It’s the same every year: I’ve been home for over a week now, but somehow I’m still tired.
LAST weekend was Mensa Mind Games 2014. It’s an annual board game marathon that starts on a Friday around noon and ends Sunday morning. It consists of 250-300 game-loving Mensans playing and critiquing new board games in order to vote to award the “Mensa Select Seal.” There is no single type of game that wins, but the games that are entered tend to skew toward the short format, family-friendly kinds (as opposed to, say, complex strategy games). The end result is essentially a fair and rigorously attained endorsement from a few hundred really smart game lovers for a game (five games, actually) with generally broad appeal. The best of BoardGameGeek this is NOT, but it is arguably one of the most valuable endorsements a board game can have because it has a track record of choosing games that stand the test of time and are loved by friends and families of all types. I’m pleased and proud to be a part of that process.
In brief, each Mensan acts as a judge and is given a randomly assigned list of 30 games that they are charged to play, critique, and consider for voting. The critique involves a small form that includes several categories on which to judge the game, as well as an “overall” category that might capture the gestalt of the game. These forms are returned to the game publishers and, very importantly, include room for comments. Mensans take this opportunity to provide the game publishers with any and all sorts of feedback (under the strict admonition that anything other than constructive criticism serves no good purpose and is not welcome). This is where comments about the pace of play, specific problems with rules, artwork, packaging, or whatever are addressed, and I understand that our comments have had impacts on more than a few second editions. Here’s what the green card looks like:
So without further adieu, here are this year’s five winners (they are awarded in no particular order, so I’ll list them alphabetically):
The Duke (Catalyst Game Labs, 2013; $34.95, 2 players):
In a general way, The Duke is like chess, because it involves pieces with different moves being maneuvered on a simple grid to capture an opponent’s most valuable piece. The grid is smaller, however (6 x 6), the pieces are tiles printed on both sides, and only a few pieces are on the board at the beginning of the game. Remaining pieces are drawn unseen from a cloth bag.
The game begins with the Duke piece and two of the simpler pieces for each player on their first rank. Each turn a player may do one of three things: 1) Move a troop, 2) Introduce a new troop to the board, or 3) Use an enhanced ability (held by only a few pieces, and available in expansion sets). The pieces are decorated with the symbol and name of the piece, as well as a diagram, completely visible to both players, of the moves the piece is allowed to make. That is partly what is most interesting, but does not make it unique; beginner’s chess pieces exist with movement options printed on their bottoms. But with The Duke, that’s just half of it. After a piece is moved, it must be flipped over – and this is the really unique aspect of the game – to reveal a second, different, diagram. The different moves shown on any piece tend to be either defensive or offensive in nature (involving forward or backward moves).
If a player can move a tile to land on an opposing tile, they capture it. Capture your opponent’s Duke to win! It’s really that simple – and that’s the hallmark of many great games. Simple rules, many options.
Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia (Stonemaier Games, 2013; $59, 2-6 players):
This game generated quite a buzz this year, partly because it is the result of a Kickstarter campaign, in which games and other artistic projects are crowd-funded. The result is a very high quality production with a detailed backstory and a touch of complexity. According to the backstory, you live in a dystopian world and you have workers and recruits at your disposal, and need to use them to gain control over the world. The workers, represented as custom 6-sided dice, are placed on the board to accomplish various functions – primarily resource or commodity acquisition. But in order to keep the workers working they must remain dumb and happy. Separate tracks show how dumb and how happy they are; if they get too smart they “escape,” and if the are not happy enough they won’t “work.” Resources are cashed in for authority tokens, and the first to place their 10 authority tokens wins.
Euphoria is essentially a resource control and worker-placement game. When a die is brought into play it is rolled, and adds to the cumulative “intelligence” of the workers. If intelligence gets higher than the player’s limit on a scoring track, the highest die is removed. The dice are used to claim resources (stone, brick, gold) or commodities (electricity, stone, fruit, or “bliss” (clouds)); once enough resources/commodities are claimed, dice can be placed to build “markets” for several resources/commodities. Each player holds two “recruit” cards that they can use for benefits throughout the game; one is in play immediately and the other is revealed later. Each player also holds a “moral dilemma” card that can be used once per game to incur another major benefit. An allegiance track on the bottom right of the board represents activity in each commodity type. Players’ recruit cards belong to a particular commodity, and when that commodity progresses to a certain point, all relevant players gain a benefit. This is one interactive feature of the game, and in general many goals are shared so more than one player can benefit from another’s play. Achievements on many parts of the board can result in authority tokens, which are claimed by placing them onto the board. The first to place all ten, wins!
There are a couple of features worth pointing out, beside the high production value of the game and its components. There are ample quick-check charts (i.e., cheat sheets) that make it easy to keep track of what symbols mean and trade in values and references, and these were invaluable to learning the game quickly on the first try. Another feature is the quantity multiplier board, which is just a small board separated into three fields: 1x, 2x, and 3x. By placing a token in a particular field and applying that multiplier, it was very easy to track multiple pieces in various quantities by using just one or two tokens. This cuts down on the number of pieces as well as the price! Overall, Euphoria is a beautifully done game that offers a lot of interaction, a fair amount of (satisfying) complexity, and a fun time. No wonder it won.
Gravwell (Cryptozoic Entertainment, 2013; 1-4 players, $29.99)
Another simple yet surprisingly fun game with a completely unique idea (at least I have never seen it before): playing pieces (spaceships) have an attraction to each other (gravitation), so proximity to other pieces determines the direction of a pre-chosen move, which is critical because there is only one way out and you don’t want to go a long way in the wrong direction.
Players are represented on the board as spaceships, close to the center of a black hole that would lead to another dimension (the 9th one…although I don’t remember if we’re told what’s so bad about the 9th dimension). Each round begins with each player drawing 3 sets of 2 “fuel cards,” in which the top card is visible and the bottom is not. These cards represent basic elements present in space that are mined as fuel. Each different type of element is worth a different amount of energy, which translates directly to spaces moved on the board. There are two additional types of cards that can be mined – one that repulses and one that attracts nearby craft. Within a round, each turn consists of each player playing a card face down, then turning simultaneously. The cards are resolved alphabetically, and movement direction is determined by proximity of other craft: the player to move will go in the direction of the nearest neighbor (which is exerting a gravitational force), the number of spaces shown on the card they played. If neighbors are equidistant, then the total number of ships on either side determines the direction of movement. There are also two non-player ships in the game, floating out in the middle of the course, that have the same effect as other neighbors. Each round a player can choose to play an “Emergency Stop” card to prevent themselves from being flung to far in the wrong direction.
If I had been told this was a leap-frogging space game, I would not have looked twice. But that’s exactly what it is, and the interaction brought about results in an unpredictability and tension that is immediately satisfied and fun to experience. The leader changes frequently, and one can go from dead last to first place within one or two turns. This is a simple idea done in a simple way, that takes a few minutes to learn how to play, and results in a great time.
Pyramix (Gamewright, 2014; 2-4 players, $23.99):
Gamewright is well known as a producer of relatively simple yet interesting, high production quality games, and this year they earned TWO Mensa Select awards. Pyramix is a pyramid of ancient-egyptian-themed cubes, which vary by color and symbol. Players take turns drawing a cube of their choice from the pyramid, allowing any cubes above it to slide down. The goal is to gain points in each color by having drawn the most ankh cubes in that color.
Within each color, there are ankhs (worth 1 point), ibises (2 pts), and eyes of Horus (3 pts). If a player draws the most red ankhs, they score for the other red cubes as well. There are a few restrictions on drawing: at least two faces of the cube must be visible, the cube may NOT be touching a cobra cube face to face, and a cube may not be drawn if it would expose the base of the pyramid (i.e., cubes on the last row may not be drawn). Once drawing is complete the base row will be intact; any cubes touching cobras face to face are removed and not scored. Players then tally their ankhs, and the leaders in each color gather their respective remaining cubes from the base. Points are tallied as above and a winner is declared.
Pyramix is a game that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and is also ideal for families and mixed company. It’s fun to play partly because it is fun to play with. Who doesn’t enjoy pulling something from a bottom row to watch those above cascade down to replace it? There is something aesthetically satisfying about that, especially knowing the structure is stable enough to maintain its overall shape and symmetry (as opposed to collapsing and going all over the place). Add to that the knowledge that something behind is being uncovered that may or may not be desirable for the player whose turn it is, and the basic elements of a good game are present.
Qwixx (Gamewright, 2012; 2-5 players, $10.99):
The second of Gamewright’s winning games this year, Qwixx is, among other things, small (i.e. portable) and affordable. It is reminiscent of Yahtzee, because each turn the dice are rolled and players have to occupy a box with a particular score. The goal is to cross off as many boxes on the score sheet as possible; the more you cross off, the higher your score.
There are four colored dice, corresponding to four colored rows on the scoresheet, and two white dice. The rows represent possible dice rolls and – this is IMPORTANT – red and yellow rows ascend from 2 to 12, while green and blue descend from 12 to 2. Players alternate rolling the dice, but every player must use the roll to score. Non-rolling players choose one colored die and combine it with one of the white dice to get a score for that color, and x-off that spot on their sheet. The rolling player does the same with a colored die and a white die, but they ALSO combine the white dice and must cross that score off on the color of their choice on their sheet. So far, so good, so easy – but here’s the thing. Once a box is crossed off, no others to the left of that box may be crossed off. So, for example, if the first roll is a blue 7 and a two white 3’s, the blue score would be 10, so the blue 10 on the sheet would be marked off. If, next turn, the same or higher is rolled (say, a blue 12), it may not be taken. Every score to the left of a taken box is unavailable for the rest of the game.
Once a row is completed, it becomes “locked.” Once two rows are locked by any player, the round is over and points are tallied. If a dice roll ever results in the inability to score, one of the four “-5” boxes in the lower right corner is marked, and a -5 point penalty will be added at the end. The round also ends if a player fills these four boxes. The scoring is listed at the bottom: if 11 boxes in a row are filled in, 66 points are taken, while 1 box earns just one point . Note that there is a score given for 12 boxes, but since the range of dice rolls is 2-11, 12 boxes is not a possible score; I didn’t check the rules to see if that was addressed…
Overall, Qwixx is a simple and quick game, it’s small, easy to learn, easy to afford, and easy to carry. It won’t blow you away with excitement, but the play value is very high, especially given the production value. Definitely a good game for kids and for families.
So that’s it! Stay tuned for a report on games I liked that didn’t make the top five – coming soon!!!