Category Archives: Card Games

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)!

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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.]

Bang!

Here’s a quick, easy game, good for just about any group. Completely card-based, it is akin to the party game “Mafia,” in which players take on hidden roles, each with their own goals and abilities.

This Spaghetti Western by Da Vinci Games takes place in the Wild West, where 4 to 7 players represent spin-offs of famous cowboys and bandits. There are 3 to 4 roles, depending upon the number of players, and their goals are as follows:

Sheriff: Kill all the Outlaws and the Renegade.
Outlaws: Kill the Sheriff.
Renegade: Be the last one in play.
Deputy (only in large games): Help the Sheriff kill the Outlaws and Renegade.

The Sheriff’s identity is known to all, but all other character’s identities are known only to themselves. Thus, it is important for players to observe the strategies and actions of their fellow players to help identify who they might be. For example, the Sheriff would want to pay attention to other players, to narrow down who might be the Deputy(s), so as not to kill his teammates, while the Outlaws would want to figure out who each other are, so as to team up on the Sheriff.

The game progresses in a standard, turn-based manner, with players able to shoot other players, up to a certain distance away. This is one of my favorite parts of the game, as it actually deals with the physical distance between players at the table. In a game of 6 players, the two players on my immediate left and right are at a distance of 1 from me, the players next to them are at a distance of 2 from me, but only 1 from them, and the other player is at a distance of 3 from me. As the game progresses, certain cards will modify this distance, such as a gun with better range or a scope that allows me to see farther. On the other hand, there are certain cards such as the “Mustang” that can allow me to be farther from other players, while they stay the same distance from me, meaning, for example, that, if I am on a Mustang, I could potentially be able to shoot the player immediately to my right or left, but they would not be able to hit me. The “Dynamite” card is a nice touch, as it passes around the table like a deadly game of Hot Potato once put into play, where eventually, one unlucky player will end up going “boom.”

Each character also has his or her own special abilities that no one else has, such as being able to shoot multiple times per turn (the standard rule is that only one shot can be fired per player turn) or that it takes two “Missed” cards to dodge a shot from a certain character (the standard being that one “Missed” cancels out one “Bang!”).

Each role has its pros and cons. Being the Sheriff is a lot of fun, but it is very challenging, especially when no Deputies are in play, because everyone guns for you. Being the Renegade is also an interesting challenge, and arguably the hardest role to take on. Because the Renegade’s goal is to be the last one in play and the new Sheriff in town, he or she must plan attacks strategically. In the early stages of the game, the Renegade would want to assist the Sheriff (and Deputies, if applicable) to eliminate the Outlaws first, because if the Sheriff dies, regardless of who kills him or when he dies, the Outlaws win, even if they are all dead. Thus, the Renegade might even build up trust with the Sheriff, perhaps making him believe him to be a Deputy, before he turns around and backstabs him.

“Bang!” teaches children great lessons. For example, a “Beer” card increases a playershealth, and can even save their life if they would otherwise die from a fatal shot (and in one of the expansions, the “Tequila” card regains two life points – the harder the drink, the better you feel). Also, when an “Indians!” card is played, all players must play a “Bang!” card to return fire. Not to mention the fact that it is nearly impossible to get through a game of “Bang!” without SOMEONE making an innuendo out of the game’s title…

On the whole, it’s very fun. The replay value is very high, as there are tons of character/role combinations you can have. It’s very simple to learn, and a game rarely lasts over an hour. The biggest problem I have encountered is finding 4+ people to play a game. If you’re a gamer, you know how tough this can be. The game usually costs less than $20, and it’s well worth it. Also, check out the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch version, seen below!

“Bang!” overall rating: B

Munchkin

“Kill the monsters, steal the treasure, stab your buddy,” proclaims the game box. Sounds good.

Like the “Catan” family of board games, this game tends to be somewhat popular among the mainstream game crowd as well as the underground game crowd. Maybe that’s because it’s easy to learn. Maybe it’s because it’s a fairly fast play, usually going no more than an hour, give or take. Or maybe it’s because it’s just pure, silly fun.

“Munchkin” is probably Steve Jackson Games’ biggest hit. Pretty affordable, usually about $20-25 for the base game, it is a very versatile game in regards to customization of deck and theme. There are tons of expansions, spanning themes like pirates, cowboys, space travel, and even the mythos of the Lovecraftian beast Cthulhu.

Essentially, “Munchkin” is a game that makes fun of role playing games. I mean, don’t deny it, when you think of someone who plays “Dungeons and Dragons,” you know you think of a chubby, pimply-faced kid who is always drinking Red Bull and eating Cheetos. This very notion is the premise of the game.

The base game takes place in a dank old dungeon, where a band of brave explorers are searching for adventure. However, instead of giant, epic dragons and cave trolls, they find themselves face to face with giant floating noses, insurance salesmen (shudder), undead horses, and the legendary, dreaded… potted plant. Instead of battle axes, the heroes find themselves fighting with items like the “Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment,” a “Limburger and Anchovy Sandwich,” and the “Boots of Butt-Kicking.” The goal is to be the first to get to Level 10, which is done through killing monsters, helping opponents for a price, and shameless cheating.

It’s silly, to say the least. In my experience playing “Munchkin,” the object of the game is not as much to make sure you win as to make sure everyone else loses, if that makes sense. It is very much a game of opponent sabotage, ganging up on the highest-level player, and being all around obnoxious. But it’s oodles of fun. The illustrations are awesome, even the rules are funny and enjoyable (and that’s saying something).

The only gripe I have with “Munchkin” is its components. The cards are nice, the die is fine, but the rules say you need to keep track of eachplayer’s level, and they recommend using poker chips, pennies, or something similar to identify this. WHY COULDN’T THEY HAVE JUST INCLUDED SOMETHING? Little cardboard tokens? A lot of other Steve Jackson games have them! It might have cost them ten more cents per copy, but it would make the game seem complete. It seems wrong to buy a game and not be able to play with the included components, but instead to have to go scrounge for pennies. However, this is a small problem at best.

On the whole, “Munchkin” isn’t bad. It’s a pretty fast play, relatively easy to learn, and very, VERY silly. The expansions can really add to the game too, giving it completely new challenges and strategies.

It’s the kind of thing you play once in a blue moon, when you and your friends really need a good laugh. Don’t play it too much, though, because once the game stops being silly, it’s no longer fun.

Overall rating: B.

Roller Coaster Tycoon: The Board Game

Yes, this is actually a thing. Loosely based on Chris Sawyer’s famous computer game series of the same name, this game has its ups and downs (as well as twists, turns, and corkscrews).

Okay, okay, so it’s by Parker Brothers. But like I said, I don’t hate Parker Brothers. Not all all. I think they are a great company who has made many wonderful board games. The thing that bothers me is when people can’t enjoy other games because they assume all board games are like “Risk.”

That being said, let’s dive in. Imagine “Monopoly,” if it was actually fun and took 45 minutes to play. That’s “RCTBG”. The gameplay is very simple: dice-based movement with a property owning technique. Your goal is to get park guests to visit your rides and attractions, all the while keeping a steady budget and consistently buying new rides and attractions. There is also a nice auction mechanic to the game where players can bid on a ride(s), sometimes not even knowing what exactly they are bidding on. This keeps the game interesting, as risks must be taken to ensure success.

The pieces are the best part.  The board is nicely detailed, the money pieces look good, but the Whoa Belly and Roller Coasters take the cake. Literally three dimensional and very fun to assemble and admire, the completed park looks awesome. One problem I noticed, however, is that there is a lot of stuff. Lots of tokens, lots of chips, lots of cards; while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does make the set up of the game much longer than it needs to be. Also, you can’t drown your guests, charge for the bathroom, or take out a piece of roller coaster track and watch the train fly. Too bad.

All in all, it’s not a bad game. Short and sweet, nice looking, and pretty fun, “Roller Coaster Tycoon: The Board Game” is something of a diamond in the rough. It can appeal to a wide audience. Because it is easy to learn, quick to play, and based on a well-known computer game, non-gamers will most likely enjoy it as much as hard core gamers, a rare but wonderful trait for a board game.

Overall rating: B-. It’s not worth going out of your way to find it, but if you happen to come across a $7 copy at an entertainment exchange store like I did, it’s worth a try.

Pandemic

For my first game review, I thought I’d discuss one of my personal favorites, a fairly new game: Z-Man’s “Pandemic.” This 2-4 player game takes about an hour, maybe less. The basic premise is this: four deadly diseases have broken out across the globe, and it is up to you, a team of experts to solve the crisis before the viruses wipe out all of humanity. No pressure.

One of my favorite aspects about this game is  its cooperative play. In “Pandemic,” all the players are on a team, a rare mechanic for a board game. Players take turns taking up to four actions, which can consist of movement, treating infected cities, building research stations at which cures can be found, sharing knowledge with teammates, and officially curing a disease. The trick is that cities are constantly getting infected as the diseases spread and the rates of infection grow. And then there’s the dreaded “Epidemic” card…

When a player draws an “Epidemic” card, one city gets hit particularly hard. This can lead to outbreaks, in which one city overflows with disease victims and infects all surrounding cities, sometimes even beginning nasty chain reactions that can quickly ravage a whole continent.

Sweet.

There are three ways to lose “Pandemic:”

1) Players run out of “Resource Cards,” used to help in transportation and curing diseases
2) Eight outbreaks occur, leaving the world utterly devastated
3) All the disease markers of one color are on the board, meaning a specific disease has expanded beyond control.

The game ends in victory for the players if all four diseases have been cured before any of the above conditions are met. This makes “Pandemic” a tricky game. Players need to really work together and communicate amongst themselves to strategize a way to beat the diseases before it’s too late.

The cooperative mechanic of the game is very nice. Yes, I understand that part of the fun of a board game is pwning your oppwnents, but there is certainly something to be said for the element of teamwork. (If you MUST pwn other players, check out the expansion: “Pandemic: On the Brink.”)

The game is very simple to learn. Whether or not you are familiar with board games, “Pandemic” can be learned in under 10 minutes. The setup time is minimal, usually about 5 minutes. The rulebook is short and sweet, and the included pieces are very nice. Sometimes, the pawns can be a little too big for the city markers on the board, especially if two or more pawns are in one city, but this is a small problem at best.

One of the best parts of “Pandemic,” in my opinion, is the intensity of the game. While very lightweight and easy to learn, players get very into it, nervously awaiting the next “Epidemic” or trying to decide how to best prevent future outbreaks.

My favorite part of the game is coming up with specifically what the diseases are, as the rulebook never says. So far, here are my conlusions:

Red – Asian Bird Flu
Black – The Black Plague (obviously)
Yellow – Yellow Fever (duh)

And, my personal favorite:

Blue – Bieber Fever

“Pandemic” overall rating: A. If you’ve never played it, it’s worth a try. (Just don’t get infected by this kid…)