iOS Review: Carcassonne

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile face-to-face gaming is an amazing way to spend time with friends, sometimes you don’t have a willing opponent at hand. Thankfully we now live in a world where there are alternatives to just sitting and staring longingly at the games we aren’t able to play. Both the iPad and Android tablets have seen a bevy of board game ports giving gamers the ability to scratch that itch without having to put on a pair of pants.

A few years ago one of the elder statesmen of the board gaming world received the digital treatment – and Carcassonne has never looked so good.

Carcassonne hit the board game scene in 2000 and has had a very steady following since then. Okay, sure, it has seen more expansions than the waistline of a college freshman. And yeah, other games have come along that are deeper and more involved. But good old Carcassonne had new life breathed into it once this app hit iOS devices. Not too bad for one of the steadfast gateway games, right?

But let’s be honest here, this game isn’t really a gateway game. Not once you see it for what it is. If there’s a gateway here, it’s more like an iron portcullis operated by a dwarf standing on a three-legged stool who is suffering from alcohol withdrawal. He’s five minutes from ending his shift and wants nothing more than to quiet the voices in his head with another round of ale.

And you just made eye contact with him.

Carcassonne AppThe app is, in a word, stunning. From the moment that you load up the app, you are greeted by pleasant music and a very intuitive menu. You can start games with others via Game Center, can do a local game with others on the same network, or even play a solitaire game.

If you are new to the world of Carcassonne, there’s a very detailed tutorial that will walk you through the game and teach you everything you need to know about this classic.

Once you start a game, you find that the graphics and user interface are just as good on the inside as they are on the main menu. All of the tiles have been faithfully reproduced and look just as good as the ones that come in the actual game. The meeples are vibrant and perfectly shaped, and the “table” you play the game on has a beautiful wood grain.

As this is a digital production of the game, the developers were able to add functionality that the face-to-face version lacks. Worried that you’ll never get the one tile type you need to close that city? Pull up the list of tiles and see how many are left. Not sure where to put the tile you were just handed? No problem! The app highlights the spots on the board where the tile can legally be played. Once a space has become dead (no tiles left in the bag that will go there), an “X” appears on that spot so you know that it’s a goner. These features aren’t for everyone, and purists can choose to shut them off in the settings.

The developers are quite dedicated to getting new expansions out.
The developers are quite dedicated to getting new expansions out.

Of course, no Carcassonne app would be complete without some expansions. To date there are seven expansions available (for a small fee, of course) and they range from the simple ones like The River to the gameplay changing Inns & Cathedrals. Each expansion has been meticulously recreated in the digital format and brings a little something different to each game.

Now you might be saying “well, sure…that sounds fine. But it’s still Carcassonne. Isn’t that a little…….boring?”

Let’s chat for a second about that. When was the last time you played Carcassonne? Chances are fairly good that you used it to introduce new gamers to the hobby. Or maybe you played it with your family on a holiday at home? A nice friendly game with your mom and your sister?

Well, friends. This is not your old beat up copy of Carcassonne that forlornly watches from your shelf as newer, sexier games come in and take its place on the table. This isn’t the friendly game where everyone sets off on their own to build cities and roads, ignoring all others. This is most certainly not the game where whiny gamers start slapping house rules onto the game to make the decisions “more meaningful.”

When you play this app, especially online?

This game is war.

End game scoring summaries show you just how badly you got beaten.
End game scoring summaries show you just how badly you got beaten.

Every tile that gets placed is immediately beset on all sides by the other players, trying to horn in on your sweet city building action. Roads are usurped. Cloisters pop up together to the point where they should be called “Clusters”, as everyone tries to make other people do the work for them. And farms? Hell, playing a farm in this game is like painting a target on your forehead. Within two turns you’ve lost majority and been blocked off from all hope of rejoining.

After a while, it makes you stop and think about that sweet little gateway game that you once brought out to show people just how different board games could be. This can’t be the same game, can it? This brutal, take no prisoners, screw over every other person at the table, shark tank of a game? Oh, it is. And then you toss an expansion in the mix it becomes even more amazing.

Time will go by and suddenly you’ll look at Carcassonne differently. You’ll see that this is truly a chameleon of a game. A conflict averse group can play an entire game without bumping into one another and be perfectly content. A more aggressive group? I can guarantee that the first f-bomb is dropped by turn three.

So go ahead. Pull Carcassonne out some night soon. Dust it off. And be a complete bastard. It’s quite fulfilling. And if you can’t? Well, it’s a good thing this app exists.

 

[well]

Carcassonne can be found in the App Store for $9.99. Don’t worry. It’s worth it.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/carcassonne/id375295479?mt=8

[/well]

Carcassonne App
A game using all the available expansions, plus the new Winter tiles.

 

Even More 7 Wonders in 2015

BGG News reports that Repos Productions will release a few new products in their 7 Wonders line this year. Slated for release are a stand alone 2 player game called 7 Wonders: Duel, along with a playmat and a new “art pack”. Read more about it here:

Even though the Art Pack is only supposed to be available through game store events, I’m guessing that it won’t take long for people to voice their displeasure with new art for old wonder boards.

International TableTop Day – April 11th

International TableTop DayBack in 2013, Wil Wheaton’s YouTube show TableTop decided to make a national holiday out of gaming. They decided to call it International TableTop Day, and encouraged game stores, game groups, and everyday people to make a day out of gaming. Events were held, pictures were posted, tweets were tweeted, and it was a great success.

This year marks the 3rd Annual International TableTop Day, and I am very much looking forward to it! I’ve got a small group of friends coming over and we’ll play all day and into the night.

For those of you that are looking to find groups in your area that are having events, check out the International TableTop Day website!

Review: Castles of Mad King Ludwig

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] enjoy playing board games; I guess that kinda goes without saying. I love the social interaction, the mechanics behind the design, and the fact that you’ve got a little cardboard world to sink yourself into. Some games can certainly pique a gamer’s interest more than others, but once in a while a game will come along that brings so much fun to the table that you don’t care whether you win or lose. And who would have thought that we would find it in Bavaria.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game for 1-4 players by designer Ted Alspach and is published by Bezier Games. Inside the spacious box you will find a small deck of cards, some coins, the room and score boards, and a slew of various sized rooms and corridors. The object of the game is to score the most points by fulfilling objectives and setting up interactions between the various rooms. A typical game will take anywhere from 60-90 minutes to play.

Castles of Mad King LudwigThe flow of the game is quite simple and very intuitive. Each round there will be anywhere from five to seven rooms available for purchase (depending on player count) along with hallways and stairs. A contract board has prices on it for the rooms that are available, with one room being available at each price. One player will play the part of the Master Builder who starts the round by revealing the new buildings to refill the market, and pricing the buildings as they see fit.

Right away we see one of the best features of Castles of Mad King Ludwig. There’s no flowchart or predictability to how these rooms are priced. The Master Builder chooses the price. You can’t say “well, Bob and Sally don’t want it, and I buy first next turn, so I’ll just leave it there so it will be cheaper”. Why not? Well, because Bob and Sally both know that you want it. And they both play ahead of you. So you can have that precious Venus Grotto you’ve been waiting for, but it might cost you 15,000 Marks….cause they’re not about to give you a bargain.

Starting with the player to the left of the Master Builder, each player…hmm. You know what? Let’s take a step back for a minute. I think we need a little history lesson before we sally forth on our quest to become the best builder in the land. This is what my friend Don calls “needless flavor text”, but I think it ties things together nicely and makes the gameplay much more thematic.

Once upon a time, almost smack dab in the middle of the European continent, there was a kingdom called Bavaria. In 1864 a new king was crowned – Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm. And as he was the second “Ludwig” to rule the land they gave him the catchy title “Ludwig II”. Now our pal Ludwig wasn’t much for being involved in the affairs of state. Bavaria had been swallowed up by Prussia and was soon to become part of the German Empire. So he sank all of his time (and money) into two things: the arts, and architecture.

Ludwig commissioned palaces to be built – magnificent undertakings that were hideously complex and overly grandiose. They were designed to be intentionally asymmetrical and lacked many of the design elements of castles built around the same time.  Neuschwanstein Castle, perhaps the most famous of Ludwig’s castles, was built as an homage to the composer Richard Wagner and has inspired the famous Disney princess castle which can be found in their theme parks to this day.

Neuschwanstein at sunset
Neuschwanstein Castle

As Ludwig built these castles, he began to go bankrupt. He borrowed and borrowed until he was broke, and eventually died of mysterious causes leaving his castles as the most lasting part of his legacy. Many referred to him as “The Mad King” and his story comes in at number two on my Top Ten Favorite European Leader Stories list. Number one? Well, that’s easily the first False Dmitriy. In brief, when the Russians found Dmitriy to be a Polish imposter he was shot, killed, and put on display for all to see. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then cremated him, stuffed his ashes into a cannon pointed at Poland, and fired him right back at the Poles.

Where was I? Ah, right…starting with the player to the left of the Master Builder, each player takes one of three actions: they buy one of the buildings from the contract board, they buy either a hallway or some stairs, or they pass and take 5,000 Marks. Now unlike most games, any money spent isn’t given to the bank. The Master Builder collects all the money and places it in their coffers. Once the Master Builder’s turn comes around, they will take one of the three options, with the exception that any money they pay in will go back to the general supply.

And here’s where we see why the Master Builder’s act of pricing the rooms is so important. While it might be tempting to price people out of the market on a room, you’re really only hurting yourself. You need to generate enough cash to hold you until you’re back in the driver’s seat, and apart from an occasional bonus for closing a room, this is the only way to do so. So there’s a balance to be struck here…you don’t want to give these rooms away, but you need to make sure they sell.

Because of this, Castles of Mad King Ludwig actually develops a capitalist mentality which finds players wanting to help each other out to a certain extent. It’s like the kind old shopkeeper that comes up to you and says “well sonny, I know you’ve only got a couple bucks. So I’ll give it to you for that, even though it’s worth more.” You care about the other players being able to buy rooms. If you want to keep your bank flush and keep the rooms coming out, you’ve got to price stuff to move. And that’s brilliant.

Castles of Mad King LudwigOnce you’ve purchased a room? Well, you have to place it in your castle, naturally. But it’s not as easy as it might seem. See, these rooms aren’t just boring squares which form a nice mosaic once laid together. You’ve got big circles and little circles, long rectangles and tiny squares…all in all there are 12 different shaped rooms that you can wind up with. But just throwing them somewhere isn’t an option, either. You need to line up doors, make sure that you can still get IN your castle, and keep the upstairs and downstairs rooms on their own levels.

And it’s FUN to do this. I mean, really fun. The rooms have names to add even more to the thematic brilliance that this game provides. While you might imagine a Nap Room in a castle, you probably don’t picture it being right next to the Meat Locker and just upstairs from the Bottomless Pit.

“Right, well I needed that nap. I think a nice slab of cheese would hit the spot right now. Strange, I don’t remember these stairs going to the meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…….”

Who wants a mold room in their castle? No one, right? That’s probably why it’s in the cellar…but did you have to tuck it next to your lovely Venus Grotto? What are your guests going to think when they row out into the grotto and notice a fine layer of fungus on both shores?

Fun aside, the gameplay itself is very satisfying. On your turn as Master Builder you’re trying to determine exactly how much you can squeeze out of your opponents, while still getting yourself the building you want. The bonus cards and favor tiles give you a goal to build towards, especially when they work well together. Even if you can’t immediately work towards a goal, each type of room provides a different bonus to you once it is completed: everything from scoring a room a second time to getting another turn. These bonuses will sometimes turn the tide and give you a much needed boost in either income or points. The puzzle

My only criticisms are minor. The box is a bit roomy for what you’re given, and the room and scoring boards are a bit on the thin side. But nothing which I would say will prevent you from enjoying the hell out of this game.

All in all, I would highly recommend Castles of Mad King Ludwig. It’s rare that we’ll find a game which is able to successfully inject a little silliness into our game sessions while still providing a solid base of gameplay. Rare is the time where you don’t find yourself laughing at the monstrosity of a castle that you’ve built, wondering who in their right mind would put the Queen’s Bedroom right off the Singers’ Chamber and just downwind of the Meat Locker?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a castle to build.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

The Game Shelves

When my collection really started to grow, it was in a small unused linen closet. This worked for quite a while, but then it started spreading out onto my bookcases. This was starting to get ridiculous and my games were starting to pop up all over the place, so I went out and bought dedicated shelving for my games. I wasn’t really concerned with the look of the shelves, so I bought one of those wire racks from Lowe’s that has four shelves which are adjustable.

Now all of these solutions were fine, if not a little utilitarian. I was much more concerned with function over form. One day I was on BGG and saw a collection stored in an Expedit Shelving Unit from IKEA. It looked amazing. It was the perfect combination of function and form, making the games look much nicer than they do on most other shelves.

Finally, I broke down and picked up a couple of them. The 5×5 and 2×4 Expedit shelves fit nicely in our craft/game room and held all the games we owned at the time. Here they are now, all in their magnificent glory. My games.

Shelves

 

Shortly thereafter, IKEA discontinued the Expedit shelves. Board gamers weren’t the only people pissed off by this – the Expedit was the shelf of choice for many serious vinyl record collectors. But, IKEA said, don’t fret…we’re just changing the shelf slightly and renaming it.

Last weekend we decided to go pick one up. So now we also have a Kallax to go with our Expedits. If they were stored in different rooms you would be hard pressed to pick out the difference between the two units. And, admittedly, it’s minor. The Kallax’s outer frame is 1/2 inch (1.27 centimeters for you metric folks) thinner than the Expedit. Here’s a photo to show the two shelves next to each other:

Kallax vs. Expedit

 

So if you’re in the market for a shelving upgrade, and have an IKEA nearby, get down there post-haste and pick yourself up one of the beauties. Or two…..or, you know, three…

Review: Machi Koro

Machi Koro
Machi Koro

“I wish it was easier to get new people into gaming.”

Ah, the magical words that every gamer has uttered to themselves at least once in their lives. As the old saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s about 50 games you can use to open people up to the hobby. Or something like that. I was never good with proverbs. So stop trying to come up with solo rules for Game of Thrones and follow me…to Machi Koro.

Machi Koro is a game for 2-4 players by designer Masao Suganuma and is distributed in the States by Pandasaurus Games. Upon opening the box you find a cavernous insert which holds a deck of cards, some cardboard coins, and two dice. The rules are incredibly simple: each player starts with five coins, two starting cards (a wheat field and a bakery), and four monuments. On your turn, you roll one of the dice. If one of the cards in your city has that number on it, follow the instructions. Then you can spend any number of coins that you have to buy a new card for your city.

Machi KoroThe cards come in four colors: red cards that are activated on another player’s turn, green and purple cards which are activated on your turn, and blue cards that activate on anyone’s turn. The monuments will provide various benefits from granting you the ability to roll two dice to increasing the output of certain types of buildings. And the cards are nice looking. I’m not usually one to put a lot of emphasis on the art in a game, but this is downright pleasant.

That’s it. Really. You can teach anyone to play this game. Now obviously there’s something a little deeper going on here. Each card will become part of an engine that you build, an economy of sorts, that will provide you with the coins you need to expand your city. After a play or two you really start to see the connections between the cards and the array of different economies that one can create.

Make no mistake about it though, you’ve got to keep an eye on your neighbors. See, there are a few cards in the game that spin everything around a bit. Because those cards allow you to take money from the other players. And that changes everything…

You: “Okay, so I’ve rolled a three. Let’s see, I have two bakeries so…”

Player Two: “Um, well, actually, you popped off to my cafe for a coffee on the way to your bakery. That’ll be one coin please.”

You: “Right. Well, I do need a coffee. Here you go. Now, as I was saying, I have two…”

Player Three: “Ahem. You must have been peckish. You hit both of my cafes as well. Muffin and a scone, most likely. Two coins please.”

You: “I didn’t think I was THAT hungry. Right, well, as I was say…”

Player Four: “Yeah…about that…”

Suddenly? You’re broke. But, not all is lost. Thankfully, you have to pay out before you collect coins. So even though the other players milked you dry, you’ll still see the payout of your two bakeries, which you will use to purchase your own cafe. After all, what’s good for the goose is probably going to benefit you as well.

Once you’ve traveled through the game a few times you’ll see that there are more strategies than are immediately apparent. I’ve played games where people have rushed to get to that train station built to be able to roll a second die, freeing themselves up to expand into the 6+ cards, and others where the the winner never once rolled two dice. The order in which the monuments are built will vary from one game to the next depending on the strategy that is used.

The game will change as the player counts change as well. The four player game will be a slugfest where you might wind up poor by the time your next turn rolls around. You’ll wind up studying all your neighbors, wondering how to counter the cafes and restaurants that are out by putting down cards to generate income all the time. The two player game, on the other hand, is more of a race to see who can get their economy rolling first. Conflict can be easily negated and if you worry too much about trying to worm into someone else’s coffers you’ll find that they are pulling way out ahead.

Cavernous.
Cavernous.

Machi Koro is a game that is easily accessible, plays in 30 minutes or so, and provides enough strategies that replayability will be fairly decent. And the aforementioned cavernous box? Well, there’s already one expansion which is about to drop and another is in the works. It’ll get filled up. The game will evolve.

Is this a game for you? Well, if you’ve been looking for a great game to get new people into this hobby, you should pick it up. If you’ve got a seasoned game group that you need a nice appetizer game for? Pick it up. If you want to play a quick little game with your significant other while you relax after dinner? Pick it up.

And don’t worry about the solo rules for Game of Thrones. Someone will get there. Someday. After all, if something is worth doing, it’s worth two in the bush. Or…well…you get the picture.

 

Letting Go

I’ve been seriously involved in board gaming for about eight years now. In that time my collection has grown and grown, eventually requiring trips to Montreal to find proper shelving to store all of them. Early this year I came to a point where I realized that I had too many games. Or, more to the point, too many games that weren’t getting played…or games that I now had no desire to play.

Choosing which games to keep and which games to get rid of isn’t always easy. I think there is a tendency to have what I like to call a “boy scout” collection of games. That is, you’re always prepared. Just two of you playing? No problem. Plenty of two-player games. Ten people want to play something together? Great! There’s a whole shelf that will accommodate that many. Eighteen hours of deck building games? Let’s do it!

After a few years you step back and take a look at your collection. And wow. I mean, WOW. You’ve got games that you bought three years ago thinking that it would be a perfect game for a specific couple of people…and then you never played it. Or you’ve got games that you’ve played once every other year, even though you love it. You come to the realization that your collection has gotten bloated to the point where a good chunk of the games will never see the table.

As any addict will tell you, admitting that there’s a problem is the first step. The second can be much harder…figuring out what to cut and what to keep. Laura and I have been approaching it in a couple different ways. First we play a game, or look at a game we’ve played a few times, and say “would we rather play this game, or cribbage?” If the answer is cribbage, it’s time to go. No need to own that one.

The second thing we’ve done is evaluate games based on the mechanics and theme. As an example, we finally cracked into Eminent Domain last night. We played through the game, finished up, and then discussed the game. First of all, the art is very cool. I loved it. The theme is fine. The mechanics are okay, as it’s basically a deck builder. But ultimately? We’d rather play Dominion if we’re going to play a deck building game. So on the chopping block it goes.

These aren’t always easy decisions to make. But in the end? I think our collection will get much more play because we made them!