Category Archives: 3-player games

Cornerstone

If there is a person in the house who claims “I’m not a game person” (and every house seems to have at least one and often several), watch how they react when they witness a game of Cornerstone or Cornerstone Essential (Good Company Games, 2010). Cornerstone looks like a toy – and it probably could be considered a toy, except it comes with rules for up to four players and victory conditions, which means it’s really a game.

But this game has broader appeal precisely because of its toy-like qualities: it involves building with blocks and then using little people (meeples!) to climb on the resulting tower. How is that not fun?! The whole point of the game is essentially to be the king of the structure by the time it’s completed, or else to be at the highest point when the structure falls down. So it’s building blocks mixed with king-of-the-hill, and I challenge any fuddy-duddy daddy out there who thinks he’s too cool to play a game to ignore this while it’s going on. It can’t happen!

It isn’t a block-building free-for-all, however. Each player takes one of the four colors and two special wooden rings. The four-block neutral starter piece is laid on the table, and players start playing on it – and this is where it gets interesting. Each player has twelve building blocks with which to add to the structure, but the building blocks vary in terms of how many unit blocks they are composed of, and there are two of each. For example, there are two building blocks that consist of one unit block, two that consist of two unit blocks, and so on up to the two that consist of six unit blocks. On each turn the player must roll two dice, and the resulting roll of the two dice give the player two options for which building blocks to choose (doubles allow you to choose any block). If a player rolls a two and a four, for example, that player may choose to build with the 2-block building block or the 4-block building block.

The placement rules are such that, when adding to the structure, one full face of a block must be in contact with at least one other full face of the existing structure, such that the resulting structure retains a checkerboard pattern. In other words, a solid face must go against a clear face, and vice-versa; neither clear faces nor solid faces may touch each other. Once a block is added successfully, the player may (and should, if everything is going well) move his/her meeple to any spot perceived to be advantageous through the upcoming opponent turns. Meeples may move only one block at a time, any distance, but they may only move vertically if there is a single step with which to do it or horizontally if they are adjacent to that block. They may not jump up two or more blocks, and they must be directly below the vacant space they want to occupy (they may not move diagonally across and up in one turn). Meeples also may not move through a block that is occupied by another player.

That is the essence of Cornerstone! The “Essential” version is pretty new on the market (as I write this), and it contains the wooden rings, two of which are held by each player. They each represent a special move: when played, a ring allows a player to either jump two vertical levels instead of one, or else it allows a player to move through another player who may be blocking the path. These do alleviate the occasional problem of being totally sealed off on a ledge, or worse, a cave, thanks to other people’s blocks, but there are only two that each player can use throughout the game.

Although it doesn’t appear to be a game heavy in strategy, some players are extremely deliberate about which die roll they use, and precisely where to put the block they have chosen. If the tower is knocked down, the offending player has lost the game, and, of the other players, the one with the highest meeple at the time wins.

I like this game, and have listed it among my top ten family games because it is fun for members of every demographic. It can be played by kids alone, by teens alone, by adults alone, or else by the whole family at once. And it can be just as fun for each group alone. It’s a safe bet for ANYONE in the family!

 

 
Buy Cornerstone Essential at Amazon!

Imaginiff

For a while, when Facebook was really becoming more well-known, it offered a series of very popular quizzes, such as “What animal are you?”, or “What 80’s band are you?” In these quizzes you would answer a series of questions and then be given an answer that supposedly had something to do with your core identity (Oh please let them say I’m a bear and not a shrew!).

Imaginiff (Buffalo Games, 1998) is the same game, but it was around first and it allows players to lay those assessments on each other instead of wading through a questionnaire. The beauty of Imaginiff, which it shares with certain other great games (Scattergories, Balderdash), is that it has taken a game that people have played for years, given it a definite form and definite rules, and put it in a box for everyone to enjoy.

The key component of the game is the deck of cards that provide a list of six items within a particular category:

The basic mechanism involves players identifying the item on each list that applies to other players. To demonstrate, consider a friend, and answer the question: “If your friend were a cable channel, which one would s/he be?” The options are: Comedy Central, The Playboy Channel, CNN, The Discovery Channel, ESPN, or The Sci-Fi Channel. It’s fun enough to try to place our friends and family members in these categories, but it’s even more fun to talk about our choices, or consider out loud why one is better than the other.

Being able to involve people who aren’t there is one feature that makes this game more interesting, because if there are only 3 or 4 present for a game it provides a satisfyingly easy excuse to talk about other people. And that’s something that already comes naturally to just about everybody.

Points are awarded based on matching answers; each round, one person is chosen, a card is read (in reference to that person), and other players choose the best match. Those players who have the most matching answers are awarded points, and move on the board. The fun, of course, is in considering the answers and then defending them. In my experience it is just as fun to grab the cards and read them aloud, then enjoy the debate. But since the board gives structure and an endpoint to the game, it is still useful.

I consider Imaginiff one of my top 10 family games, because it offers such a playful way to interact with people we know well. It has a nice blend of tension and release, it is (mostly) playable by younger people (as long as you ignore the more difficult categories), and it is conducive to inter-generational play – but it’s also good to get parties started. With the exception of the hardcore strategy gamers, I can’t think of too many game shelves where this game would be out of place.

Buy iMAgiNiff at Amazon!

Opus Dei

If you’re an American or anyone else familiar with Dan Brown’s novels, then please understand that this game is not what you think it is! Players are actually trying to create a “world” populated with the world’s greatest thinkers, as represented on cards.

Opus Dei: Existence After Religion (Dema Games, 2008) is so named because that opening phrase, literally translated, is “Work of God.” It has nothing to do with the catholic “Prelatura del Opus Dei” – the dark figures in at least one of Brown’s novels, although they (the PdOD) are suing for trademark infringement.

So, legal questions aside, what about this game? If you have played Guillotine before, then you know how to play Opus Dei (go to https://gamesbyjohnny.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/guillotine/ if you don’t know it yet); it’s that similar, right down to the stand-up cardboard easel (see pic below). There are three “rounds” of play (each round is one year), most of which involves making changes to the lineup of great thinkers, as well as a lot of player interaction. But I think it’s a mistake to dismiss it as a “rip off,” because the theme, which is so important in Guillotine, is also of critical importance in this game.

In Guillotine, players are rival executioners, vying to collect the heads of nobles and other public figures whose heads (that is, the cards representing their heads) are worth varying points. The nobles are lined up next to the cardboard “guillotine,” and whichever card is next in line is taken by the player whose turn has just ended. Action cards are used during that turn to manipulate the nobles in line, force a card swap with another player, or do any number of other things. There is a dark humor to Guillotine that adds to its play appeal, but Opus Dei turns that on its head.

In Opus Dei, the players are referred to as “zeitgeists” (literally, the “spirit of the time”), who are tasked with creating a world based on reason and rationality, so they vie for scientists and philosophers (whose corresponding cards are worth varying points). Rather than depicted figures losing their heads when they are next in line, these great thinkers are actually going from “potential” existence to “actual” existence by being incorporated into the world of the zeitgeist. Action cards are also played, and have similar effects as those in Guillotine.

Dema Games, on their web site, refer to Opus Dei as the first Atheist card game. To that end, one major feature is that strictly religious figures – referred to as “fools” cards – are worth negative points, so if they end up in a player’s world they take away points. Some figures thus depicted are Ruhollah Khomeini (the Ayatollah), Sun Myung Moon, and Joseph Smith Jr. The creators of the game make it clear that the great thinkers are champions of reason and logic, and enemies of dogma. Thus, to the extent that a great historical figure is dogmatic, they are branded as fools in this game.

So how different is it from Guillotine, really? The game play is almost identical. Players play action cards, try to manipulate other cards to their advantage, and at the end of that round whichever card is nearest the easel goes to that player’s world. Point values for the cards are even identical (except see the Einstein card, above). But the beauty of Opus Dei is that it is using the very popular and fun Guillotine game mechanic as a platform for a far more interesting theme. The cards depict actual philosophers and scientists, as well as some dogmatic “fools” whose cards are worth negative points (The Reverend Moon, L Ron Hubbard, etc).

The cards are very well done, richly illustrated, and good quality; they include a brief sketch of the  famous thinker’s life and ideas, a portrait, that person’s national flag, and, in some cases, further directions that the player must follow upon receiving the card. Some of the action cards have an effect that is global (all players are affected; these cards stand in the easel), some affect only individual players, and some only have an effect during the current turn.

My first impression of this game was probably the same as so many who think that Dan Brown’s novels have oversaturated the market – I was not looking forward to it. But then I saw the cards, and then looked closer at the theme, and I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did! I have always been a “wannabe” philosopher; it’s those big questions in life that really get me going, and I have always been in awe of the great thinkers that have wrestled, with some success, with those questions in order to give the rest of the world direction and progress.

This is just a game, but it’s a lovely little tour through western intellectual history. One might quibble with (or be aghast at) the manufacturer’s value assignment on some thinkers (How does Hegel get 5, when Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are each only worth 3??!!), and there are very few thinkers from the eastern tradition (Confucius, Laozi, and Zarathustra; also Siddartha Gautama – the Buddha – who is worth 0 points; neither positive nor negative). But the value assignment itself leads to an interesting discussion for those with an opinion on the subject, so that is satisfying as well.

All told, I like this game a lot because I have not seen anything like it before and I love the theme, plus it is a nice introduction to the western intellectual tradition. How can that not be a good thing!? As far as game play goes, it is safe to say that since it duplicates Guillotine, it’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t need the comic humor.

I would recommend it to anyone 15 years old and up – it would be a great gift for any thoughtful kid who is first thinking about the deep questions in life, and his or her place in the great big world or in human history. There are obviously going to be people who see it as a condescending attack on their religious beliefs, so this would not be a welcome gift for them. Too bad, I think, because it’s one of those rare games that can teach interesting facts and make you think without taking away from the fun of the game itself.

Opus Dei is not available at Amazon.com, but it is available at their web site:

http://www.opus-dei.co.uk/directretail.php

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!

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!)

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!