Monday, December 1, 2008

Board Game Review - Stonehenge

You know those bumper stickers that say, 'I have a multiple personality, and so do I'? That sticker should be on Stonehenge, because it's like five games in one box. It would be a lot more interesting if one of those games was a serial killer and the other four games didn't know that their components were being used to murder people until they solved the murders just one step ahead of the police and then had to fight each other to try to turn themselves in. But even though there are no murders or late-night trysts with women of weak moral character, Stonehenge is still pretty interesting.

Possibly the most interesting thing about Stonehenge is the concept of the game. Usually when we discuss games, we talk about the themes and who you play and what your goals are and how the mechanics work. But Stonehenge was conceived as a board game version of a deck of cards - you can play a whole bunch of different games with the pieces, and they might not have anything in common at all. You can have really dumb games like War or 52 Pickup (actually, I kind of like 52 Pickup, as long as I can get someone else to pick them up). You can have complicated games like Bridge or Canasta. You can have easy games like Go Fish or Old Maid, or you can have really fun games like Gin Rummy or Poker. So basically, Stonehenge is more like a boat full of Cuban immigrants - they all do something different, but they all have the same purpose. Except in Stonehenge, the goal is to make original games, and in a boat full of Cubanos, the goal is to make it to land before the boat sinks and the Coast Guard has to take everyone home.

The box contains all these different pieces so you can play different kinds of games. There's the board, with a bunch of rings and numbered spaces. There's the plastic stone thingies (called 'trilithons' if you're a snooty nerd). There are discs and bars and cool little druids and a deck of cards. The whole idea is that you use these components to make your own games, or you play games written by other people. Just like a deck of cards, you don't use every piece for every game, so the same way you have to pull a bunch of cards to play Pinochle, you might eliminate some of the pieces to play any particular game. Or the same way you have to freebase cough syrup to be able to enjoy Cribbage ( that might not exactly relate, but I really hate Cribbage).

And just like a deck of cards, some of the games suck. There's one called Chariots of Stonehenge that is really, really dumb. I don't know how the guy who did Risk: Godstorm came up with this Owen Wilson of a game, but I can see virtually no reason whatsoever to play it. You use these little discs to decide if you're going to go fast or set up blockades, and cards to determine where you can set up roadblocks. Except it's really stupid to set up blockades because then you don't go as fast and the guy who just put all his discs in the 'go fast' hand zooms around and wins with virtually no effort. If everybody does the same thing, the winner will be the person who got to go first. This is a colossal failure of a game, and I have no intention whatsoever of playing it ever again. A real stinker. If I got the rules wrong, feel free to shut up, because I'm not playing it again unless it will get Joss Whedon to do another season of Firefly.

There are also light, easy games. The High Druid plays super fast, with easy rules, and you can run through the whole game in about fifteen minutes. You just take turns placing discs on the numbered spaces, or moving bars to redefine areas. If you have the majority in an area, you control it at the end of the game, but if you tie for the most, the discs in that area will go to the guy in third place. It's fairly clever, and pretty darn light. It's not like you're going to devote your life to mastering this game, but it can be a quick, fun diversion. It might be best to play it with the same eight-year-old who is always pestering you to play Go Fish, but you may want to have him get his own copy, because you know he'll get dirt and chocolate all over everything.

Magic of Stonehenge is a (very slightly) complicated game. OK, in all seriousness, the thing that's complicated is that the rules are a little confusing, but then, Canasta isn't really that difficult if you know what you're doing. In this game you're trying to get all your discs on the board by playing the high card - but if you lose, you have to move your markers down by the amount on your card, so if you play a 29 and someone else plays 30, you lose a whole hell of a lot, and might just have your disc fall off the board completely. I actually like this one (maybe because I won) and would play it again. There's good planning, timing, and a little luck.

And then you've got games that are just plain cool games. Auction Blocks might not be about to replace Texas Hold 'Em tournaments on ESPN2, but it's a pretty slick game. You're trying to bid on these colored stones by playing cards, but there's a trick to it - if you're the low bidder, you don't get the stone, but you get two cards, and if you win the bid, you get the stone, but you can't get new cards at all. So you have to weigh your opportunities, strike when you're strong or when the prize is juicy, plan ahead, know when to bid low and when to bid high, and otherwise just play a pretty clever, surprisingly deep game. Of all the games in the box, Auction Blocks was easily my favorite. I thought it was a whole big pile of fun.

And then, just like with a deck of cards, there's the game you never actually played because you couldn't find a fourth player for Hearts and had to settle for three-handed Rummy again. I played Stonehenge with three people, and Arthurian Ghost Knights is a four-player game, so I didn't play it. It looks OK, but you can't tell until you play, so I'm not going to comment on it. I do know that it was the next one up after that retarded Chariots game, and at that point I really wanted to try something that didn't have druids. Hell, after that Chariots game, I just wanted to donate the box to Salvation Army.

So those are the five games that come with the box, but Titanic Games is doing what should be done with a set like this - running a forum for inventing new games. The game library there has 38 games, many of which are, I am sure, complete turds. Some of them might be awesome. I don't know, because I'm not going to go play 38 games to tell you if they're good games. Play them yourself. God, what am I, your nanny?

I love the idea behind Stonehenge. The pieces really do lend themselves to thinking up games, and they are some really nice pieces. That Looney Labs game, Icehouse, is kind of similar, with all these games you can play with a bunch of pieces, but Stonehenge is actually a big box of parts instead of a little cardboard tube full of dayglo pyramids. It can be tough to make a racing game out of a bunch of plastic triangles, but a track from 1 to 30 can definitely be adapted that way (as long as you use a mechanic more useful than 'hold your stones in your hand and then move', which is more of an inner-city dance-off than a viable game mechanic).

But there are a few reasons Stonehenge wasn't a bigger hit. For one thing, I don't believe any one of these games would have been published by itself. Individually, none of these games is a write-home-to-mama success. Sure, you get five games in one box, but none of them are about to become your new favorite. It's like getting a sampler box of candy, but all the samples have coconut in them. It doesn't ruin the box, but it might have been nice to get a truffle or cordial cherry.

Second, even on sale, Stonehenge costs about five times as much as a decent deck of cards. Titanic has it for $20, which is a good price given the quality of the pieces, but it's not like you're going to go buy three copies just so you can combine them (though I'm sure someone did). Cards are relatively straight-forward - four suits, nine numbers, three face cards, aces and maybe jokers. That's a pretty simple tool box, and it's incredibly portable. Compared to a deck of cards, Stonehenge is as portable as a plate of soup.

Finally, while Stonehenge is a pretty awesome idea, the various pieces don't seem to slide together the way a deck of cards does. Like in a deck of cards, you've got four sets of 1-13, or you've got scaled values of 1, or you've got face cards versus number cards. But in Stonehenge, you've got cards, and plastic people, and little circles, and bars, and big clunky plastic/stone thingies that block the view of the far side of the board. They just don't all inter-relate as well as a deck of cards, which is why there just haven't been lots of fledgling game designers popping out of the woodwork. There's no According to Hoyle for Stonehenge (and not just because Hoyle has been dead a long time).

So the potential buyer of Stonehenge needs to know why he's buying this game. If you're getting it because you want to make your own games, or you want to see what kinds of things other people can do with the pieces, or if you just have a family that likes easy games and lots of variety, Stonehenge could be a brilliant pick. In fact, if I had to pick one game to take to a deserted island for a year, this would be it, because of the potential for limitless variety. But if you're buying it because you think it's going to be the Next Big Thing, you're about to be disappointed. Especially if you buy it for the racing game.


Pieces are extraordinarily high quality
Lots of potential
Some fairly decent games

Not more than the sum of its parts
At least one game pops out dead on arrival

There are people for whom Stonehenge may be one of their favorite purchases. If you think you're one of those people, you can get it real cheap, right here:

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