Category Archives: Adult Games

Opus Dei

If you’re an American or anyone else familiar with Dan Brown’s novels, then please understand that this game is not what you think it is! Players are actually trying to create a “world” populated with the world’s greatest thinkers, as represented on cards.

Opus Dei: Existence After Religion (Dema Games, 2008) is so named because that opening phrase, literally translated, is “Work of God.” It has nothing to do with the catholic “Prelatura del Opus Dei” – the dark figures in at least one of Brown’s novels, although they (the PdOD) are suing for trademark infringement.

So, legal questions aside, what about this game? If you have played Guillotine before, then you know how to play Opus Dei (go to if you don’t know it yet); it’s that similar, right down to the stand-up cardboard easel (see pic below). There are three “rounds” of play (each round is one year), most of which involves making changes to the lineup of great thinkers, as well as a lot of player interaction. But I think it’s a mistake to dismiss it as a “rip off,” because the theme, which is so important in Guillotine, is also of critical importance in this game.

In Guillotine, players are rival executioners, vying to collect the heads of nobles and other public figures whose heads (that is, the cards representing their heads) are worth varying points. The nobles are lined up next to the cardboard “guillotine,” and whichever card is next in line is taken by the player whose turn has just ended. Action cards are used during that turn to manipulate the nobles in line, force a card swap with another player, or do any number of other things. There is a dark humor to Guillotine that adds to its play appeal, but Opus Dei turns that on its head.

In Opus Dei, the players are referred to as “zeitgeists” (literally, the “spirit of the time”), who are tasked with creating a world based on reason and rationality, so they vie for scientists and philosophers (whose corresponding cards are worth varying points). Rather than depicted figures losing their heads when they are next in line, these great thinkers are actually going from “potential” existence to “actual” existence by being incorporated into the world of the zeitgeist. Action cards are also played, and have similar effects as those in Guillotine.

Dema Games, on their web site, refer to Opus Dei as the first Atheist card game. To that end, one major feature is that strictly religious figures – referred to as “fools” cards – are worth negative points, so if they end up in a player’s world they take away points. Some figures thus depicted are Ruhollah Khomeini (the Ayatollah), Sun Myung Moon, and Joseph Smith Jr. The creators of the game make it clear that the great thinkers are champions of reason and logic, and enemies of dogma. Thus, to the extent that a great historical figure is dogmatic, they are branded as fools in this game.

So how different is it from Guillotine, really? The game play is almost identical. Players play action cards, try to manipulate other cards to their advantage, and at the end of that round whichever card is nearest the easel goes to that player’s world. Point values for the cards are even identical (except see the Einstein card, above). But the beauty of Opus Dei is that it is using the very popular and fun Guillotine game mechanic as a platform for a far more interesting theme. The cards depict actual philosophers and scientists, as well as some dogmatic “fools” whose cards are worth negative points (The Reverend Moon, L Ron Hubbard, etc).

The cards are very well done, richly illustrated, and good quality; they include a brief sketch of the  famous thinker’s life and ideas, a portrait, that person’s national flag, and, in some cases, further directions that the player must follow upon receiving the card. Some of the action cards have an effect that is global (all players are affected; these cards stand in the easel), some affect only individual players, and some only have an effect during the current turn.

My first impression of this game was probably the same as so many who think that Dan Brown’s novels have oversaturated the market – I was not looking forward to it. But then I saw the cards, and then looked closer at the theme, and I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did! I have always been a “wannabe” philosopher; it’s those big questions in life that really get me going, and I have always been in awe of the great thinkers that have wrestled, with some success, with those questions in order to give the rest of the world direction and progress.

This is just a game, but it’s a lovely little tour through western intellectual history. One might quibble with (or be aghast at) the manufacturer’s value assignment on some thinkers (How does Hegel get 5, when Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are each only worth 3??!!), and there are very few thinkers from the eastern tradition (Confucius, Laozi, and Zarathustra; also Siddartha Gautama – the Buddha – who is worth 0 points; neither positive nor negative). But the value assignment itself leads to an interesting discussion for those with an opinion on the subject, so that is satisfying as well.

All told, I like this game a lot because I have not seen anything like it before and I love the theme, plus it is a nice introduction to the western intellectual tradition. How can that not be a good thing!? As far as game play goes, it is safe to say that since it duplicates Guillotine, it’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t need the comic humor.

I would recommend it to anyone 15 years old and up – it would be a great gift for any thoughtful kid who is first thinking about the deep questions in life, and his or her place in the great big world or in human history. There are obviously going to be people who see it as a condescending attack on their religious beliefs, so this would not be a welcome gift for them. Too bad, I think, because it’s one of those rare games that can teach interesting facts and make you think without taking away from the fun of the game itself.

Opus Dei is not available at, but it is available at their web site:

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island (Gamewright, 2010) just won the widely respected Mensa Select Seal, and I’m happy to say that it received my number one vote there (Mensa Select Seals are awarded annually at Mensa Mind Games, which was held in San Diego last weekend; go to my other blog at for a description of the top five winners).

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, so instead of players trying to outdo each other, they are working together to “beat the game.”  Players compose a team of adventurers, racing against time to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island, and then escape before the water rises. If they escape with all four treasures, they have won.

Each player takes on a different role (Pilot, Engineer, Navigator, Messenger, Diver, or Adventurer), each having a special – but not outrageously powerful – ability, which aids in the three main tasks – getting around the island, “shoring up” the island (undoing the effects of rising water), and moving or claiming treasure. The island itself consists of tiles laid out randomly  in a cross-shaped grid. Some tiles are labeled as places to claim treasure, and some are labeled with pawns, and serve as starting places for that player (pawn colors correspond to the identity and special ability of that player). There are six roles to choose from, but a maximum of four players results in the absence of at least two specialists.

Players alternate turns, performing three actions per turn, from this list: Move to an adjacent tile, Shore up a tile that has been flooded (i.e., unflood it), Give a treasure card to another player, or Claim a treasure. After the actions are taken, players draw two treasure cards – one of which might actually be one of three “Waters Rise” cards in the deck, but many of which represent one of the four treasures to be claimed. It takes four treasure cards to physically claim a treasure. When a “Waters Rise” card is chosen from the treasure deck, “Flood Cards” are drawn from a different deck. Each Flood Card represents one tile, thus revealing which tiles will be flooded. Those tiles are physically inverted, or, if they had already been inverted, they are removed from the game, along with their flood card. Yikes! As the game progresses, water levels only get higher…so more cards are drawn…thus more tiles flood when the Waters Rise cards are drawn. To make matters worse, when the Waters Rise cards is drawn, all the flood cards previously drawn are reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile, so they are the first to be drawn again.

Forbidden Island is exciting to play. Your fate is bound to the fate of your colleagues, so each player has a stake in what the other players do. The bulk of the time is spent deciding, as a group, how to spend each of the three activities a player gets. In my first game we were literally one card away from being overtaken by the flood waters, and it was surprisingly simple to imagine ourselves on the rapidly disappearing island, trying to make it safely to the helicopter pad (“Fools’ Landing”).

For me, one very reliable sign of a good game is how easily immersed you are into its world, and Forbidden Island did that within two turns, and maintained it. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up, which is probably fair because one must really consider possible future problems and contingencies to win, but an 8 year old could enjoy the game with a little help. If you want to try something new for just a few people, give this game a shot!

Buy Forbidden Island from Amazon!


I like realistic features in a game, and I like balance. Sometimes, that just isn’t possible, so a game maker needs to be able to decide what goes: realism or balance. In the case of WildLife (Uberplay, 2002), a certain amount of realism had to be sacrificed for the sake of balance, but for me it was a worthwhile trade off.

In WildLife, a player takes on the role of a creature on a primordial continent. There are six creatures, and six types of terrain on the continent (you can see the balance already, can’t you?). Each player is trying to dominate the continent by various means, but they are constrained by the types of terrains available to them – and thanks to the balance, each creature is very potent in one area, but totally impotent (in fact, not even able to exist) in two of the six area types.

The picture above shows the six “creature cards,” and on each there is a rating for each of the six terrain types. The mammoth, for example, may “Attack” (the most potent ability) in the plains, but may take “No Action” in the desert or the water. Fair enough, right? But the snake is most potent in the desert (so far so good), but totally impotent in the mountains and in the savanna. One doesn’t need to be a wildlife biologist to know that snakes can be found, plentifully, in each of these habitats – so if you are the type who must insist that every aspect of a game must conform to reality, you might have a problem with WildLife. But if you can somehow get through this, there is a great game waiting to be played. By the way, in the interest of completeness, there is one “Migrate” terrain per animal, and two “Expand” terrains, each of which allow limited use of a terrain type.

Once a player has taken a creature and made initial placements, they struggle to expand their herds and dominate regions of the continent, and by doing so they earn points. Points are awarded for how dominant an animal type is in each region on the board, the size of the biggest herds, and the holders of different game tokens: Food points, adaptations, and ability cards.

The key to WildLife is the use of WildLife action cards every turn, which is initially limited to three. These cards allow use of a certain type of terrain, provide an upgrade in adaptation for a specific terrain (see pic immediately below), or confer a special ability (through “ability cards,” pictured below), such as intelligence, food, etc. The player is allowed to do whatever their creature card says they can do in a given terrain – Migrate (move an existing tile into an adjacent open spot), Expand (Introduce a new tile into an open spot), or Attack (Introduce a new tile onto an occupant’s spot, forcing that occupant’s tile out of the game).

If an upgrade, or “adaptation,” is chosen, that tile is placed onto the creature card, and becomes the creatures new level of ability. Hence, a snake could go from No Action on a mountain to migrate, to expand, up to attack. If an “ability” is chosen, that could allow extra points every turn, or an extra action, or more. In fact, some of the abilities described on the cards can be used every turn, sometimes amounting to an extra action for that turn. One feature that makes WildLife fun is that there are limited numbers of these ability cards, so when a player makes a bid for one, they must take it from the current holder who has the most points at the time – this is a very cool mechanic that made our most recent game very interesting.

The fact that a player is limited to three action cards per turn forces some interesting decisions – go on the offense, tighten up on defense, or build up a multi-turn strategy. What really forces the decisions, however, is the fact that each player must use one of their actions each turn placing one of their own cards up for auction for opposing players. The currency in the game is food, and these food tokens are used to place bids – and the winning bidder pays the auctioning player. A player may also choose, an unlimited number of times, to turn in three food tokens in order to move one space up in victory points, or they may move one space down to earn three coins they might need for something else.

One other very interesting feature of WildLife is the uncertainty about scoring rounds. Every time a particular region (as defined by its single terrain type) is filled, a minor scoring round occurs. Each player is assigned points based on their relative dominance within each region, then the game continues – until the 4th, or the 8th, or the 12th region is filled. At those points in the game, a major scoring occurs, in which players get points per region (as in the minor scoring), and points are awarded as outlined above (for largest herd, etc). There is an excellently done, attractive, and very useful scoring system on the left side of the board pictured below, so the substantial risk of missing something while scoring is not an issue at all.

All in all, WildLife is one of those complicated games that turn out to be pretty simple once you get going. Half way through the first play, when all the possibilities and implications of the various abilities and adaptations are understood, it may be a good idea to stop and start over. Just half of a game played provides enough of a learning curve for this game.

I recommend WildLife to all serious gamers. People who are into board games like me will love it. Otherwise, the theme of biological variation, competition, and adaptation might appeal to some (like me!), enough to justify it as a gift. Any folks who show an interest in the complex Eurogames would like it as well. But don’t be buying this for the kiddies just because there is a wooly mammoth on the box cover – they might be a few years older before they can try it out.

(This game is not available through, and is now, sadly, out of print, because Uberplay is out of business – but it can still be found online through various game vendors!)

Kill Doctor Lucky

To say that Kill Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games, 1996) was a breath of fresh air when it came out is inappropriate for two reasons: it seems to glorify something as awful as murder, plus it fails to pay homage to the spirit of the game itself. So let us say that Kill Doctor Lucky was (and continues to be), a lingering, malodorous cloud of gut-wrenching putridity. It is a sick and twisted inversion of the old favorite whodunit games, which predate even Clue by many years.

Before going further into the game, it’s important to know that the company that publishes Kill Doctor Lucky is the aptly named Cheapass Games. Their mission is to provide the games at rock-bottom prices by packaging only the unique materials necessary to play the game, and requiring the buyer to provide any generic equipment such as pawns and dice. They are also irreverently humorous, as you can see if you read the front of the game envelope. Here is a section from the “about” page on their web site (

“If you ignore the clever shapes they come in, the cheap little plastic pawns are an interchangeable part of most of the board games in your house. So are the dice, the money, the counters, the pencils, and just about every other random spare part. These generic bits and pieces can account for as much as 75% of a game’s production cost, and that cost gets handed to you.”

So (most of) the games that Cheapass Games has published have come in the form of a paper envelope, containing boards of card stock that must be laid out together (or taped once they are in place) and cards of heavy paper stock, plus one sheet of directions. This is about as no-nonsense an operation as you can imagine, so it’s one of my favorite game companies – even though it did happen to allow Paizo Publishing to package Kill Doctor Lucky as a traditional game (see below); I can’t explain that, so I won’t try. But now, back to Kill Doctor Lucky.

As I mentioned, the game is an inversion of the classical “whodunit.” That is, instead of gathering clues to try to determine the identity of the killer, each player is trying to be the one who actually kills the non-player character, Doctor Lucky. In order to win, a player must have Doctor Lucky alone in a room, out of the line of sight of other players, and attack, and then hope the attack is not foiled by the other players.

The board is a layout of Doctor Lucky’s mansion (there are expansions that include other maps, too), and players take their turns by using one free move, then deciding whether to stay in a room and “snoop” to find something (in the form of a card), or to play a card or series of cards from their hand. A player may play any number of cards, one at a time. The cards themselves allow the movement of the player or Doctor Lucky on the board (either a number of spaces, or to a specific room), or they allow an attack.

There are a number of failure cards in the deck, used to counter an attack. If another player has attacked Doctor Lucky, that attack is worth a certain number of points, from two and up. Each player following the attacker has an opportunity to “fail” the attack for a number of points equal to the points on their failure cards. This system is part of the key to strategy in Kill Doctor Lucky, because eventually the failure cards are gone, and an attack on Doctor Lucky will not be failed. It behooves a player to force others to play their failure cards so that, eventually, no one will be able to prevent that player from an attack, thus winning the game.

Movement around the map is also important. A player’s pawn must move from room to room, and the rooms include hallways and stairwells. At the end of each player’s turn, Doctor Lucky moves to the next highest numbered room. This is important because only the main rooms are numbered – so Doctor Lucky does not stop in hallways or stairwells. So what? A player can attack Doctor Lucky only in a room (again, unobserved). Further, if Doctor Lucky should happen to move into a room that is already occupied by a player, that player gets to take a turn immediately. Savvy players can take advantage of this by positioning themselves downstream, so that they can quickly take another turn, and use it to do the same, and so on as long as the map allows it.

The cards used to attack are actually weapon cards, which list a base level of damage on Doctor Lucky. They also, often but not always, list a second, higher value, if the weapon is used in a particular room. The Rat Poison, for example, has a base value of 2 but a bonus value of 5 if used in the Green House. Thus it is wise to try to get yourself alone with Doctor Lucky in the Green House, so you can do more damage.

Move, room, and weapons cards are collected and reshuffled when needed, so they may recur in the game, as opposed to the failure cards that, once used, are permanently out of the game. Clever players can keep a game going for quite a long time, but sometimes a player who has enough fail cards to prevent the murder of Doctor Lucky will not use them, instead relying on fellow players to use their own – only to discover, too late, that the other players did not have enough cards to prevent it. And so there have been a few short games, too!

You might be able to tell that I enjoy Kill Doctor Lucky; I do! I actually mounted the map onto a large piece of cardboard, and I put the expansion Craigdarroch on the other side. It’s a game that’s fun with friends or family, and the degree of interaction on the board is really stimulating, sometimes aggravating, but ultimately rewarding. It’s a great ice-breaker for people who don’t really know each other, and it’s a great game to pull out when the party or game night is winding down to the last half dozen people or so, who are still up for more.

I recommend this game to anyone with an appreciation of dark humor, a practical bent, and a love of games. If you know someone with game pieces to spare, they should (and probably already do) have some Cheapass Games in their collection. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up, although a sharp 8 year old can manage the basics (the movement strategy is probably beyond for the younger kids, however).

Buy Kill Doctor Lucky at Amazon!


Scene it? (ScreenLife, 2002) is, in the US at least, everywhere. Shortly after it was brought on the market, it was snatched up by Mattel and has been mass distributed ever since. The market has responded very favorably: I counted 36 different editions currently available.

The funny thing is, my little sister had this idea about 10 years ago, and I told her it would be a nightmare to deal with all the copyright issues but that otherwise it would be a great game. Well, apparently ScreenLife found it worthwhile to deal with the copyright issues, and they have found incredible success.

Scene it? is a dvd-platform trivia game. In other words, it is a basic trivia game, but instead of relying simply on trivia questions read from cards, it comes with a dvd that shows video clips. That’s what’s different – and that is all that’s different. But that makes all the difference. Speaking as a long-standing trivia lover (My love for Trivial Pursuit got me into games BIG TIME when I was young), I am very impressed with the Scene it? family of games – and the family is getting bigger all the time.

The basic play of Scene it? is pretty straight forward – on your turn you roll, and you either get an individual or all-play trivia question to answer. One die indicates how far you move, and the other indicates what category of question you must answer: Trivia Card or DVD Challenge. The trivia cards simply ask a trivia question consistent with the game’s theme, but the DVD Challenge directs you to the tv screen. Players launch the next question and the dvd shows one of several types of questions based on a video clip. In Music Scene it? – for example – there might be an actual music video clip, followed by a question like “Who replaced the drummer shortly after this video was released?” Some questions are based on album covers, some are music-themed word puzzles (anagrams, fill-in-the-blanks, etc), and some are identifying a tune set to “elevator” style. There are several more types as well.

One feature that really makes the game more appealing is its flexibility. Trivial Pursuit gives you one way to play, but Scene it? gives you three. The board (referred to as a “flex-time” board) opens up to reveal a long racetrack, but it also folds in on itself and becomes a racetrack half the size – for much shorter games. There is also a “Party Time” option, that allows you to constantly cycle through the dvd questions. This is a great feature, because it allows a large group of people to participate at once and allows people to come and go as they wish – not to mention the intensity of people trying to beat each other to the punch by answering quickly and loudly.

I’m no fan of mass-market products, but I will give credit where it’s due – and the makers of Scene it? have done a good job of using an underused medium in a way that is easy to use, and makes sense. I recommend Scene it? to families or groups of people who have an interest in any of the versions that are currently available. I have Music Scene it?, tv Scene it?, and Harry Potter Scene it? – and each of them have proven popular with friends. It’s a nice ice breaker game, and increases the energy in the room, and that is a great way to kick off a fun games night!

Buy Scene It – The DVD Game: Movie Edition with bonus on Amazon!

Balderdash (and Beyond!)

Games and music are similar in that individual creations are sampled, reworked, redone, and reissued in many, many ways. Sometimes the latest version bears little or no resemblance to the original (if the original is even known), but sometimes the original was so good that to preserve its essence is to preserve it in its entirety. Such is the case with the Balderdash (Parker Brothers, 1983) family of games.

First it was a parlor game, perhaps from as early as the 19th century, known as Fictionary, or The Dictionary Game. It was played, using a dictionary, as a casual parlor game until, in 1970, the game Blarney was published, and then came The Dictionary Game (a board game) in 1971. Once Balderdash came out in 1983, a new generation was introduced to what is basically the same old parlor game of Dictionary, in which obscure words are re-defined by players vying to trick others into voting for their own definitions as accurate. I’ll explain it more clearly in a moment; you’ll have to trust me that it makes sense. : )

The success of Balderdash led to Beyond Balderdash (Parker Brothers, 1993), and then Bible Balderdash (1989) and Junior Balderdash (1991). In all of these games (except Beyond Balderdash), players are given an obscure word, and come up with a believable definition of that word in an attempt to sway the opinions of other players. Players must vote for a definition, in the hope of choosing the only accurate one, and points are allotted based on who voted for whom.

Balderdash itself was a big hit for a while, but many word non-lovers had to wait until Beyond Balderdash came out so they could finally choose among (using the image below) words – what does “baronduki” mean? People – who was Hkan Forsberg? Initials – what does I.H.S. stand for? Movies – what is the plot of Fuddy Duddy Buddy? And dates – what happened January 7, 1990? Beyond Balderdash is still a strong seller today, and has influenced other party games where faking the description or an explanation of some obscure thing earns points.

Although it isn’t really for everyone, some of my fondest memories of playing games with my family and  friends long ago are from playing Balderdash. It becomes an excellent canvas for one’s wittier friends, and really lends itself to extended, running jokes – the kind of jokes that might run all night and even well into the future…

I recommend this for any group or family that already knows they would enjoy a game night. It’s not important that players already know each other, but many people feel that they have to know the word already in order to be competitive. That isn’t the case, but people who are insecure around strangers might not appreciate being put on the spot, for fear of “looking dumb.”

By the way, there really is no need to purchase the game; just use a dictionary, get some equal-sized scrap papers, and play the game that way. That’s old school.

Buy Beyond Balderdash at Amazon!


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.

Buy Encore from Amazon!