Designer: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede
Artist: Johann Rüttinger
Publisher: Hans im Glück/Rio Grande Games
Players: 2-5
Playing time: 45 minutes
Age range: 8+


(Image courtesy of Firepigeon@BoardGameGeek)

When Carcassonne came out in 2000 it took the gaming world by storm, quickly followed by its Spiel des Jahres win in 2001. After the expected expansion (now known as Inns & Cathedrals), Wrede came out with a redesign set in the Stone Age: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers.

For those not familiar with Carcassonne, players draw one tile on their turn and lay it on the board, laying it next to any already placed tiles and matching all edges. They can then, if they like, place a meeple on a feature indicated on the tile, as long as there is no other meeple on another tile connected to that feature. If a feature is completed, any meeples placed on that feature will be removed and scored. Finally, after placing all tiles, any remaining meeples will be scored. The player with the high score wins.

In the original Carcassonne, the features are cities, roads, cloisters and farms. In Hunters and Gatherers, these have been changed to forests, rivers, meadows and river systems (the meadows and river systems act like farms; there’s no equivalent to the cloister).

If a tile is placed that completes a forest, the scoring is equivalent to the original: the player with the most meeples in that forest (i.e. controls that forest) gets 2 points per tile. However, if there is a gold nugget in that forest, the player who placed the tile gets to draw one more tile and play again. At the end of the game, uncompleted forests do not score.

If a tile is placed that completes a river, the scoring is similar to before: the player controlling the river gets 1 point per river tile — but this time also scores 1 point for each fish in any lakes at either end of the river. With the standard meeples, there is no score at the end of the game for uncompleted rivers; however, you can place huts on the river instead, which are explained below.

At the end of the game, there are two ways you can get points. First, any meeples that control their meadows score 2 points for any game animals in the meadow, but cancelling out one deer for every sabre tooth tiger the meadow contains. Second, you score 1 point for each fish in any river systems (connected sets of rivers and lakes) that you control with your huts.

The end result has a very different feel from standard Carcassonne. The scoring of the meadows and the river systems is much simpler than the farms in the original game, and the way you fight over them is different as well. You might try to sabotage someone’s meadow by placing tigers in it, or you might ignore their meadows and focus on river systems instead. And rather than trying to place meeples on partially built features just to get cheap points at the end of the game, you really try to complete those features, just to make sure you get any points at all. The end result is more of a back and forth scramble for points — perhaps a little more fiddly than the original but still fun.

The art on the tiles is done by the same artist as Carcassonne, and is quite lovely. Whereas when you complete a Carcassonne game you get a bucolic French countryside with little walled towns and roads connecting them, this gives you more of a wilderness feel, but attractive in its own way.

But when all is said and done, do you need this game and Carcassonne? In my opinion, no. Part of that might be that we are not as Carcassonne-crazy as we were back in 2002. We played our fair share of it, and don’t see any need for any other versions other than original plus some expansions, and maybe Carcassonne: The City. But if you do like Carcassonne and are looking for something slightly different, you really can’t go wrong with this (it’s particularly good for two players). So for my purposes I’d give it a Borrow, but in your case, feel free to upgrade to a Buy.

Verdict: Borrow

Designer: Jeffrey Neil Bellinger
Publisher: Playroom Entertainment
Players: 2-8
Playing time: 90 minutes
Age range: 10+


(Image courtesy of Howitzer_120mm@BoardGameGeek)

During That Board Gaming Thing, there was a flea market. I brought about 25 games, and I figured I could continue my reviews by looking at some of them, just to explain why I’m paring them from our collection.

The first of these is Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot. The name pretty much describes it all — you play bunnies in front of you on the table, arm them, and try to kill your opponents’ bunnies. As the game progresses you will collect carrots. At the end of the game, whoever still has a bunny out and has collected the eponymous Magic Carrot wins the game.

The one interesting wrinkle of the game is that you start the game by playing two cards face down. Then, on your turn, you reveal the first card, push the second card up to the first slot, draw a new card, and play a new card from your hand to the second slot. So you’re always pre-playing your cards a turn behind.

Killer Bunnies is certainly an amusing game, with the humorous bunnies and the ridiculous weapons. But humor is not enough to carry a game that pretty much boils down to collecting lottery tickets. You could spend the entire game eliminating your opponents’ bunnies, and in the end the person who was completely ineffective but just happened to collect one card that’s the Magic Carrot could win. It also, like other games of its ilk such as Munchkin, tends to drag on far longer than anyone really wants it to. As far as I’m concerned, if I never play it again, it’ll be too soon.

Verdict: Avoid

13
Oct

Board Game Review: Copycat

   Posted by: Jim   in Board games, Reviews

(Last of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: Friedemann Friese
Publisher: 2F-Spiele
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 95 minutes
Age range: 12+


(Image courtesy of trenttsd@BoardGameGeek)

It’s common among beginning designers to lift mechanics from their favorite games (guilty as charged). It’s less common to see experienced designers do this; more often they want to break new ground. Copycat is the exception to this. It proudly states its goals in its name: directly copy mechanics from some of the most popular board games and combine them to create a new game.

In theory, Copycat is a game about building political influence, though honestly while playing I couldn’t tell if you were supposed to be a businessman or a politician (more on that later). Everyone starts with the same deck of cards — some give you money, some give you influence, i.e., victory points. You also start with some meeples (shaped like little “V for victory” symbols) that act as workers. Your goal is to use your cards and your workers to build up enough influence and become the next president.

The first familiar mechanic comes from Dominion: each turn you draw a hand of cards from your deck, and throughout the game you’ll buy new cards to build up your deck (deck-building). The second familiar mechanic comes from Through the Ages: the cards you buy from are laid out in a line, which slides over at the end of the turn and filled in with new cards — cards become better and better (but also more and more expensive) as the game goes on. The third comes from Agricola: there is a certain set of fixed actions on the board you can activate with your meeples, and a set that’s laid out in a semi-random order via cards. A fourth comes from many a Wolfgang Kramer game: there is a score track that encircles the board and tracks influence.

There are some new elements to the game. First, you don’t build up your worker pool over time, a la Agricola or Stone Age. Instead, you have cards you can play or actions that you can place a worker on that allow you to add new workers just for this round. If you buy cards further along in the track, you may have to pick up some empty filler cards (you can see them in the image above as red cards with toilet paper on them) that just act to do nothing in your deck. You can get rid of those cards if you need to, though — there are some slightly different ways to remove cards from your deck, some of which will allow you to perform other actions.

However, for me, this game feels very generic. The theme did not grab me at all — like I said, it was hard to tell whether it was about politics or business. The mechanics are so familiar that I felt myself wishing I were playing one of those other games. I also didn’t feel like there was a lot of strategy: I came in second simply by buying a lot of cards that produce a lot of influence, and doing the same with the actions on the board. And finally, for a good part of the game I was regretting that this was the last game I’d be playing at That Board Gaming Thing. In the end, it feels like an interesting experiment that didn’t quite pan out.

Verdict: Avoid.

11
Oct

Review: Riff Raff

   Posted by: Jim   in Board games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: Christoph Cantzler
Publisher: Zoch Verlag
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 30 minutes
Age range: 8+


(Image courtesy of duchamp@BoardGameGeek)

It feels a bit like I’ve already reviewed Riff Raff, as like Animal Upon Animal, this is a dexterity game where you’re trying to get rid of all your objects by stacking them and hoping they don’t fall off. However, there are a few differences that make this game distinct, and possibly why it was on the Recommended list for the 2013 Spiel des Jahres.

Rather than stacking on the back of a crocodile, you are stacking objects on the deck and spars of a ship, set up so it can rock in all directions. Instead of rolling a die to determine how many objects you can place, each player has ten cards, numbered 1-10. At the beginning of each turn, all players pick a card and reveal it simultaneously. The highest number becomes the Captain and goes first, the next highest number goes second, and so on in descending order. Any ties are broken by the Captain (if there’s a tie for the highest number, the previous turn’s Captain breaks the tie).

The wrinkle is that the higher your number, the higher on the ship you must place your object, so the more likely it is to fall off. Any objects that do fall off you must take back into your pile. However, any objects that you catch before they hit the table are removed from the game.

Riff Raff is certainly a cute little game, and the ship and the cargo are very cool bits. However, it takes a bit too much time to set up and play for a filler, and at $50 it’s a little pricey for a kids game (or, for that matter, a filler). I consider this more of a novelty collectible, and nothing I’d be picking up any time soon.

Verdict: Borrow.

10
Oct

Review: Spyrium

   Posted by: Jim   in Board games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: William Attia
Publisher: Ystari
Players: 2-5
Playing time: 75 minutes
Age range: 12+


(Image courtesy of duchamp@BoardGameGeek)

The worker-placement game has become a staple of the Eurogame these days, starting with Caylus and morphing into such diverse games as Agricola, Stone Age and Lords of Waterdeep. In my mind, the mechanic is getting a little bit tired. The latest entry is
Spyrium, which takes the basic worker placement mechanic and puts a slightly new twist to it.

Spyrium is set in a steampunk universe, where a new energy source called Spyrium has been found. You use your mines and spare workers to mine Spyrium, and then can use the Spyrium and other workers in a workshop or factory to generate victory points. You can also get points by buying buildings, or from training workers in universities, or from fulfilling event cards.

The game is played in three phases made up of two rounds, the main difference between the phases being what cards are available. The cards are laid out in a 3×3 tableau, and dictate the new actions available for that round. Unlike other games where you place your workers on the cards, and you use it exclusively, you instead place your workers between two cards, indicating you want to use one card or the other. You may place multiple workers between the same two cards.

Halfway within the round, at a time of your choosing, you then switch over from placing workers between cards to activating the workers as well as generating resources from your tableau. Activating a worker can allow you to use the card it’s next to; the cost of the card depends on the number of workers around it, from all the players. If the card is a building you take it into your tableau. Alternatively, you can forgo the card and collect money, again dependent on the number of workers around it. In both cases, you remove your worker.

What each card does depends on its type. Mines, once placed in your tableau and activated with an additional worker, give Spyrium. Workshops, factories and laboratories allow you to exchange Spyrium for points. Residences give you money or points. Neighborhoods give you workers. Techniques improve your efficiency. Unlike the other cards, Characters remain in the 3×3 grid and allow conversions or bonuses.

So in general, the game goes as described above: you want to generate more and more Spyrium as the game goes on, collect more workers and more money so you can perform more actions and buy more cards, and in general improve the efficiency of your economic engine to get as many points as possible.

Spyrium does have some nice things in it. One mechanic that I believe is new for worker placement is when you place the workers between cards, rather than on them. This has a couple of effects. First it makes more popular cards more expensive, and may force some players to choose the card on the other side of their worker. Alternatively you can use this to your advantage and cash in on the money, rather than buying the card. The other effect it has is if someone’s worker is between two cards that are bought by two other players, that worker can be left high and dry. So placement and timing when you buy cards is very important.

The other new mechanic I thought was interesting is that rather than having a fixed time when you switch from placement to activation (e.g. usually when everyone has placed all their workers), each player decides for themselves when to make that switch. Any additional workers are then used to drive their mines and factories on their personal tableau.

The one downside that I ran into is that the decisions you make early dictate the rest of the game. In my case, I was unfamiliar with the rules and got stuck with a low-performing engine. By the time I figured out what was going on, I couldn’t recover. I’m not sure that’s a terrible knock against it, but it does make it more difficult to bring new players in.

In the end, I’m on the fence about Spyrium. I think it has some nice new ideas, and lots of interesting choices, but I’m still not sure that it overcomes my weariness with new worker placement games. Perhaps I’d change my mind if I played it more, but until then…

Final Verdict: Borrow

9
Oct

Recent Vintage Review: Seasons

   Posted by: Jim   in Board games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: Régis Bonnessée
Publisher: Asmodee
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 60 minutes
Age range: 12+


(Image courtesy of duchamp@BoardGameGeek)

One of the more recent trends is to combine game mechanics together from a variety of games. Seasons is an example of such, combining role selection and resource management with a simple Magic the Gathering-like card game. As a further wrinkle, the role selection is done via dice rolls, and you build your initial deck via card drafting. While described this way it sounds like a mish-mash of mechanics, it combines quite well to create a pleasant and fresh-feeling game.

The theme is that you are participating in a three-year contest to see who is the best wizard in the kingdom of Xidit. As you pass through the seasons of each year, certain energy resources (earth, air, water, fire) will become more available, and others less available. These can be spent to play cards, or converted into crystals (the rarer the energy type during that season, the better the conversion rate), which can be used as points, or can also be used to bring cards into the game or perform other effects.

The game begins by drafting your starting deck. Nine cards are dealt out to each player. Everyone simultaneously chooses one card from their set and passes the remainder to the player on their left. This continues until each player has chosen nine cards. This is further divided into three subdecks of cards, each of which becomes available during the three “years” of the game.

Each round begins with the start player rolling the seasons dice (which are huge, colorful and gorgeous) — there is a different set of dice for each season, which control which type of energy is available. Each face of the die has a different set of actions: you can collect a particular kind of energy, transmute energy into crystals, score points directly, increase the number of cards you can have in your tableau or draw new cards. So each player in turn chooses one die which will give the actions they can perform on their turn. There will always be one die remaining — that will control how far the seasons marker progresses at the end of the round.

After that, each player in turn takes the actions available on their die. After that they can play any cards they like in front of them, as long as they can pay the cost in energy or crystals and it doesn’t exceed their current tableau size. Once all players are done, the season marker moves forward by the amount indicated by the remaining die. If the season marker passes the year marker, you can take the next deck you set aside and add it to your hand. The game ends after the marker crosses into the fourth year.

The end goal is to become the player with the largest number of crystals at the end of the game. There are a variety of ways to achieve this — you can try to transmute more energy than other players. Or you can play cards that allow you to steal energy from other players when they perform certain actions. Or you can play cards with a high point value. Usually you’re going to go for a variety of these, though in the game I played at That Board Gaming Thing the woman who won was behind in crystal count for most of the game, and shot ahead at the end by playing a large number of high value cards.

I have mixed feeling about Seasons. It’s suggested that for your first play that you use a subset of the cards and honestly when we did that I found that game rather dull. But when I played at That Board Gaming Thing, we used nearly the full set and it was far far better. That said, it still has the problem that players who are familiar with the cards will have a huge advantage over players who don’t (common to many games that can chain card effects). If you don’t set up your initial three hands well, you can find yourself stuck and trying desperately to catch up in years two or three — which is not fun. So I can see why it’s suggested you start with a simpler set of cards for new players, but again, I found that dull. Still, I’d certainly play it again, and recommend it for those who like games such as Dominion or Magic, and are looking for something in the same vein but with a different twist.

Final Verdict: Borrow

8
Oct

Recent Vintage Review: Pluckin’ Pairs

   Posted by: Jim   in Card games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: Stephen Glenn
Publisher: R & R Games
Players: 3-8
Playing time: 50 minutes
Age Range: 12+

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(Not a picture of gameplay)

Pluckin’ Pairs is a very simple party game. You start by laying out eleven cards with images on them. Then every player has 90 seconds to write down five pairs from the images, with the last card as their outcast. You can use any criteria you like: it could be that the paired images start with the same letter, or have similar colors, or be related in subject. However, as you’ll see, you don’t want them to be too obscure…

Then, to score, you go around and see how many other people have the same pairs as you do — in which case you and they get as many points as the number of players that picked those pairs. The exceptions are if every player picked those pairs, or only you did; in both cases you get nothing. You can also score points for your matching outcast images. You can keep playing for several rounds and in the end highest score wins.

This is a game best in a large group, similar to Apples to Apples. I think if you don’t have such a game, you couldn’t go wrong with this one — it’s fun and it’d probably be even better with a group of people who know each other well. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of party games, and don’t see the need for more than what we already have, but you are a fan or don’t have a lot of games like this one, you can’t go wrong with this (but get Apples to Apples first).

Final verdict: Borrow.

7
Oct

Recent Vintage Review: King of Tokyo

   Posted by: Jim   in Board games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: Richard Garfield
Publisher: IELLO (among others)
Players: 2-6
Playing time: 30 minutes


(Image courtesy of trenttsd@BoardGameGeek)

It is many a person’s dream to dress up in a rubber suit, and fight a massive battle with their friends over a scale model of Tokyo. Or perhaps that’s only my dream. In any case, King of Tokyo allows you to do just that, in a less stifling fashion.

Each player takes on the role of a daikaiju (giant strange creature, or as the rules say: Monster). Your goal is to keep your Monster in Tokyo (or Tokyo Bay, if playing with 5-6 players) as long as possible and rack up victory points — the first player to reach 20 points wins the game. Of course, everyone else will be attacking you and trying to drive you out of Tokyo so they can take your place. If you stay in too long and the other players manage to whittle your life points down to nothing, you are eliminated (no friendly Euro rules here!).

The turn sequence is simple. If you’re in Tokyo, collect 2 victory points. You then roll the dice and resolve the results. If you’re outside Tokyo and end up attacking the player there, and they choose to retreat (alternatively, if there’s no one there already), then you will take their place and receive a victory point. Finally you may buy cards if you choose to.

You get six dice to roll, and may re-roll any or all of them twice to reach your desired result. Three sides are numbered 1, 2, and 3 respectively. These will give you additional victory points equal to the value on the die if you roll a triplet, and one additional victory point for any matching die beyond that. For example, if you were to roll four 2s, you would get 2 victory points for the triplet, plus 1 additional point for the extra 2, for a total of 3 victory points.

For the remaining sides, one allows you to collect an energy cube, which you can save up turn to turn to buy cards. One side has a heart on it, which can restore one point of health if you’re not currently in Tokyo. And the remaining side has a claw on it, which will do damage to whoever is where you’re not: i.e. if you’re outside of Tokyo you can attack a daikaiju inside of Tokyo or Tokyo Bay, and vice versa.

The final and optional step is to buy cards, which can give you points, give you health, give you special abilities (such as a death ray, or fire breath), or combinations of the three. Three cards are revealed face up to start, and as players buy them they are replaced. They come in a variety of costs — the more powerful the card, the more it is. So you have a choice of buying the cheap card that can help you now, or saving up for the more powerful card — assuming you last that long.

I had heard about King of Tokyo when it first came out, and I have to admit I was a little skeptical. But the game quickly won me over. As I said on Twitter recently, there’s nothing like the visceral feel of rolling a big pile of dice. And that’s combined with three different push-your-luck mechanics — first whether to continue to roll and improve your results; second, if you’re Tokyo, whether to try to remain there and capture the 2 points on your next turn, or escape while you can before you get eliminated; third, whether to jump on the cheap card or wait for the energy to buy the better one. All of this combines to make a fun and tense little game. We’ll definitely be picking this one up soon.

Final verdict: Buy.

6
Oct

Recent Vintage Review: Love Letter

   Posted by: Jim   in Card games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)

Designer: Seiji Kanai
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (among others)
Players: 2-4
Playing time: 20 minutes


(Image courtesy of thatmadgirl@BoardGameGeek)

So I’ve been hearing about Love Letter for a while — that it’s a simple, elegant game that has only 16 cards, plays quickly, and provides a rich gameplay experience. So when I saw it on the shelves at That Board Gaming Thing, I thought, “Well, I have to play this.” So my wife Mur and I sat down and gave it a try.

In Love Letter, you are trying to send a love letter to the Princess of the Kingdom. However, you can’t reach her directly, so you must rely on intermediaries, who will both try to deliver your letter, and stop others who are trying to attract her affections.

The cards represent your intermediaries. They have a ranking from 1 to 8, and if played have very basic results. For example, if you play the 8-ranked Princess (presumably a different Princess than the one you’re wooing), you’re out of the round immediately (not smart, but you might be forced into it). If you play the 3-ranked Baron (or Knight in the Japanese version), you compare hands (just one card, remember) with another player — the one with the lower rank is out of the round. If you play the 1-ranked Guard (or Soldier in the Japanese version), you name another card type and a player — if they have that card, they’re out of the round. And so on. There are eight card types and two of each type in the deck.

Gameplay is very simple, and consists of a series of rounds of play. At the start of the round, the deck is shuffled, the top card discarded (the top four for 2 player games), and one card dealt out to all the players. Then, on your turn, you draw one card and play one card in front of you. The round continues until all but one player is eliminated or the deck runs out. In the latter case, the remaining players compare hands and the player with the highest ranked hand wins a point for that round. Then you reshuffle and start the next round. The game continues until one player has won enough rounds to win (7 for two players, 5 for three players, 4 for four players).

So what did we think? In short, we weren’t very impressed. On the first two rounds, one of us ended up being forced to play a card that knocked us out of the round immediately. On the next two, there was a little more back and forth, but we really weren’t seeing a lot of emergent gameplay. In the end, we stopped before the game was over. That said, we could see that maybe with more players it would work better, and after talking to someone about it later, he said that was true: it’s best with 4 players. So I don’t feel like we really gave the game a chance in its best configuration, and when I get a chance to play with 3 or 4 players I’ll come back and revise this review. Still, I can’t recommend it for 2 players — it just wasn’t fun.

Tentative verdict: Avoid (2 players), To Be Revisited (3-4 players)

5
Oct

Recent Vintage Review: Mord im Arosa

   Posted by: Jim   in Board games, Reviews

(Part of a series, reviewing games I played in September 2013 at That Board Gaming Thing.)


(image courtesy of duchamp@BoardGameGeek)

Most mystery games use cards as the clues, and you solve the mystery by elimination. The classic example is Clue (or Cluedo) — a set of cards are removed, and by tracking down all or most of the remaining cards, you can deduce the suspect, room and weapon. Games like Sleuth and Mystery of the Abbey are just variations on this.

Mord im Arosa is different. In this case, the clues are cubes in a tower with eight levels, representing different floors of the Hotel Arosa. As you drop cubes in the top, they will fall through the tower until they stop on one of the levels (and possibly knocking other cubes off). By guessing correctly where the cubes have fallen (ostensibly by listening), you collect clues, draw attention away from yourself and eventually determine which one of the players is the murderer.

To start the game, you drop in the two victim cubes, then each player in turn drops in two cubes of their color. Then there are two stages to the game: finding the victims and then determining the suspects.

To find the victims, you guess which floor those cubes might be on and lift the upper sections of the tower to reveal that floor. If you’re right, you place the victim cube on that floor on the investigation board, and a new cube of that color for each cube found near the victim (except yours). If you’re wrong, you must throw an extra cube of your own into the tower. In either case you return all the cubes found (except the victims) into the tower.

To determine the suspects, you accuse one or more players and then reveal a floor to see if their cubes are there. If they are there, then you add a new cube of that color to the investigation board for that floor for each cube found. If they are not, then you must throw in a cube of your own. In either case, you again close the tower and throw in all the cubes found back into the tower.

You can also try to cover your tracks — name a floor, and if your cubes are on there you may remove them before throwing the remainder back in the tower. But if they’re not… again you must add an extra cube of your color in addition to those found, back into the tower.

The game ends when one player runs out of cubes, or has ten cubes on the investigation board. Then players are scored depending on how close their cubes are, by floor, to the two victims on the investigation board. The player with the lower score is the winner, and the player with the highest is the murderer…

I thought the use of a cube tower for a mystery game was very interesting — the only other use of that mechanic I’ve seen is for games like Wallenstein and Shogun (probably because Queen Games has a patent on that particular cube tower). However, beyond that this one didn’t really light me on fire. I think the main issue I had is that the cube placement is random. So while you can try to cover your tracks and remove your cubes, if your cubes are placed on the investigation sheet near the victims, you’re stuck with that high score. You could try to guess the floors near the victims just to incriminate other people, but there’s no guarantee any cubes will be there. So while I certainly enjoyed playing it, I can’t see myself picking this one up.

Final verdict: Borrow