Poison

poison box

Poison (Playroom Entertainment, 2005) is a creation of Reiner Knizia – whose name is prominently displayed on the box cover. If you aren’t a gamer, then you should know that Reiner is one of the most highly regarded game creators of the past 20 years, and has created hundreds of games.

I played Poison when it first came out in 2005, and it immediately went on my list, although by the time I tried to buy it, it wasn’t easy to find. It’s a great family game that takes about 5 minutes to learn and one (quick) round to really understand.

The concept is simple enough, and it seems like it should be easy to duplicate with a regular deck of cards – but that is not the case. The game consists of three cardboard “cauldrons” (see below), and a deck of cards of four different colors. Red, Blue, and Purple cards are regular point cards, but green cards are poison! The regular cards have various values (1, 2, 4, 6, 7 only; this is important), but poison cards are always worth 4.

poison layout

On a turn, players place a card in one of the three cauldrons. Once a cauldron has a color, no other color may be added, and no other cauldron may include that color; hence there is an element 0f following suit. If by adding a card a player goes over 13 points in any cauldron, they must leave the card they played and take the rest of the stack. That’s usually a bad thing, unless that player has a chance of having the most cards of that suit, in which case that’s a good thing. Once all the cards have been played, the round is over and scores are tallied.

The players who had the majority of cards in any color are immune to the effects of that color. All other players with cards of that color must take one point for each other card. The poison (green) cards are worth two instead of one, and no immunity is possible from poison.

Such a simple game, but true to its theme, attractive, and fun! I recommend it to any family or group that includes mixed ages. Kids older than 8 should be able to grasp it and have fun playing, but groups of adults can have fun playing it too.

Buy Reiner Knizia’s Poison from Amazon!

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Hive

hive box

Hive (Gen Four Two Games, 2005) is a simple two-player strategy game that takes less than a minute to learn, about 15 minutes to play, and a very long time to master.

The game is composed entirely of 11 black and 11 white hexagonal tiles, and can be played anywhere because only a flat surface is required. Various creatures are depicted on the tiles: The Queen Bee (qty 1), Spiders (qty 2), Beetles (qty 2), Grasshoppers (qty 3), and Soldier Ants (qty 3). Each creature has a specific movement ability, and the goal of the game is to enclose the opponent’s Queen Bee completely, thus preventing her from moving.

Players take turns placing the tiles onto the table. The first two tiles must be in contact along an edge, but from then on any new tiles introduced into the game must be placed so they touch only a tile of the same color, also edge to edge. On a turn, a player may introduce a new creature to the game, or else move an existing creature…and here is where it gets interesting.

Since each creature gets a different move, initial placement (when they are introduced) is critical. The Queen Bee can move one space at a time, in any direction.The Soldier Ant can move any number of spaces along the outside perimeter of the existing hive. The Spider must move exactly 3 spaces without backtracking. The Beetle may only move one space per turn but it is also able to crawl on top of the hive, blocking whatever it is sitting on. The Grasshopper jumps over pieces in a straight line, from one end of a row or column to the next available space.

hive layout

There are two important rules beyond movements. The first is that all tiles must remain part of one contiguous hive, so a tile that creates a bridge from one tile to another cannot be moved (The “One Hive Rule”). The second regards “Freedom of Movement.” A tile may only move if there is room for the entire hexagon to exit the space; a tile that is surrounded by 5 other tiles may not move through the opening, since it can’t fit without disrupting the hive.

The simple rules and open-ended hive configuration make this an excellent game, but there is real value-added in a few ways. The pieces in this edition are composed of heavy bakelite, so they are substantial and feel good when you play. This edition also comes with a travel tote, so it’s even easier to carry than the small box you buy it in (see pic).

hive travel bag

The best games are simple, but have an elegant and endless array of possible outcomes. That is the case with Hive. People who like 2-player games ought to love it. The bug theme makes it appealing for youngsters (8 and up), and the size and appearance of the pieces make it great for seniors. The aesthetic value is very high, even high enough to have it out on the coffee table. It is portable and packable. But the game play itself is really what’s best about it, and that’s why I’m recommending this game to just about anybody.

Buy Hive 3rd Edition on Amazon!

Settlers of Catan

settlers box

The European invasion’s “shot heard ’round the world” – or at least the shot heard ‘cross the Atlantic – was in 1995, with the publication of Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games, 1995). Strategy games in the US had been restricted to kid-friendly games, usually based on a licensed property, and games that only hardcore gamers knew about by companies like Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast. Most households owned a single strategy game – Risk. American game closets were filled with party games like Pictionary, Taboo, and Scattergories, and the big box stores had only Trivial Pursuit to satisfy consumers with more intellectual tastes.

But with Settlers of Catan, the game industry changed – and it is still changing. Companies like Mayfair Games, Rio Grande, and Ravensburger started importing adult games that were intellectually demanding, more complex, and of a higher production quality. Within a few years, entire families were hooked on Settlers of Catan, and asking for more. Since then, Settlers has spawned an entire family of games – 35 expansions and spin-offs (17 of them english only).

The not-so-secret success of “Settlers” is the tile layout that can change with every play of the game (see pic below).

settlers layout

There is a basic setup for beginning players that assures different tiles and numbered discs will be equally distributed; once players understand the game mechanics they are free to follow other suggested setups, or implement their own.

The goal of the game is to claim real estate (or the equivalent of real estate in the form of cards), which is accomplished by building, which is accomplished by harvesting resources, which is what the different tile represent. Players initially place two small “cities” on any 3-part hub on the board, and build out from there. A player rolls the two dice on his or her turn, and the correspondingly numbered tile “produces” for that turn. There are six tile types, one of which is a solitary desert tile, and the other five, which each produce a resource, also in the form of a card, as follows (as pictured below): Meadows produce wool, Mountains produce ore, Fields produce wheat, Hills produce brick, and Forests produce wood. A player gains that resource if they have a building on any hub of that particular tile.

settlers resource cards

After collecting resources players may trade with the player whose turn it is, or the turn-taker may trade in 4 of any one resource for 1 other, or if they have a city on one of the ports they may take advantage of that port’s trade ratio.

After trading, a player may build a structure or buy a “development card.” The building cost card dictates the price for various items. For example, it takes one brick, one wood, one wheat, and one wool to build a settlement. There are a few simple rules regarding the placement of settlements, cities, and roads. Development cards are purchased sight unseen, and can be cashed in at the end of the game for victory points (see below: examples are the University of Catan, Market, etc.), or used to modify game play (for example, Road Building allows a player to place extra roads for free). Soldier cards are accumulated in the hope of having the “Largest Army” at the end of the game, which is also good for 2 victory points.

settlers cost card

settlers cards

The winner of the game is the first player to reveal, on their turn, that they have 10 victory points.

Some other elements make the game even more interesting. One further way to gain 2 victory points is to have the longest road by game’s end. The “Robber” piece, represented by a black pawn that initially occupies the desert (which does not receive a number throughout the game) moves to the tile of a player’s choice when that player rolls a 7 on the dice. Note that there is not a number 7 disc, so on a 7 there is no production. The player who moves the robber can choose a resource card from any player with property on the robber’s new location. During trading, any player may initiate a trade as long as the trade involves the person whose turn it is, and talk is open. If it’s obvious to one player that another player will overly benefit from a trade, it’s fair for them to point it out to the would be tradee. This introduces a very social and interactive element to the game that enhances the “fun” element.

Settlers of Catan expansions include 5 and 6 players, and can also involve city defense and further trade (Cities and Knights of Catan), seagoing exploration and trade (Seafarers of Catan), and more. There are numerous other spinoffs as well, the most popular being Starfarers of Catan.

What this game brought back in 1995 is exactly what was needed, and what is still relevant today: a board game that involves people on social and intellectual levels. After playing once or twice to learn the game, you’ll have a decent enough grasp to play with different strategies – but just like any really good game, there is no best strategy until you know your opponent. This game changes along with the people who play it, but it’s always fun and rewarding.

Buy Settlers of Catan for yourself or any body like you if you want to immerse yourself in a game experience. But prepare to make room for it in your schedule every so often, because if you don’t, you’ll miss it.

Buy The Settlers of Catan on Amazon!

Faces

faces box

Faces (Buffalo Games, 2005) is just plain fun. Maybe not raucous, side splitting, talk about it for days fun, but it would be hard to make it through a game like this without quite a bit of laughter and conversation. And it would not be a surprise at all if you ended up talking about it for days, or finding yourself labeling the faces you might meet.

There are two main components in Faces: the 194 “faces cards” themselves, which are various single faces of humans or animals with exaggerated features or unique expressions, and the 176 “impressions cards,” which detail a conclusion one might reach after seeing a particular face (i.e., an “impression”). Among the impression cards are such items as “The big eater”, “The neat freak”, “The one with too many cats”, and “The one who’s all talk and no action.” Shown below is a hand featuring the impression “The one holding a grudge.”

faces layout

There are two ways these cards are played, along with a “line-up card” with six slots for six different face cards, eight pawns for eight players along with color-matched voting cards numbered 1-6 for each player, and a scoring track. The two rounds are the “Line-up Round,” and the “Card-in-Hand Round.”

In the Line-up Round, six faces are laid out face-up on the line-up card. Four turns are done with male faces, four with female faces, and four with animal faces. A player, on his or her turn, flips over the top impression card, and players try to decide what face they think will be chosen to match the impression by the player whose turn it is. The turn-taker gets points if they are matched, and a player who matches the turn-taker gets points too.

In the Card-in-Hand Round, each player gets two male, two female, and three animal faces, and players take turns being the judge. The judge turns over an impressions card and reads it, and the other players choose what they think is the best card in their hand for that impression. The judge then chooses the best match, and the submitting player get points. Each player gets to be judge just once. An example of the Card-in-Hand round is below:

faces player choice

Points are tallied on the circular faces board, and the first to the finish is the winner.

faces scoretrack

This is a great game for a random get together – extended family, friends from work, whatever. Everyone can easily relate to making certain assumptions about what other people are based on what they look like, and everybody is in on the joke so there is no one left out.

I recommend this for any person who is part of a family or a network of friends and acquaintances who get together with any frequency. It’s better than a typical card game, but nowhere near a hard core strategy game. It will bring out the best of the extroverts and class clowns in the group, but still allow the quiet ones to participate and enjoy themselves!

Buy Faces on Amazon!

Magic: The Gathering

Magic the gathering card back

In 1993, Wizards of the Coast published the very first Collectible Card Game (CCG), Magic: The Gathering. The CCG genre became a huge success, and has since then spawned a few of the most economically successful games on the market with Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!

In terms of game play, the CCG was entirely unique – even revolutionary. Instead of a game being self-contained in a box, the CCG allows players to acquire individual elements in smaller quantities, via “booster packs,” until they have a stockpile. Players then choose cards from their stockpile to create a “deck” (or “library”); it’s the deck that is used in a match, which itself is the equivalent of a single game. Other cards owned by the player are not in the game, and cannot be brought into it. Thus, participating in Magic: The Gathering (MTG) is  a little like owning a sports franchise in the sense that a player is able to draw from their “roster” (stockpile) to put together a desirable “lineup” (their deck) for any particular match.

CCG’s use a basic rule structure and a large assortment of cards which each have characteristics that contradict or supplement the basic rules. Each player predetermines their own strategy by creating a particular deck. The rules define parameters, such as how many cards may be used, how many copies of a given card are allowed, order of play, etc. Matches are typically two-player face-offs, in which each player begins with a number of “life units” and the goal is to take those units away from the opponent before they do the same to you.

In MTG, players essentially play the role of powerful sorcerers, each trying to destroy the other. As sorcerers, they call upon different land types for magical energy (“mana”) which allows them to cast different spells. The five land types are associated with five colors: swamp – black; water – blue; plains – white; mountains – red; forest – green (see pics below). Each non-land  card (with some important exceptions) is also one of these colors or a mix of them, and exhibits effects aligned with the land-type from which it came. Mountains, for example, are associated with strength and fire, so there are many giants and fire spells that are red.

Magic the gathering mountainMagic the gathering earthquake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The spells are many and varied, but there are a few major categories, and any given spell has a “casting cost,” which is how much mana it takes to use that spell. Creatures may be summoned, which are then used to do battle with the opposing player or opposing creatures; every creature has an attack/defense rating, and the comparisons of attack/defense ratings, plus modifiers, determines the outcome of creature vs creature battles. An enchantment might be cast on a player, on a creature, or on a special item, such as an artifact, which itself must be summoned. The enchantment might add or detract from the attack/defense rating, or it might totally incapacitate a certain kind of opposing card. An Instant spell is one that has an immediate effect, such as sorcery, which modifies other cards or processes already in play.

Magic the gathering black knightMagic the gathering carnivorous plant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Players begin with a hand of seven cards, draw one from their library (the deck they had prepared and then shuffled), and are free to play whatever they can. A player must lay down land cards in order to use any spells, and once land cards are down players can execute whatever strategy they prepared for when choosing the construction of their deck. As creatures are summoned and the various spells are cast, players lose life points (each begins the game with 20); When a player has reached zero life points, they lose  the match.

Magic the gathering plains

Magic the gathering island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MTG is a fascinating game, especially if you have a true appreciation for layered strategies and contingency planning in games. There are so many different cards in existence that rarely do two different people ever have even similar self-created decks. What makes it more interesting, and what has arguably made Wizards of the Coast a relative overnight success, is that booster packs of new MTG cards contain a fixed number of cards, and usually include one “rare” card, some “uncommon” cards, and many “common” cards. Rare cards are generally more powerful or efficient than uncommons or commons. This fact has resulted in a massive secondary market for collectors and certain other MTG enthusiasts, not dissimilar to the lucrative collectible baseball card market.

This game, while its basic mechanic is remarkable and interesting, is not for everyone. The fantasy theme can be overwhelming, to the extent that die-hard, committed gamers who do not like fantasy will not play it despite their knowledge that game play is so interesting. It is also a game that is not fun when investment has been small;  one problem of the CCG concept is that the person who has spent the most money on cards wins, due simply to their larger stockpile. One can’t “dabble” in MTG and expect to win any games without an equally unadvanced partner.

I do recommend the game to teens and older who show an interest in strategy games, an interest in fantasy or (because of the often incredible card art) graphic novels, or those who have played similar games in the past. Pokemon and Yu-gi-Oh! players would take a very natural next step up to MTG because the game play is similar, but there are so very many ways to build a deck and execute it during play that it would not be good for the younger players.

Buy MTG Portal Starter Deck (for 2 players) on Amazon!