Earlier this week I reviewed The Castles of Burgundy, a recent design from Stefan Feld that I quite enjoy. Now let’s turn our attention to Trajan, a second 2011 release from Feld with which Castles shares many similarities.
Trajan is really a collection of mini-games, bolted together by a central mechanism called the action circle. The action circle dominates the right side of each player mat, and is composed of a six cups numbered I-VI. Two tokens are placed into each cup at the start of the game. On a turn a player selects a cup with at least one token in it, takes into hand all of the tokens from the chosen cup, and then places one token into each cup that follow the selected one in clockwise order, until he has none left to distribute. If cup II contains three tokens, for example, a player might take these three and place one each into the III, IV, and V cups, leaving the initial II cup empty as a result. The target cup — that is, the cup into which the last token is placed — determines which of the six possible actions the player can perform.
A player mat, with the action circle on the right
This form of action selection has, to the best of my knowledge, never before been used in strategy game of this caliber. But you may also recognize it as mancala, a game that predates recorded history. In other words, Trajan has a central mechanic that feels both familiar and strikingly original.
The six possible actions allow players to further their influence in ancient Rome, the milieu in which the game is set. The senate action gives the player political influence and a handful of victory points; the Military action allows a player to march his soldiers around a map of Italy, appropriating resources and scoring points; a player can draw cards after selecting the Seaport action, or redeem sets of these cards for points; and so forth.
Of particular interest is the Trajan action, which allows a player to claim a special tile and place it next to one of the six cups in the action circle. The tokens in the action circle come in six colors, and each Trajan tile shows the two colors necessary to trigger its effect. When the target cup has a Trajan tile next to it and contains tokens of the same color as those shown on the tile, the special effect occurs, granting an immediate advantage in one of the minigames and instantly awarding the player points.
The goods, which are acquired and sold using the Seaport action
If you noticed a preponderance of the word “points” in the preceding paragraphs, that’s because Trajan awards them for nearly everything a player does. I raised this as a concern with Burgundy — that a player could concentrate on a few elements of the game and largely ignore others — and it’s even more pronounced here, where there is even less bleed-over between the mini-games. Burgundy at least provides cohesion in the form of a player’s estate, where all of the various tiles must coexist, and which forces a player to switch focus when regions on his board are full. In Trajan, on the other hand, a player could (for instance) pursue a Senate and Building strategy, and never once select the Military or Seaport actions. Some players might find this freedom liberating; I, however, prefer a framework for play, even something as abstract as “fill up your estate”.
Trajan is also similar to Burgundy in that players are given both a menu of possible actions and constraints on their choices. Burgundy does this through dice, the values of which dictate what a player can do; a player of Trajan, meanwhile, can only take an action that he can reach via the action circle. The constraints in Burgundy tend to reduce over-analysis, as players do the best with the values they roll. But unlike dice, the action circle in Trajan is not random. A player can work out his moves several turns in advance, and usually attempts to do so.
Put another way, Trajan is considerably more strategic than Burgundy. That’s not a bad thing, obviously. In fact, many (and perhaps most) gamers will prefer Trajan to Burgundy for this very reason. But in my experience, the action cicrcle mechanism does not facilitate the game so much as become the game. I become so intent of figuring out how to work the action circle to my advantage that everything else — the building, the buying and selling of goods, the politicking — falls away. I eventually feel like I am just playing mancala, something I could have done without Stefan Feld’s help.
I like Trajan. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best games I’ve played in recent years. And although Castles of Burgundy is currently the higher ranked of the two on Boardgame Geek, I won’t be surprised if that changes in the coming years as Trajan reveals itself as the more durable design. But there is a line at where a game becomes too abstract for my tastes, and Trajan falls a few inches on the wrong side.
This review is part of the BGG Top 50 Project.
Until recently, designer Stefan Felt was primarily known for In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame, and Macao, three games that were well-regarded at the time of their release, but that have been fading from memory ever since. In 2011, however, Feld released two new games that may outlast their predecessors. One of them, Trajan, has received ample buzz, was crowned “Game of the Year” by GAMES Magazine, and received the 2012 International Gamer General Strategy Award. But after extensive play of both, it’s Castles of Burgundy that I’ve come to prefer.
Burgundy is in many respects an old-school Euro, a set-collection and tile-laying game with lots of routes to victory and low player interaction. Each person owns an estate, printed on a player mat and composed of 37 hexagonal spaces of six different terrains. The mats also have three hexagonal spaces in the lower-left corner, known as the player’s reserve.
The central game board has depots numbered 1-6, into which hexagonal tiles are semi-randomly distributed before each phase. The depots also hold the six varieties of goods that come into play as the game progresses.
The central board, the players mats, and many of the components
Six types of terrain, six types of goods, six central depots — what’s with all of the 6s? The answer, and something that sets Burgundy apart from many heavier-weight euros, is dice. Each player has two, rolls them before each round of the game, and then uses them to perform actions. Though the player is free to choose from any of the four available actions, the value of the die used constrains how the action is performed.
The four actions are:
A player may also, once per turn, spent two coins to purchase a hexagonal tile from the central board. The game continues in this manner for five phases of five rounds apiece. After each person has had 25 turns, the player with the most victory points wins.
Many points are scored when tiles are placed into estates. The hexagonal tiles come in six different colors, and can only be placed in spaces of the same hue. Each color of tile also does something different upon placement. Beige tiles are buildings, and have an immediate, one-time effect, such as allowing a player to take a tile from the central board and place it in his reserve, or place a second tile from his reserve into his estate for free. Yellow tiles represent knowledge, and confer onto a player either a new ability (e.g., collect four worker tiles instead of two when selecting the “gain worker tile” action), or an end-game bonus (if certain conditions are met). Grey mines produce money; blue ships allow a player to gain goods; light green pastures instantly award points;, and the dark green castles permit a player to take an additional free action, as if he had a die of any chosen value.
When a player fills all of the spaces in a contiguous group of like-colored hexes, he immediately scores points based on the size of the region and phase of the game. He will also score bonus points if he is the first or second player to fill every space on his board of a single color, regardless of whether they are connected.
A player board, with many hexagonal tiles placed
Castles of Burgundy is one of those games that sounds way more complicated when explained than it feels during play. It is a testament to Feld’s skills as a designer that the seemingly disparate systems described above are so well integrated that everything seems intuitive once you internalize the fundamentals.
The method of providing lots of options, and then limiting those options through the use of dice, is generally effective at preventing “analysis paralysis”, in which a player locks up while thinking through all the possible permutations of their turn. The randomness of die rolls skews the play more toward the tactical than the strategic (although this is in turn tempered by the worker tiles), and makes for the kind of brisk, medium-weight game that I prefer. That said, the four-player and three-players games can feel overlong — there is so little interaction that additional players beyond two increase the playing time while leaving the dynamics of play essentially unchanged. The game is listed as “best with two players on Boardgame Geek entry, and I agree with that assessment.
My nagging concern with Burgundy is that is sometimes feels like one of those do-whatever-you-want-and-score-points-for-everything kind of games. A player can focus on maximizing their score through pastures, or through yellow knowledge tiles, or by completing regions, or by accumulating and selling goods, and ignore (at least temporarily) the areas of the game that don’t interest him. This is not necessarily a bad thing — multiple routes to victory is often the hallmark of a rich and replayable system. But the only significant form of interaction between players the the taking of tiles before others can claim them, and a player denied something he wants is as likely to shrug his shoulders and switch his focus to something else as he is to gnash his teeth and curse. The end-gaming scoring even awards points for unspent money, goods not sold, and worker tiles not used. I recognize that these incentives allow for meaningful decisions in the last few turns of the game, but it adds to the perception that the game just doles out points for everything, even failure.
Still, Castles of Burgundy is my favorite Euro of the last few years. I’m sucker for tile-laying games to begin with, and I find the filling up of one’s estate to be an oddly satisfying experience. It’s even something that can be introduced to and enjoyed by non-gamers, though they will likely be terrified by the time you make it through the rules. Simply assure them that they will understand everything after the first few turns, and will be eager to play again after their inaugural game is over.
Trajan is reviewed here.
Before heading to PAX Prime 2012, I wrote down the games I wanted to seek out and try. At the top of the list was Story Realms, which I had the great fortune to play while attending the conference. Having crossed tat one off, I went in search of my #2 choice, but couldn’t find it anywhere. This was due in part to the fact that the designer and sole retailer of the game, Brent Povis, was not at PAX this year. But there was another reason why copies extant: Morels received such great buzz two weeks earlier at Gencon that every available copy had been snapped up, with none left over for me to try.
Oh, well. Based on the fantastic word-of-mouth I ordered my own copy soon thereafter, and have been greatly enjoying the game ever since.
Morels is a rummy-style card game — “card game” because, aside from a handful of “foraging stick” tokens, the 94 cards are the only components; “rummy-style” because gameplay revolves around the drawing and melding of said cards. These commonalities with the traditional game of rummy make Morels feel instantly familiar, even while you are still working out how the game is played.
Each card in the game depicts either a species of fungus (including Lawyer’s Wig, Porcini, Hen of the Woods, and the eponymous Morel), a basket, a frying pan, or something that pairs well with a meal of mushrooms (butter or cider). The deck is shuffled before play begins and a “forest path” is created by dealing eight cards face-up in a row across the center of the table.
A player may use their turn to take one of the cards from the path into their hand. Either of the two cards closest to the head of the trail are free, but each card deeper in the woods costs an additional Foraging Stick. Thus, the third card from the start of the path costs one token, the fourth costs two, and so forth.
After each turn the card closest to the head of the trail is added to a special pile called “The Decay”, cards are shifted down such that all gaps are filled, and the empty spots are filled from the deck. The Decay can hold a maximum of four cards, and a player may use her turn to take these cards instead of selecting one from the path.
Players are constrained by a hand limit, and must occasionally use a turn to play sets of cards, both to free up space and to reap the rewards of melding. Mushrooms may be sold (and discarded) to acquire more Foraging Sticks, or can be cooked (and kept) to provide victory points at the end of the game. A player needs a “Pan” card in order to cook, and can only fry up sets of at least three; selling, on the other hand, requires no more than two mushrooms of the same species. It is therefore common for players to sell junk to acquire Foraging Sticks, which are then used to get the shrooms that provide the biggest payout when cooked.
There are some special cards in the deck — butter and cider increase the value of cooked mushrooms; baskets increase a player’s hand size — but the core game is simplicity at it’s finest. The only complicating factor is the presence of “Destroying Angel” mushrooms in the deck; when taken, a Destroying Angel forces a player to discard cards from their hand. Because taking The Decay often results in the accumulation of unwanted cards (that nonetheless count against their hand limit), a crafty player can use a Destroying Angel to her advantage. But if you don’t want to deal with the extra complexity that DAs introduce, you can simply resolve not to take them for the first few games, until you have a better idea of their function and utility.
For years my default two-player recommendation has been Lost Cities, as everyone introduced to the game likes or loves it. Morels changes enough of the rummy-esque draw-and-meld formula that Lost Cities employs so well to make it a different, and in many respects better, game. For one thing, there are no blind draws — players select the card (or, in the case of The Decay, cards) they want and are willing to pay for. For another, Lost Cities is essentially abstract, while Morels has just enough cohesion between gameplay and theme that you can actually envision the row of cards as a forest path, or the playing of pan, mushrooms, and butter cards as the frying up of fungi.
The one aspect of Morels that bugs me is the need to move and deal cards after each and every turn. It’s not a lot of busy work, but significant given its frequency. To be fair, I should point out that I dislike the “shift cards and fill the row” mechanism in every game that uses it, up to and including my favorite, Through the Ages. And, honestly, a fun game that gives me some minor detail to grouse about during play is kind of win-win as far as I’m concerned.
As of now, Morels is only available for purchase through the Two Lanterns Games website. Here’s hoping that a major distributor picks this one up. You should consider picking it up as well.
A thing that you should know about Lords of Waterdeep is that it looks incredibly boring.
The box (which is a weird space-box that only closes halfway) sells Waterdeep as a Dungeons and Dragons adventure set in the “most fantastic metropolis of the Forgotten Realms®,” and it has the cheesy fantasy art to match. But if you can get past the packaging - which thank god I did - you’ll find an easy to learn, well organized game with deep strategy and agonizing decisions that will capture your imagination for game after game.
My copy of Waterdeep lives in the prestigious first cube of my board game shelf, next to Puerto Rico, Agricola, Carcassonne, 7 Wonders, and Catan. I don’t know if Waterdeep stacks up to those games, but I can tell you it is almost certainly the best board game of 2012, and one that I love teaching to other people.
Although it looks like a dry Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, Lords of Waterdeep is actually a brilliantly designed euro-style strategy game designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson and published by Wizards of the Coast. It’s for two to five players, it takes about fifteen minutes to learn and an hour to play.
In the game, you play as one of the titular Lords of Waterdeep. As Lords do, you control a few agents, and each turn, you can dispatch them to locations around the city to do your bidding. The ultimate goal is to gain the most influence (points) by recruiting adventurers and sending them on quests.
The most important mechanics are worker placement and resource management - Waterdeep isn’t reinventing the wheel here - but there are a few brilliant twists that make the game special.
FIRST, each player starts the game with a random, secret “Lord of Waterdeep” identity. This identity gives players a bonus for completing certain categories of quest. This gives you a secret incentive to collect specific types of quests, and keeps you on your toes by making it hard to predict exactly what everyone else will do in the game.
SECOND, though the game starts off with a scant 10 locations for you to place your workers on, you can send an agent to the Builder’s Hall to add a new building to the map. Creating a new building provides a new location on the map for any player to use, but it also gives you ownership over that building, and you collect a toll every time a player uses it. The Builder’s Hall lets the board grow and change in a new way every time you play the Waterdeep, and the toll mechanic gives you great rewards for investing in buildings early.
THIRD, the most important and innovative part of the strategy in Lords of Waterdeep is a location called Waterdeep Harbor. The harbor has spots for three players, and lets you do two things: 1). You play an intrigue card, and, 2). At the end of the round, once everyone has gone, you remove your agent from the harbor and re-play him on an empty spot.
Now, neither of these actions are powerful on their own. Intrigue Cards generally give you a small benefit (a few resources) or let you stick it to another player by assigning them a mandatory make-work quest, and the spaces left after everyone has gone are usually table scraps. But among the often-overwhelming 429 cards, cubes, tiles, pawns, and other components in Waterdeep, the only resource that matters is your time. You have to accomplish more than everyone else in a very limited amount of time.
Waterdeep games are notorious for being very close. Players will constantly switch in and out of the lead, sometimes by as much as 20 points, but usually finish the game within a single point of one another. Those three spots at Waterdeep Harbor are often key to gaining that one-point edge over other players, and knowing how to turn intrigue cards and table scraps into those points is (in my experience) usually the key to victory.
Lords of Waterdeep draws on worker placement and resource management mechanics that experienced gamers will be familiar with, but the real strategy in the game involves managing your priorities. Waterdeep calls for a delicate balance of playing boldly for immediate benefits and setting yourself up for long chain reactions that can change the dynamic of the game in your favor.
The tension in the game usually comes from waiting to see if an opponent will take a space you need on the board. It’s agonizing to see your plans fall apart after you get blocked by another player and exhilarating to spring a plan into action that nobody else saw.
This is the most important source of player interaction in Waterdeep. Although there aren’t many ”take that” moments, every game I’ve played has been wonderfully and subtly social and interactive, with players applauding each other for taking great turns and cursing each other over ruined plans.
In addition to the player interaction through worker placement you’ve got:
Every design choice in Lords of Waterdeep game is clever. Clever clever clever. When that kind of design works, it’s brilliant. When it fails, it’s incredibly frustrating - like Wizards of the Coast went out of their way to personally inconvenience you.
For example: Each building tile has a little space cut out of it on the lower-right corner. This not only helps you keep the buildings oriented when you shuffle them up, but when you play a building, you slide a little player token into empty space to mark that you own it. That’s not only a practical design, it reinforces the idea that you own the building, and get to personalize it with your sigil and color. Adding buildings to the map in Waterdeep is very competitive, and it feels great to play one and deck it out with your token.
Also for example: I mentioned this before, but the box is a weird shape. It has a kind of half-cover that exposes bare box midriff in the middle when fully closed. I guess the box is designed this way to help Waterdeep stand out on a store shelf, but it’s clearly confusing to people. On the top of the official Lords of Waterdeep FAQ page, right below “What is Lords of Waterdeep?” is the following Q: “The box on my copy doesn’t fully close! The insert doesn’t seem to completely connect! What do I do?”
Inside the box, there’s a complicated vacuum form insert that is custom-made to keep the pieces in the game in place, accompanied by a chart in the rules to show you where everything goes. There’s only one catch: it doesn’t actually keep the pieces in place.
Mainly though, the clever design of Waterdeep works well, and I wish every game was this bold in its choices.
Waterdeep has a clear and consistent visual language helps people learn and play the game. In other games with worker placement mechanics, players are perpetually asking me, “Can I put my guy here?” Not so in Waterdeep; once you learn the visual clues everything makes perfect sense.
Finally - and I’ve saved the best for last here - I mentioned above that the resources you collect to complete quests (black, white, purple, and orange cubes) actually represent adventurers. This is a brilliant choice. Those little cubes could have been anything (different types of trade goods, for example) but they made it so that each quest you “spend” a group of adventurers on is analogous to a sending a tiny group of Dungeons and Dragons players on an epic quest. See? Clever.
Lords of Waterdeep is a game full of surprises. First, you will be surprised that it’s not a boring D&D thing. Then you will be surprised by how easy it is to learn, and how concise the rules are. Then you will be surprised by how much you care about each action in the game, and how intense it gets by the end. Finally, you will be surprised when you take the the box off the shelf for your second game and the pieces spill all over the floor.
I was supposed to interview Waterdeep’s designer Rodney Thompson, and I got as close as being introduced to him by some mutual friends and telling him how much I liked the game. But I quickly learned that Wizards of the Coast has a lot of policies and procedures about talking to media giants like Playtest, and found myself mired in bureaucracy. After much badgering, someone from a company called “360 Public Relations” offered to let me send him a list of five to eight questions which he would vet and pass along to Rodney.
I just wanted to ask the Rodney what makes his game is so good, and talk to him like a person (by all reports he is a funny smart guy), but the alternative was so unappealing that I abandoned the interview idea entirely.
The final surprise for me here was learning about the corporate culture that Lords of Waterdeep was produced in, which could have easily destroyed everything that makes the game great. I’m happy to report that packaging issues aside, Wizards of the Coast has nonetheless made a very special game, and one that is absolutely worth a spot on the good shelf of your board game collection.
This review is part of the BGG Top 50 Project.
One of the hallmarks of European board game design is the absence of direct confrontation. Interaction between players is usually mediated by some game system: the real estate in Catan, the economy of Power Grid, the single-use powers of Agricola, and so on.
War games, on the other hand, emphasize combat, with victory often going to the most ruthless and aggressive.
“European-style war game”, therefore, seems like an oxymoron. What kind of war lacks open conflict between the main parties?
Answer: a cold war.
Twilight Struggle is the epic, two-player game of military tension between the greatest superpowers of the 20th century. And I’m not using “epic” here in the modern, Internet sense of “anything cool”, although the game is undoubtedly that. I mean epic in length (3-5 hours), epic in detail (much of the rulebook is devoted to the history of the Cold War), epic in strategy (multiple playings are absolutely required to appreciate the subtleties of the design), and epic in scope (the game covers the years from 1945 to 1989 — assuming you don’t irradiate the planet before the advent of glasnost).
The state of Central America. Photo by Raiko Puust.
One player assumes the role of the United States; the other, USSR. The board shows the key nations for which the superpowers will vie. Countries are grouped into regions (e.g., Europe and the Middle East), with those of particular significance designated “battleground states”.
Over the course of 10 rounds, each of which represents 3-5 years of history, players take turns activating and resolving cards. A card depicts a major event in the Cold War, ranging from the forming of the Warsaw pact to the Iran-Contra Scandal, and boasts 0-4 Operational Points (OPs).
In most cases, a player may use a card for its event or its OPs, but not both. Invoking the “Fidel” event, for instance, allows the Soviet player to put influence markers in Cuba; the “Camp David Accords” event allows the US player to gain influence in the Middle East. Operation points, on the other hand, are used to increase a superpower’s influence in various nations, reduce an opponent’s influence, or foment coups (which, if successful, may both decrease your opponent’s influence in the target country and increase your own). Events are generally powerful, but very specific; OPs are less powerful, but allow the player great latitude in determining how and where they are spent.
A player with sufficient influence in a country is said to “control” it. And control is the name of the game. When one of the periodic scoring phases is triggered, the superpower that controls more nations in a region, and/or more of the battleground states, will score a number of points. This mechanism of scoring, called “Area Control” or “Area Influence”, is a mainstay of European-style game design, and is put to great use here. Thus, “European-style war game” is an entirely appropriate description of this remarkable hybrid.
The zero-sum nature of the Cold War is symbolized by the single score track, with US victory on one end, USSR victory on the other, and a “0” in the middle. When a player scores points, he moves the score marker that many spaces toward his end of the score track, and immediately wins if he gets to his goal of “20”. You can see at a glance the balance of power at any point in the game: If the US has 2 points, things are relatively even; if the USSR has 18, they are on the verge of domination.
Complicating all this is the lurking specter of mutual assured destruction, with the DEFCON track recording how close the world is to Global Thermonuclear War. And China serves as a perpetual fly in the ointment of the superpowers, aiding both, but refusing to vow allegiance to either.
True to the theme, the players of Twilight Struggle never attack one other directly (though they may wage proxy wars in the Koreas or the Middle East, if doing so furthers their aims). They instead work to exert their influence across the globe, with success measured not by troops killed or land captured, but by their increase of prestige and dissemination of their propaganda.
Three of the 110 Twilight Struggle cards. Photo by Enkubus.
Twilight Struggle is not intended to be a simulation of the actual cold war. In fact, in the designer notes, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews openly admit that they goal was to create a game that adhered to the mythology of the cold war, rather than to the reality. To that end, the “domino theory” — of dubious validity in actual foreign policy — is crucial to success in this game; nations are little more than pawns for the superpowers; and investing time and energy into the “space race” reaps tangible benefits. The game depicts the cold war as it was envisioned by those who were fighting it, not as it now appears to us in retrospect.
Since its debut in 2005, Twilight Struggle has been my favorite game, period. I don’t play it often, owing to its length and considerable learning curve. But every time I do I am amazed anew by the brilliance of the design. Its position at #1 on Boardgame Geek is, in my opinion, richly deserved.
Hey, here’s something fun: in the coming months, Max and I are going to post reviews for every single game in the BGG Top 50.
What is that?, you may ask. Well, “BGG” is short for Boardgame Geek, and the “Top 50” are the first half’a-hundred games to appear on thier list of highest ranked board games, with the following modifications:
Given all that, here is the list:
Blood Bowl? Srsly? Well okay, rules are rules.
The list of games to be reviewed will remain static, even as the actual BGG 50 changes during the course of the project. Reviews will be posted in order (except for Agricola, which we’ve already covered). Where one of us has already written a review for a particular game we’ll update and reprint it (because, dude, we are hella lazy). We’ll play a game at least three time before reviewing it (but reserve the right to cheat on Twilight Imperium and/or Die Macher). And we’ll continue to review non BGG Top 50 games over the course of the project — expect at least one BGG50 and one regular review or article a week.
Ready, Freddy? Let’s do this thing.
I enjoy roleplaying games, but rarely have the opportunity to play them. And so, in recent years, I have been acquiring board games that approximate the feel of RPGs without requiring a huge investment of time. Arkham Horror is among my favorites, as is Tales of the Arabian Nights. And to that list I expect to add the forthcoming Story Realms, a prototype of which I had the good fortune to play at PAX Prime.
As in traditional RPGs, most players of Story Realms take on the roles of characters, such as Lightbringers and Riftwalkers. Characters have six skills — Might, Talk, Move, Think, Explore, and Magic — each with a ranking from 1-3. They also have a “Talent” (e.g., Curious or Tricky), a backpack full of equipment, and a handful of additional powers and artifacts that further personalize the adventurer.
Player board for the Talespinner character
The remaining player serves as the Storyteller, and guides the party through the adventure. A game of Story Realms is composed of three scenes, during which the characters strive to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle. Counters placed on various tracks record the state of play during a scene. In a basic scene, the players may simply need to advance the counter on the Progress Track from 0 to a predesignated target; in a more complex scene, a counter may also be placed on the Threat Track, and players may struggle to move this marker backward to mitigate perils they face.
A player uses his turn to describe what his character is doing, and the Storyteller decides which of the six skills best fits the action taken. The player then rolls a number of dice equal to the ranking of the skill; if he invokes his Talent, or if he uses an item from his backpack that is well-suited for the task, he may receive bonus dice as well. The “Success” symbol appears on three sides of the the game’s custom dice, and a counter is moved on one of the tracks for each Success that is rolled.
During my game, for example, I played a Talespinner with the “Flashy” Talent. In one scene we came across a small girl in a forest, who was under attack from a ogre, and our goal was to get the child to safety. My character was lousy at combat, so I yelled at the monster in the hopes of distracting it from the girl. This, the Storyteller ruled, used my “Talk” skill (3 dice), and he awarded me a bonus die for my Flashy talent (which helped whenever I did something to attract attention to myself). I roleplayed my action and rolled the four dice; the Storyteller moved the counter on the Threat Track back three spaces, one for each Success I received.
I (at left) and two others play a demo at PAX Prime. Photo taken from the Story Realms blog.
Story Realms was one of the highlights of PAX for me. It definitely falls on the “roleplaying game” side of the board game / RPG divide, as it requires improvisation on the part of both the Storyteller and the players, but the beautiful art, components, short playing time, and clear goals make it accessible to gamers of all stripes. And although it appears pitched toward families and children, I and the two other adults who played the demo had a blast. I would have bought a copy on the spot but, alas, the game is not yet available. I am, however, backing the Kickstarter project that went live last Friday, and looking forward to playing Story Realms in the years to come.
Both Max and I will be at Pax Prime for the next few days, tweeting on the @playtest Twitter channel and posting occasional game previews here.
Please let us know if you’ll be there as well. If not — if if you just want to prepare yourself for the insanity that is PAX Prime — please check out my report on last year’s convention at The Morning News:
[Attendees are] nicest bunch of 70,000 people you are ever likely to encounter. Over the three days of PAX I am welcomed into pickup games. I chat with the people next to me in lines about the rising prominence of deck-building in board games. When I walk into the video game free-play room and confess to having no idea what to try, those around me blurt out their recommendations with an enthusiasm bordering on zeal.
And here’s a fun fact: Over the course of the convention the Cookie Brigade raises $15,000 for Child’s Play, a charity launched by Holkins and Krahulik that supplies children in hospitals with toys and games. They do this by giving away pastries and asking gamers for voluntary donations. The next time you log on to the Call of Duty servers and are immediately shot in the head by a 14-year-old “teammate,” take solace in imagining that he chocolate-chipped in.
Aww yeah. Good times.
LJ: do you take game review requests? please review “king of toyko”! your fans demand it!
me: Okay, done.
LJ: it’s SUCH a good game! do you love it?
me: I do
When compiling my annual Good Gift Games Guide, I try to ensure that there is something for everyone: family games, two-player games, abstract games, word games, and so forth. The selections, in other words, are not ranked by preference. That said, the first two or three slots in a guide are invariable occupied by the GGGs that I most highly recommend. Last year, for instance, top billing went to Survive: Escape for Atlantis!. But I have to admit that in the months since I wrote that, the runner-up, King of Tokyo, has usurped Survive’s title of Best GGG from 2011.
Cyberbunny and Gigazaur. Photo by Raiko Puust.
King of Tokyo casts the players as oversized monsters, vying for supremacy in the midst of a teeming (and screaming) metropolis. Each creature starts with 0 victory points and 10 units of health; if the former hits 20, the player instantly wins; if the latter drops to 0, it’s sayonara Cyberbunny. Thus, a player can triumph in one of two ways: by amassing victory points, or by knocking everyone else out.
Game play is Yahtzee at its core: roll a handful of dice, set some aside, and keep going until you choose to stop or have rerolled twice. One side of every die has a “1”, another side has a “2”, and a third has a “3”; if you roll any of these numbers in triplicate, you score that number in victory points (rolling three 2s gives you two points, for instance).
The remaining three sides of a die show icons rather than numbers. Each rolled electrical bolt awards you an energy cube. Each heart restores one unit of your health. And each claw injuries your opponents. Deciding when to go for victory points, and when to pursue other strategies, is the crux of your turn.
If all of this sounds rather confrontational — well, it is. When Alienoid goes toe-to-to with The Kraken, there will be blood. Fortunately, the game employs a clever twist to ensure that, of all the things that wind up bruised, egos are not among them. The first person to roll a claw icon does not hurt anyone, but instead becomes the King, and places his figure on the Tokyo playmat. Thereafter, rolled claws deal damage like so:
Entering Tokyo, and holding your position there, awards victory points, so there’s an incentive to paint the town red (with blood). But in doing so, you become a target for your opponents. Thus, you never single out another player for attack: you either attack everyone else (as the King), or you attack the King (who has no one to blame but himself, having put himself in the position of antagonist). Lots of mayhem, no hard feelings.
The dice. Photo by Mike Hulsebus.
King of Tokyo was designed by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: the Gathering. And if you are familiar with M:tG, you know what’s coming next: special powers, and lots of them. In King, these powers take the form of Mutations, which players can buy with the energy cubes they have amassed. The effect of mutations include extra dice, new ways to gain victory points, additional options for healing, and a host of others. Though every monster begins the game the same, mutations give each a distinct flavor by the end.
With a playing time of 20-30 minutes, King of Tokyo is a near-perfect filler. And even gamers like me, for whom “dice” is a four-letter word, will grudgingly admit to kind of loving it.
Max and I attend a Wednesday gamenight, though not the same one, alas. In this sporadic column we will give our first impressions of the previous evening’s games.
Fealty: “I am going to hate this game,” I assured the gamenight host, as he finished explaining the rules. I was joking … sort of. I didn’t anticipate hating Fealty, per se, but there was no shortage of Ominous Foreboding as he described play. First, the game features virtually no theme. Second, the components are uninspired to say the least. And third — the proverbial nail in the coffin — the game uses blind bidding, my least favorite game mechanism after “do a shot”.
The blind bidding, at least, was not as bad as I’d feared. Players simultaneously play cards, and then place pieces onto a gridded board that depicts a medieval landscape. A positioned piece exerts a zone of influence, which will score points at the end of the game; pieces also limit the placement opportunities available to opponents, and disrupt the influence of enemies. These interaction may lend themselves to the think-and-double-think aspect of blind bidding that leaves me cold, but our inexperience with the game led us to choose our cards quickly and without much regard for the ramifications. We were more interested in seeing what would happen than in trying to predict the results beforehand.
Played this way, with an emphasis on speed, I found the game enjoyable. But I suspect that my enthusiasm will wane in direct proportion to the waxing of our skill, as snap decisions turn into tedious bouts of analysis-paralysis.
Troyes: Despite its high “Strategy Game Rank” on Boardgame Geek (it currently sits one notch below The Princes of Florence), fans of Troyes are quick to warn of the game’s ridiculous learning curve. And they are right to do so. I read the rules Tuesday night, and was left with no clear idea of how the game was played; on Wednesday, when I explained the rules to my friends (experienced gamers all), I watched eyes glaze as I delved into the minutia.
Troyes isn’t terribly complicated — its complexity is on par with other worker placement games such as Agricola. But neither is it terribly intuitive. There is almost no thematic framework to guide players in choosing from the multitude of options available to them, so abstract (and time-consuming) analysis is necessary to determine the value of any given decision. One everyone knows how to play, Troyes moves along at a good clip. But the first three-quarters of our game last night was a confusing slog, as we struggled to learn the cards, the powers, the effects, the buildings, the currencies, and the many ways to score points.
All that said, Troyes strikes me as a good game, and perhaps even a great one. It uses (lots) of dice, but there are counterweights to the influence of luck. Each game uses a subset of the possible cards, which bodes well for replayability. And once you figure out how the hodgepodge of mechanisms are interrelated, you realize that they interlock surprisingly well.
As with Fealty above, the rules to Troyes led me to believe that I would never want to play a second time; unlike with Fealty, I was absolutely wrong.