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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!

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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

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!

Balderdash (and Beyond!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Beyond Balderdash at Amazon!

Guesstures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Guesstures at Amazon!

Through the Ages

I got what I wanted for Christmas, Through the Ages (Eagle Games, 2006). But then it took a few weeks to find the time to play it! So read on to find out what I have to say about boardgamegeek.com’s  # 5-ranked game (out of 5,889 games listed)…

If you knew me, you’d know that I love history and civilization-type games, so you know I’m probably going to like this game. In the interest of saving time for some of you, I’ll go ahead and cut to the chase: I do like this game. But was it what I expected? Is it worth the $69.99 price tag? Will it really take 4 hours or more? How complicated is it?

I’ll do my best to answer those questions, but the upshot is that it’s not what you would call a family game – it is, however, a great game for a hardcore gamer, thus its rank on bgg. You’ll find it prominently displayed (or sold out) at any independent game store, but you won’t find it in Target or WalMart.

Unlike its venerable Games Magazine Hall-of-Fame forebear, Civilization (Avalon Hill, 1980), Through the Ages doesn’t use a map. It is basically only a card game, but there is so much to keep track of that each player gets a player’s card and a certain number of Jujubee-sized counters with which to account for the changes in every category during each turn (see below). Each player is racing to construct the most influential culture through a combination of military, religious, technological, and artistic achievements.  To procure these achievements, a player must allocate resources in the form of food, mined material, and people. These resources go towards strengthening the military, building urban buildings (such as libraries or temples), or improving technologies for mining and farming.

The basic mechanic of the game is “action point allocation” – which is a geeky way to say that you can only take so many different actions on a turn, and you must use them wisely…  Actions consist of choosing a card, playing a card, or allocating resources to various tasks.  There is a cost of one to three action points for each card, and the cards are laid out on a card “track” so every player knows what is available and how much it costs. The selection of cards, and the timing of that selection, is the biggest key to Through the Ages. The accumulation of “culture points” is the goal, and almost all of the culture points are on the various cards.

I won’t go into excruciating detail, but there are a few more important elements to consider. There are several different sections on the scoring board; beside the overall culture points track, there are sections for tracking technological prowess, military strength, and cultural strength. The point of all these tracks is to make accounting for each player’s development more streamlined; one simply has to refer to the appropriate track, instead of counting every piece each time.

Through the Ages can be played at three levels of complexity as well. The “Full” game uses every rule and moves completely through three epochs of world history (see epoch three cards, below). The “Advanced” game uses most of the rules, but moves only through two epochs (see epoch two cards, above). The “Simple” game only involves the first epoch, and leaves off important rules – such as the use of happiness indicators, and the use of the military. The rules

The rules recommend that first time players play the simple game in order to really learn the mechanics of the game and avoid frustration. That’s definitely a good idea, if you have the time or if you are not a serious gamer. I would avoid trying the full game on the first try, however, unless you want to spend half the game with your nose buried in the rule book. The rule book itself is helpful in general and has lots of pictures and examples – but it is difficult to find every little thing you might want to find.

So – there it is. Through the Ages has a very high production value. The art is attractive (enough), the cards and playing pieces are sturdy, and the playing aids are substantial. Does that justify a $69.99 price tag? For me it does. I would not recommend it to anyone who wasn’t absolutely sure they already wanted to play, but if it is on someone’s list, then I can’t imagine a better gift.

Through the Ages is good for any hardcore gamer, or any serious gamer with an interest in history (like me!). If you aren’t sure whether to get it, do a little research and find out who is really interested and who they might be playing with before purchasing it. Despite some claims to the contrary, it is not a simple game, especially to the new player. It is, however, very intuitive. Everything makes sense once you understand what different symbols and actions mean. The first game will take a very long time – even more with more players. Playing time would move down to about one hour per person after a few games have been played.

Buy Through the Ages at Amazon!

Gheos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Gheos at Amazon!