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Subject: [Review] X-Machina rss

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Tom Vasel
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X-Machina (Blood and Cardstock Games, 2004 - Joan Wendland) reminds me a bit of one of my favorite comic strips - the wild and crazy machines of Rube Goldberg. For some reason I find it fascinating to watch the wild stunts of a huge machine attempting to do an extremely simple task. It's just the idea of everything working in unison (or in Wile E. Coyote's case - NOT working), that has me intrigued. I'm certainly no engineer, and my wife would attest to the fact that I'm almost mentally handicapped when it comes to even putting together a bookshelf. Yet X-Machina allows me to pretend that I have some knowledge in this area - or at least enough to impress some people.

The game itself is extremely interesting and fun - especially (and perhaps only) if you have creative, extroverted folk around - or someone who can tell a good yarn. I have a small annoyance with the lack of illustrations on the "Cog" cards, but the game plays like an advanced version of Apples to Apples. Players try to hawk their invention each turn to a judge, and the player who is innovative enough will win the game. It's an enjoyable party game, although it involves more thinking than most.

A large pile of "Cog" cards are shuffled, with seven dealt to each player, and the rest placed in a draw pile, with four placed face up in "The Junk Yard". Another, smaller pile of "Req" cards are also shuffled and placed in a draw deck. The player born closest to Hoboken (hurrah!), New Jersey becomes the first customer, and the game is ready to begin.

To start each round, the Customer draws a Req card and tells everyone what they want - from a "Traffic Plow" to "Brain Floss" to "Eternal Youth Cream". In case the name isn't helpful enough, a slogan is provided ("Go to the Head of the Line!", etc) as well as a picture of one example of the device. Players immediately start playing Cog cards in front of themselves, as many as they want - all simultaneously. A player can announce "No Bid", which means they will play no cards this round. Players continue to think and place cards in front of them until the Customer decides to say "Present". At this point the player to the left of the Customer starts their presentation.

Each player, in turn, "pitches" their idea to the Customer, explaining how the the cards they have played fit into their idea. They can use the cards in any way they wish, using a part of the card (the ink from the "copier machine", the teeth from hamsters, etc.), using it in a odd way (the "dice" are magical, etc.), or whatever the player thinks they can get away with. If a player has stated "No Bid", they can exchange as many cards as they like with cards in the Junk Yard instead of making a presentation. Once all players are done with the presentation, the customer must pick which one they like the best. The winner must discard all of the Cog cards that they have played and redraw cards, filling their hand to seven. Everyone else takes their cards back into their hand, along with one more card from the discard pile. Players who have more than ten cards must now discard one. The player who pleased the Customer the most receives the Req card as an award.

The game continues, with the player to the left of the Customer becoming the new Customer. Rounds continue until one player has won a certain amount of Req cards (3-5, depending on the number of players), at which point that player wins!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The game comes in a fairly sturdy, medium-sized rectangular box with a plastic insert that holds the massive amount of cards inside. On both the box and the Req cards is some wonderful cartooney art by Lar deSouza, who has illustrated some of the other games from Blood & Cardstock. The illustrations are all fifties era, with a good dose of zaniness thrown in. All the cards are of good quality, and hold up under good wear (they pass the Vasel "youngling" test).

2.) Cogs: I will state that I wish dearly that there were illustrations on the Cog cards. I know that would have been an immense amount of work, since there are almost two-hundred and fifty of them, but it would have added a lot to the game. The rulebook has a glossary which explains what a lot of the cog cards are - for example, I had to look up to see what a Van De Graaf Generator and Klein bottle were, but most of the cards are fairly self-explanatory. Pictures would have added just a little more "oompf" to the game. On the other hand, I was impressed with the selection and found most of the items to have some kind of use that you could wrench out of them for your machine ideas.

3.) Rules: There are only three pages of rules, but another two pages that have a full example round are included, along with the aforementioned glossary. The game really doesn't have any wonky rules; it's very straightforward, so the rulebook, while a bit plain, is certainly adequate. Explaining the game to folks I've found to be a breeze.

4.) Reqs: There are sixty different Req cards, which doesn't seem like it will add too much variety to the game but actually is quite sufficient. A game won't usually last more than twelve rounds (someone's bound to win eventually), and the ideas can be completed in a myriad of hokey ways. I thought the ideas were usually quite interesting, although a few of them, like the "Portrait of Dorian Flab" are distinctly odd.

5.) Creativity and Fun Factor: If there's one word to describe X-Machina, it would be creativity. The game would go over exceptionally well in any class in which the teacher was attempting to inspire young minds to "think outside the box". Engineers and mechanically minded people may do well in the game, but those who can think of zany, off-the-wall, improbable or even impossible inventions will impress the others. X-Machina is a game that will cause you to think as hard as you can to create your own Rube Goldberg machine. Of course, this creativity necessity may be a dark point in the game also for some people. I've played the game with a few introverts or people who just weren't willing to put in any kind of effort, and they simply didn't do as well or have as much fun. The amount of fun a person will have from this game will come from their joy they get from using their imaginative side of the brain.

6.) Judge: As in Apples to Apples, each person must play to the judge and give them something that THEY would want. This might be hard to do with the Cog cards in your hand, but a player can elaborate on them as much as they want and add or subtract whatever they want to get the person to pick their device.

So, if you enjoy making up ingenious, innovative, absolutely crazy machines, then X-machina is for you. Be forewarned that the game caters to those who are more outgoing and creative, and the game works best in a group of these folks. It's an excellent teaching device and helps get the creative juices flowing in young people's brains. As a teaching game, I'm sure I'll be pulling this one out often - and recommending it to other teachers. As a party game, whenever I'm with a crowd who likes outgoing, imaginative games, then this one is a good pick.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
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