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Mind Games Report, 2014

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:

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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!!!

 

Cornerstone

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!

 

 
Buy Cornerstone Essential at Amazon!

Imaginiff

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.

Buy iMAgiNiff at Amazon!

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 http://meeplespeak.wordpress.com/. 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!

Tikal

Tikal!! (Rio Grande Games, 1999) What a great game! Players “build” the board as they go, trying to give themselves an advantage, or providing their opponents the opposite. Players can hope for lucky draws, but still have a lot of flexibility in deciding what to do with whatever they end up drawing. This is a great blend of luck and strategy.

In Tikal, players are archaeologists, digging through the jungles of the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Players earn points by uncovering treasure tokens and by controlling dig sites (temples). But to get to the treasures or the temples, one must get through the jungle, and that’s where the fun begins.

The picture above shows a game after only a few turns. In the beginning, there are only two hex tiles that are not jungle; one is the sandy-colored base camp, where player pawns are introduced, and the other is a grassy spot with no structures. The first part of each player’s turn is to draw a new hex tile and place it in the location of his or her choice, following one simple rule: it must be immediately accessible. As turns continue, more of the board becomes defined, and newly opened jungle spaces will be empty, have treasure rings on them, or else have temples on them. Each hex has several borders with stones on them representing pathways to the adjacent hex. If neither one of two neighboring hexes has stones, then there is no path between them – these stones are what determine what hexes are accessible from where.

The most important strategic element in Tikal is the use of “action points.” Each turn, a player may use up to ten action points, which allow movement of pawns, “working” on a temple (which “uncovers” more temple and makes it more valuable; see the different values on the temples in the pic below), “digging” for treasure (uncovering one piece of treasure from a treasure hex), or some other more complicated things. The use of these action points is critical because they are limited; there is not enough to do everything a player might want to do in one or two turns, so each player must decide how to budget his or her action points.

The final strategic element in Tikal is the unpredictable but ever-looming volcano hex, which, when drawn, initiates the beginning of a scoring round. Since the volcano hex is mixed in with the regular tiles, it (there are several, actually, one for each of several stages of the game) can be drawn at any time, more or less. That means that, if a player does not have his men in the correct positions, he will not benefit from the scoring round. This results in something analogous to musical chairs, in which players are constantly moving but ever ready to settle into a better “point-scoring” position.

For example, a player who is in control of a temple (by having more men on that hex) when the volcano hex is turned up, will end up winning whatever value the temple is worth (see pic below: white player wins the level 3 temple). A player who is able to retrieve the most matching treasure items will get points from them – more points for more matching treasures (pictured further below). But if a player can’t manage to outnumber an opponent on a temple, or beat an opponent to a treasure spot, they will not win those points.

As volcanoes are turned over throughout the several stages of the game, scoring rounds occur in which players get one more turn and then have to count the number of points they have on the board at that time. Points are kept on the scoring track of the perimeter, and whoever has the most points at the end, wins the game.

I like Tikal so much because it’s unpredictable, but the player has a lot of control. Draw a tile you can’t use to your advantage? Stick your opponent with it! Tile placement is such a simple thing, but clever layouts could make the difference between winning and losing where just a few victory points are concerned. One other excellent feature of the game is that even most losers have a chance to win because, since treasures are being uncovered and temples are being added to, there are far more points to be had at the end, thus allowing those far behind to make a last minute run.

This game is complex at first to most casual gamers, but I have been able to teach kids as young as 7 the basics. Having said that, though, the age recommendation is 12 and up, and I agree that younger kids won’t get most nuances, and could lose interest. But it’s a perfect game for adult and teen gamers who like this satisfying combination of luck and action-points-budgeting. Three thumbs up!!

Buy Tikal from Amazon!

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 (http://www.cheapass.com):

“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!

Bohnanza

What the heck kind of name is Bohnanza (Rio Grande Games, 1997)?? “Bohne” is german for “bean,” Bohnanza is a pun for “bean bonanza.” Glad we got that out of the way – on to the important stuff.

bohnanza box

This is perhaps one of the most interesting, and well-disguised, rummy games I have ever come across. At its most basic, players are simply trying to create the largest sets of cards they can, in order to then cash them in for coins. Whoever ends the game with the most coins wins the game…BUT… it isn’t that straightforward. The creators of Bohnanza deserve a lot of credit for keeping with the “bean” theme while allowing for a very unique and interactive game.

There are 11 types of bean cards – as opposed to the four suits in an ordinary deck of playing cards – and each bean type has a different number of cards (each card is labeled with the total number of its type): for example, there are 6 “Garden Beans” and 24 “Coffee Beans,” and each Garden Bean card is labeled with a 6, and each Coffee Bean card is labeled with a 24. Each card also has an amusing depiction of that type of bean, and at the bottom there is a range of coin values.

As players earn cards, they “plant” them (i.e., they play the cards in front of them), but they are initially limited to planting two fields only – so they may play only two types of bean in front of them. At some point a player must “harvest” a crop of beans they have planted. The number of cards in the harvest then earns them the number of coins listed on that card; 4 coffee beans earns a player one coin, while 10 of them earn three coins, and so on.

Interestingly from a design perspective, the game does not come with separate coins for scorekeeping; rather, coins are depicted on the card backs of each bean. This is important to the game play because as bean cards are harvested, most of them go to a discard pile that is recycled for continued play. However, the first few cards of that stack are turned over and become coins, owned by the harvesting player, and are thereby eliminated from the game.

bohnanza layout

Once players have started earning coins, they have the option of purchasing a third bean field for three coins – allowing them to plant, then harvest, a third type of bean. A third field comes in handy because the rules force players to make some tough decisions when it is their turn…

Players start with five cards. The cards MUST remain in the order in which they were received. Wow, that’s different; it also affects everything else about the game. Players can see their hands, and hold them so that others cannot, but they may not rearrange the hand. On a player’s turn, he or she MUST plant the top card, and may also plant the second. Then they draw two more cards and turn them face up; they have the option of donating, or trading these cards, or they can keep them for planting. Finally, the player must draw three cards, adding them one at a time to the back of their hands.

The trick here is to plant bean fields that might earn the most coins, and that determination is made by seeing what else is in one’s hand, and also what other players have planted and have negotiated for. Often a player is forced to harvest one field in order to plant another, even though the harvest yields little or nothing. Thus, during the draw phase, it is important for a player to initiate shrewd trades and gain the beans they have already planted. One must also be active in trading during other player turns, for the same reason.

There are a lot of nuances in a game like Bohnanza that I won’t go into here, but there are a great many fans of the game all over the world. In fact, there are at least 17 editions of Bohnanza, some incorporating new rules, and some with new cards or new themes. The Fan-Edition uses art work from players everywhere (see pic above).

It’s not hard to recommend Bohnanza to any gaming family, or any group of people who like games in general and card games in particular. It comes in a reasonably small box, and is as easy to travel with as any large deck of cards. It encourages interaction, risk-taking, probability, and planning, and would be great for any players aged 10 and up. It’s officially recommended for 12 and up, but I think a bright youngster can figure it out.

Now, go play!

Buy Bohnanza at Amazon!