It was our great fortune to have seven amazing independent game creators on hand during the XOXO Tabletop event: Luke Crane (Burning Wheel and Torchbearer), Chris Darden (Dungeon Roll), Brad O’Farrell (Story War), David Malki ! (Machine of Death), Jonathan H. Liu (The Emperor’s New Clothes), Tyler Segel (Relic Expedition), and Playtest’s own Max Temkin (Cards Against Humanity and Werewolf). You can read bios of these incredible designers on the XOXO Tabletop Announcement.
In addition to the above we curated a collection of independent and Kickstarted games. These sixteen titles amply illustrate the diversity and vibrancy of the scene, and we encourage you to check them out.
The Resistance & The Resistance: Avalon (Don Eskridge, 5-10 players, 30 minutes): Unmask the traitors in your midst, or sabotage the plans of the majority, in this elegant and exciting adaptation of Werewolf.
Get Bit (Dave Chalker, 2-6 players, 20 minutes): Remember: You don’t have to be faster than the shark, just faster than your friends.
Sushi Go (Phil Walker-Harding, 2-5 players, 20 minutes): Grab the best combination of sushi dishes as they whiz by. And once you’ve eaten it all, finish your meal with all the pudding you’ve got!
Eight-Minute Empire (Ryan Laukat, 2-5 players, 8 minutes or so): Build an empire and conquer the land in this super-quick area control game. It’s easy to learn and perfect for when you only have a few minutes.
Morels (Brent Povis, 2 players, 30 minutes): Harvest mushrooms to sell or eat in this tranquil two-player rummy variant.
Guts of Glory (Zach Gage, 2-4 players, 15 minutes): A mouth-cramming, deck-spewing, competitive card game set in the post-apocalypse. Fun for all ages and skill levels, Guts is easy to learn yet intensely tactical.
Masquerade (Michael Bujtas, 3-6 players, 30 minutes): A 61 card deck tells the story of an assassination attempt on the King, with each card representing a unique character in the plot.
Escape: Curse of the Temple! (Kristian Amundsen Østby, 1-5 players, 10 minutes): A cooperative, real-time game, in which players must escape from a cursed temple before it collapses around their ears.
Flash Point: Fire Rescue (Kevin Lanzing, 1-6 players, 45 minutes): Players work together to rescue the victims trapped inside a burning building before the fire gets out of control or the building collapses.
Corporate America (Teale Fristoe, 3-6 players, 90 minutes): Use the government to line your own pockets in this cynical and satirical take on politics.
D-Day Dice (Emmanuel Aquin, 1-4 players, 45 minutes): Organize improvised units for an attack against a machine gun nest. Collect resources, advance on the beach, and succeed … or die trying.
Among the Stars (Vangelis Bagiartakis, 2-4 players, 30 minutes): Build space stations throughout the galaxy to promote trade among the races, strengthen diplomatic relations, and help maintain the fragile peace
Sentinels of the Multiverse (Christopher Badell, 2-5 players, 60 minutes): Play one of 10 superheroes, against an evil mastermind, in this cooperative game set in the world of comics.
VivaJava: The Coffee Game (T. C. Petty III, 3-8 players, 90 minutes): Find the perfect blend of beans to create the next best-seller in the coffee houses and kitchens of the world.
Eminent Domain (Seth Jaffee, 2-4 players, 45 minutes): Will you colonize nearby planets, or take them over by force? Harvest resources for trade, and do research to improve your technology. Build the best civilization and win the game!
Freedom: The Underground Railroad (Brian Mayer, 1-4 players, 90 minutes): A card-driven, cooperative game in which the group is working for the abolitionist movement to help bring an end to slavery in the United States.
Guts of Glory
Last year at XOXO, we saw attendees hanging out in our cafe, at the tables on the street, and in the bars nearby playing board and card games they love or, in some cases, prototypes of games they’re working on.
This year, we decided to try something new. In the Unmarket, near our registration tables, we’re offering a library of independent board, card, and RPGs to borrow and play throughout the weekend, curated by Playtest’s Matthew Baldwin and Max Temkin.
We were thrilled and honored when Andy Baio asked us to organize the game library for XOXO Tabletop. We’ll be gathering together an assortment of our favorite independent games, and will announce our selections here shortly.
Let’s get this out of the way: Dungeon Roll is a solitaire game. It says on the tin that it’s suitable for 1-4 players, but with more than two you’ll be checking Twitter while your opponents do their thing. Even when playing head-to-head, the only activity you have to do while waiting for your turn is play the part of a dice-rolling robot, which isn’t really fun, or even really “playing.”
So yes, it’s a solitaire game. But as a solitaire game, Dungeon Roll shines.
Here’s the premise: you’re forming a party to go spelunking (the game calls it “delving”) in a dungeon. Your party is formed randomly, based on a roll of seven six-sided dice, though occasionally you’ll have the ability to improve on this roll through the use of special powers. As you reach deeper levels of the delve, you encounter an increasing number of monsters (the types of which are also determined randomly), and must fight them off. Different party members (“adventurers”) are better at slaying different monsters. Occasionally you’ll get reward instead of a monster. Or you may meet a dragon. But if you finish a level without dying — that is, without losing the last member of your party — you have the choice to escape the dungeon and keep your points, or go deeper and risk them for more. Finish three delves, successfully or not, and the game’s over.
Did you catch the part of the description that mentions opponents? It’s not there. Your opponent here is fate. And there ain’t nothing wrong with fate as an opponent. But like they say, everyone dies — or does their best to avoid death — alone. Multi-player Dungeon Roll ends up being the most severe form of communal solitaire.
I had read that it was best played with two players, so the first couple games my wife played with me. And besides the lack of interaction, we had one big problem: the instructions are way too confusing. Which is weird, because it’s a pretty simple game. So the crime here isn’t that the game is complicated — it’s not — is that it appears unnecessarily complex while you’re ramping up. It left us in an uneasy state of not being sure if we were getting it at all.
(I’ve since read on the BGG boards about the very issues we were having and it sounds like the gamemaker, to his credit, is on top of things, and plans to revise the instructions in future printings. Soon this will hopefully be a moot point.)
After a couple disappointing experiences (during one of which we played a major part of the game completely wrong because of the above issues), my wife went to sleep, and I tried out the solitaire version. And damn if I didn’t have fun. The problem-solving parts of my brain that had been asleep so far kicked into gear. Strategizing ideas rushed in like an angry orc army and brought some endorphins along for the ride. I understood how choices early on would affect my fate later on; that is, I was forced to develop strategy. There was several aha moments. I finally saw what the maker was going for.
A few notes about the design: The physical construction involves a lovely treasure chest-shaped box that doubles as a contraption you use to pluck out treasure during the game. (I also used it for an actual treasure hunt with my kids, and it also served that purpose very well.) The cards have nice drawings on them, though a better balance could be struck between the illustrations and the type, which often required squinting from this old man. The only real crime in the design is the over-reliance on symbols instead of spelling things out with text. (And sometimes multiple symbols for the same thing, ugh.) Always, always err on the side of clarity, please.
In the end, Dungeon Roll is a solid press-your-luck-type game that rewards repeated play — if you like solitaire games. It may tip a little too heavy on the randomness side of things, but as long as you know that going in, you won’t be disappointed. Even beyond the puzzle of the game itself, there’s the challenge of using each character, and their unique special powers, optimally.
It’s a small game, but we all need small games in our collection as appetizers for the heavier stuff. Just make sure you try it alone first, so you get the concept. And then, if you think it’s right for your group, spelunk away.
Some brief thoughts on the games I learned at PAX.
Alien Frontiers: I’ve heard a few raves about this worker-placement game, and jumped at the chance to give it a whirl during PAX. It is one of a number of newer worker-placement games that use dice as the workers, with the values determining what can be done with them. Along with the dice, Alien Frontiers adds another distinctly non-Euro element: “Take That!ism”. Some actions and cards allow a player to directly target opponents, allowing them to steal resources or otherwise complicate their plans. I have no objection to this when it’s done well; Lords of Waterdeep, for instance, also has this element, and I quite enjoy that game. But in Alien Frontiers, it seems like it’s a little too easy to dogpile on the leader, such that all the players wind up within one point of victory and the winner is he who gets slapped down the least. Wondering if our one play was an anomaly, I checked out the comments by several reviewers I trust on boardgamgeek, and saw my concerns echoed: “seem to always come down to everyone just about winning”, “too much kingmaking”, “endgame is weak & incredibly swing-y”. Suspicions: confirmed! If I want dice-as-workers, I’ll stick with Troyes; if I want a little politics in my Euro, Waterdeep remains the one to beat.
Dungeon World: I’m a sucker for both dungeon crawls and modern roleplaying games that put the emphasis on storytelling, so it’ll come as no surprise that I loved my first session of Dungeon World. The system, based on Apocalypse World, boasts several innovations, foremost among them the fact that the DM never rolls the dice. Instead, she sets up the situation (“the ogre swings his club at you”), and it is incumbent upon the player to drive the action forward, by taking “moves” (“I will attempt to Defy Danger by dodging out of the way”) and rolling two six-sided dice to determine the outcome. A 10+ means they accomplished whatever they set out to do; a 6 or less means they failed. But the fun of the game comes when a move roll results in a 7, 8, or 9, at which point the DM gets to decide what “partial success” looks like (“you can either: take the blow and full damage, or block with your sword arm, taking less damage overall but losing the use of your arm for the rest of the fight”). No doubt my favorable impression of the game was due in part to Brendan Adkins, our excellent DM, but I really think the game works well as a rules-light D&Dish RPG, perfect for those who prefer storytelling to min-maxing.
Space Cadets: Dice Duel: Apparently this game hasn’t been released, but there was a copy available for play in the PAX library. Players separate into two teams, each of which works to maneuver their ship around a gridded board, collecting crystals, using tractor beams to move things around, and firing torpedoes at their opponent in the hopes of taking them down. To accomplish this, teams roll dice and then assign them to various stations: the helm for movement, the weapons systems, the shields, and so forth. The gimmick is that all of this is done simultaneously, and in real time. In other words, a team will be frantically rolling dice and allocating them to the various systems as quickly as possible, hoping to get an edge over their opponents through efficient play and fortuitous rolls. In this respect, the game is like a much more convoluted Escape: The Curse of the Temple, which also has players rolling dice in real time and frenetically using the results to accomplish tasks. I am unconvinced, however, that the added complexity is an improvement. Escape is simple, but players are able to follow the action even while rolling dice as quickly as possible; In Dice Duel, however, no one player can track everything that is going on, which is kind of fun, but also a bit anticlimactic when you abruptly win or lose without having any idea what preceded the outcome. I may enjoy Dice Duel, but I’m definitely going to need a few more plays to make that determinatio
Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: This was the belle of the ball at Gen Con, and it’s easy to see way: hugely popular RPG theme (dungeon crawl) + hugely possible RPG license (Pathfinder) - the need for a DM. Like the roleplaying game on which it is based, P:TACG has a party of adventurers cooperating to explore, fight monsters, acquire loot, and ultimately confront a villain of some sort. Normally one player would have to run all this, but here everything is automated, and the players work collaboratively to beat the system itself.
A scenario has a number of location, each with it’s own draw deck. On a turn a player picks one of these locations and explores it, revealing and encountering the top card from its deck. Some of the encounters are Boons that a player can acquire, such as weapons, items, allies, and blessings; others, like monsters, are Banes, and the player must overcome them. In either case, the player rolls against one of his skills to determine success. When a deck is exhausted, the corresponding location is “closed”, and the adventurers move on to another of the sites. The overarching goal is to to flush out and defeat the scenario’s Big Bad.
Some of this is standard deck-builder fare, but P:TACG offers several novel twists on the formula (including a hand-size mechanic that is downright elegant). The biggest draw of the game, however, is that state persists from game to game; that is, if you acquire a sword or an ally or an item in one game, you can start the next game already owning it. Your characters also level up as they would in a RPG, so you slowly become more powerful and better equipped over the course of several sessions. You can play one-shots of course, but the game is really designed for a dedicated group, with players using the same characters for each session, and working their way through the Scenarios that compose the Adventures that compose the Adventure Paths.
A member of my game group picked up a copy of P:TACG, and we are in the process of setting up a monthly Pathfinder night dedicated to playing it. That probably tells you all you need to know about the game’s allure and potential.
Sentinels of the Multiverse: Last year a reader of defective yeti wrote me of the blue to recommend Sentinels of the Multiverse, which he described as “a cooperative superhero card game in which up to 5 players work to defeat a supervillain”. “Superheroes” and “cooperative” piqued my interested, but upon further investigation I came to the (erroneous) conclusion that the game was a deck-builder, a genre for which I have little enthusiasm. Even that wouldn’t have stopped me from buying it though, as I will act on pretty much any recommendation, but I also couldn’t find the game for purchase anywhere. It appeared to have been a Kickstarter project that was not generally available.
Since then the buzz around Sentinels has grown (it has been suggested to me several times in the last six months), so I picked up a copy at PAX, and am very pleased to have done so. The core game is fairly simple, with the players attempting to reduce the Villain’s Hit Points to 0 before he knocks out all of the Heroes, or before time runs out. To that end, cards are played that deal damage, or heal damage, or have a variety of other effects. The cooperative element of Sentinels elevates it above standard “Take That!” fare though, and many cards amplify or modify the effects of others. On my turn, for instance, I might play a card that reduces the Villain’s Hit Points by 3, or I might choose to instead play a card that adds 1 to the damage dealt by every other player until my next turn. Some cards remain in play and have lasting effect, such that, as the game goes on, the options available to players grow, as do the opportunities to clever, synergistic plays. Much of the fun of the game comes from working with the other players to find and exploit powerful, cascading chains of effects that will wreak havoc on the Villain’s plans.
Sentinels is often likened to Magic: The Gathering, not only because cards interact with one another in interesting and powerful ways, but also because each player has a unique deck with an overarching “theme”. Some of the heroes deal large amounts of damage but can do little else; others specialize in weakening or undermining the the Villain rather than hurting him outright; and so forth. The hero I played in my first game was Legacy, a quintessential team player, who could redirect damage meant for others to himself, and often chose to assist his fellow heroes rather than bask in the spotlight. With 10 different Heroes and 4 Villains (each of which also have their own decks and specialties), there are lots of combinations to explore as you play through a comic book series of your own making.
♪ For every season, turn, turn, turn … ♫
As with any form of art, boardgame design is subject to trends. “Worker placement games”, for example, were all the rage in the years following the release of Agricola. Most games of the genre had similar hallmarks: players used their turns to assign “workers” to spaces on the board; each space conferred to the player some benefit or reward, such as free resources, the ability to build improvements, or even the opportunity to recruit yet more workers to his cause; and each space could only hold a single worker, so occupying them (thereby denying them from your opponents) was the main form of player interaction.
The market eventually became saturated with worker placement games, and fell by the wayside when Dominion ushered in the era of Deck Building games. These days a worker placement game must be exceptionally well designed or feature a compelling twist to merit consideration. Lords of Waterdeep is a good example of the former, a game that adds little to the genre, but is so well designed that I frequently recommend it. Trajan, on the other hand, exemplifies the latter, a worker placement game (sort of) with a very clever mechanic, but one that dominates rather than supplements play.
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, meanwhile, meets both criteria, boasting an remarkable design and one hell of a hook. And the gimmick in this case is not only mechanical, but physical: six interlocking gears which sit in the middle of the game board. Each of the smaller gears represents a site of importance in Mayan culture — Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza — while the large, central gear plays the role of the Mayan calendar. When the calendar gear is advanced between rounds, the site gears move in tandem. It’s a system that’s not only practical (it saves the players a great deal of bookkeeping), but cleverly reinforces the premise of the game: the inexorable march of time over the course of a year in the Mayan empire.
Finally, a game with some teeth.
Each site has Action Spaces positions around the perimeter of its gear, and these spaces grant unique benefits to the workers who resides there. But unlike most worker placement games — where a player plunks his pawn into a space, uses the effect, and then retrieves all of his pieces at the end of a round — Tzolk’in employs a novel system of distribution. First, a player must either place workers or retrieve workers on his turn, but cannot do both. Second, the effect of an Action Space takes place when the worker is removed from the board. Third, and most ingeniously, the workers are not placed onto the Action Spaces directly, but rather into depressions within the gears. As time passes, and the central calendar cog turns, the site gears rotate as well, moving the placed workers up toward the more powerful spaces. Thus, the longer a worker sits on a gear, the better the reward it earns when he is finally returned to the owning player’s pool.
The Action Spaces for a site are loosely bound to the overall theme of the location: Palenque focuses on forestry and farming, Yaxchilan provides resources, Tikal permits construction, Uxmal allows you to purchase various goods and effects, and Chichen Itza is where players can make offerings to the gods in return for points and favor. This specialization is one of several thematic touches in what could have been a largely abstract game.
The gods work in clearly explained ways.
There’s considerably more to Tzolk’in — resource management, buildings and temples, technology tracks, and three different gods to appease — but the gears and the worker placement are the heart of the game, and what really make it shine.
I was profoundly skeptical that the game could rise above its “gimmick”, but after four plays I firmly believe that Tzolk’in would remain as highly regarded if the gears were removed entirely. The game would no doubt be accused of “fiddlyness”, as players would be required to manually advance all the workers between every round, but that just proves my point: the cogs facilitate the excellent gameplay, rather than replace it.
And another good sign in regards to the game’s depth is that it is becoming more interesting with repeated play. The first two times I played I had no idea what to focus on (corn? resources? buildings? temples?) and came in last place. The third time I won, without consciously knowing how I did so. I won the fourth time as well, and this time even had an inkling as to why. Like the best strategy games, Tzolk’in requires study and persistence to play well, and rewards those who makes the investment.
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar has become a staple at my Wednesday gamenight, and is my favorite 3-4 player game at the moment. It’s not a something I would recommend to novices, as it has a fairly steep learning curve. But if you are a fan of worker placement games who thought the genre was played out, or are just looking for something to challenge your group, Tzolk’in is an excellent choice, one you’ll want to play often. One good turn deserves another.
In this sporadic column we provide our initial impressions of the previous evening’s games.
Getting older is a drag, but if you play your figurative and literal cards right you at least accumulate opponents.
I owned the Avalon Hill version of Merchant of Venus in my early 20s, and never once played it. I could never convince anyone to join me in a three-hour game with a board that looks like a primer on quantum mechanics. Eventually I gave it to a thrift store (along with unplayed copy of Dune — SHUT UP, I KNOW!), and chalked it up as The Game That Got Away.
Fast-forward 20 years: not only does Fantasy Flight reprint the game, but I now have a stable of
opponents friends with whom to play it. In fact, in the month that I have owned Merchant of Venus, I have played it twice: once a few weeks ago, and again last night. That’s 2∞ times more than my previous record!
MoV is the quintessential “pick up a deliver” game, in which players buy goods in one location and transport them to another. In this case, the locations are star systems, the goods are humorous sci-fi commodities such as Designer Genes and Impossible Furniture, and the players zip around the universe in spaceships as they strive to amass the most credits.
The Fantasy Flight edition contains two separate games, with different maps (the board is double-sided) and rules: Classic, which recreates the original Avalon Hill version, and Standard, the Fantasy Flight remake. I’ve played each once, enjoyed them both, and have yet to form a preference.
Standard introduces “Racial Technology“, ship upgrades you can purchase from the various alien civilizations, and while I am a total sucker for power-ups, they seem to vary widely in their usefulness. Maybe this is by design, but “Fuzzy Dice” in particular (which simply awards the owner a motherload of points at the end of the game based on a single dice roll) strikes me as bizarrely out of balance.
Classic, on the other hand, has Demand Markers that constantly vary which systems provide the best payouts for various goods, and they are the most interesting part of the game. The omission of Demand Markers from Standard is another odd choice, especially since the designers went through the trouble of replacing them with an analogous but less compelling mechanism. I am generally a fan of fantasy Flight remakes (e.g., the FF Arkham Horror is vastly superior to the original), but this one is a mixed bag.
All that said, I greatly enjoy both games, and look forward to many more plays. Thank goodness Merchant of Venus has aged more gracefully that I.
Love Letter falls into two unusual categories, the first of which is Games That You Are Convinced Won’t Work Until You Play Them. Often these are games that are so complicated that you can’t visualize how all the disparate systems could possibly come together into an organic whole, but sometimes you come across a game so simple that you can’t imagine how playing it would be any more intriguing than flipping a coin.
The second unusual class into which Love Letter falls is what I call Two-Minute Games — not because they can be played in two minutes, but because they feature such an economy of rules that they can be taught to others in that limited time frame. Love Letter is so simple, in fact, that I bet I can explain the core rules in 25 words or less. “Draw a card on your turn, then discard one from your hand. The discarded card takes effect. Have the highest ranked card at round’s end.” Done.
Were I actually teaching you the game, of course, I would open with the premise. Each of the 16 cards in the deck depicts a member of the royal household, which is composed of the Princess, the Countess, the King, two princes, two handmaidens, two barons, two priests, and five guards. In an attempt to woo the Princess, you have entrusted a love letter to one of these people, who has agreed to pass the missive along. Ideally your letter will be in the hands of the Princess herself by the end of the round; barring that, you just want your letter to be as “close” to the object of your affection as possible. Each member of the household has a rank from 8 (the Princess) to 1 (the guards), and you win by holding the highest ranked card at the end of the round.
Everyone receives a single, random card before play begins. On a turn, a player draws a second card and then discards one of the two from his hand. The discarded card has an effect, depending on the person shown. A Guard, for instance, allows you to name a player and a card; if the target holds the card you specified, he is out of the round. The Priest allows you to look at the held card of an opponent. And the Princess, the optimal card to own when a round ends, comes with a liability: you are eliminated if you discard her for any reason.
There are only eight abilities, one per role, and yet the interaction between them make for a tense game of bluff and deduction. Take the three roles described in the paragraph above, for instance. Discarding the Priest, a player could look at the hand of an opponent, and perhaps discover the Princess; if he holds (or draws) a Guard on his next turn, he could then single out the same player, “guess” the Princess, and force him to discard it (thus knocking him out of the round). But the other player will first have a turn to react, and may discard the Handmaid, thereby becoming immune to all attacks until his next turn, or the King, which would allow him to trade his hand with any other player, handing them the Princess (and possibly the victory) whilst weaseling out of the crosshairs.
Love Letter does not contain an abundance of game; play a round or two and you’ve pretty much seen the gamut. But that won’t prevent you playing compulsively, and enjoying every game. The design strikes a deft balance between subtlety and brainlessness, allowing you to play even while mentally fatigued from earlier, weightier games, or a bit hazy after that second margarita. Indeed, with its simple rules, compact size, and quick playing time, Love Letter is a near perfect bar game, so long as you don’t mind the stares of the other patrons as you howl with laughter at the reversals of fortune, and rage against the perfidy of your erstwhile “friends”.
Like a hapless suitor, pouring his heart into a billet doux, you will likely become quite enchanted with Love Letter. The infatuation may not endure, but you’ll be hopelessly smitten while it lasts.
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.
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.