Review: Tiny Epic Galaxies

A couple years ago, when I first heard of Tiny Epic Kingdoms, I was intrigued. The idea of a small box with big gameplay was one that I was willing to check out. And it came through for me and many others, as it’s a great game. Designer Scott Almes really has a knack for taking a game and distilling it down to make a small, yet potent package.

I’ve enjoyed the entire Tiny Epic series so much that when I saw Tiny Epic Galaxies go up on Kickstarter it was a no-brainer. I was jumping all over this game. The premise sounded cool, the art looked great, and his other games have been quite entertaining. Finally the long wait was over and this one arrived at my door. Did it live up to my expectations? Well, read on…

Tiny Epic Galaxies is a space exploration game for 1-5 players which will take around 30-45 minutes to complete. Each player receives a galaxy mat, ships, and tokens in the color of their choosing and two secret mission cards. After looking at those cards, each player will choose one and place it under their galaxy mat, discarding the other. The deck of planet cards is now shuffled and two more planets than there are players are dealt out in the middle of the table. If you are playing with five players, only use six cards. The dice, control mat, and planet deck are also placed in the middle.

The galaxy mat is going to be the center of your universe (pun intended) for this game, so let’s focus on those for a minute. Curving along the left side of the mat is the resource track. You will place your energy and culture tokens along this track, moving them up and down as your resources increase and decrease throughout the game. The resource track curves around the center of your galaxy, and this is where your available ships will live when they aren’t out colonizing a planet.

On the right side of the mat you will a large track which has three smaller tracks inset to the left. The large track is your empire track, and you’ll place your empire token on here to track your progress. The three other tracks are reference tracks which will tell you how many ships you should have in play, how many dice you can roll, and how many base victory points your empire is worth.

IMG_3797Gameplay proceeds as follows: on your turn, look at your empire track and take the number of dice shown on your dice track. Roll the dice and take the actions depicted one at a time. If you would like to reroll any number of your unspent dice, you may do so once for free. Additional rerolls are allowed, but will you cost you one energy per reroll. Once you’ve either used all of your dice or decided to not use the rest, play continues to the next player.

Each die has six faces which allow you to take one of four basic actions:

  • Move a ship – Move one of your ships to a planet, or from a planet back to your galaxy mat. When you move to a planet you can choose to either land on the planet and take the action listed, or orbit the planet in an attempt to colonize and claim it for your own. You may have two ships on the same planet as long as one is in orbit and the other is on the surface. When moving a ship which is already on a planet, it must move to a new planet…it’s can’t move from the surface to orbit or vice-versa.
  • Acquire resources – Each planet is capable of producing a resource (either energy or culture) and you can move up the resource track for each ship that is on a planet of that type. So if you rolled an energy symbol, and you’ve got two ships on planets with the energy icon, you would gain two energy. It’s worth noting that your galaxy mat has the energy icon, so you can gain energy while your ships are there as well.
  • Advance colonization – Along with a resource symbol, each planet has a symbol at the end of the orbital track signifying what it will take for you to successfully colonize the planet. Each symbol (either diplomacy or economy) allows you to move your orbiting ship one space closer to the end of the track. Once you hit the end, all ships are removed and returned to their home galaxies and the card is placed underneath the colony symbol on your galaxy mat.
  • Utilize a colony – This action will allow you to perform the empire upgrade found on your galaxy mat or any of the actions which are found on the planets you’ve successfully colonized. If performing the upgrade found on the mat, you may pay in either energy or culture, but not a combination of the two.

As you are taking your turn and activating each die, your opponents will have the opportunity to spend one culture to “follow” your action. This will allow, for example, your opponents to move ships when it isn’t their turn. If there are ever timing questions, you should evaluate each follow clockwise from the active player.

IMG_3798Each planet will have a number of victory points at the bottom, and as planets are colonized players will announce their new score. The end of the game is triggered once a player has 21 or more points, and play continues until every player has had the same number of turns. At this point the secret missions are evaluated, points are totaled, and a winner is decided!

You’re going to pick up the flow of this game in a heartbeat. Nothing’s overly complicated, and the basic premise behind most of the actions are ones that we’ve all seen before. But the package itself is nicely presented and makes everything flow nicely. From the follow mechanic to the dice activation, it’s just a complete package.

It’s pretty interesting that a simple thing like the follow mechanic can make such a huge difference in a game. Without that, this would have been a neat game that I would play once and forget about. But being able to follow someone’s action does quite a few things to improve gameplay.

First of all, it reduces downtime. Sure, there will be moments where you’re just out of culture and can’t follow someone even if you wanted…but careful planning will keep those from becoming frequent. For the most part, when it isn’t your turn you are still keeping on eye on what other players are rolling. You never know when your opponents will roll something that’ll set you up on your next turn.

Secondly, it makes activating your dice a little more challenging. Sure, I’d love to advance diplomacy because I’ve got a planet I’m working towards colonizing…but BOTH of my opponents do as well and they will get their colonies before I do at this rate. So is there another way to approach this turn?

IMG_3796Finally, it makes you choose to land on planets you normally wouldn’t. Because after that first time that you run out of culture and you really want to follow someone? Well, you won’t make that mistake twice. I’ve hopped onto planets I have no desire to get near just to have a chance at grabbing some culture.

There’s a lot to like here. You get some player interaction, lots of replayability, a compact footprint, and meaningful decisions. Basically everything that the Tiny Epic games are known for. And the components and art are top notch, which is fast becoming the hallmark of anything put out by Gamelyn Games. This is well deserving of a spot on any gamer’s shelf.


Review: Survive: Space Attack!

In my gaming group, there are a few titles which have become perennial favorites. These games are the ones we’ve played so many times that there’s no need for the rules and we can just sit and enjoy spending time with each other while we play. Or, in the case of Survive: Escape from Atlantis!, enjoy spending time with each other while we attempt to feed one another to sharks. That game has hit the table more times than I can count, and my abysmal performance time and time again has led to most people referring to it as “Dan Doesn’t Survive”.

So when I saw the news earlier this year that Stronghold Games was putting out a new version of Survive, I was interested. And then I saw that the changes weren’t just thematic, and I was VERY interested. The original Survive was created by Julian Courtland-Smith, and this new version was reimagined by Brian, Sydney, and Geoff Engelstein. We’ve moved from the “friendly” confines of the ocean into the deep reaches of outer space…this is Survive: Space Attack!

Survive Space AttackThe basic premise behind either game is the same: you have a group of meeples with numbers ranging from 1 to 6 on the bottom. Using three movement points per turn you are attempting to move them to safety by reaching the outer corners of the board. Meanwhile both your opponents and the board elements are conspiring against you, trying to eat or strand your meeples. A turn follows the progression of play a tile, use your movement points, pull a tile, and roll the creature die.

The original game is a classic, coming out over 30 years ago and still enjoying a large audience. So what, you might ask, makes Space Attack different? Is it worth owning? Well, let’s dive in to what’s new and different…

  1. The space theme is thick here. Instead of fleeing the sinking island of Atlantis while dodging sea serpents, sharks, and whales, you’re on the crumbling Space Station Atlantis trying to escape an alien attack by queens, spawn, and warriors. The aliens act exactly like their waterborne counterparts, so it’s easy to transition from one to another. And the lifeboats? Well, those are now escape pods. Where the original game had you heading for the safety of small islands, you’ll now be floating towards stargates which will allow you to jump to safety. It’s quite immersive.
  2. Station tiles now come in four sizes, which makes the board look even cooler as the new tiles, reactor tiles, are quite chunky. Oh, and not to mention that those reactor tiles are also home to…
  3. Laser turrets. On your turn, if you have a crew member on a tile with a turret, you can use a movement point to fire a laser. If the laser encounters a hex with aliens in it, you capture all the aliens in that space. There are a couple restrictions with them – they will only shoot along a row of hexes straight out from the turret, and they cannot shoot through other station tiles. They have no effect on crew or ships that are in the way.
  4. Fighters. Along with the escape pods, your crew members can also hitch a ride in a fighter. A fighter will, for one movement point, move as far as the controlling player wants in a straight line. So you can zoom all the way across the board if you so desire. But you can only use one movement point per fighter. Not only are they agile, but an occupied fighter moving into a hex with aliens in it will capture the aliens.
  5. Each player has a new action which they will can take as their first one: play captured aliens back onto the board. So all of those aliens you’ve captured with your turrets and fighters? This is the time to place them back on the board right by your opponent’s full escape pod.
  6. Finally the tiles have a lot of new interactions on the back of them. There’s your standard “place a warrior/fighter/spawn” etc. tiles, but most of the other tiles offer new ways to interact with each other. There’s also a new type of tile which gets played after the creature die is rolled which can give that creature extra movement or evolve them into a different alien.

I’m not going to mince words here – these additions are amazing. The Englesteins were able to look at a game which has stood the test of time, make some changes, and make it a totally different experience. Sure. The gameplay is very similar. But the strategy is, pardon the pun, light years apart.

SSAIn the original Survive you had one goal with all your meeples: save them. Now? Well, let’s take our low scoring crew and try to maneuver them towards turrets and fighters. They are going to provide cover fire for the rest of the crew as they make their way off. As an added benefit, once you start knocking out those aliens you can use them to thwart your opponents.

The changes made to the tiles make this even more interactive than it was before. You can switch crew members between ships (any player’s crew), move back on to the station from space, steal aliens that have just been captured…it’s really even more about interaction than ever before.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, the board is now double sided. One side is your basic setup and the other has only two jump points from which to escape, which work with new scenarios included within the rules. To be perfectly honest, the side with two jump points scares the hell out of me…I can barely get my crew to safety with four!

So now you know that Survive: Space Attack is well worth the investment. But this still leaves us with a question: if I own Survive: Escape from Atlantis, do I need this one? Do I perhaps pick Space Attack up and ditch the original? Well……………..I don’t know. It’s all going to come down to personal preference. If you play in a group that loves a sci-fi theme, this one’s going to be a hit. Have a lot of new gamers in your midst? Well, the original has fewer rules.

Of course, having both will allow you to have a Survive themed game night. You can play Escape from Atlantis and then say that those survivors moved on to the Space Station Atlantis and play Space Attack!

No matter what you choose, do yourself a favor and check this one out. Brian, Sydney, and Geoff have taken a fantastic game and made it even better.

Review: Codenames

The key to a good party game seems like a no brainer: you want everyone to have fun. It doesn’t hurt if the game doesn’t take a long time to play, and the rules should be short and straightforward. Most board game aficionados prefer a game that has a good deal of replayability as well. Today we look at Codenames, and you’ll find that it hits all those marks and then some.

Codenames, by Vlaada Chvatil, plays from two players up to…well, however many people you can fit around your table, and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Players divide into two teams, and everyone will take turns as their team’s Spymaster. Setup only takes a minute. From the 200 codename cards, select 25 and make a 5×5 grid. Then the Spymasters select a key card and put in in the stand so only they can see it. Play will start with whichever team is indicated on the key card.

I’ve mentioned codename cards and key cards…so let’s talk for a minute about the cards in this game. The 200 codename cards each contain one word which is the “codename” for that secret agent. They are double-sided, so you’re getting 400 codenames to choose from. The words are all commonly known, like bat, beach, tree, Africa, kiwi, etc.

The 40 key cards are what provides the structure of each game. Each card will show the location of each team’s spies, along with the lone assassin. As the words are in a 5×5 grid, you can flip the orientation of the key card which will give four different placements for the various spies.

The object of the game is for the Spymaster to get their team to successfully guess the location of all their secret agents, while avoiding the other team’s spies as well as the assassin. The first team to reveal all of their secret agents wins!

Easy, right?

Not quite. See, the Spymaster is only allowed to say two things: a word, and a number. Nothing else. Ever. The word is a clue to get her team to point at the right word or words, and the number is how many codenames will relate to that word. So if my Spymaster says “country : 2” and I see “America” and “England”? I’m probably going to point at those as my guess.

IMG_3726Chances are that your clue might not have been as good as you thought it was…or you were too damn clever for your own good. After you give your clue, your team will confer and look at the available codenames trying to discern what you were getting at. Then they will point at a word which will have one of four outcomes (let’s pretend you’re on the red team):

  • If the codename pointed at belongs to your team, you’ll take one of the red spy cards and cover up that word. Your team may continue to guess codenames until they have guessed one more than the number you said after your clue.
  • If the codename belongs to the other team, you take one of the blue spy cards and cover up that card. Your turn is now over and the blue team has one less spy to uncover.
  • If it is a grey card, you place one of the innocent bystander cards on top of the codename. Your turn is over.
  • If it is the assassin, the game ends and you lose.

Since three out of those four outcomes aren’t exactly stellar, you’re going to do the best you can to avoid getting near the other words. I’ve seen games where “water” was the assassin and someone was trying to get their team to guess treasure and beach. So sometimes those codenames are kinda tough to work around.

So, while you’re trying to be careful, this is what usually happens in a typical round of Codenames:


The Blue Spymaster looks around and sees that Kiwi and Bark are both blue codenames. That shouldn’t be too hard – “Brown: 2”

Blue team: “Okay, well, we can rule out ‘kiwi’ – those are green.” “What about ‘bat’?” “Bats are black.” “Not if they are BROWN BATS!” and so on…


And that is what makes Codenames so much fun to play. There’s something so hilarious about spending a couple minutes thinking about a great clue to give and then having someone scuttle it in the first three seconds with a connection you didn’t even think of. The Spymasters try to keep a straight face, the rest of the team winds up getting silly over possible connections, and every really enjoys themselves. Isn’t that what a party game is all about?

I want to take a second to talk about an app you can download for your smartphone or tablet which makes playing this game even easier. The Codenames Gadget, which can be found on the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, will take the place of your key cards. Not only that, but it will provide you with different timers to help speed things along. While it’s not NEEDED, it’s a great addition to the game.



Review: Pictomania

When I hear the name “Vlaada Chvátil” the first thought I have is that he must not get calls from telemarketers. Of course then I think of the games he has designed like Through the Ages, Mage Knight, Dungeon Lords, Galaxy Trucker…all amazing games. Many things pop into my head when I hear his name, but one thing never did: the words “party game”.

That all changed at BGG.CON 2013.

Pictomania - BGG.CONOur group was a large one that year, six of us, and we tried our damnedest to find games that would accommodate everyone. Thankfully, the library at BGG.CON is massive and it’s easy to find a game that almost everyone will enjoy. At one point my friend Raquel came up and said “have you heard of this game?”

She was holding Pictomania. I told her that I hadn’t heard of it, but the designer was…well, he was quite well known. But not for party games. Little did I know that this would become one of my favorite party games of all time!

Pictomania, published by Stronghold Games, is a game where 3-6 players try their best to draw words that are found on clue cards. But, unlike most drawing games, there’s a twist: while you are drawing your own word, you want to make sure you are looking at what everyone else is drawing. The only way to score points is to correctly guess someone else’s drawing…and the only way to score lots of points is to do so quickly!

The game starts with six clue cards being placed into the card racks. Each card will have seven words on it, numbered accordingly, and the six slots on the card racks have symbols underneath.  In this way, each word winds up having a number and symbol so it is uniquely identified. Now each player is dealt two cards: one with a symbol and one with a number. This is the word they will attempt to draw. Bonus tokens are placed in the center of the table and the round begins.

PictomaniaAnd then the real fun starts as everyone begins to draw. But as you’re drawing, you’re also keeping an eye on what other players are drawing. If you see that Bob is drawing a fork, and it’s clearly a fork, you put your marker down find your “5” card, and slap it in front of him. Other players will do the same, placing their guess cards on top of yours. Once you are done drawing and guessing, you snatch up whatever bonus tile is left in the center. If it’s the last one, say “stop”, and the round is over.

Then we score the round. First each player goes around and reveals what they drew, and figures out who guessed correctly and who did not. If you guessed correctly, you collect a point token from that player. If you did not, your guess card goes in the center. After everyone has revealed their drawings, scores are counted up. You get positive points for any bonus tokens and point tokens you have from other players. You lose points for any of your own point tokens that you failed to hand out. If you have the most cards in the center (the most incorrect guesses) you are the “black sheep” and will also lose points for the bonus token you took. You play five rounds and the person with the most points is the winner.

Now, I know that a review of a party game can only be so helpful. Most of the success that you’ll have when bringing a party game to the table depends greatly on those who are playing it, so your milage may vary greatly from mine. So what I will do is tell you the things that set Pictomania apart from other drawing games. The things that make it very, very special.

First, we have the clue cards. These are truly the heart and soul of Pictomania, and they are so cleverly crafted that you might not notice how much work went into them at first. To fully explain the genius, let’s look at the voting cards. Everyone has seven voting cards, one for each number. You don’t need more than that because numbers cannot be duplicated – there’s only one person drawing a “2” clue, and one a “3”, and so on.

PictomaniaThis becomes important when you notice that the clue cards, while having unique things on them, have things that could kinda sorta look like other things on the same card. So while a drawing might scream “sunlight” at you and get you to pull the trigger on a guess, maybe that person hadn’t added stars yet – which makes it “moonlight”. And now you’ve tossed the wrong number down, which could very well mean you’re doomed to screw up at least one more guess as well.

The game also gives you four different skill levels of cards ranging from easy to “very difficult”. Although I’m pretty sure “very difficult” is Czech for “good fricken luck”…because if you thought trying to draw a hippo was difficult, wait until you try to draw “mistrust”. There are 99 cards in all, so there’s a lot included in this box.

Secondly, the simultaneous actions in this game are head and shoulders above any other drawing party game. We talk about games creating tension, but this one creates…well, all sorts of emotions: laughter, frustration, panic, glee, and then more laughter. You’ll be trying to look across the table at what your friend drew while she’s peeking at someone else’s drawing and all the while you’ve gotten about three lines drawn of your “park” scene.

Finally, the scoring is well handled and adds to the flow of the game. You want to draw enough to get people to guess what you’ve drawn, but not so much that you don’t have time to throw down your own guesses. There’s a balance there and you might find yourself drawing a little, doing some guessing, and then returning to your drawing. You’re trying to rush all of this because the first person to guess a drawing gets more points than the last person. And then there’s that sinking sensation you get when you see blank stares looking at your drawing…

As a side note, I should mention that Stronghold Games did an amazing job with this reprint. The component quality is fantastic and the insert is one of the most functional I’ve ever seen. The erasers included in the game aren’t the best, but paper towels work just fine.

Pictomania is the drawing game that gamers should want to play. There’s a party game here, but it’s got the stylings of something more, and it pulls it off nicely. You can tell this was a labor of love and it’s been a hit since the first time I played. So if you’re looking for something light that will provide a ton of laughs, look no further!


Review: Ora & Labora

As a matter of courtesy, we try not to review games that have gone out of print. That’s just not cool, you know? “Hey, look at this game…and look at how awesome it is…and guess what?? You can’t get it.” Of course, you probably could get said game, but you’re going to pay an arm and a leg. So yeah, not cool.

Today, however, we make an exception to this rule. Ora & Labora, a game for 1-4 players from the highly esteemed Uwe Rosenberg, came out in 2011 and seemed to go out of print almost immediately. The game was quite well regarded, and still sits in the Top 50 on BoardGameGeek’s rankings…but for some reason Lookout Games chose not to order a reprint.

Well, recent news from Mr. Rosenberg himself reveals that Lookout Games will finally reprint this much sought after game in the next few months. W. Eric Martin of BGG News also confirmed with Z-Man Games that they will be handling the English Language reprint. So, in light of this great news? Let’s take a look at Ora & Labora.

Ora & LaboraThe game’s tagline pretty much says it all – you’re going to be developing a “Monastic Economy in the Middle Ages”. Each player is given a heartland landscape, three clergymen, and some starting goods. They also have a small deck of 8 settlement cards; 4 of which they start the game with, and 4 that will become available to them as the rounds progress.

Your heartland board is just what it sounds like – the heart of your little monastic village, which will grow and change throughout the game. There are three basic buildings present on your heartland to start: the Farmyard, the Clay Mound, and the Cloister Office. You’ll also have some Forest and Moor cards on your board, which can be harvested for resources on your turn and to make space for new buildings.

Over the course of 24 rounds, your turn will consist of taking one of three main actions: place a clergyman to use a building, fell trees or cut peat, or build a building. The first two actions are based around gathering resources – the buildings and trees/peat will provide you with resource tiles, which you will need to expend to use the third action and build a new building.

Ora & LaboraWith the basics out of the way, let’s chat about what makes Ora & Labora special: the Production Wheel. On this wheel you will find several wooden pieces which represent the various basic resources that you can acquire throughout the game, along with a wildcard which can be used in place of any resource. In the center of this wheel is an arm which has numbers around its inner ring.

At the start of each round this arm rotates, which will usually increase the value of each good on the wheel. The markers for each good stay where they are until a player takes an action which will allow them access to that resource. Once this happens, the marker is moved around the wheel to the zero spot, where it will start the journey once more. If you’ve played Rosenberg’s Glass Road you’re pretty familiar with how this works.

But that’s not all the wheel does. During setup all of the building cards (and those four extra settlement cards each player has) are divided into four stacks based on the letter on the cards. These are placed along the outer edge of the wheel, to come into play once the arm passes them at the start of a turn. This will put new buildings into the market and a new settlement card into each player’s hand.

These settlement cards are used during the settlement phase, which is also tracked…by the wheel. Look, if the wheel wasn’t already one of the human race’s best inventions I would certainly be lobbying for it after playing this game. On the wheel are little blue houses which signal a settlement phase, which is the only time a player may build one of the settlement cards from their hand…and these translate to some massive points at the end of the game.

Ora & LaboraOnce the game ends you’re going to accumulate points in three ways: some goods will earn you points, each of your buildings and settlements will have a point value on them, and each settlement will have a separate value based on the buildings orthogonally adjacent. Thankfully, there’s a scoring sheet included with the game because these are numbers you’re going to lose track of quickly.

Ora & Labora, while not taking up a ton of room, will look great on your table. Klemens Franz provided the art for this game, and he really did an excellent job. As your board fills with buildings you’ll see a colorful little society start to develop before your eyes. And, like most of Uwe’s games that Klemens has illustrated, there’s little easter eggs peppered here and there.

When it was released, there were some people who were very concerned about the replayability of this game, especially at lower player counts. Since you’re using the same cards in every game, and they are coming out at the same time each game, there was a worry that it would start to feel repetitive after a few plays. Thankfully this is not the case, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the game comes with two decks of building cards so that you can choose to play the game in either France or Ireland. In fact, you’ll find that some of the goods are different as well – France produces bread and wine while Ireland produces beer and whiskey. And that’s “whiskey” with an “E” for those of you keeping track at home. The U.S. and Ireland are the only countries to add the “E” in there. While some buildings exist in both decks the majority of them are different from one country to the other.

Secondly, the decision trees that span off of…well, just about every action, keep each game playing differently. For example, it’s all well and good to have a plan in place to purchase a certain building on your turn, but someone else might get there first. Or, worse yet, they don’t care about the building you want but they need the same resources and grab those before you get the chance. But this doesn’t derail your whole plan because there’s another avenue you can take to score points.

Ora & Labora
Heartland board shown with the extra plots you can purchase.

Diversification is pretty key here. You can’t simply ignore one of the point scoring avenues completely and expect to win. You want to strive to get your village developed to be able to take you down any of the paths for point scoring. Need to produce goods to make wonders? Need goods stored up to get those pricy settlement cards out?  You try to keep them both in mind as much as you can.

One of the more interesting decisions you’ll need to make is when to expand your land. Expansion is an additional action that you can take on your turn to open up more spaces to build upon. There are coastal, district, and mountain plots  – but they increase in price as they get snatched up, so you’ll want to act early. Of course, taking money might cause you to not take another resource you need. But you can’t ignore them. There are buildings and settlements which have to be built on a specific terrain, and your cloister buildings need to be next to one another. So after a while expansion is completely necessary.

The player interaction is quite interesting as well. For the most part, it’s indirect. In other words, I’m taking a resource that you wish you could have gotten. But you also have the ability to use someone else’s buildings as well. You pay for it, but you get to use that person’s clergyman to take the action. So if you hit someone when they’ve just taken back all their workers you’ve really put a kink in their works.

Ora & LaboraNow I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the negatives here as well. Setup and cleanup can be pretty painful. There are 450 goods tiles to deal with. That’s a LOT to keep track of. Now if you want to just dump it all in one bag and sort as you play it isn’t bad, but if you’re looking to keep each good type in a different bag? It’s about a 10 minute clean up job once you’re done playing.

And, of course, the big one: component quality. This printing of the game had some pretty flimsy stuff inside the box. There were counter misprints left and right, but the worst were the heartland boards and expansion plots. They are cardstock, and not terribly thick cardstock. Thankfully, and I’m going to bold this so people see it, the components will be better in this upcoming release. Hanno Girke from Lookout Games has already addressed this issue in a post on BoardGameGeek, so this should no longer be a negative.

So if you’re a fan of Rosenberg’s games, if you enjoy having the ability to alter your path to victory, if you enjoy the feeling of building a little village, and want a game that will scale well across all player counts? Well, keep your eyes peeled for this one. After all, this is a game you wouldn’t have to wait another four years to get a shot at owning.

Review: AquaSphere

Board games tend to have a “feel” to them. When you play Kanban, you feel like you’re manufacturing cars. Playing Escape gives you the feeling of urgency like you’re escaping from a temple. And these aren’t just thematic feelings – the game actions add to the experience. Now I want you to picture how you’d feel if you were trying to balance a tray of full coffee cups while wearing roller skates and blindfolded. And you’re only allowed to use one arm. That, my friends, is AquaSphere.

AquaSphere is a game for 2-4 players by Stefan Feld and is published for the U.S. by Tasty Minstrel Games. Play time will vary through the player count, but will average out at a little under two hours. The outer board and center tiles are modular which gives you a random setup, changing each game slightly. Well, possibly. There’s always a chance that the setup is randomly identical to your last play…which would make an awesome band name. “Randomly Identical.”

AquaSphereEach player will take one of two actions on their turn, proceeding in player order until they are unable (or unwilling) to perform more actions at which time they will pass. The first action that can be chosen is to program a bot, choosing a function that the bot will perform once it reaches the facility. This can be done by either moving your engineer to a new spot in the headquarters or by paying three time tokens. The second is to move within the facility and deploy one of your programmed bots to a corresponding station. Once there, they will perform a task based on their location.

After each player has passed there is a round of intermediate scoring, where you evaluate several points: who has control of the most sections of the facility, how many crystals do you have, how many submarines and bots have you deployed, and how many octopods are impeding your progress? Your player board will have this information on it, along with information about end game scoring.

This will be followed by the placement of new lab expansions and research cards. You will also add items (crystals, octopods, time, etc.) to the facility based on the center tile, as well as adjusting the programming order within the headquarters. After four rounds you perform another intermediate scoring and then proceed right on to final scoring where you’ll see who won.

Wrapped inside of a relatively basic ruleset is a clever game where each player will constantly be faced with the agony of choice. For instance, let’s look at the headquarters. There are seven actions which bots can be programmed to perform over the course of a round, and you can only have two programmed bots staged at a time. So you need to keep this limit in mind…which actions do you need to perform, and when do you need to do them?

AquaSphereAlong with that restriction, you’re going to have to choose a path for your scientist to take through the headquarters. Each round you will be able to choose from three of the seven programmable actions, and their placement on the board is different from round to round. So while gathering crystals and dealing with octopods in the same round seems to be what you’ll want to do, if those actions are located on the same row you won’t be able to do both.

Which would make an interesting situation for these researchers. I picture those conversations happening a little like this:

“Hey Sarah? I’m a little short on crystals. Can you send down a bot so I can harvest some?”

“Sure, no problem.”

“Perfect. Okay, and now I could use one to take care of some of these octopods.”

“Um…well…yeah. That’s not really possible. I mean, we can make the lab a bit bigger if you’d like…Bob? Hello?”

“Not cool, Sarah.”

Some games will offer you actions which are suited for different strategies but can be ignored if you’re heading in a different direction. Not AquaSphere. You really can’t ignore any of these actions:

  • Expand your lab: These will expand your resource storage, as well as offering you points for end-game scoring. You also get to place a bot that hasn’t been programmed yet into a section of the station, which may give you the overall majority in the station.
  • Catch octopods: During each intermediate scoring you will lose points for the number of octopods that are in a section that you control. Catching them will remove them, and give you points.
  • Harvest crystals: Perhaps one of the most important actions. There are “breakpoints” on the scoring track past which you cannot move unless you pay a crystal to do so.
  • Place a submarine: Not only will placing a sub give you points based on the center tile, but it will also unlock scoring for another column of your bots…and give you extra time each round.
  • Take a research card: You’ll get points when take these cards, and they will provide you with some benefit – be it extra time, crystals, or some special ability, you won’t be able to forsake these.
  • Take time tokens: Time is required to do almost everything in this game, and having a constant supply is vital to your success.
  • Program a bot: Using this action will allow you to immediately program a bot based on the function shown on the board. One of the only way you can squeeze more actions out of a round.

Ignore the crystals? You aren’t going to score. Don’t deploy subs? You’re going to be short time and score fewer bot points. Let octopods run rampant? You’ll lose a ton of points. If you don’t work to balance out these actions and take as many of them each round that you can, you will find yourself bailing water out of a sinking ship. Or sub, as the case may be.

All of these factors, which are limiting and chaotic, are exactly what make AquaSphere shine. You want to make plans for later rounds, but you really can’t. You’ve got a dozen different things that are going to change with each turn, say nothing about the other players will do to alter the makeup of the board. So the game becomes about looking at what’s available and making the best out of what’s there.

aquasphere02Now this will cut both ways – if you try to play this game with someone that has analysis paralysis? Prepare for the game to drag to a halt every time their turn rolls around. The decision tree forks too many times and there are so many variables that trying to calculate an optimal path will take forever…and be unreliable as all hell. Because while you might be able to see what one other player will want to do, three more players is nigh incalculable.

But I feel that AquaSphere, like some of Feld’s other games, is less about how to perform optimally and more about how to mitigate the problems caused by your inability to do enough actions. It’s not “how can I score the most points”, but “how can I make sure I lose the fewest points” all while trying to keep other players in check as well.

The more plays you get under your belt, the more this will clarify for you. You’ll see where it makes sense to use a bot to take over control of a section even though there are three octopods there and where it makes sense to just take the majority hit and wait until next round to make a move. You’ll be able to shorten your path decisions to manageable structures in your head.

And once you see that this game has a lot to offer; once you embrace the chaos? You’ll find an amazing game that’s going to feel fresh each time you play. There’s something to be said for that. So pick this one up as soon as possible. Because if we’ve learned anything from this game it’s that you need to take advantage of opportunities when you have them…or they go away forever.

iOS Review: Qwirkle

Of all the types of board games that have been made into apps, abstract games seem to be especially suited for digitization. The rules have no grey area, gameplay is typically simple, and scoring is very straightforward. Abstracts tend to be rules light and strategy deep. All of these factors add up to a format which can be easily played on a tablet or smartphone. The digital version of Qwirkle, by Mindware Corporation, proves this point.

Qwirkle is a very approachable abstract with simple rules. The game is made up of 108 tiles, each of which has two identifying characteristics: one of six different shapes and one of six colors adding up to three complete set of each.

On your turn, you will either play tiles or swap tiles, refilling back to six at the end of your turn. If placing tiles, you must build in a line off existing tiles (except, of course, when you place the first tiles) and must continue in a straight line which can not duplicate either shape or color. That sounds more confusing than it actually is…but it’s easy to pick up.

Screen captures are tricky when piece are blinking - hence the black squares.
Screen captures are tricky when piece are blinking – hence the black squares.

After you’ve placed tiles, you calculate the score of that move by counting all tiles in a line that you built upon, regardless as to whether you played them or not. If, on your turn, you complete a line of six tiles of the same shape or color? You score the normal six points for the line, and an additional six points for having scored a Qwirkle! That’s pretty much the whole game.

Upon loading the app, you’ll be able to choose between playing against the AI, pass-and-play against people in the room, or online through the Game Center. There are four different levels of AI, and they’ve done a fairly decent job with them. Online play is solid, and they seem to have ironed out the kinks that were there when this app first launched.

3D mode!
3D mode!

The visuals in the game are quite nice as well. When playing, you have your choice of backgrounds – a wood grain table, beach sand, tablecloths, and…clouds. Cause, you know, I often play this game while floating. Although, I HAVE played this app while on an airplane, so I’ll have to remember that option for my next flight. There is also an option to switch from 2D mode to 3D mode – which is nice…but also seems a little pointless.

Placing tiles is intuitive and the app will even help you out a bit here. When you drag a tile out onto the board so you can place it, the screen will show you the various places that are open for legal placement. Hell, it’ll even tell you if you’re able to use that tile to score a Qwirkle. Swapping is simple as well, just drag the tiles over to the bag and complete your turn.

Let me just take a second to rant here as this is one of the most important features for any board game app – confirm and undo. There are some great apps that are infuriating because they won’t allow you to confirm a move before it is made and there’s no way to take back a mis…um…click? Press? Tap? A mistap? Sure. We’ll go with that. But in Qwirkle, you have the chance to undo your move and need to click the “done” button prior to ending your turn. High marks for that.

QwirkleLaziness being what it is, there are some things that make this app a little more desirable to play than the actual physical copy of the game – you have someone keeping score for you, there’s zero chance of playing a tile illegally, you always know how many tiles are left…nitpicky stuff, but it’s nice that they included it in here.

All in all, Qwirkle is an app that is worth owning – especially for the three dollar price tag that it has carried for a while. It’s going to give you a visually pleasing app that can be played in a variety of situations. And isn’t that what we’re after?

[well]Qwirkle is available on the App Store for $2.99.[/well]