Category Archives: Solitaire 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!

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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, ┬áis 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!

Empire Builder

Another in my long list of favorite games, Empire Builder (Mayfair Games, 1980) is in its 4th edition. I have not played the game in its Empire Builder form, oddly enough, because I own and have played the original version – North American Rails. There is very little difference in game play, but the original came in a tube with a rolled-up, laminated map, as opposed to the six interlocking boards that comprise the more current editions. I also own the tube versions of Nippon Rails and British Rails, and there are at least 4 others out there.

Whatever version you get your hands on, however, Empire Builder is an absolutely great game if you like a lot of planning and a solidly realistic experience. The game consists of a map of North America (Canada/US/Mexico) divided into a series of regularly spaced “mileposts,” crayons with which to build railroads, “load chips” that represent the materials being shipped, 3 types of cards, and money. Players are basically competing to build a rail system across the continent with which to pick up and deliver loads, in order to earn a payout. The first player to $250 million wins.

Players begin the game in the city of their choice (decided by their initial goals, to be discussed shortly); on every turn they will have a budget of $20 million to build rails from one milepost to the next. Many mileposts are simply black dots, and cost $1 million to build into – but others are more expensive. To build into a mountain milepost (black triangles on the map) costs $2 million, into a small or medium-sized city (red dots and squares) costs $3 million, into a major city costs $5 million, and over a river adds $2 million.

The demand cards are a key element in Empire Builder (see example below). Each player has three demand cards, each of which lists a destination city, a demand for a particular load, and the payout for that load. In order to acquire a given payout, a player must use their train to pick up the load from one of a few cities where it is available (there is a very handy list of these cities, and they are shown on the map as well), and deliver it via their own rail system to the city that demands it. The loads and payouts vary quite a bit, but in general the farther a city is from the load it is requesting, the higher they payout. For example, the card below shows that Los Angeles will pay $31 million for tourists, but in the game the only place to pick up tourists is Chicago or New York City – which would cost about $50 million to build in the first place. Note that it would take a lot less rail to pick up cars in Detroit and deliver them to Cincinnatti, but the payout is correspondingly lower.

At the beginning of each turn a player has the option of moving his or her train as far along the rails they have created as they deem appropriate. Each player starts the game with a regular train, which can carry two loads and move 9 mileposts each turn, but during the game any player may, at their own discretion, spend their $20 million budget on a trian upgrade instead of building rails. The upgrades include increased speed (from 9 to 12 mileposts per turn) and increased capacity (from two to three loads), and, after one upgrade is completed, the second may also be purchased for a “Super Freight” train that moves 12 and carries 3 loads.

The initial building is critical to the game because a player only has $50 million to start with, and must use it to build a rail system that will allow them to fulfill a demand that will in turn earn them enough money to continue to build rails and earn payouts. This early dynamic makes for a slow build up, as players are establishing a continental rail system, mostly driven by the suite of demand cards they draw (this is the only random element in the game). But once a player has built an east-west or north-south corridor, they are able to work on multiple, more lucrative demands without having to pay for much more in the way of rails. This helps determine which demands they are able to accomplish on any given card. They can also eventually afford the train upgrades.

In order to win the game a player must have connected his or her railway to at least 6 of the 7 major cities, which prevents someone from simply building a strong regional railway and repeatedly using it. There are a few other features which make the game more interesting. One is that there are event cards. Once a load is dropped off in a city and the payout is taken, a new card is drawn. An event card might turn up instead of a demand card, and it is to be accomplished immediately. Events range from natural disasters to rail-workers strikes, and have localized events that will affect every player in that vicinity. For example, a tornado might prevent any building or moving within 8 mileposts of Oklahoma City, or a wildcat strike may prevent any activity at all within 4 mileposts of the east coast.

One further feature is a building limit into cities. All players have to have access to each major city, so one player is not allowed to build rails into every hub of a major city to prevent access. Small and medium cities, however, do have a limit, so it can be important for a player to extend a rail line into such a city in order to claim it for the future. A player does have the option of using another player’s rail lines, but for every portion of a turn they are on that other player’s lines, they must pay that player $4 million – not usually a great way to spend one’s money, but usually unavoidable.

Empire Builder is a long game that builds up slowly but always ends up as a race to the finish. If you enjoy map games, plotting courses, and spatial organization in general, you will like this game. I find it perfect for a rainy afternoon with 3-5 people, but there is also a solitaire version of the rules available online. I recommend it for anyone who likes involved strategy games, any rail enthusiast, or anyone else who has a planner alter-ego dying to get out.

Buy Empire Builder at Amazon!