Johari: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Munchkin: A four-sided game review

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

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

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

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

Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

The four sides

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

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

Key observations

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

A guide to gateway games: Great ways to get back into card and board games (Top 5, part 2)

Below you’ll find the conclusion to my top five gateway board and card games, which includes my top two choices as well as several near misses that almost made the list.

It was pointed out to me that I may be using a few terms that are unfamiliar if you’ve not played many board and card games before – which must be particularly annoying if you’re looking to get into the hobby (sorry). If so, let me know what they are and I’ll put them together in a future glossary post (and answer any questions).

For now though, here are some more great board games that you should have no problem playing straight out of the box, even if your only previous experience is of basics such as Monopoly or Connect 4. They’re also a whole lot better, with a lot more fun on offer for everyone involved.

I should also note here that both my number one and two picks below are now available on iOS for your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch (they’re really good implementations too).Carcassonneis also available on Android. Playing in person is way better, but these apps can be a good, cheap way to try the games out before taking the plunge and getting them in their ‘proper’ format.

2) Carcassonne

In second spot is this classic tile laying game. I actually saw Carcassonne in Waterstones over Christmas, which was great news, although it seems to have disappeared again now (someone needs to tell them that, just like puppies, games aren’t just for Christmas!).

The game consists of a big pile of cardboard tiles (which are about two-inch square) and several sets of small wooden people (called ‘meeples’) in various colours, one for each player (the game plays equally well with two to five players). There is also a small board that acts purely as a scoring track.

Once each player has chosen a colour and taken their meeples, you stack all the tiles face down in piles away from the centre of the table. The starting tile is then placed in the middle of the table and the game begins.

Each tile has a combination of mediaeval roads, farmland, cloisters and castles that will be placed together to form a large map out from that starting tile, a bit like a jigsaw. Each player takes it in turns to flip over and then places a tile (as long as the sides match – road to road, farmland to farmland etc), before deciding whether to place one of their meeples on top of it to try and earn some points (the highest total score once all tiles have been placed wins).

Some meeples will stay on their tile throughout the game, scoring at the end, while others will be returned to you on the completion of a road, cloister or castle their tile was part of. As you have a finite number of meeples, managing them can be tricky. And as you gain experience, you’ll find cunning ways to gain points from castles, farms and roads other players thought they were going to keep to themselves.

Carcassonneplays in under an hour, has very quick turns and everything is out in the open. It works particularly well for new players as you’ve literally nothing to hide – you turn over a tile on your turn and anyone can chip in with ideas about where you should place it (or, once you start to get more cunning, where you can stick it!). New players will just enjoy learning the game, while more experienced players find a deep level of strategy keeps them coming back for more. It looks gorgeous too, while coming in at a great price point (less than £20).

As one of the most popular board games around (well, that isn’t routinely in WHSmith and ToysRus anyway),Carcassonne also comes in all kinds of different styles and there are various bits you can add later if you like it. There are also several variants, but I would certainly advise the standard set as a great starting point to any games collection.

1) Ticket to Ride

For me though, as for many others, Ticket to Ride is the classic gateway game. It just edges out Carcassonne as although I’ve had both games for a long time now, and really enjoy both, it is more often than not Ticket to Ride that hits the table.

The game features a large board showing a map of America with cities connected via coloured tracks; there are also bags of plastic trains and a whole bunch of cards. During the game, players will score points for completing the coloured tracks between the cities and by completing route cards they keep hidden from the other players; the player who ends with the most points wins.

Each player takes a set of plastic carriages in one colour, four random coloured carriage cards from the top of the draw pile and three route cards. They then choose which route cards to keep or discard (you must keep one, but can keep two or three if you like) before beginning the game.

Turns are simple; you either draw a couple of cards (there are five face up for you to choose from, or you can take blind from the draw pile) or place you plastic carriages on the map to claim whole routes between cities. Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you can draw more route cards.

A route can be between two cities quite close together, or on complete opposite sides of the map. The further you have to go, the more points you’ll get for completing that route before the game ends; but then again, if you don’t complete a route, you’ll instead be docked that number of points. There is also a bonus for the player who makes the longest unbroken route around the map.

To claim a track between two cities, you need to have collected the same amount of coloured carriage cards as there are tracks on the board; so you’re collecting sets, rummy style, to complete this objective.

The tricksy part is that other people are bound to want to go across some of the same areas as you, which can play havoc with your plans as once someone has claimed a route, it’s gone (although some cities have two tracks running between them, each of which can be taken by a separate player). And, of course, if you telegraph your plans, someone might just block you to spite you…

Ticket to Ride plays in under two hours and everyone will ‘get it’ by about the middle of their first play (if not sooner). It will set you back around £30, but the components are top quality and its well worth the investment. The original version plays best with four or five, although other maps (Switzerland, for example, which you can add for just over £20) play really well with two or three players (there is also now a six-player pairs map available).

Again, turns are fast and there is a certain element of ‘screw you’ – which is even better when you’re usually doing it by accident! There’s a bit of thinking between turns, but as your hopes can easily be dashed by the time it gets back to you, you’re normally better spending the time getting another drink, smack talking etc.

Close, but no cigar…

There are a few games that nearly made the list that I’ll briefly mention here, as they’re all a little different from the others and may suit particular tastes:

Settlers of Catan: This would actually be many people’s favourite gateway game, but it’s not on my list because it has fallen flat with my main group. The game heavily involves negotiation between players – if that’s something you think will work with your group, then this is a cracking game that is easy to learn and fun to play. If not, avoid; if people aren’t going to trade, it will drag for ages and you’ll wonder where the last three hours went.

Revolution: This simple game combines blind bidding with area control. Each player bids secretly on a board split into 16 sections; sections give influence in areas of the city; victory points; actions, and/or tokens to bid with in the next round. When everyone is ready, reveal the bids – the winner in each of the 16 section gets to do it. Once all the areas of the game board are fully influenced, the person with the most of their counters in each area gets bonus points and the game ends.

Ra: Auction and bidding games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you think it might be the genre for you I can’t recommend Ra highly enough. There are agonising decisions to make as the pile of booty gets bigger the more tiles are drawn from a bag; when will you call ‘Ra!’ to start the bidding on the tiles available? Too soon and you may be stuck with rubbish; too late and you may hand someone else a great set of tiles.

Thebes: If you love randomness, this is a really fun board game. As an Indiana Jones type, you’ll be scooting around Europe collecting knowledge from cities before heading off on digs to collect loot from ancient sites. When you get their, you’ll get more picks from the bag of that site the more knowledge you have – but there’s plenty of blank tiles to drive you nuts. Really good fun, but not one for deep strategists!

Ingenious and Blokus: These are games you may well have seen in the likes of John Lewis and WHSmith. Both are fantastic abstract games with clever rules and lovely tactile pieces. They are games I’m glad to have in my collection and that I’d recommend to anyone, but as gateway games abstract games don’t tend to fair so well – a good theme seems to trump nice coloured chunks every time. However, if you think abstract will work better than trains or archaeology, try these!

So there you have it – a top five blog post that went on for two blogs and ended up listing 15 board and card games. Hey, at least you can’t say you don’t get value for money here.

Even now, I’m reading back and wanting to add bits here and there – it’s so hard to do these games justice in a few paragraphs. That said, if you want more information on any of these games, feel free to drop me a line or comment below. Alternatively, head to Board Game Geek where you’ll find more information than you’ll know what to do with.

Also, if you have your own recommendations, please add them below. I could always do with a few more games….

A guide to gateway games: Great ways to get back into card and board games (Top 5, part 1)

This is the first half of a guide to gateway games, including a list of the ones that have worked best for me. Before I get into the games themselves, I should probably give ‘gateway game’ some kind of definition, as well as giving the post a bit of context.

A good gateway game does what it says on the tin: it serves as a gateway back into the hobby of board and/or card gaming for those scarred by the likes of Monopoly and terrible TV tie-ins given as lazy Christmas presents (and made by even lazier games companies).

These gateway games tend to have similar traits, while each being a very individual game: simple to teach, not too long (from 20 to 90 minutes), not too involving, mostly open and with quick turns. By ‘not too involving’ and ‘mostly open’ I mean they don’t tend to leave you having to think a great deal between turns (so everyone can still be sociable) and most of what you do and have is open for all to see (both so others can help, and to avoid things getting too cagey and intense).

Gateway games were really relevant to me in 2011, and I hope will continue to be in 2012. They’ve seen Zoe and me spread the board gaming love to both friends and family in a way that has been really rewarding socially – and long may that continue. With tighter purse strings, bigger families and less energy for big nights out, big nights in are definitely a winner.

So here are five games that have really help get people into playing games with us in the past few years, along with a short overview of each (plus sometimes a few other similar options) and why I think they’ve been so successful.

5) The Downfall of Pompeii

This game might not appeal to all groups, which is why I have it at number five, but when this one works it really works.

The Downfall of Pompeii is a great little board game that is split into two parts: first you populate Pompeii, before trying to get all your citizens out as the volcano erupts. The person to get the most of their citizens out wins.

I’ve reviewed Downfall of Pompeii here, so I won’t go into depth again. Instead, I’ll briefly list its gateway credentials. The game’s distinct sections can be taught as they happen, while one play lasts about 45 minutes. The first half of the game is play a card, take a card; the second half draw a tile, lay a tile, move citizens. You can’t plan, as what others do will heavily affect your turn, so you’re free to watch the chaos unfold.

So, why is it only for certain groups? Basically, it has a strong ‘take that’ element which doesn’t suit everyone. You’ll be trying to get other people’s citizens thrown into the volcano, so it can get a tiny bit bitchy! It’s all in good fun though, so the majority of people should enjoy it.

It’s not a game you’ll find on the high street and is currently out of print, but it is one you can find if you dig around a bit (I can probably give you a hand if you want to find one). However, equally good in the same way is a reprint of an old game called Survive: Escape From Atlantis, which you may be able to find easier. It also plays fast and fun, with the emphasis on ‘take that’ mechanics as you try and drown your opponents as you all flee the sinking city (good clean fun).

4) Alhambra

This is another game that meets all the gateway game criteria I mentioned above, but since I haven’t reviewed it yet I’ll give a brief overview of the way it plays here.

Alhambra sees each player building their own palace out of building tiles they’ll buy with money cards from their hand. Players take it in turns to take money cards from those face-up on the table, buy palace tiles from a central store or rearrange their palace. Both the palace tiles and money cards are in a variety of different colours.

There will always be a choice of four tiles to buy; these are on coloured spots in the central store, so you’ll need to have enough money of that colour to buy the tile (paying the exact amount for a tile gives you an extra go). Tiles can be arranged as you like following simple rules, with tiles having walls that need to match up as you expand.

There are three scoring rounds throughout the game, where the person with the most of a certain coloured tile will get points. In the latter scoring rounds, the person who has the second most (and then also third most in the final round) will also score some points. There are also points awarded for the longest joined-up wall you have in your Alhambra, adding an extra dimension to play.

The game flows quickly, with their being plenty of luck in what is available when it comes to your turn. Everyone’s Alhambra is open, so people can suggest different placements of tiles, while there is little to do between your turns as you have no idea what will happen to what’s available. This makes it zip along in a friendly, chatty manner and games run under an hour.

The only real downside is some slightly annoying colour clashes that can confuse players and be a real frustration for some. It can be easy to think you have the right cards to buy a tile, only to realise you’ve been matching your cards to the tile you want, not the colour of the space it is to be bought from; a silly oversight, but not a big enough issue to keep Alhambra from my list.

We introduced this to a couple of other gaming couples and one has already purchased it. Of all the people we play with, no one ever refuses a game either.

However, I think that by this time next year Alhambra’s place in my top five gateway games may have been usurped by Pergamon. Released in 2011, this board game also has a few more mechanisms in play than your average gateway game but again everything is on the table for all to see and help each other along. Turns are fast and play time is well under an hour, with plenty of luck thrown in.

3) Archaeology: The Card Game

Archaeology: The Card Game (from now just Archaeology) perhaps isn’t a gateway game as such; alongside the likes of Hey! That’s My Fish, Pickomino and For Sale it’s more a game that shows you can spend less than £10 on a small box game and get something really worth owning.

This game takes the simple principal of rummy (ie, set collection) and gives it a theme, some great ‘screw you’ mechanics (where you steal another player’s card, for example), loads of tension and a few other little tweaks to make it a whole new and more interesting beast. Check out my full review of Archaeology here.

Since getting this as a Christmas (2010) gift, two other couples we know that have been getting into the gaming hobby have also picked up copies of Archaeology. I think the lightness and non nerdy theme really help, as does the forced interaction and strong luck (and push your luck) elements. But even with all that, if you play well you still feel you get rewarded for doing so; a new player is unlikely to win their first game, but could certainly win their second.

Whether it’s a little trick taking card game such as Archaeology, a dice game such as Pickomino, a bidding card game such as For Sale or a tile laying game such as Hey! That’s My Fish, these cheap small box games have two other great traits: portability and ease of play.

This type of game is often called a ‘filler’, as they’re ideal for either the start or end of a game night – or for generally filling time when you’d otherwise be waiting. But they can also go to a party, on holiday, or over to a friend’s for the weekend. And best of all they can be taught while they’re being played, don’t overstay their welcome (maybe 20 minutes on average per game) and stand up to multiple repeat plays in a session, as well as over the years.