Category Archives: $30-$49

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!

Wildlife

I like realistic features in a game, and I like balance. Sometimes, that just isn’t possible, so a game maker needs to be able to decide what goes: realism or balance. In the case of WildLife (Uberplay, 2002), a certain amount of realism had to be sacrificed for the sake of balance, but for me it was a worthwhile trade off.

In WildLife, a player takes on the role of a creature on a primordial continent. There are six creatures, and six types of terrain on the continent (you can see the balance already, can’t you?). Each player is trying to dominate the continent by various means, but they are constrained by the types of terrains available to them – and thanks to the balance, each creature is very potent in one area, but totally impotent (in fact, not even able to exist) in two of the six area types.

The picture above shows the six “creature cards,” and on each there is a rating for each of the six terrain types. The mammoth, for example, may “Attack” (the most potent ability) in the plains, but may take “No Action” in the desert or the water. Fair enough, right? But the snake is most potent in the desert (so far so good), but totally impotent in the mountains and in the savanna. One doesn’t need to be a wildlife biologist to know that snakes can be found, plentifully, in each of these habitats – so if you are the type who must insist that every aspect of a game must conform to reality, you might have a problem with WildLife. But if you can somehow get through this, there is a great game waiting to be played. By the way, in the interest of completeness, there is one “Migrate” terrain per animal, and two “Expand” terrains, each of which allow limited use of a terrain type.

Once a player has taken a creature and made initial placements, they struggle to expand their herds and dominate regions of the continent, and by doing so they earn points. Points are awarded for how dominant an animal type is in each region on the board, the size of the biggest herds, and the holders of different game tokens: Food points, adaptations, and ability cards.

The key to WildLife is the use of WildLife action cards every turn, which is initially limited to three. These cards allow use of a certain type of terrain, provide an upgrade in adaptation for a specific terrain (see pic immediately below), or confer a special ability (through “ability cards,” pictured below), such as intelligence, food, etc. The player is allowed to do whatever their creature card says they can do in a given terrain – Migrate (move an existing tile into an adjacent open spot), Expand (Introduce a new tile into an open spot), or Attack (Introduce a new tile onto an occupant’s spot, forcing that occupant’s tile out of the game).

If an upgrade, or “adaptation,” is chosen, that tile is placed onto the creature card, and becomes the creatures new level of ability. Hence, a snake could go from No Action on a mountain to migrate, to expand, up to attack. If an “ability” is chosen, that could allow extra points every turn, or an extra action, or more. In fact, some of the abilities described on the cards can be used every turn, sometimes amounting to an extra action for that turn. One feature that makes WildLife fun is that there are limited numbers of these ability cards, so when a player makes a bid for one, they must take it from the current holder who has the most points at the time – this is a very cool mechanic that made our most recent game very interesting.

The fact that a player is limited to three action cards per turn forces some interesting decisions – go on the offense, tighten up on defense, or build up a multi-turn strategy. What really forces the decisions, however, is the fact that each player must use one of their actions each turn placing one of their own cards up for auction for opposing players. The currency in the game is food, and these food tokens are used to place bids – and the winning bidder pays the auctioning player. A player may also choose, an unlimited number of times, to turn in three food tokens in order to move one space up in victory points, or they may move one space down to earn three coins they might need for something else.

One other very interesting feature of WildLife is the uncertainty about scoring rounds. Every time a particular region (as defined by its single terrain type) is filled, a minor scoring round occurs. Each player is assigned points based on their relative dominance within each region, then the game continues – until the 4th, or the 8th, or the 12th region is filled. At those points in the game, a major scoring occurs, in which players get points per region (as in the minor scoring), and points are awarded as outlined above (for largest herd, etc). There is an excellently done, attractive, and very useful scoring system on the left side of the board pictured below, so the substantial risk of missing something while scoring is not an issue at all.

All in all, WildLife is one of those complicated games that turn out to be pretty simple once you get going. Half way through the first play, when all the possibilities and implications of the various abilities and adaptations are understood, it may be a good idea to stop and start over. Just half of a game played provides enough of a learning curve for this game.

I recommend WildLife to all serious gamers. People who are into board games like me will love it. Otherwise, the theme of biological variation, competition, and adaptation might appeal to some (like me!), enough to justify it as a gift. Any folks who show an interest in the complex Eurogames would like it as well. But don’t be buying this for the kiddies just because there is a wooly mammoth on the box cover – they might be a few years older before they can try it out.

(This game is not available through Amazon.com, and is now, sadly, out of print, because Uberplay is out of business – but it can still be found online through various game vendors!)

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!

Scene-It

Scene it? (ScreenLife, 2002) is, in the US at least, everywhere. Shortly after it was brought on the market, it was snatched up by Mattel and has been mass distributed ever since. The market has responded very favorably: I counted 36 different editions currently available.

The funny thing is, my little sister had this idea about 10 years ago, and I told her it would be a nightmare to deal with all the copyright issues but that otherwise it would be a great game. Well, apparently ScreenLife found it worthwhile to deal with the copyright issues, and they have found incredible success.

Scene it? is a dvd-platform trivia game. In other words, it is a basic trivia game, but instead of relying simply on trivia questions read from cards, it comes with a dvd that shows video clips. That’s what’s different – and that is all that’s different. But that makes all the difference. Speaking as a long-standing trivia lover (My love for Trivial Pursuit got me into games BIG TIME when I was young), I am very impressed with the Scene it? family of games – and the family is getting bigger all the time.

The basic play of Scene it? is pretty straight forward – on your turn you roll, and you either get an individual or all-play trivia question to answer. One die indicates how far you move, and the other indicates what category of question you must answer: Trivia Card or DVD Challenge. The trivia cards simply ask a trivia question consistent with the game’s theme, but the DVD Challenge directs you to the tv screen. Players launch the next question and the dvd shows one of several types of questions based on a video clip. In Music Scene it? – for example – there might be an actual music video clip, followed by a question like “Who replaced the drummer shortly after this video was released?” Some questions are based on album covers, some are music-themed word puzzles (anagrams, fill-in-the-blanks, etc), and some are identifying a tune set to “elevator” style. There are several more types as well.

One feature that really makes the game more appealing is its flexibility. Trivial Pursuit gives you one way to play, but Scene it? gives you three. The board (referred to as a “flex-time” board) opens up to reveal a long racetrack, but it also folds in on itself and becomes a racetrack half the size – for much shorter games. There is also a “Party Time” option, that allows you to constantly cycle through the dvd questions. This is a great feature, because it allows a large group of people to participate at once and allows people to come and go as they wish – not to mention the intensity of people trying to beat each other to the punch by answering quickly and loudly.

I’m no fan of mass-market products, but I will give credit where it’s due – and the makers of Scene it? have done a good job of using an underused medium in a way that is easy to use, and makes sense. I recommend Scene it? to families or groups of people who have an interest in any of the versions that are currently available. I have Music Scene it?, tv Scene it?, and Harry Potter Scene it? – and each of them have proven popular with friends. It’s a nice ice breaker game, and increases the energy in the room, and that is a great way to kick off a fun games night!

Buy Scene It – The DVD Game: Movie Edition with bonus on 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!

Ticket to Ride

Railroad games are just plain fun. There have been a number of them published, and some have enjoyed a cult-like status for a number of years (see my review of Empire Builder, for example). But none have been as popular as Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder, 2004), which has been on the short list of best games since it came out. It is considered one of a few “gateway” games – that is, a mildly complex game that is so very fun and addictive that “new” gamers will want to try other, more complex games.

The Ticket to Ride board is a map (the original version is the USA, but there are a number of other versions available) denoting major cities, interconnected with train routes of various colors. There are two stacks of cards: Destination cards depict two cities (which players would need to connect with a continuous train route) as well as a point value for connecting them (see below); Ticket cards depict a train car of a certain color, which corresponds to certain routes on the map board – or they might be multi-color “wild” cards (farther below!).

Players each have a stack of 45 trains in their own color,and they start the game with five ticket cards. They draw three destination cards and can keep either two or three of them – but the ones they keep are routes that they must complete with continuous tracks of their own color. If the routes are completed, the player gets the points; if they are not completed by the end of the game, the player loses those points.

The game consists of players taking turns drawing new tickets, drawing new destinations, or placing train routes. In order to place a train route, a player must have enough of the correctly colored tickets, and turn them in. A multi-color wild card is good for any color ticket. Each route is a certain color, or gray, and a certain number of train links long. For example, El Paso to Houston is six links long, and green, so a player would have to accumulate a combination of six green or wild cards and then turn them in – then he or she would be able to put six of their own color trains on those six links. Note that some routes are double wide, so two different players can occupy parallel tracks between the same destinations.

Points are scored throughout the game by placing routes – and the value of the routes increases non-linearly, so that one track piece earns you one point, but 6 track pieces earns you 20 points. Points are also awarded at the end of the game. Players who achieved their destination goals are awarded the corresponding number of points (more points for longer tracks), and those who failed to do so are penalized the same number of points.

During a game of Ticket to Ride, 5 cards available to be drawn are kept face up, and on a turn a player may draw two of the visible cards, unless it is a wild card, in which case it is the only card that can be drawn. If there are no colors the player wants, he or she can draw from a face-down pile once or twice (they can also draw one card here, and the next from the face up stack, again with the exception of the wild card. A player might also draw more Destination cards in an effort to bulk up their score. This mechanism of a constantly changing card availability makes the game more exciting than if they had been face down, plus it gives the alert player information about the plans of his or her opponents.

While it is “another train game,” this is one train game that has gotten a lot of people hooked. It’s complex enough to be rewarding, but simple enough to learn in 5 minutes. I recommend it for any map or train game enthusiast, of for any gamer who wants to expand their social gaming circle. It is good for families, groups, and just a bunch of friends. But be ready to accommodate more hungry zombies….

: )

Buy Ticket to Ride at Amazon!

Wits & Wagers

So…you have about 20 people over and it’s kind of boring, no one’s really talking about anything interesting and people aren’t too familiar with one another. What do you do? You break out Wits & Wagers (North Star Games, 2005), that’s what!

Billed (accurately) as “The trivia game for people who don’t know stuff,” Wits & Wagers is a trivia game in the sense that you have to answer questions – but rewards don’t come from knowing the answers, they come from placing bets on the players who do know the right answers.

Now in its second edition, the game includes a 28-inch-long felt betting mat, poker chips, trivia cards, player betting markers (2 each in 7 different colors),7 dry-erase pens and mini-boards, and a sand timer. Up to 21 people can play, forming as many as seven teams (individuals may play alone as well).

The goal of the game is to finish with the most points after seven rounds. On each round, a “question reader” reads the appropriate question on the card – the first question for the first round, and so on – and each player or team comes up with their best guess at the answer. The questions always have a numerical answer, typically one that very few people will know outright (see below). Teams have 30 seconds to record their answers, after which the answers are revealed and placed in order of magnitude (lowest to highest) on the large betting mat.

Players then have 30 seconds to place up to two bets on any of the answers, hoping to win one of 4 payoffs (2:1, 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1). Players may also bid on an eighth space, for a 6:1 payoff, labelled: “The correct answer is smaller than all given answers.” Players then identify their bids by placing their colored betting markers on their bets, and then the answer is revealed. The answer that comes closest to correct without going over is considered correct, and all players who bet on this answer receive the corresponding payoff. The player whose answer was chosen also gets 10 bonus points. If all answers went over, there is no bonus given, and only players who bet all answers were too high wins a payoff.

When I first played Wits & Wagers, we had a group of over 20 people (at a board-gaming event), and more were attracted by the laughing and fun. Since then it has not failed to please.

I recommend Wits & Wagers for any family or group that is likely to get larger than, say, 8 people. The more the merrier with this game, but it is still plenty of fun for 6 or more. It is intellectually stimulating, but, as advertised, one need not know anything about trivia to enjoy or even win the game. It is sufficient to know the right people to bet on from turn to turn.

Buy Wits And Wagers at Amazon!