Wits & Wagers

So…you have about 20 people over and it’s kind of boring, no one’s really talking about anything interesting and people aren’t too familiar with one another. What do you do? You break out Wits & Wagers (North Star Games, 2005), that’s what!

Billed (accurately) as “The trivia game for people who don’t know stuff,” Wits & Wagers is a trivia game in the sense that you have to answer questions – but rewards don’t come from knowing the answers, they come from placing bets on the players who do know the right answers.

Now in its second edition, the game includes a 28-inch-long felt betting mat, poker chips, trivia cards, player betting markers (2 each in 7 different colors),7 dry-erase pens and mini-boards, and a sand timer. Up to 21 people can play, forming as many as seven teams (individuals may play alone as well).

The goal of the game is to finish with the most points after seven rounds. On each round, a “question reader” reads the appropriate question on the card – the first question for the first round, and so on – and each player or team comes up with their best guess at the answer. The questions always have a numerical answer, typically one that very few people will know outright (see below). Teams have 30 seconds to record their answers, after which the answers are revealed and placed in order of magnitude (lowest to highest) on the large betting mat.

Players then have 30 seconds to place up to two bets on any of the answers, hoping to win one of 4 payoffs (2:1, 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1). Players may also bid on an eighth space, for a 6:1 payoff, labelled: “The correct answer is smaller than all given answers.” Players then identify their bids by placing their colored betting markers on their bets, and then the answer is revealed. The answer that comes closest to correct without going over is considered correct, and all players who bet on this answer receive the corresponding payoff. The player whose answer was chosen also gets 10 bonus points. If all answers went over, there is no bonus given, and only players who bet all answers were too high wins a payoff.

When I first played Wits & Wagers, we had a group of over 20 people (at a board-gaming event), and more were attracted by the laughing and fun. Since then it has not failed to please.

I recommend Wits & Wagers for any family or group that is likely to get larger than, say, 8 people. The more the merrier with this game, but it is still plenty of fun for 6 or more. It is intellectually stimulating, but, as advertised, one need not know anything about trivia to enjoy or even win the game. It is sufficient to know the right people to bet on from turn to turn.

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Facts in Five

The game “Scattergories” hit the shelves in 1988, and quickly became one of the most popular family and party games in America. I liked it, but having already been a fan of Facts in Five (3M, 1967; Avalon Hill, 1976; University Games, 2008), I knew there was a superior version of the same game. In fact, Facts in Five is on my top ten list for all time. I owned the Avalon Hill product, but it was first published by 3M in 1967 (example above), and is now available through University Games (see below).

The concept is simple enough. Draw five letter tiles and record those letters in the left-hand column of the answer sheet; draw 5 categories and record them along the top row of the answer sheet. Turn the 5-minute sand timer over and fill in as many examples within each category, starting with each of the drawn letters, as you can. Scattergories is laid out differently – especially since you are focusing on examples from many categories for just a single letter – but it is still basically the same concept. In fact, they both derive from a classic parlor game that as far as I can tell was never boxed. But why, then do I consider Facts in Five to be better than Scattergories? Because of the categories.

Categories in the Scattergories game are everyday things that just about anyone should know, such as “Things in the refrigerator” or “Boy’s names.” Facts in Five, on the other hand, has far more detailed categories, with many options for narrowing a category. In the example below, a player must choose a category and can choose as broadly as “Military Figures” or as narrowly as “Military Figures during World War II.” This feature allows the players to specify the level of knowledge required for their own game, and stimulates thinking about and memory of actual knowledge. Facts in Five is far more intellectually challenging, and therefore more intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

The newest University Games version of the game has been changed to make the categories more accessible, but still are far more interesting than the more mundane categories of Scattergories (see below). The general knowledge required to play is on par with other intellectual pastimes such as Crossword Puzzles, or Trivia.

Another important and very interesting aspect of Facts in Five is the scoring system. Correct answers are indicated on the answer sheet, and final tallies are made in the scoring table on the right – except they are collapsed upwards. That is, if in the first category a player correctly listed three things, then the player would get three tallies in the corresponding column of the scoring table, and regardless of which of the five in the first column were correct, the three tallies are placed in the top three sections of the first column of the scoring table, and then so on for each column. When each column is totaled, that number is squared and placed in the box. The same is done across each row – correct answers are tallied, but regardless of where the answers existed on the regular grid, since they collapse upward the first rows will get higher scores. Once all squared numbers are entered, they are summed up for a final score for that round.

This kind of scoring yields slight differences between itself and simple counting of answers. For example, high numbers in the columns indicate a strong specific knowledge of a given category. High numbers in the rows indicate general knowledge. Overall, however, the effect of general versus specific knowledge are made moot once the answers are added back together for a final score for that round.

Scores, once they are obtained, are moved to another scoresheet (below). It also has a space for specific and general scores, but they are not crucial to the game. After five rounds of play, final scores are tallied and listed here.

It may have been the time in my life where I was just discovering how much I loved trivia, coupled with my great memories of my two brothers and I naming things from different categories as we went through the alphabet. Whatever it was, however, I have loved this game ever since I was little.

I therefore recommend Facts in Five to any person or group who you know to be more intellectually driven – again, someone who would feel comfortable working the crossword puzzle. I find it an exhilarating exercise for the brain, and I think that most who play would feel the same about it.

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Fast action, involving a wooden plunger-tipped “spear,” makes Ooga! (SimplyFun, 2008; aka Dino Booom, 2004) a unique game that appeals to the entire family.

Ooga! consists of “spears,” square “dino” tiles, rectangular “menu” tiles, and four “bone” tiles. Players use the spears to “capture” dino tiles, in an effort to accumulate the dinosaurs depicted on the menu tile. The catch is that the players must compete in rounds, and each round the slowest “dino hunter” must go without a tile.

The dino tiles are laid out, face up, in the center of the table, and a menu tile is turned over. The goal of the game is to acquire more of the menu tiles than any other player. Menu tiles are acquired when a player has successfully hunted each of the colored dinosaurs depicted on that menu card and yelled “Ooga!” before any other player.

But dinosaur tiles can only be hunted one at a time, and according to the “roll” (actually, it’s a “drop”) of the bone tiles. Three of the four bone tiles depict habitats (plains, forests, mountains), so only dinosaur tiles with those backgrounds may be hunted during that round. The fourth bone tile depicts coconuts and fruit, allowing a hunter to choose the corresponding “coconut” dino tile, which is a wild card (representing any color and type of dinosaur on the menu tile).

At the beginning of each round the bone tiles are dropped, revealing the range of habitats that may be chosen by any player. Each player must then immediately decide which dino tile to “spear” based not only on the habitats rolled, but on the type and color of the dinosaurs listed on the menu tile. Whichever player is slowest at choosing an appropriate dinosaur tile must do without a tile for that round. As soon as a player has accumulated each of the dinosaurs (by type and color) depicted on the menu tile, that player must shout “Ooga!” and turn in their tiles. They win the menu tile, and a new menu tile is turned up.

The challenge of quickly determining which of the dinosaur/habitat combinations to choose, coupled with the actual fun of “spearing” that tile, makes this an exciting little game. It definitely has appeal for younger players, but adults can enjoy it too, even alongside youngsters (although the youngest players would have trouble keeping all of the elements straight and still act quickly enough to compete, so I would recommend a handicap for more mature players in that case).

I had two problems with Oooga! Although it should have been simple enough to learn, it took a careful reading of the rules to really understand how to play because they don’t clarify the difference between a hunting “round” and a menu “day.” Besides that, the bone tiles are two-dimensional. Unless there is a large enough playing surface, dropping them can disrupt the rest of the playing area, or else they can bounce off the table onto the floor. One has to sacrifice the satisfying randomness of just throwing them up and letting them land wherever, for a more controlled and less random drop onto a smaller part of the playing area.

Overall, Ooga! turns out to be a lot of fun. It lends itself to multi-generational play, it involves quick-thinking and dexterity, and excitement builds as the game progresses. I recommend it to any gaming family or group of kids!

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Many have played Fluxx (Looney Labs, 1997), and many more have heard of it, but if you haven’t played it yet then you won’t understand. I shall do my best to make you understand, though, but I encourage you to invest the $20 (0r less) and give it a try. Chances are you will be glad you did. You might even wish to go for one of the Fluxx variants that are now on the market, such as Zombie, Martian, Monty Python, Family, Stoner, Eco, Reduxx, Espanol, Christian, or Jewish Fluxx. One doesn’t need to know the basic game in order to appreciate the spin-offs; in fact, the opposite is true.

So what’s so interesting about Fluxx? Why do fans of the game get this other-worldly glaze over their eyes when it comes up in conversation? Because it is the first game in which the goal of the game, the mechanisms of the game, and the rules of the game are subject to change at any moment. Because of the constantly changing landscape of a game of Fluxx, it makes for a wonderfully chaotic experience.

The game starts off innocently enough – each player gets three cards, and the remainder become the draw deck, which is placed in the middle of the playing area. Alongside the draw deck, the “Basic Rules” card is placed face up (see below). The basic rules are simple enough: Draw one card, and play one card. But once cards are played, the rules change. Since there is no basic “goal” of the game, there is no way to win, until someone plays a “goal” card.

A goal card specifies winning conditions. The two visible cards below, for example, indicate that whichever player has two specific cards in front of them (the Sun and the Moon, or Dreams and Money) wins the game.

A player gets such cards in front of them by placing them there during the “play” part of their turn. Such cards are called “keepers,” and are so labeled:

The keepers are specific to the theme of the game, and in the original Fluxx game are simply iconic items (the Sun, the Moon, Chocolate, a Toaster, etc). In themed Fluxx games, they are significant aspects of that theme – in Monty Python Fluxx, one might, for example, have King Arthur, the Nude Organist, or the Knights who say “Ni!” A feature of more current editions that the original lacked are “Creeper” cards. These cards, once drawn, must be placed in front of the drawing player and prevent that player from winning the game until they are removed or destroyed, unless another rule supercedes the Creeper card’s function. Confused yet?

“Action” cards, once drawn, must be played immediately, and describe an action that must be taken:

Action cards have a significant impact on game play, and go hand in hand with “New Rule” cards. New Rule cards are self-explanatory, and simply dictate how many cards should be drawn, how many can be played, and various other actions that may be taken by the players (see below).

New rules will often contradict older rules, in which case the older rule is discarded. Action cards are discarded after they are followed, as well.

So that is Fluxx, not only in a nutshell, but pretty much completely. Players take turns drawing and playing cards until one of the players has met the conditions of whatever goal is currently featured. The specific rules of drawing and playing change constantly. This makes for a lot of frustration for players who love the planning and execution that goes along with strategy games, but for the most part Fluxx is so wildly unpredictable from draw to draw that just about everyone has a good time.

I definitely recommend this game to just about anybody 8 or older, or anybody who is a fan of one of the themed decks. Fluxx is easy to pick up and play, relatively inexpensive, small and easy to pack for travel, and it is definitely a great family game since the winner is just as likely to benefit from luck as any one else. Game lovers are not the only ones who like Fluxx – I know a lot of people who do not consider themselves game players who have played and enjoyed Fluxx, a few of them enough to own the game.

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Empire Builder

Another in my long list of favorite games, Empire Builder (Mayfair Games, 1980) is in its 4th edition. I have not played the game in its Empire Builder form, oddly enough, because I own and have played the original version – North American Rails. There is very little difference in game play, but the original came in a tube with a rolled-up, laminated map, as opposed to the six interlocking boards that comprise the more current editions. I also own the tube versions of Nippon Rails and British Rails, and there are at least 4 others out there.

Whatever version you get your hands on, however, Empire Builder is an absolutely great game if you like a lot of planning and a solidly realistic experience. The game consists of a map of North America (Canada/US/Mexico) divided into a series of regularly spaced “mileposts,” crayons with which to build railroads, “load chips” that represent the materials being shipped, 3 types of cards, and money. Players are basically competing to build a rail system across the continent with which to pick up and deliver loads, in order to earn a payout. The first player to $250 million wins.

Players begin the game in the city of their choice (decided by their initial goals, to be discussed shortly); on every turn they will have a budget of $20 million to build rails from one milepost to the next. Many mileposts are simply black dots, and cost $1 million to build into – but others are more expensive. To build into a mountain milepost (black triangles on the map) costs $2 million, into a small or medium-sized city (red dots and squares) costs $3 million, into a major city costs $5 million, and over a river adds $2 million.

The demand cards are a key element in Empire Builder (see example below). Each player has three demand cards, each of which lists a destination city, a demand for a particular load, and the payout for that load. In order to acquire a given payout, a player must use their train to pick up the load from one of a few cities where it is available (there is a very handy list of these cities, and they are shown on the map as well), and deliver it via their own rail system to the city that demands it. The loads and payouts vary quite a bit, but in general the farther a city is from the load it is requesting, the higher they payout. For example, the card below shows that Los Angeles will pay $31 million for tourists, but in the game the only place to pick up tourists is Chicago or New York City – which would cost about $50 million to build in the first place. Note that it would take a lot less rail to pick up cars in Detroit and deliver them to Cincinnatti, but the payout is correspondingly lower.

At the beginning of each turn a player has the option of moving his or her train as far along the rails they have created as they deem appropriate. Each player starts the game with a regular train, which can carry two loads and move 9 mileposts each turn, but during the game any player may, at their own discretion, spend their $20 million budget on a trian upgrade instead of building rails. The upgrades include increased speed (from 9 to 12 mileposts per turn) and increased capacity (from two to three loads), and, after one upgrade is completed, the second may also be purchased for a “Super Freight” train that moves 12 and carries 3 loads.

The initial building is critical to the game because a player only has $50 million to start with, and must use it to build a rail system that will allow them to fulfill a demand that will in turn earn them enough money to continue to build rails and earn payouts. This early dynamic makes for a slow build up, as players are establishing a continental rail system, mostly driven by the suite of demand cards they draw (this is the only random element in the game). But once a player has built an east-west or north-south corridor, they are able to work on multiple, more lucrative demands without having to pay for much more in the way of rails. This helps determine which demands they are able to accomplish on any given card. They can also eventually afford the train upgrades.

In order to win the game a player must have connected his or her railway to at least 6 of the 7 major cities, which prevents someone from simply building a strong regional railway and repeatedly using it. There are a few other features which make the game more interesting. One is that there are event cards. Once a load is dropped off in a city and the payout is taken, a new card is drawn. An event card might turn up instead of a demand card, and it is to be accomplished immediately. Events range from natural disasters to rail-workers strikes, and have localized events that will affect every player in that vicinity. For example, a tornado might prevent any building or moving within 8 mileposts of Oklahoma City, or a wildcat strike may prevent any activity at all within 4 mileposts of the east coast.

One further feature is a building limit into cities. All players have to have access to each major city, so one player is not allowed to build rails into every hub of a major city to prevent access. Small and medium cities, however, do have a limit, so it can be important for a player to extend a rail line into such a city in order to claim it for the future. A player does have the option of using another player’s rail lines, but for every portion of a turn they are on that other player’s lines, they must pay that player $4 million – not usually a great way to spend one’s money, but usually unavoidable.

Empire Builder is a long game that builds up slowly but always ends up as a race to the finish. If you enjoy map games, plotting courses, and spatial organization in general, you will like this game. I find it perfect for a rainy afternoon with 3-5 people, but there is also a solitaire version of the rules available online. I recommend it for anyone who likes involved strategy games, any rail enthusiast, or anyone else who has a planner alter-ego dying to get out.

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It is very hard to find a game in which kids can expect to compete with adults, but Sherlock (Playroom Entertainment, 1999) is one of them. It is strictly a memory game, but it uses a much more interesting mechanism than classic memory games (such as “concentration”).

Sherlock consists of a deck of cards (see pic below), which depict a simple iconic image, a number, and an arrow. There is one “Sherlock” card used as a starter. The illustrations are clear and attractive, and geared toward children’s tastes without being too babyish.

The game is played by dealing 8 cards to the center of the table in a circle. Players have a chance to memorize the identity of each card. If necessary, an adult can be handicapped by getting less time to memorize at this point. When players are ready, the cards are turned face-down, and the Sherlock card is laid down next to one card, which is to serve as the starting point.

On a turn, a player must accurately identify the card adjacent to the Sherlock card; if wrong, the player who missed it chooses a new spot for the Sherlock card and play passes to the next player. If the guess is correct, that card is left face-up and the number and arrow on the card indicates the direction and number of cards to jump to. In the example below, the guessing player identified and turned over the pail first (note the Sherlock card above it), moved one to the right and identified and turned over the cherries, then moved three to the left and identified and turned over the comb, and so on. The turn ends when a player guesses long enough that they end up on a card that they have already turned over. In the example below, the chair indicates a move two spaces to the right, which would be the already turned comb. The guessing player wins that card and replaces it – first for all to see, and then face down. The other cards are turned back to face-down, and the Sherlock card is moved to a new spot for the next player. The first to collect 5 cards is the winner!

Since Sherlock is a kid’s game, it’s simple, but it is still a nice challenging game for adults to play with their kids. It even offers a great opportunity to observe and assist kids as they discover and implement memory strategies – which can end up being useful throughout school and life in general.

I highly recommend this game for any child (5 and up), and any family with children. Most people who have played will tell you it’s more fun than they expected, as it was for me. So buy this game – it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s fun!

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