The puzzle joy of My City

The game I want to talk about this week is My City.  My City is a family style legacy game but what does that mean? Well, when I’ve written about legacy games in the past they have generally been pretty involved and complex. Certainly not brain burners or games with massive rules books or play times, but definitely a bit more involved than Settlers of Catan. My City was nominated for the Spiel Des Jahres which is the German award aimed at family friendly games, so it certainly has the industry stamp of approval for being approachable, but how does it accomplish this?

It does so by adopting a lot of the mechanisms of Roll and Write games that I have discussed previously. The game is so simple up front that it only takes about 5 or 10 minutes to explain total. Each player has a city board that shows a lovely countryside broken into a grid of spaces with a river running down the center and  a set of identical buildings in various shapes. The buildings are a bit like tetris pieces, long and short, L shaped or a cross etc. There are many games recently that incorporate these so called “polyominos.” Think of it like mutated dominoes that come in lots of strange shapes. Each turn a card is flipped over and players must place that building somewhere in their grid, adjacent to at least one other building, or next to the river if it’s the first piece. This functions like a sort of bingo, with a bit more flexibility. A building is flipped from the deck and depending on your strategy and how you’ve placed the other buildings so far that piece may fit perfectly into your puzzle, or it might really throw a wrench into your plans. The end goal of each game is to cover as much of the map as possible and group buildings of each of the three colors in as large a clump as possible. There is an additional wrinkle in that your city apparently loves a bit of greenery as each free that you leave uncovered is worth a point. But each empty space and each rock is worth a negative point.

A game in progress

That’s it in terms of up front rules overhead. The game is truly a spatial puzzle where players are sitting next to each other, enjoying the same puzzle and certainly going about it differently, but not interacting directly through the game. With enough pieces in the box 100 people could play this at once like a real bingo hall. Here is where it is similar to roll and write games, like Cartographers or Railroad Ink. The deck is the randomness that builds a different puzzle each game.

The legacy part of this then builds on this simple foundation. Here players are keeping score across multiple games, with each win counting as two points towards overall winner, and second place counting for one. Every three games a new wrinkle is introduced, telegraphed by the title of each envelope containing the next bit of pieces and rules. My group just finished the second chapter that introduces churches pieces into the mix, and the next chapter is ominously titled The Flood. Unlike other Legacy games that thrive on plot twists and surprise elements tucked away in non-descript numbered boxes and envelopes, here the arc is much more plain. There is not necessarily a story either other than historical development that happened to cities in general as they moved towards industrialization. The surprise and fun then comes in how the new chapters new mechanics fold into the existing experience. 

The game lets you know what’s coming next, but how it plays is still a surprise

In another nod to being a more family friendly style of legacy game, the legacy elements here often help players who are behind catch up, while making the game more challenging for players who are in the lead. For example, the players who lose the first game get additional tree stickers to add to their board giving them more opportunity for points, while the winners each get rock stickers that are one more element on their map that they have to make sure to cover up. Much like a good game of Mario Kart there is a sort of rubber-banding here that helps players catch up and aims to keep the game tight until the last play. This is critical for a legacy campaign like this that plays out across multiple games. Losing a game is fine, but continuing to fall behind in combined scoring might sour the experience. My City plays out across 24 games and is broken into 8 chapters, so it’s important to make sure folks have a chance to win all the way through till the final play.

There is a flip side of the board that is for the so called “Eternal Game” which skips the chapters and legacy elements for just the basic game I have described above plus a few bells and whistles. I am not sure that game on its own is compelling enough where I would want to keep coming back to it. Currently the most interesting thing is seeing how the game changes, so a more static experience is… less exciting. But across 24 games even if I never play it again after that, this seems like a great starting place for trying legacy games with a group and definitely worth the investment. It doesn’t hurt that it is half the price of most other legacy games as well. It’s not terribly interactive between players but it is so light and breezy it leaves plenty of time for conversation and there is a certain joy in seeing a card flip that perfectly matches your plans while simultaneously hearing your neighbor curse under their breath since it is the exact wrong piece for them.

New Shelf, Who Dis?: Welcome to Cardboard Empire 2.0

Welcome to the new iteration of the Cardboard Empire blog. The Times Union decided to wind down their blogs for fear that they were receiving criticism over their community blogs being interpreted as journalism. Which… is a pretty far leap. But regardless you won’t find any journalism here. Just soft warm opinions, no cold hard facts.

I have brought over the content from the old blog so it has a new place to live and hope to start updating this blog a bit more frequently in the near future. It goes without saying that board gaming has been more challenging lately as the regular public game night is out the window during the pandemic and private game gatherings are also pretty rare. However, gaming finds a way and I am hoping to get more games to the table (virtual or not) in the near future and report back here with my latest findings.

With that being said, the new blogging home brings a bit more freedom in terms of topics, so be prepared for some non-cardboard ruminations as well. The sky’s the limit, although I assure you it will all be quite nerdy regardless of the topic. I also hope to do more in-depth dives into some of my favorite games, more formal reviews as well as hopefully more interviews. So stay tuned!

The monolith to cardboard grows ever taller

Plenty has changed since this humble blog began on the TU 5 years ago, but just as I started then I want to start here by introducing you to the board game shelf. This is where the magic happens and while games have come and gone every one of these boxes contains cherished memories, or raw potential to create new ones. The shelf has grown vertically, a much coveted four cubes worth of new space, much of which was quickly filled by the previous overflow and games from the partner I now live with. And certainly despite the difficulty of actually playing games during covid the collection has somehow still grown. Lots of new exciting games to talk about and play.

I hope to update every Friday, so make sure to tune in!

New game roundup 2: Gods, tombs and chocolate

Board Game Arena continues releasing great new games so I wanted to touch on a few that I have been playing recently. First, a note. The site seems to filling out their 31 days with trick taking games. While I respect these and am usually curious to try a new one, they don’t exactly set the world on fire. So while I played one of the two trick taking games this week, I did not spend the 30 minutes to learn the second that I would surely never play again. Additionally, playing any trick taking game with players who are not familiar with them is kind of like a form of torture. This is even worse if it’s a partnership game and your partner doesn’t know the first thing about strategy for the game. So we can already put an asterisk next to my goal to play every game this month, but I have my limits, even when I am craving board game more than ever. And with that out of the way let’s get to the games.

 

An interesting trick taking game

The first game was the trick taking game that I did try this week, called Solo Whist. This is another game with bidding those types of games more advanced on the trick taking spectrum. Essentially you have to be able to look at your hand and the trump suit and be able to roughly predict how many hands known as tricks you will win, either by playing the high card or a trump card. Here there are several different kinds of bids called contracts, each more difficult than the last. You can only outbid another player with a more risky contract.  You can bid prop, which means you thin you and one other player will be able to take 8 tricks combined. Any other player can follow this with a cop bid, meaning they will join you to try to take 8 tricks. You can bid solo which means you will take at least 5 tricks by yourself. You can bid Misery, which means you will lost every trick. You can bid abundance which means you will take 9 tricks alone and choose which suit is trump. And then there are three more contracts which are even more risky. The gist is, this is a game of chicken in trick taking form. It is quite fun as the other players at the table do everything in their power to make sure the successful bid of the other player fails. Definitely one I would play again, although it made me realize I am not that great at trick taking games that require bidding.

 

Kami has beautiful art and deceptively simple gameplay

The second game is a simple card game called Kami. This is apparently a game derived from Shogi, or Japanese chess. The art is beautiful and the game itself is deceptively straightforward. On a turn players play a defense card and an attack card. Other players the the table can only follow if they can play a defense card that matches the attack card just played. If no one can, the last player to successfully defend leads a new round. The goal is to play all the cards in your hand, so players want to play whenever they can to continue to shed their hand. However, it is sometimes wise to pass even if you can match another player in order to take control of the flow of the game. Players who lead a hand play their defense cards face down which makes it difficult to count cards and know exactly what cards have not been played yet. The final wrinkle here is a unique scoring system where you only get points for the last card played from your hand. While different from a trick taking game, Kami definitely requires some of the same skills, and so can be frustrating to play with players who do not understand the strategy. But there’s plenty to explore here for players who do enjoy that sort of game.

 

Luxor is a great family game with some interesting push and pull decisions and puzzle-like hand management

The third game is a Spiel Des Jahres nominee from a couple of years back called Luxor. In Luxor players are trying to get to the center of an ancient tomb while picking up as many treasure tiles as they can along the way. Each turn players play a card to move one of their adventurers a certain number of spaces into the tomb. The unique part here is that you can only play the left most or right most card in your hand, and you are not allowed to re-arrange the cards in your hand. Each round you draw back up to five cards but the new card goes in the center of your hand. In this way there is a sort of puzzle of what order to play your cards. Each treasure tile requires a certain number of your adventurers to land on it in order to pick it up. so you are often trying to sequence their movement so they end up on the right tile before other player claim them first. This goal is counter balanced by the fact that you unlock more adventurers the further you make it into the tomb, and get points for how far each adventurer makes it into the tomb at the end of the game. So slow and steady allows you to pick up a lot of tiles, but may leave you behind other players who have made it further into the tomb. In addition to treasure tiles there are spaces that allow you to draw more powerful cards into your hand, and additional tiles that come out after a treasure token has been claimed. I really enjoyed the puzzle of this game and I can see why it was a nominee for the German game of the year award. I would definitely recommend checking it out.

 

Cacao is a breezy tile laying game with a unique checkerboard structure that drives interesting decisions.

The final game that I played this week is another tile laying game called Cacao. In Cacao players are harvesting cacao beans in the jungles of Central America. Each turn players place a worker tile that has one to three works on each of its four sides. They then place a jungle tile to fill in any spaces left in a sort of checkerboard pattern. The workers on each tile interact with the jungle tiles to do various things to score the player points. They can harvest cacao beans, sell them for coins which are the points in the game, mine a tile for coins, move the players piece down a river which scores the players more points the further they travel along it, or fight for an area majority sort of mini game over temples. I have never seen a game that uses this sort of checkerboard worker placement game before. There is some good strategy here because you are trying to place your own worker tiles in a way that most benefits you, but does not give points to your opponents. The game is quick and breezy but has plenty of interesting decisions. This one was a winner that I would definitely play again.

 

Board Game Arena keeps releasing great games on the service and creating a great covid-safe way to play games with your friends. If you haven’t check it out yet I highly recommend giving the service a try.

New game round up: Flaming pyramids, island adventure and gerrymandering

Board Game Arena continues to put a wide variety of games up on it’s, one for every day and I have been trying to keep up with learning a new game every day. I have played the most recent releases and wanted to recap the latest editions.

Trick taking card game Ninety-Nine

The first is a very simple trick taking game called 99. This is a game similar to Hearts or Spades where players attempt to take sets of card by playing the highest card of whatever suit was lead. This game can be played with a traditional deck of cards so once you learn the rules its easy to teach other players in person. The unique part of this game is that players can bid for how many hands or tricks they think they are going to win and get more points by accomplishing this goal. They can double down on this further by showing their bid to other players, which gives them the opportunity to mess with their success. They can double down further by revealing both their bid and their hand of cards. It’s kind of like a game of chicken. The more players reveal, the more points they can win, but the more information they share with their opponents, the more difficult it is to accomplish their stated bid. This is a more advanced game than hearts, and it really encourages two key trick-taking skills, card counting and knowing how many tricks your can take given your starting hand. I must admit that after two major published games for the first two days, 99 felt like a step down. But all in all this is a nice trick taking game and I wouldn’t turn it down if someone asked.

 

Flaming Pyramids. Uno with math and physics!

The Second release is a game called Flaming Pyramids. This game places a bit like a spatial version of Uno… with fire. The goal is to get rid of all of your tiles. Players are working on a shared pyramid that they build up with tiles each turn. To place a tile it must match the color or the number of at least one of the tiles below it. There’s also the matter of weight. The two tiles below must have numbers that add up to more than the tile being placed on top, or else there is a collapse. Collapses can trigger more collapses as a sort of chain reaction occurs when tiles that previously supported others are removed. All collapsed tiles go into the active players stack, so this kind of chaos can mean you have a lot more tiles than opponents to get rid of. And then there’s fire. There are three type of building materials: straw, wood, and stone. Coal tiles only burn straw materials and blowtorches(!!) burn both wood or straw. The secret is to nest these in among some rocks and then watch chaos ensure in a later round when the collapse of other tiles cause them to hit paydirt. This seems like a fun family game and I would play it over Uno any day!

Small Islands

The Third game is  a tile laying game called Small Islands.  The tiles depict part of an island landscape with The only rule for tile placement is that each side must match the landscape in all four directions around it. Water must match water and land match land. Each round players draft a goal card which explains what is required in order to place a house on an island, and also how you will score for each house. In this way the actual game of the tile laying has different goals for the different players, unlike say a game like Carcassonne where all players are trying to score in the same ways. The players are still working on the game board however, so it is possible for other players to mess with your plans, perhaps unintentionally. There is also a timing element for when to end a round, which is triggered by a player placing out their ship tile. This is definitely a tactical name but was pleasant enough and I wouldn’t mind playing it again. The tropical nature of the art is certainly a nice diversion from the current winter weather.

Mapmaking: The Gerrymandering Game

The final game added in recent days is called Mapmaking: The Gerrymandering GameThis is a simple abstract game with a light political theme. At the start of the game each players tokens numbered 1 through 10 are spread throughout of a hexagon alongside other players. This is the political landscape  that players that carve up into districts throughout the game. Each turn players place 4 borders trying to group together lower numbered opponent tokens with higher tokens of their own. However all the other players are trying to do the same thing, so the key is to place borders in such a way that the other players can’t undo your plans before your next turn. You can learn the game in five minutes so it is a great introductory game for folks who haven’t played many board games. However, fair warning it is a rather mean game as every good move for you is inherently bad for another player. As long as you are ok with this confrontation I recommend checking it out.

That’s it for today. I will be checking in with more impressions later this week as new games are added to the service. If any of the above sparked your interest head on over to Board Game Arena and check them out!

Welcome To and its sequel Welcome To New Las Vegas are available online

Happy Friday! We’re on day 4 of one new game a day on the online board gaming site Board Game Arena. I have been learning and playing a new game each day and wanted to share my thoughts on some of the recent additions. I will provide a recap of many of the new games next week, but first I want to write about two specific additions from this Tuesday.

The great news is that Board Game Arena added Welcome To which I wrote about in my Roll and Write post earlier this year, and it’s sequel Welcome to New Las Vegas to the service. Having Welcome To in a clean user friendly online format is great news. I recommended this game as one that folks could play remotely with friends using the physical game and printing additional player sheets online, but this online implementation just makes it that much easier to play the game with friends and family.

Since I had already learned this game, I dove into it’s sequel to see what new bells and whistles they had added to one of my favorite games. And the initial experience was… frustrating, to say the least. You know how some movies are perfect, and yet Hollywood chooses to make a sequel and completely misunderstands what made the original great? This was the feeling I got with Welcome to New Last Vegas. My general impression was that they had added too many rules and systems making what was a simple game with the original into a convoluted mess with the sequel.

To explain, it might make sense to briefly recap the original. In May I wrote:

In Welcome To players are building neighborhoods by filling in house numbers on one of three streets. Each turn there are three numbers to choose from three different stacks of cards and each stack also has a corresponding power, cleverly printed on the back of each card. In this way the face up card is the number you can play and the remaining deck’s top card indicates the power. The goal of the game is to build neighborhoods, groups of houses that all have a house number filled in and a fence on the left and right side of the group. This is easier said than done however, as numbers have to be sequential like a real street however the distribution of the numbers 1-15 are not even in the deck. You can’t always rely on getting the next number you need on a street so there is a push and pull on when to skip a number.. The various powers let you spruce up the neighborhoods by adding parks and pools for extra points, increase the real estate value for neighborhoods of a certain size, or bend the rules to repeat house numbers or manipulate a house number up or down. 

 

The core of Welcome to New Las Vegas is the same. Players have three choices each turn and are now filling in casinos with numbers instead of houses. Gone are the neighborhoods and instead there are various ways to score points. So much so that what was once a single sheet game now has a separate score sheet and player sheet to keep track. Which is certainly an ominous indication of the increased complexity. Players are now trying to build sequences of odd or even sequential numbers in 4 streets instead of the original 3. In addition players can build Hotels by completing avenues, e.g. the vertical column of casinos on multiple streets. So here players are thinking in multiple dimensions. This is confused further by having several unbuilt casinos that need to be constructed in one turn in order to be able to write a number in them in a future turn.

From here things get even more complicated. There is now a spatial puzzle to play by driving a limousine around these various streets and avenues picking up bonuses in front of certain hotels, with a risk/reward mechanic whereby if you don’t make it back to the airport spot where the limousine starts you lose points. There is a golf course you can expand on the top street of the board that rewards you for building casinos next to each other without skipping any spaces. There is a mayor inauguration track that you can contribute to with players getting points for having contributed more than any other player. This track can also have spaces cashed in to bend the rules. There are shows, similar to pools from the previous game where you can circle a show if you use that effect and number on a casino that has a a star on it and receive increasing points depending on how many shows you put on.

A completed game.

All of this is topped of with the cherry on a sundae that is the money system in the game. Several of those activities mentioned above require you to circle a money icon to use. Constructing casinos, putting on shows, extending casinos to duplicate a number you’ve already written. At the end of the game if you have not accrued enough money to pay for these actions you can get dinged for 20 points, which is usually enough to knock someone out of first place. 

So at first… I absolutely hated this. Who had thought all this systems overhead was a good idea? I walked away from my first place of the game ready to write it off and just return to the original. And to be fair, I will always start with the original with new players. It would be cruel to throw anyone into the deep end of Welcome to New Las Vegas without the basics of its predecessor. But then I played another round, and I read the rules again. And I lost… by less. And then I played a third round and focused a few strategies based on the goal cards from that game. Somewhere along the line everything clicked into place. What they have created is a very complex system of risk and reward. When you play Welcome to New Las Vegas you are actually playing several tiny games at once, pulling the different levers that the game offers you to give you more flexibility, but at a cost. This can result in the game feeling very scattered and fragmented in the first few plays. But once you get used to the systems, it does exactly what it set out to do. It does not create a better game necessarily, but there is more to explore if you can make it past the rough learning curve.

Regardless of what flavor of Welcome To you prefer, these are two great games and its great to be able to easily play them online

 

Board Game Arena Saves the Holidays

I wrote back in the Spring about Board Game Arena being one of the best places to play games online during the pandemic. As the year has gone on the website has added some tremendous games to their library, and for less than the cost of a single board game you can sign up for a premium membership to play them all. Given the coming winter and the fact that more people will be stuck inside as case counts go up, BGA has seen fit to send us all a care package of fun by releasing a new game on the service every day of December.

As one of those people are stcuk at home, I plan to learn and play each new game and report back here. While the blog posts may not be daily, I will cover all 31 games on this site. If one peaks your interest feel free to jump in and even challenge me to a round!

The first game of this board game bonanza is Thurn and Taxis. A game about… the founding of the German postal service. Sometimes, you don’t play a game for it’s theme, but simply because it’s fun, and that’s certainly the case here. The gameplay here sings, so much so that the game won the Spiel des Jahres or German Game of the Year award back in 2006. Each turn you must draw a city card, and play a city card to your postal route. You may then optionally finish a route and place houses. Three core rules, seems pretty simple, right? That’s where it gets devious. Each card you play in your route must be adjacent to a previous city you have played. And there’s a spatial element here as well as route cards can be played to the left or the right of the current route you are working on. Think of it like building a sequential set of cards in a game like solitaire. You are often looking for very specific cards to continue your route, and there’s often only one or two cards that would work. AS a result there is a push your luck aspect because if you can’t continue your existing route, you have to start a new one and lose all your current progress. So you may want to complete a route if you are not sure you can continue it in the next round. However, the longer the route, the more points, so maybe you take a chance and just hope the right card comes up in the next draw…

Board Game Arena has a fantastic tutorial that will teach you all of the basics, and the interface makes it very clear what your options are on your turn. Better yet since it is a digital version of the game playtimes are way down and there’s no set up or clean-up. Check back in later this week for more micro-reviews and if you’re bored at home give BGA a try.

Free games: Under the sea with Bargain Basement Bathysphere

Do you want to go on an undersea adventure, but you’re stuck at home during quarantine? Fret not! The adventure of a lifetime is just 32 double sided black and white pages away. Bargain Basement Bathysphere (of Beachside Bay) is a free print and play roll and write game. When you print it out it looks like a graduate thesis, but it is actually a series of puzzles trying to do death defying dives into the ocean and make it back to the surface before you run out of air. All you need to do is print it out and start on page one. 

Charting my course one die at a time.

Each page details the story so far, sets out any new rules or, in most cases, is the roll and write sheet where the game takes place. Players roll five dice and then use these numbers to skip forward or backwards that many spaces. The goal is to get to the ocean floor and make discoveries along the way by landing on certain spaces, while avoiding hazards the cause stress to your vessel or soak up your limited oxygen. If you land on a space you cross it off taking whatever points are associated with it, or more critically diffusing the penalty associated with it. However, if you pass by a space with a hazard without landing on it you must cross off the hazard and take the corresponding damage to your rather fragile bathysphere. In this way the game creates a lot of tension even though all you are doing is moving backwards and forwards crossing out boxes on a sheet of paper. Each time you roll the dice you must spend an oxygen, and there is always a temptation to roll again before you’ve used up your current five dice, to perhaps get better rolls and scoop up discoveries or disarm more hazards. There is very much a feeling of panic as you race back up to the surface, low on oxygen, and with each previously crossed off space acting as a new hazard. If you get exactly the right roll and chart it out, you feel like a genius. But if you plan poorly or misjudge when to turn around and get back to the surface, disaster is always around the corner.

Success, with four divers rescued!

While each sheet is an adventure of its own, the real pleasure here is the progression that waits on the next page. Early on the game introduces a sort of global game that you play based on your score with each dive. Every few dives new rules are introduced and new twists are added to the puzzle. The writing is charming and silly and it makes for a wonderful morning coffee activity. I have written about solo games before, how they are a kind of puzzle. Usually they are not for me, I have other things I want to do with my alone time, and usually find games to be a social activity. But during quarantine when my life is filled with screen constantly, it is incredibly refreshing to sit down with some dice and a pen and just noodle through a tricky puzzle. This game in particular is a great entry point to print and play because it is just that. You print it, and then you are ready to play it. No assembly required. I am looking forward to continuing to dive and what twists and turns are to come, but if you have a printer and want a nice leisurely activity I cannot recommend this game enough. 

GenCon and Essen Spiel 2020 Cancelled

In what was inevitable, but still very sad news both of the major board game conventions for the Summer and Fall were canceled this week. Spiel at Essen, which I have written about visiting in 2015 was cancelled on Monday. This is the largest worldwide convention with companies from all over the globe coming to release and sell new games. Given the global nature of this event, and the pandemic it was not safe to have this convention. Part of the reason this news is difficult  is because the convention was due to happen in October which still seems a way off. This is another indication that the world and the board game industry will not be back to normal any time soon. The very next day Gen Con which is the U.S.’s largest board game convention which happens in August was also cancelled for similar reasons. I have never personally been to Gen Con, but it is like board game Christmas, where many games have their debut. I wanted to take some time today to write about what these cancellations mean for the hobby  both as an industry and as a community.

Industry impact: Board games are one of the last media industries that is still very much a physical product. While movies, shows, and video games are very much in the streaming and digital age, board games often require folks to sit down and try the game. These conventions are huge for companies because they can drum up excitement and buzz for a release. At Essen and Gen Con there are demo stations where people try out the games, and while there are often surefire hits that already have the buzz and excitement coming into the convention itself, we will almost certainly lose the hidden gems that rely on word of mouth at the show. These shows are as much a release party as they are a chance for fans to discover games they might never have heard of. Because of this, a lot of publishers are debating when and how to release their games at all. From large publishers to small, there is a question of how to build up excitement or be discovered without the catalyst of a convention. There is the possibility of delaying games till times are different but this has huge budget implications as well as the possibility of being caught in a deluge of releases from other publishers when they feel the time is right. Regardless, it will be a somewhat quiet and strange weird in terms of board games biggest release months, and that is disappointing.

Community impact: There are two aspects that are affected here. For one, I love conventions first and foremost because of the community the develops among the attendees. This is more pronounced at fan conventions vs trade shows like Gen Con and Essen Spiel, but it is still very much there in these larger conventions. To be among a whole city-sized population of fans who like the same things as you is an incredible experience. Every stranger that you turn to probably has something in common with you, at least in the board game world. So to lose this for these two conventions is a huge loss of community building and excitement. The second aspect is the shadow convention that happens behind the scenes among designers and publishers. There are likely many publishing deals and board game pitches that happen at these events that will simply have to be virtual or not happen at all in the “hey I just ran into you” sort of way that organically develops at conventions. Both things are a huge loss and will be sorely missed by fans and publishers alike.

So what is the way forward? Well, there are various virtual conventions cropping up. These are very different and rather new, but as in all other spaces during such strange times the board game industry is trying out new things to fill in the gaps left by enormous change. The Dice Tower and Board Game Geek are putting on a virtual convention in late June. Gen Con will have Gen Con Online during the same dates as the original in person convention. There are still likely to be exciting announcements from these events, but there is no doubt that they will not provide the community and commerce that the original events would have. So join me in pouring one out for these great events that will simply not happen this year. In the meantime, it is time to explore other aspects of the hobby, and I will continue to do so in posts in the coming week.

Spiel Des Jahres nominees for 2020 announced

It is admittedly a strange time for the board game industry, but one event that is exciting every year is the announcement of Spiel Des Jahres or German Game of the Year nominees. My shelf is full of winners and nominees from this award and I stand by it as a surefire way to find a hit family game. Last year’s winners Just One and Wingspan are fantastic games so I am curious to see what this year’s slate of nominees is like.

This year is a bit odd as I am very familiar with the three Kennerspiel or expert game awards, while completely unfamiliar with the regular Spiel nominees. Another interesting aspect of the nominees this year is that both categories include some kind of legacy or campaign game. This trend of having an ongoing narrative and a series of games to play though is clearly a popular one and I have enjoyed many of the legacy games I have played. However, the pressure to have a consistent group to play through them vs an ad-hoc group of whoever is around to play a game makes them feel like a commitment, and consequently they can be difficult to get to the table. There’s also a creeping feeling with some legacy games that players need to play multiple times before they see the “full” game which can make it tricky to form a full opinion in just a couple of plays.

Below are the nominees and some initial thoughts.

Spiel Des Jahres Nominees (the simpler award for more family style games with broad appeal).

My City

My City:Designer Reiner Knizia is on the list of nominees again with what I believe is his first legacy style game. Players build a city through different eras of history. The game has 24 episodes but if players want to just play it as a pick up and play game they can play through the first 4 episodes to unlock the key components of the game. I have to admit I enjoy a lot of Knizia games, but this one does not win in the looks department, appearing to be a rather bland theme with graphics that look like the games from a decade ago or more. However, it may be worth keeping an eye one.

Nova Luna

Nova Luna: Another famous designer Uwe Rosenburg is on the list for a game that appears to be much lighter than the heavy agricultural economic sims he’s typically known for. Nova Luna is an abstract tile laying game that is more about the puzzle than about theme. The tiles you draft each have a requirement to fulfill, but also help you solve previous tiles based on how you place them in a sort of spatial puzzle. Uwe Rosenburg has been creating several lighter spatial games in recent years so it is exciting to see one of these efforts recognized by a prestigious nomination.

Pictures

Pictures: In what is the most generic title and one with the least public information Pictures appears to be a party style game where players try to copy pictures from a center display using a set of abstract components like cubes and string. Players then try to guess which picture the creator was trying to copy. Certainly something for the abstract artists out there, but this one is definitely a wildcard for me.

Kennerspiel Des Jahres Nominees (More complex “expert” games that are more involved/thinky than the Spiel Des Jahres).

Here I have a bit more familiarity as I have played each game.

Cartographers

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale: Another game in the category of Roll & Write games that I just wrote about last week, Cartographers has players draw a map in order to fulfill goals that are different each game. Each turn an explore card is dealt showing a type of terrain (villages, forests, farms or water) in a polyomino or tetris like shape. Players then choose where to draw this shape on their map in order to best accomplish the goal. There is a small dose of player interaction here as once in a while ambush cards come out that have players draw monsters on each other’s sheet to mess with other players’ plans. Having played a couple of rounds of this recently, it is a nice addition to the genre and has that classic satisfying puzzle feel that I described in the article about these games. Definitely some good fun.

 

The Crew

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine: This one is very intriguing. If you’ve ever played Hearts or Spades you’re halfway there, as this game is what’s called a trick taking game, where whoever plays the highest card or trump card takes the set of cards played that round, called a trick. Easy enough so far. However, in this game, players cooperate to try to accomplish a certain goal together, but without communicating except in certain restricted ways. For example, imagine playing a game of Hearts and trying to make sure that a specific player takes the Jack of Diamonds. This can be a tall order when you can only communicate what your highest or lowest card is, or whether you only have one card of a certain suit. The Crew contains fifty “missions” just like this and turns the traditional card game on its head in a fascinating way.

The King’s Dilemma: The second legacy style game on the list, this one is by far the most fascinating title. The game puts story above all else, and players are only going to see a portion of the content in a single playthrough. In the game players are part of a council to the King, advising him on certain key decisions during his reign. In terms of gameplay this amounts to voting yes or no in a sort of poker betting system. Players can raise each other by spending more and more influence on either side of the decision. Whoever spends the most influence then has their name associated with the vote, for better or worse. Based on these votes certain envelopes are opened in a branching narrative that has permanent repercussions on the Kingdom. In addition, players are trying to score both secret and public goals by manipulating five different aspects of the Kingdom: wealth, morale, knowledge, military, and food. The results of the votes determine how these aspects go up and down giving players a tug of war based on how they want the vote to go. This is a game of story above anything else but is definitely one of the most innovative games of the year.

Finally there are three Kinderspeil des Jahres or kids games that are nominated. I don’t have any insight here but want to point them out in case folks with kids want to research them. The nominees are

Hedgehog Roll

Foto Fish

And Wir sin die Roboter

Unfortunately German kids games are much less likely to make it stateside so not all of these are available in English.

Overall I am much more excited about the Kennerspiel nominees this year. However I have some homework to do on the regular Spiel Des Jahres nominees and maybe one of them will turn out to be a gem. Who do you think will win the award?

Quarantine Games: Roll and write games

A recent trend in the board game industry has been a huge influx of so called roll & write games. The most common example of this sort of game that everyone knows is Yahtzee. Essentially there is a set of dice and a score sheet, and players are tasked with rolling the dice and filling out the score sheet as best they can. More modern roll and write games have a lot more going on, but the concept is similar. The game consists of a set of dice (or cards in the case of a flip and write) and a score pad, which makes it easy to set up and play and low on the fiddliness (there aren’t a bunch of cardboard or wood tokens to set up/clean up). It also makes it a perfect candidate for remote quarantine gaming. All people need is a view of the dice/cards and a score pad of their own and they are good to go. 

One criticism of these types of games is that they are essentially multiplayer solitaire. In other words there is minimal or no interaction between players, as everyone is filling out their own score sheet and not able to affect what another player does. However this again in times like these can be a benefit. A lack of player interaction makes setting these up for distance gaming much simpler. And since the games can usually be played solitaire, if you are bored but want a non-screen based activity to keep yourself occupied during lock down these can be a perfect distraction. I’d like to highlight a couple of my favorite roll & write games and then give some suggestions for others that can be freely printed for play at home. 

Railroad Ink has players drawing rail and road networks to connect to the edges of the board.

One recent hit is Railroad Ink. Here players roll a set of four dice that show different configurations of roads and rails on each of their sides. All players then draw these four results somewhere on their board, which is a 9×9 grid of squares. Players must start from the edges of the grid and endeavor to connect as many different exits to each other as possible. The more connections for each network of rails and roads the more points they score. However, this is easier said than done. Three of the dice show curves, straightaways and a three way connection of roads and rails respectively. The fourth die shows places where there are rail stations that convert a road into rail as a curve or straight connection, or an overpass where a road goes over a railway piece. Each turn players are dealt the same puzzle pieces, but how they solve the puzzle can be radically different. Players also get points for their longest road and rail, and negative points for connections to nowhere. This is a very spatial puzzle to solve. It is a delight to see your network come together, but if you don’t plan well or if you don’t get the dice you need based on what you’ve drawn so far you can get stuck in quite a pickle. I personally find the game relaxing, but I have been informed by a lot of friends who have played it that they find it incredibly stressful. There are currently two versions of the game, red and blue, and each has different expansion dice for adding volcanoes and meteors, or rivers and lakes respectively. Additionally there is a kickstarter for green and yellow versions that address forest and desert dice as well as some new rules and objectives for players to chase after.

Game board, scoring sheet and work of art all in one.

Another favorite of mine is the flip and write game Welcome To. Here players are building neighborhoods by filling in house numbers on one of three streets. Each turn there are three numbers to choose from three different stacks of cards and each stack also has a corresponding power, cleverly printed on the back of each card. In this way the face up card is the number you can play and the remaining deck’s top card indicates the power.The goal of the game is to build neighborhoods, groups of houses that all have a house number filled in and a fence on the left and right side of the group. This is easier said than done however, as numbers have to be sequential like a real street however the distribution of the numbers 1-15 are not even in the deck. You can’t always rely on getting the next number you need on a street so there is a push and pull on when to skip a number.. The various powers let you spruce up the neighborhoods by adding parks and pools for extra points, increase the real estate value for neighborhoods of a certain size, or bend the rules to repeat house numbers or manipulate a house number up or down. 

The face up cards show house numbers and the back of each card that makes up the deck shows a corresponding power.

You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot to a game that just amounts to filling in house numbers on a score sheet, but there is something immensely satisfying about building your neighborhood. As is often the case with roll & write games the tactile nature of filling out the sheet feels like a sort of fun kind of work. Almost like the feeling of paint by numbers. At the end of the game you have your solution to the puzzle drawn in front of you, and each player’s solution is wildly different despite having the same options. The game encourages some interaction between players by having goals that players race to achieve, but otherwise continues the common trend of players doing their own thing.

Corinth is available as a free print and play file.

A lot of companies are offering free print and play versions of these games to keep folks entertained during quarantine. So if you have a printer and some dice you are good to go. Days of Wonder has shared Corinth which is a Roll & Write version of a favorite of mine, Ysphan. In the game players roll a set of dice and then organize them on a selection board based on the values rolled. Each player takes a set of dice to do the corresponding action working on trade routes or selling goods of different types. While the theme is pretty dry the dice selection mechanic is a lot of fun. Check it out here. Stonemaier games has put out a free roll and write game that celebrates all of their different titles called Rolling Realms. The game has simple rules and a free app so you just need a set of dice and you’re good to go.

Roll & write games are incredibly popular and it seems like every publisher is printing one or two. They are easy to produce since they are usually just some dice or cards and a score pad. While they are not all great, and some players don’t enjoy the solitaire nature of these games. However, during a time when a lot of people are isolated they can be a great way to keep your mind busy and solve a puzzle. If you’ve got a set of dice lying around they are well worth a try!