Cherry Picking: A four-sided game review

Cherry Picking boxCherry Picking is a small box set collection card game that plays in about half an hour. It costs less than £10 and can accommodate two to six players, putting it in solid ‘filler’ territory.

As the box suggests it has an almost childlike, family friendly card style and theme that, while beautifully realised, don’t really add to the game.

The card stock is more than adequate, the rulebook clear and simple; overall it’s a very professional package (as you’d expect from publisher Zoch). Set up and pack down are also very simple as all but six of the cards form a single deck. The only fiddly thing is you have to remove certain cards if playing with two, three or four players, but this is easily done.

Teaching

Cherry Picking in playThe rules of Cherry Picking couldn’t be simpler. Players are dealt a number of cards and, on each turn, everyone will choose and play one of these cards simultaneously.

To set up, place the six different coloured ‘tree’ cards (think of them as suits) in the middle of the table. You then shuffle the deck, place a card beneath each tree, then deal the rest of the cards to the players.

In brief, you just need to tell people each card they play will allow them to take a card from beneath one of the trees and place it in their scoring area – so by the end of the game they’ll have the same number of scoring cards as they started with in their hand.

There are four types of cards: fruits (in the six ‘suits’) and three types of wild card. Once revealed they are placed in a specific order – so if a card you really want is out there, you may think you want to play a wild card that will be played early in the round.

But here’s the trick: If two of you play the same type of wild card, you keep those cards instead of taking a card from the centre. Keeping wild cards isn’t often a bad thing – in fact it may work out better than getting what you’d hoped for.

End game scoring is what you really need to get across. There is a player aid, but its the kind of ‘aid’ that only really makes sense once you know what you’re doing anyway. You basically want sets – but they have to very specific to get you points.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Cherry Picking is a game of anticipation, but as with any simultaneous choices game you’ll also need a healthy dose of luck. It’s fascinating watching as people try to work out what to do – while you’re trying to suss them out. That guy needs a cherry to make his set, but does he have that wild card you know is floating around – because you have the other and want to play it at the same time, so you get to keep it. I love this in games and it’s beautifully realised here.
    The thinker: This is a game I’m sure I could grow very fond of, especially if played with the same group over a prolonged period of time – so that we can get to know each other’s play styles. The game rewards thought but with new players there’s precious little of it going on! It then becomes a little too random, as players simply don’t really know what they’re going for. But despite its random nature this is a charming game I will seek to play more in future.
    The trasher: You mean I get to pick fruit from trees?! Where do I sign! Really, Cherry Picking is every bit as exciting as the real thing; it’s just a set collection card game with boring looking cards and no interaction. If you’re doing well, I can’t mess with you – and if I could, and tried to, I’d probably fail anyway because someone else played the wrong card at the wrong moment. I was lost at the start, bored in the middle and lost the will to live by then end. At least it was short.
    The dabbler: While pretty, I didn’t get on with this game that well. It tends to be played mostly in silence; a series of random choices leading to a rather mathsy scoring section – there just didn’t feel like there was much fun going in. We went in with hope, but once we started playing there was very little enthusiasm around the table – and those who did enjoy it seemed to express that through wry smiles, as if part of some aloof club. It’s OK I guess, but not really for me.

Key observations

Cherry Picking cardsSome players simply find Cherry Picking underwhelming. Themeless card game fillers tend to have rather obvious take-that elements or moments of great loss or triumph; and as this doesn’t it can be seen as missing one of the key elements of the genre. One person’s charming is another’s lacklustre.

Then comes the luck element: how much of the game is chance, and how much skill? When playing poker it becomes immediately obvious that the read is everything, but then bluffing is an element – and there’s no real bluffing in Cherry Picking.

But with just a bit of experience you can start to see the optimal moves and try to play around them; but of course, to do that, you have to get past those initial games where it can seem – and be – all about the luck of the draw.

And here the scoring doesn’t help much. With it only happening at the end of the whole game it can be confusing until you’ve played through once – and again, will you have liked it enough to want to play again?

Conclusion

Cherry Picking player aidPersonally, I think first time designer Jeroen Geenen should be applauded for creating a fantastic little card game; but I fear the rather lacklustre theme may mean it doesn’t quite reach the size of audience it deserves.

If you like traditional card games such as rummy I would definitely recommend you add this to your collection. The simultaneous action selection is a lovely twist on a tried and tested theme, while the multiple styles of wild card also add a lot to the genre.

The luck/skill ratio will seem out of whack for some, but often I think unfairly. This is a 30-minute filler, but doesn’t often seem to be judged on that criteria – probably due to the nature of the gameplay and the lack of table talk/take that attitude on display.

I’ve enjoyed every game I’ve played, although it should be said the two-player variant in the rulebook isn’t great (the designer has an improved one here). The game is quick, simple and cunning while giving some real head-slap moments when you just get pipped to the card you want.

Would it benefit from a more traditional theme, or some more aggressive cards to add a little spice and ways to get around some of the randomness? Possibly for some – but I like it just the way it is, thank you very much.

Eight-Minute Empire Legends: A four-sided game review

Eight-minute-empire boxEight-Minute Empire: Legends is a relatively cheap (sub £20), relatively simple set collection and area majority game that definitely DOES NOT take eight minutes to play (more like 20-30 minutes).

The fantasy theme is nicely realised in the lovely artwork, but doesn’t really extend into the gameplay (which is pretty much abstract). But the components are good quality, making it look great on the table and be comfortably worth the money.

The game can accommodate two to four players, with the only real difference being more players equals fewer rounds – so the game takes a similar length of time no matter the player count.

In addition to the base game there are several mini expansions packed into the box. I haven’t tried them yet, but they all seem to add little twists to the gameplay and anything like this thrown in for free (rather than trying to rip you off later) definitely earns a publisher brownie points with me.

Teaching

Eight Minute boardEight Minute Empire: Legends couldn’t be much simpler to teach. Once the modular board is set up (again offering replayability) and the starting units placed (a quick process) players simply take it in turns to draw a card and then carry outs its action.

This continues until each player has a number of cards in front of them, which is set by the number of players (8, 10 or 11 in a four, three or two-player game respectively). You then total up your points et voilà, game over.

Each card has three properties: name, action and bonus. Names are only useful in set collection (so if you have several ‘Cursed’ cards you’ll want to look out for the cursed bonus card, for example), while actions and bonuses are the crux of the game.

Card actions are how you manipulate the board situation. Cards either let you place a castle; place troops (at any of your castles); move troops, or kill the opposition’s troops. There a few intricacies, but nothing major – and as all information is public it’s easy to help out new players as you go along.

Eight Minute buy cardsBut a key part of the game is the economy. Each player always has six cards to choose to buy on their turn, ranging in cost from 0-3 coins. you start with about as many coins as you’ll take cards, and that’s all you’re likely to get, so you’re forced to choose your pics wisely.

Once you have a card in front of you, it will also give you a bonus for the rest of the game. These are pretty evenly split between the board (giving you small bonuses to your actions from then on – perhaps an extra troop if you take troops, move movement if you move etc) and end-game points (for card sets, or other end game bonuses).

You should find all the types of action have happened during the first couple of rounds, so players are soon into their stride. And all the cards are seen in every game, so by the second play you’ll be veterans.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I’m rarely a big fan of area majority, but the short length and addition of set collection sold me. I’d also played the original Eight Minute Empire and while I’d liked it, it lacked a certain something. Did ‘Legends’ provide it? Unfortunately the jury’s still out, because no matter how many people I play it with the game seems to lack a certain something; as if they didn’t quite solve the issues. Yet I keep coming back for more, so make of that what you will! It just seems so close to being great; I just need to work out what’s missing.
  • The thinker: While I admire the game’s attempt at boiling down a big map army experience into a bite-sized package, for me it only works well in the two-player game. With more it becomes too random; you cannot plan by taking one card, as you have no idea what may be waiting for you on your next turn – there are too many unknowns. A certain level of uncertainly is of course necessary, and with two that works; you can tactically take a card to scupper your enemy. But with three the game becomes unbalanced, while with four it is too random.
  • The trasher: At first 8-Minute Empire: Legends looked like a pretty cool game; but once you play it and see how few attack cards there are, it soon loses its lustre. For me area majority is about combat, not just about putting cubes on a board and pushing them around. That is just a logistics exercise, not a combat one! I did not sit down here just to collect cubes. That said, there’s  lot of tactical play to be had in a short time frame so it’s not a game I’d refuse to play, or walk away from – I just wouldn’t choose it or feel the need to own it.
  • The dabbler: This is a pretty fabulous little game. The art drew me in but the area majority put me off, until we actually played it. You can get some great points from the cards and concentrate on just a few areas of the board,making yourself strong so you can just get a few definite points and avoid all the heave-ho-ing of the combat guys. It’s frustrating when you don’t get the cards you need to get some good points, but this adds to the table talk and the fact everything is visible means you can get into a bit of manipulation and banter.

Key observations

The likes of El Grande and Tigris & Euphrates are hugely popular games that absolutely nail the area control genre. Their 90-minute playtime isn’t an issue because these games need to give you time to fulfil your strategy and play out your tactical moves.

If you really do want a tiny bite-sized version, there’s Coin Age: an essentially free area control game that actually does play out in 15 minutes. So dis there actually a niche that 8-Minute Empire: Legends is actually filling?

I can’t help thinking it is falling between these two stools, neither capturing the depth of the big games or the immediacy and simplicity of a true filler; which I think explains the number of “it’s OK” responses I’ve seen and heard.

Eight Minute actionsBut it’s one of the games I’ve had the most “what if…” responses to as well. After a game you’ll always get players making suggestions of what they could do to make it that little bit better. This says to me that people like it, are charmed by it; that they think it could be a great, rather than a good, game.

The fact it came out so close behind the original Eight-Minute Empires suggests this may have been an issue with the original too; as with so many Kickstarter games detractors are going to ask, was it really tested and developed as thoroughly as it should’ve been? Otherwise, why the need for such a similar follow-up the next year? I can’t see that many people will feel the need to own both, or prefer the original.

Conclusion

Eight Minute cursed setI’m going to put this out there: I think the definitive 8-Minute Empires game is yet to arrive and when it does, it is going to be a classic. I also think some (OK, me) will resent the fact they’ve essentially been beta testers for that great game through previous iterations, but will be happier it arrived so will suck it up.

Right now, for me, each player number of ‘Legends’ has small problems. With four you don’t get enough turns to fully explore the game’s options; with three there is too much chance of the one vs two scenario happening and you’ll always get the feeling the player who won was the one who got most ignored; while with two there simply isn’t enough reason to get in each other’s faces.

Some more cards would fix the four-player issue – and expansions are on the way – but that would of course make it even longer. Two players can be helped by shrinking the play area, but then we’re into house rules again. Unless there’s an official 2-vs-1 variant in the offing, I think three players will always be a problem.

But I usually enjoy my plays – just not quite as much as I think I should. Is my anti area control bias kicking in? Maybe. Is my love of the art style making me give it too much of a chance? Possibly. Will I keep playing? Absolutely. For all its flaws, I’m a fan of the Eight-Minute Empire franchise.

So what conclusions should you take away from this? I guess the main one would be to try before you buy. There are some very clever ideas here and the game has an elegance and simplicity that should be admired. But it certainly isn’t for everyone, as what it lacks may frustrate you more than the bits you enjoy.

Infiltration: A four-sided game review

Infiltration boxInfiltration is a simple push-your-luck card game with a strongly thematic character-driven adventure cleverly woven in.

It was designed by Donald X Vaccarino, the man behind way more abstract classics Dominion and Kingdom Builder. But the thematic side works very well here.

The game plays out in less than an hour and is relatively simple to set up and play, while nicely building tension throughout.

Infiltration is set in the same ‘Android’ universe as the highly successful Netrunner card game and has the high production values you’d expect from publisher Fantasy Flight. It comes with 38 standard cards (a random 13 of which make up the place you’ll be infiltrating); 76 small cards (Ticket to Ride/Arkham Horror sized) which are mostly item/action cards you’ll have in your hand; plus a bunch of cardboard chits and a dice.

There are also character cards and standees (purely for theme), plus the dreaded security tracker (more of which later). At around £20, it’s good value for money.

Teaching

Infiltration in playThematically a game of Infiltration sees you leading a hacker each (or two each in a two-player game*) room to room through an office building, trying to steal as much data and as many useful items and weapons as possible; then getting out before the cops arrive.

In reality you move your player piece from face-down card to face-down card, revealing them as you go and (hopefully) collecting one-time bonus actions and victory point chips. I’m not denigrating the theme – just showing how simple it is. It’s only really the thematic chrome that adds any complication, but even this is minor.

Each player has a hand of cards. Four are the same for everyone and you’ll have them all game: advance, retreat, interface, extract/download. Each room is unique. Some will be basic, usually having an item to interface with for a bonus plus data to extract for points; others will house NPCs that help ratchet up the tension/mayhem.

You also get four random equipment cards which are used instead of the standard cards to do better, often one time actions. At the start of each round, players simultaneously choose a card then take it in turns to do their action – they hope.

Here’s where things get interesting. The chance to be first player moves clockwise each round. Locations have limited resources and you choose actions simultaneously; so if you begin in the same location as other players, will there be anything left to interface with/extract by the time it gets to your turn? Should you move instead?

Infiltration play areaIn addition, each round the chance of the police arriving increases. It’s not purely random, but nasty locations can see your best laid (risky) plans go to pot.

So collecting lots of booty is great, but at some point you gotta run or go to jail (AKA lose). This simple push-your-luck mechanism isn’t big or clever but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The only thing you may have trouble with is the equipment cards, as these need to be kept secret by players but are all different – making teaching a tough ask. My advise would be to go through the basics then play through a quick game, explaining clearly it’s a training game that doesn’t count. People can try to win on the second run through!

*Note: I’ve only played two-player once as neither myself or Zoe enjoyed it that way; the dynamic didn’t feel right. I don’t have the experience to go into more detail, but I’d suggest reading some two-player reviews if that’s how you expect to play the game.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Infiltration is basically classic game ‘Incan Gold’ with a huge dollop of chrome plastered on top. But importantly the luck is moved away from the flip of a single card to the flipping of many. One bit of bad luck won’t ruin you here, but a run of it can. If you get a bunch of rubbish equipment, for example, winning (and the chance of having much fun) can be taken out of your hands very early. But in a thematic 45-minute game which usually works well, I think this can be forgiven.
  • The thinker: There really isn’t much to think about here, unless the odds go one way (towards likely failure) and your opponents do the same for the sake of theme – but where’s the fun in that victory? Trying to second guess opponents during action selection is pleasing, while the more rooms are revealed the more strategy takes over from tactics; but by then your fate can already be sealed. Good strategic play is likely to place you in the top few, but luck will decide the winner.
  • The trasher: Now this is a game! Infiltration has it all: screwage, story, character, push your luck, stand up moments, rising tension – everything: and it all plays out before anyone can get bored. The decision space is great most rounds, as you weigh up the odds while also having to factor in the great (and often lethal, gun-totting) unknown. You have a bag of data, the police may arrive in a few rounds, but there’s a good chance the next few rooms may house even more loot – and an executive lift out of the building to freedom! What do do? You know the answer!
  • The dabbler: While the sci-fi theme and little cards full of text don’t really do it for me, I was actually quite surprised by this one. Turns are fast and the reveal leads to lots of oohs and aahs. and while there seems to be more exceptions than rules, the rules are at least straightforward. There’s also very little downtime as you really want to know what everyone is doing, while turns are usually very fast. So despite my misgivings, I’d have to a credit this one with being a surprise hit – as long as its played with the right group and in the right spirit.

Key observations

Infiltration characterThe most common issue, unsurprisingly, is that Infiltration is too random. While it may seem an odd complaint to make about a push-your-luck game I do have sympathy with it. There are a lot of cards and items so you’d think they’d give you a bit more control over your destiny than a straight dice or random draw fest – but no.

A related issue is how different each game is – and not in a good way. As is often the way with thematic games relying on random factors, you can have an edge of the seat experience one game and a borefest the next. In Infiltration’s defence, it lasts less than an hour and you know what you’re going into from the start. No, it’s not for everyone.

One big issue here is equipment cards. These go from uber to situational (so may never be useful), and if you get a handful of the latter you’re unlikely to be in for a fun time. In the game’s defince it does include both a set equipment variant (based on which character you get) and a drafting variant. Why these are buried at the back of the book under ‘advanced’ rules is beyond me; some set equipment should’ve been standard.

Finally, both the fiddly nature of all the bits and the cyber-fi theme aren’t exactly universally popular. If you like the idea of the game but want something more traditionally ‘euro’ it is definitely worth exploring Incan Gold – although that works better with a higher player count.

Conclusion

Infiltration characterI’m very happy I own Infiltration and while I don’t want to play it every week it’s a fun one to get to the table now and again when in the right mood. It’s a shame the two-player version didn’t work for us, but it’s fun with three or four.

If you are happy with sci-fi/cyberpunk, like a lot of theme in your games and are also happy with a strong element of randomness I recommend it. It has the trappings of much longer games such as Arkham Horror or Descent but in a nifty one-hour time frame, which is sure to fill a gap in many a gamer’s collection.

This is not a game I’m good at. I’ve only won once, having lost horribly on several occasions, but I’ve really enjoyed all but one of those experiences: one was really predictable, and that was the one I won! It’s the nature of the beast – and I think Infiltration is fun enough to suffer the odd below average experience.

6 Nimmt! (AKA Category 5): A four-sided game review

6 nimmt 20th6 Nimmt (also known as Category 5) is a light family/party card game for two to ten players (but generally considered best with four to six).

It’s lightweight (just 104 cards) and plays fast; it says 45 minutes, but as the scores are counted at the end of every short (5-10 minute) round you can play for as long as you like.

You should easily find it for less than £10 and don’t be put off if you can only find it in German; there is no text on the cards, gameplay is super simple and English rules are easily available.

6 Nimmt was originally published in 1994, so the latest edition (above) celebrates its 20th anniversary in print – what better time to review a game that has sold more than a million copies in Germany alone? It was created by Wolfgang Kramer and has enjoyed a string of offshoots (11 Nimmt, 6 Nimmt Junior and, oddly, The Walking Dead card game). The rest of my images are of a standard version.

Teaching

6 Nimmt is a very simple game to set up and teach. No matter the player number, the cards are shuffled and everyone is dealt 10 (cards are simply numbered 1-104, with each card additionally having a score value of 1-7 represented by a number of bulls heads).

6 Nimmt in playFour more cards are then turned over to start four rows in the centre of the table – cards remaining (if any) won’t be used that round.

On a turn, each player picks a card and these are flipped simultaneously. Starting with the lowest numbered card chosen, these are added to the most appropriate row – being the one with the closest number down from the card you played (so if the rows ended 33,68,79,92 – and you had played the 82 – it would have to go on the 79).

The trick is not to play either a card lower than is possible to add to a row (so in our example above, the 1 through 13) or the sixth card in any row. In either case you will have to pick up a row of cards, which are added to your score pile. The lowest score wins – so ideally you won’t pick up any cards at all, or at best ones with just one bull’s head.

And that’s that. A round lasts until all 10 cards have been played, then you score and go again. I’d be surprised if anyone took more than a third of a round to get the hang of it.

NOTE: There are several variants available, but I’ll just mention the 20th anniversary one here. The new edition comes with 10 extra cards, numbered 0.0 to 0.9. These can be placed after a number on any row you choose (so a 0.9 after the 17 becomes 17.9), as long as another 0. card isn’t already in that row (so it could still bite you in the ass).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I enjoy a light filler and this has been around  for 20 years for good reason. There’s a lot of random, but crucially some tactics;  and it comes quickly, with the second game enough to get most people up to speed. And if it’s so random, why do I always finish in the first few placings?
  • The thinker: While I will play 6 Nimmt while chatting or waiting for the next ‘proper’ game, there’s little to no strategy here. Unfortunately player number doesn’t help; its hugely random at anything up to the high numbers, at which point it just gets tedious. A total luck-skill ratio fail.
  • The trasher: Sure this is crazy random and themeless, but with four to six players it has some brilliant ‘screw you’ moments. The only downside is you don’t know who you’ll be screwing – or if, even – you just know you’re safe as you have the perfect card (the next in a row to make that row five long). That’s a sweet feeling.
  • The dabbler: 6 Nimmt does what I want a little card game to do. It invokes laughter, can be taught in seconds and takes a good range of players – in age, experience and numbers. And all the while you can chat and be sociable; hell, you can even sit out of a round and not worry – the essence of what a ‘filler’ should be.

Key observations

6 Nimmt rules

All of the rules…

The most common complaint is 6 Nimmt! is totally random and chaotic. Some people genuinely go so far as to talk about flipping cards at random and ‘occasionally’ winning.

And there’s the flaw in that argument; you randomly flip but only occasionally win; so I guess the players who are playing properly usually win, kind of throwing that theory out the window? I’m not claiming this is rocket science, or even a light strategy game, but there are tactical decisions that bring the game above these insults.

The fact it’s ‘hit and miss’ in many groups is impossible to argue against, but what’s universally liked – especially when you have this big a player range? sure, gamers gravitate towards people with similar tastes; but based on the evening’s ‘big’ games, not the fillers. There are only a handful of games with higher average rankings in the light filler category.

Finally there’s the lack of theme; but 6 Nimmt! is unapologetically an abstract card game? Accusations of no theme could equally pointlessly be aimed at a standard deck of cards. If you do need theme, try the Walking Dead version (which adds character cards, as well as pasting pointless second rate zombie pics on the cards – enjoy).

Conclusion

6 Nimmt cards

You don’t want the 55 – the only card worth a nasty seven points

I’m a big fan of 6 Nimmt! I embrace the chaos, love the tension it can create around the table and love to watch everyone agonising over their decisions.

Sure, it can fall flat in the wrong company and the game isn’t for everyone – but what is? At under £10 and coming in a small box I’d suggest it’s worth the risk.

I rank it in the same category, and as highly, as For Sale and Love Letter. It’s a bit less fiddly than the former and there’s a bit more to it than the latter, while it lacks a little personality when compared to either – but for me it’s their equal.

I’ve linked to the anniversary version here and I’d certainly consider it. While I haven’t played the variant rules I really like the sound of them and even if they don’t work well you can simply leave those 10 cards out. If I were buying a new copy today I’d get the new one, but do bear in mind it costs a little extra; the original is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Freya’s Folly: A four-sided game review

freyas follyFreya’s Folly is a family strategy board game by Don Bone. It was released back in 2005 to very little fanfare from small publisher Sagacity Games; so why the review now?

Firstly, the game is currently available from online store BoardGameGuru (linked above) for just £4.99 plus postage. Secondly, I bought it on a whim at this price and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Freya’s Folly will take three to five players about an hour to play. It has something of Ticket to Ride about it (set collection), with the route building replaced by a pick-up-and-deliver mechanism.

While the cover image may leave a lot to be desired, the component quality is otherwise OK. The board is both nicely drawn and functional, while the cards and various wooden chits are adequate (although not ideal for the colour blind). One minor complaint would be with the player boards, which feel like thick paper rather than thin cardboard; but despite this they comfortably serve their purpose.

Teaching

I always stand the box up and begin my explanation by saying we are dwarven families making jewellery for Freya, who is clearly the beautifulest women ever in the whole world.

This works because not only does it get a laugh, it shows you know the game has god awful box art but you still want to play it. It’s also useful as it shows the Brisingamen (her necklace) is gold and has four sections (more on that later).

Freya’s is definitely a little heavier on rules than Ticket to Ride, but I’d be confident anyone who had played it would easily pick this up too – and the rulebook is both clear and concise. There are two actions each per round instead of one, plus a few (simple) special powers for your dwarves to use, but otherwise the game feels instantly familiar.

Freyas dwarvesA player’s turn largely revolves around sending dwarves (each player has four to six, depending on player numbers, represented by round wooden discs) into the mine to gather gems, bringing them back, then taking/completing jewellery settings. The game rewards clever tactical and strategic play, while both a cautious or gung-ho attitude can prevail.

Set-up is a little fiddly, but once done you can explain the rules very easily as players can see the whole game in front of them. It may take 15 minutes first time, but you should have very few questions once you get going.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I love a good pivot game and this ticks that box for me. You’re sending dwarves into the mine, but they can leap frog up to two others on their way – making timing of the essence. You can quickly head down a shaft with the help of others, but if you get stranded it can take several horribly slow turns to get back out. And if another player decides to finish the game fast, going for small value cards, you can be left with some serious egg on your beardy face.
  • The thinker: While there are some interesting decisions and fun to be had, there is too much luck here for a serious strategist to fully enjoy. There are two ways for the game to end; one player must complete a piece of jewellery with each of their dwarves, or between them complete four pieces of the Brisingamen. This would be OK, if it were not for the random fashion in which the Brisingamen pieces arrive from the draw pile. It makes perfect planning impossible, leaving too much to chance.
  • The trasher: First, Freya’s Folly’s tactical nature gives it a thumbs-up – good tactical play can definitely win this game, even over a strong strategist. It also has a great fear inducing ‘thief’ card – but only three of them, which can be anti-climactic if they don’t come up or are used in a cold war style (several players have them and sit on them as security). This means you can’t guarantee a great 60-minute game experience, but the chances are something memorable will happen each game.
  • The dabbler: The game doesn’t quite have the personality of Ticket to Ride, but it makes up for this a little with the ‘power’ cards. These let you give your dwarves a bit of character; a pet bat (fledermaus!), speed or stealth, for example. It’s quite a thinky game but there’s also a lot of randomness, which can be disheartening if you feel out of the running through no fault of your own. But like most good family games you don’t have to think much between turns, so you can at least keep chatting!

Key observations

Freyas tokensThe game ends when a player has used all their dwarves to make jewellery (individual pieces, or parts of the Brisingamen); but depending on how you finish affects the scoring.

The reward for completing Brisingamen pieces is tokens. These can be used as extra turns, which can be hugely handy – or saved for victory points. If the Brisingamen is completed, they’ll be worth 6 points per token – but if it isn’t they’ll only be worth three. This can really add to decision making near the end of the game.

But this tallies with one of the games commonest criticisms – the nature of its randomness. The way the cards come out can completely scupper a strategy that seemed perfectly viable the turn before, which is a nightmare if you’re on the receiving end. I personally find this chaos fun; but a first time player could easily see the game as strategic as it begins to play out, only to find the end game a disappointing crapshoot.

Freya's cardsAnother common criticism is balance, in particular with the powerful ‘thief’ card; but also with the possibility for someone to suddenly win easily by completing all low scoring cards if a bunch suddenly show up.

But this also feels more like an issue born of the card draw rules. It’s fair to say Freya’s Folly could’ve done with some further refinement.

Finally, some lay serious smack down on the art – the box, the board and the rest. It is pretty dry, but also functional – which I’d take ahead of overproduced and busy every time. However, if you’re the kind of gamer who needs Fantasy Flight polish to get you heart racing, you may want to look elsewhere.

Conclusion

Freyas boardLet’s get one thing straight: Freya’s Folly isn’t the best game in the world, nor will it make it into my top 10. But it still deserves a place in my gaming collection. It’s a fun family game that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome; and has interesting mechanics well explained in a tight rulebook.

So far Freya’s Folly has been a satisfying play every time, while offering plenty of chaos and randomness – which also means it’s certainly not for everyone.

But while some players haven’t been overly keen, all have said they’d play again. for a £5 game, I’ll take that as a win. And who can resist Freya’s big, beautiful blue eyes…?

The Manhattan Project: A four-sided game review

manhattan project boxThe Manhattan Project takes players back to the 1940s, as the world’s superpowers struggled to perfect the ultimate edge over their enemies; the atomic bomb.

While in many ways a standard worker placement game (2-5 players, two hours), Brandon Tibbetts’ game adds enough interesting twists to peak the interest of anyone with an interest in this style of game. Since its relatively low key 2012 Kickstarter release it has steadily garnered an enviable reputation.

Players place workers into buildings on both their own and a central action selection board. These allow you to mine ‘yellow cake’, enrich plutonium/uranium and design bombs – as well as upgrading workers to engineers or scientists to better fulfil these tasks.

You can buy your own buildings to do these same actions more efficiently; but there’s the options for building squadrons and air-striking your enemies (and to repair buildings). Or perhaps you’d prefer espionage, infiltrating other players’ buildings to use as your own?

Once your bombs are designed and your fuel ready, it’s time for testing; but can you do it quicker than your opponents? The key is efficiency, as whoever tests the right victory point total’s worth of bombs first immediately claims gold in the nuclear arms race.

Teaching

manhattan project rulesThe first thing to mention is the rulebook; it’s one of the best I’ve read. Anything carrying the ‘Kickstarter’ tag makes me nervous, but The Manhattan Project’s is master of both style and substance, nailing the theme (with newspaper style layout) and the rules with real clarity.

Anyone that has played a worker placement game will have little trouble picking things up, while it isn’t a bad game to teach players stepping up from gateway games. There is very little hidden information and turns build in complexity as the game goes on, so it’s pretty easy to give advice as you go too.

The biggest twist is how workers are managed. Each turn a player decides whether to place workers or bring them all back home. This can get pretty strategic, as you may want to leave a worker in a blocking position – but for how long? When you bring workers back, they all come back. Tied in with the espionage mentioned earlier, played well this can be devastating. It is also easy to learn and understand, as turns are pretty quick.

The key point to ram home as you teach is this: Manhattan Project doesn’t end after a set number of rounds, with everyone tallying victory points. It ends when one player reaches the target number of points (determined by player number), which can come as a bit of a surprise as the bombs are the only bit of hidden information in the game.

manhattan project bomb cardsThere’s an amount of bomb cards on display equal to the number of players plus one. When you choose ‘design bomb’ you pick them all up, keep one, then pass them on.

Each player takes one, with the person who chose the action getting the spare bomb as a bonus. This means everyone knows what bombs are out there (values/complexity vary), but is guessing who has what – and you don’t have to complete them all.

You can make a pretty good guess, but you never know quite how close each player is from laying those bombs and hitting the point target – and you can guarantee at least one player would’ve finished in their next turn. This creates a delicious tension around the table which has just the right feeling to fit the theme.

The four sides

manhattan project main boardThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s hard to think of a game that better marries theme with mechanisms while still being 100 per cent ‘middle weight euro’. There’s very little luck and hidden information, but what is there becomes the real focus of the game without taking over – a really clever piece of slight-of-hand by the designer.
  • The thinker: While I admire both the mechanisms and the engine, I find not knowing when the game will end a little frustrating – but that is not a knock on the game. You need to alter your strategy to make sure you have the leanest production line to make exactly what you need, not particularly most productive, as all you need to do is get over the line. This twist makes the game endlessly fascinating.
  • The trasher: I have a love-hate relationship with The Manhattan Project. On one side I love the tension and the ability to screw your neighbour; but getting into a private battle tends to hand the game to another player who will sit back, not help, and profit from the fallout – there is rarely reward for aggression, except perhaps with two players. My advice is keep your eye on the quiet one – because they’re probably the person who’s winning!
  • The dabbler: First of all – how can those weird little workers with no faces have so much personality?! Seriously though, this game has a great story arc; nothing beats it for tension when you’re near the end of the game, trying to work out who is closest to the finish line. For one the climax, for the rest the anti-climax – but we all have a story to tell afterwards. Isn’t that the real point behind a gaming session?

Key observations

manhattan project workersThere are some accusations of underdevelopment – usually shrouded in a dig at it being a Kickstarter game. I can see this point of view a little bit, especially as the comments often come from ‘one and done’ players who have been put off after one poor experience – a very real problem in such a busy board game market.

It centres around one main point: there is no reward for aggression. This means that if the random cards favour one player who gets ahead, there is little reward for a player going after them – it simply opens the way for whoever is second to come through. Of course there’s nothing to stop players making deals – you send your fighters, I’ll send my bombers, you hit him with espionage etc. But it is a shame the game doesn’t deal with this better – and even more so that it doesn’t look as if the game’s expansion, The Second Stage, tried to tackle the problem either.

While garnering at least two-thirds positive reviews, the same old lazy comments also resurface: accusations of it being a generic worker placement euro that adds nothing new – largely from players who obviously don’t like worker placement games or who missed the fact it clearly has several interest new mechanisms. Why do they bother? Thankfully they’re in the minority.

Conclusion

manhattan project player boardThe Manhattan Project sits high in my top 20, with Tzolk’in the only worker placement game ahead of it, and is one of the few games I rate a 9.

My plays are into double figures and while I don’t feel I’ve explored many of its strategies, it still feels like a fresh experience each time. And even if it does start to get old, there’s a well regarded expansion available too.

The components, rulebook and art style really do stand out. I’m not one to turn my back on a game for its looks, but I appreciate quality: this is one of the most stylish games I own. From the cool workers to the ashtray and coffee stain on the board, it’s just gorgeous.

manhattan projectWhile the ‘take that’ nature of some of the actions may put some off, it’s surprising how many games are devoid of anyone using them at all; in a tight game they can seem like a waste, but someone looking like a runaway leader may well get a sound shoeing – but it’ll be their fault for showing their hand too early.

The Manhattan Project is a game I’d highly recommend to everyone who likes worker placement games, as well as to practically everyone else – it’s well worth the £30 price tag. Just keep your bomb plans close to your chest, and keep an eye out for those crafty espionage moves…

Rialto: A four-sided game review

Rialto boxRialto is an area majority board game, from renowned designer Stefan Feld, that cleverly incorporates card drafting and bidding. It was released in 2013, plays two-to five players in about an hour, and retails for around £30.

While set in Venice, the game couldn’t be more abstract; those who need theme in games need not apply. However, the rest of us can pretend we’re vying for control of the six districts of the city (over six turns) while also erecting valuable buildings to support our cause – and, of course, earning the most victory points in the process.

The components aren’t much to write home about but do the job perfectly well (with one exception, the score track – more on that later). The cards are small (original Ticket to Ride size) but work well and are high quality; the cardboard money and wooden pieces are bog standard, while the board is clear and stylish, if a little light on interesting detail.

There is one fiddly part of set up, as you need to stack 12 piles of cardboard buildings on the board. If you separate them up in baggies this isn’t much of a chore and anyone used to setting up a game such as Puerto Rico or Endeavor will be used to it anyway! Otherwise, it’s very easy to get up and running.

Teaching

Rialto player aidRialto’s gameplay is very simple and the eight-page rulebook does a great job of explaining all the moving parts. There’s a double-page set up spread, components page, a page each for cards and buildings and a page of variants; so yes, the actual gameplay is described over just two pages.

Teaching the game is a breeze. Each of the six rounds has three phases; card drafting, card playing and clean up. Four of the 12 different buildings you can buy have effects on each of these three phases, adding plenty of variation and room for multiple strategies. There is a round summary printed on the board too, for easy reference, while the player boards are very simple and intuitive.

Drafting is clever yet simple. You deal one more set of six face-up cards than there are players (so four in a three-player game) and each player chooses a set, adding two cards from the face down stack. You then discard down for a hand of seven.

Phase two is the meat of the game. It consists of six set actions all players can take – as long as they play the appropriate cards. The cards you draft come in seven varieties; one for each of these actions, plus a wild. Anyone who bids on an action will do it – but the person who bids most gets a bonus. The actions let you:

  1. Rialto cardsAffect turn order
  2. Get money (to pay to use your buildings)
  3. Get buildings
  4. Get victory points
  5. Get councilmen (placed to gain majorities in areas)
  6. Place councilmen (in this round’s district)

It’s two of the bonuses that make things interesting: action four lets you place a bridge, while the winner of action five places a gondola. These bridges/gondolas are placed between districts (you can place in any empty spot on the board on any turn) and will define the value of both districts they span in final scoring.

Bridges score high, between 3-6 points, so you’ll want them with their higher scoring end in districts you’ll win. Conversely Gondolas all score 1-1 but let you place a ‘free’ councilman at one end, possibly giving you the upper hand in a district – or giving you a way into a district you’d missed (or want a head start in).

Every area has four spots available, so an area’s value can be as high as 24 or as low as 4 (perhaps lower, as if no one bids a gondola or bridge card in a round that item simply isn’t placed). At game end, the player with most councilmen in an area scores those points; the person in second scores half that and the player in third halves the score again. Simple.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: You have to admire Rialto’s drafting. As with all Feld games, you want to do everything every round – but this adds a delicious twist. Choosing first is great, as you get your pick – but the players drawing after you know what you’re going for and can act accordingly. But what were your blind picks? And what will you use your wild cards for? Maybe you’ll even hold some back for next round.
  • The thinker: Once again, Feld has managed to create a subtly confrontational strategy game where both long term planning or tactical nous could be the winning gambit. At first, turn order can seem a mixed blessing – but the turn order track also breaks all ties. In a game where many districts may be tied on some level, this can be huge. But go too hard on it and you’ll be short elsewhere. A tremendous game.
  • The trasher: Must… have… water. How… can… game… set… in… Venice… be… so… DRY?! I was bored looking at it, then I perked up a little at the drafting. But once you’ve got your cards in hand, what you do with them is simply boring. Sure, there can be moments where a well played card can be the difference between winning or losing a district – but it’s a bit like cricket; by the time that one exciting six is whacked out of the ground I’ve probably already dropped off.
  • The dabbler: Rialto is a pretty sweet game, although not really to my tastes. It looks pretty ordinary and never really gets the heart pumping, while interaction is at a minimum and you always need to be concentrating on what’s going on. The tight nature of the area control mean you can get some table banter going on with the right crowd, while it’s simple enough to teach almost anyone. So while I wouldn’t pick it myself, I don’t mind playing it sometimes – but not too regularly, thanks very much.

Key observations

Rialto buildingsSome have claimed Feld’s games can get unfairly high ratings as those knowing they don’t like his games won’t try them – so won’t give them the likely low marks games from unknown designers would get. I think Rialto suffers from quite the opposite; it’s not ‘Feldy’, but those not usually liking his games probably won’t give it a go – which is a real shame.

For dissenting Feld fans, Rialto is often described as too light and seemingly unoriginal – and at worst dull or uninspired. Words such as “smooth” and “standard” mock it with faint praise, while it is somehow criticised for being over balanced, too swingy AND having a dominant strategy. The latter criticisms are often coupled with ‘played once’, which is a shame as the game comes into its own after a few plays – but bored, uninspired players aren’t going to get that far and why should they?

I feel the theme and components play a massive part here. The box itself is wonderfully stylish, but it’s really hard to be ‘wowed’ by what’s inside. Worse still the old Venice theme is far from original, and with no real reason to use it here it seems to weigh the game down to dull before you even get going. All I’d say is that if you can see past the theme, and like area control games – and specially drafting/bidding mechanisms – I’d recommend trying to see the wood for the trees before writing this one off.

Rialto score trackFinally, speaking of what’s in the box, the one component issue hinted at earlier is the absolutely terrible score track on the game board.

You are meant to move the scoring markers between these small artistic street lamps and while it looks pretty, it’s totally counter intuitive to do and a real barrier to keeping things flowing – especially as only the ‘5’ and ’10’ spaces are marked with numbers. Sorry, but the graphic designer that let this get past them needs shooting; I can mount no defence!

Conclusion

Rialto isn’t a game for everyone, but certainly is a game for me – and despite it being the least publicised/loved of Feld’s 2013 releases it has sill found its way into the BGG Top 500. It averages over 7 in the rankings and I personally rate it 7.5 out of 10.

Rialto scoring

11 points for blue, 5 for white, 2 for yellow

For me, the game offers a pretty unique blend of interesting mechanisms that should appeal to strategists – but probably not more tactical players. It is also surprisingly light and I wouldn’t be scared of putting it on front of relatively new gamers, although I’d want to be pretty confident it would be their sort of game (so new, not casual gamers).

Many strategists will easily see past the flimsy theme and enjoy this as the clever abstract game it is. And it’s definitely worth playing a few times before writing it off if you get any enjoyment from your first play; it is deceptively varied in terms of becoming ‘good’ at the game. Watching the draft becomes crucial, while ‘building’ strategies that initially seem weak soon become powerful once you understand them.

Overall, I feel that Rialto is better than the sum of its parts and deserves at least a few plays from any serious euro gamer.

 

Ticket to Ride: A four-sided game review

Ticket to RideTicket to Ride is a hugely popular family strategy board game for two to five players, retailing for around £30 – although most people outside the hobby still haven’t heard of it. It has sold more than three million copies since 2004 and spawned a string of expansions, as well as a popular browser, Apple and Android app.

Often given the ‘king of the gateway games’ tag, it’s a fabulous tool to show non-gamers how great the hobby is today. But there’s also enough fun in Alan R Moon’s simple design to keep many regular gamers (including myself) coming back for more.

Games should last less than an hour and the game works well with any number, although experienced players tend to prefer different maps (bought separately) at certain player counts.

In Ticket to Ride, players collect sets of coloured train cards and use them to claim routes between cites on a large map of North America. While you’ll score victory points for these connections, each player also has a set of their own secret destination cards to complete. So when placing your routes, you can be blocking your opponents in the process – deliberately or not! And unfinished route cards will lose you points at the end of the game.

Alongside the nice game board and cards (they’re small, 68x44mm, but larger ones are available – and there’s no real text) each player gets 45 plastic train cars in their colour; these make the board look great once the game gets going. There’s also some wooden score markers, plus a well laid out and simple to understand four-page rulebook. The rules say eight years and up, which seems about right.

Teaching

Yellow plays three pink cards to complete this three-train route between Helena and Salt Lake city

Yellow plays three pink cards to complete this three-train route between Helena and Salt Lake city

Ticket to Ride is a very simple game to teach. Each player does one action on their turn: picks up destination cards (a rare action choice); picks up train cards, or uses those train cards to lay some of their plastic trains to complete a single route between two cities.

Turns are quick so players get to see lots happen in a short space of time, which should help clarify any rules issues. If you’re teaching to non-gamers, be sure not to say “this is so easy” and then really rattle through things; intelligent people with low confidence can immediately glaze over in fear they’ll be the stupid one and not hear a word you say!

Take things slowly, give examples, and run through a couple of sample moves that show each of the available options.

While Ticket to Ride is very simple, there’s plenty of room for some very different strategies – all of which can pay off on their day. Everyone will be familiar with Rummy-style set collection, but it’s the route-building spacial element that makes it sing. Do you play routes early, showing your hand, or try and hoard cards to lay a bunch of routes at once? The former can invite others to guess your routes and block you; the latter is a game of chicken, where you may not be quick enough to claim the routes you need.

The four sides

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

Yellow completes the 'Sault St Marie to Oklahoma City' route card; they'll keep it secret and score 9 points at the end of the game

Yellow completes the ‘Sault St Marie to Oklahoma City’ route card; they’ll keep it secret and score 9 points at the end of the game

  • The writer: I have two distinct groups of friends; full-time/regular gamers who either don’t mind/dislike Ticket to Ride; and occasional/non-gamers who really, really like it. The ideas are simple to grasp and fit the theme, while the luck of the draw and hidden goals work well to balance the skill level and keep people guessing until the end, while still being able to socialise. I’m closing in on 100 plays and know a number of households that now have copies thanks to us teaching the game over a bottle or four of wine. And long may that continue.
  • The thinker: For an experienced gamer who likes to work the old grey matter, Ticket to Ride is at best a wine and nibbles game. While too long to be considered a filler, it’s a perfectly pleasant way to pass time while chatting in pleasant company. However, even then, I would try and sneak something slightly more challenging onto the table; perhaps Stone Age, or Fresco.
  • The trasher: The only way this can be fun is by getting ruthless – and getting in and out fast. Identify the potential choke points for your routes, get in their early, then tidy up the loose ends. There’s also a bonus for longest route, so once you’ve nailed your routes its an easy way to get your trains down fast without wasting turns picking up new destination cards. Let’s face it; the quicker it ends, the quicker we get something more ‘in your face’ onto the table!
  • The dabbler: Ticket to Ride will always be one of my absolute favourites. Old friends can play nasty, new ones can play softly softly, while everyone has a chance of winning even in their first game. The rules are plain and simple, turns are quick, and the board position is easy to assess when it gets to your turn – so you can have a good chat between times! While a bit nerdy the train theme is done in a very Victorian/cartoony fashion, so shouldn’t put already sceptical people off too much – while it’s bright and colourful, so also good for the younger crowd.

Key observations

Ticket to Ride pointsSome criticise the game for being chaotic and random; I presume they don’t like chaotic and random games. Others say it lacks interaction; I guess these people instead like more interactive games.

These aren’t criticisms of Ticket to Ride – they’re complaints made by someone who has played a game they didn’t like, as they have different tastes. However, the additional theme running through many negative comments (there are more such as “it’s boring”, “it’s OK” etc) tends to be that either people have come to the game late in their board game lives; or that they’ve moved onto more complex games.

That is certainly not a position I’m going to dispute, even if personally I don’t agree with it – and it’s notable that many of these negative comments preface them with the fact they’ve moved on to bigger and more complex things.

I’m not saying the game is perfect, or that everyone will like it. But I am saying that – for what it sets out to do – Ticket to Ride absolutely nails it. There’s a reason it has sold millions of copies, yet it isn’t clogging up the charity shop walls alongside Triv, Monopoly and Connect 4. Those who solely want to game ‘seriously’ need not apply; but I think there’s plenty of value here for most social gamers.

The standard cards versus the oversized '1910' cards

The standard cards versus the oversized ‘1910’ cards

I’ll briefly mention the ‘small cards’ issue again too. The original version has very small cards which some find fiddly. However, if you find this is an issue there’s an expansion called Ticket to Ride: USA 1910 that replaces all the cards with standard sized ones, while adding a few variant ideas to help liven up your experience. The expansion retails for around £10.

The expansion maps are also worth mentioning here. After a few plays the standard US map can start to feel a little open if you want to play cut-throat, especially with two or four players. But there are tighter maps, with some interesting additional rules, on the market. I may write about these another time, but feel free to ask comments below if you want some advise on them.

Conclusion

Ticket to Ride trainsI wanted to look at a game that was important to me for my 25th review, which tells you something about my opinion of Ticket to Ride.

It wasn’t the game that got me back into the hobby – that was actually a couple of abstract games, Ingenious and Blokus.

But it is the game I’ve used to successfully reintroduce people back into the board game hobby; and one I’ve played more than most other games I own.

I rate Ticket to Ride at 7.5, which may seem miserly, and does undervalue its place in my collection. I probably rate 50 games higher than it in terms of mechanisms etc, but the more telling fact is that if I could only keep 10 games it would be one of them – and it may even survive a cull down to five. I’ve found that it is simply the best at what I need it to do: make people think board and card games are a viable option for a night in; and there a few better feelings for a board game evangelist than that.

This month (May 2014) also sees the printing of a special 10th Anniversary Edition of the game with a bigger board, flashier cards and fantastic new plastic trains. It’s absolutely beautiful and will probably burn a £70 hole in my pocket, despite me having absolutely no need to own it at all; that’s how much this game has meant to me over the past five years.

Terra Mystica: A four-sided game review

Terra Mystica SetupTerra Mystica is a complex strategy board game of empire building, released at Essen in 2012. While it has a fantasy theme the game is largely abstracted, so don’t let that put you off!

It accommodates two to five players and plays well across that spectrum, but you should expect it to take a good couple of hours (especially early games). The game has a lot going on, so takes a while to set up, but it’s certainly not too much like hard work for a game of this complexity.

You each play a faction (one of 14, each with its own strengths) expanding its interests across a large map. You need to build increasingly complex dwellings to grow your territory and abilities, but to do so you first need to terraform the land to suit you (water, sand, swamp etc). There are no battles, but terraforming/building (and so blocking) in the right places is one of many keys to victory.

While Terra Mystica comes in a pretty standard sized game box, this is one of those rare occasions when it’s almost full. Each of the seven coloured faction (player) boards comes with its own set of wooden pieces; while there’s also a lovely game board, the cult board, plus more than its fair share of cardboard/wooden chits and bobs. It’s a fantastic looking game but comes at a price; you can expect to pay around £50 for a copy.

Teaching

Terra Mystica player aidThere’s a lot going on in Terra Mystica; players certainly shouldn’t go into game one expecting to win against more experienced players (unless it’s me!).

That said, the game comes with a solid rulebook, clear iconography and player aids that remind you of the options available each turn. Most players should be able to ease their way through the complexity levels, but it’s not a good choice of game for a group of beginners.

It’s tempting to try and give a full rules explanation before you play, but probably easier to get the core concepts across and let people fumble through asking questions. While you have plenty of choices each round there are pretty standard moves early on; by the time the choices become more complex the players should have a better handle on things.

Each player starts with one to three basic dwellings on the board and will spread outwards from those. As you improve them or make more dwellings, you’ll get resources from them in later turns – so right from the word go expansion and improvement is key; as is making sure you’ll be creating the right mix of resources to achieve your goals.

As you earn power it moves between three 'bowls'; power in the right hand bowl can be spent, but can only be moved from the top left bowl when the bottom left bowl is empty.

As you earn power it moves between three ‘bowls’; power in the right hand bowl can be spent, but can only be moved from the top left bowl when the bottom left bowl is empty

Terra Mystica’s resources are coins, workers, priests and power (magic). Coins and workers are the basic tools for terraforming and building/upgrading, while priests are largely used to – surprise surprise – increase your influence on the cults board.

Power works slightly differently and keeping it moving will be crucial to your success. It can be spent to make almost any task in the game easier, but once used has to be recharged before being able to be used again. Its a clever system that works very well.

And I am only touching here on the game’s biggest mechanisms. Behind them are all kinds of bonuses, extras and other doohickeys to tempt you each time you have an action (and you’ll have plenty in each of the game’s six rounds). The more you play, the more options seem to present themselves.

All this is, of course, is working towards the inevitable – victory points. The big end game points will come from how well you’ve advanced up the cult tracks, plus the size of your largest connected settlement. But another fascinating element of Terra Mystica is the scoring that goes on during the game.

The top section shows the end game points; the lower is the bonus points available each round

The top section shows the end game points; the lower is the bonus points available each round

A randomised scoring tile accompanies each round (all six are known from the start so you can plan for them). These give points for basic tasks, but make you think more about the order in which to do things. You may want to build a trading house,

but if you do it next round you’ll score points too. Add this to the fact each faction has ways to score on its player board and you have quite the mix of options. And it doesn’t end there…

While scoring points is the goal, you’re often tempted into spending them to. You’re cleverly encouraged to build on spaces next to your opponents, as this reduces your build costs.

But the player you build next to can in return trade in victory points to cycle their power points. It’s so tempting, as power really opens up your action options.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Much like contemporaries Eclipse and Tzolk’in, Terra Mystica seems to be the natural conclusion of the games that have come before it. It’s the thinking gamer’s euro, packing a fantastically deep experience into a beautifully produced yet surprisingly quick playing package. The variable factions and bonuses add replayability, while every game leaves you thinking you could’ve done a little better.
  • The thinker: In the one to two-hour game category, this is now one of my first choice of games. A favourite aspect is no matter the player count, there are interesting territorial situations rubbing up against the problems of advancing your own civilisation – both in your building and cult track choices. It’s a delicious challenge that has you thinking before (once you know your faction), during and after.
  • The trasher: It’s hard to think of a civ building area majority game without thinking combat, but Terra Mystica is just that – and something I don’t often say: I don’t think it needs direct conflict. You’re planning like a general, claiming territory, and while I’d prefer a bit more chaos in the mix I’m always happy to give this one a go as it offers players a real challenge.
  • The dabbler: I’ve enjoyed my plays, but this is a very difficult game to get good at and isn’t a favourite. If you have a friendly group it can actually be quite social though; there’s no secret information, so especially with new players there can be a lot of chat about each player’s next best move. This is also really helpful when teaching, as it’s nice to be able to point out little hints and tips as you go.

Key observations

Terra Mystica has risen strongly into the all-time top 10 on the BoardGameGeek list and of the 7,000+ ratings it has received a good half of them are 9 or above out of 10. Some 90 per cent of reviewers have given in 7 or better, so any criticisms here need to be considered in that context.

Terra Mystica faction board

The green ‘Auren’ player, ready to go

Half the criticisms are from people who simply don’t enjoy this kind of game; it adds nothing new, it’s a point salad, it has boring euro mechanisms etc. All fair points, but if you don’t like that style of game you really shouldn’t be wasting your time playing it. It seems an odd reason to give the game a bad review.

The others tend to focus on it being ‘multiplayer solitaire’, dry and/or abstract with a pasted on theme. The latter points seem fair but once again, it’s a matter of taste; disliking the genre rather than being a direct criticism or Terra Mystica itself. But the multiplayer solitaire comments are more interesting.

The game is definitely played largely in your own head, and on your own player board, as managing your resources is absolutely key. But you shouldn’t underestimate the territorial decisions, as these will have a direct influence on both your spending costs and the amount of power you may give other player’s the option of getting. Making creating a town (several connected buildings) difficult can also throw a spanner in the works of an opponent, as they can give significant bonuses.

I expect criticisms of this nature are probably made largely by players who have only played once; your first game is very much going to be a learning one and it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you’re simply trying to get to grips with the basics.

Conclusion

Terra Mystica boxI’ve found myself joining the 50+ percent of people ranking Terra Mystica at 9 out of 10 on BGG. And such a high grade doesn’t come lightly from me; only about 10 per cent of the games I’ve ranked get such a high score.

This is the euro version of a 4X game; explore, expand, exploit, exclude – the fear of a late game beat down that for me adds a big ‘up yours’ to the otherwise enjoyable Eclipse; is replaced with the more subtle but still potentially disruptive mechanism of blocking.

And while it may at first seem there’s simply too much going on, the game soon reveals a really satisfying interconnectedness between the actions and currencies that soon begins to make sense. It really is a game you can sink your teeth into.

So is it worth £50? For me, absolutely. If you’ve read the hype but don’t like non-conflict euro games it is very unlikely that this will convert you, and if you’re a beginner to the genre you might be better off looking at a simpler introduction to the hobby (Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan would be good starting points). Otherwise, Terra Mystica has to be at least in the must-try category (if money is an issue), if not must-buy. A real gem.

Händler der Karibik: A four-sided game review

Handler der KaribikHändler der Karibik is a small box push-your-luck card game. It was sold for a minimum donation of five euros at Essen 2013 to raise funds for the Austrian Games Museum. An English edition with some slight variations will be released this year under the name Port Royal (adding a fifth player).

The original game takes two-to-four players about 30 minutes to play, needing only the 110 cards that come in the box. The game is simple to learn and is certainly at the lighter end of the gaming spectrum, but the way the cards come out and the amount people try to push their luck leads to a surprising amount of variation.

The cards are of good stock with a linen finish. The game has, as you may have guessed, a nautical/pirate theme and the cartoony artwork is colourful, fun and perfectly in keeping with the game’s feel. The rules are only in German, but they’re downloadable in English via Board Game Geek.

Teaching

Handler card typesAs with most of the best light filler games, the simplest way to teach Händler der Karibik is to play a turn. However, it’s probably worth quickly running through the four card types before you get going (as not all may show up in the first turn).

To win the game a player must have completed at least one expedition and have a total of 10 victory points (this may change a little in Port Royal). Expeditions are worth 2-5 points, people 0-3, so it doesn’t take long to be in a winning position; as long as you’ve nailed an expedition, of course – and there are only five in the deck.

Handler people cardsThe bulk of the deck is made up of ‘people’ and ‘ship’ cards. Ships give money, which you spend on people to add to your tableau.

These will do a variety of tasks (more later), from helping see off ships you’re not interested in to helping complete an ‘expedition’ – the third type of card. The final card type is ‘tax increase’, which makes it risky to hoard money (if you have a lot of cash when they come up you lose half – much like the robber in Catan).

The first part of your turn is to ‘discover’, followed by ‘hire’ and/or ‘loot’. Turn over the first card of the deck: if it’s a taxes card resolve it; if it’s an expedition it is put to one side and can be claimed by the next player (including you) who can meet its requirements. In either case, flip the next card.

Handler ship cardsUsually though it will be a ship or person card. If it is a person, and you have enough coins, you can ‘hire’ them; if it’s a ship, you can instead ‘loot’ its coins (1-4, with cards from the deck used face down as currency); otherwise, you can push your luck and draw another card.

You can continue to push your luck until you’ve drawn two ships of the same colour; if this happens, your turn immediately ends with you being empty handed.

But importantly, once you’ve stopped and bought a card, in turn order, each other player can then also buy one of the remaining cards. On the plus side, you will get one of the coins they pay with; but on the other, you’re giving up cards to your opponents on your turn. So how far do you really want that middle row to grow?

The four sides

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

  • The writer: For such a light game, Handler der Karibik packs in a lot of interesting moments. People stay invested because they know they may get a shot at hiring or looting every round, while the shuffle really mixes things up. No expeditions early can make things tense, as you simply don’t know what to go for, and while the theme is pretty pasted on the colour and art really helps make it an enjoyable experience.
  • The thinker: There’s more game here than at first meets the eye. Ships have a battle value, so by collecting soldiers with ‘sword’ symbols you can fight off low coin ships you don’t want – or high coin ones your opponents will. But they’re not directly helping you towards the expeditions. Will you have time for the long game? Yes, it’s swingy as hell, but its a filler with decisions to be made and I enjoy the game.
  • The trasher: In Handler der Karibik you can keep pushing your luck for that one big turn; because if you manage to get four or five different coloured ships drawn in one turn, you can buy two or even three cards in one go (rather than one) and perhaps swing the game. Fortune doesn’t often favour the brave here, but when it does its great! All it needs is an expansion with some ‘screw your neighbour’ cards.
  • The dabbler: Turns are really varied; you may flip a four-coin ship and end your go immediately, leaving your opponents with nothing as they groan at your luck; or you may flip 10 cards or more as the others egg you on to even greater risks – preferably in pirate voices. You can add super quick set up and pack down to the simplicity, plus the small box, and what do you have? A real winner, me hearties!

Key observations

Handler der Karibik boxHandler der Karibik doesn’t come in for too much criticism; if anything it is damned by faint prize with ‘nice’ coming up a lot. But for a filler this is pretty much par for the course.

Some say it can be too slow, which we have experienced once or twice. But more seriously, and related to the speed complaint, is that you’re not always going to get a reliable game experience.

I do have some sympathy with this position. I’ve seen games where you simply never get a shot at an expedition, making winning impossible – or where a string of dull cards come along in a lump making for five minutes of boring turns.

But this is a 20-30 minute game revolving around a single deck of cards; its inevitable and, frankly, not the end of the world for most people. You’ll know if this is the kind of thing that will irritate you and your group and if it is, you should probably steer clear.

Conclusion

Handler der Karibik coin cardsI picked up Handler der Karibik on a whim at Essen. I liked the idea of supporting a board game museum and there was a pile of promos being given away with it too. What could go wrong? As it happened, I got a fantastic little card game.

In fact, I’d say this has knocked previous favourite Archaeology: The Card Game off its perch as my go-to filler card game. That also suffers from the occasionally bad experience due to the luck of the draw, and while it has more fun in the take-that department I think I prefer the push-you-luck of Handler right now. The artwork is streets ahead too. This may change over time, as we’ll have to wait and see quite how much legs the game has, but so far so good.

Handler der Karibik is, unfortunately, hard to get hold of right now. However the new version, Port Royal, was released by Pegasus Spiele in Germany this week and should be available elsewhere soon for around £10. If you like to have a few push-your-luck card game fillers in your collection I would certainly recommend picking this up, as it rather elegantly does exactly what it sets out to do.