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!

Garden Dice

Garden Dice is a 2012 release from Meridae Games, for 2-4 players. The game takes about 60-75 minutes to play, and it is a fun little family game. The primary mechanic is dice rolling, but in a non-traditional sense. It is not a roll-and-move game, but instead, the dice are used as part of players’ actions, not unlike Alien Frontiers or Kingsburg.

garden_dice__82928.1352502623.1280.1280The basic premise of Garden Dice is that players are planting seeds in a garden in hopes of harvesting the best crops. On a players turn, they begin by rolling 4 standard, 6-sided dice. From there, players can use the results to do a variety of actions. These include buying seeds, planting seeds, watering seeds, harvesting crops, or moving cute critters throughout the garden to attack other players vegetables. The board is set up in a 6×6 grid, and players can place seeds by using two dice results as coordinates. Seed tiles have certain values from 1-5, and players can spend dice to buy seeds of equal or lesser value than the result. Once the seed is planted, players can spend dice to water a seed, and later, to harvest it, scoring points.

One very interesting aspect of the game is “chaining.” When a player waters or harvests a tile, any adjacent tiles of the same kind (seed or plant) of lesser value are also watered or harvested, respectively, possibly creating a chain reaction (5-4-3, etc.). This leads to some cool player interaction, in that players need to strategize their moves based on who is around them. It is often a good idea to try to make other players do your watering and harvesting for you through chaining on their own turns. In other words, players should try to place their own lower-numbered crops next to the higher-numbered crops of their opponents.

garden_dice_tilesDuring the game, players can place a double-sided bird/rabbit tile that allows them to attack the seeds/crops of other players. This player interaction, if done correctly, can be devastating to other players’ progress. While there is a way to remove another players critter tile, it is very costly (three dice, at least one of which must be a 6!). Another option players have is the sundial/scarecrow tile. This allows players to modify a dice roll, or prevent other players’ critters from entering the surrounding area, depending on which side is active.

The game ends when no more seed tiles are available for purchase. At the end of the game, the winner is the player who accumulated the most points through planting and harvesting crops. Bonus points are awarded for several things, including getting sets of all the vegetables or three or more of a kind of a single vegetable.

The components in Garden Dice are high-quality. The box is smallish, comparable to Elder Sign. The game has nice artwork, and it includes a colorful board, tokens, and discs, and nice, wooden dice. While the game is certainly intended for a younger audience, there is enough strategy that older gamers can still enjoy it. The theme may not appeal to everyone, but the mechanics work quite well. If all 50 seed tiles are used in the game, it can take a bit more than an hour to play. However, it’s very easy to get around this. Simply remove two or three seed tiles from each stack to make the game go a little quicker.

Garden Dice is an enjoyable filler game. If you are a fan of lighter dice games, you should check it out. Meridae Games did a good job with the production, and I look forward to seeing more of their products in the future.

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The Lost Dutchman

It was a Friday morning in early February. Like any responsible college student, I was sleeping in later than I should have. At the disgustingly early hour of 8:00 AM, I was awakened to a phone call from Patrick Nickell, a local gamer friend and the creator of “The Lost Dutchman” and founder of Crash Games.

In a groggy, half awake state I answered. Pat informed me how the shipment of “The Lost Dutchman” copies was arriving about a week earlier than anticipated, and he needed an extra set of arms to help unload 8 pallets of games into his garage. Initially, I was unsure whether I would be able to help him, because I had to work that day, but when he mentioned he would pay me in lunch and free board games (my one weakness), I suddenly developed a severe flu that would prevent me from doing any work. And I totally wasn’t faking it. I mean, of course not.

Promo image of TLD

Promo image of TLD

Anyway, long story short, I helped Pat move the games into his garage, and he kindly gave me a copy of the game, and even signed it for me. So what is the game like?

For starters, the theme, for those of you who don’t know, revolves around an Arizona legend of a lost mine filled with treasure. Thousands have tried to find it, but no one has succeeded. Now it’s your turn to take a crack at it.

The components are top notch. Normally, game boxes are not a source of commentary for me, but the box for TLD is the best quality I have ever seen. It is thick, sturdy, and very durable. Inside the game, you get over 100 hex tiles that have a nice indent in them to make them easy to pick up. There are 6 dice: 5 standard d6s, and a slightly larger d6 with the numbers 1-3 and the Action Icon. Each player also receives two well-crafted meeples and a player board with four numeric character traits. The rulebook is nicely detailed to look western, and its contents are pretty comprehensive.
The setup takes about 10 minutes, but it can be pic1585004_mddone while explaining the game to newbies. It is fairly straightforward; a hex grid is set up with each “space” being a stack of 5 hexes. Thus, the board has a three-dimensional feel, and, I must say, I love the thematic element of “digging” for treasure. In addition to the hex grid, a large map tile is placed in the center of the table, as something of a secondary board, with which players interact as they progress on their treasure hunt.

The flow of play is quite simple. Roll the action die, move one meeple along the hex grid accordingly, resolve the tile on which you stop, and move the other meeple along the map board toward the Dutchman’s Mine. If a player rolls the Action Icon, he may attempt to “bury a treasure” he has already acquired, meaning it is guaranteed to be his for the remainder of the game, or he can move the Dutchman Ghost (another nice meeple) to another player’s treasure as an offensive move. The tiles players stop on can have any number of effects, good and bad. Since Pat made a video about these, I won’t go into extensive detail here, but be sure to check it out if you’re interested!

Map board

Map board

Usually, players will find Treasure tiles or be faced with Creatures or Challenges. When confronting the latter, players will need to make skill tests based on their current strength in one or more traits (Vigor, Ingenuity, or Foresight), plus 1d6 versus the Challenge’s target number. Depending upon the outcome, players normally gain rewards or sustain injury.

The game plays very quickly, and can end in one of two ways:

1) A player reaches the Dutchman’s Mine and defeats the Dutchman Creature, if he is there, or
2) Players uncover 6 “Water Level Drops” tiles, which act as a game timer.

At the end of the game, the player who has collected the most gold wins.

There is little downtime in between turns, and players are actively engaged in the game, even during other’s turns. Finding the Dutchman’s Mine gives a player a bonus 15 treasure at game end (that’s a lot), but it does not necessarily mean that they will win. It is very possible that someone else could pull a surprise victory by having collected enough smaller treasures or completed enough challenges. (Just because you catch the Snitch doesn’t mean you automatically win.) In the most recent game I played, my opponent found 27 treasure before I found any, and I still ended up winning. There is also a nice scoring mechanic where, if you overcome multiple challenges of the same type, they will each have a greater reward at game end. For example, if I defeat a single Rattlesnake, it will be worth 4 treasure at game end, but if I beat 2, I would get 10 treasure at game end, because now they’re each worth 5 instead of 4.

All in all, the game is very enjoyable. The strategy is there, but TLD is by no means a brain-burner. While there certainly is player interaction, it is not the primary aspect of the game. The challenges are difficult enough that you often think, “If only my Vigor trait was 2 higher!” To me, this is a good thing, because it presents the plays with some tough decisions. Do you bank on rolling a 6 this turn, or do you take your time, perhaps losing some ground to your opponents, to build up your character’s stats a bit? TLD has lots of replay value. It is a lightweight game, to be sure, but it’s theme is original, it’s gameplay is smooth, it’s components are excellent, and, most of all, it’s fun.

Glad you woke me up, Pat.

Afterword:

I can’t do a review of TLD without mentioning the pack-in bonus game, “Goldfield Gully.” While I will not go into detail on it in this review, do know that TLD gives you more for you money with an extra game included.

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Seven Sisters

“Seven Sisters” is the debut release from Wishing Tree Games. It is a game for 3 to 6 players, and it plays in about 60-75 minutes. The game’s theme involves the Seven Deadly Sins, a fresh theme that I have not seen before. (I don’t know if I could handle another zombie/pirate/space/deckbuilding game…)

Box art

Box art

The primary mechanics of “Seven Sisters” are area control/influence, action selection, and resource management. The game is played over four rounds, each lasting 10-15 minutes. The “board” is made up of seven oversized Sister tiles (The TILES are oversized, not the Sisters. 😛 ), each representing one Deadly Sin. On a player’s turn, he or she can choose from several actions, the most common being playing and resolving a card. Most cards show two Sisters, one in the foreground (Primary) and one in the background (Secondary). If I play a card with Envy and Wrath as the Primary and Secondary, I can do the following:

Play two Influence cubes onto the Primary Sister (Envy).
Play one Influence cube onto the Secondary Sister (Wrath).
Play one Influence cube onto either Sister.

The latter two steps are optional and require spending resources, and they a contingent upon the previous step being completed. In other words, before I can add a cube to the Sister of my choice, I must have played two on the Primary and one on the Secondary. So why do you want to play these cubes? At the end of each round, players look at the number of cubes on each Sister, and the player with the most cubes of their color wins that Sister’s favor and a victory point token with her picture on it. That player’s cubes are then removed and returned to them.

Victory point chips

Victory point chips

As players earn victory points from Sisters, they will receive special bonuses. For example, the player who has the most cubes on Greed gets 5 Gold, the player with the most cubes on Gluttony gets 5 Food, etc. These bonuses are not only thematic, but pretty well balanced, with none being exponentially better than another. Sloth’s bonus is my personal favorite: in the case of ties, both during and at the end of the game, the player with the most Sloth tokens wins.

As Influence cubes come and go from the board, players will need to spend resources to keep cubes available. Plays begin with only some of their Influence available, and may spend turns to purchase more. Here is an example of how resources are used:

At the end of a round, I have the most Influence on Gluttony. I take the rewards, and my cubes are then removed, to be placed back behind my player screen in my unavailable pool. If I have Gold handy, though, I can buy cubes immediately back to my available pool, perhaps saving me from needing to spend a future turn to do so.

The components are top notch, and the art is nicely stylized. Thanks to Kickstarter stretch rewards, Seven Sisters has very nice wood resourceeples (see pictures). This is a huge step up from the original cardboard tokens (which are also included). With a nice box, nice cardboard tiles, nice player screens, nice cards, and 180 nicely painted cubes, this game is, well, very nice!

Indeed, this is not an extensive review of the game. There are rules and Sister abilities I didn’t even touch on, but I cannot recommend this game highly enough. I’m honestly amazed its not ranked substantially higher than it is. It definitely has a Euro feel, but there is certainly a “screw you” element to the game. Seven Sisters is, all around, very fun and engaging. With high production quality, a manageable play time, and room for different strategies, Seven Sisters is definitely worth a try.

Art for "Wrath"

Art for “Wrath”

Afterword:

I cannot write a review of Seven Sisters without mentioning the excellent customer service and communication provided by Wishing Tree Games. About a year ago, I had done some prototype testing for WTG, and, when I was done, Brent Cunningham of WTG asked me to send the prototype back to its designer. He had said he would send me a check to cover the shipping. I did so, and never thought anything else of it.

Fast forward a year, to right now. I got an email from Brent, saying that, as WTG was balancing their budget for the previous year, they realized they hadn’t sent the check. I hadn’t even realized that I never got it, because I just kind of forgot. I emailed Brent back and said it was fine and that I was happy to have covered the shipping. He insisted on sending me not only a full reimbursement, but also a copy of Seven Sisters. Now THAT is good customer service.

PS: The prototype I was testing last year has since been picked up by WTG. Look out for it in the future. It’s called “Island Trader,” and it’s really fun!

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