Encore

Who hasn’t played this game at one time or another, without the help of actual cards, or a board? My brothers and I, and now my wife and I, routinely try to stump each other with lyrical trivia.  Any music lover would like Encore (Endless Games, 1989). This is the kind of party game that nobody really wants to start playing – who wants to show off their own tone-deafness, after all? – but ends up getting everybody gathered around, laughing, and contributing a song or two from their own repertoire.

The game very simply requires each team to identify and sing lyrics from a song, at least six words in length, that include one target word that is drawn randomly from the deck. Teams alternate on the same word until one team fails to come up with an original answer, at which point the other team wins the right to move closer to the end.

There is a newer version of Encore out (first picture), but we played the older version (pic number 2), and because the old tunes are still around, it was still full of relevant words. Unfortunately, I can’t offer an opinion on the cards available in the current edition – but I honestly have no doubt the target words are a decent sample of easy, difficult, and in between. In addition to the word cards, the game comes with a board,  a die, pawns, and a marker.

The target cards are shown below – each listing five everyday words. On one team’s turn, the die is rolled and their pawn moved; the color of the space they land on refers to the colored word on the card they must play. That team them must come up with a song including that word, and sing at least six lyrics that include it. Once they do, the other team must come up with a different song. Turns alternate until one team appears stuck. At that point the other team can impose a time limit (20 second sand timer), but if that first team comes up with a song, the other team then has a time limit as well. Once a team fails to come up with an appropriate answer, they lose control of the dice.

The yellow spaces on the board correspond to “category” questions, and are self explanatory. Otherwise there is nothing special about the color categories on the cards.

Encore is billed as a game for music lovers, but it really is a democratic game, with musical elements for the whole family. As bad as people might consider their singing to be, once among friends all bets are off, inhibitions are cast aside, and it’s all about laughing and enjoying the company.

This is an easy game to recommend to just about any group. The fact that players are matching their own repertoires against the word in question makes it appropriate for any age group (over 8, that is) and any English-speaking country. It is definitely a nice family game, because it can bring people together across generational lines.

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Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow

I finished my last game of The Werewolves of Millers Hollow (999 Games, 2001) less than 10 hours ago, and I can’t really wait to tell you about it! This is such a unique game, and the interaction is so interesting, that I’m a little embarrassed and ashamed that I waited so long to play it! (And I call myself a game lover – bah!)

In this game, players (except for the “Moderator”) play the part of simple townsfolk – but some of them are werewolves and wake up at night to kill an innocent victim, and then arise in the morning among the rest of the townsfolk. The townsfolk then all try to decide who among them might be a werewolf, and the player chosen is lynched! Of course, that player may end up being a werewolf, or an innocent victim. Eventually, there are only werewolves or townsfolk left, and they have won the game.

The key to The Werewolves of Millers Hollow is that players do not know the actual identity of any of the other players (per cards, above), and when nighttime falls, all players close their eyes as if asleep, only “waking” when they have a role to play. There are only a few werewolves – up to four – per game, but they are the only ones who know who they are, and when they mingle with the rest of the townsfolk during they day they must avoid being found out.

So the game starts when the moderator, whose job it is to run the game and communicate decisions among the players without giving away identities, deals a card to each player. That card becomes that player’s identity (see below). Ordinary Townsfolk simply close their eyes during the night phase, and open them when night is over, and then help try to determine who might be a werewolf during the day. The Werewolves act like townsfolk, but during the night phase they, at the moderator’s cue, open their eyes and communicate silently to decide on a victim. The moderator then silently taps the victim to let them know they were killed by the werewolves, and the werewolves close their eyes again. When the moderator announces morning time, everyone except the victim opens their eyes, and the victim’s identity is revealed.

When the day begins, all players (including the werewolves, who are acting like regular townsfolk) debate and choose by vote which other player is a werewolf. That unlucky player is “lynched” and then their identity is revealed (By the way, when players are “killed” they are out of the game, and may not participate…but it is still a lot of fun to watch!). The (optional) sheriff card can go to any player, by vote of all players at the beginning of the game, and that role confers on them two votes when deciding who is a werewolf. That can be particularly bad if a werewolf ends up becoming elected sheriff, because as the number of players dwindle, those two votes are increasingly powerful!

If a player is not a werewolf, they are a townsfolk (but the sheriff can be either). The townsfolk may be ordinary, or they may have a special role. The Fortune Teller (above) wakes up first after all the town has gone to sleep, and they get to “peek” at another player’s identity. It is up to them, after that, how to use the information.

More special townsfolk cards are below. The Little Girl has the option of opening her eyes while the werewolves are awake, to peek at them – however, if she is caught peeking at them then she will automatically become the next victim! The witch has two potions, one for healing (bringing back one dead person) and one poison (for eliminating one person); the witch wakes up after the werewolves have killed and gone back to sleep, and she determines whether to use her healing or poison potion that night, or not. She may use each only once, and they may be used on herself.

At the beginning of the game, the Thief may opt to remain a regular townsfolk, or they may choose one of two remaining cards from the deal. The Hunter, when killed, gets one shot at one player, taking that player with him. Cupido gets to play matchmaker – any two players of Cupido’s choice become instantly in love and MUST protect the interests of their loved one. If one of the lovers dies, the other must follow (by taking their own life!).

And so goes The Werewolves of Millers Hollow. The game is so exquisitely interesting because each person has information to share and an identity to hide at the same time, and they do not know who is who. It’s a game of guesses (usually wrong on my part – lol!), suspicion, hunches, and luck. It takes about 20 minutes or so (depending on how many are playing) to play a single game, but as I said earlier it is very easy to play many games in a row. In fact it’s hard not to.

I absolutely recommend this game to any group of people gathering just about anywhere. It would even be great for more formal gatherings where there is a need for an ice breaker or a team-building type exercise. I can envision modifications to make it even better for something along those lines. That said, it is also perfect for later nights, when the more raucous games, or the more serious games, are over and there are enough people left behind to make it work.

There is an expansion of The Werewolves of Millers Hollow called “New Moon,” and a re-implementation called The Village (that is, it’s a newer version of the original with added features); see pictures below. I have yet to try these, but you know they are high on my list!

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Ticket to Ride

Railroad games are just plain fun. There have been a number of them published, and some have enjoyed a cult-like status for a number of years (see my review of Empire Builder, for example). But none have been as popular as Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder, 2004), which has been on the short list of best games since it came out. It is considered one of a few “gateway” games – that is, a mildly complex game that is so very fun and addictive that “new” gamers will want to try other, more complex games.

The Ticket to Ride board is a map (the original version is the USA, but there are a number of other versions available) denoting major cities, interconnected with train routes of various colors. There are two stacks of cards: Destination cards depict two cities (which players would need to connect with a continuous train route) as well as a point value for connecting them (see below); Ticket cards depict a train car of a certain color, which corresponds to certain routes on the map board – or they might be multi-color “wild” cards (farther below!).

Players each have a stack of 45 trains in their own color,and they start the game with five ticket cards. They draw three destination cards and can keep either two or three of them – but the ones they keep are routes that they must complete with continuous tracks of their own color. If the routes are completed, the player gets the points; if they are not completed by the end of the game, the player loses those points.

The game consists of players taking turns drawing new tickets, drawing new destinations, or placing train routes. In order to place a train route, a player must have enough of the correctly colored tickets, and turn them in. A multi-color wild card is good for any color ticket. Each route is a certain color, or gray, and a certain number of train links long. For example, El Paso to Houston is six links long, and green, so a player would have to accumulate a combination of six green or wild cards and then turn them in – then he or she would be able to put six of their own color trains on those six links. Note that some routes are double wide, so two different players can occupy parallel tracks between the same destinations.

Points are scored throughout the game by placing routes – and the value of the routes increases non-linearly, so that one track piece earns you one point, but 6 track pieces earns you 20 points. Points are also awarded at the end of the game. Players who achieved their destination goals are awarded the corresponding number of points (more points for longer tracks), and those who failed to do so are penalized the same number of points.

During a game of Ticket to Ride, 5 cards available to be drawn are kept face up, and on a turn a player may draw two of the visible cards, unless it is a wild card, in which case it is the only card that can be drawn. If there are no colors the player wants, he or she can draw from a face-down pile once or twice (they can also draw one card here, and the next from the face up stack, again with the exception of the wild card. A player might also draw more Destination cards in an effort to bulk up their score. This mechanism of a constantly changing card availability makes the game more exciting than if they had been face down, plus it gives the alert player information about the plans of his or her opponents.

While it is “another train game,” this is one train game that has gotten a lot of people hooked. It’s complex enough to be rewarding, but simple enough to learn in 5 minutes. I recommend it for any map or train game enthusiast, of for any gamer who wants to expand their social gaming circle. It is good for families, groups, and just a bunch of friends. But be ready to accommodate more hungry zombies….

: )

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Guesstures

There’s a reason charades has been enjoyed for the better part of the past 400 years; both King Louis XIV and Catherine the Great were apparently fond of them, and it was being played by Scrooge’s nephew Fred at his party in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Charades can be played with a group of friends as well as a group of strangers, no props are required, everyone is always involved, and laughter generally ensues.

So it is no surprise that games involving the “guessing game” mechanism of charades are still popular today. Guesstures (Parker Brothers, 1990) has been in game closets now for 20 years because it introduced a clever time limit mechanism to the classic game. The time limit takes the frantic suspense of ordinary charades and “kicks it up a notch.”

There are only a few components in Guesstures (older edition, above), and it’s a very simple game to learn and to play. Players split into two teams and, on their turn, one person from their team will be the reader, while all others are guessers. The readers have to try to get their teammates to guess the words on each of four cards in order to score the points associated with those words. But there is a timer involved….

The picture above shows the Timer/Dropper, which is the interesting innovation in Guesstures. There is a spring-loaded timer on the right of the unit (out of sight) that is wound, like an old-fashioned clock, each turn, and it is locked in place until the reader is ready. The cards are put in place as shown above, and when the timer is activated, the reader must get his or her team to guess each word, in order. If the team guesses the word, the reader must physically retrieve that card and pull it out of the unit – before it falls. Yes, before it falls. The timer is connected to a platform that is supporting each card. After a short while, the platform allows the first card to fall, then the second, then the third, and finally the fourth. If the team can’t guess the word, or the reader can’t grab them fast enough, the card is lost to them and earns zero points.

The cards come in two colors, and each card offers a choice of two words – one is more difficult than the other and earns more points, and the two different colors also represent difficulty levels. The reader gets to choose which word will be facing up for his or her team to guess that round, and stands to win whatever the point value is.

Guesstures is one of those games that is an absolutely safe bet for a party. It stands a good chance at being what it takes to really get things going, or it might not, but it won’t bomb. I recommend it to just about any group of people who want to have fun together; hard core gamers can take a break from the intensity of the strategy games and have some lighthearted fun, and casual acquaintances can break the ice and laugh without fear of sounding ridiculous, or at least more ridiculous than anyone else.

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Through the Ages

I got what I wanted for Christmas, Through the Ages (Eagle Games, 2006). But then it took a few weeks to find the time to play it! So read on to find out what I have to say about boardgamegeek.com’s  # 5-ranked game (out of 5,889 games listed)…

If you knew me, you’d know that I love history and civilization-type games, so you know I’m probably going to like this game. In the interest of saving time for some of you, I’ll go ahead and cut to the chase: I do like this game. But was it what I expected? Is it worth the $69.99 price tag? Will it really take 4 hours or more? How complicated is it?

I’ll do my best to answer those questions, but the upshot is that it’s not what you would call a family game – it is, however, a great game for a hardcore gamer, thus its rank on bgg. You’ll find it prominently displayed (or sold out) at any independent game store, but you won’t find it in Target or WalMart.

Unlike its venerable Games Magazine Hall-of-Fame forebear, Civilization (Avalon Hill, 1980), Through the Ages doesn’t use a map. It is basically only a card game, but there is so much to keep track of that each player gets a player’s card and a certain number of Jujubee-sized counters with which to account for the changes in every category during each turn (see below). Each player is racing to construct the most influential culture through a combination of military, religious, technological, and artistic achievements.  To procure these achievements, a player must allocate resources in the form of food, mined material, and people. These resources go towards strengthening the military, building urban buildings (such as libraries or temples), or improving technologies for mining and farming.

The basic mechanic of the game is “action point allocation” – which is a geeky way to say that you can only take so many different actions on a turn, and you must use them wisely…  Actions consist of choosing a card, playing a card, or allocating resources to various tasks.  There is a cost of one to three action points for each card, and the cards are laid out on a card “track” so every player knows what is available and how much it costs. The selection of cards, and the timing of that selection, is the biggest key to Through the Ages. The accumulation of “culture points” is the goal, and almost all of the culture points are on the various cards.

I won’t go into excruciating detail, but there are a few more important elements to consider. There are several different sections on the scoring board; beside the overall culture points track, there are sections for tracking technological prowess, military strength, and cultural strength. The point of all these tracks is to make accounting for each player’s development more streamlined; one simply has to refer to the appropriate track, instead of counting every piece each time.

Through the Ages can be played at three levels of complexity as well. The “Full” game uses every rule and moves completely through three epochs of world history (see epoch three cards, below). The “Advanced” game uses most of the rules, but moves only through two epochs (see epoch two cards, above). The “Simple” game only involves the first epoch, and leaves off important rules – such as the use of happiness indicators, and the use of the military. The rules

The rules recommend that first time players play the simple game in order to really learn the mechanics of the game and avoid frustration. That’s definitely a good idea, if you have the time or if you are not a serious gamer. I would avoid trying the full game on the first try, however, unless you want to spend half the game with your nose buried in the rule book. The rule book itself is helpful in general and has lots of pictures and examples – but it is difficult to find every little thing you might want to find.

So – there it is. Through the Ages has a very high production value. The art is attractive (enough), the cards and playing pieces are sturdy, and the playing aids are substantial. Does that justify a $69.99 price tag? For me it does. I would not recommend it to anyone who wasn’t absolutely sure they already wanted to play, but if it is on someone’s list, then I can’t imagine a better gift.

Through the Ages is good for any hardcore gamer, or any serious gamer with an interest in history (like me!). If you aren’t sure whether to get it, do a little research and find out who is really interested and who they might be playing with before purchasing it. Despite some claims to the contrary, it is not a simple game, especially to the new player. It is, however, very intuitive. Everything makes sense once you understand what different symbols and actions mean. The first game will take a very long time – even more with more players. Playing time would move down to about one hour per person after a few games have been played.

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Gheos

Gheos (Z-Man Games, 2006) is an interesting, attractive, and relatively small and affordable game, easy enough to learn quickly – but quickly complicated by the range of options available on every turn.

Players are divine entities rearranging parcels of land in an effort to maximize the size of their following. The parcels themselves are triangular tiles, featuring one or more land masses bordered by water, which join to make “coastlines” or “continents” – continuous stretches of land. Players take turns placing one of their two randomly drawn tiles into empty slots, or replacing existing tiles, in order to construct continents to their own advantage or to the opponents’ disadvantage. Once a tile is played, a player may designate a “following” by placing a colored disc onto any empty continent. They may alternatively take a cube – a “follower” – of any color that is in play (a color that has already been played onto a continent, that is). The goal is to earn points by amassing high-value followers.

The triangular tiles in Gheos have one of several icons on them, in the form of circles, temples, and pyramids. Pyramids simply identify tiles that cannot be replaced – they are the only tiles that will remain in place once they are put on the table. Temples and Circular icons depict cups, wheat, and swords. Cups and wheat confer points, and swords are used to determine the outcome of a “war.” When identical logos are combined, through tile placement, on the same continent, any following on that continent will be stronger.

Once a continent is claimed by a following, no other following may be played. However – and this is where the game becomes really interesting, if slightly complicated – because a player may replace an existing tile, one continent can be broken into two new ones (split), or two separate continents can be merged into a new single continent (merged). In a split, the follower has to follow the wheat – they must be placed on the new continent that has the most wheat. If there are equal amounts of wheat icons, the player doing the splitting decides. In a merger, if both continents have followers, the one with the most swords remains and the other simply goes away. In the case of a tie, the player doing the merger decides.

One other very important part of Gheos is the scoring, which occurs inconsistently throughout the game, through three different mechanisms. When a temple tile is played and the land has a following, a player gets points for the number of round icons that match the temple. When a “scoring chip” (see the round cup-icon chip above) is played, the player gets points for the number of cups and the number of followers on a continent. Each player has the opportunity to play up to three scoring chips. When an “Epoch” tile, instead of a regular land tile, is drawn, a scoring round occurs. Follower cubes and the number of pyramids on a continent determine the number of points scored by each player.

The scoring mechanisms are hard to keep straight, and it is quite hard to think ahead in any effective way. The tiles vary so much and the potential to totally revise the board in one or two turns by replacing tiles really makes this a game of quick reaction and intuitive timing. Knowing which followers to grab and when to cash in a scoring chip is crucial to the game, because the game can change so fast otherwise.

Gheos would be good for most lovers of abstract strategy games. Despite its complications, it is simple enough for kids as young as 10 – but it is sophisticated enough for much older and serious players. I would recommend it for any game enthusiast, as well as any game player who likes other tile-laying games such as Carcassonne.

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