Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Card Game Review - Swat

You know, it has been too long since I beat the hell out of a crappy game. Plus I had a very bad day. I think it's time I reviewed Swat. The game actually has an exclamation mark after the title, but that irritates me, so I'm leaving it off out of sheer disrespect.

Swat sucks. I kind of wish that was all I needed to write, and then people would just go, 'yeah, that makes sense,' and not buy it. But a little justification is probably required to make this a review, and not just me saying mean things about Reiner Knizia again.

This stinker of a game has a bunch of cards with wacky cartoon bugs and numbers. One player (we'll call him 'lucky' because he's not actually playing right now) turns cards face-up one at a time. The other players watch nervously, waiting for the perfect chance to slap the table and claim all the cards turned up so far. Then the slapper becomes the lucky player, and he deals cards while the other players watch with baited breath and decide whether they should slap the table.

The reason this is actually a game and not just something people do when they're drunk is because the different cards combine with other different cards to create different scoring combos. Some of the cards have negative numbers, and those hurt your score. You score more for having more of some particular bug, and there are other crazy cards like bug zappers and cards that cost you points if you don't have enough. So while you're watching this growing pile of cards being doled out by the dealer (or 'lucky'), you have to do math in your head and try to remember what you already claimed. So it's like light-speed memory, but more frustrating.

There is some tension to be had in Swat, if all the players are under six. These anxious tykes might be sitting around the table asking themselves such questions as:

"Have I picked up two bees or one?"
"Did Little Billy get more Swat or Not cards?"
"Will the next card be good or bad?"
"Did I pee my pants again?"
"I like you. Do you like me? Check yes or no."

Sadly, when played by adults with an IQ over 35, there is no tension, just a handful of grownups sitting around a table and frequently slapping it hard enough to spill their beers. In this unfortunate case, Swat is not only frustrating, it is boring, unless someone pours beer on the cards and everyone can laugh.

Now, I grant you that if you play this game with children, you might have a distracting enough time to forget that you missed out on that big promotion and some asshole dinged your door in the parking garage. This distraction will mostly be caused by the sheer joy of seeing children at play, which does not actually exist, and is mostly what adults tell themselves is happening so that they can pretend they like spending time around arguing brats who don't know how to wash their buttholes. This is why Daddy drinks.

The rules of Swat actually say you're supposed to run through the deck, count up your scores, and then do it all two more times. This is three more times than your average adult is going to want to play this game. If you have anything better to do, like scrubbing the bathtub grout or cleaning the garbage disposal, you should do it instead. You may not have as much fun, but think of how shiny your bathroom will be.

It was no surprise to me to see Reiner Knizia's name on Swat. There is a bunch of unnecessarily complicated math, a theme that could be replaced by colored dots, and rules where you do exactly one thing. That would have Reiner's name all over it, even if it didn't have Reiner's name all over it. I swear the man has made some games I like, but I sure do keep the finding ones that blow goats.

So to sum up, don't buy Swat. If someone else buys it, don't play it. You will have more fun swatting actual bugs, and as an added bonus, you won't have to put up with the moths in your light fixtures.


Comes in a metal tin, which you could empty and then put things in it like gum and matches


For something more interesting than Splat, here is a picture of a dead bug.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Board Game Review - Cyclades

Ancient Greeks had it really rough. For one thing, no pants. I know the Mediterranean is supposed to be mild, but sooner or later, it's got to get cold enough to make you wish you had some insulation on the ol' man gear. And if the fact that all the men had to wear skirts wasn't bad enough, they couldn't do a damned thing without getting permission from a whole panoply of tempermental deities.

You can see all the unpleasant crap Greeks had to put up with when you play Cyclades. Each player gets one of the divided nation-states of Greece and fights over islands and waterways while the gods pick at them and monsters eat their soldiers (technically, in Cyclades, only the harpy eats soldiers, but the other critters are still pretty mean-spirited). You can't so much as row a boat without getting the sign-off from one god or another, and since the fickle gods would only help one city at a time, you have to drop mad coin to make one or the other pay attention long enough to build a public toilet.

On the surface, Cyclades looks like a big-fight-on-a-map game. You have little soldiers, and you have boats, and you can have fights on land and sea. But unlike most games where you're fighting over a map, only one person every turn is going to get to do any particular action. Like if you want to attack someone, you have to bribe the crap out of Ares, and then nobody else will get the chance. Want to build a boat? Better get Poseidon on your side, or you're not building so much as a rubber life raft.

There are four different gods, plus Apollo, who is apparently a total wiener, because he does almost nothing for you and mostly just makes you suck for one turn. But on any given turn, there are exactly as many gods available as there are players, which means someone has to pick Apollo. This limited access to actions means that you'll be taking turns outbidding each other just for the chance to train a priest.

Not only do you have to pay attention to what you want to do on your turn, but you have to keep in mind that the first god in the line-up (which changes every turn) gives you first dibs on the mythological creatures that can totally wreak havoc on the game. So even if you didn't want to take a turn with Athena and educate some philosophers (who, by the way, look like Kenny Rogers), you may want to adjust your strategy so that you have the first crack at grabbing up the minotaur.

The funny thing is, with all these ugly beat-downs, the goal of the game requires absolutely no violence at all - you just have to build to metropolises. And you never have to do any violence to do that. You just call on Athena to train up some philosophers, and eventually they talk so much that buildings appear (I hear that happened in Athens all the time). Or you build four different kinds of buildings by calling on each of the four gods that actually do something, and then you have a metropolis. The only problem is, as soon as you have one of these super-cities, it's open season. So even if you didn't want to fight, as soon as you look like you have a chance to win, you'll be painting a target on your forehead.

One thing is important to keep in mind - this is not a nice game. I mean, it looks absolutely freaking gorgeous, and it's a butt-ton of fun (and that's an English butt-ton, not metric, so it's bigger), but you cannot play this game if you're not willing to whack somebody now and then. Brutal bidding wars, sudden invasions and downright mean monster attacks make this one of the most in-your-face, attack-your-friends games that ever came out of Europe. Sure, Space Hulk might have more bloodshed, but it's got nothing on the outright hostility you'll need to play Cyclades. If actual Greeks curb-stomped each other as often as these Greeks, it's no surprise they didn't have pants - they would have been changing them every ten minutes.

I mentioned this is a good-looking game, but I may not have emphasized it enough. Every color has a different sculpt for their boats and their soldiers. Five of the monsters are represented by awesome plastic miniatures. The art that decorates everything from the rulebook and cards to the boards and tiles, is stunning. The amount of work that went into making Cyclades a sweet-ass piece of eye-candy makes my head hurt just thinking about it. I mean, this is a flat-out pretty game.

I can't recommend Cyclades for every gamer alive. Some of you are going to complain about the bidding cycles and resource allocation, screaming about how real men don't play Euro games. Some of you are going to be a little put off by the fact that this game makes little girls cry. But if you're not above a little face-stabbing in your games, and you like to play awesome games, you really owe it to yourself to give Cyclades a chance. It's brutal, but holy sweet Mary, is it fun.


Intense bidding wars
Lots of options means lots of ways to make mistakes
Fantastic production value
Plan carefully, or your luck will change in an instant

Seriously brutal (may be a pro)

Dogstar Games isn't carrying Cyclades just yet, but once they do, I'll get this link fixed and send you right over there.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Board Game Review - Panzer General Allied Assault

I like video games, and I like board games, so it seems obvious to me that I should enjoy a board game based on a video game. Unfortunately, board games based on video games tend to be in roughly the same category as video games based on movies. I like to call that category 'sucky,' though there may be a better term for it (though that term probably involves the use of profanity).

This isn't always true, of course. Starcraft, Doom, World of Warcraft Minis, and a lot of others spring to mind. But those are based on huge franchises, so it's possible that someone with a little clout said, 'we've decided not to suck.' But not every video game has that anti-suck factor in charge, and so I generally have a fairly low opinion of board games that start life as video games.

Which brings us to Panzer General: Allied Assault. I first discovered this game when I downloaded it to my Xbox. Then it was just a video game based on a war, and those tend to be pretty solid. I thought it was great fun, and played it quite a bit, and kept thinking to myself, 'with some tweaks, this could be a board game.' Since I have very powerful brain waves, the people at Petroglyph were able to read my mind and make Panzer General into a board game. It would be creepier if it didn't happen all the time.

Sadly, my brainwaves were not strong enough. Because while they definitely made it into a board game, they skipped the part of my thought pattern where I told them it needed tweaks. The board game is almost a direct port of the video game, only now instead of having a handy computer, you get to do the math. You like math, right?

Panzer General is a tactical wargame where your units are represented by cards, and your air strikes are cards, and your sneaky surprise moves are on cards, and even the dice are on the cards. Really, they are. You build a map out of terrain tiles, put your troops out, and then you maraud across the board and blow up each other's tanks. Well, maraud might be the wrong word. It might be more accurate to say you plod across the map at a pace intended to make you stay up until two in the morning because you believed the box when it said you could finish in 45 minutes, and so you started the game at ten. Seriously, there's no law that says you have to finish a game if it takes four times longer than you thought it would. Go to bed already.

See, it seems like this should be pretty straight-forward, but most of the time, your guys will move one space, claim it, then take a siesta. Or sometimes they won’t move at all, they’ll just stay right where they are and dig ditches. That can slow down the pace a little. Then, when you do finally get into a fight, there are 16 steps to follow to determine the outcome, and step 15 says, ‘now do 2-14 again’. And then, if you fight another guy, you get to do all 16 steps again.

The thing is, there’s a ton of promise here, and if you’re the right kind of gamer, there’s a kick-ass game. But if you’re the kind of gamer that likes quick turns and easy rules, you’re hosed, because Panzer General takes a long time to play. Maybe if you play it a lot, you’ll scream through the combat steps and actually finish before your wife starts asking why your company is still in the house, and could you please turn off the light if you’re not coming to bed. Or maybe you’ll just play it on your Xbox and let the computer handle those 16 steps.

And now for the big twist – I adore this game. It’s really fun. You have to plan your whole turn ahead of time, gambling on which fights you’ll win and which fights will just let you wound some opponents. You have to choose your attacks based on which units are providing support fire, which terrain makes the best defensive bunker, and what cards you can afford to play from your hand. Sometimes you want to blitz and just rush your opponent, and sometimes you want to hunker down and get ready to defend yourself. The cards are very nice, with art taken from WWII photographs, and the variety of maps you can build with the double-sided tiles is staggering.

There is a fantastic amount of tactical maneuvering and strategic planning that goes into Panzer General. It’s a very smart game… on the Xbox. The problem is that I don’t know many gamers who want to take the amount of time required to work through all the calculations that go into determining combat results. It just really throws a wrench into the whole thing, especially if you’re not usually a number-crunching grognard (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, a grognard is a very hairy man who spends a lot of time in his basement).

Deciding whether or not to keep Panzer General was, at first, a tough decision. On the one hand, I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s not fast, but you really have to think to win. On the other hand, I can’t think of any gamers I know who will want to spend half an hour setting it up followed by two hours of grinding arithmetic. I will, because it’s worth it, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough wargamers who want to spend an afternoon on something like this.

But then I hit the deciding factor – I don’t need to know other wargamers. I only need myself. Because Panzer General includes a fairly robust solo game, with several different scenarios, and a sort of built-in ‘AI’ that means some of the scenarios can actually be fairly challenging. So the game stays, because the way I see it, I’ll be able to play all these solo missions, and by the time I finish them, someone on the Internet will have written another fifty or so, and I’ll wear out the components before I can play them all.

If you have the patience to enjoy a game this over-involved, and if you love the challenge of wrapping your head around a complex tactical position, there’s every chance you’ll really like Panzer General. On the other hand, if you only like games with streamlined rules and clever mechanics, you’re going to wish you never even saw the box.


Very nice components
Tons of strategic and tactical depth
Neat photography
Nearly endless replay value

Way too involved

Ah, happy day - Dogstar Games is carrying Panzer General. And buying from Dogstar Games supports Drake's Flames, so if you've read this review and think it sounds like your cup of tea, run over and pick it up here:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Board Game Review - Vegas Showdown

I always wanted to own a hotel in Vegas. It would be totally awesome. The back rooms would be for rent, but you would have to be in some sort of organized crime to use them. The top two floors would be reserved solely for people who were hiring hookers. And every slot machine - and I mean every single one - would be rigged to never pay out more than a dollar at a time. I would be rich, at least until the gambling commission, the FBI or the vice squad took me down. Or, more likely, I would run the place into the ground, people would quit coming to my hotel, and it would end up a disgusting, run-down, flea-bag hotel that had to charge by the hour, and instead of high-class prostitutes and classy crooks, I would be overrun by crack whores and old ladies camping in front of the slots and chain-smoking for ten hours at a time.

Fortunately, I don't run a hotel of any kind. But when I play Vegas Showdown, I can pretend. I can build my Vegas empire, competing with everyone else to be the most famous developer on the strip. I can compete for contractors, build high-end gambling facilities, and with a little imagination, I can pretend that the Night Club is a nudie bar, and maybe the girls can be incentivized to provide a little extra entertainment, so I can work in hookers some damned way.

Each player has a mat representing his hotel (since I tend to play this game with my wife and daughter, there may also be girls, so technically, I should say 'his or her' hotel, but how awkward is that? Damn the English language for not having a gender-neutral singular pronoun. And no, I do not pretend to be running whores out of the back room when I'm playing with my daughter). The object of the game is to have the most fame, which you do by building an impressive hotel-slash-casino. Each turn, you'll have the opportunity to bid on various rooms that you can add to your hotel, and then you'll place them on your mat like a giant, static game of Tetris, trying to win fame by filling in your casino and hotel areas, connecting the one area to the other, and creating clever arrangements of room tiles.

The bidding can get hardcore in a hurry. At the start, you'll want slots to build up your income, but you'll also need restaurants to get more people into the hotel. But the other players need those places, too, and so bidding wars can happen right from the start. Each room has a different thing it adds to your hotel - nice lounge acts can get you some fame, especially if you can get Wayne Newton (you can't really get Wayne Newton, and frankly, I don't think anyone likes Wayne Newton except for people who can qualify for AARP). Theaters can bring in huge fame, and if you can get some quasi-homosexual tiger tamer to take a bite wound to the head, you'll be all over the papers for years (you also cannot get Siegfried and Roy - this is all make-believe).

Even if you can't afford to buy anything, maybe because you just blew all your cash on the Space Age Sports Book (which may or may not be run by Bugsy Siegel, who you ALSO cannot get in this game), you can always spend your turn working publicity. This will get you a little bit of fame, but most importantly, you can save your cash for a turn when you really need it. Timing your publicity stints is critical, because you could wind up with a ton of money when everyone else just bought up expensive rooms and then score a great deal because nobody else can outbid you. But then, that break could also mean you wind up getting a great deal on a buffet right after everyone else just bought up amazing restaurants run by Gordon Ramsay (who you can't get, but by now you knew that).

Toward the end of the game, the really awesome rooms start to be come available, like the five-star steakhouse and the dragon room. Then the bidding gets seriously cutthroat, and planning at this end stage is key to pulling out a win. You can come from way, way behind just by grabbing up a couple important rooms at this point, so it's sometimes worth biding your time until you can break out and really kick some hotel ass (I don't think hotels actually have asses, but my hotel would probably smell like it did).

Vegas Showdown has a whole heck of a lot going for it. You've got smart bidding and careful timing. You've got physical planning and difficult placement decisions. You've got money management. You do not have Elvis, but since he smells worse by now than my hotel would, you're probably better off, and you can make do with impersonators anyway. And even though the game includes neither hookers nor the mafia, it's still an amazing amount of fun.

Vegas Showdown is out of print, but there are still plenty of copies around for you to buy. You'll be glad you did - Avalon Hill made a small handful of really good games before Wizards of the Coast killed them off to afford more D&D books, and Vegas Showdown was one of them.


Learn it in five minutes
Plays very fast
A lovely combination of cutthroat bidding and tile placement planning
You're never completely out unless you're really, really dumb

No hookers, mafia or Elvis

Check it out - Dogstar Games has Vegas Showdown! And by way of reminder for anyone who hasn't been here in a while, Dogstar Games provides Drake's Flames with a whole hell of a lot of games, and without them, I would be stuck reviewing thirty different versions of Monopoly. If you like reading Drake's Flames, I would consider it a personal favor if you would buy your games from Dogstar. You can get Vegas Showdown right here:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Phone Game Review - Uni War

I don't review cell phone games. I have too much self-respect to review a game you play on a screen smaller than the palm of my hand, and that only costs me five bucks. Besides, the only reason you play cell phone games is because you're either waiting for the bus or killing time at a PTA meeting.

But by the same token, I've been complaining for years - since I got my first cell phone - that the games on a phone simply fail to take advantage of the format. You're on a mobile electronic device that could allow you to interact with people all over the globe, and the best you can hope to find is a crappy version of solitaire. What a disappointment! It only makes matters worse when you consider that I got a Blackberry, because I needed it for work. All the cool games are on the iPhone.

And then, like a gift from the cellular gods, there was UniWar, which has possibly the stupidest name outside Japanese-language imports and old Atari games. At first I was skeptical, but then I looked at the screenshots. And I saw hexes.

Now, some people might see hexes and think 'boring' or 'technical.' I see hexes in a video game and think 'fun'. I read a couple glowing reviews and dropped my five bucks to see what kind of cool phone game had hexes. If she could isolate the moment in time when I discovered UniWar, I think my wife would travel back and hide my Blackberry. Because I love this little phone game so much, I've checked it twice since I started writing this review.

UniWar is a turn-based, tactical, sci-fi game that pits three different races against each other in a brawl for supremacy. You have bases where you recruit your troops, and lots of different kinds of soldiers, and you take turns maneuvering across the various maps and blowing giant holes in your opponents.

I concede that I have not seen all the brilliance I could put on my phone if I had one of Apple's magic devices, but I have seen my share of cell phone games, and the one thing they tend to have in common is that they are boring to the eye. Even if the games are passable (rather than dull, stupid or gay), they're usually pretty lackluster in appearance. UniWar, by comparison, looks great. It's like eye candy on your phone. It helps that my Blackberry has a pretty big screen, though I would wager it looks even better on the Steve Jobs special.

There's a great campaign game that lets you start off with the basics, and then introduces you to all the intricacies of the various unit types and terrain. You'll have a blast learning about the flying Krahleans, the powerhouse Titans, and the versatile Sapiens. You'll probably finish the campaign in a couple days, and think you're pretty good at the game.

You will be wrong.

The best part of UniWar is the fact that it really exploits the brilliance of the cell phone game. The multiplayer game is flat-out genius. You root through a listing of available games, find someone near your own skill level (in my case, that means anyone who sucks), and choose your team. Then you play.

I'm currently playing five different games right now, though I have played as many as eight at a time. The cool thing about UniWar is you can pick games with long time limits if you're going to be busy, or short limits if you want to be staring at your phone for the next two hours. I generally choose games with twelve hours or more for my turns, so that I can sleep every now and then. And if some slack-jawed yokel can't find his way to his phone for a day and a half, you can skip his turn and go ahead with your own.

Fair warning - the guys who have been playing this game for a while are really, really good. If you happen to find yourself in a game with a player rated over 2000, he will almost certainly kick your ass like a red-headed stepchild. The odds are good that he actually is a red-headed stepchild, because adults don't have time to play games this often. Supervisors tend to frown on their employees spending eight hours crouched over their phones. So does my wife.

Should you desire a little practice, possibly to make yourself at least slightly competitive, you can also play the solo version of the game, where you choose your army, the bot army, the map and the difficulty level. This is a great chance to hone your skills, decide which armies work best on which maps, and figure out how best to defeat a phalanx of Titan plasma tanks with a team of flying bugs. The 'hard' difficulty is incredibly tough - I've beaten plenty of people at this game, but the hard bots whip me every single time, even when I pit myself against the army I think is crappy on the map where I'm sure I should be able to win.

I still don't review cell phone games. They are almost always boring, unattractive and oversimplified. But if UniWar is any indication, I may have to change my mind, and start actually asking developers for download codes so that I can review games I could have purchased for five bucks. Because UniWar is the best game I've ever played on a phone, and it beats hell out of a lot of games I've played on my computer. If you're looking for an opponent, my handle is InfinityMax. Look me up. You can probably beat me.


Great single player game that totally rules as a multi-player game
Damned sweet graphics, phone or not
Tons of depth, lots of intense strategy, and unending chances to screw up

It's on a phone, which is only a con if you don't want to play on your phone

Depending on your phone, there are a lot of different places to get games. You probably know them better than I do. But you can get more info about the game here:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Announcement - Cthulhu Patrol

Late last year, I got all excited about a Print and Play game at BGG called Patrol: Lost. It's a game where some good guys try to get to the end of a bunch of random tiles while some bad guys try to kill them. It doesn't have a theme, just some rules, but several people have created little theme sets for the game, including dungeons, space battles, and even one that recreates the streets of Mogadishu from Blackhawk Down.

I decided I would try my hand at creating my own theme set, and had a request for a Cthulhu theme. It took me a while just to work out the details of how I would go about it, and then I got to drawing. Before I finished, however, some rather unsavory events soured me on BoardGameGeek, and I quit going there completely.

But I still liked the Cthulhu theme idea, and really wanted to finish it. So I kept after it, and even though it took me a while, I finally did get it done. Since it doesn't do me any good to make something like this and leave it floating on my hard drive, I've uploaded it to the VixenTor Games site, so that you can get yourself a copy, if you're so inclined.

A little fair warning is in order, though. For starters, I did four kinds of monsters, not one, the way the original rules read. And I did five different investigators, too, and gave them all abilities beyond just being cannon fodder. Finally, I drew the big man himself (you know, Cthulhu), and wrote up alternate end-game rules for summoning the hoary bastard. The problem is that I haven't playtested the rules, or even built a set for myself, so I couldn't tell you if they work or if they're just dumb. But you can still play the game with the standard rules, and I put a hell of a lot of time into what I did do, so I'm not feeling particularly apologetic.

Here's the link to the Patrol: Lost page at BGG:

And here's the link to Cthulhu Patrol:

If I decide to make a set out of wood (as I originally intended), I'll let you know how it turns out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Event Review - Botanical Gardens

Want to know a good way to feel older? Celebrate a 14th birthday... for your daughter. I can't decide whether to buy a shotgun or a case of Just For Men.

For her birthday, my daughter decided to drag her family and three of her friends to the botanical gardens, giving me an excellent opportunity to walk around a huge, beautiful garden on a gorgeous spring day in the company of a quartet of giggling pubescent girls. The party element was interesting, but I really want to persuade you to visit some botanical gardens, so I'm going to focus on that.

Nearly every decent-sized city in the United States has at least a mediocre botanical garden, so there's a good chance that you can find one. These are places where people with a thumb far greener than my own have taken dozens of square acres of land and turned them into a sort of flowering paradise. If they're done well, there will be tree-lined walking paths, expansive beds of colorful flowers, and maybe some interesting waterways. Hopefully they will not include flashers, panhandlers, screaming babies or biting insects, but you're out in public, so you're rolling the dice any way you do it. The odds are in your favor, mostly, though the Fort Worth botanical gardens seem to be overrun by unruly children whose parents don't love them enough to teach them how to act in public. Happily, we went to Clark Gardens, outside Mineral Wells, and since you really have to travel to get there, we almost had the place to ourselves.

I would by lying if I said there was a whole lot to do at a botanical garden. You can walk, and you can look at stuff. It's not like they encourage paintball tournaments or skateboarding demos. Instead, they have a large area, and they've got plants all over it, and lots of times they do some incredibly pretty stuff. It's worth the trip to see the sculpted waterfalls, and rose-covered trestles, and if it's warm weather, hot women in short pants. No, it's not a trip to the beach, so you won't see very many bikinis, but by the same token, nobody is going to kick sand into your drink, and there are virtually no fat old people in revealing swimwear.

It might be worth doing a little homework before you decide which botanical garden to visit. For instance, the Japanese garden in Forth Worth is breathtaking, but it does tend to attract mullet-headed parents and their inbred children who mostly show up to throw food pellets at the giant koi. The gardens in Dallas are lush and engaging, but parking in that area can be a total bastard, and God help you if you decide to visit when the Kratt Brothers are doing an animal show for preschoolers. Clark Gardens is not as large or elaborate, but it has the advantage of being remote, and there is a really cool model train exhibit where the train weaves in and out of this neat viewing room full of fascinating miniature buildings. It beats the model train show I went to see last Christmas, for sure, and I didn't even have to go to the mall.

If you're looking for a high-energy, exciting day, a trip to a botanical garden is not going to fit the bill, even if you are dragging a mule team of teenage girls. But if you just want to relax, get a little exercise, and take in some beauty, you'll be hard-pressed to do much better. If you're an artist or writer looking for a quiet place, it's perfect, and if you're a nerdy college kid with a small budget, it's a great place to take a date and look at least a little bit cultured. And if you happen to be a grown-ass man trying to talk yourself out of a mid-life crisis, it's a nice place to take your daughter to remind yourself that there's more to life than paychecks and mortgages.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I know it's been like a week since I last wrote anything here. And I know the header says, 'three times a week.' And I'm usually all over that, and I usually do have three reviews a week. But I'm sick.

Saturday I had a great review ready to write about the botanical gardens. It was going to be really awesome. But then Sunday I got sick, and I've been pretty much laid up until just about now. If I can get it written tonight, I'll chuck it up here, but more likely, you'll get it tomorrow.

Sorry about the involuntary bed rest. Just be glad I didn't get germs on you.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Board Game Review - Shadow Hunters

Many of you may have played Werewolf, that old high-school party game where nobody knows who is the bad guy and who is the good guy and you have to try to kill the other team before you get discovered and eaten. If you have, you probably know it's about as relevant for an adult as Duck Duck Goose. There's nothing that says 'grown-up party' like sitting around a table with your eyes closed and then making wild, uninformed accusations about everyone around you.

Shadow Hunters is a little like Werewolf, but fortunately, it's way less gay. Not that you have to man it up very much to make it less gay than Werewolf - for anyone old enough to have children, Werewolf is like Ricky Martin and Adam Lambert doing a George Michael cover. Shadow Hunters has players concealing their identities and trying to kill each other without always knowing if the person they're attacking is actually on their side or not. That's also a lot like Bang!, but Shadow Hunters is better than that game, too.

In fact, Shadow Hunters is just plain fun, period. Players each get a card that tells them who they are, including a special power and whether they are shadows, hunters or neutral. The shadows want to wipe out the hunters, and the hunters want to return the favor. The neutrals tend to have fairly different winning conditions, from being alive at the end of the game to killing a whole lot of other people.

Each turn, you'll roll some dice that tell you where you move (but not Candyland style - there are only six different spaces, and you bounce around between them). Each space has a different action, but possibly the most important action is drawing a green card. These are important for two reasons - first, they let you work in the United States, and second, they let you try to figure out who the other players are pretending to be. You hand the green card (also known as a hermit card, but I call them green cards because, well, they're green, and plus they let me make that lame 'work in the States' joke) to one of the other players, and they have to follow the instructions. For instance, the card might tell you that if you're a hunter or neutral, you heal one wound - so if you do heal a wound, the person who gave you that card knows you're not a monster.

This would be a pretty quick little game, except for one important shadow card - the Unknown. The special ability on this card lets you lie. Since you don't know what shadow cards are in the game, there's always a chance that one of the other players is allowed to lie, which means that it can be a while before you know for absolute sure who you want to kill and who you want to heal.

There's more to the game than just naming names, though. You'll pick up weapons, shields, talismans and other gear. You'll deal out special attacks at your enemies (or, with alarming frequency, your friends). You'll have the chance to attack other players, but only if they're close to you, which means sometimes you'll want to pass, because it totally sucks to kill someone and then find out they were your only ally.

As the game comes close to ending, you'll probably have a pretty good idea who you want to kill, but you won't always be able to attack them. In fact, you may end up having to damage your allies whether you like it or not, because some of the cards (especially the black ones) are downright nasty. The tension mounts, the air gets thick with bluff and intrigue, and it might all come down to which players did the best job of preparing themselves. It might also come down to the dice, but that element of luck just adds to the suspense. I know that turns off a lot of people, but honestly, if you can't enjoy Shadow Hunters because there's luck in it, then you may have been born without a fun gland.

The side of the box says you can play Shadow Hunters with four people, but that should only be attempted if you're very bored and your house recently burned down, consuming every other game you own. Five players is a blast, but the more you have, the better the game. Get eight players, and it will be a cutthroat free-for-all that never slows down.

If you're going to have a party, and you're going to play games, you should absolutely include Shadow Hunters in the lineup. It's a great game for a big group, it's easy as hell to learn, and despite being a raucous brawl-fest, there's still plenty of chances to be smart and make good plays. Unless your idea of a good gaming experience stops at bland European worker-placement games, you'll find Shadow Hunters to be fast, fun and a lot less gay than Werewolf.


Crazy cool anime art
Neat bluffing game with lots of cool strategy
Easy to play and quick to learn
Way less gay than Werewolf

Almost idiotic with four people

Right now, Dogstar Games is listing the Shadow Hunters expansion, but not the actual game. I can't explain that. Once they fix it, I'll send you right over there to buy it. Because you totally should, because it's awesome.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Card Game Review - Myth: Pantheons

Those of us who play lots of games where we can complain about the art and debate the soundness of the mechanics tend to forget that there are a whole hell of a lot of people who play games. There are bridge teams, poker nights, chess clubs and backgammon associations, and the odds are pretty good that most of the people reading this have little to do with any of those 'regular' gamers. Heck, those people don't even consider themselves gamers, even if they meet every week.

Take, for instance, my in-laws. These are a couple retirees who play a game called 500, which is very similar to Spades, and is played only with a deck of cards. They'll play a lot more often than I play my nerdy games, but they still don't think of themselves as game nerds. They're just old people who play cards - but they always beat me. I mean ALWAYS. I have never beaten them at a game of 500, even though my wife is just as good as they are (it's a partners game, and my wife gets very irritated with me for sucking).

So you would think a game like Myth: Pantheons would be a great meet-in-the-middle kind of game. On the one hand, it's a trick-taking game where you have to follow lead before you can trump, and on the other hand, there's manga art. Best of both worlds - a tricky card game for the old people who just play cards, and some sweet graphics and theme for those of us who obsess over our game collections enough to list everything we own on a board game site (not that I'm saying you do that... but you totally do, you know you do).

Unfortunately, Myth is not going to be the game that makes us all join up with casual gamers. The fact that it plays a lot like Spades is not enough to offset the death domain, divine acts and cardboard tokens. The thematic parts of this game are a lot more prominent than the part that looks like a regular card game. However, if you walk into this one as a game nerd who plays cards, you'll have an edge right off the bat.

The object of Myth is to capture cities and recruit followers. Every turn, you'll be competing for a city, which has a ruling domain (that means trump, but it's not as much fun to say, and doesn't fit as well with Athena, the hot goddess with a sword). You each play a card, and you have to follow suit, which means if the first player plays harvest, you have to play harvest, unless you're out of harvest, in which case all bets are off and you can play whatever you want. Win enough hands, and you'll grab the city, complete with followers.

Right off, this would be a pretty decent game. But to make it a lot more interesting, there is a bunch more stuff to do. For instance, every god has five cards that can only be played once, but grant crazy special powers. There are all these different tokens, like heavens and death and harvest and war and weather (actually, that would be all of them), and you can play the different tokens to do crazy stuff like blow up cities, build followers, draw cards or short-suit yourself. In fact, there's enough going on that if you're one of those old people who just plays cards, you're going to be very irritable ten minutes after I start explaining the rules, and then you're going to go into the other room to watch Turner Classic Movies because they were filmed when you were in high school.

You play until one person runs out of cards, and then you repeat two more times. It takes about an hour or so to finish a game, and I'm not going to lie - it can drag a little. By the end of the game, most of you are going to be ready to stop. It's not that it's a bad game, because it's not, it just takes a bit to play, especially if you're playing with new people and blowing their minds with the tricky parts. My wife, who I may have mentioned is something of a shark at 500, had trouble figuring out how to tell what suit was trump until the end of the first round. My daughter never won a single city, and she declared several times, as we played, how much she hated the game.

So Myth is not a simple game, though it looks like it should be. It's not fast, but sure seems like it ought to be. It is pretty, though, with those cool linen stock cards and sweet art that looks like it just jumped out of a trippy Japanese comic book. And it's intensely strategic, with lots of room for good card playing, so it should appeal to the committed game geek who also plays cards with old people. But it's hard enough to learn that many gamers are going to get frustrated, and they might throw it down in disgust without bothering to learn it. That would be a shame, because once you grasp the basics, this is a fun game, and it would be best played with a handful of people who all know what they're doing, but to recruit such a group, you have to convince those people to try it twice, and that might be a tough sell.

If you can find some people willing to play this until they learn it, and if you can master the concepts behind a good trick-taking game, and if you can figure out how to use the divine acts to tweak your game a little and just enough to get the edge you need, then Myth: Pantheons is a very fun game. If you're pissed because there are no dice, don't even bother to look at the box.


Nice mesh of traditional card game and thematic nerd game
Demanding game play makes you sit up and pay attention - or lose
Very nice cards and gorgeous art

Might be intimidating for some gamers
Not exactly complicated, but different enough that you'll lose some fans

Dogstar Games doesn't have Myth: Pantheons right now, but I'll be pestering them to carry it, because it's fun. Once they have it, I'll update a link right here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Betting Game Review - Cornucopia

Before I kick off this review, allow me to throw out a reminder about Drake's Tales. I've had almost no stories come in so far, and I'm feeling desperately unloved. Go read about it, then send me an email and tell me a story.

Lots of people will tell you that you're not supposed to make assumptions about a game based on the box. It's kind of like that thing about the book - you can't tell a book out of water if you make it drink, or something like that. So when you get a game with a boring drawing of a fruit basket on the cover, and graphic design that looks like it's straight out of 1975, you shouldn't just assume that it will suck. You should try it before you decide whether to burn it or toss it in a landfill.

But I'm kind of a maverick, so when I got Cornucopia, I decided from one quick glance that it was going to suck. I didn't recognize the names on the box, I didn't like the ugly yellow background colors, and I had no desire at all to play a game where you try to throw fruits and veggies into a wicker tube. The box looks dreadfully dull. It was as if the art team for the game said, 'let's try to make sure nobody wants to take this off the shelf.' If that's what they said, they succeeded. In fact, they did such a good job that I already had the game, and still wanted to put it back on the shelf.

That was before I played it. As I played Cornucopia, I realized that the bland art and unappealing theme were simply camouflage, like when Arnold covers himself in mud to hide his awesome from the alien manhunter. The artists wanted to make sure that only a few privileged gamers were able to enjoy Cornucopia, so they masked a very fun game in art so bad, you'll want to hide it behind other games in case you have company.

This isn't even a game about collecting organic produce. It's really a push-your-luck betting game. There are five baskets, and to fill one, you have to play five cards under it. These can be all the same or all different (except for the 'all the same' special basket, which decided in high school to listen to goth music and wear black lipstick, because it wanted to be different, just like everyone else). You could have taken all the rabbit food off the cards and replaced it with a rainbow of color, and the game would have been exactly the same. Except that simple colors might have actually made the game look a lot better.

Every turn, you'll try to predict how many cards it will take you to finish a basket. If you choose the 6, you'll probably make it, but the reward sucks. If you choose the 1, you'll probably fail, but if you can make it, you'll get crazy points. And once you choose, everyone else gets to place their bets on whether or not you can make it, which means that you could totally blow it and everyone else could score on your turn. After everyone places their bets, you'll turn over however many cards you declared, and if you can fill a basket, you get the pay-off. If you can't, you look like an ass and everyone else laughs and points.

In theory, this is pretty simple, but in practice, Cornucopia requires a good amount of clever thinking and calculating odds, along with a willingness to take some risks. A little luck won't hurt, either. After all, it would be kind of a lame betting game if you always knew the outcome. The actual fruit basket stuff is almost an afterthought - you're betting on whether you can fill a basket, and your friends are betting on whether you'll succeed, but nobody actually cares about the fruit. It's less picnic, more Vegas.

Every time you successfully fill a basket, you'll get a card with the number you chose. At the end of the game, these cards can be combined to add a few bonus points. If you get three in a row, you'll get a few more points, but if you can score four of a kind, you'll rake 'em in. Then you can kiss a showgirl and get your suite comped, but only if you're in a casino. I don't know where you game, but at my games, we're a little short on leggy dancers.

Once you get the hang of it, Cornucopia moves pretty fast. It may take a couple turns to really hit your stride, but once everyone understands it, this is a little like betting at a roulette table (though possibly less exciting, and as I mentioned, there are probably fewer half-naked hotties). It's downright enjoyable, and a fun little game.

It's just a shame it's so damned ugly.


Cool betting game
Moves pretty fast and plays smooth
Interesting, and finishes before it gets old

So ugly, it looks like a horrible game. It's not, but it looks like it should be.

If you're blind, or just not as narrow-minded as I am, you can get Cornucopia at the Eagle Games site: