Onitama – a relaxed, fun chess-like game that isn’t anything like chess

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I tend to look at my board game collection as an investment. Not in the monetary sense but more in the sense of time well spent or time that could be well spent. I’ve got games in my collection that I have not yet played and probably won’t play for a year or two. Why? Because I think they’d be a great fit for my almost 11 year old and me when she’s a bit older. Or that they’d work really well with some friends who I just haven’t been able to get together to play games with. Others are there because I could see myself playing them now and for years and years to come. Onitama fits into all of these categories.

Onitama is a game by Shimpei Sato, published by Arcane Wonders, for two players ages 8+ and playable in 15-20 minutes.

How to Play

The actual rules for Onitama are easily fit on to a single printed page. It’s not terribly complex in execution. The strategies and tactics that you’ll find yourself employing while playing however are anything but simple. Here’s the first comparison to Chess – there’s just a few pieces and a board consisting of 25 square spaces (compared to Chess’ 64).

Players unroll the board, which is printed on a play mat, and set up their pieces. Each player gets one  Master piece and four Disciple pieces. There are also 15 different movement cards, of which five will be used every game. The Master piece is placed on that player’s Gate (the middle of the 5 spaces closest to that player) while the four Disciples are placed on the two spaces on either side of the Gate.

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Shuffle the movement cards and deal out two to each player. Flip over the top card of the deck to determine who goes first – each movement card has a colored icon to represent one of the two players – blue or red. This fifth movement card will be placed next to the starting player’s right side of the board. The movement cards are each named after a (real or fictional) animal and show one black space and several lighter spaces. The black space represents the current location of the piece you’re moving. The lighter spaces represent spaces relative to the starting space where that piece will end it’s move.

The starting player selects one of their movement cards and executes the move on it. They then take this card, slide it up to their left hand side of the board and take the fifth movement card placed to their right side of the board.

The second player does the same, and play moves forward with a continuous exchange of just-used movement cards.

If either the Master or the Disciple pawns ever end their movement on a space occupied by an enemy pawn (either Master or Disciple) that enemy pawn is knocked out of the game. Players can move through their own pieces while executing a move but cannot end their move on one of their own pieces.

Play continues until either one player’s Master is removed from the game or your can position your Master pawn on an opponent’s gate (which is the middle space on the row closest to that player).

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Why you should play

Onitama is one of those rare games where I don’t just play it. I play it four, five, six times in a row – generally against the same opponent. I could easily burn an hour or two playing, resetting and playing again. It’s wonderfully addictive, easy to teach, always the same basic game but constantly different as each game unfolds. No two games really play the same when you’re only using a third of the available moves in each game and those constantly change with a shuffle.

This game is one that I love playing now. My daughter enjoys it but hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it – as she gets older though I can see her mastering this more and more. I can also see myself playing this game essentially for the rest of my life. Once you get the hang of it, you really want to spend more time with it so you can start to master it. That’s where I just can’t escape the Chess comparison. There’s a lot going on and you have to think several moves in advance. On the surface it’s simple, deep into the game though it’s really a match of wits with your opponent and game play can get very complex in the back and forth. So it’s not Chess, even though it shares some qualities.

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The components are beautiful, from the box that houses the game right down to the individual cards and pieces. The artwork is minimalistic but elegantly so and clearly reflects the spirit of the game. The theme is, well, about as appropriate as that of Chess. It’s a fight you’re entering into with each game but it’s an elegant fight.

I’d say that Onitama would make a perfect opening game except I think I’d find myself playing it a whole bunch and having it turn into one of the main courses. It is a great lunch time game if there’s two of you. Once you have the basics down (which takes one play) you can get 3-5 games into an hour, depending on how much long and your opponent think during your turns. While this game is no longer in the ‘new hotness’ category, I’d highly recommend picking it up if you haven’t already and have a place in your collections for a two player game.  This is a game that I can see myself playing for as long as I play games.

 

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You’re Fired – the game that (mostly) fired Love Letter

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You’re fired – a phrase that come pre-weighted with a lot of assumptions. It could be the end of your career, or the end of a TV show, or something that happens to older board games when they’re replaced by newer board games. In this case, it’s all of that mashed into one card game! Here we have a fairly light filler that hits all of the same check boxes as Love Letter but hits them with a bit more force and adds a few extra check boxes as well.

You’re Fired – designed by Doug Levandowski and published by Button Shy Games. The game is for 2-4 players and takes about 15 minutes to play. My review is in two parts. The first part, How to play goes over the game play itself. If you’re just looking for my opinion skip over to the Why you should play section.

Disclaimer: I don’t get to put this here disclaimer up very often so pay attention. Button Shy has also published one of my very own designs, Ninja – Silent but Deadly. You should know that this in no way affects this review – I purchased this game myself before my own game was published.

fired

How to play

The goal of this game is to eliminate your opponents boss before they eliminate yours. Simple, right?

Each player gets one of four companies – and with that company comes 11 cards. Shuffle all 11 of these cards into a neat little deck. There are also a series of consultant cards in the game – this deck is shuffled and each player is secretly (face down) dealt two. These consultants are shuffled into your deck to make it a nice 13 cards in size.

You draw three cards to form your starting hand. If either player happens to draw their Boss card, they reveal the Boss, draw one extra card and shuffle the Boss back into their remaining deck.

On your turn, you draw a card and then play a card. These cards will most likely be Employees or Consultants. You play your card to the Break Room (discard pile) face up. Every card has some kind of effect on it which happens when you play it. There’s also an Unemployment Line area – this is where employees who have been Fired go.

drawplay

A few examples: The Manager. When you play the Manager, you fire a random employee from an opponent’s hand. The Manager can also be Reactive – meaning you can play this card when it’s not your turn. In the Manager’s case, if you’re Boss is about to get fired, you can instead play the Reactive ability of the Manager and said Manager gets fired instead. Which is, in my experience, entirely too realistic.

Some Employees effects are only triggered when they are Fired. Also, there’s the Boss. If the Boss ever ends up fired or played to your Break Room, you lose. If however an opponent tries to Fire your Boss and they fail (because maybe you have an unsuspecting Manager handy) you get to shuffle your Break Room cards and your hand back into your main deck and draw a new hand.

Photo Credits: Maurice Fitzgerald
Photo Credits: Maurice Fitzgerald

There are a few changes if you’re playing with 3 or 4 players – each time a player is eliminated (their Boss is fired/taking a break) the other players shuffle their Break Room and hand into their deck and draw a new hand.

Game play continues until only one player is left still employed

Why you should play

If you enjoy Love Letter – this is a lot like it but better. Why is it better? You’ve got more options, you’ve got several ways of recycling many cards in your deck, the Intern cards make every game different (and this works better than Love Letter’s taking 1 card and putting it aside). Sure, their’s player elimination but in a game that lasts fifteen minutes with most of the players being eliminated in the last five it’s really not a strike against it.

Now my family (for a wonder, all four of us) really do enjoy a good game of Love Letter. It’s fast, simple, easy to teach, easy to learn and plays in a very short amount of time. However, it was getting a bit stale for us. Then along came You’re Fired and suddenly we’ve got a game that’s just as fast, just as fun but employs a bit more of a strategic element and where it’s not all that common to knock someone out on the first turn just by guessing a card.

You’re Fired is still a light game but it manages to give you some important choices to make while you’re playing it where you’re not entirely at the mercy of another player’s single card. Those reaction cards are key to this. We as a family really like that.

Now this is a little bit of a “take that” game so keep that in mind if that’s not your style.screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-10-49-48-am

I can say that there’s really only one reason we’re still playing Love Letter at all and that’s this guy:

Other than our occasional forays into Joker territory though we’re pretty much sticking with You’re Fired. It’s just got better game play and is less reliant on only 16 cards being shuffled.

Yeah, this Wok is on Fire (A Review)

wokbox

Hailing from a centuries old tradition of cooking inspired dexterity card games, Wok on Fire is quite the little gem. That first bit isn’t true either but I’ve always wanted to write something like that. Here, you have a game that’s just 58 cards in size, including the player aid/scoring cards. Set for 2-4 players, the game takes less than 20 minutes to play and is good for people aged 8+.

The premise is this: All players are chefs, laboring over a fiery hot wok. With our spatulas we compete with each other to stir-fry, pick and plate the choicest ingredients. Our goals are to make the most complete and desirable meals – failing that we’ll settle for some great meats or collections of memorable spices. Worst case scenario, we end up scooping gobs of green peppers and broccoli – the stuff of nightmares for kids around the world.

How to play

Setup is pretty darned easy. There are 50 ingredients cards. Shuffle them all together. There are four Spatula cards – each player gets one, those not in use go back into the box. There are also four Player Aid cards – one goes in front of each player. If there are less than four players, the player aid cards are still used – as these define the edges of the shared Wok. Other objects (the edge of a round table, a few game boxes or in on memorable case, my cat) can also be used to define the limits of the Wok. This is important during game play.

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One player takes 24 of the 50 cards in the deck and spreads them around the play area (your Wok) face down. The other 26 cards are placed to the side as your supply of ingredients. Then play begins.

Each player will have three phases per turn. Stir Fry, Pick and Chop. In the Stir Fry phase, you take your Spatula cards an flip over at least one card in the Wok. Do this twice. Cards must actually be flipped to qualify as really being stir fried. This should expose a bunch of cards (or hide others).

In the second phase, the Picking phase, you must pick one ingredient, and may pick up to two (depending on what’s visible or not). Certain ingredients, like Chicken or Green Peppers allow you to pick all of the face up versions of that card, for better (chicken) or worse (green pepper).

In the Chopping phase, players take the supply deck and ‘chop’ two more ingredients into the Wok, by flipping the top card off of the deck with a downward, chopping motion and saying “Ha!” (At least, that’s how we do it).

The Picking phase is really the only phase of the three that doesn’t involve some dexterity. Flipping can take skill, particularly if you’re trying to hide less savory ingredients and reveal more desirable cards. Chopping can be interesting as well – you can cover up existing ingredients causing your opponents to try and Stir Fry them back into view. Cards must have a least one corner and the center image visible for you to pick them. Unless it’s Chicken – you can always make a guess that something is chicken. If you’re right, you get a tasty meat ingredient. If you’re wrong, back in the wok the card goes.

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Ingredients stir fried or chopped out of the Wok remain outside the Wok until the next player’s turn, where they are chopped back in. A practice I don’t encourage while actually cooking.

What’s the purpose of all this – besides making a delicious cardboard meal? Why – the card combos of course! At the end of the game players will arrange their cards into the most favorable combinations with full meals scoring tons of points and combos of meats, spices and sets of ingredients scoring points based on the number and variety of cards. Get to many of the less desirable ingredients and you’ll be subtracting points too.

Play continues until the Supply deck is empty and then players pull out calculators or napkins and start working out their score.

Photo credit: Natasha Tadisch
Photo credit: Natasha Tadisch

Why you should play

Wok on Fire is a very quick, fairly easy game to play provided you have the space to flick around a bunch of cards. The game itself is quite fun and is reminiscent of Sushi Go but with a dexterity component. It can be fairly quick but doesn’t involve a lot of players getting in each other’s way – speed isn’t an issue so much as accuracy is.

We very much enjoyed this aspect of the game. Scoring is a little fiddly though, as you look at the image above. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but we weren’t expecting as complicated a schema as there is. What we found was that in our first few games, scoring took almost as long as the actual game itself. In later games however, we realized why the scoring is they way it is, and this is important. You can actually employ a good deal of strategy in your Stir Fry and Chop phases keeping the scoring in mind. Suddenly our games were a bit slower – more in line with the 20 minutes listed on the box.

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We’d carefully flip in just the right way, and happily chop cards face down over important ingredients we knew our opponents could really use. So yes, the scoring can be a little bit of work at first but after a few plays, the end game is a presence throughout the actual game – directing us to try and aim better and make smarter choices in picking cards.

The one real complaint I have about this game is the box. It looks great, colorful and fun. It took us about five minutes of wrangling to get the darned thing open though. The top fits so snugly over the bottom that gravity just can’t do it’s thing. Forcing the box made me wary that I’d rip a corner (I didn’t) but it’s a tight fit. It’s getting better with repeated openings. Other than this issue, the game is well made, with nice linen finished cards and a neat take out menu/rule book.

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If you’d like to add an additional challenge, I can suggest adding a cat into the mix while playing on a bed, as we did.

Viceroy: Stunning Artwork, Delightful Mechanism, Dead Theme.

In Viceroy, you are struggling for power and control of the fictional, and difficult to pronounce, world of Laar, which according to the card art is one heck of a confusing place full of profoundly interesting people. In Laar, just like real life, power is all about networking and your personal connections. However, everyone else is vying for these connections as well. For that reason you bid on and recruit (snagging them from the grasping, greedy hands of other players) different personages to add to your personal pyramid of power. You can also support specific laws that help cement your rise to power. But you have limited time and space and your power is represented by a pyramid where you stack personages in varying heights in order to gain their influence and reward. The higher they are in your infrastructure the better your reward. At the end of the game, the player with the most victory points wins.

The Game

  1. Designer: Yuri Zhuravlev
  2. Publisher: Mayday Games
  3. Number of Players: 1-4
  4. Ages: 10+
  5. Playing Time: 45-60
  6. Mechanic: Auction/Bidding, Bluffing, Negotiation (?)

The Rules

Your rise to power in Viceroy takes place over 12 rounds. In each of these round, the players will be bidding on the cards (personages) available in the market through a series of secret bids. Then during the second phase of the round players will have the option to play cards and pay the appropriate cost to place them in their pyramid.

Phase One: Auction

At the beginning of the game, each player gets a supply of gems that remain hidden behind their screens. These gems are the currency of the game. During the auction phase, when the player finds a card from market they wish to bid on, they secretly choose a gem of the corresponding color from their supply and cradle it within their delicate, bureaucratic, little fist. Now, if each player secretly bids a different color then everyone goes home happy and picks up their newly acquired card. However, if they chose the same color then they both lose their bids and have to repeat the auction (players that won a card don’t bid again, basking in their own ephemeral glory). Players can choose to pass and not bid. By doing so they get to take three gems from the supply. Once everyone has won a card or passed, any remaining cards are moved up in the market above their color. There are eight open spots in the market, two for each of four different colors so unwon cards can be bid upon the next round. This will mean that some gems will have two cards associated with it and thus if two people bid on it, they can hash out who gets what. Technically, both people could ride it out arguing over whose merits are higher but generally they just arbitrarily decide who takes what. Additionally, it is encouraged to negotiate through the bidding process. Mind you, this is a suggestion to which no-one ever pays any attention. Bidding is largely a somber and silent affair.

The auction mechanic of bidding simultaneously and simply (you can’t out bid anyone) does lead to a very quick phase without that annoying slow up-bid that many auction games have.

Phase Two: Development

During the next phase of the round, each player can add to their pyramid. Players place a card in front of them (or pass but without any benefit) and then simultaneously reveal the card. If players discard a card from their hand they get two gems from the supply. Each played card has a cost to play which is cumulative the higher you go in your power pyramid so one gemstone at level one, two at level two, etc. The player can then get the bonus provided by the card played. Bonuses increase the higher the card is placed in the pyramid but the bonuses are not cumulative. Law cards are free to place anywhere in the pyramid but obey the same building rule of having to be played on top of two lower cards. work a bit different and are free to play in any level.  Over three rounds of building, players can add up to three cards to their pyramid if they choose to.

The Review

Artwork: The components in Viceroy are stellar. My copy came with plastic gemstones and a mat for the auction. Both of which were nice additions but even without, the gem tokens are sturdy and the cards certainly high enough quality. The artwork is amazing. Gorgeous. Each card has a unique piece of artwork and the quality of the artwork is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it adds much to the enjoyment of the game but on the other hand it presents a promise never completely delivered — a highly thematic experience.

Mechanics over theme:  The theme is hardly there. The gameplay is smooth and flows well but you never feel anything throughout the game. Visually it makes sense, you are basically bribing notable figures and then granting them positions of influence in your power infrastructure. In return they provide you with a bonus benefiting the rank you provide. But it isn’t cutthroat. You are never really vying for the cards. One will generally work as well as another. It is stoic, multiplayer solitaire. But, that said, it is well crafted multiplayer solitaire. And if you like Dominion, 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy, then this will fall instantly into your wheelhouse. Otherwise, it will probably be too dry and too dull.

Multiple paths to victory and plenty of breathing room for strategy: Dull may be a harsh and unfair criticism of Viceroy. While there is very little interaction with other players, there are plenty of paths to take for victory. And if you enjoy trying new strategies, then you can certainly find something interesting for a few plays.  I loved the sliding action of the auction which allows itself to constantly refresh and provide more possibilities to add to your pyramid. But this still feels like a pair of really good mechanics which need a better game to put them together into more of an engaging experience.

Higher player count: This game is dull as dirt with two players. There is very little competition over cards and rarely will you lose a gem over a contested card. However, the competition increases with more players. If you can just give up on playing this game with two players; it simply isn’t worth it. There are far better two players games out there.  

The Rub

Viceroy is an gorgeous game with some unique mechanisms but is devoid of theme and player interaction. If you enjoy a solitaire game with friends or enjoy games with numerous scoring options and paths to victory, then Viceroy will work for you.  then you would likely be very happy. However, if you want any (and I do mean *any*) thematic integration in your games then pass this one by and hope that someone in the future takes the wonderful pyramid-building, color schemed mechanism and makes a game out of it. That said, the price point is low enough that I think it is worth taking a chance on.

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I got better! ~ A Review of Broom Service

Welcome to Broom Service! Ours is a delivery service where we enlist the services of the finest and most dedicated witches, druids and gatherers, to find and deliver a selection of fine potions to your tower. No matter the location, the distance, or the obstacles, we’ll get it there. Don’t waste your time with the competition, even though they will likely feed you the same line since we all are competing from the same pool of magical talent. The play is simple —  For each of the seven rounds of the game, players will choose four of ten role cards to help them gather potions, fly across the board, deliver potions, and clear obstacles. However, each role card has a safer, “cowardly” action and a daring, “brave” action. If you go for the gusto and take a brave action you may lose everything. If you sit back and play it safe, everyone may leave you in the dust. You’ll need to read your rival delivery services and do both to make it in Broom Service.

The Game

Designer: Andreas Pelikan, Alexander Pfister

Publisher: Ravensburger
Number of Players: 2-5
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 30-75
Mechanic: Pick-up and Deliver, Press Your Luck, Simultaneous Action Selection, Bluffing

The Setup for Broom Service (Image Credit: Meaples Magazine)
The Setup for Broom Service (Image Credit: Meoples Magazine)

The Rules

as stated above the core mechanic in Broom Service is role selection where players will choose which roles will allow them to collect resources (potions and wands), move across the board to new territories, and drop off potions at the proper tower in order to score points and bonus resources. The tricky part though is the bluffing element in the role selection.  Each player has the same ten roles which make up their hand and their two pawns on the board are in the same two castles at the start of the game. So, it is likely everyone is going to choose similar cards at the start of the game.

The Role Cards:

At the beginning of each round, players will choose four of the following ten role cards to place into their hands. Additionally, an event card will be flipped over which will have some effect on points at the end of the round (either bonuses or penalties). Either way, these event cards shape how players will create their hand. Also, for games with less than the full compliment of five players, a few role cards will be drawn from an unused deck to be “bewitched.” These cards will incur a penalty if players use them.

  1. Gatherers (3): The gatherers are three different colors and collect three different colored potions (orange, purple, and green). A “cowardly” gatherer would take one single potion from the reserve. A “brave” gatherer would collect up to three resources (potions and wands).
  2. Witches (4): These are your primary source of transportation around the board, allowing your pawn to move from one area to a connecting area. Each witch corresponds to a specific landscape (Hill, Mountain, Prairie, Forest) which is the only type of area on the board they can travel. A “cowardly” witch allows the player to move a pawn into a corresponding, adjacent region. A “brave” witch does the same thing but can also deliver a potion to a tower. Delivery to towers is one of the primary ways points are scored in the game so the witches get used often.
  3. Druids (2): These slow moving fellas deliver potions to towers within certain landscapes. A “cowardly” druid just delivers the potion and gains the victory points on the tower. A “brave” druid gets those points plus a 3 point bonus.
  4. The Weather Fairy: The weather isn’t the best and only the weather fairy can disperse dangerous storm clouds to allow the witches access to an area. Additionally, clouds can be dispersed (through the spending of wands) to gain additional points at the end of the game. .

Bottom line: Gatherers get the goods, the weather fairy clears the way to allow witches and druids to transport the potions into the appropriate tower.

A gatherer (Image Credit: Meople's Magazine)
A gatherer (Image Credit: Meople’s Magazine)

Cowardly vs. Brave Actions:

Each card has two actions: A “brave” action and a “cowardly” action. The brave action provides a greater benefit to the person playing it, but it can also be overruled by another player with the same card, leaving the original player without any benefit. Here is where the “Duty To Follow” rule can really mess you up. It requires that you follow a previous player’s card with your own if you have the same card. You may have planned something in a specific order but now you need to quickly rethink your plan and try to save the round and gain some points. This is how you need to think in this game. Each selection of cards should be able to be played out of order in order to gain some benefit in points or in a set-up for a future round.

The “cowardly” action is safer but provides less of a benefit. However, it is taken immediately so you get something. The core of the game is that only one player can take a “brave” action for each of the roles. So, say that you play the Weather Fairy and state that you are a brave Weather Fairy and you are totally going to dispel these clouds and make some bank. However, if the person next to you has the Weather Fairy in her hand, she has a “Duty to Follow” and will play her card. If she takes the “brave” action, you are left in the dust with nothing. If she takes the “cowardly” action she get to take it immediately and you can still retain your brave action…at least until subsequent players who also have a Duty to Follow play their cards. They may play the Weather Fairy (cowardly or brave action). This continues until all the players either passed or played the card if they have it. The last person to claim the “brave” action, takes it, plays the next role and the whole thing starts again. Once everyone is out of cards, a new round begins, a new event card is flipped, people pick four roles, and the last person to take a brave action in the previous round will start this round.

That is pretty much it! You will score points (in the basic game) by delivering potions, dispelling clouds, and keeping sets of resources at the end of the game. Some towers will only have room for one potion so once it is delivered, nothing else can be delivered there. Other towers can take as many potions as you can deliver to it. Some towers are in the middle of a particular landscape (such as right smack dab in the middle of the forest) while other towers lay on the boundary between two or three different types of landscape. In this case (say a tower is on the border between Hills and Forest) both witches of those corresponding types can deliver a potion. Each cloud has a number and an amount of lightning bolts on it. The number represents how many wands it will take to dispel the cloud with a Weather Fairy and the number of lightning bolts are tallied up at the end of the game. The more lightning, the more points at the end of the game.

The round towers take one potion and the square towers take multiple potions (Image Credit: Meoples Magazine)
The round towers take one potion and the square towers take multiple potions (Image Credit: Meoples Magazine)

The Review

I admit to being a bit skeptical when this game won this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres award. It seemed that the competition (Orléans and Elysium) were both games that provided a wider decision space and more of a strategic experience. I say seemed since I have not had the opportunity to play either of them but I walked into this review doubtful that I would enjoy the game. Broom Service seems lighter (and it certainly is a lighter game than previous winners Istanbul, Legends of Village, and 7 Wonders) and is very chaotic especially in the higher players counts. However, there are several things I really enjoyed with Broom Service.

The Role Cards: The Role Cards are the most clever part of this game. They allow you to gather the resources you need, move them to where they need to go, and clear out obstacles in your path. The ability to take a safe (cowardly) and risky (brave) action really plays on your ability to read what other players have in their hand or predict what they might do. Unlike other role selection games such as Citadels or San Juan your action is not guaranteed. This provides the pivotal decision of the game — go for the brave action (if you think no-one else has the card) or play it safe and take the cowardly. Either way, you need to read your opponents first if you want to ensure yourself a good run.

Multiple Plans of Action: It seems so simple to pick four role cards that will chain together to gain you some points. The gatherer will get me some potions, the weather fairy will clear out some clouds, the witch will deliver the goods, and then another gatherer will get me some potions for next round…however, it rarely goes as planned. This forces you to determine some random paths to points on your turn. This leads to the core emotion of this game — unbridled frustration. You plans will ultimately be ruined if your role cards you are chosen by others and then played out of the order you set them.

Initiative: The other tricky thing about claiming a brave action is that it may give you initiative in the next round. Going first isn’t necessarily the best option for you to play. If you sit last in line after your original plan was ruined you can gain small benefits while other people take the risk. I’d also like to say that with player counts less than 5 you have cursed roles that penalize you for using that role during the round. This provides a great opportunity to play those cards and score some big points while taking the small deduction of points. 

Theme: I’ve heard some complaints that the theme wasn’t particularly tight in Broom Service but I really enjoyed the idea that each player was a potion delivery company vying for the services of all these independent contractors on the board. You think you have the Hill Witch in the bag to deliver some potions but your competition keeps on snagging them out from under you. It may be a slight stretch on the mechanics but it works.

The board looks like Small World, the components are cute as heck, the artwork on the cards are amazing. It looks gorgeous and approachable for such an, at times, frustrating, bluffing game. (Image Credit: Meople's Magazine)
The board looks like Small World, the components are cute as heck, the artwork on the cards are amazing. It looks gorgeous and approachable for such an, at times, frustrating, bluffing game. (Image Credit: Meople’s Magazine)

The Rub

Broom service is an entry level pick-up and deliver game with added bluffing. The map on the game board greatly resembles Small World and has some amazing artwork on the cards which really invokes the theme.  And also similar to Small World, the game shines at the higher player counts when there is very little room for everyone as you rush to deliver potions. The artwork and design is beautiful and deceiving. It lulls you into the belief that this is a nice children’s game but the game play can be brutal and stressful. This will lead you into a whirlpool of self-doubt about which cards you should play in a round. “Is this too obvious?” “I’m sure that Susie is going to go with the Hill Witch but I really need a Hill Witch…maybe I’ll just go with a Weather Fairy. That seems safe.” Meanwhile Susie was thinking the exact same thing. That said, the game teaches quickly, and the core mechanisms are simple enough for emerging gamers to learn on their first try. The added variants will provide enough variability to ensure a few more games without adding to much complexity and the bluffing surrounding the roles leads to expressive game play. We laugh. We groan. We curse the gods. And isn’t that what games are all about?

broom service

Review: GemPacked Cards – the newest game from Pencil First Games

GemPacked Cards is a card game based on an iOS app. Or is it an iOS app based on a card game? Either way, it’s a quick, overtly simple set collection game suitable for kids but with a bit of hefty strategy mixed in for us adults as well. You can find it on Kickstarter right now!

gempacked1

Eduardo Baraf, creator of such games as  Lift Off! Get me off this Planet! and The Siblings Trouble was kind enough to send over not only a physical prototype of GemPacked Cards but an invitation to spend some time with the beta iOS app as well. This review will focus on the physical iteration of the game but I’ll talk a bit about the app as well.

How to play GemPacked Cards

gempacked2(Stolen directly from the BGG page) During each round, players use the Gemino Pip Tokens they draw to try to acquire higher level Gemino Squares and Gemino Diamonds (worth victory points) or trade for Sun or Nova cards. All cards are played face up. When the last Gemino Pip Tokens are drawn from the starting pile, each player has one remaining turn before the round ends and players tally their score.

In more detail, at the start of a turn, a player draws two Gemino Pip Tokens, then takes any of the following actions in any order and as many times as they like:

  • Trade GPips for GSquares on the card grid (placing pips in the common pool)
  • Trade GSquares for GDiamond on the card grid (placing cards in the discard pile)
  • Discard GSquares for GPip equivalents from the common pool (placing discards in the discard pile)
  • Trade GPips for the Sun card or GSquares for the Nova card

At the end of their turn, the player refills the card grid from the draw deck one at a time. If they reveal any Action Cards, those cards are resolved immediately, starting with the active player, then moving clockwise around the table.

After the last Gemino Pip Token is drawn and the final player has a turn, players score their hands as well as Sun/Nova points. (GPips are not worth any points, but should be tracked each round as a tie breaker.) Whoever has the most points wins.

That’s how to play it but how does it play?

I was able to get in a good number of 2 and 3 player games with one of my daughters and a few other friends. I’ll say this – as easy as the game appears, it’s just a bit strange to pick it up the first time and dive in. Keep in mind that I’m playing with an unfinished product and while the rule book was fairly polished other changes have and will happen before this comes to kickstarter.

Getting over that initial bit of head scratching with the simple solution of setting the game up and playing it, everything clicked together nicely. Both I and my 9 year old started the initial play together and about 2 turns into the game we both had our “ahhh that’s how this works” moment.

What we have here is a light set collection game based on colors and shapes. 2 and 3 player games all played in about 20 minutes which I think is the perfect space for a game like this. While appearing initially to be a pretty simple color match game, Ed’s decision to include both construction of larger, points worthy cards and deconstruction of these for smaller cards that may help attain other, richer goals is key. That’s the part of this that lets you get nicely creative and pull of moves and combos that are worthy of much weightier seeming games.

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What I enjoyed most about this game was that, while everyone is constrained by the mechanics to build better, higher point cards, we can all go about it a little differently. One player will collect a set of Squares using one wild Pip and then break that down to other Pips they need to get to a much higher scoring Diamond. While others will go straight forward Pip to Square to Diamond and a third will do a combination of the two where they feel it’s necessary.

All of our games were fairly close provided each player had played it once. New players have a tendency to get slightly crushed while they’re getting a feel for the game but this may not be the case for everyone out there.

Components

While I can’t speak to the final game as we’re playing with a prototype here, I can speak towards the art. GemPacked Cards is a cute game. I don’t mean cute as in “ooh look, a kitten!” I mean CUTE as in “Stop pouring baby animals on me!” Is this a bad thing? I think that depends.

It doesn’t bother me in the least and both of my kids (9 and 12) were all over the artwork while their voices went up several octaves with every exclamation. It doesn’t detract from the game at all for me but other’s who prefer the look of say, Chaos in the Old World may not be huge fans.

Clearly this game is aimed towards a certain audience and I think it hits that mark dead center.

Pencil First Games did a wonderful job components wise (and game wise) on Lift Off! Get Me Off This Planet (my review at the link) so if that’s any indication on how the components for GemPacked Cards will turn out I think we’ll all be happy.

iOS 

The GemPacked iOS app (available at iTunes for $0.99) looks very similar to the physical card game but plays a bit differently. The app is a series of timed challenges in which you set out to meet certain goals. The implementation is smooth and graphically as pleasing as the card game. It’s not really my kind of app but luckily I have a 9 year old who thrives on games like this. She gives it an exuberant two thumbs up, Roger Ebert style.

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It’s an interesting direction to go in where the app and the physical game look alike but play very differently. I personally have no issues with this but those who enjoy the physical game should take note that they won’t be getting the exact same experience digitally.

Final Thoughts

I like GemPacked Cards and would certainly play it again. The 20 minute card game (many call ’em ‘filler games’) hits a sweet spot in my current game playing style as I can squeeze in a game here and there when I time allows. I really enjoy smaller games that are easy to dive into but that reward multiple plays with interesting, unfolding strategies. GemPacked is one of those games.

I had to move my prototype copy along to another review and both I and my daughter were sad to see it go. We’re both looking forward to the day when the game is released so we can pick it up and get some more plays in!
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ebaraf/gempacked-cards/widget/card.html?v=2

 

A review of Saint Malo from Ravensburger

Saint Malo is designed by Inka and Markus Brand — designers of the Kennerspiel des Jahres winner, Village — and published by Ravensburger.  In this dice rolling, city building game, players roll dice (Yahtzee style) to place items, locations and people into their city. However, unlike other city building games, Saint Malo has dropped all the components (no tiles or cubes) and instead makes some innovative use of dry erase markers and templates. It plays 2-5 players, and takes about 45 minutes to play although it  can go to about an hour with larger player counts. The game is heavy on luck and tactical choices and despite the markers, no artistic ability is needed!

 

 

The Rules

This game is a simple implementation of a city building game without sacrificing too much complexity. There is very little in the box: a central board to track pirate raids, 5 player boards to build your individual cities, markers to draw where buildings and people will go and dice to roll and determine what items you can place during a turn. Setup is a breeze: Place the main board in the middle, give each player a marker and a player board. Give the youngest player the five dice and off you go.

Similar to King of Tokyo/New York, Bang!: The Dice Game, Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age, and D-Day Dice, on your turn you roll all five dice, keep the ones you want and then reroll the rest for up to three rolls.The dice have six symbols — a log, a crate, a wall, a cross, a head, and crossed swords.  As a quick aside: There are no locking dice in this game. No result is stuck and locked in place: Everything can be rolled again. When you roll a crossed swords (representing the pirates getting closer to a raid) it doesn’t lock and it can be rerolled. If you aren’t happy with your final roll, it costs two gold per die to flip them to a desired result. I like to think of this as bribing town officials. It provides a nice little thematic bump.

Quickly, let us review the symbols on the dice and your options on your turn. After you roll you  choose one result rather than resolving all the results as in Bang! The Dice Game. This makes it more similar to Biblios: The Dice Game (or Scripts and Scribes) except minus the dice drafting. Whatever, here you go.

  1. Logs: Draw the number of resulting logs into your lumber storage (there are two logs preprinted on your board already). These logs are worth victory points at the end of the game and can be used during the game to build houses with an architect. It costs 2 gold to transport the logs using this action so make it worth your while and wait until you get a nice bunch of logs.  
  2. Crates: Draw the number of resulting crates on your board (there are four already preprinted on the board). The crates rolled (not the ones previously placed) must be placed next to each other. Good crates generate one gold per crate when you place a merchant next to them (or diagonally). Gold can be used to flip dice, transport logs, and are worth victory points at the end of the game at a ratio of 2:1.
  3. Walls: Walls can only be added to the outer perimeter of your city. You draw the number of walls rolled anywhere on that outer perimeter. Once a side is completed with all walls (you can build or place other things on the perimeter) a bonus is gained (two gold, 3 VP, or a level 1-3 personage is added to your city). But most importantly the uninterrupted wall will help protect your city from pirate raids.
  4. Crosses: These let you build a single church of varying “strength.” You’ll place a number from 1-5 corresponding with number of crosses rolled. Churches in sequential order are worth points at the end of the game.
  5. Heads: Rolling heads allows you to add people of increasing importance to your city. One head lets you place a citizen for one VP. Two heads allows you to add a soldier (which increases your protection against pirate attack) or a priest (which allows you to score points if placed adjacent to a church). Three heads allows you to add an architect (which uses logs to build houses and score increasing amounts of points — 3, 6, 9, 12) or a merchant (which provides one gold per adjacent goods crate). Four heads add a juggler for two points per adjacent personage type and five heads add a noble who does absolutely nothing but gives you 7 points.
  6. Pirates: Lastly, for any crossed swords at the end of a roll, you tick off one box on the main board. When a row is filled (this differs for the amount of people playing) the pirates come and attack everyone. If you have enough defense to beat the (ever increasing) strength of the pirates, you stave off the attack and suffer no penalty. If you are not strong enough you cross off a cannon off your board which reminds you to deduct five points at the end of the game for every cannon crossed off. You build your defenses with soldiers (+1) and uninterrupted walls (+2).

The dice are rolled up to three times and you choose which of the above symbol to use. So on your turn you can either build a wall, build a church, place a person, place crates, or ship logs to your warehouse. Impetuous pirate symbols are recorded no matter what.

The game is over after one player fills in all 45 of their board spaces. The round continues until everyone has one last turn and the end game points are tallied and added to the incidental points throughout the game (priest, citizens, jugglers, architects, nobles).

  • +5 for having filled all your city spaces
  • +1 for every two coins left in your coffers
  • +1 per log you have left in your warehouse,
  • +1-20 for church series,
  • and a -5 penalty for each cannon crossed off.  

Player with the most points, wins!

Capture

The Review

The Reduction of Components: Both a blessing and curse, the components are reduced in Saint Malo. Mostly this is done by a clever utilization of erasable boards and dry erase markers rather than physical components. The box is missing all the cubes, tiles, monies, and assorted goodies standard in a modern board game. This simplification is wonderful in terms of presenting, teaching and playing the game. It works. The dice provide a nice tactile experience and all your bookkeeping is right in front of you. However, the quality of markers is pretty low. They don’t draw well (the ink bubbles and wells up) and if you are a lefty (like myself) you constantly smear everything across the board. This isn’t a huge issue if you replace the markers in the box with something of a better quality.

Dual Scoring: I love games that score points immediately and then score them at the end of the game. It is a very simply way of adding more strategy to the game without adding too much complexity. The pirates also provide a good foil (similar to feeding your tribe in Stone Age or your family in Agricola) and if you don’t keep up your defenses you can lose some serious points. However, loss of cannons and the resulting 5 point end of game point deduction doesn’t kill your chances, you can start trying to rack up big points with jugglers, nobles, or churches to balance it out. This combination of long and short term strategy and tactical thinking (with the random dice rolls) provide a good second step game for people already warmed up to the concept of modern board games.

Very Accessible: The rules are easily explained and after a couple of practice turns, first time gamers will easily get a feel for the mechanic and the rules. If you were looking at introducing someone to the yahtzee mechanism I would recommend Saint Malo over some of the others I mentioned (especially King of Tokyo, where player elimination can hamper the enjoyment of the game for first timers). However, it is a very dry game and will limited player interaction may not have the legs to keep it on the table for repeated play.

The Rub

Saint Malo is a very simple game: Roll the dice a total of three times. Save the dice you want to keep and reroll the ones you don’t. Melding the tile-laying and city building of games such as Carcassonne with the popular Yahtzee mechanism of Bang! The Dice Game or King of Tokyo, results in a satisfying game with minimal components that is perfect for first time gamers but may not have the legs to keep it at the table for too long.
saint malo

Rapid Reviews: A Couple From Oink Games!

“A group of poor explorers hoping to get rich quickly heads out to recover treasures from some undersea ruins. They’re all rivals, but their budgets force them all to share a single rented submarine. In the rented submarine, they all have to share a single tank of air, as well. If they don’t get back to the sub before they run out of air, they’ll drop all their treasure. Now it’s time to see who can bring home the greatest riches.” (From the BGG Store)

“Thief who crept to roost of monster-troll accumulated a huge gem. At that time it is finally trying to Hakobidaso jewelry, monster of signs is …. It is very Once found in the flesh-eating troll! Thieves is not that he found, and Candidate attempts as much as possible a lot of jewelry, it was the start each other tactics …” (From Oink Games TROLL via Google Translate).

A group of poor explorers. Unlimited riches. Untold Danger. Oink Game’s “Deep Sea Adventure” and “Troll” both play with these themes. They are quick to learn and play, have minimal components and look gorgeous on a shelf…but, despite the packaging, are they any good? Are these filler games worth picking up and tossing into your collection?

The Game:

Designer: Jun Sasaki
Publisher: Oink Games
Ages: 8+
Players: 3-6
Time: 20-30 minutes
Mechanics: Press Your Luck, Roll and Move

In Deep Sea Adventure, everyone begins in the submarine. A particularly nice piece of this design is the inclusion of the game timer (the air supply) on the submarine. The players share a full tank of air at 25 units and count down as the divers exert themselves salvaging the treasure lurking below. Trailing below the submarine is a series of tokens representing treasure of increasing worth as you move further from the sub. One a turn, each player rolls two dice (with pips varying from 1-3 on each dice equalling a total range of movement equalling 2-6 spaces (depending upon encumbrance). If you land on a ruin token, you can chose to pick it up and place it facedown in front of you. If the space’s chip was already picked up, you can choose to put down a chip on that spot. Then you decide whether you are heading back to the submarine or going deeper down.

This is the crux of your decision space in this simple game. Go deeper and pick up a ruin chip that is worth more or head back up and bank what you have in the safety of the submarine. The ruins tokens are worth more the farther you move away from the submarine but the deeper you go, the less likely you will make it back. This seems simple: Dive. Grab Points. Get back to the sub. However, the trick is finding the right time to turn back towards the sub. As people pick up more chips, they use up more air and time can start to move really quick. Now you are loaded with treasure and everyone else is as well. You are sluggish after some unfortunate and air is being sucked down faster than you can count.

And to make things worse, Vasily has been dragging two tokens slowly back to the sub and suddenly dropped one and sped right into safety and banked a bunch!

So the air runs out and you are still floating in the deep. Well, the automatic hitch activates and pulls you back up but you need to drop all the treasure in your possession. You score no points and those tokens are stacked in units of three and put at the bottom of the line. These stacks of three treasure tokens count as one token when it comes to movement. So a sack of three will only slow you down one pip on your roll rather than three. Anyone who made it to the sub with their treasure gets to flip them over and score.

If you failed to make it back to the sub, your colleagues will rescue you minus your treasure, throw you in a decompression chamber to get you into shape for the next dive. If you succeeded in returning to the sub you get to keep your ruin chips and flip them over as treasure. They will not count against your air in the next round.

The main mechanism of Deep Sea Adventure is roll and move. And it works just fine. Yes, you can be stymied by a series of poor rolls but the game is quick enough that you really aren’t dedicating that much time and most games will play shorter than the 30 minutes on the box. The press your luck mechanism of the game is drop dead simple — more you carry, the more oxygen you use up, and the quicker you run out of air to breathe. Thus, you are constantly looking to see how much other people are carrying and calculating how much you can afford to move in order to win.

Oink Games has an amazing line of cute, accessible filler games in the most adorable tiny little boxes I have ever seen (TROLL, In A Grove, Rights, etc). The art work and the components are always minimalistic. Not much on the artwork, the graphic design is crisp and clear. The gameplay simple enough to teach to anyone new to games. The game and the box it came in are beyond endearing. They are cute and engaging enough for its size. Will it satisfy every gamer’s appetite? No. But it provides more than enough tension to make it worthwhile as a filler. It really shines as a family or kid’s game though. And you can’t beat the simplicity of roll, move, and pick up treasure. Do I want to add a giant squid circling the ruins? You bet I do. Will I? Probably.
deep sea adventure

The Game:

Designer: Kouji Kimura
Publisher: Oink Games
Ages: 8+
Players: 3-6
Time: 20-30 minutes
Mechanics: Press Your Luck, Bluffing

In TROLL, you one of 3-5 crafty thieves in a lair of hungry trolls. These trolls have precious jewels and you only have a few days and your wits to escape with as many jewels as possible.

Each thief has a set of six tokens numbered 0-5 representing the number of jewels stolen from the Troll. Each troll in the troll deck has a number (3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15). During the round, each thief will play one of their tokens. The first player (the scout) can look at the troll card to see the value and then plays a token. Then each thief, in order can either play it safe and look at the card and play a token face-up or be daring and place a token face down. When taking a daring action, the thief gets to place a x2 multiplier on the token to represent getting twice the amount of jewels if successful at their gamble.

Once everyone has placed their tokens, the troll card is flipped over and the player’s tokens are arranged from smallest to largest. The tokens are then added up according to the amount of jewels they planned to steal. If your tokens totals less than the revealed troll’s number, you gain the points on your token (with additional multiplier if appropriate). Then the person whose token totaled or exceeded the troll’s number gets captured and gets a -2 penalty. Any one after the woken troll escape getting mauled but they don’t score any points. After two or three rounds (dependant upon the number of players), the game ends and the player with the most points wins.

Troll gets the same high points for design, minimalist presentation and the cute box. However, the bluffing in this game is not particularly compelling. It feels more like quick arithmetic and guesswork than actual bluffing. And when you have something like Skull that does it better and even simpler, there isn’t much reason to bring this one out too often.

deep sea adventure (1)

Quick Review: Lift Off! Get Me Off This Planet!

 

lift off

Early this week I received a copy of Eduardo Baraf’s Lift Off! Get Me Off This Planet! I was excited to see this arrive at my door as I’d been following the campaign eagerly and it looked like a fun game. My 9 year old and I almost immediately tore into the box, set it up and had a go at it. Then we had a second go at it. The premise is simple – your planet is about to explode and you’ve got to get all (or at least the most) of your people off of it ASAP! Shortest of all short reviews? We liked it! Fun game, plays quickly, a bit of strategy and lots of replayability. If you like a little more meat on your reviews, read on.

Game Play

Lift Off is a fairly simple game. The board is set up so that the core of the planet sits in the center. Around this are placed 4 Exit Points and 4 Lift Off Points. The board is modular and actually sits on top of a larger game board to facilitate a few other aspects of play. In the planet’s core you place your 10 ‘alieneeples’ along with the Garglore meeple in the lava pit at the center. The Moon token goes on the top of the board, with the Sun token going on to the Sun area on the number of players in the game.

loboard

Each player is then dealt 2 cards and the game begins! The object is to get your Alieneeples first to the surface of the planet, and then to a Lift Off Point and finally into space (and off of the board). There are two basic resources in the game to facilitate this: Screws and Fuel, with 64 cards representing them. Each Lift Off point will require a certain type of resource to place your Alieneeple on it and ready to go. Such as 1 Screw and 1 Fuel. Lift Off Points can then be triggered by various game states. For instance, the Bonfire Lift Off Point is triggered by someone playing 1 Fuel to it. At that point the Lift Off die is rolled and depending on the moon phase, you’ll need to roll at least 1, 2 or 3 spaceships on the die. If you succeed, than any alieneeple on that Lift Off Point which has paid it’s 1 screw gets off the planet. Other Lift Off points have other conditions.

On your turn, you draw 2 cards and then perform any of these actions, in any order. Move twice (either 1 alieneeple 2 spaces, or 2 alieneeples 1 space), play card(s), Pay Lift Off costs or discard 2 cards to draw 1 new card. Other cards that you can play can give you extra move points, change the moon phase of that turn and otherwise affect the game state. There’s also the Garglore, that black death’s head meeple at the center. If you play a Move the Garglore card, you can place the Garglore on any Lift Off point or back into the lava pool. If he’s on a Lift Off point, no alieneeples can leave the planet from that point.

There are 10 Lift Off points provided in the box, with only four being used for any game, which gives this game a good amount of variety between games. Each of these points is affected differently depending on what phase the Moon is in as the Moon token tracks around the board. At the end of every player’s turn the Moon is moved one space counter-clockwise, with the space it occupies being the full moon. The Moon space directly opposite it is the New moon and every other space is a half moon. Once it reaches star on the moon track again, a day has passed and the Sun is moved further down the Sun Track towards planetary destruction. Some Lift Off Points are easier to use during a new moon, others during a half or full moon.

The winner is whomever gets all of their alieneeples off the planet first, or the person with the most off once the whole thing blows up in our faces.

loffgarglor

Thoughts

The game is actually slightly simpler than I had conceived when originally following this project. That’s not a bad thing though. Once we got the hang of it, we could play a 2 player game in 35 minutes. There’s a bit of luck with the card draws but this can be mitigated a bit with the ability to discard two cards to draw a new card.  Other than that there’s some solid strategy and decision making to be had in the game. The light-hearted take on planetary destruction is a fun theme to play in and I really like that one of the Lift Off Points is a giant freaking slingshot.

There is a bit of a take-that element with the Garglore and one of our games clearly boiled down to who had the last Garglore card (hint: it wasn’t me) but that didn’t take away from the fun of the game.  My 9 year old has already asked to play again and I know this one will be hitting our table both in the near future and during our Extra Life event. I feel it’s also a pretty accessible title for those not into the hobby board game scene.  If you enjoy light-hearted, fast playing games where you move lots of little wooden aliens around in a frantic race to escape an exploding planet, you’ll really dig Lift Off.

You can find the rules here on BGG and I understand the game will be going into distribution soon!

O

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