Scotland Yard

It takes nerves of steel to win as “Mr. X” at Scotland Yard (Ravensburger, 1983); if you take it seriously enough, you could die from over-anxiety.

One person plays “Mr. X” – a fugitive from the law. The other players (2, 3, 4, or 5 of them) play the part of five detectives trying to track him down. Mr. X must move throughout the map of London over the course of 24 turns. If Mr. X makes it to the final turn without being discovered by the detectives, he wins and they lose. But if one of the detectives manages to land on the same space as Mr. X, the game is over and Mr. X has lost.

A key element in Scotland Yard is the choice between modes of transportation. Detectives and Mr. X are allowed to use a taxi to move from a yellow hub to another yellow hub along a yellow line (for example, space 125-131 in pic below), a bus to move from a green hub to another green hub along a green line (154-156), or the underground to move from a red hub to another red hub along a red line (153-140). A player may not use a mode of transportation if they are simply on a line – they must be at the appropriate hub. A player on space 167, below, is on a bus line and an underground line, but not on a hub. Their only choice is to take a taxi.

Both Mr. X and the detectives, taking turns, move around on the map of London. But the moves of Mr. X are hidden, so detectives only get to see the mode of transportation taken by Mr. X. On the third turn and then at the end of every 5 turns, the location of Mr. X is revealed and the detectives can adjust their strategy accordingly. The player taking on the role of Mr. X records board locations (each with a unique number) on a special “Mr. X Movement Log” (see pic below). This log allows the detectives to see what mode of transportation was taken by Mr. X, and the spaces 3, 8, 13, 18, and 23 are marked to remind Mr. X to reveal his location after moving there.

To add a further wrinkle – and a much greater challenge – detectives have only 24 transportation “tickets” to start the game, and once used they can’t be replaced. There are only four underground tickets, Eight bus tickets, and twelve taxi tickets. This becomes important, especially late in the game, because if Mr. X manages to make it across the map and a detective is low on underground tickets, he or she would be a lot slower making it to the appropriate neighborhood.

Finally, Mr. X begins the game with only a few bus and underground tickets, but gains every ticket used by the detectives – making his options basically limitless. In addition, Mr. X has three extra tricks at his disposal. He has four black tickets, which serve as wild cards and are essentially modes of transportation unknown by the detectives. The black tickets also allow passage on the Thames River barge (for example, from space 157 on the first map, above). The third trick is his ability, twice during the game, to use the 2x ticket, which allows two consecutive moves.

This is a great collaborative game, for the detectives, and a very stressful game for Mr. X! More than a few times during most games, Mr. X will find himself right next to a detective. One lucky move (intentional or otherwise) and the game is over. From the collective perspective of the detective (couldn’t resist the rhyme, sorry!), there is a premium on deductive logic. In the beginning no one has any idea where Mr. X could be, so detectives have to fan out and be ready to be anywhere after the third turn, when Mr. X is revealed. After that, there is some idea where Mr. X is, as long as the detectives are effective at limiting X’s moves by protecting underground and bus hubs and preventing a long range move on the part of X. Even so, Mr. X has a wide array of possibilities, including a wild goose chase by taxi around some of the more complicated neighborhoods.

Scotland Yard is a tried-and-true game for people who like intellectual stimulation and a little drama. Veterans should be Mr. X! It’s a great game for bright children (10 and up), teens, and adults – and I have listed it as one of my top 10 family games.

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Spy Alley

If your kids (8 and older) are starting to act like they’re pretty clever, then Spy Alley (Spy Alley Partners, 1992) is an excellent way to challenge them, to see if they can outwit you. It is a simple game, but for such a simple game it is remarkably well-balanced, and it is just as complicated as the players themselves make it.

In Spy Alley, each player secretly takes on the identity of one of six spies: American, English, French, German, Russian, or Italian. The goal of the game is very simply to be the first to acquire the four items that each spy needs (password, disguise, codebook,  and key), make it back to their own embassy on the board, and reveal their identity. It is almost as easy as it sounds, but here’s the rub: if another player can accurately identify your nationality, then you are out of the game. Here’s a further rub, one which really complicates things: a player who misidentifies another player is out of the game.

The really unique part of Spy Alley is the pegboard that serves to collect each “item” (see below). As players circle the board, they have the opportunity to purchase different items, which are represented by black pegs inserted into corresponding holes in the appropriate spy column. To win, a player must have each item under his or her own nationality represented with black pegs. But if other players guess at the identity correctly, that player is eliminated. Therefore, bluffing is an a critical part of the game’s strategy. It is accomplished by purchasing objects and placing their pegs in the columns of different spies, leaving the other players to guess at one’s actual identity.

Players take turns rolling the dice, or else playing a “move” card, in order to circle the board and accumulate money and spy items. Once they have collected all of their items, they are free to move through “Spy Alley” and try to land on their embassy in order to reveal themselves and thus win the game. There are spots on the board where players win money, or free items, or “move” cards, and one where players may guess at another player’s identity without the risk of being eliminated. Play moves fast, and something could happen on every turn, so there isn’t a lot of waiting around in Spy Alley.

The best part of the game is obviously the bluffing, and it’s remarkable how much that levels the playing field between kids and parents, or older and younger kids. Games do not last too long, and those that do are fun enough to watch because of their excitement. I can only remember one game where a player actually bought items for only his spy, and then proceeded directly to the embassy to win. The rest of us were sure he was bluffing, and by the time we decided to put an end to it, it was too late. he made it to his embassy and the game was over.

I definitely recommend this game to anyone with kids 7 or over. The best thing about it is how it automatically scales itself to the audience, and everyone has a reasonably good chance to win. Adults don’t have to dumb down too much to allow the kids to compete – and that’s worth a lot on family game night.

221B Baker Street

I waited far too long to play 221B Baker Street (John N. Hansen Co, 1975). It has been considered a classic since I first heard of it in the 1980’s, but I never had the opportunity to play until this past weekend (November 2009), 34 years after its first publication. And I call myself a “game lover.” For shame!

The game itself is, predictably, based on actual Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Players read a mystery and are given several aspects of the crime to solve. To solve the mystery, however, players must move their pawns from 221B Baker Street on the corner of the London-based map board to various locations throughout the board, in order to collect clues.

The clues are cleverly indexed on the backs of the mystery cards, and the indexes refer to corresponding numbers in the rules book. For example, if I move my pawn into, say, The Boar’s Head Inn on the board, I would look at the back of the card and find the number listed next to “The Boar’s Head Inn.” I would then look up that number in the rules book, and that is where the clue itself is listed. (see examples below) The clues that are given vary in difficulty, and typically give only one part of one of the answers sought. Sometimes the clue given is “No clue at this location,” in which case no information is gained.

 

It is possible to solve the mystery before all clues are found – in fact with a group of adults it is likely that the mystery will be solved before all clues are found. That’s because the clues provide parts of the answers, and given enough parts it is often easy to infer the others. Once a final clue is given, the ultimate answer is only slightly hidden through rhyming or wordplay. Since there are usually three parts to the mystery (in above example, who committed the crime, how it was committed, and why) it takes at least a little while to gather enough clues to even make a guess.

This game has a scavenger-hunt type of feel to it that makes it fun, but it is essentially a race around the board to find enough clues to get something close to the final answer in order to guess it correctly. The rules encourage players, however, to look in places that would makes sense, including the area of the crime scene, potential neighbors, etc. Doing that did not make a big difference in the game I played, though, so it’s an open question whether that makes sense as a strategy over time. There is some strategy (based on efficiently covering the board) in determining one’s path, but the roll of the die determines how far one moves, so the effects of both are largely washed out.

I recommend 221B Baker Street to younger gamers who might be more challenged by what proved to be relatively simple final clues. A very bright youngster of 8 or more, and more typically teens and young adults should find this game a lot of fun. Any person who is a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories definitely deserves to have this game!

Note: This game is currently out of print, but is available used through online sources.

Acquire

If you had wanted me, as a teenager, to play a board game about corporate real-estate speculation, I would have laughed out loud and said no, thanks. But, somehow, someone managed to get me to play Acquire (Avalon Hill, 1962). I wish I could remember how – it was probably my brother, pulling it out of the closet on a rainy day.

Acquire has had such staying power because it embodies everything fun, and nothing boring or dry, about corporate real estate. How does it do that, you say? By keeping it simple. It consists of a regular grid running from columns A-I and rows 1-12 (for a total of 108 squares). Players take turns placing grid tiles onto corresponding spaces. When these tiles are placed adjacently, one of seven corporations is formed. Once a corporation exists, players can buy stock in the companies in the hope that more tiles will be added, increasing the worth of the corporation’s stocks.

That’s Acquire in a nutshell. The key piece is the info card (below), which shows the price of one stock certificate for a corporation of a given size, and the final payout for stock owned once the corporation expires. Each player uses this payoff chart to determine what to buy, and when, and how much. Beyond buying stock and eventually selling it, each players helps control the board by placing a single, randomly-drawn tile. Thus each player has an idea of what corporations might grow, depending on which four tiles they have drawn, and in which order they are played.

Consider the two players below, relative to the game board shown. The player on the left has a tile (8C) that will allow him or her to grow Hydra, plus other nearby tiles. As the majority holder (the one with the most stock – 4 cards in this example) there is reason to be optimistic about Hydra’s growth. Player 1 has also purchased one piece of stock in Quantum; when two corporations meet, the smaller one goes away, and the stock is sold off according to the payoff chart, to the majority and minority holders. Player 1 would be smart to buy some Quantum stock, because either Hydra or Quantum are likely to take over the other sooner or later in the game. Player 2 actually has similar options, so in this game we would expect players 1 and 2 to get into tile-positioning and stock buying wars, each trying to grow the corporations they are better represented in, while buying more of the other stock to ensure a good position if they can’t manage to get the right tiles.

The game continues much the same way, and with several players each playing for their own territories, each tile played may have an impact on any number of other players. There are 25 stock certificates for each corporation, so players find themselves paying close attention to what and how many stocks other players are buying. If a player has the most stock certificates, even by one, the payoff difference is huge. If a player is third in line, there is no payoff – their stock is worthless, and represents a lost investment.

One very important detail regarding corporation size, is that more than 11 tiles constitutes a “safe” corporation. Until then, a corporation that is linked to a larger one dissolves, and the majority and minority holders get their payoff. Once the corporation size reaches 11, they cannot be linked, and the tiles that would have linked two such corporations are no longer playable, and are discarded. By the end of the game, the board consists of, usually, several safe corporations interspersed with dead spaces. The majority and minority holders of the remaining safe corporations at the end of the game are paid off at that point. The winner is simply the player with the most money!

As I said, the theme is in no way appealing to me, but this is one of my tried and true greatest games. I don’t break it out all the time – there is still a good crowd for it – but it has yet to disappoint. There is a reason that Hasbro, once they picked up Avalon Hill about 10 years ago, decided to move forward with Acquire as one of the few Avalon Hill games. It’s a relatively under-appreciated classic, but any strategy game fan would love it.

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Loaded Questions

loaded questions box

If you ever need an icebreaker for a party or a class or any other occasion, the cards in Loaded Questions (All Things Equal, Inc, 1997) are – pardon the pun – loaded with them. This game has been played and replayed among many groups of friends since its release in 1997, and a new “adult” version came out just two years ago.

The game itself is pretty straightforward, easy to learn, and engages every player during every turn. It consists of a Board with a scoring track, pawns, a die, a deck of Loaded Questions cards, answer sheets, and pencils. Players take turns as rollers who roll, move, then read a matching color question on the next card. All other players then write down truthful answers to the loaded question on their answer sheet. The previous roller gathers the sheets together, shuffles them, and reads the submitted answers aloud. The roller has to try to match the answers to each player!

loaded questions layout

“Is that it?” you say? How is that so fun? It’s fun because of the questions. It’s hard to draw a line between what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate, and the questions on these cards can really push the envelope or even occasionally stray over the line, but generally speaking they are simply great questions. The second card below, for example, asks to name one celebrity that doesn’t deserve to be a celebrity. That’s the sort of question people are making lists about on facebook and myspace, and arguing about and opining about around the water cooler or at the bar with friends. In Loaded Questions, you get to hear what your friends would say, and then try to figure out which friend said what.

loaded questions cards

Points are awarded based on the number identified correctly, but it’s not uncommon to lose track of where one is on the board because so much conversation, argumentation, and controversy is generated that the questions, and their answers, really take center stage.

I strongly recommend Loaded Questions to any group of fun-loving adults (or young adults – 16 and older) who are prepared to engage each other on controversial subjects, discover (perhaps) surprising things about each other, and laugh about them. The cards themselves are fun to read out loud in a group just to introduce a debate topic.

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101 Dalmations – Spoons Card Game

 

Spoons Card Game: 101 Dalmations (Friendly Games, 2008) is a licensed version of a classic card game, Spoons, of which there are many variants. The key aspects of all spoons games are fast-paced card drawing and discarding, collecting certain sets of cards, and, when one player has made his or her goal, the mad-dash grab for spoons laid out in the middle of the table, which will leave one player without a spoon and eliminated from the game.

This 101 Dalmations version has one of the simplest rule sets there can be. It consists of a standard card deck, 13 cards in each of 4 colors. There are no face cards – they are printed with different images of various dalmations from Disney’s 101 Dalmations, and simply numbered 1 – 13. In the place of spoons the game comes with five 12 cm-long acrylic dog bones, labeled with the name of the game.

dalmations spoon game layout

Each deal consists of 4 cards, and the dealer begins each round by drawing a card, then passing one card face down to his or her right. The next player picks up that card, and passes another to the right, and so on around the table. The final player will discard to a separate discard pile, and the process repeats. As soon as a player has gotten 4-of-a-kind (the same number, not color), he or she lays down their cards and grabs a bone. The rest of the players should also reach for a spoon as soon as possible. Since there should always be one bone less than the number of players, one player will always be left without a bone. That player is eliminated, and a new hand is dealt until after the final round, when there is one player left standing – the winner!

This game is very simple, and because of its theme it appeals to small kids and fans 101 Dalmations fans. It is recommended by the manufacturer for 6 and up, but any child able to read numbers can play because the rules are so straightforward. There is some strategy involved, so older kids will do better. For example, watching the discard pile is a good way to guess at what might still be coming; younger kids won’t understand this, but it is worth teaching (never too early to learn inferential logic!).

I recommend this game to any lover (or collector) of 101 Dalmations who also likes card games, but only if they’re prepared to play with children. It could be made more challenging for older kids and adults by adding variations from other spoons games; unfortunately the rules don’t come with any suggestions for doing so.

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Dominion

dominion box

If you know someone who is a die-hard board game fan, ask them about Dominion (2008, Rio Grande Games). There is a good chance they’ll have it, and a great chance that if they don’t have it, they will want it. But don’t think that it is only for the hardcore gamer; once you’ve played you are likely to understand how much fun it is, and thirst for more.

Dominion is probably the hottest property on the American game market as I write this – it (along with its expansions, “Intrigue” and “Seaside”) has garnered one of the highest ratings on boardgamegeek.com, and there isn’t a board game fan that I know who doesn’t love it. It has made a huge splash since its release in 2008, and quickly earned some of the most coveted games awards out there (Spiel des Jahres, Origins, Mensa Select).

Despite its apparent novelty and the huge success Dominion is enjoying, it is not too far removed from another game that was revolutionary at the time: Magic, The Gathering. It’s similar in the sense that players build decks of cards that have different sorts of abilities, which then work together to achieve the final goal. It’s different in that players are largely not affecting one another, at least not directly, and the game itself is self-contained in its own box. Another very important difference is that in dominion, all players choose from the same pool of cards to build their decks, not a personal stockpile as in Magic. One very nice feature is the card storage system in the box – each card type has a clearly labeled slot, making it easy to browse and choose card types.

dominion inside box

Players start with a small deck of cards, some representing income, and some representing victory points (see pic below) – the ultimate goal of the game is to obtain the most victory points via these cards. Players use the income cards (which vary in amount) to purchase “dominion” cards, and this is where the fun starts. There are nearly 30 types of dominion cards, each with multiple copies, but only 10 of these types are used in each game. Thus, consecutive games can be slightly different from one another, if just one or two card types are changed, or they can be very different from one another if many more card types are changed.

dominion gold vp cards

Players begin each turn with a hand of 5 cards drawn from their original 10. Each turn consists of three phases: Action, buying, and cleanup. On any turn a player can use one action, and then make one purchase – UNLESS they are able to play cards that modify the number of actions and/or purchases. Playing cards in way that maximizes one’s advantage is the key mechanic in the game. Dominion cards come in many variations, and may allow a player to pick up more cards, play more action cards, convert cards into other cards, or increase buying power.

dominion village card

dominion spy card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the buying phase, Income cards may be used to purchase other cards (card costs are on the lower left of each card); purchases may include more income, victory points, and other dominion cards from the common supply. The final phase of a turn is cleanup, in which a player discards all of the played cards as well as the cards remaining in his or her hand, and then draws the next five in their personal deck. All of the “discarded” cards are actually recycled, so cards are usually never lost (there is a “trash” card for those that are).

Game play is straightforward in the sense that all a player has to do is what is written on the cards, but it’s complicated by the range of options. A player’s strategy is truly dependent on his or her opponents and the choice of ten card types to choose from.

The game is over when either the highest value victory point cards (The Provinces) have all been claimed, or else when the limited supply of 3 separate dominion card types have been exhausted. The player at that point with the most victory points is the winner.

So many game players are so excited about this game and its expansions, and many include the excitement of their non-boardgaming friends and family members, that it is worth at least some investigation. If you aren’t sure, then find out who is playing it (someone you know, of course), and try it on for size. After playing with a set of 10 card types, you’ll find yourself curious about 10 other card types…and so on, and so on, and so on…

I recommend Dominion to any game lover; it is easy to learn, but not easy to pick up and play out of the box without a lot of patience. But game lovers can and will introduce it to others. The rules are easy, but the possibilities are endless.

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