Through the Ages: A four-sided game review

Through the Ages boxThrough the Ages is a civilisation building card game by Vlaada Chvatil that takes players on an epic ride from antiquity to the present day.

While war plays a large and important part in the game* there is no actual map, or dice – interaction is instead played out through card play.

There are three versions of the game in the rulebook, ranging from simple through to full, but the first two are really just warming you up (in terms of understanding the rules) for the main event. Through the Ages is a serious time investment (four-plus hours, even two-player) but if you’re willing to give it a try you’ll find a hugely rewarding tactical and strategic gem waiting for you.

While it’s not the biggest game box in the world, there’s a ton of game packed into it: there are more than 340 small-sized cards, 300 small wooden counters and cubes, plus boards and reference cards. It will set you back £45+, but I think it’s a fair price both in terms of components and play value. The art is pretty poor, but the card stock is great and the graphic design efficient and simple to understand.

It’s not for the feint of heart, but nor is it a war game – you’ll draft leader, wonder, building, government, technology, military and action cards and manage your resources as you advance your civilisation; all the time trying to score points while keeping your opponents in check by staying close to them in the race for military domination. It’s an impossible balancing act, giving the game a marvellous ebb and flow.

Teaching

TTA allAs mentioned earlier, the game has three versions which slowly introduce different rules and card types as you move forward. This makes it easy to teach experienced gamers, especially as the game concepts are pretty familiar.

Each round (after the first) players may use their political action to play a ‘future event’ for later, triggering a current event which will reward and/or punish players who are doing well/poorly in a particular way – for example the player with the strongest civilisation may get to produce extra goods. They can also use the political action to start an aggression or war, or offer a pact.

Players then use ‘civil’ actions to advance mining, science, farming and religion to increase building materials and technology (allowing building upgrades), population size and happiness (allowing population growth) and military might. Governments give extra actions, while leaders, technologies, ‘action’ cards and wonders give a variety of bonuses.

Civil actions are also used to increase population, lay technology, wonder and leader cards, put your population to work or upgrade them. Military actions – you guessed it – do the same with your military units.

TTA tracksEverything to do with civil and military actions is done openly, so it’s simple to watch and help new players through their turns.

Through the Ages has relatively little hidden information, so its simple for the teacher to explain cards as they come up.

New cards are ‘bought’ (with actions) from a shared conveyor belt-style track, with newly added cards costing more actions (from one to three). Military cards do go straight into your hand blind, but aren’t terribly varied and can be roughly explained before you begin.

Game concepts fit well into the theme, while the central game board lets you keep information on your military strength, science (for advancing technologies) and culture (victory) points. Each player also has a player aid listing all of the actions available in each phase of each round.

Player boards are well set out, and the wording on the cards leads to very few grey areas. The only real problem area is the Territory cards, which tend to contain rather obscure icons which aren’t explained in the rulebook. However there is a good Excel doc available from Board Game Geek which explains them in plain English.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Through the Ages is the board gaming equivalent of spinning plates; just as you get your science points going, you realise you’re running out of food – but by the time you have that back on track you’re falling behind on military – but getting that up to speed means you have to forgo a materials upgrade. It’s a delicious, epic and challenging balancing act that tells a different story every time.
  • The thinker: Its rare you find a game that has the perfect mix of tactics and strategy, but this is one of them. You’d think it impossible to create a ‘civ’ game without a board, but Vlada has managed it with aplomb. Specialise at your peril, but spread the wealth at your peril too – your long term plans are constantly being altered by both the actions of your competitors and the run of available cards.
  • The trasher: Through the Ages is a bit much for me, but is clearly a great game. I love the future events: you play cards, predicting the later game state and hoping you can be in the right position when they’re triggered. So satisfying when it works, but devastating when your own cards blow up in your face! But overall, the short game doesn’t offer enough military fun and the long game is simply too long for me.
  • The dabbler: no way! No no no. I tried it once – you can’t make me play it again! It has great flavour, carries the theme well, but I am not playing a game that takes longer than the entire games evening on its own!

Key observations

TTA player boardOf well over 3,000 Board Game Geek comments, Through the Ages has 500+ perfect 10 scores – which should be enough to convince you its a great game. Even by half way through the comments, people are still rating it 8. However, it’s certainly not for everyone. Not by a long chalk!

Game length is clearly an issue for many, but another problem is downtime – especially in a four-player game (which I wouldn’t attempt again). I enjoy a two-player game but three is definitely the sweet spot, which adds quite a bit to the play time. One plus side is the fantastic Through the Ages online version. Initially the layout looks troublesome and weak, but it actually plays really smoothly once you get to grips with it.

Another problem is the importance of the military aspect of the game*. Players who aren’t keen on confrontation need not apply, but its not just them: others think the military aspect is either tacked on as a balancing mechanism or is overpowered. It’s true that if someone falls behind on military and is picked on by the other players, it can be impossible for them to recover – particularly punishing in such a long game.

Finally, some describe Through the Ages as nothing more than  a spread sheet rather than a game – a dry, themeless affair that is way too fiddly for its own good. The fiddly criticism is true, and there is a lot of bookkeeping, but this can be done by a player at the end of their turn while the next player gets on with theirs, so it’s not so bad. But again, if you don’t like fiddly bookkeeping games you may want to avoid it.

Conclusion

TTA card trackThrough the Ages is the last game in my all-time top 10 that I’ve tackled for review and I’ve definitely been reluctant to do so.

It feels impossible to do such an epic game justice in 1,500 words – especially when you know many people simply won’t like it.

But if you like civ and/or engine building games – or more specifically ‘engine building and then maintaining aggh god I can’t do everything at once’ games – and are happy to be in for the long haul, this is a must-try.

I definitely lose more games of TtA than I win and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a good player. There’s so much to think about, so much to plan, so many options – and that’s before you’ve even started to think about what your opponents have planned for you. But even in defeat I tend to walk away from the table thoroughly gamed-out and satisfied.

Is downtime an issue? Sure, a bit. Is military overpowered? Probably. Are some combos simply too good to stop? Sometimes. Will this game be staying on my shelves for the foreseeable future, even if I only get to play once or twice a year and I lose every time?

Absolutely.

* There is a ‘peaceful’ variant of the game some people play, but personally I can’t see the point. It’s such a huge part of Through the Ages that to take it out seems ridiculous – if you don’t want any player conflict in your games, I’d highly advise you to look elsewhere.

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.

For Sale: A four-sided game review

For Sale boxFor Sale is a light family card game designer by Stefan Dorra. It takes 20-30 minutes to play, accommodates three to six players well and can be picked up for well under £20.

As the name and box suggest this a game about buying and selling properties but don’t worry – there’s nothing to be scared of here, even if you don’t usually like auction/bidding games. As the game length suggests it’s not a brain burner: instead it’s light, fun and fast.

Inside the box you’ll find two decks of cards (properties and cash) and a set of coin tokens. Everything is high quality, the cards linen-finish and the tokens chunky, while the cartoon art on the property cards is really charming.

Teaching

For Sale round 1For Sale is a game of two halves, but both are simple to teach and learn. Even better you can teach each half when you get to it, giving players less to process and remember.

Everyone starts with a handful of coins and during round one these are spent to buy properties. Once all properties have been bought (every one will finish with the same amount) they’re sold for money in round two. The aim is to finish with as much money as possible.

Before each turn of round one a number of properties equal to the number of players is placed face up on the table. From their secret stash of coins players choose in turn to either up the current bid or take the lowest value card on show (and taking back half of any coins they’d bid so far). The ‘winning’ bid pays full price, but gets the best card.

Once all properties are bought, round two begins. This time a number of money cards equal to the number of players is placed face up on the table; players bid for them with the properties bought in round one. There is an identical number of property and money cards; each round players bid one of their properties and everyone flips them over at once (called a ‘blind bid’). You take a money card in ascending order, the best property taking the highest value money card.

The system is extremely elegant. All the property cards are valued differently (1-30) and there are two of each money card (two of each valued $0-15), meaning there is never any confusion over bids – while all the players get something each round. When all the properties are spent, you add up your money cards and see who won.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While this may look like an overly simplistic game with an uninspiring theme (pretending to be an estate agent isn’t my idea of fun), For Sale is actually one of the best ‘filler’ games I’ve played. It ticks all the boxes: good player range, easy to teach, plays fast and keeps everyone involved throughout.
  • The thinker: I’m not prone to enjoying filler games as by their nature they tend to lack depth and strategy. If it were my choice I’d play something a more challenging, such as Hive or Blokus, but there’s no escaping the fact this is a well designed game and I’m happy to play when the occasion arises.
  • The trasher: You mean I get to buy and sell houses?! Goodie! But seriously there is some fun to be had with For Sale, as any bidding game is an opportunity for table talk. You can also try and psyche people out a bit in the second half and I’ve seen some real silly card-slapping-the-table action when the mood is good.
  • The dabbler: While I don’t like auction games, I do quite like this one as it has a few things going for it. First it’s great that you get something every round so never feel out of it or under pressure. Also the art is cute and for a game that plays ages 8+ that’s important – they’ve even gone the extra mile adding a different animal to each card for the younger ones (and the young at heart!) to find and talk about as you go.

Key observations

The most important thing to note is  this is an extremely highly regarded game. With more than 3,300 players giving this a comment and an ‘out of 10′ rating on Board Game Geek you have to get past 3,150 before you find rankings below 6.

Criticisms from those who really don’t like it label For Sale as “too simple” or “uninteresting” with “no hard decisions”; “too light”, or as just a “simple auction game”. To the wrong player For Sale will be all of these things, but as the numbers above show these people are the minority. I’d suggest avoiding this game only if you have a very severe reaction to one of these gaming ailments!

My only real issue, and it’s a small one, is price. The current edition is well produced and nicely packaged, but at 60 cards and 72 cardboard coins the price tag seems a little steep. It has been put in quite a large box to fit into Gryphon Games’ ‘Bookshelf Series’ but could live in a box half the size (and has previously). However similar games (such as recent release Diamonds) have a similar price point and I don’t see it as a barrier to entry.

Conclusion

For Sale round 2I was introduced to For Sale at a London on Board gaming meetup and fell for it on my first play. It went into my collection soon after and had regular plays for a long time after.

But in 2013 it didn’t see a single play, as my regular gaming groups didn’t really do old fillers; then in 2014 it returned to the table with a bang when I got involved in a local group which includes a lot of less rabid gamers. It has gone down a storm with gamers and newbies alike, rekindling my own enthusiasm for the game.

No game is truly a ‘must have’, as opinions and tastes vary so much, but For Sale would certainly be a contender for a top 10 ‘Swiss army knife’ of titles that would meet all your gaming needs. I’ve played a lot of fillers before and after, but very few have the staying power of this classic.

For more filler and family games check out my board game ‘Where to start‘ guide.

Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂

Deus: A four-sided game review

Deus boxDeus is a civilisation building board/card game that mixes tableau building with a little bit of tactical play on a modular board.

The game is good for two to four players and only takes about an hour with two (up to two with more) which is impressive for a game that does give you that civ-building feel in a package much shorter than normal.

What it doesn’t do is span the generations. You’ll be firmly set in the classical era, building temples and academies while fighting barbarians. There is also limited player interaction in the form of military units, but they’re used to snipe small numbers of victory points and resources rather than take board position. Combat is certainly not essential.

While the quality of Deus’ art and design style are open to debate (see ‘key observations’ below) the card and board stock are good quality and the graphic design is clean (£35-40 seems a fair price). The modular board makes for a slightly different game experience each time, and while the cards are a little limited in terms of variety (I very much hope card expansions beckon) the way you can combo them still makes each game very interesting.

Teaching

Deus cardsMost gamers will soon pick up what’s going on in Deus, but that’s not to say it lacks originality. It uses familiar mechanisms but in ingenious ways, which seems to be at the heart of most of the best recent games. It’s a bit more than a gateway game, but I’d put it in the light-to-medium complexity range.

It’s very much a ‘cards with words’ game, but Deus has an elegance and simplicity that mean most cards only have about 10 words to read – and better still, I’ve had no one so far questioning the meaning of this text. In terms of teaching, it’s joyfully simple.

On your turn you have two choices: play a card to your tableau and matching building to the board (you have to have the correct building type to be able to play the card), or discard some/all of your cards to gain a special action (which is better the more cards you discard) and refill your hand with cards (usually five).

There are six colours of cards, each with its own light theme (boats tend to be good for trade, workshops for resources etc) – when you play a card into your tableau, you do its action. But what Deus really brings to the party is that when you later lay more cards in the same colour you get to do all of their actions, which rewards clever combo building. But you are limited to five cards per colour, so these clever combos don’t last forever.

Deus boardPlacing buildings is also simple in execution: you start from the edge of the board and subsequent placements move out from there (think Terra Mystica, not Small Worlds). You can place multiple of your own pieces in one space, but they must be of different types.

Scoring and resource/money gathering cards tend to reward you for having multiple buildings on the same tile, but spreading out is equally tempting tactically – to block opponents and destroy barbarian villages.

Far from being a booby prize for a bad hand, special actions can be essential and planning them well can win you the game. They are again simple to explain: a player simply discards as many cards as they wish and choose one of these cards to trigger its colour’s special action (taking either extra resources, victory points, money, cards or buildings).

The game ends when either all the barbarian villages are destroyed (done by surrounding them on the map) or all temples are placed (these are special buildings that reward you with end-game victory points).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I love a good tableau-builder, as evidenced by 200+ plays of Race for the Galaxy, and after playing Deus once it was an insta-buy. While it lacks the vast range of cards that sets Race apart it makes up for it with the combos and board play – exactly the kind of extra elements San Juan was sadly lacking in.
  • The thinker: There was definitely enough here to have me both strategically and tactically engaged, while the option to discard a bad hand but also benefit soundly from it was a master stroke. However I’m unsure of its potential long term without expansions, as while fine so far I can see strategic options wearing thin over time.
  • The trasher: While it’s no Race, Deus is a solid game I’m happy to play. Much like Race, going military can make for a short tactical game that can surprise people, while who doesn’t like the satisfaction of a smart card combo going off – and then going off again a few more times for good measure?
  • The dabbler: While the game is a bit ‘heads down’ for me, as there’s lots of reading to do and plans to be hatched, I did enjoy my plays. Its simple, bright and colourful with a low barrier to entry, but offers something to the more wizened gamer. I won on my second play against experienced opponents, showing the game isn’t all about ‘best player wins’ – but as its only an hour-ish, you can just go again!

Key observations

Deus colour issueSeveral people have pointed out Deus’ solitary nature, describing it as a heads-down game with little interaction. This is largely fair comment and those looking for player versus player action need not apply. However you do need your head in the game as it doesn’t have a fixed end point – while board position can very much make a difference.

Another fair-ish comment is there’s too high a dependency on getting the right card combos, making the game too random. While I’ve certainly seen people get very lucky with their draws while others have floundered, this is not a long game and can very much be played back-to-back in a session – and its no more a problem than in your average card game. Also, I find the discard action does help mitigate this issue nicely.

Some claim the game is downright ugly, while others have complained about a component error. To clear the latter up, the game comes with brown discs for ‘wood’ while the wood symbol is green on the cards. This is apparently a good thing for the colour blind and for the rest of us its a mild inconvenience. As for the ugliness, I think its harsh. Be your own judge, but if its enough to make you walk away from a very good game then more fool you.

The final point, and in my mind the most serious one, is variability. Interesting that a game accused of being too random is also accused of lacking variable strategies, but there you go. Anyway, I too am concerned that over time the game may get repetitive. I intend to deal with this by not overplaying it, but if you’re someone with a small collection who plays each of their games a lot it may be worth waiting for expansion news – unless this sort of game is right in your ballpark, then I’d say go for it anyway.

Conclusion

Deus tableauDeus is an elegant, streamlined tableau building game that for me fires on all cylinders. It’s the best new game I played in 2014, feeling like a lighter Terra Mystica with added card combo action – which just about ticks all of my favourite boxes.

Having been pretty disappointed with the ‘alien orb’ part of the recent Race for the Galaxy expansion, it’s interesting to see a much better implementation of a board here.

And having got bored fast with San Juan, it’s also nice to see how this extension can add just enough to a simple card game to give it the extra legs it needs to hold my interest.

I’ll be waiting with baited breath for expansion news, but as Deus is already knocking on the door of the BGG top 500 I’m sure it will sell well enough to merit one. Until then I’ll do my best not to play it to death… but just one more game tonight can’t hurt, can it?

The best of 2014, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games

Deus boxMy collection now stands at 150 games (up 20 or so), which I’m fine with. I’m not keen on it getting much bigger though; and the proof is having actually sold some this year, as well as trading some away.

December 7 saw my 500th game play of 2014 – 50+ more than 2013 and 100+ more than 2012. I mainly put that down to more chances to binge play (long weekends etc) rather than a general daily change in my activity (more on those trips below).

I don’t see 2014 as a vintage year for new releases, although there are of course a lot of titles I’ve not played (heavy euros like Panamax and Kanban spring to mind). But I’ve been happy with the ones I’ve bought and many others I’ve played that were new to me.

The best 12 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2014

I always intend this list to be a top 10, but can never quite boil it down. Maybe next year – surely there can’t be that many old games I’m going to love I’m yet to discover? Bah, who am I kidding…

Bought

  • Navegador: As a fan of Mac Gerdts’ rondel games it was a crime I hadn’t played this title, considered by many to be his best. It took about about five minutes to fall for it, and it was in my collection a few weeks later.
  • Brass: I managed to pick this classic up in a trade and it was in perfect condition. I’ve only played it once since – which is the main reason I need to par down my buying. I have to get this game, and others, to the table more.
  • Bora Bora: This Feld passed me by in 2013 but has since become one of my favourites. While accusations of ‘point salad’ are true they’re also lazy; the underlying tensions here take it above many of his other complex titles.
  • That’s Life!: Roll and move! Who knew it could be fun for adults too? This is daft, light and fast while giving some shout/laugh out loud moments in every game. It hasn’t failed me yet with all kinds of groups.
  • Uptown (AKA Blockers): I grabbed this on a whim as it was cheap on Board Game Guru and it turned out to be a real winner. A light abstract that plays well with 2 or 4 players (I’ve not tried with 3 or 5), it packs a lot of decisions into 30 minutes.

Not bought (yet…)

CavernaThis is in order, top to bottom, of likeliness that I’ll have them before next year’s list:

  • Caverna: Like Agricola, but with much of the decision space moved away from the start of the game and the reliance on a food engine almost totally removed. It’s niggling away at my wallet and I’m unlikely to be able to resist…
  • Manhattan: This put my nose out of joint at Essen. This old classic was on secondhand stalls at 12 euros on day one – then went up! I held out to get it at 10 or less and blew it. Next year, I’ll bite the bullet for sure.
  • Age of Empires III: This was one of the best games I played in 2013 but is currently out of print. The new version should be landing in 2015 though; and if it does, I’ll either grab a cheap old one or buy the new edition.
  • Tumblin’ Dice: I have a great outdoor game in Molky, but no indoor dexterity game. I’ve played this twice now and have loved it both times – but it’s £50. Like Caverna, this one keeps reminding me it’s not on my shelves.
  • Africana: If I can find a reasonably priced copy of this, or grab it in a trade, I’ll snap it up. As much as I enjoyed it though, I’m not sure it’s worth the £30 price tag. It’s a light family pick-up-and-deliver building game, which I’m well covered for.
  • Lords of Vegas: Much like Africana, I’d love to have a copy of this but I don’t think I can justify the price for the amount of play it would get. So again, it’s going to be a lucky cheap copy find, or a trade.
  • Ticket to Ride – Marklin Edition: Talking of justifications – how do I justify getting another Ticket to Ride map; especially when it’s a full-price standalone version? I loved the passenger element, but would it get much play?

There were some games I really enjoyed in 2014 that I have no intention of buying, but hope to play more – the best being Le Havre, Tammany Hall and Twilight Imperium 3.

Of last year’s ‘not bought… yet’ list I have since been given Twilight Struggle as a fantastically generous gift (thanks Peter!), while picking up a copy of the new mini version of Basari at Essen. Both are real favourites and I’m chuffed to now own them.

I’ve cooled a little on Lady Alice and Dungeon Lords; the former because I’ve had a few duff games (where players have got info wrong, so ruined it) and the latter because I haven’t played it since and oddly haven’t been compelled to (maybe another play will put it back on the radar). Arabian Nights is great, but it seems like the kind of game I only need to play occasionally – and several people I know and enjoy gaming with own it.

Not much to say on expansions, but I think The Necropolis Line for Snowdonia is the best new version of this great game I’ve played so far.

My 5 favourite new releases of 2014

el gaucho gameI’m not going to be talking ‘best of’ here as there are many important 2014 releases I haven’t played: Five Tribes, Marvel Dice Masters, Abyss, Panamax, Alchemists. But then again, none of these really look like they’ll do it for me.

I was underwhelmed by diamonds, Istanbul and Splendor, although I’d happily play them again. I need more plays of Dead of Winter to really make my mind up, while Castles of Mad King Ludwig had some great elements but some misfiring ones too.

Instead, these are games I’ve bought (except Red7 – but I will soon) because they sounded right up my street and have proved to be so:

  1. Deus: Tableau building card games are right up my street and this one packs a lot of both tactical and strategic decisions into an hour of play. Opinions vary on its looks (I think it’s fine if unexceptional) and some of the components/colours are a bit dodgy, but as a quick civ-style game I think it ticks all the right boxes.
  2. El Gaucho: A Yahtzee-style dice mechanism meets set collection with a fun theme and lovely components, and at a cheap-ish price – great stuff. Again it plays out in about an hour but this works well as a gateway game, while still having something to offer more experienced players.
  3. Johari: This set collection game again plays out in an hour, is also OK as a gateway and offers a little more depth if you look for it. Unfortunately it has that slightly dull ‘gems’ theme (see Splendor, Istanbul) and people I’ve played with like it rather than love it, but I really like the clever use of turn order as a key mechanism.
  4. Red7: This is a very simple and cheap filler card game that can play as quickly as 10 minutes, but has some interesting and original mechanisms – you have to be winning by the end of your turn, or you’re out. Will it lose its lustre when the novelty runs thin? Possibly, but I’ve found it really engaging so far.
  5. Ancient Terrible Things: Another Yahtzee-style dice roller, this one has a Cthulhu theme and some lovely artwork alongside enough original ideas and decisions to make it interesting. There are certainly question marks over the price point for a game that’s essentially pretty light, but beyond that it’s a winner.

Best forgotten…

Last year I listed Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artefacts as a disappointment again after two years as a know-show. Unfortunately it is making the list here for a third and final time, as the actual ‘Alien Artefacts’ part of the expansion was a real disappointment. The extra cards were pretty good, making a very quick game when added to the base set, but overall – for something I’d waited years for – it was OK, but largely forgettable.

Camel Up was disappointing, but nothing compared to the dreadful mess that was Imperial Settlers – a game with a high BGG rating that leads me to believe people have either played it once and not realised its massive flaws; or that players are, frankly, stupid. Madame Ching was equally dreadful, but is at least getting the poor ratings it deserves.

Part 2 here!

* For previous entries, see my 2012 and 2013 posts.