Category Archives: board gaming

Posts on board, card, and table games

Gathering Dust

Every once in a while, I go through the exercise of checking which board games in my collection I haven’t played in the last year or so. Yes, I keep track of this sort of thing.

It’s always surprising, and the list always contains quite a few games that I like a lot. Sometimes, even though I like them, they don’t fit the kind of gaming groups or situations I tend to encounter. Occasionally, I’m the only one in my circle who does like a given game all that much. But there’s also a certain number of things that just fall through the cracks for no particular reason; with several hundred games in my collection, that’s bound to happen.

Here, then, is this year’s list. I won’t include all 60-odd games: just the ones I rate the highest. Also, I always own a certain number of games that I’ve yet to play at all, which don’t count for the purpose of this exercise.

  • Caylus
  • Animal Upon Animal
  • Descent: Journeys in the Dark
  • El Grande
  • Loco!
  • Lord of the Rings
  • My Word!
  • Battle Line
  • Battleground: Fantasy Warfare
  • Jambo
  • Power Grid
  • Tigris & Euphrates
  • Twilight Struggle
  • Enemy Chocolatier
  • Adel Verpflichtet
  • Boggle Deluxe
  • Cribbage
  • Frank’s Zoo
  • Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation
  • Nexus Ops
  • Risk Express
  • Space Dealer

The big surprise, though hardly the only one, is Caylus. I regard El Grande almost as highly, but for whatever reason it’s been an infrequent one for a while now. A lot of these, though, are short, even two-player games that you’d hope would be easy to visit more often.

Print-on-Demand Jump Gate Wins GAMES 100 Game of the Year

GAMES Magazine has been doing an annual “GAMES 100” awards issue since 1980, with a “Game of the Year” since 1991. This year the nod has reportedly gone to Jump Gate, a self-published, print on demand title by Matt Worden.

Now, the GAMES awards have sometimes been a little idiosyncratic. But for a POD game like this to come out of nowhere and take the slot that last year went to Small World? That’s more than idiosyncratic; it’s shocking.

This bears further investigation. Oh, and the ever-prolific reviewer Tom Vasel quite liked it too, which seems a good place to start:

Sources: here and here

Review: Arkadia

City building is a common boardgame theme. We see it in Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Citadels, to name just a few. Or maybe you’re ostensibly building just a single monument, as in Alhambra, Amyitis, or Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. Whatever the geometric pattern or scoring sequence you want to pose for players, it seems the construction industry is there to answer your thematic needs.

Arkadia is Rüdiger Dorn’s entry into this pool, and a nominee for the 2007 Spiel des Jahres. The centerpiece of the game is a set of stackable castle pieces, with different colors on the top that determine scoring opportunities. These are arranged on a plot in the center of the board, around which go building tiles of various shapes, plus assorted worker figurines.

(To digress briefly into mythology, Arcadia is traditionally a utopia of pre-urbanized pastoral life. Or a prefecture in Greece. In this game, never mind all that; Arkadia is apparently a city, and you’re building it.)

On each player’s turn, they will be placing either a building or a collection of workers. Workers must be arranged around an existing building; buildings can be abutted to an existing building, worker, or the castle plot. The building tiles are laid by playing a card from your hand, showing the shape of the building, and the color of scoring token (“seal”) with which to mark it. Workers can be placed freely, in any numbers you care to take from your supply, so long as they all adjoin to a single shared building.

Whenever all spaces around a building are claimed (whether by workers or other buildings), it pays out seals of its assigned color. One goes to the player who triggered this event, and one per worker goes to that worker’s player (with neutral-colored workers which pay out to nobody also playing a part). So strategic play involves maximizing the buildings touched by each of your own workers, the opportunities to be the one to finish buildings, and the value of the seals you’ll hold.

Here we get to what I think is the heart of the game, creatively speaking, which is the scoring mechanism. Remember those stackable castle pieces? They determine how many points those seals are actually worth. However many castle pieces are showing of a given color, that’s how many points the seals of that color are worth. A new castle piece is placed whenever a building pays out, and the game goes through phases of building a second and third floor, which obscures old pieces and shifts the old values. There are no fixed times for scoring, outside of a single reckoning at the end of the game. Instead, each player decides for himself when, in this series of opportunities, are the right moments to turn in seals for points. This action is tied to the mechanism for recruiting more workers, so there’s also a tension between building up seals before scoring, and investing in the future.

Arkadia is basically a geometric game, and I’d say the familiar city-building theme barely lifts it out of the realm of the abstract. However, the conflicting incentives keep the choices meaningful, and the responsibility involved in the scoring mechanism keeps you on your toes. Had the 2007 prize not gone to Zooloretto (a particular favorite of mine), I’d not have thought it out of place at all to see Arkadia get the Spiel des Jahres.

Review: Space-Drifters

Some time ago, I mentioned how much I like Spielbox magazine’s practice of including a game expansion or a mini-game in every issue. Such things were pretty common once upon a time, back when there were gaming magazines printed on dead trees, and the expansions are still the sort of thing that only a print magazine can do.

The mini-games, on the other hand, present some features of their own. The need to fit in a center-stapled insert imposes some specific constraints on components, similar to what James Ernest used to do with his Cheapass brand. Anything but the simplest paper elements has to be a generic item you expect your audience to be able to supply. In addition to being an interesting design problem, this pushes the work into a niche of portability that greatly appeals to me.

Christof Tisch’s Space-Drifters appears in the Issue #1 2010 edition of Spielbox (English-language edition; Issue #5 2009 in the German). In it, two to six crewmen of the space station Trimenz 5 compete in a leisure-time race to spacewalk around the station, using unreliable thrusters and hurled objects. The first to complete one lap around the station wins.

The distinctive feature of Space-Drifters is that it stands the usual roll-and-move race game on its head: the racers roll dice, not for how far they move, but what direction. There is a limited ability to avoid dice that would send you entirely backwards, as you roll three dice and can choose to reject one if you wish. Each player has a panel with five slots to which to allocate dice. Each slot represents a certain speed of movement, sometimes combined with an allowance to correct that die’s steering slightly. In addition, each player has a stock of “asteroid” tokens that can be used to further correct course, but these are an expendable resource replenished only by going off to the fringes of the board. Of course, if the dice you’re using to steer with are betraying you, the fringes of the board are where you might just be ending up anyway! So, this forms a clever feedback system, helping to keep the race outcome dramatically close.

I would characterize this as a light game, with optimization decisions to be made with each turn’s die roll, but minimal long-term strategy. This is entirely appropriate for the wacky theme and relatively short playing time. The key innovation of rolling for steering rather than speed is a fresh one, and on the whole I’m happy to add Space-Drifters to my travel kit.

Charles S. Roberts, RIP

Charles S. Roberts, founder of the Avalon Hill game company and “Father of Board Wargaming,” has died at the age of 80.

Anybody with more than a passing familiarity with the boardgaming hobby will know just how great an impact Avalon Hill had on the history of the form. Likewise with Roberts himself and the design conventions of board wargaming. If you’ve ever maneuvered units on a hexagonal grid, that’s Charles S. Roberts.

I’m late in hearing the news, as he passed away on August 20th. And Roberts himself said that he’d rather be remembered for his work in railroad history than his contributions to gaming (of which he said, “this just happened”). But I could not let the occasion go unmentioned.

Roberts’ obituary in the Baltimore Sun can be found here.

Spielbox Magazine: First Impressions

In case you don’t follow board games, Spielbox is probably the premiere surviving print magazine on the hobby. They have just started publication of an English-language version (cover dated February/March), and I got my copy today.

First, I’ve got to say that it’s great to see the inclusion of a mini-game (“Space-Drifters”) as a center-stapled insert. That takes me back to the old days of Dragon magazine, back when they were in print, and still did that sort of thing. And it’s the sort of thing that only a print publication can do.

In fact, Spielbox is kind of famous for the prizes they add in. This issue also has a pair of player mats for Dominion, to serve the sort of people who mix up their draw pile, play area, and discard pile. I’m not one of those people, and it’s not as cool as a whole mini-expansion (which they often do), but on the whole I still approve.

On the down side, it is pricey (€56 for a 7-issue year’s subscription). And they clearly have some kinks to work out of their internationalization, with inappropriately untranslated German snippets slipping through, and some phrasing that clearly wasn’t run by a native speaker. Nothing that gets in the way, though.

The low point of the issue, at a glance, has to be Christian Klein’s review of 2 de Mayo. While thorough and well thought out, I can’t tell whether the author holds wargamers or Spaniards in the greater disdain. His snide tone drags the whole article down.

Overall, though, it seems like a good start for their English edition.

Capsule Review: Zooloretto

I recently played Michael Schacht’s Zooloretto box coverZooloretto for the first time. It’s the winner of the 2007 Spiel des Jahres, and rather a cunning little game.

Each player is a zookeeper, competing to assemble the best zoo. Fundamentally, it’s a convoluted draft. On your turn, you either draft the entire contents of a single “truck” into your zoo, or you blindly draw a tile and add it to the truck of your choice. So far, I’m also describing Schacht’s earlier game Coloretto. Because your decisions to draw rather than draft are made based on the likelihood that one of your opponents will draft before play gets around to you again, Coloretto strategy is largely screw-your-neighbor.

Zooloretto, however, adds decisions about how you allocate the things you draft, and allows you an action to change those allocations. All of this makes a huge difference. The allocation decisions add depth to the game, and greatly reduce the screw-your-neihbor factor by giving you opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade. You’re still trying to avoid any truck placements that hand things to your neighbor on a silver platter, of course, but the decisions involved aren’t so unsubtle.

So, it’s interesting to see how Schacht took this mechanism from a worthy but lightweight filler type of game, and fleshed it out into something much more substantial.