First Impressions: Scythe

pic2323719It took me a while to realize that there’s a very, very passionate fan of Stonemaier Games among my friends. In my defense, it was hard to notice; they were divided among a whole bunch of people. Between us, we have nearly every game published by Stonemaier games.

I suppose it was my turn to help out so I was one of two people to Kickstart Scythe, a crunchy game set in an alternate Europe between the world wars, but with giant mechs, too. Everyone represents a nation not-so-subtly inspired by real nations, vying for control in the lands surrounding the now-shut factory that had armed them in the recent past. Really, how could I not jump on board? Between their outstanding reputation and an incredible theme, I backed the project and then promptly ignored everything about it until it arrived in the mail.

Apparently I missed a whole heck of a lot of hype, as every other review I’ve seen or read has mentioned. Let me start off with my own expectations: I expected a good game, with high production values, and an effective use of a compelling theme.

Did it succeed? Read more to… eh, that feels dirty. I’ll tell you now: it hit all three points. There’s my thesis, and I’ll just clarify them in the following. Continue reading “First Impressions: Scythe”

First Impressions: Dominant Species

pic784193This is a game I’ve been eager to play for a long, long time.

Dominant Species has gotten a lot of praise over the years, and the theme instantly hooked me. It tickled the part of me that was so fond of “edutainment” as a child. Not that I expected a learning experience—I’m fully aware of the basics of survival of the fittest by now—but combining an unusual theme I was taught in school with a game reminds me of the days when those topics were made more engaging and more palatable with games or video.

My expectations were for a robust and highly thematic game outside GMT’s wheelhouse. After all, they’re a publisher best known for war games, not something like this. I wanted to develop my species into the most competitive ones around, even though the cover of the box kind of made it look like we’d be teaming up like some kind of weird rag-tag band of animals teaming up for an action movie. Like a prehistoric version of the A-Team.

So how did it stack up? Pretty well, as it turns out—though it’s a very different game from what I thought it would be. Continue reading “First Impressions: Dominant Species”

Review: Friday

pic1513328…and a new perspective on solo games.

1 player, 24 Minutes

In my article on Agricola, I mentioned how I never played solo board games before. Nine of the ten games of Agricola I played this year ended up being solo; clearly, I enjoyed playing it all by my lonesome. In the end, though, I accepted the fact that, given the option and without a motivation to do otherwise, I’d rather just play a video game than a solo board game.

But then something strange happened. I was in a simple card game review—look forward to reviews of Red7 and Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz sometime soon!—and I decided to better understand their rules by playing some mock games against myself. In the middle of one of these phantom games, I realized that I really would like to play a proper game.

And then, naturally, I found a copy of Friedemann Friese’s Friday sitting on the shelf at a local shop.  Continue reading “Review: Friday”

Review: Eldritch Horror

I like to think that I can make a reasonable, educated guess about what games I’d enjoy. Few games surprise me after doing a bit of research. That’s what made this review such a tricky one—Eldritch Horror defied my expectation. Unfortunately, I was expecting to have fun playing it.

Eldritch Horror is a cooperative horror board game, set in the ever-popular Levecraft mythos. Elder gods, cultists, ineffable horrors, all that jazz. It’s the spiritual successor to the much-loved Arkham Horror, and based on multiple reviews and aggregated scores, it sounded as though Eldritch Horror was at least as good if not better than Arkham Horror.

Getting my thoughts together on this involved me facing why my guess was wrong. There are things about this game I was sure I’d enjoy. Was I hypocritical for not liking the game? It certainly received a lot of praise—was I wrong? Was there something I wasn’t getting?

In short, no. My opinions just run against popular consensus on this one—and I’m prepared to back it up with a list of reasons why Eldritch Horror just fell flat. Continue reading “Review: Eldritch Horror”

Review: Hanabi


2-5 players, 25 minutes

Hello, dear readers! I’m back from a rather lengthy hiatus, and in the spirit of catching up, I’m going to review the winner of the Spiel des Jahres… from last year.

For those of you who don’t know, the Spiel des Jahres is the German “Game of the Year” award. It’s a big deal—a nomination can generate hundred if not thousands of sales for the nominee, and winning the award can net hundreds of thousands of new sales. I’ve been told that the winning game will even be found in supermarkets across Germany, and to this day I have no idea if those people were joking.

It’s one of the most respected board game awards around, but before you think that means it’s a “greatest hits” list from 1978 to the present, keep in mind that it favors lighter, European-style games. That generally means a focus on game mechanisms, an abstracted theme, and indirect player interaction. Moreover, the award is generally given to lighter, more family-friendly games.

Last year, the award went to Hanabi, a small card game by designer Antoine Bauza. In Hanabi, the players take on the role of technicians trying to pull off a fireworks display. To do so, they must take turns playing cards from their hands, and each of five colored piles must be built, in order, from one through five. You all lose the game if three mistakes are made. Otherwise, the game ends one full round after the draw pile runs out of cards. Then, you tally up the highest valued card in each pile to get a score.

What makes it tricky is that you play with your cards facing away from you. You get to see everyone else’s cards, but not your own. Players can give hints to one another, but only in very restricted ways. I think this is downright brilliant because, more than any other game I’ve played, it makes the players want to cheat. Let me explain.

Continue reading “Review: Hanabi”

Review: One Night Ultimate Werewolf


3-10 players, 10 minutes

A lot of things had to come together just right to get One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

First, there’s the party game Werewolf (also commonly known as Mafia) where players are secretly given the role of either Werewolves or Villagers—the Werewolves know who all the Werewolves are and try to kill off Villagers, while the villagers try to kill off the werewolves, but don’t know who anyone else really is.

Then two designers had their won separate takes on the game. Ted Alspach created Ultimate Werewolf, which added in dozens of new roles to mix things up. Akihisa Okui, on the other hand, created One Night Werewolf, which compressed the game into one single round of voting with a couple of extra roles to throw some information into the mix.

You’ve probably guessed that One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a combination of the two—the basic design of Akihisa Okui’s game bolstered by the imaginative variations of Ted Alspach.

It also makes a creative use of both space and time. There are just a few bits and pieces needed to play the game, and the rounds are timed.

In a couple of ways, it’s the chocolate and peanut butter of hidden role games—a description as appropriately delicious as it is oddly specific.

Let’s take the metaphor back around to werewolves as we take a look at this bit-sized game.

Continue reading “Review: One Night Ultimate Werewolf”

Review: Suburbia

pic1418335As I see it, there are three elements that make a good gateway game: elegance, theme, and depth. It has to be easy to teach, have a theme that doesn’t turn people away, and it has to keep people interested. That’s why I was excited to see Ted Alspach’s Suburbia. It’s a game where players take turns buying and placing tiles, the players are developing their own boroughs on the edge of a large city, and those tiles offer tremendous levels of variety and interaction with the others on your board.

For those who don’t know, “gateway games” are games that are particularly good for introducing someone to the hobby. Some people dislike the term because it reminds them of the term “gateway drugs,” but regardless, it’s a wonderful role to fill. I’m passionate about board games as a hobby, and I want to share it with others—it’s a way to build shared experiences, and to introduce someone to something you think they’d really enjoy.

…I may have just steered away from a drug connotation toward something that sounds like a cult. Sorry about that. Anyway, moving on.

So, is Suburbia a good game, and, moreover, is it a good gateway game? Let’s take a closer look. Continue reading “Review: Suburbia”

Review: Tales of the Arabian Nights

pic4861141-6 Players, 120 Minutes

Note: Sorry for the hiatus!

I have to admit that Tales of the Arabian Night made me think long and hard about what makes a board game. I don’t mean what makes a good board game—with good reason, most reviews consider whether or not a game is good. With Tales of the Arabian Nights, I found myself wondering if it’s a game at all.

The definition of a “game” is surprisingly vague. The best definition I could find comes by way of Chris Crawford, computer game designer. He reasons that a game is a form of creative expression, made for money, which is interactive, has a goal, an opponent (or, more specifically, “an active agent against whom you compete”), and a way of interfering with or attacking your opponents.

I don’t think it’s a perfect definition. For one thing, I think art can be made for money (theaters and bookstores exist). Cooperative boardgames are more popular than ever, and it feels strange to say that they’re puzzles but not games.

Nonetheless, Chris Crawford brings up more points worth discussing than not, and almost all of them are worth considering when you look at a game design. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at Tales of the Arabian Nights.

Continue reading “Review: Tales of the Arabian Nights”

Review: Spyrium

pic18085092-5 Players, 120 Minutes

I had high hopes for Spyrium. It’s the latest game from designer William Attia, creator of Caylus, one of the all-time classics of designer board games. Like Caylus, Spyrium is a worker placement game, but there’s much more to it than that—there are some very clever tweaks to make things particularly interesting.

It’s a little hard to explain how clever this game is without sounding facetious. In most worker placement games, you put your token on a space to claim it. In Spyrium, you place your worker between spaces left between a three-by-three grid of random cards, and can claim it when you remove your worker. Genius! I mean it—let me tell you why.

Continue reading “Review: Spyrium”

Review: Tokaido

pic12937192-5 players, 45 minutes

Board games are fundamentally things of imagination—buts of paper, plastic, and wood that, with rare exception, are meant to represent other things. You could run a farm or a space ship, or do anything the designer has in mind. As much as I love board games and the themes and genres common to them, it’s always refreshing when a game comes along that does something different.

Enter Tokaido. Fancy traveling in feudal Japan?

Players take on the roles of travelers along the Tokaido, a road stretching between Kyoto and Edo (known today as Tokyo). The goal isn’t just to get there, nor is it to get there first—you can’t fail to arrive, and this isn’t a race. Your goal is to have the most enriching journey along the way.

Continue reading “Review: Tokaido”