Monday, July 27, 2015


Splendor is not generally the kind of game that attracts our attention, but I couldn't help noticing the number of "best of the year" lists it appeared on. I looked into it a bit more, and it still didn't look overly interesting to me, and I had no interest in trying it out. But then fate intervened in the form of a copy of the game being given to Katherine as a birthday gift.

We played it at her birthday party (who can resist a brand new game?), and again a few days later, but then we put it on the shelf and promptly forgot all about it. We definitely didn't dislike the game, but, as I said, it's just not the kind of game that normally attracts our attention.

When it came time to write this review, we finally got it out to play again, and I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. My memories of having played it several months ago were hazy at best; I didn't recall disliking it, bit I didn't recall liking it overmuch, either. Imagine our surprise, then, when we wound up playing for several hours.

We do like the odd abstract game like Ingenious or Set (well, Katherine likes Set), but for the most part, the games we play tend to be fairly literal, with players playing characters coming into conflict with plots and villains, and often complicated rules intended to allow for a fair representation of the various actions a character in a story might need to perform. Splendor makes for a nice break from that, with deceptively simple rules but a lot to think about during the game.

Put simply, the game is about manipulating resources in the form of jewels of different colors. The game starts with three rows of four cards, each depicting a cost in jewels, and a resource in jewels that the card provides every turn once it's been purchased. A limited supply of poker chips, representing the different jewel colors, is off to the side, along with some yellow chips that can be used as any color.

Each turn, a player can either: take two poker chips of the same color, or three of different colors; reserve a card by picking it up (that player also gets one of the yellow chips); or purchase a card, either from the table or one he's reserved, using a combination of jewels on cards he's already purchased and on poker chips he's picked up on previous turns.

Cards that are reserved or purchased are replaced from one of three decks (one for each row), so there are always 12 cards to choose from. Cards in the first row tend to be easier to buy, while cards in the upper rows are more expensive but are usually worth more points at the end of the game.

In addition to scoring points by buying cards, there are a number of tiles put into play at the start of the game, representing nobles who will award points to the first player who buys whatever combination of cards is depicted on the tile (i.e. four red and four black cards, or three each of several different colors). The game goes on until someone reaches 15 points, at which point everyone gets one last turn to try to catch up with the winner.

The secret to the game's strength is in the number of choices it gives players to think about on their turn. If I take chips from the supply, the colors I take might give my opponents a clue as to what card I'm trying to buy, in which case they might try to get it before I get a chance to. If I focus all my attention on getting the noble tiles, I risk overpaying for cards by using chips too often, rather than relying on purchasing cheaper cards to provide a good base of resources.

We found in playing that each turn we spent a lot of time thinking about what to do, going over the different options and possible consequences, but we spent almost no time referring to the rules.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) It's not a game that we'll spend a ton of time playing, and it doesn't fire up our imaginations the way games like Arkham Horror or a good CCG do, but Splendor is very engaging and makes for a welcome break from the more complicated games we tend to favor.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another look at Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities, and Camelot Legends

For us, the current board game renaissance began in 2005, just as the final collectible card game boom was breathing its last. Prior to 2005 we had spend the vast majority of our time playing seemingly every CCG we could get our hands on, from Aliens Predator to Doomtown, but we had started to take notice of a few of the stand-alone card games that were filling game store space left by departing CCGs.

We may have been suffering from a bit of random booster pack burnout, so the self-contained nature of these games really appealed to us, as did their relative simplicity when compared to the complicated rules that most CCGs of the late 1990s are known for.

I don't recall where or when I picked up Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, only that the box artwork intrigued me, as did the fact that it was the first of a series of card games about famous crimes and criminals both real and fictional (although I never did pick up any of the other games in the series).

While relatively simple, the game works because it starts with the basic framework of rummy, which has been played in one form or another since at least the 18th century, and has proven its ability to stand up to multiple variants over the years. Mystery Rummy takes the basic rummy mechanic of playing melds of matching cards with an eye towards getting rid of all your cards before your opponents do, and adds a few twists and turns to make the game a little more thematic, reflecting the hunt for Jack the Ripper in 1880s London.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Lost Cities is a card game by prolific designer Reiner Knizia, first published in the US by Rio Grande Games in 1999. It has all the hallmarks of a Knizia game: deceptively simple game mechanics, a complex scoring system, and a theme that fits the game perfectly. In this case, the theme is 1930s-style archaeological exploration, with card plays representing investment in, and then progress on, expeditions to the far corners of the world.

Like Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities has its roots in a classic card game; in this case, double solitaire. The game play feels familiar enough that it is instinctively easy to play, but there is enough going on in terms of game mechanics and theme to give players a fair amount to think about while playing.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Camelot Legends was introduced to us by none other than Zev Shlasinger, founder of Z-Man Games, when we met him at a convention in Denver in 2004. The game's stunning artwork (and Mr. Shlasinger's charming sales pitch) may have blinded us to its ultimately bland game play, but I think it is more likely that the game was okay for the time. However, it doesn't hold up when compared to the current standard of board and card games, which may explain why Z-Man has never republished it.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): FAIL

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Much more than Middle-earth Risk

War of the Ring is exactly the game I was hoping it would be. I was looking for something a bit more connected to the story of Lord of the Rings than just a Middle-earth re-skinning of Risk, and that is certainly what I got.

At its most simplified, War of the Ring is a Risk-style area control game, with the primary game play consisting of armies moving around the board conquering territory, with battles resolved by rolling dice and the side with the numerical advantage being given more dice to roll. However, the game designers have added a number of elements that help bring the game in line with the material it is based on.

The most obvious of these is Frodo's journey to deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom. The Free Peoples player (War of the Ring is primarily a two-player game) can choose to devote resources to moving Frodo and the Fellowship closer to Mordor, and can win the game by successfully destroying the Ring. Moving Frodo exposes him to discovery and possible corruption, and the more he moves in a single turn, the more likely he is to be discovered. Needless to say, if Frodo is completely corrupted by the Ring, the Sauron player wins.

A major story element in Lord of the Rings is the reluctance of the men of Gondor and Rohan to join in the fight against Sauron, and the game reflects this by way of a political track which traces how close the various cultures of Middle-earth are to declaring open war. The Sauron player can take advantage of this by avoiding open battle for the first few turns of the game while he gets his forces in a more advantageous position, much as Sauron does in the book. The Free Peoples player can try to galvanize Gondor, Rohan, and even the dwarves of the north into action more quickly by sending characters such as Aragorn or Gandalf to inspire the people.

A danger with games like this is that they will become repetitive, with the same strategies winning every time, but War of the Ring overcomes this by way of the action dice. At the start of each round, players roll a number of dice printed with different symbols representing possible actions such as army movement, political maneuvering, or character action. Since the number and types of actions available are different from turn to turn, players are forced to think on their feet, revising their strategy based on what actions are available each turn.

The game does a great job of rising above being merely a bunch of miniatures on a map, putting the players into the epic story. As the Free Peoples player, you'll agonize at the indifference of the dwarves as Sauron's armies roll over Rohan and Gondor. As the Sauron player, you'll wonder how close Frodo is to Mordor, even while cackling with glee as orcs swarm out of Mirkwood to overrun the elves where they thought they were safe.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Much more than just Middle-earth Risk, War of the Ring is truly an epic game that mirrors the action of Tolkien's classic.