Category Archives: Tabletop Games

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.

https://i1.wp.com/www.gamewright.com/gamewright/Images/Games/GAMEWRIGHT-415.jpg

(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!!

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!

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!

Bananagrams

There is a long list of word-tile games, the most well-known being Scrabble, and it seems like every year another one or two or seven come out. Bananagrams (Bananagrams, 2006), in terms of how it’s played, is not really unique – you use the tiles to spell words and try to be the first player to run out of tiles once the main draw pile is exhausted. But, in addition to the game play, they did this word game right in every way.

Most people, gamers or not, have noticed the packaging by now from browsing through a Barnes and Noble, Borders, or Target; the packaging, a heavy cloth banana-shaped bag,  is cute. No, not cute, clever. Wait, clever doesn’t really sum it up – the packaging is brilliant in its simplicity and the banana-anagram pun is genius. It’s a gimmick, but it works. The fact that the game inside that gimmicky packaging works well really just secures its position as an excellent game. The tiles are heavy and feel good in your hand, and the entire package itself costs $14.95. You get a time-tested and easy to understand game, made with quality material that feels good in your hands, in a conversation-piece of a package that appeals to all ages, and you can travel with it.

All the word tile games that are out there involve drawing and discarding tiles and spelling words, usually in a crossword-type fashion, and so does Bananagrams. Each player starts with a certain number of tiles, and begins making words in front of them; all players play on their own word grid simultaneously. Players may (actually, must) rearrange their words as they go in an attempt to fit in all of the tiles they have drawn. Once they have used up all of their tiles, they draw another (and forcing other players to also draw another). If they can’t use a tile, they may cash it in in exchange for two more. The game continues until the draw pile is exhausted and one player has used all of his or her own tiles to make legal words.

The rules are simple enough for youngsters (my 5-year old can play), but the universal appeal of crosswords makes the game truly suitable for any age. It even comes with rules for a solitaire game. I recommend Bananagrams for just about any household – and not just word lovers! This is a great game – as mentioned earlier – for traveling, and just like a pack of playing cards different rules can be introduced to make it easier or more difficult. At $14.95 it’s hard to imagine a better value.

Note: Double-Bananagrams is now available, as well as a companion game – appletters.

Buy Bananagrams at Amazon!

Balderdash (and Beyond!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Beyond Balderdash at Amazon!

Guesstures

There’s a reason charades has been enjoyed for the better part of the past 400 years; both King Louis XIV and Catherine the Great were apparently fond of them, and it was being played by Scrooge’s nephew Fred at his party in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Charades can be played with a group of friends as well as a group of strangers, no props are required, everyone is always involved, and laughter generally ensues.

So it is no surprise that games involving the “guessing game” mechanism of charades are still popular today. Guesstures (Parker Brothers, 1990) has been in game closets now for 20 years because it introduced a clever time limit mechanism to the classic game. The time limit takes the frantic suspense of ordinary charades and “kicks it up a notch.”

There are only a few components in Guesstures (older edition, above), and it’s a very simple game to learn and to play. Players split into two teams and, on their turn, one person from their team will be the reader, while all others are guessers. The readers have to try to get their teammates to guess the words on each of four cards in order to score the points associated with those words. But there is a timer involved….

The picture above shows the Timer/Dropper, which is the interesting innovation in Guesstures. There is a spring-loaded timer on the right of the unit (out of sight) that is wound, like an old-fashioned clock, each turn, and it is locked in place until the reader is ready. The cards are put in place as shown above, and when the timer is activated, the reader must get his or her team to guess each word, in order. If the team guesses the word, the reader must physically retrieve that card and pull it out of the unit – before it falls. Yes, before it falls. The timer is connected to a platform that is supporting each card. After a short while, the platform allows the first card to fall, then the second, then the third, and finally the fourth. If the team can’t guess the word, or the reader can’t grab them fast enough, the card is lost to them and earns zero points.

The cards come in two colors, and each card offers a choice of two words – one is more difficult than the other and earns more points, and the two different colors also represent difficulty levels. The reader gets to choose which word will be facing up for his or her team to guess that round, and stands to win whatever the point value is.

Guesstures is one of those games that is an absolutely safe bet for a party. It stands a good chance at being what it takes to really get things going, or it might not, but it won’t bomb. I recommend it to just about any group of people who want to have fun together; hard core gamers can take a break from the intensity of the strategy games and have some lighthearted fun, and casual acquaintances can break the ice and laugh without fear of sounding ridiculous, or at least more ridiculous than anyone else.

Buy Guesstures at Amazon!

Gheos

Gheos (Z-Man Games, 2006) is an interesting, attractive, and relatively small and affordable game, easy enough to learn quickly – but quickly complicated by the range of options available on every turn.

Players are divine entities rearranging parcels of land in an effort to maximize the size of their following. The parcels themselves are triangular tiles, featuring one or more land masses bordered by water, which join to make “coastlines” or “continents” – continuous stretches of land. Players take turns placing one of their two randomly drawn tiles into empty slots, or replacing existing tiles, in order to construct continents to their own advantage or to the opponents’ disadvantage. Once a tile is played, a player may designate a “following” by placing a colored disc onto any empty continent. They may alternatively take a cube – a “follower” – of any color that is in play (a color that has already been played onto a continent, that is). The goal is to earn points by amassing high-value followers.

The triangular tiles in Gheos have one of several icons on them, in the form of circles, temples, and pyramids. Pyramids simply identify tiles that cannot be replaced – they are the only tiles that will remain in place once they are put on the table. Temples and Circular icons depict cups, wheat, and swords. Cups and wheat confer points, and swords are used to determine the outcome of a “war.” When identical logos are combined, through tile placement, on the same continent, any following on that continent will be stronger.

Once a continent is claimed by a following, no other following may be played. However – and this is where the game becomes really interesting, if slightly complicated – because a player may replace an existing tile, one continent can be broken into two new ones (split), or two separate continents can be merged into a new single continent (merged). In a split, the follower has to follow the wheat – they must be placed on the new continent that has the most wheat. If there are equal amounts of wheat icons, the player doing the splitting decides. In a merger, if both continents have followers, the one with the most swords remains and the other simply goes away. In the case of a tie, the player doing the merger decides.

One other very important part of Gheos is the scoring, which occurs inconsistently throughout the game, through three different mechanisms. When a temple tile is played and the land has a following, a player gets points for the number of round icons that match the temple. When a “scoring chip” (see the round cup-icon chip above) is played, the player gets points for the number of cups and the number of followers on a continent. Each player has the opportunity to play up to three scoring chips. When an “Epoch” tile, instead of a regular land tile, is drawn, a scoring round occurs. Follower cubes and the number of pyramids on a continent determine the number of points scored by each player.

The scoring mechanisms are hard to keep straight, and it is quite hard to think ahead in any effective way. The tiles vary so much and the potential to totally revise the board in one or two turns by replacing tiles really makes this a game of quick reaction and intuitive timing. Knowing which followers to grab and when to cash in a scoring chip is crucial to the game, because the game can change so fast otherwise.

Gheos would be good for most lovers of abstract strategy games. Despite its complications, it is simple enough for kids as young as 10 – but it is sophisticated enough for much older and serious players. I would recommend it for any game enthusiast, as well as any game player who likes other tile-laying games such as Carcassonne.

Buy Gheos at Amazon!