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PAX Unplugged 2018 III: Previews of Tsuro: Phoenix Rising, Tiny Towns, and Stonehenge and the Sun

W. Eric Martin
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Yesterday I covered a few games that appeared at PAX Unplugged with little to no advance notice from publishers, so now let's look at a few that were on my radar thanks to some degree of marketing push ahead of the show.

Such pushes are encouraged if you want people to know that your game exists or will exist at some point in the future, and I can already see that ahead of PAX Unplugged 2019, I need to lean hard on publishers for info more directly so that I can create a convention preview for that show. On Saturday, for example, designer Daryl Andrews told me that Renegade Game Studios was selling Ghostbusters: The Card Game, which he had co-designed with Erica Bouyouris and which he had not known would be available until he arrived at the booth and they gave him copies. Designers tend to shout about their releases to the world, so if publishers aren't even telling them about the games that will be on hand, it's going to be harder for those titles to find a footing in this flooded marketplace.

• One company that had promoted the PAXU appearance of an upcoming release was Calliope Games, which had announced that Tom McMurchie's Tsuro: Phoenix Rising, the third title in its Tsuro game series, would be available for a sneak peek. I caught company president Ray Wehrs at the end of Friday for a sample two-player game — the title handles up to eight players, as with the other two Tsuro titles — and he was happy to play and is fine with me talking about the game, although he allowed only the (unfortunately) blurry image below of the prototype bits.

Gameplay in Tsuro: Phoenix Rising resembles that of Tsuro in that each player is moving their pawn over paths on the tiled gaming area and you want everyone else to have their paths cut short so that only you remain in play. If you're the only player with a piece on the board, you win. Where the game differs from earlier releases, though, is that the tiles are placed in troughs in a plastic game board and only the perimeter of the board is empty at the start of play. The center spaces each start with a double-sided tile on them, and instead of each tile having two connections along each edge, sometimes the tiles have looping connections that take you to the corner of a tile — perhaps even where no connection exists! Many of these center tiles have lanterns on them, and place a red, blue or yellow token on these lanterns at the start of play.

Each player begins with one life token, representing the ability of your phoenix to arise again and have a second life if travels off the board. On a turn, if your phoenix is off the board or facing a blank space, you place your tile in hand on an empty space of the playing area; if your phoenix is at a dead end in front of a tile already in play, you pick up that tile and reorient it so that you can move along the path just built. If you move completely through a lantern space on your turn, then you collect a star token, and you can pick up multiple stars on a turn. At the end of your turn, move all such lanterns to different tiles in play, ideally setting up scoring opportunities on future turns.

If a player manages to collect seven stars, their phoenix has gained immortality and they win the game immediately.


Expect the final pieces to be in focus


Alderac Entertainment Group and designer Peter McPherson were showing off Tiny Towns, a game for 2-4 1-6 players that's scheduled for release on April 26, 2019.

What's more, they were demoing the game in what was nearly an ideal manner for a convention. McPherson and other AEG folks were behind a table on the edge of their booth, greeting everyone who passed and inviting them to play, with the possible reward of a $100 Home Depot gift card being dangled as an incentive. I passed the table multiple times and nearly always saw people playing, with empty seats being filled within a minute. Instead of you needing to mess around with the game components, the seven different building combinations were printed on the tablecloth, which allowed onlookers to play along and kibitz about what the actual players were doing. (The length of the table was the only downside as it was difficult from one end of it to clearly see the other end.)

Everyone played on a sheet of paper that contained the details of the giveaway, space for you to build, room to write down your points (with these spaces indicating additional gameplay elements that would come packaged in the box), and space for your name and email. AEG needed this info to contact you about the prize, of course, but more importantly you were signing up to be on its mailing list, giving them a way to reach out in the future and let you know when this game (or other titles) hit the market.

Whatever you think of AEG's games, this set-up is a model for other publishers who want to tease a game ahead of its release: make it easy to jump into a game or watch, tease other elements in the box while keeping the current demo streamlined, and get contact info so that you can connect with the player later since they're unlikely to remember everything they've played.

So what is Tiny Towns anyway? You might think of it as a town-building take on the awesome Threes! puzzle app. During the game, players build cottages, taverns, farms, factories, and three other types of buildings on a personal 4x4 grid. Each game starts with players laying out one card for each of these types of buildings, with the card specifying which building blocks you need in which combination in order to create that building.

On a turn, the active player calls out one of the five types of building blocks, then each player takes one of these blocks and places it in an empty space in their 4x4 grid. The next player in clockwise order calls out a block, and so on. After placing a block, if a player has an arrangement of blocks that matches one of that game's building patterns, then they can remove those blocks from their grid and place the appropriate wooden building on one of the spaces previously occupied. You don't have to remove them, and sometimes you want to leave your options open to take advantage of what an opponent might call — or keep them from being able to call something that will hurt you. Eventually, though, you need to convert blocks to buildings as that clears space in your grid and gives you more room to build.

Once you can't place a block, you're done and can tally your points, with you no longer calling our block types since you'd solely be trying to mess up others instead of building something yourself. The last player with room in their grid can place whatever they want block by block. Each building scores in a different way, with some buildings not scoring at all and with you losing a point for each remaining block. Farms feed up to four cottages, for example, and if you don't feed cottages, then you don't score points for them. When you complete a factory, you choose a type of good, and whenever someone calls that good, you can place whatever block you want in your grid.

Tiny Towns is my style of game, but I played like a dimwit and quickly had nothing to do but block up my town and pretend that I was sleep deprived and not really this bad of a player. In addition to having different block set-ups for the seven building types, the game includes a deck of block cards; if you want to focus solely on building in a learning game — or you want to deny mean players the chance to block you — you can flip the block cards at random to determine what everyone has to place.


My terrible tiny town


• Japanese publisher itten appeared at PAXU for its first U.S. convention, and in addition to selling past releases such as HATSUDEN, Here Comes the Dog, and the new version of Tokyo Highway that Asmodee is distributing, designer Naotaka Shimamoto was demonstrating Stonehenge and the Sun, a 2-4 player dexterity game that hits Kickstarter in mid-December 2018.

Many dexterity games feel like one another, especially those in which you stack or build things, and while Stonehenge and the Sun has a building element, that's not the focus of the gameplay. You and your fellow (perhaps godlike) players are building Stonehenge one block at a time on a circular base, but each time you build, you must then represent the passing of time by swinging a heavy metal ball — the stand-in for the sun — through the building area. If you knock over any blocks, you take them as penalty points, and whoever knocks over the fewest blocks wins.


Shimamoto preps the sun for launching


In more detail, each player starts with a marker evenly spaced around the base. On a turn, you take a block from the reserve and add it to the perimeter of the base or stack it on another block, with stacks being at most two blocks tall. Alternatively, you can take a block that's already on the base and lay it across two pillars already in play to create a gate. If you add a block, you must move your marker to either side of this new block, and the area where your marker is located is the target through which you must swing the sun. If you create a gate, then you don't move your marker. You can't share an area with another player, and you might be forced to move depending on how others place blocks.

After you build, you then launch the sun — and the question that nearly every observer had about the game is "How do you set that up at home?" At PAXU, itten had build a wooden frame over the table and attached the ball via fishing wire to this frame. In the First Look area, they suspended the ball from a mic stand. They were soliciting advice from players as to what they should include in the final box: a suction cup? a carabiner? a screw hook? Stonehenge and the Sun might be the only game that requires you to screw something into your ceiling in order to play.

The game includes rules for a second game called "Orbit", with this being a real-time game. You place the blocks around the base evenly, and each player places two markers next the base and opposite one another. Someone launches the ball in orbit around the base, and once it's circled three times, everyone start building simultaneously, placing blocks only next to their markers. You can't touch the ball or string or else play stops and you lose a point. Whoever places ten blocks by their markers first wins the round and scores a point; whoever scores three points first wins.

For a sample of what the game looks like in action, check out the video I tweeted from PAXU, a video that shows both success and failure:

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