Category Archives: Abstract Strategy

Old News: Mind Games 2013 (much delayed)

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

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!!


hive box

Hive (Gen Four Two Games, 2005) is a simple two-player strategy game that takes less than a minute to learn, about 15 minutes to play, and a very long time to master.

The game is composed entirely of 11 black and 11 white hexagonal tiles, and can be played anywhere because only a flat surface is required. Various creatures are depicted on the tiles: The Queen Bee (qty 1), Spiders (qty 2), Beetles (qty 2), Grasshoppers (qty 3), and Soldier Ants (qty 3). Each creature has a specific movement ability, and the goal of the game is to enclose the opponent’s Queen Bee completely, thus preventing her from moving.

Players take turns placing the tiles onto the table. The first two tiles must be in contact along an edge, but from then on any new tiles introduced into the game must be placed so they touch only a tile of the same color, also edge to edge. On a turn, a player may introduce a new creature to the game, or else move an existing creature…and here is where it gets interesting.

Since each creature gets a different move, initial placement (when they are introduced) is critical. The Queen Bee can move one space at a time, in any direction.The Soldier Ant can move any number of spaces along the outside perimeter of the existing hive. The Spider must move exactly 3 spaces without backtracking. The Beetle may only move one space per turn but it is also able to crawl on top of the hive, blocking whatever it is sitting on. The Grasshopper jumps over pieces in a straight line, from one end of a row or column to the next available space.

hive layout

There are two important rules beyond movements. The first is that all tiles must remain part of one contiguous hive, so a tile that creates a bridge from one tile to another cannot be moved (The “One Hive Rule”). The second regards “Freedom of Movement.” A tile may only move if there is room for the entire hexagon to exit the space; a tile that is surrounded by 5 other tiles may not move through the opening, since it can’t fit without disrupting the hive.

The simple rules and open-ended hive configuration make this an excellent game, but there is real value-added in a few ways. The pieces in this edition are composed of heavy bakelite, so they are substantial and feel good when you play. This edition also comes with a travel tote, so it’s even easier to carry than the small box you buy it in (see pic).

hive travel bag

The best games are simple, but have an elegant and endless array of possible outcomes. That is the case with Hive. People who like 2-player games ought to love it. The bug theme makes it appealing for youngsters (8 and up), and the size and appearance of the pieces make it great for seniors. The aesthetic value is very high, even high enough to have it out on the coffee table. It is portable and packable. But the game play itself is really what’s best about it, and that’s why I’m recommending this game to just about anybody.

Buy Hive 3rd Edition on Amazon!

Blokus 3-D, aka Rumis

blokus 3d box

Blokus 3-D (Educational Insights, 2008; aka Rumis – Educational Insights, 2003) is more than a 3-d version of regular Blokus (see review elsewhere on this site)! The goal is to be the player with the most blocks visible from above, so rather than simply building a 3-dimensional tower, a player must be mindful of what colors will be visible, and what the next player (s) might be able to do with his or her play.

There are four basic building patterns that can be used which determine the general shape of the building: the Tower, the Corner, the Steps, and the Pyramid. The number of players determine the limits of growth – for example in a two-player game the tower can only be four rows high, but in a four player game a tower can be as high as 8 rows. The single building rule in this game, short of staying within the limits of growth, is that a block face of one piece must touch the block face of another piece of the same color.

blokus 3d board

The game board is textured, as it is in Blokus, to help keep the pieces in place. It also has a lazy-susan feature so a player can inspect every angle.

Blokus 3-D is sufficiently similar to its predecessor that it would appeal to the same kinds of people. It is still relatively simple, there are very few rules – only the shapes and limits add more complexity – and it is also brightly colored and aesthetically pleasing. The goal of building in three dimensions rather than two, however, is what sets it apart from the first Blokus, and that’s what makes it a different game. There is a lot more involved in trying to get your pieces to be visible, in the end, from above within a three-dimensional space, than in claiming two-dimensional space.

I recommend this to anyone who loves Blokus, as it represents a step up. It’s another great family game for homes with young kids getting older (it’s recommended for ages 8+), but it’s fun for playing with as a toy, too! Anyone who likes puzzles, especially skill puzzles and visual puzzles, might like this game as well. Blokus 3-D would be a great game to have in a math classroom, as well.

Buy Blokus 3D at Amazon!


blokus box

Blokus (Educational Insights, 2000) is a multiple award winner because it is fun but simple, it can be enjoyed by a wide range of players, and it has tremendous replay value. Many friends list this among their favorite family games.

Blokus consists of a plastic grid and four colors of plastic tiles that exist in a variety of tetris-like multi-unit-square shapes (see pic, below). Players take turns placing their pieces in such a way that the corner of the piece they place must touch a corner of any preexisting piece (the first piece must cover the corner square)…and that is the only rule. When a player can no longer place any pieces on the board, they are finished. Once all players are finished, they count all of the unit squares left in their hand, and lose one point for each. Players who used all their pieces get +15 points, and if they used the single one-square piece they get +5.

blokus board

There are variations, and some households introduce their own special rules, for example handicapping older children or parents by restricting the corner-touch rule. One can even play solitaire by trying to fit all the pieces onto the board.

Because it’s simple and it can accommodate adults and children and mixed-age groups, I recommend it to any group whatsoever – from children 5 and up to senior citizens. It’s especially good for people who like to dive right in without having to learn complicated instructions. The pieces are colorful and easy to manipulate, and the raised grid on the board keeps the game relatively disturbance-free.

If you have no idea what game to buy, especially for youngsters, for a birthday present, or whatever, this game is an easy choice.

Buy Blokus on Amazon!