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: 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.

Session Review: Bring Your Own Book from Matthew Moore and Luke Nalker and Gamewright Games

Session Review: Bring Your Own Book from Matthew Moore and Luke Nalker and Gamewright Games

Bring Your Own Book (subtitled “The Game of Borrowed Phrases”) had me at the title. As a voracious reader, I knew it was going to be a game that I’d enjoy. I wasn’t preparedBring Your Own Book for the game to play so well with our entire group, including some I’d describe as ‘non-readers’. It’s 2016 – what can you do? Although bibliophiles will embrace the game quicker, you need not be obsessed with books to enjoy it. Originally released as a self-published game, Gamewright has snapped it up. Thank goodness they did because it’s fun and we laughed a lot while playing.

Bring Your Own Book is amusing for the reason most party games are: you get to inject the personality of the people playing into the experience. On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward. Like Apples to Apples, Dixit, and Cards Against Humanity, players submit an answer based on criteria set by a game card. That player selects their favorite option and awards the card to the player who selected it. The subjective selection of ‘good’ answers based on whose turn it is drives the mirth in these games. Bring Your Own Book is no exception here.

Yes, You Literally Bring Your Own Book

The innovation here: Instead of a hand of cards with possible answers, players arm themselves with a book. The book’s text is the source for their answers. Once the game card is read, players scour their books to find a phrase or line to match the card. Categories are all over the place, which is amusing. Some examples of the witty card selections: “A line from an unpublished Dr. Seuss book” “A pickup line” or “The title of a romance novel.”

One might read that description and think the game is more interesting for readers who pick their favorite book to use. Not so. The real fun comes out of the truly bizarre answers people try to pass off as a reasonable answer. I did well in our first game with a book on Irish history (I’m a mutt but more Irish/English than anything else). One of our players had a picture book about gnomes, which was a great source for ridiculous responses. Considering the card picker can select the winner based on their own criteria (funniest or the most appropriate for the category), going the funny route can often work and it almost did for the gnome book-wielder.

Bring Your Own Book

If you’re one of those folks who have moved on from deadtree books to the ebook world, you can still enjoy the game. While we had people raiding a few of our bookshelves, there’s no reason why players can’t just bring up a book on their Kindle or iPhone to use. Furthermore, you can get many free books online from your local library or online resources to use in a snap.

(Yes, BGB listeners who know me to be a total tech-head might ask about these bookshelves in my home. I do mostly read e-books but the deadtree variety are so cheap these days that sometimes, I just buy them instead…hey, I got this Morrissey biography for $.08 plus shipping!)

Oh, yeah – the winner is the first one to four or five cards. I think that’s it. Seriously, if you care about who wins, you’re missing the point of party games.

The Final Word on Bring Your Own Book

If you like this style of party game, you’re bound to enjoy Bring Your Own Book. While I love and admire clever party games like Codenames, games where you submit answers that rely on player relationships are the biggest source of laughs. The delightful bonus for Bring Your Own Book is how it allows players to get even more creative in their selections. Yes, it’s lower-effort creativity than the likes of Balderdash (another of my favorites), but it works. The game is now on our Top 10 Party Games list.

Bring Your Own Book plays in 20-30 minutes and with 3-8 players. Of course, you can control these factors by simply handing out more cards or increasing the threshold for winning. The packaging is also delightfully bookish, another fine detail for us book-lovers. I’m jazzed by the packaging Gamewright has been using, although my favorite has been the dice games boxes with the magnets you’ll find housing Qwixx, Dodge Dice and Rolling America. Not anymore – look at the cool addition to Bring Your Own Book just below. You track the books used to play the game as you go. What a terrific idea and one that is unique to Bring Your Own Book.

Bring Your Own Book

Bring Your Own Book is available now from Gamewright and you can follow the author here.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Bring Your Own Book

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

Disclosure: Copy provided by the publisher for independent review.

Session Review: Fisticuffs by The Nerdologues

Session Review: Fisticuffs by The Nerdologues

Fisticuffs was a successful Kickstarter from a parallel universe to the one where gamer boardgames exist. Like Cards Against Humanity or The Oatmeal’s Exploding Kittens game, these titles are a lot about the humor and creativity of the individuals involved – sometimes at the expense of game play. While apologists will defend the titles as ‘a fun experience’ and ‘crowd-dependent,’ serious gamers just need to know what they’re getting themselves into.

I approached Fisticuffs with that thought in mind, especially since the game ‘sold’ me on the designers being ‘a bunch of people you don’t know but could totally be friends with.’ That’s good marketing and I admire it.

I also love party games and I’m fine with including lighter games that sometimes include a take-that feel as part of a day of gaming. Heck, I played Red Dragon Inn more times last year than any Feld game except Die Burgen Von Burgund (the booze helps).

Fisticuffs is one such game, playing with 4 to 6 players in just 20 or so minutes. The idea of the game is like Brawl, TKO and JAB before it – let players essentially duke it out over a few rounds Board Gameuntil you can declare a winner. While the Brawl and JAB do the realtime thing (which some find overwhelming), Fisticuffs plays like a normal card game but allows people to join in the fray even when it’s not their turn.

The rules are simple. Players choose a character, all of whom have funny names but some of whom have special powers you’ll never use. Players get cards of different colors with various punches and attacks on them. On your turn, you play a card to attack someone. They can block it with the same named card (e.g., an Uppercut blocks an Uppercut). If you don’t block, other players can. If a block happens, a card of the same color can be used to counter-attack. And so on, but now you can target any other players who got involved. Yes, everyone at the table can potentially join in. Yes, it gets a bit confusing – which is part of the fun? When a blow finally goes unblocked, the person hit loses some of their twelve starts hit points. Then, the same thing happens next turn.

Once everyone gets a turn, you can reload cards and you get some defensive cards from a secondary deck. These “Round” cards (not round like BB-8 – you get one each round) have more ’tactical’ options. This all continues until you’re down to two players and then the rules simplify further. Someone wins, it’s over.

Needless to say that despite the mild amusement from the humor (primarily from the character cards), our players didn’t find much to engage them in Fisticuffs. After the first turn, people were more conservative with getting involved in brawls. The artwork is basic but not so much so that we thought it was being intentionally bad for comic effect. The simplicity likely helped keep costs down for the Kickstarter and that makes sense.

I’m glad the Nerdologues got the backing to make their game a reality because I love crowdsourcing to help creative projects. I hope the 600 or so folks who backed it have a great time with Fisticuffs. But it’s just not for me. While Brawl is the be-all, end-all fighting card game, TKO gets you the theme for less money (Brawl costs per deck, TKO is ludicrously cheap) with a limit of two players. If you love the theme, Fisticuffs does get this experience with a multiplayer option and the funny back story (which you can enjoy in the video above) is worth a look.

This copy of Fisticuffs will be donated to the Strategicon Game Library so you can give it a try at Gamex 2016 (and beyond) to see if it’s more to your taste than mine.

Boardgame Babylon Rating

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

Disclosure: Copy provided by the publisher for independent review.

Session Review: Knit Wit by Matt Leacock

Session Review: Knit Wit by Matt Leacock

Most modern gamers love beautiful components. Maybe it’s a reaction to our excessive screentime these days, where we travel in magical, wondrous worlds that we can see and hear but cannot touch. For me, that’s a lot of the appeal of board games. Having physical pieces to handle while looking at the faces of friends and family. We’re even funding crazy-gorgeous deluxe versions of games (hoping they arrive SOMEDAY). So, it was just a tiny bit surprised when someone at our table commented that Knit Wit, the new game from Matt Leacock, was ‘really overproduced.’

Sure, microgames have shown us that exceptional game experiences can come in small packages. Heck, there are some really cool print and IMG_7906play games. That doesn’t mean fillers cannot come in big ones. Knit Wit is indeed a short yet enjoyable game that comes in a big box that might make some players think it could have been produced for a lower price. Okay, maybe that’s true. We’ve already seen Flick ‘Em Up downgraded to make it more affordable. I say that’s a bummer but people are usually on a budget so is Knit Wit worth your $35 (MSRP)?

Knit Wit is one of those word games that feels immediate both because it is familiar and good. The elevator pitch is “Scattergories with Venn Diagrams.” Yeah, that’s a solid description I wish I’d used initially when explaining it rather than talking about how to place spools. Players essentially set up a bunch of spools, clothespins, and strings in patterns on a table. The clothespins get small cards with words added to them. Then, based on where the spools get placed, everyone gets a Scattergories list going. The word for each spool needs to take into account the strings that surround it. Thus, Spool Number 5 (there are 8) might be inside the string with a clothespin that has the word “Bad” as well as the one that says “Boring.” So, players would write a word or brief phrase that is both “Bad” and “Boring” (i.e., Superman vs. Batman or post-Nirvana 90’s Rock or maybe Krysten Ritter’s performance in Jessica Jones).

Speed matters, too. Those who fill out their answers quicker (or fill out as many as they know) can stop writing and grab a bonus button, of which there are four, with descending values (simply, elegantly denoted by the number of holes on the buttons). Players then share their answers, with any matches (same answer for a spool) being lost. Like Scattergories, it helps to go a little obscure. But don’t push it; players can challenge your questionable answers and put them to a vote. Then, you total up scored answers with bonuses and it’s over. Until you immediately play it a second time. This is even encouraged by the double-sided score pages, which are on black paper with white pencils to write on them. Love it.IMG_7925

 

Final Word

Knit Wit is definitely a good time and was liked by all of our casual gamer friends. More serious word nerds may wish for there to be something more but I say that it’s a pleasant game for all and a likely closer for us in the future.

So what about those components? Well, they’re lovely. The spools are sturdy and pleasing to hold. Buttons, clothespins and other components, especially the unexpectedly rigid (in a good way) word cards are all thematic and fun to hold, even if you wonder whether Z-Man Games hit a JoAnn Fabrics closing sale or something. The box itself is pretty nice, although the slip cover is the only serious misfire. The box closes fine but the slip cover (which, seriously, gamers can’t throw away) is just a pain to put back on. Didn’t they learn to stop with the box innovations after the Lords of Waterdeep fiasco?

In the end, I’m glad to own Knit Wit but I also think that it’s $35 price tag might prevent some sales. If the Z-less Man (had to be said) had found a way to produce the game for $20 in the way that Codenames did, they’d have a mass-market possibility. As it is, it’s a welcome addition to my collection and gamers who love pretty word games that play quickly will enjoy it. Fans of Matt’s other games should know from the packaging that they’re not getting another world-on-fire cooperative game and may indeed be happily surprised to see him turn out a cool little word game like this one.

Boardgame Babylon Rating

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

Preview Review: Pack O Game 2 is on the way and it’s more gum-sized fun

Preview Review: Pack O Game 2 is on the way and it’s more gum-sized fun

I love the microgame. While shorter games with minimal components have been around for a long while and the term ‘microgame’ meant something a bit different back in the 80’s, the modern microgames hit the US with Love Letter from Alderac Entertainment a few years back. Like so many others who hadn’t been privy to the movement in Japan that had been brewing for some time, I was immediately charmed by the little velvety red bag that Love Letter was packaged in. Better yet was the delight I experienced when I discovered the quick game play involving a slim deck of cards and small red cubes to track who was winning. The game, which has been developed into other titles, has its naysayers but the genius of designing with minimal components as a limitation produced a wonderful little diversion – and inspired US players to get interested in the many microgames that Japanese players were already enjoying.

Flash forward a few years and the microgame is huge. You can buy Oink Games on Amazon, the BGG Store is so lousy with them that some are on clearance and a funny Californian game designer (yes, ‘haha’ funny) named Chris Handy has a gaggle of them. Last year, he mounted a successful Kickstarter for eight different microgames that all looked like packs of gum but varied widely in game play. The ‘gum cards’ are narrow decks that are used all kinds of interesting ways in Handy’s collection of amusing and clever titles. They play quickly, make excellent use of the design limitations he set for himself, and cover a nice cross-section of themes, too.

Now, Handy and his Perplext Games are back with a set of four new games as Pack O Game 2. While fans of the past series (your author included) might be wondering what happened to BOO and NUT (to games mentioned in the campaign but not published), the new titles are welcome additions to the collection. (UPDATE – You get to vote on which one is the first stretch goal. Need I say: GO BOO).

(Disclosure: This reviewer received pre-release copies of the games, as he did with most of the Pack O Game 1 titles but he expects to support the campaign like he did last time. Also, these reviews are based on a pre-production prototype. Components, art, and rules may have been updated before publication. Also, maybe I missed a rule. It happens.)

 

New Pack O Game Goodness

RUM Card Game

My favorite of the lot is RUM, a 2-4 player game where players are trying to collect sets of rum bottles of different colors. The gum cards are mostly rum bottle cards with different color bottles on each end. Players draft cards from the table to build up enough cards to take control of the similarly colored Captain cards (of which there are seven, and all are apparently thirsty). When you draft cards, you take them into your hand for future use and replace them. The other option is to play cards from your hand and choose which side you’re using. Once you’ve played them, if you have the most of that color, you gain the Captain. That element feels a bit like the old Ticket to Ride Card Game (itself a bit like Crazy Chicken/Drive from Michael Schacht) but this plays quicker, has a Parrot card to scare off hoarders, a tricky way to steal a Captain, and a simple clock mechanism to keep the game running just a quarter of an hour. RUM has a winning combination of mechanisms and more game than you’d expect to get in 15 minutes. We really enjoyed it and will play it a lot more.

Cat not included. This is a microgame, after all.
Cat not included. This is a microgame, after all.

ORC card

ORC was also a big hit with us. A two-player wargame abstracted to euro goodness, it feels a little like Schotten Totten/Battleline but with its own character (and I don’t just mean orcs filling in for the Highlanders). ORC plays in just minutes as the two players quickly dole out their gum cards with different tribes of orcs. The limitation is that they are orcs and so they can only be played on land that doesn’t match their origin (GET IT: Orcs aren’t peaceful so they don’t care about fighting for their own land – they want the other guy’s). So, while each player is battling with the same orc tribes over the same land, my set of blue orcs must battle my opponent’s different colored orcs on land that is also a different color. Play varies because playing a single orc vs. a double orc card designates whether you add one or two cards to your hand. You play through the cards and then tally up orc totals to see who wins. It’s a great little restaurant game to play while waiting on your food since it sets up quickly and playtime is just five minutes or so. ORC plays like a satisfying abstract that takes five minutes – until you immediately want to play it again.

This ORC shot was staged. My wife didn't want her loss recorded for posterity.
This ORC shot was staged. My wife didn’t want her crushing loss recorded for posterity.

GYM Card Game

Despite its silly theme of coaching kids playing sports in school, GYM is actually the most strategic of the initial four Pack O Game 2 titles. Clocking in at 20 minutes (and our first game took even a bit longer), the game plays in two parts: first drafting a team of kids and then allocating them to four of six possible sporting events in the second portion.

Kid cards have two sports in which they add value to the team (just like in real life) and you draft them based on coming up with a good cross-section of players. Weaker cards are actually Bullies but they give you the power to help decide which sporting events will happen in the second half of the game. After the draft, players then allocate their players to the four of six sports that were selected by Bully in the first part. Play will trigger manipulation of the ranks but this is mitigated by Coach cards (flipped over from the two sports not being played), which can bring some stability to the proceedings. GYM has some clever choices in both parts of the game and is much more thoughtful than it might appear. It’s the least appealing of the themes in this set for me but it’s quite a good little game..

SOW card game

Lastly, SOW takes the gum cards to the garden with a mancala-style mechanism to spread seeds. The setup has the cards spread out with each player set up behind a wheelbarrow that is hiding the color of flower they want the most. On each player turn, the active player moves a stack of seed and/or flower cards around the circle until the run out. That usually triggers either seeds turning into flower or flowers being put into the bouquet (score area) of the player whose wheelbarrow they are below. There’s a gopher and a windmill that controls the mancala direction but they didn’t move much in our game. SOW ends when all stacks have one or no cards left, at which point flowers are counted and those that match the player’s secret color are worth more. We had a couple of players who felt they didn’t have as much control as they would have liked in SOW but they still did fairly well and enjoyed the game.

SOWing The Seeds of LUV
SOWing The Seeds of LUV (Handy better pay me royalties if he publishes LUV)

Pack O Game 2 is Live Now

The four titles mentioned above are now available on Kickstarter and I can tell you I will be supporting them. I’m hopeful that the campaign will include even more games in the series as the last set included some real winners, including GEM, HUE, SHH and TAJ. I love the design aesthetic Handy has brought to the series, both in the game design and the marketing/packaging of the series. We still bring the original Pack O Game series (in the lovely satchel they came with) on game days and when we travel because they are wonderful opening and closing games to get you going or to wind down a fine day of tabletop fun with friends and family.

 

Review: Battlestations 2nd Edition from Jeff Siadek and Gorilla Games

Review: Battlestations 2nd Edition from Jeff Siadek and Gorilla Games

Jeff Siadek has been a local hero game designer for a long time here in Los Angeles. Listeners of the podcast may recall he’s joined me on the show before when he was the Guest of Honor at a past Strategicon but I’ve known Jeff for decades. He’s a good guy that I always enjoy visiting with when I go to Strategicons thrice a year.

Yet, somehow, I hadn’t played one of his most popular and beloved games, Battlestations, despite knowing there was a huge community of players that loved the game. Gobs of online scenarios exist for the game and there’s a forum with a strong, involved bunch of gamers who have been loving this game for the last twelve years.

Now, in fairness, I’m not the kind of guy who normally goes in for the RPG/Ameritrash style of play. The game is not just about spaceships, chock full of rules and various scenarios, but it also has character creation like an RPG where you keep the same persona game to game. Not exactly my cup of tea. That is, until fairly recently, when I started to play more thematic games to get my teenage son more deeply into the hobby (which has worked!). Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook the last couple of years may have been surprised to see games like Mice & Mystics, X-Wing and Imperial Assault show up in the feeds. More on that in the future (yes, a book is on the way).

The opportunity for me to try Battlestations! finally came up because of a new Second Edition that is now available on Kickstarter. A fan of the game (and another local designer friend), Joey Vigour, helped Jeff produce this new version of the game and bring it to the crowdfunding site. Despite the longer-than-usual-for-Eric play time and the style of play, I wanted to give it a go since I’d be asked to record a podcast to talk about it (and I like talking to these guys). Besides, my horizons have opened up on this style of game more in recent days. They say getting out of your comfort zone is how to really experience life and I don’t think that concept is limited to business, travel and dining.

For those who don’t know, Battlestations! is a space combat game that plays at two levels – both in space as a ship-to-ship combat game and it includes play within the ship as the Captain and crew interact during the battle. One of the aspects of the game that has made it so popular is this two-level approach to this kind of game. While some have marveled at the spaceship command experience delivered by the electronic game Artemis, I’m a bit more excited by simulations that are not purely digital.

So, how does Battlestations! play for those with a eurogamer soul? I’m not going to lie; the game has a large rulebook with exceptions and rules-a-go-go. However, Jeff and Joey have introduced a new quick-start rulebook that can get you playing much quicker than in the past. With that 30ish-page rulebook, you have what you need to play. The 200 page rule and scenario book that comes with it then becomes more of a reference guide for additional weapons, equipment and adventure variants.

Battlestations! starts with some prep work and someone being the GM/Overlord. You create characters with races and abilities to begin. In our scenario, we were given some pre-created characters that were marines, scientists, pilots, etc. We then populated a modular ship board with our characters. The usual spaceship rooms were present – a small bridge, engine rooms, weapons and science centers to be manned by our characters and some freebooter guys. On the other outer space map, you pilot the ship in contact with other ships, planets and such. Jeff (our GM) also had an enemy ship we were supposed to chase off, destroy or capture, which was also built out completely with modules and bad guys roaming around.

The ship in motion.
The ship in motion.

Gameplay itself is pretty straightforward for this kind of game. You can move and act (including attacks) each turn, then the enemies try to thwart you. Weapons, equipment and character have various abilities to help them shoot the bad guys, pilot ships, and perform various feats. We had the luxury of the game designer there so I mostly didn’t pay too much attention to the rules. Since the game has someone running it like an RPG or an RPG-in-a-box like Descent, most players can do this comfortably since really the GM is the only one who need to be up on the minutia. While I had a grip on what I needed to do turn-to-turn, when I needed a clarification, Jeff provided it.

Combat is a lot of die-rolling of the old style – hit an armor class and do damage that gets through. Lots of skills rolls and such are based on character attributes and players do need to read up on what they can do in order to use their special abilities to their advantage during the game. I frequently forgot about how hardy my alien skin was when battle damage came calling, to my detriment.

In our game, our freebooters ended up being traitors, so we had to dispatch them before we encountered the enemy ship. We did so mostly (my own three-armed alien scientist ended up being a better warrior than my brother-in-law’s Marine) before we launched a boarding missile at the enemy with two of our player characters inside. We proceeded to have a ship-to-ship combat as our guys tried to take over the ship from the inside. Heavy damage from the enemy blasting and then ramming our ship led to our last two characters also

My (headless) figure takes out a traitorous freebooter.
My (headless) figure takes out a traitorous freebooter.

abandoning ship for the other vessel. We joined the carnage and won the day by dispatching the foes at close quarters with our lasers. We almost lost the foolhardy and grenade-happy (yes, grenades in a spaceship are as bad an idea as they sound) Joey but we managed to revive him in time to win the scenario.

I’m glossing over rules a bit and focusing on the story for a simple reason: that’s what matters most. The rules are longer because they need to be so in order to give players the flexibility to have adventures. There are luck tokens to give you the chance to play a little wildly because that’s what you want – Star Wars-style risks and derring-do. Joey understood this much better than the other three players, we bunch of eurogamers trying to optimize our turns. Silly, we were.

The story element is a big deal, though. What I’ve started to get excited about in Ameritrash games is exactly that. The stories you experience and get to tell later tend to be much more fun than a detailed description of the last point-salad you consumed from Chef Feld. We had a great morning of it and the stories will stick. BGB listeners will know that before anything else, I’m a storyteller, so maybe it’s bizarre that I took this long to come to this realization. Whatever. I’m here now and having a great time.

Battlestations! Board Game
Taking the battle to their ship.

Our group had a blast playing Battlestations and if you’re looking for a game that will give you the sense of the Star Wars (and maybe Star Trek, depending on the scenario) style of ship combat and adventure, this is the game you’re seeking. There are plenty of scenarios for exploring planets and other kinds of encounters, plus solo play options. With the new edition, you also get upgraded components, including marvelous miniatures courtesy of Joey’s expertise in this space. Those who have seen his gorgeous alien figures in his game Chaosmos will love to see Battlestations’ races come to life again in plastic mini form. It’s a wonderful package of extensive gameplay and excellent components.

The game is up on Kickstarter now and already funded, including many stretch goals with additional scenarios from well-known game designers like Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering), Jay Little (X-Wing) and Rick Loomis (Mr. Flying Buffalo). I heartily endorse this whiz-bang box full of fun times.

Review: Fabulous Beasts from designers George Buckenham and Alex Fleetwood

Review: Fabulous Beasts from designers George Buckenham and  Alex Fleetwood

When I heard the name Fabulous Beasts, I like most Harry Potter fans, expected to hear something about the upcoming movie or slim volume produced by JK Rowling. But no – Fabulous Beasts is instead a new board/electronic game from publisher Sensible Object that combines a physical stacking game with an app experience that brings some additional strategy and fun into the mix.

After a note from the publisher, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the designers, George Buckenham, at Game Haus Cafe here in the L.A. area. The team behind Fabulous Beasts hails from the UK and you can see their video introduction of the game way down below.

In fact, that’s not all the chatting that happened. I recently spoke to George online through the magic of Blab, a cool new online conversation platform that I recently wrote about on my company’s blog. I tried it out myself and while you can see the video of the recording, I’d must rather direct you to my upcoming podcast of the chat once my new podcast home becomes available. But I digress.

Fabulous Beasts has a lot of the charm of Animal Upon Animal, the classic Haba stacking game that I can’t stop recommending to parents with kids because it’s awesome and kids love it. Adults usually like it, too, unless they’re boring people you don’t want at the game table.

Fabulous Beasts Pic
Designer Ta-Te Wu joins George in a game. Photo credit: Umm, me.

Happily, you can capture a lot of that fun with Fabulous Beasts while also playing with the puzzle-like mechanisms to maximize your score. FB is a cooperative game, meaning that the players are working together in order to build out a ‘world’ that is reflected physically in the stacking of plastic pieces and electronically on your nearby iPad. Like Animal Upon Animal, a player’s turn consists of stacking a new piece on the electronic platform. Before stacking, players need to scan their piece so the platform knows what piece is being placed, which is zapped over to the nearby iPad and the piece placed will appear there. It takes just a moment and then you can keep stacking.

Unlike wooden stacking games, however, these pieces interact with each other in the electronic world. Animals are the primary pieces in the game and they’re pleasantly odd in shape so as to make for variable stacking options. They’re also categorized as air, sea and land animals that will change and adjust on the app when they’re stacked up. Once you have managed to place them without toppling, the app will update you on their ‘fabulousness’, which goes up sometimes and down when other animals get a boost (often with elemental pieces that correspond to their type), causing jealously. We all know being jealous is definitely not “Fabulous” and those creatures lose some value. Collectively, points are awarded as pieces are added but those bonuses are mitigated somewhat by the losses in fabulousness.

While the stacking bit is enjoyable, especially when you try to expand the space with longer pieces that cause animals to migrate and combine, the app adds a lot of interest to the game. Not only are players challenged to manage animals losing their fabulousness due to the rise of other animal types (which can lead to extinction, which is apparently what happens when one ceases to be sufficiently fabulous) but there are mini-games that arise from placement of certain pieces that distract players or further challenge them on their normal turns. This can include time limits as well as interaction with the iPad that has to happen while also stacking (one such mini-game includes the need to keep touching a full moon that moves across the screen while you are conducting your turn).

These elements certainly add to the experience of playing Fabulous Beasts, which my friends and I quite enjoyed. It’s likely to generate lots of laughing and joshing of your teammates for failing to stack properly or manage the menagerie on the app. Families will surely enjoy the experience of the physical game as well as exploring how the animals change when they migrate and combine through placement of the abstracted pieces that also come with the animals and elements. The elements are things like fire, water, air, etc. While it makes sense that these will affect the animals that correspond to those types, it might be more fun if those elements were actual items rather than concepts. A minor quibble, but it could help develop the story more and offer kids more option for free play with the components.

One more quibble: While I like the way the electronic side works, it’s a little plain as far as the animation goes. Here’s hoping a successful Kickstarter will give Sensible Object some funding to beautify the app. The pieces are certainly very nice and they deserve an electronic counterpart that looks great, too. An update in the future could do that, of course, so I’m glad they focused on getting the physical components right first.

Another appealing notion that is related it the option to update the app to include additional modes of play and challenges in the future. More board games need to take advantage of this idea. Only a handful of products are realizing the potential of this combo but more should because it’s a great way to extend replay value.

Fabulous Beasts is a clever idea well done and it’s available on Kickstarter now. To hear a bit more background on the making of the game on my podcast, OR LISTEN NOW JUST BELOW.