Games: King of Tokyo

This review is cross-posted to Playtest. King of Tokyo is available via Amazon and Funagain Games.

LJ: do you take game review requests?
please review “king of toyko”!
your fans demand it!

me: Okay, done.

LJ: it’s SUCH a good game!
do you love it?

me: I do

When compiling my annual Good Gift Games Guide, I try to ensure that there is something for everyone: family games, two-player games, abstract games, word games, and so forth. The selections are not ranked by preference. That said, the first two or three slots in the guide are invariable occupied by the GGGs that I most highly recommend. Last year, top billing went to Survive: Escape for Atlantis!. But I have to admit, the runner-up, King of Tokyo, has usurped Survive’s title of Best GGG from 2011.

King of Tokyo casts the players as oversized beasts, vying for supremacy in the midst of a teeming (and screaming) metropolis. Each abomination starts with 0 victory points and 20 units of health; if the former hits 20, the player instantly wins; if the latter drops to 0, it’s sayonara Cyberbunny. Thus, a player can win in one of two ways: by amassing victory points, or by knocking everyone else out.

Cyberbunny and Gigazaur. Photo by Raiko Puust.

Gameplay is Yahtzee at its core: roll a handful of dice, set some aside, and keep going until you choose to stop or have rerolled twice. One side of every die has a “1”, another side has a “2”, and a third has a “3”; if you roll any of these numbers in triplicate, you score that number in victory points (rolling three 2s gives you two points, for instance).

The remaining three sides of each die show icons rather than numbers. Each rolled electrical bolt awards you an energy cube. Each heart restores one unit of your health. And each claw damages some opponents. Deciding when to go for straight victory points, and when to pursue other strategies, is the heart of your turn.

If all of this sounds rather confrontational    well, it is. After all, when Alienoid goes toe-to-to with The Kraken, there will be blood. Fortunately, the game employs a clever twist to ensure that, of all the things that wind up bruised, egos are not among them. The first person to roll a claw icon does not hurt anyone, but instead becomes the King, and places his figure on the Tokyo playmat. Thereafter, rolled claws deal damage like so:

  • If the rolling player is in Tokyo, he damages all other players.
  • If the rolling player is not in Tokyo, he damages the player who is.

Entering Tokyo, and holding your position there, awards victory points, so there’s an incentive to paint the town red (with blood). But in doing so, you become a target for your opponents. Thus, you never single out another player for attack: you either attack everyone else (as the King), or you attack the King (who has no one to blame but himself, having put himself in the position of antagonist). Lots of mayhem, no hard feelings.

The dice. Photo by Mike Hulsebus.

King of Tokyo was designed by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: the Gathering. And if you are familiar with M:tG, you know what’s coming next: special powers, and lots of them. In King, these powers take the form of Mutations, which players can buy with the energy cubes they have amassed. The effect of mutations include extra dice, new ways to gain victory points, additional options for healing, and a host of others. Though every monster begins the game the same, mutations give each a distinct flavor by the end.

With a playing time of 20-30 minutes, King of Tokyo is a near-perfect filler. And even gamers like me, for whom “dice” is a four-letter word, will grudgingly admit to kind of loving it.

Games: London

This review is cross-posted to Playtest. London is available via Amazon and Funagain Games.

Tucked away in the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony was a segment illustrating the evolution of Britain from pastoral island to thriving metropolis. Apparently many American found this transformation boring. I, on the other hand, was riveted — probably because, as the participants rolled up the grass and erected smokestacks, I could visualize myself playing the corresponding cards in Martin Wallace’s London.

Set after the Great Fire of 1666, and spanning the quarter millenia thereafter, London has players rebuilding the Capital through the play of cards, which depict buildings such as shops and train stations, infrastructure such as sewers and schools, populations such as refugees and paupers, and institutions such as the British Museum. Most of these cards confer a one-time benefit to the owner — money and victory points are the most common boons — when he chooses to “run” his city. 

Even as big a fan of Martin Wallace as I must admit that that his games can rarely be accused of elegance. They often seem as though they could have benefited from some additional development (and, indeed, several of his games have received this development and been reissued under a new name: Age of Steam/Steam, Brass/Age of Industry, etc.). One of his newest offerings, A Few Acres of Snow, asks the active player to select two actions from a menu of over a dozen, a panoply of options that can lead to paralysis. 

Players of London, on the other hand, use their turn to perform a single action from a possible four: draw cards, play cards, run their city, or buy one of the 20 London boroughs shown on the game board. This simplicity puts London within spitting distance of “gateway game” territory, something else rarely said of Martin Wallace’s offerings.

Even with such a streamlined design, though, Wallace manages to pack in a fair amount of theme. The cards, of course, have a host of different effects that reflect their type: markets produce money, paupers can be sent to school (or prison), and so forth. Cards are placed into stacks, which allows a player to “build over” those of an earlier era with modern buildings of increased efficiency. And, when a city is run, players receive deleterious “poverty points” equal to their stacks of cards, minus the number of boroughs they have acquired; thus, having a lot of buildings in a small area breeds poverty, while expansion reduces the pressures of urbanization. As I said: simple and thematic.

Wallace also attempts to mitigate the lack of player interaction that plagues many other games of this ilk. The game board features a display area, which holds, face-up, cards from which a player can draw. When someone plays a card to their area, they must also select from their hand a second card and place it into this display area. Thus, the face-up cards available for you to draw are those that your opponents have seen fit to make available. This clever twist on the traditional draw-cards/play-cards system allows you to stay in your own sandbox if you prefer, though it behooves a player to keep an eye on what would benefit his opponents — and withhold it.

Comparisons between London and San Juan are inevitable and illuminating, as both have players building a city by playing cards to the table before them. (London, it’s worth noting, is very much a card game, despite the attractive and largely superfluous gameboard). One could almost imagine London as the San Juan prototype — if, during development, someone hit upon the idea of using cards instead of money to pay for buildings, and of jettisoning the board entirely, you’d be three-quarters of the way from one to the other. 

Whether you prefer London to San Juan largely depends on how the amount of polish you demand of your games. Personally, I enjoy the opacity inherent in a rougher-hewn design. Whereas powerful building combinations are fairly obvious in San Juan (e.g., a building that gives you additional goods pairs well with a building that allows you to sell additional goods), London requires analysis, and repeat plays, to suss out these opportunities for synergy. 

Where London falters, in my opinion, is in the ratio of complexity to playing time — 90 to 120 minutes is a bit long for a game in which player options are so constrained. It also, perversely, contains a few cards that require to owner to single out another player for abuse. Some game groups (such as my own, alas) consider any and all “take that!” elements in a game design as grounds for summary rejection.

I, on the other hand, quite enjoy London, despite (or, let’s be honest, probably because of) its idiosyncrasies. Like Martin Wallace, I appreciate theme and I am willing to brook a few complications if they help in the setting the atmosphere. More to the point, I’m a fan of simple games that require tough decisions and provide ample opportunity for strategic play. By that criteria, London is capital indeed.

Games: Friday

This review is cross-posted on Playtest. Friday is available via Amazon and Funagain Games.

You’ve invited friends over for games this evening, but their replies are rife with hedges and qualifiers. “I’ll try to make it” says one; “maybe I’ll swing by later” vows another. And so, having no clear idea of how many will actually attend, you mentally prepare for every contingency: maybe Bang! if seven or six others arrive, Arkham Horror for four or three, Agricola if you’re joined by only two or one.

But what if the unthinkable happens?

Don’t you worry. Friday’s got your back.

Created by Friedemann Friese (he of the sublime Power Grid and brain-damaging Fresh Fish) Friday is the latest of the designer’s forays into deck-building. Friese previously explored the genre with Fürstenfeld, but with limited success  as with so many deck-builders, Fürstenfeld often feels like “multiplayer solitaire”, with interaction so constrained that it’s as if everyone at the table is playing a separate game. Friese doesn’t address this problem in Friday so much as capitalize on it; in fact, he describes Friday as “a multiplayer solitaire game … without the other players”. 

Because, you see, Friday is that rarest of beasts: a one-player-only commercial card game.

The components of Friday

Friday casts you in the role of Robinson Crusoe, struggling to survive on a tropical island long enough for rescue. (According to the rules you are technically Crusoe’s assitant Friday, but this was clearly chosen so that Friese could call this the second game in his “Freitag Project”, following Black Friday.) To do so, you must weather a series of hardships, ranging from the relatively benign (swimming back to your wrecked ship to retrieve supplies) to the deadly (exploring the depths of the island). Each obstacle has a specific “Hazard Value”, and you overcome it if the total of the cards revealed from your Knowledge Deck equals or exceed this value. If you fall short of the target number, you may repeatedly draw and play an additional card at a cost of one life token (from your starting allotment of 20). Or, at any time, you can simply surrender, and pay life tokens equal to the margin of defeat. Work your way through the Hazard deck three times and you’re given the opportunity to fight pirates and win the game; if, on the other hand, you run out of life tokens, you become an entrée for wild animals or cannibals.

Cards in Friday serve a dual purpose: one half shows a Hazard (and a Hazard Value), and the other half shows Crusoe (and a Knowledge Value). When you overcome an hazard, the card goes into your discard pile, and become available to you as a Knowledge Card after the next shuffle. 

But failing to defeat a hazard brings its own reward, for it is only then that you are allowed to eliminate cards from your Knowledge Deck. Early in the game your Knowledge Cards are weak, but sufficient to combat the simpler challenges; as you encounter increasingly difficult travails, however, these cards become a liability, as they clutter your deck and crowd out the more powerful cards necessary for success. Furthermore, you will occasionally have to add an Aging Card to your deck, which bestows penalties, rather than benefits, when drawn. Thus, removing cards is often every bit as important as claiming them.

This “get good cards if you win and lose bad cards if you lose” system is not only clever, but surprisingly thematic. As in real life, you gain as much from your defeats as you do from your victories, as you learn from your mistakes and become a stronger person for it.

A Hazard Card, with the Hazard (cannibals) on the bottom half and the Knowledge Value (4) on the top

Friedemann Friese is a notorious dabbler, and loves to try out new mechanisms in his games. Friday definitely feels like such an experiment, complete with small but impressive innovations, as well as some rough edges. As an example of the latter, a player wins the game by fighting two pirates, each a Hazard Card of exceptional difficulty. It probably says more about me than of Friday when I tell you that this vexes me to no end. The game’s narrative works perfect with Crusoe surviving long enough for a (single) pirate ship to visit his isle, defeating the crew with his hard-won skills, and sailing off into the sunset for victory. Asking Crusoe to fight two pirate ships, one after another, makes no goddamned sense whatsoever. It feels as if Friese got the game to where it worked, realized that players were winning too often, impulsively threw in a second pirate to up the difficulty, and called it good. This impression of slapdashery is reinforced by a few other oddities, such as the poor translations of the card names.

Still, Friday is a fun way to while away an hour. (Each game only takes 20 minutes but, as with traditional solitaire, the compulsion to play several in a row is nearly irresistible.) It also has four levels of difficulty, even the lowest of which is a considerable challenge. And it gives you something to play when your flaky friends again stand you up.

I recommend Friday not only for its admirable qualities, of which there are plenty, but also because, as an engrossing one-player game, it will fill a niche in your collection that is almost certainly vacant.