I would guess that most gamers have at least heard of Can’t Stop. The Sid Sackson classic from 1980 is pretty much the quintessential push-your-luck game. I would venture (Sid Sackson pun intended) another guess that substantially fewer BGG’ers have heard of Excape (also called Exxtra). Excape (1998) is considered to be Reiner Knizia’s response to Can’t Stop.
Despite having the prolific Knizia’s name on the box, Excape is a somewhat obscure, OOP title. After many years of unsuccessfully chasing the elusive game, I finally managed to track down a copy.
In this comparison, I will not be explaining how the games work. If you don’t know how one or both games play, check out BGG reviews. There is an awesome iOS app of Can’t Stop for 99¢. If you haven’t played Excape, I’d recommend watching Tom Vasel’s review of it. Both titles are very simple, and you should be able to get a pretty good sense of the gameplay from a quick video review. I’m more interested in comparing the experiences of play here.
Can’t Stop is amazing with two players, but it can get bogged down with more. In a four-player game, the turns can take a while, and players can easily get bored waiting for their turn to come around. Additionally, the more people you have, the more likely it is for later players to be at a disadvantage. (How many times have you seen a column get claimed before someone has taken a turn?)
Excape is the opposite. It thrives with more players. The turns are lightning-quick, and more players means a tighter game. It’s difficult to get bored in this game, because you are engaged even during other players’ turns, and it will be your turn again before you know it.
Whereas Can’t Stop tends to be better with fewer people, Excape is better with more.
Can’t Stop doesn’t have much in-game interaction. I’m not talking about the cheering and jeering that happens from opponents trying to convince you to roll just one more time, I’m talking about specifically, within the confines of the game itself, how one player’s actions influence another player. There can be a bit of indirect interaction, but it’s often limited to “Do I try to steal this column from my opponent who is close to the top, or do I take a different column altogether?”(Pro Tip: Steal your opponent’s column.)
Excape has direct interaction, coupled with some interesting decision-making. If I roll a 76, should I put it on the 5-rung and be pretty confident it won’t get knocked off, or should I put it on the 3-rung to knock your 73 off the 4-rung? Is it worth it to deny myself points in order to deny you more points? It often comes down to how much of a jerk do you want to be? (Pro Tip: Always be a jerk.)
Can’t Stop is less interactive, while Excape has more potential for opponent-screwage.
Can’t Stop provides lots of opportunities for meaningful strategy. How do you want to use your die roll? Are you going to play the odds and go for the 6-7-8 columns? Or are you going to try for the shorter-but-harder columns? On your roll of 6-6-1-1, are you going to do double 7’s, or are you going to go for 2-12? (Pro Tip: 2-12.) Is it worth it to keep one of your runner pieces in reserve so you have a fallback in case of a bad die roll, or should you put it on a column you don’t want, but that gives you good odds? And ultimately, when should you stop?! (Pro Tip: Never stop.)
Excape feels much more luck-heavy. It can be unsatisfying when you get an X on the second roll. If someone just keeps rolling doubles, they can run away with the game. While players do have some control, it is limited.
Can’t Stop is much more strategic than Excape. It present players with many more interesting decisions.
FUN / OVERALL EXPERIENCE:
There’s a reason people still play Can’t Stop almost 40 years later. It’s timeless. I would call this an essential game, one that should be in every gamer’s collection. Can’t Stop is just fun. It’s so enjoyable to goad your opponents into just ONE more roll, and revel in their agony as they fail. I find the aforementioned cheering and jeering happens much more in this game than it does in Excape.
In Can’t Stop, every roll increases the stakes. Thus, the longer you go, the more grueling the decisions get. I haven’t found this to be the case in Excape, at least not to the same degree. In Excape, whether you roll two times or ten times, your stakes don’t change much. Sure, the longer you go, the more chances you have of failing, but you don’t get penalized any more for rolling an X on the tenth roll than for rolling an X on the second. This means there isn’t nearly as much egging on your opponents. Every roll I make after the first involves the same relative risk.
However, there is a great deal more opportunity for nastiness in Excape, something I very much enjoy about it. You can play conservatively, but you can also be really aggressive. This won’t appeal to everyone, but my group loves it.
Looking at the games side-by-side, I would say that, from a design standpoint, Can’t Stop is the better game. It is less chaotic, more strategic, and it has (I perceive) a greater ratio of risk to reward. From a fun standpoint, I’d say it depends. For all their similarities, the games scratch two different itches. I think there is room in a collection for both. Want a stress-inducing game full of coaxing your opponent into risking it all? Try Can’t Stop. Want a sillier, more interactive game that can accommodate higher numbers of players? Try Excape. The games are fun in different ways, and both have their strengths and weaknesses.
Thanks for reading this review! I’d love to hear your thoughts about these games!
Wow. “Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor” is an absolute marvel of game design. It is easily one of the most refreshing gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
Escape the Room (ThinkFun, 2016) is sort of half game, half puzzle. It does a great job of faithfully translating escape room games into a tabletop format. With a playtime of about 90 minutes, the game works best with about 4 players.
At the beginning , players read the introduction to the game’s narrative: Creepy 1860’s house, owned by a recently-widowed astronomer. Owner has mysteriously disappeared, and players are investigating. They are then presented with the first puzzle, which is incredibly easy to solve, but acts as a kind of tutorial for how the solution wheel works.
Ah yes, the solution wheel. This is a very neat component. It is essentially five concentric dials, and it’s used to tell players if they have the correct answer to a given puzzle. Each puzzle will require you to identify four things (symbols). When players believe they know the correct symbols, they enter them into the wheel by rotating the dials to line them up. If a certain icon appears in two windows of the dial, players have solved the puzzle and may open the corresponding envelope. If not, they must keep trying.
The real meat of the game is the 5 sealed envelopes, each containing bits and pieces used to progress the story. Printed on the envelopes themselves are visual puzzles that players must solve in order to open them. If players have opened all the envelopes and completed all the challenges before the timer runs out (90-120 min.), they win. It’s difficult to comment on the contents of the envelopes without spoiling stuff, but suffice it to say each one gives you new challenges.
I was recently reading a game design blog about mechanisms that don’t get used much. One of them was the notion of “minigames.” This game is full of them, and most of them are done very well. Some are extremely simple, some are more difficult. One puzzle in particular was a bit frustrating, because it seemed to come down to trial-and-error guesswork, but we eventually figured it out. One of the later puzzles was much too easy, leaving something to be desired. All in all, though, the game seems to have a nice balance of difficulty.
Occasionally, there is a particular game component that really catches my attention, something that impresses me just because of how long it must have taken to design. The dice in Mice and Mystics, the board in Tobago, the Force die in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG. The level of design behind these is astounding. The solution wheel in Escape the Room is my latest component crush. It’s not flashy, but it amazes me how it just… works.
This game almost feels like a legacy game. It’s not, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like one. It has that same excitement of wondering what’s in those envelopes, the same kind of ongoing narrative that you unravel bit by bit. If you like games with surprises, this one is definitely worth checking out.
Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor is a standout of 2016. It’s limited by the fact that it’s not replayable, but that one playthrough you get is worth it. From start to finish, I was actively engaged in the game, constantly excited to see what goodies were in the next envelope. Our group finished the game well before the timer ran out, so we never felt the tension of time ticking away. If you’re playing with all adults, I recommend shaving 15-30 minutes off the suggested time limit. The puzzles are fun, though you may wish some were more challenging.
At just over $20, the game is a good value. It’s a satisfying evening of entertainment. If you’re on a budget, I suggest either getting two or three other people to split the purchase, and/or buying it used. When you’re done, you can sell it and recoup some of the cost.
Despite being a “one-and-done” kind of game, I thought Escape the Room was fantastic. I can’t way to play the second one.
Renegade Game Studios has had a pretty good track record with our group. Their versions of Snow Tails, Gravwell: Escape From the 9th Dimension, and Lanterns: The Harvest Festival were all hits. They were 3-for-3. When I heard about Fuse (Kane Klenko, 2015), I knew I wanted it for my collection.
I usually like real-time games. I enjoy the stress they put on you, the way they make you think on your feet and try to make the best decisions you can under a time crunch. I also like cooperative games and dice games. I was sure to like Fuse.
And then I played it. Boy, was it a disappointment.
The game has a cool theme. Players have 10 minutes to defuse a stack of Bomb cards using the 25 custom dice that come with the game. The dice are standard d6’s in 5 colors. In real time, players draw a number of dice from the bag, roll them, and divide them up evenly amongst themselves, placing them on one of their Bomb cards. The Bomb cards have slots on them which call for certain dice to be placed there. For example, you might have a card that calls for two dice of the same number, and two more dice of the same color. Thus, if I place two red dice (regardless of value), and a black and a yellow die showing the same number, in their respective slots on the card, I have completed that card and can move on. That’s all well and good; it’s an interesting challenge to divide up the dice quickly, so that everyone gets what they need.
Therein lies the problem. Sometimes players can’t get what they need. If one or more dice cannot be placed, they are re-rolled one at a time, and all players must lose a die corresponding to either that die’s color or number. This rule completely ruins the game, because you always feel like you’re backtracking. If two dice cannot be claimed, this most likely means all players will be losing at least one, maybe two of the hard-earned dice they have previously placed. If I’m one die away from completing a card, losing one or two dice from that card could set me back substantially.
Some would argue that you can get around this by being strategic in how you divide the dice. However, it proves very difficult to use all the dice each round, because it all comes down to which colors/numbers people have spaces for. For example, let’s say that both my Bomb cards are one die away from completion. In order to complete them, I need either a blue 2 or a red 6. When the dice are drawn and rolled, none of them match these requirements. This means that I automatically can’t take a die. But it’s not really my fault. It’s not that I played poorly, it’s just that the game didn’t give me the dice I needed. Thus, I (and all my teammates) will likely lose dice this round.
It’s one thing when a game punishes you for playing poorly. Most of the time, I’m okay with that, because I feel like I deserved it, and I can learn from that round and play better next time. It’s another thing when the game gives you a no-win scenario. And yes, there are times in the game when all the dice can be divided perfectly, and everyone is happy, but way too often, you get screwed at no fault of your own.
I’m sure people will say that the difficulty of the game fits the theme; defusing bombs is delicate work. But in Fuse, losing dice doesn’t come across as thematic, it’s just frustrating.
The best way I can describe a Fuse is like this: it’s like when you play old Nintendo games with really bad controls and level design. Those games are very hard, but not for the right reasons. They’re hard because the game is flawed, not because you’re playing badly. It’s much more rewarding when a game is hard, but fair. In these games, when you lose, you want to come back and try a new strategy. You want to work for that victory. Fuse, unfortunately, is the former. I played 5 rounds of this game with different players, and every round fell flat. As much as I love Renegade Games, Fuse is a bomb. And not in a good way.
Tiki Topple (Keith Meyers, 2008) is an enjoyable family/kids game. With an incredibly simple ruleset, lightning-fast rounds, and great production quality, it is definitely worth checking out.
In Tiki Topple, 2-4 players manipulate a totem pole of colorful tiki heads to try to three specific tikis to the top. At the start of the game the nine tikis are placed semi-randomly in a column on the board. Each player receives an identical hand of cards in their color, along with a secret card that shows them the three Tikis they want to be in first, second, and third place at round end. On their turn, a player simply plays one of their cards and moves a tiki accordingly. The available cards are:
Tiki Up (in denominations of 1, 2, and 3): Move a Tiki up 1, 2, or 3 spaces
Tiki Topple: Move any Tiki to the bottom of the totem pole
Tiki Toast: Remove the Tiki on the bottom of the pole.
For example, say the Tikis are arranged, from top to bottom:
Player 1 plays a Tiki Up 2 card, and moves the purple Tiki up two spaces, so he doesn’t run the risk of getting removed with a Tiki Toast. This means that Green is now on the bottom.
Player 2 plays a Tiki Topple card. She decides to move the red Tiki to the bottom of the stack.
Player 3 then plays a Tiki Toast card to remove the red a Tiki, since it’s now on the bottom.
At the end of each round, players reveal their secret objective card and score points according to which Tikis are in the top three spots. Players get 9 points if the Tiki in first place is the one they wanted, they get 5 points, if the Tiki they wanted in second place is second or higher, and they get 2 points if the Tiki they wanted in third place is third or higher.
To illustrate, let’s say my objective was:
Orange in first place
Blue in second place or higher
Pink in third place or higher
At the end of the round, the top three Tiki are, in order:
In this case, I’d score 11 points (9+2). Pink would still score me points because it was in third place or higher. Players move their score markers along the score track, and play another round, with the first player changing each round. The game can end whenever players want it to, really. They can play to a set point total, they can play X number of rounds, or they just can just agree to stop. It doesn’t matter.
And that’s it. That’s the whole game. Play a card, move a Tiki, score some points (hopefully). It’s so easy it can be taught in under a minute. As you can probably tell already, there is very little strategy in the game. It’s chaotic, players don’t have much control, but it is fun nonetheless. I’ll admit that turn order matters greatly, through I’m not always sure who it favors.
On the one hand, it’s good to be last, because you get the final say in whatever happens. You get to decide which Tiki is getting moved/Toppled/Toasted at the end of the round. You’ve noticed that your opponent has been concentrating all round on getting Blue to the top? Aww, too bad. Now it’s on the bottom, and there’s nothing they can do about it. [evil laughter]
On the other hand, going first can be really powerful as well, mostly because of the Tiki Toast ability. If the three colors I’m interested in are Red, Green, and Pink, and I notice that Yellow is starting on the bottom of the totem pole, why would I not play a Tiki Toast and just kill him right away, before anyone else can act? With any luck, someone wanted yellow at the to, so that will screw at least their plans up right off the bat. This can get old quickly, though. It can feel a bit unfair when you’re the last to play, and one, two, or even all three of your Tikis get been Toasted before you even get a turn. I’ve never seen someone lose all three in the first turn, and admittedly, that would be rare and unusual, but you see why it can be frustrating.
Of course, we’re talking about a children’s game game called “Tiki Topple” here, so you really can’t take it too seriously. If you really want to play that aggressively, go play something else.
I will briefly touch on the physical production of the game; it’s great. The chunky Tiki pieces look and feel great, the board is sturdy, and it had a nice little depression in it where the Tikis sit, keeping them situated and making them slide easily. The cards are nice and sturdy. All in all, good components. My only gripe is that the box is about 40% too big, but whatever.
Tiki Topple is a fun, super-light game. It goes over well with kids and adults alike. Super simple, quick, and fun. Give it a try!
Aquadukt is one of those games that was never very well-received. People complained that it was too chaotic, that there was too much luck in it. Because of that, it has been largely forgotten. You never see stuff about it on Dice Tower lists, you rarely, if ever, see it played at cons, and heck, I would venture a guess that most gamers who got into the hobby within the last decade haven’t even heard of it. That’s a shame.
Aquadukt (Bernhard Weber, 2005) is a lightweight Euro game. It plays in about 30 minutes. It’s primary mechanisms are dice rolling, tile laying, and route building. I would classify it as a slightly deeper, next-step filler game.
The game is played out on a square grid with 20 designated areas, each made up of 4-6 squares. The areas are numbered 1-20. The goal of the game is to construct houses and build canals to supply them with water. Players get a number of tiles in their color showing 1-4 houses on them. These tiles are separated by number, so that each player has a stack of 1-house tiles, 2-house tiles, etc.
On a player’s turn, they may take one of three actions:
1. Place up to three house tiles. To do this, they roll the 20-sided die, and may place a house tile on a space in that numbered area. If they do so, they may roll again and place another tile. If they have placed two tiles, they may roll once more to place a third. If, after any roll, the player does not want to place a tile in the rolled area, they may instead end their turn. If they roll an area that is full, they simply re-roll.
2. Place a well. This is where canals begin. To do this, a player simply places one of the glass beads on any intersection of spaces. (I should note that there is a rule dictating how far apart wells must be from one another.)
3. Place up to two canal pieces. Canal pieces are placed in between two spaces, and they provide water to these adjacent spaces. Once a well has been placed, players may begin building canals from it. Each source may have canals coming off it it in up to two directions. This means if players have placed canals going north and west off of a well, no one can place canals south or east. When placing canals, players may either extend an existing canal, place a new canal coming off of a well (provided that there are less than two, of course), or may make a double canal. Double canals are represented by two canal pieces, and they provide water to the two adjacent spaces on either side, instead of the normal one (really awesome). A canal can never increase in size, however. In other words, I can’t make the third piece in a canal a double until the first and second are also doubles. (Sorry if this is a bit confusing. I feel like I’m not doing a very good job explaining this.)
If a board area gets filled up with tiles, players look at all tiles in that area. Any tiles that are not receiving water (i.e. not sourced by a single or double canal), are immediately removed and returned to their owners. This frees up spots for new houses to placed, and leads into another interesting aspect of the game: if you wish to place a tile on an empty space that already has water, it must be your lowest available tile. This is why players must separate their tiles by value at the start of the game, so everyone can easily see what players’ lowest tiles are.
This makes for some interesting strategy. Getting “free points” by placing a tile in an empty, watered space is awesome, so it may be in players’ interest to get rid of all their low-value tiles early, in order to maximize this payout. For example, let’s say I had managed to put all my 1- and 2-value tiles on the board early in the game. Then, later on, I have a chance to place a tile in a vacant space with an adjacent canal. Since my lowest tile is 3, I can grab three free points.
This strategy is nicely counterbalanced by the randomness of the dice roll. You can roll and place a tile up to three times on your turn. Of course, this means you will inevitably roll undesirable areas. If all of the activity on the board is happening in one part of the board and you roll an area that is nowhere near said activity, that sucks. You either have to place a tile and try again, or you can stop. Because of this, it can be a good idea to keep your low-value tiles to use as “throwaways.” If I roll a bad spot, I can place a 1-value tile there in order to keep rolling and try again.
This creates a nice push-and-pull. You have to decide if it’s worth keeping low-value tiles to use when you roll poorly, or get rid of them for those moments when you can get free water.
Some people take issue with the action of placing a well. They complain that everyone else gets a chance to decide the directions the canals will go before you do, because the action of placing a well is your entire turn. This means that, if I place a well in hopes that it’s canals will go toward my tiles, everyone else can divert the canals away before I get to act again. It’s true, this can happen, and it sucks when you’re on the receiving end. However, I don’t think this is as big a problem as some do. To me, it just means you need to be all the more strategic about when and where you place the wells. Try to place them in such a way that you’ll benefit from canals in any direction. Or try to wait until you’re fairly certain your opponents will not be building canals on their turn, so that you can decide their directions on your next turn. Or try to turn a single canal into a double, so that it hits your tile two spaces away. Or just don’t place them at all. Make your opponents do it instead, and try to reap the benefits. In my opinion, the well placement action is not problematic. It just forces you to make decisions.
As for the dice rolling, I can see why some people don’t like this. As in any game with dice, there is always the possibility of getting screwed by bad rolls. The thing is, Aquadukt never forces you to use a bad roll. Every time you roll the dice, you have to make a conscious decision or whether or not to place a tile. Is it worth it to suck it up and waste a tile on a bad roll in order to get another chance at a better spot? It almost has a slight push-your-luck thing going on, but you have some control over the randomness.
(Speaking of the dice, I’m going to pause for a slight tangent here. I have owned two copies of Aquadukt over the years. In both cases, the D20 included in the game was severely lopsided, making it favor certain results over others. I believe this is a common problem with this game, and a pretty stupid oversight by Uberplay. If you get this game, throw away the D20 and use a different one. Tangent over.)
Aquadukt is not a perfect game. I have played it with people who liked it, and people who didn’t like it. I personally enjoy the game, and I think fans of fillers will as well (haha, “well”). It feels somewhat interactive, if indirectly. You don’t attack people in the game, but there are ways to mess with your opponents, moments of “Oh, you wanted the canal to go that way? Boy, it would be a real shame if some jerk made it go THIS way…”
Additionally, the game is quick. We’re talking 30 minutes. Individual turns are very fast, leaving little downtime. You do one of three things, that’s it. New players will understand the game in a matter of minutes, and will be able to effectively strategize right out of the gate. Some games take a couple playthroughs to grasp. This one takes one to two turns. Another user describes Aquadukt as deeper than it seems. I tend to agree. I’m not saying the game is deep. It’s really not. But there is more depth to it than you might think. There are subtleties that reveal themselves as you play.
I won’t recommend this game to everyone. For some/most people on the Geek, it’s going to feel too light/chaotic. I get that, even if I don’t completely agree. I think fans of fillers will dig it, though. As an added bonus, it’s very accessible to non-gamers. It’s pretty easy to find on the cheap, so if you’re of the lighter game persuasion, give it a try!
Konexi (Forrest-Pruzan Creative, 2010) is an interesting game. I can honestly say I have never seen another like it. It takes two seemingly unrelated genres, stacking and word games, and mashes them together in a very unique way. In Konexi, players make a teetering tower of letters, all precariously balanced on one single letter. By adding letters to this “letter tree,” players try to form words in which all letters physically connect.
To begin, the production quality is high. The 26 letters themselves are made of sturdy plastic. Each letter has a number of tongues and grooves which can interconnect with other letters. The game comes with a pencil and score pad, and well as a custom D6 and a little plastic marker. It is packaged in a weird-looking inverted trapezoid box, which is more than a little annoying for those of us who like to store games sideways on shelves. Despite its odd shape, though, the box is structurally well-made.
To begin the game, one letter is selected to be the base of the “tree.” It is placed upright in the middle of the table, and all other letters are placed in a circle around it. The plastic marker is placed next to one of these letters, to indicate it as the starting letter.
On a player’s turn, they roll the die and move the plastic marker that many letters around the circle (think Patchwork). The current player must place the resulting letter onto the tree. This is where dexterity element comes in. Using only one hand, the player must connect the letter to the tree using its tongues and grooves. This means that all letters are interconnected, and they must all balance on that one single starting letter; no other letter can touch the table.
If a player is able to make a word using their current letter and adjoined letters, he/she scores points. The letters do not have to be in order. Thus, if I play the letter R so that it connects to the sequence F-Y-I-A, I have made the word “FAIRY.”
It’s hard to explain, but this game seems to defy physics. The letters seem to balance in ways that they shouldn’t. When the letter tree is really wobbly and you’re certain the next letter is going to cause it to tumble, somehow, it stays standing. Of course, if the tower does fall, there is a penalty, but I find that this game doesn’t even need the full rules.
At its core, Konexi is a simple stacking game. My group rarely ever keeps score, because the real fun of the game is simply in building the letter tree. Heck, we usually don’t even roll the dice and move the marker, we just do a “you place one, I place one, and we both try to make cool words” kind of thing. In our games, no one cares about winning or losing, it’s just fun to play.
With that said, though, I find that Konexi lacks staying power. The idea is really novel, but it quickly loses its luster. I was first introduced to Konexi at a local con. I had never heard of it, but I played it and had a blast. When I thrifted a copy on the cheap, I was sure my group would eat it up. And they did. For about 10 minutes. After a round or two, they were over it. In this way, the game is kind of a one-trick pony. It has this really unique idea in it, but once you’ve experienced it, well, you’ve experienced it. It no longer has that novelty factor.
I think that with the right group, Konexi could be a hit. Kids would have a lot of fun playing with the chunky letters, and casual gamers might enjoy it as a different take on Jenga. But for gamers, the game leaves much to be desired. In my opinion, the best place to play it is at a con, like I did.
In that first game we played at our local con, our table was near the middle of the main gaming area, meaning there were dozens of other games being played all around us. It was funny, because everyone around us, even though they were invested in their own games, was watching us play. In the midst of 4-hour euros and complex war games, all the people nearby were eyeing this silly stacking game. I remember hearing commentary about how “that tower is totally going to fall next turn” from the next table over. Some of these observers seemed more interested in our game than they did in their own games. When we finished that round, a bunch more people wanted to try it out, because they were so intrigued by it.
I can’t give Konexi my full recommendation. Like I said, it’s a one-trick pony. What I will say is this: Konexi is worth playing at least one time. You will have a lot of fun with it. I don’t know that it’s worth owning, unless word or stacking games are really your thing, or unless you can find it for super cheap. It’s out of print right now, but it’s not that hard to track down. Give it a try, but don’t expect a gem that will see years and years of play.
One of my all-time favorite games is Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s awesomely thematic and corny, capturing that delightful B-movie flair perfectly. However, the game is far from perfect. Whenever I teach Betrayal to a new player, I let them know upfront that the game can be super unfair. It may be that you just can’t get the rolls you need. It may be that the house is too big/small/oddly-shaped for you to win the game. It may be that the scenario is just lame (Cats scenario, anyone?). Whatever the case, I just like players to know what they’re in for. I want them to be in the right mindset, because if they go into the game expecting it to be this grand strategy game, they’re going to be disappointed, but if they go into it expecting a silly, thematic romp through a haunted house, they’ll have a grand old time.
Colt Express is very much the same kind of thing.
Colt Express (Christophe Raimbault, 2014) was the surprise winner of the 2015 Spiel des Jahres. It is a family game for 2-6 players that plays in about 45 minutes. The game is a Wild West train robbery, where players are trying to punch, shoot, and steal their way to riches. Its central mechanic is card programming, where players select a number of actions to be executed, and then all selected actions are resolved in the order they were selected.
The visual appeal of Colt Express is top notch. The game doesn’t have a traditional board, but is instead played out on this amazingly gorgeous 3D cardboard train, complete with a locomotive. Each car has two stories: inside the car and on the roof, because, come on, a train robbery wouldn’t be complete without the bad guys running along the roof. The game even comes with scenery standee pieces that have absolutely no purpose other than chrome and decoration. Overall, it looks great on the table. As soon as you set it up, players will be interested.
Inside each of the train cars are some number of loot tokens: gems (value $500), purses ($250-$500), or the strongbox ($1,000), which begins in the engine car, guarded by the marshal pawn. Each player begins with a $250 purse token. Everyone also receives a deck of action cards, from which they draw a hand of six, as well as a set of six Bullet cards, which will be given to players when they inevitably get shot. The player’s pawns are placed in the two rearmost cars, and the game begins.
Each round, a card will be drawn indicating how many cards each player will program, and how they will be played. Then, beginning with the first player, each player will select a card from their hand and play it, usually face-up. All these played cards go into a single stack, meaning that the second player plays their card on top of the first player’s, and so on. Players play as many cards as indicated on the round card, and when they have finished this, the entire stack of cards is flipped over and resolved in the order the cards were played. The actions players can choose include:
– Move Left or Right: If you are inside the train, you can move one car left or right. If you’re on the roof, you can move up to three cars.
– Move Up or Down: If you are inside the car, move to the roof, and vice versa.
– Punch: Punch an opponent in your current location (same car, same level). Punching makes the target drop one loot token, and the target is moved to an adjacent car.
– Shoot: shoot an opponent not in your current space, within line of sight. The shooting player gives the target one of their Bullet cards. (Bullet cards are kind of like Curses in Dominion, where they are useless cards that just take up space in your deck.)
– Grab Loot: Pick up a loot token in your current location.
– Move the Marshal: Move the Marshal pawn one space left or right. The marshal never goes on the roof, and if he enters a space with any other pawn, that player immediately received a neutral Bullet card and must escape to the roof of their car.
A single round of actions may go something like this:
– Player A is in the same location as players B and C. Because Player B has a lot of loot, Player A decides to punch him to make him drop a loot token. This moves Player B to an adjacent car.
– Because he was just punched, Player B decides to retaliate. He shoots Player A (a legal move, since he is no longer in the same location). He gives Player A one of his Bullet cards.
– While Players A and B are fighting, Player C decides to grab the loot token that Player B dropped when we was punched.
– Player D wants to get to the strongbox in the locomotive, but he first needs to move the Marshal out of that car. Thus, he plays the Move the Marshal action, moving him one space. It just so happens that the Marshal moved into the space where Player B landed after being punched, so Player B has to take a neutral Bullet card and escape to the roof. (It sucks to be Player B.)
In a given round, players play several of these actions cards. This means that they have to try to anticipate where their opponents will be and what they will do on their turns. If you and I are alone in the same car and I see you play a Punch action, I can safely assume I will be getting punched, thereby being moved one space and dropping a Loot token. If both adjacent cars have loot tokens on the floor, then, perhaps I can play a Grab Loot action, because whichever direction you punch me, my new location will have loot to pick up.
Thus, programming the cards becomes an exercise of keeping track of where everyone will be when the cards are resolved. If you’ve never played a programming game, it’s hard to explain why this can be so challenging, but if you’ve ever played Space Alert, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
To add to the insanity of programming, sometimes cards will be played face-down, or the order of play will temporarily reverse, or players will play two cards at the same time, instead of the normal one per turn. All of these make the programming aspect even more challenging. As long as the cards are face-up, you usually have some idea of what players are trying to do, but as soon as a card is played face-down, anything goes. If you and I are in the same location, and you play a face-down card, I have no idea what you did. Did you move? If so, should I try to shoot you? Did you move the Marshal? If so, should I try to run away? Did you pick up loot? If so, should I punch you so you drop it?
In case you couldn’t tell, this game is ridiculous. By nature, card programming lends itself to chaos in games. RoboRally and Space Alert can be maddening. You have everything planned out perfectly, and then you realize your friend forgot to charge the gun on turn 3, or you thought you would wind up in one space, but you actually wind up in a completely different space, making you fall in a pit and die. Often, in this type of game, one tiny little misstep can absolutely destroy your plans. However, Colt Express manages to mitigate this a bit, though I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Let me explain.
In RoboRally, you program a number of movements and resolve them all. You might do Move Forward, Turn Left, Move Forward 2, Turn Right, and Reverse 1. When it comes time to resolve these actions, they are locked in. You have to move forward, you have to turn left, etc. If you make a mistake, sucks to be you, you have to finish all your movements. But that frustration is a lot of the fun of RoboRally. Colt Express is much more “Do what you think will be the best move, and figure out how to best use it when that move is resolved.”
As an example, when I play a horizontal Move card, I don’t have to decide right then whether to move left or move right. I can choose how to move when that card is resolved. Similarly, if I play a Shoot action, I can decide who to target when it’s my turn to resolve that action. Maybe I was originally planning to shoot you, but by the time I’m resolving my Shoot action, you are not where I thought you’d be, so I wind up shooting someone else.
This makes Colt Express extremely tactical. I won’t say there is no strategy in the game, because there is. A little. You can make educated guesses as to what you should do, but the card resolution probably won’t go the way you thought it would, for better or for worse. There’s also always the possibility that you just don’t have the right cards in hand to do what you want to do. (I should mention that, instead of playing an action card into the stack, you can instead draw three cards from your deck, but missing an action can be a big setback, so I only do this when absolutely necessary.)
If you measure Colt Express by how strategic it is, it falls flat. If you measure it by its originality, it is mediocre. There is nothing too groundbreaking here. But if you measure it by the sheer amount of laughter at the table, Colt Express is a smash hit. The game is HILARIOUS! Every round is chock-full of “screw-you” moments; take this, take that, I shoot you, you shoot me, I move the Marshal to you, you pick up the loot just before I can, I run away so you have to punch the other guy instead of me… these are the kind of interactions you’ll have in Colt Express. What the game lacks in substance it makes up for in humor. At 45 minutes, it’s short and sweet, leaving you wanting to play again.
Like I said in the beginning, you need to go into it with the right mindset and expectations. You need to understand that it’s silly. You need to realize that you’ll get screwed at every turn. You need to know that there is not a lot of “game” here. It’s just silly, ridiculous, chaotic fun. Colt Express will certainly be staying in my collection. I recommend this game to gamers who enjoy silly fun. If that sounds like you, check it out! Thanks for reading!
Sid Sackson, right? He was the man. Certainly the best of the “old” designers, arguably the greatest designer of all time, Sackson was decades ahead of his time. Of course, some of his games are more popular than others. Today, I’m going to be looking at Venture, one of his less-popular designs.
Venture (1969) is a small, unassuming game. I’ve heard it described as “Acquire: The Card Game.” Upon first look, the box gives little indication of what the game is about. I have the 3M Gamette version, which says it is a “fascinating game of finance and big business.” Normally, that description alone would have me running for the door, begging to play Nexus Ops instead, but with Sackson’s name attached to it, I had to try it.
Let me begin by saying the game is utterly themeless. The pasted-on theme of big business doesn’t come through at all. The game almost feels abstract, with colors, numbers, and letters. This may be a turn-off for many; I myself generally steer clear of themeless games, but read on.
Venture comes with two decks of cards, one deck containing money cards, the other containing the corporation cards players buy (basically, a deck of cards in six colors). Each corporation card has one of six colors, a cost, and one or more of six letters, A-F (Example: a green corporation with letters B and E, which costs $12 million). The goal of the game is to have the most points at the end.
At the start of the game, players are dealt a hand of seven money cards, and five corporations are placed face-up in the middle of the table. On a player’s turn, she may buy any number of the face-up corporations on the table, placing them in front of herself. Once a player has bought a corporation, any additional corporations purchased may either be placed in a new column of cards in front of them, or on top of an existing column. The requirements for placing a card on an existing column are:
– In a given column of cards, there can be no repeated colors. In other words, if I have previously played a red card on a column, I cannot play a second red card on that column.
– Every card played into a column must have at least one letter in common. Thus, if I played the example green corporation (with letters B and E) as my first card in a column, and I wish to play a red card on that column, it must have a B or an E on it, as must every card that follows.
In addition to buying corporations, players may reorganize their corporation cards. I’ll get to why this is important momentarily.
At the end of a player’s turn, she draws two cards from the money deck. I should mention here that the money cards range substantially in value (I believe the range is $1 million to $18 million). This sounds like it would be problematic, doesn’t it? If I draw nothing but high-value money cards, and you draw only 1’s and 3’s, I will have an advantage, right? Well, not exactly. See, the lower-value money cards have one of three shapes on them (circle, square, or triangle), and if a player spends two or more cards of different denominations, with a common shape, the cards become way more valuable. Specifically, two of one shape is worth $16, three is worth $32, and four is worth $64. That’s huge.
To illustrate, if I have a $1 and a $3 card, both with a triangle on them, I can redeem them together for $16 instead of the normal $4. This makes for some interesting decisions. If I have two of a single shape, should I spend them now, or try to wait for another card of that shape to make them worth even more? In Venture, it’s often difficult to pay the exact amount required on your turn, so players frequently end up overpaying, with no change. Thus, you might have to ask yourself if it’s worth splitting up a set of cards with a common shape, to avoid overpaying. If I am a dollar short on a card I desperately want, should I spend the $1 card I have, thereby breaking up a meld of shapes, or should I spend the $8 card I have, thereby overpaying but retaining my meld for a future turn?
If this was all the game was, it would be nothing but bland multiplayer solitaire. However, there are two types of cards I haven’t touched on yet. In the money deck are two Profit cards. This is ultimately what drives the game. When a player draws a Profit card, they immediately reveal it and replace it with another card. This triggers a scoring round. All players score points based on the stacks of cards in front of them. Stacks are scored as follows:
3 cards in stack: 1 point
4 cards in stack: 3 points
5 cards in stack: 8 points
6 cards in stack: 20 points
These scores are multiplied if a stack has more than one letter in common. You can see from the scaling of the points that it is in players’ best interests to go for the big six-card column, especially if the column has multiple common letters.
After the scoring round, play continues normally.
I mentioned reorganizing one’s corporation cards, and this is where the game gets really interesting (and nasty). The money deck also contains a number of Proxy Fight cards, which can be used to steal opponents’ corporations. These cards comes in three denominations: 1/2x, 1x, and 1-1/2x, meaning that a corporation can be stolen for one-half its listed value, its listed value, or one-and-a-half times its listed value, respectively. The catch is that only the bottom card of a stack can be stolen.
To mitigate this, players may spend money equal to the number of corporations they have in front of them to reorganize any or all of their corporations. This serves multiple purposes:
– If an opponent really wants a specific card, you can move it to the top of a stack, so it becomes harder to steal.
– Along those lines, if you yourself have just stolen a card, it must go on the bottom of a stack. If you’re worried about an opponent stealing it right back, you can reorganize to put it out of reach.
– As the game progresses, you may realize that reorganizing is simply a good way to optimize your corporations. Perhaps you now have the means to build a five-card column with two letters in common. If so, reorganize and do it!
The game ends when the last corporation has been purchased. At that time, there is one final scoring round, and then the points are totaled, with the highest score winning.
– I like its not-so-subtle “take that” interactivity. The game definitely has a kill-the-leader thing going for it.
– I like that players don’t know when scoring rounds will occur. This randomness keeps you on your toes, because you always want to be ready for scoring, but that often means being vulnerable to Proxy Fights.
– I like its simplicity. It can be taught in a few minutes.
– I like the interesting decisions the game presents to you. The mechanism of matching icons on the money cards is intriguing, and you really need to think about how you spend money. The puzzle of reorganizing is neat, trying to score the most you can while not letting opponents mess with you.
– This game can drag. I usually like to remove 7-10 cards at the beginning of the game to make it go faster.
– By the end of the game, the AP can really be an issue. There are enough cards on the table that examining and thinking through everything can take a long time and slow the game down.
– There is no theme. I don’t personally mind this, but this may turn many people away.
– The randomness of the scoring rounds. Yes, I know this was also a Pro, but it can be a problem. It sucks when you have a great setup of cards just waiting to score you big points, and your opponent steals something that ruins your tableau, and then immediately pulls the profit card, thereby scoring immediately after screwing you over.
– The scalability. This game plays well with 3. It can also work with 2, but I would rarely want to play it with more than 3.
– The gameplay can feel dry and repetitive. By the end of game, sometimes you feel like all you’re doing is lather-rinse-repeat.
I realize that is a lot of cons. In fact, more cons than pros. But somehow, I still enjoy the game. I would call Venture a good game. It is not extraordinary, and it didn’t change the world the way Acquire did, but it is interesting (or, “fascinating,” as the box claims). It stands on its own two feet.
As you play, you will realize there are several questions the game asks you. Is it worth overpaying so that you can hold onto all your low-value money and try to make awesome melds? Do you wait for that perfect card that will give you a ton of points, or do you give up and settle for something less perfect so you can score less points faster? How can you best reorganize your corporations to dissuade opponents from stealing your good cards? Is it worth it to pay 1-1/2 times the cost to snag that awesome card from your opponent? These questions are what make the game enjoyable.
Venture holds up pretty well today, though it is starting to show its age. I recommend it especially to people who like economic and stock-market games with a little “take that.” Thanks for reading!
I often see discussion threads on BoardGameGeek about so-called “hidden gems”, those games that aren’t very well known, but are really great. Every time I see these discussions, Clans comes to mind. Clans (Leo Colovini, 2002) is a 2-4 player abstract game that plays in 30 minutes or less. I’m not really sure how to describe the primary mechanic. It’s not worker placement, because all the pieces begin the game on the board. It’s more like worker clumping (I sincerely hope that term catches on).
The game board is broken up into many areas, each with five distinct spaces. These areas are represented by different land types (fields, plains, mountains… it looks almost like Catan). There are five colors of pieces, and players set the game up so that one of each color is represented in every area. In other words, the pieces are distributed semi-randomly, such that each color is evenly distributed across the entire board.
The board has a score track and a sort of game timer track, indicating two land types, one which is worth extra points and one which is worth nothing. As the game goes on, these will change, such that fields might be worth extra points now, but in a few turns might be worth nothing.
Once the board is set up, players each secretly receive a tile that tells them which color they are. This is the real meat of the game here; all 5 colors are used in the game, regardless of the number of players, but you and only you know which color you are.
A player’s is incredibly simple: they move all the pieces from one space into a non-empty adjacent space. That’s it. That’s the game. Okay, there’s a little more, but that’s mostly it. Basically, every turn, you vacate a space by moving all the pieces into an occupied adjacent area. You can move pieces of any color, and you will need to, in order to win the game. Once a space is vacated, nothing can ever be moved in there for the rest of the game.
If your move causes one or more occupied spaces to be completely surrounded by vacant spaces (I call it “completing” a space), you get a point, and those spaces are scored. The scoring system is pretty straightforward, with one weird rule. It works like this:
If less than five of the colors are present in the space, every color there gets points equal to the number of pieces in the space. For example, if the space has 3 red, 2 blue, 1 yellow, and 1 black (blue not present), then all colors except blue score 7 points (3+2+1+1).
If all five colors are present, then any color that contributed exactly one piece is considered to not be there and does into score. Suppose that there are 3 red, 2 blue, 1 yellow, 1 black, and 1 green in the space. Since all five colors are there, yellow, black, and green do not score, because they only contributed one piece. In this case, red and blue would each score 5 point (3+2).
If a space ever has 7 or more pieces in it, those pieces cannot be moved again, but other pieces can still be moved into that space.
I mentioned the game timer track a moment ago. When a space scores, you look at what land type the space is and see if it has any modifiers. Every time a space is completed, the game timer ticks up one. Several times throughout the game, this will mean that a new land type becomes good and a new land type becomes bad. The good land type will have a bonus of 1-5 points, increasing as the game progresses. The bad land type scores nothing, regardless of how many pieces are there.
As you may have gathered from my sub-par description of the game, it’s a really good idea to keep your color secret. Ideally, you want players to think you are a completely different color. The reason for this is if your opponents know what color you are, they will try to make sure your color doesn’t score. This gives the game a slight bluffing element.
Suppose I’m playing red, and my pieces are present in a space with only one occupied space adjacent to it (in other words, a space that is one move away from being complete). If the adjacent piece is yellow, I have two choices: I can either move it into my own space, thus completing it, or I can move it the other way (assuming there is an occupied space the other direction). Either way, this vacates the adjacent space, thereby scoring my space. If I move yellow away from my space, that gives players the idea that I’m not yellow, because if I was, I would have wanted to move my piece into the space that was about to score. If I move yellow into the space, a player might interpret that to mean I am the yellow player, trying to grab some extra points. You can see how this gets interesting. Sometimes, it is even good to knowingly waste some of your own pieces by moving them into and completing a space on the current bad land type, thus scoring 0 points. Doing so may convince players you are a different color than you actually are, because you just intentionally denied yourself points.
Whenever I am teaching this game, I always warn players that the game will end way faster than they expect. Like, it may take 10 full turns to really get moving, but when it does, it’s over in a heartbeat. You often hear reviewers talk about games that build up to a tense, memorable endgame, but you won’t find that here. Clans does not really have much of a crescendo, or, if it does, it is very quick. I can see two opinions about this. On the one hand, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. My wife and I can finish a game in 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the ending may be unsatisfactory to those who like games that have that sense of growing tension.
Overall, I find Clans to be a very enjoyable experience. My usual strategy is to try to stay in in a close second place for most of the game, until the very end. I mentioned earlier that you get a point for completing a space, but I didn’t mention how significant this can be. I have found that the points that players get from completing spaces are often the swing that ultimately decides the outcome. This means it may be beneficial to complete spaces even if you don’t score, just because those bonus points add up, and, more than likely, if you don’t, you opponents will.
The game works with any player count, but it is certainly best with two. The back-and-forth thing really comes out in this game. It’s very fun to try to read your opponent’s moves, wondering if they moved that blue piece there because they are blue, or because they want you to think they’re blue.
Clans is not really the type of game that produces a lot of memorable moments; I don’t really have any “Remember that one game of Clans where I…” stories, but then, most abstract games don’t produce these moments. The game is (basically) themeless, but again, as an abstract, that’s not unusual.
I must say that, despite being almost 15 years old, the game still feels fresh. I have not seen many other games with this “worker clumping” mechanism, and it would be interesting for new designers to explore. If you like short abstract games, Clans is definitely worth a look.
Maharaja is a game that doesn’t get a lot of love, especially these days. At one point, it was in the BGG Top 100, but I think it has since been largely forgotten or replaced by newer games. Designed in 2004 by the dynamic duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, I would consider Maharaja to be a medium-heavy Euro game. The primary mechanics are area control, simultaneous action selection, and a bit of route building, and plays in about 90 minutes.
Maharaja is one of those games that is really not hard once you know how to play, but it has a lot of moving parts to it, which can make it difficult to learn, especially for inexperienced gamers. The goal of the game is simple: be the first to build your seven palaces in the various locales of India. To do this, players must build travel routes that connect cities (where most of the action happens) and villages (stops along the way to cities), build palaces in the cities, and try to have the most influence in each city, especially the one where the Maharaja is.
This brings me to a unique facet of the game: the scoring. This game has no points, but rather each turn is “scored” based on the influence in the city where the Maharaja is, with money being awarded to players in the city, based on who has the most, second most, etc. Each turn, he will move to a new city, with only that city scoring that round. This makes for some interesting strategy, because you need to think about where the Maharaja is currently, but also where he will be in coming rounds. The strategy goes even deeper since the players can potentially reroute his path to make them visit or not visit a certain city. It may be that the Maharaja visits single a city several times in one game, thus scoring the city again and again, or that he never visits a city at all.
The basic flow of play involves players simultaneously and secretly selecting two actions out of a possible 9. The actions usually involve building routes to villages and cities, building structures in cities, especially palaces (the ultimate goal of the game), taking income, switching play order, or changing the Maharaja’s path. I won’t go into extensive detail about these actions, but suffice it to say you have a number of interesting decisions to make in your action selection. You’ll constantly be finding yourself one dollar short, or having another player select a certain action that completely throws off your best-laid plans. Despite its nature as a Euro game, there is definitely some nastiness and player interaction to be found here, even if indirect.
Some people feel that this game has a runaway leader problem, specifically a first-player-always-wins problem. I’m not so sure, and I feel that it ultimately comes down to how everyone plays. Without a doubt, going first is awesome. In the first round, the first player to act does indeed seem to have an advantage, because they can go the Maharaja’s city before anyone can and build the best palace (I forgot to mention, the first player to build a palace in a city gets more influence there than someone who builds there later). Sure, all the other players can probably get there too, but it’s hard to achieve as much influence as the first player, since he/she gets the sweet bonus.
Thus, if everyone just rushes to the city where the Maharaja is, more than likely, the first player will have the most influence at round’s end, meaning they get the most money and are in a better position for the coming round. (Yes, a player may later spend an action to become the first player, but your actions are so limited that it may not seem worth it.) However, if players strategize more long-term, trying to get influence in the Maharaja’s next destination, this rich-get-richer thing doesn’t seem to be such an issue.
However, one major downside to the game is that there can come a point where a player basically has no chance to win. Because the winner is the first to build their final palace, you can think of a player’s built palaces as sort of victory points. Since building a palace is incredibly expensive, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build more than one per turn. What this can mean, then, is that if I have a round where I don’t get enough income and thus can’t build a palace, but all my opponents can, I am basically one “point” behind. When this happens, it can sometimes stay that way, where I am always behind by one point. In a recent 5-player game, we had a situation where two players were down to their last palace, meaning the game was very likely to end that turn, and the other three of us still had two palaces each. For the three of us that we’re behind, it didn’t feel like our turns mattered. Sure, we could do some kingmaking, but ultimately, there was basically no possibility of victory for us. When this happens, it can spoil the end-game for losing players, because it can feel like a lost cause.
Unlike many Euros where analysis paralysis can really slow a game down, it does not feel that way here. In Maharaja, all players are selecting their actions at the same time, so if there is AP going on (and there will be, especially later in the game), it’s going on for everyone at the same time.
The production quality is high. This is a pretty game. The pieces are nice, especially the glass palaces, the board is laid out in a very straightforward manner, and the player aids are helpful in answering questions. Some new players have felt that the dials on which players select actions can get a bit confusing, since the action symbols can be similar and easily mixed up. Not a huge issue, though, because once players figure out the game, the symbols become much easier to navigate.
Maharaja is a game I would recommend for gamers with some experience with deeper games, especially Euros. There have been novice gamers to whom I have tried to introduce the game, and they just couldn’t wrap their mind around all the symbols, actions, and pieces. I will say that the game does not overstay its welcome, and even with 5 new players, it shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes. (To put it in perspective, on average, this game takes about a half hour less than Power Grid.)
On the whole, I enjoy Maharaja. It is a clever game with some very interesting strategy. It is not without its problems, but it is definitely worth a try if you can find it.