Category Archives: List price range

$9 and under
$10-$19
$20-$29
$30-$49
$50-$69
$70 and over

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!)

Advertisements

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!

Sequence

Sequence (Jaxx, 1982) is one of those rare games that can be fun for, say, a grandchild to play with a grandparent, or for two adults, or even for two kids. It’s very simple to learn, has a classic, attractive look, and appeals to all ages.  It is easily one of the best “entire family” games on the market, and has been a solid seller since it was introduced.

The playing board consists of a 10 x 10 grid, where each space is represented by one of 96 playing cards (each corner space is a “free” space). There are two decks of cards, and with the exception of the jacks, two representations of each card are on the board (52 x 2 = 104; 104 – 8 = 96). The jacks are not depicted on the board, and are considered wild cards. See the pic below; notice that the two of clubs occupies a spot in the second and in the fourth row.

Image courtesy of boardgamegeek.com user EndersGame; http://www.boardgamegeek.com/user/EndersGame

Players start with hands of five cards.  The goal of the game is to place five of your chips in a row, and a player gets to play a chip simply by laying down one of the playing cards and setting their colored chip on one of the two corresponding spaces on the board. After a chip is played, a new card is drawn, and so on.

Jacks are wild, but not all jacks are equal. The two-eyed jacks allow a player to place  a chip anywhere on the board, but one-eyed jacks allow a player to remove any card from the board. This of course means that any one spot on the board can be covered by the two regular cards of that type, or else the four two-eyed jacks in the deck, while the one-eyed jacks guarantee that no played chip is really safe.

Image courtesy of boardgamegeek.com user EndersGame: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/user/EndersGame

The simplicity of the game and ease of instruction, along with its classic look have made Sequence a very popular game. There is a large group of people who have no interest in board games but will go out of their way to play a playing card game – and this is one board game that appeals to those people. There are variations, as well, such as the deluxe game (pictured below), a travel version, and more.

Something about the design and play of Sequence makes it really reminiscent of old-time card games (Tripoley and Rummy Royale both come to mind) – where the luck of the draw is a major element, but playing the right card at the right time is critical to success. But that is probably what makes it so popular among the older generations, and that is why I would also suggest it as an excellent game for parents or grandparents – in addition to being a great basic game the whole family can enjoy.

Buy Sequence at 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!

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!

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!