Friday, July 31, 2009

Game Expansion Review - Formula D Track #1

Of all the people who have joined me for a game of Formula D, I know only two who really didn't like it. One didn't like it because he didn't get to kill anything. The other didn't like it because he's slow in the head. So nearly everyone at least enjoys Formula D, even if they're not as completely wild about it as I am.

But just because you enjoy a game does not mean you have to get all the expansions. Basically, you've got four different groups of Formula D owners:

1) The owner who wishes he had bought something else.
2) The guy who likes the game, but can get by with just the track that came with it.
3) The person who has to buy every single expansion regardless of quality.
4) The discerning buyer who likes the game, but doesn't want to spring for every single expansion if they're not worth the extra cash.

Of course, #4 is a very rare gamer. Most gamers get that 'gotta catch 'em all' mentality that means they have to spend hundreds of dollars to get 50 bucks worth of plastic, or own every single expansion, including the one that costs ten bucks for one figure because it comes with a felt bag. So if you're the gamer who has to have every Formula D track because you like the game, don't bother to keep reading - you don't need a review, you need to sell heroin for pocket money.

Actually, never mind, keep reading anyway. It's good for my numbers if you stick around a while.

For that discerning gamer, here's a review of the first Formula D expansion track. It's got a fairly interesting track called Sebring on one side, and it's also got some special rules for the street race around East Park, Chicago.

Because Sebring is far less interesting than Chicago, we'll start there.

The Sebring track seems designed to run most of the race in fourth gear. There are lots of straight-aways broken up with shallow turns, but the straight parts aren't long enough to roll that huge 30-sided die, so you're probably still going to end up cranky because you can't get to sixth gear (I always am. I don't play a race game to compete with my grandma. I want to haul ass).

Sebring isn't my favorite track so far. It's not particularly difficult, with no 3-rated turns and a lot of 1-raters. It only has one place where you're likely to get into fifth gear, and you can forget about sixth altogether. On the other hand, you'll probably be pushing a little more than you should, because this track is going to let everyone keep up fairly well.

When you flip the board, though, it gets awesome. Chicago is a street race, and there are lots more places to crash into other people, spin out of control, and drive your car off a bridge and into a river. There still aren't the lengthy straight areas that I love, but it does have a really cool twisty part with several intersections, and you can get a pretty good head of steam through there. Drive through an intersection while an opponent is coming through from the other direction, and you might both wind up missing a couple parts.

Possibly the most fun on the Chicago track is the drawbridge. This bridge isn't all the way closed, so there's a two-space gap, and if your car ends its turn in one of those spaces, you fall in the river. Thankfully, a handy crane pulls you out and puts you back on the freeway - but now you're in first gear and everyone else is flying past you like they had wings.

If you really like the technical aspects of Formula D, Sebring will probably appeal to you. There are several tricky decisions to make, but overall it's not as exciting as the crazy race through Chicago. Personally, I wouldn't pass this one - it's got something for any Formula D fan, and you know you're getting bored of flying off the track in Monaco.


Sebring is a fairly tricky race that gets trickier with more players
Chicago is an awesome street race with lots of killer road hazards

Sebring is a little too technical - I prefer the mad-cap hijinks of Chicago

You can get Sebring/Chicago direct from Asmodee:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Card Game Review - The Perfect Pyramid

Most people know about games like rummy or poker, but what they don't know is that Egyptians actually invented these games (in the interest of full disclosure, I made that up). However, the Egyptian versions of these games did not include our four suits and face cards and numbers and what-not. Instead, they had different parts of pyramids on their cards, and instead of trying to match numbers, they had to stack the cards on top of each other to make pyramids. This sometimes required the use of slaves, since the Egyptians did not have standard cards, and used big stone blocks with numbers carved in hieroglyphics (it is worth nothing that it was very easy for Egyptian game geeks to cheat, thanks to the fact that each 'card' was about the size of a large dog, and it was tough to hide them before your opponent could get a peek).

Today, we no longer have these giant stone cards, but thanks to Bucephalus Games, we do have some of the better games the Egyptians played with these cumbersome pieces. Of course, considering shipping cost for games that have to come out of China, it's probably a good thing we don't try to play Cribbage with giant stone blocks. Plus we don't have slaves any more, so there would be lots more back injuries (not that there were not back injuries when slaves were hauling the stones around, but they didn't have health insurance, so nobody really paid attention).

The similarities between Perfect Pyramid and regular ol' cards are pretty obvious. Where set collection in regular cards is done by matching suits or numbers, now you have to find full pyramids, with three base cards, two center cards, and a capstone. Each pyramid comes in one of five colors, and there are two pyramids in each color, only some have black capstones (if that sounds a little confusing, buy the game and you can see what I mean). So you have to collect different sets, but the rules to the games haven't changed much since Cleopatra and Marc Antony played after long days of looking androgynous.

Because pyramids could be constructed out of different color pieces, there are different scores for different pyramids. Like a chaotic pyramid, which is made out of basically random colors, is worth less than a striped pyramid, where each level is from a single color. If the whole pyramid is the same color, it's a perfect pyramid, which is a pretty crazy coincidence, because that's also the name of the game.

One big difference from a regular deck of cards is the inclusion of seven star cards. These are used in different ways in different games, but they basically add a sort of extra suit. Also, they all have really cool cartoony Egyptian art, as an homage to their roots.

In essence, The Perfect Pyramid is just a deck of wacky cards. Four different games are described in the rules, though I suspect you could come up with lots more, if you had the time. You could probably play Hearts, but then it would be Pyramids, which might be confusing since you would be playing Pyramids with Perfect Pyramids, but you probably wouldn't be trying to get Perfect Pyramids, just avoid picking up the mummies and white capstones.

The first game in the box is Pyramid Rummy. This shares a shocking similarity to Rummy, which is probably why the names are so close. You have a hand of 12 cards, and you're trying to build two pyramids before your opponent. I'm not explaining the entire game of Rummy - it's not like the game hasn't been around for a while - but basically, the cards add a cool new twist to an old stand-by favorite. I don't know how many weekends I spent playing Rummy at a cabin in the mountains, but I do know it would have been more fun if I had been using these cards.

Then you've got Solitary Pyramid. If you've ever played Klondike on the computer, you'll probably recognize this one - only instead of trying to stack four columns from king to ace, now you're trying to build pyramids. You flip three cards, start from the bottom up, and build your pyramids. This is a wicked hard game to win, but you do get points for each pyramid you finish, so you can compare your score from game to game.

The third game is Pyramid Poker. It's very exciting to see the origins of poker - you can almost imagine a stone back room full of incense smoke, with a table surrounded by Egyptian men who would have looked tough if they hadn't been wearing eye shadow, betting camels as their slaves hoisted their cards all over and eunechs fanned them with palm fronds. Come to think of it, maybe it's for the best this one came to America. A bunch of cowboys with guns, cigars and facial scars is quite a bit more intimidating than men wearing makeup.

Path to Perfection is the final game in the rulebook, and it's the first one that doesn't closely resemble a game you already know how to play. In this one, players are competing to build two perfect pyramids face-up. You have to start at the bottom and work up, and your pyramids have to be perfect. But to mix it up a little, you also get six dice, three that show colors and three that show pieces, and you can use these dice in conjunction with cards in your hand to cheat a little. This is actually the most interesting game in the box, if just because it's new. It might take a couple hands to understand, but it is definitely an interesting way to use the cards.

It's nice to see Bucephalus Games make another cool game. So far, this and Kachina are the stand-outs, the kinds of games that tend to make up for having to play crappy review copies. But just because I really enjoy The Perfect Pyramid does not mean it doesn't have any flaws.

For one thing, the dice are just white cubes, and you put stickers on them, but the stickers are too big and stick out past the sides of the dice. The dice roll funny, and sometimes they stick to each other. I've seen some slipshod Chinese construction before, but this is just sloppy. Like embarrasing sloppy.

And the cards are really nice, with great art, but the symbols in the corner need to be farther in the corner. When I'm holding 12 regular cards, I know what I've got, but when I'm holding 12 Perfect Pyramid cards, my hand cramps up from trying to fan them enough to see what's in the corner. Compared to the sticker thing, this is practically a non-issue, but it's basically just a design oversight. It doesn't hurt the game, but it can be a little irritating.

Happily, The Perfect Pyramid is still a pretty cool set of games. The art is cute and fun, the games are relaxing and engaging, and the cards are attractive and easy to hold. You can play with your family, your girlfriend, or all by your lonesome, and still have a good time. This is a good solid purchase, and one you won't regret unless you're some snobby jackass who looks down his nose at people who play regular games like Gin and Pinochle.

The Egyptians would probably look down their noses at those people, but they also put skirts on their menfolk, so their judgment is questionable at best.


Fun cartoon art
Clever twist on traditional cards
Enough variety to play with nearly any size group
Great games that are easy to learn and fun to play
Not made out of stone

Symbols are too big and make it hard to read the cards at a glance
Horrible sticker oversight means the stickers are too big for the dice

This one doesn't appear to be out yet. Watch the Bucephalus Games website - hopefully they'll be selling it soon. If you like standard card games, but want to try a cool twist, you really need to get The Perfect Pyramid.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Card Game Review - Timestreams

There are some foods I like undercooked. Steak, for instance - I'm a big fan of rare steak. And I love gooey chocolate chip cookies. Some stuff, though, should not be taken out of the oven early. Like chicken. Or brownies. Or pork.

Or card games. If your card game is not finished, you should leave it in the stove until it's done.

Timestreams has an almost ridiculous amount of promise. There are six eras, and players take turns seeding the different time periods with inventions. Each player has cards from a different era - one player will be Stone Age, another will be Modern Age, and a third might be Future Tech. The theory is that time travel has been invented simultaneously in every era, and the inventors are scrambling to make their era come out on top.

You take turns playing cards in each era. Once everyone passes on the chance to play inventions or actions, you move on to the next era. Inventions and actions can interact with other inventions and actions, and once all the eras have been filled up, you go through and score all the inventions you've played.

The reason this works is because most inventions either have Play or Score effects. Like when the Modern Age inventor plays Napalm, he can blow up an invention in an earlier era. The Stone Age guy's Domesticated Animals card makes the next invention get discarded when the scoring happens. The long-term interaction is amazing - you play cards that affect other cards to set up different cards to score when yet other stuff happens. As you play Timestreams, you can see a fantastic amount of forethought and planning goes into playing the game really well.

Unfortunately, all that forethought won't do you a whole lot of good in a game this unfinished. For starters, all this stuff doesn't work right. It should - there are some really cool effects that interact brilliantly - but there's a shortage of stuff working together. Like art inventions - these cards can affect other art inventions, and do cool stuff. The problem is, there aren't enough art inventions. Television is an art invention. A Laser Show is an art invention. Music and Philosophy, however, are not. So you can use the Laser Show to discard Television, but you can't use it on Music.

And then there are the misprints. The most obvious is Androids - this sure does look like an invention, but the teeny tiny print on the card says it's an action. I only have four decks of the six available, so I can't say for sure how many mistakes are in there, but it's bad enough to make the game pretty darn questionable.

Or the cheesy lines - like Yoke, a Medieval invention, which has the cutesy tagline, 'Turns out, the yoke's on you.' It's good they didn't say 'joke,' because then you don't have to feel bad about not laughing. There's a lot, lot more. If I went into them all, I would spend this entire review making fun of very bad writers.

And the graphic design is horrible. The art is poopy. Yes, I said poopy, like I was a child, because the art actually looks as though a child painted it with his fingers and a tub of paste. And it's really big art, which means that the card descriptions have to fit in a little tiny part of the card, which makes them really hard to read. They saved room for goofy one-liners when they could have made the cards easy to read. That's a bad call. That's clumsy design.

But the biggest problem I can see with Timestreams is a huge flaw in the rules. Every round, you get a specific number of cards, based on the number of players. With only two players, you each draw six cards. And only the top six inventions in each time period score. And once each player has played three cards, that would be six, and there's not a whole lot of reason to play any more. Other inventions might move stuff up or down, or actions might change things, but only if they're in your hand - so you probably end the round with three more cards, and then draw six. So now you have nine. And there are six rounds. And each round you draw six more. So by the end of the game, you probably have most of your deck in your hand. Ever try to play a card game where you're holding 25 cards at a time?

I could keep going, but basically what I'm looking at here is a game that came out of the oven before it was done cooking. There are some really cool things going on here, but the flaws render Timestreams too big a mess to enjoy. It might have been fun to playtest, and it would have been satisfying to fix, but as it stands, Timestreams is a delicious crust over a wad of raw dough.


Really interesting premise
Incredible potential for brilliant card play

Ugly art
Poor design
Errors abound
Raw part in the middle might give you salmonella

You can get Timestreams from the Bucephalus Games website. I'm not linking to a trainwreck because there's a good game here. And I'm not linking to where you can buy it because that good game is hidden really, really deep.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Board Game Review - Dwarven Dig

I was really excited to see Bucephalus Games re-release Dwarven Dig. Not because of how much I loved Dwarven Dig when Kenzer & Co. made it - kind of the opposite, in fact. That game was horrible in its original format. The components alone made it virtually unplayable, and the convoluted rules and lack of decent player aids made completing a game more work than I ever like to do on a Saturday.

The Bucephalus version of Dwarven Dig fixes a lot of problems. Like the old game had tiles that looked like they were made from recycled paper bags, and the new tiles are all glossy and double-sided. The old one had 'grit' that was basically whatever was left on the table after they cut all the flash off their metal miniatures, and the new one has silver glass beads. The old one had a confusing and painfully long rulebook, and the new one is in full color and easy to follow.

But most of all, the old Dwarven Dig sucked. It's not that it wasn't fun. It's that it was the opposite of fun. To illustrate the difference, here's a list of things that are not fun, and then things that are the opposite of fun.

Not Fun:
Watering the grass

Opposite of Fun:
Being swarmed by fire ants while watering the grass

Not Fun:
Drinking lukewarm tap water

Opposite of Fun:
Drinking bleach

Not Fun:
Watching 'Real Housewives of Atlanta' on TV

Opposite of Fun:
Going to prison and becoming a Real Housewife of Block D

Happily, the new Dwarven Dig is much better than the old one. Unhappily, that's not saying much. Now, instead of being the opposite of fun, it's just Not Fun.

It seems like this game should be pretty cool. You've each got a party of dwarven explorers who dig their way towards the treasure chamber, dodging puddles of lava and gigantic cockroaches, among a myriad of other hazards. You can get in fights with your opponents' dwarves, and you can play lots of mean-spirited cards to break stuff and hurt people. You play grit tokens to improve your odds when you're trying to avoid being swept down a river, or just to get all bad-ass when it's time to rumble. It's got body count, so it should be at least mildly entertaining, right?

Well, OK, yes. It is mildly entertaining. Every turn, you'll dig through walls, earning grit if you fail and breaking down walls if you succeed. Then you'll see if you can survive the poison gas or giant cabbage (it's not really cabbage, but it sure is tough to figure out what it's supposed to be from the art on the tile). Since the board is randomly assembled from hexagonal tiles, you never know what might be waiting for you, so you'll try to keep your whole group alive so that you always have a bonus to your hazard checks.

The game kind of divides itself into two sub-games. The first part of the game, players don't really bother each other. It's too early to tell who might be ahead, and you've got your hands full making a mad dash for the treasure. But once someone closes in on the top spot, it's open season. It's not a bad idea to try to tank a few dig attempts just to let someone else be the target for all that pent-up aggression.

And then someone actually breaks into the treasure room, picks up a pile of cash, and all bets are completely off. At this point, the game pretty much breaks down into a mad dash to beat hell out of each other. You'll be desperately slamming each other, punching people in the face, scratching and biting - and that's just the players. The dwarves actually get killed.

There's a lot of random chaos in Dwarven Dig. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad game, but it doesn't tend to make it a big winner. You might be rolling like your dice were on fire, beating the odds left and right, and just one move away from winning the game entirely - and then some crap-weasel that you used to think was your friends pops in, kills half your dwarves and runs out of the room carrying your ill-gotten gains. It's a little frustrating, and not a lot of fun.

So my final verdict here is that the new Dwarven Dig is a whole hell of a lot better than the old one. If you thought the old one was decent, you'll love the new one. It's the same game, but streamlined and way prettier. But being better than really crappy is not exactly the kind of thing you can put on your resume, and for those of us who like games where the better player wins more often, Dwarven Dig is Not Fun, the way folding socks is Not Fun.

But it beats hell out of finding poisonous snakes in your sock drawer, so there's that.


Very attractive, with great pieces and good art (mostly)
Rules are easy to understand on the first read
Exciting theme

Total chaos and a lack of meaningful decisions drains the fun right out

The new Dwarven Dig isn't out yet. It's supposed to come out this fall. If you like mad-cap adventure games with lots of random violence, you might actually dig this one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Board Game Review - Snow Tails

Fanboys (and I guess fangirls, though you don't see as many of those in board games) are weird. They tend to get upset about stuff that is sometimes really lame. Case in point - Snow Tails. When Asmodee announced that they were going to reprint this game and bring it to the US, they were going to rename it, probably because 'Snow Tails' sounds like an 80s Disney cartoon ("Life is like a sled race, here in, Snow Tails"). In all fairness to the geeks, the new name was worse - Too Mush sounds like you left your breakfast sitting in the sink all day - but there was a serious uprising, including a letter-writing campaign, and Asmodee decided it might be a good idea to stick with the original, nonsensical name, so that more people would buy it. I guess the answer to, 'what's in a name', is, 'money.'

So we got Snow Tails in the United States, and a lot of people were very happy, even though the name of the game sounds like dogs sitting in the snow, not running through it.

I don't really care what they call it, I'm glad Snow Tails made it to my side of the Atlantic. It's not the most exciting racing game ever (that would be Formula D), but it is a lot of fun. And it's crazy original, with rules that fit the theme, and a theme that perfectly fits the rules.

In most racing games, you roll some dice to figure out how far you go. Some of these games work better than others - Moto Grand Prix, for instance, sucks like the vacuum of space, while Formula D is totally bad-ass. But in Snow Tails, you're not racing cars or bikes or boats or whatever, you're racing sleds pulled by dogs. You don't get to just change lanes because you want to change lanes - you have to tell the dogs on one side of the sled to pull harder, and you have to be careful not to tell them to run you into a wall. Normally you would not have to tell dogs not to run into walls, but I guess if they're moving really fast, they get stupid. Of course, my dogs will almost never move fast, and they're still stupid, but they would also totally suck in a sled race.

The tracks in Snow Tails are single pieces that let you make a track pretty much any way you want, and unlike a lot of games where you haul ass, you only have one lap. There's a start and a finish and a lot of track in-between. You can play the basic sides of the tracks, which just have all the lanes cleared, or you can flip them over to dodge between the sides of ravines and plow over little trees. If you can find the Leap of Death expansion track, you can also jump your dog sled over the chasm, as long as you're moving fast enough. Since, as I mentioned, my dogs are slow, this is yet another place where they would ultimately fail as sled dogs.

All of this is fairly cool - nothing particularly revolutionary, but cool. Where Snow Tails really makes itself a contender in the racing game category is the way you move your sled. Each player has a sled card, with two dogs and a brake (plus, you know, a sled). You play cards numbered 1 to 5 on any or all of these spaces during your turn, and this is how you know both how far ahead you move, and whether you swerve right or left.

See, the total of both dogs minus the brakes is how far ahead you go. If you're going into a corner, you don't want to go too fast, or you'll flip your sled into the snow, break your collarbone, and then your cranky-ass dogs will probably eat you to survive. So you may want to stand on your brakes entering a tricky turn, and then let 'er rip for the straightaway.

But the thing is, you can't just change lanes. By playing different values on the two dogs, you create an imbalance that pulls your sled to the left or right. You absolutely have to change lanes to get through a turn, or you'll plow right into the wall, so you spend a lot of the game positioning yourself for a turn, sliding through as fast as you can, and then slamming the speed to beat everyone else to the next corner.

This dog-balancing game mechanic is fantastic, and it really makes Snow Tails a fantastically original game. It doesn't have the breakneck, burning-rubber feel of Formula D, but what it does have is a fun, engaging way to play through a race. You have to think ahead, do a little math, and be able to build just the right maneuver with your cards. And you need to be able to plan well enough to avoid banging up your sled, because then you'll have even fewer cards, and it will be even harder to pull through the turns and goose it over the chasm. You may end up going so slow that your dog team can stop to mark the trees.

I really like the card-playing feature in Snow Tails, but it is not without drawbacks. If you can't plan your move, tweak your cards to make a good play, and calculate your ending space in your head, you're going to take a while on your turn. And if there are four or five people playing, that's going to really slow down the game - not only will you have to wait for a lot more people to take their turns, but your plans will get wrecked all the time as you try to avoid slamming into other racers' sleds, and so you'll all have to take longer to take your turns.

Of course, this particular issue will not affect every group, and the theme in Snow Tails combined with the card-based movement is an absolute winner in my book. It's still fast enough to feel like a race, but with rules that make you think about what you're doing. Where I come from, that makes a pretty good game. And if someone crashes, you can pretend they were eaten by bears, and then you've got body count, which is great because real men play games where people die.


Fantastic art
Great theme that meshes perfectly with the rules
Easy to teach to a group
Hits a nice balance between thoughtful and flat-out speed

Requires a fair amount of careful planning, and you'll hate it if you can't do this
Could really bog down with too many players, especially if they're slow

Dogstar Games doesn't have Snow Tails just yet, but hopefully they will soon. And then you can get free shipping. I'll update this review with a link once they've got it listed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Card Game Review - Fluxx

I swear the people at Looney Labs are high. I mean, more power to 'em - they own the company, so they're guaranteed not to get tested at work. But man, they make some odd games.

Take Fluxx. This is a game where you basically don't need to know the rules before you sit down, because the rules change all the time (thus the name). Ostensibly, the goal of the game is to have the right combination of Keeper cards in front of you when the goal of the game becomes having that combination of Keeper cards, but even that rule isn't set in stone, and that's barely a rule anyway. I would have to be sleeping off a tray of brownies the size of Jersey to come up with that rule.

There are basically four kinds of cards in Fluxx. Rules cards change the game, so that on your turn, you might have to draw one card and play three, and then the next guy might have to draw four cards and discard down to one. There's also a card where you have to have a baked potato to win. No, I did not make that up, but it may have been made up by someone who was moderately inebriated.

Then you've got Action cards. These cards just do zany crap. You might dump some cards, or steal from other people, or draw more cards, or pass cards around the table. You might trade hands, or throw away bad cards, or otherwise screw up everything. There's not a lot of rhyme or reason to these cards - they just let you do something. Probably something weird.

The Goal cards change the winning conditions. Usually, the goal is to have two particular Keepers, like cookies and milk or toaster and bread or melted chocolate. That's a lot of snack food - which may or may not be the result of the game designers having a sudden compulsion to eat. But combinations aren't the only goals - there are goals where you have to have ten cards, or five Keepers. There's also the peace and love goal. Tell me these people aren't stoned.

Then you've got Keepers and Creepers. These are cards that you want to have, usually, except for Creepers, which you have to play and which keep you from winning, unless they don't. Like if winning the game requires you to have war and death, then those two particular Creepers might be great. And some rules make it so that Creepers are OK. The Keepers are stuff like cookies, spaceships, eyes and appliances. Creepers are stuff like death and radioactive potatoes.

Basically, this weird game has you going around the table, constantly modifying the winning conditions and rules for the game until someone sort of stumbles into a win. You pull a couple cards and go, 'hey, if I play all these, I win! Cool!' And then you hope someone doesn't change the rules before your turn.

I have to admit that I liked Fluxx. It's not a game that I would play when I want a deep intellectual challenge, and it seems to have all the strategic depth of 52 Pick Up, but it's still fun. It's virtually pointless, not particularly deep, but somehow still wacky, meaningless entertainment.

Hmmm. What else can I think of that is wacky, meaningless, and fun?

Yeah, they're stoned.


Fun and seriously easy to learn
Crazy card play can go all night or end in five minutes
Small and cheap

Not much depth
Kind of pointless

You can get Fluxx at the Looney Labs webstore:

Crappy Service Review - ATT Screw-Verse

Sorry for all of you who logged in today and got to read a review consisting solely of a cryptic title. We got AT&T U-Verse (which shall now be called 'Screw-Verse') over the weekend, and they broke my Internet. Also my phone and television. Nothing worked, and they couldn't be bothered to fix it until this afternoon.

It was bad to be without Internet and phone, but by God, we had no television. The horror. My wife missed the first new Torchwood in a year and a half (so she still doesn't know which hunky dude Super Gay Immortal Man smooched last night).

Anyway, we're back up, so prepare to be amazed by my Fluxx review.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Board Game Review - King of Siam

I don't try to hide the fact that I write Drake's Flames to get free games. I also don't try to hide the fact that it works pretty damned well (though I sometimes forget to mention that I had to write an awful lot of reviews before it started working at all). But I'm not always forthcoming about how much work it is to get free games. You might think I just sit here, jot down a few thoughts three nights a week, and sit back and collect games. But I'm here to tell you, getting free stuff is hard work. I have to write to game companies all the time, copying links, quoting traffic numbers, trying to sound professional when I'm really just a boob with a keyboard and internet access. Sometimes I'm up until three in the morning sending out review requests for everything from Small World to Duck Dealer.

All that work makes me appreciate it so much more when publishers find me, instead of the other way around. I got King of Siam when the creator of the game asked me to write about it. Not only is it really nice to get free stuff without having to work for it, but it goes right to my head and makes me feel all important. What it does not do, however, is get me to say nice things about your game. For that, you have to actually have a good game.

Happily for Histogames (and for me, since I now own the game), King of Siam is a pretty damned cool game. I'm always a little nervous when I get games from really small publishers, because I once got a game where you have to stab people for prison drugs. But King of Siam is very professionally produced, which a nice linen board and decent art and some rules that are flat-out awesome.

King of Siam is basically a historical recreation of the power struggle in Siam that resulted in it maintaining independence in the face of British colonialism. There were three major factions vying for control of the country, and to complicate the whole thing, if the troubles got out of hand, the British might be marching in any minute. So they had to do all this vicious bickering and infighting, and keep a united face to the British aggressors. It's kind of like when you hate that bitch from accounting, and throw away her print jobs any time you can get away with it, but smile at her and wave whenever you get stuck in a meeting with her. You don't want your boss to know you're feuding, but man, would it be great to push her down a flight of stairs.

To recreate this struggle, you'll have a map of Siam divided into eight provinces. Each one starts with four different, essentially random followers, but as the game progresses, the number of followers in any particular province will rise and fall. You go in turn, fighting for each province, but here's the kicker - if you can't agree on which group wins a region, the British get all pushy and just march right in. If the British take half of Siam, you can go ahead and kiss the rest goodbye.

In order to help guide this internal strife, you'll each have a set of eight cards. They are the only cards you get the whole game, and you can't take an action without one of the eight cards, which means that during any given game, you get to do eight things, and then you're done. Weird, huh?

But it TOTALLY works. In fact, King of Siam delivers the feeling of long-range political scheming like no other game that comes to mind (though I admit to expending very little energy searching my memory). You have to plan ahead to the end of the game before you ever play your first card. You can't waste all your moves early, or you're at the mercy of the pack, but you also can't let your opponents decide every power struggle, or you won't be able to compete any more. Is it worth it to let the British take this region, or do you really need it to go to the Malays because they like you best? Or maybe you force the region to go to the Lao, even though you don't have the controlling interest there, because five turns from now, it will make it impossible for anyone to stop you from giving the Royalists their fourth region.

When I say you have to plan ahead, I'm not even remotely joking. You have to keep track of about twenty things at the same time. You have to know which regions will have power struggles soon, which opponents have the most of each faction, how close the British are to seizing power, and all the while, you have to keep track of the balance of power in every spot on the board. The mental gymnastics you'll need to keep your head in this game would make Mary Lou Retton need a Valium.

The fact that you only get eight actions in the game also forces you to plan your moves. You'll want to basically pick a play and run with it - change your strategy halfway through the game, and you're virtually doomed to fail. On the other hand, if your opening strategy sucks, and you aren't flexible enough to tweak it, you're also completely hosed. In some ways, King of Siam requires more forethought than chess. Plus it's way more fun!

The art for King of Siam might look a little bland at first glance, but looking further at the board reveals a gorgeous and accurate map of the area. The factions tokens look a bit dull, but they are wonderfully representative. The graphics on the cards may not have the kind of flashy graphics you get in a Fantasy Flight game, but they are absolutely perfect for telling you what the cards are for. This is a virtually seamless marriage of form and function whose true beauty comes in how wonderfully it all works.

King of Siam is not a good game for people who don't want to spend a lot of effort on thinking. This is not a simple dice game - in fact, there's no luck to be had anywhere. You can't count on the dice to bail you out if you misplay. A good player will beat a bad player every single time, and that can get really tiresome for people with a low tolerance for taking an ass whoopin'. But if you like to really tax your mind, and if you can track a dozen changing variables at a time, you'll probably love playing King of Siam.


No luck
Cool historic theme
Rules are easy to master - but the game isn't
Excellent if you love to make your brain sweat

Horrible if you don't love to exercise your brain
Components are not as gorgeous as some gamers like - but they're perfect for this

Games this small don't wind up at Dogstar Games, but Boards & Bits has a decent price on it:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Unfortunate Game Review - Are You the Traitor?

I like to watch American Idol. Not the actual show when they're all singing and at least reasonably decent at it - that part irritates me, because they're all so thoroughly average, and it bores me to tears. The part of the show I like to watch is the auditions, when freaks, losers and horrible singers try to persuade the judges that they should be professional rock stars, and that their current career track of washing dishes at Pizza Hut is not a long-term position.

The reason I like the auditions is because they make me laugh. My daughter gets mad at me, but I can't help it - when a girl whose mother never explained to her why she needed a bra (despite the fact that her nipples are pointed at her shoes), and who looks like she uses barbed wire for braces, croaks her way through, 'Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,' I just plain fall out. I mean, that's funny, I don't care who you are. Here's a hint if you're thinking of trying out for American Idol - find someone who does not know you, and sing for them, and if they say, 'holy crap! You're really good!', then you should probably still just stick to karaoke.

The same principle applies in game design. Until someone who doesn't know you at all says you've got a good game, you probably do not. Just because your blinded-by-love mother tells you that she really enjoys your creation is not reason enough to order 20,000 copies from China.

Which brings me, in the longest manner possible, to Are You the Traitor? (see Bang! and Attack! for rants about games with punctuation in the title). I can't pretend I'm happy to have to beat this game to pieces, because the people at Looney Labs are really, really nice. If you ever see them at GenCon, they're like a bunch of smiling hippies stoned out of their gourds on happy pills and wearing tie-dyed lab coats. They're super friendly, and they have had some pretty impressive success with some games I would not have initially thought were impressive.

Are You the Traitor?, unfortunately, is not impressive. It is bad. It is like if you wrap a piece of fish in limburger cheese and leave it in the sun next to the cat box, and come back to it after two weeks. It is a very bad game, by nearly any conceivable measure. And since I like the people who made it, it makes me sad. I wish they would have asked me before they went to print, because I would have gently said to them, 'holy mother of pearl, does this game suck,' and maybe saved them some money.

The idea here is that it's like Werewolf or Mafia, where some people are bad and some are good. You've got a keyholder, who has to give the key to the good wizard. You've got a bad wizard, who wants to get the key. You've got guards, who want to grab the traitor, and then you've got the traitor, who doesn't want anything, he just doesn't want anyone to grab him. At the top of every round, everyone gets a card that tells them who they are, and then there's unstructured conversation.

No, seriously, that's in the rules. The game mechanic employed to help you figure out who is who is unstructured conversation. When we played, this meant that both wizards said, 'I am the good wizard,' and then the keyholder shrugged and chose one of them. The round ends when someone points at someone else, and then you show who you are. If the keyholder pointed at the good wizard, or a guard pointed at the traitor, the good guys win. If the bad wizard pointed at the keyholder, or one of the good guys pointed at the wrong guy, the bad guys win. Everyone on the winning team gets a treasure card, and the first player to have ten points of treasure wins. Usually this happens for multiple people at the same time, and the tie-breaker is that you put this away and play some completely different game.

I can see where there may have been potential in this game. With a little... well, anything, really, this could have been a game. But instead it's ten minutes that you'll wish was over. I suppose it could be fun, the way Werewolf is fun, if you were all six years old, but anyone who can write their name in cursive is going to get dumber after every round. One of our players actually said that he would rather stick a fork in his eye than play again. While I would gladly play this game again rather than mutilate my face, I did share his sentiment, just to a lesser degree.

The real nut-kick here is that this is my first review for Looney Labs. I also have Fluxx (which I will review later, and which is actually pretty cool), and I was hoping to get a lot more games from them, like Chrononauts and Treehouse, both of which look fun (I especially wanted a few sets of Treehouse, because they're like a crazy, candy-colored deck of pyramid-shaped cards, and I've heard nothing but good things about them). But now I've gone and called them stoned hippies, and I called their game stinky cheese wrapped around rotting fish, and I fear they may not be in a hurry to send me more stuff. And who can blame them? Would you send me stuff if I called you names? (By the way, feel free to send me stuff and find out.)

So here's the deal - if you see the goofy people in the colorful lab coats who are somehow still smiling on the fourth day of GenCon, smile back, and maybe buy something. Just don't buy Are You the Traitor?, because it is a very, very bad game.


The game is very small, and will not take up much space in your recycle bin

Almost insulting in the complete lack of decision-making, planning, or even bluffing
Countless games have done this right - Werewolf was even fun in high school - but this is a total fail
Unstructured conversation is not a game mechanic, it is what drunk people do on the phone

To make up for having just blasted their upcoming release to pieces, I'm going to ask you all to visit the Looney Labs site. Even if you don't buy anything, maybe the boost in traffic will take the edge off the limburger-fish thing:

Monday, July 13, 2009

Board Game Review - Cleopatra and the Society of Architects

If you look through some of the catalogs you get when you buy a Days of Wonder game, they explain their name. Basically, they like to make games that remind you of being a kid and getting a new toy, and opening the box to find all this cool stuff like light-up gizmos and sound-makers that will annoy your parents for a full thirty minutes before the batteries fail, at which point you'll go back and play with the box. And none of their games has the 'holy crap, look at all this cool stuff' factor like Cleopatra and the Society of Architects.

This game is all about building Cleopatra's palace, and to really bring the theme home to roost, the box include a little miniature palace that you build one piece at a time. There's a garden, and big obelisks, and sphinxes and walls and doors and crap. There's even a little mosaic that you set up like you were playing Tetris. If you stopped looking at the parts when you saw the storage tray full of building pieces, you would still be amazed at the box full of toys.

But you would be missing even more cool stuff. There are statues of Anubis that you erect in the garden. There are cards with pictures of workers, and marble, and half-naked hookers. There are tiles for money, and tiles for worshiping crocodile gods, and tiles for Nile merchants. There's an absolutely incredible amount of stuff in the box, and yeah, it's a lot like breaking out that toy on Christmas morning and gasping with the delight that a child has when he finds out Santa brought him the latest disposable piece of crap with a movie license.

Unlike that crappy Christmas toy that is going to last for as long as it takes your child to have friends over, Cleopatra is very likely to keep you happy for a while. You take turns either gathering resources or spending them to build, and the actual actions are really easy to pick up, but really tricky to get right.

Part of the problem is that you're in a race to get the palace built, so you might have to cut some corners. And the most efficient way to cut corners is to hire shady help - but these shifty bastards don't want to be paid in cash. These dark assistants want to be paid in offerings to their dark god, and that's not healthy for anyone. Every time you cheat to get ahead, you take a corruption token and hide it in your little cardboard pyramid, so that nobody knows how many you have. You could play it straight, only building when you have the clean resources to maintain your integrity, but meanwhile all the other players are doing backroom deals and black-market pay-offs to get a cut rate on stone, and they end up building the whole palace while you sit back and try to look holy.

But there's a price to be paid for cheating, and it is a lot worse than when you copied half a term paper out of a newspaper article and wound up having to take the class again. No, this time, the player who is the most corrupt gets fed to a crocodile. This is old-school discipline - cheat the most, and wind up feeding the lizard (as opposed to draining the lizard, which has absolutely nothing to do with this game, unless you drink a lot while you play).

This awesome mechanic ends up almost creating a second game within Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, one I like to call, 'Outrunning the Bear.' See, there's an old joke that says you don't have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun your friends. And since Cleopatra only kills off one architect, you just have to make sure you're not last. Other than that, all bets are off - but be careful, because that tricky bastard who is making all those underhanded moves might have an ace up his sleeve, and he might just have a last-minute come-to-Jesus and leave you holding all the ugly points. Then you're off to be croc bait.

There's really no tactical component to Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, but that's fine with me. There's a great strategic component where you'll want to plan your building to maximize particular elements - build big gardens to reduce your corruption, or save up to build two sphinxes at a time. Plan to build walls so that you can score big with the doors, or watch everyone else build the walls while you wait for the exact moment when you can steal their glory. Bluff everyone into thinking they're safe in gaining a little corruption, and then dump it all with a huge sacrifice to the high priest. Planning ahead is important, and organizing resources is critical. Timing is huge here - you don't want to grab that big stack of cards when it's going to get you a penalty, but you also don't want to wait until someone else grabs it and you're stuck with nothing you can build.

It's not like this is a perfect game, of course. Even though the luck balances out thanks to a trippy up-and-down card face thing, you can still wind up with a handful of nothing you can use. Your best-laid plans can be dashed in a moment by one guy pulling a really sweet combo. And while it is immensely entertaining to build this gorgeous model palace, this is the kind of game that you're not going to want to play twenty times, because it's basically the same thing every time.

But really, is there a perfect game? Puerto Rico, maybe, but I hate Puerto Rico, so give me the flawed games. Give me capricious luck and gorgeous components. Give me splashy card art and cutthroat opponents. And most of all, give me architects being eaten by crocodiles. Because it's not a man's game until somebody dies.


Game pieces double as toys and action figures. Or maybe toys and action figures double as a game.
Beautiful art
Tricky and thoughtful game that moves pretty darn fast
I love the 'Outrun the Bear' game

Bit of a luck factor
Might get repetitive, if you don't write a game review site and wind up playing different games every week

For some reason I don't understand, Cleopatra and the Society of Ancients didn't do all that hot. So Dogstar Games doesn't have it. However, you can find it at the Eagle Games site, which is where once-beloved games go when they retire. It's like the Island of Misfit Games:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tile Game Review - Kachina

Rarely in my years of writing game reviews have I had a chance to so thoroughly reverse my position on, well, anything. Except for the time I called my boss an ugly retard - I reversed my position on that fairly rapidly, despite being right the first time. But aside from that, I don't usually have a chance to just completely change my mind (and even when I do have the chance, I often choose not to take it, because it's more fun).

Tonight I get that chance, and I'm taking it. Bucephalus Games has pulled out a winner, and I'm really happy. Since I just reviewed Zombie Mosh, and it totally blows, I was really delighted to be able to review a good game. Furthermore, maybe we can put off buying flowers and booking a gravedigger. Bucephalus Games might have a few years left in 'em after all.

Kachina is a basic tile laying game, but with some tricks up its sleeve so that it's not basic at all. You build a sort of crossword puzzle, taking turns laying down numbered tiles. In order to dominate a row, and thus score for it, you have to play a tile that winds up being the highest value tile in that row. So far, this is pretty easy. Just put down numbered tiles, and the highest one wins.

But then you add in the Special Powers (I capitalized them on purpose, even though you don't usually capitalize those words, because I wanted to make them sound like I have a booming voice. I don't, by the way). All but two of the tiles have extra crazy stuff they do. Like the clown makes every tile next to it a zero (making the big 8-point chief a little useless), and the ogre blocks other tiles from sitting next to it, and the hummingbird dominates if there's another hummingbird at the other end. It might seem like it would take a few plays to understand the special powers (forget the booming voice, it wasn't working), but you'll have them down pat before the game is half over.

And then you'll wish you had known them better to start. When you're cruising into the endgame, desperately wishing you could pull a warrior to swipe the wolf you need to beat the sun, you'll start to see why this is anything but a basic game, and you'll wish you had held on to those eagles and hummingbirds. And when you drop an ogre to block the chief who could beat the sun, you'll cackle quietly to yourself at your brilliance in stopping your opponents from scoring that huge row.

Once you understand Kachina, you'll be able to play several moves ahead. You'll pass up a chance to score so that you can steal a hummingbird with a warrior, then you'll set up a scoring chain that you don't intend to use for three or four turns. You'll cover a wolf with an eagle so that later on, you can take the whole thing with a chief. You'll block, and exploit, and bluff, and do lots of other things that really good games are supposed to let you do.

By the end of the game, the table will be covered with tiles in what sort of resembles the New York Times crossword puzzle, if you filled all the boxes with scary-looking dolls. You don't have to add up your points, either - you track them as you go, meaning that there's no 'OK, let's all do math for ten minutes' delay at the end. You just look over and go, 'yep, I win.'

A game with mechanics this intricately simple is often classified as filler, but that label would absolutely not fit Kachina. For one thing, it's really smart, and filler is usually a little on the light side. For another thing, it will probably take most of an hour to play, and if you play with that guy who can never decide what to do, it will take a whole hell of a lot longer (you may want to put that guy on a timer, and then shoot him with a stapler when he takes too long). This is not a game that you play just to fill time. It's a deep, intelligent game, and if you're just slapping down tiles while you talk football, you're missing it.

I am so very pleased to have played and enjoyed Kachina. I was starting to regret asking Bucephalus Games for review copies in the first place, and dreading more packages from them. But if they can pull out games this fun on a regular basis, there's definitely hope for them. Put away the crash cart - this one is still breathing.


Cool art by Andy Hopp (check out his site. The guy is off the rope, or chain, or whatever the kids say)
Easy rules you could teach to non-game-nerds
Lots of chances for quick moves and long-range plans

Definitely a theme laid over an abstract, but the theme works, so what the hell
Over-analytical players will make you want to hurl yourself into traffic, unless you're thinking clearly, in which case you'll want to throw them into traffic instead

I don't think Kachina is actually out yet. You can check out the Bucephalus Games site, and see if they update soon:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Barely A Game Review - Zombie Mosh

Market positioning is important for a game company. It's crucial to identify yourself with a specific kind of game. For example, when you think 'Fantasy Flight' you think of a different kind of game than when you think, 'Rio Grande.' Bucephalus Games obviously is aware of this, because as far as I can tell, they're trying to position themselves as the company that makes games you won't want to play more than once.

The latest trainwreck from Bucephalus is called Zombie Mosh. Now, before I go into depth saying rotten things about people I don't know, I will admit that the kind of person who wants to play a game where zombie rockers mosh until their arms fall off is probably also the kind of person who would enjoy a game with so very little going on. After the game, the players may want to do Jello shooters and smash beer cans on their foreheads.

The theory in this almost-a-game is that each of you is a zombie who likes very loud music. You all jump into the mosh pit and flail like crazy, and then your arms and legs fall off. The last zombie still flailing is the winner (unless you count everyone who didn't do drugs all through high-school and therefore knows better than to play Zombie Mosh in the first place - they are also winners, because not only are they living clean, but they're not playing Zombie Mosh).

Each round, you'll be dealt a couple damage cards, and then you'll have a few cards you can play on your fellow zombies to knock their faces into the dirt (unless the mosh pit is in a carpeted area, in which case you'll be knocking their faces in the carpet). These ultra-complex cards have such powerful descriptions as 'left arm' and 'head.' In case you're wondering, there are no special powers, no tricky combinations, and no reason to practice restraint or planning. You can play cards to block damage, or play them to cause it. That's it. That's all the decision-making you'll find. The game was evidently made for Iron Maiden fans coming down from three-day amphetamine benders, and so it tries to keep it simple, for the stupid.

To be completely fair, I should point out that there are advanced rules for Zombie Mosh, in case your thrasher idiot friends get tired of simply putting down cards that all do the same thing, and decide to wander off to find something to break. In the advanced version, you flip over your game board, and now your arms and legs fall off slower, unless they fall off easier. Yes, that is the advanced version. The optional rules, if you will.

I'm afraid this isn't a very long review tonight. The problem is, there's not much to the game I'm reviewing. I could spend a couple more paragraphs making jokes about junkies, zombies and electric guitars, but that would just be padding the review for word count. Rather than jibber for the sake of jabber, I'll just say that I cannot envision any circumstance in which I would want to play Zombie Mosh, ever again.

I've got a few more games from Bucephalus that I haven't played yet, including a remake of Dwarven Dig that I can't wait to try. I hate to pass judgment on the publisher before I've played them all, and I am really hoping Timestream will be enjoyable with a group. Because I'm starting to wonder if we ought to start a pool for the day Bucephalus closes up the shop, and I hate to see that happen.


Pictures of zombies
Little cardboard skull counters you could probably use for something else

Lame game play (and calling it 'game play' is being pretty forgiving already)
Ridiculous theme could have been interesting, but is instead dumber than a box of granite chips
Advanced rules are a complete waste
I would have to be badly brain-damaged to enjoy this game - and I like games where people die

If this is your kind of game, you'll probably drop into a joyful coma and pee into your Doc Martens at this picture:

Monday, July 6, 2009

Board Game Review - Bridges of Shangri-La

If my memory of geography serves, Shangri-La is somewhere in China. Maybe Tibet, but then, that's part of China now, thanks to the fact that the government of China is primarily composed of power-mad assholes. And when you look at the bridges available between the various mountain peaks in Shangri-La, you can see the superior Chinese construction. Because every time someone uses one of these bridges, they break. That's an even worse track record than the Army Corps of Engineers has with levees in New Orleans.

The neat thing about tonight's game (appropriately titled 'The Bridges of Shangri-La') is that it plays off this shoddy Chinese construction to create a very interesting and fun game. It's not often that art imitates life so well. Not only do we get to learn more about how pathetic a job the Chinese people did when they assembled all the bridges (apparently using wrapping paper and Elmer's glue), but we get to learn a historical lesson about ancient Kung-Fu masters.

Each player starts off with a handful of Kung-Fu masters, each with different specialized abilities. These abilities have absolutely no effect on the game whatsoever (which means that the guy who just looks at the stars all night is exactly equal to the dragon-taming bad-ass), but it does allow us to tell them apart. The dragontamer has a dragon on his counter, the rainmaker has a rain cloud, and the romantic idealist who spends all night looking at constellations has a little silk hankie (not really - it's stars). If there were more dragontamers and fewer stargazing pansies, maybe they could have beat up the Chinese invaders before the Dalai Lama had to go on permanent sabbatical.

Every turn, you can add a master in a village where you have one already, or you can train some students where you have masters, or you can send the students packing to another village. And because all of these bridges are essentially a long string of shoelaces tied together by some Chinese worker making 2 dollars a week and sleeping under his desk between his 16-hour shifts, every time someone uses one, it breaks. The students get across, and then BAM, the bridge is destroyed. Planned obsolesence keeps that impoverished Chinese assembly-line worker employed! Lucky him. Just four more months, and he'll be able to buy a roll of toilet paper.

This bridge-breaking thing is important, because once a bridge is down, it's gone, and the villages are permanently separated. So you have to time that trip really well, because it's the only one you're going to make. If you travel to a stronger town and they beat up all your students, they have to climb down the mountain and take up a career in goat-herding. That, or they have to go work in a factory where they make just enough money to buy a Big Mac, as long as they don't buy anything else all year.

This is a really clever, really tricky game. You have to time your moves carefully - make a new master when you shouldn't, and he might get kicked off the mountain before he gets a chance to train anyone. But add some students at the right time, and you might be able to ward off invading students (but not Chinese soldiers - they don't care how much Kung Fu you know. They have guns). Travel at the right time, and you could strand your opponent in a weak position. Travel at the wrong time, and you might as well just leave your students standing in the middle of the bridge when it breaks.

To be honest, I'm kind of surprised I hadn't heard a lot more about Bridges of Shangri-La before now. It seems like the kind of game that would get Reiner drones all frothy. Maybe since it's not from Reiner, it dropped under the radar, or maybe it just didn't make a big enough appearance early on. Whatever the case, this is a remarkably fun game. I really enjoyed it, and would definitely play it again.

What I would not do, however, is travel around Shangri-La without a parachute. Those Chinese-made bridges are seriously unstable.


A few rules make a whole lot of game
Timing is critical - lots of tough decisions
Good mix of strategy and tactical positioning

Pictures on the counters are a little bland

If you act quick, you can get Bridges of Shangri-La for like ten bucks. The game isn't at Dogstar Games, sadly, but ten bucks is still a total steal for a game this fun:

Friday, July 3, 2009

Board Game Review - Space Alert

Imagine you and four friends are in a giant hamster ball. Now imagine that you have all been eating Snickers and drinking Red Bull for the last 48 hours. Now imagine that the hamster ball is careening down the Alps, bouncing off trees and skiers and dogs with whiskey barrels on their collars. Almost done - just one more thing - now imagine that you have to control this insane spherical avalanche of chaos, and that's Space Alert.

Since you probably need more than that to call this a game review, I'll discuss a little of how this game works. The theory is that you're all manning an explorer craft in space, and while you're out there, stuff comes flying at you like crazy. And you have to shoot cannons, fire rockets, order robots, charge reactors, power shields, and just in case you're not too busy already, you also have to hit the mouse every now and then to keep the screensaver from coming on (I am not making this up).

As if that wasn't enough crap going on, you're on a serious time limit. The timer is accomplished with a CD, and each 10-minute recording will spout off now and then to tell you that there are bad guys coming in, or that you get more cards, or that you need to lie down and put a cool rag on your forehead after you play three or four times (OK, now that part I made up).

Every game is basically split into two segments. The first part is where you plan what you're going to do. You don't actually have to resolve anything, you just put out cards. The problem is that while you're putting down cards that do stuff like move, use the elevator, or fire yourself into space, the clock is ticking. And every so often, the recording will announce a new threat, one that could quite possibly blow you directly to Hell (unless, of course, you have made other arrangements, like praying a lot and avoiding strong drink - but either way, you're dead).

The chaos that ensues while the soundtrack is playing is amazing. It's unlike anything I've ever played. It might actually make you wish you were doing something a little less stressful, like driving the wrong way in traffic while you check your voice mail and light a cigarette with your kids screaming in the back seat because frankly, you're going the wrong way and you're probably about to kill them (and may I add that if you smoke in the car while your kids are in the back seat, you are probably the same kind of dirtbag asscrack who wears his seatbelt while he lets his children bounce around like super balls in a paint mixer).

After ten minutes, the soundtrack ends, and then you see how you actually did. A very useful turn tracker walks you through every step, and you use the board to keep track of how well you managed to shoot down the space octopus, battle the slime, and deactivate the nuclear device, all while trying to remember if you turned off the iron.

What generally happens is that you probably get through the first three or four turns pretty well, and maybe even manage to get another third of the way through the game before everyone starts turning up cards and going, 'why am I looking out the window right now instead of launching rockets, and how come you fired the cannon when we haven't had anything on that side of the ship for five minutes?' It sort of unravels at the end, with people shooting at targets that aren't there, activating robots willy-nilly, and mostly just hoping that the last few threats aren't big enough to blow your doors off.

However, if everyone stays sharp, and someone plans really, really well, you can come through alive. It's not impossible to win the game, just really hard. This is a completely cooperative game, but sometimes it doesn't feel like it, especially when your cohorts play the wrong cards, or fail to pay attention, or just completely don't get how to play and wind up using up all the energy to charge the shields on the wrong side of the ship so that you don't have any power left to shoot the kamikaze fighter that ends up crashing into you like a wrecking ball full of high explosives.

In fact, to give yourself the best chance of success, you'll want to play several games with the same group. After a while, everyone will start to understand the various actions and how things work, and hopefully figure out how to work together as a team. If you've ever played a cooperative game and been totally irritated by that one mouthy know-it-all who tells everyone what they ought to do on their turns, this game should be the cure. That guy might still try to dominate, but now you can make him the captain, and if you all die, you can blame it all on him.

One final note here - I hated this game the first time I played. I mean, I was so irritated and confused that I actually said, 'I don't care if I ever play this again.' But we tried it again, and then one more time, and I started to see how this could actually be a really fun game. Then I tried it solo, and it was a completely different game, and it was still fun. Heck, at this point, I want to make it a regular mainstay with my family, because I think it would be a blast once we get it down.

Of course, knowing my kids, they'll probably drive the hamster ball into a ski lodge and blame it all on each other, but what the hell. We'll bond.


The CD could have been a total gimmick, but turns out to be a critical game component
Cooperative game that really forces teamwork
You're really proud of yourselves when you win
Hilarious rulebook is funny and informative at the same time

Utter chaos
Should never be played with people who don't get it
Painful learning curve may stop people from learning the game

If you're smart enough and have teammates who can keep up, Space Alert is an innovative and exciting game that turns the entire cooperative game concept on its head. You can get it at Dogstar Games, and you can get free shipping, even if you just get the one game. Plus then they'll send me more stuff, so that I can review what you want to read about. Go here and pick it up:

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Board Game Review - Destination Tresor

I've been known to review some pretty obscure games. Often they're the only game a small-press company will ever make, but sometimes they're just games people haven't heard of before. But this right here is the first time I've reviewed a game so obscure that it's not even in English.

Yeah, that's right. Destination Tresor is entirely in French. There's not a lick of English anywhere (except for the words that are the same in both languages, like 'destination'). I didn't know that until it arrived at my house. Then I said, 'how the hell am I going to review a game that's in French?!' Luckily, a member of BGG (who may also be nominated for sainthood) had translated the rules and posted them there, so I was able to play the game.

And wow! I gotta play more foreign games! This game is cool!

Here's the idea. You and one other player (yes, it's only for two players) are treasure hunters. You parachute down onto an island covered with jungles and swamps and stuff and start exploring. There are old forts where you can search for clues, and once you have enough clues, you can run off to the treasure site and dig it up. Last one to the treasure is a rotten egg fart.

Only the trick is that, while you have a map, you don't know where you are when you land. So instead of tracking your progress on your own map, you tell your opponent where you want to go, and she tells you what kind of terrain you hit. You map your progress and compare it to your map, to try to figure out where you landed.

(Note the use of the female pronoun above. I usually default to the grammatically correct 'he', but in this particular case, I only played the game with my wife. And since I live in Texas, where we're more likely to legalize public castration than gay marriage, you know that my wife has to be female. Thus the female pronoun. You may feel free to play with a dude, if you want.)

And while you're moving around this island, you're tramping through the jungle, or over mountains, or across wind-swept plains - and stuff happens. You might fall in a ravine, or get stuck in a rainstorm, or get attacked by angry penguins (that's the scariest one. Penguins are mean little bastards. They're probably angry about not being able to fly and always getting eaten by killer whales).

The exact nature of the hazards are not actually defined (so I totally made up the penguins), just what happens. And what happens is that you either lose time or you get lost. Getting lost totally sucks, because your opponent moves you to a new place, and once again, you're not sure where you are, and have to explore your way out.

There are some really neat things working in Destination Tresor. First there's the dual map thing - the maps are identical, and you can write on them with a dry-erase marker to track your opponent's progress. Then you've got the thing where you're wandering through the jungle, which is accomplished with a sheet of plastic that you mark up (with that same marker) to figure out where you are.

The clue thing works really well, too. Each clue gives you a hint as to the terrain around the treasure, so you need at least two or three. And while you're finding your clues (and hopefully not spending your next four turns rummaging through your backpack for binoculars or a flashlight), your opponent is doing the same thing. Your clues will both point to the same spot, but you might have two different sets of clues - he knows the treasure is on the coast and by some mountains, and you know it's in a sheltered cove, but neither of you has enough to figure out exactly where it's at.

With all the exploring and using equipment and looking for clues in a race with a rival treasure hunter, Destination Tresor feels a lot like an Indiana Jones movie (but there are no terrifying religious artifacts, and you don't wait thirty years and then make a sequel with stupid aliens and the world's most annoying child actor for a sidekick). You have to fill in the gaps a little - when the tile you pull says, 'you lose a turn if you don't have rope', you can either decide that you were A) confronted with a chasm that you had to go around, or B) captured by evil yetis who made you watch National Treasure, and that made you so dumb that you had to spend twelve hours recovering.

But then there are problems. The biggest problem is in the execution of the theme. If you were really in a treasure-hunting movie, you would be sabotaging your opponent, fighting with his henchmen, and having hair-raising adventures in far-away lands. Instead you kind of feel like a couple of bored housewives with GPS on your iPhones. It's just not all that thrilling.

Another problem is how incredibly fiddly the game is. Now, I dislike the word 'fiddly' when used in relation to board games almost as much as I dislike the word 'elegant' to describe a Reiner Knizia game, but here, it really fits. The dry-erase pens don't write very well, and you might end up making marks you can't read. Or you might make the marks just fine, but forget how many times you've said 'northeast' and been told 'jungle.' It only takes a tiny mistake to completely throw the entire game down the crapper - if you miscount and tell your opponent he's in the swamp when he's really in the jungle, he doesn't have a way to check until he spends five minutes trying to make his plastic screen line up with his map. It's way too easy to screw up and throw the whole game into absolute, irredeemable chaos.

Plus there's the odd decision to have tiles to represent the terrain you cross over, when cards would have worked better and been cheaper. This is not a case where cards would work but the components are cooler. This is a case where cards would have been easier to manage, easier to shuffle, easier to store and easier to read. And they would have been way cheaper, too!

The good news is that the exploration part of the game (even with the tendency to forget where you are) is really fun, and redeems the game of the most glaring issues. And for the geocaching suburbanite issue, I've come up with my own solution - I'm making a supplement.

That's right, I liked the game so much that I'm taking the time to fix it. I'm going to make a deck of cards that lets you sabotage clues before your opponent can read them, or hire native guides to help you get through the terrain faster. I have a bunch of ideas for cards that you could play to screw with your opponent and get you ahead. And it's pretty impressive when I like a game enough to go to this much trouble. Usually when I find a game that needs help, I go, 'guess I won't play that again.'

So if you're not above using a downloaded translation for the rules, and you don't mind sorting clumsy cardboard tiles every time you play, you might really like Destination Tresor. It's an incredibly original game, and the game mechanic of mapping your opponent's location is unique and lots of fun. With a little tweaking and a lot of imagination, you could jump right out of your living room and into an old Errol Flynn movie.


Awesome components (except for the dry-erase pens, which suck)
Unique and innovative
You're about half a step away from feeling like you're telling a story

Weird component choice substitutes tiles for cards
Only in French
If you are telling a story, it might be a lame reality TV show

It's funny how many places carry a game that's only in French. The price is pretty good here: