Three Ring Circus: Automobiles

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.

Setup

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?

Play

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.

Turbo Drift – a real space racing game done in just 18 cards

Before the holidays came and ate up my entire life, I was given a copy of one of the three newest Button Shy Games productions – Turbo Drift by Rob Cramer. For a long time I’ve been admiring Button Shy’s devotion to the very small game space – it’s an interesting design challenge to make good games that fit into 18 cards or less and a little plastic wallet. I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised a number of times and Turbo Drift is, while a very different kind of game for Button Shy, no exception. Turbo drift is on Kickstarter right now!

How to play

Turbo Drift is a racing game for 2-4 players, taking about 20 minutes for ages 8+. In the game, players will place a series of Barrier cards onto the play space, decide where the racers will be starting from, place their Car cards there and then determine where the Finish Line card will be. The Car cards have a plain and a B side – make sure they’re on their plain side. Now, take the Path cards (there are six of them and they’re double sided), shuffle them up and lay them out in a 3 card by 2 card grid. You’ll end up with something that looks like this (but probably neater).

That Stoplight card you see at the top right is the First Player card – whoever is designated as the first player should have that in their clutches. Clutches. I’ll give that a moment to sink in. The game progresses over a series of rounds until a player’s Car card touches or overlaps the Finish Line card, when the game ends and that player has Champaign poured all over them.

Each round goes like this:

  • The first player places the Burning Rubber card behind their Car card to move forward, or in front of their Car Card to move backwards.
  • Now just go ahead and pick your Car card right up.
  • Choose your Path cards – by either selecting a vertical row of 2 cards, a horizontal row of 3 cards or any 1 card. (If you’re crazy like a fox, you can take ALL of the cards in a Nitro action once per game as well).
  • Now, connect your Path cards in any order you like to the Burning Rubber card to see where your Car will be moving.
  • Flip your Car card over (so if the B side wasn’t showing before, it is now) and place it at the end of your Path cards, like so:

In the above example, the White Car has nearly won the race, while successfully not crashing into anything like that Barrier card below it or the Black Car card.

If, when placing your Path cards you do encounter a Barrier or Car, you crash! This means you remove that path card, place your car back on the playing surface and you’re done with your turn this round. It’s possible to not move anywhere if that was your first (or only) Path card.

If you manage to run across one of those Turbo Boost icons on a Barrier card without actually touching the Barrier (your Car can overlap a Barrier card as long as the actual barrier isn’t obscured by your Car Card) then you get to Turbo Boost! That means you get to take the Burning Rubber card and place it at the end of your full path – even if you’d be going through/jumping over another Barrier or another Car.

Now that you’ve moved, flip over the Path cards you’ve used and add them back into the grid. It’s the next player’s turn this round. If all the players have taking a turn this round without crossing the finish line, that round ends and the next round begins starting with the first player.

The advantages to taking 2 or 3 cards are obvious – you move further! Unless you’re like me and crash into a barrier on your first card. The advantage to taking just one card though is that you get to reassign the First Player card to whoever you wish – usually it’s yourself. This reassigning can happen several times over one round though depending on what tactics the other players are employing. There is also a certain strategy to making someone who’s about to crash go first to see if they can get out of their potential collision.

So that Nitro action? Once per game, you can scoop up all the cards. You cannot however choose what order you play them in. You start at the top and work your way down. You can stop at any time though (whether it’s one card, somewhere between one and six or all six).  Be careful though – if you crash into a barrier or another player, you go up in a giant ball of flame and that’s the game for you! We’ve had a 2 player game end rather quickly and abruptly this way and it was spectacular.

Real Space Racing

As in, it takes place a real, physical space, not on an x,y,z axis in a near vacuum. That’s a concept I’m finding in a few games and I’m really loving it – you basically take the space that’s available to you and utilize it as your game board. This can be your table, the floor, the air craft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) if you happen to have clearance and a lot of time on your hands. What this does is effectively turn an 18 card racing game into a game that fits into whatever space you have – it can be a big game if you want it to be. Another game that immediately comes to mind that utilizes this is X-Wing from FFG.

Why you should play

Turbo Drift manages to capture the essence of those funky old 8 or 16 bit, top down racing games for older computers that I still love. The cars are all equally matched, all equally hard to control, the course is ever changing to your own designs and it’s just plain fun. After the first few turns of your first game you’ll find that the game plays out very quickly. Our first game took us a good 40 minutes but after that we were down to the stated 20 or so minutes for a full 2 or 3 player game.

Turbo Drift manages to cram all of this into 18 cards and does a fantastic job at it. Players are really never bored even while watching someone else take their turn because you never know what will happen – crashes, driving off the table, getting <—–> that close to the finish line but juuuuust missing it. The game is actually pretty exciting for us and we’ve had a few moments where we’re all standing in anticipation of what may happen next. Can they pull of that last Turbo Drift to scoot across the finish line or will they end up facing the wrong direction and having to throw it into reverse?

There’s a bit of luck in that the grid of Path cards is constantly changing but you can still choose which among them you’ll take and if you’re careful enough or crazy enough, you just might win. I tried several strategies – the slow and steady wins the race strategy and the driving like a crazed, caffeine infused cheetah strategy. I’ve met with equal success with both although the crazed strategy is a bit more fun.

Button Shy recently posted a few suggested setups for various race courses on the Kickstarter page, which I’ve added below. You can set up the Barrier cards however you like though.

Here’s a 20 second gif of an entire race between Luca and myself if you’d like to see what a 20 minute game looks like.

Kanagawa

Welcome to the beautiful prefecture of Kanagawa (BGG, Amazon)! You are all students at Katsushika Hokusai’s art school and hope to create your own masterwork through the teachings of the great master himself. The publisher of Kanagawa, Iello, provides some of the best art direction in the board game industry. Iello games look and feel polished and refined and Kanagawa did not disappoint. Everything about the game fits into the theme and looks gorgeous. The artwork on the cards is interesting and flows well so that it does seem that you are creating a large art scroll. The gameboard is a bamboo mat which unrolls in front of you for your lessons. This elegant touch feels perfect – I love it. The paintbrush tokens are these neat little miniatures when they could have just been little cardboard tokens. Iello makes me feel all warm inside.

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Three columns of cards in a three player game. Some cards are placed face-up and some face-down (the red squares).

The card drafting and tableau building mechanisms are very similar to those I discussed in Dream Home by Asmodee. In both games you are drawing one column of cards and adding them to your personal tableau. In Dream Home you are choosing two cards (one room and one improvement card) or one room card and the first player token. Kanagawa is slightly more complex with an added element of press-your-luck. Lesson cards are placed in rows to help students develop their studios or their prints. At first only one row of cards is dealt on to the board equal to the number of players. Players can take a card or pass and wait for a second row and take a column of two cards or pass and wait again to get three cards. In the end you can get more cards but you run the risk of other players snagging cards you really need.

The lesson cards are delightful. I love multi-use cards. I absolutely adore multi-use cards when they are intuitively designed with clear iconography. The iconography is practically flawless and can be picked up and understood quickly. You barely need to examine the cards closely before knowing what they can do. Besides, I would much rather spend that time enjoying the amazing water-color artwork. 

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Jade Mosch did the water-color artwork on the cards.

The core of the decision space is after you choose your cards. Once cards are drafted, you can add them to your print to expand your painting and score points or you can add them into your Studio to help you gain the skills needed to add to your painting. It is here that Kanagawa felt nicely streamlined. There are no wasted actions. Sometimes when you draw cards in games like this you end up with cards you can’t afford to use or don’t have the requisite abilities to use causing you to discard. This causes frustration in younger players (and honestly, it bugs me as well). In Kanagawa you can always add cards to your studio to gain more skills. It is always an options and adding to your studio provides more options during later turns. There is a slight difficulty with the game here. Let’s compare to Dream Home again. In Dream Home you choose a column and then place a card. Since the cards in Kanagawa have multiple uses and you can have up to three of them to place during your turn, there tends to be a bit of analysis before the next player can take their cards. It slows the flow of the game down. Nothing dramatic but it isn’t as snappy as Dream Home.

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Some artwork and barely functioning studio.

You earn points at the end of the game primarily from Diploma tiles which have their own press your luck element to them. There are usually a few different tiles for each scoring element (number of buildings, tree, portraits, animals, number of identical landscapes, and number of brushes/arrows in your studio) increasing in points and number of elements to earn the diploma. For example you can earn the 3 point yellow diploma tile if you have 2 different buildings. Or you can wait to earn 4 points and a storm token with 3 different buildings. Or earn 7 points and the Assistant pawn if you have 4 different buildings. When you reach an objective (2, 3, or 4 buildings) you are required to announce it and then decide whether you take the diploma tile or wait to earn the next. If you wait then you can never go back and take the earlier tile. There are lots of them diploma tiles (a total of 19 of the seven colors) and you can never have more than one of the same color. You also earn points by having a long stretch of one season in your print and by scoring bonus points on some lesson cards. 

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The Diploma tiles are not that confusing but they do slow down the flow of the game.

Overall the game is gorgeous and the artwork beautiful. The gameplay is a rung above Dream Home in complexity so if you like the card drafting in Dream Home (and I do!) but feel like you need just a bit more decision space (like I do!), then Kanagawa is a great choice. Tableau building games provide a strong feeling of creation and accomplishment that really shines in Kanagawa. There are other amazingly fun tableau builders that are too dry but with solid mechanics (San Juan), can be too cut-throat for some families (Citadels) or too complex for beginning gamers (7 Wonders, Eminent Domain) and Kanagawa fits in nicely where those games fall short. It is great family (or library) fare, with attractive and accessible art, and satisfying after the first play. The only difficulty in teaching the game was explaining the diploma tiles and dealing with the large amount of them. It may take a few plays (or at least some time examining each tile) to really understand each one. The shear number can be potentially overwhelming for younger players but not necessarily intimidating or off-putting. Just take the time to explain each one when you get a chance throughout the game.   

The Climbers – wonderfully wooden abstract about climbing, with real (tiny) ladders

climbers

I was recently introduced to the abstract game The Climbers at the Granite Game Summit. I was immediately taken with the components and the game play. Nice, chunky wooden components and decent strategy! Let’s take a look at The Climbers and see what it has to offer. Climbers is a game for 2-5 people, ages 8+ and plays in anywhere from 15-45 minutes. Players pick a figure of a specific color and can only climb on blocks with that color, or grey facing upwards. Blocks can be moved and turned to facilitate climbing.

How to Play

When you first open the box, you’ll see it’s packed tightly with all of the components. 35 wooden blocks of varying sizes, 5 short ladders, 5 long ladders, 5 colored figures and 5 colored blocking stones. Two of these wooden blocks, the largest, are solid grey while the rest of all of the varying five colors on them. The wooden blocks come in 1?, 2? and 4? sizes.

Setup: To set the game up, the two large, grey blocks are placed upright next to each other. This forms the core of the climbing structure. Next all of the colored blocks are placed around the two grey blocks so that the grey blocks are completely obscured. This is done randomly and can be a fun little exercise if everyone starts grabbing and placing blocks rapidly. They can be placed horizontally or vertically. All of the blocks must be placed so that they are entirely on other blocks (or the table) but they can be placed offset of each other. Each player chooses a color. They take the pawn and blocking token of that color and both a long and a short ladder.

The blocks are all configured so that Red is opposite Yellow, light Blue is opposite dark Blue and Purple is opposite Grey.

Play: At the start of the game, all of the pawns are simply hanging about on the table. Here’s how a turn works.

First, a player may move an empty block to a new location or rotate it. The blocks must end up connected to another block, with at least 1/4 of the surface touching that other block. They cannot overhand, nor can holes be created. Blocks can be placed on other ‘occupied’ blocks (with a pawn or pawns on it) provided that there is still enough room for those pawns. Each pawn takes up 1/4 of the surface of a block. Blocks can’t be loose, inclined (tilted) or skewed. And you can’t move the same block someone just moved on the prior turn.

Next, that player may move their pawn (called the “climber”). You can move the pawn up, down, horizontally or in any combination of those. Your pawn may only move upwards or downwards 1? without the assistance of a ladder. They may use the short ladders to climb up the equivalent of a 2? block or the long ladder to move the equivalent of a 4? block (so that could be 4 1? blocks or any other combo). Once the ladders are used, they’re discarded – you only get one shot with them! Also, your pawns may only move onto a block of your color or a grey block.

Lastly, you may place a blocking stone on any unoccupied block. No players may move onto this until the start of your next turn, when the blocking stone is removed from the game. Again, you only get one shot with the blocking stone!

Winning: If no players can move higher during their turn, the fist player who couldn’t move their pawn higher gets one more shot. If they somehow contrive to legally move higher, the game continues. If not, the highest pawn wins! If two or more pawns are the highest, whoever arrived first is the winner.

Why you should play

There’s a few rules to digest in this one, but I assure you that once you’ve played a few turns, you’ll get it. From there on in, it’s a fun, fairly quick little puzzler of a game that will have people up out of their seats, wandering around the table to look at it from all angles. There can be a bit of a take-that aspect of the game, but there can also be a surprising bit of cooperation – nothing forbids players from working together to attain greater heights.

This game could I think best be described as absolutely charming. Even when you’re doing a bit of a take-that move, it doesn’t feel like you’re denying other players so much as settling on a very decent strategy for yourself. Lots of people love playing games that give you the feeling of having built something at the end – a decent card engine, an engaging and interesting city, a massive army. This not only gives you that feeling but collectively all of the players are building a colorful, if abstract tower while also climbing that same structure.

The game is completely random at the start in that the tower was built with no plan. From there on out though every single factor of the game depends on how the blocks are moved by the players and where they place their ladders and blocking stones. The strategy in this game lies not only in getting your pawn to climb higher, but doing so in a way that makes it harder for others to do the same while they only move or rotate one block.

I very much enjoyed my time playing this game and am looking forward to adding it to my collection. The components are nice, chunky wood, the game is simple to explain, easy to teach and very fun to play. It’s also pretty quick for a 2-5 player game – after the first play I think most games could be played out in 20-30 minutes tops, even with five players. If this sounds like the kind of abstract game you’d enjoy, you can pick it up at the Strategic Space site in the US or at your FLGS.

 

Celestia

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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Dreamwell

In Dreamwell (Amazon, BBG), you are in a strange world where children wander while they sleep. You are searching for your friends — the dreamkin — who are lost in this realm. While you search for these lost souls, you will navigate strange terrains, enlist the aid of fantastic creatures, avoid the dreaded Nightmare, and keep an eye on the other denizens of the Dreamwell . In strictly game terms Dreamwell is an abstract game where players, through careful hand management and grid movement/manipulation, will score points (rescue souls) in order to win.

To set up, each player takes two standees of their color and one marker. The board is set up by randomly placing 16 tiles in a 4×4 grid. The tiles can be in any orientation and in an advanced variant they can be flipped to a “dark” side as well. A market of four cards is opened at the top of the grid and each player is dealt out a starting hand of two cards. This is your dreamscape to explore and search for the souls of children lost in the land of dream. Each tile has doors located on the edges or corners which allow for easier movement, a creature in the foreground,  and a terrain in the background. The goal is to meet the requirements of cards (one terrain and two creatures) in order to play them for instant bonuses, game long abilities, and points. On their turn players can take three actions:

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Move

Each player starts off the board with two standees in their color to move around the board. When using an action to move, players are limited to only one tile (adjacent or diagonally) and can only move if in the direction of a door. However, if they move through connecting door on the other tile they get an additional free movement action. In this way, with properly connected tiles, players can move the length of the grid easily.

Rotate a Tile

In order to line up doors, a player can rotate any tile. They don’t have to occupy the tile to rotate it so they can make traveling more difficult for other players if they wish.

Play a Friend Card

Each friend card has three requirements (two creatures and a terrain). If these requirements are met (their standee occupies tiles with corresponding creatures and terrain), that card can be played. Each card will provide a score plus a benefit which is resolved immediately or a game-long bonus ability.

Draw a Friend Card

Take a friend card from the market or draw one off the top of the deck.  

Refresh the Friends Card Display

Discard the market of friend cards and deal out four new ones.

(Advanced) Flip a Tile

If you are choosing to play the advanced variant, you can flip any tile from light to dark or dark to light.

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And that is about it. You are moving your standees around the board in order to line up the requirements to play friend cards and score points. The gameplay is simple and like any abstract game, your are rewarded when planning a few moves ahead. Lining up doors can move you long distances and chaining the right cards can gain you immediate bonuses or game-long abilities. 

The artwork is an immediate draw to the game but, while delightfully surreal, the terrains aren’t distinct enough from each other and often I found myself having to move the standee to see the terrain or move several tiles in order to rotate/flip one. Along with Kodoma: The Tree Spirits, Action Phase Games is certainly on point with art direction. However, unlike Kodoma where the art was added to an already stellar design by Daniel Solis; in Dreamwell, it feels as if they wanted to build a game around the artwork (Edit: Upon review this is actually the case according to the artist’s blog…which is kinda awesome). And they certainly succeeded. Tara McPherson is amazing, more games need to be made based on her artwork, and I have since made a pin of my favorite creature, the Skullflower. Given the choice between Dreamwell with Tara’s artwork and Little’s solid design and some cat/bear/baby-related thing coming out of The Oatmeal, I’ll take Dreamwell in a heartbeat.

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The gameplay is abstract so if you enjoy …and then, we held hands or other abstract games with card play, then this is probably your game. While the theme in the description of the game is engaging, it barely relates to the actual mechanics. Which is a shame if you like a game to be immersive. If you like abstracts though, this isn’t an issue. You are each a person exploring this world but you have two standees (where your divided soul is represented by balloons?) and also you are competing over the rescue of souls? There is an amazing cooperative game in there somewhere. Even providing the names of the friends, creatures, and locations, didn’t help (although I really appreciated it).

A modular board ensures that the game will benefit with repeated play and the card play is engaging. When you have a good feel of the cards, you can start chaining them together and the game can really move forward quickly.

There is very little player interaction. While flipping or rotating a tile may slow down an opponent, the fact everyone has two standees means that you have quite a bit of freedom of movement across the board. Again, this isn’t a criticism and if you enjoy the solitary feeling of Splendor or Dominion, then this could be the type of game you prefer. But if you are looking for interaction, other than standees getting in your way, everyone else may as well not be there.

Bottom Line: Great artwork, and accessible gameplay makes this an enticing game for new players. Lack of player interaction and strategy may not attract experienced players for more than a couple plays. But if you have some friends or family who need a second step game or want to step out of Dixit into something just as strange, then Dreamwell will suit your needs.

Universal Rule – A 4x game in a tiny package that gets the job done

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Note: Universal Rule is on Kickstarter now through November 12!

4X – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. These are games that I really love! You get out there, build an empire, try to take out the other players while also finding new things and managing resources. I love them on computers, I love them in cardboard and really I only have one problem with this genre as a whole. It takes to darned long to play these games! I wish I still had hours to dedicated to them (and sometimes I make the time) but most often I just don’t. Then along came Universal Rule.

Universal Rule plays with 2-5 people, in about 45 minutes for ages 12+. It’s designed by Chip Beauvais and published by Button Shy Games. And it does all this with eighteen freaking cards as part of the Button Shy Games’ wallet series. I’ve played the prototype and pre-Kickstarter print and play versions. There may be some changes to the production version of the game.

Editor’s Note: Button Shy Games are the publishers of my game Ninja – Silent but Deadly.

How to play

In Universal Rule, players are competing to colonize new worlds, exploit them for money or military power and by either cunning or force be the first player to reach the winning number of victory points. 15 points for three players, 13 for four players and 11 for five players.

To start off, there are 17 Planet cards and 1 Universal Rule card. The Universal Rule card is put aside and the 17 planet cards shuffled. Each player is dealt three Planet cards and will choose two to start the game with. The remaining cards, including those discarded by the players are then shuffled into the main deck.

Players will have to provide their own money counters (called Credits) for this game. There’s a hard limit of 25 credits per player. This can be taken care of by providing 1 dime, 2 nickels and 8 pennies per player. Or use something else. I prefer original M&M’s as you can eat them at game’s end.

Each of the 17 different planet cards have an ability that can be used when they are colonized (when they are played to the table). They also have a cost in credits (gold number), a military power (red number, which includes their fleet) and an income (green number) which shows how many credits they could potentially generate. Every non-upgraded planet is also worth 1 victory point, as shown by the star just under the name. When upgraded, the number of stars increases, increasing the total victory points that planet is worth. In addition to this, each Planet card can be rotated 180 degrees to be upgraded – offering generally larger numbers. There’s a cost to upgrading though. From these planet cards each player can determine everything they need to know about their galactic empire. The first player to reach or exceed the winning victory point number on their turn immediately declares themselves the winner.

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On a player’s turn, they can select one of five different actions. Other players can also follow all but one of these actions, for a cost. In a neat twist to other games that feature a similar role mechanic, the role doesn’t vanish when it’s selected (so that other players can also select it) and the players themselves determine the cost of following. To follow, the player sets the cost at a minimum of 1 and a maximum of however many planets they currently have colonized. They set this before they themselves take their action.  If a player decides not to follow, they take 1 credit from the bank. And what are these actions?

Explore: Here players can pay one credit to the bank and choose to draw a card (if any are available) from the deck and add it to their hand. You have a hard limit of 3 cards for your hand.

Colonize: Take a card from your hand and place it on the table. Pay the cost as indicated on the card and that planet is now colonized and in play. If you can afford the more expensive, upgraded side of the planet, you can put a planet directly into play, already upgraded. Other players may follow and pay your follow cost to you, and the cost of colonizing their planet to the bank.

Upgrade: Pay the difference in their planets initial colonize cost and the upgraded cost, then flip their planet card 180 degrees. They now use the upgraded military power and income numbers. When following, other players pay the follow cost in addition to the planet’s upgrade cost. You cannot downgrade a planet.

Produce: The player takes the credits generated by all of the planets colonized and in play. If other players choose to follow this action, they gain their planetary income before they must pay the follow cost – so it is possible to follow this action if you have no cash on hand to start with.

Attack: The one action that cannot be followed. Players select one of their planets to attack with. Let’s go more in depth with this action as combat involves all of the players.

The player doing the attacking picks another player’s planet to attack and then selects one of their planets to lead the attack. Those planet’s military value is where this attack will start. The winner is the one with the most military value, defenders winning all ties. Now comes the neat bit. Each player, starting with the attacker and going in turn order, can add their fleet and as many cards from their hands as they would like to add. To add cards, it’s always the fleet value of that card (signified by the little wings on the Military Power icon) and each card is played face down.

Next, players can add funds to the battle. Each player takes tokens into their hand equal to the number of fleets they possess on planets that aren’t currently the attacking planet or the defending planet. They secretly separate these tokens into funds they want to spend (their right hand) and funds they don’t want to spend (their left hand). Those numbers can be zero.

Now the reveal! At the same time (count to three) all players will reveal their credit support and also point to the player they are supporting – either the defender or the attacker. Now it’s time to total up and see who won. The attack value is the attacking planet’s military power plus all coins revealed by those siding with the attacker plus the fleet value of all cards contributed (played face down above).

The defense value is calculated the same way – the defending planet’s military power plus all coins revealed by those siding with the defender plus the fleet value of all cards contributed.

In this example, almost all of the other players, including my own daughter are siding with my attacker.
In this example, almost all of the other players, including my own daughter are siding with my attacker.

If the attack was successful, the defending planet is downgraded. If it can’t be downgraded, it’s destroyed (and added back into the main deck). The player who contributed the most (in coins, cards and planet’s military power) then takes the Universal Rule card, which is worth 6 victory points. If unsuccessful, each player that supported the defender and contributed at least 1 credit or played 1 card gets a free Explore action, in turn order. If the attacker had the Universal Rule card, it’s returned to the center of the table. Either way, all coins spent in an attack go to the bank and all cards played are discarded to the main deck.

And that is the game – play continues around the table until someone hits or exceeds the vp total needed to win. Quite a bit going on for a little game like this!

Why you should play

4x games can be a bit on the complicated side. While that’s certainly ameliorated by having only 18 cards in play, Universal Rule is not a simple little card game. There’s a lot going on here! Thankfully the graphic design choices put everything you’ll ever need about each world right on the card. That makes playing this game a lot simpler when everything you could possibly want to know is right in front of you on the table or in your hand. I love that this game turns an hours long 4x experience into less than an hour play time even with five players! I still feel like I’ve gotten my 4x experience in as well, which is gratifying.

I love the inclusion of following on other players actions (or at least earning a credit) as it keeps all of the players, even in a five player game, on their toes and thinking during each player’s turn. Everyone’s engaged – and if there’s combat? Woo boy, then everyone’s really engaged.

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Metal tokens do not come with this game.

There are a lot of interesting, sometimes stressful decisions to be made at any point in the game as well. The need to explore to have more cards (and potential colonized worlds) in your hand balances with the need to actually get some planets on the table and generate income. Do you add these worlds to your budding empire? Save the cards so you can properly defend or attack another player? Maybe you just need to expand your base so you can generate more cash. More cash means the ability to follow more often, so you can get more done! But then that depletes your ability to add money into an attack and grab the Universal Rule card for six victory points!

The special powers, unique military and credit values and the differing victory point values (once upgraded) of each planet mean that even after many plays of this game there’s still a good deal of replayability built right in.

Really, the most telling thing I can say about Universal Rule is that five minutes after getting soundly thumped in my first game I was thinking about different paths I could have taken and itching to get another play in as soon as possible. Chip and Button Shy Games have really hit this one out of the park – this could be the most game I’ve ever seen squeezed onto 18 cards. I’m saying that as someone who loves to play and collect tiny games. The ability to sit down and pull a legitimate 4x game out of my pocket, and I mean literally out of my jean’s pocket, is pretty amazing. Yes, you do have to add your own counters for the in-game cash, but that’s a trivial thing. A bag of M&M’s costs about eighty cents and two rolls of pennies costs exactly one dollar and each are just as portable as the game itself.

Universal Rule is currently on Kickstarter and can be had for $10. This is Button Shy’s 21st project on Kickstarter and they have a very solid track record of delivering good games on time.

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Three Ring Circus: Sanssouci

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.

Setup

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.

Play

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.

Help Me! A ten minute review of a five minute game

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Help Me! published by Libellud, designed by Dong-Hwa Kim for 2 players, ages 8+ and plays in literally five minutes.

Here we have a charming little game first published waaaay back in 2011. It’s a strictly two player affair that features cool illustrations of nature spirits and a simple tile placement/stacking mechanic. It’s actually quite fun and can be found for relatively cheap.

How to play

Here I’m going to indulge myself and copy directly from the instructions for once so you can get the whole of this game in a simple sentence. Score more points than your opponent by placing your creatures on top of stacks of tiles which will be made during the game. That… is a pretty easy to learn game, right? Lets look a bit deeper. If you want to skip the how’s and get to the why’s – head on down to the Why you should play section.

The game consists of 30 Avatar tiles, each featuring one of six creatures. Each creature has five of their own tiles, numbered 1-5. There are also six Creature tiles. The Avatar tiles are shuffled about and laid out in a five by six tile rectangle. The six Creature tiles are shuffled and two dealt to each player, who keeps them secret from their opponent. The remaining two creature tiles are not to be looked at for the rest of play. Now you’ve set up the game!

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Each player, on their turn, must move an Avatar tile or a stack of Avatar tiles according to the following rules:

A tile or stack of tiles can be moved to a space to the right, left, above or below of its starting position, but cannot move diagonally. Tiles (or stacks) must move onto an adjacent tile or stack. When you’re moving a stack (that is more than 1) of Avatar tiles, you must move the whole thing – it cannot be split. Once a player has made their single move, it’s their opponent’s turn. Now you know the rules! The game is over when no more Avatar tiles can be moved. Let’s get on to scoring.

At the end of the game, players reveal who their two Creatures are (on their Creature tiles) and score up stacks. Any single Avatar tiles are claimed by the player who owns that Creature tile. Any stacks of Avatars belong wholly to the player who claims the Avatar tile on top. A stack is worth the number of tiles in it (so three tiles = 3 points). A tile by itself, regardless of the number on it is worth 1 point. Now here comes the bit that slightly harder to follow. A tile is worth the number of points printed on it if and only if these conditions are met: It can’t be on the top of a stack, it must be the same creature that is on the top of the stack and it must match one of the two creatures that the player owns.

That’s the game, the first one should take you about ten minutes and each game after that perhaps four or five minutes with an extra minute for scoring.

Why you should play

help-me-1First and I think most important, this game is straight up, simple, easy to learn, hard master fun. Well, not terribly hard to master but still a heck of a lot of fun. It plays in about the same time as a hand of Love Letter but feels like a complete game.

While game play itself is simple, pick up a tile or stack of tiles. move them up/down/left/right, the scoring is where your strategy comes to the front. To score more points, you must ensure your higher point tiles are in a stack of other tiles with that same creature on the top of the stack. You can spend a few moves getting a decent stack of tiles together only to have your opponent move an unrelated creature to the top and strand those tiles so no more can be moved on them. If you’re not careful it can be a little frustrating  – the good news is that a whole game lasts just five minutes, so your chance for revenge won’t be far off.

Add to that the gorgeous artwork, small size and equally small price tag (most retailers should have it for under $10) and you’ve got a great two player game that you can kill fifteen minutes with in a best of three series.

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