Review: The Duke

pic16889032 players, 30 minutes

Chess is a funny thing. It’s a centuries-old game that people have dedicated their lives to playing, and yet hobby board gamers hardly ever talk about it one way or the other. At most, it’s appreciated from afar, as a game that people respect but don’t really want to play. It’s easy to see why—there’s little theme to the game, skilled players will almost invariably beat weaker players, and the learning curve between amateur and expert play can be a real grind.

It seems there’s a demand for a game that scratches the same strategy game itch as chess, but tweaks the formula to replace the parts that turn many game players off. One recent attempt to fill this demand is The Duke by Catalyst Games.

The Duke is an abstract strategy game, similar to chess or shogi (a game I dutifully Googled before writing this review). The game is played on a six by six grid, and troops are represented by wooden tiles featuring the piece’s name, symbol, and movement pattern. On their turn, a player can move one of their pieces according to that pattern. If it lands on an enemy tile, that enemy tile is captured and removed from the game. If a player can threaten to capture the opponent’s Duke from the board, and their opponent has no way of stopping it, that player wins the game.

Sounds fairly typical so far—nut there are three things that distinguish The Duke from games like chess or shogi.
First, taking a page out of miniature wargames, the players get to deploy their troops at the start of the game.
Second, the pieces have a reverse face that has a different movement pattern. In chess and shogi, a piece can be promoted if it advances far enough to your opponent; in The Duke, the pieces flip every time you use them.
Third, instead of moving one of your tiles, you can instead use your turn to draw a random tile from your bag and place it on the board adjacent to your Duke.

Let’s take a look at what these elements bring to the game.

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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.

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Super Exclusive Game Preview

Exciting news, readers—for the first time ever, I’ve got some game previews for you! Recently, I had the chance to play a couple of prototype games—with the designer, no less.

Now, before I get any further, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the game designer is, in fact, a relative of mine. Her name is Victoria, and she is seven years old.

But don’t worry—I take journalistic integrity very seriously, and neither the fact that the designer is related to me nor the fact that she is a seven-year-old girl will curry any favor with me, and I will strive to make the following preview as unbiased as possible.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: Coup

pic16395322-6 players, 15 minutes

Coup attracted some attention after it’s first limited release, and so Indie Boards and Cards picked up the game, ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and transplanted the game from its sixteenth century European setting to the far-future dystopia of their popular game The Resistance. So, what do these two settings have in common?

As it turns out, a lot of lying to your friends.

At the start of the game, every player gets two coins is dealt two cards in secret, representing two characters the player can influence. You might be chummy with the duke and have the contessa keeping an eye out for you, or you might have a couple of thieving captains owe you a favor for services best left unspecified. Functionally, it’s a game of hidden roles, but unlike most of those games where you are what’s on your card, it wouldn’t make sense for you to be the duke and the contessa, or, for some reason, a double captain.

Your goal in the game is to eliminate the other players by taking away their influence—you want to be the last one standing with any political clout. The most straightforward way to do this is to pay seven coins to launch an eponymous coup, which automatically forces a specified player to give up one of their cards. You could use an assassin for less than half the cost, but they can be blocked by the aforementioned contessa.

Then there’s the exciting way—lying.

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My White Whale: Twilight Imperium

pic50404I’ve heard people talk about “grail games” before—typically out of print, rare, and hard-to-find games they’re determined to get their hands on. I had something kind of like that that. The difference is I actually owned the game.

Seven years ago, I walked down the road from my dorm to a little nearby game shop. I enjoyed browsing, but I had a purpose and soon enough I found what I was looking for—Twilight Imperium, a science fiction game about exploration, politics, and war, and one of the biggest and most colorful games around. I paid for it and carried the eight-pound box home.

And that was the extent of my relationship with the game. It was a giant box reminded me that, at one point, I had hundred dollars.

Until late last month.

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