Ancient Terrible Things: A four-sided game review

Ancient Terrible ThingsAncient Terrible Things is a Yahtzee-style dice game with a Lovecraft/Cthulhu theme that adds elements of hand management and special powers to take it to a slightly higher level.

But if you’re a relatively new player, don’t be put off. While there’s lots of cards in the box there are never too many choices; this is definitely a tactical rather than strategic game.

Games tend to last about an hour with little change between player count, which is two to four players.

As for the horror theme, it’s very cartoony there’s nothing to worry about in terms of age range. Your first thought should be, do I like ‘push your luck’ dice games? If so, read on.

The game retails for just under £40, which is definitely at the expensive end for this kind of dice game. However the components are very high quality, from the box to the board through to the dice, so at least in those terms you get your money’s worth.

In a turn of Ancient Terrible Things each player will try to defeat a creature by rolling the required combination on five dice (a pair of 5 or higher, a run of three etc). Successes give you the creature card, which will earn you end-game victory points.

Each turn you also get resources and an action. Resources variously let you use cards, buy equipment, defeat creatures or alter your dice rolls – with cards, actions and equipment doing more of the same, or giving end-game points or multipliers.

Teaching

Ancient Terrible Things boardWhile Ancient Terrible Things is very much a Yahtzee game, this has both advantages and disadvantages.

While on one side it’s easy to see if people may like the game and gives people a grounding in what to expect, it also does things differently enough to make grasping the differences tricky for some.

The main thing you need to explain is how rerolls work. Unlike standard Yahtzee style games, if you want to reroll you can’t just put dice aside that you choose. Instead you have to spend a focus token on every dice you don’t want to reroll – otherwise you have to reroll everything. This can take some getting used to, but does work well.

In addition there are several other types (colours) of dice which work differently: red dice are one-shot (can’t be rerolled), yellow ‘luck’ dice work like a standard Yahtzee dice (can always be rerolled for free) etc. However these only appear through equipment or feat cards, so rarely have to be explained right off the bat and don’t add too much confusion.

Beyond this, the game does a great job of explaining itself on the cards. There’s a stack of equipment (to buy) and feat cards (you always have three of these in hand at the start of a turn) but even on the first play most players won’t need to ask how these work.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While the theme of Ancient Terrible Things could be anything, the style and art do help generate an atmosphere – even if they’re nothing like immersive; the comic style font and dark green pallet will draw in anyone with a bit of a love of all things Lovecraftian. There are interesting decisions to be made most rounds, but it does always comes back to the luck of the dice. This will hopefully balance out each round, but no amount of cards can save persistent terrible luck.
  • The thinker: While largely tactical, there are some strategic elements. Creatures come in four colours and being the first to three of one type gives you a bonus card for end game scoring – but thus can be taken from you if someone overtakes you on a colour (as with the road bonus in Catan). You can also get negative points for failing to defeat a creature – but sometimes it’s worth taking this on the chin if it stops someone else getting a creature of a colour you don’t want them to have.
  • The trasher: I love a bit of dice rolling and a horror theme, while Ancient Terrible Things gives you plenty of ways to mess with people – but none of them should be nasty enough to scare off the cry babies. Big risks can give big rewards while failure is never that punishing, encouraging you to go for the big roll. And having four types of token really lets you go down one route (equipment say, or reroll tokens) or spread yourself thin, giving several routes to victory. I like it.
  • The dabbler: While horror will never be my first choice of theme for a game, this one is done cartoony enough not to put me off. The clear dice are gorgeous and there’s a nice humour running through the game, although everything is a bit dank and dark – which can be tricky in bad light. But most importantly it retains the fun factor of a good dice game while being as tactical/strategic as something like King of Tokyo without being quite so in-your-face.

Key observations

Ancient Terrible Things player boardThe “it’s OK” brigade essentially say, “This is just a Yahtzee game with a bit added on”.

In truth I can’t argue with that and if you don’t feel you need this style of game in your life it’s time to walk away.

But if you really like Cthulhu, or do like a good light dice chucker, it’s worth checking out – just prepare yourself for an expensive price tag for this style of game.

Harsher critics call it boring, saying the decisions you make don’t matter. While boring is obviously a personal opinion, the comments on choices do baffle me – I can only presume they are based on a very short playtime.

Will the player who rolls best win the game? Possibly. Will someone who rolls terribly the whole game lose? Yup. But it’s a dice game! And I’ve seen good equipment combos and spoiler play win people games, which is good enough for me.

Finally, there are inevitable comparisons to Elder Sign. Inevitable, but in my mind misguided. Personally, I see zero validity in comparing a competitive game with a co-op game – who is going to agonise over only allowing themselves one Cthulhu dice game in their collection, even if the play styles are miles apart? Of course if you like co-ops more, go for elder Sign – but there’s really no other basis on which to compare the two.

Conclusion

Ancient Terrible Things board close upI traded King of Tokyo away quite quickly as while I didn’t hate it and would play it again (in fact I loved the style and components) it simply didn’t quite have enough game to make me want to take it down from the shelf. For me, Ancient Terrible Things does.

It may be a little of style over substance getting the better of me, which is rare – but I do love the look of this game, despite it being a little too dark (pallet wise) in places. For me the playful style comfortably makes up for this and I love looking at this on the table.

It has those stand-up dice chucking moments, it has those “no!” moments on amazing or terrible dice rolls, and while bad rolling can leave you out of things on occasion most games tend to be satisfyingly close – with the winner emerging in the final count, rather than a few rounds earlier.

My one reservation is the price point. While on one hand the components are worth the entrance fee, the likes of Elder Sign and King of Tokyo both retail for closer to £25 rather than close to £40. I’m really happy with my purchase as the game is a great fit for me, but I’d be happier recommending it if they could get the price down.

El Gaucho: A four-sided game review

el gaucho gameEl Gaucho is a light set collection board game that plays in about an hour. It’s light and family friendly, while offering a little more than traditional set collection games such as rummy.

The (mostly pasted on) theme backs the family game credentials, with players taking on the roll of Mexican cowboys (gauchos) tending to their herds (cows, represented by tiles).

Its cartoony art style is really charming, with each cow oozing personality. It takes two to four players, with a two-player game with experienced players running as fast as 30 minutes.

El Gaucho’s board is also very well drawn, while the cardboard ‘dice rodeo’ (fenced area to roll the dice) adding a nice bit of unusual bling. Throw in seven dice, custom meeples and a well laid out rulebook and you have a package well worth the £20 price tag.

In terms of play, in a round one player will roll the dice (two per player, plus one) and then each player will choose two to use. Dice can be used to claim cows of relevant values, but also to claim action spaces. Some of these actions allow you to mess with other players or give other extra roles/abilities in later rounds, while helping to negate the problem of low roles (you can’t be blocked out of an action space by other players).

The scoring is ingenious. Each cow of a breed (think card suit) scores the same value as the highest value same breed one in your herd: so if you have the 1,3,5 and 12 black cows, they are worth 12 each. This encourages players to save sets with a high numbered cow to score more later – but leaves the danger of another player stealing your prize beast before you do. In this example, losing your 12 would see your score cut from 48 (4×12) to 15 (3×5) – but you do at least score 12 in compensation when it’s stolen.

Teaching

El Gaucho cowsAs you’d expect from this kind of gateway game, teaching El Gaucho is a relatively simple affair. Turns are fast and all player information is open, so it is simple to give advice and reiterate things as you go.

There are a few key points that need explaining well: gauchos played onto action spaces can never be used in the same round they’re placed, for example, or that if you steal a tile from another player they will be compensated its value.

Also, cows are only claimed when all of those in a particular row on the board have been claimed. This can be important to set collection, as if you claim one out of sequence you must start a new set in that breed and score the old one (one action does mitigate this). But generally the rules are very simple to grasp.

But there are some subtle and interesting moves to be made. For example one option is to lay ‘lazy gauchos’ onto cow tiles, essentially reserving them for later. This action can be manipulated to several ends – reserving, blocking, forcing rows to complete, or to save yourself a dice. But you should let your players discover these nuances for themselves, as this should hold the attention of more experienced gamers.

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 a fan of set collection games and went into this year’s Essen looking for lighter fare after a few years collecting some great mid-to-heavyweight euros. This and Johari seemed to fit the bill and both proved great buys. El Gaucho is very light, but there are interesting decisions to be made and games tend to be won by the person making the best calls throughout. And while not everyone has rushed out to buy a copy after playing, there have been no complaints either.
  • The thinker: While I won’t be demanding this particular hour of my life back, I also won’t be rushing forward to play another game of El Gaucho any time soon. There is nothing wrong with the game, but despite all the bells and whistles (read: dice and actions) this is still a one-dimensional set collection game. At least Ticket to Ride has you building routes, giving some room for a long-term strategy; this is just rummy on steroids. Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing (which I don’t).
  • The trasher: Cutesy art set collection doesn’t make me sit down with a great deal of confidence, but I had a surprising amount of fun with this one. While stealing people’s cows or claiming ones you know others want (to try and get them to oust you for cash) isn’t as much fun as shooting their spaceships in the face, it is fun. And it doesn’t even have to be the act of stealing – just putting one of your gauchos on the steal space is enough to set fear into the more timid players. Not a game I’d clamour for, but one I’d be happy to play any time – but not with AP gamers…
  • The dabbler: El Gaucho is an absolute treat! The cows are gorgeous and funny, the board adds to the theme and the game is simple – but with a bit of depth. Super fast turns make it zip by and everyone is engaged throughout, as you need to know what’s going on with other players’ herds. And the dice rodeo is fab! It’s just a small thing, but works perfectly (dice flying everywhere can be a problem in games!) and helps add a little uniqueness to proceedings. The threat of thieving gauchos also ads to table banter, with everyone suggesting other players to steal from once someone goes into that action spot. Great fun.

Key observations

El Gaucho dice rodeoThere are two main concerns I’ve seen so far, and it seems contradictory to try and disprove both, but I’ll give it a go anyway…

First is the complaint that there is not enough here – that it’s ‘just’ a set collection game; a glorified filler. But I don’t think the game pretends to be much more than this – and as long as you don’t play with AP prone players the game plays very quickly. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the players who rate this with low scores say it is too long, while those rating it highly describe it as a fast game…

I think the large box, worker placement aspect and tiles, dice etc lead to a misconception about what’s inside – which is a shame, because played for what it is this is a solid and fun little game. But then taking El Gaucho is a glorified filler, isn’t it too expensive for what it is? Why pay so much for a game which is so fast and basic?

I’d argue the game’s strong gateway potential, but also that £20 isn’t a high price for any well produced board game. What about Can’t Stop, or King of Tokyo? The components here are easily worth the game’s price.

Conclusion

El Gaucho worker actionsWhile El Gaucho isn’t for everyone, it easily found a place in my stock of gateway games. It’s different enough (and shorter) when compared to the likes of Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers, while offering a lot to new gamers and just enough to more seasoned ones.

Would I want to play it every day? No. Do I think it has hidden depths? Nope. But not every game has to, does it? Taken on its merits, it’s a fun and easily accessible game that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Except of course for when it does. Each game of El Gaucho I’ve enjoyed has been played in the right spirit, with players largely skipping through their turns and playing with smiles on their faces. But I’ve seen others playing in silence, staring at the board trying to grok it to death – and for those players, it must’ve been a truly miserable experience.

If you like lighter games, in particular set collection ones, then I’d certainly advise you to get a play of El Gaucho – but terminally serious AP gamers need not apply.

Bora Bora: A four-sided game review

BoraBora_boxBora Bora is a board game from renowned German euro game designer Stefan Feld. It’s certainly not a game for beginners, but still falls into the ‘medium weight’ category – largely due to play time (under two hours) and familiarity (anyone used to playing euro games will be on safe ground).

It plays two to four players with very little discernible difference in play between numbers. The art style is consistent and high quality throughout, while the components are standard if not spectacular; so well worth the £30 price tag.

In terms of mechanism, Bora Bora follows in the seemingly limitless line of Stefan Feld designs that combines dice rolling with action selection, resource gathering and multiple ways to score points (or “just another Feld point salad game”, if you’re one of his detractors). So what, if anything sets this one apart from the rest?

Each player rolls three dice on their turn and will use them for actions. High rolls tend to make actions better, but you can only place dice onto action spaces if they are lower than any already there – making low dice good blockers. But there are plenty of ways to mitigate this, meaning it tends to be more of an inconvenience than a deeper frustration. You then get to do up to two extra actions, depending on who you have added to your tribe during the game.

Like any good euro game, the real problem is wanting to do way more in each turn than your limited actions allow – other players may get in your way, but your frustration with yourself is likely to be higher than with others. It can be hard to stay focused on what the right options are to maximise your points, and when to do them, while keeping an eye on possible blocking moves and ways to mitigate against them.

Teaching

Bora Bora player boardsThanks to an intuitive board layout, great icons and actions that make at least basic thematic sense, Bora Bora is relatively easy to teach to semi-experienced gamers. This isn’t a thematic game by any stretch, but nothing about it jars.

While the iconography is good, the player boards have pretty much all of them squeezed on, making them look daunting rather than informative. They’re useful after a play or so, but at first it’s best to steer player attention away from them!

Luckily the main board itself is more useful. One whole area is dedicated to the end of turn sequence, while the actions you use during a turn are straightforward. Hidden information is limited to a few cards and these are also relatively simple to grasp – plus there are only a few different types on offer.

Another plus is that each player starts with some objectives, one of which they’ll need to complete in the first turn to score some points. This immediately focuses the mind on an objective, giving new players a route to take in what otherwise could’ve been a pretty bewildering set of choices.

At the start of each turn, all players roll their dice then take it in turns to use one each to do an action. This means turns are snappy and players soon get to see how each of the available actions works. Yes, there is a lot going on – but if you encourage players to hone in on the things they need to do to score their tiles in the first play it will focus minds.

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 always charmed by this kind of colourful island setting in a game (Maori is another great example), while I’m also a pretty big Feld fan, so Bora Bora was always likely to be a winner. And while it doesn’t add much that’s new I do find it has a unique tension, cleverly exacerbating the ‘want to do everything’ feeling with the promise of end game bonus points. Sure, I’d prefer a shorter set up time but once the game gets going that little bit of effort seems well worth it.
  • The thinker: In terms of balancing strategy and tactics, this could well be Feld’s best design so far – although I can see it being a little busy for some, who may prefer the more mechanically streamlined Luna. But as a fresh challenge, once you’ve got past the graphical bombardment to the game’s subtleties, I think this is one of the designer’s finest achievements so far. There may also initially be a little too much luck for some, but I haven’t found it stops the best player winning – it just presents some interesting problems in achieving it.
  • The trasher: While Bora Bora definitely isn’t my kind of game, there is some solid space for screwage; especially when thinking about turn order. You get one new end-game tile per round, chosen in turn order, so a late choice can leave you high and dry. These are worth six points each, which is a significant amount, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. But overall I can take it or leave it and certainly won’t care if I never play it again.
  • The dabbler: I don’t think people expected me to like this one, but – surprise! The lovely artwork and colours drew me in, then the gameplay hooked me; love it. It’s not a game I do well at, but that said it’s one I’m determined to improve at. You learn a little something each time you play and can see where you’ve gone wrong; nothing in the game is complex, it’s more about managing your own expectations and not trying to do too much. There’s also more interaction than it at first seems, with the dice placement and turn order jostling creating a nice game atmosphere.

Key observations

Bora Bora board and bitsThe most common complaint you can see coming a mile off – nothing new, boring, just another euro/Feld, themeless etc etc. Well done for playing a game (you were pretty sure you wouldn’t like anyway) once and walking away before really giving it a chance.

However I have seen arguments that there’s a pretty clear winning strategy that makes the game a little formulaic once you’ve discovered it. However this isn’t oft mentioned and I can’t say I’ve spotted it yet (which will come as no surprise to anyone who plays with me!). Even if this is true, I think it will only be an issue for a certain type of hardcore gaming group – and they are very much in the minority.

Another criticism is the game’s components are overly busy and that Bora Bora is a very fiddly game (even for Feld) – or that the artwork is garish and annoying. I think these are fair arguments (the art style is purely a matter of taste) and if I could have a version that was slightly less graphically bombastic I’d take it. But after you’ve played half a game I don’t think it gets in the way any more. Overblown? Yes. But a long term problem or barrier to play? Not really.

Conclusion

Bora Bora actionsBora Bora has already taken its place alongside my older Stefan Feld favourites (Notre Dame, Macao, Castles of Burgundy, Rialto) as one of my collection I regard most highly. It’s intelligent, colourful, fun and engaging in all the ways his best games tend to be.

Is it a point salad? Yup. Is it typically Feld? Abso-bloody-lutely. Sure, it’s not going to change the hearts and minds of those who aren’t fans of his work, but what do I care? As long as there are still Feld fans to play with (and there always will be), I’ll be happy.

If you’re a fan of the likes of Trajan, Macao and Castles of Burgundy this comes highly recommended. If you’re new to the designer and looking for a good starting point, I’d say this is great for a semi-experienced gamer or above – but if not, perhaps Castles of Burgundy or Notre Dame may be better places to start your Feldian adventures.

The Confusing Hierarchy of the Board Game Community – a reply

This is in response to this fantastic article:

http://whoseturnisitanyway.com/the-confusing-hierarchy-of-the-board-game-community/

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years.

It’s been a privilege to be paid to write for a living, despite not being paid to write about what I love. So I’ve written for free about music, travel and games when I get home at night, because I’m not competitive; I’m not going to fight the ‘careers’ for jobs I don’t quite care enough to fight for. I work to live, not live to work.

But despite that, I’m a reviewer – which means I’m an attention seeker because I want to be heard. I have an opinion, I think it’s worth something, so I put it out there with passion. Every reviewer wants to be heard – so every reviewer is an attention seeker. And that’s fine, it’s accepted, it’s the way of journalism. You have something to say.

I’ve been a game designer for a year or so.

It’s hard. You put your mind and soul into themes, mechanisms, ideas – and they die on their arse. But you stick with them, you nurture them, you iterate them to within an inch of their lives – and if you’re lucky, one of them becomes a game.

Then you show it to publishers and just maybe, one of them bites. And a year later suddenly you’re a game designer. You’re at Essen, walking past the AEG booth, watching people buy/demo/reject/slag off/fall in love with your game. You get invited to present your game on BGG TV and you thank all the gods in all the heavens that you have a publisher meeting for a new game so you don’t have to go and be on the tele because you’re a writer, and a game designer, but you’re not someone who wants to be on TV.

I’m not a pop star. I’m not a movie star.

You might be thinking, “no shit Sherlock”. But think about it – that’s what you’re really comparing here. You’re looking at main stream media and comparing it to board games. It doesn’t work like that.

Actors and musicians do things one way. They love to be on screen. They have EGO to burn. But what about authors? How many of them would you put up for people to recognise? Or screenwriters? The people who are, essentially, behind the scenes doing creative work that is never meant to be recognised in the same way?

PR = expense

Designers are poor publicists because that’s not why they do it. And it’s the same with most publishers. Stephen Buonocore is a rare exception, while some of the French designers are getting more media friendly. But do you think it’s an accident Stefan Feld and Mac Gerdts don’t have their own daily podcasts? No. They’re designers and their reputations will stand or fall on their creations. They’re doing the bit they want to do.

And PR is an expense. You need to put yourself out there. Tom Vasel makes a living from The Dice Tower – but do you think he’d entertain the idea of paying someone to appear on one of his cash cows? Of course not. Why should he? He’s an ego on legs, it’s about him and why shouldn’t it be? He has created a world in his image without any help from the industry beyond a few free games so good luck to him (and I genuinely mean that).

Your game is crap

Which moves us on nicely to dissenting opinions. I’d argue Tom Vasel has become that one guy that can do this for a living because he calls it likes he sees it – and there’s no better thing for a journalist to do. You simply need to be consistent and (mostly) right.

Any journalist, in any industry, who kowtows to the man instantly loses respect. All companies make mistakes and they know when they’ve screwed up; slate those mistakes and a good company will give you a pass. Because they know when they do good, you’ll give them the praise they deserve – and that’s golden from a respected reviewer readers/viewers know doesn’t pull any punches.

I wrote a while back here about video reviewers not being more ruthless; about them not putting the boot in but only reviewing things they like. And predictably they all pointed me to hard to find links to pages/blog posts they’d apologetically written about the games they don’t like – as if anyone finding them to read one review would ever find that page to find out what they really think as a philosophy. Guys, really – you should be linking to those pages on every video you publish as a disclaimer.

Trolls are pathetic – simply ignore them or you’re in the wrong business

Speaking of negativity, the first thing you need to adopt as any kind of artist or journalist is a thick skin. Ignore rude comments: or either reply politely then walk away (which will enrage them hehe), or let people fighting your cause handle the battles you can’t be arsed with (if you made a cohesive point, someone in internetland who has more time than you is likely to back you up).

Opinion is free and if you put anything anywhere someone will disagree with you. If you can’t be bothered to argue (and you can’t) just walk away – it’s not rocket science. I want to reply to every shit 5/10 review Empire Engine gets but do I? No. It would serve no purpose.

And finally, pay to play – really?

Your average journalist does their job because they’re opinionated; give them something to review and they’ll be honest. The ones that aren’t are totally transparent and anyone with an ounce of sense will spot their bullshit a mile away and vote with their feet sooner rather than later.

There will always be someone on the take from publishers; often because they’re sadly small time and can’t quite believe they’re getting something for nothing. But the simple fact is that this is the case in every single industry on the planet; you can’t expect board gaming to be any different.

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.

How to design a board or card game: 10 prototyping tips

Frontiers prototypeIf you’re getting into the idea of creating your own game it can be hard to know where to start.

Having dabbled with prototyping game ideas for several years now I’m far from being an expert, but I have discovered some pretty useful free programmes and been given some great steers from established designers on everything from testing to design.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but hopefully it will inspire a few people to get started. In fact it’s 2,500 words but only really scratches the surface – so please do add your own design thoughts in the comments below: I’d love this to be as useful a resource as possible.

10 game design prototype tips

1) Get testing!

This may seem a weird comment, but the biggest barrier to your game design’s future is you. If you have a kernel of an idea – a mechanism you think will work (whether it has a theme attached or not) – then you need to get it to the table.

Don’t do too much in your mind, or even on paper (such as rules and fluff), before really testing your gameplay ideas. Later it will be great Lord Doom was fashioned by the evil wizard in the lava pits of Kzafghyk, but now you need to know if your idea for a tricky Ludo/Mousetrap combat idea will translate into something that’s actually fun – or at the very least might work in a few months when you’ve perfected it.

Here’s the kicker: The more you do without testing, the more time you’ll have wasted when you realise – after five minutes of testing – that it doesn’t work. At all. Or that it’s deathly, deathly dull. Or someone says, “Oh, they use that exact concept in Chess”.

It’s very hard to look at three full books of notes and think, right, let’s try that again. It’s a different story when it’s ten cards written in hand with numbers on. Which leads me to…

2) Keep it simple at first

The first playtest cards

At this stage you’ll be inflicting your monstrosity (sorry, testing your prototype!) on your best friend, partner or gaming group.

These people know you, love you and will take the piss no matter what you put in front of them – they are not expecting Fantasy Flight components and will not be offering to publish your game at the end of the evening.

Most first prototypes for board and card games can be made with a pad and pen. You don’t need figures, a board, even wooden cubes – cut out bits of paper if you have to. Once you start to want the game to last 30 minutes because the basics are working you can move to the next stage, but for those first short tests you only need basics.

And plan for a short test; there’s no real need to print/write out out all 150 cards you can see in the final version. Star with 20 of the simplest cards (cut up bits of A4 or use note cards for something more sturdy) and see if they work in the way you want them to for a single round of the game. Again if (read: when) you hit problems, it’s so much less to get miserable about! Pop them in the bin and go again.

3) Build your component kit

So you’ve realised the game may be a winner, played a few rounds, and want to take things to the next level. You can print some cards (more on this below) but you also need money, wood, sheep – and player pieces in four or five colours.

The obvious answer is to rob your own board game collection for components. This can work fine – if you’re designing one smallish game. However if the designing bug bites what you’ll end up with is a cupboard stacked with half finished prototypes and a shelf full of unplayable games.

to keep yourself from this predicament, remember charity shops, pound shops and bargain bins are your friends. Some truly terrible (and some great) high street games are brimming with cards, dice and bits you can rescue for your own nefarious means.

Examples: Skip-Bo (numbered cards), Perudo/Liar’s dice (dice), Monopoly (houses), Risk (cubes), poker sets (cards and poker chips) – the list is endless. Just make sure it is super cheap, as otherwise you may be better off just buying the components.

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do the right thing: keep component stores in business. There are so many choices out there, but recently I’ve been very pleased with Magic Madhouse for card sleeves and Spiel Material for cubes.

4) Designing and printing cards

Serif PagePlusIf you’re rich, buy the full Adobe suite of programs including InDesign. Simple. You’re not rich? Me neither. Which is why I use the fantastic free version of Serif PagePlus.

If you’ve ever used a desktop publishing (DTP) program you’ll find PagePlus instantly familiar. And the suggestions that you buy it every time you open or close it are a small price to pay for what is an (almost) fully functioned piece of card making software.

If you haven’t used this kind of thing before, it’s actually very simple – a little playing around should see you up and running in no time at all. It opens an A4 blank sheet as default and the create rectangle, text and image insert tools on the left hand side are exactly what you’ve seen in the likes of Word for years.

I’d suggest making a card-sized rectangular box, copy/pasting it until you have a sheet of nine, then saving that as a template. That’s it – happy card making! Even if you don’t want to use the program further you can print these blank cards to cut out and write on.

Of course there’s a downside to most free programs and PagePlus is no exception: but you can easily get around its big issue. Several advanced options are greyed out and only available in the paid version – including saving your files as PDFs. However, you can simply download a program such as FreePDF and choose ‘print’ rather than ‘save’ – choose FreePDF as your ‘printer’ – and it will save your file as a PDF.

5) Making boards

This can be trickier, but essentially the rules outlined above apply. First, your board doesn’t need to be a board at all. Most boards are simply a place to put a collection of game mechanisms – you may find it easier to simply make each part in paper and worry about joining them up into a ‘proper’ board for later versions.

score track 1-100Again, charity shops are your friend. Most game boards are blank on the reverse, so you can move forward by sticking your bits of paper onto the back of an old Monopoly board (or similar).

Alternatively, head back to PagePlus and create your board on four bits of easily printable A4. Selotape them together into a rectangle and you’ll have an A2 board – which is a great size for most tables and standard for many games.

It’s also worth avoiding fiddly board bits, such as score tracks, which are more trouble than they’re worth – especially early on. It’s much better to just Google something: it took me five seconds to find this, for example (pictured). Remember, right now, you’re not selling your game – you’re testing it.

6) Images, fonts and icons

Once your game feels worthy of spending more creative/visual time on, icons can be a great step forward. Any text you can remove (from cards especially) is a good thing, but only if you’re sure the icons help rather than confuse players.

Again, Google is your friend. An image search for ‘icons’ will give you thousands of results, while there are many sites dedicated to listing icons. Some examples are: Game-icons.net, The Noun Project, Icon finder and Vector Stock.

In terms of a prototype, you can use any images you can find – just remember you’ll need permission to use any images if you intent to then commercialise your game yourself (perhaps through a crowd funding platform).

But again only add images that don’t detract from gameplay. Of course some games rely on visuals for the gameplay itself, but remember early on you are usually testing the mechanisms, not visual appeal, so make sure everything is readable in any light. The quicker/easier people can pick up the game, the more useful your testing time will be.

For the same reason, stick to very readable fonts. There are plenty of free font sites out there and a good one can really add to a game’s feel – but can you read it upside down through the murk across a table in the pub?

If you get to the point where you’re showing a game to publishers, there are no hard and fast rules in terms of flashiness of prototype. Most will probably tell you they want them clean, crisp well laid out (not on the backs of cigarette packets) but that art etc doesn’t matter – but then it can’t hurt either.

A bad game is a bad game and no amount of polishing is going to sell that turd. But if there are two great games and one of them is prettier, which is likely to stick in a publisher’s mind? Unfortunately, that simply depends on the publisher.

7) Grow some balls (that includes you, ladies)

dragons-denThe only way your game will flourish is by getting feedback and because games don’t splurge onto the page fully formed, much of this is likely to be negative – or at least deeply suggestive of change – early on.

Don’t be defensive; you’ve asked people to test your game and have to expect things to go wrong. Your skin will soon thicken up, although it can feel really tough at first.

But equally, don’t take feedback at face value. Note it all down, but put it in context. People can’t help themselves but want to win – and their feedback will be from their gameplay perspective. The winner will think it was their skill that did it, not the lack of balance, while the loser may not have enjoyed the game because they got hosed – but because the strategy they tried was underpowered.

That said, you’ll also want to make sure you know the kinds of game people usually like to play. It shouldn’t be surprising if a person who hates auction games doesn’t like your auction mechanic…

Don’t always play. Even better, see if someone else can explain the game while you watch. You can learn a lot watching from body language, the learning curve, ‘aha’ moments – or boredom, disinterest, laughs, tension. It’s a good way to spot where your game shines, or if it has a soggy middle or slow beginning.

If you can find the ‘min-maxers’ amongst your gaming buddies, you’re onto a winner – get them playing your prototype and let them try and break it. Min-maxers are gamers that look for the ultimate way to win and exploit it for all its worth. They don’t just want to win – they want to CRUSH YOU and then tell you how they did it. This makes them great testers, as they can often spot exploits or holes in balance that you missed.

Finally, try and mix up your feedback by letting people speak freely at first – but then directing their thoughts with questions about the things you think you most want to know about. how was game length for example? Was there enough interaction? Did you feel the need to do A, or was B simply too tempting? If you’re trying to home in on one element, you could tell people beforehand what kind of feedback you’re looking for.

8) Hi. My name is Chris and I’m a game designer (“Hi Chris”)

One of the best things about boardgaming is the community – and within it, there’s nothing better than the game design community. People are friendly, happy to help and love testing each other’s games and giving advice.

The obvious place to start are the design forums over at Board Game Geek. Help, chat, competitions, inspirations, theory – even ways to find testers. It’s all there. You may also want to check out Meetup to see if there are any groups in your local area – this is how I got involved and there are more of us out there than you might think!

Discussion and collaboration can be invaluable; especially with more experienced players as well as designers. I’ve played hundreds of different games now but I’m fully aware than many people have played thousands – and even they’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

There are also a good number of international board game competitions you can enter, but I’m working on another post on those so will pass over that area for now.

9) Don’t give up the day job

uncle moneybagsRemember kids, games doesn’t pay. Yes, some game designers make a living out if doing it full time – but they are either the best, run their own companies or work for someone like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast. Most do it as a hobby.

If you go into board game design looking to make your fortune, or for a career change, you’re likely to be disappointed. However it’s a fantastically rewarding past-time that could at least pay for itself over time – and even give you the odd holiday! And who knows? Maybe you will become the next big name designer.

But whatever else happens there’s the sense of achievement, the camaraderie, the friendships you’ll forge, the problems you’ll solve, the knowledge you’ll acquire. All in all, as long as you don’t want to get rich quick, it comes highly recommended!

10) Ignore all of the above

But of course the most important thing is that you enjoy the process. If you love whittling individual wooden pieces, or 3D printing elaborate robots made of titanium, knock yourself out – all I’m saying is that to make a game you don’t have to.

I have no idea how many published games use the artwork that was on the prototype the publisher saw when they commissioned it, but I would guess the percentage is infinitesimal. More will keep the theme you thought of, but not all – and you can probably wave goodbye to your lava pits of Kzafghyk story too. But if that drove you to make your game it was all worthwhile.

In the end what’s important is that you do whatever it takes to get your game played – even if it’s only by a few appreciative souls. Much like they say everyone has a novel in them, it’s probably the same for board games. And few things beat the feeling of seeing someone else enjoying something you’ve created. Good luck!

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.

 

My top 50 board and card games

Race for the GalaxyWhen I started this back in October 2011, I wanted to write about travel, games and music; but over time one of these three has risen to the top.

In terms of both how much I want to write, and how popular the posts are, board games is the clear winner. So as I’ve now reached 100 blog posts, it seems well past the time to list my current favourite board and card games.

I’ve done the first 20 in order, then grouped the rest in chunks of 10. I could easily make this a top 100, or more; the games in the bottom bracket here are still some of the best I’ve played (out of hundreds). Down beyond the top 20 things change almost daily – so I’ll certainly be revisiting this list, you lucky people…

My Top 20 board and card games

  1. Race for the Galaxy (2007) An easy choice, and almost 250 plays proves it. Its a quick (30-minute) tableau building card game which really is a race for points. Every game plays differently, while a rash of expansions let you mix things up even more. The iconography is hard to get to grips with, but once you do there’s an endlessly rewarding game underneath. An absolute tactical masterpiece.
  2. Ra (1999) In almost every round you have an agonising decision to make; do you start the auction or continue to sweeten the pot? Then once the auction begins, what to bid? It’s so simple, but I haven’t played a better game that so perfectly forces players to bluff and psyche out their opponents. Ra is a simple game mechanically, but so much more is played in the mind – and the one-hour playtime is perfect.
  3. Terra Mystica (2012) Finally, a deep civ-building brain burner for non-combat oriented board gamers. The board and bits are as elegant as the game’s mechanisms, while variable set up and a raft of player powers guarantees oodles of replayability. This is a game I totally lose myself in and I can never believe a few hours have past when we get to the end. A euro gaming classic already.
  4. ticket_to_ride_boxTicket to Ride (2004) My go-to gateway game of choice; not only because it has a great new gamer conversion rate but also because I still find it fun after 100+ plays. It’s not big or clever, but nor does every game need to be. You can play with a few beers, while the inoffensive theme and familiar mechanisms (set collection, route building) make it highly accessible. The best gaming evangelism tool around.
  5. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) Some say gimmick, I say nonsense: the clever cog mechanism makes what would be a tedious, fiddly affair into a perfectly streamlined worker placement game. It’s tricky as hell, and always seems to end before you’ve quite got things going, but therein lies the challenge. And it’s gorgeous too, with a great theme and fantastic production values.
  6. The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) This was a close contender for best gateway game, especially as it has a fantastically fun ‘take-that’ mechanism built in and a great theme. Crazily chaotic with four, fun with three and surprisingly tactical with two, I’m always happy to get this to the table; what’s not to like about sacrificing your friend’s citizens to the volcano with dramatic howls and shrieks?
  7. Concordia (2013) This was my favourite game of last year by a distance; short snappy turns, lots of decisions to make and you’re involved throughout; in each other’s faces constantly, while keeping it non-confrontational. Exploration and hand management blend beautifully with resource management and deck building to show that there’s more to Mac Gerdts than the rondel.
  8. Copycat (2012) Easily the least likely title on the list, Copycat is one of only two games in my top 20 outside the BGG top 500. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but most people I’ve played with have been charmed by its combination of deck-building and worker placement. It takes some of the tight board tension of Agricola and the card track of Through the Ages, while distilling Dominion to its core.
  9. Through the Ages (2006) Easily the longest playing game in my top 10, a full game of Through the Ages is totally draining; and completely brilliant. It’s remarkable how designer Vlaada Chvatil has managed to make a totally convincing civ building game without a map – or even a board to speak of. But it works beautifully, as the ebb and flow takes you on an amazing journey every time.
  10. Merchant of Venus (1988) This may be the elder statesman of the top 20, but for me no game has come close to taking its sci-fi exploration and pick-up-and-deliver crown in 25 years of trying. Every game is different, with new route plotting puzzles to solve as the various races are revealed; while the luck of the dice throws in the perfect level of chaos if you’re willing to leave your trip in the lap of the gods.
  11. downfall_of_pompeii_boxNotre Dame (2007) While no designer has more games on my shelves, or on this list, Stefan Feld just failed to crack the top 10 (I’m sure he’ll be distraught). This was my first and is still my favourite, cleverly mixing action card drafting with worker placement and making almost every decision an agonising one. Simple to learn, quick to play, but packed with both tactical and strategic dilemmas.
  12. Ingenious (2004) This was one of the gems that got me back into the hobby and is still my favourite abstract game. A simple tile-laying game is taken to the next level with a simple yet clever scoring mechanism; your lowest score across six colours counts. This makes for a fascinating game of ‘where’s the tipping point?’ every time, as you try and pick the perfect time to flip from scoring to blocking.
  13. The Manhattan Project (2012) What could’ve been ‘just another euro’ initially shines thanks to a brilliant theme and art direction (both rules and components); but there’s a unique blend of mechanisms too. Not only can you really screw with people, but the unusual end game condition of first past the post really ratchets up the tension towards the end – which is perfect for a game about building ‘the bomb’.
  14. Snowdonia (2012) Another beauty from 2012, the ‘year of the euro’ for me. An original take on the train game theme sees you battling the game itself for points, let alone your opponents. Then there’s the damned weather, and that lazy worker in the pub – and should I bother buying a train? A great worker placement game that, despite playing differently every time, still never seems to go the way you want it to!
  15. Rosenkönig (1997) It’s old, it’s abstract and it’s ranked worse than 700th on BGG – but I love it. A tight two-player game that gives a clever spin to area majority, introducing card driven placement to a classic format. This means you can’t learn strategies, you can only react with tactics – a pleasant change for this style of game. The best thing to come out of the hours I’ve spent playing games at Yucata.de.
  16. Twilight Struggle (2005) This is the only game in my top 20 that I don’t own; something that will hopefully be rectified on my birthday (hint hint). I’ve only played twice, but have been blown away while feeling totally out of my depth. Simple card play and area majority influence are easy concepts; but the depth and theme on every card makes it fascinating. This will only go up on this list with more plays.
  17. Merchant of VenusCan’t Stop (1980) This is the first of several push-your-luck dice games on the list, with the old Sid Sackson classic still being my favourite of its kind. It really strikes at the essence of the genre; it’s a race against time, with all the odds out there in front of you to try and defy – and your friends there to screw over as you overtake them and claim each number as your own.
  18. Thebes (2007) There’s a mass of contradictions here: the theme is perfectly met, as in it’s a total luck fest whether you’ll find anything. And it seems no matter how much you may perfectly plan your moves, you can be scuppered by luck – so why is it still so much fun? Simple – because shouting “dirt dirt dirt!” as your opponents try and pull treasures from a bag is fun; and it has a very satisfying turn track mechanic.
  19. Stone Age (2008) While many now deride this worker placement euro game, I still love it. Sure, the luck of the dice seems a little out of place and the huge swingy scores aren’t in keeping with the genre. But I love the theme, love the stinky dice cup, love the tactical blocking – and yes, I love the dice. I much prefer it two-player, where the tactics really shine, but I’m always happy to play with any number.
  20. Pizza Box Football (2005) Some of my fondest childhood memories are of making up pen-and-paper football leagues and rolling dice to get results; primitive, but brilliant. This is a step up from that, but deep down it’s just a bunch of dice and guesswork and over excitement. Say what you want, but it just feels right; few games can absorb me like this one, and tell as many stories. There was this time…

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Ingenious board game 03Acquire (1963) The oldest game on the list and the second from the late great Sid Sackson. The definitive accessible economic/stocks game.
  • Basari (1998) An odd mix of simultaneous action selection, set collection, racing and negotiating; but somehow it works in this quick, fun little game.
  • Brass (2007) One of the heaviest brain burners on my list, this economic hand management/route-builder fascinates me. A heady mix of strategy and tactics.
  • The Castles of Burgundy (2011) A great tableau building game with a clever use of dice. Lots of decisions to make, but way less complex than it at first appears.
  • Endeavor (2009) I love how this clever area control/tableau building game gives you the feeling you’re exploring, despite being very abstracted.
  • Händler der Karibik (AKA Port Royal) (2013) A fabulous little 30-minute push-your-luck card game that sets up and packs down in two minutes.
  • Macao (2009) There’s so much going on in Macao I really don’t know where to start. Roll dice, draft cards, deliver goods, control areas, manage resources etc etc…
  • The Boss (2010) A small, cheap and quick card game which beautifully blends bluff and deduction. Agonising, but wholly satisfying too.
  • Tikal (1999) Area control and action point allocation as you explore the jungle. A game that’s clever, fun and beautifully illustrated.
  • Uruk (2008) The game that proves you can distil the essence of civ building into a small box card game that only lasts an hour.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • pickomino_boxBruges (2013) The classic Feld point salad meets chaotic tactical tableau building; and somehow he makes it work. A fun, quirky and random experience every time.
  • Hamburgum (2007) While this is the simplest of Mac Gerdts’ rondel games, there are still plenty of agonising decisions to be made in each quick round.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) A very divisive game, but I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp. It turns area majority on its head in a fascinating way.
  • Le Havre (2008) A fascinating ‘turn X into Y’ manufacturing game which nicely ramps up the decision space turn-by-turn.
  • Manila (2005) This is a very light bidding/racing game with some really clever ideas and a bunch of randomness; but not too much for its length.
  • Maori (2009) A seemingly simple tile-laying game that has something to offer for all ages and abilities; play simple, nasty, tactical, or strategic – or a mix of them all.
  • Nefertiti (2008) A bidding game, yes, but it feels like worker placement. And set collection. A unique and clever mix of common mechanisms.
  • Pickomino (2005) Pure push your luck ‘take that’ dice-based silliness. One of Zoe’s favourites, so automatically one of mine too.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) More push your luck, more dice, and another Zoe favourite; this time with a little more going on tactically.
  • Rialto (2013) The fifth and final Feld game on the list. Really interesting drafting/auction mechanisms blend beautifully with area control.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) An endlessly expandable tile-laying city builder with clever use of different currencies and area majority scoring.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) For a long time this was my go-to quick push-your-luck card game; but deposed by Händler der Karibik (above).
  • Arkham Horror (2005) A crazy, bloated, over-long co-op game where you spend your time going mad. But really great fun once a year or so.
  • Blueprints (2013) A clever puzzley deduction/dice game that everybody likes but nobody loves. A great filler for all-comers.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) If you’re enjoying adult beverages and want a very adult-themed and politically incorrect party game, look no further.
  • CV (2013) Takes the Yahtzee dice mechanism and makes a properly fun push-your-luck game that tells a great story every time. Light and accessible.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This classic ‘take-that’ board game is still a lot of fun today, although if I could only have one I’d choose Pompeii (above).
  • Power Grid (2004) This bidding/route building classic has a unique theme which initially seems dry, but inside the box lies a lovely, if tricksy, game.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) I love the combination of empire building and action selection here, which Race for the Galaxy (above) ‘borrowed’ and, for me, improved on.
  • Revolution! (2009) It’s stupid, chaotic, random and a little long, but I always enjoy this blind bidding/area majority game.