Friday, May 29, 2009

Board Game Review - Birds on a Wire

When I sat down to play Birds on a Wire with my wife, she reminded me of this old Pixar short called For the Birds. This little animated feature ran before... well, one of the full-length Pixar movies, though I don't really care which one. There are these rotten little birds, little bullies, really, and they make fun of the goofy bird because he doesn't look like them. And then the goofy bird, who apparently suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, decides that they like him, so he flies over and lands on the wire all the asshole birds are on, and weighs it way down. They knock him off, the wire flips back up, and they fly into the air and all their feathers fall off. Then the retarded bird laughs at the asshole birds, which just shows that he's just as much a jackass as they are.

Sorry if I just ruined the movie for you, but it's only like three minutes long, so it's not like I just gave away the ending to Fight Club.

Anyway, the reason that little Pixar movie reminded us of Birds on a Wire is that there's a lot of the same stuff going on. You're trying to get similar birds to sit next to each other on your power line card, and if you get the wrong bird on your card, you turn on the juice and zap the birds so they'll fly away.

It's actually a remarkably simple game - in theory. You pull a bird tile out of a cloth bag, and either put it on your power line card (a four by three grid with blank spots for birds) or you put it in the sky. If you keep the first bird, you can draw a second, but you have to keep this one. If you fill up a line on the sky card, you can grab all the birds and place one of them, plus you can usually keep one of the zap cards that will let you shoo your birds back into the sky.

The trick comes when you understand the scoring. You win automatically if you get six of the same bird in a flock on your card - but that's pretty hard to do, since there are only seven in the bag. Most of the time, the game is going to end when somebody fills up their power line card. Then you count the smallest group you've got (not counting single birds) and score one point for every bird in that group, and all the groups of the same size. So if you've got three flocks, and two of them have two each, and the third group has three, you count the little flocks and get four points.

The thing is, if you can finish bigger groups, your score will be higher - but it's always a risk, because a group of two will almost always score, but a group of three will only score if you don't have any groups of two. You could go for broke and get groups of four, but through the clever use of zap cards and migrations, other players could actually force you to get extra birds, leaving you eating crow (see what I did there? It's a bird joke).

So another reason that Birds on a Wire reminds me of that Pixar mini-movie is that the birds are total dicks. Only instead of laughing at each other, I'm fairly certain they're laughing at me. When I desperately need a little green bird, all I can get is a fat blue bird, and then he has to go in the sky, so my daughter gets to score the zap, and she gets twelve points and I get nothing because all my damned birds just flew away so I could clear some room for the little green birds. And as soon as they fly away, the birds also poop on my car.

I didn't think I was going to like this game at all. I broke it out because I got a review copy, and it's been sitting around my house for a month, daring me to try it. I needed a game to write about tonight, so I talked my wife and daughter into trying it - and we loved it. And when I say we loved it, I mean we started playing at 9:30 and stopped at 11:00. And it was a school night. This is especially interesting because each game takes about fifteen minutes - which means we played Birds on a Wire six times in a row. I don't play anything six times in a row, unless it's Hangman while we're at Chili's waiting for our artery-clogging burgers to show up.

Now, a word of caution - if you do get a copy of Birds on a Wire, give it a chance. There are some tricks we found out through trial and error, so don't duplicate my mistakes. First, don't even bother with the family rules. They seem to be designed for very stupid families. You want to go straight to the advanced rules, because they're actually fun. Also, play it at least twice before you decide if you like it. You'll probably need at least three games to figure out all the intricacies and subtleties of the game, and until you do, your first few games may be a little confusing.

I don't expect that all my friends would like Birds on a Wire. For one thing, nobody dies. For another, it's a fifteen minute game, and essentially an abstract (though the theme works pretty well, as a game about making birds sit on wires). Some people might call it simple filler, but that's not how we play it. When we play Birds on a Wire, it's a whole evening of entertainment, because we play it for a really long time. It's like potato chips - it's awesome once, but you're going to want more. Once you start, you may end up keeping your kids up an hour past when they ought to be going to bed, especially when they have tests in the morning.

I guess in the end, Birds on a Wire has one critical difference between it and the little cartoon - you'll only need to watch For the Birds once, but you're going to want to go back to Birds on a Wire over and over and over (you might say your family will flock to it, but only if you're a hack writer who isn't nearly as funny as he thinks he is).


Plays so fast, you won't be able to jump up for a snack between turns
Seems so simple, and plays so tricky, that Euro-nerds at BGG will call it elegant
Subtle and deep and full of tricky plays
Just enough luck to keep it interesting
More addictive than illegal narcotics (well, probably not, but way better for you)

The game looks really boring - art is flat and cheap-cartoony. Don't let it fool you. It fooled me.

This quirky game can be found direct from the publisher, Gryphon Games:


Hendal said...

This one sound perfect for me, short and sweet, and more complicated then it looks. I am so adding this to the wish list, thanks for sharing!

Enrique said...

I call shennanigans! Wasn't you who ranted about people telling you to give a game a few trials before hating it? You must have REALLY, REALLY loved this Imax.

If you are willing to contradict one of your rantsm then this game must be very rocking. I'll have to track me a copy right away!


Matt Drake said...

Yep, I totally said that. And yes, I embrace my hypocrisy. But really, if you play it once and go, 'that totally sucked', then the original rant still stands. I liked it after one play, but wasn't sure about it until I played it a lot more. If the first play had been a total beating... well, I still would have tried it again, just to make sure, since it takes like ten minutes to play. If it were an hour-long game, one play is all you would need. Ten minutes, though - I can spare ten minutes to see if I was doing something wrong.

Enrique said...

As I said, as far as I'm concerned, it was just a great way for you to show how much you liked it. So, I'm cool with it. ;)