Johari: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Munchkin: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

For Sale: A four-sided game review

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Not bought (yet…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 5 favourite new releases of 2014

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

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

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

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

Best forgotten…

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

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

Part 2 here!

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

The Confusing Hierarchy of the Board Game Community – a reply

This is in response to this fantastic article:

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.

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

Good Little Games: Five fabulous print and play micro games

Good Little GamesGood Little Games was set up in 2013 by Brett Gilbert (designer of the Spiel des Jahres Awards recommended Divinare) to showcase free print & play micro games.

Each game has a maximum of 18 cards, so can be printed on two sheets of A4 (plus the rules), although they may need a few extra bits (chits or dice you can easily cadge from other games).

The site hosts the game I created with the help of Matthew Dunstan, The Empire Engine. I won’t talk about that here (you can read the design diary if you like), but I did want to spend a bit of time looking at some great games on the site.

Below you’ll find my favourite five of the first batch to go live there, all of which are well worth a few sheets of paper and a bit of printer ink! So, in no particular order (and with apologies for the crappy photos – I had terrible light)…

The Other Hat Trick

The Other Hat TrickDesigned by Brett Gilbert, this is a fast and clever little game for exactly three players. There are seven ‘prop’ cards, two of which are variously needed to perform the 10 tricks (the rest of the cards). Each of you has two cards, but who has what – and what’s the one left in the middle?

Three props are carrots, but the other four are unique. The tricks range in value from one to six, depending on difficulty. On your turn, you’ll try to perform a trick (one will be face up, or you can choose another at random). But before you do, you have to swap a prop with one of your opponents’ – which are face down on the table…

And therein lies the game; what do you need – and where is it? Sometimes you get lucky, normally not – and yes there’s a memory element, but it’s very small. I don’t like memory games, but I thoroughly enjoy playing The Other Hat Trick. And even if you don’t, it takes as long to play (about 10 minutes) as it does to print out!

Pocket Imperium

Ramping things up a bit, David Mortimer’s Pocket Imperium lasts longer (30+ minutes) and will need you to grab a pile of counters (in three colours) to go with the cards. It also needs exactly three players, but if you’re a fan of 4X (empire building) games it’s well worth making it happen.

Nine cards make the 3×3 map, plus each player gets a set of three identical cards; expand (get 1-3 ships), explore (move 1-3 fleets) and exterminate (kick 1-3 butts!). Each round, you will pre-program the order in which you want to do these actions, but you need to balance the order you want with the order you think your opponents will choose. Why? Because you act simultaneously and the fewer people who turn over the same action card at once, the better the action will be. If you all pick expand, you get one ship each; but if only you choose it, you’re going to get three.

Each round you’ll each choose a map card to score, so it’s very much about conflict and area majority. The game really ebbs and flows, and scores can be very tight, so you really have to pick your targets carefully. Again, this wouldn’t usually be my kind of game, but I’d always be happy to play Pocket Imperium. And even better, it should be getting a commercial release from LudiCreations at Essen 2014.


MusesThis is a solo game from London on Boarder and P&P game designer Adam Taylor. Muses needs just 10 minutes to play, one sheet of paper to print (as there’s only nine cards, the muses) – plus a couple of dice and three tokens.

One muse is randomly drawn each round. Each has a ‘claim’ condition on one-to-four of its sides; you’ll roll two dice and if you’ve met these conditions (eg: total higher than 9; both dice are even; odd pair), you can claim a muse of your choice. Any you don’t claim are rotated; and if they rotate to a side with no claim condition, they’re gone for good.

Muses are worth points (you need a total of 20 to win), but those with lower point values give one-shot modifiers to your dice rolls which can be invaluable. But they only total 23 total points, so you can’t miss many if you want to win! This is a great little solo filler game.

Bicycle Race

Oddly not called Keydefrance, this fun little racer comes from renowned designer Sebastian Bleasdale – who has managed to make an 18-card game that plays four to six players (there are six bike cards) and still manages to last about 20 minutes.

Each round starts with the player in last place in the race challenging the player in front of them by playing one of their two race cards (12 in total, numbered 0-11). Usually the highest number wins, but certain combos see lowest win, so it’s all about bluff and counter bluff. And whoever wins the challenge grabs a new card and faces the next player in line – so you could go from last to first in one round.

There’s a little more to it than that (you can add mountains and sprints to spice things up, for example), but you see the idea; it’s a simple game of luck and out-thinking your opponents which is a good laugh in the right crowd and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Shape Up!

Shape UpThis is a really clever little abstract game for two or three players from Mo Holkar. All you need are the cards and rules, with a game again lasting about 10 minutes (although I expect it’s one you’ll play a few times back-to-back; we certainly have).

There are 18 cards representing a mix of three shapes, three colours, plus sold or hollow (red solid triangle, blue hollow circle etc). One is put aside, one given to each player as their scoring card, and the rest make a draw pile. Then you take it in turns to flip a card and slowly build up a 3×5 grid (you may also move one card on your turn). When all cards are flipped, you score for complete lines in the colour/shape/shading on your scorecard.

It makes for some interesting decisions throughout, but it gets even better if you play the advanced rules. Here you don’t get a scoring card; instead you’ll have a hand of three cards from the start, with the last card left in your hand at then end being your scoring card. If you like abstracts, this is a fascinating little brain burner.

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.


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.


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.

Dominion: A four-sided game review

Dominion is a two to four-player card game that plays in under an hour. In the mediaevally themed box you’ll simply find 500 (yes, 500) cards and a plastic insert that helps you keep all the different (about 40) types separate.

Hey, come back! It’s not as scary as it sounds. You wont use all the cards each game and set up, while fiddly at first, is straightforward. The cards are good quality and while the art is far from spectacular, the card layout and graphic design is. You can buy the base set for less than £30 and while the game has spawned many expansions, none are necessary.

Released in 2008, Dominion was the first ‘deck builder’ – and the fact many games have since borrowed this mechanism pays testament to its importance.

But more importantly, no other deck building game has yet aped Dominion’s considerable success.

What designer Donald X Vaccarino did was borrow the key concept from hugely popular collectible card games (CCGs) such as Magic and Pokemon; letting players construct their own deck from a range of different cards.

But while CCGs tend to reward the player who spends the most money on expensive ‘booster packs’, Dominion sees all the players constructing their decks from one shared and limited central source – and constructing this deck is the game, rather than being what you have to do before you even start playing.

Everyone starts with an identical personal deck of 10 cards; seven worth one money and three worth an end-game victory point (VP).

Players simply take it in turns to draw five cards from their deck and use them to buy better cards from those communally available; these are either more simple money or VP cards, or the more interesting ‘action’ cards.

Of course the thing you want is those VP cards – but during the game these have no value (only at the end), so they simply clog up your hand when you draw them and slow you down. So the key is first building a great ‘engine’ out of cards to turn over a lot of money; and then changing gear to take VP cards at just the right moment.


The basics of Dominion really are basic, while the cards (particularly in the base set) are mostly very simple to understand.

Better still the game comes with two eight-page rule books; one explaining the rules, while the other walks you through the early turns and explains all the cards.

In addition the rules include some good examples of introductory card set choices. As mentioned above, the players will be buying cards from a communal pool in the centre of the table.

These will always include three types of cash and VP cards, alongside 10 action cards. There are 25 different ones in the base set, meaning plenty of replayability.

Most cards simply improve your options, but some are ‘attack’ cards which can play havoc with your opponents – doing anything from cursing them to stealing their cards. But you can introduce these at your own speed, or tailor the game to the type of players.

With the game’s simple mechanisms explained, its simply a case of letting players experiment with the cards. Turns are taken clockwise and as all cards are used each turn there’s no harm in playing each round pretty openly, which really helps the process of picking up how the cards work.

Better still, with simple games lasting just half an hour, you can very quickly get a few games in – while keeping the same set of cards out for a few games in a row really helps the set-up time between plays.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: When Dominion was released it brought something genuinely new to the party. And despite the game being a bit of a one-trick pony, that trick has proved good enough to see it stay in the Board Game Geek Top 20 for more than five years. While hardly oozing theme its elegance, variety and simplicity combine to make it a thinky yet family friendly game that plays quickly and cleanly. And with more than half a dozen large expansions available, there’s longevity in spades too.
  • The thinker: What makes the game intriguing is first spotting the best available combinations, and then that tipping point from action engine to VP machine. However, once seen there’s no guarantee the luck of the draw will see you to victory – while seeing the winning formula is more fun than playing the game out to its conclusion. I don’t mind Dominion, but there are more engaging implementations of deck building that have since been built into more complex games.
  • The trasher: Played as a ‘screw with your friends’ game, Dominion can be highly amusing – for a while. But the fact is that the action cards are a puzzle there’s no real need to solve; why not just buy money cards with your money cards and have done with it? Played in the right spirit (ie, nasty) and with the right people (ie, other thrashers) I’m always happy to have a round or two, but its not a favourite or a game I need in my collection any more.
  • The dabbler: I’m always happy to play this and it’s a definite keeper! It can be a really social game, as you can help each other out on your turns – or equally mess with each other for fun. If you’re playing with more players and letting people take their goes, it can just be a chatty game too because you don’t really need to think much between your own turns. It’s also quick, so doesn’t outstay its welcome if it isn’t going down as well as you’d hoped.

Key observations

The word that comes up most often in criticism of Dominion is ‘boring’ – either in theme, gameplay or both. While the mediaeval theme isn’t exactly spectacular, it is functional and the cards make sense. And at its heart the game is very much a mechanism; any other theme would’ve been equally pasted on.

As for the gameplay being boring it’s fair to say Dominion has gotten old for a lot of players, whether they liked it once or not. Its ranking is dropping of late and I won’t be surprised if this continues. There’s no getting around the fact that the game play is essentially repetitive and the combinations available are solvable.

After 50 games I didn’t like it as much as I once had – but 50+ plays of a £30 game is good value in my books. And as I haven’t played it to death, I can revisit it like an old friend from time to time. It is going to very much depend on your group, but for the most part this game has proved a hit.

Interestingly a Dominion clone called Thunderstone followed in 2009, borrowing its core mechanisms wholesale while adding an ill-conceived dungeon mechanic and an equally paste-on fantasy theme. It has taken a ton of work to make it play properly since (arguably its not much better than before), but for some these changes make all the difference. Horses for courses I guess.

Then there are sci-fi deck-builders, horror deck builders, comic deck builders… A ‘bad’ game doesn’t spawn this many copycats – especially not when they’ve all failed (so far) to take its crown. In the end, there’s always going to be a certain amount of overly vitriolic hate for something that has proven so popular.

Finally, an oft heard complaint is that its possible to pretty much break the game by ignoring the action cards and instead just buy money cards; upgrading them, repeating, then buying up the VP cards. You can argue, then, that the game is broken. But equally you can choose (as most people do) to ignore this fact and play the game as it was intended. If you can’t do this then no, the game is not for you.


Dominion is one of the longest standing and most played games in my collection. I rated it an 8 back in 2010 and despite it getting a lot less plays over the last few years I won’t be changing that mark. It earned it and deserves it still.

Where some see ‘boring’ theme and gameplay I see accessibility, which has seen it prove a hit with all the groups I’v played it with over the years – and that isn’t something you can say that often.

While it may not have the glossy shine it had on release more than five years ago, you still won’t find another ‘deck builder’ higher than Dominion in the ratings. So if you want to try this style of game, its hard to argue a case for one of the alternatives unless theme really is a deciding factor for you or your group.

For me its still the only pure game of its type on my shelf; but I can see a little piece of it in several of my current favourites including Concordia, Copycat and Rococo. And with that kind of legacy, I’d say it deserves at least a play or two of your time.