Fisticuffs was a successful Kickstarter from a parallel universe to the one where gamer boardgames exist. Like Cards Against Humanity or The Oatmeal’sExploding 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 until 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.
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 play 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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 ofAnimal 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.
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.