Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A few classics

You could argue that classic games are classics for a reason, but you could also argue that many classics are only considered classic because they got there first, and no one knew any better at the time.

Water Works falls firmly into the former category. It's a card game that is very easy to play, but with a reasonable amount of strategy and more player interaction than similar card games where the object is to be the first to have a set number of cards in play. Players start with a valve and a spout, and the goal is to play a pipeline of 8-15 cards (depending on the number of players, and which edition of the game you have) between the two.

Of course, it's a little more complicated than simply laying down cards. All the cards in your pipeline must be oriented the same way, so there is a difference between horizontal and vertical pipes. There are also T-Junctions, which will cause your pipeline to go in two different directions, one of which must be capped before you can play your spout card.

More deviously, your opponents can play leaky pipes onto your pipeline, which must be repaired or replaced before you can win.

It's a great game whose card laying mechanics inform many newer games, from Starbase Jeff to Tsuro, and even dungeon crawl games like DungeonQuest.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A simple game, but still a classic that holds up fairly well.

Date played: November 9, 2014

Yahtzee is another classic game that has influenced countless others, but in this case it is the game's elaborate scoring system that has made its mark, especially in Reiner Knizia's games.

In Yahtzee, players roll dice in an effort to get the best combination of numbers they can, in order to fill up a score sheet that gives bonuses for things like having the most of a single number, or a sequence of consecutive numbers. The strategy lies in deciding when to fill each section of the score sheet, since you have to fill one each turn, but you always risk getting a better roll for that section later.

Yahtzee is an undeniable classic, and it is simple and well known enough that it has become a favorite "fill in the blanks" merchandise item, much like Monopoly or Risk (our copy is the Pirates of the Caribbean edition). However, I found that it doesn't hold up on its own the way some of the other classic games do: in Yahtzee, the entire game is the scoring system, with the game play reduced to rolling dice and putting numbers in boxes. There is very little to inspire the imagination.

That said, the Firefly version is tempting...

Rating: 2 (out of 5) A little too abstract and lacking in any kind of theme to hold my interest.

  • Yahtzee USAopoly official website for licensed versions
  • Yahtzee on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: November 27, 2014

Lawyers, bombs and money

Using money in games as a way to keep score may be a bit too close to real life, but it's also a good mechanic for keeping a running tally of players' progress. Money often doubles as a costing system for game effects as well, introducing an additional layer of strategy as players are forced to manage their resources and decide whether paying (essentially losing points) is worth it for a particular game effect or advantage.

Many of prolific designer James Ernest's games use money in this way, so much so that I suspect that a lot of his card game designs start out as poker variants, eventually reaching a level of variation where they can no longer be played with regular playing cards.

U. S. Patent No. 1 is described on the box as "The Novel and Elegant Time Travel Game," and to a large extent it is exactly that. It has all the hallmarks of the best games in James Ernest's Cheapass line: clever mechanics, sharp humor, and excellent graphic design involving creative use of historical (and copyright free) clip art.

The premise is that all the players have invented a time machine, and they are in a rush to travel back to opening day at the U. S. Patent Office so they can be the first to register a patent on time travel. The board is made up of spaces representing different time periods, with opening day of the patent office in the center. Each player must trick out their time machine with a weapon, shield, chassis, and power plant, and then take a number at the patent office, waiting a randomly generated number of turns before they can register their patent and win the game.

Money isn't really used to keep score, but it is a resource that players must use intelligently in order to manage and manipulate the cards, which represent the different parts players need to win and can be either bought or discovered by visiting other spaces on the board, and players need to balance the power requirements of their shields, weapons and chassis with the power output of their power plants. All the parts have unique game effects, and there are bonuses given for matched sets, such as having a power plant and a chassis with the same numerical rating.

Throughout the game, players can attack one another if they've fitted a weapon card to their time machine, and this is really where the game falls apart. As soon as a player gets all four parts to his time machine, he has to move to the center of the board and then "take a number," that is, wait a randomly generated number of turns before he can win. There is a bit of risk-taking strategy in taking a number before you're ready, and then hoping you can make it back to the center before your number is up, but in any case, whenever a player gets close to winning they find themeselves under attack by the other players. This will cause the player to lose parts from their time machine which they must then scramble to replace, and it makes for a somewhat long and tedious end game.

Apparently the world agrees with us, because this game has vanished into the mists of time, not even rating an appearance on the Cheapass Games website's print and play page.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Witty and clever at the beginning, but the end game is a slog, so much so that it often seems better to stop playing than to finish the game.

Date played: November 3, 2014

Unexploded Cow is probably the most successful of the Cheapass Games "cards and money" games, and was certainly the most fun for us. Cards, money and a single six-sided die are used to great effect, creating a fast-paced game that involves a fair amount of both luck and strategy, but not too much of either.

Players control herds of mad cows from postwar England, which have helpfully been sent to the green pastures of France to help find unexploded bombs left over from the war. Each player starts with a fixed amount of money, which they use to purchase cow cards. These cards are played in a row in front of the player, and at the end of each player's turn a die roll determines which cow explodes, resulting in a payoff for that cow's owner.

Other cards represent effects that add an element of both strategy and chaos to the game, and all cards must be paid for in order to be played, with the money going into a pot in the center which is paid out from when a cow explodes. a second deck consists of 12 city cards that are earned when a player's cow explodes on their own turn. The city cards usually offer either a payment or a game advantage such as extra card draws, and the game ends when all the city cards have been claimed. The player with the most money is the winner.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A well designed game that offers a reasonable amount of strategy, but is fast paced and simple enough that just about anyone should be able to enjoy it.

Date played: November 11, 2014

Witch Trial isn't quite as elegantly designed as Unexploded Cow, but it was more entertaining for us, as it contains a lot more of the clever wit that James Ernest is known for. Players are trial lawyers, either prosecuting or defending eccentric defendants accused of crimes such as atrocious manners, card playing, or the dastardly wearing a hat in the theatre.

All the players get to act as both prosecutors and defenders. On their own turn, players accuse by match crimes to suspects, and then call for defense. Another player can volunteer to defend the case, earning a small amount of money in the process, or, if no one volunteers, a public defender is randomly chosen from among the other players. Each crime card specifies an amount of money to be put in for court costs.

During a trial, each player plays evidence cards in an effort to move the jury value either up or down (it starts at a fixed number based on the severity of the crime and the guilt of the suspect). After both sides have played their evidence cards, the dice are rolled and added to the jury value to determine the suspect's guilt or innocence, and the winner of the trial earns the court money. The game ends when the deck runs out, and the player with the most money is the winner.

The game play is pretty basic, with the only real strategy being in matching the right suspects to crimes and deciding when you have enough evidence cards to try a case, but sly jokes on the cards make Witch Trial a great game for table banter, resulting in a highly entertaining game overall.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Witch Trial gets by on theme and humor, and is definitely more than the sum of its game mechanics.

Date played: November 16, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Watch where you're going

Tsuro is a fairly simple tile laying game that plays kind of like a more relaxed, zen version of Robo Rally. The game accommodates anywhere from 2 to 8 players, all of whom start with a piece on the edge of the board. Players take turns playing tiles which depict various paths that their pieces move along, all in an effort to avoid moving off the board or crashing into another player's piece.

The combination of simple game play and beautifully designed components make this a great game for non-gamers. It's very easy to teach (play your tile, move your piece, draw a new tile), and the simplicity and short play time makes it a game that children and families can play, along with more experienced gamers. We find that it also makes a good warm-up game when waiting for people to arrive for game nights.

For those players who would like a bit more complexity, there is Tsuro of the Seas, which casts the players in the roles of ship captains trying to keep their boats afloat. We haven't played it, but it appears to use the core game mechanics of Tsuro with a slightly larger board and the addition of tiles representing sea monsters that move in random directions, wiping out everything in their path.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A great game that is more engaging than its simplicity might suggest.

Date played: November 3, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Zen and the art of board gaming

Tokaido is a very, very pretty game. The graphic design and the illustrations combine to form a simple and elegant presentation that fits perfectly with the peaceful nature of the game, which is about accumulating experiences while taking a scenic walk along the road between Kyoto and Edo in feudal Japan.

Players move their pieces along a linear path, with spaces representing the temples, villages, and inns along the road where different experiences can be had, such as meeting another traveler, buying a souvenir, eating a meal, or viewing a bit of scenery. These experiences are represented by cards that are worth points at the end of the game.

Movement is the most strategic part of the game. There are no dice, and no regular turn order. Rather, it is always the turn of the player who is farthest behind on the path, and that player can keep taking turns, landing on spaces and drawing the appropriate card for each, until they are no longer at the back. In this way, the game rewards players who take their time to enjoy the journey, but at the same time, the other players may block a space you are trying to get to if you let them get too far ahead.

At various points on the path are Inn spaces where every player must stop and have a meal. The first player to land at each inn gets to draw the meal cards that will be available at that inn, and gets first choice of what meal to buy. The meals are all worth the same number of points, but they have different costs, and no player may purchase the same meal twice, so having a wide variety of meals to choose from is preferable to being the last to arrive and having only a few choices.

Other experiences along the path include three different scenic overlooks, which are represented by sets of cards, the idea being to collect all the different cards in the set, both to score points and to complete the panoramic illustration that is formed by the cards. Players can also make donations to temples along the road, visit hot springs, and meet strangers that will offer anything from free souvenir or panorama cards, to extra money or points.

For added variety, each player is given a particular character to play, with their own special abilities that will help guide that player's strategy. The artist, for example, is better at collecting panoramas, while the street urchin gets free meals at the inns.

For as cheerful and pleasant as the game is, it can be a little cutthroat, with a lot of the movement strategy involving preventing your opponents from being able to land on the spaces they need to, but this brings a good balance to a game that might be a little dull otherwise. We've also found it to be a great game for non-gamers, having played several games with my mother and aunt on a recent visit.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Tokaido has a surprising amount in common with a lot of the "move around the board and draw a card to see what happens" style adventure games that we tend to favor, but the differences in theme and tone make it feel like something entirely new.

Date played: November 2, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fearless moster hunters

I first started looking at A Touch of Evil as a possible substitute for Arkham Horror. I was looking for a game with a similar cooperative "us vs. the monsters" feel to it, but maybe a bit simpler, with a shorter playing time. The early 19th century theme, clearly inspired by Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow as well as many of the old Hammer Horror vampire movies, was also appealing, as it is a setting that doesn't see much use in board games.

As it turns out, A Touch of Evil actually has more in common with Talisman than Arkham Horror, and plays like a combination of the two. Players have a choice of playing cooperatively or competitively, but the only real difference is that the competitive game is a race to see who can defeat the villain first, while in the cooperative game the players work together to defeat a villain that is much more difficult to kill.

Players choose from an assortment of fearless monster hunters such as the Soldier, the Noblewoman, or the Outlaw, each with different skills and abilities. The basic game play is similar to games like Talisman or Runeboundplayers move around the board and draw cards to see what happens, with the eventual goal of building up their strength so that they can face down the main villain, chosen from among such gothic horror staples as the Vampire, the Headless Horseman, or the Werewolf.

There are a few game elements that set A Touch of Evil apart from other, similar games, helping to reinforce the gothic horror theme. One is that, in addition to a general deck of Event cards that players draw at various times, there are also Mystery cards that are drawn at the end of each round, most of which benefit the villain and move the game's storyline and time limit forward. There are also separate decks for each of the board's major locations, so that visiting the Manor or the Windmill offers a different experience than a trip to the Olde Woods.

Another major game element is the Village Elders, six characters who are each given a Secret at the beginning of the game. Players can spend Investigation (the currency of the game) to peek at the Elder's secrets - some are harmless, some are positive and help the players, while others will reveal that the Elder in question is actually an Evil Elder, in league with the villain!

When a player is ready to face down the villain, they can choose two Elders to help out. But if they choose one that turns out to be evil, that elder helps the villain instead, making it more difficult to vanquish.

The game's photo artwork has been polarizing for a lot of players, but, just like with Fortune and Glory (by the same publisher), I think it contributes to the cinematic atmosphere, which emphasizes the fun and adventure as much as it does the gruesome horror. The included soundtrack CD of cheesy but fun music also helps with the gothic horror movie feeling.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Part Arkham Horror and part Talisman, with a much shorter play time and options for cooperative or competitive games.

Date played: October 31, 2014 (that's right, we played it on Halloween!)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bad timing

The commercial failure of The Terminator Collectible Card Game could be down to any number of things, but most likely it was timing. It was released in 2000, when nothing much was going on in the Terminator universe other than a handful of lackluster comic books from Dark Horse Comics. More importantly, by 2000 the collectible card game market was flooded with product competing for a dwindling customer base, and none of the 17 other CCGs released that year lasted either.

Poor marketing may have been a contributing factor as well. In 2000 I was hip deep in the CCG craze, actively playing several games and always looking for new ones, and I hadn't even heard of the Terminator CCG until I happened upon a few starter decks in a bargain bin in 2004 or so.

I picked up the game for several reasons: it was cheap, it was based on one of my favorite movies, and it was compatible with the Aliens Predator CCG, delivering on that game's thus far unfulfilled promise of being the first in a series of "Battleground System" games.

The two starter decks introduce a game based solidly on the first Terminator movie, with players taking control of either SkyNet's killer cyborgs or the brave heroes of the Resistance, and travelling back in time to either protect or destroy supporting characters with varying degrees of importance to the future.

The game adapts the system from Aliens Predator reasonably well, helped along by the fact that the Terminator storyline contains many of the same elements: military-style heroes, lots of weapons, innocent civilians that need to be rescued (or terminated), and a vicious opponent in the shape of the robotic Terminators. The problem is that the game takes a very literal approach to the strengths and weaknesses of the humans and the Terminators, to the point that the Resistance characters are hopelessly outclassed and almost never win.

It's a problem when playing with just the Terminator cards, but it even holds true when taking advantage of the game's compatibility with Aliens Predator. Even when pitted against the well-armed Predators or hordes of Aliens, the Terminators are pretty unstoppable, to the point that they aren't really much fun to play.

Viewed as its own game, The Terminator CCG is unfortunately one-sided in favor of the Terminators. Viewed as an expansion for Aliens Predator, it contributes some interesting weapon and action cards that the Aliens, Predators and Colonial Marines can take advantage of, but the Resistance faction plays too much like the Marines to be interesting on their own, and the Terminators still manage to unbalance the game to a pretty spectacular degree.

These issues probably could have been addressed in future expansions by adding cards that would balance things out for the other factions, or possibly even reigning in some of the game elements that make the Terminators so powerful. Unfortunately, the game never made it that far.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) It may have seemed like a good idea, but doesn't really hold together, either on its own or as a continuation of the Aliens Predator Battleground System.

Date played: October 26, 2014