December 10, 2008

Games: Pandemic

You know what's an appealing theme for a family game? Pirates. Or trains. Maybe exploring ancient pyramids or traveling through space. Maybe making a ton of money via real estate or stocks.

You know what's not an appealing theme? Epidemiologists conducting research to curb the spread of infectious diseases.

And yet that is precisely the premise of Pandemic, a new title from Z-Man Games and my #1 pick on the 2008 Good Gift Games Guide.

Pandemic is a cooperative game, which means that the players (2-4) work as a team to "beat the system". The board shows a map of the world, with 48 cities (twelve in each of four colors) connected by a web of roads. Two decks of cards drive the action: the Infection deck and the Player deck. The Infection deck contains 48 cards: one for each city of the board; the Player deck also contains one card per city, plus a number of "Epidemics". In all cases, a card is of the same color as the city to which it corresponds. The game also comes with a number of wooden cubes in these same four colors, representing the four contagions that the players will be struggling to contain.

Nine cities start the game infected, with 1-3 cubes placed in each; the more cubes a city has, the worse the virulence. No city can ever have more than three cubes of a single color; if, during the game, you are directed to add a cube to a city that already has three, you instead add one cube to every city adjacent to the target. This is called an "outbreak" and is very, very bad; eight outbreaks over the course of the game and you lose.

On a player's turn, he first takes four actions. Possible actions include moving around the board, treating and curing the diseases, building research stations, and passing cards to (or receiving cards from) his fellow players. A disease is cured when someone plays five cards of the same color (discard five blue cards, for instance, and the blue disease now has a vaccine). Curing a disease doesn't remove cubes from the board, but makes it easier to do so: when someone chooses the "Treat Disease" action for a cured disease, they remove all the cubes from the city they occupy (instead of just a single cube, as is the case for uncured diseases).

After completing his four actions, a player then draws new cards from the Player deck. Lastly, he flips over a number of cards from the Infection deck, and adds a new cube to each city revealed.

Beating Pandemic would be a cinch were it not for the Epidemic cards. When one is drawn from the Player deck, a new city is instantly given three cubes. Furthermore, Infection cards which have already been revealed are shuffled and placed on top of the Infection deck. Consequentially, the same cities which have recently been hit by the diseases are certain to be drawn again soon.

It's this final rule that gives Epidemic its flavor. Like a bad cold that just won't go away, the contagions in Pandemic just keep turning up, even in cities you thought you had thoroughly disinfected. On the up side, though, you also have a pretty good idea about where the diseases are going to strike next. If Chicago got hit before the last Epidemic and you haven't seen it since, you know that it's somewhere at the top of the Infection deck, lying in wait; if Chicago has three cubes, you also know you need to get over there, and fast. This is what makes the game more of a coordinated battle rather than just a series of frantic fire drills.

And coordination really is the key to winning. Players must constantly discuss their options and synchronize their actions, to best address the whims of fate. While strategic play is possible (and necessary), much of Pandemic is tactical in nature: you look at the state of the game, you study your hand of cards, you evaluate your position on the board, and you try to optimize your four actions. In this way the game is much like a puzzle, one that multiple people can work on simultaneously.

Adding to the excitement is the geometric rate at which things go pear-shaped as play progresses. At the start of the game, with only nine cities infected, beating the game looks like a cakewalk. And you'll remain nonplussed even after an outbreak or two. But around the time the third Epidemic card appears, everything goes to hell in a hurry. If a city with three cubes is adjacent to a city that outbreaks, it too will outbreak; if there is a third fully infected city nearby, the chain of outbreaks continue. When three, four, five outbreaks can all come from the turn of a single card, the tension around the table becomes palpable.

What I like best about Pandemic is the narrative that evolves as you play; after the game is over, you can't help but recount the "storyline", revealing in the small victories and cursing your ill-fortune. It's also hard--very hard. That's a great thing, because one common pitfall of cooperative games is that the replay value tends to evaporate once players have "figured it out"; the difficulty level of Pandemic, combined with the random setup and progression of play, largely obviates this problem. And it's fairly quick, requiring only half an hour or so (though you'll be hard pressed not to play two or three bouts in a row).

It's always fun to watch the faces of new players blanch when you introduce them to Pandemic, so certain are they that no disease could be as deadly as the boredom this game will sure induce. It's even more fun to watch those same people when they discover that this game rocks, not despite it's unusual theme but because of it.

Bonus: Here 's Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic, speaking about its design. The video is 50 minutes long but he spends the first ten providing an in-depth introduction to the game mechanics, in case you are intrigued but not yet sold. And the whole speech is pretty fascinating if you are a game geek like myself.

September 25, 2008

Halloween Gaming, Part III: Miscellaneous Malevolence

Arkahm Horror: Call of Cthulhu, the board game. A massive game in almost every respect (scope, game length, pages of rules, price tag...), this cooperative game has all the players working as a team to stop an Ancient One from destroying the world. Highly recommended for those who love H. P. Lovecraft or games that simulate the RPG experience without requiring a lot of prep work. One downside, though: despite taking 4+ hours to play, the game isn't terribly difficult to defeat, which can lead to some anti-climatic endings. Fortunately, the many expansions address this by considerably upping the challenge (the Dunwich Horror expansion, in particular, has ben very well received).

A Touch of Evil: The newest offering from the guys who designed Last Night on Earth (see my top pick in Part I of this guide), Touch of Evil has the players working separately to defeat one of four different villains (the Scarecrow, the Horseman, the Werewolf, and the Vampire), and is very much a disciple of the Talisman school of game design: move around the board, bulk up your character, and then take on the Big Baddie. Of course there's a reason why Talisman is so wildly popular--this type of game is crazy fun--and ToE even improves on the formula by keeping the playing time down around an hour.

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Fearsome Floors: If you're the sort to shy away from games that require spatial reasoning skills, this might be the most terrifying horror game on this list. First, players move their tokens on the board, racing innocent victims through a dungeon toward the exit. Then the Monster moves, following a specific and unvarying algorithm: he moves forward until he "sees" one or more player tokens, at which point he turns and moves toward whichever is closest. As the Monster may turn several times during his movement, much of the game depends on your ability to correctly extrapolate his course. Played among analytical types the game can get bogged down in number-crunching, but in a casual group it's an exciting contest with lots of "oh crap, I did not see that coming" moments.

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Gloom: I'm no fan of "take that!" games, in which the players are constantly playing cards on one another to hinder progress (think: Killer Bunnies or Muchkin, neither of which I can abide). That said, two aspects of Gloom serve as an antidote to my reflexive dislike. First is the great theme, which turns the usual screw-your-buddy mechanic on it's head: the object is to be the most miserable, so you play horrible events on yourself and sic such things as "picnic in the park" on your opponents--ha! Second, the game features cool transparent cards, which allow you see the accumulation of various bonuses and penalties. Not a game I'd play often, but once a year before Halloween is just about perfect.

Werewolf: A number of commercial versions have cropped up (The Werewolves of Millers Hollow, Do You Worship Cthulhu?, etc.), but all you really need are the rules, a deck of cards, a bunch of friends, and a healthy dose of paranoia. You can read my ruminations on the game here.

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Those are my recommendations for Halloween Gaming. If you'd like to second any of my nominations, or add your own to the mix, feel free to do so in the comments.

See also: Halloween Gaming, Part I: Zombies, Halloween Gaming, Part II: Vampires and Witches. You can also view the entire Halloween Gaming Guide on one page here. Or, if you are in market for good games regardless of theme, check out my Good Gateway Games Guide.

September 24, 2008

Halloween Gaming, Part II: Vampires and Witches

Fury of Dracula: Oh man, so fun. This is my go-to title for Halloween frivolity. See my full review here.

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Dracula: A two-player game, with one person as the Count and the other as Dr. van Helsing. Each is searching London for their target cards (Dracula seeks victims, while van Helsing looks for coffins), and must do battle the underlings of the other. Dracula is unusual in that it has a strong memory-component: London is represented by a grid of face-down cards at which players may occasionally peek, but must simply remember what they are (and where they are) thereafter. I'll admit to liking the game despite the memory aspect, rather than because of it.

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Dawn Under: Dude, what is it with memory games and vampires? Like Dracula above, this one is also better if you're not a senile old man like me, though the mnemonic component in Dawn Under is more akin to the classic "Memory" game you no doubt played as a kid. Open graves in search of vacant ones in which your vampires can rest. But if you open a tomb in which another play has already placed a vampire (or garlic), you suffer a penalty. One of those games that you'll feel slightly guilty playing since it's obviously "for kids", but will find immensely enjoyable nonetheless. Nominated for the 2004 German Game of the Year award.

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Witch's Brew: Beautiful card game in which players strive to collect ingredients a cauldrons to create potions and cast spells. A relatively simple and short game (less than an hour), but with plenty of novel mechanisms you are unlikely to have seen before. Nominated for the 2008 German Game of the Year award.

Wicked Witches Way: Whenever I write posts recommending games, I inevitably get comments from people expressing enthusiasm for Set; folks, this is the game for you. Nine custom dice are thrown, and then everyone simultaneously searches the rolled symbols for specific patterns. Do so quickly and your witch will advance on her broom, possibly winning the race and the game. Requiring both memory and speed, this is another game you can play competitively against young children--and lose.

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Techno Witches: Another witchly race, but these jet-setters ride state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners. Indeed nearly everything about this game is untraditional, from the fact that it's a boardgame with no board (wha-?), to the programmatic nature of movement (your witch doesn't budge until you've plotted out his next five moves--and then he does them all at once, possibly crashing into the other players as his does so). I'm not the first to observe that this is essentially a Harry Potter racing game without the license.

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See also: Halloween Gaming, Part I: Zombies, Halloween Gaming, Part III: Miscellaneous Malevolence

September 22, 2008

Halloween Gaming, Part I: Zombies

Aside from the "holiday season" (Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanza / New Year's Eve Revelry / New Year's Day "oh god why did I drink the whole bottle of Cantaloupe Schnapps??" Celebration / etc.), no time of year is better suited for board gaming than Halloween. And, for years I have been meaning to write a comprehensive guide to horror-themed games in honor of the occasion. Unfortunately Halloween always creeps up on me, and it's typically October 26th or so before it occurs to me to sit down and write the thing--much too late for readers to acquire the games on the list in time for an All Hallow's Eve gaming bash. (This is also why, for a Halloween costume, I typically wind up just grabbing a Sharpie and writing "John Hodgman" on my t-shirt minutes before heading out to a party I've known about for months.)

So this year I'm starting the Halloween Gaming Guide early. Part I looks exclusively at zombie games, in part II we will cover vampires, and part III will showcase the rest of the best.

Please note that I am only featuring games that are currently in print and available in English, as this is intended to be a buying guide and not just my personal musings on the best horror games. Which is a long way of saying: don't email me and inveigh about the absence of The Slime Monster Game or whatever.

And so, ladies and ghouls, without further a-boo ...

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Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game: Though a relatively recent addition to the genre (it came out last year), the growing consensus is that this is the best zombie game on the market. LNoE puts some players in the role of Heroes and the rest as Zombies, fighting tooth and nail (and, of course, chainsaw) in the heart of a small town. The best thing about LNoE is it's replayability: the game comes with five different scenarios (with more available online), each of the playable Heroes is unique (the Hot Nurse can heal, the Sheriff always has a revolver, etc.), and the rulebook includes an "Advanced" section in case the basic game just doesn't include enough dynamite for your liking. Plus, an expansion was just released, ensuring enough variability for many Halloweens to come.

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Zombies!!!: HOLY SHIT THREE EXCLAMATION POINTS????!! Prior to Last Night on Earth this was indisputably the reigning king of Zombie boardgames, and many prefer it to the johnny-come-lately. Feign off the undead hordes as you make your way to the helipad and rescue. Note that, unlike Last Night on Earth, Z!!! is a cut-throat game of competition--in fact, the other players are often more hazardous to your health than the monsters. That's why some people like Z!!! better--and why others, like me, find the cooperative aspect of LNoE to be vastly more enjoyable.

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Mall of Horror: And besides, if I'm going to play a screw-your-buddy Zombie game, I want to play one that will sow discord and ill-will between me and my fellow players for decades to come! You know, like Mall of Horror, in which you don't fight the zombies, you just try to survive them. Every player has three characters; on each turn someone must die, and the unlucky victim is decided by popular vote. That's right: you decide the fate of your fellow players, and they decide yours. A game that could have easily gone onto my list of Friendship-Enders (and, in fact, is similar is spirit and mechanics to the game Lifeboats) which was second on that list).

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Give me the Brain and Lord of the Fries: Light, simple, inexpensive, and funny, Give me the Brain and Lord of the Fries differ from the games above in pretty much every respect save one: Zombies remain the stars of the show. In this case, you and your undead companions are workers in a fast-food restaurant that specializes in the grisliest of fare. Both titles are fairly straightforward card games despite the theme, and each has a significant luck component (so steer clear if that's not your thing). Still, the ease of learning and playing make these the most "family friendly" of the games on the list, and the grotesque elements of the artwork are tempered with enough humor to make them palatable to almost anyone.

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Zombie in my Pocket: Got no friends and/or money? Head over to Jay Is Games and read my review of Zombie in my Pocket, a free, solitaire zombie game that only requires a printer, a pair of scissors, and 15 minutes of your time. Quite an addictive little pastime.

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See also: Halloween Gaming, Part II: Vampires and Witches, Halloween Gaming, Part III: Miscellaneous Malevolence

July 04, 2008

Games: 1960

Continuing my tradition of discussing America-themed boardgames on the 4th of July.

Last Independence Day I reviewed Twilight Struggle, a game that continues to be a favorite; this year's selection, 1960: The Making of the President, shares several traits in common with TS: both were co-designed by Jason Matthews, both are for two players, and both are primarily card-driven strategy games. But where Twilight dealt with politics on a global scale, 1960 is strictly a domestic affair.

The players vie to become the 35th president of the United States, assuming the roles of Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Played on a game board depicting a map and of the US, the game is played over a series of rounds, each representing a week of campaigning, during which each player strives to add "State Support" (symbolized by small cubes, red for Nixon and blue for Kennedy) to the various states in the hopes of capturing them come election day.

Only one player can have State Support (i.e., cubes) in a state at a time; if Nixon were told to add two State Support to Montana, say, and Kennedy already had four cubes there, he would remove two blue cubes from the state rather than adding his own. It is therefore easy to tell who is leading in a state, simply by noting what color cubes reside there. The candidate who leads in a state at the end of the game receives the state's electoral votes, and the player who accumulates the most electoral votes wins.

As with Twilight, the game is driven by a deck of card (hence the appellation "Card-Driven Strategy"), with each card portraying a factor in the 1960 election, from specific historical events ("Nixon Egged"), to influential people and organizations ("Henry Cabot Lodge" and "Baptist Ministers"), to abstractions such as "Gathering Momentum". Each card has an event corresponding to its title (the "Bobby Kennedy" event, for instance, aids the JFK player for the remainder of the round), and a number of Campaign Points (CPs); players may either use a card for either its Event or its CPs, but not both. CPs are typically used to put cubes onto the board (or remove cubes of an opponent); Events produce wide range of powerful effects, but many are localized or only truly useful in specific situations. Thus, the decision of how to employ your cards--for the Event or for the CP--is the central crux of play.

Sometimes the decision is a no-brainer, such as when the card you are playing has an Event that helps your opponent. But even if you opt to use the CPs in this instance (and you invariably will), the Event may still take place if you opponent is willing to expend a "Momentum Marker" to do so. You have the option to spend two of your own Momentum Markers to disallow your opponent from activating an event, but you must do so as you play the card, i.e., before your opponent makes his intentions known. As Momentum Markers are a limited commodity in the game, these decisions can be agonizing.

There's lots more to the game--debates and issues and endorsements and initiative--but the heart of the game is the deployment of State Support and collection of electoral votes. And this is one major difference between 1960 and Twilight Struggle. In Twilight, players vie for points, and various scoring opportunities take place throughout the game; in 1960 there is only one "scoring" round, that of election day. Consequentially, the games have entirely different atmospheres: Twilight feels like a long, exhausting slugfest, in which you are constantly trying to get the upper-hand with an eye toward acing the next scoring round; 1960 is more of a narrative, which builds to a climatic election day showdown. To put it another way, Twilight emphasizes tactics while 1960 tilts toward strategy.

Which is better? Both are great designs, of that there can be no dispute. But the thing I love about Twilight Struggle is the constant sense of imminent doom, due to both the interim scoring rounds and constant threat of nuclear war. This same tension is present in 1960, but only in the endgame. That said, 1960 holds one huge advantage over Twilight in the eyes of many: it can be played in half the time, with a typical game of the former lasting 90-120 minutes, while the latter can run as long as five hours (or end after a single hour, in the case of a rout or a nuclear holocaust). 1960 is also a little easier to teach and play, and has vastly superior components.

Twilight vs. 1960 may be one of those situation where, of two similar entities, people fall in love to the one they are exposed to first and dismiss the other as a pale imitation. That might explain why, given the choice, I will opt for Twilight Struggle over 1960 every time. But given only two hours, I'll happily play 1960 in its stead.

Which would I recommend to someone who has experience with neither? Well, unless you already know someone who is willing to play a five hour, moderately complex game, 1960 is the way to go. Plus it's theme is especially compelling this year, and it's much more attractive--two factors that will assist you in finding opponents and getting it on the table. After all, your primary goal, when buying a game, should be to get something that will actually get played--especially when it's a game of such high caliber.

June 27, 2008

Games: Fury of Dracula

After a decade of obsession with "European" boardgames, I have a rekindled interest in American-style fare, games steeped in theme, more confrontational than their cordial cousins from abroad, and requiring several hours to play. Part of it is just the swing of the pendulum, part of it is spill-over effect from my (continuing) infatuation with Twilight Struggle, but a lot of the credit (or, from a financial standpoint, blame) goes to a single game company, one that has released a tsunami of awesome titles onto the market: Fantasy Flight Games. They are responsible for the aforementioned (on this site) Doom: The Boardgame, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Descent and War of the Ring. And my latest FFG acquisition, Fury of Dracula, has rapidly become one of my favorites.

When I introduce Fury of Dracula to new players, they often exclaim, "hey, this is like Scotland Yard!!" I am always gratified to hear this, because (a) it's nice to know that so many folks were exposed to that great game as kids, and (b) it greatly simplifies the explanation of rules. As in Scotland Yard, players in Fury are divided into two teams, with one player as the hunted and the rest as the hunters. Here, the hunted is Dracula himself, while the Hunters are composed of the characters from the book who sought Ol' Toothy's destruction: Lord Godalming, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, and Mina Harker.

The board shows a map of Europe, with cities connected by a web of roads and rails. Each Hunter starts in a city, as shown by the initial placement of the corresponding figures; Dracula also begins in a city, but his location remains a secret. The Hunters careen around the countryside, searching for clues as to his current whereabouts; once they have located Dracula they move in for the kill, hoping to reduce his "blood" to zero and win the game.

But although Dracula spends much of the game on the lam, he is not without a few tricks up his sleeve. The game is divided up into "day" and "night" rounds (three of the former followed by three of the latter); as you would expect, Dracula becomes an exponentially tougher foe once the sun goes down. In fact, the Hunters typically spend the days trying to corner and kill Drac, and the nights fleeing for their lives. All this makes for a tense game of cat-and-mouse, with the roles of feline and rodents swapping at regular intervals.

Dracula can win the game by amassing points; he does so by "defeating" Hunters (they are never entirely killed, instead limping off to a hospital to recuperate from their wounds), creating new vampires, and simply surviving from day to day. The longer the game lasts, the more likely Dracula is to win--and the more desperate the Hunters become to stop him before he does so. This gives the game a narrative feel, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Fury of Dracula takes three to four hours to play. The rules are so Byzantine that you will refer to them constantly during your first (and second, and third) game. And the match is lopsided, with Dracula getting his goose cooked more often than not. In other words, this is not your elegant and scupulously balanced "European" game, and will therefore not be to everyone's liking. But if you are willing to buckle down and master the rules, if you can talk a few of your friends into joining you for a looooooong game, and if you don't mind an "unfair" fight, you are in for a treat. Fury of Dracula is a showcase for all that I love in "American" style games: a clever system married to a superb theme, one that so immerses you in the atmosphere that you feel as if you are not just playing a game, but living out the sequel to Stoker's classic novel.

May 08, 2008

Games: Twilight Struggle Back In Stock

I haven't reviewed many new board games recently because ... well, becauseI haven't played many new board games recently. I have a To Buy list of titles I hope to pick up soon, but I am currently unable to obtain any of them for one reason (Pandemic is out of stock) or another (Agricola is on preorder) or another (Age of Steam keeps getting postponed) or another (Conan isn't slated until late summer?! Throw me a frickin bone, here!!).

In the meantime, I have been playing plenty of Twilight Struggle, and I am ready to declare it as my Favorite Game, usurping the title formerly held by Power Grid.

At the time of my initial review Twilight Struggle was out of print, and has been for some time; I just discovered, however, that a third printing has been released, and the game is again available. So if you considered picking up a copy, now's the time to do so.

April 24, 2008

Computer Games I Have Known And Loved

I'm not a big computer game player, but here's a few that have reeled me in recently.

Skyrates: One of my favorite types of board games are those using a mechanism we call "pick-up-and-deliver", in which players acquire things in one location (quests, passengers, commodities, etc) and receive points or money upon successfully transporting the cargo to its intended destination. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that I find computer games employing this gameplay to be equally satisfying. I lost several weeks to Escape Velocity back in the day. More recently, I have been hooked on Skyrates, an online, browser-based game where you assume captainship of a plane, and fly around the various "skylands" buying goods where they are plentiful (and cheap) and selling them where they are rare (and expensive).

Two aspects of the game really set it apart. First, it can take anywhere from 30 to 240 minutes to travel between the skylands, in real time. So rather than playing for large blocks of time during the day, you instead give your pilot his marching orders, close the game, and check back on his progress a later. It's the perfect game to "play' at work, as you need only visit the site for five or ten minutes, a few times a day. Second, the economy of the world is influenced by all the players. If diamonds are abundant (and thus inexpensive) on skyland X, you may rush over there to fill up your cargo hold; but if dozens or hundreds of concurrent players get there before you and buy in bulk, the gems might be rare (and thus pricey) by the time you arrive. It's a clever way of introducing player interaction that doesn't involve combat. A solid game all-around, and one which I have become addicted.

Blocksum: Just when the whole "match three" genre of video games (epitomized by Bejeweled) seems played, someone comes up with a new gimmick to revitalize the field. In the freeware game Blocksum, each piece contains a number, and when a certain quantity of pieces containing the same number form a contiguous group, they disappear from play. The gimmick here is that you can merge adjacent blocks into blocks, containing the sums of the merged blocks. (You could merge a 3 block and a 4 block into a 7 block, for instance). A bit more cerebral that most titles in the field, but one that you will nonetheless find enthralling. I defy anyone to get past level 8, though.

ForumWarz: Unforgivably profane and entirely too hard, ForumWarz still managed to gnaw away at my free time for a span of two weeks or so. After a while I found it to be pretty repetitive, but I was undeniably hooked there for a spell. The game allows you to start playing even before having an account, so there's no reason not to give it a try--assuming, of course, you are essentially unoffendable, which is the only people to which I would recommend it. (Also: Andy Baio interviews the game's creator.)

Moonbase Commander: Simple! Fun!! Long out of print now, alas, but if you can still find copies for sale (and, ahem, binaries for download) if you look hard enough.

February 06, 2008

Games: Friendship-Enders

During the holidays I use my Good Gateway Games lists to promote family games; that is, games that bring people together for a fun and relaxing time, and strengthen the bonds of comradery between the participants.

Of course, now that the holidays are over ...


I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but I'm looking for a board game that is like I'm The Boss--something in which the human interaction really changes the course of the game. Nothing is better then screwing over a good friend ... and having that awkward talk later when you can tell he's seething with anger because you purposely made him lose the game.

If you have any ideas I'd really appreciate it.


Ah, yes. The friendship-enders.

I'd recommend a good negotiation game, but you already own one of my favorites. In I'm The Boss, each player is an investor, willing to throw their support behind a variety of projects in the hopes of reaping a windfall. On a turn a player either draws Influence cards, or becomes The Boss and tries to cobble together a deal. Each deal requires the involvement of two or more of the players and pays out a specified amount of money; to complete the deal, The Boss will therefore need to entice the other players to join him, by offering them a share of the profits. Sometimes a deal needs a specific investor, but other times it will permit The Boss to select from a subset of players, allowing him to play them off one another in an effort to keep as much money as possible for himself.

All this could get real nasty were it not for the Influence Cards, which inject a healthy does of chaos into the game. Wielded at the right time, a well-played Influence Card could send a key Investor on vacation and scupper a deal, allow someone to become The Boss of a deal previously managed by someone else, and even steal an Investor from another player entirely. All this--plus a rapid-fire pace, short playing time (60 minutes), and element of randomness (no one knows when the game will end, for instance)--make it hard to get too worked-up over I'm The Boss, even when the others actively conspire against you. And they will ... of yes, they will.

But maybe you're in the market for something that will wreak complete and irreparable damage to your hard-won friendships. If so, might I suggest one of the following?

  • Intrigue: Quite possibly the nastiest game ever invented. Your palace has four job opening, and the applicants belong to your opponents. Before you decide whom to hire, though, each candidate must give you a cash bribe in any amount they choose. After all have done so, you install one person into the position, banish the rest from the game, and keep all the money you received in bribes, regardless of who it was from. And what do you do when it's not your turn? Why, send your minions off to the palaces of others, where they too will vie for employment. This game is so vicious that I gave my copy away, so I would never be temped to play it again. I'm not kidding.
  • Lifeboats: To call this Survivor: The Boardgame wouldn't be too much of a stretch ... except that Survivor is a group hug compared to this. When an ocean liner sinks, all the passengers cram onto lifeboats and sail for shore. Every round one of the boats springs a leak, as determined by popular vote; then, someone in the afflicted vessel gets thrown overboard, and again it's majority rule. Get a few games of this under your belt and you'll quickly realize that your friends--and democracy itself--cannot be trusted.
  • Citadels: Much less aggressive than the others on this list, but Citadels still affords opportunity for backstabbing. Every round the players secretly adopt roles as they attempt to build up their city. One role is the Assassin, who forces an opponent to lose his turn; another is the Thief, who steals another's savings. But as these knaves target a role rather than a specific player--and no one knows for sure what role the other players have taken--there's an element of guesswork that defuses tensions a bit. This is one of my all-time favorite games, and can be played by up to 7 players.
  • Junta: The bad news is that this game really only works for exactly seven people, and requires four or more hours to complete; the good news is that if you can assemble a group of willing players ... oh, man. The seven ruling families of a small Banana Republic must decide how to divvy up the foreign assistance they receive from an unnamed, no-questions-asked superpower each year. One player is the President, and has the largest say in how the cash is split; but if the other players don't like the budget, they can always foment a coup and have El Presidenteshot at dawn. I have some great memories of playing this game, and some others I have worked hard to suppress.

  • Sticheln: This is my favorite trick-tacking game--and I like trick taking games a lot. Each player has a "Misery Suit"--while most cards he takes are worth one point, cards in his Misery Suit are worth negative points equal to the value of the card. Sure the game is enjoyable for its elegance and exceptional design, but the real fun comes from watching your opponent's face as you cheerfully hand over a -12 point card.
  • Illuminati: At one point this was my Favorite Game Ever. Maybe it still is, but I wouldn't know because I haven't played it in a decade, after hurling the dice across the room when a roll didn't go my way. The game of global conspiracies, Illuminati put players in charge of secret societies--The UFOs, The Network, The Cult of Cthulhu, etc.--and attempting to control organizations ranging from OPEC to the Boy Scouts. And if someone nabs a group before you do, why, you just attack him personally and wrest away control.
  • Nuclear war: This is not a good game. That said, played with the right group it can be a barrel of fun. Let fly with your nuclear arsenal, and attempt to be the last man standing in an irradiated world. It is what we gamers dismissive refer to as a "Take That Game"--meaning that, in lieu of strategy of tactics, all it really offers you is the opportunity to initiate or perpetuate grudges with your opponents--but if you don't take it seriously, and do imbibe non-trivial amounts of alcohol, you can still have a blast with it. Update: Someone asked for my opinion on Killer Bunnies. To my mind, it's just Nuclear War in fur: a mediocre game that can nonetheless provide for an entertaining evening if everyone is in the mood for tit-for-tatism and can overlook the game's randomness.

Of course, if you want to play a negotiation game you really can't beat the great-grandpappy of the genre: Diplomacy. Imagine Risk if, instead of winning battles by dice rolls, you had to do it by convincing the other players to gang up on your target. Diplomacy will be re-released by Avalon Hill early this year; if you can't wait, or like your wheeling-and-dealing with a bit more theme, check out Game of Thrones, a similar game set in George R. R. Martin's fantasy world.

December 14, 2007

Sound Focus

I'm on the local NPR program Sound Focus riiiiiiiiiiiiight ... NOW! 94.9 FM, if you're in the Seattle area. And you'll soon be able to listen to it online (I think).

Three of the games I talk about--Quirkle, Can't Stop, & Mr. Jack--are covered in my 2007 Good Gift Games Guide; Twilight Struggle I review here.

December 06, 2007

Large-Group Games

Mail call!

Hey Matthew,

I'm a looong time reader of your blog, since before anyone but web nerds even knew what a "blog" was. I've never been much of a gamer, but I just started a programming job back in the summer, working with a group of guys that likes to play games at lunch. We're getting burned out on our current game assortment, and I'd like to donate a game or two to the stash for Christmas. The size of our group varies from day to day, anywhere from 4-10 people. We need to stick to games that we can fit within the lunch hour. The quicker the setup, the better. Complexity isn't a big concern, half of the fun is arguing about the rules.

Now then, do you have any recommendations? They would be much appreciated!


Seth Kelly

Hiya, Seth. Large-player games (which I would define as game that accommodate 7 or more people at a time) are largely plagued by three problems: (a) excessive downtime (i.e., sitting around and waiting for your turn to roll around), (b) long playing times (i.e., games that go. on. for. ever.), and (c) chaos (i.e., so many other people are doing so many things it becomes nigh impossible to formulate a strategy).

One way that many successful large-player games address all three issues is with simultaneous action: that is, allowing all the players to do things at the same time. Take the classic large-group favorite Pit, for example. Because players are franticly trading cards with one another in real time, everyone remains engaged at all times.

Many such games are mentioned in my Great Two-Minute Card Games list. Specifically, Slide 5 (3-10 players), Incan Gold (3-8), The Great Dalmuti (5-7), and Apples to Apples (3-10) are great with for seven or more.

Here are some others that work well in the large-group setting.

Bohnanza (3-7): A longtime favorite of mine for four and five players, I was totally amazed the first time I played this game with seven and discovered that it not only worked, but worked well. Players are farmers, working to raise and sell 10 types of beans (yes, you heard me). Because trading with opponents is an essential element of gameplay, everyone is involved all the time. And though the playing time creeps up with six or seven people, you should still be able to complete a game in an hour or so.

Formula De (2-10): A car racing game with a very clever gimmick: every time you upshift into a higher gear, you roll a bigger die to determine movement. That's great for the straightaway, but may cause you grief when you go into the turns and find yourself unable to decelerate enough to handle the curves.

Werewolf, a.k.a. "Mafia" (7+ players): No purchase required for this one--all you need are the rules and something to secretly assign identities to the players (a regular deck of cards works fine). Two players are werewolves; the rest are villagers, and have no idea who the werewolves are. The game is played over alternating night and day phases. At night, the two werewolves conspire to slaughter one of the villagers; in the morning, the villagers awake to find a corpse, and then must decide who to lynch in retaliation. The game ends when both werewolves are killed, or when the population of true villagers drops too low. Short, simple, and amazingly fun, Werewolf is as much psychological experiment as it is game. Works best with really large groups--like, nine or more people.

Bang (4-7 players): Built on the Werewolf template, Bang cast the fighters as gunslingers in the old west. One player is the sheriff, two are outlaws, two are deputies, and no one knows who anyone else is--at least until the bullets start flying. Bang maxes out at seven players, but is best with that number.

Take It Easy (2-8, but any number, really): Like a cross between bingo and jigsaw puzzle, it would take less time for you to go here and play a few games than for me to explain how it works. Currently out of print, I believe, but the game's sequel, Take It To The Limit, was just released last month.

Ricochet Robot (2-10 or more): Every round is a spatial puzzle, and players race to solve it. It's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of game, so go here and play a few rounds of the java implementation to see which category you fall into. I'm a "love it" guy--at least until the headache kicks in.

Shadows Over Camelot (4-7): It might miss the "quick setup" criterion, but hits every other one: works for seven, typically plays around an hour, and has plenty of rules to quibble over. See me full review here.

Finally, there are no shortage of good party games that were specifically designed with large groups in mind. Wits & Wagers works with seven (read my review), I've long been a fan of 25 Words or Less, and Time's Up might be just about perfect for your group.

November 28, 2007

Good Gift Games Guide 2007

The 2007 Good Gift Games Guide appears in The Morning News today.

Previous G3 Guides:
And all my defective yeti game posts are available in the archives.


It was, as always, tough narrowing the field of good G3s down to just 10. Here are a few more, that just missed the cut.

Take It To The Limit (Burley Games, 1-6 players, 30 minutes, $60, family puzzle): This one was actually on the main G3 list until the very last moment, when I decided it was just too similar to Quirkle to merit inclusion. Nearly 25 years ago, Peter Burley invented Take It Easy, a clever Bingo-Meets-Jigsaw-Puzzles game that would unfortunately jam an Eagles song into your brain for weeks on end. Though that title is now out of print, Burley just released Take It To The Limit, an expanded version of the game that promises to get an entirely different Eagles song stuck in your head. As in its predescecer, Take It To The Limit has player placing hexagonal tiles and trying to form high-scoring, unbroken lines from one side of their gameboard to the other. Success requires a lot of luck, to be sure, but a little foresight will go a long way. [No Official Page | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

If Wishes Were Fishes (Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, 45 minutes, $35, family strategy): Catch a fish and you can do one of two thing with it: throw it back and have a wish granted, or sell it at market. Selling earns money and money's the goal of the game, but the wishes confer a host of benefits to the recipients. What to do, what to do? The only board game I know of that comes complete with giant rubber worms. [Official Page | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Iliad (Asmodee Editions, 2-6 players, 45 minutes, $25, card): One of my favorite light strategy games is Condottiere, in which player struggle for control in Renaissance Italy. The same designer now brings us Iliad, which employs the same basic mechanisms but does away with the gameboard, tightens the playing time, and turns the who enterprise into something a bit more suitable for casual play. [Official Page | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

To Court The King (Rio Grande Games, 2-5, 30 minutes, $30, dice): Yahtzee's been done a million times over, but never quite like this. Roll dice, set aside the ones you want, key rerolling until you get (or failt to get) a specific combination. Nothing new so far. But To Court the King has a number of characters; roll the dice combination associatd with a particular charatcer, and you'll get to use his special ability for the remainder of the game. The Jester allows you reroll a die; the Magician lets you change the value of a die to anything you want; the Nobleman gives you two additional dice; and so on. Works best with only two players, though three and four work as well. [Official Page | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Taluva (Rio Grande Games, 2-4, 40 minutes, $30, famiy strategy): Like the lovechild of Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, Taluva has players building a volcanic island, and expanding their settlements with huts, towers, and temples. The rulebook is only 4 pages long, and an entire session can be completed in half an hour, but it feels like there's a lot of game in there. [Official Page | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

I'd also like to point out that, while it comes nowhere close to being a Good Gift Game (too long, too complicated, and requiring a few plays to fully appreciate), Twilight Struggle was by far my favorite game of the year. Read my review here.

Second Opinions

Don't trust the yeti? Here are the highlights of some other "2007 best game of the year" lists.

German Game of the Year:

Deutscher Spiele Preis (A.K.A., "The Other German Game of the Year Award"):

International Gamers Award:

GAMES Magazine Awards:

Canonical G3s

While we're on the subject, here are my all-time favorite G3s.

Ticket To Ride (Days of Wonder, 2-5 players, 45 minutes, $40, family strategy): Went directly to the top spot on my "Best G3s List" when it was released in 2004, and hasn't been dislodged yet. In fact Ticket to Ride: Märklin, a newer edition of the game, even manages to improve upon the formula. Why is TtR so great? It's familiar (much of the play is based on rummy), appealing (who doesn't love trains?), easy to learn (figure five minutes for explaining the rules, tops) and competitive without being confrontational. Read my full review here. [Official site | Boardgame Geek (original) | Boardgame Geek (Märklin) | Funagain (original) | Funagain (Märklin)]

Carcassonne (Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, 30 minutes, $25, family strategy): A serene game in which player collaborate and compete to build a pastoral landscape, full of roads, cities, farms, and monasteries. Since its release in 2002 a dizzying number of sequels and expansions for Carcassonne have been published, but the original is a fine introduction to the series. One of those rare games as accessible to kids as it is interesting to adults. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games, 3-4 players, 90 minutes, $42, family strategy): The game that launched the "German board game" craze of the mid-90s. Each players owns a small settlement on a island, and strives to become the dominant civilization by building roads, erecting cities, amassing armies, and raising sheep (yes, sheep). Trade is the key to success, as players may freely swap the natural resources they harvest; because these transactions can happen at any point during the game, every player is engaged all the time, even when it's not their turn. A marvel of elegant game design. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Slide 5 (Endless Games, 3-10 players, 30 minutes, $7.50, card): Curiously, many of the most enjoyable games are those that provoke the most agony in the players. Slide 5 (previously called Category 5 and, before that, Take 6!) is a prefect example. The deck contains cards numbered from 1 to 104. Every round begins with each person playing a card from his hand face down. After all are revealed simultaneously, the cards are added to rows in the center of the table in ascending numerical order. But if your card winds up as the sixth in a row, you take the other five as points--and you don't want points. I've been playing this one for about a decade, and still enjoy every game. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Lost Cities (Rio Grande Games, 2 players, 30 minutes, $23, two-player card): My default recommendation for a two-player game, unless I know the person well enough to suggest something more specific--and even then it's often the one I advocate. Lost Cities is essentially rummy, but with a specialized deck and the tension-quotation set to overdrive. Despite its simplicity, I routinely cite it as one of my favorite games of all time. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Wits & Wagers (North Star Games, 4-7 players, 30 minutes, $30, party): Finally, a trivia game for people who don't like trivia games--like me. Every question has a numerical answer; players write their best guesses onto erasable cards, and then throw them into the center of the table. Now everyone has an opportunity to bet on which responses are correct, and they are not obligated to wager on their own. A game in which knowing who's likely to know something is as useful as knowning the thing yourself. Read my full review here. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Transamerica (Rio Grande Games, 2-6 players, 30 minutes, $28, family strategy): It's so simple it's just barely a game, but lots of fun nonetheless. Players are randomly assigned five cities on a stylized map of the United States. On every turn players build railroad track in an effort to connect all their burgs. But because no one "owns" any given stretch of track, you can link into your opponent's network and use it to further your own goals. A typical game takes half an hour and can be played by persons of all ages and game-aptitude. Read my full review here. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

San Juan (Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, 45 minutes, $25, card): Your goal: construct the town of San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico. Every card in the deck is a building, each with it's own unique ability. To put a building into play, simply place it in front of you, and then discard additional cards from your hand equal to it's price. A light "civiliation" game (i.e., one where you start with little and slowly build up your infastructure), it is one of those rare multi-player games than actually works great with only two. Read my full review here. [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Hoity Toity (Uberplay, 3-6 players, 60 minutes, $35, family strategy): In Hoity Toity, players purchase antiques and earn points by showing off their collections to others, while dispatching burglers to swipe the valuables of opponents and employing policemen to capture rival thieves. This game uses a game mechanism called "blind bidding" which is one of my least favorite, so it's a testament to Hoity Toity's quality that even I think it's terrific fun. Read my full review here (the game was previously called "Adel Verpflichtet") [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

Apples to Apples (Out of the Box, 4-10 players, 30 minutes, $30, party): The Judge turns over an adjective card, like "Soft" or "Respectable;" everyone else slaps down Noun cards from their hands as quickly as possible. The Judge then decides which played card best matches his own--if the description is "Slimey," will he select "Frog," "Used Car Salesman," or "Bill Clinton"? Perhaps the most accessible and laughter-inducing party game I've ever played! [Official site | Boardgame Geek | Funagain]

November 22, 2007

Games: Coloretto & Zooloretto

Sometimes the simplest games are the most fun. And sometimes, not so much.

Take, for instance, the titles on my selection of Ten Great "Two-Minute" Card Games. Despite their simplicity, each has it's fans. No Thanks! has been my filler of choice for the last few years, and I've been playing Slide 5 for a decade or so.

But one game on that list that has always left me cold is Coloretto. The game is played with a deck containing cards of seven different colors (the cards have no value; only their color counts). On a turn, a player does one of two things:

  • Turns over the next card from the deck and adds it to one of the rows; or
  • Takes a row of cards and drops out for the remainder of the round.
There is one row for every player (e.g., four rows in a four-player-game), and each row may contain a maximum of three cards. Once every player has taken a row, a new round begins.

When taking a row, a player puts the claimed cards into his play area. His goal is to get as many cards as possible in three colors only, and to avoid taking cards in any additional colors. At the end of the game, cards in the three chosen colors count as points, while cards in other colors count as negative points.

The central dilemma in the game quickly becomes apparent: you may draw a card in a color you desire, but you can't keep it; instead you must add it to a row and hope that another player doesn't claim that row before your next turn. Even if the row does gets back around to you, it's unlikely that it won't have been "poisoned"; upon drawing a card they don't particularly want, players will often assess the available rows, identify one that is attractive to another player and add the junk card to it, thereby lessening its value considerably. This is what makes the game so tense--and occasionally maddening.

The "draw a card or take a row" element of Coloretto is the sort of twist that I typically love. But, for some reason, Coloretto just doesn't do it for me.

So why is it on my list of "great" two-minute card games, you may ask. Well, I appear to be in the minority regarding my opinion of the game. It has a composite rating of 7.2 on Boardgame Geek, which is fairly phenomenal for a game this light. And, truth be told, I recognize its brilliance--which is to say, I appreciate Coloretto without particularly enjoying it. There just doesn't seem to be enough game in there to hold my interest.

Enter Zooloretto. Designer Michael Schacht took the central mechanism of Coloretto and added sufficient bells and whistles to make the thing interesting, but not so many that the game leaves the realm of light, family fare.

Each player begins with a zoo, complete with three animal enclosures and a barn. Here again you can elect to draw on your turn, but now you draw tiles from a bag instead of cards from a deck. The tiles show either one of eight animals (kangaroos, flamingos, gorillas, etc.), market stalls, or coins. A draw tile must be added to one of the rows--or, in this incarnation, trucks--in the center of a table. A player may instead take a truck, distribute the animals and stalls in his zoo, and drop out for the remainder of the round. An enclosure can only hold one type of animals; animals that cannot be fit into the main zoo are relegated to the barn.

So far, pretty much the same as its predecessor. But this game introduces the concept of money, which can be spent to shuffle animals around, steal them from other players, or discard them entirely. ("Paulie Panda has been sent to live with Uncle Chester, who has a big farm he can roam in ...") Market stalls can also be used to eke out a few extra points here and there. As in the original, too much of a good thing is bad: at the end of the game you score points for animals in your enclosures, but lose them for the unloved critters in the barn.

Zooloretto is cute, easy to learn, short (figure 45 minutes a game), and not too confrontational (though there is an element of screw-your-buddy in the mix). My only gripe is that there are a couple of obscure rules regarding money that strike me as both overly finicky and largely unnecessary (yeah, I know I'm a hypocrite: lambaste Coloretto for having too few rules and Zooloretto for having too many). Minor grievances aside, though, Zooloretto is one of the best family light strategy games of 2007.

It Came From the Comments: Dissension! Dave writes: "I feel exactly the opposite. I find Coloretto to be a perfectly pleasant card game and Zooloretto to be unnecessary complication of the mechanics." I'm sure a lot of people feel that way, though I've heard plenty take my position as well. I suspect it comes down to this: do you prefer elegance (Coloretto), or the "board game experience" (Zooloretto). I'm squarely in the latter camp.

Also, here's Michael on Zooloretto's suitably as a "family game": "The first game ended in tears from my son, the second in tears from both of them ... I think you underestimate the meanness of this game." Actually, I don't--much of the game comes down to making life miserable for your opponents. My mistake, I think, is calling this a "family game." I was using "family game" as shorthand for "light strategy game for adults," not "great for the yungins." I will correct that now.

October 18, 2007

Games: Wits & Wagers

As we approach the holiday season, I am going to start reviewing some of the titles that will eventually wind up on my annual Good Gift Games Guide. But before I begin, let me briefly mention one that appeared on last year's list.

The official slogan of Wits & Wagers is "The Trivia Game For Everyone!", but I typically describe it "The Only Trivia Game I Can Stand™" It's true. Despite my typical enthusiasm for board games in general, trivia games have always left me cold. I always imagine the inventors of Trivial Pursuit sitting around one evening after a few beers, saying "You know what my favorite part of high school was? Taking exams that I didn't study for. If only we could package the thrill of a pop quiz into a board game, but do it in such a way that 80% of the time you're sitting around inertly watching other people struggle to answer the questions, we would have a sure-fire hit on our hands."

Maybe Dominic Crapuchettes feels the same. At any rate, he created a trivia game that not only keeps all the players occupied all the time, but doesn't only reward those whose heads are crammed full of otherwise useless facts.

Every question in Wits & Wagers has a numeric answer (or possibly a "numerical" answer; I'm sure the grammar cops will let me know in the comments), such as "What was the weight, in pounds, of the largest gold nugget ever recorded?" Each player writes his guess onto a laminated card with a dry-erase pen. Once everyone has done so, the cards are collected, sorted by value, and distributed across a betting mat.

And now, the genius. Before the answer is revealed, players may bet on which guess they thinks is correct (or, in Price Is Right fashion, "closest to correct without going over"). The farther from the median, the more a guess pays out. So if the guesses in response to the "gold nugget" question above were 16, 20, 75, 200, and 500, the 16 and 500 would each pay out 3 to 1, the 20 and 200 would pay out 2 to 1, and the 75 would pay out even money. You can even watch where others put their bets and make your wager accordingly, though you only have 30 seconds to do so. When the correct answer is revealed, the person who supplied the closest guess, and all those who bet on it, reap rewards; all other wagers are lost.

The cards on which the guesses are written are color-coded, so you can see at a glance who submitted what. In other words, you make money not only by knowing the answer, but by knowing who knows the answer. Species of Gardenia? Look to the gardener. Height, in feet, of the tallest skyscraper in 1900? Maybe the architect knows. Best of all, everyone is doing this at once, so there is absolutely no downtime.

I like to play a variety of strategy games, because there are so many out there I enjoy. But party games are more hit-and-miss for me, and when I find one I like, I typically play it until I can't stand to play it no more. First it was 25 Words Or Less, then Apples To Apples, then Times Up. I played Wits & Wagers for the first time over a year ago, last played it a week ago, and expect it to be in heavy rotation this holiday season. It's quick, perfect for any crowd, and definitely qualifies as a "two-minute game. If you want to get a head start of your holiday game buying, this is the one to get.

September 27, 2007

You Will Not Enjoy This

A board game based on 300 is soon to be released. I can only imagine.

300 - The Board Game

[ link | Games]

September 26, 2007

Ten Great "Two-Minute" Card Games

The last few games I have fully reviewed here (i.e., Twilight Struggle and Power Grid) have gone against the grain of the type I usually cover. Both are long, complex, and not immediately accessible to the casual player.

To make amends, here's my top 10 "two-minute" card games. "Two-minute," in this instance, alludes not to the length of time they takes to play, but to the fact that the rules to each of these simple (but engrossing) games can be explained in 120-seconds flat.

Many people are reluctant to try new games because they dislike learning rules; as you can get a group up an playing these games in a matter of moments, they are perfect for Converting the Unwilling, Great for bars too, when everyone already has a beer or three under their belt.

Slide 5: Curiously, many of the most enjoyable games are those that provoke the most agony in the players. Slide 5 (previously called Category 5 and, before that, Take 6!) is a prefect example. The deck contains cards numbered from 1 to 104. Every round begins with each person playing a card from his hand face down. After all are revealed simultaneously, the cards are added to rows in the center of the table in ascending numerical order. But if your card winds up as the sixth in a row, you take the other five as points--and you don't want points. Also: Turn The Tide is a very similar game, with a few more rules and a smidge more strategy. (But note that Turn The Tide is only playable by up to five people, while Slide 5 goes all the way to 11! Well, no. Actually just 10.)

No Thanks: My go-to filler for the last couple years. Great fun, despite having, like, one rule. Read my full review here.

For Sale: Round one: everyone uses chips to purchase a variety of homes, from a cardboard box to an orbiting space mansion. Round two: everyone resells their houses for checks ranging in value from $0 to $15,000, and the mogul with the most money at the end wins. It's like playing two separate games, but whole thing takes about 15 minutes in total. For Sale was one of the titles that got me hooked on German Games a decade ago; it has recently been reprinted, as is again available to all.

Lost Cities: My default two-player game recommendation is perfectly suited for this list as well. Lost Cities is essentially rummy, but with a specialized deck and the tension-quotation set to overdrive. Despite its simplicity, I routinely cite it as one of my favorite games of all time.

Battleline: First cousin to the aforementioned Lost Cities, Battleline is both a little simpler and a little deeper. Assemble nine three-card poker-hands, while your opponent does the same. Every time one of your hands beats the corresponding hand of your rival, you capture a flag; capture enough in a row, or enough overall, and the battle is won. A full game only takes 10 minutes to complete, but you'll find it hard not to play two or three in a row.

Coloretto: The cards come in seven different colors; your goal: collect as many of them as you can ... in three colors only. All taken cards in suits beyond the third count as negative points, and can accumulate quickly if you are not careful. The central mechanism of Coloretto is so clever that the designer recently built a board game around it (Zooloretto), which earlier this month won the prestigious Game of the Year award.

Loco: On your turn you first play a card from you hand to one of the five piles, and then you take a chip of any color. I have just explained 90% of the rules to this game, honest to God. And it works! And is fun! I don't understand!

The Bottle Imp: A strongly themed trick-taking game, if you believe it. Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, players vie to collect as many points as possible, without getting stuck with the Bottle Imp at game's end (as doing so results in everlasting damnation ... and also a point penalty). Though the rules to The Bottle Imp can certainly be explained in two minutes, playing well takes a few games. Thankfully, it's well worth the practice.

The Great Dalmuti: One of the oldest games in my collection, but one that still gets played today. (I just bought my third replacement deck a few months ago.) More of a drinking / party game than a card game, really, but one that will have you playing--and cracking up--for hours. See my discussion of it, and other "Climbing Games," here.

Guillotine: Okay, I'm going to level with you: I kinda hate this game. But many, many people love it (as half a dozen people in the comments are going to attest). Each round has a dozen nobles lined up for the guillotine; on your turn, the guy at the front of the line gets the axe, and you get his value in points. But wait! First you can play cards to rearrange the queue, perhaps swapping the worthless Piss Boy with the 5-point Marie Antoinette. I don't like Guillotine because it has lots of luck and a distinctive screw-your-neighbor flavor; others adore it for these very reasons--go figure.

Apples to Apples: Technically a party game, but played with cards and dirt simple so I'm going to cheat and sneak it into slot 11 on this top 10 list. The Judge turns over an adjective card, like "Soft" or "Respectable;" everyone else slaps down Noun cards from their hands as quickly as possible. The Judge then decides which played card best matches his own--if the description is "Slimey," will he select "Frog," "Used Car Salesman," or "Bill Clinton"? Perhaps the most accessible and laughter-inducing party game I've ever played--and I don't even like party games!

August 31, 2007

Games: Push-Your-Luck

Anyone who has ever played Blackjack knows the dilemma at the heart of every push-you-luck game. Do I stay with this crummy 15, or do I request another card and possibly bust? Every game has some element of risk-reward, but push-you-luck games are often nothing but, the agonizing do-I-or-don't-I decision distilled to its essence.

Because of their simplicity, push-you-luck games rarely afford opportunities for strategic play. But what they lack in depth, they make up for in accessibility (most can be taught in moments) and excitement. Where other games might be a 10k, push-your-luck games are more akin to a 100m dash--and are likely to give you the same cardiovascular workout.

Here are some of the best:

Can't Stop: The epitome of the push-your-luck genre, Can't Stop was unavailable for quite a while, but was reprinted by Face 2 Face Games earlier this year. Roll four dice and group them into scoring combinations. Every time you succeed, you advance your markers on the board--and are given the opportunity to roll again. You can call it quits at any time and "bank" your progress, but if a roll produces no combinations, everything you earned during the turn is lost. You can find a slick computer implementation of the game at, but goading on other players is half the fun, and it should really be played against real people. Can't Stop is one of those classics that I recommend unreservedly to anyone who enjoys games.

Incan Gold: The newest entry in the push-you-luck category is also one of the most popular. Players are Indiana Jones-eque explorers, infiltrating forgotten ruins in search of treasure. Everyone enters the temple as a group and, on each turn, the top card of the deck is turned over, revealing either treasure or a hazard (rock slide, poison gas, snakes, etc.) Afterwards, each player has the option to take the money and run, or venture yet deeper in search of greater riches. Those who flee get to keep all the treasure they collected; those who are still in the temple when the second of a particular hazard is revealed get nothing. The group dynamic of Incan Gold makes it even more fun than Can't Stop in my opinion, and it plays in half the time.

Exxtra: I like the stripped down, almost austere design of Can't Stop, but Exxtra is perfect for those looking for a little more meat. Here again you are rolling dice, hoping to improve your position and avoid busts. But in Exxtra, you must compare your rolls to those of the other players, and this added interaction makes the game feel a little deeper. One indisputable advantage of Exxtra over Can't Stop: it can accommodate up to six players, while the latter only works for 2-4.

Cloud 9: Very similar to Incan Gold, though Cloud 9 puts the players in a hot air balloon rather than in an Incan temple. On a turn, the current pilot of the balloon (it rotates every round) must play a specific combination of cards from his hand. If he succeeds, the balloon rises, and everyone aboard has the potential to score more points; if he fails, the balloon crashes to the ground, and those who hadn't yet bailed get nothing for the round. Simple and engaging, Cloud 9 has been a favorite of my game group for years.

Circus Flohcati: Take a card from those face up, or, if you don't like any of the ones available, turn over more cards. But if you ever turn over a card identical to one already face-up, you lose your turn and get no card at all. As just a deck of cards, Circus Flohcati is compact enough to fit in a pocket--perfect for bringing to your local tavern.

Viva Topo!: You know, for kids! This strays a bit from the cash-in-or-keep-rolling formula at the heart of the other games on this list, but the push-you-luck element is definitely in there. Send you mice to get cheese; the more mice you send, the greater the possibility of reward--but the harder it will be to get anything at all. This game has great bits, and is playable by kids as young as 4.

Lastly, the push-your-luck game I have probably played more than any other is simply called "10,000," and is playable with nothing more than five dice and a scorepad. We played this incessantly when I was in the Peace Corps. Full rules are here.

July 04, 2007

Games: Twilight Struggle

Last year on the Forth of July I wrote about US themed board games. Let's make a tradition of it, what hey?

The board games I tend to highlight on this site are those I refer to as GGGs: Good Gateway Games (or, around the holiday season, Good Gift Games). In other words, games that are easy to teach and play, that can be completed in an hour or less, and are "fun on the first try," suitable for casual get-togethers and people new to the board gaming hobby.

GGGs aren't the only games I play, just the ones I tend to showcase here. In fact, my preferred titles often violate two or even all of the above guidelines, as my newest favorite game illustrates. Twilight Struggle has a bit of a learning curve, takes 3-4 hours to complete, and, while fun, requires multiple playings to fully appreciate.

So why mention it here? Simply because I can think of no other game I own that inspired me to research an entire field of academic subject. Power Grid didn't get me interested in electricity production; I didn't become obsessed with Swahili economics after playing Jambo; and despite dozens of games of No Thanks! I've felt no compulsion to improve upon my manners. And yet, since acquiring Twilight Struggle, I've read a book about the cold war (called, cleverly enough, The Cold War), watched a six-hour documentary on the clash between capitalism and socialism, and impressing people at cocktail parties* by causally opining about Charles de Gaulle's effect on European history.

Twilight Struggle is for two players; one assumes the role of the United States, the other: USSR. The board shows a map of the world and the key nations for which the superpowers will be fighting. The game is played with a deck of 110 cards, each of which depicts a major event in the cold war. Most of these events are affiliated with one superpower or the other, though some are neutral. In addition to the event, every card also boasts an number of "operational points" from 0-4.

A game begins in 1945 and unfolds over 10 rounds, each of which represents 3-5 years of history. During a round, players alternate playing and resolving cards. When playing a neutral card, or one affiliated with his own superpower, a player has a choice: he may either trigger the event, or he may spend the operation points. Operation points can be used to increase your superpower's influence over other nations, to reduce your opponent's influence, or to foment coups (which, if successful, may both decrease your opponent's influence in the target country and increase your own). When playing a card associated with your opponent (which you will do often, as the game forces you to play nearly all of the cards in your hand, whether you wish to or not), you get to use the operation points and your opponent gets to resolve the event. This nasty little twist means that you will sometimes find yourself playing cards that benefit your opponent more than yourself.

The goal of all this is control: control of key battleground nations, and of the six major regions of the world (Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa). When one of the periodic scoring phases is triggered, the superpower that controls more nations in the indicated region will rack up points.

Complicating matters is the threat of mutual assure destruction, which lurks in the background at all times and becomes especially worrisome as Defcon creeps toward 1. (If nuclear war breaks out during a player's turn, he loses.) And China serves as a perpetual fly in the ointment of both superpowers, first aiding one of them, then immediately defecting to the other.

I'm not a huge fan or wargames--and Twilight Struggle, at its core, is not one. It differs from true war games in two ways. First, the two players never attack each other directly, instead jockeying for control of key areas of the map, and fighting proxy battles across the globe. It is not intended to be a simulation of the actual cold war. In fact, in the designer notes, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews openly admit that they goal was to create a game that adhered to the mythology of the cold war, if not the reality. To that end, the "domino theory"--of dubious validity in actual foreign policy--is crucial to success in this game, nations are little more than pawns for the superpowers, and investing time and energy into the "space race" reaps tangible benefits. Twilight Struggle depicts the cold war as it was envisioned by those who were fighting it, not as it now appears to us in retrospect.

I don't play games as often as I used to, alas. So when I find myself with a free evening and an opponent, I consider the time valuable. I could easily play three different games in the time it takes for one bout of Twilight Struggle; that I choose the latter ought to tell you something about how much this game has grown on me.

* I don't actually attend cocktail parties.**

** Or impress people

June 14, 2007

Games: Power Grid

A few years ago I stopped buying new games, and decided instead to concentrate on picking up those classics that, for one reason or another, I'd neglected to pick up when they were new. Through the Desert, Ra, Mu & More, and the like.

And yet, despite its reputation as the third most highly rated modern game, I held off on purchasing Power Grid. I'd heard that it was long and complicated, and my shelves are already well stocked with such games, that rarely or never hit the table.

Plus, the theme of the game sounded unthinkably dull: power plant construction and management. The reviews of Power Grid seemed to confirm this impression, as they made the game sound like a protracted story problem, one in which you own plants X, Y, and Z, are trying to supply energy to N cities, and need to determine how much of four different types of fuel to buy. Bore-ing.

Still, for the sake of completeness, I eventually bought a copy, and even went to the trouble of playing it. To my surprise, I found the game was not as lengthy, complicated, or as bland as I'd feared. In fact, it rapidly became obvious that its reputation as one of the greatest games ever designed was well deserved.

Each player heads up a fledging power company, seeking to supply the nation with electricity. To that end they need to do three things: purchase power plans, acquire fuel, and hook cities into their power grid. Obtaining power plants is simple: every player has the opportunity to buy one at the start of each round. Purchasing fuel, however, is a bit trickier. First of all, Power Grid has a clever mechanism that approximates supply and demand: the more units of fuel that are purchased during a round, the higher the price goes. So which the first player to buy, say, coal, might get it for $2 a lot, the final player might be forking out $5 per coal or more. Secondly, the first person to buy fuel is the player in last place, followed by the penultimate player, and so on. In other words, if you are trailing, you get your fuel on the cheap; if you are "winning," you'll pay extra. This evens the playing field, and makes "hanging back" a viable strategy in the game.

Player then hook cities into their power grids. This is done by placing markers onto the board, which shows a country and a number of the cities therein. Only one player can own a city (at least at the start of the game), so players jockey to snap up the available towns, and maneuver to not get hemmed in. City acquisition is, again, done in reverse-place order, with the last player going first and the first last.

Finally, players fire up their power plants, supply cities with energy, and reap the rewards in cash. This cash will be used in future rounds to buy more plants, fuel, and cities.

From the description above, you can see why I might have written Power Grid off as an exercise in tedium, a game with all the excitement of filling out reimbursement forms. Instead, the game is remarkably taut and exciting. In fact, I tend not to like economic games at all, since they often strike me as overly bureaucratic, so it's something of a wonder that Power Grid, which falls squarely in that category, is currently my favorite game in my whole collection.

For one thing, money in the game is often very tight. In early rounds you may make no more that $20 or $30 dollars for selling electricity; and yet late in the game, when you are routinely pulling in $90 or $100 dollars a round, you may still find yourself a single dollar short of the funds you need to accomplish your Master Plan. The game isn't just about who makes the most money, but who can manage it the best.

Another great feature of the game is that the opponents you are primarily competing against changes throughout the game. Early in the game, for instance, I and player W may be the only two that own oil burning plants, and we are in pitched battle for the oil resources; meanwhile, on the board, the cities in my power grid might abut those of Player X, and we might constantly joust for position on the board. By midgame, though, I may have transitions over to nuclear power plants, skirmishing with player Y for uranium and fighting for territory with player Z on the board. In short, the game demands both strategic (i.e., long-term) planning, as well as tactical (i.e., current turn) savvy--a near perfect mix.

Power Grid is both longer (a typical game takes 90-120 minutes) and more complex than most of the games I recommend on this site. But the time flies by, and is easy enough to grok once you have a few rounds under your belt. It is also unusual amongst "money games" in that it is great fun even when you get clobbered; I have thoroughly enjoyed my dozen plays, despite the fact that I have never won once. Indeed, every loss just whets my appetite for more, as I desperately want to figure out how to refine my strategy. That's the hallmark of a great game: fun to play at the time, keeps you coming back for more. And though I bought Power Grid to "fill in the cracks" in my library, it rapidly became one of the cornerstones of my collection. A true classic.

From The Comments: Jason asks: "The purchase link you listed says 2-6 players, but how many players (at a minimum) do you think you need to make it really enjoyable?" I have not, and probably never will, play PG with two. But it's great with three to five, and the only downside to six-player games is length (i.e., typically two hours or more).

The rules for PG vary slightly according to the number of people playing, to ensure that every game is tight. For instance, the board is divided into six regions, and you always play in a number of regions equal to the number of players, making each game equally claustrophobic. Also, less fuel is available in games with fewer players.

Which is to say: they didn't just slap "2-6" on a game that was ideally suited for exactly four; they actually tailored the game for any number of participants.

May 08, 2007

Game Nights

I while ago I received this email:


My society (a very tiny group of individuals just trying to bring fun to a deserving town in central Pennsylvania) would like to host a monthly Games Night in our town and I'm wondering if you have any suggestions for making it a fun night for everyone. I have the basics covered: offer a variety of games so everyone has something to enjoy, food, etc. But I'm wondering if there are other things I can do to lure people in and then keep them coming back? These won't necessarily be my friends so I can't apply guilt to make them show up. I have to offer a really fun night.

Do you have any suggestions?


Now, after many, many months, I've gotten around to writing a reply.

The Care And Feeding Of Your Game Group.

March 07, 2007


If you see this, walk briskly in the opposite direction:


A friend of mine recently got a job at PopCap. About a week ago she wrote to tell me that they had released a new game called Peggle.

I've played a few PopCap titles in the past, but only the demos--I'm a notorious skinflint when it comes to shelling out cash for computer games. Still, I wanted to support my friend in her new endeavor, so I bought this one.

DO NOT DO THIS!! This game is to free time what whales are to krill. Even now, as I type this, I am trying to resist the urge to go play a few rounds (and my resolve has already faltered a few times since I wrote the first paragraph).

If this game were half as addictive, I would urge you to buy a copy; as it stands, I'm afraid I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Peggle to anyone who has a spouse, a child, a friend, a job, or reservations about wearing astronaut diapers to avoid ever having to leave the PC.

January 24, 2007

Plugapalooza: Sarrett-Adams Games

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, reading GAMES Magazine, when I first learned of a board game publication called The Game Report, which hailed from my hometown of Seattle and was written entirely by one man, Peter Sarrett. I looked Peter up upon my return to the states, joined his game group, and even started writing game reviews for TGR.

Not content to just play games, Peter eventually started to design them as well; his first, in fact, is my all-time favorite party game, Time's Up. And a few years back he joined forces with veteran game designer Michael Adams (who created many of the game in the Cranium line) to form Sarrett-Adams Games. He also, incidentally, writes the weblog Static Zombie. -- MB

Someday, one of our games will come with a duck.

When we develop new party games, we'll often think of really cool high-tech gadgetry that would enable some terrific game experiences. But we face two problems. We have no electronics background, so we can't MacGyver a doorbell and a hair dryer into a Jeopardy! lock-out buzzer. And even if we could, we'd face the problem of how to bring that technology to a Wal-Mart price point. So when we're prototyping a new game, we have to resort to simpler, mechanical solutions.

For our latest party game, a clue-giving communication game similar to $25,000 Pyramid, we envisioned a train theme with a timer that was actually a mechanical train chugging along a railroad track. Each section of track remaining when players stopped the clock would earn them bonus points. We couldn't find any suitable trains at local shops, but we did find other wind-up toys of appropriate size. So instead of a train, our early prototype featured a wind-up duck that waddled down the track. Playtesters were immediately drawn to the cute little duck, and asked to play the "duck game," but ultimately we streamlined the game design and eliminated the mechanism altogether. When Hasbro bought the game they changed the theme completely so trains weren't even involved.

The lesson to us is clear, and sometime soon we'll design a game involving fowl play.

That party game, minus the train theme, became Tie One On and was published this fall by Hasbro. It is currently only available at Wal-Mart.

If you have young children (3-6 years old), you might like our other new game this year: The Crazy Mixed Up Zoo Game from Simply Fun. This is a game with beautiful components that scales in difficulty as children get older. And since it's a memory game, kids will often win against adults.

Finally, coming in March from Rio Grande Games is our latest game, If Wishes Were Fishes. This one's a family game where players can catch fish and sell them later at market, or throw them back and be granted a wish that may give them an edge over the opposition.

-- Peter Sarrett
October 05, 2006

Fantasy RPG Boardgames

I've answered the same question twice in a week -- the first in a reply to an email from a reader, the second in response to this Ask Metafilter thread -- so maybe I should just stick it here on the site, so I can just refer people to it in the future.

The question: you talk a lot about German games on defective yeti, but what about good old-fashioned American games? Specifically, are there any good boardgames that faithfully recreate the feeling of playing Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest, or any of the other fantasy role-playing games I no longer have the time to play?

The short answer is yes. In the last few years there have been a spate (perhaps even a glut) of quality "American" games; that is, games where mechanics take a backseat to theme. These are not the elegant, 90-minute games I usually write about, but long, sprawling, epic struggles, often with each player playing a specific character, each with his own unique attributes and abilities.

Many of these titles are coming from a single company: Fantasy Flight Games. As expected from their name, FFG specializes in games centered around mythic worlds -- J.R.R. Tolken's Middle Earth to George R.R. Martin's Seven Kingdoms to the World of Warcraft -- though they have a few non-fantasy offerings as well. (I have previously raved about the abstract domino-esqe Ingenious, and Through the Desert is in my all-time top ten.)

But fantasy titles are FFG's mainstay, and, perhaps because of the company's success, more and more companies are releasing games designed to induce flashbacks of twenty-sided dice. Here are some of the best:

Descent: Journeys in the Dark: A couple years ago I went completely nuts and forked over good money for Doom, a boardgame that couldn't possibly be good yet inexplicably was. The year following, Fantasy Flight Games adapted the Doom engine to Descent. The result is a game even better than its predecessor. As in Doom, one player assumes the rule of the Dungeonmast-I-mean-Overlord, and controls all the bad guys; everyone else chooses from among 20 possible characters, and plays as a team, striving to complete some objective. The game is played on a module board, which can be configured for any of the -- Descent is played on a module board, which can big configured of any of the scenarios in the Quest book. This is as close to fantasy roleplaying as you are going to get in a box. But a word of warning: a typical scenario takes about four hours to complete.

Return of the Heroes and Runebound: Two "wander around and have adventures" games set on large maps. In both you start with a low-level characters, undertake quests and fight monsters until your stats improve, and eventually take on the Big Bad. I prefer Return, if only for it's shorter playing time (you can complete a game in 90 minutes to two hours, about half as long as the other), but Runebound has legions of fans as well. If you expect to play the game a lot, you may want to consider Runebound as it has a multitude of expansions to keep replayablity high; but if you're looking for a game to play only occasionally, I'd give Return the nod.

War of the Ring: I've been playing this quite a bit lately, despite it's three to four hour playing time. It is, at its heart, an epic wargame built around the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but has enough chrome (as we like to call it) to give it a RPG feel. What makes it interesting is the asymmetrical nature of the struggle: the Shadow Player attempts to take Middle Earth by force, marching his copious armies across the land and laying siege to strongholds; the Free Nation players works to hold him off just long enough to sneak the Fellowship into Mordor. This game, frankly, has a lot of problems (the rules are a godawful mess, for starters), but I can't help but enjoy it. Two other terrific board games set in Middle-Earth, by the way: the Lord of the Rings Cooperative Boardgame (one of the few games I've rated a perfect "10"), and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (which I review here).

BattleLore: Though not available yet, I'll be snapping up a copy of BattleLore just as soon as it hits the shelves. It uses the same system as Memoir '44 (one of my favorite two-player games, and one I talk up here), but sets the action in a fantasy world. Plus, the maker, Days of Wonders, has a well-deserved reputation for producing fantastic games with incredible components. If you can't wait for BattleLore, head to your local target and see if you can't find a copy of Heroscape -- it too is light, fantasy-based combat wargame with one foot planted in the world of miniature-gaming.

Dungeoneer: If you are looking for a dungeon-crawl that doesn't demand the investment of time (and money) that some of these other games do, check out Dungeoneer, a clever little game in which cards are not only used for describing quests and weapons, but also serve as map times to creating module dungeons. Dungeoneer is far from elegant, and seems over-long even at 45 minutes, but would serve as a good bridge to the more complicate fare mentioned on this list.

Lastly (and leastly), I'd be remiss not to mention Munchkin, I game I pretty much loathe but is nonetheless adored by an astounding number of people. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it, but I'm sure two dozen people will do so in the comments.

July 04, 2006

Transamerica And Others US Games

Transamerica was one of my top picks of the 2002 Good Gift Games Guide, and has occupied a spot on the Canonical G4 List ever since. The fourth of July seems a fine day to explain why.

I pick titles for the Good Gift Games Guide based on three criteria: they have to be easy to learn, playable in under an hour, and fun on the first try. By these standards, Transamerica is practically the G4 posterchild.

The game board shows a map on the United States, covered a web of triangles. Many of the junctions where the lines cross contain cities, such as Seattle, Sante Fe, Dallas, and Miami. The cities are also color-coded, to indicate the region in which they reside: The West Coast, the Northern US, the Midwest, the Southern US, and the East Coast. And every city also has a corresponding card. Each player is given five of these cards -- one of each color -- before play begins. He is also given a marker, which he may place onto any junction on the board.

A player's goal is to connect his five assigned cities by railroad. Railroad in the game is represented by dozens of small black "sticks," which the players use their turns to place upon the board. A player may place a rail on any empty line, thereby connecting two junctions, so long as he can trace a route back from it to his start marker using previously build rail. The trick is that no one "owns" the rail they build -- they are all in the common domain. So when a player connects his line to that of another player's, he may then build off any junction connected to the extended network. After one player succeeds in connecting all five of his cities, the other players earn points based on how many more rails they would have needed to finish. Points are bad, and low score wins.

Transamerica is simplicity itself. On a turn, a player only has one decision to make: where to place their rail. Some have complained that the whole thing barely amounts to a game at all, and that a round is essentially a protracted method of revealing who got dealt the best set of city cards. That may be true, but like solitaire (which is also deterministic), Transamerica is unaccountably fun and addictive. Plus, an entire game can be played in 20 minutes, so it doesn't wear out its welcome, simple though it may be.

* * *

While we're on the subject, here's a boardgame tour of the United States.

  • Manhattan: This was the second "German game" I ever bought (after Settlers), and was a mainstay of my game group until we'd all played it so much we couldn't stomach another game. Players strive to build skyscrapers in New York, and have the ability to steal each other's buildings. Only a smidge more complicated than Transamerica but with a lot more room for strategic play, it's no surprise that Manhattan won the "Game of the Year" award in 1994.
  • Streetcar: The New Orleans Trolley Game: Another of my earliest acquisitions, and one I still enjoy playing today. Players collaborate and compete to build trolley track in downtown New Orleans, connecting such landmarks as Longue Vue, The French Quarter, and Napoleon Library. Though the rules are simple, this game has a special reasoning element that some find a bit daunting -- and others, like me, find fun and rewarding. Read my full review here.
  • Mississippi Queen: Another "Game of the Year" winner, this one has players racing riverboats down Old Man Mississippi, stopping occasionally to take on a southern belle as a passenger. A race game at its heart, players must carefully monitor their speed lest they go crashing into a sandbar, and must keep an eye on their opponents who may attempt to bump them out of their way.
  • Detroit / Cleveland Grand Prix: Wolfgang Kramer is known for his clever game designs, and this is one of his most inventive. Six cars race around a track; you own one of them. You move the cars by playing cards from your hand. Yes, I said "cars," plural: the game is rigged so that it's almost impossible to move your own vehicle without also advancing those of your opponents. Figuring out how to get your car in the lead -- and keep your rivals at bay -- makes for a fun little puzzle, and affords plenty of opportunity for sneaky tactical maneuvering.
  • New England: Named "Best Game" by GAMES Magazine in 2004, new England finds the players building barns and planting fields, just after settling the New World. It's a little more strategic than the others on this list, but is easy enough to learn to serve as a good bridge from the Transamericas to the more complicated fare -- and is a fine game in its own right as well.
  • Vegas Showdown: The newest game on this list, and one that I avoided for a while thinking it would be some variant on craps or poker. In fact it's not a gambling game at all, but one of building casinos and trying to maximize profits. Players vie for slot machines, restaurants, and theaters, each trying to make their own establishments the most attractive to customers. I finally tried it, and now it's one of my favs.
  • Puerto Rico: Hailed as the greatest modern board game, an assessment with which I largely agree. You can read my my reviews of both Puerto Rico, and its sequel, San Juan.
Also, Transamerica is only one of many games that are set on map of the continental US. Ticket To Ride (full review here) is arguably the best family game in the last decade; Power Grid has players building power plants and supplying electricity to the cities of the nation; and giant creatures run amuck, battling the military and one another, in Monsters Menace America.

May 11, 2006

Games: No Thanks!

I used to have a website devoted to boardgames, where I often reviewed games of such length and complexity that they would likely only be of interested to fellow gamers. Now I write this blog, which is read by a lot of people who don't have the slightest interest in boardgames. I still like to write about games from time to time, but now I tend to showcase titles that I think will appeal to even the non-games in the crowd. That means games that are fun, short, and easy to play and learn.

Perhaps no game has ever fit that description better than No Thanks!. It's tense and exciting, an entire game only takes 10 minutes, and it's so simple that I often introduce it to people as "The One Rule Game."

The game is played with a deck of 33 cards (ranked 3 through 35) and each player is given 11 poker chips. Before play the cards are shuffled, nine are removed and set aside unseen, and the deck is placed facedown in the center of the table. A start player is named, and the fun begins.

A round begins with a player flipping over the top card from the draw deck. Then (here's the One Rule, pay attention) each player in turn has the option to do one of two things: pass (by placing one of their chips onto the card) or take the card (and all the chips on it). Play may go around the table several times (the pile of chips on the card accumulating all the while) before someone finally bites the bullet, takes the card, and starts the next round by flipping over the next card from the deck. The game ends after the last card has been claimed.

Why the reluctance to take cards? Because at the end of a round you receive points equal to the value of all the cards you took -- and points are bad. Chips, meanwhile, are worth negative points. So Joe ends the game with the 5 card, the 25 card, the 27 card, and seven chips, his final score would be (5 + 25 + 27) - 7 = 50 points. The player with the fewest points wins.

Games this simple usually need a twist to make them interesting; No Thanks! has one and, man, it's a doozy. If you have two or more cards with consecutive values, you only score for the lowest valued card in the run. If Joe had also managed to acquire the 26 card, his final score would be (5 + 25) - 7 = 37 -- the 25-26-27 run would score 25 points total. So while you are generally trying to avoid taking cards in No Thanks! (hence the name), taking a specific card can occasionally save your hide. Of course, there's no guarantee the card you need is even in the deck, or that the player before you won't snap it up just to spite you. If you take the 31 card and the 33 card early in the game, you'll be a nervous wreck until the 32 makes its appearance (and dead in the water if it never does).

No Thanks! is such a great game for non-gamers (and gamers alike) that I usually pick up a few decks every time I place a game order and give them out as gifts. You could argue that $8 is a bit much to pay for 33 cards and a handful of chips, but I have plenty of games on my shelf that cost three times that and aren't half as fun. If you consider yourself the sort of person who "doesn't really like games," pick up a copy of No Thanks! -- after a few rounds you are likely to reconsider.

April 06, 2006

Games For Two

I've received a number of requests for two-player game recommendations in the last few weeks. So here ya go, IntarWeb.

  • Lost Cities: This is my default recommendation for a two-player game, unless I know the person well enough to suggest something more specific -- and even then it's often my recommendation. Lost Cities is a very clever (and remarkably fun) rummy variant, which makes immediately accessible to non-gamers. The rules can be explained in three minutes, an entire game takes about thirty. Plus, chicks dig it. It's considered politically incorrect in gaming circles to imply (or state outright) that one sex prefers certain games over others, but, I'm tellin' ya: girls like rummy (see also: Ticket To Ride -- another game based on Rummy that women enjoy.) All and all, Lost Cities is just about the perfect "couples game." If you're looking for something with a smidgen more strategy, check out its sister title, Shotten-Totten (sold in the US as Battle Line). And they can be tried-before-they're-buy'd at Flex Games, which has online versions of both.

  • Lord Of The Rings: The Confrontation: Easily one of my favorite two-player games (read my full review here), LotR:tC uses the classic Stratego mechanism of having pieces visible only to their owner. The Light player wins if he gets Frodo (and the One Ring) all the way across the board and into Mordor; the Dark player wins by catching Frodo or overrunning The Shire with bad guys. Each character has a unique ability, and although a whole match can be played in 20 minutes, each game has its own narrative: in one, Aragorn sacrifices himself so that Frodo can trudge forth to victory; in the next, Wargs beset the ringbearer just as he descended from the Misty Mountains. And a Deluxe edition of the game was just released, doubling the number of characters and special powers in play.

  • Another Stratego-esque favorite of mine is Hera & Zeus. Some complain that the game is too "fiddly" -- that is, there's a lot of special cards to keep track of, and a lot of shuffling of the cards -- but, amongst experienced players, I think it's a tense and exciting battle. A bit more a learning curve on this one than the prior games, though. You can read my full, (and, by Internet standards, ancient) review here.

  • Jambo also takes a game or two to get the hang of, but has been one of the most well-received two-player card games in recent years. Players are merchants in a Swahili market, trading wars and occasionally siccing pumas on one another. Read my full review here.

  • Though most of the Carcassonne games can be played with up to five players, they also work exceptionally well with only two. They also number amongst the best "gateway" games of the market, perfect for those new to the boardgaming hobby. Players take turns adding tiles to a shared map, trying to create various landscapes. There are a lot of games in the Carcassonne line, but I'm of the opinion that Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers is the best for those new to the series. There is also an exclusively two-player version called Carcassonne: The Castle, which is a bit more strategic (and, in my opinion, a bit more fun) that the rest.

  • Another "works for many and works for two" game is San Juan, The kid brother to Puerto Rico. I think the game works best with three, but two is also quite good. Read my full review here.

  • There are, of course, no shortage of two-player wargames, but many of them require the players to memorize a 104 page rule book and dedicate every weekend for a season to playing a campaign. Memoir '44, on the other hand, allows you to recreate the pivotal battles of WWII in about 40 minutes a scuffle, using a light, intuitive combat system. An even simpler wargame -- albeit one with a fantasy bent -- is Heroscape. Though clearly aimed at the 12-year-old boy market, I know a lot of adult game players who swear this is one of the most fun games ever released.

  • I'm not a huge fan of abstract games, but even I think Travel Blokus is a blast. It's a very quick, very light strategy game -- almost like a snack. Try it out online at Or, if you are in the market for something meatier, try the titles in the GIPF series, a collection of abstract, two-players games that have been getting rave reviews. YINSH, the highest rated of the bunch, falls somewhere between draughts and Reversi; DVONN was named GAMES Magazine's 2003 "Game of the Year;" and ZERTZ is like Chinese Checkers with an IQ of 145. Check them out at the GIPF Project homepage.

March 16, 2006

Games: Colossal Arena

Despite my 2005 Good Gift Game Guide, my post naming the 2005 G4 runner-ups, and my list of my favorite games of last year, I somehow failed to mention Colossal Arena. This was a rather grievous oversight, as Arena was my game group's favorite of last year. (At least until I taught them Tichu ...)

First, a word of reassurance. Colossal Arena bills itself as "the game of titanic battles," and the art on both the box and the cards would have you believe that the game is one of fantasy melee, a raucous brawl complete with unicorns and trolls, mages and demons. Yes, that is the ostensible theme. But you won't have to roll up a character or dust off your 30-sided die to play -- Colossal Arena is, despite the RPG trappings, a traditional card & gambling game, albeit an exceptionally clever one.

Eight Monster cards are placed into a row before play begins. The main deck consists of 11 cards for each Monster (ranked 0 though 10) and 11 wild cards (called "Spectators," also of values 0-10). On a turn, a player may place a bet on one of the Monsters and must play a card. Cards are placed below the corresponding Monster, and the value of the card dictates the Monster's current strength. Spectator cards may be played onto any Monster. Players may put cards on top of cards already in play -- a Titan 2 could be placed onto a Titan 8, for instance, thereby lowering that Monster's strength by 6. This continues until every Monster has at least one card associated with it, at which point the weakest Monster dies and all bets placed on it are lost.

After the death of a Monster, a new round begins with a new row of cards. The game ends after five rounds and five causalities, leaving three Monsters alive. Bets on the survivors pay off, and the player with the most points wins.

There are plenty of twists to liven up play: secret bets, Monster powers, and a risk/reward system in which bets placed in the early round (when they are the most perilous) pay-out higher than those placed near the end of the game. But the heart of the game is the playing of Monster cards during a round, and the tension that builds as a round progresses is delicious. If you hold a low card for a Monster that your opponents have bet on, playing it late in a round can cripple that creature and ensure its ouster. The other players will be trying to hamstring your favorites, of course, so you must play strategically to avoid giving them the opportunity to do so.

Colossal Arena is a remake of the out-of-print Grand National Derby, which simulated horse racing. I wish Arena's theme was as prosaic, as the violent and fantastic artwork masks a game that is perfectly suited for casual card players and families. Indeed, nearly everyone I have taught the game to has wanted to play it again and again. It's also especially good (best, even) with three-players, which is something of a rarity in strategic card games.

You can read more about Colossal Arena here, and see a PDF of the rules here.

February 16, 2006

Games For Kids


Could you suggest some games that adults and kids can play together? My 6 year old daughter is a great gamer, but I have trouble finding games suited to both of us. She usually beats me at Mancala, and we play Clue and Monopoly, but I'm looking for something more interesting. Perhaps Ticket to Ride?

It's our lucky day, David: yours because I recently sent a list of just such games to a friend of mine with a seven-year-old daughter, so I've already done the legwork on this one; and mine because ... well, because I've already done the legwork on this one, so I get to compose an entire post just by cutting and pasting from my Sent mail folder. Sweet.

Here's a few suggestions. I'm sure my readers can offer more.

Family Strategy Games

  • A-Maze-Ing Labyrinth: This game is routinely cited as one of the very best for kids. Players race through an ever-changing maze, trying to acquire treasures and magical items. This is one of those rare "children's" games you will find yourself playing with your spouse or friends, even after the kids have gone to bed.
  • Pick Picknic: Players can either play chickens (and score points by eating grain) or foxes (and score points by eating other player's birds), and your success will depend not only on what you choose, but what everyone else chooses as well. A neat little game of bluff and outguessing.
  • Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers: There are a plethora of games in the Carcassonne line, but I think Hunters & Gathers is the best for children, as it captures the fun of the base game with even simpler rules. It's part light strategy game and part jigsaw puzzle, as players assemble a map of a prehistoric landscape. Lots of fun, and another that parents will enjoy even absent the offspring.

  • Cartagena: Imagine Candyland with pirates. And a dash of actual strategy. And ... well, I guess I already mentioned the pirates, but they are a real selling point. Arr!
  • Blokus: Blokus is one I recommended to adults in my 2005 Good Gift Games Guide, but the game is so simple that kids can play it as well. Though slightly more complicated, Ingenious is also a fine choice for an abstract family game.

Memory Games

  • Chicken Cha Cha Cha: If you want to get your ass handed to you by a seven year-old, memory games are the way to go. And Chicken Cha Cha Cha is one of the best. This one skews a little younger -- more to the five- to six-year-old set -- but slightly older kids will probably like it as well.
  • Enchanted Forest: Attractive wooden trees are randomly distributed around the board, all of which are identical except for the pictures on their bottoms. You may peek at the image beneath a tree as you pass it on the path, but when the King asks for a particular item will you remember where you saw it? Aimed at the younger girl market, but enjoyable by all.

    Dawn Under: This recent title was nominated for the "German Game of the Year" award last year. Players try to get rid of their vampire cards by finding like-colored crypts for them to sleep in. Sounds a bit macabre for a kids game, but the mechanics are simple and the illustrations are cutsey.

Dexterity Games

  • Gulo Gulo: The great thing about dexterity games is that they level the playing field: adults can usually beat kids in strategy games, youngsters will typically whip their parents in memory games, but games like this are a challenge for everyone. In Gulo Gulo players are wolverines, trying to carefully steal eggs out of a nest without setting off the "Anti-Wolverine Alarm System."
  • Igloo Pop: Pick up a small plastic igloo, shake it, and guess how many small plastic beads are inside. That's the entire game, but it's remarkably fun -- at least until your five year-old clobbers you at it.
  • Klondike: This game won the "Children's Game of the Year" award. Put a mix of gold and black marbles into a dish; the active player then has to "pan" for the gold, attempting to flip the black beads out and keep the gold beads in, while the others wager on the outcome.

Cooperative Games

  • Secret Door, The: Family Pastimes makes a whole line of cooperative kid's games, and this is reputedly their best. Race around the mansion, and try to deduce which three items have been stolen by thieves before the clock strikes midnight. It's a take on the classic memory game, but with players working as a team instead of in opposition.
  • Scotland Yard: One player takes the role of "Mr. X," darting around London and attempting to elude capture; the rest play Scotland Yard, and coordinate their movements to trap the criminal mastermind. This game is geared more towards older kids (10+), but if a younger child is part of an older "good guy" team she'll do just fine.
  • Break the Safe: If catching thieves isn't your thing, you could instead try to Break The Safe (and avoid capture) yourself. Players are secret agents, infiltrating an enemy's compound and attempting to get away with his secret plans, dodging traps, guards, and dogs all the way. The game is played in "real time," as the player frantically try to reach their goal before the clock ticks down to zero.

And by the way: Ticket To Ride might be a little advanced for a six year-old, but it's a great game and you should pick it up anyway. If you'd like a train game that a youngster could certainly play and enjoy, take a gander at TransAmerica.

February 09, 2006

Tichu (And Other Climbing Games)

Addiction, thy name is Tichu.

When the Top 100 Modern Games list was released, I took no small amount of geeky pride in noting that I owned every single game in the top 10. However,my sense of accomplishment was muted somewhat in realizing that I had only played nine of them. I'd purchased the remaining game, Tichu, several years prior, but a quick read of the rules convinced me that it was nothing special, and it sat on my shelf untouched for years.

But it's appearance in the top 10 made me wonder if I was missing something. So I dug it up, dusted it off, and gave the rules another readthrough. I remained unconvinced. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I recruited three other players, dealt out the cards, and started playing Tichu.

And now I can't stop.

Tichu is a partnership game played with 56 cards: a standard deck (four suits, cards ranked 2-10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace), plus four special cards (the Mah Jong, the Dog, the Phoenix, and the Dragon). After the cards have been evenly dealt out the lead player begins a trick by playing a poker combination -- three 5s, say. Every other player then has the opportunity to either play a higher combination of the same type (in this example, three 6s, three 9s, etc.), or pass. Play continues around the table until all players have passed, at which point the person who played the final combination takes all the cards and leads the subsequent trick.

The hand does not end when someone gets rid of all his cards; instead, you note the order in which players "go out," and play until the penultimate player has gotten rid of his final card. Thus by the end of the hand everyone has a ranking, from "first out" all the way down to "last out."

The mechanics of the card game will be familiar to anyone who played a few drunken hands of Asshole (a.k.a., President) in college. Like Asshole, Tichu is a climbing game; that is, players are generally striving to get rid of their cards as quickly as possible by playing them to tricks.

Several elements set Tichu apart from the standard climbing game, however, the first of which are Bombs. Bombs are special combinations (four of a kinds and straight flushes) that someone can play onto any trick at any time, even when it's not their turn. A Bomb will always win a trick -- unless another player follows it with a higher Bomb.

Each of the special cards has it's own power and liability: The Mah Jong counts as a 1, but the person playing it gets to make a "wish" -- they name any card value and the next person able to play a card of that value must do so. The Dog is the lowest card in the game, but allows a player to pass the lead to his partner. The Phoenix is a wild card and can be used in any combination, but is worth negative points. And the Dragon is the highest card in the game, but if a player wins a trick with the Dragon he must immediately give it (and all the points therein) to one of his opponents.

Scores are tallied after all cards have been played : 5's are worth 5 points a piece, 10's and Kings are worth ten, the Dragon is worth 25 points, and the Phoenix counts as -25. If a player and his partner go out first and second, their team receive 200 points and their opponents receive nothing. And any player can up the ante for a hand by declaring a "tichu" before play begins: if the declaring player goes out first, his team receives a bonus 100 points; if he does not, his team loses 100. The first team to 1000 wins.

If all this sounds rather mundane to you ... well, now you understand how I felt after reading the rules. But the addictive quality of Tichu is hard to quantify. For one thing, the game is surprisingly deep -- it seems that every time I play I stumble upon some facet of strategy that I'd overlooked before. For another, the dynamic of a Tichu hand is always in flux as you play. You may start with a strong full house (three Kings and two 5's, say), but necessity may force you to break it up, playing the three kings to win a three-of-a-kind trick and leaving yourself with a relatively weak pair of fives. The dynamic nature of Tichu makes every hand engrossing.

In the last month I have been teaching all my friends how to play Tichu, to ensure that I always have a plentiful supply of opponents. And everyone who has learned to play has become a fan. It takes a hand or two to get your "Tichu legs" despite the relatively simple rules, but once you grok the fundamentals you are likely to become hooked. The partnership element of Tichu makes it perfectly suited for those evenings when you, your significant other, and another couple get together, or anytime you find with three others and an hour to kill.

Though I've only been playing it for a few weeks, I can see how Tichu wound up on the Top 100 Games Lists. Indeed, it's already in my personal Top Five, and will likely remain there for years to come.

* * *

If you'd like to try a "climbing game" but Tichu doesn't pique your interest, here's a few others you could pick up instead.

  • Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: The Gathering) designed climbing game about a decade ago called The Great Dalmuti, which was a favorite of my game group for years. We played so often that I eventually burned out on it, but have pressed my Dalmuti deck back into service since becoming interested in climbing games again. One nice thing about Dalmuti is that it occupies a different niche than Tichu: it's better suited for larger groups (five to seven players, whereas Tichu really only accommodates exactly four), and is much more of a drinking game than a strategy game. If you're looking for a light climbing game to play at bars or parties, Dalmuti is a fine choice.

  • Gang Of Four is very similar to Tichu, but is streamlined and not played in partnerships, sacrificing some of the depth of Tichu at the altar of accessibility. If Tichu has a flaw it's that it takes a while to get new players up to speed; with Gang Of Four you get much of the the same Tichu feeling without all the overhead.

  • The cards in Frank's Zoo do not have values, and instead bear the images of animals. You can beat the current animal by playing a better animal onto it, and the highest animal of all -- the elephant -- can be trumped by the lowest, a tiny mouse.

  • Pig Pile is perhaps the easiest game of those listed here, but is remarkably fun despite it's simplicity. It is an amalgamation of a climbing game and Uno, mostly luck but with a smidgen of skill. Best of all, players keep track of their points with small, rubber pigs -- what's not to like? This is a great game for families or when copious amounts of alcohol are involved.

  • Who's The Ass? is essentially The Great Dalmuti with a scoring system and a deck of cards that accommodates up to 12 players.

  • Or you have a few decks of cards laying around your house, you can play one of the many public domain climbing games listed at Tichu is descended from Zheng Fen; Gang Of Four is more akin to Choh Dai Di (a.k.a. Big Two). Pig Pile is a commercial version of Shithead. And then there's Asshole, the climbing game almost everyone played a few times as a youth, . All these games are played with a standard deck, though a few require a special card or two -- nothing you can't jury-rig with a joker and a Sharpie.

January 17, 2006


Iraqi Invasion: A Text Misadventure
Revision 88 / Serial number 54892

Oval Office
You are standing inside a White House, having just been elected to the presidency of the United States. You knew Scalia would pull through for you.

There is a large desk here, along with a few chairs and couches. The presidential seal is in the middle of the room and there is a full-length mirror upon the wall.

What do you want to do now?

You are not able to do that, yet.

Self-reflection is not your strong suit.

It's not that kind of seal.

They are several chairs arranged around the center of the room, along with two couches. Under one couch you find Clinton's shoes.

You are unable to fill Clinton's shoes.

It is a large, oak desk, with several drawers.

In one drawer you find a bag of pretzels.

I don't think the pretzel would agree with you.

You are not able to do that, yet.

You are not able to do that, yet.

You are on the far right of the political spectrum.
Jesse Helms is here.
John Ashcroft is here.

Radical Right
You are on the extreme right of the political spectrum.
Dick Cheney is here.
Pat Robertson is here.

You are not able to do that, yet.


You are not able to do that, yet.

Your favorablity rating is 58% out of a possible 100%.

Photo Op
You are at a the Emma T. Booker Elementary School, along with a gaggle of obsequious members of the mainstream media.
There is a book here.
There are some children here.

You read "My Pet Goat."

In the distance, terrorists attack the United States.

You continue to read "My Pet Goat."

You continue to read "My Pet Goat."

You continue to read "My Pet Goat."

You fly around aimlessly for a while, then return to the White House.

Oval Office

Who do you want to give the speech to?

You give the speech to the American people.

Your favorablity rating is 84% out of a possible 100%.

You are not able to do that, yet.

You have invaded the nation of Afghanistan, bombing the Taliban nearly out of existence.

Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is here.

(Leaving Afghanistan first.)
You are not able to do that, yet.

You are not able to do that, yet.

Such language in a high-class establishment like this!

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

"Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud ..."

"We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy -- the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America ..."

"Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction ... "

You schedule a vote on the Iraq invasion for just before the 2002 midterm elections. As usual, spineless democrats roll over like an SUV taking a sharp corner.

Your plan to invade Iraq now has the backing of the American people and Congress.

You enter the Iraqi capital of Bagdad, having toppled the government and captured the nation's key cities in only 21 days. You can't seem to find the promised throngs of citizens greeting you as liberators, but the footage of the Saddam statue being pulled down looks great on Fox!

Who do you want to give the contracts to?

What kind of contracts do you wish to give to Halliburton?

You give the no-bid contracts to Halliburton.

The situation in Iraq remains unchanged.

The situation in Iraq remains unchanged.

You put on the flightsuit.

"Mission accomplished."

The mission is not accomplished.

The situation in Iraq remains unchanged.

Some insurgents arrive.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Some insurgents arrive.
There is a small number of insurgents here.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Some insurgents arrive.
There is a moderate number of insurgents here.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

An election year arrives.

Pat Buchanan is here.
Sean Hannity is here.

Compassionate Conservativism
You are right-of-center on the political spectrum.
John McCain is here.
Joseph Leiberman is here.

You get reelected.

Tom DeLay is here.
Michelle Malkin is here.

Radical Right
Rick Santorum is here.
Ann Coulter is here.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Some insurgents arrive.
There is a large number of insurgents here.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Some insurgents arrive.
There is a huge number of insurgents here.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

The situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Some insurgents arrive.
There is an overwhelming number of insurgents here.

Your favorablity rating is 47% out of a possible 100%.

You are unable to admit mistakes.

You are unable to accept responsibility.

I do not know what you mean by "victory."

Oh, how we wish you would.

September 22, 2005

Games: Shadows Over Camelot

Under the general rubric of "boardgame" exists a distinct subgenre termed "cooperative" -- games in which all the players form a single team and compete against the game itself. Some people dislike cooperative games, wondering what's the point is of a game in which everyone wins or everyone loses. Me, I like 'em -- and the newest of the breed, Shadows Over Camelot, has become my new favorite.

Each person plays as one of the knights of the round table, and they all work together to stave off the sinister forces that threaten the kingdom. Over the course of the game the knights will strive -- sometimes in groups, sometimes alone -- to complete various quests. When players succeed in quests they earn white swords, amongst assorted other boons; when they fail, they receive black swords. The game ends when the players have amassed a dozen swords, and win if the majority are white.

But while there is only one way to win, there are several routes to crushing defeat: if half or more of the swords are black at game's end, if a twelfth siege engine is placed onto the game board, or if all of the knights are killed in action, Camelot falls.

The fuel in the game's engine are two decks of cards: White cards, which the knights use to advance on the various quests, and Black cards, which make the quests progressively more difficult. As the Black cards only serve to hinder the knights, players are loathe to reveal or resolve them but, alas, they have no choice. A player must begin his turn by turning over a Black card, or selecting from two other equally unappetizing choices: increasing the number of a siege engines on the board or decreasing his knight's life points. As mentioned above, too many siege engines or too few life points can cause the game to come to an abrupt, bitter end.

Having taken his lumps, a player can then take a good action: move from one quest to another, work on his current quest, draw more White cards, attempt to destroy a siege engine, and a number of other choices. Deciding which player will take which actions is the heart of the game, as the knights much necessarily coordinate their efforts if they want to have any hope of victory. As there can be as many as seven different quests at a time, and the relentless revelation of Black cards ensures that they will all be inching toward failure, the team must literally pick their battles, deciding which quests to undertake and which are lost causes.

All this would be challenge enough, but Shadows Over Camelot includes a big, Machiavellian twist. One knight may be secretly designated as a "Traitor" before play begins. If there is one, the Traitor only wins if the other knights lose.

Early in the game the Traitor will typically undermine the group through guile, constantly making "mistakes" and quick to dispense wrongheaded advise. Later the traitor might resort to naked aggression, gleefully plunking siege engines onto a board that is already lousy with them. The knights are rewarded if they successfully unmask the Traitor, but it's not always easy to tell the difference between a player who is actively betraying the group and another who has just had a run of bad luck. Even if the Traitor never becomes openly hostile -- or if there's no Traitor at all -- the paranoia engendered by the possibility of a traitor is often enough to sow enough distrust and suspicion to sabotage cooperative play.

Shadows Over Camelot is a mediocre game: the mechanics aren't terribly original, the game seems largely dominated by luck, the theme is weak, and there aren't a huge number of decisions to be made during play. That's my review when I think about the game, at any rate. When I actually play the game, though, I always have a blast. Even while recognizing that all the aforementioned faults are present, I simply have too much fun to care. And while I keep expecting my opinion of Shadows Over Camelot to take a turn for the negative, it hasn't happened yet.

At forty bucks the game ain't cheap, and it's a bit complex for those unused to modern boardgames. But everyone ought to give cooperative games a whirl, and Shadows Over Camelot is one of the best.

May 26, 2005

Games: Jambo

In 1996 a German company called Kosmos launched a line of games exclusively for two-players. Since that time Kosmos has produced more that a score of games in the series, including such highly regarded titles as Lost Cities, The Settlers of Catan Card Games, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (a personal favorite of mine). Recently, though, the line has seen few mediocre games and one downright bad one, and some began to wonder if the series had run its course.

Then came Jambo. Released last year, the game is being heralded as amongst the very best in the Kosmo two-player series, and was recently nominated for the prestigious "German Game of the Year" award.

Players are merchants, buying and selling wares in a Swahili marketplace. The game is played almost exclusively with cards, although there are also some counters representing the assorted goods players will trade. On a turn, a player receives five actions, which he can use to do a number of things. The first thing a player typically does on a turn is use one or more actions to draw cards from the deck until he finds one that he wishes to keep; the remainder of his actions may then be used to play or use cards.

Central to the game are the Ware Cards, which allow players to buy and sell the six available commodities (cloth, fruit, herbs, hides, salt, and jewelry). Ware Cards (usually) depict three goods -- maybe three of the same kind, maybe all different, maybe two of one ware and one of another -- and two prices. The first price is the amount the player pays to the bank if he wishes to purchase the shown wares; the second is the amount he receives from the bank when he sells the shown wares. In general, the selling price is about twice that of the purchase price. But as with most cards in Jambo, Ware Cards can only be used once before being discarded. So after using a Ware Card to buy two salt and one fruit, a player cannot then use the card again to immediately sell those commodities for a profit. Instead, a player will typically play a few Ware Cards to purchase goods, and then use subsequent Ware Cards to sell different combinations of the goods he now owns.

Other "play and discard" cards allow a player to take special actions or hinder his opponent in some way. Utility Cards, however, are played face-up in front of a player, and can be invoked once per turn, at the cost of one action per use. Most of the Utility Cards allow a player to exchange two of the game's three resources (cards, money, and wares) -- the "Well" card, for instance, allows a player to buy a card from the deck for 1 gold, while "Boat" let a player discard a card and take the ware of his choice. The more Utility Cards a player has in play the more options he'll have on a turn, but he's still limited to five actions, and choosing how to spend them makes for some difficult decisions.

Jambo shouldn't be good: it's too random, it doesn't allow for much strategic play, and the theme is largely superfluous. Trumping all these negative point, though, is the fact that the game is unaccountably fun, way out of proportion to what it oughtta be. There's plenty of player interaction, as you sic crocodiles, elephants, and all manner of beasts on one another, and the game becomes quite tense when someone nears the winning score of 60 gold. Best of all, the whole thing plays in about half an hour.

It's a bit more involved than the aforementioned Lost Cities (which continues to be the best "gateway games" of the Kosmo two-player series), but Jambo works pretty well for introducing new players to modern games. And although there are many different cards to learn, the basic framework of the game is fairly simple: draw cards, play cards, buy wares, sell wares. The artwork is very nice too, and somewhat makes up for the deficiencies of theme.

All in all a neat little offering, and one that again has me looking forward to what the Kosmo two-player series has in store.

March 31, 2005

Games: Doom The Board Game

I'm a board gamer, not a computer gamer. And when I do play video games, they are almost never "First-Person Shooters." I have nothing against the genre and enjoy playing them from time to time, but I seem largely immune to their more addictive qualities.

So I didn't buy Doom: The Board Game because I'm a Doom fan; I picked it up because, rather unexpectedly, I'd been hearing good things about it from fellow board game fans. Those in a position to know said it was remarkably faithful to the computer game in atmosphere, but the raves focused more on the fact that it encourages strategic play, provides plenty of opportunities for meaningful decisions, and rewards clever tactical maneuvering. It was this assessment that convinced me to pick up.

But I try to pick it up as rarely as possible, for fear of throwing out my back. The first thing you notice about Doom is the weight of the game, and a peek inside the box reveals the reason: it is packed with components, including scores of small (and some not-so-small) plastic miniatures, dozens of rooms and hallways, and hundreds of counters, as well as dice, cards, reference sheets, and rulebooks. Yes, I said "rulebooks, plural -- the game comes with both an instruction booklet (describing how the game is played) and a scenario guide (outlining the five "levels" that players can attempt). But don't assume that the quantity of rules automatically makes Doom a hideously complicated enterprise. While it's true that the game features lots of minutia -- different stats for different weapons, different ablities for different monsters, etc. -- the core system is simple, elegant, and teachable in a matter of minutes.

For those unfamiliar with the video game, here's the premise. The Marines are conducting Interdimensional Studies in a Martian base, and when something goes kaflooey a portal is opened into the depths of Hell. (I'm not clear if it's literally Hell or just another plane of existence, but, suffice to say, you wouldn't want to spend spring break there.) All manner of monstrosities rush through the doorway and overrun the base, killing everyone in their path. As one of the remaining survivors, the goal of the player is to equip himself with the weapons laying around and sprint through the base, shooting (or punching, or chainsawing) everything that crosses his path and striving to find an exit.

In the board game, 1-3 players play as the Marines, and the remaining person serves as the Invader player (thereby controling the monsters). At the start of the game the only "board" on the table is a single room, with the Marines inside and a few doorways on the perimeter. Doom comes with modular rooms and corridors that connect to each other jigsaw-style, allowing the Invader to build the base as the Marines go. In other words, the Marines don't know what lies behind a door until they open it, at which point the Invader adds the newly revealed area to the existing board and populates it with all sorts of baddies. There is also equipment hidden throughout the levels, allowing Marines to acquire new weapons, ammo, armor, health potions, and more.

Combat in Doom is quite simple. The game comes with a four different types of Combat dice, each with its own characteristics. The blue and the red dice, for instance, do a lot of damage, while the yellow and green dice allow for longer-ranged shots. Each weapon in the game uses a unique subset of the dice: when firing the shotgun the player rolls a blue and a red die, making it a short-range but lethal armament; the pistol, meanwhile, uses a yellow and green die, allowing a Marine to inflict minor wounds on distant enemies. Players possess a number of ammo chips, and must discard one whenever a bullet icon appears during a dice roll. Ammo is therefore a limited and extremely valuable commodity

When a Marine dies -- and he will -- he is not eliminated. On his next turn he reappears on the board and continues to battle. The Invader player receives a "Frag Point" for each Marine death, however, and wins when he's accumulated a preset number. The Marines win upon finding the exit and escaping.

Let's start with the good news: Doom: The Board game is a fun, exciting, and very tense affair. The Invader player is allowed to place one or more monsters onto the board at the start of his turn, so the Marines are never given the opportunity to rest and regroup. They must constantly push forward toward the exit (or toward where they think the exit lies -- remember, they don't know the layout of the level until they've opened doors and explored), and must keep a close eye on their remaining ammo lest they run out at a critical moment. The Marines all have distinct special abilities and are able to exchange equipment amongst themselves, and players who make thoughtful, team-oriented decisions will greatly increase their chances of survival.

But those chances of survival for the Marines -- even when experienced, even when they work as a team -- are bleak. This is the bad news. When played by the full compliment of four players, Doom overwhelmingly favors the Invader player. (When played with three players -- two Marines v. the Invader player -- the game seems balanced, and when played one-on-one the game apparently favors the sole Marine.) There has been much debate about this issue, and while some dispute that the imbalance exists* and others insist that the imbalance doesn't matter (because the game is a blast even if the Marines consistently go down in flames), the majority opinion is that the game is virtual unplayable without the adoption of some variants or house rules. One of the more common suggestions is that the Invader play the game not to win, but to ensure that the Marines have a tense, closely-fought match. That works (it's how I play, in fact), but it means that the Invader has to pull his punches and assume the role of "dungeonmaster" instead of playing to the best of his ability, and that might not be to everyone's liking.

It's also worth noting that the game takes 150-180 minutes to play and requires a huge amount of table space. Whether those are pros or cons, I'll leave to the reader to decide.

I like Doom: The Board Game -- so much so that I don't mind the three hour playing time, and that's saying something. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that the balance issues weren't ironed out before its release. The designer has since released two "fixes" for the game: a "difficulty mod" that increases the amount of health and ammo the Marines start with, and an easier (and shorter) "Introductory scenario" (both of which you can find on the Doom support page). I appreciate these "patches," but it seems like after-the-horse-has-left barn-door-closing to me. It's too bad, because the core system is well designed. If I had to guess, I'd say that Fantasy Flight Games put a lot of time, effort, and playtesting into getting the game itself right, but then skimped when refining the scenarios.

Even so, I'd certainly recommend Doom to anyone who enjoys the video game, and to those board gamers who don't mind a lopsided contest or have the patience to seek out and adopt enough house rules to get the game to shine.

* Kevin Wilson, designer of Doom: The Board Game, says the game must be balanced because he can win any scenario playing as the Invader player or on the side of the Marines. That may be true, but he's the designer, fer crissakes. That's like saying Bobby Fischer vs. me in chess is an even matchup because the Fischer could win regardless of whether he plays black or white.
March 09, 2005

Games: Cluzzle

One of the first games I reviewed on defective yeti was a party game called Barbarossa, a guessing and deduction game in which players first make tiny sculptures out of clay and then attempt to identify their opponent's creations. It's a fun game, and one that invariably generates a lot of laughter. But I've been playing it less and less over the years as a number of cracks in the game design have made themselves apparent. The largest flaw, in my mind, is that the game game requires 45 - 90 minutes to play, which is simply too long for what it is. The final third of the game often finds the players becoming increasingly uninterested, and you can usually sense the mood of the group slowing turning from "this is blast!" to "okay, this needs to end." I've often wished that someone would come up with a set of rules that plugged some of Barbarossa's design holes and allowed you to play it in half the time. So when Dominic Crapuchettes sent me an email saying he had done just that with is new game Cluzzle and offering to send me a copy of for review, I gladly accepted.

Cluzzle incorporates the good elements of Barbarossa, omits the bad, and streamlines everything in between. Each player starts the game with a small lump of colored clay and a card with nine subjects on it; a typical card might have "baseball bat," "shoelaces," "pineapple," "Easter," and five more random words or phrases. Before play starts, each person chooses one of the items on his card and sculpts a clue for the subject with his clay. The key word here is "clue." Players need not create literal representation of their subject (and, in cases like "Easter," couldn't in any case), but may sculpt anything that they think will aid the other players in guessing their subject.

When everyone has completed their clues and they have been placed in the center of the table, the first of three rounds begins. Each round lasts two minutes (the game comes with a sand timer), and during it players may ask their opponent's yes-or-no questions about their subjects. "Is it alive?" might be a typical question, or "is your subject two words?" The owner of a clue must answer truthfully and completely. There is no order during a Guessing Rounds: any player may jump in with a question as soon as the previous question has been answered. Also during a round, players will be jotting down their guesses as to the other player's subjects on a pad of paper. When the sand-timer runs out no more questions may be asked or guesses made.

A round concludes with scoring. For each clue, all players read their guesses off their sheets, and the owner announces if anyone has guessed correctly. When a clue is identified, the correct guessers and the owner of the clue score points, and the clue is retired; if no one gets a clue it is carried on to the next round. After three rounds, the session ends; after three sessions the game is over.

The conceit at the heart of Cluzzle is lifted directly from Barbarossa: players gain the greatest rewards for making "Goldilocks clues," those that are neither to easy nor too hard. The number of points a player gains when his clue is correctly guessed equals the round it was guessed in -- one in the first round, two in the second, three in the third -- but clues that remain unsolved at the end of the third round score nothing. This clever twist means that players need not worry if they are not good at sculpting, because creating instantly recognizable clues is not the goal. Instead, the game rewards creativity, both in the clue-smithing, and in question asking.

Overall, Cluzzle is both considerably less than and a vast improvement on Barbrossa. By stripping the system down to its core, players are able to focus on the fun rather than the rules -- and essential feature of any party game. It does share one fault with its progenitor -- that people can sometimes and unintentionally give ambiguous answers to question, throwing some players off track and irritating them when the solution is revealed -- but played amongst friends, serious disagreements are unlikely to break out.

Some people have expressed misgivings about Cluzzle genesis, saying that it's nothing more than a rip-off of Barbarossa. On the one hand I can understand their grievance, but it doesn't appear that the much needed Barbarossa: Second Edition is on the horizon, so I can't bring myself to begrudge Crapuchettes for undertaking the task, even if he is making a few bucks on the side. Besides, the reason game mechanics aren't copyrightable is so that they can be freely reused, and designers have the liberty to take a older game and refine it into an better product. In my opinion, that's exactly what Crapuchettes has done.

Thanks to the Rozmiarek Family Home Page for use of the photo.
December 06, 2004

The 2004 Good Gift Game Guide

My 2004 Good Gift Game Guide appears in The Morning News today.

In my games archive you can find full reviews for three of the games mentioned: Ticket To Ride, San Juan and Hansa. You can also see previous G3 Guides for the years 2003, & 2002, 2001, and 2000. Enjoy the broken links and images!

Other Good Games

This was a pretty good year, and I had a tough time narrowing my choices down to ten. Here are some worthy of honorable mention:

  • High Society and Razzia (Society: Uberplay; Razzia: Ravensburger; Both: 3-5 players, 30 minutes, $20): Two of Reiner Knizia's classic games, High Society and Ra, have been out of print for a while. Both were rereleased this year, although Ra has been given a new name (Razzia), a new theme (Mafia) and simplified rules. Players are obscenely wealthy in High Society, purchasing yachts and mansions while dodging the taxman; gangsters divvy up their ill-begotten booty in Razzia, and try to secure getaway cars and drivers before the cops arrive to shut their operation down. Both games have ingenious auction systems at their heart, and are perfect for families or friends at a pub.
  • St. Petersburg (Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, 45 minutes, $28): Hire craftsman, build buildings, and recruit aristocrats in eighteenth century Russia. St. Petersburg was considered by many to be the best game of the year, but I find it a little to mathematical to make an effective G3. Thematically similar to San Juan , and the "gamier" of the two.
  • Attika (Rio Grande games, 2-4 players, 45 minutes, $33): I got totally addicted to Attika for a while, but the game is too abstract (and the rules a smidgen to convoluted) for make it suitable for gift-giving. Expand your city across the Greek Peninsula, beating your opponent to best building sites and making the best use of the available resources. Although rated from 2-4 players, I find that it really only works well for two. That said, it was my favorite two-player game of the year (aside from Memoir '44).
  • Hoity Toity (Uberplay, 3-6 players, 60 minutes, $35): While not a new game -- it was first released in 1990 and promptly won the German Game Of The Year award -- this is the first English edition in a long time. In Hoity Toity, players purchase antiques and earn points by showing off their collections to others, while dispatching burglers to swipe the valuables of opponents and employing policemen to capture rival thieves. This game uses a game mechanism called "blind bidding" which is one of my least favorite, so it's a testament to Hoity Toity's quality that even I think it's terrific fun.
  • 10 Days In The USA / 10 Days in Africa / Europa Tour (10 Days in *: Out Of The Box; Europa: Schmidt Spiele; All: 2-4 players, 30 minutes, $20): The same game (with minor modification) set on three difference continents. Despite the frightening "educational game" appearance, these arefirst and foremost ight and fun rummy variants -- learning the capital of Tunisia is strictly a fringe benefit. Another of those rare games that plays up to four but works wonderfully well with two.

The Canonical G3 List

All of the games listed at The Morning News and above were released in the past year. There are, of course, hundreds of great G3s from year's past. Here a sampling from the Canonical G3 List:

Family Board Games

  • Settlers of Catan: Now and forever the #1 G3.
  • Carcassonne: This is "the original Carcassonne" mentioned in The Morning News article.
  • TransAmerica: Looks similar to Ticket To Ride to the untrained eye, but they are two entirely different games.

Family Card Games

  • Bohnanza: A game about bean trading. For real.
  • Mamma Mia: A game about making pizzas. For real.
  • 6 Nimmt!: Recent rereleased as "Category Five"

Two-player Games

Party Games

Second Opinions

Don't trust the yeti? Here are the highlights of some other "best game of the year" lists:

Spiel des Jahres (a.k.a. "The German Game Of The Year"):

International Gamer Awards:

GAMES Magazine's game of the year:

Gamerdad's Unplugged 2004 Game Guide.

Gamefest's Gift Games Guide.

Where To Find

If you live in Seattle, check out the stores page of SeattleSpiel, which lists all the outlets for these games in Puget Sound. Online stores are listed there as well, for those readers who live elsewhere.

November 01, 2004

New Father Gaming

I have a little piece over in The Games Journal that's going to be largely incomprehensible to about 99% of the yeti readership. But if you are one of those people who instantly recognizes the name "Reiner Knizia," go check it out.

October 26, 2004

Games: San Juan

As long time readers of this site know, I used to review board games in this space fairly regularly. These days, though, it's pretty rare to see a here -- not because I am playing less (although The Squirrelly does crimp my ability to stay up until 3:00 am playing Risk and drinking Pabst), but because most of my board game reviews now appear in the magazine Undefeated. (Uhh, did I ever mention that I now write board game reviews and strategy articles for Undefeated? Maybe not. But I do. You should subscribe!)

A quick trip through my game review archive will reveal that my favorite game of approximately forever is the strategic powerhouse Puerto Rico. So it was a no-brainer for me to pick up San Juan, a card game based on Puerto Rico and by the same designer, Andreas Seyfarth.

As with it's progenitor, the players of San Juan are trying to produce commodities and construct buildings; unlike the complex Puerto Rico, though -- which comes equiped with game boards, money, colonists, ships, goods, buildings and plantations -- San Juan is played entirely with a deck of cards. The cards depicts buildings and can be played as such, but, in an ingenious twist, can also be used as money (as you will see below).

On a turn, a player chooses one of five Roles. Each Role permits everybody to take a certain action, with the selecting player receiving some modest advantage. When someone chooses the Builder, for instance, each person may play a building from their hand and pay for it by discarding a number of additional cards equal to the building's cost, with the person who chose Builder paying one less for his building. Other Roles allow players to produce goods, sell those goods to acquire more cards, or take cards directly from the deck. The game ends when someone builds their twelfth building.

The buildings are the heart of the game, and come in two varieties: Production Buildings and Violet Buildings. Production Buildings are used to generate commodities for later sale, while each Violet Buildings confers some special advantage onto the player who has it in his city. A players with a "Smithy," reduces the cost of all Production Buildings for one, for example, while the owner of a "Tower" can hold up to 12 cards in his hand (the usual limit is seven). With 24 different Violet Buildings in the deck, the players can acquire a wide variety of benefits, and some of the cards interact in powerful ways. Discovering interesting combinations is part of the fun, and the myriad of building permutations allows for plenty of strategies for players to pursue.

Halfway through my first session of Puerto Rico I felt "the buzz," the sense that the game before me was something an extraordinary. I have never felt the same about its little brother. That said, I enjoy San Juan quite a bit, and I'm always eager to play it. At first I liked S.J. because it "felt" like Puerto Rico in half the time. Now, after repeated playings, it no longer feels like P.R. at all -- and that's a good thing. Now view San Juan a fine game it its own right, and not just the card game equivalent of a tribute band. Yes, the game is quicker than P.R., and lighter, and more dependant on luck, but there's quite a lot of room for skillful play, and the decisions to be made over what to build, what cards to discard when building, and what Roles to pick are always compelling.

San Juan is also one of those rare games rated from 2-4 players that actually works well with two players. And the art on the cards and game box is really rather handsome. Sure, it's no Puerto Rico, but that's a mighty high standard to hold any game too. Judged on its own merits, San Juan gets high marks as a solid, medium-weight strategy card game, and that's good enough for me.

June 24, 2004

Games: Hansa

I'm not a big fan of abstract games. That's what I keep saying, at least, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Much of that evidence has been provided by Michael Schacht, who has designed a number of games I quite like, including one of my favorites Web of Power. And now I find myself enamored with Schacht's most recent release, a enjoyably agonizing little gem called Hansa.

The gameboard shows nine Hanseatic cities, connected by a web of water routes and home to an assortment of consumer goods. The players, meanwhile, are merchants on a ship zig-zagging across the Baltic sea, visiting the various cities as the vendors ply their trade. The crucial point here is that all of the players are on the same ship, and only control it on their individual turns.

At the start of the game each player receives three coins and places markets in some of the cities. Players then spend their turns sailing the ship from its current location to a new destination -- in accordance with the route lines, and spending a coin to do so -- and taking actions: buying goods, establishing markets, or selling goods. To buy a good, a player takes one of the good counters from the ship's current city and pays one coin to whomever has the most markets in that city. To establish new markets, a player discards a previously purchased good and places 1-3 markets in this ship's current city. To sell goods, a player turns a number of previously purchased goods face down (adding them to his score pile) and removes one market from the ship's current city (if the player has no markets in the current city, he may not sell there). Complicating all this is the restriction that a player may take more than one action in a city at a time. At the end of the game, players receive points for all the goods they own, and two points for every city in which they have at least one market.

What makes the game hum is the clever (and often maddening) way in which money, goods, and markets are intertwined. Owning the plurality of markets in a city is always a boon, not only because other players will pay you to buy goods there but because you can take goods from that city for free. The coins you receive from your markets can be used to purchase goods, and these goods can be later discarded to establish still more markets. This would be a powerful positive feedback loop were it not for two limitations: each player only has a total of 15 markets, and every time you sell goods (a necessity, if you wish to win) you remove markets from the board.

Hansa is very much a tactical game rather than a strategic one -- that is, every turn you evaluate your current position and decide what to do, with little focus on long-term planning. In that respect, each turn of Hansa feels like solving a little puzzle, as you noodle out where to buy and sell goods, establish markets, and sail the ship, all with a finite number of coins at your disposal. These kind of mental gymnastics might become taxing over a long period of time, but I find them quite enjoyable over the course of Hansa's typical 45-60 minutes playing time.

Unlike some of my previous recommendations, this one isn't necessarily for everyone -- although the rules couldn't be simpler, playing well does require a willingness to mentally crunch the permutations before making a move. But for folks game for a little analytic reasoning, Hansa is about as addictive as they come.

April 08, 2004

Games: Ticket To Ride

I'm not the kind of guy who feels an overwhelming need to see a movie on its opening night, purchase an album the day its been released, or watch the sixth season of the Sopranos now rather than wait for the DVD. Even so, I went to my local game store and picked up a copy of Ticket To Ride the first day it became available. The advanced buzz on TtR said it was the best light strategy game to come down the pike in long time, and my first few playings seem to confirm this reputation.

The board shows a stylized map of the United States and Canada. Cities are scattered throughout the nations and a series of dashed lines connect the burgs into a web of routes. These routes are of one of eight colors and consist of 1-6 "dashes" (actually, small rectangular boxes). There is also a deck containing cards of nine suits: the eight route colors found on the board, and a ninth "Wild" suit. Players start with four of these cards and a pile of small, plastic trains.

Players strive to establish railroad lines between cities. To do so, a player may use his turn to either draw cards or claim a route. In the latter case, the person plays a set of cards of the same color and in same quantity as the dashed lines in the route he wishes to claim. The route between St. Louis and Pittsburg, for example, consists of five green dashed line; to claim it, a player would have to discard a set of five green cards. When a player establishes a route he places his trains onto the dashes to denote ownership.

Players earn points for every route they establish, and can also score by completing "Tickets." Tickets bear the names of two cities and a point value (e.g., "Dallas / New York: 11") . At the end of the game, a player receives the points shown on a Ticket if he managed to establish a continuous string of routes between the two cities; if he was unable to make the connection, he loses the Ticket's points. Most cities are connected to their neighbors by a single route a piece, although a few sets of cities are joined by double routes. This means that once a player has claimed the St. Louis to Pittsburg line, it becomes unavailable to everyone else. That's bad news for the guy holding the "Dallas to New York" Ticket, as he will need to find another way to traverse that stretch of the Midwest.

So nabbing routes first is crucial. But you can either draw cards or claim a route on your turn -- but not both -- deciding to claim a route at the expense of increasing your hand is never easy. This is made all the more agonizing by the fact that you draw from a face-up pool of five cards, so on the same turn you might want to assume ownership of a particular route, a Blue card that you're eager to acquire might be sitting there taunting you. You may also forego both the drawing of cards and the establishments of routes and use your turn to take more Tickets; the points on Tickets are vital to winning the game, but skipping an entire turn to gain more is never easy.

Ticket To Ride is easily the best family game I've played all year, the best in years, to be honest. The theme is fun, the play is exciting, and the rules can be explained in five minutes or less. At $35 it won't be the cheapest game available on your local game store's shelves, but the beautiful components justify the price. Furthermore, Ticket's accessibility and short playing time (about 45 minutes) ensure that it will hit the table more than enough times to get your money's worth. All this makes for a game I heartily recommend, and that will be on the top of my Good Gifts Games list for 2004.

January 13, 2004


Since I used to maintain the board game site, and because I now write about board game here from time to time, I often get email from folks asking if I know of game groups or game stores in the Seattle area.

I've been meaning to improve my CSS skills for a while anyhow, so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone and create a website devoted to the Seattle boardgame community. Thus, my new side project:

[ link | Games]

December 24, 2003

Boardgames On The Beat

If you heard me on The Beat and are are looking for more information on the games described, head on over to SeattleSpiel.

[ link | Games]

December 03, 2003

Good Gift Games 2003

Note: If you heard me on The Beat and are are looking for more information on the games described, head on over to SeattleSpiel.

It's everybody's favorite holiday tradition:  Matthew Baldwin's Annual Good Gift Games Guide!

Every year I assemble a list of those games that, in my opinion, make swell presents for the holiday season.  In compiling these guides, I start with the assuption that the gift recipients are not habitual game players, so the games selected (with a few exceptions) are those with few rules and a focus on fun.  I also try and emphasize inexpensive games but, this year, I largely failed in that regard.  Oh well --  the economy's pickin' up, right?

A quick word on "complexity". I've included five  levels, here:  "No-brainer," "Simple," "Average," "Moderate" and "Advanced."  This indicates how easy the game is to learn or teach, but not necessarily how easy it is to play well.    Also, I'm grading on a curve here -- "average" does not mean "halfway between Hi-Ho Cherry-O and Dungeons and Dragons," it means "Average" in terms of a G3. All of the games listed would be suitable gifts for non-gamers (with the possible exception of Amun-Re, the one advanced game).

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just those that came to mind as I was writing this.  If there's another game you want an opinion on, drop me a line at -- my knowledge in these matters is frighteningly encyclopedic.  And don't confine yourself to this year's games alone: be sure to check out the G3s 2000, the G3s 2001,  and last year's guide, which also includes the Canonical List of G3games.

Enough jibba-jabba!

Coloretto (Complexity: No-brainer; Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 20 minutes; Cost: $10):  You want to hear all the rules for Coloretto?  Here you go:  On your turn you can either (a) draw a card and add it to a row, or (b) take all the cards in a row.  That's it. Well, okay, maybe there's one or two other rules, but, honestly, I've hit the highlights.  And yet, it somehow manages to be terrific fun.  Go figure.

Clans (Complexity: Simple; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  I typically don't like abstract games, but there are two game designers who have a knack for creating abstract games that are simple, clever, brief, and contain just enough theme to win me over.  Leo Colovini is the first, and I find his Clans --   a souped-up version of Nim ostensibly about the formation of prehistoric villages -- to be unaccountably addicting.

Paris Paris (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 45 minutes; Cost: $20):  Michael Schacht is the other designer who manages to create abstract games I like-- in fact, his Web of Power is one of my all-time favorites.  Web of Power is now out of print, alas, but Paris Paris fills much the same niche:  it is easy to learn, it plays in under an hour, and it will leave you saying "let's try that  again."

Pirate's Cove (Complexity: Moderate;  Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $40):  Enough with the abstracts; on to the themes!  I recently bought Pirates Cove as my annual "Holiday Game," and it has been filling the role admirably.   Captain a pirate ship, send it to the four corners of the globe in search of booty, 
and greet rival corsairs with blast of cannonfire. Puts the "Arr!" into "replayable."

Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $10):  This is the fourth in the "Mystery Rummy" series, and many folks think it's the best.  I harbor a slight preference for Wyatt Earp, but I like that Capone (unlike Earp) can be played as a four-person partnership game.

Queens's Necklace (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 3-4; Playing Time: 40 minutes; Cost: $20):  Queen's Necklace is one of those rare games that's superb with three.  Set on the eve of the French Revolution, players become Royal Jewelers, vying to purchase valuable gems and trying to curry favor with the court.  And check out the well-done online tutorial.

Smarty Party (Complexity: No-brainer; Number of Players: 3-8; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  Remember Outburst, that game where someone reads a category ("Parts of the body that come in pairs") and then everyone shouts out answers for 60 seconds or so?  Okay, Smarty Party = Outburst - the time limit + clever scoring system + rubber pants.  The cards contain some errors (which drives me nuts), but overall this is a very fun party game.  And I'm not kidding about the pants.

New England (Complexity: Moderate; Number of Players: 3-4; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $35):  The sleeper hit of the year.  When New England was released in German it received little acclaim, but the new English version has been garnering raves and just bagged the GAMES Magazine "Game Of The Year" award.  The heart of the game is an innovate auction system in which the amount you agree to pay for items also dictates whether you'll have the pick of the litter or have to pick through the dregs.  It's also quite nice to look at.

I'm The Boss (Complexity: Moderate; Number of Players: 4-6; Playing Time: 60 minutes; Cost: $30): I've owned the German version of this game for years, but it's been so long out of print that my friends who enjoy it (and many do) have been unable to get their own copy.  Thankfully, the game has been reissued, this time in English.  I'm The Boss is pure negotiation, as you  wheedle, beg, and coerce your opponents into collaboration on a series of business deals.

Amun-Re (Complexity: Advanced; Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $30):  Amun-Re has a pretty steep learning curve, but it's a game worth the effort.  Players strive to build pyramids, farm the Nile, and placate a fickle Sun God.  How Amun-Re rewards players (as a group) depends on how much they sacrifice (as a group), and it's this delicate balance between cooperation and competition that makes the game hum.

Balloon Cup & Odin's Ravens (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $15):  Two different games with lots of similarities:  both are card games, both are for two players, both are short 'n' simple (Balloon Cup a little more so), and both are quite fun.  Most prefer Balloon Cup slightly (me, I like Odin's Ravens a smidgen more), but both are perfect for a game-playing twosome.

The Bucket King (Complexity: Simple; Number of Players: 3-6; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  Why wasn't this on last year's list?  I have no idea, but it certainly should have been.   Protect your pyramid of buckets while sending farm animals out to knock over the pyramids of others.  So, yeah, the theme is stupid. But that won't prevent you from totally stressin' out when a sheep is maurading towards your bucket cache.

Other Great Games

A couple of games I'd hesitate to give as gifts but are worthy of mention.

  • Age of Steam:  Age of Steam meets none of the criteria for a Good Gift Game:  it's long (3 hours), it is expensive (40 bucks), and it's way too complex for casual gamers.  But it was my favorite of 2003, so I'd be remiss to omit it.
  • Alhambra:  Only absent from the above list because most would probably prefer to wait for the English version to be released late next year.
  • Fresh Fish: Me, I love this game, but it's certainly not for everybody.  Suitable for those who enjoy puzzles, spatial reasoning, or headaches.
  • Settlers of the Stone AgeSettlers of the Stone Age is as fine a game as any of the above, but, honestly, if you're giving gifts (or even purchasing for yourself), the original Settlers of Catan is still the way to go.   That said, Stone Age is a great substitute for Catan if you've played the latter to the point of indifference.
  • Edel, Stein & Reich:  A wonderful game but, at the moment, only available in German.

Second Opinions

Don't trust the yeti? Here's some other "best of" lists for your consideration.

  • The 2004 GAMES Magazine Games 100:
    • Game of the Year: New England
    • Best Advanced Strategy Game:  Wildlife (this is by my favorite designer and on a theme that fascinates me, but I have somehow managed to never play it. Buy it and invite me over.)
    • Best Family Game:  ZooSim
    • Best Family Strategy Game:  I'm The Boss
    • Best Card Game:  Queen's Necklace
    • Best Two-player Game:  Balloon Cup
    • Best Party Game:  Dibs (very similar to Smarty Party, listed above)
One last note. All the links in this guide point to, which used to be my retailer of choice (and continues to have the best website of any vendor, bar none). But I've recently begun using Game Surplus for all of my ordering, as their prices are lower and their customer service is exemplary. FYI.

September 29, 2003

Hugo House Annual Inquiry: Games

There will be few (if any) posts this week, because I am working on a side project: the Hugo House Annual Inquiry. But if you are a Seattlelite (or will be in town next weekend), read on -- this may be something you'll be interested in attending.

Hugo House is a Seattle-based non-profit somethingorother that focuses on literacy and the arts. Every year H.H. hosts a big event called a "Cultural Inquiry," where they pick a theme and host a number of activities and installations related to that theme. Two years ago the theme was Maps; last year the theme was Surveillance. This year, the Annual Inquiry is all about Games. As it turns about, a couple of the folks over at H.H. read the yeti and know about my fondness for games and hornswoggled talked me into participating.

There's a lot of really great stuff going on (check out the schedule), but here are the pies that I have a thumb in:

  • Friday, 10:00-11:30 pm -- A Guide To Visitors Story Slam: I am a frequent participant in A Guide To Visitor's storytelling shows. The theme of this evening's tales will be "Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave: the way we use others as pawns and the mind games we play on each other." I helped arrange this, and there's a fair chance I will also tell a story.

  • Saturday, 2:30-3:30 pm -- "Break The Safe" Tournament: Local game company Forrest-Puzan Creative will be showcasing a new game they designed by throwing a "Break The Safe Tournament." Break The Safe is a very-cool cooperative boardgame where the players work as team, finding keys, disarming booby-traps and evading guard dogs. (More details on the game here.) The winning team will win an seminar on the art of locksmithing sponsored by Broadway Locksmiths, which is so cool that I wish I wasn't disqualified from winning (although I'll probably try to finangle myself into that seminar just for helping put this thing together). The tournament will include a tutorial on the game, so even if you've never heard of it you are still encouraged to participate. If you're interested in joining, assemble a team of four and register by either emailing or calling Wendee (206-547-7155 ext. 106). (Please note the caveat mentioned below, though.)
  • Saturday, 10:30-midnight: Late Night Lying Game and Gamenight: Come watch me sit in front of a crowd of people and lie my fool head off. Afterward I will be participating in the Hugo House's casual gamenight. And by "participating in" I mean "drinking".

  • Sunday, October 5th, 10:30 am -- Treasure Hunt: I'll be hosting a Treasure Hunt similar to those I hold for my friends every year. (See this as an example.) I'll have a semi-official page up for this later today or tomorrow. The hunt will be run in teams of three or four and should take around 90 minutes. If you want to participate, I'm asking that you let me know in advance (Again, see the caveat).
The Caveat: To participate in any of above events (including the Break The Safe Tournament and the Treasure Hunt), you have to pay that day's admission. That the bad news. (Well, it's not really "bad," since all the $$ goes to a good cause -- namely, Hugo House.) The good news is that once you pay the admission, you get access to all of the events that are held during that time frame. And, like I mentioned before, there's a lot of good stuff going on. Sherman Alexie will be talking about "Dungeons and Dragons" (seriously), James Ernest (the guy who is Cheapass Games) will be there giving game design seminars and talking about high-stakes poker, there will be a couple of panel discussions about video games and society ... it's gonna be cool.

You can get ticket information over on this page. Hope you can make it!

September 04, 2003

Games: Hippodice

Yo: If you have a game group and would be willing to playtest a prototype that I am working on for the Hippodice Competition, drop me a line.

(Note: If that didn't make a whit of sense to you, you were not the target audience for this post anyhow.)

[ link | Games]

Games: Fresh Fish

I played a prototype of Fresh Fish years ago at a friends house and declared the game to be broken. I was certain the bizarro rules couldn't possibly work, despite the fact that we had just successfully finished a game. Later, when there was a limited release of the game in Germany, game enthusiasts snapped up all available copies and hailed it as one of the most brilliant and unusual games available, leading me to conclude that the game must work after all.

So when Plenary Games re-released Fresh Fish earlier this year, I knew I would have to get a copy and see if I had misevaluated it. Now, after several more plays, I realize that I had, and Fresh Fish has become one of my current favorites. Unfortunately, it's also nearly impossible to describe. But here goes.

The 10x10 grid on the game board starts empty, except for four Factory tiles -- a Harbor, a Game Store, a Nuclear Power Plant and a Petroleum Depot -- which are placed randomly before play begins. Each Factory has corresponding Outlets, with one of each kind of Outlet Tile for each player in the game. In other words, a five-player game will have five Fish Stores (for the Harbor), five Game Stores (for the Game Factory), five Nuclear Waste Dumps (for the Power Plant) and five Gas Stations (for the Depot). These tiles are mixed with a similar amount of Generic Buildings tiles to form the draw pool.

Each player also begins with $15 and six Reservation markers. On a turn, a player does one of two things: places a Reservation Marker on any vacant space on the board or flips over the next tile from the draw pool. In the former case, the player's turn ends after he has placed his Marker, but what happens next in the latter case depends on whether a Generic Building or an Outlet is revealed. If a Generic Building, the player simply places it in a space when he has a Reservation Marker and concludes his turn. But if an Outlet is turned over, all players who don't already own that particular Outlet bid forthe right to own it, with the winner placing it in one of his reserved space.

Some spaces will become Roads as the game progresses, and, at the end of the game, you add up the number of Road Tiles you have to traverse from each Factory to arrive at your corresponding Outlet. The lowest score wins -- after all, the closer your Fish Store is to the Harbor, the fresher the fish you'll have for sale.

It's road placement that makes Fresh Fish so unusual -- and so difficult to explain. Players don't place the Road Tiles, you see -- the game places the Road Tiles. There are two overarching metarules which determine where the Road Tiles go. Firstly, at the end of the game there can be only one road, so you can't place a Generic Building or an Outlet in a square that would prevent two or more road segments from eventually joining. Secondly, all Factories and Outlets must have road access by the end of the game. So if a Game Store in the middle of the board has buildings adjacent to it on three of its sides, the space abutting the fourth side must contain a Road Tile (because if a building were placed there, the store would never gain road access). A corollary to the second metarule is that empty spaces on the board also cannot become isolated, because they could, hypothetically, contain an Outlet on a future turn.

Don't understand? Don't worry - no one does at first. Although the two metarules are simple to state ("there's only one road, and all Factories and Outlets need access to the road"), it's very difficult to wrap your mind around in practice. After each turn, players must check to see if the placement of a building in any of the remaining empty spaces would violate either of the metarules; if so, the space in question is immediately "expropriated" and a Road Tile is placed therein. After a few games this becomes automatic (although even experienced players will occasionally miss one), but the first few times it will feel like your brain is in a garlic press every time you try and work this out.

So it's not enough to simply place your Fish Store close to the Harbor; you also have to place other buildings around the Harbor to ensure that the road connecting the Factory to your Outlet is as short as possible. It's entirely possible to place a Gas Station three squares away from the Petroleum Depot, but to wind up with a 12 Road-Tile route because other players placed buildings in such a way as to make the road leaving the Depot snake all around the board before arriving at your Station.

I enjoy Fresh Fish and am always eager to play it, but I haven't the foggiest idea why. Even though I can now see at a glance where Road Tiles need to go, I still have no clue how to bend the road to my will. Plus, the game is mentally exhausting - afterwards I typically feel hungover, and on two occasions the play of the game has given me a headache (no joke). But Fish pushes the same, perverse "spatial reasoning" button as jigsaw puzzles, Tetris and Ricochet Robot (another migraine-inducer). It's like watching a good horror movie: throughout you are miserable, but afterwards you say, "that was fantastic! I can't wait for a sequel!"

It's hard to recommend Fresh Fish on the basis of "fun," because it's certainly not for everyone. Furthermore, playing the game without someone who can instantly spot where the Road Tiles go can be a chore - often you will realize that you missed an expropriation several turns after the fact, and "rewinding" the game is nigh impossible. On this point, all I can say is that I went from disbeliever to fan after three plays, and many of my friends enjoy it as much as I do. But I can recommend the game without reservation on one point: if you're in the market for something unlike anything you've ever played before, Fresh Fish is unlikely to disappoint.

May 22, 2003

Treasure Hunt 2003: There's No Place Like Home

On April 27, 2003, I held my Seventh Annual Birthday Treasure Hunt on the campus of the University of Washington.

First, some history. While a student at The Evergreen State College, I read this article on the annual MIT Treasure Hunt and decided that I wanted to host a similar (albeit greatly scaled down) event for my friends. So in 1995, the first Birthday Treasure Hunt was held in lovely downtown Olympia, WA.

Two years later I held the second "annual" Hunt in La Paz, Bolivia, for two score Peace Corps Volunteers. Since my return from South America, the Hunt has been run more-or-less-every year, always on the University of Washington campus. The first four Hunts were abstract, with generic puzzles and solutions, but in 2000 I switched to themed Hunts, and have since held "Treasure Hunt 2000: Down the Rabbit Hole" and "Treasure Hunt 2001: A Puzzling Odyssey". The theme for "Treasure Hunt 2003: There's No Place Like Home" was The Wizard of Oz.

April 27 turned out to be a beautiful day for a hunt. After oscillating between "crappy" and "also crappy" for weeks, the whether took and abrupt turn for the lovely that Sunday morning, and remained so for the rest of the day. So when the 30+ Hunt participants gathered on the north side of the UW fountain, they did so on what seemed like the first true day of spring.

As in previous years, the mechanics of the Hunt were straightforward. Players assembled into teams of 3-5, each of which received a sealed envelope. Upon my word all teams opened their envelope to find a map and the first clue. The map (seen here) showed a subset of the campus, with only 30 building names listed. All further clues would be found in one of these 30 buildings, a warning noted. The first clue, as with all clues, was a puzzle which revealed the location of the next clue. The object of the Hunt was to be the first team to solve all six clues and get to end location.

At 2:15 I gave the signal and the Hunt began.

Clue One: Welcome To Oz: The first clue came in two parts: a sheet of paper with instructions and a small ziplock baggy full of Jelly Bellies. The instructions said that that there were seven different types of Jelly Bellies in the bag, and that each distinct flavor represented a different letter of the alphabet (as shown on a chart at the bottom of the page). Players were told to first determine the seven letters, then "anagram the seven letters to spell out two common, uncapitalized words -- the first with three letters, the second with four. The two-word phrase is a synonym (of sorts) for where you should go next."

Based on color and flavor, teams had little difficulty determining the seven flavors: licorice, coconut, peanut butter, lemon, banana, cinnamon, and pear. (I was skeptical about the last one, but, by jimminey, it really does taste unmistakably like pear.) These seven flavors corresponded to the letters KLOPRSY, which can only be anagrammed into a single three-word / four-word phrase: "sly pork". Teams that didn't automatically assume they had made a mistake when confronted with "sly pork" looked at the list of buildings and quickly found the "synonym (of sorts) for where you should go next": "Cunningham". The second clue was posted in that building's main entrance.

Clue Two: The Scarecrow: Next up was the S.A.T.: the Scarecrow Aptitude Test. The puzzle had ten multiple-choice questions -- from antonyms to reading comprehension to problem solving -- all having to do with brains and each with a numeric answer from 1-4. Players were told to add all their answers together, plug the sum into an equation, and write the resulting six-digit number into a series of blanks: __ __ / __ __ / __ __. Written thusly, the solution gave the combination to a locker, in which the next clue was hidden.

Clue Three: The Tin Man: This was the toughest clue for many teams, because it revolved around a type of puzzle that most people have never heard of: the nonogram. In these ingenious brainteasers, players use logic to determine which squares in a grid to blacken and thereby reveal a picture.

Unlike most nongrams, this one had letters inside the boxes, and the note: "Ignore the letters in the boxes until the puzzle is complete, then use them to determine the building and room number where the next clue is located. Remember: "It's what's inside that counts!" This was a reference to the fact that, when the nonogram was complete, the letters inside the picture (a heart, of course) spelled out: ARTTWOTEN. And that's where the next clue was to be found: on the door of room 210 in the Art Building.

After the hunt, many participants expressed an desire to do more of these kind of puzzle. So here you go: this is my favorite online Nonogram site, here are a bunch more.

Clue Four: The Cowardly Lion: The next clue featured three Quotefall-style puzzles, the kind routinely found those "Penny Press Puzzle Books" available in airports worldwide. This may have been the easiest puzzle in the whole Hunt for a couple reasons. First, crafty teams discovered that they could deduce the full solution to the clue after solving only two of the three Quotedrops. Also, all three of the Quotefalls contained the word "courage," and figuring that out generally "unlocked" the rest of the puzzle.

Clue Five: The Wicked Witch: "I'm mellllllllllllllllllllllting!!!!" That was the theme to this, the fifth puzzle in the hunt. The puzzle consisted of a table containing 27 numbered cells in three columns and nine rows, with shaded boxes between each of the columns. (Oh fer crissakes, just go look at the damned thing.) Below, definitions were given for each cell, along with the following instructions: "Write the five-letter answer to clue 1 in the first space. Then drop one letter to get the answer to clue 2. Put the dropped letter into the shaded box between the two columns. Drop another letter (again putting it in the shaded box) to get the answer to clue 3. Follow this pattern for every row in the puzzle."

When completed, the letters in the shaded boxes were: CAPFOUNDONCARTIRES (e.g., "cap found on car tires"). A glance at the sheets listing the building names should have revealed the answer: the "HUB" (Husky Union Building).

Clue Six: The Wizard Of Oz: This was it, the final clue. The clue was in an envelope, which also contained a set of nine tiles. The clue said "Place the nine tiles into the frame of your map so that there every road leads to Dorothy, a house, or Kansas (i.e., there will be no dead ends). The orientation of pictures and letters on the tiles do not necessarily correspond to the correct orientation of the tile itself, so do not rely on them as guides. Once the path is complete, just follow the yellow brick road!" The "map" indicated was the small map that was included with the first clue.

One of the tiles had a hole cut out of it, and it was fairly simple to place it onto the map in such a way that the final building was indicated: Mary Gates Hall fit in the cut-out hole perfectly. But the clue was fairly well hidden within the building, so teams who dashed off to Mary Gates without solving the entire puzzle generally looked in vain.

Those who managed to place all nine tiles onto the map, however, could trace Dorothy's path all the way to Kansas and jot down all the letters she passed on here journey to spell out: MARYGATESHALLATTHEBOTTOMOFSTAIRONE. ("Mary Gates Hall At The Bottom Of Stair One"). Sure enough, those who went to the stairwell labelled "Stair One' and walked down it all the way to the bottom found a map of Kansas squirreled away down there. This was the final location and solution to the Hunt.

The first team to arrive at the final location (and win the Hunt) was Toto's Teeth: Josh Davis, Gunilla Eriksson, Linda Mitchell and William Pross -- not coincidentally, the exact same team that won last year's hunt under a different guise.

Congratulations to Toto's Teeth, and a big thanks to everyone who participated!

February 13, 2003

Games: Lord of the Rings, The Confrontation

As anyone who ever played the Atari 2600 version of E.T. will testify, games based on movies tend to suck. And nowhere is this more evident than the world of board games, where every blockbuster harbingers a remainder shelf at Kaybee Toys filled with hastily thrown together "Game Of Life" knockoffs rechristened with the movie's title. You can always spot a crappy movie adaptation, because it feels obligated to mention that it's a game right on the box, presumably so you don't confuse it with a key lime pie. Behold Titanic: The Board Game (Typical review: "Must...not...swallow...own...tongue..."), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Quidditch Card Game (typical review: "Broken.") and The Hours: The Board Game (Typical review .... okay, I made this one up).

Still, every once in a while we get lucky. Such is the case with Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, a new offering from Fantasy Flight Games. This is not to be confused with the original Lord of the Rings game by the same company. Unlike its Big Brother, Lord of "The Rings: The Confrontation" (hereafter "LotR:C") is strictly a two-player game, has a third of the rules of the bigger game, plays in a fraction of the time and sells for half the price. But the two games do share one thing in common: they are both amongst the best in my collection.

The central mechanic in LotR:C will be familiar to anyone who has ever played Stratego. The board, which depicts 16 regions of Middle Earth, is positioned diagonally between the two players, so that the person playing "Light" has The Shire in his corner while "Dark" has Mordor in his. The combatants each have nine unique pieces, which they place into their own territories any way they chose. As in Stratego, the "faces" of the pieces show who they are, but the backs -- the sides visible to the opponent -- are nondescript. Once the forces are arrayed, the battle begins.

On a turn, a player may move one of his pieces one step forward. Because the regions are staggered, brick-style, this usually means that an advancing piece has two territories to choose from. Unless the moved character now resides in a space occupied by an enemy, the player ends his turn. But if both Light and Dark pieces inhabit the same area, a brawl erupts.

Combat is fairly simple. First, both players reveal who is involved in the battle. Because each character has a special power, identifying the warriors is often enough to determine a winner. For example, Gimli's power is "Instantly defeat the Orcs," so if the dwarf is revealed and the Orcs prove to be his sparring partner, that's as far as you go: Orcs dead.

If the fight continues, both players chose a card from their hand and reveal them simultaneously. Most of the cards have numbers on them (from 1-6), and the value of a played card is added to the charatcer's "Strength" (indicated by a digit on the charatcer's piece) to determine his combat total. The piece with the lowest total loses and is removed from the game.

All in all a pretty hum-drum system, I'm sure you'll agree. But what makes LotR:C such an addictive little gem is the asymmetrical nature of the contest. For starters, both players have different goals: the Light player is trying to get Frodo all the way across the board and into Mordor; the Dark player, in turn, just wants Frodo whacked. Secondly, the Dark player has much more raw power than the Light player -- higher valued cards, numerically stronger characters, etc. -- but the Light player, by virtue of some special cards and character powers -- has more tricks up his sleeves. In other words, the Dark player wins through force, the Light player wins through guile, just as you'd want a game based on The Lord of the Rings to play out.

Furthermore, the powers of the pieces are remarkably well suited for the characters they correspond to. Boromir is a time bomb: when he gets in a fight he automatically loses, but he takes the opponent down with him. Sam is generally weak, but if he's in the same space as Frodo his strength more than doubles. Frodo is useless in a fight, but, when threatened, he can flee to an adjacent territory. The Balrog, meanwhile, defends Moria -- anyone who tries to go through the mines is immediately defeated if the Balrog is in the house. And the Flying Nazgul can attack any piece anywhere on the board.

Best of all, the atmosphere of the epic is recreated by the game: Light seems doomed from the get-go, and most victories by the good guys are Pyrrhic in nature. In the last game I played, for example, I threw Sam to the wolves -- the Wargs, actually -- so that Frodo could move one more step towards Mordor. When you win as Dark, you have to resist to urge to cackle evilly and gloat about your dominance; when you win as Light, your first impulse will be to sigh with relief and wipe the sweat off your brow.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation has rapidly become one of my favorite games. I honestly don't know how long I'll be playing it -- it's entirely possible that I'll "burn out" on it in a month or so -- but right now I'm itchin' to play it at every opportunity. It's thirty bucks, it's available through Funagain, and it's the perfect pastime for the long months until The Return of the King hits the theaters in December. You should get it.

December 02, 2002

Good Gift Games 2002

Hey kids and/or adults that I am facetiously referring to as "kids"!  Know what time it is?  Yes, it's time for Matthew Baldwin's Annual Good Gift Games Guide, where I assemble a list of those games that, in my opinion, make swell presents for the holiday season.  It is assumed that the gift recipients are not hardcore game players, so the games selected (with a few exceptions) are those with few rules and a focus on fun.  I also try and emphasize inexpensive games, although some games are too good to omit despite their higher price tag.

2002 was considered by many (myself included) to be kind of an off-year, game-wise -- with the exception of Puerto Rico (and, to a lesser extent, Trans America) there were no "must buys" released.  Still, the diamonds in the rough are listed below, followed by selections from previous G3s.  (If you wish to browse the previous G3s, you can do so here:  G3s 2000, G3s 2001.)

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just those that came to mind as I was writing this.  If there's another game you want an opinion on, drop me a line at -- my knowledge in these matters is frighteningly encyclopedic. 

Without further ado, here are the 2002 G3s.

New (to me) Games

Not all of these games are "new" in the sense of having been released in the last year, but here's a sampling of the best I've purchased in the previous 12 months.

Royal Turf:  If you've attended one of my personal gamenights recently, you've played Royal Turf, the biggest hit since Time's Up. Over three rounds players bet on and root for the seven stallions running in a good ol' fashioned horse race. Simple rules and a touch of bluffing makes this an idea game for families or for play over pints at the local pub.  [Reviews:  mine | BGG]

Trans America: It's so simple it's just barely a game, but it's lots of fun nonetheless. Players are randomly assigned five cities on a stylized map of the United States. On every turn players build railroad track in an effort to connect all their burgs. But because no one "owns" any given stretch of track, you can link into your opponent's network and use it to further your own goals. A typical game takes half an hour and can be played by persons of all ages and game-aptitude. [Reviews: BGG

Vom Kap bis Kairo:  And speaking of train games ... Players strive to build railroad across eight African landscapes and be the first to complete  a line "From The Cape To Cairo".  Cards are auctioned off every round, and each features not only a landscape but a number of railroad tracks.  The landscapes show how difficult it will be to traverse that particular region -- savanna is a snap, while mountains are difficult -- and the tracks shown can be applied towards your goal. If you don't have enough track to complete a terrain you can buy extra track segments, but be careful: you also need that money for the auctions.  A clever family game with an engaging theme.  [Reviews:  BGG]

Puerto Rico: Easily my favorite game of 2002 Build up your Puerto Rico community by planting farms and constructing buildings. Ship corn, indigo, sugar and coffee to the Old World in the role of Settler, Mayor, Craftsman and even Gold Prospector. Puerto Rico is a gamer's game -- it has no shortage of pieces or rules -- but if you want something meatier than the regular fare, it's the best game to come down the pike in years. [Reviews: mine | BGG]

BANG! Who will rule the old west: the Sheriff or the outlaws? Players are randomly assigned to one side or the other, but all identities begin a secret. The best way to find out who is on your team is to shoot first and ask question later. BANG! is a clever little game for larger groups -- it plays best with six or seven -- and is one of the flat-out fun-est game's I've picked up in a spell. [Reviews: BGG]

Pueblo: I do not like abstract games. So what is it about Pueblo that makes me want to play it again and again? Every turn you plonk a piece on the board as you collaborate with your opponents to build a New Mexican village. The trick is to do so in such a way that none of your pieces are visible from the outside. As much puzzle as it is game, Pueblo is perfect for both the spatial reasoner and the casual game player. [Reviews: BGG]

Adel Verpflichtet:  Bluff, guess, and second-guess your opponents as you strive to assemble the best collection of kooky antiques. And if you find yourself lacking in either money or goods, why, just steal some from your fellow players! Adel Verpflichtet is only available in German, but there's some cheat sheets you can print out that make the game perfectly fine for we Yankees. [Reviews: mine | BGG]

Barbarossa: First you make little sculptures out of clay, then you try and guess what everyone else has made. And don't fret if you're artistically-inept: the better your sculpture looks, the more likely you are to lose (because people will guess it right away). Closer to a party game than a board game, Barbarossa generates a lot of laughter. [Reviews: mine | BGG]

Babel:  In this two-player game, you and an opponent strive to build the largest temples.  Your workers come from five ancient civilizations, (Assyrians, Sumerians, etc.), and when you get three or more of the same tribe together you are able to break one of the game's rules.  Babel falls just on the border between the "puzzle games" (Ricochet Robot, Pueblo) and strategy games (Lost Cities and Citadelles). [Reviews: BGG]

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation:  Another two-player contest, LotR: The Confrontation is a nice update of the classic Stratego formula. "The Confrontation" pits Sauron  (who is stronger) against the Fellowship (which is more resourceful) , and every character on the board has his own special power. Furthermore, each side has a different goal:  Frodo and Sam want to bring the ring to Mount Doom, while the forces of darkness want to slay the hobbits before they can complete their journey.   A typical game of The Confrontation will last approximately half and hour.  [Reviews: BGG]

From Previous Years
There is no excuse for not owning games marked with a *

Board Games

  • Settlers of Catan*:  Oh fer Pete's sake, would'ja just buy it already?!  Sheesh!  [Reviews: BGG]
  • Carcassonne:   I've always been a fair-weather fan of Carcassonne, but many folks love it, and the two expansions (called "The Expansion," crazily enough, and "Hunters and Gathers")  add a lot of spice, or so I'm told. [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • Web of Power:  My favorite new game of 2000 sat on the shelf for most of 2001 because I played it until I was sick of it.  But I recently played it again and remembered exactly why I so loved this game:  it's easy to learn and can be played in less than an hour. [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • Princes of Florence:  Second only to Puerto Rico as my favorite game in recent years.  [Reviews: BGG]
  • Lord of the Rings: What sets LotR apart is that it is cooperative rather than competitive:  players work as a team instead of against each other.  A unique and exciting game.    [Reviews: mine | BGG]

Card Games
  • Bohnanza*:  A game in which you plant and harvest beans.  No, I am not kidding.    [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • 6 Nimmt!*(A.k.a. "Take 6"):   As addictive as it is agonizing.  [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • Citadelles*:  A gamenight favorite of bluff and intrigue. [Reviews:  mine | BGG]
  • Pig Pile:  I haven't the slightest idea why I like this game.  Aside from the fact that it comes with a bunch of small, pink, rubber pigs, I mean. [Reviews: BGG]
  • Wyatt Earp:  Rummy in the old west.    [Reviews: mine | BGG]

Two-player Games

  • Lost Cities*:  A really great, easy-to-learn, two player card game similar to rummy.   [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • flowerpower:  A very placid tile-laying game -- not too deep, but not as shallow as it looks, either.   [Reviews: BGG]
  • Hera and Zeus: More complicated that Lost Cities and flowerpower, but worth the "learning curve".  Stratego meets Magic:  The Gathering.   [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • En Garde:  It costs nine bucks, it plays in 15 minutes, and the rules could fit onto a business card.  Plus:  fun!  [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • Battle Cry:  Expensive, but worth it for anyone who likes games where you get to fire artillery at you opponent.  [Reviews: BGG]

Party Games
  • Time's Up*:  The best party game in existence. Seriously. [Reviews: BGG]
  • Call My Bluff*:  The ultimate dice game: all luck and bluffing, no pesky rules.   [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • 25 Words or Less:  A thinking-person's Taboo. My first copy was played until it fell apart, whereupon I promptly bought another. [Reviews: mineBGG]
  • Apples to Apples*: The game we played so much at Gamenight that I came to hate it. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't own it. And you should. [Reviews: mine | BGG]
  • Werewolf: Actually, this one is completely free.  Just print out the rules from here.

Second Opinions

What, you don't trust me? Well, here's some other "best of" lists for your consideration.
Places to Buy Games Online

  •  This is where I buy all my games:  they carry just about everything, the have a great website, their prices are low and they are located in Ashland, OR (so shipments reach me in 2-3 days).
  • Boulder Games:  I've heard great things about this online store too, but they are on the East Coast so I stick with Funagain.  Still, if you are in, say, New York, these guys would probably get it there quicker.
  •  Amazon carries a few titles, notably those in the Mayfair (Settlers of Catan, Manhattan) and Avalon Hill (Acquire, Cosmic Encounter) lines.  But they never seem to be in stock. 

November 19, 2002

Sam Loyd's Trick Mules

Sam Loyd's "Trick Donkeys" is one of the most elegant puzzles ever invented, and if you've never seen it before, I urge you to give it a shot. Click on the image to the left, print out the page, and cut the figure into three parts along the solid lines. Now, position the strip onto the other two pieces so that it looks like each jockey is riding a donkey. Folding is not allowed.

This puzzle was created by one of America's greatest puzzlists, Sam Lloyd (1844 -1911). Loyd sold his puzzle to P. T. Barnum, who marketed it as "P. T. Barnum's Trick Mules." It was printed on a card to be cut into the three pieces. Millions of the cards were sold, and supposedly Loyd earned a fortune -- $10.000 -- in just a few weeks.

Don't give up -- the solution is really quite simple! If you must, you can see the answer here.

November 11, 2002

Requiem for Boddy

Everyone who reads my essay "Requiem for Boddy" over at The Morning News will receive a cupcake. Some restrictions apply.

November 07, 2002

Sid Sackson, 1920-2002

Remember when Dale Earnhardt was killed, and NASCAR fans were mopy for months thereafter? That's what board game enthusiasts are like today.

In the world of ludology, Sid Sackson was a pioneer, with scores of card and board game to his credit. One of his first (and most highly regarded) games was Acquire, a stock market simulation that is to Monopoly what Citizen Kane is to an episode of Becker. I distinctly remember playing Acquire in my youth and realizing that this particular game was on a completely different level than the Paydays and Operations I had played in the past.

In the years to follow, Sackson would design a series of fantastic games, including many of my personal favorites: Can't Stop, Kohle, Kies, & Knete, and Focus, one of the first games I ever owned. His book A Gamut of Games is a treasure trove of enjoyable pastimes and brilliant ideas. And by all accounts he was also a really nice guy.

Sid Sackson passed away yesterday at the age of 82. His collection of over 10,000 board games will be auctioned off next week.

October 18, 2002

Games: Royal Turf

What the hell? I wrote a rave review about Puerto Rico and basically called it the best thing since the invention of the pluot, and not a single one of you went out and bought it? You are so disappointing. I mean, okay, I kind of see your point: few of you are avid board game players like myself, so the prospect of buying (much less learning and teaching) a game with 700 rules and twice that many pieces might have seemed a bit daunting. Perhaps you need to be eased into this hobby. So let me make another suggestion: purchase Royal Turf. Now! Do it! Actually, Royal Turf, while a very enjoyable game, isn't worthy of such exhortations. But if you've been toying with the idea of trying out these "Designer Games" I'm always rambling on about, this might be exactly what you're looking for.

Let's start with the bad news: The rules that accompany Royal Turf are in German. But it doesn't matter, honest Native American. You can easily find an English translation on the web (tah-dah!), and since the game is about British horse racing, the names of the horses (the only text on the game components) are English: Albino, Earl Gray, Othello, etc. So don't let that stop you. The good news is that Royal Turf is very simple to learn, plays in under and hour, and is small enough to fit on the table of a tavern.

The game consists of three races, and each race has three phases: the Betting Phase, the Racing Phase, and the Payout. Before each race, a Movement Card is revealed for each horse, and the animals are queued up at the start of a 33-space racetrack. Each player also receives three betting chips. During the Betting Phase, players place their Betting Chips on the horses of their choice. Players must use all of their chips and cannot bet more than once on a single horse, so at the end of the Betting Phase everyone will have wagered on three of the seven contenders.

And they're off! During the Racing Phase, each player in turn rolls a special die, and then movies one of the horses forward a specified amount. The die has a Horsehead icon on three of its sides, with the other sides bearing a Horseshoe, a Saddle and a Jockey's Cap. The Movement Cards show how far each stallion advances for each of the four symbols. The Card for "Sahara Wind," for example, might indicate that he advances 3 spaces on a Horsehead, 9 spaces on a Cap, 5 spaces for a Saddle and 7 spaces for a Horseshoe. After rolling the die, the player may choose which horse he wishes to advance. Once a horse has moved, his Movement card is pushed aside to indicate that it cannot move again; after all horses have been used, the Cards are restored to their original places and each is again eligible for movement.

The race ends when the third horse crosses the finish line, at which time the horse currently in last place goes to the Losers Box. Each player who bet on a winning horse receives money, dependent on what place the horse came in and how many other players bet on the same horse.

Place / # of Bets
1 Bet
2 Bets
3 Bets
4 Bets
5+ Bets

Everyone who bet on the Losing Horse must pay $100 to the bank. After three races, the player with the most money wins.

There are plenty of fun decisions to be made in Royal Turf. After rolling, deciding to move one of your own horses a long distance or moving an opponent's horse a few spaces is always an agonizing choice (and the other players will cheerfully badger you with their opinions on the matter). Because a moved horse cannot advance again until all the horses have been used, moving an opponent's stallion forward "1" can seriously hurt their chances of winning. The betting Phase also entails some tough choices. Betting on a popular horse means you'll get less money if the horse wins, but it also makes a win much more likely.

There's not a ton of strategy in Royal Turf, but certainly enough to make for an interesting 45 minutes. Best of all, the game, while nowhere near an actual simulation of horse racing, does a good job of recreating the track atmosphere: you'll find yourself cheering for your favorite pony and groaning with dismay when he's hobbled by an opponent. Simple rules combined with a popular theme makes this a perfect game for families or groups of friends who just want something to do while sipping beer at the local brewhouse. If you have any interest in games but have been hesitant to take the plunge, Royal Turf would be an excellent place to start.

August 29, 2002

Games: Puerto Rico

An entry for Tim of Mooselessness, who is apparently on the verge of buying Puerto Rico.

I have been a board game enthusiast all my adult life, but the thrill, as they say, is largely gone. When I returned from the Peace Corps in 1997 and started collecting modern board games, each one I bought was a wonder to me, full of innovative mechanics and fascinating ideas. It helped that the first few games I purchased were among the best ever made: Manhattan, Modern Art, and the sublime Settlers of Catan. But since that time I have played scores of games, and its become ever more difficult to impress me. I enjoy board games as much as I ever have, but it's rare that I encounter one that fills me with the rush of admiration I felt for those first few. Still, occasionally a game will come along that manages to overcome my indifference and knock my socks off. El Grande did it, Euphrat & Tigris did it, Princes of Florence did it, and now I have been wowed by Puerto Rico.

In Puerto, each person begins play with his own "player mat" -- a small map of the island divided into an upper and lower half. The bottom portion is for plantations, of which there are six types: Corn, Indigo, Sugar, Tobacco, Coffee and Quarries. The first five produce agricultural goods; the Quarries enable you to purchase buildings for cheaper. Buildings, placed in the upper part of the player mat, come in two types: Production Buildings (which allow you to refine your agricultural output) and violet Special Buildings. The object of the game is to acquire the most victory points, which is primarily acheived by shipping goods to the Old World, and by constructing buildings (each of which is worth some measure of points).

Players must manage two other resources. Plantations and buildings do not "work" unless they are manned by Colonists: plantations lacking a Colonist do not produce agricultural goods (or, in the case of the Quarries, do not reduce the cost of buildings), while buildings lacking a Colonist do not do whatever they are designed to do. Players will also earn doubloons throughout the game, which are used to purchase buildings.

Puerto Rico is played over a series of rounds, during which each player takes a turn. On a turn the Active Player chooses one of the seven Role Cards, and then every player (starting with the Active Player) gets to take the Action associated with that role. The Active Player also gets a Privilege -- the opportunity to do a little more than everyone else. The Roles are:

Each player takes an agricultural plantation (corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco or coffee)
The Active Player may take a quarry instead of an agricultural plantation
Each player may buy a building.
The Active Player spends one doubloon less for his building
Every player gets a colonist.
The Active Player gets a bonus colonist.
Each player produces agricultural goods.
The Active Player produces one bonus good.
Each Player may sell a good to the back for doubloons.
The Active Player gets a bonus doubloon.
Each player loads goods onto the ships, and receives one victory point for every good loaded.
The Active Player gets a bonus victory point.
The Active Player gets a doubloon from the bank.
Once a Role is taken, no one else may take it that round, and at the conclusion of a round all unchosen Roles receive a doubloon. When a player picks a Role with one or more coins on it, he keeps the money for himself. So a Role that is ignored in this round becomes more attactive in the next -- a feature that ensures that Puerto never stagnates.

Whenever the Craftsman is selected, each player produces goods. One good is produced for each manned agricultural plantation that has a corresponding manned production building -- a coffee plantation and a coffee roaster, for example. This is the function of the Production Buildings. Each violet building, meanwhile, confers some special advantage onto it's owner (but only, as always, if manned). The Hacienda allows the owner receive an extra Plantation in each Settler phase; the Market gives the owner a bonus gold every time he sells in the Trader phase, and so on.

If all this sounds overwhelming ... well, it is, the first time you hear the rules. But Puerto Rico is so remarkably designed, and everything "flows" so well, that halfway through your first game you'll already have a good grasp of what to do. Managing your resources is the key to success: you need plantations and buildings to produce goods, you need goods to earn money and victory points, you need money to buy buildings, and so on. The varieties of different strategies you can use in the pursuit of victory are seemingly endless.

The appeal of Puerto Rico is widespread, and it's easy to see why. The game features quite a bit of player interaction, but it is all indirect: you cannot attack another player, but you can take the Role he wants before he gets the opportunity himself. The feel of the game is very positive, as you are building up (constructing buildings, producing Goods, making money) rather than tearing down (as you would in, say, a wargame). These two traits combine to make this a great, nonaggressive game for families. Furthermore, it works wonderfully well with three, four and five players, making it suitable for any gathering of friends.

I typically play a new game a few times and then get ready to move on; with Puerto Rico, however, I would be happy to play nothing but. One thing I have noticed is that the quality of a game is usually commensurate with the amount of discussion it engenders, and by that standard Puerto is one of the best. As soon a game ends the players are eager to talk about the strategies they employed and the ideas they have for future playings. And I find myself pondering Puerto even between matches, sipping my morning expresso, for instance, and wondering how well I would fare if I spent my next game growing nothing but coffee.

I've been suffering Board Game Burnout for a year or so, but Puerto Rico's rave reviews convinced me to pick it up. And I couldn't be happier I did. Puerto takes me back to those halcyon days when I first entered the hobby, and marveled at the skill that went into game design. Anything that can do that to a jaded old player like me must be a great game indeed.

August 22, 2002

Dumbass, M.D.

This is my favorite puzzle.

You have Some Terminal Condition, which necessitates taking two pills a day: one Pill A and one Pill B. If you neglect to take either pill, you die; if you take more than one A or more than one B, you die. If you don't take them at exactly the same time, you die.

This morning you are going through you usual routine. You pick up your bottle of A Pills and gently tap one into your palm. Then you pick up your bottle of B Pills and tap it, but two pills accidentally fall into your hand. You now hold three pills (one A and two Bs), you don't know which are which, and they are completely indistinguishable from each other. The A Pills are the same color as the B Pills, they are the same shape, same size -- they are identical in every respect. Man, your doctor is a dumbass. But he's a rich dumbass, because he's charging you $10,000,000 a pill! So you dare not throw any away.

Thus, the puzzle: what can you do to ensure that you take only one A Pill and only one B Pill today, without wasting any pills (either today or in the future)?

No answer will be provided here, because this puzzle is so neat that I want you to actually think it over and figure it out. It took me a few days of off and on thought but I eventually got it.

[ link | Games]

August 20, 2002

Games: Corporation

A few years ago I invented a card game called Corporation, the rules of which I posted to my little-read website As far as I knew no one ever saw it, much less played it. But last night, while egosurfing on Google, I discovered a French translation of the rules, accompanied by a five-star review and a PDF file featuring a specialized deck for the game. Great leapin' cats!

Now that I realize that I have created the Greatest Game Since Mousetrap, I feel obligated to share it with you, the defective yeti Reading Public. However this game does not come free; oh no. If you actually play Corporation, you must write me afterwards with comments and suggestions on the play of the game. You will alos want to write me because, after playing Corporation with your buddies, I may be the only friend you have left.


Players: 4 - 10

Equipment: One or more decks of standard playing cards; a pencil and paper; poker chips or play money to keep score.

Preparation: Give each player a set of n cards, consecutively ranked from Ace up, where n = number of players. If you are playing with seven player, for example, give each player seven cards ranked A-7; if you are playing with four people, give each player A-4. A set need not be of all the same suit.

Premise: It takes money to make money. Each player will be putting up capital in anticipation of Profits. If you want the Big Bucks, though, you will have to form a Corporation with other players. A Corporation will net you Corporate Rewards if everyone cooperates -- but if any members defect (or if an outsider tries to horn in on the action) it's back to the drawing board.

Play: On the first round, each person places a card from his hand face down on the table. When all cards have been played they are all flipped face up.

Anyone who played an unmatched card (i.e. no one else played a card of the same denomination) takes his card back into his hand and immediately scores Profits: a number of points equal to the value of the card (Aces = 1). All the players who played matching cards form a Corporation. They do not score any points, and leave their matching cards face up in front of them to indicate who belongs to which Corporations.; Multiple Corporations may be formed in the same round.

Future rounds are played exactly the same, with one additional twist. If all the members of a Corporation (and only the members of the Corporation) play the same card, they all receive Corporate Rewards: a number of points equal to the value of the card played times the number of members in the Corporation. If, however, (a) any member of a Corporation plays a card different from the other members, or (b) any person not in the Corporation plays the same card as the members, then no Corporate Rewards are given. Either way, the rest of the round is carried out as usual: those who played singletons get Profits and everyone who played matching cards form (new) Corporations. Players who were previously in Corporations should take their old cards back into their hands.


Record points with a pencil and paper, or give players chips / play money as they earn Profits and Corporate Rewards. If, at the end of a round, one or more players have at least the target score, the person with the most points wins. Points / money, by the way, is open knowledge.

Because the Corporate Rewards can skyrocket with greater number of players, a good target score for a game is 2n2, where n=number of players. In other words:

# of playersTarget Score (2n2)


Round: A plays 3, B plays 10, C plays 3, D plays 10, E plays 3.
Result: B and D form Corporation 10 and leave their 10 cards face up to show this.

Round: A=7, B=5, C=7, D=7, E=7
Result: B, having played an unmatched card, gets 5 points. A, C, E do not get Corporate Rewards because D played the same card as them. A, C, E take their 3 cards back into their hands, B and D take back their 10 cards. A, C, D and E now form the new Corporation 7 and leave their 7 cards face up to indicate this.

Round: A=5, B=10, C=5, D=5, E=5
Result: B, having again played an unmatched card, gets 10 points. A, B, D, E get Corporate Rewards: 20 points a piece ([value of played card] x [number of people in the Corporation] = 5 x 4 = 20). A,B,D,E Take their 7 cards back into their hand and form a new Corporation by leaving their 5 cards face up.

Table Talk: Table talk (and lying, and betrayal) is encouraged.  The one rule governing negotiations:  all statements to other players must be "open": conducted so that all the other players can hear them. That means no whispering or going into another room. But if someone missed something because they weren't paying attention or were involved in another conversation, you are under no obligation to repeat anything.

Tips and Notes: Team up with a few other greedy players to form Corporations and reap the big bucks, but if someone is pulling ahead don't hesitate to defect. Smaller Corporations are generally better than big ones: a Corporation with a lot of members pays off better, but (a) you'll be a target for other players, (b) it's hard to get a lot of people to cooperate, and (c) if everyone reaps the same Corporate Rewards then no one really pulls ahead. Also, pay attention to what cards the members of a Corporation have in front of them, and bear in mind that they will be unable to play these cards on the next round. Conversely, form Corporations with low cards so you can use your high cards for Corporate Rewards.

July 23, 2002


Hey, what are you doing next weekend? Nothing?! Lame.

[ link | Games]

May 16, 2002

I Like Baseball
[Games: Baseball] I've been saving up my baseball-related posts, so brace yourself for a full day of them. (Or just skip a day of yeti if you don't give a rat's ass about The Great American Pastime.)

I love baseball, not so much because I find it fascinating but because I can find it fascinating at will. If I'm at a game or in a bar watching the match on the tube, I can suddenly make myself really really care about who's winning and what's going on. But if I need to, say, leave the bar before the game is over, I can just as easily stop caring and head out the door. I could watch every game in a week, or miss an entire month without any regrets. The minute the Mariners blow a big match I can opt to throw a fit or shrug my shoulders.

Not so for many Seattle fans. We recently had a brouhaha of major league proportions. It all started with this letter, in which ex-Yankees fan Matt Villano labeled Mariner game attendees as a bunch of passive wussies.

People who call themselves "fans" know something about the game they watch. They encourage root, root, rooting for the home team, they stand and clap at two-strike counts, they're not afraid to boo an opponent or a hometown goat, and they always cheer more for a stolen base than for a stuffed Moose (or that idiotic hydroplane race on the Jumbotron). What sedentary Seattleites have proven is that the term "Mariners fan" is an oxymoron. These are the same people who sway like prom dates at a Built to Spill show and drive 50 mph in the left lane on I-5 ... With such somnolent Seattle game sitters -- fans who'd rather read four- sentence out-of-town game summaries on the scoreboard than scrutinize Lou's strategy behind an intentional walk or a safety squeeze -- it's no wonder the Mariners can't beat the Yankees when it counts.
Mariners management then deftly proved his point by banning "Yankees Suck" t-shirts at the next game in the name of "avoiding confrontation." Villano, who atteneded that game and wrote a second article in the following week's paper, said "The pathetic M's fans meekly accepted this suspension of their First Amendment rights in the name of a 'good time'."

If Villano's goal was to get Seattle fans worked up, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. According to a blurb at the top of The Seattle Weekly's letter page the following Wednesday "Villano's recent articles have got the Weekly inundated with more mail than ANYONE here can EVER remember getting -- more than WTO, more than the Palestinian conflict, more than the 100 Favorite Restaurants special in which we said that Ristorante Machiavelli is closed on Monday when really it's only closed on Sunday." And there followed half a dozen pages of missives sent by Seattleites who either thought Villano was a breath of fresh air or a complete ass. Typical line: "Who are you? The Mariner Moose? No. You're a Yankees fan. God, I can't think of a worse insult to put on you, Matt. Let's just leave it at that."

Incidently, at the next game the Mariners' management dropped their ban on the "Yankees Suck" T-shirt. Why did they cave in? "We didn't want to appear confrontational," they explained.

[ link | Games]

May 09, 2002

Games: Streetcar

Streetcar: The New Orleans Trolley Game is not the best game I own, but it is the game I have had the greatest change of heart about. The first time I played it, years and year ago, everyone hated it. Hated it. I could sense that there was a good game in there, but I couldn't convince any of my original opponents to play it again. So Streetcar hit the shelf, and there it sat for well over a year.

Lord knows why I every tried it again, but the next time I gave it a whirl it was well received by everyone involved. Since then my enjoyment of the game has increased with every playing, to the point where it has clawed its way up into the echelons of favorites.

The Streetcar board shows a greatly abstracted map of New Orleans, divided into a 12x12 grid with a dozen or so "Landmarks" scattered around the board. On the perimeter are Trolley terminals numbered 1-6, with two terminals for each number. A set of like-numbered terminals are always on opposite sides of the board, so if one of the "3" terminals is on the East side the other will be on the West. Each player then gets two cards at random, one of which assigns them a number (from 1-6) and the other which assigns them two landmarks. Each player also starts with five tiles, each of which shows trolley track connecting two or more edges of the tile. The simplest tiles show a single length of track connecting opposite sides of the tile or curving to connect one side to an adjacent side. Other tiles show more complicated arrangements, with tracks bi- or even trifurcating.

Each player gets to put two tiles on the board each turn, with the goal of creating a route that starts at one of their terminals, travels past their two assigned landmarks and ends at the opposite terminal. A tile may be put into any vacant space on the board, but must be placed so that no track leads off the board, no track leads into a landmark, and all track "syncs up" with the tiles that have already been played. All tiles played are "public domain,' which means that any player can use them in their course. The problem -- and by "problem" I mean "aggravatingly fun part" -- is that everyone is trying to build their own routes through the middle of the board, which means that they will be trying to steer the tracks one way while you try and guide them back the way you want.

What makes Streetcar an excellent family game is that while there is plenty of opportunity to screw with your opponents (by placing tiles that divert them from their intended destination), it is also relatively easy to recover from such treachery (by simply re-plotting your course). In other words, you get all the fun of a "mean" game without any of the hard feelings. There is something of a bluffing element as well. At the start of the game you don't know the number or landmarks belonging to other players, and you must therefore deduce them based on where they lay their tiles. If they choose to put a tile or two in a completely bogus location, you may later come along and try to "screw with their course," only to discover that they never had any intention of visiting that part of the city. Sneaky!

It takes a play or two get "get" Streetcar, and some people never enjoy the spatial reasoning aspect of the game (which, while slight, is present). But most folks grow to like it, and may even, as in my case, grow to like it quite a bit.

I don't recall where I originally got my copy of Streetcar, but it's available for purchase at Funagain Games.

[ link | Games]

April 18, 2002

Games: Interactive Fiction

[Games: Interactive Fiction] A while ago I briefly mentioned a neat little game called 9:05, and swore that I would "write more about interactive fiction later this week." And did I? Did i write more about later that week? No I did not. And while that may make me a filthy stinkin' liar, I am at least a filthy stinkin' liar so racked with guilt at this oversight that I'm going to make good on my promise now.

"Interactive Fiction" is the new-fangled term for a genre of games that once lacked a name and was simply described as "like Zork." "I'm totally addicted to this new game I bought called Planetfall! it's one of those game, you know, like Zork?" Later this category of time-killers was referred to as "text adventures": games without graphics, in which everything is described in words and you, as the protagonist, interact with the environment by entering a series of written command.

West of House

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

> open mailbox

Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.


Ahhhhhh yes, it's all coming back to you now, isn't it? I'm sure many of you, like I, wasted hours and day and weeks back in the 80's as you sat in front of your computer, subsisting solely on beef jerky and RC Cola, trying to solve each and every puzzle in Enchanter. Well, a few years back someone clued me in to the fact that, while the legendary Infocom is more or less defunct, there is still an active community of Text Adventures out there, walking around with brass lamps and stashing treasures into their trophy cases. Better yet, there's quite a few folks who continue to write (free!) text adventures -- so many that there's even an annual competition to reward the authors for their efforts.

These games are now called "Interactive Fiction" (IF), because many contemporary offerings break the traditional "solve puzzles, save princess" mold. While the classic puzzle romps are still prominent, many IF authors now use the medium to explore literary and philosophical ground. (Try the groundbreaking Phototopia to a prime example.)

I go on an IF bender about once a year, during which I typically download and play half a dozen games over the course of a month. I'm on one now, which is why I'm writing about it here. If trying out such games interests you, there's no shortages of resources available to you on the web. Check out Stephen Grande's Brass Lantern, the Interactive Fiction Archive (along with this nice guide to the archive) and the two largest IF societies, XYZZY and the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games.

Me, I've played maybe 20 modern IF games and enjoyed quite a few. Here are my favorites

  • Anchorhead An astounding game, and the one that got me rehooked. I am an H. P. Lovecraft fan, and this tribute to his literary (and atmospheric) style is my favorite of all the contemporary IF games I've played.
  • Spider and Fly Adam Cadre (who also wrote the aforementioned 9:05 and Photopia) is considered one of the masters of modern IF. This is the one I enjoyed the most.
  • Babel Eerie science-fiction game reminiscent of "The Thing". I hated one of its puzzles but, beyond that, recommend it hightly.
  • Winter Wonderland Cute! Fun!
  • Yes, Another Game With a Dragon! Just finished this one the other night and thought it was great. A nice introductory game for those who have fond memories of Zork
Incidentally, you can play any of the old Infocom games by telenet'ing to Have fun.

[ link | Games]

April 02, 2002


Here's an interactive fiction game that is so brief that you can play in on your coffee break. No foolin'. It's called 9:05 and it's quite clever. I'll write more about interactive fiction later this week.

[ link | Games]

March 14, 2002

Games: Don

Don is tricky, and no less so for being extraordinarily simple. The deck contains 30 cards, which are divided in two ways. First, they are divided by number: three cards in each of the denominations 0-9. Secondly, they are divided into six different colors, with five cards in each hue. There's no correlation between these two division (e.g. all the 3's aren't green). Every players starts with 12 chips.

On each turn one or more cards are dealt into the center of the table, and all the players bid, auction-style. After all but one has passed, whomever bid the highest amount takes the cards. This continues until all the cards have been claimed. At the end of the game, players receive points for each color they have cards in: 1 point if they have one card in a color, 3 points if they have two cards in that color, 6 points if they have three cards, 10 points for four and 15 points if they nabbed all five cards of that color. Also, whomever has the most chips at game's end gets a bonus two points.

That's the entire game, and it would be a dull one were it not for two clever and insidious rules. The cards, you'll recall, all have a number from 0-9, and all of the cards that a player owns are displayed face-up in front of him. When a player purchases cards, his bid money goes to the person who owns the most cards showing that amount. So if I win the auction with a bid of 9, the person who has the most 9 cards will get my 9 chips. (In the case of a two-digit bid, only the last digit counts, e.g. a bid of 13 goes to the person with the 3s). If no one has the target number, then the monies are distributed equally amongst the other players. Don, in other words, is a zero-sum, closed-system game: the starting funds (twelve chips per player) is a constant, with chips just being circulated rather than being paid to or taken from a bank.

The second sneaky rule -- and this one is really maddening -- is that, when bidding, you cannot bid an amount equal to any of the cards you own. (Here again it's only the final digit that counts -- if I have a 1 I cannot bid 1, 11, 21, etc.) This restriction, combined with the first rule mentioned above, makes collecting cards a precarious proposition. If you have lots off different numbers you stand to collect on an assortment of different bids, but your own participating in the auction will be hampered. And your opponents will exploit this: if you own a 4, 5 and a 6, you can be certain that the player before you will bid "13," knowing that you'll have to jump all the way to 17 if you want to stay in.

And entire game of Don takes about 20 minutes, and it's simple enough to teach in about four breaths. It has a nominal "Mafia" theme (each color in the deck is said to represent a different district in Chicago), but, really, this is just an abstract but elegant auction and set-collection game. I'll be playing a lot of this one in the coming months. I purchased my copy of Don from Funagain Games.

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February 28, 2002

Games: Werewolf

Werewolf is a terrific game, made all the better by the fact that it's absolutely free. Before each game you randomly distribute Identity cards -- one player will be the Moderator, one player will be the Seer, two players will be Werewolves, and all the rest will be Villagers. Players identities are kept secret, and you can never show anyone else your card.

The game alternates between night and day. At night, all players close their eyes and then the Moderator says "Werewolves, open your eyes". The two players with the Werewolf cards open their eyes and silently agree upon another player to kill. After they have decided and communicated their pick to the Moderator, they again close their eyes and the Moderator says "Seer, open your eyes". The Seer then points at another player, and the Moderator indicates whether the selected player is or is not a Werewolf. Then everyone opens their eyes and day begins.

At daybreak the person killed by the Werewolves immediately turns his card faceup and plays no further part in the game. The rest of the day is simple: all the living players must now decide who to lynch. As soon as a majority of players give the thumbs down to someone, the targeted player is killed: he flips his card faceup and is out. This continues until the Villiagers win by lynching both Werewolves, or until the Werewolves when the number of Villiagers is equal to the number of Werewolves (at which point the Werewolves rise up and openly slaughter the remainders).

A very simple game, but exceptionally tricky to play. The tension comes from two angles: on the one hand, you never really know who any of the other players are, so picking someone to lynch is tough; on the other, no one really knows who you are, so even if your innocent you may find yourself the target of mob rule. As a Seer you may know the Identities of a few people, but your job is just as difficult: you have to get people to lynch the Werewolves without exposing yourself (and thereby certainly getting killed the following night). And even if you do expose yourself ("I'm the Seer, and I know for a fact that he is a Werewolf!"), that doesn't mean the Villagers will necessarily believe you, since making this very statement is favorite tactic by the Werewolves.

You can play Werewolf with just about any set of cards, or even make your own. When playing with standard playing cards, we use the Ace of Spades for the Moderator, the King of Clubs for the Seer, the Jokers (or the red Jacks) for the Werewolves and then an assortment of cards ranked 2-9 for the Villigers.

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February 21, 2002

Games: Adel Verpflichtet and Barbarossa

Klaus Teuber is an odd designer. Even before cooking up the stellar Settlers of Catan -- a game that was to boardgaming what Mark Maguire was to baseball -- Teuber already had two prestigious "Game of the Year" awards under his belt: one for Barbarossa and a second for Adel Verpflichtet. This is doubly surprising because these three games couldn't be more dissimilar -- you'd never guess the same guy invented all three.

Settlers of Catan I won't go into -- Lord knows you can find enough information about SoC elsewhere on the web. Barbarossa and Adel Verpflichtet, however, are relatively unknown, despite their award-winning status. I have recently purchased both, and I enjoy them quite a bit.

In Barbarossa, players first create riddles by making tiny sculptures out of clay. These are placed in the center of the board as the game begins. On a turn, a player will move around a circular track and carry out the instructions of the space he lands on. Two of the spaces on the board allow a player to point to any riddle in the center of the board and ask it's creator for a letter -- the first letters, say, or the third. Two other spaces are marked with a question mark, and allow players to ask others about their riddles. A player may ask any number of "yes or no" questions about the riddles -- "Is this edible?", "Do I have one of these in my house?", "Does this have to do with horse?" -- until they get a "no". At that point the player gets a second round of questions, but this time he may try to guess someone's riddle by writing down what he think it is and showing the creator. If the player is correct, a plastic arrow is stuck into the sculpture and points are awarded. If the guesser is the first to identify a riddle, he gets 5 points; if he is the second, he gets three points; once a riddle has two arrows in it, it is "dead" and can no longer be guessed.

What makes Barbarossa interesting is that the creator of a riddle also gets points when his riddle is unraveled. After the correct guess is made and an arrow is stuck into the sculpture, all the arrows in all the riddles on the board are counted. If the total number of arrows is less than five, the creator loses points; if the total number of arrows is 5-10 the creator gains points; and if the total arrows exceeds 10 then the creator, again, loses points. So the trick is to make moderately-difficult riddles -- riddles that are neither to easy to guess nor too hard. In a sense the whole thing is decided before it even starts (while the players sculpt their riddles), but that doesn't stop the game from being entertaining from start to finish. And it's hilarious to see what the other players use as their riddles and what sculptures they make to represent them. (In my last game, my wife made the Kingdome, which drove me crazy because I was certain it was a hamburger ...)

Then we have Adel Verpflichtet, which I played last night for the third time and am truly starting to enjoy. The admittedly paper-thin premise is this: players are rich and eccentric aristocrats, who have a standing bet about who can amass the best collection of antiques. Players all start with four Antique cards. On a turn a player can take one of five actions:

  • Go to the Auctionhouse and try to buy on of the two Antiques on sale there.
  • Send his Thief to the Auctionhouse to try and steal someone else's money.
  • Go to the Castle to show off his collection of Antiques.
  • Send his Thief to the Castle to try and steal someone else's Antiques.
  • Send his Detective to the Castle to try and capture another player's Thief.

Ya get all that? Players first secretly choose where they will go: the Auctionhouse or the Castle. Once the destinations are revealed, first the Auctionhouse players and then the Castle players secretly choose what action they wish to take, and then the actions are reveled and carried out.

In the Auctionhouse, whomever bid the highest amount of money gets to take one of the Antiques, while those who played lesser amounts simply reclaim their bids. Then, if one (and only one) player played a Thief, he steals the winning bid.

In the Castle, all the players who opted to show off their collections do so, and whomever has the best (i.e. the collection with the most Antiques) receives points (as does the person with the second-best collection). Then, those players who played Thieves get to take an Antique from each of the collections on display. And, finally, players who played Detectives send the played Thieves to jail and get points for doing so.

All this makes for a tense game of bluff, think and double-think. The easiest way to earn points is to show off your collection, but every time you do so you risk being robbed. Meanwhile, those who play Thieves in the hopes of robbing you risk having their thugs thrown in the pokey, and so on. How well you fare is dependent not only on your choices, but also the choices of your opponents. If you're skilled at predicting what your opponents will do you will fare well, but if you're equally readable by others you may wind up in the poorhouse. Think "rock-paper-scissors," but, y'know, fun.

I purchased both Barbarossa and Adel Verpflichtet from

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February 14, 2002

B.A.G.E.L Report

B.A.G.E.L.: Last night was gamenight (with special guest-start, Jessamyn West), so B.A.G.E.L. gathered to drink the beer and play the following games.

You're Bluffing: My second time playing, and I fared slightly better than my first (in which I lost by a score of 7200 to 10 -- no kidding). The deck has 40 cards -- ten sets of animals, with four cards in each set. Each animal has a value ranging from the Horse (with 1000) down to the chicken (worth only 10). Player start with $90 in money cards. On a turn, a player can do one of two things: auction off an animal, or initiate a horsetrade.

To start an auction, a player simply flips over the top animal from the draw pile. All the other players then bid on the animal, with the active player serving as the auctioneer. Once someone has made a bid that no one else wishes to beat, the auctioneer has two choices: she can either sell the animal to the high bidder (by taking his money and giving him the card), or she can buy the animal herself by taking the animal and giving the bid amount to the high-bidder. Purchased cards are displayed face-up in front of a player.

Once two or more people own the same animal, an active player may initiate a horsetrade on his turn instead of conducting an auction. To do a horsetrade, a player selects an animal card owned by someone else (but which the active player also has) and makes a bid on it by putting any number of money cards facewdown. The other player now has two choices: he can either accept the bid (sight unseen) and give the active player the selected animal card, or he can counterbid. Making a counterbid is just like making a bid -- a player puts any number of cards facedown -- and, afterwards, the two involved parties swap bids. Each announces aloud how much he received from the other, and whomever bid the most takes the other person's animal card. The swapped bids are kept.

This continues until all the cards are owned and in sets of four. At the end of the game, you receive points for each of your quartets in accordance with their value (so the four horse will earn you 1000 points), and then you multiply that sum by the number of sets you own. So while obtaining all the chicken cards will only net you 10 points, it will also double all the points you acquire from other sets.

Simple rules, but it sure makes for a tense game. When bidding in an auction, you can bid high in the hopes that the active player will give you the money and take the card -- but if he opts not to, you have to fork over the cash yourself. And the horsetrading is especially devilish. Say someone makes a bid on a card you own by putting three money cards face down. You could just take the money and give him the card, but what if the total is only $20? So perhaps you want to counterbid. But what if the bid is really $140 and you counterbid $120? After swapping bids he will still get your card, and, here again, he only paid $20 for it -- but this time you could have had all $140 if you just taken the money in the first place. Agonizing.

Still, I quite like this game -- in fact, I even liked playing it during the 7200 to 10 rout (but perhaps liked it a little bit more this time, when I eked out a victory). The simple rules combined with the tough decisions make this a game I'll be playing often in the future.

I purchased my copy from the magnificent Magic Mouse Toys in Seattle's Pioneeer Square.

Take It Easy: This award-winning game is like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and bingo. Each player starts with a board and a set of 27 tiles, and one player is selected as the Caller. On each turn the Caller randomly selects one of the tiles; each other player then finds his corresponding tile and places it in any empty space on his board. The object is to create ...

... uh, y'know what? Never mind. Just go here and play a round or two online. It'll probably take less time for you to play an entire game than for me to explain the thing.

Times Up: The rules to Time's Up are simple. Forty cards form a central draw pile, and each card bears the name of a famous person: Pythagoras, George Harrison, Luke Skywalker, Johnny Appleseed, etc. Players break into teams of two. In the first round, a player draws cards from the central pile and tries to get his partner to guess the indicated name by saying anything he wants: "This is the guy who came up with the famous theorem stating that the square of two sides of a right-angle triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse...". Two restrictions, though: a player cannot pass, and only has 30 seconds to accumulate as many cards as possible. If a player gets a person he doesn't know (I didnt know Clarence Birdseye, for example) he will have to describe the name as best he can. ("First name is also the first name of Supreme Court Justice Thomas; last name is what a robin uses to see".). Play continues until all the cards have been claimed, at which point the teams get one point for every card they got.

In the second round the teams use the exact same set of forty cards. This time, however, they can only say one word ("hypotenuse!") but may use as many gesture as they like. In the third and final round, players cannot say anything, and must rely entirely on gesture (*pantomime of a triangle*). While the second round is usually pedestrian, the third round is unfailingly hilarious.

This is the best party game I own, and I own quite a few. Don't even joke about buying someone Disneyland Monopoly as a gift if there are any copies of Time's Up available anywhere on Earth.

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February 11, 2002

Games: Button Men

Button Men is a quick and clever little dice game from Cheapass. In the basic game, both players start with five dice of varying sizes (6-sided, 12-sided, maybe even a 20-sider or two) and begin by rolling all of them, with the player rolling the lowest single number going first. On each turn a player must, if possible, capture one of his opponent's dice. This can be done in one of two ways. When making a Power Attack, the active player uses one of his dice to capture any opponent's die that shows a number equal to or lower than the attacking number. If making a Skill Attack, the attacker choses two or more of his own dice which, when totaled, exactly equal the number shown on an opponent's die. In either case the targeted die is captured and the attacking die or dice are rerolled. The other player then takes a turn, and so on until someone loses their last die, at which point the round ends. At that time, each player scores the full-value of any captured dice (so a 12-sided die would be worth 12 points, regardless of what number it bore when it was captured) and score half value for any of their own dice that remained uncaptured (so an uncaptured 6-sided die would be worth 3 points). Highest score wins the round; first to win three rounds takes the match. To read more about the game, click here.

If you'd like to try Button Men, please visit Dana Huyler excellent online adaptation. After you've created an account, feel free to challenge me to a game (I go by the username Shadowkeeper), or you can click here to send me a player mail. The next time I'm on the Button Man site I'll be more than happy to give you a tutorial of the game, as well as a thrashing you'll never forget.

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January 20, 2002

Games: Get The Goods

Many of the games I picked up when I first started my collection eventually wound up on the back of the shelf, superceded by the better games I later purchased as my tastes got more discriminating. Back there amongst the chaff sat Get The Goods, a game I bought ages ago after reading a GAMES Magazine endorsement (they named it their "Family Card Game of the Year" in 1997). Having not played it in years, I'm not sure what possessed me to grab it on the way to the bar this evening, but somehow it wound up in my bag of tricks. And when we wanted to play a quick game for four people, Get The Goods fit the bill admirably. Even better, I rediscovered a terrific little gem: a game that's simple to learn, easy to play, and a whole lot of fun.

The Get the Goods deck contains four different types of cards: Luxury Cards, Wild Cards, x2 Cards and $ Cards. The $ Cards are set aside, the remaining cards are shuffled, and each player is dealt a starting hand of four. The $ Cards are then shuffled into the draw pile, the top three cards are flipped face-up for all to see, and play begins.

The premise: each player is an obscenely wealthy individual without a care in the world. Well, they each have one care: they are all obsessed with having more Luxury items that their fellow aristocrats: more Casinos, more Real Estate, more Yachts, etc. To show the accumulation of such gewgaws, there are nine cards for each of ten different Luxury items (the three mentioned above, plus Stocks, Gold, Cash, Antiques, Oil, Art and Jewelry). On each turn a player gets three Actions, which he can spend in one of four ways. For a single Action, a player may play a card from his hand to the table. If playing a Luxury that he already has at least one of, the player simply adds the card to his existing pile. He may also play a card face-down as a "Keystone Card." (The first card in any pile of Luxuries must be a face-down Keystone Card. This card can be of any type - it does not have to match the cards that eventually go atop it -- and does not count towards the total numbr of cards in that pile.) If either of the three face-up card is a Luxury Card, a player may take it into his hand as an Action. He may also take a face-up Wild or x2 Card, but doing so requires two Actions. And, lastly, the player may opt to take the top face-down card from the draw pile at a cost of two Actions.

The $ Cards serve as ticks in the game's clock. Whenever a face-up card is claimed by a player, the top card from the draw pile is revealed to take its place; if this card is a $ Card, it is set aside and another card drawn. Also, when a player chooses to take the top card from the draw pile and wind up with a $ Card, he sets that aside and draws again. After the fourth $ Card is revealed, a scoring round takes place. For each of the ten Luxuries, the player who has the most receives 3 points, and the player who has the second most gets 1 point. If someone is the only person with a certain type of Luxury, he gets both first- and second-place points, i.e., 4. After all the points have been distributed, the game resumes. When the seventh $ Card arrives another scoring round takes place; and after the tenth and last $ Card appears the game ends with a final scoring round (where each card remaining in a player's hand earns him -1).

The two special cards also spice things up a bit. A Wild Card can be player as any type of Luxury Card - perfect for inching ahead of another player who is vying for the same commodity. And you can play a x2 Card to any of your piles, although doing so prevents you from playing any more cards to that pile for the remainder of the game. The advantage of the x2 Card: if you get any points for a pile containing a x2 Card, those points are doubled. (So getting first-place for a x2 pile will net you six points instead of three).

This game couldn't be simpler - all you really do on a turn is draw cards or play cards or both - but is remarkably fun. At first everyone tends to specialize in his own Luxuries, but by the midpoint the rivalries begin as everyone starts trying to horn in on other players' action. The trick is to pick your battles carefully - get into too many grudge matches and you'll get whomped, but you can't win unless you get into at least a few. The use of the Keystone Cards is a great little mechanism for sowing anxiety, since no one knows which cards are face-down and therefore out of play. (This means, for example, that I have no way of knowing if there are nine or eight or even six Casino Cards truly up for grabs). With a playing time of only 30-40 minutes, I don't think I've ever played a game of Get the Goods singly -- after the first game the urge to play again is almost always overwhelming.

Get the Goods (also know as "Reibach & Co") can be purchased from

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