Review: Fire Tower


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Fire Tower is on Kickstarter RIGHT NOW!! Read this review and head on over to the Kickstarter campaign to learn even more!
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It’s no secret that board games are enjoying more popularity than ever before, and as a result gamers have a wealth of options. Games of just about every genre, featuring a huge array of mechanics, can tickle almost every fancy. Some of these games are relatively low on the player interactivity scale, and the term “multiplayer-solitaire” will be used as a descriptor (I’m not a huge fan of that term, but it’s pretty common). You’re all playing the same game, but there’s almost nothing that you can do to directly harm another player’s chances to win.

On the opposite end of the “interactivity spectrum” you have games where every turn will have players interacting with each other, usually in a not-so-friendly manner, in order to elevate themselves to victory. These games are highly competitive and will pit players against each other from the onset. You’re staring someone else in the eyes while you directly destroy their chances of winning.

The object of Fire Tower is to be the last player standing…that’s right, we’re talking about direct player interaction in this one, folks! Players will assume the role of fire specialists stationed in fire towers at each corner of the board. Using the resources available to you, each turn will see you putting up firebreaks, spreading the fire, or trying to extinguish fire that is encroaching on your tower.

Inside the box, you’ll find the game board, a deck of cards, firebreak tokens, a die that controls the wind, and FIRE!!! Okay. So the die doesn’t really control the wind and there’s not actual fire in the box. The die is used to denote which way the wind is blowing, and sometimes gets rolled to find a new direction. And the fire is actually plastic “gems” that represent fire. And they are pretty cool.

The board is divided into a 16×16 grid of squares, with the four squares in the center containing the Eternal Flame. (Do you feel the same? Am I only dreaming? Is this burning an eternal flame? This game always makes me sing The Bangles.) The forest fire will grow out from the center, eventually spreading based on the direction of the wind and various player cards. In each corner of the board is a fire tower – a 3×3 grid of squares, with the far back corner representing the top of the tower you are stationed in…and if that catches fire? You’re out!

A game turn consists of two parts – first, the wind spreads the fire across the board. Depending on the current direction of the wind, the current player will add one fire gem in a space orthogonally adjacent to either a current fire gem or the eternal flame. So if the wind is blowing to the west, any spot without a firebreak that is west of a current flame is eligible.

On the second part of your turn, all you need to do is play a card. You have two options here – you can either play one card from your hand, taking the corresponding action and then drawing a new card, or you can discard and draw up to five cards from your hand. So if you’ve got some cards that aren’t that helpful, this allows you to get some fresh cards. There is also the option of using your bucket card, which I’ll speak more about in a minute.

The cards are really the driving force behind the game. There are five different types of cards:

  • Wind Cards – each one of these can be used to do one of three things: change the wind to the direction indicated on the card, roll the wind die for a new direction, or place one fire gem on an empty space orthogonally adjacent to a fire gem or the eternal flame in the wind direction indicated on the card.
  • Fire Cards – these will spread the fire. Each one will have a pattern on it, which dictate how the fire gems must be placed. At least one of the new fire gems must be placed orthogonally adjacent to existing fire.
  • Firebreak Cards – you can create firebreaks on any empty space on the board, except in your fire tower area or on the eternal flame. Much like the fire cards, firebreaks are placed on the board in the pattern indicated on the card. Firebreaks cannot be placed adjacent to any other firebreaks (they are allowed to touch diagonally). Firebreaks prevent fire from passing through or jumping over the spaces they occupy.
  • Water Cards – these will allow you to remove fire gems in the pattern indicated on the card (either partially or fully). Water can pass over firebreaks, but these cards cannot be used to extinguish fire in the fire tower area.
  • Buckets – are special cards, with each player having only one to start the game. These are the only cards that allow you to remove fire gems from within your fire tower area, so hanging on to them can be vital.

So as you can see, the cards are going to provide you with ways to keep the fire away from your tower…or send it towards someone else’s tower!

Now eventually someone will not be able to stop the inexorable march of the fire towards their tower and a fire gem will be placed on their inner tower space. When this happens, the player that placed the gem takes all of the eliminated player’s action cards, combines them with theirs and selects six cards to keep, discarding the rest. All other players draw one action card and everyone will now play with six cards in their hand. When the next player is eliminated, the same thing happens but now everyone plays with seven cards.

The increasing of your hand size and the fact that the wind is now no longer allowed to blow in a direction that does not effect any active fire towers does a lot to speed the game up once someone is eliminated. Eventually there will be only one tower remaining and that player is the winner.

Fire Tower hits some good notes. First off, the fire gems are a great touch. Seeing the board fill up with those beautiful (but deadly) gems really adds to the visual aspect of the game. Secondly, the way the game is set up to play quickly and speed up as players are eliminated is an excellent design choice. Most games of this ilk slow down once a player has been knocked out. Not Fire Tower. And finally, you can teach this game and start playing in about five minutes. There’s a lot to be said about that.

With all of that being said, one word of caution – player interactivity is SUPER high in this game. You’re going to be doing everything that you can to make the fire overtake every other fire tower, so you’re not going to be making any friends. For some people, direct conflict of this sort can be a challenge. Before breaking this game out with a new group, have a conversation about how the game works and explain that it’s every gamer for themselves. No need to have hurt feelings over a game.

I’m always on the fence about games with player elimination. If you have a game like Risk where you can get eliminated early and sit around for hours watching other people play? No thanks. That’s not for me. But the player elimination in Fire Tower actually speeds the game along, so the first player out will only have a very short wait for the next game.

There are also a couple of variants to the game which will change things up a bit. The first is the team variant where you are teamed up with the tower diagonally across the board from you. This functions much like the regular game, except that you aren’t eliminated if your tower burns – you still try to help your teammate.

The other is a the Firestorm variant, which adds a card to the game that, when drawn, triggers a firestorm. You roll the wind die, and then add fire gems to ALL the legal locations based on that roll. Players now get a chance to discard and draw if they would like to ditch some cards. When a player is eliminated you also trigger a minor firestorm without the card exchange. This variant takes the game and cranks it up to 11!

Fire Tower is easy to learn, quick to play, and lots of fun. Perfect for the start of a game night, or to close one out when people have “just one more game” in them. So if you’re looking for some fast moving fun with a nice heavy dose of “take that” mixed in, check out Fire Tower!

Review: Würfel Bohnanza

In the world of board games, few designers are as prolific and well known as Uwe Rosenberg. Most gamers have played at least one Rosenberg title, and many count him among the most talented designers in history. To me, one of the greatest testaments to the quality of his work is that you can ask a dozen gamers what their favorite Rosenberg title is…and you’ll get a dozen different answers.

I’m one of those annoying people that won’t be able to answer that question – some days I’ll tell you that my favorite Rosenberg is Le Havre, other days I will answer Ora & Labora. God, those are good. But, no matter what title is currently at the top of my list, one that is never far behind (and sometimes tops the list), is Bohnanza. It’s a game that I’ve played more than most in my collection, and I’ll still bring it out during game nights.

When I heard that there was a dice version of Bohnanza in the works, I was…well…disinterested. In my experience, when a dice version of a game is made, it’s not that great. So when it was released overseas and wasn’t brought to the US, I wasn’t heartbroken. I figured it would make its way over here at some point…but that was four years ago and still? Nothing.

Fast forward to Origins 2016 – one afternoon, Patrick Hillier of the What Did You Play This Week Podcast Thing, pulled this game out of his Quiver (an amazing game carrying case) and I joined the group to check it out.

Würfel Bohnanza is a game for 2-5 players from Uwe Rosenberg that is comprised of 66 cards, 7 dice, and one bean field card. Play time on this game will vary between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the number of players.

wb01There are two groups within the dice – one set of four white dice and one set of three “beige” dice. Each set of dice, white and beige, have their own die faces with different colored beans on them. The white dice have orange, green, blue, and purple while the beige dice have orange, yellow, red, blue, and brown.

Much like the original Bohnanza, the Harvest cards serve two purposes: on the front side are 6 bean orders. These are the orders that the players will work towards fulfilling, some showing a number and color of beans required, others showing general orders (three different pairs of dice, six with no orange, etc.). On the back side are the thalers, which are the coins you need to win.

To begin the game, each player is given two Harvest cards and chooses one to work on first, placing the second card below the first, using it to cover the orders which are completed. Set the rest aside as a draw pile. During a player’s turn, they will roll the dice, and keep at least one, placing it in the bean field. They will continue to roll until they choose to stop or are out of dice. At that point, they complete the orders they can using the dice on the bean field and the turn moves to the next player clockwise. Each die can be used more than once, so completing multiple orders is possible.

wb02While the active player is taking her turn, the other players are able to complete orders as well, using only the dice that have just been rolled. Once dice are planted into the bean field, only the active player may use them to complete orders. For instance, if the order I’m currently working on is for two reds and a blue, and the active player rolls that, I can complete that order immediately. Because of this, it is important for the active player to make sure that everyone has had a chance to look at their cards before locking one of the dice.

Once at least three orders have been completed on a Harvest card, it can be turned in for coins. This can be done at any time, even if it is not your turn. The number of coins you’ll receive will increase with the number of orders you’ve completed – three orders can be turned in for 1 coin (simply flip the card into your scoring pile), whereas six orders can be turned in for 4 coins (flip the Harvest card and take three more facedown from the draw pile). This makes the card you were using as a “cover card” your current Harvest card.

After this, draw a new Harvest card, which becomes your second card to cover the orders on the card you’ve retained. It’s important to note that when you make this switch, especially if it is your turn, there’s a chance that you’ll be able to auto-complete orders on the new card. So if the last order on your first card was for two reds and two blue, and the first order on your new card was for two blue? Well, you’ve already got that!

Play continues until someone winds up with 13 coins after cashing in. Play stops and that person is the winner!

So was my disinterest well placed? Was this another “dice version dud”? Not in the least. There’s a lot to like about Würfel Bohnanza and, admittedly, a couple of really sizable downsides. Let’s take a look!

  • Würfel Bohnanza is easy to teach, and doesn’t take long to play. In fact, as you can fulfill orders on another player’s turn, we’ve found that adding more players has almost no effect on the playtime.
  • The Bohnanza theme is there, but this doesn’t attempt to pawn itself off as a dice version – this game stands alone just fine.
  • Each bean order has a little number on the right side. This is the percent chance that you will complete this order on your first roll. Two oranges? 33% chance. Two reds and a green? 6% chance. Knowing this can be important because…
  • The game allows you to bail out on orders that are tough to complete. That two red and a green? That’s a tough one, even with seven rolls. Once you’ve completed your third order, it’s time to evaluate and move on if the rest on the card are getting too hard to complete.
  • As you are able to complete orders when it isn’t your turn, players are always engaged in the game. In fact, there’s often (at least in my groups) a craps-like feel to the cheering. “C’mon now…roll me two orange, two orange…” It’s a lot of fun.

With all of that going for it, this game is a slam dunk. But, as I mentioned, there are a couple of pretty hefty negatives here as well. First off is availability. For whatever reason, this game just never made it out of Europe. I’m not sure if AMIGO Spiele couldn’t find a U.S. distribution partner, didn’t want to bother with translation, or what the story was…but it’s just not here.

wb03Thankfully, we have the internet. You can occasionally find this at an online game store, but it usually requires a special order. My suggestion would be to look on Amazon. There are several sellers from Germany that have this priced low with affordable shipping to the States. I’ve ordered from two different sellers with no issue.

Secondly, there’s an issue with the dice. The dice come in two different colors, white and beige. Unfortunately, the beige dice are a lightly colored beige. Very lightly. So light, in fact, that it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two dice…especially under low light conditions. This can be important – if you’re trying to roll a green colored bean, you need to keep rolling the beige dice and not the white.

This problem can be remedied in a couple ways: if you consult the summary cards that come with the game, it’s easy to tell which die you are looking at as they both have colors which are unique. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can take a marker to the beige dice. A simple dot on each corner will mark them as different.

The issue with the dice most people will be able to get around, one way or another. The availability issue will be a little more difficult, depending on stock levels from third party sellers. But I think you should make the effort, for this game is worth the hassle.

It’s not going to be a centerpiece to your game night – it doesn’t really have enough meat for that. But this game makes one hell of a good closer. You will find all the players engaged, you’ll get a new take on the Bohnanza world, and you’ll be able to teach it in under 10 minutes. To me, that’s worth the extra effort.

Review: Above and Below

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Also check out the Board Everyday Podcast, where we talk more about Above and Below!

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You know the old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, that’s usually the case, and it’s especially true with boardgames. I’ve played some phenomenal games that look boring as all get out from the outside, and I’ve played absolute stinkers that are almost works of art. Above and Below, from Red Raven Games, was one of those games where I was hesitant – it looked pretty, but was that all there was to it? Well, let’s take a look!

Above and Below is a game for 2-4 players by designer and artist Ryan Laukat. Each player takes on the role of a villager looking to rebuild their home after fleeing from a barbarian attack. Upon founding their first hut, a vast underground cave system was revealed, making expansion possible both above and below the ground.

To start the game, each player gets a board on which their villagers will reside. This board has three different zones: the first zone is where your “ready” villagers stay, the next is for “exhausted” villagers, and the last is for “injured” villagers. Along the bottom of the board is an advancement track where various goods will go during the game, thereby increasing your income each round and giving you points.

IMG_4223There is also a reputation board which will track the game rounds, each player’s reputation, and houses the villagers that are currently available to be trained. This board, along with the goods tokens, is placed in the center of the table. Underneath the reputation board goes rows of building and outpost cards, displayed face up ready to be purchased.

The game is played over seven rounds. On their turn, each player will take one of five actions, utilizing the villager (or villagers) that will be performing the action. Play will then pass around the table with each player taking one action per turn until all players have passed. Once all players have passed, the round ends, things are refreshed, and a new round begins.

Let’s dig into the actions to see what you can do on your turn:

Explore – Unlike the other actions, the explore action requires that you have at least two ready villagers when it is performed. You start by drawing a cave card and placing the villagers you are sending “below” on top of the card. Then you roll one die to see which encounter you’ll be…um…encountering. I’m going to talk about how the encounters work later, so we’ll fast forward a bit and say that if you pass the encounter the cave card goes underneath your houses, and if you fail it gets discarded. Move both villagers to the exhausted area (usually…more later) of your player board.

Harvest – Some of the buildings and outposts that you acquire will produce goods. You can send one or more of your available villagers to go harvest one good each from a house or outpost card. These goods can be placed next to your board or immediately onto your advancement track. Exhaust your used villagers after taking this action.

Build – To take the build action, you need a ready villager that has the hammer icon at the top. Exhaust the villager, and take a face up building or outpost from the available rows. Pay the cost in coins and place the new card –  buildings go in the row next to your starting hut, outposts cover up cave cards from successful encounters. Buildings will give you special abilities, produce goods, increase your income, and sometimes give you extra points at game end. After buying a building, draw a new one immediately.

Train – To take the train action, you need a ready villager that has the quill icon at the top. Exhaust the villager, and use coins to train a new villager from the five available at the top of the reputation board. Each villager will have at least one die icon (with at least one lantern under each die) and possibly a hammer or quill as well. This new villager comes into your player board exhausted from their training.

Labor – Exhaust one or more of your villagers to gain a coin for each. If you are the first person to take this action, also take the cider token from the reputation board.

Along with these five main actions, there are three free actions which may be taken prior to a main action:

  • Refresh the building or outpost market by paying one coin and drawing four new cards (this only pertains to the regular buildings, not the special key or star buildings)
  • Put something for sale by placing it in the top left corner of their player board
  • Buy something that is for sale from another player. Negotiations can happen, but you can only pay in coins and you have to pay at least 3 coins.

IMG_4184Once the round is over, it’s time to replenish the villagers that were trained, refresh goods on production buildings, and add a cider token to the reputation board if it was taken. Now is also the time where you rest your hard working villagers.

To rest your villagers, you first count the number of beds that you have on your buildings. Everyone starts with three beds, and future buildings might give you more. For each bed, you can move one villager from the exhausted section of your player board to the ready section, OR from the injured section to the exhausted section. Each bed can only move a villager one section, and each villager can only sleep in one bed. So if you had two villagers exhausted and one injured, the end of your rest would leave you with two villagers ready and one exhausted.

Along with beds, potions and cider can help refresh your villagers. A potion will move a villager from injured to exhausted, and cider will move them from exhausted to ready. You can use both a potion and a cider on the same villager, but it must be done prior to using any beds.

So that’s pretty much how the game plays, but let me go into some detail about encounters. When you choose to explore, you’re going to take at least two villagers and move them onto a cave card. Then, you roll a die. The result of this die roll will correspond with a number on the cave card – this is the encounter you’re about to have. One of the other players will flip to that number in the encounter book and begin reading.

This is a sample of an encounter, straight from the rulebook:

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You descend a deep chasm until you reach a wide, dark chamber. Rancid, cloudy water covers the cave floor, and soon you see glowing red eyes in all directions. You raise your lantern and realize that you’re surrounded by giant rats, their brown, oily coats slick and wet. They close in, ready to make your party their next meal. Do you try to run and hide from the rats, or do you stand and fight?

RUN AND HIDE: Explore 3 (coin), Explore 4 (mushroom)

STAND AND FIGHT: Explore 7 (five coins, ore)

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The person reading to you will read everything except what is contained within parentheses. So you’ve got your story block and then, in this case, two choices: run and hide or stand and fight. Each choice will tell you how many lanterns (representing your successes) you will need. If you choose to run and hide you will need either three or four lanterns…if you fight you’ll need seven, which is significantly more.

aab02To see how many lanterns you have, you will be rolling dice for each of your villagers. At the top of their tile, each villager will have at least one die and a number of lanterns under that die. So if the die face on the tile is a 3 and there are two lanterns underneath, you need to roll at least a 3 to gain two lanterns. Some villagers will have two die faces, indicating that the better you roll, the more lanterns you will get from them.

Now you need to choose what to do and declare it aloud. So if you look at your two villagers and the maximum number of lanterns that they can produce is four? You’re probably not going to stand and fight. After you decide, you roll your dice, stating which villager you are rolling for. Once you have your results, you can see if you passed or failed.

As you can see, the rewards are better for the harder choices. Let’s say that you took three villagers along and the maximum number of lanterns you could get were seven. You decide to stand and fight. After your rolls though? You only have six lanterns, which is a failure. At this point you can choose to exert one of your villagers and get one extra lantern from them (or two of them for two extra, and so on). This villager will wind up in the injured area of your player board at the end of the encounter.

At the end of the game you’re going to receive one point per building and outpost you’ve built, points based on your advancement track, bonus points from buildings, and then your reputation points…which can be negative if you’ve made choices which were a bit more nefarious.

Above and Below is by no means the first game to use the storytelling mechanic. Tales of the Arabian Nights, Agents of SMERSH, Once Upon a Time, and many others are out there. But Above and Below has done a few things to set itself apart from the rest.

First of all, the art. If you listen to our podcast you know that art will resonate differently with every gamer. But this art is fantastic. Truth be told, the art was what drew us into this game. My wife saw this one flying in and out of the BGG.CON library last year and was intrigued by the look of the game. Ryan has given this a very inviting look, and the diversity in the villagers is refreshing to see. At the end of the game, you will be able to look down at the village you’ve created and see that it all connects, which plays into the theme of the game.

IMG_4181The encounters in Above and Below present the player with a good deal of choices, and you can sculpt your own story using these choices. You might be walking through a cave and see a dim glow coming from the water. Do you investigate, or do you carry on? There might be a creature which is lying unconscious. Do you wake her and try to assist, or rob her while she’s incapacitated?

Of course, these choices aren’t just aesthetics for the story alone. Your rewards will change based on what path you choose, and your reputation may go up or down based on the morality of your decisions. It’s more like a choose your own adventure game in that regard. Sure, you’ll wind up with more money while robbing others, but you’re going to wind up losing points at the end for those actions.

The encounters are well written and evocative. Laura and I have noticed that when the other person is reading, we typically have our eyes closed and are envisioning the scene. The underground world is full of fantastic creatures and sights, all of which are well represented in the encounter book.

One of the best things about Above and Below is that is the gameplay isn’t overly complex. While the game does a great job of actually mixing in other mechanics and not just relying on the storytelling element, the other parts are intuitive enough that it really allows players to concentrate on the storytelling aspect as the backbone. This makes it an excellent game to play with those that are newer to the hobby. 

Of course, because the stories are so well written players will tend to want to explore as many times as possible, sometimes to the detriment of the rest of their village. True, the goods found below ground are more valuable than those found above, but you need to be able to pass those encounters.

My only concerns with the game are relatively minor. When reading the rules, you are told that you can exert a villager to gain an extra lantern…which will place them in the “injured” area of your player board. New players will often get “exert” and “exhaust” confused and mix things up. When I explain the game, I try to use the word “injure” now.

IMG_4222I’ve played this at every player count now and it scales really well. With two players, however, we did notice that there was a high possibility of running into the same encounter twice over the course of a couple sessions. Now obviously if you play the game enough this will happen anyway, but we started separating the cave cards out that we used in one game until we ran out in the next. Again, very minor and only an issue with two players.

So what do we think of Above and Below? It’s fantastic. We’ve played a few storytelling games and this game is the one I would pick above (har har) all others. Obviously the storytelling element won’t appeal to everyone, but it adds such a different element to the game that it’s worth checking out at least once. And if the storytelling IS your cup of tea? Go get this game right now. It’s a decision you won’t regret!

iOS Review: Tsuro

Tsuro is one of those games that will always be in my game collection. It’s ridiculously easy to teach, it will play up to eight, and a game will take 15 minutes to play, including teaching. The premise is simple – everyone starts with a stone which is on the outside of the board. On your turn, choose one of the three tiles in your hand to play in front of your stone. Move it along the path until it reaches the end of the tile, and draw a new one. That’s it. If you go off the board or collide with someone? You’re out. Last one standing wins.

The simplicity and elegance of this game are fantastic. You’re not going to find a deep brain-blowing thinkfest here, but it’s so satisfying.

Recently, Calliope Games and Thunderbox Entertainment announced that they were working on a digital port of this game. While it seemed simple enough to convert, I wasn’t sure if it was going to hold on to some of the charm of the physical version. It finally came out, so let’s see how it looks!

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When you start the app, you’re greeted by some very soothing music and an image of the box sitting in what looks to be a zen garden. And to start? You actually have to “lift” the box lid. When you lift the lid, the board unfolds, the tiles come out, and you’re prompted to choose a color and drag it to your starting position. Then? It’s time to choose opponents.

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If you choose to play against the AI, you’ll have three different options: silly, clever, and tricky. Simply drag their stones to the difficulty level you’d like them to have, and it’s all set. Then the cards get dealt out and it’s time to play!

Gameplay is…well, it’s Tsuro. You choose a tile, which you can rotate by tapping on, and place it on the board. Then your piece (and anyone else who might be bordering that as well) moves along the path. Then you get a new tile. A perfect representation of the actual game.

So how does it translate? Does it evoke the same feelings as the physical game? It sure does. There’s a lot to love about this app, and one thing to…well…I’m not going to say hate, but I will say strongly dislike.

Since I want to end on a high note, let’s start with that one detractor. For some reason, the developers decided to use Facebook as their multiplayer matching engine. The game connects to Gamecenter, so I’m uncertain as to why they didn’t just use that, and as a result finding someone to play can be challenging. Or, you know, nigh impossible in my case. A major bummer here, but perhaps this will be expanded in the future to include other methods of matching.

But other than that, the game is fantastic. The attention to detail here is astounding. The game board, which could look as perfect as they want it to, has a fold in the middle and looks identical to an actual Tsuro board. When placing tiles, there’s a good chance that the lines don’t exactly match up, kind of like when you play them in the actual game. The small things like that show the care that was taken with this implementation.

IMG_0135There are three different modes of play – you can play the classic “last person standing” mode, one where the player who traveled the farthest wins, or one where you want to loop back over your own path multiple times. I have not once thought about playing Tsuro any way but the normal way, so these came as a pleasant surprise…and they wind up being harder than you would think!

The sounds are pleasing, with a constant relaxing soundtrack and the sound of a stone being dragged over…um…another stone when the pieces move. Player knockouts are well done. If two pieces collide, or if one goes off the edge, it explodes in a shower of color. It’s really the little things that make this app so enjoyable.

And there’s pass-and-play, which works like a charm. In lieu of easy online multiplayer, this works well when relaxing with friends.

So should you get this app? Well, that depends on how much time you’re going to invest in solo or pass-and-play games. If you live to play other using multiplayer, you might want to hold off. But if you’re content playing this on your own? I wouldn’t delay at all. This is easily one of the nicest apps to come our way!

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Tsuro is available for $4.99 in the App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/tsuro/id957124541?mt=8

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Review: Mombasa

In the days leading up to BGG.CON I always take some time to make a list of the games I’d like to try while I’m there. Sometimes I get to quite a few of them, sometimes I miss most. This year I was intrigued by some things I’d heard about one of the new Essen releases. It seemed to do a lot of different things…but would it do them well? Well, one morning I got to find out. Spoiler alert!! It’s good…

mombasa2Mombasa, by Alexander Pfister, is a game for 2-4 players that runs anywhere from 75 – 150 minutes for play time. This number will actually vary quite a bit depending on player count and experience, as we’ve completed a 3 player game in about an hour minus the setup.

In Mombasa, players are investors trying to maximize profits by acquiring shares of the four companies: Cape Town, Cairo, Saint-Louis, and Mombasa. Along with these publicly available company shares, each player can invest in their own diamond stocks and engage in “clever bookkeeping”.

Each player starts with a deck of 10 cards, three of which are unavailable to start the game. At the beginning of each round, players will choose three cards and place them face down in the the three card “slots” below their player board. Once everyone has chosen their cards, all players reveal their cards and the start player begins the action phase.

During the action phase, players may use their cards to take the following actions:

  • Use goods to buy new cards and/or invest in a company
  • Use expansions cards (lovingly called “helmets” by us) to expand any one company across the map
  • Take a bookkeeping action to further progress on their bookkeeping track and purchase more books
  • Use a diamond merchant to invest in their diamond track

Along with the cards, there are bonus actions available as well. Players will have 2 or 3 bonus markers, and depending on the share tracks used, may be able to acquire more. These markers can be used to take actions which will do anything from rewarding the player with the most of a given resource to allowing them to use coins instead of goods when purchasing new cards. This is also how the first player marker changes hands.

After seven rounds, the game ends and your score is tallied based on the amount of money you have, your progress on the bookkeeping and diamond tracks, and the value of each share that you possess in a given company. The player with the most points wins!

mombasa3Speaking of points, let’s talk for a minute about how the value of each company’s shares are calculated. Each company has their own headquarters, one on each side of the board. These headquarters are laid out in a small grid, three spaces wide and five spaces high. Each space, at the start of the game, has a trading post. As the expansion action is taken, players will move these trading posts out onto the board, which will expose one of the fifteen spots in the company headquarters.

On nine of these fifteen spots, in rows one, three, and five, you will see either one (on the first and third row spots) or two coins. At the end of the game a company’s value per stock is based on the amount of exposed coins. Of course, it isn’t as simple as just expanding a company and calling it a day…because hostile takeovers are a very real thing and you’ll see a trading post get returned to their respective companies multiple times as the game proceeds. Thus the value of each share will rise and fall accordingly.

There are caveats to all of this. See, when you are pulling a trading post out to put on the board, you can’t just pick and choose which one you want to use. You pick a column and then pull the trading post closest to the main board. Then if you’re adding a second one, you do the same thing – pick a column, pull the closest to the main board. So you have a choice: either proceed in a horizontal fashion, or go vertically down through the same column…or mix and match. One way will bump the stock price up quickly; the spots in the first row all have coins, after all. But heading down the column has advantages as well. Even though you will hit “dead spots” where there aren’t any coins, there is that double coin spot at the very bottom. And those are special, as we’ll see.

Conversely, when a trading post is to be returned to the company, you pick a column and slide it all the way down that column to the last open spot. Unless, that is, the last open spot is the double coin slot. Once that has been uncovered it can never be covered up again. See? Told you they were special. So each time you expand you have a choice to try to drive the stock price up quickly, or to go for that permanent value at the bottom.

In fact, this aspect of choice is a driving force throughout the entirety of Mombasa.

mombasa7Perhaps the most unique aspect of the game is the way that the cards are handled. To start, all players have three cards resting at the top of their player board. These are, appropriately, “resting decks”. Each resting deck sits right above one of the card slots that your current cards occupy. After your turn has ended, it’s time to move those cards from your current slots into your resting deck. But before you do? Pick up one of your resting piles and put that back into your hand. Then you move the cards just used up to the piles which are directly above the slots they were played into.

With this card mechanic, Mombasa brings another element of planning to the…um…planning phase. Not only do you have to consider the three cards that you get to play this turn, but you have to think about when you are going to want to play them again…and you’ll have to look at your resting decks (they are splayed so you can always see what’s there) to determine which pile will come back to you at the right time. Make a mistake with this and you will have to suffer through mismatched cards which hamper your ability to do…well, everything.

Of course, three slots can be pretty limiting, so you need to choose your cards wisely. Or you can work on the diamond and bookkeeping tracks, because once you make it past certain points on each one of those tracks? You get the option to play an extra card. Making it post these milestones on both tracks will give you access to five card slots instead of three. This, especially late in the game, can be huge. But be careful when you use this – with four or five resting decks and only seven turns? You’re pretty much sacrificing those cards as you’ll never see them again.

mombasa1As you log more and more plays of Mombasa, you’ll find that you wind up playing the other players when you select your cards. You know that Sally has been playing bananas all night, but you’ve got three banana cards which might be able to snag that bonus…as long as she doesn’t play hers as well. Keeping an eye on your opponents resting decks and choosing which actions to take when? That’s most of the game, right there. More often than not you’ll find yourself modifying your strategy based on your position in turn order and what your opponents reveal.

Remember how I said that choice really drives this game? Well, it’s not just simple choices like “which cards do I play” and “how should I expand this company”. Don’t get me wrong those choices exist, but they aren’t the crux of everything. The heart in Mombasa lies in the difference between a linear, incremental measurement system and a milestone based one. Let me explain.

Look at the company headquarters. You’ve got 15 spaces, only 9 of which mean anything to you. One way or another you’re going to have to burn through the chaff to get to the wheat. On each company’s share track, one step up doesn’t equal an increase in shares by one…you have to hit the next milestone, the next checkpoint if you will, before that happens. Scoring for the bookkeeping track and the diamond stocks? Milestone based. It make take you three or four moves on either before you actually see an increase in points.

This milestone based system of providing scoring opportunities takes an already great game and brings it into the fantastic realm. Maximizing your actions becomes even more important because you can’t just bank a point or two. Toss some goods at one of the share tracks and then never get back to it? Those are wasted. Buy books past a reachable milestone? Wasted. Mombasa walks a fine line between making the player commit to a scoring path and forcing people to diversify their holdings…but tends to not reward those that spread things out too thinly.

mombasa6My only criticisms of this game are minor. The iconography on the bookkeeping tokens are tiny. If you’re sitting right in front of them you’ll be fine, but otherwise you may find yourself stretching over the table to read what they are. The books look great, and make a very nice image when placed on your player board, but visibility from across the table can be tough.

And this game doesn’t really scale well. Given the nature of the area control element, you could easily find that a two or three player game will have one or two companies which control the board and the others wind up neglected. Not that this is the end of the world, but it does cut a lot of the depth out of the game. I’ll go right ahead and say that I would not play this game with only two.

Whenever I see a game that mixes several different game mechanics, I tend to be a little hesitant. I’ve played more than one game that tried to do too many things – and wound up “half-assing” more than one of them. The elements felt more like afterthoughts, or that the designer really wanted a worker placement element in a game that didn’t need one to begin with.

Mombasa has several different mechanics here: area control, stock holding, worker placement, hand management, and even a touch of card drafting. And not only are they all well done, they mesh together to form a brilliant game which is going to give you a different experience each time you play. We haven’t even touched on the fact that each share track is double sided which can open up even more opportunities.

Alexander Pfister has a hit here, make no doubt about it. This game will provide four players with deep gameplay and clever mechanics and leave them wanting more.

Review: 7 Wonders Duel

I have spoken at length about how much I enjoy 7 Wonders. It’s easy to teach, has very high replayability, plays relatively quickly, and has really enjoyable gameplay. About the only knock I’ve ever had with the game is that the two-player experience was a bit lacking. Some like it, but it never grabbed me. So when I heard that Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala were working on a two-player game based off of 7 Wonders, I was very interested.

Now, 7 Wonders: Duel (or, for the sake of this reviewer’s sanity, just Duel) is a standalone game which shares quite a few traits with 7 Wonders, and those similarities make learning this game a snap. But there are also some significant differences which make this a completely different beast – in some very interesting ways. Things are a lot more out in the open here. Is this a game for you? Well, read on!

To start the game, deal four of the Wonder cards face up in the middle of the table. The start player picks one, the second player takes two, and the start player takes the remaining wonder. Repeat this a second time, switching the order so the second player picks first. These are the Wonders which you will have in your civilization.

IMG_4051Each player takes seven coins and places their Wonders to one side of their play area. Place the board off to one side between the players, and set the aptly named conflict pawn in the middle space of the board. Shuffle the Progress tokens and place five of them out on the board.

Now it’s time to lay out the cards. Much like the game it is based off, Duel features three different decks of cards, each representing a different age. Of these cards, you will remove three from each age deck, returning it to the box. There are also Guild cards from which you will randomly select three and shuffle them into the deck for the third age.

On your turn you select an available card, and do one of three things with it:

  • Build the building using resources.
  • Use it to construct one of your Wonders.
  • Discard it for coins.

Once the current age ends (all cards have been taken), deal out the next age in the shape shown. A note here about card availability – much like some solitaire variants, cards only become available for purchase when they are fully uncovered. In the case of a face down card, flip it face up and place it back where it came from to make it available. The cards are laid out a little differently in each age, as can be seen here:

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If the last card of the third age is taken and played, the game comes to an end and scores are counted. Wait, surely that’s a typo, right? IF the last card is taken? Don’t you mean “when”?? No, no. IF. Because there are two other ways that the game can end: through military supremacy or scientific supremacy. And these can happen long before the last card is played.

So let’s chat about the new endings and some of the other changes you’ll see in Duel.

As in 7 Wonders, you are allowed to trade to get the resources you need to complete a building. But instead of purchasing resources from your opponent, you give your money to the bank. Simple enough, but there is a catch. When buying a resource, the price is now 2 coins plus 1 coin per resource of that type produced by the other player. So if I produce one wood and you need to purchase a wood, you’ll have to spend 3 coins to do so.

IMG_3990Discarding a card for coins has changed a bit as well. Instead of taking a set amount of coins, you now take 2 coins plus one coin per yellow building that you’ve built in your civilization. So if you’ve built four yellow buildings, you can discard a card as an action to gain 6 coins.

Wonders are a bit different as well, having only one stage to construct. And as each person starts with four, there’s a lot to keep your eyes on. Of course, the name of the game is 7 Wonders, and that means that only 7 of the total Wonders can be built between the two players. Once the seventh has been built? The eighth must be discarded.

Along the top of the board are Progress tokens. These tokens can be claimed once you’ve played a pair of science symbols in your civilization. These tokens will give you various benefits such as discounts on future buildings and end game victory points. There is even one which gives you a science symbol.

Now we come to the two new ways to end the game through supremacy. To obtain scientific supremacy, you need to have 6 different science symbols in your civilization. Simple as that. Once that sixth one has been played? Game over.

Military supremacy is achieved through moving the conflict pawn all the way to your opponent’s side of the board. As military cards are played into your civilization, move the pawn towards your opponent by one space per shield present on the card. As the pawn moves along the board, there are sections it will enter which will cause the player it is moving towards to lose coins – first 2 and then 5. And that can really suck.

These new end game conditions, more so than any other change, bring Duel to a level apart from its big brother. In 7 Wonders, you can choose to completely ignore your opponents and just focus on your own civilization. Sure, you’re probably not going to do well, and you will most likely pass to your neighbors cards they will need, but you can do it. You don’t have that ability in Duel.

Keeping on eye on the supremacy conditions will cause you to be both reactive and proactive with your card selection. Once that conflict pawn starts to move your priorities will shift and you’ll try to push it back away from you to cause as little damage as possible. And if you can’t? You better damn well bury the cards your opponent needs.

The same holds true for science. Trying to keep the person across the table from getting six symbols should be fairly straightforward. But you can’t forget about the Progress tokens – the benefits from those can swing a game in a heartbeat. So you’ll have to bite the bullet and buy a card you don’t want to keep her from getting it.

I really enjoy the way each age has a different card layout, mixing face up and face down cards together. The unknown component of face down cards can really make some interesting decisions, especially when coupled with the fact that taking one card from the display might open up two for your opponent to purchase. More than once I’ve seen interesting shapes develop as both players try to deny the other fresh cards to choose from.

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The conflict in 7 Wonders is very…well, I would almost call it covert. You’re passing a hand of cards to someone and they might never know what you’ve buried or traded in for coins. And even if you build something to keep someone else from getting it? Chances are good it will look like a logically play. Sure, there’s military. And you’re trying to keep from getting totally trounced. But even then it’s still rather veiled.

But in Duel?

From the moment this game starts you are in a constant battle with your opponent. Studying the cards and the other civilization, trying to keep cards away from your opponent while working on your own strategy. Your moves are so overt and obvious that it’s clear you are trying to hose the other player. You rush to build that seventh Wonder just to get their last one to go away. Frankly? It’s war.

 

7 Wonders is like scheming and undermining behind the scenes to increase tensions and strain relations.

 

7 Wonders: Duel is like a fist fight at high noon while wearing brass knuckles.

 

This game is amazing. The interweaving of the cards, the pressure to keep your opponent in check, the frustration of not getting those cards you want…all of it combines to make a game that you’ll play multiple times in one sitting. I don’t think it’s too soon to call this one an instant classic.

So is 7 Wonders: Duel a game for you? Well, do you like confrontation? Are you okay with someone crushing your strategy by taking the one card you need? Are you fine looking across the table at someone, looking them dead in the eyes and then pushing that conflict pawn two more steps towards their demise? If you said yes to any of those, then go get this game TODAY. You will not be disappointed.

Review: Between Two Cities

I’m always on the lookout for games that will accommodate higher player counts. My group is frequently at six players, and sometimes more, so having a game that will work for a larger number is important. So when I read about Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley teaming up with Stonemaier Games to bring Between Two Cities, which would play up to seven, to Kickstarter? Let’s just say I was very interested.

But just because a game will play with seven doesn’t mean that you SHOULD play with seven. After all, Caverna plays up to seven, but you’re in for an incredibly long game at that count. That being said, Between Two Cities sounded like a much quicker game, one that wouldn’t take forever and yet still provided the players with an interesting gameplay experience.

Well, you might ask, does it? Is it worth playing this with seven? Let’s take a look!

Before I get into the gameplay, let’s talk about how the game is set up. Each player will have two cities that they work on during the game: one that they share with the person sitting to their left, and one that they share with the person to their right. Both players will work on both of their cities in each round, so while not a cooperative game, there’s a partnership aspect. To help keep things straight, each city will be assigned a token which goes in between the two players.

IMG_3932At the start of round one, each player will draw seven building tiles. From these, each player will choose two tiles and place them face down in front of themselves, putting their remaining tiles underneath the city token to their left. Once everyone has chosen which buildings they are keeping, everyone flips their tiles face up and thus begins the placement phase.

During placement, each player will work with their partners to determine which tile will go into the city on their left and which one will go into the city on their right. Some tiles will work better than others for a given city, but we’ll get more into that when we look at scoring. There are a few rules about placement:

  1. Tiles have an orientation, and they must be played with the scoring key on the bottom.
  2. Tiles must be played adjacent to an existing tile (they must share an edge).
  3. Once placed, tiles cannot be moved.
  4. Your final city must be 4×4 grid.

Once each player has placed a tile into each of their two cities, they take the stack of tiles which is on their right and this process repeats until you have a hand of three tiles to choose from. Then you will choose two and discard the third onto the scoreboard, removing it from the game. Once placement has concluded, round one is over.

Round two is an abbreviated round with each player receiving three of the larger duplex tiles, choosing two and discarding one. Round three is identical to round one with the exception of passing tiles – those now move counter-clockwise so you pass tiles to your right instead of your left. Once round three is complete, it’s time for scoring.

Now, placement rules are all well and good, but there must be a strategy behind which tiles to put where, right? Correct! At the end of the game the six types of buildings score as follows:

  • Shops: You will score 2|5|10|16 points for each set of 1|2|3|4 shops in a horizontal or vertical line.
  • Factories: Count the factories in each city. The city with the most factories will get 4 points per factory, the second most will get 3 points per factory, all others get 2 points per factory.
  • Taverns: There are four types of tavern tiles. You will score 1|4|9|17 points for each set of 1|2|3|4 different taverns anywhere in the city.
  • Offices: Located anywhere in the city, you will get 1|3|6|10|15|21 points for 1|2|3|4|5|6 your office tiles. In addition, each office will gain a bonus point if it is adjacent to a tavern.
  • Parks: Score 2|8|12|13… points for 1|2|3|4… park tiles in a connected group. Any connected park tiles over three will only give one additional point.
  • Houses: Count the different types of non-house buildings in your city. Each house is worth 1 point per other building type. Caveat: if a house tile is adjacent to a factory, it is only worth 1 point regardless of the normal scoring.

IMG_3935While the scoring rules of Between Two Cities are simple enough, the actual process of scoring each city can create confusion if not done properly. It’s important that each player score the city to their left (or right, I mean…just be consistent) and the person “running” the scoreboard calls out the type of building they are scoring.

Once you’ve scored each one of the cities, the person with highest score of their lowest scoring city is the winner.

Between Two Cities is a breath of fresh air in the recent gaming world. It seems like there are more games than ever coming out, and it’s getting harder to come up with something unique. Sure, you’ll get a new coat of paint on top of some tried and true mechanics, but not much that’s new. Well, Rosset and O’Malley have given us something new here.

First of all, the partnership aspect of this game is great. Your turn finds you wondering what buildings you want to play, and what she will want on your left and what he will want on your right…and whether those are at odds with one another. You make an honest evaluation of both the cities and the players that are next you, truly working together while still competing. It’s frankly amazing that it works so well.

And your choices aren’t always clear cut here. You’ll often be faced with a few tiles that might work well in either of your cities. Here is where the negotiation aspect of the game really comes into play. You’ll need to convince both of your neighbors that your way is the right way. Worst of all is when you get a stack of tiles that are completely useless to one of your cities. Trying to fit a factory into a house dominated city is pretty tough.

The balance of Between Two Cities is amazing. When you look at games with multiple scoring opportunities, especially drafting games, the design needs to be balanced so that one “path” is no stronger than another. Out of the six scoring buildings, I’ve yet to see one that is stronger than the others. This is clearly evidenced by the close end game scores we see routinely.

My only complaint about this game is that the scoring is hard for many people to keep up with the first few times you play. The office/tavern bonuses will trip people up…stressing that you can only get one bonus point per office is necessary. With each marker assigned to a city and not a person players need to call out “green: 12 points” or the scorekeeper will have a hard time moving the right marker. And it’s fairly common that someone forgets the “lowest of your two scores” condition…which leads to premature celebration. It so different from most games that it takes a while for some to adjust.

As Between Two Cities was published by Stonemaier Games, you will find the same level of quality that is present in all Stonemaier products. The art is simple, yet filled with wonderful detail. The tiles are thick and sturdy, and there’s even two different scoreboards for those that prefer a snaking scoreboard to a typewriter style. They’ve even added cards to the game which will tell you what order people should sit in – which we’ve taken to using for other games as well!

I think by now it’s no secret that Between Two Cities was a hit for my group. And that ~25 minute play time? That’s no joke. Regardless of number of players, you’re looking at around 30 minutes per game. Take that, Caverna. So does this one fit in that void when the player count creeps up there nice and high? Well, it sure does. A quick, easy to learn game with some interesting decisions. It’s a good warm up for a night, or even a nice game to wrap up an evening with. This is one that’s going to stay on my shelves.