With Halloween just around the corner, I think it’s a good time to review

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Dead of Winter is a fairly new game from Plaid Hat Games that was designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac Vega.  The game is for 2-5 players, and lasts around two hours.  Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative zombie game, two descriptors that typically make me walk the other way.  This one, however, is different.

In the game, each player is deal four characters, from which they choose two.  A scenario is chosen that outlines the conditions under which the team will win.  Each player is also dealt a secret objective that is a condition they personally must fulfill for them to win.  So if the team wins and you don’t complete your objective, you lose.  One of these secret objectives may identify someone as a betrayer, and their goal is to make the team lose while fulfilling some other objective.

The game takes place in a compound, and everyone begins in the main colony.  There are six other locations on separate cards, each with its own search deck.  The game will last a certain number of rounds based on the scenario.  At the start of each round, a crisis is revealed.  This tells you what horrible thing will happen at the end of the round if a certain number of cards are not collected on the player turns.  After this, each player rolls all of their dice – one per character they control plus one.  Now, in clockwise order, beginning with the player who holds the knife, players take their turns.

On your turn, you can do a number of different actions, both to help with the main objective and to help with your own.  Some of these dice will be used for your actions, and some actions do not need a die.

  • Attack  a zombie or another survivor.  Use a die that equals or exceeds the attack value of the character you’re using.  A zombie dies automatically, but you then have to roll the twelve-sided exposure die.  Your character could take a wound, your character could get frostbite (which gives you wounds each round unless cured), or your character could die outright.
  • Search the deck at a location your character is at.  Use a die that equals or exceeds your character’s search value.  Draw the top card of the deck.  If you like it, keep it.  If not, you can make noise to look again.  You can do this as many times as you have actions, but you can only keep one card.  Noise attracts zombies at the end of the round.
  • Barricade an entrance by spending any die and placing a token.  It means zombies now have an extra barrier to entry – they break it the first time, then enter the second time.
  • Clean Waste by spending any die and remove the top three cards from the waste pile.  If the waste pile is 10 or more at the end of the round, you lose morale.
  • Attract two zombies to entrance spaces at your current location by spending a die.  Why would you do this?  Well, if too many zombies show up somewhere, they start killing characters.
  • Use your survivor ability.  This may or may not need a die.
  • Play a card from your hand.  You can do this as many times as you like, and don’t have to spend a die.
  • Add a card to the crisis.  Again, no die is needed, and you can do as many as you like.
  • Move a survivor.  This is another free action – sort of.  If you move, you’ll need to roll the exposure die, which could result in a wound, frostbite, or immediate death.  You could use fuel to move without danger.
  • Spend food from the supply to increase a die by one per food spent.  Be aware that you need one food for every survivor left at the colony at the end of the round.
  • Request a card from anyone.  If they give it to you, you must spend it immediately – no hoarding it for your objective.
  • Hand off equipment to another player in your location.
  • Vote to Exile.  If you believe someone is a betrayer, you can initiate a vote to exile them.  If you are exiled, you get a new exiled objective.  If two people who are NOT the betrayer get exiled, the team loses.

The other thing that could happen on your turn is that a Crossroads card could be triggered.  At the start of your turn, the player on your right draws a Crossroads card, and if the condition on the card occurs during the turn, they stop you and read the card.  It generally will give you a choice, but you’ll know both outcomes, and you choose what happens.

At the end of the round, feed the survivors that remain at the colony.  Each survivor you cannot feed gains a starvation token, and morale will go down per present starvation token.  Next, check the waste, decreasing morale by one per 10 cards.  Next, check the crisis.  If you accrued the correct number of cards, you successfully passed it.  If you did not, or you did with some extra junk, you fail and suffer the consequences.  After this, add zombies – one per two survivors at the colony, one per survivor in a non-colony location, and then roll to see how many were attracted by noise.  At this point, you will then check to see if the main objective was passed during the round.  If so, everyone who also completed their personal objective wins.  Otherwise, start a new round.  If morale ever hits zero, or if you run out of rounds, you lose.

COMPONENTS: There’s a lot of stuff in this game –  304 cards, 144 tokens, 60 survivor and zombie standees, 60 plastic stands for the standees, a board, six location cards, and 31 dice.  And everything is pretty good quality.  The layout of the board and cards is clear and easy to understand once you understand the mechanisms of the game.  Everything has the typical Plaid Hat quality – they really do the work in making sure their games are functional.

One thing I do want to mention is the cardboard standees that you use for the characters and zombies.  In this era of miniatures, it’s odd to see a game that uses cardboard instead of plastic for the people in the game.  But with so much stuff, I’m sure miniatures would have skyrocketed the price well over $100.  It’s $60 as it is.  I’ve never really been into miniatures – they’re nice, but I think cardboard works just as well.  The standees are all solid – it’s not flimsy cardboard.  So I’m fine with them, I just wanted to mention it.

Overall, the components are outstanding.  Great, not too graphic art; high quality bits; and a very good layout.

THEME: Zombies.  Zombies are everywhere.  We don’t need another zombie game.  But we got one.  And I think this game uses the theme better than most zombie games.  The game is really about the characters, with zombies as a major backdrop.  They are there, but they aren’t the main focus.  The stories and character development that you discover throughout the game are really what makes the theme shine.  It’s not something like Zombies!!! that’s just about mindless zombie killing, there’s some narrative depth here.  The Crossroads cards really help to build the story as well.  So yes, despite the presence of zombies, the theme is really strong in this game.

MECHANICS: There are a lot of unique things going on in this game.  I’ll start with the characters.  Most games out there have players controlling one character.  That character may have special abilities or limitations, but each player IS that character.  In DoW, you are controlling several characters, and you’re not any one of them.  You are some mysterious puppet master that is dividing up your actions based on what needs to be done and what you can do.  This guy is better at fighting, so I’m going to leave him in the colony so he can take out the hordes of zombies that will show up at the end of every turn, but this lady is better at searching, so she’ll head out to the locations.  It’s an interesting balance that you have to use to your advantage.  You have the potential throughout the game to gain more characters, so that’s another cool aspect.

The action selection method is pretty unique as well.  You have action points in a sense – your dice mark how many actions can be done (at least those that require a die), but there are still plenty of actions you can do that do not require a die.

The exposure die is probably going to be the most controversial part of the game – I can see a lot of people having a problem with it.  When you move without fuel or fight a zombie, you have to roll this 12-sided die.  There’s a 50% chance that nothing will happen.  However, three of the sides give you a wound, and if your character collects too many, he/she dies.  That’s not so bad.  Two of the sides are frostbite, which gives you a wound every turn unless cured.  That’s also not so bad since you can cure it, and others can give you the medicine necessary.  One side of the die is a tooth, and if you roll that, your character has been bitten and dies immediately.  Not only that, the character with the lowest initiative number in the same location must also roll the exposure die.  So a chain reaction resulting in the deaths of every character in a location could potentially occur.  I personally don’t have a problem with this mechanism – you’re not eliminated from the game since you have several characters.  It is also highly thematic – zombies are unpredictable and relentless.  However, the randomness here does rub some people the wrong way.

The game is semi-cooperative, and I think it works better than most other games in that genre.  This isn’t just a case where everyone has one goal, but maybe someone has another.  Nor is it a case where everyone has to work together to beat the game and then you award the victory to one player.  This is a brilliant mashup of the two.  Everyone has a personal goal that must be fulfilled in order to win, but no one can win unless the main objective is also completed (except the betrayer).  So you can try to stretch out the game to your own purposes, but others who have completed their objectives are trying to finish it quickly.  You can try to exile someone you think is intentionally slowing you down, but you can’t use that too often or you’ll lose.  It works a lot better for me than something like Marvel Legendary or Castle Panic.  I think it even works better than Battlestar Galactica.  There is the potential problem that people will tank the game because they can’t win, but that’s not so much a problem with the game as it is a problem with the gamer.

Most other parts of the game are fairly standard.  You search a deck by drawing the top card.  You can make noise to draw more (though you can only keep one).  You can move anywhere, but only once per round.  The crisis is reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica.  Keep an eye on the waste so you don’t lose morale.

The final mechanism I want to talk about here is the Crossroads cards, and I think this is probably the best thing about the game.  This gives an uncertain event that could happen at any point during your turn, and gives the player on your right something to do while waiting for your turn to end.  These events could be tough choices, or could be quite obvious, or could really not be a choice at all.  It’s just building the story.  Some people have complained that you hear the results of each option before making your choice, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It’s not really a strategic opportunity, just adding to the overall narrative.  It’s also very exciting to be holding a Crossroads card and waiting for a character to do something.

Overall, this game is very strong mechanically.  There are lots of unique aspects that make it feel different than anything else I’ve played.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This is a game that is highly dependent on luck.  There’s luck of the draw in searching for cards, and in the crises that come up.  There’s luck of the dice as you are rolling to figure out what actions are possible, and also for exposure.  There’s also luck in how the Crossroads cards come out – a lot of them will never be triggered simply because they come out at the wrong moment.  There are ways to mitigate the luck throughout, and there are plenty of strategic elements.  You can determine what characters you need to activate, and in what order. You do have to figure out what actions will be most beneficial, and what cards you can use that won’t injure your hopes for finishing your objective.  But luck does play a major role in the game.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not really a game I would introduce to new players.  I might be willing to use it as a next step game, but I think I would put it more in the advanced game category.  There’s just a lot of unusual mechanisms in play here that may confuse someone not familiar with how modern games work.  I think it is fairly intuitive once you get it, and since the game is so tied to the theme, that helps.  But I think I would only pull this out with experienced gamers.

REPLAYABILTY: This game comes with a lot of scenarios to play out, as well as a ton of secret objectives and Crossroads cards.  As a result, the game is very replayable.  I highly doubt any two games will ever feel the same.

SCALABILITY: Dead of Winter plays with 2-5 people, but this is a case where I think more is better.  The intrigue of possibly having a betrayer and working together for a common purpose works better the more people you have.  BGG says the sweet spot is four, but I’ve only played it with five and thought it was great every time.  Some have complained about down time in the game, but I never felt like I wasn’t involved when playing.  True, there’s nothing really to do when it isn’t your turn (unless you have the Crossroads card), but you’re still planning your next move and offering advice to other players.  I don’t see down time as a problem with the game at all.

FOOTPRINT: This is a pretty expansive game.  The board, locations, and player setups all take up quite a bit of space.  This is definitely not a go-anywhere game, but rather a let’s-pull-out-the-big-table type of game.

LEGACY: In comparing this game to other zombie games I have played, this is clearly the best.  In comparing this to other semi-cooperative games I have played, this is clearly the best.  In comparing this to Battlestar Galactica, which I think is the most comparable game, I think that Dead of Winter is better.  BSG does its theme very well, but I think that DoW provides a better play experience.  For me, it has out Battlestarred Galactica.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  This is the best game of the year for me right now.  It’s engaging, it’s innovative, and it’s fun.  I never thought I’d be so excited about a semi-cooperative zombie game, but it just goes to show you how you can never count anything out.  Thanks for reading!

Game Buzz: Four for 400

It’s my 400th post!  And so I’m going to do a super sized Game Buzz today, going into detail about four games that just came out and were big hits at Spiel last week.  Let’s do this alphabetically.

image by BGG user Jajina

image by BGG user Jajina

We’ll start of with Alchemists, the newest title from Czech Games Edition.  The game was designed by Matúš Kotry, is for 2-4 players, and takes about 90 minutes.  In the game, you are alchemists looking to discover the secrets of potion making through experimentation.  One of the features of the game is a smartphone app that is used to randomly assign alchemicals to ingredients.  Of course, you can also use a gamemaster to keep track of the various combinations, but they are not involved in the game.

image by BGG user Jajina

image by BGG user Jajina

Alchemists is played over six rounds.  At the start of each round, players choose turn order.  This acts much the same as in Fresco – the later you go, the more favor and/or ingredient cards you get, but you’re at a slight disadvantage.  Beginning with the lowest player on the turn order track (the one who took the most cards), each player declares their actions.  Declaring later allows you to react to what everyone else is doing.  When choosing, you place action cubes on the corresponding spots of the action board.  There are eight possible actions, with three of them only available after the first round.

  • Forage for Ingredient: Take a face-up ingredient card or draw one from the deck.  Face-up cards are not replenished, and any leftovers are discarded after everyone has taken this action.
  • Transmute Ingredient: Discard an ingredient card and take one gold.
  • Buy an Artifact: Pay gold for an artifact card that will give you special abilities during the game.
  • Test a Potion on a Student: To mix a potion, you choose two ingredients, then scan them with the app (or check with the gamemaster).  The app will tell you what kind of potion it made.  It will be positive or negative.  You show the results (but not the ingredients) and mark the result on your results triangle.  Students are good to test potions on because you don’t have to suffer negative effects.  However, as soon as he drinks a negative potion, all future potions for the remainder of the round will cost one gold to drink.
  • Test a Potion on Yourself: You never have to pay gold to drink a potion yourself, but you do suffer negative consequences.  A potion of insanity (blue negative) loses you a point of reputation.  A potion of paralysis (green negative) means you will play last in the next round.  Poison (red negative) means you have one less cube to use next round.
  • Sell Potion: This action is only available from the second round on.  Adventurers will be trying to buy potions, and you will be trying to match them with what the adventurer wants.  You offer a guarantee, then mix the potion and see if you get paid.  You can try to be first for this action by offering a discount.
  • Publish a Theory: Again, another one only available from the second round on.  As you mix ingredients, you will be trying to figure out the alchemical symbol, which is a cluster of three circles (red-blue-green) that are positive or negative and could be small or large.  I’m not going into the ways they work because I honestly don’t quite understand it myself yet.  However, when you think you have something figured out (or want to beat someone else to the punch), you can publish a theory.  This costs you a gold, but gains you a reputation.  You can also endorse another’s theory, paying them a gold and gaining no reputation.  If another player later endorses it, you also get paid.  Having your seal on a theory can help you with being awarded grants, which gain you immediate gold and also VPs at the end of the game.
  • Debunk a Theory: Here, you try to show that someone jumped the gun on publishing.  You use the app to show that an aspect is incorrect.  If you are right, you gain two reputation and anyone with a seal on the theory is at risk of losing reputation.  If you are wrong, you lose one reputation for wasting everyone’s time.

After the sixth round (in which there is an exhibition), you perform a final scoring, then reveal the answers to see if theories are correct.  The player who has gained the most points (reputation plus artifacts plus grants plus one point per three gold) is the winner.

CGE is pretty much the Pixar of the board game world.  They always come out with high quality, creative, unique games, and this looks to be no exception.  From the buzz at Spiel, this game is fantastic.  It’s definitely one that I’m really excited to try sometime.  I like that it is a very logical game, and is really trying to approach deduction in a new way.  I know some people are upset that it uses an app, but I’m personally happy to see that games are starting to embrace some digital technology while remaining analog experiences.  Alchemists was my most anticipated game before the fair, and it still is.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Moving on now to Colt Express, the new game from designer Christophe Raimbault and Ludonaute Games.  This is a game all about a train robbery for 2-6 players that lasts about 30 minutes.  You are armed bandits who have boarded the Union Pacific Express to rob patrons and possibly steal a strongbox containing lots of cash, but that happens to be under the supervision of the Marshal.

image by BGG user ludo naute

image by BGG user ludo naute

The most striking feature of Colt Express is that it has a 3D, six-car, one-locomotive train that you set up and use as your playing surface.  Players begin the game in the last two cars of the train, and try to collect loot throughout.  The beginning of each round is a Schemin’ phase, where players choose the actions they want to play for the round.  You begin with a hand of six cards, and in turn order may play one face up into a common pile.  You can also choose to pass and draw an additional three cards to your hand.  Depending on the round, there will be a certain number of turns before the phase ends, and the Stealin’ phase begins.

In the Stealin’ phase, the first player flips over the common deck and begins revealing cards one by one.  Players must resolve their action, even if they don’t want to anymore.  Here are the possible actions:

  • Move: Move your bandit from one car to an adjacent car.  If you are on the roof, you can move up to three cars.
  • Floor Change: If you are in the train, move to the roof.  If you are on the roof, move inside the train.
  • Marshal: Move the Marshal one car in the direction of your choice.  He always stays inside the train.  If the Marshal moves into a car with a bandit, that bandit escapes to the roof and receives a neutral bullet card for his deck.
  • Fire: Choose an opponent and give them a bullet card for their deck.  You only have six of these for the entire game – no reloading.  Inside the train, you can target a bandit in an adjacent car, but not one in the same car as you.  On the roof, you can shoot any bandit on another car that you can see (meaning that no other bandit stands between you).
  • Robbery: Take a loot token from the car you are in/on and put it face down on your character card.
  • Punch: Choose a bandit in your space.  They drop a loot token in their space and are knocked to an adjacent car.

After five rounds of play, the richest player wins.

This game sounds like a lot of fun.  It’s pretty much just running around trying to collect tokens and beating on your neighbors.  I don’t know that there’s too much strategy to it, especially with the healthy amount of chaos provided by the initial program of actions (I love the common deck concept – it’s reminiscent of Mamma Mia).  Most of all, I love that there’s a train.  Ludonaute easily could have designed cards to represent the train, but going that extra mile in components makes this game stand out and will make it great bait when set up.  So this is definitely another that I’m looking forward to.

image by BGG user sebduj

image by BGG user sebduj

Deus has been bouncing back and forth on my interest list, but after it finished #3 on the GeekBuzz at Spiel, I thought I should look into it a little more.  Deus was designed by Sébastien Dujardin and is published by Pearl Games, previously best known for Troyes (which was co-designed by Dujardin).  This one is for 2-4 players and takes 75 minutes to complete.  The idea is that you are the leader of an ancient civilization trying to develop your empire through exploration and through divine intervention.

image by BGG user sebduj

image by BGG user sebduj

Deus is played on a modular board made up of 4-7 continent tiles, each consisting of seven terrain spaces.  You’d expect these spaces to be hexagonal, but they aren’t.  They’re round with little points to fill in the gaps.  They look really nice, and this is really what most captures my attention about the game.  On your turn in the game, you can either construct a building or make an offering to the gods.

To construct a building, you play a standard building or temple card from your hand.  Standard building cards go in their colored column of your player board and cost resources to build, with a matching wooden piece placed in an empty region of the board.  Temples are placed in regions you already control, with the first one played for free and each subsequent only played if you have standard buildings of each color.  You may be able to attack barbarians after doing this.

The other thing you can do on your turn is make an offering to the gods.  To do this, discard as many cards as you wish and put them face up in the discard pile.  Other players will only know what the top card you discarded is, and this card is used to determine which god you are invoking.  Neptune (blue) gains you two gold per discarded card, as well as a maritime building.  Ceres (green) gains you one resource per discarded card, as well as a production building.  Minerva (yellow) gains you a scientific building, and you get to draw an extra card at the end of the phase.  Vesta (brown) gains 1 VP for one discarded card and 2 for 2+, as well as a civil building.  Mars (red) gains one building of your choice per discarded card.  Jupiter (purple) allows you to use the power of any other god – he’s a wild card.  After using the god’s ability, draw up to five cards (six if you used Minerva).

The game is almost over when all temples have been constructed, or when all barbarian villages have been attacked.  You finish the current round, then play one final round.  Players add up their points to find the winner.

This is basically a Euro 4X game.  You’ve got Xplore as you look for new building materials.  You’ve got Xpand as you spread out your buildings.  You’ve got Xploit as you gain resources and use them for more stuff.  You’ve got Xterminate as you attack barbarians who don’t really do anything other than take up space on the board.  So yeah.  Euro 4X.  It seems good, but I’m still mostly attracted to the components.  I guess it remains to be seen if it would be a game I’d enjoy.

image by BGG user anovac

image by BGG user anovac

Progress: Evolution of Technology was not on my radar until it showed up in the top ten of GeekBuzz.  It ended up #13, but I thought I’d like to look deeper into it.  The game was designed Agnieszka Kopera and Andrei Novac, and was published by NSKN Games.  It’s a 1-5 player experience that takes 90 minutes to play.  It’s essentially another civilization game, but one where you’re ONLY expanding via technologies, not worrying about the extermination or exploration or exploitation.  We’ll call it a 1X game.

image by BGG user EndersGame

image by BGG user EndersGame

Progress is a card-driven game with boards that track the various stats.  Each player starts with a hand of cards from Age I (there are three ages).  To begin with, you get two actions on your turn.  There are five different actions to choose from.

  • You can DISCOVER by paying a cost in science, culture, or engineering to bring a new technology into play.  There are also technologies that, if discovered, allow you to bring in certain future technologies for free.  For example, if you discover writing, you can bring in alphabet for free without having to pay the science cost.
  • You can RESEARCH by setting a card to the side and marking it with some tokens according to your research speed, which begins at five.  That means that, in that many turns, you can bring the technology into play at the start of the turn without spending an action.  It’s just slow.
  • You can do a QUICK DRAW, the number of which is indicated by a track on your player board.  This means you can draw a certain number of cards, then discard a certain number of cards.  It starts at 1/0, then goes to 2/1, 3/2, and so on.
  • You can do a SHUFFLE AND DRAW, which means you shuffle the discard pile back into its age deck and draw a certain number of cards (again marked on a track on your board).
  • You can do a DRAW action, which allows you to draw more cards, but ends your turn.

The game ends once enough technologies have been played to advance the game to Age IV.  At this point, you add up your score, gaining bonuses for having the most prestige, population, and army, as well as points from your player board and technology cards.  The player with the most points is the winner.

If I’m being honest, the tech tree is probably my favorite part of a civilization game.  I love being able to start with basic knowledge and work my way up to more advanced techs.  So a game that is just that really appeals to me.  And it seems like it’s pretty fun.  As I said, it was off my radar before Spiel, but now that I know about it, it’s something I really want to try.

And there you have it.  Four new games that all look interesting in their own way.  Thanks for reading!


Today, I review the game that gave birth to the microgame/pocket game craze:

image by BGG user edbolme

image by BGG user edbolme

Love Letter is a game designed by Seiji Kanai that was originally published by Kanai Factory and Japon Brand.  AEG picked it up for the US, and it was that pickup that really launched the game’s popularity.  The game is for 2-4 players, and takes 20 minutes to play.  The idea of the game is that you are trying to deliver tokens of affection to the princess, but you have to use the people around her to make sure she gets yours and only yours.

The game itself only comes with 16 cards and 13 red cubes (as well as four reference cards, the rules, and a nice velvet bag to carry the game in).  You shuffle up the cards and remove one, then deal one card to each player.  On your turn, you draw a card, then play a card.  Each card will do something different based on its type:

  1. The Guard allows you to pick one other player and try to guess the card they have.  You can’t name Guard.
  2. The Priest allows you to look at the card of another player.
  3. The Baron allows you to compare hands with another player.  The player with the lower value is out of the round.
  4. The Handmaid protects you from others until your next turn.
  5. The Prince allows you to choose someone to discard their card and draw a new one.  You can choose yourself.
  6. The King allows you to trade hands with another player.
  7. The Countess does nothing.  However, if you have the King or a Prince in your hand with the Countess, you must discard the Countess.
  8. The Princess does nothing.  If you discard her, you are out of the round.

A round continues until all but one player have been eliminated, or until all cards have been drawn.  At that point, the player with the highest valued card left in their hand wins the round.  The round winner gets a token of affection (red cube).  You then start a new round.  The first person to a certain number of cubes (4 in a 4-player game, 5 in a 3-player game, or 7 in a two-player game) is the winner.

COMPONENTS: As I mentioned, there are very few components here.  Sixteen cards and thirteen cubes, and that’s everything you need.  The cards are very well illustrated in the style of the Tempest games (more on that in a moment), and are good quality.  The Princess was apparently designed by a twelve-year-old since she’s kind of falling out of her dress.  Also, the Prince looks like Brad Pitt.  Or Robert Redford, depending on what generation you’re talking to.

My favorite component in the game is the velvet bag.  It’s quite lovely, and makes an attractive carrying case for such a small game.  Saves me having to find a baggie or make a tuck box.  There are editions that come in a box that do not have a bag, but I suggest finding a bag.

THEME: AEG’s version of the game was set in the Tempest universe, a shared world they were really trying to push that year.  The theme is not strictly necessary, but they were able to fit it into their theme pretty well – the Princess’ mother was arrested in a previous title, so her wooers are trying to comfort her.  The original version was just a random kingdom.  But now, AEG is licensing the game out and all kinds of weird themes are popping up – Legend of the Five Rings, Adventure Time, a Wedding edition, Munchkin…this should prove that the theme isn’t terribly important to the game.

MECHANICS: Love Letter is a very stripped down role selection game.  You have two roles in your hand, and you choose one of them.  It’s not the same as the role selection in Puerto Rico, but each character you play has ramifications on the game.  It can be a tough decision sometimes.  The roles are all fairly well balanced – the Priest is the only one I think is kind of useless, but all others have some good strategies associated with them.

The other big mechanism in the game is player elimination.  Yes, you can be knocked out of the game.  However, the game is so short, you’ll be right back in it for the next round in no time.  So it’s not really an issue.

STRATEGY LEVEL: For so few cards, there’s a surprising amount of strategy in the game.  You are going to be subject to luck.  There’s nothing worse than being caught by a random guess with the Guard on the first play of the game.  On the other hand, there’s nothing better than catching someone with a random guess by the Guard on the first play of the game.  Beyond that, there’s deduction elements as you try to logically figure out what someone else has to determine if you can get away with a Baron, or maybe making them discard their hand with the Prince.  Or, if you have the Countess, sometimes it can be advantageous to discard to make people think you have a Prince or King.

The big thing that keeps you on your toes in the game is that one card is removed.  So you know something isn’t in the deck, but you don’t know what.  This makes it a guessing game, but one that you can logically figure out and play the odds.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is an easy game to learn.  You can teach it in a couple of minutes, and everyone will understand.  It’s very accessible, and one I’d probably put easily in the Gateway category.  It looks nice enough, particularly with the velvet bag, that you could also consider it as a good Bait game.

REPLAYABILITY: This game is very replayable, which again is kind of shocking considering how little is in the box.  It plays quickly, which helps.  Plus, the inherent uncertainty of the distribution means that people will happily play up to 13 rounds in a row (which is the maximum length of a game), and may even want to play multiple games.  A lot of replayabilty here.

SCALABILITY: Love Letter plays with 2-4 players.  I really like the game with 4, but 3 works well too.  The 2-player version is also fun, but it’s a little different since three extra cards are taken out of the deck.  These three are revealed, so both players know they aren’t available.  It adds an interesting layer, but I think I still prefer to play with more players.

FOOTPRINT: I think I’ve made the point already that this is a very small game.  It takes up hardly any room in storage or on the table.  This is definitely a game you can play in some pretty tight spaces.

LEGACY: Love Letter launched the current microgame craze, which honestly has gotten a little out of hand.  The games are cheap to produce and fairly trendy, so I think a lot of substandard titles are getting out there.  Still, I think Love Letter has earned its place in the pantheon of influential games, especially since it’s just that good.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  If you haven’t played, do.  It’s fast, it’s simple, and it’s surprisingly deep for its tiny size.  And it only costs $10.  Thanks for reading!

With Spiel 2014 going on right now, let’s look at a Eurogame from five years ago:

imaqge by BGG user binraix

imaqge by BGG user binraix

Alea Iacta Est was first published in 2009 as #5 in alea’s Medium Box line.  alea is the publisher, with Rio Grande publishing in the US.  The game was designed by Jeffrey D. Allers and Bernd Eisenstein, is for 2-5 players, and takes around an hour to play.  The phrase “Alea Iacta Est” is Latin for “The die is cast”, and it makes sense because this is a dice game set in ancient Rome.  Players are all trying to be Caesar and trying to gain the most fame.

The game comes with 40 colored dice, eight for each player.  You also get five cardboard buildings (Templum, Senatus, Castrum, Forum, and Latrina), 19 Senate tiles, 25 Province tiles, 36 Patrician tiles, 30 Fortune tokens, 30 reroll chips, and a start player marker.  The game is set up differently with different numbers of players.  You’ll always use the Senatus, Castrum, Forum, and Latrina, but you only use the Templum in 4-5 player games.  Also, the Forum consists of up to five puzzle pieces.  With two players, you use the first piece (showing three columns) and the end piece (which has one column and a solid right edge).  For each player above that, you add one puzzle piece.  Each player gets eight dice in their color, and one player gets the start token.

On your turn, you roll all of your dice, then choose some to place in one of the five buildings.  There are different conditions to enter each, and each does something different for you.

  • The first person to place in the Templum adds one die of any value and takes a Fortune token.  The next person adds two dice that add up to more than the original die and takes two Fortune tokens.  The third person adds three dice that add up to more than the two dice and takes three Fortune tokens.  And so on.  On a later turn, you can add on to dice you already placed, but you only gain one Fortune per die you added.  At the end of the round, the player with the most dice in the Templum can keep two of their tokens, and everyone else can keep one.  Fortune tokens are valued 1-3.
  • To place in the Senatus, you add a sequence of dice, such as 2-3-4 or 5-6.  You could even add a single die if you wanted.  The only rule is that you can’t add a sequence that is already there.  You can add to a sequence later, or you can start a new one if you wish.  At the end of the round, the player with the longest/highest valued sequence draws three Senate cards, chooses one, then passes the other two to the player with the second best sequence.  In a five-player game, the final card goes to the third best sequence, and in a two-player game, only the best sequence gets a card.  These provide extra secret scoring opportunities for the people who hold them.
  • To place in the Castrum, you add a set of identical dice, like 3-3-3 or 4-4.  You could even add a single die if you wanted.  As with the Senatus, you can’t add a set that is the same as a present set, and you can add to a set later or start a new set.  At the end of the round, the player with the largest/highest valued set gets first choice of Provinces – there is one per player available.  Then the second best chooses, and so on.  Provinces will score the points printed on them at the end of the game, or one less if no Patrician is allocated there.
  • In the Forum, you can either add a single die or two dice that add up to five (1-4 or 2-3).  The lower dice go to the front of the line.  If there are other dice of that value, the new die goes in front, pushing the others back.  It is entirely possible that dice will get pushed into the Latrina if there’s no space in the Forum.  The owner of the die at the front of the line gets first choice of Patricians, which get allocated to locations.  Patricians not allocated to Provinces at the end of the game score zero points, otherwise they score what is printed.  Each Province can hold one man and one woman of its color.
  • You’ll hardly ever willingly go to the Latrina, unless you’re out of options.  However, every die in the Latrina gets you a reroll token which can be spent to reroll any dice you just rolled that you choose, or can be saved until the end of the game for points.

After rolling, the buildings are resolved in the order I just gave.  The start player marker passes to the left and a new round begins.  After the fifth round, Patricians are allocated to provinces and bonuses are scored.  The player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: The dice in the game (called cubic luck bringers on the box for some reason) are plastic, and measure about half an inch wide.  They are small, which is good because you have to roll eight at once.  The colors are fairly easily discernible to me, but I don’t know how a color blind person would do with them – there’s blue, brown, gray, green, and gold.  In addition to the dice, there are the five cardboard buildings, which are all fairly solid, and a bunch of smaller tokens.  The reroll tokens are pretty small, but the others are a good size for what they are.  The included insert in the game is very generic and does not fit what comes in the box at all.  I threw mine out almost as soon as I first opened the box.  But that means you’re going to have to come up with your own storage solutions.

The art in the game is kind of cartoony.  Not silly, just not overly serious.  There aren’t really any jokes in the art, other than the Latrina is full of people sitting on the toilet.  And even that is fairly tastefully done – if you didn’t know that the Latrina was a toilet, you’d think they were just sitting around.

Overall, the components in this game are very nice.

THEME: There’s not much of a theme here.  They did make an effort to tie the theme to the gameplay – making offerings to the temple and trying to outdo previous offerers; building “roads” for the Senate; putting together armies in the Castrum to conquer provinces; trying to have the most influence in the Forum to attract the wealthiest Patricians; and going to the Latrina to gain knowledge as it was a social time.  However, you don’t think about it too much as you play.  It’s nice to tie everything together with certain concepts, but in the end, you’re placing dice and trying to come up with the most valuable tiles.

MECHANICS: Alea Iacta Est is a dice allocation game.  You roll the dice, then choose where to place them.  The allocation aspects here are similar to Kingsburg, where you are rolling your dice before assigning them in groups rather than one at a time (though you can assign one at a time).  You have eight dice, which initially gives you a lot of choice, but as your dice decrease in quantity, you’ll often find yourself wishing you had done something else.

I’ve been growing to seriously dislike the mechanism where everyone gets the same number of turns.  However, I think it works fairly well here.  You can keep an eye on a person’s dice pile and try to not get caught with too many left over when the round ends.  Hopefully, it’s not unexpected that a round will end.  In my first games, I had everyone just keep going until they had all used their dice, but I think this way works better because it really emphasizes resource management.

There’s some area control here as you’re trying to get the best reward from each building.  There’s also set collection as you try to get the right Patricians for the right Provinces.  But it’s the dice allocation that really drives the game, and it works really well.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Despite the inherent randomness of having a dice game, there really is a lot of strategy to be had here.  It’s often particularly tough to decide what to do from your first roll.  Do you just put a die in the Templum and see what happens from there?  How long of a sequence should you put in the Senatus, or how big of a set in the Castrum?  When should you start trying to get in the Forum, knowing everyone after you is just going to try to push you out?  Should you just accept a trip to the Latrina for the reroll token?  And most importantly, how hard should you push to get first choice?  Is someone going to take what you need if you’re not first?  For a dice rolling game, there is a lot of strategy present.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a tough game to learn, but it’s definitely one that I think is a little beyond new gamers.  There are some foreign concepts here, particularly the dice allocation aspects.  I’d say that it’s a very good choice for a next step game.

REPLAYABILITY: The randomness of the Patrician and Province tiles, as well as the way the dice roll help increase the replayability of the game.  However, games can still tend to feel like each other.  It’s not a game I want to play all the time, but I don’t mind playing every now and then.

SCALABILITY: This game plays with 2-5, but I tend to think that more is better.  I’d rather player with 4 or 5 than 2 or 3 simply because you get to use the Templum.  The five player game can drag if people have serious AP, but the game is generally fairly quick.

FOOTPRINT: This game doesn’t take up a whole lot of space on the table.  The five buildings aren’t huge.  Each player needs some space to put their stuff as they collect it, but you really don’t need to allocate anything until the end of the game.  So I think this game would be OK on a smallish table – not a tiny one, but it doesn’t have to be too big.  Oh, also leave room for rolling dice.  Or roll in the box.

LEGACY: Alea Iacta Est is a pretty good dice allocation game.  It’s very Euro in nature, but has a lot of good and unique ideas that separate if from something like Kingsburg or Alien Frontiers.  So I think it’s worth having even if you have those others in your collection.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  It’s a highly strategic dice game that is pretty fun.  It has good interaction as players try to outdo each other, and lots of decisions to be made about how to distribute your dice.  I do recommend it.  Thanks for reading!

On Thursday, the biggest game show in the world opens – Spiel, held annually in Essen, Germany.  Every year, a ton of games get released, and it’s hard to sort them all out.  So today, I’m providing you with my second annual ESSEN PREVIEW SPECTACULAR!!!  I’ve combed through the Essen preview list at BGG, and picked out a select few games that I’m interested in.  Actually, I have 55 games on my list.  I’m not going to go into a lot of depth on these.  I’m just going to mention most of them with a comment or two.  I’ve picked out 11 that I want to talk about more, so I’ll provide some more background on those.  So, let’s get started – this list is organized by publisher.  (I will mention that there are several games not included on this list because I’ve already talked about them on the blog, such as Castles of Mad King Ludwig)

  • 2F-Spiele: Friedemann Friese usually has some very interesting things to look at, but his company isn’t really putting anything new out this year.  There’s a 10th anniversary edition of Power Grid, as well as a reprint of his 1997 game Fresh Fish.  I don’t know much about Fresh Fish, but I know people have wanted a reprint for a while, and now they’ll be getting one.
  • AEG: AEG is coming out with a couple of games I’m interested to know more about.  Empire Engine is a pocket game from Matthew Dunstan and Chris Marling that uses gear cards as players try to collect resources and defend themselves from attacks.  Planes (David Short) has an obvious graphical tie-in to AEG’s successful Trains from a couple of years ago, though it is a completely different game (you just know Automobiles is forthcoming).  This one is all about boarding planes rather than route building.
  • alea: alea usually does their big releases at Nüremburg, but this year, La Isla from Stefan Feld is coming out at Spiel.  It looks like typical Feld – very busy, lots of ways to score, and probably a very good game.
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Aporta Games: Doodle City is a game by Eilif Svensson and Kristian Amundsen Østby.  It’s a city building game where players are building a network of roads on a map that is essentially a 5×5 grid.  The catch is that they are drawing the roads and buildings in the game.  This is done through dice rolling – you roll a blue die and some white dice, then everyone chooses one of the white dice.  Using the white die for the row and the blue die for the column, you draw a road.  You may score for crossing a hotel or shop.  At the end of the game, the player who has scored the most points wins.

I really like when games use drawing and writing as mechanisms.  This one looks like a very simple game to learn, and with good decisions to be made when choosing dice at the beginning of each round.  There’s also a solo variant.  This is definitely one I’m interested in learning more about.

  • Aza Chen: Kaiju is being self-published by Aza Chen, a designer from Taiwan.  It’s a dice rolling game that uses the box as a dice tower, has players doing silly actions, and tracks wounds by actually drawing them on the arms of the slowest players.  Sounds fun.
  • Beautiful Disaster Games: Assault on Doomrock is a game I’ve been watching since it was called D&D&D.  It’s a cooperative adventure game that is kind of tongue in cheek,  It looks fun.  It was successfully funded on Indiegogo earlier this year.
  • Blackrock Editions: Haru Ichiban is a Bruno Cathala design that pits rival gardeners against each other, both trying to use the wind to create patterns of lilypads.  This is mostly on the list because it looks quite beautiful.
  • Blue Orange: Blue Orange has a few cool looking games coming out, including Dragon Run from Ludovic Barbe and Bruno Cathala – it’s a push-your-luck treasure hunting game where you are trying to outrun the dragon you just robbed.  Also, there’s Wakanda by Charles Chevallier, a 3D game where players are trying to build totem poles.  Both look very nice.
  • Bomba Games: Amber Route interests me simply because it was an app first.  I have it on my iPad, and enjoy it, though it is fairly luck based.  I originally thought the board game came first, so we’ll see how it translates to the physical realm.
image by BGG user liga

image by BGG user liga

Cranio Creations: Dungeon Bazaar is a game designed by Paolo Cecchetto, Simone Luciani, and Daniele Tascini.  It’s a game for 2-5 players that is all about selling equipment to heroes about to go adventuring in a nearby dungeon.  The twist is that you, the merchants, have a deal with the dragon and thus have a vested interest in keeping him alive.  I haven’t read the rules yet, I just like that concept.  I enjoy looking at standard themes in a new way – it’s kind of like what Dungeon Lords did by taking the perspective of the bad guys.  The other thing that causes me to take notice of this game is that Luciani and Tascini were the designers of T’zolkin, a very popular and innovative game.  The pair, plus Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino, have another game coming out from Cranio called Soqquadro, which is a pick-up-and-deliver party game.  Both look good, and I look forward to hearing more about them.

  • Czech Board Games: McJohny’s is a cooperative party game about serving customers at a crab shack.  It seems like a pretty funny little game from what I can tell.
image by BGG user Jajina

image by BGG user Jajina

Czech Games Edition: CGE always has great games coming out, even when Vlaada Chvátil’s name isn’t attached.  This year’s offering is Alchemists, a game designed by Matúš Kotry.  This game is currently my most anticipated for the show, partly because of CGE, and partly because it just sounds cool.  The basic idea is that you are mixing ingredients to find new potions.  This is done via a smartphone app – it scans the items, mixes them, and shows you the result.  The rules of alchemy are randomized each time so you won’t be able to “solve” the game by memorizing combos.  You are trying to figure out the rules of alchemy as you go so you can make the best combos later.  As the game goes on, you will be foraging, transmuting, and testing through the use of action cubes.  After six rounds, the player with the most points wins.

There has been a bit of a flap about needing a smartphone app to play this game.  I think it’s a silly argument – if board games don’t embrace digital technology now, they will be crushed by it later.  This is not like something like Golem Arcana, where the smartphone app pretty much plays the game for you.  This is just a randomization tool.  A moderator can also be used instead of the app, but they aren’t playing so it’s not ideal.  So I’m looking forward to hearing more about this…hopefully rules will be uploaded soon.

  • Deinko Games: Korean company Deinko has a couple of games I’m interested in.  7 Kingdoms is a pocket game where players are trying to claim different cards to score points – the theme doesn’t look terribly in depth, but it does seem like fun.  DoReMi is a music game that has a speed element – we need more music games, so I’m definitely interested in this one.
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Feuerland Spiele: The publishers of Terra Mystica and Glass Road are back with another title from Uwe Rosenberg (also to be published by Filosfia and ZMan).  Arler Erde (aka Fields of Arle) is a 1-2 player worker placement game that is kind of autobiographical for Rosenberg – it’s set in the region his parents came from.  The game lasts for nine half-years (summer and winter), and each half-year has three phases – preparations, where you set up the round; work, where you place four workers on the game board; and inventory, where you take stock of your belongings.  There are fifteen different action spaces to use when placing workers, and they are different for each half year.  After the ninth half-year, add up your points to see who won.

I’ve been more and more interested in Rosenberg’s games in recent months.  I wrote him off for a while because I didn’t really care for Agricola.  Since then, I’ve played Bohnanza, Mamma Mia, Space Beans, Le Havre, and At the Gates of Loyang, and loved all of them.  So he’s someone I want to keep an eye on.  This game looks like it has potential to be a good push-and-pull two player battle – from what I hear, it’s pretty tough.  Looking forward to learning more.

image by BGG user W Eric Marting

image by BGG user W Eric Marting

Fragor Games: The Lamont Brothers always have some cool game coming out at Spiel, and they are always extraordinarily popular, selling out of their limited supplies very quickly.  Dragonscroll is this year’s offering, and the first thing they released about the game (other than the title) is this picture of Fundor the Fiery.  The game itself is a pick-up-and-deliver tile laying game where dragons are competing to write the most illustrious story through completing tasks.  Throughout the game, you’ll also be raining fireballs down on your opponents using the “flaming tower of death” to determine where they land.

Fragor Games are nothing if not creative.  The games overall have been kind of hit or miss, but they have such high quality bits and are such limited productions, they are extremely popular.  They’re always worth a look, especially since most of them never make it past their Essen run.  Some exceptions to that include Shear Panic, Snow Tails, and the recently Kickstarted second edition of Poseidon’s Kingdom.  The bits alone make these game worth checking out, and they’re always unique, so I am always interested to see what is there.

  • Granna: Ufofarmer is a memory set collection game where you are trying to abduct farm animals in identical sets of three, or sets of three unique animals.  It’s a kid’s game to be sure, but it looks like good silly fun.
  • Grublin Games: I talked a bit about Waggle Dance in Kickstarter Blitz #6, but it’s coming out at Essen.  As a recap, it’s a worker placement game with bees.  Sounds like a lot of fun.
  • Homosapiens Lab: Blood of the Werewolf is a Werewolf style game where no one knows who they are, but others do.  It’s like Werewolf meets Hanabi.  Sounds interesting.
  • Horrible Games: Co-Mix is a storytelling game where you are dealt some cards that are different panels and have to arrange them into a comic page, following a plot.  I don’t know how much of a game it is, but I like the concept as an activity.
  • HUCH! & Friends: Kamisado Max and Kamisado Pocket are two new editions of Kamisado, one of my favorite abstracts.  Max is obviously a big version of the game, with a 10×10 instead of 8×8 grid.  Pocket is the travel version.  I still don’t have the original – need to get that.
  • Japon Brand: There’s some great stuff always coming out of Japan, and Japon Brand is bringing it to Essen.  This year, here are some of the titles I’ve been interested in: Colors of Kasane (Hinata Origuchi) is all about trying to make the most beautiful kimono possible.  Kaleido (also Hinata Origuchi) is all about designing a kaleidoscope.  Rolling Japan (Hisashi Hayashi) is about filling the prefectures of Japan with different colored dice.  Looking forward to hearing more about all of these.
  • Kanai Factory: Seiji Kanai is world famous for Love Letter, so there’s always interest in his stuff.  Secret Moon is a sequel to Love Letter, but more of a Werewolf-style game in a short time frame (10 minutes).  We’ll see if it takes off.
  • Korea Boardgames CoAbraca…what? is a spellcasting deduction game where everyone knows what you can cast except you.  This hidden-to-you mechanism is becoming more and more prevalent, and this one looks like a pretty good family game.
  • KOSMOS: KOSMOS is a pretty big German publisher that usually has good stuff.  There are a couple of their games I’m looking at this year: 7 Steps is a 3-D abstract that has players placing discs to block columns.  Jäger und Späher is one of the company’s famous two-player games, this one about being hunters in the Stone Age.  Both look nice, and I want to know more.
  • La Mame: From the original creator of Coup comes Melee, a micro-wargame where players are trying to capture opposing castles.  With the popularity of Coup, I’m sure this will get lots of attention.
  • Legend Express: Age of Soccer combines ancient mythology with soccer. You’re trying to build a team with help from the gods, and defeating other teams in the game.  I like the concept, we’ll see how it does.
  • Libellud: In addition to another Dixit expansion and Lords of Xidit, Libellus is coming out with Loony Quest.  This game uses drawing as players are trying to replicate outlines to avoid obstacles.  It sounds fun.
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Lookout Games: Lookout has been a force in the gaming market since the release of Agricola back in 2008.  The company made news last year at Spiel when it was announced that they had been purchased by Mayfair.  They’ve got several games coming out this year, but the one I am most interested in is Patchwork, a two-player title from Uwe Rosenberg.  The idea is that players are trying to build the most aesthetic patchwork quilt.  Patches are randomly placed in a circle, and each player has buttons to spend on them.  On your turn, you can purchase one of the next three patches or pass.  There’s a time track mechanism in place – this means that, depending on the size of the patch, you may take multiple turns in a row.  Passing places you in front of your opponent on the time track, but also gains you buttons.  You also gain buttons when you pass certain points on the time track.  When a player reaches the end of the time track, they are finished.  You lose two buttons per blank square on your board, and the player with the most remaining buttons wins.

This is kind of an abstract game, but one with a very good theme.  Quilting is not a theme that gets used very much, and that in itself makes the game attractive.  I also really like time tracks in games, and that elevates this above what might otherwise just be multiplayer solitaire.  So this is one I very much want to hear more about.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Ludonaute: The European fascination with the Old West continues in Christophe Raimbault’s Colt Express, a 2-6 player train robbery game.  This is an programmed action game where players take turns either putting cards into a shared action pile or drawing new cards to their hand.  Once a preset number of turns have occurred, the deck is flipped over and the cards are resolved in the order they were played.  You could move your bandit, change floors, move the marshal, shoot an opponent, rob the car you’re in, or punch another nearby bandit.  After the fifth round, the player with the most money from loot and shooting others is the winner.

The coolest thing about this game, I think, is that you are playing on a 3-D train.  Not a board, an actual cardboard train with two levels that you move around.  I like the idea of how actions are played into a common deck and then resolved in order – it’s a little like a time track in that order of resolution will get shifted around.  Also, as with most programmed games, I’m sure there’s going to be some mass chaos involved.  This game looks like a blast.

  • Matagot: Matagot always has interesting stuff, and this year, I’m most interested in Korrigans, a game about trying to access a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  It looks beautiful, and the theme really catches my eye.
  • Mercury Games: The Walled City: Londonderry & Borderlands is a city building game where players are building neighborhoods on one of two maps.  It looks very nice, and is something I’d like to check out.

image by BGG user Mindwarrior_Games

Mindwarrior Games: Realm of Wonder is a 2-6 player game about taking a journey through a world with spinning continents.  The board is made up of three spinning discs, each smaller than the other to create a circle on the board.  In each round, you will collect magic points based on stuff you have.  Everyone will then simultaneously play a movement card, then will individually (starting with the slowest player) cast spells.  Then you move.  During the game, you will be battling monsters and other characters, building forts, rotating the board, and trying to carry out the King’s quest.  If you are the first to enter the castle with a Victory disc for completing the quest, you win.

Most of my interest in this game is purely superficial.  The art looks great, and I love that the board actually rotates.  I haven’t read deeply into how the game plays, but it has simultaneous action selection, which I tend to enjoy.  Definitely one I’m looking forward to hearing more about.

  • Moonster Games: Chosŏn is a thematic sequel to Koryŏ, a game from last year I quite enjoyed.  Apparently gameplay is similar – play characters with special abilities and try to achieve majorities to gain access to those special abilities.  Looking forward to learning more.
  • PD Verlag: Antike II is basically a new edition of Mac Gerdts’ Antike, which is a game I really like.  Some rules have changed, but I’m glad to see the game coming back.
  • Pearl Games: Deus is a new game from Sébastien Dujardin, who previously co-designed Troyes and Tournay.  This one is a civilization building game where you’ll be constructing buildings as you try to receive the help of the gods.  It has a really nice look to it.
  • R & R Games: Spike is a new game from Balloon Cup designer Stephen Glenn.  It’s a pick-up-and-deliver train game where you’re trying to expand your rail network.  My interest in this is mostly due to the designer – I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do with what on the surface sounds like a standard train game.
  • Ragnar Brothers: Steam Donkey is a game I know next to nothing about, other than the title is awesome.
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Repos Productions: 7 Wonders: Babel is the latest expansion for Antoine Bauza’s 2010 hit 7 Wonders.  It’s actually two modules, the Tower of Babel and the Great Projects of Babel.  In Tower of Babel, players begin the game by drafting laws that change the rules of the game.  As a fourth action during the game, you can discard your card to place one of these tiles to put the rule into effect.  It will stay in effect until covered.  In Great Projects, players are trying to construct buildings, with a random one chosen at the beginning of each age.  These buildings are the same colors as the cards you play, and when you play a matching card, you can also pay a participation cost to work on the building.  If all participation tokens have been taken at the end of the age, the project was a success and everyone gains rewards based on how much they helped.  If participation tokens are not all taken, the project fails, and anyone who did NOT participate takes a penalty.

7 Wonders was a game I thought got a lot better with the Leaders expansion.  I’ve played with Cities once, and liked it, but I didn’t think it was as big of a boon to the game as Leaders.  This one looks like it will do a lot for the game – the Babel tiles in the tower version and participation costs of the Great Projects both look like they will add something pretty new to the system.  So I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

  • Schmidt Spiele: Adventure Tours is a game from Seiji Kanai where players are playing cards to try and gain the right equipment and explorers to go on an adventure.  Sounds fun.
  • Stronghold: Kanban: Automotive Revolution is a new game from Vital Lacerda, designer of Vinhos and CO2.  You are a manager of an automobile assembly line, and are trying to improve parts to secure your future with the company.  It looks fun.
  • TF Verlag UF: Canopy Walk is tile laying game where players are trying to cross over a treacherous jungle to get to a rare source of red diamonds.  Kind of abstract, sure, but I think it looks like a fun two-player game.
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

TIKI Editions: Gaia is game designed by Olivier Rolko that is all about creating a world.  It’s a tile-laying game where players are taking turns playing or drawing a card.  If you play a nature card, you’ll take a corresponding land tile and place it.  If you fulfill an objective, you’ll be able to place a meeple.  If you play a life card, you’ll either be able to place animals or a city.  Cities must be fed with animals, and can contain one of your meeples.  If you place all five of your meeples, you win.

This looks like a very simple game.  I’m not exactly sure how well it will play, how much randomness will come into it, or how the objectives will change things. The advanced game adds some player interaction as you can steal cities or play power cards like lightning or earthquake.  I was initially attracted to this game because of the cover which has a very cool art style.  And I still think it is worth a look, I just don’t know if it will grab me once in play.

  • Treefrog Games: Martin Wallace games are always worth a look.  He’s got a couple coming out this year.  Mythotopia is a deck-building game set in a medieval fantasy world that draws its mechanisms from A Few Acres of Snow.  Onward to Venus is an empire building game set in the world of the Doctor Grordbrot graphic novels.
  • Ystari: Witness is a deduction game based on a Belgian comic strip called Blake and Mortimer.  It’s cooperative and each player has some of the information.  They share it via whisper with a neighbor, who then must share their own information plus the other person’s information with the next person.  Sound inefficient?  That’s the point.  Each player will individually answer questions about the case, and you’re ideally trying to get 12 points.  Sounds chaotic and not very replayable, but I love the idea of the game and it’s probably a good party experience.
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Z-Man: Pandemic: The Cure is a dice game based on the popular Pandemic board game, a franchise Z-Man seems to be determined to milk for all it’s worth.  This one was designed by Pandemic designer Matt Leacock, so it’s got that going for it.  On your turn, you roll the player dice that go with your pawn.  This will result in an action symbol or a biohazard symbol  If it’s an action symbol, you can reroll it or take the action.  You can’t reroll biohazards.  Possible actions include flying to any location, sailing to an adjacent location, treating diseases, or collecting samples.  Biohazards increase the infection rate.  You can give samples to any other player in your region, and try to find a cure by rolling collected samples to try to get a result of 13 or more. If you do, the disease is cured.  At the end of your turn, you draw, roll, and place infection dice.  If you discover all four cures, you win.  If the infection track reaches zero, or you have eight or more outbreaks, or if you run out of infection dice, you lose.

The Cure seems like a very good dice-based implementation of Pandemic.  It is going to add even more randomness to the game, but in a way, that’s thematic since it’s difficult to predict what viruses will do.  I like that this isn’t just Pandemic Yahtzee, but really seems to be working hard to make the game feel like Pandemic.  So it’s one I’m very interested in playing.

And that’s the preview!  Spiel is going to be fun this year…wish I was going to be there.  Thanks for reading!


Back in August, I wrote about Bait Games, aka games you can use to bring people to the table.  In September, I wrote about Gateway Games, aka games you can use to introduce people to the hobby.  This month, I’m going to look at Next Step Games, aka games for people who are starting to move into more complex games but aren’t quite ready for the heaviest games of the hobby.  This is a fairly nebulous category, and there’s a lot that could be included.  Here are my eleven suggestions.

image by BGG user a_traveler

image by BGG user a_traveler

7 Wonders is a 2010 game designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Repos Productions.  The game is a 2-7 player civilization building that utilizes card drafting as its main mechanism.  The game is played over three ages, and at the beginning of each age, you receive a hand of seven cards from that age.  You’ll select one of these cards, play it, and pass the remainder to the player on your left (or right in Age II).  Once everyone has played six cards, the age ends.  After the third age, the player with the most points wins.

There are seven different types of cards in the game, and each has its own unique flair.  The brown and gray cards are resources that you use to pay for other cards.  You can also pay two coins to a player on your left or right to use one of their resources.  The gold cards usually have to do with money – giving you more, or a discount on resources from your neighbors, or even giving you points.  The blue cards are straight point cards.  The red cards are military, and at the end of each age, military strength is added.  If you defeat your neighbor in military conflict, you get points.  If you lose, you lose a point.  If you tie, nothing happens.  The green cards are science cards, and give you points based on the sets you create.  Finally, the purple cards (which only appear in Age III) are guilds that give you a special way to earn points, often using items belonging to your neighbors.

Gameplay in 7 Wonders is extremely easy.  It’s the variety within the cards that, I think, pushes this game into next step range.  There are a lot of symbols to take in, and a new player to the hobby won’t necessarily be able to process everything going on.  Strategies may be beyond them, and there’s some confusing concepts – you’re ONLY competing with your neighbors, scoring is kind of wonky, and how to pay for cards may be baffling.  But for a player with some experience, this game is a very good next step into the wider world of gaming.

image by BGG user sparky123180

image by BGG user sparky123180

Cosmic Encounter originally came out in 1977, published by Eon and designed by Bill Eberle, Peter Olotka, Bill Norton, and Jack Kittredge.  The current version was initially published by Fantasy Flight in 2008.  In the game, players are different races from across the galaxy that are competing to be the first to place five foreign colonies.  On your turn, you draw a card from the fate deck that lets you know who you’re attacking.  After you dedicate ships, each player can ask for allies.  Players then choose a combat card from their hand and reveal, with the higher number winning.  Every player on a winning attack side lands a foreign colony on the attacked planet.  Every ally on a winning defense side gets a reward in the form of cards or ships.  Every losing player loses their ships to the warp.  If you win your first encounter, you get a second (but that’s it).  Victory is awarded to the first player(s) to land five colonies.

The big thing that really pushes Cosmic Encounter into next step territory is the racial abilities.  Each race has its own special powers, and is able to bend the rules accordingly.  The secret to the game is figuring out how best to use your power, as well as how to manipulate your opponents.  It’s a strong negotiation game.  There’s a lot of luck and randomness in the card draw, but shrewd play can mitigate that.  The game is a lot of fun, and not overly complicated.  It can be tough to grasp for a new player, so I’d definitely wait until they’ve had some extra experience.

image by BGG user Purple

image by BGG user Purple

Galaxy Trucker was initially published in 2007 by Czech Games Editions, and was designed by Vlaada Chvátil.    It’s a 2-4 player game that is all about building ships and trying not to die.  The game plays over three rounds, and each round has two parts – build and journey.  The build phase involves grabbing parts from the center and trying to fit it into place on your ship.  There are cabins for astronauts, life support for aliens, cargo holds for goods, cannons for defense, engines for speed, batteries for power, and shields for protection.  Once building is done, you enter the journey phase.  This consists of flipping over cards one at a time and resolving them.  You could find a planet full of goods you can pick up and sell at the end of your journey.  You could find an abandoned ship that could get you money.  You could find an abandoned station that could get you goods.  You could hit open space, allowing you to fire your engines and try to pull ahead in the race.  You could hit a meteor storm, which could damage your ship.  You could meet pirates, or slavers, or smugglers, all of which are really bad for you if you don’t have enough cannons.  You could enter a combat zone, which will be trouble if you are in last place in particular stats.  You could also find other special events that are never any good.

If you make it to the end of your journey, you get money based on what place you finished, as well as money for goods and having the best looking ship.  You have to pay for any parts you lost.  After the third round, if you have any money left, you win.  If you have more money than anyone else, you are more of a winner.

I wouldn’t say that Galaxy Trucker is complex.  When building your ship, there’s a lot that you have to think about so that you don’t fall behind in certain categories.  But once you get it, the game is quite easy (to play – not easy to do well).  That initial barrier to entry is quite daunting, and that makes it an ideal next step for me – I think a completely inexperienced gamer will run screaming when confronted with this.  Even after you’ve played some, this type of game still might not be for you, but at least you’re more ready to face the challenge.

image by BGG user cambridgeganes

image by BGG user cambridgeganes

Glory to Rome is a game by Carl Chudyk and Cambridge Games Factory that came out in 2007.  An updated black box version was released in 2012 to respond to complaints about the art in the original.  The game is for 2-5 players, and is all about rebuilding Rome after the great fire of 64 AD.  On your turn, you either think (draw cards) or lead.  If you lead, you choose a card representing one of the six roles in the game (Patron, Laborer, Architect, Carpenter, Legionary, Merchant).  Each other player can then choose to think (draw cards) or follow (play a card matching the led role).  Each role allows you to do certain things.  Laborer allows you to take cards from the pool and use them as materials for building later.  Patron allows you to take cards from the pool and use them as clientele – each client gives you an extra action of that type when it is led by anyone.  The Architect and Carpenter each allow you to start a building from your hand or add materials to one that is already begun – Architect takes material from your stockpile, Carpenter takes material from your hand.  The Legionary allows you to demand materials from other players.  The Merchant allows you to put materials in your vault for points at the end of the game.

The game is over once the draw deck has been depleted, or all in town guid sites have been taken, or a building meets its end condition (there are two in the game).  The player who has made the most points from completed buildings and materials in their vault is the winner.

Glory to Rome is a fairly complex game.  It’s going to take a while to really get your head around it.  But once you’ve got it, it’s not that bad.  It does have a barrier to entry, and if you don’t have any experience in role selection games, you might struggle even more than an experienced person was.  I think it’s a great next step for someone looking to get into heavier games – if you can get the hang of this, you’re ready for anything.

image by BGG user tanis

image by BGG user tanis

Kingsburg first came out in 2007 (and I’m just now noticing how many games on this list came out in 2007 – must have been a good year for next step games).  It’s a 2-5 player game designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco that is published in the US by Fantasy Flight.  The game has a medieval fantasy theme where players are trying to build up their part of the kingdom in preparation for the hordes of baddies that will hit at the end of each year.  Each round represents one year of time, and contains three productive seasons.  Before each season, there’s a bonus phase where the player with the fewest buildings (or most in the summer) gets a bonus.  In each productive season, players roll their three dice, then take turns allocating them out to different advisors.  These advisors can give you points, resources, soldiers, or modifiers.  After the productive season, players can turn in resources to construct buildings, each of which gives a bonus to the player.  In the final season, some raider will attack, and players with enough defense will gain a small bonus.  Players with not enough defense suffer a larger penalty.

There are five total years in the game, and each year play out exactly the same, with the raiders gaining in strength each time.  After the fifth year, the player with the most points is the winner.

The thing that makes Kingsburg a good next step game for me is the dice allocation process.  It can be a little daunting to try to decide where you’re going to place your dice – am I going to use the 3 and the 4 to influence the 7, or should I use the 3 this turn and the 4 next time?  The game is not complex, there’s just a lot going on.  I have seen this used as a gateway game with some success.  However, I tend to see it more as a good next step game to open up doors for more complexity.

image by BGG user Ceryon

image by BGG user Ceryon

Notre Dame came out in 2007 (here’s another one!).  It was designed by Stefan Feld and was published by ales.  Players are turn-of-the-15th-century Parisians competing for influence and prosperity.  The game lasts for nine rounds.  At the start of each round, players will draw three cards from their personal deck, choose one, and pass the other two.  They choose one of those passed to keep, then pass the other, keeping the final one they get passed.  Players then take turns playing one card, which corresponds to an action on their borough.  They will end up playing two cards, with the third not being used.  The actions you can take include taking cubes from your supply, gaining coins, or gaining points.  You can also try to reduce the rat track (plague is a serious problem in this game), move a caravan around the board for extra points, or make a contribution to Notre Dame for extra prosperity.

At the end of each round, each player has the opportunity to hire one personality.  After this, rat tracks advance.  If your rat track gets too high, you end up losing points and cubes.  After nine total rounds, the player with the most points wins.

I love Notre Dame as a next step game.  It is a little complex to introduce to newbies (in my innocence, I tried it once – never again), but not so complicated that intermediate players can’t get it.  It also serves as a nice gateway to some of the heavier Stefan Feld games since it has numerous ways to get points, pain from the rats, and (let’s be honest) a pointless theme.  But it’s one of my favorites, and I think it should be sought out.  Unfortunately, I think it’s currently out of print, but I would imagine that it will be back, particularly the current interest in all things Feld.

image by BGG user Aarontu

image by BGG user Aarontu

Power Grid is a 2004 game designed by Friedemann Friese and published in the US by Rio Grande.  In the game, you are trying to supply as many cities with power as possible.  Each round of the game follows a certain sequence.  First, there is an auction for power plants.  Each power plant is powered by a different resource and can power a certain number of cities.  Once each player has gotten a power plant (or passed), players take turns buying resources.  This is done in reverse order – last place goes first.  After this, each player may build, adding their buildings to cities around the board.  The final thing that happens in a round is that you turn in resources to power your plants and your cities, collecting money based on the number of cities you powered.  When one player has 17 cities in their network, the game is over, and the player who can power the most cities wins.

This is a game that uses route building, resource management, and auctions to accomplish its goal.  It’s usually a pretty tight game – the catch-up mechanism that allows last place to go first keeps anyone from running away with it.  It usually takes a few plays to really grasp the strategy, but it’s all fairly straightforward.  I think it’s a little advanced for the new player, but certainly not the most complicated game out there.

image by BGG user Werbaer

image by BGG user Werbaer

Puerto Rico first came out in 2002 from ales and designer Andreas Seyfarth.  It’s a 3-5 player game where you are trying to build up your settlement in Puerto Rico.  In the game players take turns being the governor.  The governor is the first to choose a role and carry out its effects.  All other players then get to carry out the role’s effects, though they do not get the same bonus as the chooser.  Once the role has been resolved, another player chooses a role.  This continues until all players have chosen a role,, at which point the governor passes and everyone returns their roles for a new round.

There are seven different roles in the game.  The settler allows you to add a plantation tile (or a quarry if you chose the role).  The mayor allows you to gain colonists to work on your plantations.  The builder lets you purchase buildings that will give you points and bonus abilities.  The craftsman produces goods at occupied plantations that also have an occupied production building.  The trader allows you to trade goods for money.  The captain allows you to ship goods for points.  The prospector gives you free money, and no one else can take that action – it’s effectively a pass with a cash bonus.

When the colonists run out, or when someone has maxed out their buildings, or when the VP chips run out, the game is over.  The player with the most points wins.

I’m mostly including this game because it was my next step game.  Shortly after I discovered Settlers of Catan and the wider world of gaming, I started looking around for what other games I should add to my collection.  Puerto Rico was number one at BGG at the time, so it was a natural choice.  I got it, learned it, and loved it.  I still do – I think it’s a model of clean game design and a classic Euro.  I know there are complaints that people have “solved it”, but that’s not the crowd I want to play with.  I think it’s a great next step game to open someone’s eyes to the broader world of gaming outside of what they already know.

image aby BGG user Siegfried

image aby BGG user Siegfried

Seasons was a 2012 release from Libellud and designer Régis Bonnessée.  This 2-4 player game is about a magical competition where players are trying to conjure up crystals.  The game begins with a card draft – each player has a hand of nine cards, selects one, and passes the rest.  From the eight they receive, they select one and pass the rest.  This continues until you have kept nine cards.  You will then divide the cards into three three-card stacks – one for year one, one for year two, and one for year three.  Play then begins in the winter season of year one.  The first player rolls the winter dice, and chooses one to keep.  All other players also choose one to keep.  There will be one left over.

After everyone has chosen a die, the players individually resolve their turn.  Dice will allow you to collect crystals, collect energy, draw a card, gain crystals, increase summoning power, and/or transmute energy into points.  You can also summon cards on your turn, but only if your summoning gauge allows you to.  After everyone has taken a turn, check the leftover die to see how far the season track advances.  If the season remains the same, the next player rerolls the current season dice.  If the season changes, the next season’s dice are rolled.  If the year changes, players will take their next stack of cards into their hand.  After the third year, the game is over and the player with the most crystals wins.

I notice that this is the third game on this list that uses drafting as a mechanism.  I think drafting is a more advanced mechanism because, in order to do it well, you need to know how the cards work and how to make them work together.  This takes a play or two in Seasons to really get the hang of, but it’s not terribly difficult once you’ve got it.  The game also includes a dice drafting mechanism that makes it really fun.  I think this is a great next step game that can even be graded in its next-stepness – there are three levels of play, and you can choose which one suits your group the best (including a no-draft variant with the cards).

image by BGG user Mavericius

image by BGG user Mavericius

Suburbia was published in 2012 by Bezier Games.  It wa designed by Ted Alspach.  This game is all about building a community into a major metropolis.  The game is for 2-4 players (with a solo variant), and involves placing hexagonal tiles in your personal area.  On your turn, you buy a tile from the market.  This can be a park, school, factory, or one of the tiles that will be up for purchase.  You can also always take a tile and flip it over to place it as a lake for free.  Each tile you place will have an effect on your income and/or reputation.  At the end of your turn, you collect or pay money based on where your income marker is, and then adjust your population based on reputation.  As you increase population, you’ll be crossing red lines that reduce your income and population by one.  This serves to keep someone from running away with the game.  The market then adjusts – if the cheapest tile wasn’t taken, it gets discarded, then all other tiles are shifted down and new ones are drawn for the expensive end.

The game ends when the “1 More Round” tile is revealed.  Finish the current round, then play one more round beginning with the start player.  Players will then check their secret objectives, as well as the main objectives to score bonus population.  The player with the highest population at the end of the game is the winner.

On the surface, Suburbia is a pretty simple game.  Buy a tile, place it in your neighborhood, collect.  The thing that ups the complexity when compared to a tile-laying game like Carassonne is that every tile does something unique, and many of the tiles do something different based on what is adjacent to them.  So you have to think a lot harder about what you’ll take and where you’ll go, or you’ll end up with a negative income and a slowly decreasing population, and there will be nothing you can do about it.  The strategy in the game is pretty complex despite the fairly simple gameplay, so that’s why I think it makes a good next step game.

image by BGG user vittorioso

image by BGG user vittorioso

The last game on this list is Village.  Initially published in 2011, this Inka and Markus Brand design from eggertspiele won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2012.  It’s a worker placement game where you are putting workers in various areas to put your family members.  Once at an action space, you take a cube so you can take advantage of that space’s benefits –  harvest grain, grow your family, sell goods at the market, craft items, advance in the council chamber, travel to distant lands, or go to church.  When all cubes have been taken from the action spaces on the board (including plague cubes), the round ends.  But this is not a game where your meeples exist in a time vacuum.  Time passes, and some of your family members will die throughout the game.  Hopefully, they will be able to be entered into the Village Chronicle and not just buried in an unmarked grave behind the church.  When the Village Chronicle or graveyard is full, the game ends immediately, and the player with the most points is the winner.

Village has a number of novel mechanisms, including the taking away of cubes in order to do things and the cycling of your workers.  It uses some standard worker placement rules, but uses them in a very fresh and different way.  The game is not overly complex, but definitely more of a thinker than, say, Lords of Waterdeep.  That, to me, makes is a really good next step game.

So there’s my list.  As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – what are some games you like to use as the next step?  Let me know, and thanks for reading!

A quick review for you today:

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

AttrAction is a 2012 game that was designed by Jeff Glickman, and published by R&R Games.  The game is for 2-5 players, and lasts 10 minutes (if that).  The game consists of 25 magnets and a bag.  All you do to set up is scatter the magnets around a playing surface, each one far enough from any other so that they don’t accidentally stick together.

On your turn, you take one magnet from your hand.  If you have none in your hand, you can use one one the table.  Flick it towards any other magnets on the table.  If any magnets stick together as a result of this flick, you claim them (if two clusters are created, you only get one).  Once all magnets have been claimed, you see who has the most.  They win.  You can play as many games of this in a row as you want.  And you will.

COMPONENTS: The only component in this game, really, is the magnets.  The bag is just a carrying case.  The magnets are generally round, though kind of irregularly shaped.  And they are super strong.  When they cluster together, you know it because they make a very loud CLICK.  They also will sometimes repel each other, which can be maddening and a lot of fun.

THEME: The only theme I can find here is “how magnets work.”

MECHANICS: This is a dexterity game.  All you’re doing is flicking magnets around and trying to create clusters.  In a sense, it’s a set collection game since you’re going for having the most magnets, but that’s reaching.  It’s all about the flicking.

STRATEGY LEVEL: There’s no real strategy here.  Try to collect as many magnets as you can.  Flicking hard doesn’t always work since the magnets will repel if the wrong side is out.  There might be some strategy in how you line up your shots, but really it comes down to skill.  And some luck.

ACCESSIBILITY: This game could not be easier.  I wouldn’t play with little kids because they might eat the magnets.  However, I would play with just about anyone else.  It’s a fantastic bait game.

REPLAYABILITY: This game is so fast, you’ll knock out several rounds in a row without even noticing.  It’s very replayable, primarily because the magnets are so cool and the game is so easy.

SCALABILITY: This game is for 2-5 players, though the number of magnets per person goes down the more people you have.  I see no reason why you couldn’t just get several sets and play with as many people as you want to – except there might be a lot of waiting around if you have 50 people playing with 10 sets.

FOOTPRINT: This game takes up hardly any room in storage, but will take up a whole table in play.  I wouldn’t play on a table where you’re worried about scratches.  You also should be careful about WHERE you store it.

LEGACY: I don’t know a whole lot of magnetic games.  This and Rattlesnake, that’s all I know of.  I haven’t played Rattlesnake, so this is the best magnetic game I’ve played.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  It’s a lot of fun.  The magnets are awesome, and the game is easy enough that anyone can play it.  There’s a sequel, Hearts of AttrAction, that has heart shaped magnets.  Otherwise, it’s the same thing.

I told you this would be a short one.  Thanks for reading!


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