Review: Splendor

While my taste in board games tends to go towards the heavier end of the spectrum, sometimes you need a light game to open the evening up, or maybe close it out. The board game market tends to be a bit over-saturated with this type of game, so it’s important to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thankfully, the nature of these games is such that if you try one out and don’t like it you’re only out a half-hour of your life, if that. It’s not like you sat down to watch Contact or something like that. ::shudder::

[well]Editors note: As I was about to post this I see that Splendor has just been announced as the winner of BoardGameGeek’s Golden Geek award for Game of the Year. Not that this is important, but I’ve always wanted to leave an editor’s note. – Ed.[/well]

SplendorSplendor, a 2014 release by designer Marc Andre, puts you in the shoes of a wealthy Renaissance merchant trying to woo the nobility by creating fantastic jewelry. You will acquire mines and purchase elephants, and………

Okay, look. I tried. Normally I can transport myself into the world the designer is trying to conjure up. Hell, I’m as imaginative as the next person, but the theme on this one is truly paper thin.

The real question is: does it matter?

Splendor is quite simple. On your turn you choose one of three actions: take gem chips, purchase a card from the tableau or a facedown stack, or reserve a card to be purchased later. There are also a couple of ancillary rules that supplement these actions. When you reserve a card (you are only allowed to have three reserved at any given time) you also receive a gold chip, which is a wild card. Taking chips can be done in two ways – you can take three chips of different colors, or two of the same color as long as there are four or more in the general supply.

And that’s the gameplay. Cards in the general supply will provide you with at least one of the two benefits. You will always receive a gem “discount” for future rounds, and some of the cards also give you points. Another way to get points is to impress the nobles by offering them the gems they are looking for. The first one to 15 points wins.

Which brings us back to the theme. Does it matter that this game has a theme that wouldn’t hold up to a stiff breeze? Not one bit.

SplendorLet’s be clear: Splendor is an engine building game. You purchase cards that will provide you with permanent gem discounts, and then you use these to get the more expensive cards as the rounds progress. As your engine develops you find that taking gem chips as an action becomes less and less necessary, thereby giving you more chances to buy more cards, which improves your engine, and so on.

But as you’re building your engine, it’s imperative that you pay attention to the other players. The ability to reserve cards is so vital here. The joker helps, of course, but grabbing and reserving a card that might be one your opponent is gunning for? That could win you the game.

So what do we have here? It’s a game that you can play in 30 minutes that offers some good decisions and solid gameplay. It’s not going to leave you staring at the wall as your brain liquifies and slides out your ear. It’s not going to intimidate new gamers. But it IS going to be fun. If that’s what you’re looking for in an opener, this is a game for you.

Review: Castles of Mad King Ludwig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neuschwanstein at sunset
Neuschwanstein Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Review: Machi Koro

Machi Koro
Machi Koro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Four: “Yeah…about that…”

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

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

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

Cavernous.
Cavernous.

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

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

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

 

Review: Klunker

When you hear the name Uwe Rosenberg, you might immediately think of such games as Agricola, Le Havre, and Caverna. Well known for his larger games, Rosenberg has also created some smaller gems which frequently get overlooked. Among my favorites of his “smaller” games is Klunker. In this game, each player is a jewelry store owner looking to maximize their profits by buying and selling with the competing jewelry store owners. It plays with 3-5 players and each game takes about 30 minutes to play.

The components of this game are quite simple, consisting of nothing more than cards. I have the Rio Grande edition, and while the cards take some heat for not being that attractive, I think they are a far cry better than the Lookout Games edition. There are 94 jewelry cards, five shop window cards, five purchase order cards and one start player card. The jewelry cards are the cards that are bought and sold in each round. There are seven different types of jewelry, ranging from a tongue stud to a necklace. Each type of card shows an image of the piece of jewelry, and are different colors depending on the different jewels. On the reverse side of each card is the image of a bill, which is the money used in the game. Each player also gets a shop window card, and has a space in front of them that will be used as their “safe”.

The game is played over several rounds, each consisting of three phases. Before starting the first round, a starting player is chosen and is given the starting player card. This person takes the jewel cards, shuffles them up, and deals one face down (which stays face down) to each player. This becomes their starting bank and is placed face down in front of them. After the banks are set, everyone is dealt a hand of six cards, with the remaining deck being set off to the side.

In the first phase, beginning with the start player, each store owner places any number of jewel cards into their store windows for sale. In the first round, every player must put at least one jewel card in their window as no window can be left empty. These can be any number of cards in any variety. The only rule here is that cards cannot be hidden. Any jewels placed in the store windows will be available for purchase by any player. Play continues clockwise until all players have filled their store windows.

Once everyone has jewels in their store windows, the second phase begins. In this phase, players can place jewel cards into their safes. This is how the shop owners will earn money, by collecting sets of four jewel cards. Beginning with the start player, and in turn order, each person may put ONE card into their safe. These cards must be face up and not hidden by any other cards. This will continue around the table, with each player placing one card into their safe, until someone chooses to pass. The first person to pass will then take the #1 purchase order card and place it in front of them. They will be the first person to lead when the next phase begins. The remaining players continue in this fashion, taking an order card as they pass, until everyone has finished. Note that it is not required to put a card into your safe, and in some rounds you will find that passing early and grabbing a better number is preferred over putting cards in the safe.

As cards are put into the safe, players have a chance to convert them to money. As soon as you place the fourth copy of a jewel card into your safe, you must sell them. If this is the only type of jewel in your safe, you flip all four of them over and place them money side up in your bank. For each additional type of jewel present in your vault, you would get one less for selling them – so if you had three types of jewels you would keep two money cards for selling one of the stacks, discarding the rest. The only exception to this rule is the necklace. When four of the necklace cards are cashed in, all of them are kept, no matter how many additional jewels are present. You can never receive less than one “dollar” for selling jewels.

After all players are finished placing jewels in their safes, the third phase begins. The player who has the #1 purchase order card starts. At this point, they may buy the cards in someone else’s window for the price of one “dollar”. This is a fixed price, and the player cannot refuse to sell their cards. If there are three cards in the window, it is a dollar, and if there are thirty cards there, it is a dollar. If they are so inclined (or happen to have no money in their bank) the person may opt to purchase their own window, which costs them nothing.

Once cards are purchased they are placed immediately into the buyer’s safe and any jewels are cashed in according to the rules above. One important thing to note here deals with jewel cards totaling over four. If you have three headbands in your safe in front of you, and buy a window containing two more, you can only add one to the stack in your safe to be cashed in. The other one will go into the safe, but will count as a new type of jewel. The person selling the window puts the dollar into their bank and play proceeds to the next purchase order card.

It is important to note that a player with no cards left in their shop window is not obligated to buy jewels. If they choose to, they may pass and the round will immediately end. In this way some players may not get a chance to purchase cards from other store windows.

The first person choosing not to buy from a window is now the next round’s start player. They gather up the discard pile, as well as the unused jewel cards, and will then shuffle them into a new deal deck. New cards are dealt out to each player starting with the dealer, to bring their hand total back up to six. Play then continues as listed above. After the first round, it may be possible that you still have jewel cards in your window, in which case you do not need to put any additional cards up for sale if you do not wish to. The game ends when there are not enough cards in the deal deck to bring everyone up to six cards. Play ends, everyone counts the money in their bank, and the richest person wins!

Klunker is one of those games that has layers to it which might not be readily apparent at first. When you deal out the starting money at the beginning of the game, you are forbidden to look at what card is on the other side. This may seem like a small thing, but can really play a huge role when you’re trying to figure out if someone is hoarding a necklace in their hand or if it’s out of the game. Hand management is taken to an extreme here as you’re effectively worrying about three hands of cards – your hand, the shop window, and your safe. Try to short your safe so you don’t lose out on the trade in? You won’t get as many new cards next round. Dump junk into your window? No one touches it and you wind up having to eat it.

All in all, this is a nice filler game worth checking out. The artwork isn’t the greatest, but the gameplay is solid and there are still some decisions to be made. You can feel a little bit of some of his other games in this one as well, so that makes it even more interesting. I would recommend this game for groups that are looking for something that will really get the brain working and can lead off a night of heavier gaming.