PREVIEW: Edge of Darkness from John D. Clair and Alderac

PREVIEW: Edge of Darkness from John D. Clair and Alderac

When playing Edge of Darkness, I immediately thought about the fact that I don’t play Dominion anymore.

While the brilliance of the deck-building concept was thrilling when it came out, many of the games that followed it improved upon the original Donald X. Vaccarino design. The most compelling, in my view, are those that use it as a mechanism within a more significant game like Reiner Knizia’s Quest for El Dorado or, more magnificently, Concordia.

Edge of Darkness has done that for Card Crafting, the clever mechanism introduced by designer John D. Clair and Alderac Entertainment Group. Thankfully, it didn’t take a decade for them to follow the title that introduced this concept, the still-excellent Mystic Vale. But if that first game introduced us to Card Crafting in a simpler format of deck-building to VP glory, Edge of Darkness explores fascinating new applications of the mechanism in a satisfying game that has significant depths to explore.

Edge of Darkness, in fact, brings many much-loved mechanisms into its story of perhaps morally ambiguous Guild Masters seeking glory by defending their city. There’s worker placement, drafting, hand-management, semi-collaborative deck-building, and even a fricking awesome cube tower reminiscent of Wallenstein. It’s a complex and interesting game with a ton of variation, likely to provide long hours of enjoyable play. I’m excited for it to launch to Kickstarter this week after playing it at Strategicon‘s Orccon 2018 this weekend.

Guild Masters Get Ready: Overview

In Edge of Darkness, each player is a Guild Master trying to be the greatest leader in town through control of a central deck of cards, training their staff, and defending the city against incursions by evil folks. For some reason, this city was built right near a means of big baddies coming in. Did they learn nothing from Tolkien? Thriving cities in earshot of Black Towers are a bad thing. In real estate, it’s ‘location, location, location’. Yet, these folks built their city in a spot wherein some game designer could come by and tell the tale of their plight in a game called Edge of Darkness. What a bunch of chuckleheads.

But I digress. These Guild Masters want to defend the city but mostly they want to win. While there are various ways to do that, sometimes the bad guys come through, they hit everyone and sometimes they hit just one guild. So, you need to be ready.

As played, your Guild Masters draft cards from the board, upgrade one of them, and then play them out to take actions. Some of these actions require you to send an agent to the location to provide an advantage or take an action that might be immediate or setting things up for a future activity or event.

Edging Into The Game

The drafting is straightforward. Select the first card in line or play Influence markers (one of the game’s currencies) to skip it and take the next one. Interestingly, when those Influence markers are claimed by a player in the future, they aren’t just reusable. They flip over and transform into Good Will, a third currency which is really just a 1/4 victory point. I rather like this concept because it doesn’t have the utility of money normally used in this kind of mechanism, but it also isn’t entirely stripped of value. In many cases, players will skip cards that are highly desirable to their competitors so this prevents Influence from overly-sweetening the selection for the card. It’s a very nice touch.

Edge of Darkness

The opportunity to upgrade is another point where Edge of Darkness shines. While my one game (thus, this is a preview and not a ‘review’) was played with a standard set of ten upgrades, Clair has five times that number ready in case Edge of Darkness takes off like it should and it hits all the stretch goals. In the game, these upgrades are done without cost but only one is generally taken and it has to go on one of the cards in your hand into an open slot.

Primer: Card Crafting

If you aren’t familiar with Card Crafting, quickly: You acquire cards that you slide into sleeves so their attributes are added to a card already in the deck. It’s a development of Keith Baker’s Gloom mechanism where transparent overlays affect cards, but it’s elegantly done with a three-slot concept Clair created. Cards begin with one or no slots open and develop over time as you upgrade them. You can also find this mechanism in the second game Card Crafting game, Custom Heroes, which is a bit like Tichu with cards you can upgrade.

Edge of Darkness amps this up further because the upgrades are double-sided. More on that later.

Drafted cards have ownership as well. While each player has a certain number they own, there are also generic cards they can acquire in the game. When playing them, your own and generic cards are free to use. If you draft another player’s card, you’ll need to pay one gold each to use the (up-to-three) actions on the cards.

Edge of Darkness

This concept makes for another intriguing part of the design. Ownership gets you more income (which normally requires actions), which offers versatility and 1/4 victory points at the end of the game if you don’t spend it all or convert them more efficiently with one of the actions.

After upgrades, you play your cards and potentially use the actions on them. These often require agents to be played to the location associated with the action type, worker-placement style. Some are simple enough to just let you take money or Influence, make your guild agents usable (some begin the game untrained), or to take arms against the bad guys. Others are more subtle, helping you acquire ownership of generic cards in the central deck or trading gold for VP, or even increasing your hand size. Managing the preparations for war isn’t all there is but it’s a key component so let’s talk about the bad people coming out of the mighty Threat Tower.

The Threats Keep Coming

Next to your board when you play Edge of Darkness is the great Threat Tower. Evoking Tolkien’s Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower of the 80’s board game and also the Cube Tower used in Wallenstein, Amerigo, and other games, this edifice holds three bad cards at once and has an opening up top where players drop cubes of various player colors. Players acquire new cubes to drop in each round based on the cards in their three-card hand. When eight cubes drop into the area for one of the three cards, that baddie attacks the player who has the most cubes in there. Notably, there are also a fair number black cubes in the bag from which players draw them. If black has the majority (ties count), then all players are attacked.

The bad guys, interestingly, are cards from the deck. The back of the transparent upgrade and action cards are attacking hoards of evil. This clever idea helps increase difficulty as you build up powerful up the cards in the shared deck.

If you take the attack, you lose points on a personal track on your guild board. Attacks can be mitigated by some spaces where you have agents and defending successfully awards points. Some actions let you kill these guys as the cubes built up, as well. Hunting the threats can let you use the normally worthless Citizen actions (one that is common on the starting cards) to go kill a threat that might have too many of your cubes in it. Efficiently done, you can prep and hit them in the same turn but the subtleties of how this and some similar concepts work is another one of the strengths of the game’s design.

Played over eight turns, Edge of Darkness clocks in about two hours but it didn’t feel that long. While the game plays 2 to 4 players, I would expect a head-to-head game to last less time and be less compelling than playing with three or four. The components with which we played were not final except for the art. The work, done by Alayna Lemmer-Danner, is uniformly excellent and powerfully ties to the theme.

Final Thoughts

Edge of Darkness is a winning use of Card Crafting and an elegantly wrought game. Without a doubt, it’s the most satisfying of the Card Crafting games so far, maybe because of its sheer grandeur but also because it allows this innovative concept to work well with others. I see Edge of Darkness as the fulfillment of the promise of Card Crafting and expect it to be extremely popular with gamers seeking a satisfying experience with some coopetition built-in (one of my favorite things).

Edge of Darkness

While new players might be slightly overwhelmed by the number of cards, those that are used to Dominion and other deck-builders should take easily to the various mechanisms available. In our game, the most lost player had it down by turn three and was raring to play again after we played it. I narrowly lost EoD but I know what I’d do differently next time I play and I’m looking forward to it. That is a very good sign indeed.

Official Boardgame Babylon rating pending for more plays but will likely be on the top end. Edge of Darkness launches on Kickstarter February 20th.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Edge of Darkness

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Designer John D. Clair personally taught our game and images are of a play-test copy of the game.

Review: Kokoro by Eilif Svensson and Kristian Amundsen Østby via Indie Board and Card Games

Review: Kokoro by Eilif Svensson and Kristian Amundsen Østby via Indie Board and Card Games

Take It Easy is the game I always associate with the ‘draw and everyone place’ game mechanism. What each player can make of the options as they come out is an interesting way to resolve things. Whether it is done for pattern-matching like Take It Easy, Mosaix and Wurfel Bingo or path-building like in SDJ nominee Karuba and Kokoro designers’ own Doodle City, there is a lot of mileage in it. The new Kokoro from IBG takes on the path-making concept in Karuba, turning that concept into a different and possibly more satisfying game.

Kokoro plays 1-8 players, with each one claiming a dry-erase grid map with gardens and sanctuaries on it. Five of the six sanctuaries on the board will score based on the number of objects (caterpillars and flowers, for reasons unknown to this writer) the paths connects to them. Each turn, a tile is drawn by the Caller (ahem, the oldest player) and all players draw the path on it right on their board. These paths are simple lines or pairs making various curves that connect two sides of a tile. Once a tile is covered, you cannot overwrite it so players need to be cautious about building their connections effectively for this scoring round and future ones. This is key and a good warning to everyone early on; while it is easy to just write in any old shape on a tile, it’s important to take a longer view about how it might isolate caterpillars and flowers you want to score later.

The current sanctuary is your focus, but the other option for players is to not draw from that tile and take a peek at the next sanctuary. This way, if a particular tile is no help at all, players can use this option to plan ahead. Ideally, when drawing, players try to not just plan for the current sanctuary but look ahead to connect to others. This is a good idea for general efficiency but also because the game requires increasing success. Each sanctuary score must be higher than the last one or the player suffers a -5 point penalty. Tiles are drawn until four gold tiles come out, which represent about 1/3 of the tiles in the stack. As a result, some sanctuaries will get outsized opportunities to score versus others. This element makes the planning a little more serious than this cute game would imply. I find it to be a great feature and it’s a lot of the appeal of the game, in my view.

kokoro

The basic game is that, but the box comes with two more expansions and I recommend playing with those unless you have extremely casual players. They aren’t too difficult to incorporate, really just adding some basic variations to how to score the game. These options open up the game even more, giving players more choices when a tile comes up than just isn’t right for the current sanctuary. Kokoro is a bit unforgiving, however. If you screw up early, it can be difficult to recover from initial bad choices. I do think the game should have some kind of mulligan option to let you remove a single tile that could help you get back on track. We had one cranky player during one of our sessions who played improperly early and fussed through the whole game. It’s only a quarter of an hour, of course, so a fouled-up play isn’t a real tragedy. On to the next game, I say.

That said, Kokoro wins big points for scaling wonderfully from 1 to 8 players and offering an enjoyable time in 15 minutes of play. The components are nice, the artwork is utterly charming, and the box is compact enough to pop into the bag whenever you go gaming. Kokoro is a winner in my view and I think it belongs in the collection of gamers who want a filler for the big crowd to play at the beginning before breaking into other games.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Kokoro

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Review: Kaiju Crush by Tim Armstrong and Justin De Witt via Fireside Games

Review: Kaiju Crush by Tim Armstrong and Justin De Witt via Fireside Games

Kaiju Crush is all about monster battles in an urban area. The richness of the monster smashing cities theme is probably not in dispute. While I cannot count myself as a fan of films about the subject, I played plenty of Rampage (the video game) and see the appeal of these massive, fantastic creatures wreaking havoc on cities and the like. There is even a film coming out that looks loosely based on the video game. Certainly Pacific Rim (for all its flaws) reminded us of the appeal of giant monsters breaking up cities (if Cloverfield didn’t already do that for you).

A few years back, Rampage (later retitled “Terror in Meeple City”) from the always-interesting Antoine Bauza, would become one of the best matches of theme and mechanisms for this kind of game. A dexterity-based game that still had many euro stylings to keep it strongly constructed, Rampage is a treat. It’s just about ideal for the theme, but Kaiju Crush has helped me see another style that could work with this theme. This game comes to us from the successful husband-wife team that runs Fireside Games, makers of the hit Castle Panic series, the excellent Hotshots (which we love) and the amusing Bears!, working with designer Tim Armstrong.

Kaiju Crush tells us the story of a group of large, unruly monsters controlled by the players that decimate a city. Players are trying to cause more destruction than the others to win the honor of being the best monster (winning the game). Turns are focused on a creative action system that allows players to use one of two moves each turn, either the one they are dealt (currently hold) or a community option that sits between players. If players use their own, players switch it with the communityKaiju Crush option but if they use the community choice, it stays there. I quite like the way this mechanism works and although it sounds familiar, I cannot place it. This restricts movement in an interesting way, allowing for choices between adjacent moves, leaps over a spot or two, or a Chess Knight-style move.

Beyond that, Kaiju Crush is about using those moves to claim buildings on the board, which have various values between 1 and 4, as well as a set icon that can add up to bonuses later. This move for your monster lets you take a space over (claiming the tile) and repositions you for next turn. In this way, the game has the feel of a more nuanced Hey, That’s My Fish, with players claiming buildings both for points and for how it positions them to claim additional spaces with the options available next turn. As the game progresses, fewer and fewer options are available as the map of buildings is turned to rubble and claimed spaces. This positioning is important because players still only have those two options for your monster has each turn. The end game is maximizing how you can claim as many spaces as possible before the city is decimated. Players collect points for buildings, sets claimed, and any other bonuses. The winning monster is the one with the most points, naturally.

That’s not all there is, though – the monsters get to fight if they land on the same space or an adjacent one. This kicks in the battle process, which is like a paper-rock-scissors game you play to 3 out of 5. Each player gets a handful of five cards per battle. Using the five-option system, each monster in the battle plays a card and resolves it by comparison. This is where the monsters’ special powers kick in, as each one either wins ties of some type or gets to optimize cards a bit. This match of cards is fun, with 3 of 5 being the perfect amount to give people a chance for each battle to have its own life. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t routinely killed by my wife 3 in a row because she can zone in on my brainwaves. But you’ll have a great time with it, I’m sure. Winning the battle gives you a bonus chip (worth 1-3 points) and if you’re on the same spot, the winner will take it.

The game has a couple of additional elements that add to the experience. All players get a special one-time use power. They are hit-or-miss, but can help in a key moment. Additional, there are four other ways to score points based on the spaces on the map you collect, the building types you claim, and some options that even crop up in the game. These extra concepts add replay value and some variability to the game.

In the end, Kaiju Crush is a fun game for families, but I wouldn’t recommend playing with only two. The game is less interesting with just a head-to-head game, offering fewer options all around. I think the game shines best at four players, with a full complement of gamers. Components are solid, as is the norm with Fireside, although younger players might enjoy replacing the cardboard monsters with miniatures to up the toy factor. Gamers will admire the intriguing aspects, but might wear out the game play quickly with the options available. I still recommend giving it a play to see the interesting moving mechanism and to have a good time with the quick battles you get into with your kaiju. The game is certainly ripe for expansions featuring new monsters, moves and special powers, too.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Kaiju Crush

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Fireside Games provided a copy for independent review.

Review – Azul by Michael Kiesling via Plan B Games

Review – Azul by Michael Kiesling via Plan B Games

Azul, I will admit, is a game that I judged by its cover. Good thing it’s a wonderful game. The design drew me in immediately. I’ll admit to being a sucker for gorgeous package design and when the components are also premium wonders, you’re already halfway to my approval, folks. Now, I don’t mean Boris Vallejo-esque sword-wielding ladies. I mean design like what you see in Oink Games, all of which have conscious elements that add directly to the mood of the game experience. Quality work isn’t the only way this is achieved; way back in the pre-euro days, we had Cheapass Games here in the US and their powerfully simple black and white envelopes appealed to me for both keeping costs lower and letting head Cheapsser James Ernest save time in coming up with overly expensive colored boxes, he put it into the game design and those hilarious rules.

So, with that longer-than-planned caveat, let’s talk about the game. Azul is a game at once familiar and exciting in its unique feel. The game is a design by Michael Kiesling, a two-time SDJ winner and frequent collaborator with the mighty Wolfgang Kramer, but this one is all his own. Based on Azul, I definitely look forward to his next solo game design.

In Azul, players get a board on which they will place the gorgeous, chunky tiles that are a hallmark of the game’s production. They will place them according to a set of clean, elegant rules that are straight out of 90’s Schacht and Knizia. When you select tiles from the one of the selection discs, you take all of one color, pushing the remaining tiles on that disc to the center market. Once this has happened during a round, another option becomes available; now, players can also take all of one color from the center of the table. While the discs are dealt only four pieces from the (lovely) bag, once the excess tiles start piling up in the middle, players are likely to get more of them.

When you claim tiles, you need to place them on your board. This is done by selecting a row for completion, with the first row scoring with just a single tile and each row below it taking one more until you reach five at the bottom of the board. Thus, each turn, players will want a different number of tiles for each row. While the prep area of a row has a certain color tile in it, no other colors can go into that row.

This means players sometimes obtain excess tiles that need to be stored at the bottom of the board. These each inflict a penalty that rises with each additional tile. Also, the first player to fish tiles out of the center of instead of just off one of the distribution discs gets to select first in the next round, with the unhappy addition of a -1 tile that gets to drop into the first slot in the little holding pen for overflow tiles (which some gamers are apparently throwing away? It should have been a proper tile anyway). I find this mechanism quite appealing – that tradeoff of the loss of a point for the first shot and the first pick next turn. That says this game has been tuned.

Sound intriguing? Maybe not. The theme of Azul isn’t really there; it’s just a game of placing tiles into the right sequences to score points and marveling at how pretty they are. But that’s not it – this is a wonderfully elegant design that we so rarely see today. Azul goes down like Azulfreshly-made lemonade – it feels like it’s made of the real thing and not just rehashed mechanisms from other designers’ work. Kiesling has taken a solid selection mechanism and added interesting scoring. It’s such a clean, empirical design and Plan B’s excellent production complements it beautifully.

With the advent of Kickstarter and the crazy influx of underdeveloped and messy games into the marketplace, it is kind of glorious to see a lovely design like Azul come out, especially since we see fewer titles from the twin masters of this feel: Reiner Knizia and Michael Schacht. Kiesling is no slouch here, although most of his ludography was constructed with Kramer, a bigger name. But let’s not Garfunkel him entirely – Vikings was also a winner. With Azul, Kiesling could be on track for a solo SDJ. I’d call it a contender for one of the coveted slots later this year.

Even so, with the fast-food nature of game designs these days, I think players should give it a go first. While serious eurogamers will appreciate Azul’s charms, those who are seeking a thematic experience may balk at the simple beauty and sparse rules. That’s my only caution in reducing the rating to a Play It Now. I love it, but modern gamers may need to develop a palette for it.

Oh, heck – never mind. Azul is awesome! Buy it Now!

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Azul

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Review: Kung Pao Chicken by Ta-Te Wu and Sunrise Tornado Games

Review: Kung Pao Chicken by Ta-Te Wu and Sunrise Tornado Games

The point at which the micro game meets the party game is a wonder. While both types of game package a lot of fun in often simple ideas, they do so in somewhat different ways. This makes it delightful to see them fuse into a compelling filler. Ta-Te Wu’s new Kung Pao Chicken inhabits that rare space where these two game types build on each other’s strengths, taking the clever elegance of the microgame’s card locationing with funny party elements like Werewolf and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose.

Kung Pao Chicken is an ideal opener to get people laughing before the longer, heavier games begin. Players are chickens or foxes based on an initial deal, but that information is only visible to the other players (kind of like Powwow). Players then spend the game playing cards to maximize the number of chickens saved or eaten, based on which team they believe they are on. The cards are chickens, foxes and dogs – which form a kind of chain. Chickens get eaten by foxes, foxes are chased away by dogs, and dogs are awfully handy to protect chickens. However, each dog only chases away one fox – whereas foxes can each as many chickens as they find in the barn where they find themselves. So, some dog vs. fox management is needed.

How do you determine which team you are on so you play well? With a combination of viewing the other player’s roles and how they play cards, players need to discern which team they are on. On a player’s turn, they play one of their cards onto a player’s barn or in the one in the middle of the the table that starts with a certain number of foxes based the player count.

When the round ends from card play, player roles are revealed and each barn is resolved. Before the reveal, however, players close heir eyes and pantomime wings if they think they are a chicken and claws for a guess that they are a fox. A point is awarded to each player that correctly surmised their role.

If any foxes are there, they eat any present chickens…but they are chased away by dog cards. Fox players score a point for each chicken eaten and the chicken players get one for each chicken saved. Simple scoring and resolution is part of the appeal of the game. Players tabulate points and the winner is the one with the most points after three rounds. So, cooperative play, but competitive outcome. Yes – this is the sweet spot for a long of gamers and my love of ‘coopetition’ is definitely satisfied by KPC.

Yes, I really like Kung Pao Chicken. Let’s be clear though: Designer Ta-Te Wu is my co-designer sometimes, frequent developer, playtester, and one of my good friends. However, I do not like all of his games. The ones I like, I get involved with. I liked Red Cliffs (obviously), as I did Tien Zi Che before it. Di Renjie – yes. And I quite enjoy Kung Pao Chicken. I liked it enough to give him some ideas for it that became a stretch goal expansion. So, is this review legitimate? That’s for you to decide but all I can offer in reassurance is that I’m making this a formal statement, not just a boilerplate disclosure, and that Kung Pao Chicken is in our game bag for all days out to play. So, Super-Disclosure: I played this with a playtest copy, after playtesting it and even offering suggestions, some of which MAY have gotten in. That said, I really love this game and think it’s among the strongest Ta-Te has done.

Kung Pao Chicken is now LIVE on Kickstarter at a great price and I encourage you to get a copy and cluck up the opener for your game nights!

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Kung Pao Chicken

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Read above for Disclosure City.

Review: Hotshots from Justin De Witt and Fireside Games

Review: Hotshots from Justin De Witt and Fireside Games

If Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic, is the modern king of cooperative games, perhaps Justin De Witt is the Prince. Justin created the extraordinarily popular and really very fun Castle Panic.  Like Pandemic, Castle Panic has now seen a number of different forms, including Dead Panic, Star Trek Panic and, inevitably, Munchkin Panic. But he hasn’t stopped there. His new game, Hotshots, is another attempt to create an enjoyable cooperative game experience with mechanisms not normally seen in games of that type.

Hotshots, which we asked about once before, is a game about fighting fires in the forest with a press-your-luck dice rolling mechanism at its core. 2 to 4 players take on the roles of firefighters (each a special role like the Swamper or Spotter) on the front line of a blaze in a wooded area. The board is a modular set of hexes that can be set up a variety of ways. The tiles have various functions, including an association with the powers of the players or housing additional equipment the team can use to combat the fire.

Hotshots

On your turn, you move your firefighter one or two spaces and attempt to put out a fire. Each of the spaces has a unique element as well as a set of six die faces that you must roll to combat the fire there. Each face of the six sided dice has a different firefighting symbol on it, from the regular fireman to a hose to a Pulaski, which is the name of that ax thing you always see firefighters carrying. No, I didn’t know it was called the Pulaski either, but I did learn that from reading the rules of Hotshots (same thing, the MacLeod). I love it when I learn something new from a game. Anyway, if you roll and get three matches, you can place a firebreak on a side of the hex, four will knock out a fire, five will knock down two and all six will put out three fires. This last accomplishment means a big bonus, including a special chit with a rule-breaking power and placing a firebreak as well.

A key element here though is to stay close to your comrades, because they will give you an extra chance in case you blow it. What does blowing it mean? This is a press-your-luck game so players need to decide after each roll if they are going to continue or stop and apply what they have rolled to the fire. Every time you roll the dice, you need to lock a die that matches one of the remaining symbols. If you roll and fail to find a match, you lose out and the fire gets stronger. If you have another firefighter with you, failing once is okay. Your partner allows you a second shot and gives you a better chance to get all six dice to match.

Hotshots

Other map elements help, like the station where a one-use helicopter can knock down a big fire and trucks and planes can help knock our blazes and create firebreaks. Others are tied to player abilities, which are lost if the space is wiped out.

The firebreaks are key because, like all cooperative games, the game gets its say. After your turn, you draw a fire card to see how the blaze spreads. In a clever mechanism, a wind sock tracks the direction of the gusts and certain cards will push the fire out into adjacent hexes based on it. Firebreaks help protect against the fire spreading by wind.

Board hexes are lost when they reach their burst number, which is the amount of fire it can contain without going up in flames. This value ranges from 2 to 5, and this plays into the Fire cards. This can be specific hexes, increases based on the current burst point of certain spaces, or simply the way the wind is blowing. The fire can rage out of control and players lose if they allow eight hexes to be burnt out. Alternatively, you win if you can knock down all the fires throughout the game board.

Let’s talk about the fire pieces. The components in Hotshots are nice but the clear highlight is the fire pieces them self. They look like little plastic flames and they’re distributed on the board early on and represent fire that is burning at the game’s beginning. They kind of outshine the cardboard standees for the firefighters (bling alert) and other pieces. Pleasantly, the box is appropriately sized for the components and easier to pack for travel.

Importantly, everyone I have played this game with has had a lot of fun. While the subject was a little grim as we watched the recent fires in Southern California, we did enjoy the act of putting out the fires together. While the beginning game has a standard setup, you can also use the guidelines in the book to simulate famous parks. This allows the terrain to abstract out things and makes for enjoyable replay value. Our second game was in the Grand Canyon and one of the largest blazes was remote and through a craggy terrain hex that made it hard to reach. That endeavor colored our whole game, which made for a different experience and a hard-fought win. Hotshots is the kind of game where you get high-fives and a story tell after a big win. That’s satisfying.

The game also includes variants to make the game somewhat easier to beat for younger players who want to win more often. I note this because the game can be hard! But it wouldn’t be much fun if there wasn’t a struggle. We’ve won most of our games with six or seven burnt hexes, and lost a couple as well. More importantly, we have wanted to play it again and again because of the quick game play and satisfying experience of Hotshots.

In our view, Fireside Games has another winner on their hands that plays well with younger players and yet it’s interesting enough for gamers to play. Hotshots is also approachable for casual gamers who need an introduction to cooperative games. While there is no useful way to keep from having someone take over the game (no secret info), it’s a fine gateway title.

In case you missed it, Justin was on BGB’s podcast in the past when he and his cool also-a-game-designer wife Anne-Marie, visited us for Strategicon.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Hotshots

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Fireside Games provided a copy for independent review.

REVIEW: SECTRE from Peter Mariutto and Freshwater Game Company

REVIEW: SECTRE from Peter Mariutto and Freshwater Game Company

SECTRE is a new abstract strategy game from the Freshwater Game Company, an organization with a credo to admire. Freshwater is committed to environmentally sustainable games sourced from local businesses and assembled by hand. This Minnesota company has the right idea and Boardgame Babylon certainly supports their effort to create games in this kind of format. After horror stories about mass-produced games with mildew in them, Kickstarter campaigns with copycat titles, and the environmental record of some of the companies producing gobs of plastic for our amusement, Freshwater’s mission is a worthwhile one.

SECTRETheir first game is here: SECTRE

So, great company and vision but how is SECTRE? The video on their Kickstarter page won’t tell you very much. What is clear is that it is a tile placement game with domino-like cards players use to form patterns and score points on a grid. Players are given a hand of these domino cards (in that they have two ends with different colors) and receive a solid distribution of variants from subtle markings on the cards (nice abstract art, by the way). These are the cards you get for the game; it ends when you have played them all. I can also tell you that the game plays with 2-6 players and is over in maybe 20-30 minutes, from our experience. We’ve played with 2, 4, and 5 players so far.

Each turn, players place one of their cards on the grid board, taking up two spaces and potentially claiming one of the scoring cards available to players. These score cards (which range from 5 to 15 points) are acquired by building certain patterns using the cards. While some are just about a certain number of spaces of a color being diagonally connected, others are specific patterns that players need to cleverly get on the board without the other players noticing and potentially grabbing the scoring card before them. These score cards are limited as well, so there is a bit of a race for who can score the cards first. Notably, a single play can lead to multiple cards being collected.

Of course, you can’t just place cards anywhere. They must be placed so that the color on each side of the card is not orthogonally adjacent to the same color. In this way, it helps build the patterns while also providing some restrictions to guide placement. Again, if you create a pattern that matches what is on offer, you can claim it. Also, after the first turn, a little stacking can take place. As long as you follow the other placement rules, your cards can cover other cards. Breaking a previous pattern doesn’t matter; once a card is claimed, it is owned by the player who scored it.

The game ends when all players have played their hand of cards. The player with the most points wins.

SECTRE

Components

SECTRE does feel handmade, which is pleasant. The cards are cardboard and feel good in the hand, but I do wonder about durability of them after manyplays of SECTRE. I welcome the lack of plastic in the game, but it could affect the length of time enjoying the game (although we’re talking decades, not just years). While I was looking at a prototype copy, the principles of the game company suggest it will feel similar. Nice to know your fun isn’t doing terrible things to the environment.

Thoughts on SECTRE

SECTRE is lighter, but still an abstract strategy game. Casual players sometimes won’t take to this kind of game, but ours mostly did. Of course, they were challenged by this GIPF-loving gamer, who won every game. Some players were frustrated when I would claim multiple cards with a single play, so this might be house-ruled away as a handicap.

The game operates on ground that is widely covered in the abstract strategy world, with the use of domino-style pieces and a grid board. At times, I thought of patterns from Hanging Gardens, the old game M, and a few others that wanted to do something new with this combo. Serious gamers will probably prefer something like Tash-Kalar for a game of placement and patterns, or maybe Kris Burm‘s GIPF project for a little less detail than one gets with Vlaada Chvatil’s work.

Yet, SECTRE works as a very light, almost party-level game that plays closer to traditional abstract strategy games like checkers and chess than with modern gamer games. Not every casual gamer is as grumpy as the crowd I schooled. Played quickly, SECTRE is an enjoyable pastime that handles up to six people, and that might be a hole in your collection. How many times can you play Tsuro in one night?

SECTRE comes to Kickstarter on November 15 with attractive pricing, free shipping and no guilt over another game being added to your shelf (and carbon footprint). For more information ahead of the Kickstarter, check our Freshwater Game Company on Facebook.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for SECTRE

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Freshwater Game Company provided a pre-release prototype for independent review.

Review: Echidna Shuffle from Kris Gould and Wattsalpoag Games

Review: Echidna Shuffle from Kris Gould and Wattsalpoag Games

Echidna Shuffle is a fun game that your family and casual gamer friends will love.

There’s something magical about games that are easy enough to let 6 year olds play but that also delight adults. Sure, we all love the idea of ‘easy to play, challenging to master’, but that’s not all there is. The right components are a treat, a theme that can gain a smile from players young and old helps, and certainly a quick play time so it’s easy to play again are all winning attributes. Kris Gould’s Echidna Shuffle, which IS NOW LIVE on Kickstarter, has all of this in spades.

Echidna Shuffle
Images by E.R. Burgess, Prototype Copy

What’s an Echidna? Well, they’re a bit like a porcupine with a funnier name taken from Greek mythology. While the echidna of Zeus’ world was a half-woman and half-snake monstrosity, the real-life echidna is closer to a hedgehog or an anteater. This little bit of trivia is fun to tell the kids as you explain the rules of the game, which is pretty simple to play and, even with a full group of six players, it should finish up in half an hour.

Traffic Jams

In a way, the shuffle is a traffic management game. Players are trying to guide their three bugs (each player has their own plastic bug in their color) from a specific starting place to three plastic tree stumps that get placed on the board by your leftmost competitor. Unfortunately, your bugs can’t traverse the distance on their own – they ride the echidnas wandering through the grass and all over the board.

The echidnas cover the board and follow paths shown on the space directing where they will go, usually in winding paths. All players can move any echidna, whether or not their bug is riding on its back. The goal is to get them into the space where you placed your starting space, and then to guide them to your stumps. Yet, it’s not that easy because:

  • Echidnas can’t go straight to a space, they need to follow a paths laid out on the board.
  • Echidnas can’t jump over each other or sneak by. Players need to move the other Echidnas out of the way.
  • All players are doing this at once so people might move echidnas you just put into a specific place.

How Many Echidnas Can You Move?

Echidna Shuffle shines here, pleasantly mitigating the randomness of dice with consistent numbers. While players roll at the beginning of their turn to see how many spaces they can move as many echidnas as they like (between 2 and 7 on a modified six-sided die), the lucky factor is managed by assigning players an opposite value to move next turn. So, if I roll a 7, next turn I will be moving only 2. This is tracked on a simple board, but it’s also an enjoyably elegant way to keep everyone feeling like they had a fair shake and weren’t losing just on the die rolls.

For the younger players, there is a little planning involved, but this will teach them some skills there. Downtime isn’t too bad because even though the board “shuffles around” every turn, players know how many spaces they will move every other turn, meaning they can plan ahead. While there are a lot of echidnas to consider, it isn’t too overwhelming for players because you can trace your options back to your bug space and the stumps.

Winning Echidna Shuffle isn’t hard but it is fun to play and quick enough that it is easy to start it all up again right away. Trapping friends’ bugs in dead ends, blocking them with more echidnas, or sending them the wrong direction (don’t walk bugs riding an echidna over his own stump because he knows to stop and will jump onto the stump). There are a few more rules (like trying to move more than two bugs at once), but that’s the gist of the whole amusing affair.

Echidna Shuffle
Images by E.R. Burgess, Prototype Copy

Shuffling Echidnas

Echidna Shuffle
Images by E.R. Burgess, Prototype Copy

Since I received this prototype copy, I’ve played Echidna Shuffle five times and it has been a hit with kids, teens and adults alike. The adorable echidna figures and bright colors on the board are sure to attract many players and they will be happy to see the game is worthwhile, too.

A couple of years back, I had the pleasure of playing Kris’ MASSIVE prototype of Echinda Shuffle at the Gathering of Friends and I recall thinking it would be tough to bring to market, even though I hoped he would since it was a hit of the convention. Yet, all Kris and his Wattsalpoagians had to do was address the scale issue. The rather large animals got smaller and cuter so they could fit into a regular box. They will charm players big time, as they have at all of our plays of the game.

If you like casual games at the level of Tsuro, that involve a little thinking and planning but nothing that will overwhelm people, Echidna Shuffle is for you. Anyone else, I’d still recommend giving it a go because it has a feel that isn’t like every other game you can play in that amount of time with six players. And if you have kids, I’d upgrade that rating to Buy It Now.

Echidna Shuffle is now LIVE on Kickstarter and I hope you will grab one and enjoy it with the family.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Echidna Shuffle

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Wattsalpoag Games provided a pre-release prototype for independent review.

REVIEW: Sparkle*Kitty Delights With Its Message & Silliness

REVIEW: Sparkle*Kitty Delights With Its Message & Silliness

Sparkle*Kitty is a cute game I wish I’d had years ago. Simply put, I had an easier time getting my son to play board games over the years than I ever did with my daughter. Sure, when she was younger, my daughter delighted in any time with Dad. But it’s not really her fault; there are never enough games with girls in the driver’s seat (although I will soon talk about the amusing One Deck Dungeon, which pushed the other way). That’s one reason why Sparkle*Kitty is delightful. SK tells a story that makes sense for the girls, with self-rescuing princesses that are in control. More importantly, it’s a charming party game that rides the theme well for both families and kids-at-heart.

Sparkle*Kitty
Princesses Galore

Sparkle*Kitty is designed by Manny Vega and published by Breaking Games, who have had past success with Letter Tycoon and the wildly successful Kickstarter for Rise of Tribes earlier this year. The game allows for 3 to 8 players and works fine for ages 6 and up. Generally, you can play it in 15-30 minutes (depending on the number of players) and I say the more, the better.

Players in Sparkle*Kitty get to play as one of seven cool princesses with various personalities. Each player gets a hand of nine cards that are used to build a tower with four of them, with their princess on top. The remaining cards become their starting hand and they begin play with the goal of getting rid of first their hand cards and then the tower. Generally, players will need to clear their hand card first, then they can disassemble their tower to gain freedom and win the game.

How do you get rid of the cards? That’s the amusing part. The tableau in the center has two cards from the deck with funny or quirky words that are said together on player turns – this is ‘casting a spell’. When the active player would like to play a card, they need to match the color or the icon of one of the cards, then say the words. This is funny stuff as the words tend to be quirky and cute stuff like:

Sparkle*Kitty

Okay, not all of them are sweet, but that’s part of the fun. Some cards will offer players an advantage (like playing as many cards as possible or forcing other players to draw), but many of them (black cards labeled “Dark Magic”) will require players to say another word whenever they cast their spell. While people don’t mess up all that much, you can decide how tough you want to be on them for partially flubbing a word here and there.

That’s part of the amusement, in my book. More special cards exist, with some rule-breaking options, some wild cards and even the super-cool Sparkle and Kitty cards that let you draw back to your hand from your Tower instead of the deck. But the real fun is everyone repeating the silly spells each turn while trying to get rid of their cards. Many tongue-twisty moments came up, especially with the Dark Magic cards in use.

Sparkle*Kitty ends when that happens and the princess who discards her last tower card wins. The game from rules to finish is less than 30 minutes with typical players. I love that designer Manny Vega built this game, which could have been done with a variety of themes, specifically with the empowered princess in mind. As I said, I wish my daughter could have played it as a younger person and seen us all need to play self-rescuing princesses with such a funny theme. Even with kids in the game, who stayed engaged in our game due to the bright colors, funny words and great artwork of powerful princesses, we played the game quickly. The under-10 year old players wanted to play again immediately and asked about how soon they can get the “Kitty Game.”

 

The answer is right now. Sparkle*Kitty is just bursting out now after a limited run back at Gen Con 2017. It’s now on Amazon for $20 and at your local high-quality hobby game store. If you have young kids, maybe bump up that rating by one level because you may just need the game with the rainbow-vomit kitty box.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Sparkle*Kitty

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Breaking Games provided a copy for independent review.

Review: Imagine from Shingo Fujita and Gamewright

Review: Imagine from Shingo Fujita and Gamewright

Imagine is a worthy addition to your party game collection, giving quieter players a chance to get creative.

Some might say we’re getting too many party games into the market these days. I’d instead suggest that this is a Renaissance of party games. Thirty years after the craze of 80’s games that pushed Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary and Scattergories into the collections and get-togethers in US homes, we have an upswing in quality. It’s not like party games died. They may have taken a back seat to electronic entertainment. Maybe a lack of creative energy flowing in. No more – with the advent of Apples to Apples, its naughty cousin Cards Against Humanity, Cranium, and the titles from serious designers like Codenames, Concept, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf, there’s a surge of good games in the last 5 years that are rightfully being played more and more.

Add the clever Imagine to the list for sure. This winner has simple game play yet a unique feel to its play. Like so many other great games, Imagine is about trying to get someone else to understand your clue. The big twist here is that players make use of transparent cards that can be stacked and shifted as you clue to the other players what you are trying to get across (a word, the category of which is given to the other players).

The cards are a little like the see-through cards you see in games like Gloom or Mystic Vale, which can superimpose items over or next to each other, as appropriate. However, movement is one of the tools you can use to make the generic and semi-specific shapes offer insight into the word you selected.

As with the best party games, this is also where the hilarity kicks in. Players frantically pull up the cards (all are available, so there’s something to be said for using what you can find quickly) and shift them around to get the point across. Hilarity will ensue or you aren’t playing properly. Even your reserved friends can get in on the fun with Imagine.

Imagine’s Winning Attribute

The real charm of Imagine is how even your quieter friends can get the thrill of Charades going. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to use the shapes and symbols to clue as it does to use your body. We love how it is opening up that side of fun to introverts

Scoring, if you care, is well-implemented. The current player can get any other player on the board to guess what he or she is trying to convey so they can both score. I’m fond of this idea because, like Concept, this allows for more players to be involved for more turns. I also like the fact that Imagine is explained in seconds and people just naturally get the rules from there. As a result, this one works well for families. Yes, it’s also for your drunk friends at the end of the night.

The game plays in about 20 minutes with the standard rules giving players two go-rounds. We have always ended up with at least one more game. When I brought it to my work game-night, they refused all other games to play it all night for hours.

Imagine recently won the 2017 As d’Or – Jeu de l’Année, which isn’t a surprise. This game has excellent replay value, works for any crowd, and will be the source of many laughs that night. I believe it belongs in your party game collection.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Imagine

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Publisher Gamewright provided a copy for independent review.