Apples to Apples

apples to apples boxOnce a decade a game strikes just the right chord with the public and flies off the shelves. Apples to Apples (Out of the Box, 1999) is such a game. This game has been played and enjoyed by so many people, and their friends, and friends of those friends, and so on, that people all over the world who “don’t play games” have loved it. It defied all odds and sold a million copies in the US without ever having been on the shelf of WalMart (as of that point in time).

Apples to Apples is a social game; it stimulates conversation, elicits laughter, moves fast, and keeps every player constantly involved. It is comprised of two decks of cards. One deck is green; green cards each have an adjective listed, along with a few synonyms. The other deck is red; red cards each have a noun (person, place, or thing), along with a brief – and humorous – description. One player acts as judge each round, and turns over the green (adjective) card and reads it. Each other player must choose the red (noun) card from their hand of seven that he or she thinks is best described by the green card. The judge takes the submitted red cards without looking at them or knowing which player submitted which card, and then judges them; he or she will decide which of the red cards really is the best match to the green card (see pic). The player whose card is chosen wins the green card; The first player to seven green cards wins.

apples layout

In the example above, the foreground player needs to determine which of the seven red apple cards is most likely to be chosen as ‘expensive.’ One could argue for car crash, or even for hockey, because they are both expensive in their own way, but Paris, France is expensive in many, bigger ways, so it is an excellent choice – but will the judge think so?

apples judges choice

After all players have submitted their red cards, the judge has to choose one. The key is to submit a card, if you can, that will resonate with the judge. In the example above, even though they might agree that Paris, France is a very expensive city to visit, or build, or whatever, they might have had a recent emotional experience with a hospitalization so the cost of an operation is what they think of when they see the word ‘expensive.’ The judge could also be more impressed with the cost of lobster, or skiing, or even paying taxes. And so it goes. The judge chooses which red card they like the best, and the players who didn’t win usually let the judge know exactly why their cards were better choices…and the conversation continues. Arguments are defused by the cards being anonymously submitted, and by the explicit rule that the judge can use any way of determining what is the best card.

Apples to Apples is easy to learn, and everybody plays at once (which is typical of games by Out of the Box). Game play typically lasts about a half hour, but any number of rounds can be played. Rounds are so quick that you can get a few done in very little time. It is very common to simply play the game without regard to a winner; people just like to play for the fun of it.

There are a number of expansions and variations available. Expansions ($19.99) are basically the same game with all new cards, which is nice to have because they can be mixed together with the original cards. There are at least 12 stand-alone variations on the basic Apples to Apples game, including Apples to Apples Jr (Out of the Box, 2002), which will be reviewed elsewhere.

I absolutely recommend this game to just about anyone in the market for a game, especially if looking for a game to appeal to a mixed-age group. It’s great for families, groups of friends and coworkers, and is safe as a gift to just about anybody.

Buy Apples to Apples Party Box Expansion 1 on Amazon!

Carcassonne

carcassonne box

I once asked the President of Rio Grande games what his favorite game was, in terms of game play, and he said it was Carcassonne (Rio Grande Games, 2000). That was when the game was brand new, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to play it yet (I had heard good things about it, though). When I finally gave it a try, I understood why he liked it so much.

Carcassonne was the second big hit – after Settlers of Catan – to come to America from the prolific European board game market (referred to as “eurogames”), and it pretty much solidified the genre and ushered in a new era of board gaming in North America.

So what’s so special about Carcassonne? It appeals to young and old, male and female, and has become a household favorite practically everywhere. The rules are easy to understand, the game is attractive and durable, most players are in the game right up until the end, and there is a satisfying blend of strategy and luck. Players take turns laying tiles onto an increasingly complex, ever-expanding playing field, and then have the option of placing their game pieces, little wooden men known as “Meeples,” on the tile they just placed. Points are awarded throughout the game, including a large portion at the end of the game when the final tile has been placed (see pic below).

carcassonne board

meeple

Points are awarded based on the size of the real estate parcel controlled by a player’s meeples.¬† The various types of real estate that can be claimed are cities, roads, fields, and cloisters (certain isolated buildings). Once a meeple occupies a portion of real estate, it has been claimed and no other meeples may be placed on any contiguous part of that real estate. However – and this is a critical element of the game – two noncontiguous parcels that have already been claimed might be joined by a certain tile placement. Thus, a player might have successfully claimed a city and added to it, making it worth more and more points, only to eventually see it merge with a far smaller city owned by someone else who then shares the points. The same can happen with roads and fields as well.

Players have a limited number of meeples to use, so they can’t simply lay them out every turn. When cities and roads are completed, the player scores immediately and the meeples return to his or her hand. When a cloister is played, the player must claim it immediately, and it scores points only after it has been surrounded by 8 other tiles, at which point that meeple is returned as well. Meeples placed in fields, called farmers, are different – they remain until the end of the game, and score points according to how many cities are adjacent to (and thus “served” by) that farmer’s field. Since the board is ever expanding, a farmer placed early might get more and more points throughout the game, or else might end up being boxed in by roads and cities and contribute very little.

Carcassonne has quite a few expansions and spin-offs – the Rio Grande Games website lists 22 stand-alone and expansion packs available! The expansions allow extra players and more variations on real estate. For example, Inns and Cathedrals (Rio Grande Games, 2002; $17.50) provides an extra set of men to allow a 6th player, extra land tiles (including inns and Cathedrals, of course, for more means of gaining points), plus six ‘Mega-meeples,” who are larger than regular meeples and count as two instead of one. Mega-meeple come in handy when a player anticipates a conflict over property, and wins the property over a player with just a regular meeple.

carcassonne inns and cathedralscarcassone kids box

I haven’t played all of the expansions or stand alones; the stand-alone games will be reviewed separately, but expansions will be treated along with the appropriate stand-alone. One spin-off that deserves mentioning is new from Rio Grande Games for 2009, The Kids of Carcassonne ($29.95), which is getting excellent reviews and is a less complex variation on the adult version, but still as nice and engaging.

I heartily recommend this to any person even remotely fond of games. If Monopoly, or Risk, or Pictionary, or Taboo, or Trivial Pursuit, or any of the other game night games were part of a family’s past and they have not yet discovered eurogames, Carcassonne is precisely what they need.

Buy Carcassonne on Amazon!

Feed the Kitty

feed the kitty boxFeed the Kitty (2006, Gamewright) is quick and simple, and an excellent way to involve several kids in a game without losing their interest, at least for a little while.

Feed the Kitty is a themed version of the cult favorite LCR, which means you roll the dice and win or lose tokens until every player but one is out of tokens. In the case of this game, the tokens are mice. The two dice have images of mice, a cat food bowl, or a sleeping cat. If a mouse is rolled, then a mouse moves to the player on the left. If a cat is rolled, the player gets to keep a mouse. If the food bowl is rolled, a mouse has to go into the green bowl. If a player runs out of mice, they remain in the game because they might receive a mouse prior to their next turn. Only when there is a single player left with mice does the game end.

feed the kitty components

One moment a player might have several mice while a neighbor could be down to zero, yet two turns later the tables can be turned. The very quick change of fortunes actually make the game fun and exciting. In its own way it introduces the concepts of probability and luck to kids, and in an engaging way.

I recommend this game to kids who aren’t likely to sit through longer board games. It’s fast-paced, so there is no waiting long between turns, and of course the game elements and theme are fun to handle and even pretend with.

Buy Feed The Kitty on Amazon!

Blokus 3-D, aka Rumis

blokus 3d box

Blokus 3-D (Educational Insights, 2008; aka Rumis – Educational Insights, 2003) is more than a 3-d version of regular Blokus (see review elsewhere on this site)! The goal is to be the player with the most blocks visible from above, so rather than simply building a 3-dimensional tower, a player must be mindful of what colors will be visible, and what the next player (s) might be able to do with his or her play.

There are four basic building patterns that can be used which determine the general shape of the building: the Tower, the Corner, the Steps, and the Pyramid. The number of players determine the limits of growth – for example in a two-player game the tower can only be four rows high, but in a four player game a tower can be as high as 8 rows. The single building rule in this game, short of staying within the limits of growth, is that a block face of one piece must touch the block face of another piece of the same color.

blokus 3d board

The game board is textured, as it is in Blokus, to help keep the pieces in place. It also has a lazy-susan feature so a player can inspect every angle.

Blokus 3-D is sufficiently similar to its predecessor that it would appeal to the same kinds of people. It is still relatively simple, there are very few rules – only the shapes and limits add more complexity – and it is also brightly colored and aesthetically pleasing. The goal of building in three dimensions rather than two, however, is what sets it apart from the first Blokus, and that’s what makes it a different game. There is a lot more involved in trying to get your pieces to be visible, in the end, from above within a three-dimensional space, than in claiming two-dimensional space.

I recommend this to anyone who loves Blokus, as it represents a step up. It’s another great family game for homes with young kids getting older (it’s recommended for ages 8+), but it’s fun for playing with as a toy, too! Anyone who likes puzzles, especially skill puzzles and visual puzzles, might like this game as well. Blokus 3-D would be a great game to have in a math classroom, as well.

Buy Blokus 3D at Amazon!

Blokus

blokus box

Blokus (Educational Insights, 2000) is a multiple award winner because it is fun but simple, it can be enjoyed by a wide range of players, and it has tremendous replay value. Many friends list this among their favorite family games.

Blokus consists of a plastic grid and four colors of plastic tiles that exist in a variety of tetris-like multi-unit-square shapes (see pic, below). Players take turns placing their pieces in such a way that the corner of the piece they place must touch a corner of any preexisting piece (the first piece must cover the corner square)…and that is the only rule. When a player can no longer place any pieces on the board, they are finished. Once all players are finished, they count all of the unit squares left in their hand, and lose one point for each. Players who used all their pieces get +15 points, and if they used the single one-square piece they get +5.

blokus board

There are variations, and some households introduce their own special rules, for example handicapping older children or parents by restricting the corner-touch rule. One can even play solitaire by trying to fit all the pieces onto the board.

Because it’s simple and it can accommodate adults and children and mixed-age groups, I recommend it to any group whatsoever – from children 5 and up to senior citizens. It’s especially good for people who like to dive right in without having to learn complicated instructions. The pieces are colorful and easy to manipulate, and the raised grid on the board keeps the game relatively disturbance-free.

If you have no idea what game to buy, especially for youngsters, for a birthday present, or whatever, this game is an easy choice.

Buy Blokus on Amazon!

Citadels

citadels box

Citadels (Fantasy Flight, 2007), like many other card games in the fantasy genre, takes some replay in order to understand strategy – but the investment is well worth it.

The game is played in rounds; during each round, each player takes on the role of one of nine characters (first picture, below). Different characters have very different roles, benefits, and effects. For example the Assassin simply prevents a character (not a player, but a character) of his or her choice from doing anything that round (since they have been assassinated); the player with the Bishop gets gold from “religious” districts they control and prevents the Warlord from destroying any; the Architect gets to draw two extra cards and build extra districts.

citadels character cards
There is a set of 9 "basic" characters, and another set of 9 "advanced"

Players use these characters throughout the game to amass a set of district cards (second picture below), which is their “citadel”; the player with the most valuable citadel, as determined by the total number of gold coins on all cards, is the winner at the end of the game. During each round, players will claim gold, draw more district cards into their hands, play out their character’s ability, and pay gold to build districts.

citadels building cards
4 of the 5 types of "districts," each with its own color dot

There are a few more, very important aspects that really make the game interesting:

A player has some control over the character they choose; whoever was King last turn chooses their new character first, and the remainder are chosen as the cards go around the table. Thus, each person has some idea of what their neighbors might have chosen, based on what they saw in the deck.

Each character card is numbered, and the number is the order of play each round. The Assassin goes first, so whichever character they choose to assassinate will not have a chance to play that round; The order of play has a definite impact on whether one might choose to take gold or cards (a mutually exclusive option), or to build, and, indeed, what to build.

citadels character card closeups
Whoever plays the Thief in a round will have the 2nd turn; the Warlord 8th

Certain districts actually confer a bonus to the player who has built them. The Library, for instance, allows a player to keep two cards instead of just one when they draw.

citadels building card closeups
The purple-dotted "domains" confer special advantages to their owners

There are enough rules and intricacies to make this game confusing at first, but the overall game is pretty straightforward, which becomes obvious after the first play. After about 3 plays, most people should be able to identify reasonable strategies and really enjoy the game.

citadels layout
A 6-player game, in progress

I recommend this game for any serious gamer – it is relatively affordable (or you can receive it as a gift, as I did!), it’s small enough to carry unobtrusively in a backpack or travel bag, and there is a large variety of pathways one can take to achieve victory. It is not for a typical first-time gamer, or even anyone who might simply have an interest in the theme, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to convince light-gamers to give it a chance. It isn’t fun to reluctantly try a new game that one can’t master a few rounds into it.

Buy Citadels on Amazon!

Guillotine

guillotine box

Sometimes the theme of a game seems totally arbitrary; the theme does nothing to guide, instruct, or illuminate game play. Guillotine (Wizards of the Coast, 1998), however, is not one of those games; the game play fits precisely with the theme, and does so in a humorous, fun, and slightly bawdy way.

In Guillotine, players are rival executioners in revolutionary France vying for heads. Heads vary in terms of point value, and some heads are more valuable if they are collected along with particular other heads.

There are three rounds, each representing a day of executions, in which 12 “nobles” (see pics below) are lined up for execution, beginning at a cardboard gallows. Players have a hand of “Action” cards, and are free to play one at the beginning of each turn. Action cards can do many things, such as rearrange the lineup, pull nobles out of the lineup, add nobles to it, allow the player to steal or swap a head from another basket, etc. After they have played the action card or passed, they then collect whatever noble is next in line for execution, and then draw another action card.

guillotine cards

It’s the use of action cards that make the game so much fun; since heads that have been collected are on public display, face up in front of each executioner, all players can gauge each others’ worth and play action cards with that in mind.

This is a fun and relatively quick game, and it’s small enough to travel with. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up, but if the sometime risque humor is not an issue (chances are it’s too subtle to be easily noticed), it can be played by ages 8 and over. The humor makes it a great ice breaker, where players may not know each other well, and I recommend it for light-gaming situations, or perhaps as a pastime when waiting for some bigger event.

Buy Guillotine on Amazon!

Gemlok

gemlok box

The simplicity of Gemlok (Pywacket, 2007) is what makes it so appealing. It’s as easy as rolling the dice and claiming the highest available spot…except it isn’t quite that simple.

The board, which is conveniently small, is a grid with regularly placed”gem” spots. The gems vary in color, and certain colors are worth certain points; from amethysts (2 pts) to diamonds (9 pts). The goal, simply enough, is to amass the most points by the end of the game. But to get points, a player has to move one of his or her eight men onto the gem and keep it there. And there’s the rub.

gemlok layout

Gemlok is unique in terms of piece movement and the locking-pieces feature. Movement is accomplished by rolling special dice, shown below, that show a variety of pathways. A player must move one man according to each die roll. They are allowed to land on another man unless that man is locked; if they do land on an unlocked man, they are free to move it up to four spaces away. If a player rolls a “gemlok,” they MUST then flip one of their men over (most likely the highest-scoring one) and lock its position. That man may no longer be displaced by another man. Note that, except on the first turn, if “gemlok” is rolled, the player does not have the option of passing; they must choose a man to lock, even if it is not in an optimal spot. Note also that the higher-value spaces are in the middle of the board, and the men begin the game on the perimeter.

gemlok dice

Gemlok is for 2-4 players, may be played in teams, and is advertised, appropriately, for ages 8 and up. It’s a great value for the price and has a ton of replay value. Because of its simplicity, it is a perfect game for someone who isn’t really keen on playing games. It is also great for mixed-age groups.

Buy Gemlok on Amazon!

Transamerica

transamerica box

For a while I was active on a real time board-gamer’s web site called Bretspielwelt (a great site, which I will discuss in a different post), and my favorite game to play there was Transamerica (Winning Moves, 2002). Transamerica is quick, it’s fun, and every round is loaded with anticipation.

The board is a map of the United states, separated into 5 geographically distinct zones and superimposed with a grid connecting major cities. Each round, each player draws a city card from each zone; a resulting hand might be Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix, and Seattle. The round consists of players placing short “rail” sections along the grids on the board in order to be the first to connect all five cities, but any rail that is placed may be used by the other players, so a player is constantly confronted with the decision of building a line that they will need versus waiting for another player to do it for them. By the end of each round, it is common for every player to be but one or two lines away from completion – at which point the winner of the round should run and hide until it’s safe.

transamerica layout

At the end of the round, each losing player counts up the minimum number of rails it would take to accomplish their goal, and that is the amount their score is deducted. As soon as a player reaches zero or fewer points, the game is over and the highest score wins.

This is a simple game with some surprising complexity. There is a definite tendency to blame the cards when one draws cities that are very distant from one another (try Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Houston, and Duluth), but in the end the winner is the one who can simply use the most tracks laid by other players. There is an advanced rule that allows you to lay three pieces of your own color rail down, which prevents others from using that section of track and build around it.

transamerica initial plays

I recommend this game for players 8 and up. It’s fine for two players, but the more the merrier!

Buy Trans America on Amazon!

Titan: The Arena

Titan arena box

Titan: The Arena (Avalon Hill, 1997; aka Colossal Arena, Fantasy Flight Games, 2008) is another of my all time favorites because of the uncertainty of outcome until very late in the game, the interactivity of the players, and the theme.

Titan: The Arena (not to be confused with its larger namesake, Titan) is a card game in which 8 fantasy creatures, each with specific powers, are battling in an imaginary arena. They battle for 8 rounds, and each round one creature is eliminated. Players place bets on one creature during each round, and then place numbered cards on each creature to represent relative power for that round. Once each creature has a number card, the round is over and the lowest numbered creature exits, so all the bets that had been placed on it throughout the game are nullified. By the end of the last round, there is one creature left standing. Whichever player has the most value of bets invested in that creature, wins.

titan arena play diagram

The beauty of this game is that each player has to simultaneously prop up some creatures while trying to undermine others, while betting accordingly. The chaos introduced by each creature’s special ability is especially fun; whichever player has the most bets cumulatively invested in any given creature gets “control” over that creature, and may invoke that creatures special ability. These abilities may prove critical late in the game! For example the owner of the Hydra can place two cards at once. If the he or she finds their¬† creature with a low card, they could, on one turn, put a higher number under the Hydra and a lower number on another creature. The owner of the Dragon has the ability to destroy any card in play, so what the Hydra just did the Dragon might undo. The variations are as endless as the cleverness of the players.

I would recommend this game to just about anyone who is old enough to understand the rules. It’s recommended for 8 and up, but I wouldn’t expect anyone under 10 to really understand how to deal with the contingencies.

The game play makes it essentially a very interesting card game; the theme is secondary. People with no interest in the theme should be able to ignore it and enjoy the game for what it is! Those who do like the theme will find it very easy to imagine the arena setting, manipulations of the creatures, and invocation of powers.

Note: Titan: The Arena is out of print, but has been replaced by Colossal Arena, which has new art and 4 extra creatures. This review is for the version I know, but can be safely transferred to the new one.

Buy Colossal Arena on amazon!