Johari: A four-sided game review

Johari boxJohari is a set collection card game with a jewellery market theme for two to four players, designed by Carlo Lavezzi. I consider it a gateway game suitable for any type of player, which plays out in the advertised running time of an hour.

The game contains 32 large and 120 small cards, 16 plastic gems, a small central board and four player boards and markers – good value for the sub-£20 price tag and packed into a nice compact box.

The instructions are simple and clear while the artwork and graphic design is really nice throughout, although the four player colours are less than inspiring (black, white, brown and grey). Overall, publisher Lookout has done a great job on the production although there will certainly be a bit too much grey on show for some. Nice, but there’s no ‘wow’ factor.

While you’re collecting sets to score points, the real game is in fighting for turn order and the simultaneous action selection. The game is played over 10 turns, with three actions per player in each, and with turn order reassessed after all players have taken an action. There are seven actions in total (one of which just duplicates your previous action). You play three cards each turn, then return to the full seven for the next round.

Teaching

Johari player boardThe key aspect to get across to new players is how turn order affects the actions you choose to take.

A number of gem cards are placed into stores and markets at the start of each round, making the two buy actions desirable, but these actions have the biggest detrimental affect on your turn order position.

This is exacerbated if you use them right away, as you pay full price for the action you use first in each round (the second action has a reduced cost and the third is free). So a ‘purchase’ action played as your first move of a round will cost you 4 gold (or spaces on the turn track) – but if you do it third, it will cost you nothing.

Many gem cards are fakes, making them vulnerable to the inspector – who is triggered against every other player when you make a sale. So if you go big on a buy action and lose several turn order positions, and get some fake gems, another player may make a sale before you can – forcing you to lose a gem.

Alternatively you could play your bribe card first, protecting you against the inspector for the whole turn – but then you’re likely to lose out on the tastiest bargains in the markets. Timing, and assessing what your opponents are likely to do, are both crucial.

Johari noblesPlayers have two way to score gems: as a set of four different colours (scoring one of the gems) or by scoring all their gems of one colour.

You can only do the latter if you have more of the colour than anyone else: you score the difference between the number you sell and the largest amount another player has of the same colour (one other player has to have at least one of the colour, or you can’t score).

There are two other ways to score points. Some gem cards are simply worth 1-3 victory points, while in each turn a ‘noble’ is placed onto the board and will be available for players to hire (with gems). These nobles are worth end game points, while often also offering the player an ongoing ability.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Johari is going to appeal to a particular type of gamer – and I am that gamer. It’s a game about getting into your opponents’ heads while also trying to create the perfect point scoring engine around what they’re throwing at you and I revel in that challenge. While every action choice is important the game simply doesn’t have enough pizazz for some, but I hope it isn’t overlooked by players that like to get their poker face on.
  • The thinker: While I enjoy a good tactical game, for me Johari is a bit of a one-trick pony that starts to overstay its welcome. Even though it’s just an hour long I find myself starting to think I’m rinsing and repeating well before the end, as the game offers very little in the way of narrative arc. While the turn order manipulation is ingenious it feels as if there isn’t quite enough game attached to it to appeal long term; although it’s not a game I’d turn down if others were keen to play it.
  • The trasher: While the theme of Johari mostly makes sense it does feel a bit pasted on – and what is it with gem merchant games at the moment? It’s hardly a fascinating theme and its having to struggle for air against Istanbul and Splendor – not good! But I actually quite like it – reading your opponents is always fun and there’s a real sense of satisfaction if you pull off a plan no one saw coming. Not a go-to game for me, but certainly one I’m happy to have a game of every now and again.
  • The dabbler: I like Johari, as long as people aren’t playing too seriously and trying to work out every point everyone else has and taking ages on their choices! If the game drags, it gets old fast. But it can be quite dastardly and you can have some fun chat around the table, plus there are some cool tense moments when things are zipping along. It has some nice cute art (especially the elephants) and the plastic gems are a nice touch, while its easy to teach new players.

Key observations

Johari in playJohari has fallen way below the radar since its release at Essen 2014, despite having a decent footprint at the show: it only has 20ish players commenting and rating it on Board Game Geek six months after release.

Criticisms centre on game length and the fact the game is ‘all business’ and ‘dry’ – which is true. Johari is stripped to the essentials, which is definitely a problem in terms of it having much of a personality. But is this a problem with the game, or the gamers who have played it? I really feel Johari has failed to find its audience and theme may be an issue here.

Another criticism is that it brings nothing new to the table. This is at least partly true, but I find the way the key mechanisms interact with each other both new and satisfying.

Finally, the game length is criticised although I think this is only really a problem when played with four. With two or three players I feel you can plan more, the game zips along a little quicker and you feel a little more involved: I really enjoy it two-player and I’d certainly suggest trying it with less than four before making a final decision.

Conclusion

Johari artJohari is very much a tactical battle of wits which I enjoy immensely, despite being rubbish at it.

I currently rate it 8 out of 10 and with a little more action, arc or theme it may have even gone higher. But I can’t see it getting an expansion now.

It’s certainly isn’t for everyone, as I hope my review has demonstrated, but if it turns the head of at least a few gamers who like to spend their evening analysing their opponents and making clever, crafty moves for small but important gains then I’ve done my job. It’s a definite keeper for me.

*Apologies for the picture quality – my camera phone just didn’t want to focus on anything today!

Munchkin: A four-sided game review

munchkinMunchkin is a hugely successful comedic fantasy card game for three to six players, originally released in 2001 and still in print today. The base set gently but reverentially ribs the Dungeon & Dragons role-playing universe.

Designed by hobby gaming legend Steve Jackson (Car Wars, Ogre, Illuminati), games of Munchkin tend to last between one and two hours and have a strong take-that element, but while the game is all about combat people don’t get knocked out – you’ll all be in it until the end.

There have been many ‘expansions’ (sets of extra cards) released for the game, extending the original theme and adding a lot of variety for seasoned players, while other base sets have riffed on everything from sci-fi and superheroes to Lovecraft and zombies.

Munchkin has proved divisive in the board game community, being the pariah of ‘serious’ gamers in the same way boy bands and Transformers films upset music and film buffs. And similarly, despite purist objections and derision, it is available in more than 15 languages and has sold well over a million copies.

Teaching

munchkin 1While relatively simple, Munchkin is at its hardest at the outset as players are very much thrown in at the deep end.

To start, each player is given a hand of cards: half from each of the ‘dungeon’ and ‘treasure’ decks (you’ll have a hand of four or eight, depending on which edition you play). If a player is dealt any ‘race’, ‘class’ or ‘equipment’ cards (elf, wizard, sword etc) they can play them in front of themselves immediately, starting to create their character.

There is a lot of variety in the cards, so it’s best to encourage new players to have fun reading them and experiment in early rounds to get a feel for the game mechanisms.

In a round, players take turns to flip a ‘dungeon’ card from the top of a shared draw pile. These take various forms, but what move the game on are creature cards. When drawn the current player will try to overpower it, facing the consequences of defeat or claiming loot if they defeat it. Defeated monsters give treasure, but more importantly a ‘level’ . Players start at level one – the first player to level 10 wins.

These monster battles are the heart of the game. After a fight is declared other players can wade in either for or against you, or both. You and others can use equipment to help the cause, add extra monsters to make it harder, or offer your services to aid the fight – for a price, of course. The active player can choose to turn down the help of others, knowing they’ll probably have to give them treasure, or they may even get a level – but can they win without them?

The four sides

munchkin 2These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy my first game of Munchkin, but I can also say I turn down any chance to play it now. The art and text is very well done, evoking the theme perfectly, while the rules and card layout are well conceived. But you only have to play a few slightly better designed card games to realise the gameplay harkens back to the bad old days of 80s gaming rather than the revolution of modern design this game was released at the height of.
  • The thinker: Unfortunately this game suffers from two gaming conventions no serious strategist can abide: bash the leader and king-making. If I play well and get near level 10, others will use all the cards they’ve held back to scupper me; often letting someone else past to win. Why play a game for more than 20 minutes where success is rewarded with being dragged back into the mundane pack? I like a long game, but it must have substance to get that table time. This doesn’t come close.
  • The trasher: For a long time I loved Munchkin; nothing beat throwing your mates under the bus and the to-and-fro of playing cards into epic battles. I’d still play now, especially with the right old group of friends, but do realise that this is a party game that simply goes on too long: there are so many better, shorter games available out there such as Coup, Dice Masters, The Resistance, Lost Legacy, Dungeon of Mandom, Epic Spell Wars….
  • The dabbler: There is something to be said for the charming card art and funny puns, and this has been a gateway game for quite a lot of people we know into the wider world of gaming, so at about £20 how can it be a bad thing? I’ve never been a role-player so don’t see the appeal, but for those growing up on RPGs its clearly got its charms. The rules are quick to pick up and it shows a clear path between two hobbies, helping draw new blood into the world of modern board games. Win win!

Key observations

munchkin 3Having already touched upon Munchkin’s game length, king-making issues and the inherent bash-the-leader problem, I think I’ve covered the three main gripes – and they are serious gripes.

So let’s instead look at positive reviews: scanning through comments by fans of the game, you’ll find it described as hilarious, cut-throat, fun, satirical, mean, easy and cheesy.

With almost 20,000 ratings at board game Geek, Munchkin sits with an average rating just above 6: perfectly respectable, especially when you consider Monopoly has less than 4.5 and risk just over 5.5. Whatever you may think of its merits, or lack thereof, Munchkin is miles from being universally hated – as some often rather snooty gamers may have you believe.

What Munchkin really lacks, for a board gamer, is staying power. The rewards of the humour and artwork are fleeting, while the problems of the gameplay come to the fore in the first plays. But these may well not be problems for very casual gamers: this will be a game most often enjoyed by people with very few other games on their shelves, and there is absolutely no harm in that.

Conclusion

munchkin 4With my game evangelist hat on, I applaud the job Steve Jackson Games has done in creating a gateway between RPG and hobby gamers that has lasted two decades: historically Munchkin should be talked of alongside Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride in the top division of introductory games into our hobby.

But with my gamer hat on, unlike those other titles, I won’t touch it with a barge poll. In fact I’d rather sink £100 into Magic: The Gathering than £10 into Munchkin, even though I have no great desire to play Magic nowadays either. If you’re looking for a gift for someone already into the kinds of games I mentioned in the previous paragraph, this would be a pretty terrible choice.

That said, the important thing to remember is that unlike some genuinely worthless games, Munchkin has its place. It is fun if you like D&D and aren’t interested in playing other card and board games; it is a good gift for younger fans who may be fans of the fantasy genre, possibly through Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter; and it can be fun for non-gamers who are very much into other geeky pastimes.

The Empire Engine: one year on

Empire Engine screengrabIt’s been a year since my first (generally accepted to be) finished card game design crawled tentatively into the world.

I’m pretty proud of it, and it may be the only one that ever makes it past prototyping, so you’ll have to forgive me for going back to talk about it some more (if it’s new to you, the designer diary is here).

In brief: I started the design, Matt Dunstan helped bring it to a playable state, Seb Antoniou added his artist skill and finally Brett Gilbert polished both the rules and graphic design; a stupendously rich team for a very small and humble game. It had been put up on Brett’s Good Little Games print and play website – but what happened next?

The Geek

Seeing the game up on Board Game Geek was a tremendously proud moment – but also a terrifying one. As a journalist I’ve written thousands of reviews; now I was on the other side of the divide with my baby out there at the mercy of all you miserable bastards.

They say never read your reviews, and definitely don’t take them personally. Right. Good luck with that. I subscribed to the page immediately, determined to read everything as it came along, as well as being around to answer queries. Luckily Brett’s popularity meant his site was getting some traction and the involvement of Matt also raised the profile; but it was still ‘just’ a print and play in a world of posh published games.

To date, comments and questions have been polite and each gives me a thrill. As for ratings the way BBG’s are worded I’d decided 6 or above was fine; even 5s for people who don’t like this style of game. But I’d be a liar if I said the first 4 didn’t hurt! It was actually a 3.8, and (last look) was still listed by them as ‘owned/want to play’ – and as they also rank Kingdom Builder a 3.8 I’d say we’re in good company!

And beyond

Good Little GamesI’d essentially designed The Empire Engine for Brett’s website, using his 18-card restriction as a way to try and fuel my game creating juices. This has proved really successful in terms of reach; in just a year The Empire Engine has been downloaded more than 2,000 times!

But with my Essen trip for 2013 booked, Matt and me decided it was worth trying it with a few publishers while there – especially as he had arranged meetings to show off some other games anyway. What did I have to lose?

I only went to one, with Stephen Buonocore at Stronghold, which was as exciting as it was terrifying. Despite Stephen being really nice it was somewhere between a job interview and a first date; luckily Matt did most of the rules explanation as I’d have probably made a massive cock up of it. Stephen didn’t bite, but to my immense pride somebody else did.

We found out the day after Essen, on the Monday. I was halfway home in a bar in Cologne with friends when I heard the news – and duly celebrated with some of the world’s best beers. If things went to plan, my little idea was going to be in the shops!

The slow (but awesome) BGG burn

Empire Engine IlyaAnother highlight was getting a nomination for the BGG Awards 2013 in the print and play section.

Unfortunately it was a crossover year in terms of eligibility, while the rules allowed games that had been P&P but as part of successful Kickstarters to be included, so we didn’t really have a chance of winning. But a nomination was enough!

And it started to become clear people were really digging the game, or at least the idea of it. The P&P community is a truly brilliant one, as well as amazingly resourceful. Both the cards and rules had soon been translated into French, German and Russian – and then Ilya Baranovsky did an awesome sci-fi redesign of the cards (pictured). All of this work was totally unsolicited and hugely humbling.

The first proper Empire Engine BGG review was exciting, getting ranked even more so (4,345th like a bullet!) – as have been the first few bits of podcast coverage (On Board Games, The Game Pit and Printin’ & Playin’). And all this before it has been ‘properly’ announced in any shape or form.

The next year…

So as we approach Essen again, a year later, we know the cards are with the printer and the publisher is hoping to have a copy in its hands in time for showing to some folks at GenCon. I’ve booked a six-day trip to Essen just in case it happens and am determined not to miss a single moment – this could be the one time this happens to me. If there was any way I could afford to go to GenCon too, I’d be on a plane.

Of course so much can still go wrong. A similar game may come out next week and the publisher may cut its losses; it could get printed but the boat sinks; zombie apocalypse. Or worse still Tom Vasel might hate it – or more seriously, most people might hate it. Today we had our 50th rating on BGG – an inglorious ‘5’ to mark the occasion…

But I’m still playing ‘my little game’ and enjoying it and whatever happens, I know that something I created has brought a bit of enjoyment to some people in a hobby I love – and that’s good enough for me.

Getting back into board and card games: helpful links

I’ve put a new ‘page’ up, where I’ll be linking a series of posts about how to get back into the board and card game hobby. I’ve posted it here.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be linking a group of posts to it, which I’ve listed by title below. I’m also adding a few links here now so that if you find this post before I’ve got round to writing the full article for each section, you’ve got a head start.

  • Where to buy (on and offline)
    Online, my first port of call tends to be Board Game Guru. I will also check Amazon, mainly for special offers, and The Works as it has had some fine games at crazy cheap prices of late (but also some tat – check reviews first!).
  • Websites (to play on)
    My absolute favourite is Yucata, a play-by-mail style site where you take your turns in as many games as it’s your turn in, then log off again (or you can stay online and try to play someone real time, if they hang around long enough). Boite Jeux does the same thing just as well, but with less games and a slightly less friendly interface. Both are FREE and I’m ‘hairyarsenal’ on both.
  • Websites (for research)
    There is one ahead of al others in terms of depth of content and that’s the not helpfully titled Board Game Geek. However, it’s ridiculously daunting for a new visitor and not very user friendly (there is  revamp of the site ongoing though – fingers crossed).
  • Podcasts
    There is a surprisingly large amount of good board game podcasts, but I think two stand out for newer gamers because they tend to talk a lot about simpler and popular/newer titles in an accessible way. These are The Dice Tower and The Spiel. Both are also on iTunes.
  • Smartphone, console and tablet apps
    Some of the bigger games that are great for getting people back into playing tabletop games have amazing online versions and apps. Whatever your console, phone or home computer you should be able to find Settles of CatanCarcassonne, or Ticket to Ride. All on on Xbox, Apple and Android devices for a small fee, while Catan and Carcassonne are both on BlackBerry too.
  • Video channels
    Definitely check out the new premium (but free) YouTube show TableTop, with Wil Wheaton. For individual game reviews, once again The Dice Tower is great has it seems to review the most games; but my favourite are the reviews of UvulaBob are my favourite, as they’re always genuinely funny.
  • A great game to start with per genre
    I won’t go here yet, although the three titles above under ‘Smartphone, console and tablet apps’ are a good starting point for the hobby in general: they’re really big sellers, have stood the test of time and I’d expect the majority of board gamers had one of these help them get back into the hobby.

If you found a particular game or resource helped get you back into the hobby, I’d love to hear about it.