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.

Session Review: Rise of Tribes by Brad Brooks and Breaking Games

Session Review: Rise of Tribes by Brad Brooks and Breaking Games

The things that make a good game is a subject I ponder a fair amount as both someone who talks a lot about games and a sometime-designer. Not a great game, mind you. I might advance the idea that what makes up a good game and what makes a great game or not just the same thing but more so. I know, it sounds odd but, dear reader, indulge me for a moment.

Rise of Tribes

To me, a great game is some kind of lightning in a bottle. Great games may contain something that just doesn’t exist in lesser quantities in good games. The mechanisms click, possibly with the theme or the components, the creativity it inspires in players, the collaboration, the mix of strategic options or maybe the various paths to victory. Some kind of magical silver string pulls it all together to make an experience you want to enjoy over and over. The ‘one and done’ good game may not really have that mix of elements sitting there, ready to be augmented.

But maybe I’m wrong. This came up as I was doing some recent playtesting, with the highlight being Rise of Tribes from Breaking Games, pretty much the only game I played that I can talk about today.

A new game from Brad Brooks, of Letter Tycoon fame, Rise of Tribes is a quick-playing early civilization game with exploring, conflict, tech, and growing your tribe. Despite the many options in the game, it plays in under an hour, has a unique decisioning system, and I found it satisfying. The game is currently going like gangbusters on Kickstarter (over 1000% funded) but what else can I tell you about it.

Rise of Tribes’ central mechanism is simple; roll two dice and add them to the two of four options you plan to use this turn. Those options include adding tribe members (3 of them), moving them (4 total spaces), gathering resources from hexes your tribe members occupy, or drawing two victory point/advantage cards you can buy with gathered resources.

The interesting part about this game is the dice element. The dice are six-siders with two each of blank sides, moons and suns. Cue the Credence when you see those moons because they mean bad things. At all times, three dice are at the top of each of the four options. When you add a dice to select the action, it changes the makeup. Now, the three dice only matter if there are pairs of suns or moons. If the former is true, you get a bonus to the action (usually just a higher number item). And, yes, two moons means you get less than the normal action. Kudos to Brad and Breaking Games for making this intuitive with their board design.

After your two actions, you can use resources to buy cards from your deck (all the same) that you previous drew. The cards are key because they not only give you points, they also mitigate some of the penalties in the game, give you raw victory points

The other thing you can build is a Village. These are exceptionally useful as they hand you a victory point for each turn you begin with them intact and each player has a different resource combo to build them. They also give you the power to effectively cycle your bonus cards. The only problem is – they kind of attract attention.

There is conflict among the Tribes, but it isn’t annoying like some games of this nature. It’s nothing personal – we’re just talking about space here. If you want to share the land with other tribes, you can. Both of you can gather there and no one gets hurt. But, if you get more than five people in one hex, you’ve got a conflict on your hands. This is resolve by removing a pair each until only one tribe color is left. This also happens if you are alone and just pile too many of your Tribeeples in one place. Space is space. If there’s a Village on the spot, you don’t get to take it over if you kill the Village owner, your tribe is just too excited and they burn it to the ground. Just like in real life.

Rise of Tribes

The game is played to 15 points and it ends immediately when someone hits that goal. While the Hut is a reliable source for VP, they can be destroyed by an incursion from others. Safer is to buy cards from your deck, which also often give you an advantage in the game.

So, is Rise of Tribes good or great? Well, I think it’s very good and the last stages of play testing may push it over the edge. I think that silver string is here in the unique dice mechanism and maybe the card mix in your private reserve. The fast-playing schedule also makes the game feel like “Race of the Tribes”, which is a compliment. I can see this playing in 30 minutes with the right crowd – and that’s a lot of game for 1/2 an hour.

Rise of Tribes is on Kickstarter right now, through July 6th. A nice upgraded version is also available. Breaking Games is making a name for itself with some new offerings that look interesting. Definitely keeping an eye on them.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Rise of Tribes

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

Disclosure: Played a play test copy of Rise of Tribes, provided by Breaking Games. I personally know Brad and Peter Vaughn from Breaking Games. But, you know, I know a lot of people.

GOF 2017 Report: Gloomhaven Is Mostly Gloomhype

GOF 2017 Report: Gloomhaven Is Mostly Gloomhype

Editor’s Note: Still getting around to my posts from Gathering of Friends 2017 last month. They’ll come out as soon as I can get a moment to write and edit them. Bless you for your patience with this busy blogger. Gloomhaven here also got a little long.

Editor’s Other Note: If you are a Gloomhaven Groupie and want your opinion validated, Ars Technica has a good article for you. Ye will find no validation here.

Having a limited time at the Gathering of Friends this year, I had not really made a proper list of must-play games. Yet, Gloomhaven was high on my mental list to try because of all the hype that has been spread online about this game for some time, culminating in their highly successful Kickstarter campaign, which just closed. People I respected had been pushing it hard, talking about how amazing the whole thing was and putting a whole lot of money into the admittedly giant box offered by the publisher. The hype, not shied away from by the publisher, was massive and growing. My expectations were high.

So, I was quite appreciative when my friend Jeff gave me his slot in a planned Gloomhaven session on Thursday morning. As it happens, a big fan of the game had been running daily games for novices, teaching them the game and then running them through his campaign with prescribed characters he had been developing. I turned up early to my designated time all ready to be dazzled. While my recent investment in Descent 2.0 to play with my son and friends is substantial, maybe Gloomhaven will give me the eurogame-powered alternative that will be worth the switch. I recall how in the late 80’s, I switched to GURPS from AD&D 1st edition for similar reasons. More control, less randomness, a more serious design. Deja vu, game edition.

Expectations are a tough thing. Having been raised in the business world by the Pixie Dusters at Disney, where one of the key concepts is to exceed expectations, I’m keenly in tune with how important it is to go into a situation with them set properly. For the most part, the Gloomhyping had worked on me. I was considering supporting the Kickstarter even as I had sworn to not buy unplayed games this year (probably not an unfamiliar refrain to you, dear reader). The one bright (dark?) spot here was that the night before, a highly-respected game designer had run through his list of games played and offered his quick opinions. When he got to Gloomhaven, his review was two words:

“Hated it.”

Still Gloomhotin

On Thursday morning, I sat down with his words in mind, hoping they would lower my expectations sufficiently that I would love Gloomhaven. As the box was opened, the components were an inauspicious start. There’s a lot of stuff inside that big chest but I was immediately underwhelmed by the boring game boards and cardboard standees for monsters. Hey, Descent 2.0 has made me love detailed boards and cool miniatures while this felt like a throwback to the sad days when Steve Jackson Games tried to get us excited about Cardboard Heroes! Didn’t work on me then, not impressed now (I had similar misgivings about Dead of Winter, which hasn’t been to the table in a long while). The mix of figures for the heroes and cardboard for the monsters just felt wrong.

When we got to the rules, things seemed better. Gloomhaven has some interesting mechanisms, at least starting with the personal deck play options that let you come up with interesting card combos unique to your character. Players have a custom deck that can be upgraded with stickers and they’re double-purposed like what you find in Card Driven Wargames, with two ways to use them. You play two per turn, using the top combat-oriented option on one card, and the bottom movement-focused option at the bottom. I liked the idea of how they worked and interacted with power-ups that you could inspire and then people could use. Kind of like magic that hasn’t faded in the air, these elemental and such type of conditions can give players extended powers, which seems cool. I was intrigued but also felt like the options often limited what you could do for the turn.

Gloomhaven

The game has also worked hard to make the characters and classes unique in a way that shows these folks have been playing RPGs in the last nearly thirty years when I wasn’t. They’re exploding stereotypes and limitations. Clerics can have knives, dwarf-types can cast spells. This ain’t your father’s RPG class system! Er, I guess I’m the dad. This ain’t my old RPG class system! I mock because I’m given to do it, but this is actually a good thing. The characters have no attributes either, so you’re really using the card decks to do most of the work in combat and hand management. Some cards go away after a single use, others can go away if used in a certain way. Managing how you use these options is interesting but, a few hours in, you might grow weary of the work going into it. I did.

Like most dungeon crawlers, you have equipment to help you on your way and they add to what they should (armor helps with defense, weapons with killing stuff). Sounds good, so far – the description of those rules include lots of eurogame touches that look like they will make the game more balanced and interesting. As we get through an hour of rules, I’m excited but maybe a little concerned about how much there is to track and that I won’t be able to do what I want sometimes. Maybe kind of a lot of the time.

We hear a brief description of where we are in the world, being that this is eight scenarios in, and then we start. Much like Descent and other dungeon crawlers, we’re in conflict with some kind of monsters pretty quickly. Unfortunately, with the way the initiative mechanisms work, my rock-guy Tank runs up to the front but the dungeon jerks we are fighting sidestep me and go after our mage-thing run by our rules teacher. They promptly kill him.

I say ‘promptly’ but that’s just in Gloomhaven time, which moves like a snail crawling through barely-wet cement while covered in molasses and dragging an anvil. Did I mention the snail is really old?

More on that point later. We reboot.

We go in again and spread out a little differently. Now, the same rule plagues us and the creepy crawlies grab our rogue-thing. He’s killed and reboot two happens.

We’re over two hours in and we have yet to fight anyone but it’s noisy, we have three new players and while I’m getting it, there is a fair amount to think about on an individual turn so the other two guys are doing their best. Also, I have a work emergency going on and I’m Slacking between turns. This actually helps because the downtime in Gloomhangin is powerful.

As we play, some of the mechanisms that I found interesting start to feel unsatisfying. The ‘elemental effect’ or whatever mechanism only appears to have a single turn of impact, meaning it takes a lot of coordination to get an often minor impact on your turn. I hope the rules master had this one wrong because it turns something really cool into something lukewarm.

The standard equipment also appears to have a lot less utility than in any adventure game I’ve played. While my armor and shield help me every single turn in Descent or the D&D board games, Gloomhaltin limits equipment to seemingly minimal uses and then they need repair or untapping (sorry, ‘straightening’ or something – I don’t want to owe Hasbro a license fee). Man, why didn’t I buy armor that works every time? The rules master explains that this is for balance, which was the explanation for a fair number of my questions. Wow, I wish balance and fun could get equal time here. He did acknowledge that point sometime later.

I can do a lot of cool things with my cards…but they are fairly limited, hard to orchestrate, and often what I want to do is unavailable when I really need it. In fact, timing your actions to work well with the tactical situation on the board is hard enough to lack of a spark of pleasure that we get from easily getting into conflicts on the board in Descent, figuring out how our powers can help us beat the baddies. I keep making that comparison because it feels like Fantasy Flight are making a conscious effort to loosen things up with their combat games. Imperial Assault (essentially, Star Wars Descent) even has skirmish mode, acknowledging that sometimes you just want to throw down for 30-45 minutes and not plan a long day of dungeon delving. Gloomhaven seems to only allow the latter.

Four hours in, we have barely survived battle number 1 (on the third try) and just edged into a second room. There are three reasons I haven’t left the table yet, making some kind of excuse about a gaming emergency.

  1. The work emergency is still in the process of getting resolved and the otherwise-painful downtime is helping a lot. I’m making good progress and when it becomes my turn, I quickly move and then I’m off Slacking with my team back in L.A. and S.F.
  2. I appreciate the time the rules guy has put into it and don’t want to screw up his campaign by walking away. The other two players are also having some amount of fun, although it’s often hard to ascertain how much. They do eventually seem to get the game more. They’re all swell folks and I don’t want to ruin the game.
  3. I want to see this through so I can write this rather gonzo session review of Gloomhaven because, of course, I love you all.

Return on Attention

In the end, we spend six hours, finish room two and rush to get to room three. Mind you, these rooms are bare-bones chambers that lack of the character, obstacles, and theming of Descent boards. By this time, I could have played nearly three scenarios of Descent and been in dozens of rooms that would give us a sense of accomplishment. The app helps this immensely, as it helps you feel the experience and travel and exploration. Gloomholdin just feels like we’re running in place, and a nondescript one at that.

In the end, I could see how that designer could have ‘hated’ Gloomhazin. While the eurogame stylings have sawed off the Ameritrash edges in many ways, they make the game feel stilted and labored to me. You have to do so much to get so little, which violates a big rule for me. When I design software, one of my focuses is on “Return on Attention”. We are far too busy to do anything these days. We have only so many mental cycles in the day. I believe games need to deliver on fun and positive experiences for the time put in. If the game starts to feel like a lot of work or if it doesn’t deliver enough regularly to keep you engaged, it isn’t worth my time.

That’s just me, of course. I know many people love to play games that give them the feeling of running a big business, country, or other operation, and that experience and putting a lot of time into it to optimize or otherwise deliver better stuff is exciting. More power to them. If they are loving that experience, I’m glad they are getting what they want out of games. Gloomhaven feels like that to me. If you want to micromanage a dungeon crawl and feel the euro mechanisms slip together like artisanal puzzle pieces, this is your game. You will drown in joy at the 100 hours of play you will get out of the giant box, which will be an excellent deal and money well-spent. I still think replacing all those standees with miniatures and such would be more fun but that would make the box Ogre Designer’s Edition sized. Eeek.

If you want things a little looser, more consistently thrilling, and perhaps a little more in line with the old-school feel of RPGs dungeon-delving, I think you’ll be happier with Descent 2.0 (particularly with the excellent app) or maybe the D&D board games.

I’ll end with my caveats that longtime BGB readers and listeners know well enough: I’m a eurogamer by nature, but I played RPGs back in the 80’s. Ameritrash isn’t normally my thing but we have gotten deeply into Mice & Mystics and also Descent 2.0 primarily because my son wanted to play RPGs and I figured this was a good compromise. We also acquired and played the D&D board games but I think they aren’t as good as the other two RPG-in-a-box titles we have enjoyed regularly for the last couple of years. We’re playing fairly regularly now and, while I would love more variation in games, I’m thrilled that this oldschool play is delighting my son and the close friends with whom I spent a lot of time adventuring back in high school.

One more point: If you coughed up more than $100 for this game because you were Gloomhopin it was going to be a Descent-killer, the Second Coming, or just a really good game that you and your friends love, I hope it gets you to Gloomheaven. The play time situation for my experience wasn’t ideal and while I’d probably give it a second try with a friend who knew the rules really well and pimped it out with real miniatures, I won’t be seeking that situation out. Not all games work for all people so if the hype got you on the bandwagon, I do hope you enjoy the ride…and remember there’s always the secondary market if you also think Gloomhaven is indeed a haven for gaming misery.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Gloomhaven

BIN (Buy It Now)

PIN (P)lay It Now

TIF (Try It First)

NMT (Not My Thing)