May 162017
 

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper and the West End Adventures (Amazon) is a series of cases that continue the investigations of the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Space Cowboys (of T.I.M.E. Stories and Splendor fame) are updating and redoing the original releases. In this game, the West End Adventures are updated versions of the 1995 expansion to the original game with four completely new adventures centered around Jack the Ripper. The original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective will be released as The Thames Murders and Other Cases later this year.

The Game

Similar to the original, 1-8 players work together as a team of “irregular” investigators working with, but also competing against, their boss Sherlock Holmes. Each case is contained in a booklet with an introduction, several locations with associated text, case questions to test how well you did, and the solution provided by Sherlock to measure yourself against. Each regular case utilizes a large fold-out map of London along with newspapers and a directory. The Unlike the original, Jack the Ripper cases are all linked together in a series and have a map of White-chapel included. 

An introduction is read aloud at the beginning of each case. The players are encouraged to explore the provided materials and come to a consensus on which location to search. The map has dozens of locations to visit in the course of your investigations. You will gather clues, visit locals who may provide information pertinent to your case or red herrings to lead you astray. Each location moves the team closer to solving the mystery new leads which in turn lead to new locations. Once the group has determined they explored and followed enough of the leads, they can move onto the questions for the case. There are a total of 200 points that can be earned from solving the primary case and any peripheral mysteries that may have been uncovered as well. Time is of the essence, so visiting too many sites and spending too much time can affect the final score.

Sherlock_Holmes_Consulting_Detective_02_2000x1333.jpgAfter the questions, the score is tallied and you compare your results to Holmes’ solution. However, the solutions provided by Sherlock require so many ridiculous logical leaps that it really only serves to prove to the players how intensely smart Sherlock is. You can ignore the score, and laugh at the result that Sherlock comes up with.  

Each case is a one-shot experience and with 10 cases supplied in the game. At 90 minutes a case, it more than provides enough value for the cost. At first glance there is very little option for replay-ability but having one person moderating the game (who knows the solution) can be fun to attract new players. It was also fun to allow new players to work through the game and provide an occasional hint.

Comparing this to T.I.M.E. Stories, I prefer the lack of game mechanics in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. There is little set up, lots of reading, and plenty of discussion about what to do next. You can move from place to place, examine clues, develop leads, gather materials, and pour over the map and newspapers provided. Both games are certainly on rails but I find the streamlined experience of Sherlock Holmes much more enjoyable.

This is a gaming experience tailor made for bookworms! It reminds me of the experience of reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with the added benefit of being able to share the experience with more than one person. Honestly, I never got to a good ending of a Choose Your Own Adventure book without cheating and I have never get even close to Sherlock’s solution in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Nor should I! Most of the fun is the disbelief of how he actually solved the crime and your own floundering steps towards a solution. You don’t get better as you play but you do get more creative in your solutions as you try to make the same logical leaps Sherlock makes.  

The Endgame

Take your time. Have a drink. Forget about the score. Explore possibilities with your group. Laugh at the red herrings and gloat over someone’s totally lucky guess that ended up being correct. It is totally OK to cheat at this game. If you can’t answer a question, go back and retrofit an answer. See where you went amiss.

This is a great introduction to RPGs for people who never even thought about playing an RPG. Let me be clear, it *isn’t* an RPG but it has that feeling of group cohesion, discussion and discovery. It has the added bonus of being played without a moderator and if you really wanted to toss in some characters, it wouldn’t be too hard to find some mystery tropes to include. They would have zero effect on gameplay but could make the experience even more immersive.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is an overlooked gateway game that no-one ever mentions. And it should be right alongside with Splendor, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic. It is a small jump into Fiasco if you want storytelling or into Letters from Whitechapel if you want to get a bit more mechanical. The theme is familiar and immersive to most. The mechanisms are simple to practically nonexistent. It plays with little setup or rules explanation. 

The only downside of this particular iteration is that the theme of the Jack the Ripper cases can be off-putting. I have this same issue when I introduce Letters from White-chapel to some gaming groups. It is just a whole different level of dark from the classic Holmes mystery.This sequence of linked cases is bloody, historically accurate, and can be tough to stomach. Something about the jump from a purely literary affair to the reconstruction of actual horrible events of real victims may be too much. As a simple test, if your group would be down with From Hell or the Ripper Street TV series then they may be ready for this. My recommendation is to play the West End cases first and move into the Jack the Ripper cases only if this level of darkness is appropriate to your group.

My recommendation is mixed. If you are worried about the grisly nature of Jack the Ripper, get the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective if you can find it or you can wait for the Space Cowboy’s re-release of the original as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders and Other Cases. If you don’t have an issue with the visceral nature of the Ripper murderers, go for this collection.

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong

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Apr 292017
 

In Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, 4-12 players are attempting to solve a murder and just arrived at a crime scene loaded with clues and potential murder weapons. Players need to sort through the clues with the help of their forensic scientist. Everything seems simple enough except that the murder is standing in their midst and in uniform. Players will need to suss out what the forensic scientist is hinting at, find the murder, and protect their start witness before three rounds of play elapse.

Start the game with determining who will be the Forensic Scientist. The Forensic Scientist is presenting hints so they should be the most experienced player (or at very least the one who read the rules already). Similar to the ghost in Mysterium, you have an oddly mute forensic scientist (who in my head-canon has such a strong case of social anxiety) who is unable to speak to the investigators and instead just points to their notes.

Everyone else is randomly given a roles: Mostly Investigators plus one Murderer, and in larger player counts, a Witness and an Accomplice. Everyone except the Forensic Scientist is dealt a hand of four clue cards and four weapon cards which are displayed in front of them. Similar to Werewolf, the forensic scientist has everyone close their eyes and then asks for the Murder to open their eyes and point to one of their weapon cards and one of their clue cards. This is the information that the Forensic Scientist must relay to the investigators. The Witness gets to see who the murderer is but not their murder weapon or clue and wants to survive and remain hidden. The Accomplice gets to see who the murder is and wins if the murderer gets away.  

IMG_6612

Investigator, Murderer, Forensic Scientist roles and for higher player counts the Witness and Accomplice.

The game is played in three rounds. The forensic scientist has to place bullets on the six random tiles. Two tiles (“Cause of Death” and “Location of Crime”) are always used with four additional “Scene” tiles. Placement of the bullets will hint at the murder weapon and the clue and thus the identity of the murderer. It is best to place these slowly so players can discuss the clues and help guide the investigator to the next placement. Each player (including the murderer) then gets to make brief presentation about their opinions on the case and can once per game make and attempt to solve the murder by announcing “I plan to solve the murder” and then pointing to one murder weapon and one clue in front of one specific player. If you guess correctly, the investigators win! But if you guess incorrectly, you turn in your badge and are unable to make a guess again. However, you can still partake in the discussion on how others can make their guess. This continues for three rounds with the Forensic Scientist adding one new “Scene” tile to replace an older one of their choice.

IMG_6610

The Location of Crime (green), the Cause of Death (purple) and four Scene tiles.

If playing with the Witness, and the correct weapon and clue are guessed, then the Murderer gets the opportunity to guess who the witness is to win the game.  

Deception is to The Resistance what Mysterium is to Dixit. It takes an enjoyable activity and adds a subtle layer of mechanics on top to create a more salient game experience. All this while retaining a quick set-up and pleasant flow of play. The tension and distrust from other social deduction games such as The Resistance or Werewolf is present but not overwhelming. You have an experience where players are working together but always glancing slightly askance at each other rather than heavy bluffing and accusations.

Deception places the emphasis firmly on the deduction part over the social part of social deduction games. Discussion more often revolve around what the Forensic Scientist is trying to hint at over whether someone is lying or not. It just feels gentler and more about subtle misdirection over outright argumentation. The murder can slink into the background and let everything play out while gently nudging people in the right or wrong direction.

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A handful of clues and a smattering of Investigator badge tokens.

The Endgame: Deception: Murder in Hong Kong can play a large group easily and the set-up is minimal (especially when compared to Mysterium) and I prefer it over Werewolf or The Resistance since the game-play is less “social” and the discussion a bit more gentle while still tense.  

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.

A 4 track EP (little album for you younger folks) based on some favorite board games – A Worker Placed

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Apr 192017
 

A Worker Placed is a four track album where each track is inspired by a current favorite game. You’ll find Love Letter, Gravwell, A Feast for Odin and Tokaido all represented.

It’s only available on Bandcamp at the moment but you can stream it from the site for free, or spend $2 to download all four tracks.

About Ben

I'm a geek. A nerd, a dweeb, whatever. Yes I owned garb, yes I still own medieval weaponry. And yeah, I could kick your butt in Mechwarrior the CCG. I love video games, role playing games, tactical board games and all forms of speculative fiction. I will never berate someone for wanting to be a Jedi and take everything Gary Gygax ever wrote as gospel. Well, all of this but that last bit.

Total Confusion 2017 – This one goes to 11

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Mar 012017
 

There’s a peculiar thing about this particular convention – every single one I’ve attended has been the best one yet. That’s not bad, by any means – in fact, it’s great! Turns out Total Confusion 31 continues this streak with some new faces, some new friends and a hell of a lot of gaming. For that reason, this is going to be a long post!

I’ll take a look at this convention day to day, but first let’s look at the basics. Total Confusion bills itself as “New England’s Largest Gaming Convention” and they’re not wrong. While other conventions may draw many more attendees, Total Con is the largest convention dedicated entirely to the art and science of playing games. When I first stepped into the new location on Wednesday afternoon, there were already 20-30 people scattered about gaming. Now the convention doesn’t officially start until Thursday morning but I know folks showed up on Tuesday evening with the intention of getting in a full day of gaming before getting in a 4 day weekend of gaming. That’s awesome.

This is just the Board Game room. There’s a lot more to this con!

What’s always awesome

Have you ever gone to Gen Con and off in the distance seen someone like Tim Kask or Mike Pondsmith – maybe attended a talk they’ve given or an event they’ve hosted? Here at Total Con, you’ll just bump into them in the hallway, or in the game room – or jump into one of the games that they are running! The guest list for this convention never ceases to amaze me. Some the highlights? John Wick, Tim Kask, Frank Mentzer, Mike Pondsmith, Cody Pondsmith and many, many more! Your chances of just bumping into someone amazing are great! This year we also had a few folks just drop in – like Stefan Pokorny of Dwarven Forge and author R.A. Salvatore. You really never know who you may be talking to – or better yet, gaming with! For a New England con, I think this alone makes Total Con a unique experience. And that’s not counting the huge number of gamers like you and me who are always willing and ready to have a great time.

So many awesome people!

Tim Kask, Stefan Pokorny and two con attendees play Ticket to Ride

What was new

This year, Total Con moved venues for the first time in well over a decade. The Best Western Royal Plaza Marlborough, MA. It’s not the first time Total Con was at this location but it’s been a while. The change in venue offered two very important differences over the last hotel. There was more than adequate parking and there was a more than adequate number of rooms. These two things made for a huge difference from the last few years where attendees who both wanted to stay on site or drop in for a day had the easy ability to do so.

Wednesday Evening

The new venue also offered a much different layout, with board games, mini’s, the computer games room and the young player’s area being on one side of the hotel and RPGs being in another. This did result in a little bit less mingling, but also a lot less crowding. On the whole, I think it was a good thing. In fact, a day or so after the con wrapped up, even though official numbers aren’t out yet, the TC Facebook page posted:

TotalCon 31 is officially in the record books!!! With all the big changes going on, we expected a bit of a drop, instead the convention grew again!!! The convention surpassed every bench mark it set as a goal. That credit goes out to every volunteer, industry guest, game master, performer, vendor, exhibitor, and podcaster that was in attendance. The TotalCon team may provide the framework but the passion, creativity, and heart you bring to the table is what gets folks excited and what keeps bringing them back year after year. And now to see folks jazzed about creating new events for 2018 is AWESOME!!

Wednesday

Since my wife is on staff for the convention – and Total Con didn’t officially kick off until Thursday morning, Wednesday is always an interesting time. Generally my wife and I go into the airport a few times to pick up several industry guests being flown in from the mid-west or west coast. Generally for us this is a day of greetings, getting folks settled into the hotel and whatnot. We ended up in the hotel bar that evening, as we so often do. It’s our chance to see convention staff members we don’t get to see all that often, greet incoming guests and psyche ourselves up for a lot of uptime and not a lot of sleep.

Thursday

My Thursday started with being interviewed for And Now A Word From a Gamer – a new documentary that was filmed almost entirely at Total Confusion. Hopefully we’ll all be able to see the final film at Total Con 32 (and also everywhere else!)

From there I went to the first game I was running all convention – Above and Below. I love Red Raven games and Above and Below may be my favorite (with Islebound a close second). It was fun to teach three other folks the joys of cave exploration.

After that I did what I’ve done every year for the past three years. Help set up, move crowds through and then take down Sal’s Traveling Flea Market! This is a pretty sweet event where over 800 games and game related products were brought in. A whole bunch of ’em sold too.

Finally, after the flea wrapped up around 11, I found myself with my wife and the head of con security in the board game room with a quick game of Splendor.

Friday

This was my big day. I was running games in all but 2 slots, which worked out to roughly 11 hours of planned gaming (and in reality about 15 hours of actual gaming).

The morning started off with an event I called Territorial Disputes. I brought a number of small, area control games and had fun playing them with three folks I’d never met before. I brought Age of War, Eight Minute Empire:Legends, Guilds of Cadwallon and Tiny Epic Galaxies. We ended up playing War several times and Guilds once but didn’t have time to make it to the other two games.

From there I got to introduce six folks to Cutthroat Caverns – my all time favorite take-that style game. While I had originally intended to play as well, I had a grand time running the game (as it was entirely full with no space for me)!

Then on to the first big event of the day for me. Scythe. Taking two slots from 3pm to 7pm, it had sold out in pre-reg. Strangely, only 2 of the pre-registered folks showed up to play. That was fine though as three more players materialized seemingly out of thin air. One had to leave mid-game, which gave me the opportunity to allow a 6th person to jump in whom I taught on the fly. I. Love. This. Game.

I had a 2 hour break for dinner, roughly 20 minutes of which I spent in my room relaxing with my wife. Then it was down to the bar/restaurant where I secured two tables for dinner and for my next event. Kids Games for Adults – 2 Drink Minimum. I’d call this game a stunning success. It helped greatly that a pub game event had just ended and we attracted a few of those folks to our table (along with their pub games). I have never, ever laughed so hard during a gaming event. We played a six player version of Loopin’ Chewie (that I modified with 3D printed parts), Villa Paletti, Pairs, Animal upon Animal, Skull, and finally several rounds of a terrible game (which I loved) called Midnight Party with Hugo the person eating ghost. We literally closed the bar down with this event – they turned out the lights on us. It was amazing.

 

I will certainly be running this event next year – in fact I’m hoping to team up with Mat who ran the pub games event so we can have one epic night in the bar gaming our little hearts out.

Saturday

This was my lighter day. I’d purposely not scheduled any games as Luca was going to join us for the day. After touring the con a bit, we settled on a copy of Ice Cool from the Vendor’s room (the awesome folks at Crossroads Games). It’s a fairly simple, dexterity/flicking game where you attempt to get penguins through different doors to capture fish tokens while one player is trying to get your little penguin school ID card. Players switch off as the penguin attempting to capture the others. The physical (and graphical) design is amazing, and the physics of the game are a lot of fun too. I’d play this one just about any time. We played it at various times during the day with various people.

Then we bumped into our buddy David (who’d entertained us at the Granite Games Summit) and he introduced us to a bunch of cool, smaller games. We played Stack, Kingdomino (a surprisingly fun filler), and Mint Works – a tiny little worker placement game in a mint tin. Lots of fun!

From there we went to the all-con-long Paint and Take event. You paint a mini and then you take it. This has been a favorite of Luca’s in the past years and this time I joined her. Loved it!

Luca and I also got to demo her game Candy Crash and got some great feedback!

From there I got to relax a bit, grab dinner with my wife and some other convention staffers and then headed into the board game room to see what was what. I played a pick up game of Tiny Epic Galaxies, Played several rounds of Spyfall (finally!) I had a fun time also teaching Guilds of Cadwallon whilst playing Tiny Epic Galaxies. Something I’ve not done before. It must have been okay because I won TEG by a decent margin.

Later that evening I had the privilage (as I have for the past 6 cons) to attend an industry guest party. It was, as always, an amazing time filled with amazing people who I never would have met were it not for Total Confusion. I also found out that John Wick has a much, much better angry face than I.

Sunday

Ah Sunday… a day of winding down and doing nothing. NOPE! Not at this con! Sunday morning I ran my Prototype Workshop. This Sunday we had five prototypes to go over and it was a lot of fun seeing a ton of creativity and good games before they make it to publication. I fully expect to see at least a few of them in game stores in a year or three!

From there I was going to run a Bohnanza game but didn’t have enough folks to do it. So I wandered back into the vendor hall, bought a few things, wandered back into the board game room and was almost immediately scooped up for a game of Vast: Crystal Caverns. This is a very cool, very asymmetric game in which players take on the rolls of the Knight, the Goblins, the Dragon, the Thief and the Cavern itself. I played the Cavern. Very interesting game! I was a bit burnt out at this point (it’s 2pm on Sunday after all) and didn’t play at my best but still very much enjoyed the experience.

Remember how folks were at the hotel a full day early to game? Well here’s the board game room at about 4:15pm on Sunday. Still stuff going on!

From that point on I was pretty much toast. I’m lucky not only to be invited as a guest but that my wife is on staff which means I get to see the after party (full of pizza) and hear how all of the staff experienced the convention. From there it was a quick ride home and a short dive back into reality.

In Conclusion

I had a fine time. Total Confusion remains one of my favorite times of the entire year. As always, a huge thanks to the fine folks who make Total Confusion the best. The amazing staff and volunteers, the awesome guests and everyone who comes out to play! If you are anywhere near the area next February, I cannot encourage you enough to get out – even for a day – and play with us!

I played a bunch of fantastic games, ran some fun events, met a ton of great people and loved every minute of it! Special thanks to those who brought their prototypes to the workshop – some very interesting ideas! And to my friends at the con – those I met six years ago to those I met this weekend, you are the best part of this whole experience!

Here’s a semi-annotated gallery of most of the pictures I took at the convention – not all of which made it into the posts above. They may be a little out of order. Enjoy!

About Ben

I'm a geek. A nerd, a dweeb, whatever. Yes I owned garb, yes I still own medieval weaponry. And yeah, I could kick your butt in Mechwarrior the CCG. I love video games, role playing games, tactical board games and all forms of speculative fiction. I will never berate someone for wanting to be a Jedi and take everything Gary Gygax ever wrote as gospel. Well, all of this but that last bit.

Total Confusion kicks off Feb. 23rd! Here’s my official schedule and more about the convention

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Feb 192017
 

Every year in February, I have cause to celebrate! My favorite convention, Total Confusion kicks off and this year is no different! I’ll be in attendance all convention long, from Thursday the 23 through Sunday the 26th.

If you’re in or going to be in the area this February, you definitely want to check Total Confusion out. I’ll get to my tentative schedule in a moment but first I can give you a few other reasons to join us. How’d you like to play games with Tim Kask, Frank Mentzer, Mike Pondsmith, John Wick,  Michael Curtis, Jay Libby, Peter Bryant, James Carpio, the Dark Phoenix folks, the Iron GM folks and more?! Oh, and I’ll be there too.

For the last while, Total Confusion was in Mansfield, MA. This coming year they’re moving to the Best Western Royal Plaza Hotel in Marlborough, MA. I’m bringing a bag full of games to play and I’ll also have some copies of Swamped and Ninja – Silent but Deadly with me as well.

Thursday

10am -1pm – Being interviewed, lunch, hanging at the flea setup, etc.

1pm-3pmAbove and Below.  Above and Below is a mashup of town-building and storytelling where you and up to three friends compete to build the best village above and below ground. tcaboveandbelowIn the game, you send your villagers to perform jobs like exploring the cave, harvesting resources, and constructing houses. Each villager has unique skills and abilities, and you must decide how to best use them. You have your own personal village board, and you slide the villagers on this board to various areas to indicate that they’ve been given jobs to do. Will you send Hanna along on the expedition to the cave? Or should she instead spend her time teaching important skills to one of the young villagers?

3pm-11pmFlea Market. I’m once again volunteering to help run the Total Confusion Flea Market. I’ll be setting up and then guiding excited guests through the maze of board game and RPG deals.

Friday

10am 12pmTerritorial Disputes – Eight Minute Empires, Ages of War, Guilds of Cadwallon and more. If you’re feeling like controlling some area in a few tiny games, this is the event for you. Explore some fun, fairly fast and not terribly large area-control games.

1pm – 3pm  – Cutthroat Caverns“Without teamwork, you will never survive. Without betrayal, you’ll never win.” I like to call this one Munchkin but for adults. It’s a semi-tccutthroatcooperating dungeon romp where you’ve already done the hard work, and gotten the magical gew-gaw! Now all you have to do is get back out. Easy, right? Right?! In Cutthroat Caverns, it’s every player for themselves, except  you need the other players to make it out! At least, most of the way out. 

3pm-7pm –  Scythe – Scythe is a 4X board game set in an alternate-history 1920s period. It is a time of farming and war, broken hearts and rusted gears, innovation and tcscythevalor. In Scythe, each player represents a character from one of five factions of Eastern Europa who are attempting to earn their fortune and claim their faction’s stake in the land around the mysterious Factory. If you’re looking for strategic game play, beautiful artwork and resource tokens that will amaze, join us!

9pm-11pm – Kids Games for Adults – 2 Drink Minimum. What? Kids games? Where? At the bar. Why? If you have to ask, this event isn’t for you.

Saturday

I’ll be hanging out with friends, my daughter, my wife and playin’ games!

Sunday

10am – 12pm – Prototype Workshop. Join me with other industry insiders as we look at you board and card game ideas. Spend 10-15 minutes explaining your game and showing off your prototype. Receive 10-15 minutes of feedback from us!

1pm-3pm – Bohnanza – It’s Sunday, the convention is winding down and you’ve come to realize you have not yet fulfilled one of your bucket list items. To become a successful bean tcbeansfarmer. In the classic Bohnanza, players have a gas wheeling and dealing, making and breaking alliances and of course, planting lots of beans. This fairly casual card game could be the perfect way blow out the con.

And that’s my convention so far. I’m running a fair number of events and am reserving some time on Saturday for myself. I may participate in a panel, I hope to get in a game or two (maybe even *gasp* an RPG!) I’ll have my personal copy of Swamped and Ninja on me and I can easily teach either of these in a fairly short amount of time, so if you see me wandering around or stationary for a short time, feel free to come up, say hi and ask!

About Ben

I'm a geek. A nerd, a dweeb, whatever. Yes I owned garb, yes I still own medieval weaponry. And yeah, I could kick your butt in Mechwarrior the CCG. I love video games, role playing games, tactical board games and all forms of speculative fiction. I will never berate someone for wanting to be a Jedi and take everything Gary Gygax ever wrote as gospel. Well, all of this but that last bit.

Best Board Games of 2016

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Dec 182016
 

This was an amazing year in board games with many games popping up perfect for your personal library. As I stated in 2015, it is nearly impossible to play and review even a large portion of all of the game that comes out in a year. And it is even harder to be able to recommend them to libraries when that audience is so diverse and community so varied. That said, I think I limited it to eight games that will certainly make a wonderful addition to your personal collection.

I try to recommend games with a small learning curve so most of these games are perfect for a budding library collection (Dream Home, Happy Salmon) and if I do include more complex game, they are worth the extra time it takes to learn and will be a better addition to an already established collection (Terraforming Mars, Beyond Baker Street).

Some games just barely missed the cut. Scythe contained too many components for inclusion and those minis go missing too quickly to keep up. The Grizzled: At Your Orders is an expansion and is mandatory (the base game was included in my 2015 list). Great Western Trail looks amazing but I couldn’t get a copy and thus never made it to my table. A Feast For Odin is just too complex.

There are dozens more worth discussing and recommending to you, and I hope that this shortened list serves as a good representation for what 2016 has offered.

The Strategy Game: Terraforming Mars

(BGG, Amazon) After the success of The Martian, expect a whole glut of mars-themed board games next year and a whole bunch of red boxes in the future. At quick glance you have Surviving Mars, First Martians, Martians: A Story of Civilization and a reprint of Mission: Red Planet. So, you know what you have to do.

The goal of Terraforming Mars is simple: make Mars habitable for colonization and exploitation. Getting it done, however, is far from easy. The entire game unfolds over generations as futuristic mega-corporations battle to change Mars from a red planet to a greenish blue one. This is accomplished by building cities, encouraging vegetation and creating water. To make the planet habitable and end the game three things must happen: atmospheric oxygen rises to 14%, the temperature rises to 8 degrees Celsius (that’s correct, in this game you are encouraging global warming) and the oceans are filled.

This game is a chunky engine-builder and full of strategic potential. Unlike many science-fiction themed games, Terraforming Mars focuses on scientific accuracy, attention to detail and technical consistency. You know that part of The Right Stuff where all the engineers are struggling to brainstorm how to make a new thing with a box of old things? It’s like that mixed writ large and combined with the Weyland-Yutani Corps (“Building Better Worlds”) from Aliens. You have hundreds of years to introduce moss, melt icecaps and crash meteors into Mars before it is any good to humanity.

Fair warning though, it is also really, really, really ugly. The artwork is inconsistent and the graphic design is unfortunate. So, if you are looking to “wow” patrons into gaming at first glance, this isn’t the best pick. But if you want to bulk up your collection with a thematic thinker and encourage your patrons to grow, then give Terraforming Mars a chance.

Terraforming Mars has great gameplay and lots of strategic potential to bulk up a collection. It is an amazing game that rewards repeated play. It is best to pair it with, obviously, The Martian by Andy Weir.

The Party Game: Happy Salmon

(BGG, Amazon) Stop reading right here and go buy this silly, ridiculous real-time game for your library—you won’t regret it. Happy Salmon is one of those games that children will love, adults will pretend they don’t like (but actually do) and can be just as much fun to watch to play.

The game is snappy and fast and, honestly, it takes longer to read the tiny rulebook than to play one full game.The goal is simple: get rid of all your cards. You place the pile of 12 cards facedown in front of you. Everyone flips over the first card. There are four types: High 5, Pound It, Switcheroo and Happy Salmon. Once you see your card, you yell out the title of the card until you find someone yelling the same thing, make eye contact and perform the action on the card. Once you do that, you discard that card and go to the next one. Three to six people will be giving each other high fives, bumping fists, trading places at the table and doing the happy salmon (grab each other’s wrist and slap your hand against each other’s forearm).

Listen. It comes in a pouch shaped like a SALMON. It’s simple, silly and hilarious. You can at least do a round or two at the start of departmental meetings with this game and consider it money well spent. Pair this game with Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss and Salmon Fishing in Yemen by Paul Torday.

The Tiny Box Big Game: Kodama: The Tree Spirits

(BGG, Amazon) Invoking images of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Daniel Solis’s Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a masterfully designed card game in a small box and it will totally enchant you upon first play.

In Kodama, you tend to the homes of the tiny bobble-headed spirits who inhabit your forest. To appease these helpful spirits, you need to tend to their tree according to their exact, and maybe strange, specifications. Their happiness and your success depends one how many caterpillars, fireflies, flowers, mushrooms, are at home in your tree and how many clouds or stars can be seen from their branches. You compete against other players to grow the best trees for your new tree-dwelling buddies. Happy Spirits keep a Happy Forest!

The true beauty of Kodama is the ability to grow your tree. Each player starts with an oversized trunk card and then each card they choose throughout the game is a branch extending from the trunk. The result, at the end of three seasons, is an massive splay of cards representing the tree you created. Everything from the whimsical art to the simple gameplay makes this a perfect game for families. They even included additional cards specifically designed for younger players.

Kodama is adorable, family friendly and best of all, lets you create something satisfying at the end of your game. In Kodama, it is a large, branching and likely lopsided, tree. Games like these leave you satisfied, win or lose, because you created something. Pair it with anything from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

The Dexterity Game: Ice Cool

(BGG, Amazon) In Ice Cool, you are all students at a penguin high school. Get it? High School. Ice Cool. Penguins? Right? A little word play and I’m yours forever. Remember that. Anyway.

One player is the hall monitor and the rest of the players are students. The students are trying to collect three fish located throughout the school, and the hall monitor is trying to catch the students and collect their student IDs. As players meet their goals, they draw cards with points on them. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins.

Each penguin is kind of like a Weeble. They weeble and they wobble but they don’t fall down. When players want to move their penguin across the board, they flick them. The students just need to go through the doors to the rooms where the fish are and the hall monitor needs to flick themselves into the students. A round ends when either a student collects all their fish or the hall monitor has collected all students’ IDs. At the start of a new round, a different player becomes the hall monitor and you begin again until everyone has had a chance to be the hall monitor. You tally the points on the cards collected through the game and the player with the most wins.

Fun, loud and nicely contained in a box that doubles as the game board. If you want to drum up interest in your board game collection, get a family or two playing this game out in the open and it will definitely draw a crowd. Pair this with reruns of Saved By the Bell.

The Two Player Game: Tides of Madness

(BGG, Amazon) There is plenty of bite in this delightful card drafting game for two players with only 18 cards, a handful of tokens and stunning artwork.

Generally, games with heavy themes (horror, science-fiction, fantasy) have not circulated well at the library but small, simple, light games with heavy themes that it can be demoed at a service point may just work. Tides of Madness offer a tense 20-minute duel where you score points by collecting sets while drafting cards back and forth. At the end of the round you tally any madness tokens you may have accumulated, choose to keep one card for the next round and discard another out of the game. You’ll need to anticipate which cards your opponent needs and obfuscate which ones you are looking for while keeping an eye on the madness tokens. They can accumulate, and if you delve too deeply into the arcane, you may lose your sanity and the game.

Only 18 cards in a quick, snappy drafting game, and totally tense! Tides of Madness is to two people what Love Letter is to four. Pair with The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins.

The Editor’s Choice: Kanagawa

(BGG, Amazon) Dear Reader, if you have not been introduced yet, let me introduce you to Iello. Iello games have, bar none, the best art direction in games today. Every game in their catalog looks like it couldn’t possibly belong anywhere else and every game is aimed straight to the heart of the family gaming market.

In Kanagawa, it is 1840 and you are a student in Master Hokusai’s painting school. Your goal is to earn different diploma tiles representing your many artistic successes at the school. To achieve this you will need to expand your studio, learn new techniques and create an epic masterpiece of your favorite subjects (a combination of flora, fauna, architecture and notables) across the Japanese countryside. But you are still in school and your master will be offering many lessons to a select few represented by tiles placed on a rattan central board. You can take a tile quickly or wait until later to get more, but if you wait too long another student may grab your slot, leaving you with whatever is left over. You add tiles to your print (your painting gets longer) or to your studio (your skills improve and you are able to paint different subjects).

Rattan. Game. Board. It rolls up when you are done. I’m flabbergasted and completely in love with this. Best paired with The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

The Cooperative Game: Beyond Baker Street

(BGG, Amazon) A spiritual successor to the cooperative card game Hanabi, Beyond Baker Street from publisher Z-Man Games has two to four detectives working together to solve a mystery before that insufferable show-off Sherlock does.

Players have three leads to work on in order to solve the mystery—Subject, Motive and Opportunity. Each player has a handful of clues, witnesses and evidence. What makes the game a challenge is that players are unable to look at their own cards and instead have their cards facing out towards the rest of the players. Cooperation is elementary as players provide clues to each other in order to place the correct cards in the correct places before Sherlock solves the case. On your turn you can provide a hint to another player about what is in their hand, play a card on a lead, confirm a lead, discard a card or eliminate a lead. There is more to the game but if you are familiar with Hanabi (which uses the same cards facing outwards mechanism), then Beyond Baker Street will be quick to pick up. If you are not familiar, it will take five minutes to read the rules and you will be right as rain to play.

Beyond Baker Street adds some added thematic elements including different cases to increase the challenge and character cards that provide special abilities, which make this a nice upgrade to Hanabi or a great starting point into cooperative games. Best paired with Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz.

The Family Game: Dream Home

This game is so adorable I just want to hug it. Look at all those happy people on the box top! The future has so much potential.

(BGG, Amazon) In Dream Home you are building your perfect house, and also a better house than everyone else. Each player gets an empty house tableau with 12 room spaces in it; five on the second floor, five on the first and two in the basement. Players get to choose from a pair of cards with one room and one resource (helpers, handy-persons, architects, tools, etc.) to use in building their home. The room gets placed according to some simple rules, and the resource can be used immediately or later to score more points. You can expand rooms for more points (a playroom is nice but a huge playroom is even better), add decor to provide the perfect finishing touch for a room and get bonus points for functionality.

There is very little room for improvement in this light family game. It is a complete joy to play with people of all ages that plays in 30 minutes. Perfect after-dinner game in your newly remodeled kitchen. Best paired with A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester.

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space

 Board and Card Games  Comments Off on Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space
Nov 242016
 

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is a minimalist game of bluffing and secrecy set on the damaged research ship — the SELVA. All systems are down and the entire ship is dark. Captain and crew are trying to make their way to escape pods and an unknown, alien virus is transforming the crew into blood-thirsty monsters. If you are human you quietly and swiftly try to make your way to the escape pods and hope they work. If you are an alien, you quietly make your way towards the humans and hope they are tasty. Rather than utilizing a central board like Scotland Yard, Letters from Whitechapel, or Fury of Dracula, Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space has each player marking their movement on a personal map sheet which remains hidden from the other players. Players use a dry erase marker to record their movement, location, and any additional information they can glean from the others in 40 rounds.

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There are several map sheets to choose from, each featuring a specific zone of the SELVA. Each map is made up of different numbered hexagonal sectors. At the start of the game, each player agrees to the same map (since your personal map is secret, it is important that everyone starts on the same page). Each zone has a specific name such as Galilei — The Research Zone — and come in varying sizes, layouts, for recommended player counts and levels of experience. After a map is chosen, a number of character cards equal to the number of players are drawn and secretly dealt to each player. For even numbers of players, half of these should be alien cards and the other half should be human cards. For odd numbers of players, you add an extra alien. Each character card (both alien and human) has a unique ability.

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Characters: Red for Aliens and Blue for Humans

Payers take turns moving from one sector to another and recording their movement on their sheet. Humans start from a different sector than aliens and attempt to move to the escape pod sector[s]. Aliens start moving towards where they think the humans are currently located. Aliens can move one or two sectors (three after an alien successfully devours their first human) and humans can only move one unless aided by certain cards. When players move into a dangerous sector (colored grey on the map) they draw a card. There are different types of dangerous sector cards. Some require a player announce their location, some require you bluff and announce any location, some allow you to remain silent, and some are items that can be used by humans immediately or later in the game. Regardless of species, all cards drawn are kept in front of the players and remain secret. Since aliens can’t use items, only humans should be looking at their cards occasionally. Humans, remember your cards. Aliens, pretend to reference your cards at all times just to blend in.

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Item cards plus a dangerous sector card in red

At the end of their aliens can declare an attack on anyone else in the sector. Players, either human or alien, in that sector must announce their presence and promptly die and reveal their character. When humans are killed they respawn as aliens from the alien starting sector and begin to hunt. When aliens are killed they are eliminated from the game and either start making snacks, mixing drinks, or picking the next game to play. To counteract this, human players can utilize items any time during their turn. Items can help them attack, teleport, defend against attack, or force other players to announce their location.

The game ends after 40 rounds, when all humans escape, all humans are eaten, or some combination of the above. The aliens win if they can kill all the humans remaining on the station. Any human killed by an alien loses and any human who escapes wins.

Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space is a mixed bag of a game. Let’s start with the unsatisfying ending of the game. As an example of a satisfying ending, take the hidden movement game Letters from Whitechapel. Jack can win if he escapes detection for the game and the constables win if they can locate Jack. The endgame rewards cunning and secrecy for Jack and rewards teamwork, communication, and cooperation in the constables. Either way it is certainly satisfying. The ending of Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space is a weird “every person for themselves” for the humans and a secretive game of teamwork for the aliens. However, with no central board to work from it is difficult for the aliens to subtly communicate with each other to determine who is an alien and a lone human survivor can’t really celebrate since what feels like a cooperative (humans surviving versus aliens hunting) game was really a competitive (get outta my way, this is my escape pod!) one.

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A sector map with starting locations for Aliens and Humans and the numbered escape pods in the back.

A better role for dispatched aliens could have been designed. When humans die they are respawned as aliens. But aliens killed by aliens result in having a player potentially removed from the game early on. This is, in my opinion, a design flaw. Granted, Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space should only last 30-45 minutes but if one person is removed early it ruins their experience of the game and then makes it much harder for the Aliens to win. I prefer to have an attacked alien revealed as an alien. This makes the game difficult for these two aliens (now revealed to everyone else — location and identity) without removing one from the game. Any way to keep people playing should be the goal of the design, unless the game is specifically a player elimination game which doesn’t seem to be the intent of Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space.

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Here you record your movements for 40 rounds and a kindly reminder for all to the items

That small design flaw aside, the game is certainly tense and if you place a strict time limit on movement, the game can move quickly (to meet the 30-45 minute time expectation on the box rather than the 45-60 minutes it takes with larger groups) and the experience can be memorable. But, like any hidden role game, it depends on the group. Some games can be horrendously silent and slow. Others can be rousingly thematic and exciting. If you want to play this game and have a positive experience you need to seriously read your game group well. And despite the simplicity of gameplay, it is not a gateway game.

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Hilariously, not all of the escape pods actually are functioning…because everything wasn’t bad enough already.

Bookkeeping can also be a challenge. Unlike Letters from Whitechapel where only Jack is required to keep a careful log of movements, in Escape each player needs to be meticulous in their records and also able to keep an eye on where everyone else is potentially located. In the wrong hands this game looks like a large and boring rendition of Battleship with announced coordinates and a quick jot of a note. To be fair, in the right hands you feel like you’ve been transported to the set of Alien. The game really is only worth a play at higher player counts and thus the downtime can be excruciating. That said, there are eight maps to choose from so you can customize your game experience to your group by using a larger or smaller map. This plus your ability to go online and use the map editor (http://www.eftaios.com/mapeditor.html) provides a ton of variability.

This game could have gone a route to be bigger and more component heavy, especially in a market that rewards miniatures and intense components. It could have had a central board and more planning. However, it minimizes the overhead to maximize the immersive experience — you are alone and in the dark trying to get out or to hunt. This does place the onus solely on the player to provide the atmosphere. My recommendation is that if your group loves Letters from Whitechapel, lives and breathes Battlestar Galactica, and washes it down with The Resistance, then you have a winner here. Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space sits nicely in the realm of hidden movement and hidden role games, providing a large depth of immersion for a game that is so very easy to learn that exceeds at higher player counts for a true experience game.

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.

Celestia

 Reviews  Comments Off on Celestia
Nov 202016
 

In Celestia (Amazon, BGG), you and your crew of adventures are aboard an aircraft traveling through the cloud cities of Celestia. Your goal is to collect the treasures from each city which grow in grandeur the further you travel. The group is a discordant bunch and you were unable to choose just one person to be in charge so you will each take turns being captain. It won’t be an easy journey. You will be hampered by fog, lightning, birds, pirates, and, probably, each other. But if you play your cards right and push your luck just far enough, you will fly away as the richest of your crew.

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The game begins with all the players placing their pawns in the three dimensional cardboard airship. Each of the nine cities are set up from lowest to highest with the airship placed at the lowest city. Treasure cards are placed next to their corresponding city. Each player gets six-eight cards and the first captain is chosen. The captain rolls two to four dice (depending upon the next city up from where the airship is docked) to determine what difficulties the crew will face. Then the rest of the crew determine (clockwise from the captain) whether they wish to get off at their current city (I will leave) or to stay in the ship to travel to the next city (I will stay) and more precious cargo. Any crew who decide to disembark will remove their pawn from the ship and take a treasure card from the city’s deck. The worth of the treasure card varies at each location and increases the further you travel (although some special items can only be had at the earliest cities). After the crew is done at the current location, the captain plays the cards needed to overcome the obstacles. If the captain is successful, the remaining crew in the ship move forward and the player to the left becomes the new captain. This continues until a captain is unable to overcome the obstacles in their way, the ship crashes, everyone starts at the beginning, and draws up one equipment card.

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This is a retheme of Cloud 9 (1999) and maintains the light, interactive push-your-luck mechanic of the original with much upgraded art and components. The decisions and card play are simple so this is a great filler or ender. Basically, if you are the captain, only you know if you can overcome the difficulties so you need to bluff the other players to either stay on board or get off as quickly as possible. If you are the crew you need to read these bluffs and disembark at the right time or play the right cards to influence the result. Some cards can do more than just avoid hazards, these cards have additional powers such as a Turbo Card which acts as a wild card to overcome any hazard, a Jetpack which lets someone jump off right before the ship crashes, some allow for rerolls, others force players off the ship.

Celestia’s strength lies within it’s simplicity and its beauty — it is cute and colorful but not glaring. It is quick to set-up, simple to learn, and provides just enough interaction and take-that to make it interesting without getting too mean. The artwork and production quality are both wonderful — it has a nice, gentle, “around the world in 80 days,” whimsical, steam-punk vibe to it that isn’t too over-the-top or off putting. It plays best at higher player counts and still comes in at 30 minutes with 6 people playing. This game encourages surprises, bluffing, and explosive moments of laughter (when certain cards are played).

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While most press-your-luck games tend towards the abstract (King of Tokyo notwithstanding), Celestia does a great job with theming such a simple game. Player interaction isn’t intense and even being booted off the ship still allows you to pick up a treasure. There is also a surprising amount of table talk. The crew will berate the captain and the captain will bluster or sweat to bluff out the crew. It allows for plenty of supplemental interaction which doesn’t necessarily pertain to the game but certainly adds to the experience.

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About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.