Author Archive: juggler5

Smart Mouth: An Underrated Word Game

Word games tend to get a bad rap. Among hobby board games, there are a few word games that stand out, like Codenames, Paperback, and, to a lesser extent, Konexi, but generally, they aren’t very well-loved. This may be the reason Smart Mouth seems to have slipped under people’s radar.

Smart Mouth (Binary Arts, 2001) is a lightning-fast word game that packs more of a punch than you might expect. Inside the box is a little device that spits out two letters a time (say, E and H). This device IS the game, and players race to think of a word that starts with the first letter and ends with the second letter (“enough” or “etch” would be valid words in this example). The first person to shout out a valid word gets a point, and the player with the most points at the end wins.

We usually play where the word must be at least four letters, no proper nouns, but you can make the rules whatever you want. You can play where place names are allowed, or the word must be at least five, or even six letters, etc. In this way, it’s slightly customizable. If you’re playing with younger kids, you could give them a handicap, if necessary.

As much as I like Smart Mouth, it is not perfect. The game does not include the letters F, I, J, Q, U, V, X, or Z. This feels like a major downside to me. Yes, some of these letters would present a greater challenge, but that’s exactly why I’d want them in the game. Since not many words begin with X or end with Q, the designer would have to ensure that Q is only ever a first letter, and X is only ever a last letter, but this wouldn’t be difficult at all. Additionally, the box is way too big for what it is. The game could honestly fit in a box about a third it’s actual size. If you find this game, you might want to just chuck the box altogether.

Smart Mouth can literally be explained in five seconds and played in five minutes. It’s the kind of game you’ll play four or five times in a row, and there’s really no limit to the amount of players it can accommodate. In my review of Konexi, I described it as a one-trick pony. It’s a lot of fun that first time you play it, but after that, you’re left with little desire to play it again. Smart Mouth has much more replay value. Since Binary Arts is somewhat-mainstream, I suspect Smart Mouth might show up at thrift stores from time to time. I’m not sure there is enough “game” in it to warrant spending $15-20, but if you see it for 99¢ at Goodwill, I’d definitely say give it a try.

[As an aside, 16 years after its initial release, I can easily see Smart Mouth being made into a local-multiplayer app (preferably with all 26 letters included!). Get on that, programmers!]

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I’m Nobs Over Heels for Cribbage

This isn’t going to be a review, per se; I love cribbage, it’s one of the greatest games ever made. It also won’t be an explanation of how cribbage works, as there are already plenty of those around. Rather, this will be more about WHY I love cribbage.

Cribbage is a classic card game for two to four players (though it’s absolutely best with two). I learned to play it at summer camp many years ago, and since then, I have probably clocked a thousand rounds of it. It is a quick, engaging card game just dripping with subtle strategy. The more you play it, the more you realize how much deeper the rabbit hole goes.

Cribbage is one of those games that gets better the more you play it. I have taught numerous people how to play cribbage, and have seen a dramatic increase in understanding and enjoyment the more they played. In a new player’s first game, they may struggle just to remember all the rules. In their second game, they’ll be a bit more comfortable with how everything works, and perhaps play a little better. By their fifth game, they’ll start to see the strategies in pegging and discarding to the crib. By their tenth game, they’ll begin to read their opponent based on how they peg. By their 20th game, they’ll be an expert at recognizing unusual 15’s, and they’ll be calculating odds of getting a particular cut card. By their 50th game, they’ll have a story about when they double-skunked someone. And so on, and so on. Cribbage just keeps revealing its intricacies the more you play.

One aspect of cribbage that might turn some people off is the luck factor. While there is a world of strategic depth to the game, the skill curve is mitigated by the randomness of the cards. Sometimes you just don’t get good hands all game. Sometimes you really, really need that sweet cut card, and it doesn’t come (but it always seems to come for your opponent, doesn’t it?!).

To me, though, this inherent luck element makes the game better. It means a newbie can conceivably hold their own against an experienced player. Early on in my wife’s cribbage career, the stars aligned and she double-skunked me. It was brutal, and it made it even worse is that she was still relatively new to the game. She just got all the right cards, and I didn’t. But this made her feel like she could play competitively (and, to this day, she won’t let me live it down). It made her want to keep playing. Even though she was only just beginning to explore the subtleties of cribbage, she still managed to destroy me, a seasoned veteran. This very facet of cribbage is the reason I don’t care much for chess or Go; in those games, the newbie will almost never beat the veteran. In cribbage, perhaps the veteran will win more often than not, but the rookie still usually has a fighting chance.

I don’t mean to make it sound like one can’t be “good” at cribbage, or that one’s strategies don’t ultimately matter. They absolutely do. Knowing how to peg, knowing what cards to throw to a crib, and knowing when to take chances are absolutely essential to playing cribbage well. But at the end of the day, luck is a factor, and it can influence the game’s outcome.

Cribbage games often come down to the wire. I can’t tell you how many times the score has been 118-119, and the entire game hinges on a pegging battle of wits. This tension keeps the game exciting. Yes, it’s fun to skunk someone, but I much prefer those skin-of-your-teeth wins, against all odds, the ones you talk about long after the fact.

To me, cribbage is near-perfection. It is the perfect mix of luck and skill. It’s accessible to new players, but rewards those who dig deeper. It asks players to think strategically and take calculated risks. If you’ve never played it, I’d highly encourage you to check it out. If you don’t like it right away, give it another try; you might like it more the second time. I wrote some companion articles about cribbage strategy on BoardGameGeek, if you’re interested.

Thanks for reading, and may all your hands be 29’s (unless you’re playing against me, in which case may all your hands be 19’s)!

Black Fleet (or If Survive: Escape from Atlantis Hasn’t Already Lost You All Your Friends)

CONCLUSION:

While my game group really enjoys Black Fleet, I can see how some folks might not like it as much. Black Fleet is a light, tactical game that, to me, feels streamlined in all the right ways. It is simple and intuitive to learn, quick to play, and it provides some opportunities for lighthearted nastiness. There is not much in the way of strategic variety; the goal is always to attack others and avoid being attacked yourself. It has a very “take-that” feel to it, but if a player gets attacked and loses a ship, it comes right back into the game. Thus, players never feel like they’re out of the running or that the game is a lost cause. They can be competitive up until the very end. There may be a bit of a runaway leader problem, but it’s not game-breaking. The game’s production is lovely, and its overall feel reminds me of Survive: Escape from Atlantis. I recommend this game for groups that enjoy lighter “take-that” games!

REVIEW:

Black Fleet is a lightweight pirate game for 3 or 4 players. It takes five minutes to teach, and can be played in about 45 minutes. Each player begins with four cards in front of them, face-down, and a fifth card which, when flipped, signals the end of the game and often results in that player winning. The first four cards each grant the player a special ability when purchased. Players’ ultimate goal is to collect enough doubloons (money) to flip all of these cards over, and to be the richest player when their fifth card is turned over.

Each player controls two ships: a pirate ship and a merchant ship. There are also two navy ships that are not controlled by any one player, but can be moved by each player on their turn. On a player’s turn, they play one of two the movement cards in their hand and move their two ships and one navy ship according to the card they chose. For example, a card might let a player move their pirate ship three spaces, their merchant ship five spaces, and the yellow navy ship one space. In the order of their choosing, the active player then moves these three ships around the board up to the listed number of spaces. Each ship has its own “objective” of sorts:

The merchant ship wants to get goods cubes from one port to another port. This requires traversing from one edge of the board to another. When a merchant ship delivers goods cubes (one to three of them, depending upon how well their trip went), they will score two or three money per cube. Two doubloons are awarded for shorter trips, three doubloons for longer trips.
The pirate ship’s goal is to steal cubes from merchant ships and avoid the navy. If a pirate ship moves adjacent to another player’s merchant, they can steal one goods cubes from that ship. This also earns that player two doubloons. On a future turn, they can then attempt to bury the treasure to get extra doubloons.

The navy ships want to sink pirates. If a navy ship moves adjacent to a pirate, they sink the pirate ship, scoring two doubloons for the active player, and removing any goods the pirate was carrying. The sunk pirate ship can come back into play on its owner’s next turn.

That’s pretty much it. There are special ability cards you can pick up along the way, which can modify ships’ movement, score extra doubloons, move other player’s’ ships, etc. these serve to keep the game interesting. On a player’s turn, if they have enough doubloons to purchase one of the five cards in front of them, they may do so (of course, the card that triggers the end game must be purchased only after all the other four have been flipped).

This is one thing I really like about Black Fleet: all four of the main cards in front of a player are unique. When one is purchased and flipped, it grants that player a permanent ability. For example, one card might give me extra doubloons for a delivery, allow me to attack a pirate ship with one of my ships, etc. they break the rules a little, and every game, your combination of four card will be different. While none of these ability cards will radically change the feel of the game, they make for some nice variation.

With that said, they can also create a runaway leader issue. Since these ability cards cost money to purchase, if a player gets a a lot of money early on, they will be able to buy one of these cards sooner, thus powering them up sooner and making it easier for them to get more money and buy more cards. This doesn’t happen every time, but it can. I wish they game included the ability to steal money directly from other player’s, rather than having to take newly-gained money from the bank. This would make the game much more cutthroat, of course, but it would allow people to do something about a runaway leader.

I’ll be honest, there isn’t much “game” in Black Fleet, but it is fun. It’s really light and tactical, and it’s very nasty. To win the game, you need money, and to get money, you want to attack others while not letting them attack you. This brings up another of the game’s strengths. When a ship is sunk, either a pirate ship being sunk by the navy, or a merchant ship being sunk by pirates, the owner of the sunken ships gets their vessel back on their next turn. Thus, you may lose a ship (Correction: You WILL lose a ship. Or ten.), but you’ll get it right back. Thus, you never feel like you’re out of the game. Just temporarily set back.

I like this aspect more than, say Survive: Escape from Atlantis. In that game, if all your pieces drown and/or make it to land, you’re still technically in the game, but you lose that sense of agency. For all intents and purposes, your game is done. Now it’s just a matter of getting revenge on your wife for DROWNING YOUR 4, 5, AND 6-VALUE PIECES ALL AT ONCE, AMANDA!!! (My apologies. I’m still bitter about that.) In Black Fleet, you are in the game until the end. It’s a nasty game, but not the kind that would elicit a table-flip.

Speaking of Survive, that is the game I would compare to Black Fleet. If you like Survive, I think you’ll like Black Fleet. They feel similar. They both give you the ability to spite your friends, troll your enemies, and have a hilarious time doing so. Black Fleet is a nice introduction to the pick-up-and-deliver genre, and I could definitely see it being someone’s gateway game.

Also, I can’t write a review of this game without mentioning its spectacular production. It looks absolutely beautiful. Awesome metal coins, highly-detailed plastic ships, great artwork, even a thematic skull-and-crossbones insert… just, yeah. It looks great.
I recommend Black Fleet for folks who like some lighthearted “take-that.” It’s quick to learn, easy to play, and, most importantly, a lot of fun.

Dead of Winter Comic Book Review (Issue #1)

Until today, I had never bought or read anything from comic publisher Oni Press. I am a card-carrying comic geek, but my reading is usually limited to Marvel and a few other small time publishers.

Comic collecting has always been a big part of my life, but in the last 5-10 years, it has become my secondary hobby, my primary being board games. I have amassed a treasure trove of board games, one of my absolute favorites being Dead of Winter. This smash-hit game is basically “The Walking Dead” in a box. (In fact, it captures the flavor of TWD substantially better than any officially-licensed TWD board game.)

In Dead of Winter, players represent survivors, holed up at a makeshift colony, fighting to withstand the zombie apocalypse and the cruel, unforgiving winter. Players need to work together to win the game, but each player also has their own, individual objective, which is kept secret from the other people. Oh yeah, and one of them might be a traitor. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say the game is amazing. Lots of difficult decisions, bluffing, deception, and begrudging cooperation. If you’re interested in exploring tabletop games, Dead of Winter is one of the essentials.

This week, Oni Press launched the first issue of their comic book adaptation of Dead of Winter. It was an instabuy for me, as I was very curious to see what they’d do with the IP. This is not the first time a board game has been adapted to comics; in just the last couple years, there have been several others, including Clue and Munchkin, another popular “hobby” game?

So how is the comic?

The art on issue #1 is nice. The cover really pops, and the interior visuals are well-rendered, if a bit cartoonish. The inside cover is laid out very much like the board game’s rule book, helping to tie it into the overall feeling of the Dead of Winter universe. The visuals of zombie being killed are brutal and in-your-face, but they are effective.

The story was perhaps a bit slow to get going, but it was certainly cohesive, with a definite scene structure. It felt like a sort of expository setup for a bigger storyline. If you’ve played the game, you’ll recognize most of the characters in the story. Gabriel Diaz, Arthur Thurston, Annaleigh Chan, and everybody’s favorite character, Sparky the Super Dog (also on the cover). It was interesting to get a brief glimpse of a Sparky’s history. In a one-page sequence, we flash back to a clip from the TV show that made Sparky famous. The artist uses bright, vibrant colors to create a whimsical, nostalgic feel, a staggering contrast to the drab color palette of the rest of the story. The use of a side-by-side panel structure to end the flashback and bring us back to the present is jarring and memorable.

The Dead of Winter IP borrows heavily from The Walking Dead. That means this is a comic based on a board game based on Walking Dead. To readers who aren’t familiar with the source material, I can see Dead of Winter feeling like an uninspired TWD knockoff. And in some ways, it is. But if you have played the game and know the characters, the comic’s story is that much better. It’s fun to see characters you know and love come to life in a new way.

Additionally, there is at least one in-joke, seen below:

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(Without spoiling too much, though, it seems this may turn out to be more than just an in-joke. It may actually become a story point.)

Overall, the first issue of Dead of Winter was enjoyable. I’m not sure it will appeal to people who haven’t played the game, but Sparky the badass zombie-killing dog may just pique their curiosity. The end of the first issue left me interested to see what will happen next, and I look forward to picking up issue #2.

[As a side note, I was deeply disappointed that Oni Press didn’t include a promo card for the Dead of Winter game in the comic. This feels like a huge missed opportunity. Considering that the Munchkin comics each came with a promo card and still maintained a $3.99 cover price, I feel like Oni could have easily done the same. It would have appealed to those who had played Dead of Winter, because they would have a new promo card to use in the game, and for those who hadn’t played it, it might be an incentive for them to try it out.]

Comparative Review: Pueblo vs. Torres

Torres has been in my Top 10 favorite games since the first time I played it. I truly believe it to be one of the best games ever designed. It is a tense, tactical battle of wits from start to finish. Chock-full of tough strategic decisions, it is an absolute masterpiece.

So when I first heard about Pueblo, it shot to the top of my want list. Another beautiful, 3D abstract from the genius minds of Kramer and Kiesling? I had to have it. I recently acquired this game, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations.

Except for the fact that it feels nothing like Torres.

Don’t get me wrong, Pueblo is a wonderful game. It’s one of those elegantly simple, yet deceptively tricky games. It’s beautiful to look at, intriguing to play, and as clever as you’d expect a K&K game to be. It’s just not what I expected.

Torres is an incredibly strategic game. At every turn, you are faced with grueling decisions about how to spend your actions. The game makes you think not only about how to maximize your own turn, but also to ensure that other players can’t reap the benefits of your hard work. It has this back-and-forth nature, where you’re constantly thinking, “If I do move X, my opponent will probably respond with move Y, which I could then counter with move Z.” It’s almost chess-like in that regard. There are a plethora of viable strategies, but it is very tactical, as you must be constantly responding to your opponents’ moves.

Pueblo certainly has interesting decisions, but they are much more straightforward. This is probably because, unlike Torres, which has a variety of different actions to choose from, in Pueblo, you must do the same two things every turn: place a block and move the chief pawn. By no means is this as easy as it sounds, though, the decisions are just more contained. There are dozens of locations and positions in which to place your block, which forces you to really think about what the best (read: least awful) placement is. You must weigh your options, sometimes placing a block in an undesirable location to avoid having to place it in an even worse one. But when all is said and done, all you’re doing is placing a block and moving the chief pawn.

Torres has many more options. The game has surprising depth, but this comes at the cost of a higher barrier of entry for new players. It is not overly complex, per se, but it isn’t simple either. There are a lot of moving parts, so it takes a bit to “click.” New players might not grasp the intricacies of the strategy right away. Once you start to understand what’s going on, though, you begin to realize how much control you have. At any given time, you have multiple, viable options, and part of the fun is determining how to maximize your measly five actions. Early on in a game of Pueblo, there are usually moves that are clearly optimal. The decisions become weightier as the game goes on, so in that sense, Pueblo has a nice strategy crescendo.

It’s hard to explain, but in Torres, it feels like nothing is ever impossible. You might be positive that you executed the most brilliant move ever, and there’s no way your opponents can mess with you, but clever, unforeseen plays happen all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the diagonal move card or the “jump up two levels” card change the entire game. One perfectly-timed play can be devastating, and I love that. As much as I enjoy Pueblo, I have never gotten this same experience from it. 

Both games can suffer from AP-induced downtime, but Torres much more so. As it is, Torres has more actions to choose from, so it makes sense that turns would take longer, but by the end of the game, when there are a million things happening on the board, you might as well take a shower and go grocery shopping, because it won’t be your turn for an hour (and that’s only a slight exaggeration). Pueblo can slow down a bit near the end, but not to the point where it grinds to a halt. There is more riding on your later decisions, but even the most AP-prone people shouldn’t take THAT long.

A big plus for Pueblo is that it’s quick to teach and quick to play. Even with four players, box-to-box time is 30 to 40 minutes. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. Torres usually clocks in around 75-90 minutes, which isn’t so bad, but it’s a bit more of a commitment.

When compared side-by-side, Torres and Pueblo are both exceptional. They just feel classic and timeless. I would say Torres provides a more rewarding experience, but players must invest more time and mental energy. Pueblo is more accessible, but it still provides a very interesting puzzle. After I’ve play Torres, I find myself thinking about the game long afterward. I think about what I could have done differently, how amazing it was when I had the perfect move at the perfect moment, how angry I was when my opponent took the tower that I built, that kind of thing. I like when games stay with you like this. As much as I like Pueblo, it doesn’t provide that same experience. When the game is done, that’s that.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think it depends what you’re looking for out of the gaming experience. Pueblo feels more like a puzzle, while Torres feels more like a hybrid abstract-Euro. Torres won the Spiel des Jahres at a time when it seemed like the selection committee favored meatier games (El Grande, Torres), stuff that today might be more Kennerspiel fodder. If you like puzzle-y games like Dimension, Ricochet Robots, and Karuba, or if you’re just interested in exploring abstract games, Pueblo might be more your style. If you gravitate more toward heavier, thinkier games like El Grande, Pillars of the Earth, and Maharaja, I’d say go for Torres.

I really do love both of these games. They are amazing abstracts that will be permanently staying in my collection. You don’t even have to like abstract games to enjoy them; I’m not usually a fan of abstracts, but these are something special. I’d encourage you to try both of them.

Have fun!!!

Comparison: Can’t Stop vs. Excape

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.

SCALABILITY:

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.

INTERACTION:

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.

STRATEGY:

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!

Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor

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.

Fuse, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Find a Game That Isn’t Such a Bomb

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, A Totally Totemic Time!

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:

Red

Blue

Yellow

Brown

Gray

Pink

Orange

Green

Purple

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:

Orange

Pink

Green

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: Because Spelling Things Wrong is Cool

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!