When is it okay to criticize a game?


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Top 11 Analog Games of 2015

2015 was a pretty good year for gaming in general. I thought about making a Digital list too, but right now it’d just be Undertale 11 times so I’ll need a bit more distance from that game before I could reasonably talk about the other 10 spots. Anyway, until then, here’s my Top 11 (plus a few) for 2015.

Note: for this list, I’m using the Geek All-Stars Gaming Year (Essen-to-Essen) so anything that released outside of that interval I can’t include yet (unless I really want to.)

1. Roll for the Galaxy – I hate Race for the Galaxy. The game requires players to learn arcane sigils to know what each card does, and requires players to learn what every card does in order to be able to make any kind of competent decision. In Roll, the runes (though still present) are easier and simpler, and the tiles interlock in more ways, meaning less digging for a specific tile and more figuring out how an individual tile will work in your machine. This basically fixed all the things I didn’t like, and added more things TO like (dice manipulation!) Most Dice Manipulation games (Ciub, Favor of the Pharaoh) use it as the core but here, it’s the driver for a combo-riffic building-stuff game, which I think is more fun. Even with the pacing hiccups that can happen with 4, it’s solidly my game of the year, and Ambition just amps it up further, adding more interaction/competition between players than just the San Juan “guess what they want to do” minigame.

2. Codenames – This is the best party game, and the party game that got BGG to respect party games again (last one was Barbarossa? Maybe La Boca? Who knows.) It plays off of skills that party games typically exercise (communication mostly) but adds bits of bluffing and puzzley-strategy that will keep even the most boring person in the world interested. It also manages to have a scoring element that really MATTERS (to people that care about that kind of thing) which allows it to avoid the dreaded “an activity” label that BGGers tend to slap onto games that are any fun at all. My only real gripe is that the hot-seat role is so stressful, I wish there was some sensible way to share that burden, but usually the person who’s most willing to be in that role will also be best at it, so it’s not that big a deal. Vlaada makes players feel clever in all his games, but in this one they actually have to be.

3. Gold West – This is what euros should look like. More games this size/complexity please. It has a puzzley central mechanism that rewards panning forward, and a bunch of lovely mini-games in the periphery that make sure there’s always something to do. The game takes any state that could be a “failure” (not enough wood? not enough metal?) and puts something interesting in its place. Has what I like about Trajan’s game economy (every move is taking/earning new things) but dials down the complexity of the mini-games to a bearable level so the whole thing spins smoothly instead of grinding and screeching if any player’s not read the operators manual cover to cover. Also it takes an hour instead of 2 or 3 which means I’ve played it many many more times than I ought to have.

4. Elysium – Killed 7 wonders in every way, tons of variation, and it’s a drafting game that WORKS WITH 2!?!?!? Also makes open drafting work without being a tremendous horrible ordeal, with the clever option-limiting mechanic. 7 Wonders DUEL seems to play with similar ideas, but the “family” swaps mean that entire systems rotate in and out of the game in sensible ways each time, providing Dominion-esque variance without the boring/broken setups stuff like Potion could produce. The “engine-breaking” decision of keeping a card around to use its ability vs. scoring it early for guaranteed points and a chance at big bonuses is another layer of chewy goodness. A bit of AP is possible since all the options are on the table, and until players are familiar with at least the TYPES of cards there’s going to be a bit of reading which can definitely bog it down. Like Seasons (another game I love) the first game is likely to be a bit rough, but the experience after learning it is so rewarding that I can forgive it. Also this game is simpler and smoother than Seasons, and it’s less easy to completely destroy yourself with a bad choice. Maybe this is how other people felt about Race for the Galaxy? But they were wrong. I am right. Elysium is great.

5. Patchwork – Best 2 player game, super accessible, super elegant, delicious. Predict this will be the default response to “what game to play with my wife?” for the next decade, and unlike “Lost Cities” they’ll be right. It’s a perfect demonstration of what Uwe Rosenberg can do as a designer when he’s not trying to throw five thousand unique tiles at the game just so players can feel like quantum theorists. There’s lots of stuff to figure out and evaluate but it’s all spinning around the same axis rather than pulling you in a hundred different directions. Many of Rosenberg’s other games have an immensely satisfying bit at the core like this (Glass Road is the best example) but then drown you in outcomes that make that core piece feel less and less relevant. This game focuses on that filling, like a Double Stuf Oreo, and who wants an Oreo with extra cookie, anyway? Especially if half the cookies are just useless cardboard.

6. Forbidden Stars – I think I’m gonna have to sell all my other dudes-on-a-map games because of how much this outclasses them. Nexus Ops or Ikusa used to be my go-to example and this makes either of those look like a joke.

7. Above and Below – It’s surprising just how much a little bit of flavor adds to what’s otherwise a pretty standard tableau-buildy-worky-placey thing.

8. Arcadia Quest – Kind of like a Heroscape sort of thing, but the campaign structure and objective-centered scenarios elevated it. Way better thanMTGroscape.

9. Spike – I dunno, I always felt like TTR should have had a bunch of little expansions to make it bigger. This feels a lot like that. Plus it’s adorable.

10. Sapiens – Dominoes evolved? One of the most head-spinning games I’ve played recently, with a pretty simple rule-set.

11. Code of Nine – Worker Placement is boring. This game manages to work in deduction/bluffing and make it not boring. Card art is gorgeous.

Honorable Mentions:
12. Brew Crafters – If this were a little less huge… well it wouldn’t be itself anymore, so never mind. Threw out Agricolafor me.

13. Orleans – Only played twice so far, and it ought to be higher on the list probably but with only 2 plays it stays down here.

14. Discoveries – Only played once but this does what Roll did to Race to Lewis and Clark, and I REALLY LIKED L&C.

Reprint. Saint Petersburg – Reprint, but changes the game substantially and the game still holds up. Purest engine builder ever.

Monopoly. Monopoly – Just out of spite

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Mario Maker’s great, but it could be amazing. Here’s what it’s missing:

Like many of you, I bought Mario Maker on the day it came out, and it immediately devoured most of my weekend. The playful interface recalls Nintendo’s premier software toy, Mario Paint, both through direct homage (that save screen music? the rocket and dog?) and shared patterns of interface design. I let Nintendo’s choke-collar restrict my access to the game’s components for my first few stages, before I grew too impatient at being asked to wait more than a week for new content, and looked up on the internet how to spam my way being to 100% unlocked. After grinding my way through the Nintendo World Championship levels (augh) and ordering a Pixel Mario amiibo online at ludicrous scalper prices (augh) I have everything (or will, once my package arrives) and have had a wonderful time building levels.

Playing, though, has often been a different story.

In my 2014 paper “Changing Level Creation to Identify and Filter Low Quality User-Generated Levels” (which you can read at http://www.fdg2014.org/papers/fdg2014_paper_13.pdf) I looked at user authored levels in a somewhat different environment: my programming puzzle game BOTS (bots.game2learn.com). We observed a number of different anti-patterns created by players with specific metagame objectives, and all of those anti-patterns appear with similar frequency in Mario Maker, even after whatever filtering Nintendo is applying behind the scenes.The game offers players three ways to discover and explore user-authored puzzles. There’s a “leaderboard” offering access to the most played / most “starred” levels. Once you have found a level you like, you can “friend/follow” its creator, and be notified whenever they release something new. Finally, there’s the “100-Mario Challenge” which presents a progression of levels automatically selected, which seem to measure difficulty by death counts in those levels, and quality by stars (per level) and medals (per creator) which act as “ratings/badges” and enable some collaborative filtering to group similar level types.

All of these approaches take a traditional “social gamification” approach to filtering and presenting levels. They rely on players to perform most of the filtering work by “starring” and playing, and put only a tiny bit of the evaluation burden on the creators (who are acting as players, as well) by giving them tools to iterate and requiring them to clear their own stages. The problem is, players tend to react according to their playstyle when given social reward systems, and few of those ways result in GOOD LEVEL DESIGN. Mario Maker is already focusing on the playful aspects of game design, so it’s surprising that it falls so short here; by providing creators with the right kinds of playful objectives, the overall quality of levels could be dramatically improved. What’s more, we could collect “shortcut” data to help us filter out levels that we might not want to include in level progressions.

So what can we include to make the level creator our ally in our quest for good level designs? Here are my ideas, based on my experiences with level editors in other games and my research into building a better one for my game, BOTS.

5: Trails

Remember this?

How about this?

The tracks in the game are one of the glitchiest, most frustrating features, but they enable a lot of really cool gameplay. Trails like this enable even more interesting puzzles and challenges. They’re invisible, and can cross each other. They can pop out of ? blocks. Coin trails can lead to cool places (guiding the player) or create platforms with P Switches. Trails encourage players to provide visual cues to their users, but in a fun, indirect way, compared to the static, passive signposts (which really ought to be available from the start anyway.)

4. Checkpoints

Players WANT to make super-difficult levels in Mario Maker, and they WANT to make the largest level possible. This pattern of maximizing the usage of available space was present in BOTS, where users would often build a full 10×10 level only to use a small portion of it. After stretching the canvas to its full width (and using the entire subzone, and occasionally doubling back a couple times) levels can end up taking several minutes to complete… and without checkpoints, even something of moderate difficulty can quickly become infuriating. I’d predict that the optional ability to place a single checkpoint in the level would have several consequences. First, authors would build a safe “resting place” for the check point. Right now, level designers have nothing forcing them to consider pacing other than their own playthroughs, so difficult levels tend to be high-tension throughout the entire stage. Second, authors would augment the difficulty of the second half. Adding a checkpoint would necessitate two completions before uploading, to ensure that the checkpoint doesn’t trap users in a no-win state. This means authors would experience the second half of their level twice, and could increase (or decrease) the relative difficulty.

3. Secret Exits and 2. Gold Coins

The best and most memorable levels from past Mario games feature well-hidden secrets and encourage exploration. However, in Mario Maker, there’s not only no incentive to provide hidden areas for the player, there’s also no meaningful way to REWARD the player when they do find them. You could use 1-ups, but when levels are played in isolation they’re meaningless, and in the 100-Marios mode, you… well, you have 100 Marios. Using power-ups as rewards changes the pacing of the entire level, using costume-shrooms as rewards only works in SMB mode… what’s a designer to do?

Even if they don’t go anywhere, secret exits feel subversive, which players often find to be entertaining. Placing the key or keyhole somewhere in plain sight while hiding the other one offers a visual cue for the secret objective. It also makes the player curious and encourages them to explore. That’s something I’ve managed to achieve in a couple of levels by placing a P-Switch in plain sight with no coins or blocks nearby… but there’s only so much that can be done with that, especially since the brick blocks can be broken in numerous ways.

Star Coins have a similar function, rewarding small explorations, without throwing off the entire pace of the level. What’s more, they provide us with a means of both controlling and measuring the difficulty of created stages. Let’s say that levels with Star Coins would be more popular, and more replayable. Next, let’s that in order to be considered for the 100-Marios challenge (or maybe a new, similar mode), levels MUST include Star Coins. Imagine that authors must collect ALL of the Star Coins in their run-through, before publishing the level, and that if they place 1 Star Coin, they must place 3 (or 4, if we’re using Yoshi Coins instead.) This would have two important outcomes.

First, adding Star Coins would prompt level designers to place small secrets or mini-objectives (at least) in each level. Players would secret them away in tough-to-reach places, behind trickier challenges than the rest of the stage. This would allow authors to include tougher-than-usual challenges in parts of their levels that aren’t required, letting adversarial designers have their proverbial cake.

Even in the worst case, where the designer was uninterested in using the coins, we’d have a lot of interesting data to use to filter levels. All 3 coins placed close together? We can tell the author is trying to cheat their way into the progression. A coin that only the author found, after a number of plays? Maybe the stage contains the kind of secret only the author would know how to find. Right now Nintendo is seemingly using mostly player deaths to evaluate level difficulty and quality. Using Star Coins we might be better able to estimate this, leading to more satisfying level progressions and less skips.

1.Easier Iteration

For a tool about game design, Mario Maker gives the designer precious little information about what players are actually DOING. As a designer, I want to see where players are dying, where players struggle, where they quit. What parts do players “solve” and then not have trouble with in the future? What parts are consistently challenging, even if the player has solved them before?

Mario Maker gives me Xs.

Seeing full player traces would be great, but not necessary. Without adding any additional data logging to the game, the ability to click on those Xs and edit that part of the level would be great. The ability to see those Xs when editing would be great. Pop-ups alerting me when players are consistently dying on one part of my level an not continuing would be great. The game collects this data but the player has to DIG for it… surfacing it would be great. Presenting it to players, teaching them how to address feedback and release new, improved versions of their levels?
That’d be amazing.

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Orinoko Gold – An Even Weirder Review

HABA has a knack for publishing games that take simple mechanisms like stacking, balancing, and egg-holding(?) and turn them into fantastic family games. It’s no surprise that these games have taken off with the gamer crowd, as well. The gameplay is simple enough for anyone to pick up, yet each game allows players to do something clever or unusual, stacking a piece in a precarious position in Animal upon Animal, or figuring out how to get around the table while carrying eggs between your knees in Dancing Eggs. Most of the HABA games that picked up buzz with the “hardcore” gamer crowd so far have been dexterity games, but Orinoko Gold works the same magic on an even simpler game type: the classic “roll-and-move” game.

This game is pretty big. Guaranteed that when you set up to play at game night, you'll draw a crowd.

This game is pretty big. Guaranteed that when you set up to play at game night, you’ll draw a crowd.

Orinoko Gold is a river-crossing, treasure-hunting game for 2 to 4 players. Upon opening the big yellow box, the first thing you’ll be impressed by is the quality of the components. The game includes pre-printed wooden character meeples (two in each color), five log tiles, four Jeep tiles in the player colors, and a handful of gold coins. All this stuff is printed on double thick punchboard, and the huge puzzle-piece river board is incredibly sturdy as well.  The game also includes two chunky wooden dice, the same kind found in “Animal upon Animal” and “Dancing Eggs”. Though Orinoko Gold isn’t a dexterity game, it’s clearly built to withstand even the most enthusiastic players, just like every other HABA product.

Though the game is a roll-and-move game, it’s a far cry from Chutes and-Ladders. The rules are just as easy to explain, though. Each language in the rulebook takes up just four pages, and HABA’s own How To Play video sums up the gameplay quite nicely. Each turn players roll two special dice, one brown and one white, with different numbers on each. On your turn, you can make one move with each dice, moving one of your explorers the number of spaces shown on the white dice, or moving a log downstream the number of pips on the brown dice. Your goal is to get across the stream and collect gold coins, but since the logs are constantly drifting southward, and other players can get in your way, the best path to take is tricky to predict.

This guy's driving the Jeep on the box cover. This seems irresponsible.

This guy’s driving the Jeep on the box cover. This seems irresponsible.

Players can make tricky moves, too. When an explorer moves, she can jump over other explorers in a straight line as a single space of movement, as long as there’s an empty space on the other side. There’s a wonderful puzzle aspect to figuring out how to make the best move on your turn, while also making sure you don’t set up the next player for an even bigger score. The gold coins on the other side of the river are each worth 2 to 4 points towards victory, but some of the coins (on spaces marked by leafy vines) are face down until collected. If you collect a face-up coin, everybody knows what you’ve got. Face down coins stay face down even when you collect them, so nobody knows for sure who’s in the lead. Once you’ve crossed the river, your explorer pops back over to the other side, ready for another crossing.

Ooh, I can just jump over all these... dang it.

Ooh, I can just jump over all these… dang it.

Though the actions you take on your turn are simple, there are many possibilities to consider. The more tactical players in my group enjoyed the ability to decide which order to take actions in, and which pawns to move… They often took longer to decide on a move than the kids I’ve played with! Decisions often hinge on what you’re willing to let the next player get away with. Should I take the best possible move, even though I’ll leave a straight line for the next player to hop over? Or do I take a slightly worse move, and push the logs out of order so it’s tougher for the other players? Do I move the log first and jump over a line of three players or wait until after, and close off the path behind me? There are opportunities for aggressive play, too, sending opponent’s pieces drifting down-river. Since the logs can never be separated, and they’re all headed that way anyway, this is never too frustrating… but it’s still quite satisfying to break up a long line of pieces, foiling another player’s plans.

The game’s over in about 15 minutes, though I’ve never played just once in a session, no matter who I played with. Kids, casual gamers, or full-time hobbyists, everyone was eager to give this game another go… or two, or three. Rolling dice and moving pieces might be a mechanic that more experienced gamers will initially roll their eyes at, but after a couple of turns, they’ll be too busy figuring out how best to use their die rolls, and cursing the player that just scooted them off course. Orinoko Gold is another hit from HABA that’s enjoyable by all ages, and one I’m happy to have in my collection.

(This article was first published on HABA USA’s blog.)

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Kickstarter Preview: Ryno Lourens’ “Sultan’s Library”

If I told you we were going to play a game about accumulating knowledge and building the biggest library, you might quickly get an idea in your head about what kind of game that’d be. Browsing shelves of books to find the best one, maybe collecting sets, maybe trading, sounds relaxing, right? You won’t be so relaxed when I burn your books, rob you blind, and toss you down a canyon.

Ryno Lourens’ game Sultan’s Library (Print-and-Play provided by the designer, currently on Kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/369033234/sultans-library-untold-riches-await-within) has the gorgeous art and beautiful theme of a peaceful (and pacifist) eurogame, but just under the surface lies the chaos, thieving and backstabbery of a game like Munchkin, Lunch Money, or Red Dragon Inn. The result is a game that stands apart thematically from the pack of light, take-that-style card games.

The goal of Sultan’s Library is to contribute books to… uh, the Sultan’s Library. Each book is worth some Knowledge Points, and the most Knowledge Points wins, but the books are buried in a deck chock full of non-book things, which you may hope to avoid…. but probably won’t.

A typical turn in Sultan’s Library will be familiar to many players well seasoned in kicking down doors and looking for trouble. You’ve got two action points to spend each turn, playing cards, searching locations, or using your special abilities. Flipping a card from the top of the Exploration deck costs some Explore Points (granted by other cards) and an action, but the return on that investment varies wildly. You’re never sure what you’ll find, but that’s where the books are so you gotta explore, even if the cards in that deck can put players in some tough situations. You might be exploring the library, but wind up in a Dead End (quite difficult to leave) or a Pleasure District (where you’ll drop the books you’re holding! for some reason!)… or find the Miraculous Fountain of getting actions for free! It could be a new location to move to (with good or bad abilities attached,) an event (again, a boon or a burden) or a book, which can be scooped up for points… however, picking up the book from your current location costs an action, so if you end your turn with a book at your feet, odds are it won’t be there by the time it gets back around to you.

That’s probably fine, though, as the Action deck (from which you replenish your hand each turn) contains tons of ways to exact your revenge. Drawing cards from the Action deck provides you with the Explore Points you need to move around the realm, but also contains many special moves to bring misery crashing down on your foes. They’re planning a big move on their turn? Make them discard cards and lose actions. They’re saving up cards to attack you? Hang onto a “Extra Guards” card to thwart their efforts. They’ve deposited a book and they think they’re safe? Torch it. That’ll show them.

The first player to deposit three books at the library ends the game, but is pretty likely not to win; The Sultan gives out a Mario-Party-like cascade of bonus points at the end for being in the library or for having books on your person. This means that depositing books might not always be the best choice… maybe you hang onto them for a bit, keep them safe from the Book Burning cards and wait until the time is right… the problem is that each player has an ability of their own that they can always use, so you’ll need to watch out for sneaky thieves who might snatch your newfound Knowledge Points out of your grasp.

Sultan’s Library is a twist on an old formula: at the core you’re still “kicking down the door,” flipping cards off the deck hoping for something good… then when you get something bad instead, ganging up on the leader to stomp them into oblivion. The fact that the goal here is parallel growth rather than direct conflict helps to address some of the issues people typically have with these kinds of games, and makes it feel like players can always catch up, regardless of how far ahead another player may seem. Most of my games stayed within the expected time limit, but with four players (especially more cutthroat players) the game can run a bit long, as continually stomping down the leader can artificially extend the game time. If that’s not a big deal for you, (or your group isn’t particularly toothy) then that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it. If you’re a fan of chaotic but vicious little card games, and you’re into the novel theme, check it out on Kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/369033234/sultans-library-untold-riches-await-within

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Flea Market – An Even Weirder Review

Everybody going to the Flea Market. There are some finds in here rivaling the BGG thrifting threads.

Everybody going to the Flea Market. There are some finds in here rivaling the BGG thrifting threads.

Dice are weird, huh? No matter how well you think you know probability, at some point your brain is gonna be yelling “BET ON 12” and despite your better judgment you will, and sometimes, against the odds, it pays off. Everyone else resents that you won based on such a “wrong” decision, but here you are with all the money, and there they are with a 100% probability that they just lost. I think that the urge to bet against the odds is somehow deeply embedded in the human brain, and games that take advantage of that are often intensely frustrating, but the payoffs are amazingly satisfying.

For me, the 2d6 roll in Settlers of Catan is one of the strongest, coolest elements of that game. It’s brilliant in that it keeps you engaged on everyone’s turn, not just in terms of collecting resources but in terms of the shared tension as players’ hands approach the 7 card limit. It gives different inherent values to certain board positions, but as anyone who has played the game has surely discovered, sometimes 6 and 8 don’t come up as often as they seem they should, and sometimes 12 and 2 get hit over and over. This is often a complaint but I mean it as a compliment; If the game used a flat die roll there’d be no reason to pick one board position over another, but if it paid off exactly as predicted (by using a deck of dice, as so often suggested) there’d be no tension, no frustration, and no shock turning to glee when the 11 space you got bullied into building on pays off THREE TIMES before your next turn.

He's watching you.

See that duck? He sees you.

The dice rolling bit of Catan is so excellent that Machi Koro went and tried to make a game out of it, but it sort of… didn’t work, at least for me. So when Leo Colovini’s new title from Mayfair Games got a comparison to Machi Koro from a con buddy at PAX East (sorry con buddy for forgetting your name) I was kind of like “bleh.” Then when I was at Mayfair’s booth trying to snag a copy of Patchwork when they finally showed up late in the second day of the Con, I saw a group of people demoing it. They swore at their dice, re-rolled them, and swore again. Any game that does that is worth a shot, so I sat down for a demo. Not even the uncomfortable stares from the animal people on the box stopped me.


Also, this shopkeeper is giving me quite a staredown.

In Flea Market, you and 4 of your closest inexplicable CG animal character friends are going to *yawn* bid on some stuff. You’re given 24 bucks. That’s not enough, though, you need 45 bucks, and you’re going to accumulate it by buying something at the flea market, then selling it for more at that same flea market. This approach was used with the maybe 3 copies of Dead at Winter that seemed to be present at PAX East. Instead of between-print-runs board games, you’ll be trading in odd pop-culture references like Flux Capacitors, One Rings, and the Wardrobe That Has Narnia In It, each of which is assigned a value between 3 and 18. You roll 3d6 to determine what’s up for sale, and then you bid for it.

Okay, but here’s the misery-inducing twist: You’re just a buyer’s agent, so you’re not allowed to bid whatever you want. You have to bid what you’re TOLD to bid. You see, what you can bid is determined by a 2d6 roll. You’re allowed to re-roll one of the dice, giving you a bit of control (though this often goes terribly wrong) but you’re locked in to that roll. Everyone simultaneously reveals the bid they’re disgusted to have rolled, and then, from high to low, each player can buy the thing on the block for the amount they rolled, or walk away. This has the effect of making every roll equally unfortunate: High rolls go first, but cost way too much. Low rolls are great, but you’ll rarely get to buy anything. If everyone passes, the active player gets the thing for free, so that won’t happen too often.

So why are you buying these things? Well, let’s say you bought the Ruby Slippers, item number 9. You’ll see a return on your investment the next time that number comes up again on the 3d6 roll. As anyone who’s played D&D knows, 10s and 11s are supposed to be common on 3d6, while 3s and 4s are supposed to be uncommon but inevitably aren’t. 17s and 18s are, of course, completely unattainable (at least when YOU’RE rolling.) Anyway, when your number comes up again, two things happen. First, you get free bonus, which gets larger and larger as the game goes on. Second, you put the item up for sale, and the person who buys it pays YOU, not the bank. The game’s a race to $45, so whenever you choose to buy an item, you’ve got a handful of things to consider. How long will it be before that number comes up again? How big will the bonus be? How much money are you willing to give to another player? How much will THEY be willing to give back to YOU when you sell it? There are a lot of simple factors bumping against eachother, with coupled with the barely controlled chaos of the dice rolls, ends up turning “buy low, sell high” into “buy high, sell higher” or “buy low, sell immediately for no profit” or “buy low, sell never” with an alarming frequency. You’re constantly getting screwed over, but don’t worry, it’s hilarious.

As you build a portfolio of movie references, you’ll find your initial money supply dwindling. 24 dollars turns into 3, but you’ve got the Holy Grail, the Ruby Slippers, and… Rosebud? and all you need is for your number to come up JUST ONCE for the purchase to pay off… and it doesn’t. And doesn’t. And doesn’t. And ARRRRRGH ANOTHER 6? Are you serious? 9 is WAY more common a roll than 6 is, but for some reason that Marcellus Wallace suitcase is bouncing around the table like crazy, so maybe you should just buy it, too… No matter HOW much you know about the “Gambler’s Fallacy” this game will have you swearing up and down that 15 is really on a hot streak, so maybe you should bite the bullet and buy it for 8. Surely you’ll make it back before the game ends, right?

Eh, probably not. Our games often end with a few players low on cash, but with quite a tableau of item tokens in front of them. Remember, it’s a race, so while buying stuff gives you more opportunities to maybe make money in the future, it also puts you deeper and deeper in the hole. If Animal Crossing has taught me anything, being in debt in the world of talking animals is not a particularly enviable position.

The game’s tons of fun, but it’s got a few issues that mean I can’t just give it the full two-thumbs up treatment. First off, this money. The money in this game comes with some of the least functional money I’ve ever seen. I’ve rarely felt compelled to replace money with chips, but this might change my mind. It comes in 1s, 5s, and 20s with designs based on US currency… the designs themselves are cute, but the denominations are nearly impossible to differentiate, resulting in a lot of “How much money have you got?” followed by “I….. I’m not sure?” By the way, have fun trying to give 5 players 24 dollars each in any kind of reasonable way. (A $20 and 4 $1s per player is pretty much it, which is annoying since most of the bids end up in the 6-8 range.)

The moneys, with a standard size reference zombie.

The moneys, with a standard size reference zombie.

The money’s not the only weirdly non-functional component. While the item chips have cute art and cuter references, the most important info on them, the NUMBER, is a white number on an off-white background in a stylized font with a thin outline. From across the table, the numbers are a bit hard to read. Expect at least once to search around for an item with a specific number, only to notice after a few seconds that it’s right in front of you.

Count the references!

Count the references!

Despite those couple of hiccups, I had a ton of fun with Flea Market. Re-rolling the dice to try and get a lower number but having it come up higher is painful and hilarious, especially when the bids are revealed and by some miracle you’re STILL not the worst off. It’s definitely a dice game, so anyone who doesn’t want to put up with luckiness should stay far, far away, but evaluating how much items are worth against your need to not give Mike any more money is an interesting enough decision, and for me, the dice turn what could be an agonizing (but long) decision tree into an equally agonizing (but shorter) yes/no. The game moves fast, at around 30 minutes no matter the player count. It’s a delightful little dice game with just enough to chew on, so if you like shouting at plastic cubes that don’t do what you tell them, give Flea Market a shot.

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An Even Weirder Review – Council of Verona + Corruption Expansion

When Council of Verona was released, microgames were already officially a “thing.” It had been about a year since Love Letter hit, and there were a lot of small-deck games popping up to try to siphon off of some of the ridiculous buzz surrounding the game in the tiny red bag. Council of Verona managed to get a nose out in front of the rest of the microgame pack. Almost all of these games had some sort of blackjack-in-miniature card-counting element to them, as a nod to what Kanai’s game did so well. Games like Love Letter and Lost Legacy do a lot to make you feel very smart for being able to count to 13… only to bring it crashing down on your head when you played the odds “right” but things just didn’t work out. Council of Verona is built around those moments, adding a clever gambling element to make the payoffs sweeter and the failures more… fail-y.

The betting tokens. Note that if you have drank too much coffee, you should probably hold off on applying the backing stickers, as any hawk-eyed (or, frankly, bat-eyed) player will be able to tell your tokens apart.

The betting tokens. Note that if you have drank too much coffee, you should probably hold off on applying the backing stickers, as any hawk-eyed (or, frankly, bat-eyed) player will be able to tell your tokens apart.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of familiar micro-game flavors here. Like most of the cloth-bag crowd, theres a hefty dose of deduction and card-tracking involved. The game comes with a player aid detailing all of the available cards, so even if you don’t feel like memorizing, you always know what’s out there. You deal out some cards secretly at the beginning of the game, just so nobody’s ever able to perfectly calculate what cards everyone has. There’s even a draft (that works a bit differently with two players) so that you know a bit about what your opponents might be holding onto. And that’s where Council of Verona diverges from the deduction microgame par-for-the-course by introducing unheard of levels of betting and double bluffsmanship. In fact, I’ve started teaching Council of Verona by likening the game to a gently-rigged horse race.

On each turn in CoV, a player will place one of their character cards (a Montague, Capulet, or fence-sitter) into either the Council or Exile. Each card has an ability on it, some of which are immediate and scoot cards or betting tokens around the board. Others (called “Agendas”) are end-game scoring conditions; as long as that character has what they want at the end of the game, any player who put a betting token on them will score the number of points on that betting token. There are 6 agendas (8 in the 5 player game) each with 3 opportunities for player to place bets on events like “More Montagues than Capulets in the Council,” “More Characters in Exile than in the Council,” and “Romeo and Juliet are together.” (Aww!) As the game progresses, cards are placed, shifted, and maybe removed, so what might have looked promising turn 1 is positively dire a turn later… but you should have known that some player was holding onto the Nurse all along! After all, it’s on the player aid!

Once again, the Nurse ruins literally everything.

Once again, the Nurse ruins literally everything.

After you play a card, you can place one of your betting tokens face-down on any card, leaving your opponents to guess whether you went all-in with your 5-point token, or are bluffing with your 0. Each card has limited spots for bets, and tokens placed earlier may be worth an additional bonus, so you want to get in early on those Agendas you think are going to win. You could, however, bluff your opponents, playing an agenda early and appearing as through you are going to do everything you can to make sure it’s completed, only to ruin it in one fell swoop with the very last card you play! Using one of your very limited turns to set up a bluff is risky, but when it pays off, it feels great. They should have KNOWN you were holding onto the Nurse all along!

Add in the Poison in-spansion, and now you’ve got a betting token that straight up murders one of the agenda cards, unless someone uses an antidote (another new betting token) to save them. Even if they do, that’s two of the three spots on the card filled up with things that earn no points, all because of your nastiness! That feels great, and a bit stronger than the 0-point bluff, but it takes up time, and takes up turns. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room in this game, especially in the ribcage-crushing corset of the 4 player game. Even in the relatively roomy three player game, or the five player game, where several new cards are introduced, there often just don’t seem to be enough open agendas to bet on, and you can’t afford to waste a single turn. When you’re forced to play a card whose ability is no longer useful for you, it’s agonizing. What’s worse, most of the available Agendas play rather poorly with each other, if not toward diametrically opposite ends. This means that spending early actions on an oh-so-clever scheme is likely to result in you having no horses in the race, so to speak, and you won’t feel so clever when you end up earning zero points. Perhaps hanging around towards the end might be safer, but since even the last card can swap two tokens, move a card from the council to exile, or otherwise completely spoil everything for everybody, you’ll end up feeling like a fool because you should have KNOWN he was holding onto the Nurse all along.

In fact, maybe nobody scores any points at all! I’ve seen it happen (especially in the poison expansion), perhaps a bit more often than I’d like. The game works reasonably at all player counts, but 3 and 5 seem best to me. The two-player drafting variant seems to lend a bit too much control to the players, and the 4 player game seems like there’s not quite enough space, leading to occasionally painful rounds where players feel like they didn’t have an opportunity to do anything for themselves, but could only meddle in the plans of others. Following the full-game rules and playing one round per player does seem to even that out, and help to correct for the substantial last-player advantage).

CoV is a game where dreams are built up and shattered over the course of 15 minutes, and you always feel like if you had done something differently, you might have been able to make it work. If you’d just accounted for that Nurse, you might have been okay…

The upcoming Corruption expansion (a review copy of which was sent to me by Crash Games) throws that out the window. You dream bigger, but fall harder, and don’t always feel like you could have weaseled your way out… but you aren’t waiting to see how things play out. You’re a professional plan-ruiner, and there are so many plans to ruin.

"Oh Juliet, even though we're in exile, at least we're together!" "LOL JK BBL"

“Oh Juliet, even though we’re in exile, at least we’re together!”

This expansion adds a deck of 21 Corruption cards that can be played on your turn in addition to a character card and a token. These abilities, all unique, are quite a dash of spice to the game, each card doing something novel and interesting. Some cards are instantaneous abilities like those on the base game’s character cards. Some cards permanently add additional betting spots to agendas. Some cards lurk facedown until scoring, when they move characters, swap chips, or negate bets altogether, so you can watch your friends’ smug faces contort in misery as Juliet abruptly decides to move away, denying both Romeo and Juliet their precious points. (An evil laugh is required here. MWAHAHA.) When the circumstances are right, each card feels very powerful, very useful, and very very secret.

That added opacity has quite an impact on how Council of Verona plays out. In the base game everyone has some degree of knowledge of what cards have been passed around the table, and as a result, things feel reined in, under control, though just barely. You might be doomed, but you’ll see it coming, or at least you should have. (That accursed Nurse, again.) There’s a wealth of information in the base game, meted out among the players through dealing, drafting, and burning cards from a relatively small deck. In stark contrast, the Corruption cards are just sort of… dealt out. Each player just gets 4, and chooses to keep 2 of them. You can pick the ones that work best with the characters you’ve drafted, but you don’t have a lot of information to go on. Without this expansion, you know exactly how often cards can be moved, to and from where, exactly how many tokens can be swapped. With the expansion, you’re never really sure. 21 unique cards isn’t a COLOSSAL number, but it’s tough to keep 21 additional possibilities in mind, and every time someone plays a Corruption card face-down (to be activated right before scoring) the decision tree just gets pricklier.

Corruption doesn’t dramatically increase the game’s length, but it does increase how often things are moving, values are changing. It also increases how often you look at someone’s face as you play a card, watching their reaction to see if they’re devastated or indifferent. A lot of the Corruption cards feel (gamer epithet incoming) very “take-that”, making the game much more combative. If base CoV is a race with a nailbiting finish, then Corruption has you viciously taking potshots at the jockeys as they round the second turn. That ends up making the expansion feel less like an expansion and more like… a mutation? an adaptation? a mod?

...or this could happen. You know. Whatever.

…or this could happen. You know. Whatever.

I’ve played CoV and the expansion with a pretty wide range of players. Those that find a lot to love with the base game are often somewhat less enthusiastic about the expansion, finding it too chaotic, too swingy, too off-the-rails. Those that were excited by the expansion tended to think the base game felt a bit too dry or minimal, and appreciate the spicy confrontation that the Corruption cards provide.

As a result, Corruption is not an expansion I’d include every time I play the game. Not because it’s too complex (it’s not) but because it fundamentally changes the game. In fact, it seems like it very nearly turns game inside out. Players that want to play a more dynamic card game where you can directly, aggressively screw over other players and watch it happen in real time? They’re not so into the skulking and plotting of base CoV, but Corruption is way more their style. I’m not sure how many people are in in the wedge of the venn-diagram where the CoV base game and Corruption intersect, but I’m confident that most gamers are in one circle or the other. Wherever your taste lies on the control-to-chaos spectrum, some variant of Council of Verona probably fits the bill.

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Why the right answer to “You mean like Monopoly or Risk?” is “Yes.”

Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com is a pretty cool website most often focused on using data-mining to reveal some pretty interesting insights about life the universe and everything, write responsible articles about it, then have those responsibly written articles loaded into a catapult by idiots and fired across the room. Recently they have started published a few articles on board games, using their traditional approach of scooping up all the data, analyzing it, visualizing it, and then responsibly addressing their conclusions and caveats therein.

The article (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-worst-board-games-ever-invented/) written by Oliver Roeder, comes to the conclusion that BoardGameGeek thinks Monopoly is a very sub-par game, with more than 10000 ratings settling it at slightly above 4 on a ten-point rating scale. Most BGGers seem to be rather friendly with their ratings (unless they backed a failed kickstarter), with anything that is playable earning at least a 5, so below 5 isn’t just “below average”. It’s more like “below ground level.”

I’m well aware that rating Monopoly a 4 is practically part of the sign-up process for BGG, and that arguing that Monopoly “isn’t that bad when played by the rules” is almost as hipster as drinking exclusively at Starbucks while complaining about Starbucks. Risk fares a little better with a slightly-above-trash-tier 5.5, though the recent updates to the game like Risk: Black Ops (7.0) and Risk: Legacy (7.7) have managed to gain a bit of respect. Anyway, I’m not going to try and talk about whether or not Monopoly or Risk are good, but this recent buzz/refocus around what non-gamers might regard as “the classics” has dredged up another, more interesting question. Is Monopoly or Risk a good example of a modern, “grown-up” board game? Or is any perceived similarity on behalf of a “non-gamer” friend a misconception that should be swiftly and sternly corrected by pouring Caverna over them until they apologise?

According to the BGG forums, nearly every family member, significant other, first date, cousin, daughter’s boyfriend, co-worker, or alien abductor utters the phrase “You mean like Monopoly?” when confronted with the knowledge that the poster “plays boardgames.” And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Games like Monopoly and Risk are extremely likely to be anyone’s first exposure to “hard” board games. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-packers-of-catan-green-bays-board-game-obsession-1421346102) focused on the Green Bay Packers’ “Catan” habit, calling it a “non-violent Risk.” Though the article laughably lauded Risk as “notoriously complex” before eventually correcting that to “notoriously lengthy,” Risk was seemingly the closest thing to Catan that player (or the journalist) had encountered. So if you’re talking about boardgames to a non-boardgamer, using Risk or Monopoly as a jumping off point makes sense. As of this writing, BGG’s CompuServe-esque search tool returns 18 pages of results for active threads where “like monopoly” is in the subject, with topics ranging from “How to answer this?” to “My husband/boyfriend/mother-in-law/close-encounter-of-the-third-kind actually said this!” to “What games are like this” but it seems to be agreed that, in general, “our” games are NOT like Monopoly because “our” games are… you know… not rated a 4 of 10 on BGG.

Aside: Remember when people used the term TGOO – “these games of ours?” Me neither.

However, if someone doesn’t know about boardgaming, what better comparison could they make? In fact, even if one DOES know about boardgaming, Monopoly and Risk indisputably have many (if not all) of the characteristics of hobby games that might turn someone off… other than familiarity. Anyway, let’s unwrap the question “Is it like Risk or Monopoly?” into some of the things that it could imply, and address them one by one.

“Do the games you play have complex rules, like Risk or Monopoly?” aka “Will I have to learn some rules?” – Yes.
Scoff all you want. Monopoly is WAY more complex (rules-wise) than any of the other cultural touchstone games. You roll and move your pieces, sure, but there are rules for collecting sets, rules for building, rules for mortgaging, rules for auctioning, rules for trading. Risk (often seen as a “complex” game) has a lot less going on, by comparison, but a lot more than the rest of the “classics” pack in the fivethirtyeight article, all of which are kids’ games. If you were to teach someone to play Monopoly, it’d likely take about as long or longer than teaching most “Gateway” games.

“Do your games have ‘mature’ themes, like Risk or Monopoly?” aka “Will I feel like I’m NOT playing with childrens’ toys?”Yes.
Most hobby games (though not all) stray from traditionally childish themes. Monopoly, and a couple other cultural touchstone board games (Risk and possibly Clue) do this, while others are either abstract or themed around candy and cartoon animals. In Monopoly, you’re a real-estate tycoon. In Risk, you’re a uchronian warlord of some kind. So, that makes sense. Some folks might be wary of “nerdy” Tolkien/D&D fantasy themes too, but luckily with the advent of the Eurogame you’ll be able to avoid most of that by sticking to farming and trading and ledgerman-ing until they get over it.

“Do your games take a while, like Risk or Monopoly?” aka “Do I have to commit time to this?” –  Yup.
Whether or not they played by the rules, most people remember Risk and Monopoly as taking a long time. A long time is around 90-120 minutes in a lot of cases. This is about the time teaching and playing most hobby games would take. Most “gateway” games (cough) are around an hour, and 90-120 minutes isn’t outside the realm of possibility given rules explanations and slow first-time players. So this is pretty reasonable, too.

“Are your games awful, like my memories of Risk or Monopoly?” aka “…well, are they?” –  Yyyyy… no? Not… No.
Oops, maybe the answer isn’t ALWAYS yes, but of ALL the above questions, this is the only one I think most people are paying attention to when asked “Is this like Monopoly?” I obviously can’t discount the possibility that some people are actually asking this question. Whether because of nonsensical house-rules or traumatic table-flip memories it’s certainly possible for people to have a sense of dread regarding these games. Heck, I got into a pretty serious fight with my stepmother over a game of Scrabble once. This is (hopefully) the one way in which our games are NOT comparable to Risk or Monopoly for this person, since nobody will get grounded for a week over them.

The only thing you can do is read the tone of the conversation. Is the person asking remembering Monopoly fondly? Or are they remembering all the times someone forced them to play it? Whether or not YOU think it’s fun, if they seem to be excited or interested about the comparison, then you could assume that they are okay with:

  • Listening to a rules explanation of some length
  • Spending an hour or two on playing a game
  • Playing games while not also being seven years old

If not, then it’s doubtful that bonding over your shared disgust at Risk is going to make them like Agricola any better.

In either case, some form of “Yes, a lot like that” provides them with what they need to know, but a lot of people are convinced the answer is to start belting “A Whole New World” while unpacking Puerto Rico. Why?

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An Even Weirder Review: Lagoon – Land of Druids

One of the things a good game does best is give you the sensation that you’re just barely competent. When you’re staring at the board, and you almost don’t find the move that will save you, but then you do find it, and make it, and you’re saved? A word I’ve heard to describe this is ‘chewy’ which I think fits because you’re grinding your teeth or biting your lip until you find the morsel of genius at the core of it. That makes you feel clever, and feeling clever is a wonderful, rewarding feeling. It’s also stressful, though, and when a game presents a buffet of chewy choices, the result can be quite hard to swallow.

David Chott’s Lagoon: Land Of Druids from 3 Hares Games provides a lush, vibrant orchard with all kinds of deliciously chewy decisionfruit for you to (nearly?) choke on.

Beautiful, beautiful Lagoon, the land of my youth... I remember my first Jokulmas.

Beautiful, beautiful Lagoon, the land of my youth… I remember my first Jokulmas.

Lagoon looks like a CCG, with its vibrant artwork, fantastical otherworldly setting, and paragraph-of-rules-on-every-component design. The core rules are quite simple. On your turn, you can activate any of your wooden-nickel (unless you have the peasant edition, in which case they’re very thick cardboard nickels) “druid” pieces on the board to use the ability of a tile you have a druid on.

(You almost certainly missed something crucial just there, but don’t worry! I’ll come back to it in a second. )

You can activate a druid to move it one space. You can activate a druid to make a new druid. (Druids have interesting biology, you see.) Once a turn, you can activate your player token alongside a druid to explore, picking a new tile out of the bag and placing it either side up, expanding the landscape. Each tile has a new ability on it, so you can move your druid there to gain access to that ability. Also you can eat dirt of various colors. I’ll get back to that in a second as well, because first I have to address the first thing you almost certainly missed.

When you have a druid on a tile, ALL of your druids have access to that tile’s ability, no matter where they are on the board. 

This tends to rather explode the realm of possibilities on your turn. I could use druid X to move Druid Y to tile Z so you can… well, no, I need to use druid Y on tile Y, so maybe I use druid Y to use tile Y, and THEN use druid X to move… but then who will use tile Z? A huge portion of the abilities deal with movement, either moving druids or moving tiles themselves, so when you do find the perfect move (Moving Tile Z closer to druid X? maybe so.) it will feel like one of those thriller movies where the genius mathematics guy has a bunch of figures floating around his head but the wrong ones get foggier and foggier until the right answer is suddenly SO CLEAR. Also you need to eat the dirt.

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

All of that puzzle, moving your druids around and swapping tiles into position, all of it leads to your primary method of scoring (and influencing scoring) in the game, which is, as I mentioned, eating dirt. You see, the game’s tiles come in three flavors, and whichever is most dominant on the board at the end of the game (called the “destiny of Lagoon” in the game’s language) will determine how (or IF) you score points. As you place tiles of a color, you’re essentially gaining “stock” in that color in the form of “seed” chips. You can spend the chips of a color – or just be hanging out on that color’s tiles – in order to have one of your druids unravel an enemy-colored tile, Rock-Paper-Scissors style. Your guy will devour the very ground (mushroom, building, salamander, whatever) beneath him, tossing that tile into your scoring pile. Chowing down on a tile has the double payoff of denying everyone that ability AND depositing their druids back onto a “home” tile, which is hopefully inconveniently far from anything else of interest.

Actually I'm not sure any of this is good to eat (ethically or nutritionally)... well, except the Tonic Leaf.

Actually I’m not sure any of this is good to eat (ethically or nutritionally)… well, except the Tonic Leaf.

Now for another layer of chewy peel around the morsel of this game: You can’t break the board into multiple parts, and you can’t “eat” the last home tile on the board. These restrictions add ANOTHER thing to consider as you scoot your druids around the board gobbling up gardens and canyons and what have you. They’re also the source of most of the game’s interactivity, which is surprisingly kind of a lot. For the most part, you can’t move your opponent’s druids or react on their turns, but by changing the shape of the board, you can trap them on inedible peninsulas or whisk them far away from useful tiles. So, do you spend this turn exploring and gathering energy? Or do you bump a tile over to the other side of the board, pinning an opponent in place and keeping him from eating or moving the tile he’s standing on? Manipulating the board to deny your opponent points or abilities is crucial to success, and means that the position of the tiles is as important (actually much more important) than the druids standing on them.

"I think you'll find the Gossamer Pass quite inedible this turn! MWA HA HA"

“I think you’ll find the Gossamer Pass quite inedible this turn! MWA HA HA”

However, there are a couple of lets-call-them rough edges, things that keep me from recommending this game to everybody in the world. First of all, the scoring is… well, it’s novel, but it can obfuscate what are sometimes VERY binary win-or-lose decisions. The rulebook sheepishly admits that the scoring is misleading, but that’s quite an understatement. ONLY the winning color’s “stock” is worth points at the end of the game, so you’ll score points ONLY for that color’s seeds (and for other-color tiles that you’ve eaten). One rather irritating outcome of this (in terms of players’ perceptions) is that the closest, toughest-fought games tend to have the largest discrepancies in score. If I’m heavily banking on Red to win, gobbling up blue tiles and hanging onto red seeds, and you’ve sunk a lot of effort into Blue, and it comes down to the last tile? One of us is going to score next to nothing, while the other rakes in the big nature bucks. Scores will be a lot closer in a game where early on it seems inevitable that Yellow will win, so we’re going to be chewing up points moreso than influencing the “destiny” of Lagoon, but the game won’t have been nearly as intense. Player count has a big impact on how this works; two-player games tend to be more likely to result in chasms between player scores, while multi-player games are more chaotic and see players with more varied “portfolios” so to speak. Anyway, the exclusivity of the scoring can have a discouraging effect on less persistent (masochistic?) gamers seeking a friendlier experience with less seemingly-crushing-defeats.

Also, hey, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but the decision tree in this game is actually a decision mangrove, or some kind of large bushy shrubby thing with a billion branches and ten-billion leaves. There’s room for planning, for sure, but on every turn there are about a billion TERRIBLE choices to eliminate. There’s an engine builder buried under a spatial puzzle, buried under ANOTHER spatial puzzle, each requiring a little bit different thinking, and all of it matters. So, if you’re “that guy” or you play with “that guy” I’d keep this game far away from him. Most of my plays have been 2-player, and as an ex-M:TG lifestyler (and ex-Chess high-schooler) I’m used to spending a bit of time pondering and watching others ponder in games like this. In a multiplayer game, that would not be so tolerable.

Look at these beautiful player aids! This face will always be on the table, so I thought I'd give you a nice chance to look at it here.

Look at these beautiful player aids! This face will always be on the table, so I thought I’d give you a nice chance to look at it here.

The last thing is that, despite the cool artwork and the TCG-esque terminology (For example, let’s say you Spend one seed and exhaust 1 of your druids to unravel the invoking Eldrid’s site and swap it with an unlocked site of thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh) I’m not quite sure what I’m DOING in this game, or in this world, for that matter? I guess I’m a druid leader? And we’re… destroying, er, “unravelling”… places we don’t agree with (except some of the places are plants or animals or people)? To change the “Destiny” of the world? …Am I the bad guy? Anyway, the art’s gorgeous but there’s next to no thematic resonance here; the theme doesn’t inform the mechanisms at all, it’s just nifty dressing. If you want to feel like a magic man on a magical quest, this is not that game. This is a game where you feel like you’re playing Hive and Magic: The Gathering at the same time. You glower at the board for not being how you want it to be. Your head probably hurts. Whether or not you like that depends on what kind of person you are.

I like it.

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An Even Weirder Review: Battle Merchants

Considering how many games have been made about the classic Tolkien-esque fantasy races mercilessly slaughtering each other, and the more-than-a-few games about the dungeon-building villains of those RPG stories, it’s frankly quite surprising we haven’t seen many games that explore the mechanical underbelly of those settings. What about the merchants whose pockets are lined with adventurers’ GP? What about the shopkeepers who ply weapons, armor, and trinkets with an ever-increasing litany of enchantments and plus-one-to-hits? Like the best PC game of all time, Recettear (note, that’s not my opinion, that game is the best) Battle Merchants from Gil Hova and Minion Games gives players the chance to supply magic (well, supposedly) weapons to a fantasy realm roiled in constant meaningless conflict. Unlike Recettear, you’re not outfitting heroes or adventurers versus dungeon-dwelling monsters… you’re supplying everybody versus everybody else. In fact, you’re often supporting both sides of every single conflict in the game. It feels wrong… but the towering stacks of cardboard coins you’ll get feel so RIGHT.

Also, don’t hoard coins like that. Please make change. We’re running out of ones.

There's quite a lot of little cardboard tokens floating around. This game demands to be accessorized, or at least Plano Boxed.

There’s quite a lot of little cardboard tokens floating around. This game demands to be accessorized, or at least Plano Boxed.

Battle Merchants starts out as a dirt-simple buy-low-sell-high kind of economic game. You can craft two of the game’s four types of weapons. There are spots on the board that represent battles, where each side wants to buy a particular type of weapon. There’s no fluctuating market so to speak; Supply is precisely what you (and your competitors) make, there are no raw materials. Demand is precisely the spaces available on the board. Prices are also rather static, at least at first. You can build weapons (up to three at a time) for 5 fantasy bucks a pop, and sell them (one at a time) for 6 fantasy bucks as long as there’s a space for them. Pretty slim margins, yeah, but such is the life of a hobbyist weapons retailer. Slowly, surely, you’ll scrape together more and more money, as your economic machine churns to life.

The game might be mechanically simple, but that doesn’t mean your choices are simple. There’s a lot to consider, and each option opens more options down the road. For example, on your turn (instead of forging a batch of weapons or selling them) you can choose to spend time upgrading your skills by buying craft cards, making your weapons STRONGER. You might think stronger weapons would sell for more, but you’d be wrong. Somehow these fantasy warriors are totally incapable of recognizing premium merchandise. Your upgraded weapons WILL, however, make kindling out of the shoddy work your competitors are busily spewing onto the board. There’s an elegant rubber-band mechanism here; the best cards cost more based on the skill you already have, but the “Bad” cards are always free. That makes it tough for the guy forging Level 7 battle-axes to justify upgrading them to level 9, but going from level 1 to 3 is a breeze. Get good enough, and you can build VORPAL weapons, medieval WMDs that cost 3 times as much but which defeat ANY lesser ‘regular’ armament, no matter the level.

You can collect Kingdom Cards, special abilities or one-shot effects that will help your enterprise, giving you an extra dollar for selling to the warring factions in the mountains, or for instigating another battle, or for having your efficient craftsmanship turned to kindling by some smug jerk selling premium warhammers.

What’s more, as you sell to one group, they become loyal customers. Interestingly, this means you’re able to charge them more, so focusing on one faction might be a good idea, as each individual sale sill be more profitable. You can only earn one of these loyalty upgrades per race per turn, but you can earn the loyalty of multiple factions, so maybe you want to spread out, instead? Sacrifice the extra penny this turn for a few more down the road, that is, if someone else doesn’t sell to the hobgoblins before you do. Do you want to be a loyal warmonger or an opportunistic one? Options!

Blue seems to be enthusiastically backing the Hobgoblins here. Too bad he's crap at building hammers.

Blue seems to be enthusiastically backing the Hobgoblins here. Too bad he’s crap at building hammers.

Whenever both sides of a battle are supplied, (yes, that includes if you sold to both sides yourself) the battle escalates, growing larger and opening up new opportunities for sales. Now the Orcs want a batch of hammers to go with their axes, and the Elves want swords to match. Once enough of these battles escalate, it’s officially time for WAR! That means all of the battles resolve themselves, with the stronger, better-levelled instrument of war shattering the opposing armament. The proud craftsman who sold the bigger bludgeon keeps the remains of his opponent’s work, and collects a handy couple of bucks for ‘repairs’. So maybe it’s good to build up a reputation for quality weapons, since the player with the most of these grisly trophies will get a reward at the end… However, unless you DO have the most, the trophies aren’t worth anything. What’s worse, satisfied customers aren’t going to buy new weapons if the ones they already have are good enough! Maybe it’s a better idea to be the Medieval iPhone, and sell the Dwarves hideously obsolete weapons that you know they’ll replace with slightly better ones next season…

Just in this overview, I’ve stumbled into many of the wonderful strategic questions that build on the game’s simple framework. You can build cheap, sell cheap, and let your weapons get destroyed. You can become a master sword-smith, handily beating everyone, clogging up the market on swords and collecting a small fortune in repair fees. You can build a reputation among one faction, or sell to everyone. Do you spend your first turns buying and selling a couple basic weapons? Or do you start building up your Craft skills and Kingdom Cards, banking on their future benefits to make up for the late start? There’s a world of cool stuff to do.

It’s not all strategy either. Unlike a lot of economic euro-games where you set up an engine and watch it churn out victory points, there’s more conflict here than just “I took the card/space you wanted.”

…Well, there IS that. And that’s most of it.

But, there IS more! This is mostly due to the board, and the nifty way the market gets larger as people sell. If I have a sword, and you have a sword, and there’s one sword space left, then yeah, passive-aggressive euro-block your heart out. But if you have a sword, and I’m building weapons, maybe I want to look at the new spaces that will open up when you sell it? You’ll sell the sword, escalate the conflict, and suddenly the hobgoblins want my shiny new Vorpal Hammer after all. Timing when to sell weapons, and when to spend turns building up your enterprise or your backstock is key, and you’ll want to watch the other players like hawks, seeing how much cash they’ve got on hand, what they have in their stores, and who they like to sell to the most.

"What level are your maces, again?" "Uh... It's complicated?"

“What level are your maces, again?”
“Uh… It’s complicated?”

One thing you won’t be terribly able to watch, unfortunately, is their weapon level, which will be obscured in a mess of tiny symbols on tiny cards. The game has more than a few issues with component clarity: The coins have extremely stylized numbers on them, which while pretty, don’t seem to click with newbies. The escalating Kingdom Card hand-size is great mechanically, but easy to forget. Some of the kingdom cards are weirdly worded, and the Craft cards are sorted into piles based on their only-vaguely-different card backs. The MOST irritating component issue, by far, is the Craft cards themselves. Weapon level is pretty important to the game, and you upgrade it by buying little tiny ticket-to-ride size cards that have one or two emoji-sized “level” icons on them, as well as a potential 1 or 2 coin discount. The icons aren’t placed in a way that’s conducive to seeing them all at once, and some cards have multiple weapon types on them, preventing you from stacking them by “suit” at all. Unless you have laser eyes and a gigantic table on which to splay all the cards, you’re going to be asking “What level are your maces?” pretty much constantly. The game would benefit tremendously from a little level-tracker widget, but the upkeep for that would add more upkeep to a game that…

Well, it has kind of a lot of upkeep already.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is mechanically simple, but at its heart this is a game of tiny, easy to fumble calculations. You’re selling weapons at a measly one dollar markup at the beginning of the game, so every single copper coin counts. However, when you build weapons, you might have a discount based on what kind you build. When you sell weapons, you’ll collect any number of bonuses from loyalty tokens, cards, and so on. So you’ll be doing tons of this:

“Okay, I’m going to build weapons. I have two dollars off hammers, so I’m going to build 2 hammers… I have enough money to make a vorpal one, to beat your maces over there, so I’ll do that… and I’ll build an axe as well, so that’s 3 and 13 and 5… and then I get a free weapon from my extra materials so I’ll make a sword… actually, I have a dollar off the sword so I’ll build the sword instead and get the axe for free so that’s 3 and 13 and 4? 20? Okay, then next turn I’ll sell this here for… 18 plus my orc tokens is 21, plus my mountain token is 22, and it’ll escalate so that’s 23… and I get another orc token so that’s 1 more for my NEXT sale…”

You’re doing a metric axe-load of little arithmetic, and the game is all about making those extra pennies, so miscalculating once can set you back quite a bit. With all the summing going on, it’s terrifically easy for players to make game-wrecking mistakes. I don’t think I’ve played a single game where at some point one player didn’t realize, a few turns too late, that they’d cheated themselves out of a potentially important couple of coins. “Oh, I think I haven’t been counting my [bonus text] for those last couple sales, but I’m not sure…” It’s difficult to unroll, and after multiple plays you’ll get more attentive, but I still found it a bit daunting in that respect.  That’s really the biggest downfall of an otherwise immensely enjoyable game. If you become frustrated when figuring out how to divide the check, err on the side of caution.

If I were to try and dredge up another criticism, (and I will because I’m a whiner) it’d be the classic salty loser forum cry of “imbalance”. Now, I’m not sure it’s actually a huge issue for gameplay balance, but the power of the Kingdom Cards does have an impact on the way the game feels. Many of the Kingdom Cards represent a big swing for the player who gets to scoop them up. The hand-limit mitigates the influence this can have somewhat, but it seems incongruous to have such big power-plays in a game that so much of the time is concerned with efficiency and making the most of small margins. In particular, the “Extra Materials” card which grants you a FREE 4th weapon whenever you forge three at once seems to be a game-changer. It’s a fun game-changer, but cards like that seem a bit swingier than I’d expect from a a game like this. Pulse-rifles are fun, but pulse-rifles in a knife fight can make the knife-fight seem a bit unfair, at least to the knife-havers. Then again, they can always pick up a Pulse-Rifle themselves, since most of the Kingdom Cards are free and some even grant cash on the spot.

Anyway, that’s more than enough grouchery from me. Battle Merchants is a ton of fun.

Despite my grumblings about components and calculations, I think Battle Merchants is a charmingly-themed, mechanically streamlined game that fires up my entrepreneurial spirit. It plays in around 90 minutes and gives players a very satisfying sense of strategic freedom; every time I play I’m able to think about how I want to approach THIS game, and how to react to other players’ actions, rather than being railroaded down one strategic route. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hawk this backpack full of rusty forks to a gang of belligerent merfolk.

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