Monday, November 29, 2010

Mini-Reviews: Board and Card Games

This is the time of year when I'm generally struggling to figure out what to buy my friends and family for Christmas. Given that I've recently been playing a lot of new (to me) board and card games, and also given that many of my friends enjoy them as well, I thought I'd post a brief rundown of what I think. Maybe this will give you a gift idea for someone on your list.

(List ordered by how much I personally like the games)

Great Games:

1) Small World: Covered briefly here. Finally a wargame everyone can enjoy! Players control fantasy civilizations with racial powers and randomly assigned special powers, and compete to conquer and hold the most territory for the longest time (the number of turns is fixed). When your current civilization inevitably grows overextended, you can tip your current one into decline and come back with a new one next turn. This mechanic means that no player is ever really out of it, as they can always abandon ship and hope for better luck with their next go-round. The theme and artwork are both fun and whimsical (with race/power combos like "Flying Halflings," "Seafaring Trolls," and "Merchant Amazons"), and the mechanics are simple enough to grasp that a bright 8-year old could play with a little help explaining the rules. This game is mediocre with 2 players, good with 3, and an absolute blast with 4-5 players. The game possesses a unique map for each number of players to ensure that you're cramped enough to force direct conflict. Currently my favorite game for 4-5 players.

2) Pandemic: This gem is a cooperative game where players are working together against the game to save the planet from four diseases that have broken out across the world. A theme everybody can approve of! Players must efficiently and effectively treat cases of diseases that spring up each turn, trying to keep them in check long enough to win by discovering the cures for all four. Each player is randomly assigned a role which comes with its own special ability, which lends the game a lot of variety. The rules are probably complex enough to take a single "practice" game to grasp if no one has played before, but it is well worth the effort. The game works has several difficulty settings, but is plenty challenging on Easy to keep me entertained. Pandemic is for 2-4 players, and works great as a two-player game. The more players you add, the harder the game gets on a given difficulty setting, so sometimes 4 players is a bit tough. With the addition of the On the Brink expansion, you get a bunch more roles, rules for a 5th player, and three game variants that can lend the base Pandemic almost infinite variety (including a bio-terrorist challenge that pits one player against the rest). Also, the expansion comes with petri dishes to store the pieces, which is just thematically awesome. Currently my favorite 2-3 player board game. (My wife would probably rank Pandemic #1, or possibly #2.)

3) Race for the Galaxy: This is a few years old, but I just discovered it this summer. In this quick-playing card game for 2-4 players, players compete indirectly to build the biggest, baddest interstellar empire on the galactic block. It takes only 20-30 minutes to play, but still manages to give an epic empire-building feel. The strategic depth is astounding; I've played it something like 200 times, and I still keep coming back for more. There are two downsides. The first downside is that the game is complicated. The very compact iconography on the cards is almost impenetrable to new players, and has little text to explain it without using the reference sheet. Also, the turn-phase choosing mechanic means that only some parts of the turn happen each round, depending on what the players choose. This is strange and hard to grasp at first. The second downside is that the learning curve is incredibly steep; it took me ~10 plays to really get the game, and decent strategy depends on knowing all the cards decently well. If you're geeky and/or dedicated enough to make it past these barriers to entry, you'll be rewarded with a game that manages the feat of being fun, strategically deep, and quick to play - an almost unheard-of combination. Currently my favorite card game for 2-3 players. Note: the first expansion, The Gathering Storm, is almost a necessary purchase to "fix" the base game - it includes a few cards that increase the viability of strategies that were very hard to pull off in the base game, as well as rules and cards for adding a fifth player, and a goal-based variant. The rest you can take or leave, depending on how much you like the game. You can find a free computerized AI implementation here (recommended, but the AIs are hard).

4) Dominion: This card game beat out Pandemic (above) for the prestigious 2009 Spiel des Jahres award. In this game, players are feudal lords of a few small estates, scheming to enlarge and enrich their respective "Dominions" by whatever means possible. Each player starts with a deck of ten cards containing three estates and seven coppers. During gameplay, players have the opportunity to purchase from 10 different piles of kingdom cards, which contain things like moats, smithies, markets, thieves, or witches. When cards are purchased, they go directly to the player's discard pile, and then eventually get shuffled into their deck. They can also purchase copper, silver, and gold (which are later used to purchase bigger/better things) or they can go straight for purchasing estates, duchies, and provinces, each of which is worth victory points. The game ends when three stacks of cards (or the stack of Provinces) run out, and the player whose deck has the most VPs wins. Since the game comes with 25 stacks kingdom cards, of which only 10 are used each game, the replayability is excellent. This game is fairly light and plays quickly, but is a great deal of fun. Simple enough that just about anybody can play, but deep enough to be fun for everybody. This game works for 2-4 players, and work well (if differently) with any of those numbers. There are many expansions available; none of them are necessary to enjoy the game, but if you like Dominion, you'll probably want to pick one or two up eventually. (This is the game that would probably vie with Pandemic for my wife's #1 game.)

5) Battlestar Galactica: This game is one for the super-geeky. The gameplay is complex, the rules are challenging to grasp, takes 3 hours to play, and the gameplay is almost too open-ended in the early game. But... it's a load of fun in a group of 4-6 players. I've never seen the show, so that's not a huge barrier to enjoying the game. The players are cooperating against the game to survive Cylon attacks and jump the Galactica to a new, safe home. Except that one of the players is a traitorous Cylon infiltrator! Each player is a unique character from the show with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. In the right group, this game is a load of fun; in the wrong one, it will crash and burn right out of the box.

Good Games:

6) Tobago: While I enjoy this game, it looked from the outside like it would be more fun than it really is. Players take on the role of treasure hunters on a mysterious island. By piecing together treasure map cards, treasures are located and brought up. The player who ends the game with the most loot wins. The treasure-locating works by players playing cards into treasure maps. Each card contains a logical assertion about the location of the treasure (e.g. not in jungle, within one hex of the beach, or within sight of a palm tree). For each card a player plays into a map, they will recieve one share of that treasure. The player who gets their Jeep to the treasures location and actually retrieves it gets an additional share. Then the treasure is distrubuted. Each player gets to look at a number of treasure cards (each worth 2-6 coins) from the deck equal to their shares, and then these are shuffled with one additional unseen one. They are then revealed one at a time and players are given chances to claim it based on when they added cards to the map. But watch out for the curse cards! If one comes up, the rest of the loot vanishes, and anyone with any claims left loses the highest-value treasure card they already had! Additionally, magical amulets appear periodically around the island, which can be used to protect against curses, gain extra turns, and other things. This game is nominally for 2-4 players, but is pretty boring with only 2. The modular board and mobile landmarks means that it can have essentially infinite configurations, and the components are positively outstanding. Tobago is an enjoyable game, but it's just not quite as good as those in the first category.

7) Dungeons and Dragons: Castle Ravenloft: This is a cooperative board game where players take on the role of a D&D adventuring party and are given a scenario (e.g. "find out what's causing the chaotic magic that's ruining the town and fix it", "escape the dungeon", or "kill the dracolich"). As players explore the crypts beneath Castle Ravenloft, they encounter monsters, traps, and magical items. The monsters and traps each have specific "programming" that they follow, which obviates the need for someone to control the monsters/traps/etc. I find it entertaining, but it certainly won't be to everyone's tastes. I suspect that any teenage boy with a working imagination would find this one fun, as it is mainly based around tactical combat using a very simple d20 system. The game is listed as for 1-5 players, and though I've only gotten a chance to play it solo thus far, I suspect it will work best for 2-4 players. It comes with 12 or so scenarios, and one can find a whole slew of additional fan-created ones online. The plastic minis the game uses are fun, but they are unpainted monochrome figures, so it's not the most visually appealing.

8) Aquarius: This is a very simple card game from Looney Labs (the makers of Fluxx). This is actually intended to be a family game, and comes with simplified rules that claim to be playable for children as young as 3 years old. This is a card-laying game where each player is tasked with assembling a group a seven connected cards containing the element that is their secret goal. There are also some cards which let you rearrange the current layout, swap goals, etc. This game plays in 20 minutes tops among adults, and is surprisingly fun for gamers and non-gamers alike. The artwork is cute, and has a bit of a hippie flower-power theme to amuse the adults. For the price (about $12 on Amazon), it's highly recommended. For 2-5 players.

Mediocre Games:

9) Chrononauts: In this time-travel themed game for 2-6 players (also from Looney Labs), players are trapped in our timeline and struggling to return to their own by rearranging events to come out the way they "should" have happened. The "board" is a 4 x 8 grid of cards composed of linchpins and ripplepoints. If a player flips a linchpin to its alternate outcome, the related ripplepoints become paradoxes, which can then be patched with their own alternate outcome cards. For example, one can flip the 1936 linchpin card, and Hitler gets assassinated at the Berlin Olympics, which then paradoxes the 1939, 1942, 1944, 1945 ripplepoints related to the European theater of WWII and the 1948 ripplepoint - the foundation of Israel; then a player can play a patch on 1945 wherein instead of dropping A-bombs, the Allies invade the Japanese home islands. But watch out for the unpatched paradoxes - too many paradoxes will cause the universe itself to unravel and everyone loses! Players also have missions to collect some tongue-in-cheek artifacts while traveling through time, like a Betamax Video of the Creation of the Universe, a Sports Almanac from the Future, or a Beatles Reunion CD (only playable if Lennon wasn't assassinated). A player can win by restoring their "home" timeline or by collecting their set of 3 artifacts. I love the theme, but the game just doesn't quite do it for me for some reason. I think it's just a bit too slow-paced for my taste. They've just released a reworking of the game which licensed the Back to the Future movies for the theme, and it's supposed to be better, so I may have to give that a shot.

10) Infernal Contraption: This game is fun, but for me the shine has worn off, revealing some deep flaws. Designed for 2-4 players, the players take on the role of goblins attempting to build the best kludged-together machine from whatever parts they can find. These parts remove cards from your opponent's deck and/or hand, add cards to your deck, or mess with your opponent's machine. The last player with any cards left in his deck wins. The mechanics of playing cards into the machine and needing to match part connectors, and keep devices powered are a blast, and I love the theme. Unfortunately, the game is far too spiteful for my taste in group play, as it's very susceptible to ganging-up issues. Also, one of the cards is ludicrously overpowered. With this lack of balance, I can only endorse it as a two-player game, with a couple house rules to help balance it.


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