Airlines Europe

Last night for gaming we had five people, so we decided to give Airlines Europe a try. I felt it was a pretty playable family game, but I don’t have much desire to play it again.

Airlines Europe is a reimplementation of Union Pacific. Your goal is to acquire the most stock in the airlines that are the most profitable (or make the airlines you have the most stock in more profitable) so that you get the biggest payout when the scoring card comes up. Each turn, you can take one of four actions:

  • Play one or two airplanes (each plane claims a route between two cities), which costs $3 or more for each plane; the stock price for the company owning the plane goes up by the cost of playing it. You then draw a stock certificate, either one of five face-up choices or a random one from the deck.
  • Trade in stock for Air Abacus at a rate of 1 for 1 or 3 for 2; Air Abacus shares work like those of any other company, but score based on the phase of the game rather than by the stock price.
  • Play shares of stock from your hand; you can play any two shares, or any number of shares from the same company. Having stock in play is how you score points. For each stock you put into play, you take $2 from the bank.
  • Take $8 from the bank.
  • The game is relatively simple to follow, and ran about 75 minutes with 5 people (including rules). Given the different mechanics (set collection, stock holding), I think it would be a good introduction to more complex games for people who normally play things along the lines of Ticket to Ride. However, it doesn’t have a lot of deep decisions – you play planes where they’ll boost the companies you have stock in, or plan to have stock in soon, and take stock for the companies that are doing well) and I don’t see myself ever requesting it.

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Ora et Labora

I’ve been a fan of Uwe Rosenburg’s big box games since I first played a pasted up copy of Agricola before it was available in English. Le Havre I went to the trouble of having shipped from Europe a while before it was available in the US. After playing At the Gates of Loyang a few times, however, I didn’t feel a big need to play it again, and the Agricola expansions started getting overwhelming, so I didn’t have any particular plans to pick up last year’s offering, Ora & Labora. After one play, however, and knowing that available supplies were selling out quickly, I went right out and bought it. So what’s so special about Ora et Labora?

Ora et Labora box imageIn spite of being an Uwe Rosenburg game, Ora et Labora is not really about farming. Rather, the game is about careful building placement and usage. I tend to call it a cross between Agricola and Le Havre, with many of the best elements of each.

Each player starts with a 5×2 player board on which to construct his buildings (three buildings are already constructed, and trees/peat cover several spaces), as well as three clergymen (workers): a prior and two lay brothers. Each turn, you can play one of your workers, build a building, cut down trees or fell peat, or pay someone else to play one of his workers (which is one of the few ways to use someone else’s buildings). As a free action, you can also turn grain into straw or (once per turn) buy an additional landscape to add to your board.

While most buildings are worth points, as are some goods, most of your points generally come from the settlement buildings. Five times per game, there is a settlement phase during which these special buildings (which have a cost in food and energy, rather than goods) can be played; as they will score for both themselves and the buildings around them, proper placement tends to be extremely important. While normally each person will play five of these, there is a building that lets you play more of them.

After playing this half a dozen times, I put it and Agricola as Uwe’s best games. It kind of “fired” Le Havre for me, because I feel that it takes the mechanics of Le Havre and does them better. This is also a deterministic game – only the start player is random – but there’s enough variety in the buildings (as well as two versions – France and Ireland – which have different buildings) that it hasn’t started feeling repetitive yet, and I expect we’ll see expansions at some point (so far there’s one promo card, available in the Z-Man Essen Pack from boardgamegeek). I’ve taught this game several times and haven’t seen anyone who was willing to play it not like it, so if it sounds like it might be your kind of game, it’s probably worth buying.

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Navegador: A Rondel game

2010 seemed like a slow year for games; aside from Dominant Species, there didn’t seem like much to get excited about. However, there are a few fun little games that slipped under my radar; Navegador, a rondel game from PD-Verlag, is definitely one of them. The game was a 2011 Golden Geek nominee for best strategy board game and an International Gamers Awards nominee for multiplayer strategy games.

Navegador seems like a fairly straightforward engine game – get more of this to get more of that so you can buy more of the first thing – but while you do need to focus on one set of actions and build them up, you can’t really afford to ignore anything. Hiring workers lets you buy buildings, which make it cheaper to hire more workers and build ships or help you make money when you go to the market. Ships let you explore (which gets you money and points) and colonize (which lets you get more money at the market). Privileges cost you workers, but get you money and can score a ton of points at the end of the game. Aside from the usual rondel action (move your pawn around the track a variable number of spaces – in this case, up to 3 spaces plus sacrifice ships to move further), there’s also a free ship movement action that starts with the last player and moves counterclockwise around the table as it gets used.

The trick is to specialize on something that your opponents are not. If you and an opponent are both collecting gold colonies, for example, you’ll be driving the market value down and won’t get much when you take the market action. On the other hand, if both (or several – the game takes 2-5 players) of your opponents are doing gold, buying gold factories and producing it becomes a very attractive choice; you’re helping both opponents, but they split the benefit of your factories while you get the benefit from both of their colonies.

One of the nice things about this game is that there’s no randomness aside from the colony placement, so it’s fairly easy to plan ahead IF you can predict what your opponents are going to do; this helps avoid downtime. The other side of that is that your move will often depend on what your opponents do, since the value of an action to you can change wildly (in either direction) depending on who takes it before you.

If you just play by intuition (I do!) rather than adding up points, it can be difficult to tell who’s winning; in my last game, for example, I had a virtual monopoly on the more expensive buildings for a while, but one of my opponents had a ton of the cheaper buildings and was cleaning up in the market. We had no idea who was ahead until we tallied up the score at the end (he thought I was, I thought he was, and alas, I was right).

I wouldn’t call this a great game (and I don’t own it) but it’s worth playing.

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Games for Christmas: Buying for Nongamers

One of the great things about board games is playing them with family, but it can be a challenge to find games that everyone (gamers and non-gamers) will enjoy. To many people, shopping for board games means getting a themed version of Monopoly, while many gamer’s games will seem intimidating to the average person. The following recommendations should be fun for gamers and non-gamers alike; most of the games have reviews on this website. (Click the links to see the games on Amazon, but you can find most of these at your local game store)

Dexterity Games

Dexterity games tend to have simple rules and be easy for everyone to play, so they’re ideal when people with widely differing ages and experiences will be playing. One of the best ones is Crokinole, in which players attempt to hit pieces so that they go into the center hole of the board, while knocking off their opponents’ pieces. The game is best with two teams of four and is the most expensive suggestion on this list, with boards often going for $200 and up.

A somewhat cheaper option is Pitchcar, in which each player has a small car disk that they’re trying to flick around the track (hopefully without going off!) Part of the fun in this case is constructing the track (you can put together multiple sets and expansion packs to make the track as long and complicated as you want), which may increase the appeal to kids.

My personal favorite is Loopin’ Louie, which (as you might guess from the name) is a rather silly game in which a mechanical plane moves around the board and you hit a paddle to send Louie away from your chickens and towards your opponents’ chickens. Although this was marketed as a kids’ game, adults seem to enjoy it just as much, and there are even regular tournaments. This is perhaps the easiest game on this list for adults and children to compete in on an equal basis.

Cooperative Games

In cooperative games, rather than being one player or team against another, everyone works together to defeat (or lose to) the game. Aside from eliminating the problems with one person being better at a game than the others, it can turn the gameplay into more of a social experience (and lessons the sting of defeat!) There are also semi-cooperative games, in which one or more players (often referred to as the traitor role) are (sometimes secretly) opposing the others.

Probably the best coop so far in Pandemic, in which players race to find cures for four diseases which will otherwise wipe out the world. The base game takes 2-4 players, while adding in the expansion allows you to play up to five, make the game more difficult, and even let one person take on the role of a bioterrorist, spreading disease for the others to stop. You can set the level of difficulty for each game to ensure that it gives the right amount of challenge, and it’s short enough (half an hour) to easily play several games in a row – which is good, because people often insist on it!

Another popular game, Battlestar Galactica is considerably more complex (and longer!); this is not one you’ll want to try with kids who have a low attention span (or adults who don’t appreciate backstabbing). Based on the 2004 TV show of the same name, the game is an exercise in paranoia. Most players are human, attempting to reach their new home after the Cylons (humanoid robots) attack, but a few are secretly Cylons themselves (and might not even know it). If the fleet runs out of food, population, fuel, or morale, the humans lose; if they make it to Kobol, they win. If they work together effectively, they’ll make it…but much effort will be devoted to figuring out who is secretly a Cylon and plotting the destruction of humanity!
No knowledge of the show is required to play the game, but the gameplay really does match the theme.

Card Games

Almost everybody has memories of playing card games with their family, whether it be hearts, spades, go fish or old maid. Modern card games have the same advantage of being easy to transport and (usually) fairly inexpensive. One of my favorite games is called Tichu; it’s a ladder game for four players (two teams of two). A ladder game is similar to a trick-taking game (like hearts) but players put down hands of cards (such as three of a kind) as well as singles, and may pass. While Tichu comes with rules for a three-player variant (Trichu), it’s really a four-player game; there’s a newer game called Haggis which plays similarly but requires exactly three players.

Looking to play with just one other person? Lost Cities is a fun two-player card game in which players compete to create the most valuable expeditions. You can start as many expeditions as you want (up to 5 – one of each color) but be careful…it costs money to start each one, and doing too many means you may not have time to finish and could end up losing points..

Cartagena is another one of my favorites; like Lost Cities, it’s not strictly a card game due to the inclusion of a small board (in this case, a modular board which goes together thousands of different ways to make each game different) but is card-driven. It’s largely a set collection game, where you’re attempting to get all of your pirates off the prison island and onto the lifeboat before everyone else; once someone sets all six pirates aboard, it will sail away. The cards depict stereotypically piratey object – the jolly roger, a bottle of rum, a captain’s hat, etc – and playing one lets you pick up any of your pirates and move him to the next space with that symbol that isn’t currently occupied (or onto the board if there are no such spaces). It’s a simple little strategy game that takes 2-5 people and plays quickly. The game is also reimplemented as Cartagena II, with the escaped pirates attempting to make it to the Pirate’s Nest.

Mass-Market Games

Some games are popular enough to have made it into big-box stores like Target and Toys ‘R Us, while still appealing to gamers. Ticket to Ride (and its umpteen variations) is a good example; it’s easy to find and most people will enjoy it. Hey, That’s My Fish! is an inexpensive strategy game that’s simple enough for kids and deep enough for adults (and also comes in a deluxe version if you prefer to grab your fish using fancier penguins); the rules can be explained in less than a minute. Set is great for large groups, because it takes any number of players and doesn’t suffer from people joining and leaving over the course of the game; it challenges people to find sets of three cards where each attribute (shape, number, color, filling) is either the same or different on all three cards.

This list barely scratches the surface of what’s out there, but these are all great games that both dedicated gamers and people who normally think “board game” means “Life, Monopoly, or Battleship” can enjoy. Why not pick up a few as Christmas gifts?

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Interesting Games on Kickstarter

The hot game these days seem to be Eminent Domain, which was funded on Kickstarter in November 2010; since then, it seems as if designers are racing to fund their latest creations the same way. The way Kickstarter works is that people post projects they want to do, and how much money they need to do it; anyone with an Amazon account can then pledge any amount of money towards the project. If enough pledges come in by the deadline to fund the project, everyone gets charged and the person posting the project gets the money (minus Kickstarter and Amazon fees, of course). Backers get different ‘prizes’ for contributing different amounts; for board games, this will generally be an early copy of the game, possibly at a discount or with an exclusive bonus.

The following is not intended to be a comprehensive listing of all the board games available to kickstart; it’s just the ones that I’ve either funded or found interesting.

Kings of Air and Steam
By Michael Mindes
Minimum contribution to get the game: $45

Kings of Air and Steam is a cyberpunk-themed train game (From glancing at the rules, I would describe it as a cross between 18XX and Roborally) put out by Tasty Minstrel Games, the same publisher who did Eminent Domain. The game design has already been completed and the game will be published; the Kickstarter project is actually to fund improvements, such as additional characters and molded plastic airships.

Backers get the game a month in advance of the release, and there’s talk about possibly adding some type of exclusive components. The discount off one copy isn’t much ($45 vs $50 retail) but apparently the company has contracts prohibiting the game from being sold at a discount before June 2013, so you’re not paying more than someone who waits. The Kickstarter copies are expected to be in the mail by July 2012.

This is listed as having a 1-2 hour playtime, and takes 2-6 players.

Current status: Will fund on Dec 14

Zong Shi – Earn the right to be named Grand Master Craftsman
By Keith Blume II
Minimum contribution to get the game: $50

Another offering from Gryphon Games, the publisher of Pastiche and The Road to Canterbury, this is a worker placement/set collection game for 3-5 players. My first impression is that this reminds me of At The Gates Of Loyang. Each player gets two workers: a master and an apprentice; a master can fulfill any role, while the apprentice cannot create works and cannot do other things as well as the master. Your goal is to create the greatest works in order to be recognized as the Grand Master craftsman. Of course, before you can begin work on your designs, you’ll need to barter for materials at the marketplace..

Anyone who purchases at least one copy will also get a coupon for $20 off a $50 purchase at the Gryphon Games website, plus free shipping. You can also get a copy of the game by pledging $75 in Keith’s Pizza Theory Kickstarter project, which ends Dec 30.

Current status: will fund on Dec 9

Mutant Meeples
By Bezier Games
Minimum contribution to get the game: $45

You’ve probably played Rocochet Robots: you need to get one of the robots to a particular spot in the factory, but since the robots have no brakes, once one starts moving it doesn’t stop until it runs into something. How do you get the robot where it needs to go in the fewest number of moves?

Mutant Meeples is an update to that: you need to get a superpowered mutant to a particular point in the city, and the meeples don’t really know how to control their super speed, so they can’t stop until they run into something. This time, however, it doesn’t matter which meeple makes it to the spot, and each one has a superpower to help them get around. Once you’ve made it to an emergency using a particular meeple, however, you’re not allowed to move that meeple again for rest of the game..

I have to say that this game looks really intriguing; it’s basically a more complex version of Ricochet Robots. I’m not sure I approve of how the funding is being done, however; the game is already finished and Bezier certainly has the resources to put it out, so this seems to be mostly a way of getting pre-orders (as well as bringing in extra money by selling off street names). At $45 for the base game or $60 with the expansion, you’re not really saving anything off the likely cost of the game, and it doesn’t appear there’s any bonus for being part of the project, aside from having your name in the credits.

Still…mutant meeples..

Current status (as of 11/8): $6,889 pledged of $10,000 goal, 25 days to go

Eaten by Zombies
By Seth Hiatt
Minimum contribution to get the game: $25

Seems like Dominion-inspired games are coming out of the woodwork these days, doesn’t it? Eaten by Zombies is really more of a desk destruction game, though…while you may work at carefully building up your deck, the first time you fail to kill off the zombies you’re facing, you start losing cards! Whoever survives the longest wins, although if you die you can still potentially win the game by driving your friends insane..

Supporters get the game, a promo card, and a special die for keeping track of how many zombies are coming out each turn.

Current Status: successfully funded on September 19 for $47,874

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I Hope You Get Eaten By Zombies!

Although I have a decent-sized game collection, one thing that’s been sorely lacking is zombie games: with Halloween coming up, my only real options were Last Night on Earth and Age of Steam: the Zombie Apocalypse. Having recently been introduced to Kickstarter, however, I was happy to get in on a new offering from Mayday Games: Eaten by Zombies. This is another Dominion-inspired deckbuilding game with, obviously, a zombie twist. It also has a great start player condition: the starting player is the one with the least convincing zombie moan!

What’s in the Box

First off, the components. With one exception, the game is of good quality; it consists of a cardboard ammo box containing a number of cards, with enough room left over to add a couple of expansions. The cards feel like decent plastic; I’ve only played once so far, so I can’t comment on how well they’ll hold up to repeated plays, but they don’t feel flimsy. My only real complaint quality-wise is with the We Have the Bomb promo, which very obviously received no proofreading and contains multiple typos. Additionally, while the rules were proofread well, they would be better if they showed the cards; it’s very difficult to graph the game from reading the rules alone, without the cards to look at. (There’s also no card list, but you can find a summary on the bottom of the box, along with the playing time (20-40 minutes listed, though that’s likely an overestimate) and a warning that the game is not appropriate for small children).

Playing the Game

The actual gameplay is pretty simple. You start with a deck of a dozen cards, consisting of heavy sticks (which help you attack zombies), Hides (which help you run away from zombies), and Sandwiches (which both help you run away and let you draw a card). At the start of each turn, a zombie gets flipped over and you choose whether to fight it or flee from it; big zombies are hard to kill but easy to run away from, and vice versa for small ones. Once you’ve made that decision, you play as many cards of the appropriate type (fight/draw or flee/draw) as you like. If you successfully kill all the zombies or run away, you get to scavenge for swag: however much fight or flee you played, you can buy any number of cards that cost up to that much altogether and put them into your hand. The cards work similarly to Dominion: you deal out two cards per player (three per player if you don’t use the three starting swag cards) and are available to all players to be purchased.

But wait…did I say ALL of the zombies? That’s right…when you kill a zombie, it goes to your discard pile, and once you’ve drawn one you can (usually) only get it out of your hand by playing it on somebody else. Additionally, every time you go completely through the zombie deck, the number of zombies coming out each turn increases by one. Finally, if you’re able to successfully flee the zombies, all but one of them stick around to go after the next player. Eventually, we’re all going to die!

If you fail to fight or flee successfully, you lose cards equal to the total flee value of the remaining zombies (even if you flee successfully, you still lose half this value). The game has a healthy dose of luck in it; in my first game, for example, I had a handful of flee cards, but the smallest zombie game up and one of my opponents played another one, so while I would have only needed 2 attack to kill both of them, I needed 8 flee to get away, and only had 7…causing me to lose half my deck in one turn!

Winning and Losing

At the end of your turn, you draw back to six cards in hand. If at any time you need to draw and there are no cards remaining in your desk or discard, you immediately lose the game and become a zombie. The last player alive when everyone else becomes a zombie wins the game: you’re going to be dead soon, but at least you outlived your friends!

There are, however, two other ways to win. Players can work together to defeat the zombies: in the unlikely case that the zombie deck and discard pile are empty, all remaining survivors are safe (although only the survivor with the most cards is the ultimate winner). Zombie players can still win as well, through directing the zombie horde; killing zombies takes a toll on the mind (represented by the zombies that go into your discard pile) and if you ever have a hand full of zombies at the beginning of your turn, you go insane and the zombie players win!

If this game was longer, I wouldn’t care for it; it’s entirely too random. For a 20 minute filler, however, it’s not bad, and the gameplay fits the theme.

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Australia: A Ranger Placement Game

“All I know is that, of the ten deadliest anything in the world, seven of them are in Australia.”

This was my contribution towards determining the start player for Australia, a board game involving troops of rangers who have been assigned to carry out various conservation and industrialization projects in 1920s Australia.  This is a fairly simple worker placement game for two to five players, with the unique rule that whoever thinks he knows most about Australia starts the game.

Each player gets a little aeroplane, some number of ranges (between 10 and 20, depending on how many people are playing), and draws two cards. The cards are in four piles, face up; each one has a color and shows between one and four rangers, plus between zero and three points, such that the number of coins plus rangers adds up to four.

Each turn, you get two actions, which can be the same. Action one is moving your aeroplane; when you first put it into play it can go anywhere on the board, but after that you have to move it to an adjacent region. You need a plane present to play or pick up rangers, which is pretty much the entire game.

Every area of the map has two counters on it: one, the industrialization counter, is face down, and has a number on it. The other, conservation, is the same in every tile. When a plane moves into the region for the first time, the industrialization counter is flipped face up. Scoring is simple: each region has circles around the edges (which it shares with neighboring regions) where rangers can be placed. If every circle in a region contains at least one ranger, then the conservation token is scored. If the total number of rangers in the region is exactly equal to the number on the conservation token, then it is scored. However, there’s a nice little twist to keep people paying attention: scoring is optional. If you don’t notice that you can score a region on your turn, your opponent might go and score it on his!

Scoring is again pretty simple: whoever scores the region gets 3 points, and then every ranger in the region scores a point for its owner; rangers on boats (that is, ocean circles) score double. In the full game, the tiles are also used to determine when to score the windmill, which adds a bit more strategy.

So how do you place workers? The second possible action is playing a card, which must be the same color as the region; you can also pay 3 coins to treat another card as if it was the correct color. You then take any money shown on the card, and play up to as many rangers as it shows (provided you have enough left in your supply). Finally, you draw another card to replace the one you just played; up until the end of the game, you’ll always have two cards in hand. Run out of rangers? For another action, you can pick up up to four rangers from the region your plane is in and return them to your supply.

What makes the game tricky is that, while you want to have as many rangers as possible present in each scoring, your total number is pretty limited so you can run out quickly.  If you don’t have time to go over and pick up some of the rangers you previously deployed, you can spend $4 to parachute one of your rangers to another location. Of course, every coin is worth a point at the end of the game..

The game ends when the draw decks have all been exhausted and one player is out of cards; since cards can also be discarded for two points, this tends to happen pretty quickly once the decks run out. The windmill is scored again, and whoever has the most points wins the game.

This is the type of game that I like to play occasionally (which has generally meant once every couple of years), but wouldn’t want to play a lot. It’s easy to teach and plays quickly, but there’s not really a whole lot of strategy there; you’re basically looking for a chance to score multiple tiles in one action, for as many points as possible. It can’t compare to a strong worker placement game like Caylus, but it’s a reasonably good introduction to the concept.

My advice? Try before you buy.

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The Best Family Board Games

One nice thing about board games is that they’re something the whole family can enjoy; I still have good memories of playing Hearts with my parents whenever we went on vacation. It can be challenging to find games that will keep the entire family interested, however, especially when young children are involved. Here are my picks for the games that will give the kids a fair shot at beating mom and dad, without being a total luck fest (no Candyland here!) Why not make one or two of them part of your next family game night?

Apples to Apples

Ok, this is a party game,  and it does involve a bit of reading, but once the kids are old enough to read the cards themselves there’s no reason why they can’t participate fully. The premise of the game is simple: one person puts down a green apple card, which is an adjective (funny, disgusting, etc) and everybody else plays a red apple card (a noun) face down.  The person who played the green apple shuffles the red apple cards, reads them (to much laughter), and chooses the best one; the player who submitted it gets a point

While some cards in the basic Apples to Apples game may be a bit obscure for kids – heck, I’m in my thirties and I don’t know who a number of the people on the cards are -you can get also get Apples to Apples Junior, which contains more kid-friendly words such as Unicorns and Burned Toast. Apples to Apples Junior is recommended for ages nine and up, and when one of the kids is judging, the other kids might have an easier time of it than Mom and Dad..

Why it’s one of the best family games: easy for everyone to play, difficult to take seriously, and entertaining even for adults

Loopin’ Louie

This one might be a bit hard to find, unfortunately; I ended up having my copy shipped from Europe. It’s totally worth it, however; this is the one game I’ve found that absolutely enthralls both kids and adults. It’s a bit of a dexterity game, but one in which the kids might very well win in spite of the adults’ best efforts!

Each player gets three chickens, and your goal is to keep Louie from scaring them off. Louie flies around in a red biplane (yes, this is a battery-operated game) and will knock over your chickens when he comes near your side of the board; however, you have a lever you can hit to send him flying off in another direction, hopefully into someone else’s chickens. The last player with a chicken remaining wins the game. You can also play in tournament mode, where the winner of each game starts with one fewer chicken in the next game, and must take three games to win.

Loopin’ Louie sounds really simple, and it is, but it’s surprisingly addicting. The first time I played, I kind of got dragged into it because someone was leaving and they wanted a fourth (although the game takes 2-4); I ended up playing 18 games of it that night, largely against the kids, and ordered my own copy shortly thereafter.  I’ve since brought it out at several adults-only gatherings with similar results: even the people who weren’t playing felt compelled to watch and laugh. Highly recommended, if you can find a copy!

Why it’s a great family game: very addicting for kids and adults alike, while being entertaining for anyone watching

Diamant / Incan Gold

Diamant, later rethemed as Incan Gold, is a press your luck game in which the fearless youngster may well outscore all the adults. (Of course, she might also go home broke..but she’ll have fun trying!) Like Loopin’ Louie, it has the advantage that everyone plays at the same time, which makes it harder to get bored. Each turn, a card is revealed: if it’s a treasure card, players split the loot. At any time, you can return to your camp and get your treasure tucked safely away, or you can continue in search of more riches. However, there are also several dangers you could encounter, including (depending on the version) rock slides and scorpions, or giant spiders and mummies. Encounter the same danger twice on one expedition and you’re forced to drop your loot as you perform a reverse advance…that is, run away quickly! After five expeditions, whoever has successfully returned with the most treasure wins the game.

Why it’s a winner: Plays quickly, without giving anyone a chance to get bored; has enough elements of bluffing to keep the adults interested, and enough luck to give the kids a decent chance at winning the game

Clue: Master Detective

Who doesn’t remember playing Clue when they were growing up? I still recall the one time I played against my mom, made it to a room on my second turn, made a suggestion she couldn’t counter, and immediately made an accusation to win the same.

Of course, that was the problem with Clue: someone who got a lot of rooms in his hand of cards had a decided advantage over the other players, and even without that there was always the chance of a lucky guess propelling you to victory early on. When those things didn’t happen, though, Clue was a great deduction game.

This brings us to Clue: Master Detective. This is almost exactly the same as the basic clue game (although there are a few small rules changes), with one exception: more of everything! More rooms, more murder weapons, and of course more suspects. The number of suspects is increased by more than the number of rooms, which reduces the luck factor a bit.

With this game being a definite improvement over standard Clue, it’s unfortunate that it’s currently out of print. That said, if you don’t want to spring for a second-hand copy,  the original is still a great game, and you can always find a recent version for under $20.

And it was Mr. Green, in the study, with the lead pipe.

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‘Tis Only A Few Acres of Snow..

A Few Acres of Snow is my favorite kind of wargame: one with no dice! The latest entry in the Treefrog series, it covers the struggle between Britain and France to control North America, culminating in the French and Indian War. In our timeline, England captured Montreal from the French and effectively took control of North America, until the colonies revolted a few decades later. In the game? Who knows..

This is a deckbuilding game inspired by Dominion; each player starts with a small deck of cards, from which he’ll draw at the end of each turn until he has at least five cards in hand. He also has two (non-randomized) decks of cards that he can gain for his deck: empire cards, which are purchased, and location cards, which are gained by taking control of the corresponding location on the board.

One nice thing about the game, actually, is the board: the areas in each player’s territory at the start of the name have the name oriented towards that player, so you don’t have someone trying to read upside down for the entire game; they’re also easy to read. (Yes, I am thinking of War of the Ring as I type this).

Each turn, you get two actions (except for the first turn of the game, when you get one). An action is playing a card, buying a card, discarding a card,  or putting a card in your reserve area. You can also take any number of free actions: taking your reserve into your hand (which actually costs money – “free” just means it doesn’t cost an action), withdrawing from a siege, or playing anything that says “free action” on it.

Much of the game consists of buying cards for your deck (largely military-related) and expanding your control. To gain control of a village or town that does not yet have a player marker on it, you must play the card for a village or town you already control that connects to it, another card with the appropriate means of transportation (ship, wagon, or bateaux), and possibly a settler card.  If your opponent already controls the region, you instead start a fight: you still need a way to connect to the village or town and a means of transportation, but now you also add in a military card. There can be two sieges going on at a time (one started by each player) and you check for victory at the start of each turn. Every area starts with a defense of at least 1, and players will add cards to the siege to boost their power. You win the siege if, at the start of your turn, you have two more power than your opponent (one more if you are the defender). The winner puts all of his played cards into his discard pile; the loser returns one of his to the supply. If the attacker won, the defender’s town or village marker is removed and the attacker has the option of settling the area.

The game is quite asymmetric; the French start with more points, money, and military capability, while the English are more able to ramp up militarily, depicting the superior support they received from their home country; this is represented by the different cards players have available. Thus, the goal of the French is to spread out over Canada as much as possible, while the English wish to conquer the French settlements. The game ends when one of the main cities (Quebec, Boston, or New York) is successfully besieged, in which case that player wins (that is, the British player wins the game if he takes Quebec, the French player wins if he takes Boston or New York). Each of the two games I’ve played was won by the second condition: if one player is out of towns or village markers or has captured twelve points worth of those markers from his opponent (villages are worth two points, towns four) then the game ends at the start of his turn if there are no sieges in progress, and whoever has the most points wins. In case of a tie, the French player wins.

After two plays of this, I wasn’t completely sure what I thought about it. A lot of that is not really being sure what’s going on; this game is much like Race for the Galaxy in that, for your first few plays, you’re concentrating more on getting the mechanics right rather than understanding the deeper strategy. I could see that my opponent, who had played multiple times before, was beating me, but I wasn’t quite sure why. However, I find myself strongly anticipating my next play; the only other game that I recall feeling that way about in the last year is Dominant Species.

As someone who used to spend a lot of time playing CCGs, deckbuilding games hold a lot of appeal for me; you can get much of the same type of play without the hassle (and expense) of actually collecting thousands of cards. One way that this game improves on Dominion is simply by having different decks, so players aren’t striving towards the same goal. A game of Dominion between players of roughly equal strength often comes down to who can get the most powerful strategy going first, which generally means either the player who goes first or the player who gets a better draw; in A Few Acres of Snow, while there are a few common cards, you usually won’t lose because your opponent bought the card you needed. Of course, a bad draw can still hurt you, but I suspect not as much as in Dominion if you manage your deck size carefully.

Based on my plays so far, I would rate this one above most of the games in the Treefrog series), but behind Age of Industry. Call it a tie with Automobile for the second best game in the series.

Edit: A Few Acres of Snow, previously available only from Treefrog Games, can now be purchased at Amazon.

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The Admiral is a Cylon!

If you’re not a fan of Battlestar Galactica, then the game probably isn’t for you; many of the mechanics make sense only in the context of the show. If you do enjoy the show, however, you’ll be happy to know that the board game captures the feeling of the show quite well. (Of course, I also know people who have started watching the show because they liked the game, so YMMV!)

Each player selects one of the characters from Galactica; the characters each have abilities in several different skill sets (politics, engineering, tactics, piloting, leadership), which is represented by the ability to draw cards of the appropriate color. Each character also has a regular special ability, a once per game ability, and a disadvantage; for example, Starbuck gets two actions instead of one if she starts her turn in a viper (because she’s an excellent pilot) and can discard and redraw a crisis card (to be discussed later) once per game, because she has a secret destiny. However, she is insubordinate, which makes it easier to throw her in the brig.

On your turn, you draw the cards indicated by your skill set, move (if desired), take one action, and then draw a crisis card. Most characters will spend their time on Galactica itself (which has eight locations you can move to, plus Sickbay and the Brig), but pilots will move around in space on their ships and the president will generally stay on Colonial One, which has three spaces offering political actions. There are also four Cylon locations which are not accessible to humans.

Ahh, the Cylons. Fans of the show will know that the Cylons are machines created by humanity; they rebelled and a blood war was fought. Now they have returned, but rather than being simply metal monstrosities, they now look human, and some even believe that they are human. At the start of the game, each player receives a loyalty card, informing them whether they are human or cylon. However, the other players won’t know how many cylons there are, or even if there are any at all; halfway through the game, another round of loyalty cards is dealt out, and anyone with at least one cylon card is a cylon. (Certain characters receive extra cards, representing their questionably loyalty – or actual cylon affiliation – on the show)

The meat of the game is in the crisis cards that happen at the end of each turn; generally this is a test that the players have to pass, or else Bad Stuff happens. Bad stuff generally takes the form of losing one or more of the four items being tracked: fuel, food, morale, and population; if any of these reaches zero, humanity will be destroyed and the cylons win. They can also make you discard cards, send people to sickbay, place cylon ships on the board, and activate those ships. Resolving the cards is simple: each card generally has a difficulty and a set of colors. Two random cards are put in a pile (face down) and everyone adds as many more cards as they like; those cards are then shuffled and revealed. Cards matching the colors on the card are positive, while others are negative. Since two of the cards are random, if two or fewer bad cards show up, you don’t know if it was just bad luck or cylon sabotage.

Some crisis cards also have the jump symbol, which moves you closer to Kobol. Once Galactica has reached a certain spot on the jump track, she can make an early jump (at the risk of losing population); finishing the calculations lets her jump risk-free. With enough jumps, humanity can reach safety and win the game.

Of course, the cylons aren’t limited to just sabotaging skill checks; once they feel the time is right to do the optimum amount of damage, they can reveal (often damaging Galactica or sending another character to sickbay in the process) and move to the resurrection ship, where they can start sending nasty things at the other players. Much of the game is actually spent trying to figure out who the cylons are; players are unable to work at maximum efficiency because you can’t trust anyone. Anybody could secretly be a cylon, and (if it’s the first half of the game) they might not even know it..

I would definitely categorize this as an experience game: you play it for the sense of paranoia and the fun of trying to figure out who the cylons are, rather than the (rather simple) gameplay itself. Battlestar Galactica is the game that replaced Shadows over Camelot for me; while it’s not one of my favorites and doesn’t hit the table more than occasionally, it’s a decent semi-cooperative game.

And with the expansions, you can finally throw those fracking toasters out the airlock..

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