make tightly nested patterns given the right cards and experience to see how to fit everything together.

Board Game: Look at the Stars
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Thu Aug 11, 2022 1:00 pm
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Gen Con 2022 Preview: Splendor Duel

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Splendor Duel
As often happens at conventions, most of the games I played at Gen Con 2022 will be released in the near future, thereby giving me a chance to preview them ahead of time.

The two games I enjoyed most (that I can talk about at this time) are Splendor Duel and Sea Salt & Paper. The former game is from Bruno Cathala, Marc André, and Space Cowboys, and the latter from Cathala, Théo Rivière, and Bombyx. Given that I'm also excited about Sobek: 2 Players, a Cathala and Sébastien Pauchon design that Pandasaurus Games had at the show, not to mention Cathala and Rivière's Oh My Brain, now out from 25th Century Games, this event was pretty much a "Cathala Con" for me. For this post, I'll focus solely on the former game.

Croc from Space Cowboys told me that Cathala had reached out to Splendor designer Marc André with an idea for a two-player-only version of the game — which might seem odd given that Splendor already plays fine with two players — but André, perhaps considering the success of 7 Wonders Duel, said sure, let's collaborate. Space Cowboys didn't even know about the project until the designers were mostly done, but I'm sure the publisher didn't object to being delivered a spinoff title to the best-selling game in its catalog.

As with most spinoffs, Splendor Duel maintains as much fidelity to Splendor as possible: Take one action of several on a turn; have at most ten tokens in your reserve at the end of your turn; collect cards from three strength levels; reserve a card by taking a gold. The three main differences, however, are what drive everything in gameplay and what make this design compelling.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Set up and ready to play

First, you collect tokens by drafting them from a grid, taking up to three adjacent, non-gold tokens in a row, column, or diagonal, then adding them to your reserve. The grid contains 25 tokens at the start of play: four of each of the five colors, three gold, and two pearls. Roughly half of the cards in the game require you to hand in a pearl, so you'll compete for them constantly. (Gold can be spent as a pearl or as any color.)

As players spend tokens to acquire cards, you place those tokens on the refill bag. When someone doesn't like the choices on the board — which can happen quickly since both empty spaces and gold break up adjacency — you can decide to refill the board before choosing tokens for your turn. When you do this, the opponent gets a privilege token, represented by a plastic scroll. You then shuffle all the tokens in the bag, take them in a stack in your hand, then refill the board by starting at the center and following the line outward, dropping one token in each empty space. After a refill, you typically have a tightly filled space with a few outlying tokens, but with far fewer tokens than 25 since you both have some in your reserve.

At the start of your turn, you can spend a privilege token to grab any non-gold token from the board, then you take your turn like normal. If your opponent collects two pearls or three tokens of the same color in a single turn, you receive a privilege token to compensate for the random token placement that fell their way.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The board after a refill

Second, some cards have one-time special powers that you gain when playing them, so you value cards in more complex ways than Splendor cards that feature only a color and (possibly) points. These powers are:

• Gain a privilege token.
• Take another turn.
• Take a token matching the color of this card from the board.
• Take a non-gold token from the opponent.

I used this last power multiple times against Candice in our game, and it's a great two-fer power serving as both attack and resource-building toward your next card. If someone is clearly working toward a particular card — and you can't reserve it away due to a lack of gold on the board (as you must take a gold in order to reserve) — then swiping a token can be devastating. They might need to refill the board to get that last token again, which gives you a privilege token and knocks them out of rhythm.

Third, instead of mirroring Splendor's 15-point threshold for bringing about the end of the game, Splendor Duel gives you three victory conditions — 10 points in a single color, 20 points total, or 10 crowns — and as soon as you meet one of them, you win.

As with the addition of one-time effects, this change complicates how you value cards. In all likelihood, you'll value everything somewhat while keeping your options open and looking for opportunities, especially since crowns serve as a victory condition on their own, but they can also help you toward victory elsewhere. When you acquire your third crown, you take one of the nobles on display, and with six crowns you take a second noble. The game includes only four nobles, and they are worth 3 points or 2 points and a special power. These points aren't colored, so they help only toward the 20-point threshold, but the powers (stealing a token, taking a privilege, or taking another turn) are flexible.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My holdings, which include 20 points of victory

In my game with Candice, I raced to six crowns relatively quickly — as in Splendor, the initial focus is all on token collection until you have enough cards to accelerate further card acquisition — then Candice reserved a two-crown card, and I was somewhat adrift given the lack of crowns in the card pool. At some point I reserved a colorless 6-point card that costs eight white, then managed to get another white card, that allowed me to get a black card that costs 4W3G, which got me a joker card I made white, and the 4 points from those three cards, along with the 6 from the closer, brought me to exactly 20 points, a total that had seemed quite distant just a few turns earlier.

As intended, Splendor Duel mirrors the feeling of the original game, such as the slow early game in which you are finding your footing and figuring out which of the high-level cards to target, or the desire to reserve a card an opponent is eyeing only to see something even better be revealed. The spatial puzzle of the token collection is a welcome addition, and it combines well with the color starvation you might try to practice on an opponent, with you holding off on spending tokens until after they refill the board to make it harder to get what they need.

The pearls add another wrinkle to gameplay. If your opponent lacks a pearl or gold, then you know which cards are currently inaccessible to them, which helps you better determine which cards they are targeting should you want to acquire or reserve them first.

Given the strength of both this game and 7 Wonders Duel, I'm sure that other designers would be eager to hear from Monsieur Cathala about any ideas he might have for duellifying their creations...
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Wed Aug 10, 2022 5:30 pm
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Game Overview: Cat in the Box, or Cards Come in Colors Everywhere

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition
Board Game: Cat in the box
In 2020, designer Muneyuki Yokouchi self-published the trick-taking card game Cat in the Box through Ayatsurare Ningyoukan, with the game featuring two linked twists:

• The game has four colored suits, but the numbered cards don't have suits, with five copies of each number.
• When you play a card, you declare which color it is, marking that specific number-color pairing on a game board with a token, with you trying to group lots of your tokens together.

As in most trick-taking games, you need to follow the suit led to the trick, but since your cards have no color, you can declare yourself out of a color and play another color, whether the trump suit (red) to claim a trick that would have otherwise gotten away or to play a number already claimed in that color so that you can place a token in a vital location.

This choice has consequences, however, as you cannot play that color for the remainder of the hand. If you end up with a 6 and 8 in hand on the final trick of the round, and the only places you can claim a 6 or 8 on the game board are in that forbidden color, then you cannot play, the trick ends immediately, and you lose points for each trick you claimed.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My hand at the start of a three-player game before the initial discard: too many 6s.

I've played Cat in the Box seven times — three times on the original design with 3 and 4 players, and four times on a review copy of the Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition from Bézier Games with 2, 3, and 5 players — and while the game uses Schrödinger's Cat as a reference point for the gameplay, with cards having all colors until you declare them to have a specific one, it could instead have been based on psychology, driven by the notion that your past actions have consequences that will affect you in the future.

In almost every hand, you face a moment or two when you need to decide whether to abandon a color that you could play in order to make what you think will be a better play — and if you do, then a few turns later you're cursing your past self for putting yourself in a difficult situation, taking a trick you don't want because now you won't make your bid exactly, which means you forfeit bonus points based on how you've grouped your tokens. Worse, you can't play at all, and everyone else profits while you burn.

In the video below, I run through the details of gameplay, explain how the two-player game creates a tight box in which to fight, and detail the pluses and minuses of the components in the deluxe edition:

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Mon Jul 25, 2022 3:34 pm
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Game Overview: Sniper Elite, or The Art of Sneaking Past Your Friends

Candice Harris
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From gallery of candidrum
David Thompson and Roger Tankersley's Sniper Elite: The Board Game from Rebellion Unplugged is a new hidden movement game for 1-4 players based on Rebellion’s popular, stealth-shooter Sniper Elite video game series. Sniper Elite: The Board Game was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter (KS link) in September 2020 and is now available directly from the publisher and at retailers. Rebellion Unplugged graciously hooked me up with a review copy of Sniper Elite so I could play it and share how it works.

In Sniper Elite, one player takes on the role of Allied sniper Karl Fairburne, dropped deep behind enemy lines to complete objectives critical to the Allied effort in World War II, while their opponents team up to control squads of Axis soldiers tasked with defending their base and dealing with the intruder. To win the the game, the sniper player must sneak around or shoot their way past the defenders to complete two secret objectives before time runs out. Meanwhile, the defenders must guard key objectives and hunt down the sniper to prevent them from winning.

Sniper Elite comes with a double-sided game board featuring two different map options. Each map has its own flavor with unique areas, along with its own set of nine objective cards, and a separate hidden version of the board for the sniper to secretly record their movement throughout the game.

For setup, the sniper secretly draws two objective cards with different suits to ensure each objective is in a different sector of the map. The sniper also loads up their shot bag with aim, noise, and recoil tokens. The shot bag abstractly represents the sniper’s accuracy and level of concealment, and the contents change over the course of the game in tandem with changes on the battlefield. For example, if the sniper successfully shoots a soldier, you add an aim token to the bag which increases the sniper’s odds when shooting defenders going forward. Alternatively, if the sniper is spotted by the defenders, a noise token is added to the shot bag, which worsens the odds for the sniper’s future shots.

The sniper also secretly select three loadout cards of their choice during setup. Each loadout card is a special piece of equipment the sniper can use once per game. There are special weapons, and there are also cards to help the sniper move around without making noise, and even a rock you can toss to distract the defenders.

From gallery of candidrum
Setup for a 2-player game on the Submarine Pens map

After the sniper is set up, the defenders place their miniatures on the starting spaces matching their colored bases and then they choose three specialist cards to assign to their officers for the game. The specialist cards give the officers a powerful special ability they can trigger twice per game. There’s also a countdown track where you place two colored cubes per squad to keep track of the defenders' actions and how many rounds the sniper has left to complete an objective. In addition, there’s a token to keep track of the sniper’s wounds if the defenders are able to successfully hunt down and attack the sniper.

In a game of Sniper Elite, the sniper player takes the first turn of the game, after which the defenders take their turn in any order. The sniper and defenders alternate taking turns in this fashion until the game ends.

On your turn as the sniper player, you can move, use a loadout card, and take an additional action, in any order you choose. You can even choose to do nothing at all on your turn which is a fun way to keep the defenders guessing. For example, if you decide to do nothing, it’s fun to pause for a bit, analyze the main board and your secret board as if you're making a tough decision, and then say you’re finished your turn. Then sit back and watch the defenders start discussing where you might’ve moved as you keep a poker face while giggling inside.

When you move, you secretly mark your new position on your hidden board. You can move zero to three spaces from your current location. If you move zero or one space, your movement is considered to be silent and doesn't alert the defenders even if you brush shoulders with them. However, if you move two or three spaces and end up adjacent to any defenders during your move, you have to tell them they heard a noise. You don’t need to tell the defenders how many adjacent spaces you moved through or the order in which the units are alerted. The sniper cannot enter a space that contains a defending unit, so the defenders will be working to position their units strategically to make it challenging for the sniper to reach their objective areas.

From gallery of candidrum
The sniper successfully shot an officer two spaces away...
For additional actions, the sniper can shoot at an enemy using the shot bag, loot to gain additional loadout cards, or complete an objective. To shoot, you secretly pick a target in line of sight and declare how many tokens you’re going to risk drawing to fire the shot. At a minimum, you must draw one aim token for each space between you and your target, plus the target’s space. So if my target is three spaces away from me, I have to draw at least three aim tokens. Considering the shot bag also has noise and recoil tokens, I might opt to draw five or six tokens to be safe. In that case, I hope to successfully draw the three aim tokens I need. If your shot is successful, the unit you targeted is removed from the board.

If you take down a soldier, you add an aim token to your shot bag. If you take down an officer, you add a suppression token to the bag, or an aim token if you’ve already added that officer’s suppression token to the shot bag. Either way, the added tokens in your shot bag are beneficial, in addition to the perks of removing defenders from the board. You have more options for efficiently moving around without making noise, and it forces the defenders to spend actions to redeploy them.

In addition to the benefits of shooting the defenders, there are also some risks to consider when it comes to drawing from the shot bag to target an enemy. If you draw five or more combined recoil and noise tokens, you misfire. Also, regardless if you misfire or hit, if you draw two or more noise tokens, you have to reveal your position and place your sniper miniature on your current space on the board. If you misfire and don’t make a lot of noise, your opponents won’t even know who you were targeting, but when you make noise, they’ll see you. Therefore, it adds suspense on both sides when the sniper is drawing tokens from the shot bag. Also, each suppression token drawn cancels a noise token, which is one of the reasons it is usually preferred to target the officers over the soldiers.

I really like that you can take your actions in any order too. It gives you the option of shooting, then moving, in which case, if you do create noise, you might be able to sneak away and throw off the defenders. Again, other times it could be best to stay put as well. Whatever it takes to throw off those ruthless defenders!

As an additional sniper action, you can loot to draw three loadout cards and keep one if you’re on a numbered objective space that doesn’t match one of your secret objectives. If you loot, you mark the space on your hidden board because each space can only be looted once. It seems in most cases, the sniper is trying to beat the clock and focus on getting to their objectives as quickly as possible, but if there's a lootable space on your path, it's definitely worth it to pick up another loadout card since they're super helpful.

From gallery of candidrum
Examples of loadout cards

In one of my games where Matt was the sniper, I suspected he planted a mine and I knew the general area where he might've set it, but a few turns later I totally forgot. I used my Scout specialist ability to move one of my soldiers on the mine space, and then at the end of my turn, he blew up. We both cracked up! I almost chose a different space, but again I wasn't even thinking about the mine.

The sniper’s main goal is to stay alive and complete two secret objectives. The sniper player has ten rounds to complete each objective. If you’re able to complete an objective within the first ten rounds, the countdown track resets and you get another ten rounds to complete your second objective to win. To complete an objective, simply reveal your objective card while you’re on the matching space. Then you have to put the sniper miniature on that space, add a noise token to the shot bag, and reset the defender’s action cubes on the countdown track. The action itself is simple, but obviously crucial to winning the game, and it can be very challenging when you are up against tough defenders. Whenever I played as the sniper, I felt so nervous and had an adrenaline rush moving around the board while trying to outsmart the defenders.

While the sniper is sneaking around the board, shooting at defenders, looting, and attempting to complete objectives, the three squads of defenders work together to find and attack the sniper, while also slowing them down enough that they run out of time. Considering the sniper can never enter a space with a defender unit, positioning your officers and soldiers to control the sniper’s movement is imperative.

From gallery of candidrum
Using tracking cubes to deduce where the sniper might have run off to...

On the defenders’ turn, each squad can either gather intel or take two actions with their units. To gather intel with a squad, the officer must be in their own sector (matching color), then you ask the sniper if they’re in that sector. Since the officer needs to be in their own section to gather intel, that’s another reason the sniper might prioritize shooting officers over soldiers. Gathering intel can be super helpful to narrow down where the sniper could be, especially early in the game when you don't have much data. However, the squad won’t be able to take any other actions that round, so it is costly and you have to decide when it's worth it.

If you’re not going to gather intel with a squad, you can move a unit up to two spaces, attack the current space in hopes to wound the sniper if they’re on the same space, sweep or spot to see if the sniper is nearby, or deploy units that were removed to bring them back onto the board. In addition, before or after any action or intel gathering, each officer may use their specialist ability once per turn.

You keep track of each defending squad’s actions by moving the corresponding action cubes down the countdown track. On the defender turn, you have a lot of flexibility since you can have the squads take actions in any order you’d like. It’s also possible to take the same action twice with each squad, or a single unit can take two actions as long as they’re different actions.

From gallery of candidrum
Kennel Master specialist card
The defender spot action allows you to choose a space adjacent to a unit and if the sniper’s in that space, they have to put their miniature on the board and add a noise token to their bag. Alternatively, to sweep, you choose two adjacent spaces to a unit and if the sniper is in any of those spaces, including the space the active unit is on, the sniper has to say so. Of course, they don’t have to say which of the three spaces they’re on, but it's still helpful data.

Then there are also specialist abilities that you can add to the mix when plotting against the sniper. Each officer is assigned a specialist with unique abilities which they can use twice per game. During set up, you add two colored action cubes to associate the corresponding officers to their specialist ability. You also use these cubes to keep track of how many times you've used the ability since you can only use each ability twice per game. The defenders can use the abilities of multiple specialists in each turn, but cannot use the same specialist twice on a single turn.

There are six different specialists you can assign to your officers. There’s a Scout that lets you move a soldier from the corresponding squad to any empty space on the board. There’s a Medic which allows you to keep a soldier in the corresponding squad alive after the sniper shoots them. One of my favorites is the Kennel Master who can place a dog token in their space, and then for the rest of the game, the dog will be alerted if the sniper moves into or through the dog’s space. There’s even a Sniper which can attack targeting a space in their line of sight using the sniper’s shooting rules and shot bag. All of the specialist abilities are pretty juicy and it’s awesome to additional options for the defenders.

The sniper and defenders continue taking turns, back and forth until the game ends. The sniper wins immediately if they complete their second objective. The defenders win immediately if they wound the sniper a second time, or if their action cubes are on the final space of the countdown track at the start of their turn, which means the sniper ran out of time.

From gallery of candidrum
Sniper Jackie completed her second objective in the nick of time!

While I've never played any Sniper Elite video games, and I've only played a few hidden movement games, I found Sniper Elite: The Board Game to be very fun. Each game I played felt tense and exciting whether I was playing as the sniper or the defenders.

The rules for Sniper Elite are pretty straightforward, including the line of sight rules which can sometimes cause confusion. Once you learn it, it should be a relatively quick teach. They also include a couple player aids which are helpful, but I wish they would've included more than one player aid for the defenders.

From gallery of candidrum
Confident stance for someone who missed the sniper walking by...
The art and components are all great and the wash on the miniatures was such a nice touch. Everything looks and feels premium which I always appreciate. The shot tokens are nice and chunky too.

Speaking of the shot tokens, I really dug the push-your-luck aspect of using the shot bag to target defenders. It's such a clever way of abstracting the sniper's accuracy when shooting, and it feels suspenseful whenever you're drawing from the bag. Also, the way you add tokens to the bag, for better or worse, makes thematic sense which is really cool.

The loadout cards are great in Sniper Elite too. I really dig that the sniper player gets to choose three cards at the start of the game and there are only six different types of cards, but some cards have two copies, so you never know exactly what will be in play. It's not only cool to be the sniper and have these spicy cards up your sleeves, but it's another thing the defenders can deduce throughout the game. Some of the loadout cards are not revealed immediately when played, so it could be that the sniper placed a mine or they could use the sound masking card that allows them to move two or three spaces adjacent to defenders without making noise. Either way, the loadout cards add an awesome dynamic to the gameplay.

I managed to play Sniper Elite at all player counts. I enjoyed it best at with two or three players. The 4-player experience felt too long. It might be a matter of too many cooks in the kitchen since the defender turns took a while. Even with everyone owning their own squads' actions, there's still a lot to discuss and collaborate on, which is cool, but can definitely make the game drag. The 2-player experience only took about an hour and felt like chess at moments, if you can imagine playing a chess match where your opponent can see all of your moves, but you can't see their moves most of the game. The 3-player game could be a sweet spot if you enjoy having someone to bounce ideas off of when you're trying to track down the sniper.

Sniper Elite also has a solo mode designed by Dávid Turczi and Noralie Lubbers. In the solo mode, you play as the sniper against the defenders whose turns are driven by a deck of cards which is easy to run, but it doesn't necessarily capture the tension that comes with playing a hidden movement game with human opponents. I think it's nice that it has a solo mode, but I'm probably going to stick to the multiplayer mode in this case. It also includes some officer challenges to adjust the difficulty which is always a plus when it comes to solo modes.

From gallery of candidrum
AI opponent goodies

Board Game: Sniper Elite: Eagle's Nest
While there is plenty of replay value in the base game with two different maps, each with nine different objective spaces, plus a variety of specialist officer and loadout cards, the modular expansion Sniper Elite: Eagle's Nest is also available. Eagle's Nest adds two new maps to the game – the infamous Eagle’s Nest and the Heavy Water Facility – each providing the Allied sniper and the defending Axis forces with new challenges to face. In addition, it includes four alternate snipers to choose from at the start of the game, each with their own unique skillset and miniature to represent them. Eagle's Nest doesn't seem like an essential expansion, but if you really dig the base game and play it a lot, you'll probably enjoy the extra goodies.

If you're looking a for a fun, tense hidden movement game, be sure to check out Sniper Elite: The Board Game. The design and production are top notch, it's relatively easy to learn and teach, and it can be played in less than two hours. I'm looking forward to playing it more to strengthen my deduction skills and misdirect my friends.

From gallery of candidrum
Eagle's Nest map in action

If you're interested in learning more about Sniper Elite: The Board Game, and how it came to be, I recommend checking out the insightful designer diary David Thompson posted.
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Tue Jul 19, 2022 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Kites, or Mind Your Lines

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Kites
Kites from Kevin Hamano and Floodgate Games is a quick-playing co-operative game that cleverly represents a physical activity — flying kites — in an abstract way. Color-coded sand timers represent kites, and as long as a sand timer still has sand in its upper half, that kite remains in the air. If the sand runs out, that kite has hit the ground, and you've lost the game.

Initially, all the kites start on the ground, lying on their sides. To start, stand the white (rainbow) sand timer. Players then take turns playing cards to flip the sand timers playing at whatever pace suits them and drawing a new card from the deck after playing. When a color is first played, that kite is launched into the air; if that color is already in play, you flip that sand timer; if you play a card with only a single color icon, you can flip that color or the white timer.

The sand timers range from 30-90 seconds, so not everything is flowing at the same pace, and you're flipping them unevenly as well, so you need to keep watch of everything, including your fellow players because sometimes they are plainly anxious about what to play. You can offer advice or mention what's in your hand, but breaking someone's focus won't necessarily be helpful.

Once the final card is drawn, no one can flip the white sand timer, so you must rush to play the remaining cards in hand before time runs out and that kite — or any other kite — comes crashing down.

I've played Kites thirteen times on a review copy from Floodgate Games, and the feel of gameplay is strongly reminiscent of The Mind, both being co-operative, real-time games in which you have to sync with other players, in which failure is a collective failing instead of one person being at fault, and in which you keep getting better the longer you play with the same people. They're both games I'd bring to social situations in which I'm meeting new people because you can start playing quickly, and they're highly interactive, with you feeling more and more like the team is gelling as you get closer to victory each play.

Unlike The Mind, Kites includes challenge cards that increase the game's difficulty should you succeed, with four copies of three types of challenges, thereby allowing you to sprinkle in just the right amount for your group.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

One complication about the game that I forgot to mention in the video below is that you might need to find the right lighting or table surface to play. In some of my games, we couldn't quite tell whether a sand timer was empty or not — dim light, dark table — and I know it had sand just a second ago, I'm sure, but of course it did because that's how sand timers work, and maybe it was in fact empty, but we flipped it anyway and just kept going. In some ways, that ambiguity was more enjoyable than a clear victory because the two of us playing felt like we got away with something, but honestly, along the lines of cheating disaster because Death was facing the other direction at the time you did something foolish.

By chance, one of the players in a few games — Tom Franklin, who writes for Meeple Mountain — used to manage a kite store, and he mentioned that some of the lines on the kites were not accurate, so he got distracted when he was first playing the game because his eyes were focusing on errors instead of on colors. I was oblivious to such things, but it's interesting to think about how consultants could be useful in nearly every game production to ensure fidelity to details, both large and small.

In the video below, aside from demonstrating gameplay in more detail and going on more about the feel of the game, I discuss thoughts on the endgame that feel somewhat spoilery, despite the game having no legacy elements.

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Mon Jul 18, 2022 3:00 pm
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Game Overview: Sanssouci, or Garden Plot

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Sanssouci
Board Game: Sanssouci
Michael Kiesling's Sanssouci debuted in 2013 from Ravensburger, was followed by (among other titles) Azul in 2017 and Miyabi in 2019, and now Sanssouci is back in print in a new edition from Chilean publisher Fractal Juegos that will be available at SPIEL '22.

When you look at these designs, along with 2018's Outback, you might think, "Wow, Michael Kiesling really wants us to organize things in grids in a complicated manner!"

What you're organizing in Sanssouci are the gardens at the Schloss Sanssouci, a summer palace built for Frederick the Great, with the name being French for "without concerns" or "carefree" because this was a palace for hanging out, not for governing. You are not hanging out, of course, but trying to get a job, so you have to show that you can design more attractive gardens than the other wannabes, and to do this, you have to draft random garden elements and put them in predetermined locations under somewhat restrictive guidelines — just as Frederick the Great wanted.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Garden in progress

Each player gets their own garden board, and each turn you play one of two cards in hand, draft a tile from the central display, add that tile under the aforementioned guidelines, then (ideally) move a noble in your garden to look at something, for which you receive points because you've satisfied their desire to look at something beautiful.

Cards feature one of the nine garden elements, two colors, or all five colors. If you play the five-color card, you can draft any tile from the ten available on the display; if you play a two-color card, you can draft only from the four tiles in those colored rows; and if you play a garden element card, you can draft only a tile that features that element — unless none are available, in which case you can draft anything.

When you draft a tile, it must go in the column matching the garden element on it and in the row matching the color from where the tile was taken. In the image below, for example, if you drafted the fountain in the gray row, then you must place that fountain in the gray row on your personal game board — unless that space is already occupied. If that happens, you flip the tile upside down to show only paths, then place it in any empty space in that same row or same column.

Each noble only wants to look at one thing — statues, fountains, etc. — and once they've seen a thing in a row, say, the second fountain from the palace (scoring you 2 points), they won't go back to look at the first fountain (for 1 point). They need novelty, so you better keep building paths that give them new things to look at. (Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time comes to mind here, and I'd love to see someone gamify that series of novels.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Two final gardens, with the central tile-drafting board

At heart, the challenge of the game is that you can't take any tile and place it anywhere in your garden, but are instead restricted in what you can take and where you can put it. Azul and Miyabi have similar restrictions, and such restrictions are why I prefer any of these titles over the far more chill, take-what-you-want-and-place-it-anywhere tile-laying in Cascadia, as I detailed in my video overview of that game.

For me, games are a designer creating rules in a tiny world, and I have to figure out to live under those rules and prosper better than anyone else, assuming the game is competitive. If the rules allow too much freedom, as I feel to be the case in Cascadia, I find the challenge uninteresting, akin to plain ice cream that offers the same flavor with every spoonful. The first bites are fine, sure, but then it's more of the same.

By having complications, you're mixing nuts or candy or marshmallow or fudgy bits into the ice cream, and the bites have more variety to them, with you now taking more care with what ends up on the spoon so that you can maximize what you get out of the experience. In game terms, what tiles am I allowed to take now? And what will I need later in order to make the best use of them, to connect the paths and get those fickle nobles where they want to go? Will I be able to get what I want or make productive use of what's available?

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Mostly happy nobles, while using the two expansions

Given the number of tiles in the game, you don't know whether you'll be able to get what you want, whether because those tiles will be placed in rows where they're not useful or because an opponent will snatch them away, so your plans might fail. You know all the cards in your deck, but you don't know what you'll draw when, so again your plans might fail.

Or, with experience, you might not, because the more you play, the better you get at creating possibilities for yourself. You're not relying on any particular tile in any particular row, but increasing your odds for success no matter what comes up — at least that's what I feel like after having played nine times, with all player counts (2-4), on review copies of both editions.

For more thoughts on the game and demonstration of both expansions included in the Fractal Juegos edition — one of which is new but can be backported to the original edition — check out this overview video:

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Wed Jul 6, 2022 7:15 pm
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Recreate the 10th U.S. Election in Corrupt Bargain

Candice Harris
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From gallery of candidrum
Corrupt Bargain: The 1824 Presidential Election is a unique and accessible, political, area influence game from designer Alex Berry (High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel), published by Decision Games in 2022. “Doc” Cummins from Decision Games graciously sent me a review copy when I expressed interest after getting a sneak peak of it at Dice Tower West in March 2022.

In Corrupt Bargain 2-4 players represent one of the major candidates (Adams, Clay, Crawford, or Jackson) and their campaign organizations, competing to become the next President of the United States in the 1824 federal election. By the end of the game, if a candidate (player) obtains a majority of Electoral College (131+) votes, they win. However, if no candidate obtains a majority in the Electoral College, then the election goes to the House of Representatives where the candidate with the most states wins.

Corrupt Bargain is played over a number of Campaign rounds (depending on player count) where players resolve event cards to manipulate populace (wooden cubes) and politician (wooden octagons) influence in different U.S. regions and states, followed by a special Final Push round where players take turns playing politician and populace cards to firm up their stance before the votes are tallied.

On your campaign turn, you select one of the event cards on the event card track, resolve the events indicated on the card, and then you complete the number of actions and insights indicated on the slot you took the card from. After you finish your actions, you take the event card into your hand, then you refill the event card track by sliding cards down and refilling the 0 action points (AP) slot with a new card from the event card deck.

In a 2-player game, players alternate taking turns round after round. However, in a 3 or 4-player game, the starting player order rotates clockwise each round. Thus, the second player in the first round becomes the first player in the second round. This means each player will become the last player the round immediately after they are the first player.

This turn order rotation seemed odd to me initially, but I think it works well to balance the potential advantages of being the first player round after round. “Doc” from Decision Games showed me an easy way to keep track of this when we played Corrupt Bargain together at BGG.Spring – use a cube from each player to set the turn order, then when you move down to the next space on the round track, move the first cube to the end of the row, and voila, you have your new turn order.

From gallery of candidrum
Campaign Turn 3 of a 4-player game

There are 80 different event cards and most of them involve placing and/or removing populace and/or political tokens in different states and regions on the map. The iconography is easy to understand, albeit small, and there's also historical flavor text on each card. Some events involve adding and/or removing your own influence tokens, but there are also cards that allow you to target your opponents (rivals). In most cases, you remove some rival tokens from one region or state, and then you also add some to a different region or state. There are also events that allow you to gain politician and populace cards which are used for the Final Push.

From gallery of candidrum
Examples of event cards
Depending which slot you took the event card from, you also gain up to three action points. Each action point you spend allows you to take one of five different actions, noting no action can be performed more than once on a given turn.
1) You can campaign for political support to place one politician octagon in any one state.
2) You can campaign for popular votes to place one populace cube in any one state with a square icon.
3) You can work the back rooms to draw four politician cards and keep one for the Final Push.
4) You can get out the vote to draw four populace cards and keep one for the Final Push.
5) Or, you can take a political intrigue action where you choose a state and an opponent, then remove one of your own political octagons and two of theirs.

While these actions are all very straightforward, plus easy to learn and remember, Corrupt Bargain comes with excellent player aids which summarize all of the actions on one side, and just about everything else you need to know related to the flow of the game on the other side. With these player aids, you should barely need to crack open the rulebook after you have a game under your belt. Also, half of the rulebook is historical background information on the Presidential election of 1824, which is very cool and informative.

In addition to action points, there are two event card slots that also grant players insight. Insight is a sneaky way for players to take politician and populace cards from one another to help with the Final Push round. After you resolve an event and take actions on an insight slot, you draw two random cards from one opponent’s populace and politician cards, keep one, and return the other. If no opponents have two populace/politician cards, then you simply draw one of either type from the deck instead.

Insight is an excellent way to keep your opponents in check and prevent a player from building up a bigger stack of populace and politician cards than everyone else. I haven't explored negotiations much in Corrupt Bargain, but I'd imagine there's room to make some non-binding side deals with others to avoid targeting certain players in exchange for them not targeting you with an event or insight. This is not mentioned in the official rules, but it could be fun to experiment with when playing with gamers who appreciate negotiations.

When deciding which card to pick from the event card track, it can be a tough decision because there are several things to consider. You may want a particular event card because it gets you influence in an optimal location. You may want an event card to obtain a certain amount of action points and/or insight. You may want a certain event card solely to prevent your opponents from taking it. Or you might want a certain card because of the card suit.

From gallery of candidrum
PA is worth the most Electoral College votes and is usually locked down first...
Each event card has one of three different suits abstractly representing slavery, trade, and western expansion. If you have three event cards with matching suits, you can lockdown any one state of your choice at the start of your turn, prior to choosing an event card. When you lockdown a state, you place a black lockdown token in it and no one can place or remove tokens from that state for the remainder of the game.

I really dig the lockdown mechanism in Corrupt Bargain; it adds an underlying tension as you look around the table and see your opponents with three or more event cards in hand. You start to scan the board and try to see which state they might attempt to lockdown, and see if there's any way you can prevent it.

The potential for a lockdown also widens the decision space of choosing your event card on your turn. Lockdowns are so good, you simply don't want to miss out on securing yourself some votes when you can. Thus, you subtly try to build up your presence in a particular state and hope to secure it by locking it down as soon as you can. Inevitably, one of your opponents usually catches on, and just ahead of your turn, they add more tokens and gain the majority in the space you were targeting. You cringe inside without revealing to them that you were just about to perform a lockdown there. So there's an ongoing race to beat your opponents to locking down high-value states, and it adds a nice layer of tension to the gameplay.

Players continue taking campaign turns until everyone finishes their last turn, which is indicated on the campaign round track based on player count (10 turns for 4 players, 13 turns for 3 players, and 16 turns for 2 players). Then the player with the most populace and politician cards kicks off the Final Push round.

In the Final Push, each player plays one populace or politician card from their hand per turn and completes the actions on it. In some cases, it might have no effect due to lockdowns, but since you must play a card on your turn until you run out of cards, playing dead cards is a great way to stall so you can see what your opponents do and respond accordingly.

From gallery of candidrum
Examples of Populace cards

The Final Push round makes you realize you can't ignore getting populace and politician cards during the campaign rounds. The cards are simple since they allow you to add or remove a token or two in a state or region, but they can be powerful. They can gain you or cost you a state, which could influence the end result of the game. It's definitely something you should try to stay competitive with during the campaign rounds -- i.e. try to avoid one player having way more cards than everyone else.

From gallery of candidrum
Examples of Politician cards

After the Final Push round, you review each state to determine which player has the most cubes in the non-capital spaces, and the most octagons in the capital spaces. There are multiple levels of tie breakers, but it's usually based on who has the most politician octagons in the space or the region. There are cards for each state that you award to the player with the most influence. Then after you score each state, players tally up the votes for all the states they won. If a player has 131 or more votes, they win the game. If no player won, then you perform a contingent election in the House of Representatives.

The contingent election is determined solely by politician octagons, so at this point, cubes no longer matter. A player wins the contingent election by winning a majority of states (13 or more), regardless of how many Electoral College votes the states have.

Corrupt Bargain tends to feel abstract, but when it comes time to count your votes, you're faced with anxiety and suspense similar to real election nights. I think it's awesome that it has different ways the winner can be determined too. It reminds me of games like The King is Dead, or scoring a dominance check in Pax Pamir. I imagine the more experience you have playing, the better you'll be able to play to both potential outcomes. Either way, the ending always feels exciting as players count their votes and see how many states they've won. It's the kind of game where it's hard to tell exactly who's in the lead until you actually score it up.

While I enjoyed playing with four players most, I was happy to find that Corrupt Bargain plays well at all three player counts, and each has its own feel, with 2 and 3-player games feeling a tad more cutthroat. Beware, it has some take-that here and there with some event cards occasionally feeling brutal. Some people might take it personally when they are targeted. However, in my games, those moments usually quickly turned into jokes. I can't tell you how many times people dumped my populace cubes into Rhode Island, which is one of the north region states with the lowest vote value. Then we laughed about it when I proudly won that state card at the end of the game. It all depends on who you play with and your group dynamic.

From gallery of candidrum
Just about midway through an intense 3-player game

If you enjoy area influence games or games where you can learn about history, I definitely recommend checking out Corrupt Bargain. It's very accessible and straightforward to learn and teach, and it doesn't overstay its welcome with each game running about 90 minutes. For an abstract feeling game which may appear a tad dry-looking to many, there are a lot of really interesting and enjoyable mechanisms at work that create a fun and engaging gaming experience between the lockdowns, two different types of influence, the Final Push, two different end game outcomes, and how it everything works together.

I'm planning to keep my eye out for whatever Alex Berry works on next. In the meantime, High Treason has been on my shelf of opportunity for a while, so I hope to finally play that soon, while happily keeping Corrupt Bargain in my rotation.
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Tue Jun 28, 2022 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Cascadia, or Playing God in Northwest North America

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Cascadia
I finally got Cascadia to the table, and this design from Randy Flynn and Flatout Games does exactly what it promises to do: Gives you and your fellow players "a puzzly tile-laying and token-drafting game featuring the habitats & wildlife of the Pacific Northwest".

By chance, a friend of my wife was visiting from Seattle, saw the box, and said, "Hey, I recognize that!"

Whether you will like what you're given depends on your taste for solitairish game experiences. In my two playings, once each with three and four players on a copy from the BGG Library, we've finished the game and been like, so, what next? Cascadia is like a glass of cool water on a tepid day: satisfying at the time, but not memorable.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Landscapes that will soon be demolished

The design provides a nice challenge: Pick a habitat tile and wildlife token combination each turn, and add it to your landscape. Habitats come in five types, each tile features one or two habitats, and you want to group like habitats together as you score points for your largest forest, largest mountain, etc. at game's end.

Each habitat tile shows 1-3 wildlife symbols, and you can place only one of the indicated wildlife tokens on this tile, with wildlife scoring at game's end based on whatever scoring card you used. In one game, elk want to stand in lines, while in the next forming rings will make them happy. Foxes, on the other hand, are sociable and score based on the animals around them. Wildlife comes in five types, so you're trying to place habitat tiles to both build large regions and give you the possibility of making an elk ring, putting bears in pairs, and so on.

Gameplay has no downsides. Each turn, you add to one or two habitats, then place a wildlife token and score points for that as well. (All scoring takes place at game's end, but the only time you lose points is when you spend nature tokens to adjust what's available for you in the drafting pool.) You're not necessarily planning anything, but taking stuff as it comes and doing the best you can with what's on tap to pile up the points.

For more thoughts on Cascadia, check out this video:

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Mon Jun 27, 2022 5:10 pm
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Game Overview: Walkie Talkie, or Orange Is the New Black

W. Eric Martin
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North Carolina
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Board Game: Walkie Talkie
At GAMA Expo 2022 I played a demo game of Walkie Talkie — a co-operative card game by Shei S. and Isra C. that's part of Devir's new small game line — but surprisingly a game-related event was not really the ideal setting for this design.

Instead I think Walkie Talkie excels in the slot of "game to play in a restaurant after placing your order". One reason for this choice is that the game takes only 30 seconds per player, that is, 1-4 minutes. Even at the fastest Thai restaurant, you'll be able to get in a game or two before your basil fried rice hits the table. What are you doing in this brief span of time? Ridding yourself of cards in hand as quickly as you can. In more detail:
Quote:
Everybody has a hand of six cards; cards have a letter on one side and a color on another, and you have to hold your cards however they're dealt to you. Place one card from the deck letter side up and another color side up. When the timer starts, everybody plays at the same time. You can play a letter on the letter pile as long as you can name something that starts with that letter and that "matches" the current color showing; similarly, you can play a color on the color pile as long as you can name something of that color that starts with the letter atop the letter pile. For example, when playing a "B" card next to a yellow card, you could say "Banana!", and when playing an orange card next to an "L", you could say "Lion!" You can't repeat a word previously given, and you can't name the color of the color card.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Sample letters and all the colors

Whenever you want, you can say "Roger!", and all players must flip the cards in their hand, so letters become colors and vice versa. Alternatively, you can say "Over!", and players pass their cards to the left.

When time runs out, you gain points equal to the number of stars on played letter cards, then subtract 1 point for each unplayed card. Try to score as many points as you can!
I've now played Walkie Talkie 17 times on a review copy from Devir with player counts from 2-5, and aside from that first demo game, we've always played at least twice in a row. We typically finish with a negative score in our first game, cards stranded in hand because we couldn't think of something pink that starts with any of our letters or something that starts with Z that matches any of our colors. Did we forget to say "Roger!" and give ourselves new options? Yes, we did. (Strangely, we've never said "Over!" in any of our games, and the two commands seem like they should be reversed, with "Over!" making you flip cards.)

Then we shuffle and play again immediately, and we always do better — which makes sense because you start to build a library of red things, of blue things, of green things, etc., and you can find items on those library shelves more easily with practice. Some items feel a bit of a cheat, e.g., "Underwear" because you can have a U with any color and have a match, but it's funny the first time someone says "Underwear", especially when the color is grey, which it was the first time, and after a couple of mentions of underwear, you can decide that you're going to place the underwear back on the shelf and try to think of something else...or not. Your call.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The typeface might have you guessing a few times as with this H third from left

The first few games we found ourselves in a food rut, giving a food answer for almost everything we played, but then I banned myself from naming foods and tried to think of other things. I'm sure our score suffered, but the game doesn't worry too much about scores, not including a chart to consult to show when you score awesome, okay, and mediocre, so I'm not worrying about scores either.

What's of more concern is discovering what people say, especially when they make personal connections on an eye or shirt color or a pet or something far more out there that you never would have considered. My brother looked at E and black and said, "Entropy", and we were all like...yes, that is correct. You can protest a play, and if others protest, the card player must return their card to hand along with another card from either pile, but I've rarely encountered someone trying to cheat a card onto a pile. After all, the goal of playing isn't the score, but making a connection with others and getting a taste of what's going on inside their heads.

For more examples of gameplay, you can check out this overview video, which is twice as long as any game of Walkie Talkie you'll ever play:

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Mon Jun 20, 2022 10:02 pm
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Game Overview: Top Ten, or Playing to the Crowd

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Top Ten
At the Spielwarenmesse 2020 trade fair, I got to sample Aurélien Picolet's Top Ten from Cocktail Games and called the game "my pick of the show".

For more detail, here's all that I wrote about the game in February 2020:
Quote:
We'll close with a sneak peek at Aurélien Picolet's Top Ten from Cocktail Games, which will debut at FIJ 2020 in late February 2020 and which will not be released in English until 2021 at the earliest — which is a shame as this game would be my pick of the show, the title I would most want to play and share with others. (Indeed, I dragged Lincoln over to see it as he was doing other things when I first ran across this title during my picture-taking rounds on Sunday.)

I think what most excites me about the game is that similar to Codenames and Decrypto, you have the solid game-y structure that makes everything work functionally, but you, the player, are asked to inject your creativity into the game, and just reading the sample topic cards that Cocktail had on hand got my gears turning in good ways.

Top Ten seems somewhat similar to Wavelength, but with more detailed (yet still open-ended) topics that give you more direction in terms of creating answers. Another game along these lines is On a Scale of One to T-Rex, which like Wavelength comes from Wolfgang Warsch and various co-designers, but that game gives each player a specific task to perform at an intensity level of 1-10, with you choosing how to carry out that task, but not what the task is.

In any case, here's an overview of Top Ten:
wrote:
Your goal in Top Ten is to survive five rounds, so you and your fellow players need to figure out how to get things in order!

To start the game, place a number of unicorn tokens on the game board. Choose one player to be the round's chief. That player gives all players a random card numbered 1-10, then they read one of the five hundred theme cards included in the game, e.g., "Batman wants to replace Robin to fight the bad guys. Create a new duo 'Batman and ...' from the worst to the best." The chief looks at their number, then gives an answer based on their number. If they have a 1, they want to give the worst possible suggestion; if a 10, the best; if a 5-7, somewhere in the middle.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Example cards from Spielwarenmesse 2020

Each other player then gives an answer to this theme based on the number they were dealt, then the chief needs to decide who has the lowest number, then the next lowest, and so on. For each mistake, the chief flips a unicorn token over to its poop side.

If all the unicorns have left by the end of the fifth round, leaving you with nothing but poop, then you lose. Otherwise you win!
This description is pretty much accurate, but it's somewhat limited given that I played only a couple of sample rounds in 2020. However, following the game's nomination for the 2022 Spiel des Jahres in late May, Cocktail Games offered to ship me a copy of the game for use at BGG.Spring 2022, while also sending me a rough English translation of the cards, so now I've finally played the game for real, with four games taking place at that convention and two other games taking place with my in-laws after returning home. (Full disclosure: Cocktail Games published my game Body Party in 2014 following an advance payment in 2013. That game was discontinued within two years with no further payments, and I've had no business dealings with Cocktail since that time.)

Over those six games, I played with four, five, eight, and nine players. You use as many unicorn tokens as the number of players, except that with nine players, you still use only eight tokens because everyone but the round's captain gives an answer. Thus, with more players, you have more room for error, but you also have more opportunities to make mistakes since you have more answers to put in order.

And unlike what I initially wrote, 1 isn't automatically the worst and 10 the best because sometimes the scale isn't one of worst to best. Instead 1 corresponds with the "greenest" answer and 10 the "reddest", with green and red being defined in the particular situation, such as "scariest to bravest" or "most innocuous to most obvious".

My first impression of Top Ten — you, the player, are asked to inject your creativity into the game — has proven true over these six playings, and it's why I think Top Ten shines favorably when compared to Wavelength. In that game, only one person creates an answer that falls somewhere on a spectrum (e.g., square to round, sad song to happy song, introvert to extrovert), and that player's teammates need to guess where that answer falls. That's it. The game inspires creativity, yes, but you've got one shot at guessing where an answer falls, then you're done with that spectrum.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In Top Ten, everyone creates an answer, starting with the round's captain, and you tend to play off of what others are doing, collectively creating the boundaries and data points on that spectrum. In one round, for example, players had to explain where they would hide during a game of hide-and-seek on a scale from "found right away" to "never found". One player said that they got on a place to (I think) Tahiti, and it was clear immediately that they had the 10 — or at least it was clear to me since I held the 9, so I was then free to give an extremely wild answer in which I hid inside a vending machine in the basement of a parking garage, which seemed like an "easier to find" hiding spot than Tahiti, yet harder to find than any other answer folks would give. One player said they ran over a couple of blocks and down the street, then someone else, apparently feeling that player gave a 3 answer, said that they ran a couple of blocks away, then ducked behind a bush — and the round's captain correctly pegged them at a 4 after getting the other person's 3.

The more I played Top Ten, the more it felt like a cross between Wavelength and The Mind. Collectively we're all trying to get into the same frame of mind so that my 7 answer lines up with what your 7 answer would be so that we can thread our answers in just the right way for the captain to figure out how to order us.

What's more, when you're the round's captain, you give the first answer, which kind of sets the stage for what's to come. Not because everyone knows what your number is, but because your tone or energy carries over to everyone else. One situation had us miming our behavior as an exam monitor, from not paying attention to overzealous; another had us listening to a talking game box and telling the group what it said, from the meanest thing to the nicest; still another put us in the role of supreme dictator, announcing our first act from really nice to really nasty. You're not just giving an answer, but performing for the group thanks to situations that are far more involved and lively than the spectrums presented in Wavelength, while still being open-ended.

The only time Top Ten hasn't worked as well as I had hoped was in my first playing with my in-laws as my father-in-law just wasn't getting the concept, seemingly trying to guess every player's number (which is the expert mode of play) rather than guessing who had the lowest answer. By the second game, he was doing better, although he'll never be the ideal Top Ten player. That said, he would find Scout or Cascadia, the other two 2022 Spiel des Jahres nominees, impossible to play due to the number of rules in them, so at least this game was kind of working for him.

For more thoughts on Top Ten and why it's my clear choice for the 2022 Spiel des Jahres, check out this video:

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Mon Jun 6, 2022 1:00 pm
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