Monday, May 30, 2011

Board Game Review - Felinia

The first thing I have to say about Felinia is that I cannot decide how to pronounce the name. I'm not sure if it should be 'Fel-eye-nee-uh', which sounds like 'vagina', or 'Fel-eh-nee-uh', which sounds uncomfortably similar to 'fellatio'. Neither word is one I want to call out when asking close family members if they would like to play a game. But then, maybe it's pronounced so it rhymes with clamidia, though that's not an enormous improvement.

I do understand where the name came from, though, because the game is full of cat people. Felines, if you will. And the nation of Housecatia (I made that up) has just discovered the land of Felinia, and wants to set up trading posts. But the ruling bodies of Felinia (wild jungle cats like tigers and jaguars and stuff) have decreed that in order to cross the sea, they require specific trade goods. They want glassware and cloth and hard liquor, for instance, but each nation wants different stuff. None of the nations wants catnip or rubber mice, though, so the theme starts to fail a little.

The players will all start off every turn by running their businesses, deciding whether to spend their three turns buying merchandise like Justin Beiber t-shirts or champagne flutes, trading their Boone's Farm raspberry wine for Star Trek novels written by William Shatner, or just selling crap to run up their bank accounts so they can afford to do the other stuff.

If you wind up with the right conglomeration of trade goods, you can board ships for Felinia and set up trading posts. This is how you win the game, so it happens pretty frequently. Different trading posts offer different rewards, so you have to think about how you want to group your merchants to develop trading cities across the ocean, and if you want to try to get a monopoly on the panther trading circle.

One notable thing about Felinia is that there is absolutely no reason I can see for there to be cats in it. They're not even sexy cats in bikinis, which would appeal to men with a soft spot for very bizarre fetish porn. They're just people with cat heads. But they trade in human goods, get on human boats, and set up human trading posts. While the game is a whole lot of fun, it has absolutely nothing to do with cats in any way beyond the art.

It's kind of funny, actually, that the game has the cat theme, because it almost disguises how good it really is. You go into it expecting something related to felines, anything at all, and instead play an intriguing game of limited options, clever positioning, and outright backstabbing. There's a lot of the kinds of plays that make the other people at the table look at you and swear violently, which makes it fun in my book. There's also a lot of long-term planning, strategies formed from the first moments of the game, and split-second thinking that stymies the plans of your opponents. There is not, on the other hand, anything to do with cats. Which is great, because I'm not all that fond of cats, except with teriyaki sauce and steamed rice.

The various phases of every turn create a constant source of tension. In the first part of every turn, you'll place your bid tokens and tell the other players what you intend to do on your turn. There can be enormous competition for limited resources, and sometimes you'll take a crappy option for your first play just so you can trump an opponent on your second. Sometimes you'll even take a weak turn, to save your resources for a bigger move next time.

Then you set sail. You can only board a boat if you have the right trade goods, and that changes for every boat. If everyone wants to get on the green boat, there will be a race - but if you can make everyone think you want the green boat and then switch out for yellow at the last minute, you can force your opponents to cash-strap themselves while you ease right into your destination with no competition.

Even deciding where to settle is a contest, since it's in your best interest to build groups of merchants close to each other. Choose a spot inside your opponent's big cluster, and you'll disrupt his whole plan and break his monopoly. But you have to decide if that play is worth what it will cost you, because you may not be able to further develop that fly-in-the-ointment position, leaving you stranded and broke and trying to sell Elvis memorabilia to Asian tourists outside a 7-11 in San Dimas.

The pieces in this game bear discussion, because they are inexplicably neat. For no reason I can determine outside pure cool factor, there are four three-dimensional boats that you assemble from thick cardboard. That had to cost a mint, but they are more fun than flat tiles would have been. The little wooden cat merchants look like Puss in Boots from the Shrek movies, except, you know, cut out of wood. I honestly could not tell you why the score cards needed rounded corners, but it's pretty cool. And then, of course, there's a lot of art with cat-people on it. Also for no reason, as far as I can tell.

I will caution any blood-and-guts, red-blooded gamers out there who prefer games with a body count - nobody dies in Felinia. I guess they all have nine lives, so they don't bother trying to kill each other. This is a strictly Euro game, to the point that the rules are translated into French, German, and Dutch (at least, I think it's Dutch. I'm not exactly fluent). It's got bidding and worker placement, and no dice.

But for being a Euro game about foreign trade with a cat theme in a game with no cats, Felinia is a really fun game. I'll play anything, if it's fun, and I've already played Felinia three times. My family likes it, even without bloodshed. I seriously doubt I will be trading it away, which is also a good sign, because I try to get rid of just about anything I don't really want. My office is cluttered enough as it is.

So I can't decide if the name of the game sounds more like a body part, a disease or a sex act, and there are cat people all over the place and nothing in the game remotely related to cats. Felinia is extremely European, with virtually no random element. And for my money, it's really, really fun.


2-4 players

Requires strategy, planning and quick thinking
Very nice components and pretty art
Tons of chances to make your friends hate you

Theme is questionable, not for being offensive, but because I can't see why it was required at all
Very European
Name sounds like a social disease. Or sex organ.

Noble Knight doesn't have Felinia yet. They probably will at some point.

Friday, May 27, 2011

RPG Review - Blue Planet

Blue Planet has always been kind of an elusive game for me. It's not that it's not interesting. In fact, it has one of the most compelling settings I've ever seen. It's incredibly well-developed, with a fascinating world that puts the 'science' in 'science fiction' and a system that makes hydrofoil gunfights and alien exploration feel real. You don't have to suspend much disbelief to play Blue Planet, is what I'm trying to say.

But it's hard as hell to play. The system itself isn't too terribly tough to puzzle out, though it does use some counter-intuitive addition and subtraction to make it all work. The reason it's hard to play is because there's so damned much of it. The referee's guide, for example, is like 300 pages with no rules at all. It's all setting, discussing various settlements, corporations, political groups, and of course a wide variety of flora and fauna. There are discussions in there about how the vacuum of space actually works (turns out, it's completely different from a Shopvac. Who knew). You can read about how tides are generated, about how water pressure affects living creatures, and light sources on the bottom of the ocean. There's more than you ever wanted to know about oceans, unless you're a marine biologist, in which case we can only hope you get your information from something more reliable that a roleplaying game. Like, say, Wikipedia.

The reason you need all this intel on the ocean is because Blue Planet takes place on Poseidon, a planet covered almost entirely with water. A wormhole at the end of the galaxy drew mankind to this alien planet, which was inexplicably similar to Earth (except, you know, it's like a giant bathtub). Humans sent a colonization ship with the best and brightest, and they began to make Poseidon their home, and get ready for the relief ships.

Unfortunately, a little bit after sending those first colonists, Earth got kicked in the ballsack by a crop-eating disease that threatened the extinction of the human race. Space colonies took a back seat to not dying. It took a real long time to get the corn fungus under control, and meanwhile, the colonists on Poseidon were on their own. With no resupply and no real access to stuff like power plants or microwave popcorn, they made a hard choice and decided to go native. It took less than a generation before they were all dressing like hula dancers and spearfishing for a living.

But then, after the colonists had decided they would get by just fine eating the local fish and building straw huts like Gilligan's Island, Earth got its act together and sent more ships. By then, the original colonists didn't much care, but Earth sent more people anyway. Then someone discovered this crazy mineral on the bottom of the ocean that unlocked the human genetic code, and there was a crazy gold rush as everybody with two dimes to rub together tried to board an outbound flight and cash in on what they thought would be easy riches.

Well, they were wrong. Poseidon is a mean-ass planet. There are sharks so big, they make Jaws look like Spongebob Squarepants. Just walking through the jungle on one of the few islands can get you eaten by lizards, stung by insects, or strangled by plants. And out at sea, it's even worse, because without land masses to break up the storms, whole towns can be swept right out to sea and vanish completely, and boats can disappear so fast that nobody even knows they were ever there.

But humanity is pretty mean its own self, and so before long, towns popped up, industry blossomed, and gigantic corporations moved in and declared eminent domain over any piece of land bigger than a toenail. Before you could say, 'what was I thinking,' there was organized crime, corporate shenanigans, and all manner of tiny wars (actually, it probably took a little longer than it took to say 'what was I thinking.' It probably took a couple years, and I figure you could say quite a bit in two years. But whatever, it was pretty fast). And that's where you start.

Characters in Blue Planet can come from a wildly varied range of background. You could be a native, one of the original colonists, genetically modified with gills and collapsing lungs so you can swim like a fish. You could be a silva or cat, genetic crossbreeds made by combining people with apes or, well, cats. You could be a prospector, or a frontiersman, or a corporate hacker. You could be a cop or a gangster, or even just the pizza guy (hey, pizza guys sometimes do interesting stuff. Just not my pizza guy. I'm pretty sure my pizza guy still lives with his mom). You could even be a dolphin. I'm not making that up.

One important consideration, no matter who you want to pretend to be, is that the system for Blue Planet can be seriously deadly. You're not going to rush into a room against superior numbers and just slash your way through. You can actually kill someone with a knife, and bullets are shockingly effective (you can kill someone with a knife in just about any game, really, but in most games, it takes a whole lot of stabbings. In Blue Planet, you probably just need the one).

Interestingly enough, once everyone has a basic understanding of the numbers, everything moves ridiculously fast. I've played games where a single fight could take an hour or more, and yet Blue Planet's surprisingly sophisticated system means that you can finish a running gun battle in less time than it takes to drink a beer (unless you drink like a sissy). It's also the deadliest system I've ever played, and this makes a game where you have to think a lot harder about what you would expect in a tense situation - resorting to violence as a first resort is likely to give you a good reason to make a new character really soon.

And you probably don't want to make a new character, once you've got one, because it's a lot of work. There are dozens of skills to pick through, backgrounds to choose, abilities to calculate, and that's before you ever decide where you were born or whether you still remember to call your mom on the weekends. You can make a quick-and-dirty D&D character in ten or fifteen minutes. It will take you an hour to make one for Blue Planet, and then you'll have almost no background, just a whole hell of a lot of numbers.

So you've got this incredibly detailed setting. You've got these imaginative but believable characters. You've got a system that does a pretty damned good job of simulating real life. What you probably don't have is any idea what to do with them, because while there is an overwhelming flood of information, there's no prewritten adventure to give you some idea what you should do. And it's downright daunting to come up with your own, because unlike most games that define character roles and potential hooks, in Blue Planet, you can do anything.

You could all be troubleshooters for a corporate mining initiative. You could be scientists aboard a research sub. You could be ecoterrorists fighting to stop the despoiling of your home. You could be politicians trying to bring civilization to the wild frontier. You could be cops fighting gangsters, or gangsters fighting cops. You could be bartenders working in a downtown tavern, and have all your adventures within two miles of your home, or you could be roving pirates whose hijinks take you all over the planet. There's so much you can do that it's nearly impossible to pick one direction, and that can leave a whole lot of work for the poor bastard who decides to run the game.

However, if your referee is up to the grunt work it will take to really have a grasp on Blue Planet, the game can be marvelously rewarding. There are no dungeon crawls in Blue Planet, and while there are plenty of opportunities for bloodshed, this is not a game for which you ever need miniatures. It's all story, and the gunfights are meant to further the game, not be the reason you all show up in the first place.

I would say it's a shame that Blue Planet is out of print, but happily, a company called Redbrick has the license for it. You can still get all the books from them, though I think you have to download them and print them at work while your boss is out for another two-hour lunch with his 'client' (who is actually the mistress he's banging on the side). They're not making any more books, so that kind of blows, but more than nearly any other RPG you could play, Blue Planet doesn't need much more than the core books. There's so much information that you'll be drowning in it before you ever need to expand. If you've got the appetite to digest a game this deep, you can send your fellow nerds all over one of the best sci-fi RPGs ever made.


Exceptionally detailed and realistic setting
Fantastic and well-grounded, at the same time
Great system that makes the fight part of the story, not the story part of the fight
Immense variety - be whoever you want

Considerably inaccessible without a lot of work

Out-of-print or not, you can still run right over to Noble Knight Games and pick up the hardcovers for this amazing game.

Quick reminder - Enter the contest and grab yourself some decks for The Spoils:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Board Game Review - Oh Gnome You Don't

I don't try to hide the fact that I'm a sucker for a good theme. It's more fun to play a game when it feels like you're doing something else. That's also why I'm a Star Wars nerd - I want to fly spaceships around a planet far, far away. It's probably also why I can't stand romantic comedies. You're not escaping anything if you wind up pretending that you're a dorky kid with a crappy office job who falls for the cute chick from the typing pool, unless you're an alien who has spent his entire life pining after the princess while you fight bad guys with electric glow sticks.

But as much as I like a theme, a game still has to be a good game. A reader asked me to review Oh Gnome You Don't, which lets you all be money-grubbing gnomes who race each other to through the forest and try to get paid. Along the way, you give each other wedgies and steal money. That sounds like a fun idea, but unfortunately, the game is what you get your kids to play after they outgrow Candyland.

Now, I should point out that there's a hell of a lot more to Oh Gnome You Don't than there is to Candyland. Sure, it's a basic roll-and-move race to the finish line, but you also have cards you can play, and you can stop in at various gnome businesses along the way to trade your blueberries and small mice for gems. Plus you can boot the other gnomes in the ass and steal their crap, and you don't have to win the race to win the game. That's way better than Candyland.

And the art is outrageously fantastic. You'll fall in love with the silly little bearded dwarfs and the pissed-off squirrels. You'll laugh at the funny ways that gnomes like to hurt each other. Everything visual about Oh Gnome You Don't begs to be played, if only so that you have an excuse to flip through the cards and look closely at the beautifully detailed board.

Unfortunately, while many of the pieces are here to make an impressive game, it falls short of being really interesting because there's just not enough to do. You roll a die, move that far, and then play a card. If you have goods to sell, you'll stop in and sell them. If you have cards that can hurt your opponents, you'll play them because otherwise, what's the point?

In other words, while the game has more charm than a Hot Topic tennis bracelet, it's just not that much fun to play. Instead of being a light and cute addition to a fun game, the art and theme end up saving an otherwise slightly boring game. And there are too many games in the world for me to play a dull game just because the picture of the gnome yanking another gnome's drawers up his ass crack makes me giggle.

Then again, if you have kids who want to play but lack the mental agility to challenge you at your grown-up games, Oh Gnome You Don't might be exactly what you need. You won't want this game if you always play with other adults, but if your regular group consists of you, your wife and your three dopey grade-schoolers, you'll probably find yourself glad you've got this one in the closet.

Because if you don't, your kids will probably make you play Candyland again.


2-5 players

Cute theme
Gorgeous art
Easy enough for kids

Not enough decisions to make an interesting game

If you need a game to play with kids, you could do a lot worse than Oh Gnome You Don't, and you can get it right from Gut-Bustin' Games:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Upcoming Board Game Review - Startup Fever

The Internet has created hundreds of new kinds of businesses, enterprises that just could not have existed when we all had to go to the library for our information, instead of using Google for bizarre misinformation and randomly erroneous semi-factoids. Facebook, for instance, would never have worked as a mass-mailing campaign, and how lame would Twitter have been if it were just random postcards tacked to the office bulletin board?

My current favorite, however, is Kickstarter. I don't have a lot of use for it, personally, but it's a brilliant idea. Take your undeveloped game prototype and chuck it up, then see if you can generate enough preorders to actually print your game. And Kickstarter, in turn, has created a kind of sub-industry for reviewers. It has turned many of us into pimps for non-existent games.

That's how I got my copy of Startup Fever. I scored a copy of this game so that I could tell you about it, and then you're supposed to get all excited and go preorder it, and then hopefully enough people will buy in that the guy can afford to send it to the printer and make it an actual game. That's the theory, and so far, it's working like gangbusters.

Startup Fever is a game where you're all creating Internet startup companies. How crazy is that? It's a game about Internet startups being promoted on a successful Internet startup. It's like one of those things where you put two mirrors facing each other and then the bald spot on the back your head just gets smaller and smaller. Sadly, so does your head, or I would make a hat that does that and wear it everywhere.

This is a thoroughly European-style game. There are dice, sure, but there's no death, so right off the bat, you know it's not a red-blooded American game. There is implied sex, however, so that puts it in the same category as Agricola. In terms of play style, Startup Fever has a lot in common with all kinds of games about farms or zoo animals or silk trading.

Your goal is to have the most users for your Internet products, and so you'll hire lots of software engineers and marketing experts, and then offer them stock options to keep them around. But then when they're with your company long enough to actually cash in their options, they'll be prone to jump ship and go work for the competition. This is rude, but it's business.

In fact, for a game with no body count, Startup Fever is ruthlessly cutthroat. To succeed with a launched product, you have to have more tech geeks than everyone other competing product. So if you're trying to sell MySpace, and you've got six nerds on the project, and the other guy is peddling FaceBook and has eight nerds, he'll steal all your fans and the next thing you know, your entire site is dedicated to washed-up garage bands and child predators.

Startup Fever is an exercise in extremes. In the first half of the game, it's frightfully dull. You'll plod through boring hiring routines and wonder why turn order even matters. If you're not overly patient, you may give up on the game before you even get any products launched, because the game feels flat and you'll be bored.

But then you have a couple products launched, and suddenly competition heats up, and now the game is absolutely bloody. It's wickedly cutthroat, with other companies stealing your tech nerds and filing lawsuits and running off with your patents. What was a dry game with almost no interaction is suddenly an escalating game of backstabbing and dirty tricks. If the whole game was as exciting as the last half, you could get gamers everywhere to play, even if they normally prefer to spend three hours shooting at each other with plasma tanks and flying elves.

Which brings me to my conclusion about Startup Fever. First, it should have spent a little more time in testing, until the creator could come up with rules to make the beginning of the game more fun. Second, it's going to appeal to a lot of people, but it's going to piss off almost as many. It's not bad, but it's more European than hairy armpits and runny cheese.

I would love to tell you all about how cool the graphics for the game are going to be, but my set was made before all the art was done. So downside - my art isn't as cool as yours will be. Upside - my game is all made out of wood, even the box, and it's seriously bitchin'. I'm confident that the final product will look fantastic, because anyone who puts this much effort into a playtest version is going to turn up the heat when it comes to the finished game.

One more upside - the creator of this game contacted me just after my Gaming Gluttony article, and told me that if I liked the game, he would repurpose the 'Scandal' card to include Vietnamese prostitutes. While Startup Fever is not going to appeal to every gamer alive, it will most certainly find fans in a pretty sizable Euro-gamer community, and so I'm giving it a thumbs up. In other words, Louis, I'm holding you to it - I want to see Asian hookers.


2-6 players

Crazy cutthroat tactics in the last half of the game
Plan ahead from the start, or pay the price later
A constant balancing act to stay just one step ahead

First half is dry as a Spanish desert
So European, it has a German accent (not necessarily a con)

If you want to find out more about Startup Fever, and maybe reserve yourself a copy while you still can, check it out here:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Contest - The Spoils

Just last week, I reviewed THE SPOILS, which is one heck of a good game. The only problem is, I never even heard of it before a reader mentioned it to me, and that means more people need to be playing this game. Considering how much better it is than Magic, it distresses me that The Spoils doesn't have more avid fans.

I intend to remedy that. And the way I will get more people playing The Spoils is to give people the game and tell them to play it. Brilliant, right? The only problem is, I only have ten decks. And that means I need some way to narrow it down.

But how do I do that? Why, I have an idea! How about a contest? Crazy, I know, but it just might work.

So here's what I want you to do. If you want to try The Spoils, or if you already have it and just want more cards, all you have to do is show me how bad you want 'em. It's a simple two-step process.

Step 1: Visit The Spoils website and flip through these links:


Get a bit of a feel for the game, read about the wacky world of The Spoils, and see the kinds of bruisers you can expect to see when you play.

Step 2: Come up with your own character for The Spoils. It can be anything, and it doesn't even have to be feasible. Hell, I'm pretty sure the guys who make cards for The Spoils don't even bother trying to make them feasible. And all you need is the name. No need to come up with card abilities and witty taglines and stuff. Just invent a name, and email it to me at Include your address, so I know where to send your cards.

The winners will be decided in two phases. First, I will pick my favorite entry, completely arbitrary, as the sole and final judge. The person who sent me that name will get four different preconstructed decks. Each deck has enough cards for one player, so you'll have enough to play with someone else.

In the second phase, I will randomly select three other people who entered. You have to come up with a character name, but it can totally suck, and you can still win. These other three people will each get two preconstructed decks, so you can sit down with a friend and give it a whirl.

The contest starts right now, and I will be accepting entries for four weeks. That means you need to get me your idea by June 17. I'll pick the winner over that weekend, and declare the winners on June 20.

You can enter as many times as you like, but every entry needs to have a different character name. The various entries will be used in deciding the grand prize winner, but your name will only be entered in the random drawing once. If you win the grand prize, you can't also win one of the random drawings. Don't be greedy. Oh, and you have to give me a few weeks to get your cards to you. God only knows how long the mail will take, and I'm shipping these the cheapest way I can, since I'm paying for them myself.

If you have questions, stick them in the comments section and I'll answer them if I can. Otherwise, put on your thinking caps and get yourselves some cards.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Board Game Review - Wrath of Ashardalon

Wrath of Ashardalon is one of those games that can be problematic for a reviewer. It's not exactly an expansion for Castle Ravenloft, because it is a complete game all by itself. The problem from where I'm sitting is that it uses the exact same rules as Castle Ravenloft, which means it can be tough to tell you anything new when I already reviewed the first game. It's still fast, still smart, still fun, and still crazy expandable. It's still a dungeon crawl game that you can play solo or with your friends, and it's still a D&D spinoff. Basically, it's the same game, but completely different.

However, for a variety of subtle reasons, it's also a better game than Ravenloft. It uses the same rules, sure, and mechanically, does the same thing - but it has a bunch of different things that make it work better.

For starters, it's not as easy. The original was too predictable. You knew what the monsters would do, and you had a lot of control over where they went, which made it relatively simple to manipulate the dungeon into what you wanted it to be. But in Wrath, some of the monsters are a lot more imposing - the gibbering mouther that keeps everyone dazed, for example, or the grell with his stinging tentacles. And far too many of them are sentries.

When you draw a sentry monster, he doesn't just come rushing at you like every other monster. Instead he just stands there and calls up his buddy, who comes running over with pizza and a six-pack to crash your party. Then he spills the pizza on your sofa, drinks all the beer and throws up in your refrigerator, and starts a fight that breaks all the floor lamps. Basically, monsters will show up at random, a lot more often, so you can't control your monster flow as well in Wrath as you can in Ravenloft.

Thanks to a few basic changes, Wrath also feels less academic than Ravenloft. Maybe the biggest factor that helps it feel less bland is simply the change in locale. Ravenloft is supposed to be scary, and isn't. But Wrath is supposed to remind you of an old-school dungeon romp in a dragon's lair, which is a heck of a lot easier to do in a board game.

The random factors in Wrath also add to the tension. Both games have encounter cards, but the encounters in Wrath of Ashardalon tend to swing wildly from 'whirling death trap of death' to 'stepped in gum.' You're never sure if you can afford to lose some momentum, because the next encounter card you draw could double the number of monsters on the board and leave you up to your armpits in rabid man-eaters. Then again, it might be completely silly and produce virtually no effect whatsoever. Instead of an academic exercise, now you've got yourself a chaotic rumble. And that says 'dungeon crawl' where I come from.

Even if the changes in Wrath didn't make it a better game, there would still be plenty of reasons to buy it. Like the plastic - Strahd might have been a scary villain, but his miniature is just a little plastic dude. Ashardalon, on the other hand, is a big red dragon, and that is WAY cooler. There's also an otyugh, which is as difficult to type as it is to say with a straight face.

Plus there's just a lot more in the toolbox. Doors that could be locked or trapped, hostages to rescue, cool spell effects, and randomized treasure are just a few of the additions. Long hallways and huge chambers change the way the dungeon evolves, so that it's not just a random conglomeration of squares. The villains are more fun, too - the rage drake (no relation) that gets meaner the more you hurt him, and the hunormous dragon that spits fire all over the place just so he can roast marshmallows on your head. And that's not all, but I should let something in the box be a surprise.

If you don't have either game, you should pick up Wrath of Ashardalon first. It's better. If you like it, you can get Ravenloft to expand the experience. You can combine both games for more dungeon-crawling good times, and you'll be able to play for days before you ever even have to start making your own adventures. And then there's the rapidly exploding community of people designing new ways to play, so you'll never run out of reasons to play, unless you just get bored and want to play something where you build pig pens and bring in the mail.


1-5 players

Feels like a dungeon crawl should feel
Chaotic and challenging
Lots of fun new additions
Makes a good game better

If you hated Ravenloft, you're not going to like Wrath of Ashardalon
Silly name you may not want to say out loud at work

Noble Knight Games carries Wrath of Ashardalon. If you're going to buy it, I sure would appreciate it if you bought it from them:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Board Game Review - Viktory II

Everybody knows the saying that good things come in small packages. Whether or not it's true depends entirely on what's inside the package, of course - if you're comparing a package containing a diamond ring against a crate full of urine-stained packing peanuts, it's true, but box up a couple pounds of cat litter and put it next to a package with a car inside, and the saying goes right out the window.

Slightly less known is the saying that goes, 'good things come in ugly packages.' In fact, I may have just made that up. Wait… yep, I did. But I made it up because in at least this particular case, it's absolutely true.

Viktory II is an ugly game. The box is bland and unattractive. It's gray, with a photograph of the entire game board all over the front of the box. Even the pieces inside the box are boring. They look like they've all been stolen out of Monopoly and Risk, except for the hex tiles, which depict various terrain types, like mountains (gray with streaks), plains (flat green with cotton balls), and grasslands (yellow. Just yellow). Looking at the rules and the pieces in the box, you may be inclined to decide that Viktory II is a bad game.

But that's where the saying comes in. Viktory II is one of the most innovative, interesting, and tactically challenging world domination games you'll ever play, which surprised the hell out of me because the box is so dismal. The board isn't the least bit sexy, but the game will tax your brain and blow your mind.

The reason the board is all hexes is because it starts upside down, and you explore as you play. It's critical to unearth new land and build new towns, because the only way you get more soldiers is to have settlements to support them. You can't just hide in Australia and build every turn until you're sitting on top of 75 troops when everyone else has three, because your troops max out at what you can support.

Another fascinating thing about Viktory II is how you get better troops. Turn a town into a city, and it gets you more warriors - but the type of warrior you get depends on the terrain. Mountains support artillery, and forests support boats. If you don't control a city in a forest, you just don't get any boats. Sorry. No boats for you.

Know what else is awesome? Everything. Combat is all about diversity - you get more dice for having different types of attackers, so 5 infantry divisions will roll fewer dice than one horse and one cannon. The infantry guys will take a while to kill, because there are so many more of them, but the horses and guns will kick their asses all day long, especially if the smaller force is defending in a city (that gets you more dice, too).

The sum of all these fascinating new directions for big-battle throw-downs is a game where nearly any decision is important, and a three-hour game will pass you by so fast that you don't even know the day is gone until your stomach starts rumbling. Viktory II demands tactical brilliance and sound strategy, and no small amount of looking at the whole board even if you're tied up against one enemy. You can't afford to make mistakes unless you can count on your opponents to do the same, which leaves the best players rising to the top - unless their opponents are really, really lucky.

From reinforcements to movement, exploration to building, everything about Viktory II takes all the rules you think you know about large-scale combat games and turns them on their heads. The rules are not really intuitive until you've played a few turns, because they're not like anything you've seen before. Everything works different - but in this case, that means everything works better. Viktory II is just a fantastic game, even if the box does look like a cat barfed on it and you tried to clean it up with a Kleenex.

If I had my way, some serious publisher with an eye for talent would buy Viktory II from its creator and turn it into a blockbuster. I could see Asmodee or Fantasy Flight turning this game into an award-winning good time. Skin it out with a slick theme and some dead-sexy art, include a couple pounds of sweet plastic people, and you've got a game that would shame every other wannabe world-conquest game on the market.

They probably won't. But that's OK, because you can still buy Viktory II from the creator, and if you're a fan of this kind of game, you should. Never mind how ugly it is. Just play it. You'll love it.


2-8 players

Scales well with a variable-sized map
Strategy and tactics in equal measures - and lots of both
Innovative and unlike anything you've played before
Fast turns that still feel like you did something

Pretty damned unattractive

I've played a lot of world conquest games, and Viktory II just shot right up the charts. Like, top five of all time. You can get it right here:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Announcement - A Rut

I'm in a rut.

I like writing game reviews. But now and then, I just get bored. I have dozens of games I love to play, but I never have time because I'm always playing the new crap that shows up in the mail. I have to write about these games, and I've set myself a pretty lofty goal of three articles a week, which is sometimes pretty tough to do. When I'm tired and dragging and working on deadlines, I just don't feel like making boob jokes about board games.

And then there's the fact that I've been doing the same thing for three and a half years. I checked a few days ago, and I've got more than 550 reviews, rants or announcements. The jokes are not getting more interesting. They are just variations on the same stupid gags, and I'm getting tired of my own jokes. I can only say 'bunghole' so many times before it's not shocking or amusing. It gets to be more like a talking parrot repeating a pirate's bathroom habits.

Finally, this feels more and more like a vanity project. It's the Matt Drake Show, where I use this space to brain-dump whatever I feel like discussing without even trying to get anything interesting happening here. Crude gags fill out drive-by discussions of whatever I played that weekend, and they're getting a little old.

I know this is starting to sound like a big fat 'I quit' notice. But it's not. I don't intend to quit writing reviews. In fact, I plan on writing just as many as I ever have (which would be three a week, unless I feel like talking about something else). I'm still going to get free games in the mail, and I'm still going squeeze humor out of prostitution, drugs, and human suffering. The fix to my problem is not to do less. The fix is to do more.

What I want to do is create something with a little more life of its own. I would eventually like to see Drake's Flames be a place where game nerds come up with off-the-wall ideas and build those ideas into something useful (or at least amusing). Here's an example of one idea. I call it The Game Building Game.

First, I get everyone who wants to be involved to submit ideas for a wacky/stupid/crazy/hilarious theme for a game. Bums playing ice hockey, for instance. Then I put all the ideas into a poll, and we all vote for our favorite. Once we have a theme, we submit ideas for game mechanics, like flicking wooden discs into miniature trash cans. We vote on those and pick three, which we combine to create the game. Finally we have everyone send in art, and then I build the whole thing into an actual game, which we can all download and play whenever we want to play a game that could have been designed by a team of acid-dropping squirrel monkeys. The point is not to create a game that wins awards and sells a million copies. The point is to have a bunch of people put their heads together and come up with something truly horrible.

I've got other ideas, and loopy stuff I want to do on top of talking about whatever I'm playing. They're all just bouncing around my skull like a tennis ball in a paint mixer. I want to try some of them, ignore some of them, and flat-out reject a whole bunch just because they're only there due to sleep deprivation and reality TV.

What I don't want to do is make some lame website that tries to be Fortress Game Geek Info. I'm not looking to be a catalog, or a database, or a happy community of like-minded Chatty Kathys. What I want to do is something different, something I haven't seen before, something more like a mad scientist's laboratory crossed up with a mushroom hallucination.

Here's the problem, though - I can barely manage to work this Blogger site. I was writing here for almost a year before I fixed the graphic at the top and made it a full-page layout. I surely don't know how to make a site with a forum, a chat area, regular news releases and all the other crap I would need to turn Drake's Flames into a gamer version of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Lucky for me, though, somebody else does.

I don't know who that might be, just yet. It might be you. If it is you, and you know how to put together a website with all the bells and whistles we need to turn this into an experimental drug den for game geeks, let me know. I can pay you in games. God knows I have enough of them. Plus you can be the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, the magician throwing all the smoke and mirrors while I come up with ideas that sound so ridiculous that people stop and throw spare change.

At this point, more than any article or piece I've ever written, I need some feedback. Where do we go from here? Brave new world, or more of the same? Is the answer a simple, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', or is there potential for insane genius? And are there enough goofballs and wackadoos out there to make something this wildly bizarre actually work? Use that comments section. That's why it's there. Plus I never could figure out how to turn it off.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

CCG Review - The Spoils

The Spoils has to be the strangest collectible card game I've ever seen. Admittedly, I have not played them all, but I would wager there are not very many games that pit elves who only write in 733t speak against bankers who are, quite literally, fat cats. And that's before you roll in a commodities market that buys and sells natural forces like gravity, tiny illegal aliens that are actually inch-tall robots, or any of the other exceptionally odd things you'll find in The Spoils.

It's also the darkest card game I've played. Now, I never did try that Vampire card game they made, but I am still pretty sure that this one is actually more twisted. Professional cat hitmen bludgeon innocents to death with lead pipes. Arcanists make twisted deals with demons that grant them immense power - and make tentacles and eyeballs grow out of their heads. A dreadful demonic disease turns people into creatures that just might be confused with vampires, and honestly, I'm not sure what the difference is.

But for being the strangest and darkest card game I've ever played, it's also the funniest. Other card games might have had jokes dropped in here and there, but The Spoils puts the comedy front and center, right next to the depravity and horror, making a delightfully quirky mix of silliness and oddity that appeals to me even more than it repels me. For example, one card shows a powerful warrior with the tagline, 'Tonight we dine in Hell', and at the very bottom of the card, 'Or maybe Arby's.' For being more twisted than a Neil Gaiman short, The Spoils absolutely refuses to take itself seriously.

Except when it comes to being a solid game. When it comes to game play, The Spoils is as serious as the kind heart disease caused by too much Adkins diet. With a bizarre theme and very involved play, this is not gateway game, and so to sell to hardcore CCG nerds, it has to be a serious contender. The rules are short and easy to learn, but the game is deep, smart and tough to play really well.

On the surface, The Spoils looks an awful lot like just another Magic clone. You have a starting influence score, and the goal is to reduce your opponent to zero. You bring in guys to attack your foe, and block his guys when they attack you. You pay card costs with resources exclusive to the faction you've chosen. All of these are so similar to Magic that you may find yourself wondering why you're not just playing the original.

Once you see the differences, though, you'll understand. For starters, it's almost impossible to get mana screwed. You can play any card as a resource just by placing it face down, but you still need faction-specific resources if you want to bring in anybody. Only you don't have to pay with those resources - if you control enough of the right resources, you can pay with whatever's handy. Tricky to explain, but it works incredibly well, and removes the single greatest problem I ever had with Magic.

And even more than Magic, hand management is critical. Every turn, you can either draw or play a resource. Not both. You can pay to draw again or play another resource, so you're not entirely hosed - but it's not cheap, so you have to be very smart about what you play. Sometimes it's worth it to take a couple cheap shots just so you can keep building your power base, and sometimes you just have to make hay while the iron is hot.

There are five different groups in The Spoils, each with its own demented resource. Rage fuels the Warriors, while the Banker thrive on Greed. The Arcanists are powered by Obsession and the Rogues use Deception, with the Gearsmiths banking on Elitism. As you can see, The Spoils is not a very happy place. Not one faction is powered by Rainbows or Giggles or Unicorn Farts.

Each faction has the same basic goal - bring in characters to attack and thereby reduce enemies to skidmarks in their own boxer shorts. But each faction handles this goal differently. The rogues strike fast, and have remarkable flexibility, while the warriors rely on dealing damage directly to their foes and laying waste to your defenses before they charge screaming into your living room to eat all your Cheetos and bogart the remote. The gearsmiths specialize in boosting the power of their characters, while the arcanists are great at ruining your chances of getting anything useful into play. The bankers are kind of the anti-arcanists, and rule at managing their hands and providing themselves lots of options.

That's a really crude summary, of course, and there's a lot more to playing The Spoils than that. There are preconstructed decks available, if deckbuilding gives you a headache, but honestly, this isn't a game you're going to want to play if you never intend to get any boosters. Unlike the Living Card Games, The Spoils doesn't really come to life until you start buying more cards. So if you love it, it will eat your money.

I really like The Spoils, and now I'm probably going to have to start donating plasma to afford boosters. I have only played a few games, but I haven't spotted a single flaw yet, and it's vastly more entertaining and enjoyable than Magic.

However, I do have one complaint. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out where to get more resource cards. I've gone all over the website. I've looked at online stores. I've sat with credit card in hand, trying to figure out if buying a particular box of cards will yield me more resources. The boosters are completely unpolluted by resources, which means you get more bang for your buck, but at the same time, I can't even play the gearsmiths because I don't own a single Elitism card. If you know where to get those resource cards, for the love of God, please tell me.

The Spoils bills itself as a conglomeration of Tolkien, Lovecraft and Lewis Carroll, and that sounds about right. It's funny and dark, twisted and entertaining, and solves every problem I ever had with Magic. If you like CCGs, I cannot recommend it highly enough... assuming someone tells me where I can get some damned resources.


2 players

Funny, dark, and strange
Easy rules and very deep gameplay
Fixes a lot of things that Magic breaks
Surprisingly affordable, for cardboard crack

Definitely a collectible game - if you hate random boosters, stay away
Can't figure out where to get resources

Noble Knight Games carries The Spoils. But even they can't tell me where I can find more resource cards.


Here's an update. A few people responded to tell me where you can get resources. It seems the competition packs and preconstructed decks come with plenty of them. So if you buy a bunch of those, you'll have all your need.

But what if you don't want to buy preconstructed decks or competition packs? What if you just want resources? Well, I'm glad you asked. The kind folks at are right there, eager to help you out. They sell boosters and singles for The Spoils, and they bribed me to run an ad for a couple weeks. I'm a cheap bribe, by the way - they sent me some of those resources cards I need, and I built them an ad. In case you have trouble finding the ads, you can get to Hour 11 right here:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Expansion Review - Loot and Scoot Expansion

I'm going to get this out of the way, right off the bat, so that we don't have to keep talking about it - the game components produced by Victory Point Games suck. Sure, it's great that the games don't get made until you order them - but that just means they're all printed on cardstock you could buy at Staples using an inkjet printer that would embarrass you if it were in your house. Cheap cardboard squares haven't been cool since LL Cool J was on his way back to Cali. In short, the pieces you get with your Victory Point games make the games less fun to play.

Which makes it that much more impressive when the games are still fun. The Loot and Scoot expansion, which is basically a page of rules and a bunch of cardboard, makes a fun game about 72.6% better (that figure is an estimate, and may vary based on your rate plan). There are new adventurers to brave the dungeons, new monsters to battle, new treasures, and some dastardly traps.

The new recruits might seem like the real stars of the game. These duel-class warriors jumped straight out of your Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player's handbook and into Loot and Scoot. There's a very good chance one of them is really a dude playing a girl, in true D&D tradition. These hardy souls can be used for any challenges that require either of their core skills. For instance, if you're facing a troll vulnerable only to knights, you can use the paladin, and if you land on a trap that can only be defeated by a wizard, you can use the monk. And if you're attacked by a gay man in hot pants who can only be defeated with a feisty handjob, you can send in the bard.

But as cool as the new characters are, the new dungeon elements are cooler. You could stumble across poison before now, but it was easy to beat by just killing off a henchman. The new traps, though, are great. Now you can only send one guy, and he only gets one shot to kill the trap, and if he fails he dies. He doesn't go back home and cry about how the mean werewolf beat him up and took his lunch money. He doesn't run off screaming and lick his wounds. He goes belly up dead, which is what's supposed to happen when a pit opens under your feet and drops you onto whirling saw blades and Joni Mitchell records.

The new monsters are pretty cool, too. A bunch of them have wild card vulnerabilities, which means you can use anyone you want to beat on them. That means they're easier to kill, which is nice, because if there's one thing Loot and Scoot does well, it's making sure it doesn't overstay its welcome. With two new dungeon layouts and all these new monsters, you have more fun ways to kill your opponents in a hurry.

But the real star of the show, the addition that makes the expansion such a good investment, is the new secret room. Each player has one, and you have to put it somewhere in your dungeon. If someone can kill the monster and find the secret room, they can fight another foul beast and try to get a magic weapon that will make future fights a whole lot easier. The trick is that the guardian monster is one mean motor scooter who will kick your ass nine times out of ten, especially when you're already weakened by having to fight the last guy. And if you find the secret room and don't win the fight, the room moves.

The moving room is the thing that makes this so brilliant, because it adds a great bluffing element to the game. Players are going to be hungry for those secret weapons, and a lot more prone to chase after the secret room, which means that you can move it all over the map and send them chasing after the rooms with traps and poison and very rude bellhops and not after your hidden treasure troves or boss monster. It adds a whole new layer to the game that makes it far more enjoyable than it was.

It's not all wine and roses, though. Even though there are two more player mats and a whole lot of monsters, there are still only enough pieces to play this with four people. Turns are fast, and I could totally play with five or six, but that opportunity has been completely squandered because they didn't print just a few more cheap pieces of cardboard. I was surprised and disappointed that they blew a chance to open the game up to a wider audience, but then, I can still play with just four, so what the hell.

It's funny, too - my group is split on the play time. Half of us thought that the biggest strike against Loot and Scoot is that it ends too early, and the other half thought it did a great job of moving to a conclusion without stalling so long that we got bored. It's fun and fast, yet some of us wanted a couple more turns to build temples and train adventurers and work up to a more impressive band of heroes. But then, if you're still building when someone else has already killed a dragon, then you don't need more time. They just needed less.

Despite exceptionally cheap components, the Loot and Scoot expansion adds a whole lot to a game that was already fun. It probably won't make my top 50, but we had a good time playing. It was worth suffering through the crappy pieces for a game this enjoyable.


2-4 players

New adventurers
New menaces
Secret rooms let you mess with your friends' heads
Doesn't drag out the ending

Still depends heavily on lucky rolls
Some might say it ends too soon (but not me)
Really should have had enough stuff to play with five or six

If you want to pick up the Loot and Scoot expansion (and if you're getting Loot and Scoot, you may as well go all in), you can get it right here, direct from Victory Point Games:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Card Game Review - SPANC

People have different reasons for reading reviews. The most obvious reason is to find out about games they might want to purchase, but there are other reasons. You might read a review of a game you already own, to see if you agree. You might read a review because the reviewer is entertaining. It's crazy, but it happens.

But I have a different sort of people who read my reviews. I have people who read my reviews simply because they hope I hate the game. That might not be everyone, but I know damned well some of you chuckle with evil delight whenever I compare a game to prison sex or a botched boob job.

If you are one of those people, you are going to LOVE this review. Because SPANC is one of the most God-awful games I have ever played, and I intend to spend this entire review finding ways to mock the game and its creators, out of nothing more than a desire to extract a little vengeance on them for having made the game in the first place, and thereby luring unsuspecting, decent people into playing it. And me, too.

SPANC is an older game, one created by Steve Jackson Games, a company notorious for making half-baked attempts at decent games and failing miserably more often than not. The title is an acronym that stands for Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls. If that sounds entertaining to you, then you should put down the water pipe and check into a rehab facility. Because that's stupid.

In SPANC, your team of catgirls marauds across the galaxy (you're all space pirates) and tries to succeed at various hijinks. The only sunny side to the game is that the art is done by Phil Foglio, who is a great artist. Unfortunately, the game is pretty much an excuse to see gratuitous drawings of girls with tails and cat ears showing off their furry cleavage, and aside from the art, the game is absolutely horrible.

What you do is, you have a series of obstacles, like cute puppies and bureaucrats and asteroid belts. Each has a rating you roll against, like Catgirl or Amazon or Ninja or (you guessed it) Space Pirate. Those are actual skills. Well, I mean, they're not actually skills. They're just skills in this game. In real life, 'Catgirl' is not a skill. In real life, 'Catgirl' is a very strange girl who likes to wear very silly costumes, and then probably have sex with men wearing very silly costumes. Or maybe other very strange girls.

Anyway, you pick a lame-duck catgirl to attempt to defeat the challenge, and then you have to roll two dice and come in under that catgirl's score in the relevant skill. So if your retarded-but-disturbingly-attractive catgirl has a six in Ninja, you have to roll under six. This is hard to do, which is why you have toys.

Toys can improve your scores. They do other stuff, too, but you only care if you're going to play this game, and hopefully, you are absolutely not going to play this game. Ever. Oh, and poolboys are toys. And they wear speedos. Which is gross, unless you're a catgirl, because then you're gross, too, because normal people want to have sex with people, not anthropomorphic house pets.

So you pick the catgirl with the highest score in the skill you need and give her the toy that will give you the best odds of winning. This is a pretty obvious decision, because unless you have trouble remembering whether eight is higher than six, there's usually only one choice that makes sense. You don't have to make a difficult decision. Your only decision would be 'do something stupid' or 'don't do something stupid.' Then you roll dice, and see if you were lucky. You probably were not, which means you don't succeed at the challenge and the game is going to last even longer.

Eventually someone will win enough challenges to have enough loot to win the game. That, or you will all decide together that this is one of the stupidest games you have ever played. Either way, you will put the game away and never look at it again. You will try to pawn it off on some unsuspecting dupe, who will no doubt curse you repeatedly for having saddled him with this horrible, horrible game.

I suspect that Phil Foglio never actually saw the game before he agreed to do the art for it. I also suspect that he gets a bit of a woody for girls with tails and animal ears. Because if those two things were not true, I cannot imagine why he would agree to illustrate this game. One play would have told him that he was about to be associated with one of the most offensively boring games every concocted, and his name would forever be tainted simply for being on the box.

Unfortunately, Steve Jackson's people did have to play this game at some point, and I am at a complete loss to explain how nobody at the table had the brainpower to say, 'Hey, Steve, this game stinks worse than a bum's underpants.' Maybe Steve came up with it, and fired the first guy who hated it, and everyone else who wanted to keep their jobs started telling him how much they loved playing SPANC, and how they had creepy catgirl fetish porn in their sock drawers.

At any rate, you don't work for Steve Jackson (unless you do work for Steve Jackson, in which case I am either sorry for you or ashamed of you - or both), so you don't have to pretend that SPANC isn't an utter travesty. I also don't work for Steve Jackson, and doubt that I ever will, especially if he reads this review and sends hired thugs to break my kneecaps.

The thugs will probably be dressed as Amazon catgirl ninjas. They will be able to defeat me easily, because I will be completely unable to stop laughing at them.


2-4 players

Phil Foglio art

Phil's art is disturbing
No real decisions to make, unless you can't count
Lasts more than five minutes, which means you will be bored for more than five minutes
Stupid and pointless and immature

I have absolutely no intention of helping you find a copy of SPANC. But if you're really excited by catgirls, maybe you should talk to this guy:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Card Game Review - Eleminis

I'm going to try a word association exercise. I'll say a word, and then you can say the first thing that comes to your mind. Don't bother saying the word out loud, though. I can't hear you, and your co-workers will think you've been huffing the canned air.

Ready? The word is 'Eleminis.'

Ha! Got you, didn't I? You couldn't think of anything! Probably because that's not a word. That's like two words, only they're all scrambled and nonsensical. Word association is cool, right?

So instead of continuing this rather stupid exercise (which is even more stupid since I can't actually hear you, and you might have come up with something awesome and I just assumed you couldn't think of something, which is not really fair, but I already did it and I don't mean to take it back), I'll just tell you what 'Eleminis' means.

Hold on to your seats, because this may be a shock - it's a game. Yep, I know that's weird. You're at a website about games, reading an article titled, 'Card Game Review - Eleminis', and then I go and spring it on you that Eleminis is a game. I should probably try to be more obvious next time.

But there's something else, because eleminis are also very short skirts worn by grade-school kids (mostly girls). No, wait, that's not right, and would make a very awkward game that might require you to register with the city. No, an elemini is a very small pachyderm. No! It's not! I could do this all day.

Eleminis are actually tiny elemental characters. That's actually true this time. These cutesy little goobers are all over the cards for the game of the same name, and you win if you can get all five of them. Yes, there are five. There are the four traditional elements, which are fire, water, air and earth, but then there's the stand-in extra that got drafted at the last minute because the other four wanted to start a basketball team. The last element, in case you're curious, is vegetables. Well, OK, the game calls it plant, but calling a little guy 'plant' is nowhere near as interesting as calling him 'Rutabaga.'

Every elemini in this game is a brawler capable of beating the piss out of two other eleminis. For example, Fire can throw a beating on Air and Turnip Greens. Then Air can get all pissed and go take out his frustrations on Water and Earth, and then both of them go kick Fire in the groin for pissing off Air in the first place. This relationship is important, because it's how you play.

You only have five slots in front of you. So if you wanted to put a sixth card in front of you, well, you can't. You only have five. And to win, you need each slot to have a different elemini in it. Every turn, you draw one card, and you have to play it. If it's good for you, you probably want to play it on yourself. If it sucks, you may want to give it to someone else. And any time an elemini can beat up a different one, you can swap the bully out for the victim.

There are also a couple other guys in the game. They get bussed in from the projects. One is Star, and the other is Trash. Star has emotional problems, deep-seated scarring that makes him able to beat up anyone, anywhere, for any reason. It's sad, really, but it is this power that makes him also a great stand-in for any other elemini. So if the school play starts and Air isn't there, but all the other guys are, Star can stand in. Hell, if you want, you can forget the other nerds completely and just have five Stars.

Then there's Trash. He stinks. His mother doesn't bathe him often enough, and the other eleminis won't hang out with him on the playground. He just sits in one of the spots and keeps the other little dudes from coming in, which means that you can't win the game if he's sitting there. You have to get him to leave.

And that's why you have action cards. These cards let you swap eleminis, steal them from other players, and even discard them right out of the game (as long as you bring a tarp and a shovel. That body isn't going to bury itself, unless you had the foresight to make the poor guy dig his own grave before you killed him).

So far, this is a great example of seriously disturbing playground politics. What it is not is a very interesting game. You can only play one card on your turn, so it's not like there's any hand management. You draw a card and you play it. It's pretty obvious whether you should give it to yourself or hit someone else with it. And that is not exactly the foundation of rewarding game play.

However, a few factors should be considered before you simply bury Eleminis in a shallow grave next to Cucumber and Fire. For starters, the art is very kid-friendly. Like, if your kid is into Veggie Tales, he's going to think the art in Eleminis is a little too cutesy. And the rules are stupid easy to learn. You could teach this game to a four-year-old - which was probably the general idea.

If I were a grade-school teacher (and I had not yet been summarily dismissed, possibly held without bail pending trial), I would probably keep a copy of Eleminis in the cupboard. You can play it with a gaggle of kids, and anybody under ten years old might really enjoy the chance to play a game instead of learning multiplication tables or the alphabet. The cards have simple art, and each one has a really big word right on the card describing what it is (in case you couldn't look at the raindrop and tell that it's water). You might be helping kindergartners learn how to read! Or in my case, I could be teaching kindergartners how to run interference so I could steal from the bookmobile.

I don't think very many adults would enjoy playing Eleminis. It's got all the depth of a linen tablecloth. I'm not even sure smart children would enjoy it. But a handful of slobbering first-graders might actually beg their teacher for the chance to break out the cards, especially if their teacher tells them that Shrub can beat Air or Water in a cage match.


2-8 players

Easy to learn
Very clear instructions
Probably great for young kids

Not very interesting for anyone who can read the nutrition label on a cereal box

Do you want to know more about Eleminis? No? Me neither. But in case you teach second grade, or are a nanny for some kids with Down's Syndrome, you can get Eleminis here:

Monday, May 2, 2011

General Gaming Rant - Gaming Gluttony

I've been thinking lately, which is a change from my normal routine of staring at my shoes and falling asleep while I'm driving. It doesn't happen very often, but now and then I find it refreshing to mix it up and use my head for more than a paperweight (which is not that useful anyway, because my drool keeps smearing the ink).

And my latest epiphany is that there are too many games. That may sound like heresy, especially when this site survives because people send me lots of games, but I swear I'll try to make some sense before I go back to blowing bubbles in a glass of milk.

First off, unless you have a hell of a lot more free time than your average office drone, there's no way you can play every new game that comes out. There are hundreds of games coming out every year, and even if you had the budget to buy every single one without dipping deep into your budget for Vietnamese call-girls, the only way you could read all those rulebooks and play every single game is if you had absolutely nothing else to do. We don't need all those games because you can't actually play them.

"But wait!" I can hear you saying that, which is weird because I wrote this way before you were even able to read it. "I don't have to play them all! Just the ones I like!"

"Aha!" is my response, which is a little silly again, because you haven't actually said your part yet. I'm getting a little confused, actually. I'm going to need a Delorean and a British phone booth just to have this conversation. Anyway, my part continues like this:

"That's my point! You only need the fun games! We don't need the bad ones!"

In fact, people are buying so many games just to keep up with the insane number of releases every month that gaming clubs have changed how they work. It used to be that you showed up with your friends, all of you having read the rules to the game, and spent several hours playing one game. Now you show up, there are a dozen people all playing something different, and there's this crazed urgency where you want to try everything. Only the game owners read the rules, and then they teach everyone else, so nobody even completely grasps the thing. They decide whether they like it, give it a quick thumbs-up-or-down, and hustle off to the next one. They don't play anything twice, even if they liked it the first time, because they have to try a new one to justify buying another dozen games next month.

And that is stupid, because if you only play a game once, then your entertainment actually cost more than your Vietnamese hookers, on a per-hour basis. Seriously, if you pay sixty bucks for a game and only play it once, and you finish in 45 minutes, then you paid eighty dollars an hour for your entertainment. I'm flat-out opposed to paying that much for anything that doesn't result in an orgasm, or at least one hell of an adrenaline rush.

Let's pretend you can get past the problem of time and budget. Let's pretend you actually have the time and financial resources to buy all these games and play them, and you don't mind paying more for games than you would have to pay for oral sex. You are still hosed, because you can't have as much fun.

If you play a lot of games, then you know all about the comparison game. This is where you play a game and go, 'this is a lot like that other game,' and decide which is better. If the new game is better, then you are stuck with an old game that's not as much fun. If the old game is better, then you just got screwed by playing a clone of another game that is inferior. Either way, the world did not need both games. It needed just one of them.

Also, there's no way you had fun with every game you ever played. You may have enjoyed the company, but if you play a lot of games, then you know damned well that at some point, you couldn't wait for the game to end. Which means that you're paying more for games than you would for hookers, and having less fun than you would have had if you had just gone to the movies. Plus at the movies, you might have been able to score a handjob in the back of the theater (although it probably would have cost more than a board game).

I know those first two arguments have holes in them. There are generalizations and assumptions that may not apply to you. I don't care, because for one thing, they do apply to an awful lot of people, and for another thing, I have more points.

To really get the most out of a game, you need to play it several times. If a game reveals all its awesome factor after just one play, then it could not have much awesome factor. If you figure out how best to play on your first try, it's not going to get better. And that happens far too often, which is a damned shame. And it happens because the market supports so many games that crappy games get published and even sell, when a leaner market would dictate that those crappy games go where they belong - the recycle bin.

If publishers spent more time focusing on quality and less time focusing on quantity, the games that did make it out the door would be better. They would spend more time in development and playtesting, and actual professionals would be hired to see to things like marketing and graphic design and editing. As it is, too much of the production in many games is handled by blind mole rats and retarded dachsunds, with occasional help from the odd Vietnamese hooker. Look at Earth Reborn. This blockbuster miniatures game is an absolute blast to play, but visually, it's like someone grabbed your eyeballs and tied them together with razor wire. Cull the market, and Earth Reborn could have spent another six months in editing and design, resulting in a much better game.

It would be easy to just blame publishers for releasing bad games. It's far more comfortable to just waggle a finger at them and say, 'shame on you for wasting my whoring budget.' And you would be accurate in such an accusation, because we depend on them to come up with the awesome stuff we want to play. We don't make the games. We just play them, and we rely on the publishers to do their due diligence, and all we can do is complain when they don't.

But we're the ones who make this glut possible. We're the hapless morons who place $300 orders to save on shipping, and then wind up with a moving box full of games we haven't even unwrapped. We're the ones who show up at game day with twelve games, play each game once, and then put them all on a shelf so we can take pictures of our collections and show them off at BGG. We may not make all those crappy games, but we make them possible, and until we start exercising a little more discretion in our purchasing habits, publishers are going to keep feeding us their untested crap.

At this point, I'm pretty sure someone out there is getting upset. I figure the angry people fall into one of three camps. You're either the wasteful spender with all the self-control of a five-year-old in Toys R Us with a stolen credit card, or you're one of those overly prolific publishers blowing games out your ass like you had cardboard diarrhea, or you're just offended at the number of prostitute references I've made so far tonight. There may be sub-groups, too, like people who wonder why all these hookers have to be from Southeast Asia (I'm not really sure, but I think Norwegian whores are more expensive).

I can't help you if you're angry about the prostitutes. I mean, I suppose I could writer cleaner jokes, but bathroom humor is just a whole lot easier, so I'm sticking with what I know. And if you're testy because I called attention to your needless consumption, then you're welcome. Maybe I'll get you to reconsider all those games you buy, and get more enjoyment for less money.

On the other hand, if you're the publisher, your first rebuttal is going to be that if you don't publish more games, you can't survive. And frankly, I understand. But this cycle has to stop before we're all floating ass-deep in boring retread clones and horrible Knizia reprints. And consider this - the games that sell the best are the games that ARE the best. Make more of those, and fewer of the bad ones. Focus your attention on the quality games. You can make the same sales dollars, because we're going to buy games regardless. We're practically hooked on them. I saw one guy in the corner bobbing back and forth with an IV in his arm, being intravenously fed meeples and dice. We'll buy the games. We'll probably spend the same amount of money. But this way, we get to have more fun. And isn't that what games are for?

OK, so I don't really think publishers are buying that line. They know how to make money, and from where they're sitting, if it ain't broke, they're not planning on fixing it. So as is usually the case in a free market, the change has to come from the consumers. Do you want better games? Quit buying the bad ones. Play every game three times before you buy another one. Stop blazing through them like there was a prize at the bottom of the stack. If you know people who like to brag about the number of games they play, remind them that they are losers.

Play the games you like, and play them a bunch of times. Don't play games just because you want to sample everything once. You'll have more fun and save money. And when the bad games wind up in the landfills of mediocrity, publishers will be forced to make better games, which is an overall win for everyone.

Especially the Vietnamese hookers.