Tagged: Session Reviews

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 5

Hello again board game fans and thank you for joining me on my memory journey through the Gathering of Friends 2021. I know this has been going on for some time but I’m enjoying writing them so I hope you enjoying the reading.

If you missed the previous parts, they’re here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Plus, it appears that I will have six parts to this odyssey because I’m trying to keep the posts short enough to read reasonably in the small amount of time we all have these days.

In this part, I want to talk about a couple of prototypes alongside some published board games I got to play alongside some published board games. Let’s start with a reassessment:

Be Careful With “One And Done”

Expectations are tough. Since I’m a Cult of the New player, I tend to play board games pretty early in the cycle of their lives. In the best cases, I get to play them before the general consensus has been set. However, there are always games that slip through the cracks (Great Western Trail leaps to mind) and others where the buzz and/or hype hits so early that I inevitably play the board game with raised or lowered expectations. While I’ve never found the latter to be a problem (who doesn’t love to find a gem when someone told you it was a rock?), high expectations are a killer. Thus, I come to Wingspan.

By the time I played this award-winning board game, people were already falling over themselves about how wonderful it is. I read too many tweets, too many articles and far too many BGG comments about how revolutionary this release was. When I played the game, I thought it was good but I was turned off by the hype. After meeting the designer at the Gathering, I wanted to give it another go because the consensus was that this was a stellar game. I wanted to give it a fair shake. I was happy to find a table of lovely people playing it (including Alicia Zaret and Jonathan Yost – people whom I wish were 3,000 miles closer to me).

And what do you know: I liked it A LOT more than the first play. Looking back, my first play had an AP player who was also telling everyone what to do on their turns. He was also reading text from his card constantly during other players’ turns.

These details had faded from my memory, but they all came flooding back as I enjoyed the tightly-designed Wingspan. With five players, but all of whom were active, smart players, we polished off the game quickly and happily. I didn’t wait – I ordered the game while on the plane heading home. We’ve enjoyed it twice since then, including the lovely components, the detailed bird information, and the sly inclusion of unique mechanisms that are molded effectively into consistent actions. No small feat. Wingspan is an excellent gateway plus board game that I’m now happy to have in my collection. It’s also a reminder to not judge a game by one play, especially when so many people love it. Odds are, it actually is good. Being wrong sometimes is okay and actually pretty healthy.

Dungeon Crawls

Speaking of games that I need to give a second chance…Alicia had played a prototype with me earlier in the week as well. This one was from a designer who contacted me ahead of time after reading my lengthly article about Gloomhaven from a few years back. I’d played in a game of Gloomhaven at the Gathering and was left quite cold by the experience. It is chronicled here and, amusingly enough, this is the most popular post on my website by a fair margin. The challenge there: Most of the readers seem to hate me, or at least my take, for disliking their beloved Gloomhaven.

Now, let’s be fair: It seems that some rules of the game may have been improperly taught when I had my first foray in. This was a surprise because the person teaching the board game was a serious gamer who’d played many times. But it didn’t work out and I found the thoughtfully-designed game rather boring.

No pics of the secret proto. This was my lunch.

So, this new designer, Joe Bisz, contacted me after reading my article and bravely going through the nasty comments (I publish them all because that’s what one should do and some are quite witty). He had designed his own dungeon crawl game and wanted to ask my opinion about it. We convened with a group and spoke for quite a while before beginning. I found him to be a thoughtful, intelligent and imaginative guy, full of ideas but also humble while he talked about his ambition to build an amazing game.

When we got down to playing, I was taken by his story elements and world building. Gloomhaven is well-known for its execution here and this game seemed to capture that best practice. However, when we got down to the mechanisms of the game, I was less enthusiastic. While there were innovations and departures from concepts that I found stilted in Gloomhaven, the early stage of the design meant things went slowly. We didn’t get too far in before going into feedback. I think he got what he needed and we got to see the early stages of what may be the next great game in dungeon crawls. I look forward to playing this and any other games from this designer in the future.

Rock and Roll (No Writing)

Not a picture of Stage Left, but of the nearly final Final Girl from Van Ryder Games, which looks amazing.

Another key prototype that I played was later stage. That is Stage Left from designer and BGG personality Candice Harris. If you don’t know Candice, you should. She is full of energy and positivity for our hobby. Her board game is a big, multi-faceted euro themed to building your own music band. Personally, I love this theme and although I think Battle of the Bands is a fun take on this concept, Stage Left is a different experience and a welcome one.

Clearly drawing on her knowledge of the space, Candice gives you a chance to recruit members, sort of your influences based on who joins your band (love this), play gigs to get better and to earn money/cred, and producing songs that can help provide you bonuses as you play. Her prototype was gorgeous and well-designed to communicate about a lot of rules in a succinct way.

Adding to this fun theme, I got to play this with some great people including my buddy Ravindra Prasad, who is about as thoughtful and smart a gamer (and playtester) as there is. Ravindra had already played the game once so his insight into where the design could go was particularly astute. After we enjoyed the game (yes, Ravindra won, despite my early lead), we had a great session talking through the various mechanisms of the game.

Candice was wisely open to feedback and developed some of the proffered ideas into the play of the game the next day. Having watched the likes of Reiner Knizia, Antoine Bauza, and Vlaada Chvatil make similar quick changes to test while play testing with them showed me that Candice already had the goods to process useful feedback and improve her game. Stage Left is really fun and we had a blast playing it. I look forward to the finished board game.

Lighting Roundup

I’ll close this part out with a few more published board games. Wishland is another theme park board game among the way-too-many that are out there now. When I began my own design based on this theme many, many (and let’s multiple that ‘many’ by another 10x) moons ago, there weren’t a lot. Now, we have so many that I wonder if the market is interested in my board game. The only reason I continue with my design is because it’s exactly the theme park game I personally want to play.

Wishland is one of the best theme park games out there, but still not what I want.

Wishland is one of the best ones out there right now. Using worker placement and card drafting mechanisms that make sense but still have a sense of the new, it effectively represents the experience of building up a theme park of your own. Turn to turn, you cycle your workers and use them as a kind of currency to place in locations that are already occupied or for some other needs. This reminded me a lot of Colonia from Dirk Henn, although this theme is much better and Wishland is more fun.

The artwork is good, the game play is fast once you ‘get it’ and the production quality is very nice. I would fancy picking it up myself when it comes out formally in the US (I believe it’s currently import-only).

Another quick take: The new Oink Game Moon Adventure is good stuff. Now, this is a kind of sequel to one of their most popular and compelling titles, Deep Sea Adventure. Unlike The Crew, which went from space to liquid space, this second game is sending player to the Moon and turning the competition (nasty, at that) into a cooperative experience. Players are still making sure they have enough air, they’re still seeking valuables on paths.

From liquid space to outer space, Moon Adventure is a nice follow-up to Deep Sea Adventure.

But now we have things like a Space Buggy at the end of the line (if you get there), a robot that follows one of the players to help add to those extra jumps across the moon, and even oxygen tanks to refill this time. In most ways, it works Like DSA, but with little “fixes” that probably plagued some players of the original game (not me). We played it twice because, like DSA, we all estimated wrong initially. IIRC, Larry Levin (who was definitely missed at GOF) is quoted as saying that DSA ‘can really inspire smart people to make dumb decisions.’ It’s an astute comment and MA is no different.

While I love Deep Sea Adventure, I’ll probably grab Moon Adventure at some point to add to my Oink collection. While I love their designs, the games don’t always sparkle for me so I acquire them slowly, usually secondhand. My collector’s spirit (okay, my OCD) won’t let me have incomplete collections so I limit myself to just Alea and Oink. So far.

Prize Idiot

My first pick off the prize table on the last night of GOF was Calico, a charming Alderac board game based on quilting with a side of cats. I passed up bigger games both due to my desire for this game and consideration of my luggage. In retrospect, I could totally have shipped that Anniversary Edition of TTR: Europe that would have delighted my wife. Ah, well. I digress.

Yet another quilting board game. It’s a new sub-genre.

Calico is an enjoyable romp but others describe it as an intense brain burner. As I noted to a friend on Twitter, I was never more than lightly toasted during my first two plays. In it, players build quilts by collecting and placing patches of varying patterns and colors. While you have a design to follow, you are also trying to create color and pattern combos to gain points and attract cats

Play is quick if you let it be. You play a patch and draft a new one each turn. If it creates a pattern combo, you’ll draw cats. If you do a color combo, you get buttons. Points are awarded for these items plus how well you follow your design. With this theme, I know my wife will love the game. The game has just enough going on for gamers to get interested in optimizing, while casual players can enjoy the lighter level of basic combo creation. I’m glad to have Calico on the shelf.

Okay, I think that’s about it for now. Part 6 should conclude my report with Nemesis, Dice Realms, Obsession and a few more, plus some final thoughts about gaming in these times.

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 4

If you’re here, presumably you’re enjoying my long-form GOF 2021 report. Don’t miss Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3. Now, back to the board games…

Happenstance at the Gathering will get you into some good games with great people. As I was wandering over to the massive library that the fantastic Rodney Somerstein was kind enough to bring, I was stopped by Jason Schneider of Gamewright.

I’ve known Jason via email for many years, especially when I was curating the Strategicon Library and sending me review copies would get them a podcast review and inclusion in our growing board game library. He’s a responsive, generous and pleasant fellow who exemplifies Gamewright, a company I consider a real class act. They take chances on quirky games like Bring Your Own Book (out of print now, but delightful for bibliophiles) and have also plucked some excellent sellers from the work of top designers (like Forbidden Island, Sushi Go, and the recent Abandon All Artichokes) that have connected beautifully with family audiences. I thanked him for all his support and he invited me to join a game of Fort.

Fort has all the trappings of Leder Games

Fort is my Forte

I was in immediately because Fort is from Leder Games and their games are always interesting. That said, I like the concept of Vast more than the actual game play. Root is good game with charming artwork, but it’s difficult to get to the table (due to the direct conflict?). Oath, their recent KS, was delivered to my friend and one play in, I’m not sure it’s for me. I’m going to play it more because despite it feeling like it was abstracting abstractions, it was still intriguing.

My trusty friend ZIP always goes into my discard pile but Tiny and Smoke are left out in the yard, ready to be snatched by other players with promises of pizza and toys.

Fort promises a Leder Games experience in a shorter package. The board game is indeed a friends-in-the-neighborhood-themed asymmetric-but-not-really lighter game. Players are kids building the ultimate fort while managing their ‘deck’ of friends, knowing that any cards that aren’t used can be drafted. Is this a deck-borrowing game? Kind of, because you can grab those friends back on a future turn anyway.

Using the kid-currencies of toys and pizza, players select cards from their hand to acquire stuff to help mount their fort, set lookouts (which grant permanent bonuses), and then acquire new ‘kid’ cards to their deck. Again, the most interesting mechanism is that unused cards go into your ‘yard’ and they are available for other players to draft. There is some mitigation. You have a couple of ‘best friend’ cards that never go into the yard, so you can rely on them sticking around. But the concept of ‘play it or possibly lose it’ makes for some difficult decisions turn-to-turn.

There are more rules – some might say too many for a shorter game – but that’s the gist of it. The cards are nicely varied and I recommend the game. The only caveat is that players who dislike ’take that’ games may be put off by the frequent interaction. It’s no Munchkin, but it’s also not ideal for those who love the semi-solitaire experience of many deep-thinking euros. And, yes, the artwork is quirky and fun, like all the brilliant work of Kyle Ferrin. I won the game but it was an ‘asterisk game’ due to one rule (the number of lookouts) being missed.

Riff Raff Rumble

Riff Raff is nutty and wonderful.

Early in the con, I’d seen a copy of Riff Raff on the shelves and I wanted to play it. I love dexterity games. I’m not necessarily that good at them. In D&D terms, I’ve an 11 DEX tops, but I still have an enormous fondness for them.

Riff Raff has a huge box. That’s because it’s housing a tall pirate ship, the ocean beneath it, along with pieces that players need to balance atop the various planks and masts of the ship. Players get a set of those wonky bits and a deck of cards with numbers that correspond to spots on the ship.

Each turn, you simultaneously reveal a card and have to place one of your remaining pieces onto the ship. As you can see from the pic, some of these pieces are much easier to place than others. The same goes for the ship, with some relatively stable spots down low and much more challenging ones above.

Riff-Raffy Items to place on the Ship

That’s about it except for the cool ‘catching’ rule. If you should topple the ship, you’ll get stuck with the pieces that hit the water or the table around. However, if you can catch pieces, you don’t have to take those pieces. It’s a brilliant addition to this style of game and made me want Riff Raff for my dexterity collection. I know the family will enjoy the catching mechanism, especially since this is what people naturally when things start to unravel.

Panic at the Game Con

A few years back, two of my favorite people from the game industry, Justin and Anne-Marie De Witt of Fireside Games, started attending the Gathering and it was a real pleasure to see them back this year. While I got a chance to play a number of games with them, I was most excited to try their new expansion for Castle Panic, Crowns and Quests.

I’ve long been a fan of their castle defense game. It was one of my son’s favorite board games as he was growing up. Some times, we played it twice in a night. The cooperative element meant that the whole family could enjoy a victory against the orcs, goblins, and trolls from the original game. The expansions have all been must-buy additions for the Panic enthusiast. We’ve even enjoyed Dead Panic and Star Trek Panic as variants.

Coming off their successful kickstarter for a gorgeous Deluxe Edition of Castle Panic (late pledges still available), they had a prototype of the new expansion that came with it. For those who have the old game, it will also be released for the traditional version of Castle Panic. The new expansion has great new art that gives the board game a more inclusive feel. Both the game cards and the new expansion that gives each player a character with special powers now include more women and people of color. There’s even a character in a medieval wheelchair (no, it’s not Bran). I enjoy seeing our hobby make these steps forward and the new version is worth the upgrade for sure.

Prototype of Castle Panic Crowns and Quests – not final art

In addition to the special characters, which add a lot of intriguing abilities and some interesting distinction between players, the game now also features missions. The core game of Castle Panic is fun (and quick) enough to warrant hundreds of plays without losing steam. But Justin’s now devised new ways to make use of the circular map to add some variation and excitement to the game. I won’t spoil the stories but let’s just say that it’s a brilliant way to extend the interest in this game without turning it into another Legacy project.

Instead, the scenarios simply remake how you look at the standard Castle Panic board and offer new challenges. Best of all, from what I have seen, these missions are not one-and-done. They have the same Castle-Panic-goodness of replayability because of the method of implying a story through strong thematic elements without being so specific that you need novelty to make them interesting. I expect this expansion will be another must-have for fans.

Party Game Roundup

Earlier in the con, I’d also played some excellent party-game prototypes from a designer whom I didn’t get a chance to ask if I could mention his games so I’ll just say that Julio E. Nazario (designer of Holi and CTRL) has some amusing and clever board games coming our way. While at the table, we also played another Fireside Games party game that kind of got lost in the COVID shuffle.

Stringamajig is a charades-style game played with a circle of string used to convey to the rest of your team what you are trying to clue. It’s an amusing variation that I played first at Dice Tower West last year and I’ve added it to my collection of party games since then. With this crowd, it was a great time because people were so into it. Yes, I love serious board games but my passion for party games is equal. I think you get to know people really well when you play games like this, which is why I always bring board games to every company I join. Stringamajig will definitely be in the bag if I ever go back to an office job.

Wow, I thought part 5 would be it but I think that one will cover: Fantastic Factories, Moon Adventure, Wingspan, Wishland, and Obsession. And I expect my final part 6 will delver into Nemesis, Dice Realms, Obsession, Belratti and whatever else remains. I’m having fun going through the whole week and I hope you are, too.

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 3

If you’re taking my GOF journey with me and missed Part 1 and Part 2, well, click those links earlier in this sentence to find them. Onward…

I really hate Facebook and only my love of board games keeps me on this horrific privacy nightmare of a platform. Professionally, there’s also a reason why, but I also just loathe what they’ve done to electronic discourse over the years. The only reason I’m still on there is for groups, and there is a private GOF one. There is also a website and I wish it were more frequently used but this year, the FB group made it handy to set up games. One that I jumped on was the chance to play Android.

I’ve been interested in this Fantasy Flight (RIP) board game for a long time. In addition to seeing how the old FFG wanted to use the world of Android for a variety of games, including their take on the classic CCG Netrunner, I talked about it with designer Kevin Wilson at a past convention. He told me a lot about it at the time, but it’s been years. So, when Erik Arneson (whose fine book you should read and enjoy) suggested a game of it, I signed up immediately. Amusingly, we were also joined by another guy named Eric. Story of my life – there are three Erics in every possible situation (and that doesn’t even include W. Eric Martin, who pleasantly addresses himself as ‘Other Eric’ in email). And you wonder why my children have such unusual names. I digress.

The Android We Were Looking For

Android has a lot of locations to visit. Would love figures instead of standees.

Happily, the excellent Evan Derrick from Van Ryder Games was kind enough to teach us the game. A key perception he corrected for all of us before starting his explanation was to clarify that Android is NOT a deduction board game, even if it seems like it would be. Instead of a Clue-style specific set of details that you have to seek, Android invites the players to seek out evidence for the suspects they are dealt. Among the suspects you receive, there will be one that the player wants to be innocent and the other one should be guilty guilty guilty. This is a key way to earn points.

In addition to your suspects, players get a character card with a ‘cyber-noir’ troubled past to even out their heroic side. Players then spend their turns moving around the massive board, which has lots of pathways between the regions and locations. You visit these locales ritzy and shady (these get you extra card draws) to interrogate NPCs, collect favors of various types, and also to foil the actions of other players with cards that are specific to them. For this purpose, you draw and play from your opponents’ ‘dark’ deck. In it, each card of which highlights the quirks, limitations, and demons of the character, which can be played to hinder them.

Wow, I can only imagine what my personal dark deck would be like. The mind boggles. Again, I digress.

Ultimately, you complete tasks to put positive or negative evidence on one of the five main suspects, forcing the blame onto the one your starting card says should be guilty and setting up an alibi for the one you want to be innocent. In addition, there is a central conspiracy puzzle to which players can add pieces, earning various bonuses. This is literally represented by puzzle pieces that you build onto the theory puzzle to unlock scoring opportunities. I love this little mini-game and was delighted that my character (a hard-drinking PI) was optimized for this part of the game. That point was noted in the strategy tips for my character, which was handy.

Only Android I’d Consider Owning

The storytelling in Android is wonderful, which is no surprise from the masterful Kevin Wilson. The characters have strong, interesting backgrounds that you can enjoy if you are inclined to delve in (I do) and that’s probably why FFG used it in so many other games. I also really liked how quickly the game can move once you get into the groove. That said, there are SO MANY rules that can fall out of your head when taking a turn. I’m hopeful some industrious BGGer has created a good summary of reminders on the site so you can focus on just what you need turn to turn.

Early on wide shot. It’s a table hog alright, but also an intriguing board game.

In the end, evidence didn’t matter for my ‘guilty’ suspect because he was killed through a concerted effort by that other Eric, who made it his mission to kill that character since Erik and I were putting a lot of evidence on him. That was definitely a personal victory for him because it takes some effort to enact that kill. However, my innocent character ended up being judged the most innocent, so I got points for her. That was handy, but I really prevailed by earning the most points through dominating the conspiracy and stacking up favors.

Android is certainly a unique experience and one that I’d welcome the chance to play again. I can see how some would be turned off by the long play time, although I expect you can cut it down a lot once people know the game. I believe a friend has it and I plan to ask for it to hit the table again soon.

After Android’s marathon session, I needed to cool down with some lighter board games. I played Patchwork with my friend June and managed a win despite her formidable ability with the game. I got lucky on setup and grabbed the 7×7 in the end.We followed this with a group games of Codenames (still a favorite and we played twice) and Just One (how could you not like this game if the table is full of great folks – and ours was). These two games belong in every collection as ideal party games for those casual players who often show up to play with the ‘serious’ gamers. 😉

Finally, I was ready for another new-to-me game of The Crew, but the new version.

I will wait on this Crew until I finish the old one.

Now, I like The Crew a lot but haven’t played it all the way through yet. I need to hop to it, though, because there is already The Crew: Mission Deep Sea. If you have played the award-winning (and deserving) original, you know this is a cooperative trick-taking game that sees players trying to complete various ‘missions’ by playing trick-taking rounds with a goal in mind that isn’t just winning the most tricks. Sometimes it’s all about someone winning a certain card, or having more tricks than another player. Players can use tokens and cards from their hand to share limited information as well, and this is often key to winning a round.

It’s really well done. Mission Deep Sea doesn’t change what works, but it optimizes the goals to make them a little easier to see and distribute on some cards.

Clowder Time

Isle of Cats is one I’ve been curious about for a while. While the silly pun title appeals to my baser word-nerd instincts, I was mostly intrigued because my wife enjoys polyomino games and we are both devoted cat lovers. We have three of these fabulous beasts in our home and pretty much all cat games warrant a look for us.

I met up with my buddy Nick, who was kind enough to teach June and myself from a bit of a rules read, which got us off to a slower start. Once we got into the groove, however, the game’s five rounds happened quickly. Play consists of ‘catching’ and placing cat-based polyominoes onto your boat (‘saving them from an island’), but it’s not just Patchwork or Cottage Garden where you have sequencing limitations. Here, cats can be freely drawn as long as you have the money (um, I mean, FISH) to pay the field they are sitting on. There are two, one of which is more expensive. You also need a basket to hold each cat you save because, you know, cats.

My boat pulling away with the Isle of Cats with many a saved feline friend.

Before that fun begins, you pass-draft cards around the table that will give you buying power, more baskets (sometimes piecing them together from two broken ones), scoring cards, and other advantages permanent and ephemeral. On board your ship, you also use the ‘catominoes’ to cover up rats that will make you lose points if they remain in view. Furthermore, you want to group your cats into ‘families’ with similar ones (same color) to score more points. Finally, scoring cards are both public and private so if you opt to take public ones, you need to remain vigilant that you aren’t handing too many points to other players with public goals. Private goals are just for you and kept secret so your opponents don’t know what you’re seeking.

There are also rules-breaking wild cats to expand your cat families, and treasures that can fill in the gaps between your felines that are also on some of the cards. I think the treasures should’ve been cat toys but I guess treasure’s universally good. After five rounds, you total everything up. From a design perspective, it’s a solid use of good mechanisms well-blended, if it fails to offer anything truly new to the hobby.

In the end, IOC is on my wish list for a trade because it will play well with casual players, the artwork is fun, my wife will love the theme, and, again, cats.

As for the convention in general, I had fewer meals out with friends than usual because I kept taking meals while running upstairs to work for a bit. Yet, I did get a lot of time to chat with people, including finding out that Stance and Cynthia Nixon, who L.A.-based gamers and longtime Strategicon folks, were also attendees. I was so glad to meet them (although I think I met Stance ages ago) so I can interview them for my upcoming writing project about the history of Strategicon. I mention it here so people will hold me accountable if you don’t see it on Kickstarter sometime next year.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Part 4 will delve into more prototypes, Obsession, Nemesis and a few more stragglers that I missed so far.

Session Review: Aroma: A Game of Essence by Organic Aromas

Disclosure: The makers of Aroma: A Game of Essence provided a review copy of the game for an independent written review.

Unique mechanisms in board games are harder to come by these days. So many games feel like Frankenstein’s Monster versions of other good games, which sometimes works. The folks who made Aroma: A Game of Essence may be drawing on some traditional game elements in their four-in-one game box, but the central mechanism is indeed unique: Aroma is all about smelling stuff.

Does that sound crass? It’s not – this isn’t a Cards Against Humanity game with disgusting scratch-and-sniff cards (ugh, I just gave someone ideas). Aroma is actually a quite lovely opportunity to smell essential oils and try to guess them in the play of a game. Within this pleasant and compact box, you’ll find twenty essential oils in four categories (Citrus, Trees, Floral, Plants) that play a central role in each of the four games you can play with Aroma.

A Whiff of Familiar Mechanisms

Yes, Aroma comes with a series of essential oils but also sturdy player boards, cubes, sets of identifying chits for each scent, and other components that are well-designed to fit into a small box while supporting four methods of play, all of which play under an hour to allow it to be pretty approachable for casual players. Each game involves sniffing the essential oils without looking at the identifying stickers on the bottom of the bottles, with players scoring points based on the specific game’s rules.

Handy cards explain the scents.
  • In Collect, players try to be the first to acquire all five aromas in their color by finding and guessing each aroma in the category.
  • In Discovery, a bluffing element is added to the mix.
  • In Revolve, players are speed-round trying to identify the essential oils.
  • In Survive, you win by identifying the aromas in your friends’ group before they identify your aromas.

Much like the enormously popular board game Wingspan, where players can learn a lot of ornithology from playing, you can learn a lot about essential oils here, especially with the cards they provide that include scent descriptions. These can actually help during game play.

For this review, we played all four games and my perception is that most people will find perhaps two of the games to be the preferred way to play. That still provides reasonable replay value, so if you enjoy the act of trying to identify these scents, you will have a good reason to keep bringing Aroma to the table.

The Scent of Fun

I’ll be honest; my son and I both sat down to Aroma skeptical that we’d enjoy this game very much. My wife and daughter were all in, being big fans of essential oils. Yet, as we played, the speed of the games and the success my son experienced won him over quickly. He proved to be far better at identifying the tree scents (probably from his experience as an Eagle Scout) than my wife or daughter, which gave him a fighting chance in the games even though they dominated in identifying the Florals and Plants. My son ended up winning Discover and Revolve handily. My wife and daughter split the other two games, winning Collect and Survive, respectively. My daughter’s killer aggressive instincts helped during Survive, which she called the best of the games. My son found all the games solid, as did my wife. There was general agreement that any would be fine to play again amongst the three of them.

Those elusive Tree scents. My nose failed me here.

Personally, I found Collect and Survive to be the best experiences. Collect is fun and easy to explain – it’s probably the way to introduce the game as a whole. Survive’s confrontational gameplay proved fun because the interaction was strong and it gave us a chance to talk tough at one another. The bluffing in Discovery was probably the least interesting as the stakes don’t feel high enough to make it meaningful. Revolve might just not appeal to everyone with a speed-round, which turns off some people (my wife barely tried – not her bottle of essence, shall we say).

In the end, we all had a good time getting some right, some wrong and some OMG dead wrong. Ultimately, there was enjoyable trash-talking about whose nose knows best, which was a great time. I think we all improved our skills of olfactory identification during the course of these games. My daughter said, “Next time, I’m practicing ahead of time.” I guess we will get all four of us together for a next time, which isn’t always easy to do. I’m thrilled my wife and daughter want to give it another go.

What About Snooty Gamer Opinions?

Listen, it’s a game that involved sniffing essential oils. Why would you think they’d hire Martin Wallace or maybe Vital Lacerda to design it? The actual game mechanisms are basic and unlikely to intrigue the serious gamers. Yet, that’s a big advantage for a casual game like this one. Anyone can easily play as each set of rules is brief and highly approachable. Even though I basically identified like three scents properly (Orange, Eucalyptus, and Marigold, if you must know) across four games, I enjoyed the experience because everyone else thought working out a chemical sense was a good time indeed.

I suggest spelling the oils on your skin but if you prefer, the game has paper scent holders.

I do love the way they use the fine quality components to build various board setups for each game. The utility of the design is admirable and I can appreciate the efforts there. The iconography is simple and the imagery is subtle in a way that is both attractive and useful.

One knock here is the overly-cute effort to add ‘mini-games’ to the beginning of each game to determine a start player. These little activities are mostly dexterity-based and they don’t add much to the experience. A bit too much of a good thing, having all this diversity of play styles. We probably wouldn’t do most of them again in the future.

The Final Word

Aroma: A Game of Essence is a good board game for your friend who loves essential oils. The game is also attractive as a light party game. I believe it could play well with families or even drinking buddies who want to take a shot for each failed sniff test. The approachable rules and easy play makes it one of those games where people want to give it another go right afterward, and the modular game invites that big time. Just don’t go into the game thinking you will be figuring out a deep strategy puzzle and you should come out smelling like roses.

Aroma is available now on Amazon.com or you can check out the website from the company, Organic Aromas, who made the game, which includes many other products involving essential oils.

Session Review: Guild Masters by Matthew Austin and Mirror Box Games

Guild Masters came along at a less than ideal time for me, yet I quite liked it and backed it on Kickstarter. I’ve been struggling with euro games still a bit when they lack an interesting theme or unique elements. While we often marvel at the way a designer melds good ideas from other games into something new, even that has gotten old in my view.

So, it was a bit of a surprise to find out that I enjoyed Guild Masters so much. It’s a euro game with a variation on a theme we’ve seen a bit. Yet, it’s so tightly designed and expertly implemented that I found myself really enjoying it only a few minutes in.

Guild Masters

I like fantasy themes and I’m drawn to games that try to have some fun with it, particularly when a business is involved. I was drawn to Battle Masters, Fantasy Business and other similar games for that reason. Guild Masters has quests like Lord of Waterdeep but the players are investors trying to supply heroes with the tools they need to complete these tasks. As such, players upgrade their guild in various ways, hire workers and invest in the best quests – sometimes alongside other guild masters for shared booty.

The game has a variety of mechanisms and sub-systems while still feeling like a light-medium euro. Players have a limited number of choices each turn, and then an option to upgrade or hire with the money you have. You can 1) Gather resources, some of which are restricted unless you buy a certain upgrade. You can also 2) Craft resources into something to help a hero conduct a quest by delivering them the item they need. Some quests simply require that one resource and you get paid for it, adding the card to your collection of completed quests that will score at the end of the game. In this case, you want to be the first one in for an advantage (you get the card, instead of just the payout). Lastly, players can also hire a variety of unique workers that help you produce, pay or do something more efficiently. On the same turn, you can also buy extensions to your guild that will help you do more, including getting access to more resource options, getting end-game or in-game bonuses or advantages.

Simple enough but the ease of learning Guild Masters should not make you think the game isn’t really intriguing. There is just the right amount of detail in the varied quests, workers and guild upgrades to provide interesting combos for scoring more points based on the quests you complete.

Guild Masters plays quickly and yet it has enough variation to invite repeat play to explore the various elements and how you can find efficient ways to gain more points than your rivals. I recommend it and look forward to my next play of Guild Masters.

Guild Masters is for 2-5 players and is said to take 60-90 minutes. We were under an hour with three and the game isn’t really prone to AP players (yay!). It’s live on Kickstarter and almost at its end. Support now for a fine new euro you will surely enjoy.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Guild Masters

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

Disclosure: The publisher provided a preview copy to play once.

Photo Credit: Ta-Te Wu