Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Automobiles

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Feb 192017

If tracksuit bottoms are “give up on life” pants, then I am at the stage in life where I drive “give up on life” cars. I’m past the need for speed BMWs and sporty VWs, instead I like my cars to be tax efficient and thrifty.  With this in mind it is appropriate that I have found a car racing game that doesn’t like waste and even gives you a hybrid option.

Automobiles is a racing game with a difference, because you’re building the engine that drives your car as the race goes on. It’s a bag building game, where you are drawing coloured wooden cubes to drive your car around the circuit. It plays from 2 to 5 players, with the game time dependent on how long you want to make the race.

The game comes in a pretty big box.  Inside there’s a double sided board with an oval circuit on one side and a more Formula 1 style track on the other. The rest of the components are; two plastic cube trays to hold the 10 different colours of cubes, 5 bright red bags, player boards and a slim set of cards. Finally you have a wooden car and lap marker for each player.


Set up for the game is very quick when compared to a deck building game because the cubes act as a proxy for different cards sets, and this means that you won’t be pulling cards out of a box for fifteen minutes.  Once the board and cube trays are out, all that’s left is to select a set of action cards to use.  There are four cards for each of the five colours and they are themed around; gears, garage, pit, handling, performance and engine.  So you might get the green Gearbox card, which lets you move the same number of light grey spaces as your race position, (and one extra if you are last), or the blue Rotary engine, which moves you as many white spaces as you have different colours in your discard area.  The game has suggested combinations which will keep you going for a few games and, after that, you can go wild.

Every player has a set selection of cubes in their bag at the start and these are added to with a one off buying phase. How much you get to spend depends on grid position. How you spend them is up to the player, upgrades or gears?


Over the course of the game you will be building a bag of cubes and drawing from it to propel your car around the track with increasing speed and efficiency.   

You draw 7 cubes from your bag at the end of your previous turn so you have time to think about what you’re going to do.  

The race? It’s in the bag.

The rules split each turn into 5 sections:

    • Actions.  Which is where you use cubes to activates the power of the associated card colour.  Actions are split between those that manage the cubes you have available and moving your car around the track.  The former are activated and placed in the used area on the player board and the rest go out on the track to plot the course of your car on that turn. The track is colour coded.  Higher gears let you go faster / further and this is reflected in the board’s design.  On the home straight you can pootle along in 3rd gear which takes 8 white cubes, or fizz down in 6th, which only takes 2 black ones. You can switch to adjacent lanes and not through other competitor’s cars, which adds a slight puzzle element as the order you use the cubes can make a difference to your distance travelled and the lanes used.
    • Buy.  Any cubes not used in the action phase become spends.  Each cube has a value and you can buy new cubes up to that value.
    • Car.  Here you move your car as far as your cubes, (placed in the action phase), let you.

      Yellow is moving through the gears.

    • Decline is where you clear the track of your cubes and take wear for your track movement and any, wear inducing, actions.  If you manage to position your car directly behind another competitor you are considered to be drafting and this reduces your wear overhead.  Wear cubes don’t do anything apart from slow you down by clogging up your draw bag.  Incidentally, if you  draw a hand full of wear you can choose to take a pit stop.  This is like a “miss a turn” option, but you do get to return that wear to the supply.  You finish your turn by placing your used cubes into the discard area of your player board.   
    • End  Draw another 7 cubes from your bag.  If you don’t have 7, all the cubes from your discard area go into the bag to be drawn.

Play continues until a player makes it over the finish line. All players take the same number of turns and whoever makes it furthest past the chequered flag is the winner.

Playing with Three

Three isn’t quite the magic number with Automobiles. There is definitely a bit more on track action in a four or five player game, but it’s not a drastic improvement, just a case of drafting and manoeuvring having more importance.  

How easy is it to teach the game?

The game is mainly about the turn structure; actions, moment, buying, taking wear and cleaning up.  Passing that on isn’t too hard and movement can be covered with examples.  The rule book is really well written and helps a great deal.  The one area that needs to be stressed is the difference between the cost of a cube and its buying power. It can be a bit confusing.

Can complexity be scaled?

There is a suggested first play set up which eases players into the game. The standard game is three laps. Playing with 2 laps doesn’t change the complexity, but it will level the playing field, as the benefits of building a good bag tend to come out in lap three onwards.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

I haven’t tried it.  Increasing starting money for the initial cube buy should work fine.  One thing to consider is playing with Gearbox because it gives a great catch up mechanic.  It’s no coincidence that it’s in the suggested first play set up.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

Seeing you car being lapped can be a dispiriting experience, shorter races could help.

What do I think?

Automobiles is a solid game and having a deck-builder that doesn’t rely on victory points is refreshing. Does it replicate the action of motor racing? Not really, but that doesn’t matter so much, because it does translate the tension of a closely fought race.  The last race we ran saw 6 white spaces between 1st and 3rd and the difference between winning and losing coming down to a single cube colour not being there when you needed it.  OK, I was the one in 3rd and I’m not bitter about that.  I made some buying mistakes and got what I deserved.

Each game set up needs a different approach and picking the cubes for the job is where the nub of the game lies. It is a nice marriage of strategy, in building your bag, and the tactics of using your 7 cubes to the max.  There are questions to answer on each turn and, because a cube can be used for its action or currency,  they are more varied questions than a standard deck-builder.  There’s a great balance to the game play and the pace is good too.  It starts slowly and revs up to the final laps, which can pass in just a turn or two.  

If you like deck-building and want something a little different, it’s definitely worth giving Automobiles a run out.

About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Sanssouci

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Oct 312016

Sanssouci is a tile laying game set in the Prussian palace gardens of the same name. It’s designed by Michael Kiesling and published by Ravensburger.

Sanssouci box

Players are tasked with laying out a formal garden including summer houses, woods and mazes, by drafting 9 different types of tile from a common pool.  The player with the highest score wins. Games last no more than 45 minutes and cater for 2 to 4 players.

The game’s components are very high quality, with some of the thickest tiles I have ever seen. If the tiles were a little smaller and a bit thicker they would be cubes.  The only negative is the half sized cards, but they are only shuffled at the start, so I don’t see this as much of a failing.


Each player gets one of the, (slightly different), garden boards, places their nobles at the top of the board and takes their 18 garden cards.  The garden tiles are shuffled, (there are extra tiles for higher player counts), piled face down onto the central board and laid face up to make the initial pool.  Finally the player markers are placed on the score track and everyone is dealt two personal goals. These goal cards give a bonus based on the end game position of two of your nobles.


How do you grow your garden?  Sanssouci is a very formal place.  The 9 columns take one of the 9 types of garden only, e.g herb or rose, and the 6 rows are colour coded.  In the game your options are tied down tight and the player who best finds a bit of room inside the straitjacket is going to win.

Sanssouci board. Note colours for drafting.

Sanssouci board. Note colours for drafting.

Here’s what you do on each turn.  Feel free to marvel at the restrictions:

  • You draw two cards and play one. The card will either have two colours on it or a type of garden, oh and there is one wild card (whoop!).
  • 10 garden tiles are laid in twos across five colours.  Pick one dictated by the colours on the card or the type of garden depicted.
  • Place your chosen tile.  It has to go in the column that matches the garden type and the row colour has to match up too.  In other words: there is just one space that your selected tile can go.
  • Move one of your nobles down the garden to score points.  It can be any of your nobles. They have to finish in the column they started in and can’t pass through any unfinished bits of the garden, (unfinished gardens are bad for your opera slippers). The further down the garden your noble gets, the more points they score.
  • Deal yourself one new card and place a new tile on the central board.

So far, so limiting! Fortunately the designer threw in two rule breaking tweaks:  

  1. If there are no tiles that match your garden card you get a free choice as if you had a wild card.  
  2. If the tile space in your garden is already filled, then you can flip the tile over to its gardener side and place it anywhere in the same column or row.  A noble can pass through a gardener tile, but not finish a move on it.  This is a good way of linking bits of your garden or finishing rows and columns for end game bonuses.
Player board. The rose garden noble has used a gardener to reach the purple row.

Player board. The rose garden noble has used a gardener to reach the purple row.

Making best use of these two tweaks is the key to winning the game.  Getting as many free selections as you can is going to get your nobles down the board, where they score more points and free you up to fill rows and columns.

Play continues until you run out of cards and tiles.  Final scoring adds bonuses for completed columns and rows as well as points for your personal goals.

Playing with Three

The game plays well with 2 to 4 players. There might be a little more waiting time in a 4 player game, but it’s not really noticeable.  The amount of interaction in the game is zero, so adding more players in doesn’t introduce a take that mechanic as you fight over the potting compound.

How easy is it to teach the game?

A turn has a rigid structure; play a card, pick a tile, place a tile, move a noble, draw a new tile for the pool. This makes it pretty easy to teach.  

Can complexity be scaled?

If you wanted to make this more friendly for a younger child you could skip the tweaks and make the placement in the garden a bit more free form.  

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

A points handicap of -10 would level the playing field.

How likely is your child to flip the table half-way through?

Your table is safe.  This is a peaceful game, that is occasionally frustrating when the right tile won’t turn up until the end of the game.

What do I think?

Sanssouci is a fairly light game. It’s not going to tax your brain for hours, but it will provide some good entertainment and tight scoring.  I think of it as a push-your-luck puzzle game.  There aren’t enough tiles to complete your garden and you’re not guaranteed to get the right tiles in the right place.  This throws some interesting decisions your way.  Do I complete a row, or try and get my nobles down that little bit further?  Can I force a gardener tile in to create routes for my nobles?

If you want an experience that replicates the heady joys and mechanics of garden design, this may not be the game for you, (even though the artwork is delightfully detailed).  On the flip side, if you like to play a game accompanied by a sweet sherry and a shortbread, then it’s worth checking out.  Is it exciting?  No.  Is it innovative?  No, but it does it deliver a light thinkiness  with close finishes.  Perfect when you want to wind down of an evening.

Small cards and tiles. Railway whistle for scale.

Small cards and tiles. Railway whistle for scale.

About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Bruges

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Oct 182016

Three Ring Circus: Bruges

Bruges is a card game from ace Euro game designer Stefan Feld. It will keep 2 to 4 players occupied for around an hour by placing you at the heart of 15th Century Bruges, in a battle for victory points.  This is done through various types of building; houses, canals, reputations and employment of the widest range of people ever seen in a game*

I think I visited Bruges as a child, clearly, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. For me Belgium was all about two things; my dad driving our Chrysler Avenger on the Spa race track, (the straight is a public road), and eating frites with mayonnaise at the roadside.  Any country that serves quality chips from the verge is tilting at greatness and I salute them for it.


Also tilting at greatness is this game. It has all the hallmarks of a good European strategy game:

  • Colourful board, delightfully depicting a city in forced perspective.
  • Cardboard tokens for money and resources.
  • Wooden meeples in two sizes!
  • Cards.
  • Edge of the board scoring track.

Bruges at the end of a fine game.

The only thing lacking is wooden cubes, but I still give this 5/6 on the Euro-conformity(™) scale with a bonus point for including two deck shoes. Overall the quality of the components is excellent.  My only quibble is with the colour choices. The games uses five colours; blue, red, brown, yellow and purple. In low light I find the brown and yellow, red and purple hard to distinguish. Knowing what the colours are is essential to this game and I would think this is a serious impediment if you are colour blind.


Getting everything organised is a little bit involved and falls into the sort of time range that allows a friend to make you a cup of tea, and possibly bring a slice of cake too.  There are money, threat, canal and fountain tokens to deal with, as well as some meeples.  We’ve speeded the process up by separately bagging up everything that each player needs.  Finally the huge stack of 165 cards is sorted into 5 stacks. Stacks equal to the number of players are used and divided equally between the two deck shoes.  

The play is the thing.

On the face of it, playing Bruges is straightforward enough.  The turns go like this:

  • Draw cards from the two decks until you have five.
  • The start player rolls the dice.
  • Everyone plays a card from their hand in turn.  This continues until each player has played four cards.
  • Check for majorities on reputation, canals and people employed.
  • Start player token moves clockwise and back to the card draw.
  • Carry on until one of the card stacks are depleted.  This is the final round.

So far so good, but the devil is in the detail.  This game immediately throws two hurdles at you, “What do I do?” and “What is the smart thing to do?”.  


The decisions start early and easy. Drawing face down cards split between two shoes. There are five different colours of cards and at the early stages the colours aren’t too important. As the game goes on you will have formed a plan and those colours become more important. Ultimately you will be silently cursing the deck for not coughing up a yellow when you need it most.

The dice roll is simple enough: 1 & 2s are summed and this is the cost of moving up the reputation track.  5 & 6s rolled, generate threat markers matching the dice colour ,and are distributed. Get three threat markers of the same sort and you suffer the various consequences.

The real decisions come in your hand of 5 cards. Each card has a unique power when hired and housed, but they also can be used in 5 other ways:

Building a canal.

Exchanging for money.

Exchanging for workers.

Building a house.

Removing a threat token.

These actions are all colour coded too. For example, discarding a card for money ,gains you the cash amount equal to the pips showing on the dice that matches your card colou1gbr, while building a canal needs a card matching that stretch.  

The whole game is about working out the most effective use of your hand to pull in victory points.  Typically our two player games see us finishing grouped around 55 points mark and usually not too far apart.  A few points dropped can definitely make the difference between winning and losing.

When I start playing I generally have some sort of strategy formed by my starting hand of cards.  It could be building up a large pool of citizens in my tableau or going all out for canal building to pull in the bonuses for completing its full five stages.  This doesn’t often last long as I will be reacting to what cards come into my hand and the threats that build up in the game.   

Each hand becomes a benzedrine fuelled spider’s web,  ( of possibilities and layering and betrayal.  Five cards, four to use, six possible actions and then the order of play make for many choices.   

Playing with Three

Until recently Bruges has been almost always a two player game. This is something it excels at, but it plays well with three and four too. Turns come around quickly with the occasional bogging down when all those possibilities overwhelm you.

How easy is it to teach the game?

For a long time I was scared of teaching this game. When I tried it with a few friends it turned out to be not as hard as I thought.  Once the card actions are explained there isn’t too much else to cover. Less experienced gamers might well need a assisting through the first round.

Can complexity be scaled?

No, you’re in at the deep end here.  

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

We’ve not considered handicapping. Scoring mainly takes place at the end and it just doesn’t feel right to do so.

How likely is your child to flip the table halfway through?

There could be table flipping, but it’s pretty unlikely given scoring happens at the end.  I struggled to convince my son to play Bruges. He was adamant that he wasn’t going to try it and in the end it was playing another Stefan Feld game, Rialto, that persuaded him.  

What do I think?

I have owned Bruges for a couple of years now and it sits very comfortably in my top five games.  It seems to have everything; great board and card art, incredible variety and plentiful decisions to make. Definitely one to try.


*Probably.  I didn’t research this.

About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Knife Fight at the Pick n Mix

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Apr 112015

Do you ever think about the pence-per-play cost of board games?  I do, although it is usually as a cunning means to justify a new purchase.  At £13 or $13, (through the mysteries of board game currency conversion), Star Realms is a game that renders value for money arguments unnecessary.

Star Realms

Big game – small box.

Star Realms, by White Wizard Games is a two player deck building game which sees you and a friend play out an epic space battle to the death. Deckbuilding is all about starting with a small hand of weak cards and gradually improving it by buying better and better cards. It’s a powerfully clever concept started by a game called Dominion.


In the small box come 118 cards, rules and zero wasted space.  The cards are things of beauty: imagine every spaceship and space station from every science fiction book cover ever.  The cards are split into four coloured factions each with their own style:

  • The Trade Federation who are keen on money and defence.
  • The Blobs who favour destruction
  • The Machine Cult who eat their own young, (sort of).
  • The Star Empire who have an aggressive Star Fleet feel about them.

Set up

This is a 30 minute game, and set up is suitably quick too.  Each player starts with 10 basic cards and then its a question of shuffling the main deck and laying out the top five to form the starting market.

Set up and ready to play.

I have the Authority

To win the game you must reduce your opponent’s authority from a starting 50 to zero. In your starting deck you have two Vipers with a combat of 1 and eight Scouts with a trade of 1.  Winning the game with just these cards would be pretty dull, futile even.

To win you need more combat.  Combat is the bullet, but first you need to build the gun.  In other words, you need to construct a deck that will be an awesome engine of victory!

How do you build a deck?

The market place always has 5 cards.  Whatever you buy will give you one, or more, basic benefits: 

  • Combat, which reduces the opponent’s authority.
  • Trade, which allows you to buy new cards.
  • Authority, which increases your authority.

Middle cost ships.

Each turn you use the five cards drawn from your deck.  At first your deck is weak and the more expensive ships and bases are out of your price range.  When you buy new cards they go straight to your discard pile, but eventually reinforce your draw pile.  This steady buildup of strength is the nub of the game.

Each ship and base offers something a little bit different like pulling an extra card into your hand, or allowing you to scrap a weak card.  On top of that there are combo powers that trigger when you play another card of the same faction, (remember them from earlier?). Winning the game is all about buying the right cards at the right time and picking ones that work together.

Playing with Three

This is a two player game. You can pick up a second pack and play with 4.  I’ve thought of playing with three and house ruling that you always attack the player on your left, with forced discards to your right.

How easy is it to teach the game?

As deckbuilding games go, Star Realms is pretty straightforward. The rules on the cards are clear and the ‘draw five – play five – clean up’ process will be familiar to anyone who has played a deckbuilder before.  For newcomers, learning how to play will take a few cycles through the hand of five.

Can complexity be scaled?

There are some mini expansions that add new cards and rules. I would avoid these on first play. Beyond that the complexity isn’t in the game itself.  It’s in the building of a deck that will floor your opponent.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

At first I let my son start the game with a hand of 5 rather than 3. This worked well and wasn’t needed for long. You could vary the starting authority too.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

Your table is probably safe. Someone has to lose and that is the perfect opportunity to suggest a rematch.

Beyond the game

You can play the same game on PC, Android and IOS. The game is free, but unlocking online and full campaign modes costs a couple of quid.  I have been playing online for months. The game does not get old.

What do I think?

Let’s start with the negative. The game comes with cards to keep track of your authority. They come as a selection of 20s, 10s, 5s and 1s and I found them to be a complete faff. Now we use some ship miniatures and the score track from Carcassonne.

Carcassonne score board with my own ships.

I am a sucker for deckbuilders in general.  There is something about the draw, discard and shuffle that feels so right. There is also that thrill of discovery as you find which five cards you drew into your hand. With that in mind I was expecting to like Star Realms, but I was surprised at just how much fun I have had with it, both online and in person.

The art work and the setting are right up my street, but the game play excites too. I think part of the reason for this is the different approach to victory.  Most deckbuilders have you accumulating victory points, but here it’s a struggle to the death. As you fence around the available cards it’s like having a knife fight in a pick n mix.  Each drop in authority that you suffer moves you a little closer to the end and this puts a spotlight on your decisions.

The feeling that you get when when your deck delivers the goods is fantastic.  When you pull off combinations that are devastating, which draw extra cards and do extra damage, it feels like you’ve just taken down the Death Star!   Also I can’t think of many games that make me panic, but this one does.  If my authority is low, I may start to trash cards for small benefits or buy unsuitable bases for defence.  It’s sort of the equivalent of blowing the tanks on a submarine when you think you are sunk.

 I’ll come clean: this is barely a review. Really it’s more of a recommendation. It’s £13, buy a copy, find a friend and play the game. 

This review was written for Tabletop Day 2015.  If you enjoyed this review, or if you are desperate to find something better written try these other contributors:

The Savage AfterWorld — — Escape: Zombie City by Queen Games 

Channel Zero — — Thunderstone by Alderac Entertainment

Fractalbat — — The Hills Rise Wild by Pagan Publishing

The Gibbering Gamer — – Dragon Dice by SFR (formerly TSR)

Random Encounters (From Ohio) — – Nano Bot Battle Arena by Derpy Games



About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Camel on Camel Action

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Mar 042015

The Middle East has an incredible history that has been the inspiration for artists and designers for thousands of years.  Take Egypt: I’ve never been there, if fact, the closest I have got is Filey on the Yorkshire coast. Like Egypt, it boasts the most fantastic sands, and a turbulent political climate.*

1930s Egypt is a popular setting with film-makers, perhaps because the deserts and pyramids are an easy shorthand for romance and mystery.  Why not piggyback on all that mystique and pitch a board game set in Egypt?  Having said that, why piggyback when you can camel-back?  Why go for mystique and romance when you can aim for fun?

Camel (C)up

Camel Cup is published by Pegasus Spiele and plays 2-8 players in 30 minutes 

Is it Camel Up, or Camel Cup? The official line is Camel Up, I prefer to call it Camel Cup because there is a race and a camel wins a cup.


Opening up the box, you are going to find 5 nicely coloured wooden camels, dice, cards, tiles, a board and a flat packed pyramid.  You’re going to have to build that pyramid yourself and the first page of the rules tells you how.  All the card and tile components are a little on the small side. I think that could have been a design decision to keep it playable for 8 on a coffee table.

Everything a man about town needs when he’s off to the track.


Set-up is simple, (fortunately the pyramid only needs to be made once), players have betting cards, oasis tiles and a starting pot of Egyptian pounds.  On the board the betting tiles are laid out, the pyramid placed and dice are used to resolve the grid positions of the camels.   Grid position is, apparently, not as critical in camel racing as Formula 1.

Top tip: avoid both ends of a camel

A game of Camel Cup involves one lap of the pyramid for the five camels.  It  finishes when a camel passes the winning post.  Each lap is split into a number of legs which finish when all five dice/camels have resolved. Winning the game is a matter of having the most money at the end of the race.


Don’t touch the stack, we’ll be right back

Pyramid, volcano or ziggurat?

The game revolves around the clever mechanic of camel stacking.  A camel moves when a player takes the ‘pick a dice’ action on their turn.  The pyramid holds all the dice and drops them out one at a time.  The colour of the dice matches a camel and it moves the number of spaces indicated on the dice, (between 1 & 3).  Here’s the thing: camels stack, and camels carry other camels.  If you’re moving a camel at the bottom of a stack all the camels above it move too.  Camel racing regulations also state that the camel at the top is in the lead.  This can produce some amazing reverses, where the leader finds itself buried under a stack and left in the dust.

It’s an elegant way of injecting unpredictability into the race.  Each dice draw makes the end of the leg results more predictable, but even then you will be doing the sort of maths in your head that you normally reserve for splitting the bill on curry night.

So, those actions in full:

  1. Dice drawing, which gets you a pound for your trouble and moves the camels around the track.
  2. Placing an oasis/mirage tile.  A camel, (and stack), who drops on this moves forwards or back a space and gains you another pound.
  3. Pick up a betting tile to wager on the result of the first leg.  You could win £5 at best, or at worst lose a pound.
  4. Place a bet on the overall winner or loser of the race.  This could net you up to £8 small if you were the first to bet on the winner.

When all the dice have been pulled, that’s the end of the leg.  At this point, betting results and dice draw payments are sorted out and a new leg starts with the dice returned to the pyramid.  The first camel across the finish line triggers a leg-end and final betting payouts.  Money is added up and the winner declared, or not, as ties are not resolved beyond shared glory.

Playing with Three

Playing with three is perfectly fine, but my feeling is that its better with four or five.

How easy is it to teach the game?

The rules are pretty simple: its a case of saying, “These are the actions, this is how the camels work.” and “Why not have a go with the pyramid?”   Half-way through the first leg, things will start to make sense to everyone and working out what to do transforms into working out how to win.

Can complexity be scaled?

It’s a family game.  I don’t think there is a need to hold back.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

There’s no need to handicap anyone here, the dice do a pretty good job of that anyway.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

It would take a tired and grumpy child to get upset at this one. If they are in that sort of mood, perhaps now is not the best time to be laying out another game.

Beyond the game

I saw a suggestion to play the game with the soundtrack of real camel races from Youtube.  Genius!

What do I think?

I picked up Camel Cup in a swap, mainly because I was unsure whether this was a game for me.  It turns out that it is a game for me, and those folks in Germany who vote for games of the year were right again. 

Playing the game leaves me with a feeling of joy, whatever the result may be.  That is a rare trait in a game, and I think I know what it is: it’s the topsy turvy nature of the camel race itself.  The dice come out, the camels stack and they confound your expectations.  The last becomes first, or all the camels cross the line in a single stack: something will happen.  It helps that you aren’t tied to one camel, (because they smell), you can spread your bets and change tack as you see fit.

That doesn’t mean that the game isn’t without fault.  Being next up after a dice has been drawn is an advantage, because you are the first to act with new information.  If a player likes drawing dice, you could well expect their neighbour to win.

Camel Cup is going to stay in my collection.  It’s the perfect game to bring out when relatives come around for tea. A clever successor to the card games of Newmarket and knock-out whist that came out at my grandparents’ houses after the pork pie and trifle remains had been tidied away.

*This may be a slight exaggeration.


About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Oriental Express

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Feb 162015

The good people of Germany declared Istanbul their favourite strategy game of 2014 ,(Kennerspiel Des Jahres).  When it comes to matters cardboard, their judgement is pretty sound and so I decided to pick up a copy.

The premise of Istanbul is that you are a merchant, with four trusty assistants, trading your way through the streets of the city.  “Trading, in the Mediterranean! Haven’t I seen that before?” I hear you cry and also your mutters, “Actually Istanbul isn’t even in the Med.  Why is he putting words in my mouth?” 

The box art also promises little.  The standard European marketing ploy of ‘putting a chap on the cover’ is used to full effect here:  a merchant displays his collection of rubies while welcoming you into his world or carpets, fruit and spices.  Despite those cosmetic reservations, Istanbul turns out to be a game of great pace and tension.

He will crush your rubies…


The game is published by Pegasus Spiele in Europe. It plays in around 45 minutes and offers fun for 2 to 5 players.


The components are all of a good standard: made either of wood or thick cardboard. Oh, and there are the rubies themselves, glowing red plastic chunks, that look good on the table.  Also of note are the rules, which are clear and concise.  There is no insert in the game and I think that is a case of ‘could do better’.


The board is made of 16 generously sized, (and beautifully illustrated), tiles that are laid out in a 4 x 4 grid to form the city.  There is a little bit of set up involved in placing rubies, hand-barrow parts, (of which more later), and tiles in the mosques and market places, but experienced hands working together will be ready to play in 5 minutes.

The board is lush with colours and components.

Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby

The game is a race to get to 5 rubies.  Some rubies can be bought, others are earned.  Getting them means pounding the streets, and using the mosques, markets and other locations to pick up and deliver your way to success.

You start the game with four assistants and a half sized wheelbarrow to store your wares.

Warehouses allow you load up your barrow to the max with carpets, spices and fruit. Markets convert your goods into cash,  mosques offer power ups in exchange for gifts.  These power ups are really useful, offering a fifth assistant, dice bending powers and the option to buy goods or return an assistant to you.  It’s a first-come cheapest cost situation with the bonus tiles.  Making a grab for these can pay off in the long run and importantly, picking up both tiles from a mosque gets you a bonus ruby.

The carter will enlarge your barrow for cash, (and who wouldn’t want that), while the Palace and Gem Dealer will give you rubies for goods or money.  If you are feeling lucky, a bit of gambling is allowed down at the tea shop and the black market.

My cart runneth over: a wheelbarrow with two extensions fitted.

At the Istanbul police station, you will find the black sheep of your family waiting to be bailed out to act as a bonus assistant who can immediately  make it to anywhere on the board.

Finally, the fountain in the market square allows you to recall all your assistants from where you dropped them off. If you don’t have assistants you can’t take any actions and that is a bad thing.

On your turn you:

  • Move your merchant, with the stack of assistants beneath him, one or two spaces.
  • Drop off an assistant or pick one up.
  • Take the action of the location.

There are a couple of other possibilities:

  • Pay 2 Lira to a player if their merchant is already there.
  • Use the Governor or Smuggler for bonuses if they are on the location.

That is how the game works: simple actions making for simple turns.  The complexity is in how you do it: the routes you plot and the decisions you make.

Playing with Three

I’ve played this game with two, three and four players.  All player counts were fun, but it could be that three is the magic number.  With three there is some interaction and your turn comes around soon enough.  Upping the player count increases the challenge slightly, as more locations are blocked

How easy is it to teach the game?

The basic, ‘move one or two squares and drop off/pick up’ mechanic is supremely simple.  The complexity comes with all the tiles having an action, which need to be explained.  After one game, anyone should be up to speed.

Can complexity be scaled?

The game comes with a suggested starting layout, which should make the game more streamlined.  Once you have gone past that first game, there is a long route and a challenging layout, as well as rules for creating random ones.

For two to four players white assistants can be added.  They can be used by anyone and add a little to the game too.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

This is a tough one.  Giving someone a gem start could well be too much.  Allowing additional starting Lira or another bonus card is probably a better approach.  In fact I think I may well try this in the next game I play.  Edit: My son got a one Lira starting bonus and romped to a win.  He was happy and that makes me happy too.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

We have been close to this twice.  As the game gets towards the finish, it is possible to work out how many turns it is going to take you to reach your final gem and, thus, how likely you are to win.  The game is tight and frustration at losing does not compensate for the exhilarating experience of a close race, (apparently).

Beyond the game

My son and I are great fans of They Might Be Giants, my wife less so.  Repeat playing of Istanbul, (the game), while repeat playing Istanbul, (the song), is inadvisable.  Incidentally, I own another version of the song by Ska Cubana which is good, but not quite good enough.

What do I think?

A lot of games I have been playing lately have very tight finishes, where the difference between winning and losing can be just one turn.  Istanbul is no different. Games finish when a player gains their 5th ruby, but everyone gets to plays out their final round of turns.  This means that last gasp ruby grabs, can leave the player activating the end game staring down the barrel of a tie-break loss.  With a few games under your belt, you soon begin to realise that being short by a Lira or a rug on a turn can make all the difference.

This is the nub of the game: it’s an efficiency race of routes and resources, with multiple paths to victory. You may be only moving one or two squares each time with a single transaction, but in your head, you will be playing multiple turns ahead and calculating cash and goods ins and outs, like a stock controller on a three day caffeine binge.  What will my stock holding be in three turns time?  Can I pick up a ruby and an assistant at the same time?  If I go to the mosque will someone have gone before me and pushed up the cost of the Mosque tiles? I have come to recognise this as the type of play style that works for me.  I’m going to define it as agonising micro decisions.

But, but, and indeed, but:- don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an agonising game.  Its a fun game! Those micro decisions can be made while you are waiting for your turn.  There may be pauses now and again, when the decision tree needs pruning but, in the main, the game will pass like a time lapse movie.

This is a game that hits my family-play-time-sweet-spot because it plays in under an hour.  It doesn’t have complicated rules and doesn’t rely on an optimum player count.  It’s a keeper for me and I recommend it.

Look out for the smuggler by the fountain.


About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Glutton for Greed

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Dec 012014

My parents’ house doubles as the archiving facility for my childhood toy car collection.  Among the Porsches and Renaults there is a large brown Buick Regal with a man firing a gun from the back seat.  This is Kojak’s car and through the 70s and 80s it policed the living room carpet with sterling assistance from a police Jag.  I never watched an episode of Kojak, because it was on too late at night, but a filtering down of clips and comedy skits, (Telly Savalas was even on Top of the Pops!), meant that I had an idea that it was cool.


Greed is is a card drafting game that asks you to establish a corner of crime in a sleazy 1970s city.  It is designed by Donald X Vaccarino and plays in 30 minutes with 2 to 5 players.  When I heard about it, my thoughts immediately turned to questionable cars, large lapels, guns and booze: could this be the game that recreates the Kojak universe?

The box.


Greed is published by Queen Games. Inside a smallish box you will find a stack of cards featuring thugs, locations and actions, money cards and some cardboard dollar chits, (wooden if you went with the Kickstarter).  The dollar markers are a little underwhelming.  They are a bit awkward to pick up and I plan to replace them with something a little more solid, perhaps glass beads.

Show me the money.

Show me the money.

I like the money cards, they fit the style of the game, (more than coins would), and work so much better than paper money.  The other cards are unique and made to look like part of a little black book that you would use to keep a tally of your ‘business’, a personnel file and newspaper clippings.  The portraits of the characters and locations are particularly choice.  They bring out the setting of the game perfectly and justify, to me, the extra mile put in by the manufacturer.


Getting this game out onto the table couldn’t be easier.  Put out the money and the dollar marks, and deal 12 cards to each player.

Let the greed begin..

Given the name of the game, it is not surprisingly that, the player with the most money, (made up of cash and interests in property), wins.

Let’s start with the simple bit first: You have a hand of 12 cards.  Pick one and pass the rest on to the person on your left. If you explained the game well, everyone else will be doing the same and you should have a deck of 11 cards in front of you.  When this happens for the third time, everyone plays a card to the table and activates it in order, (each card has a unique number).  Play continues like this: draw a card, play a card until the 12 card hands have been used up.

How to play is simple, but any budding gangster knows that making crime pay takes a bit of planning.

There are three types of cards:

  • Actions are one off events triggered when played.
A wide variety of capers are available.

A wide variety of capers are available.

  • Thugs form your gang and are played to the table.  Once in play they may offer resources such as cars, guns and keys, (presumably burglary skills), as well as unique powers.


  • Holdings are local businesses that you acquire an interest in. They offer specialisms, (love, booze and hardware), as well as unique abilities.  When a holding is played, markers are added to it for each specialist icon on that property, as well as any matching icons on holdings you already have in play.  As each marker is worth $10,000 trying to corner the market in a particular type can really pay off when it comes to scoring.
Plenty of opportunities to make your mark.

Plenty of opportunities to make your mark.


Right from the off you will find yourself skimming through the cards, working out what you want to pick, and what you hope will still be there when the hand comes back around.

A card can be free, have a cost or a need.  A cost could be straight cash, alternatively you could find yourself sacrificing a lesser thug or holding that you have in play to pull a bigger card into the action.  A need means having the required resource to hand, so pulling off a Museum Heist action needs you to have thugs with guns, cars and burglary skills, (but you probably know that and have the swag bag to prove it).

You have to be flexible to make it to the top of the greasy pole.  Winning the game is about seeing the patterns and paths to victory that the cards in your hand and the decks offer.  For example playing “Generous” Jenny Jones gives you money, but she will want it back at the end of the game.  Forget that! You can sacrifice her to bring in Eugene “The Butcher” Midge.  Who you can then use to pull off a string of actions.   With 80 cards to play from, no two games are ever going to be the same, but you will come to recognise cards that work well together.

Jenny may be generous, but that may not help her long term prospects.

Jenny may be generous, but that may not help her long term prospects.

As new cards come into your hand, new opportunities present themselves and your plans shift. Its about opportunism, and a little bit of gambling.    Do this right and you will find yourself playing late game cards that swing the game your way, do it wrong and those last cards can’t be played and will end up discarded.

Playing with Three

Greed is definitely not a game to play with children.  It has the classic crime themes of booze, vice and criminal activity.  Cards with massage parlours and street walkers’ actions do not make for a family game.  Fortunately I was able to pull in my, age appropriate, brother in law and his wife to allow me to properly review this for three players.  As this game has a drafting mechanic, it works well for three as well as two.  Playing with 4 or 5 should be equally fast, unfortunately I have not had the chance to give that a try yet.

How easy is it to teach the game?

The game teaches very easily.  Explaining how marks get placed on holdings needs a demonstration to get the concept across, but not much else.  Most cards play in a straightforward way, but others have a little bit more complexity, like an effect that happens on the next turn, or relies on others playing a certain sort of card.  With Donald X Vaccarino games, I have learnt to take the cards at face value. This means that you can, and should, read the text on the card and do what it says.   Whenever I feel a need to check how a card should work on BoardGameGeek, Mr V is there explaining, “Yes, the card works just like the text says it does.”

Can complexity be scaled?

Like a swan, pulling part of it off wouldn’t make it simpler, just messier and angry.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

As the game plays in 30 minutes it seems unnecessary to handicap.  If you were feeling generous, perhaps you could offer your opponent a starting pile of cash, ($20,000?), as a gift from a godfather.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

Your child won’t be playing this game.  If an adult flipped the table over a 30 minute game, I would probably not ask them to game with me again.

Beyond the game

I appear to have a fair amount of funkalicious music to act as background to playing this game.  If you don’t, I highly recommend Austria’s Superfly.FM who are available online and specialise in a stream of late night groovery.

What do I think?

Greed has been the late night hit of autumn and winter.  After my son has gone to bed, the lights go down, the music goes on and the cards are dealt.

I like so many aspects of the game, the setting and art work is perfect.  It is not complicated to learn, or play. Scoring happens at the end and is quick to do.  The pace is spot on: it picks up as fewer cards are left in the deck and the card choice becomes quicker.  This means that the last few turns are over in no time at all.

It is a petri dish of crime, allowing you to repeat your criminal experiment over and over again, researching the ultimate combination of cards to create an algae bloom of bad cars, guns, booze and lurve.  It’s crazy that a game that last 30 minutes, and allows you to play 10 cards, offers so many decisions and possibilities.

I highly recommend Greed.



About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

Three Ring Circus: Life at the Crossroads

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Nov 032014

Robert Johnson famously found the blues at a crossroads having done a deal with the devil.  Was it a similar search for inspiration that caused Donald X Vaccarino to name the second Kingdom Builder expansion Crossroads?   In fact is that what the ‘X’ stands for in his name?

Kingdom Builder

Crossroads sees the Don address some of the criticisms of the base game of Kingdom Builder, adding new powers, mechanics and interactions.


What’s new

If Nomads was a second helping of fruit cake, Crossroads is a cheese board offering complexity and variety.  As Kingdom Builder is modular, this means that you can randomly combine both expansions with the base game to make an incredible helping of cheesy fruit cake.  Brie-tastic! What more could the average gourmand gamer want?


In the Crossroads box you will find; 4 new boards, 16 location tiles (8 types), 6 task cards, 5 city hall tiles and 20 new player pieces representing ships, wagons and warriors.

Location tiles

Forester’s Lodge and Monastery complete the set of ‘place a settlement to terrain type X’ actions and Fort allows an extra settlement to be placed from a fresh terrain card draw.  None of these are going to set the game alight, but hold one: there are another 5 to look at.


The new powers in full.

The Crossroads location tile is titular, so it must be important right?  This power lets you draw two terrain cards and discard one.  This breaks the cardinal rule of the game, that you draw a card and play to that terrain.  What’s going on?  Is this game breaking?  Oddly not. If you have got as far as the 2nd expansion, you will most likely be rocking an expert rating in the game and the difference between a one and a two card draw isn’t as big as you might think.

City Hall gives the power to drop a one off Mega-Settlement onto the board.  This floret is worth 7 settlements in addition to the usual starting settlements.  This is a big difference in end games based on area majorities, but it needs to follow the normal rules.  Which means that it can be tricky finding somewhere to place it legally.


City Hall: you can almost smell the bureaucracy.

Ships and Wagons offer similar powers on sea and land.  Once gained, they may be placed, moved or removed on a turn.  The wagon may move up to 3 spaces, even across mountains, but not past another settlement.  The ship plays the same way but, not surprisingly, on water.  Ships and wagons open up the opportunities to manipulate board position in a much more varied way than the base game or Nomads.  Travelling to islands and traversing mountains suddenly becomes easier and tactics that feel like military advances, into foreign territory, can be used.  You could also argue that movement abilities, like these, ameliorate the random nature of the card draw by offering so many possibilities.

Warriors are a mildly aggressive addition to the game.  Warrior meeples can be placed or removed on a turn and, while placed, prevent any building or movement in the immediately surrounding tiles, (including your own).  This opens up plenty of scope for genteel blocking, serving as a useful counter to the additional movement served up by ships and wagons.

Task Cards

The 6 task Cards are the little sister of Kingdom cards.  They set a goal that, if completed, score extra points at the game end.  The tasks vary from building a ‘road’ of 7 settlements in a diagonal line, to placing a settlement on all four sides of the board.  One task is added per Crossroads board used in the game.  I think these cards are a great addition to the game for experienced players.  Kingdom Builder is all about juggling competing scoring conditions to maximise your score and these tasks are just another ball to be kept in the air.


Task Cards

What do I think?

I reckon that this expansion is Donald X Vaccarino’s attempt to cock a snook at the heretics who criticised the original release of the game.  The criticisms that Kingdom Builder was simple, lacked interaction and was flawed with randomness have been addressed.   The Ships, Wagons, Warriors and Crossroads powers all open up the board and create a wide range of possibilities.

I know a lot of people play the game by drawing two terrain cards each turn rather than one.  Each to their own, I guess, but it doesn’t stop me internalising an Edvard Munch scream at the thought of butchering one of two fundamental rules in the game, (the other being adjacency).  Did Donald X think, “So, you thought the game needed to be played with two territories drawn each turn?  Well here you go.”?   Will those players pull four terrain cards from the stack, if they gain the Crossroads cards?

In Yorkshire, fruit cake is traditionally served with cheese.  This might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.  With Kingdom Builder and Crossroads we have a similar story: a sweet base game with a savoury expansion.  If you like Kingdom Builder, then you probably owe it to yourself to pick up Crossroads. The extra variety and increased complexity make the whole package something that you will be playing for years to come.


About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.