Don’t know why it took me so long to write about it – I probably figured everybody already knew about it. If you’re reading a board and card game blog, then you have definitely enjoyed Uno (1971, Mattel and others; $6, 2-10 players) at some point, or some period, or all of, your life. But I’ve crowned it my #1 family game, so it’s just irresponsible to not have it discussed here. Someone might come along who hasn’t played it before, and wonders what the fuss is all about. So here it is: Uno. Uno is basically a commercial version of the traditional card game Crazy 8’s. Players start with seven cards, and go around the table playing one card at a time onto a discard deck. The card must be of the same color (i.e., suit) or rank, or it must be a wild card, in which case the player can name the new color. The goal each round is to be the first player to empty his/her hand – which can only happen after they have ONE (Uno!) card left. The beauty and fun of the game is in the surprise cards. Each color contains a few each of the Skip card, that prevents the next player from taking a turn, the Reverse card, that changes the direction of play, and the Draw Two card that forces the next player to pick up two cards instead of discarding. The ultimate surprise card is the Wild Draw Four Card, which can be played onto anything, and requires the next player to pick up four instead of discarding. That’s all there is to it – it’s not entirely random, but there is no controlling what card you’ll pick up next, or what your neighbors will do to you. The bottom line is that it’s a lot of fun and can be enjoyed by adults, kids, adults and kids, and so on. It comes as a deck in a thin box and is entirely portable, and it’s enjoyed all over the world. It also comes in literally hundreds of variations, and has featured many, many licensed entities. And for a $6 game, there is no reason why every house shouldn’t have an Uno deck.
So where were we since I last posted? Mind Games! I’m posting this for the sake of completeness, but it’s still worthwhile info – or at least I hope some folks can find my opinion here useful. The beauty of board games is that, once a game is determined to be a good one, it will always be a good one. (No! Not really – some do get old after a while, but let’s not get hung up on what’s true, or false, or whatever. There are games to discuss!)
The Mind Games winners from 2013 were, in order of how much I liked them: Suburbia, Forbidden Desert, Kulami, Ghooost!, and Kerflip. The first two were really, really my favorites, but the other three were definitely deserving. I’ll treat them one at a time.
Mind Games has been criticized, fairly enough, for not incorporating rules-rich, highly detailed games. This really becomes a problem when manufacturers decide to not submit their games for honest and critical (but constructive) judging by such an eclectic, motivated, intelligent group of board game lovers such as Mensa Mind Games provides. So it was nice to see Suburbia (Bezier Games, 2012; $60) show up, and even nicer to have a chance to play it.
Suburbia is a tile-laying game for 1-4 players (yes, you can play a solitaire version) in which players vie for various tiles with which to add to their sprawling suburban landscape. The tile layout for each player becomes an infrastructure network, consisting of commercial, civic, residential, and industrial tiles, all of which impact and are impacted by the tiles around them and elsewhere on the board. For example, one tile might represent a fine restaurant, which is good…until someone else plays the same tile, thus stealing some of the net income of the first restaurant tile. Or one might have a great reason to build an airport – but be prepared to pay the cost when the only place to “build” it is next to a residential area.
Each turn a player purchases a tile (for as low as $0) and lays it adjacent to one or more on the board. Each tile confers benefits and may also incur costs, as in our examples above, depending on where it is placed. The winner of a game is the player with the greatest population – and to get population, a player has to earn reputation points. And while it’s easy to get reputation points, it’s not wise to do it too fast, because a larger population costs a lot more money each turn – and a player needs money to buy good tiles. And so it goes, a sort of balancing act of keeping the economy in check with the population growth so that neither suffers.
Suburbia has a steep learning curve, unless someone is there to help – which in our case made the curve far more shallow. There are lots of pieces, but the pieces fit together well, and the game concepts are intuitive so they also fit together well. One interesting and very important mechanism is that changes in income or reputation can be instantaneous, one time events (such as gaining several gold coins for building something), or they can be cumulative, in which the per turn rate of income or reputation changes (such as gaining an extra gold coin each turn for building a business). This all adds up to a fun (if intimidating) game, great for any strategy-loving group of gamers, that easily won a top spot. Let’s hope manufacturers learn that Mensa is ready for more of these types of games!
We are seeing more and more cooperative games, in which players act together to try to beat the game.The newest addition to that list is Gamewright’s Forbidden Desert (2013, $25). Much like its predecessor, Forbidden Island, players are randomly assigned a specific function and work together to gather artifacts and then leave before they become victims of the forces of nature. In this case, the explorers are trying to gather and assemble four pieces of a flying ship from the shifting sands of a hostile desert (formed by a collection of tiles). They are battling a hot sun, increasingly nasty sand storms, and a shifting map.
(image courtesy of Gamewright.com)
My fear, upon seeing this game, was that it was a cynical attempt by the company to cash in on the very successful Forbidden Island game (itself a former Mind Games winner) by making nominal changes and changing the theme, a-la Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley/Mattel. But that is NOT the case with Forbidden Desert! It is just as thrilling to barely escape an angry desert as it is to escape a howling monsoon, and equally disappointing to succumb to either, and that’s because Forbidden Desert uses a totally different mechanism to introduce storm tiles, as well as the equipment (cards) needed to deal with them (and with the blazing sun!).
The concept is similar enough, and thankfully the excitement is on par with Forbidden Island, but there is also a need on Forbidden Desert to “discover” tiles, dig them out, keep them unburied, and also seek shelter from the hot sun with limited water on hand. There are also more specialists a player can play, so the replay value is that much greater. All of these elements combine to make the game interesting and intense, and since it’s a cooperative game everyone either wins or loses together. It’s really a fun experience and one I’d recommend for a family or any group of 2-5 friends.
Every year it seems that at least one abstract strategy game wins one of the top five spots. I’m not always a fan because they tend to be variations on a theme – which might not make them bad games, but they don’t come across as unique or interesting. This year, however, we chose Kulami (Foxmind, 2013; $30; 2 players), and I am very much on-board with it! (That’s a clever pun, you just don’t know it yet)
Kulami consists of rectangular wooden tiles of varying dimensions, put together randomly to form a single contiguous playing area. Each tile has four or more hollows, laid out in regular increments, so that each tile can hold a certain number of marbles (from four to twelve, I believe). Players (light or dark) alternate turns by placing a marble in a hollow on one of the tiles – but the placement is dictated by the previously placed piece, such that it must occupy either the same row or column. When a player has claimed a majority of hollows with his/her colored marbles, they win that tile. Bonus points can be gained by completing rows or areas. The object of the game is to claim as many tiles as possible.
Like so many other abstract strategy games, Kulami has a few simple directions, and a game can go in any direction depending on who is playing. But the fact that every starting layout is different is very unique, and coupled with the simplicity of the game’s elements as well as the aesthetics, Kulami is a winner. Any person out there who likes two-player games, or who knows someone who does, should be interested in this game. It’s attractive, it’s easy, and it’s fun.
Ghooost! (Iello, 2013; $20; 2-6 players) is a card game in which players are trying to empty their hands and their “mansions” faster than at least one other person. That is, the last person left holding cards each round, loses that round. It is definitely more interesting than your basic Crazy 8’s, however, and the “spooky” theme makes it more fun: each player is trying to rid their mansion of ghosts and other spooky things.
In Ghooost! the cards are in four suits and range in power from 1-14. Some cards also have special powers that dictate conditions for subsequent cards played. Players start with four cards in hand, and 4-12 cards in their mansions (i.e., laid out in front of them). A round of play consists of two stages, the first of which involves players moving cards between their mansion, their hand, and the common crypt (new card pile) and cemetery (discard pile), in order to prepare their hands for the second stage. Once the crypt is emptied, no one may draw a new card, and the second stage of Ghooost! begins.
During the second stage, players are simply trying to discard their cards into the cemetery – but they must do so by placing higher-ranked cards or sets of cards into the cemetery pile, or else they are forced to pick up the entire cemetery stack (this mechanic holds true for the first stage, too). So spending stage one carefully building a decent hand for stage two is what this game is all about. Plus the cards are fun to look at. What’s not to love? This is another great game for kids and families, but my adult friends and I enjoyed it very much as well.
Kerflip! (Creative Foundry, 2012; $30; 2-4 players) is not just another word game, or should I say not just dehnawomoertrag…(get it?) In Kerflip! players race against each other to claim a word from the same random pile of letter tiles. The letter tiles are double-sided, each side having the same letter, and one side is white while the other is red-orange. Tiles of less used letters (Q, for example) have a number marked on the white side. Points are awarded based on who claimed each letter first, and whether any bonus cards were awarded.
The scoring is where the game is interesting, and it affects even the speed at which words are identified and called. In a round of play, each player chooses a certain amount of tiles randomly and, sight unseen, all players drop all chosen tiles onto the SPECIALLY DESIGNED game board (this is pretty cool, but we’ll get to it later). Players immediately turn all tiles to the white side, and then proceed to visually inspect the letters until they are ready to call out a word that can be spelled using those letters. As soon as each player has called out a unique word, scoring begins. The first player to call a word spells it out as s/he flip each tile to the red-orange side. They are awarded ten points for each letter (so the longer the word, the more points, times ten), and if they succeed in turning over a numbered tile, they get that many bonus cards (which simply award points at the end of the game – but they are held in secret). The second player also flips tiles as they spell out their word, unless a tile has already been flipped, in which case it is only worth five points, and no bonus is awarded. The third and fourth players follow, each getting less and less opportunity to score big. So the game is like a race to do a Jumble puzzle, except there are more letters there than are necessary to form any one word. The key is to be quick but still come up with a decent scoring word – no one will win with “the” and “cat”, but neither will they win if they take too much time looking for a better word.
So what about that “special” game board? It’s designed to sit inside the box in which it came, which also holds the bonus cards very conveniently. But adjacent to and on either side of the bonus cards there are two wells, and when a round is over, that’s where the used tiles go – into the wells! (unused tiles are recycled – back into the bag) The tiles disappear into the wells until the game is over, at which point you remove the board to discover that the tile wells are chutes that send all the tiles into a single black box. Pour the tiles into the bag, put the bag into the box, put the box back into its spot under the board, and you have a really quick, efficient, and elegant clean up. Pretty cool stuff.
Kerflip! is good for ANY word game fans, especially those who think they’re particularly good at anagrams, but also for those who tend to be competitive. It’s that race for the best word that makes for more fun in this game. As with the other games, this one is good for families or friends, but should be enjoyed by peers, or at least with a handicap (my kids wouldn’t stand a chance against ME!!! Mwahhahahahaaaaa).
So that’s it from Mind Games 2013. I’ll be looking forward to Mind Games 2014, which will be in Austin, TX, in April. I really want to promise to write it up as soon as it’s over. In the meantime, I’ll try to add more! Adios!!
If there is a person in the house who claims “I’m not a game person” (and every house seems to have at least one and often several), watch how they react when they witness a game of Cornerstone or Cornerstone Essential (Good Company Games, 2010). Cornerstone looks like a toy – and it probably could be considered a toy, except it comes with rules for up to four players and victory conditions, which means it’s really a game.
But this game has broader appeal precisely because of its toy-like qualities: it involves building with blocks and then using little people (meeples!) to climb on the resulting tower. How is that not fun?! The whole point of the game is essentially to be the king of the structure by the time it’s completed, or else to be at the highest point when the structure falls down. So it’s building blocks mixed with king-of-the-hill, and I challenge any fuddy-duddy daddy out there who thinks he’s too cool to play a game to ignore this while it’s going on. It can’t happen!
It isn’t a block-building free-for-all, however. Each player takes one of the four colors and two special wooden rings. The four-block neutral starter piece is laid on the table, and players start playing on it – and this is where it gets interesting. Each player has twelve building blocks with which to add to the structure, but the building blocks vary in terms of how many unit blocks they are composed of, and there are two of each. For example, there are two building blocks that consist of one unit block, two that consist of two unit blocks, and so on up to the two that consist of six unit blocks. On each turn the player must roll two dice, and the resulting roll of the two dice give the player two options for which building blocks to choose (doubles allow you to choose any block). If a player rolls a two and a four, for example, that player may choose to build with the 2-block building block or the 4-block building block.
The placement rules are such that, when adding to the structure, one full face of a block must be in contact with at least one other full face of the existing structure, such that the resulting structure retains a checkerboard pattern. In other words, a solid face must go against a clear face, and vice-versa; neither clear faces nor solid faces may touch each other. Once a block is added successfully, the player may (and should, if everything is going well) move his/her meeple to any spot perceived to be advantageous through the upcoming opponent turns. Meeples may move only one block at a time, any distance, but they may only move vertically if there is a single step with which to do it or horizontally if they are adjacent to that block. They may not jump up two or more blocks, and they must be directly below the vacant space they want to occupy (they may not move diagonally across and up in one turn). Meeples also may not move through a block that is occupied by another player.
That is the essence of Cornerstone! The “Essential” version is pretty new on the market (as I write this), and it contains the wooden rings, two of which are held by each player. They each represent a special move: when played, a ring allows a player to either jump two vertical levels instead of one, or else it allows a player to move through another player who may be blocking the path. These do alleviate the occasional problem of being totally sealed off on a ledge, or worse, a cave, thanks to other people’s blocks, but there are only two that each player can use throughout the game.
Although it doesn’t appear to be a game heavy in strategy, some players are extremely deliberate about which die roll they use, and precisely where to put the block they have chosen. If the tower is knocked down, the offending player has lost the game, and, of the other players, the one with the highest meeple at the time wins.
I like this game, and have listed it among my top ten family games because it is fun for members of every demographic. It can be played by kids alone, by teens alone, by adults alone, or else by the whole family at once. And it can be just as fun for each group alone. It’s a safe bet for ANYONE in the family!
For a while, when Facebook was really becoming more well-known, it offered a series of very popular quizzes, such as “What animal are you?”, or “What 80’s band are you?” In these quizzes you would answer a series of questions and then be given an answer that supposedly had something to do with your core identity (Oh please let them say I’m a bear and not a shrew!).
Imaginiff (Buffalo Games, 1998) is the same game, but it was around first and it allows players to lay those assessments on each other instead of wading through a questionnaire. The beauty of Imaginiff, which it shares with certain other great games (Scattergories, Balderdash), is that it has taken a game that people have played for years, given it a definite form and definite rules, and put it in a box for everyone to enjoy.
The key component of the game is the deck of cards that provide a list of six items within a particular category:
The basic mechanism involves players identifying the item on each list that applies to other players. To demonstrate, consider a friend, and answer the question: “If your friend were a cable channel, which one would s/he be?” The options are: Comedy Central, The Playboy Channel, CNN, The Discovery Channel, ESPN, or The Sci-Fi Channel. It’s fun enough to try to place our friends and family members in these categories, but it’s even more fun to talk about our choices, or consider out loud why one is better than the other.
Being able to involve people who aren’t there is one feature that makes this game more interesting, because if there are only 3 or 4 present for a game it provides a satisfyingly easy excuse to talk about other people. And that’s something that already comes naturally to just about everybody.
Points are awarded based on matching answers; each round, one person is chosen, a card is read (in reference to that person), and other players choose the best match. Those players who have the most matching answers are awarded points, and move on the board. The fun, of course, is in considering the answers and then defending them. In my experience it is just as fun to grab the cards and read them aloud, then enjoy the debate. But since the board gives structure and an endpoint to the game, it is still useful.
I consider Imaginiff one of my top 10 family games, because it offers such a playful way to interact with people we know well. It has a nice blend of tension and release, it is (mostly) playable by younger people (as long as you ignore the more difficult categories), and it is conducive to inter-generational play – but it’s also good to get parties started. With the exception of the hardcore strategy gamers, I can’t think of too many game shelves where this game would be out of place.
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!
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!
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!