Konexi: The Love Child of Scrabble and Jenga

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.

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Colt Express

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!

Venture

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.

PROS:

– 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.

CONS:

– 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!

Clans

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: The Game of Palace Building in India

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.

Sleuth vs. Code 777

Sleuth and Code 777 are two classic deduction games from some of the greatest designers of the past. Let me start by spoiling the review and saying that both of these game are fantastic, and they still hold up very well today.

Sleuth (Sid Sackson, 1971) is a card game where players are trying to figure out one card that has been pulled from the deck by asking each other questions about cards in their hand. Code 777 (Alex Randolph and Robert Abbott, 1985) is a game where players are trying to identify 3 numbers in front of them that everyone except them can see, by reading into clues given by others. Both games play a lot like logic puzzles, where you are deducing and eliminating possible answers based on partial information.

For this review, I will be comparing and contrasting the games, as well as discussing their individual strengths and weaknesses.

To begin, both games are fairly short, usually 30-45 minutes. Sleuth is listed as a 3-7 player game, which baffles me. The game is absolutely perfect with 4 players, and I really wouldn’t want to play with any other number. You could maybe talk me into a 5-player game, but that would be my absolute maximum. Any more than 5 and my brain might explode. Code 777 is a 3-5 player game, but it, too, is definitely best with 4. 3 or 5 is fine, but 4 is the sweet spot.

As with most deduction games, both games require copious amounts of note-taking, and this is a place where both games suffer: the paper pads included in the games are awful. Just awful. Sleuth’s is awful because it’s not nearly big enough for how much you need to write. I’ve played the Face2Face Games and the Eagle-Gryphon editions, and both notepads are useless. We always print out full 8.5×11 sheets from the Geek to use. Code 777’s notepad (specifically, I’m referring to the one from the Stronghold 25th Anniversary edition, which is the one I have), is too small, doesn’t have the questions listed on the pages (which is a big problem), and is not color coordinated (another big problem). Ugh. Anyway, once you throw away the stupid notepads, both games really shine.

At the beginning of Sleuth, you remove one card from a deck of 36. Each card is unique, with three characteristics: color (R/Y/G/B), number (1/2/3), and gemstone type (Diamond/Pearl/Opal). Once this card has been removed, you deal out the remaining cards to players, putting any remainders in the middle for all to see. Right off the bat, this means you have a number of cards you can eliminate as potential answers, because if they’re in your hand, clearly they are not the card that was removed at the start. Players keep track of notes, suspicions, and deductions on a 36-square grid, corresponding to the deck.

Once these cards have been dealt out, players receive four cards from a separate deck, which dictate which questions they can ask other players about their hands. Each card will have either one or two characteristics they can ask about. For example, I may have a card that allows me to ask another player how many yellow cards they have (one characteristic), and another card that allows me to ask how many blue diamonds they have (two characteristics). On a player’s turn, she selects one of her four question cards to ask an opponent. For example, she might ask me “How many pearl pairs do you have?” I must then look at my hand and answer aloud, thereby giving everyone some information.

Here’s where the game gets interesting. If you ask a player a one-characteristic question, they must answer aloud for all to hear, so you simply get the number of that type of card in their hand. However, if you ask them a two-characteristic question, they must answer aloud, and show you (and you only) all the corresponding cards. This means that all players get to know how many of X card are in their hand, but you actually get the advantage of seeing specifically which ones they are.

Right off the bat, this sounds like the two-characteristic cards are overpowered. That’s what I thought, too, for the first few times I played. What you’ll realize, though, is that as the game goes on, the single-characteristic question cards become more and more useful. Suppose I have deduced the location of 8 out of the 9 red cards, and I’m trying to figure out where that last one is. I have figured out that Player A has at least two 2 red cards in their hand, but there are still a few cards of theirs I don’t know. On my turn, I ask Player A how many red cards they have, and they say “3”. Boom, there is the last red card. Even though they don’t have to show to me the cards since the question was only one characteristic, I know what they all are now.

Play continues like this until one player guesses the correct answer. If a player guesses incorrectly, they are out of the game.

Code 777 is very similar, but it sort of works the opposite way; on a player’s turn, they are giving information rather than receiving it. At the start, each player receives 3 numbered tiles, turned such that everyone except them can see what they are. There are 28 total tiles, numbered 1-7, broken down into a pyramid (i.e. one 1, two 2’s, three 3’s, etc.). Each tile is colored with one of 7 colors, broken down equally, so that there are four tiles of each color. The goal is to correctly guess your numbers correctly three times.

On a player’s turn, they flip the top card of the question deck and answer the question aloud, based on what they can see on their opponent’s tile racks. For example, on my turn, my question might be “On how many racks is the sum of the tiles 18 or more?” I then look at each of my opponents’ tile racks and answer aloud. If I say that I see one rack with sum 18+, one of my opponents is going to look around at everyone else’s tiles and realize that they don’t see any racks with that sum. That means it is their rack with an 18+ sum. Each question is different, and they may refer to colors, numbers, sums, etc. For example:

“Do you see more Yellow 7’s or more Blue 7’s?”

“On how many racks are the tiles all even or all odd?”

“How many colors do you see?”

When a player believes she knows her numbers, she can guess them. When a player makes a guess, they are told whether they are correct (1 point) or incorrect, and they get a new tile rack. The first player to get 3 points wins.

Sleuth and Code 777 have a lot in common. Both games require a strong sense of deductive reasoning. They both take a few games before players will really “get” the game. Don’t get me wrong, both games are incredibly simple and easy to learn, but to have a true grasp on the strategy can take a few plays. For example, the first few times I played Sleuth, I was taking note of every piece of information I heard. “Amanda has two blue diamonds.” “John has 4 yellows.” “Erin has one opal solitaire.” What I hadn’t yet realized was that I could deduce more based on what players didn’t have.

For example, suppose I ask my opponent how many blue pearls they have, and they tell me they have one (and they have to show me what it is). They show me a blue pearl pair. I can check that off my sheet since I saw it, but I can also deduce that that player does not have the other two blue pearl cards, because if they did, they would have had to show them to me.

This is the kind of strategy that develops more you play. At first, you might not see all the intricacies these games have to offer. To be honest, in both cases, part of the fun is figuring out your own system. What style of notation works for you? BGG has numerous downloadable sheets for Code 777, with different formats and layouts. When you play, I’d recommend trying several different sheets. For example, my wife likes the sheet with every single question laid out on it, but I prefer a much more free-form style of note-taking. Whatever works for you is right, and it’s fun to figure out your preferred play style.

In both games, mistakes are deadly. I always warn new players that logic leaps are quite risky; if you mark off the wrong thing, your entire game can fall apart. This can be frustrating for newbies, so always recommend that players play these games a few times before they make a judgment call.

Comparing the relative difficulty of these two games is tough, but I’ll try. In Sleuth, every question is answered the same way, with a number. One person asks how many of something another player has, and that player gives an answer. Pretty simple. Code 777’s questions come in all flavors. It’s hard to describe exactly why Code 777 is harder if you haven’t played it, but I’ll attempt to illustrate by giving you an example of how my thought process works in each game:

In Sleuth, my thought process might go:

“Let’s see, Amanda said she has two opals. I know that at least one of them is blue, because I saw it when I asked about her opal pairs. She also said that she has three red cards, and I know two of them. I wonder if the other one is a red opal? Or could it be another blue opal? She said she has two solitaries, and I know what they both are, so I know it’s not the blue opal solitaire, but maybe it could be the blue opal cluster?”

In Code 777, my thought process might go:

“Ok, I know one of my numbers is a 7. John said he saw only one rack with a sum of 18 or higher, and I can see that that rack belongs to Erin, not me. So I know my other two numbers can’t total more than 10. I have seen all the four of the 4’s already this round, so I know I don’t have one. I see one of the 2’s on John’s rack, so I could have the other one. Oh wait, Amanda just said that one of the racks is all even or all odd. John and Erin both have evens and odds, so it must be my tile rack she’s referring to. So I guess I don’t have a 2. Come to think of it, that also means I don’t have any 6’s!”
And so on and so on.

Sleuth is a brain burner, Code 777 is a brain exploder (to me, at least). Without a doubt, between the two, Code 777 is the harder game. If you’re new to deduction games, I would definitely advise that you start with Sleuth. Even though it has a bit of a learning curve, it generally seems more accessible.

Since this review is getting long, I’ll wrap it up. Let me start by reiterating that both of these games are great. Like, really great. If you can get them both, I would highly recommend it. However, if you can only get one, I have to recommend Sleuth. It is truly one of my all-time favorites. To me, Sleuth is the textbook definition of elegance in a game. It just feels… pure. It’s so rewarding when you have that moment of clarity, when you realize, “John has the green pearl pair, which means that he can’t have the yellow pearl pair. And if he doesn’t have it, then that means it must be in Amanda’s hand, which also means that she has the red diamond solitaire. And if she has that, then Erin must have the red diamond cluster.” Bam, bam, bam. One after another, you just check them off, all because of that one tiny piece of information you needed.

Code 777 is definitely a step up. It’s more mentally demanding. While there may be those same moments of clarity, they never seem as exciting for some reason. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just never feel the same stroke of genius I feel in Sleuth. In Code 777, when you’re getting a clue from someone else, you have to remember that they can’t see their own tiles. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that because you can see them, and you might end up making a mistake because you included their tiles in your analysis of the clue. It’s also pretty frustrating if you guess your numbers incorrectly, because not only are you back at square one, but you get a new set of tiles, meaning your opponents get even more information to work with. In Sleuth, by the time someone is ready to guess, the game is usually almost over, so even if they guess wrong, they shouldn’t be out for too long. In Code 777, if you guess even one set of numbers wrong, you can get so far behind that you’re playing catch-up the whole game, with little hope of winning.

All that being said, though, these games are both fantastic, and definitely good additions to any collection. Thank you for reading, and I hope this was helpful!

Wok Star: A Tasty Game with a Nice Crunch to It

My first impression of Wok Star was seeing if on the shelf at my local game store. As an active BoardGameGeek user, I was surprised that I hadn’t at least heard of it. I figured it must have just flown under my radar. I was amused by the titular play on words, so I took it off the shelf and looked at it. After rolling my eyes at the totally-not-stereotypical box art, I asked the store manager what he knew about it. He said it was a real-time, cooperative game, sort of a mix between Wasabi and Escape: The Curse of the Temple. I decided to pass, but a few months later, I saw a copy for $10 in an auction, and I pulled the trigger.

Wok Star is a game for 1-4 players, and it plays in 30-45 minutes. The premise is that the players have just opened a Chinese restaurant, and in order to stay open, they have to complete a barrage of orders and manage ingredients, all under the ever-present stress of a ticking timer.
The components are (mostly) high quality. The cards are easily readable with stylized artwork. The ingredient tokens are nice and chunky, with nice graphics on them. The board is simple, but functional (basically all its used for is keeping track of how much of each ingredient you have).

The biggest qualm with the components is the electronic ticking timer. This was almost a great component. Almost. The timer can be set to count down 15, 20, or 30 seconds, depending upon how hard you want the game to be. It looks great, but its fatal flaw is that it is not nearly loud enough. You have to understand that this game gets very chaotic, with lots of yelling and activity. This means that a quiet, ticking timer simply doesn’t work. Moreover, the tempo of its ticks doesn’t increase as it gets closer to the end, so it’s hard to keep track of relatively how much time you have left. And no, you can’t simply count the ticks; there is waaay too much else going on. It’s awesome that Game Salute decided to put this component in the game, and it probably wasn’t cheap to produce. But if they were already going invest in making this timer, they should have put forth a little extra effort to make it really work. However, the saving grace here is that there is a great iOS Wok Star Timer app. Yes, it’s obnoxious that the physical timer doesn’t work well, and you shouldn’t have to download an app just to play the game, but this is a satisfactory solution to a silly problem. (As a side note, there should have been a 25-second option. Just saying.)

Anyway, on to the gameplay. The game is pretty simple. Your restaurant start with 3 basic recipes. Each recipe card shows the ingredient requirements to make it. For example, Fried Rice uses 1 Egg ingredient and 1 Onion ingredient. To make a recipe, you just move the necessary ingredient tokens down one space on the board. You can replenish the supply of ingredients using your dice, which are rolled at the beginning of the round. Basically, each player oversees a few ingredients. For example, I might be in charge of Pork and Bok Choy/Bamboo. Thus, if we run out of Pork, any player can place dice on my card to replenish the supply.

The way this works is neat. Each ingredient card will list 3 dice results that can replenish it. The first one is always wild, meaning any die result gets you the lowest number of that ingredient (initially 1). The second requires a specific die value, but yields more of that ingredient (initially 2). The third result varies, but is usually something like “2 dice that add up to 7” or “2 evens.” These yield the most of that ingredient (initially 3).

You are incentivized to place your own dice on your own ingredient cards, because it will make you extra money at the end of the round, but often, you will need to place them on other players’ cards, to generate enough ingredients to make a tricky recipe.

At the end of each round, you can upgrade existing ingredient cards to make them yield more, and/or buy new recipes. These are both very necessary to victory, but sometimes you have to make interesting decisions about which ingredient to upgrade, or which recipe to buy.

(There are several aspects of the game I’m glossing over, such as the event cards, individual player powers, penalties for failing to complete an order etc., but this review is just to give you a feel for the game.)

Wok Star is a grossly underrated game. The fact that it’s not even in the top 1,000 games on BGG boggles my mind. I guess I understand a little bit; the first print run was small, and the second was from a company that many gamers don’t like, one with a reputation for poor customer service. On top of that, the questionable artwork, the real-time nature of the game, the problems with the timer, and the failed Kickstarter for the 3rd edition probably turned a lot of people off to it.

I have to say, though, despite all of that (and yes, I realize that I’m “despite-ing” a lot here), Wok Star is just a damn fun time. In my experience, real-time games are very hit or miss, but the mechanic really works here. In fact, it’s utterly central to the enjoyment of the game. Much like Space Alert or Escape, the fun lies in the sheer chaos of the game. Wok Star is very easy to teach. New players should understand it in a matter of minutes. When I’m teaching the game, I do a practice round without the timer, just to introduce the mechanics and get the players accustomed to the flow of play. But after that round, it’s go time.

Understanding that Wok Star is not perfect, it deserves a second look. It is a great family game, honestly one of the best in recent memory. The game scales very well. I find it is fun with any number of players. As much as I like Escape, I believe I like Wok Star even more.

Get some friends together, order Chinese takeout, and give it a try!

3 Seeds: Reap Where You Sow

I had the pleasure of playing 3 Seeds with designer Anthony Buhr at Protospiel Milwaukee 2015. 3 Seeds is a very enjoyable card game for 2-4 players. It takes 5 minutes or less to teach, and plays in 30-45 minutes.

THE COMPONENTS:

3 Seeds comes in a small box, about the size of Coup. The cards are good quality, with simple, functional design. Also included is a score track, along with a number of scoring markers, and a turn marker.

The rules in the game are very well-written. Everything is explained succinctly, and new players should understand the game after one read-through.

Overall, the components are good. The graphic design in 3 Seeds is very minimalistic, but it works well.

THE GAMEPLAY:

At the start of the game, players each receive a deck of 6 Seed cards, consisting of 2 Labor, 2 Money, and 2 Time cards. You can think of these as your resources. They also receive 1 Crop card, which lists a number of Seed cards required for completion (i.e. 2 Labor, 1 Time, and 1 Money). Attached to this Crop card is a face-down Harvest card, which determines the amount of points the Crop card is worth. These range from 1-7.

The general flow of play goes like this:

1) On a player’s turn, they draw 3 Seed cards from their deck

2) They may look at OR swap the positions of any 2 Seed cards

3) They may resolve an Event card and play up to 2 Seed cards on anyone’s Crop cards, assuming there is room (more on this below)

4) Completed Crop cards are scored

5) They return any unused Seed cards to the top of their deck

To illustrate:

Player A’s Crop card requires 2 Labor, 2 Time, and 0 Money

If I draw two Labor and one Money cards on my turn, I could play both Labor cards on Player A’s Crop. However, if someone had previously played a Labor card on Player A’s Crop, I could only play one Labor card on this Crop, since it already had one on it. In this case, I could play my other Labor card or my Money card on another player’s Crop.

When a Crop card has all the appropriate Seed cards on it, it is harvested. The Harvest card is revealed, and each Seed card a player contributed scores them that many points. For instance, if I had contributed two Seed cards to a Crop card with a Harvest value of 6, I would get 12 points (6×2). 

This is where peeking and switching cards comes in. 

Suppose that I had previously peeked at an opponent’s Harvest card, and seen that it was a 6. Knowing that this is among the highest-value Harvest cards, I decided to put both of my Seed cards on this Crop. On a future turn, before the Crop is harvested, someone else might come along and swap the Harvest card for a lower-value card. Thus, I may wind up getting 2 points instead of 12. This provides a nice dose of “screw-you” interactivity in the game.

There is also something of a memory element, because you have to keep track of which Harvest cards you have seen and where they are. Crop cards also have keywords on them (to represent the specific “type” of crop), and the owner of the card can get additional points for collecting sets of like types.

I should also mention that the game includes an Event deck. The Event cards allow players do things like switch two incomplete Crops, play additional Seed cards, increase Harvest values, etc. They are all pretty straightforward, and, while they don’t radically alter the game, they are a nice touch and they help keep the game fresh.

MY THOUGHTS:

I enjoy 3 Seeds. It is a very nice, accessible game. The length feels just right for a game of its weight. There is enough strategy to make players feel like their decisions matter, but not enough that it becomes brain-burning. Players who suffer from analysis paralysis shouldn’t have too much trouble with this game. Though 3 Seeds can be played with 2-4 players, it definitely plays best with the full 4 players.

I could see someone feeling like the game is too swingy, with Harvest cards ranging from 1 all the way to 7 points. It could be frustrating to a new player if they played a bunch of Seed cards on a single, high-value Crop card, only to have the Harvest card switched and the point value significantly decreased. Of course, the best way to avoid this (and, I believe, just a good strategy in general) is to diversify where you put your Seed cards. Unless I am able to complete a Crop on my turn, I usually try to put Seed cards on multiple Crops.

The game feels very balanced to me. There doesn’t seem to be a turn bias, and there is enough card-switching and event-playing that a newbie should be able to keep up with an experienced player.

WHO WOULD LIKE THIS GAME:

I believe this game will appeal to the casual gamer more so than the hard-core gamer. The strategy is simple, but there is enough of it that it can be enjoyed by players of varying skill levels. Because of its simplicity, 3 Seeds would work well with families. Kids shouldn’t have a problem grasping it.

I could see 3 Seeds being a good introduction to the Euro-game genre. It doesn’t fit into the strictest definition of a Euro, but the elements of resource management, set collection, and the lack player elimination could be good stepping stones into heavier, more strategic Euros.

All in all, I enjoy 3 Seeds. If you are looking for a heavy, grand strategy game, this will not scratch that itch. But if you’re looking for a quick, light card game, give this one a shot.

3 Seeds is available for purchase through The Game Crafter.

Thanks to Anthony Buhr for the review copy!

In Memoriam: My Friendly Local Game Store

For as long as I can remember, I have loved Game Daze, my friendly local game store. I have spent many hours and many dollars there in my time. For years and years, I would look forward to going in and browsing all the fun merchandise they had in stock. I have many memories of being in that environment, and it holds a special place in my heart.

And now, they are going out of business.

I feel much more personally affected by this than I should. It is, after all, just a store. I have seen stores go out of business before (RIP, Atomic Comics), so this is nothing new. But somehow, deep down, it’s like I’m losing an old friend.

Seeing Game Daze close has made me notice an interesting Catch-22 currently happening in the industry. Over the last five to ten years, we have seen a major boom in the hobby game market. Thanks to a widespread desire for the simple enjoyment of good company, a search for mental stimulation and (usually) healthy competition, and a sense of nostalgia for a more unplugged time, board games are becoming big business. With the advent of Kickstarter, BoardGameGeek, and other special-interest communities, gamers now have means to network, share knowledge, learn about upcoming releases, buy/sell/trade, and spread the love of the hobby.

However, amidst this industry boom, when it seems like retailers should be doing better than ever, they are closing their doors. Amazon and other e-commerce outlets have made it extremely difficult for small-time stores to compete. Game Daze is selling a game at MSRP? You can bet that the big-wigs like Cool Stuff Inc, Troll and Toad, and Funagain Games all have that same item for half that price. Especially as companies like Amazon are providing faster and faster shipping, why would anyone NOT buy from them? Because you want to support a local business? Okay, fair enough. But would you honestly pay sometimes double the Amazon price to support that local business? If so, you’re a better person than I.

In retrospect, there were signs that Game Daze was hurting long before they officially announced their closure. Signs with statements like, “If you buy it on Amazon, it may be cheaper, but if you buy it here, you can play it tonight.” Or all those big sales they had. Or all the game nights and events they hosted to try to get people through their doors. If I look back, these seems to have been a long time coming.

It is with a melancholy heart that I bid farewell to Game Daze. Thank you, Game Daze, for all the memories. Thank you for being integral in getting me into the hobby all those years ago. You will be missed.

As the face of the industry changes, let us not forget our friendly local game stores.

Musings on the Kickstarter Trend in Board Gaming

Over the last few years, the board game industry has seen a complete shift in the way it operates thanks to Kickstarter. Today, unknown designers of no-budget projects can make widely successful products. While this is an exciting trend for aspiring indie designers and publishers, it has its fair share of limitations and problems. I have been developing these thoughts for many months now, and it is time to put them in writing. I have identified two reasons that Kickstarter campaigns may struggle or not reach their full potential. Firstly…

1) Prohibitive prices. I cannot even count the number of times that the following has happened: I see a new game appear on BoardGameGeek’s “Hotness” list. I think it looks awesome. I view the game’s Kickstarter profile. I close the page when I see that it is $80 or more for a single, basic copy of the game. And I don’t think I’m the only one here who has had that experience. KS projects have gotten increasingly more expensive over the last few years.

I would argue that Tasty Minstrel Games (right here in Tucson, AZ) has been at the forefront of the Kickstarter trend since the beginning. Eminent Domain was the first big KS of which I was aware, back in November 2010. It more than doubled its funding goal, weighing in at $48,378 from a goal of $20K. The pledge necessary for a basic copy of Eminent Domain was a measly $35. Admittedly, as a card game, it’s production cost was probably on the lower end, but TMG still managed to make waves in the gaming community from it.

Since then, we as a community have seen huge price inflation, and it’s really the fault of the industry itself. In a market so thoroughly saturated with indie projects, companies running KS campaigns need to strategize means of differentiating their campaigns from the rest. Assuming that gamers are working off of a limited budget (and/or trying not to get in trouble with their spouse), they must be choosy regarding which games will garner their support. Companies know this and work to incentivize you to choose their game. How do they do this? By adding chrome.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I love the so-called “toy factor” in a board game. Games that include top-notch components are more eye-catching, and thus draw more attention from potential buyers. However, better components equals higher production cost equals higher price, especially for games with small print runs. As more and more indie designers join the fray, there is a greater need for individual companies to make their games stand out. What’s more, this trend of high-priced games shows little sign of stopping. Yes, TMG has recently been successful with its “Pay-What-You-Want” model, and the current micro-game trend provides an affordable alternative to three-digit games, but gamers who seek products with custom dice, painted miniatures, Kickstarter goodies, and big linen-finish boxes are going to have to continue paying through the nose.

I would like to pause here and clarify something. I don’t mean to imply that high-dollar KS games are bad or that companies should not sponsor them. Lord knows plenty have succeeded with flying colors (Steve Jackson Games brought in just shy of a MILLION DOLLARS on the Ogre KS. That is certainly nothing to sneeze at.). All I mean to say, and maybe this is just my graduate student budget talking, is that 200-some dollars for Cthulhu Wars is a LOT of money, especially considering…

2) The risk factor. Kickstarter has produced some excellent games, but it has definitely had its share of problems as well. As KS becomes increasingly prevalent, I have sensed many gamers getting tired of it. KS is plagued by fraudulent campaigns, uncommunicative publishers, production issues, cancelled projects, lateness on delivery, and hyped-up games that just turn out to be bad. Certainly, some of this is to be expected, but even high-profile KS campaigns like Odin’s Ravens, Up Front, The Doom That Came to Atlantic City, Dark Darker Darkest, and HeroQuest have had major issues, rustling jimmies in the BoardGameGeek community, and serving as a reminder of the risks of pledging support to an often-unknown entity.

Back in the early days of Kickstarter board game projects, there was a sort of novelty to supporting a campaign. It felt good to say that you were partially responsible for the creation of the project, and it was cool to have your name in the rules. The sense of urgency caused by a limited window of time in which people could pledge created an exciting need for teamwork among backers. It was fun to anticipate the game’s arrival, to have the finished product before anyone else did, and, more than anything, to participate in the next big thing in board gaming.

Fast forward to 2014, and this “next big thing” is rapidly becoming a source of widespread frustration for gamers. Do I think Kickstarter should stop being used? Certainly not. I myself have supported multiple campaigns, and I’m glad I did. Do I think game companies should stop making high-quality games with high-quality components? Certainly not. As gamers, we love awesome figures and cool, custom dice. Do I think high price-points are bad? Certainly not. Just because I cannot personally afford them doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be high-dollar games on the market. Your money is your money to spend as you please.

Kickstarter is a great resource, most of the time. I just want to encourage the gaming community, both producers and consumers, to be aware of these factors as new projects continue to develop.

Thank you for taking the time to read this! I would love to hear any comments you have!